Oct. 4, 2011

Catalog with Illustrations

by Marvin Bell

The beauty of an old desk blotter where ink stains grew into
       the shapes of ships in a turbulent ocean,
and the ticking of the clock in the sunlight thickened by dust.
The clacking of the typewriter keys, the big zipper sound of
       the carriage return,
and the sound of the struck bell muffled in the drapes.
The air was rich with time, when there was still time.
The letter ripened slowly in the typewriter.
The minute hand took a second to move one digit.
Under the glass that covered the desktop, a map and
       family photos.

"Catalog with Illustrations" by Marvin Bell, from Rampant. © Copper Canyon Press, 2004 Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1535, the first complete modern English translation of the Bible was printed. It's known as the Coverdale Bible because it was compiled and printed by Myles Coverdale, an English priest who was living on the Continent at the time; he would later go on to become Bishop of Exeter. He didn't speak Greek or Hebrew, so he used a variety of sources, including William Tyndale's New Testament and several of his Old Testament books, as well as the Latin Vulgate and German translations by Martin Luther. Coverdale dedicated the translation to England's King Henry VIII — whom he called "a better defender of the faith than the pope himself," and his "dearest just wyfe and most vertuous Pryncesse, Queen Anne [Boleyn]."

This date marks the first formal run of the Orient Express in 1883. The train was the brainchild of Georges Nagelmackers, a Belgian banker's son. He had been impressed by railway innovations he'd seen in America in the 1860s — particularly George Pullman's "sleeper cars" — and envisioned a richly appointed train running on a continuous 1,500-mile stretch of track from Paris to Constantinople (now Istanbul). For its formal launch from the Gare de Strasbourg, Nagelmackers arranged battered, rusty Pullman cars on adjacent tracks to show his luxurious conveyance to its best advantage. Many of its first passengers on the 80-hour journey were journalists, and they spread the word of its paneled interiors, leather armchairs, silk sheets, and wool blankets. They also dubbed the train "the Orient Express" with Nagelmackers' blessing. The train later earned another nickname, "the Spies' Express," due to its popularity in the espionage community.

One particular car played a role in both world wars. On November 11, 1918, German officers signed their surrender documents in an Allied commander's private car. The car was a museum piece in Paris until 1940, when Hitler commandeered it and used it as the setting to dictate the terms of the French surrender. Later, when his defeat was imminent, he blew the car up so that it wouldn't become an Allied trophy again.

The original Orient Express stopped serving Istanbul in 1977, and its new route ran from Paris to Vienna until 2007, when the train departed from Strasbourg instead of Paris. Finally, in 2009, the Orient Express ceased operation, citing competition from high-speed trains and discount airlines. It has spawned several offspring that have adopted the name for promotional purposes, including the Direct Orient Express and the Nostalgic Orient Express. Only the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, which runs from London to a variety of European destinations and charges $2,300 U.S. to ride in the restored original cars, approaches the original "King of Trains and Train of Kings."

It's the birthday of Damon Runyon (1884) (books by this author), born in Manhattan, Kansas, and known for his distinctive narrative style: part New York street slang, part vernacular that existed nowhere until he brought it out of his own head. He shunned sentiment, contractions, and the past tense.

He wrote: "Only a rank sucker will think of taking two peeks at Dave the Dude's doll, because while Dave may stand for the first peek, figuring it is a mistake, it is a sure thing he will get sored up at the second peek, and Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you."

And, "Well, besides black hair, this doll has a complexion like I do not know what, and little feet and ankles, and a way of walking that is very pleasant to behold. Personally, I always take a gander at a doll's feet and ankles before I start handicapping her, because the way I look at it, the feet and ankles are the big tell in the matter of class, although I wish to state that I see some dolls in my time who have large feet and big ankles, but who are by no means bad.

"But this doll I am speaking of is 100 per cent in every respect, and as she passes, The Humming Bird looks at her, and she looks at The Humming Bird, and it is just the same as if they hold a two hours' conversation on the telephone, for they are both young, and it is spring, and the way language can pass between young guys and young dolls in the spring without them saying a word is really most surprising, and, in fact, it is practically uncanny."

