Oct. 6, 2008

The Scientist

by Jonathan Holden

Other fathers might cuss out a lawnmower
that wouldn't catch. Or kick the car.
Mine would simply stop. A physicist, he'd stop
and think awhile, his breath wheezing
through his nose-hiss and hiss, mechanical
until, abruptly, a solution clicked.
Then, step by step, arranging parts
in the sequence they'd come loose,
he'd direct at our lawnmower a logic
even that sullen machine could not refute.
Then, just as systematically, refit
each wrench upon its pegboard silhouette,
re-index every drill bit, every nail—
this small, half-German intellectual
who, although he'd own no gun himself,
let me wear twin Lone Ranger cap pistols
on each hip. You couldn't tell
just what he thought of you. Had he hated
us, he wouldn't have shown it. When,
in that reasoning, mildly troubled tone
of his that meant he might
be disappointed in his son, he once explained,
In war, people hurt with tools,
I shuddered. You couldn't imagine what
he might invent. He was a patient man.

"The Scientist" by Jonathan Holden from The Names of the Rapids. © University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. Reprinted by permission of the author. (buy now)

It was on this day, October 6th, that two of William Faulkner's novels were published, two years apart: As I Lay Dying came out in 1930 and Light in August in 1932. Faulkner (books by this author) wrote As I Lay Dying in just six weeks; he wrote it while he worked the night shift at a power plant. It follows the journey of the Bundren family across Mississippi to bury their mother. The novel is narrated by 15 different people, in 59 separate monologues, including some by the dead mother. Faulkner said: "I set out deliberately to write a tour-de-force. Before I ever put pen to paper and set down the first word I knew what the last word would be and almost where the last period would fall."

The other book, Light in August, was one of the hardest novels for Faulkner to write. He kept starting over, inserting sections, ripping pages out, rearranging, and changing main characters. He also changed the title — it was originally called Dark House, and then one day his wife commented that the light in August was different from the light at any other time of the year, and Faulkner renamed his novel Light in August.

It was on this day in 1883 that the Orient Express completed its first journey from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul.) It took less than 78 hours. The Orient Express is a luxury passenger train. It was made famous in part thanks to two novels: Graham Greene's Stamboul Train (1932) and Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (1934).

It's the birthday of the novelist Melvyn Bragg, (books by this author) born in 1939 in Wigton, a small town in Cumberland, England. He's written almost 20 novels, most of which are set in his home county, in Cumberland. His newest, Remember Me, was published this year (2008).

It's the birthday of the science writer David Dietz, (books by this author) born in 1897 in Cleveland, Ohio. Growing up, he was fascinated by astronomy. David Dietz wrote about science so that everyday people could understand it, and he published daily columns in the Scripps-Howard newspapers. He's the author of nine books, and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937. He was one of the first people to popularize science.

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