Mar. 10, 2008

Home Town

by William Stafford

Peace on my little town, a speck in the safe,
        comforting, impersonal immensity of Kansas.
Benevolence like a gentle haze on its courthouse
        (the model of Greek pillars to me)
        on its quiet little bombshell of a library,
        on its continuous, hidden, efficient sewer system.

Sharp, amazed, steadfast regard on its more upright citizenry,
        my nosy, incredible, delicious neighbors.

Haunting invasion of a train whistle to my friends,
        moon-gilding, regular breaths of the old memories to them-
        the old whispers, old attempts, old beauties, ever new.

Peace on my little town, haze-blessed, sun-friended,
        dreaming sleepy days under the world-champion sky.

                                                    Lawrence, Kansas
                                                    c. Fall 1941

"Home Town" by William Stafford, from Another World Instead. © Graywolf Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler, (books by this author) born in Tonbridge, Kent, England (1858).

He studied at Oxford and taught Latin, Greek, and English at a boy's school in northwest England for 17 years, then resigned and moved to the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, built himself a one room cottage, and began living like a hermit. Though he spent all his time writing essays and produced enough to fill two book-length manuscripts, he could not succeed in getting them published. He then came up with the idea to write "a sort of English composition manual, from the negative point of view, for journalists & amateur writers." Collaborating with his brother on the work for Oxford University Press, he wrote The King's English (1906), which begins:

"Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid."

The first chapter, entitled "Vocabulary," lays out the following principles:

"Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance."

The book was a success and he was commissioned to produce The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, which appeared in 1911. His biggest success, however, was A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), a collection of common mistakes in English that Fowler organized into categories, such as "Battered Ornaments," "Love of the Long Word," "Sturdy Indefensibles," "Swapping Horses," and "Unequal Yokefellows."

T. S. Eliot said, "Every person who wishes to write ought to read A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ... for a quarter of an hour every night before going to bed."

It was on this day in 1926 that the first-ever Book of the Month Club selection was published by Viking Press: Lolly Willowes, by English novelist Sylvia Townsend Warner, about a spinster aunt who ventures away from her controlling family, negotiates with the Devil, and becomes a witch.

The Book of the Month Club was the creation of Harry Scherman (b. Feb. 1, 1887), a Jewish immigrant merchant's son who had dropped out of business school and law school and worked as a freelance journalist before joining a large advertising agency, where he specialized in writing copy for mail-order firms. When a candy company client of the ad agency wanted to sell more boxed candy, Scherman came up with the idea of adding leather-bound copies of classic Shakespeare plays to the boxes of candy and then advertising the fact. The candy company liked the idea, ordered 15,000 copies of different Shakespeare plays, and sold the candy boxes with books at drugstores.

The success of this led Scherman to resign from the ad agency and launch the "Little Leather Library Corporation" in 1916. It became a mail-order service that offered 10-cent, miniature-size reprints of classics (all past copyright so that they would not have to pay royalties), and it sold 40 million copies in its first five years.

Scherman decided that his company was running out of classics to reproduce, and he wanted to find a good way to market new books. So he started the Book of the Month Club, which would feature a prestigious selection committee whose reputation and esteemed taste would ensure the potential customer that the book of the month selected to be shipped was worth buying and reading, and this would help to reduce the cost of publicizing new titles. The first panel consisted of authors Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Christopher Morley, critic Henry Seidel Canby, journalist Heywood Broun, and newspaper publisher William Allen White. The judges met for lunch and brandy once a month to make their selection.

The club had initially offered the right to return the book if dissatisfied with the selection, and the first two selections "came back in droves," flooding the office facilities and creating logistical difficulties. So the club developed a negative option format in which it sent an announcement of the forthcoming book and gave the customer a form and short amount of time to decline having the book sent if they found it unappealing. If there was no response, then the book was shipped and the customer was billed.

The club's membership grew steadily from the beginning and even through the Great Depression. By 1966, the club had more than 1 million members. Its membership peaked in 1988 with 1.5 million people, but 15 years later had only 350,000 members, declining steadily through the 1990s due largely to the rise of online book-selling and the increasing development of large warehouse-style bookstores.

The Book of the Month Club has sent out more than 570 million books in the U.S. since it began in 1926.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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