Today is the birthday of the Great Stone Face: silent comedian Buster Keaton (1895), born Joseph Frank Keaton in Piqua, Kansas. His parents were vaudevillians, and according to Keaton, he earned his nickname as a toddler, when he fell down a staircase. Harry Houdini picked up the child, dusted him off, and said some variant of, "That was a real buster your kid took!" His parents added him to the act when he was three years old, and he quickly learned that the more serious he looked, the harder the audience laughed. He had a natural ability to take a fall without being injured; many times his parents faced child abuse charges based on the way they threw him around the stage like a dummy, but Buster would remove his clothes to show no broken bones or bruises, and the charges were dropped. "The funny thing about our act," he said in a 1914 interview with The Detroit News, "is that dad gets the worst of it, although I'm the one who apparently receives the bruises ... the secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It's a knack. I started so young that landing right is second nature with me. Several times I'd have been killed if I hadn't been able to land like a cat. Imitators of our act don't last long, because they can't stand the treatment."

He met film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in New York in 1917, and Arbuckle took him under his wing. The slight, acrobatic Keaton was the perfect complement to the large, bumbling Arbuckle, and their partnership flourished. Keaton successfully made the transition to a solo act in the 1920s, although, in that era of excess, his deadpan style didn't earn him as many fans as Chaplin's sentimental Little Tramp character, or Harold Lloyd's plucky, optimistic on-screen persona. It was more than 20 years before his feature films — like The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928) — took their place in the pantheon of silent film masterpieces.

But the silent era was drawing to a close, and in 1928, he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM decided that they needed to take an active role in Keaton's films. They hired other people to write and direct, and hired a double to do all his stunts. Though he always had work, and his MGM films made money, he considered signing with MGM the worst business decision of his life, and he left the studio in 1933. Marital trouble, heavy drinking, and creative frustration made him miserable. He returned to MGM in 1937, spending a couple of years writing gags for the Marx Brothers and providing material for Red Skelton, and then made some mediocre short films for Columbia. By the 1940s, his personal life was less tumultuous, he beat alcoholism through sheer force of will, and he spent most of the decade playing small roles in feature films. In the 1950s, he'd moved on to television, and his regular appearances on the small screen revived interest in his silent films. He was still working in the 1960s and still doing most of his own stunts. His last film was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which was filmed late in 1965. In January 1966, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, although he was never told of his diagnosis and thought he just had a persistent case of bronchitis. He died on February 1st.

It's the birthday of man of letters Brendan Gill (1914) (books by this author). He was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and graduated from Yale in 1936. He joined the staff of The New Yorker that same year. He wrote 15 books: biographies, social histories, fiction, criticism, and poetry. He was a devoted supporter of architectural preservation, and would often lead free architectural walking tours of New York City on behalf of the Municipal Art Society.

He said, "If the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined past is not worth possessing; it bears fruit only by being held continuously up to the light, and is as changeable and as full of surprises, pleasant and unpleasant, as the future."

Today is the 70th birthday of Anne Rice (1941) (books by this author). She was born Howard Allen Frances O'Brien in New Orleans; she was named "Howard" after her father, but she changed her name to Anne of her own accord when she was in first grade at St. Alphonsus Grammar School. She married her high school sweetheart, poet and painter Stan Rice, in 1961. They moved to San Francisco, and while the counterculture movement was flourishing all around them, Anne didn't participate. "I was typing away while everybody was dropping acid and smoking grass," she told The New York Times in 1988. "I was known as my own square." Their daughter, Michele, died of leukemia in 1972, when she was only five years old, and grief over her death proved to be the catalyst for Rice's first book, Interview with the Vampire (1976). Two years later, her son Christopher — now a best-selling author in his own right — was born.

She has a complicated relationship with religion. Raised a Catholic, she left the church at 18, only to return after a couple of life-threatening illnesses in the late 1990s. She began a series of books about the life of Christ, but last summer, she announced on her Facebook page that she was leaving organized religion behind her once again. She wrote: "For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being 'Christian' or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to 'belong' to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else."

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show