Jul. 15, 2012


by Robert Phillips

The Flatiron Building,
first "scraper," squat,
like a snout.
Today it hardly scrapes the sky.

The Chrysler Building,
still the most beautiful,
most elegant. It points
its tiara toward heaven.

The Empire State Building,
majestic but haughty.
Imperious, indifferent,
scene of the most suicides.

The Twin Towers, doomed,
still speak to one another
but in whispers.
You hear them around nine A.M.

"Skyscrapers" by Robert Phillips, from Now & Then: New and Selected Poems. © The Ashland Poetry Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Thomas Bulfinch (books by this author), born in Newton, Massachusetts (1796). He wrote several books, but he is best remembered for his three-volume study of mythology and legends. The first volume, The Age of Fable (1855), was a retelling of classic Greek and Roman myths; the second, The Age of Chivalry (1858), covers the legends of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and other British folk tales; and the third, Legends of Charlemagne (1863), recounts stories from France, Germany, and Africa. The three books were later combined into one volume, entitled Bulfinch's Mythology, first published in 1881 and never out of print since. The book entertained Victorian adults and children, and made mythology accessible and available to the common American reader for the first time.

In the introduction to The Age of Fable, Bulfinch wrote: "Mythology is the handmaid of literature; and literature is one of the best allies of virtue and promoters of happiness."

Ralph Waldo Emerson (books by this author) delivered a commencement address to the Harvard Divinity School on this date in 1838. Emerson had graduated from Harvard Divinity in 1826, and the graduating students had chosen him as the speaker for this event. The year before, he had given a lecture called "The American Scholar" to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society. It was controversial but popular, and the students were eager to have him back.

Emerson had been a Unitarian minister, but he had resigned and was becoming critical of Christianity as it was currently practiced. He opened the address with a passionate celebration of the "refulgent summer," and then said: "I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more [...] He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. The capital secret of his profession, namely, to convert life into truth, he had not learned." And he also said, "The true Christianity — a faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man — is lost." Many in the audience were incensed by Emerson's speech, particularly the older faculty and ministers. It was 30 years before Emerson was invited back to speak at Harvard.

Today is the birthday of Iris Murdoch (books by this author), born in Dublin (1919). She studied at Oxford and was deeply influenced by a two-year stint teaching war refugees for the United Nations. She wrote all of her novels in longhand, twice, then delivered the manuscripts to her publisher in a plastic bag. And she never allowed her books to be edited. Among her novels are The Sea, the Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize, and The Good Apprentice (1985).

In the 1990s, she wrote her final novel, a psychological thriller called Jackson's Dilemma (1995), during the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Murdoch's husband of 44 years, John Bayley, wrote a memoir about the progression of her illness called Elegy for Iris (1999), which was later made into a film starring Judi Dench.

It's the birthday of Richard Russo (books by this author), born in Johnstown, New York (1949). He's the author of many books about small-town New England life, like Nobody's Fool (1993) and Empire Falls (2001), which won the Pulitzer Prize.

His latest book is a collaboration with his daughter Kate, who's an artist. It's called Interventions (2012), and it contains three short stories and novella written by Russo, accompanied by original art by his daughter. It was a conscious decision to create a format that couldn't easily be sold as an e-book. Russo has become an outspoken advocate for independent booksellers, especially since his daughter Emily began working for one — Greenlight Books — in Brooklyn. He said recently: "I'm not anti-Amazon, I'm not trying to make them disappear at all — what I am in favor of is Amazon playing nice in the marketplace. I'm in favor of independent bookstores ... what you want in any ecosystem is variety."

It's the birthday of a man whose ideas are well-known to, if not well-understood by, humanities students around the world and especially in the United States. French philosopher Jacques Derrida (books by this author), the founder of "deconstruction," was born on this day in El Biar, Algeria (1930).

He's the author of more than 40 notoriously dense books, including Of Grammatology (1976), Specters of Marx (1993), Of Spirit (1989), Resistances of Psychoanalysis (1998) and The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008). [Dates refer to English translations.]

Derrida generally refused to define "deconstruction." When asked to do so once in an interview he said, "It is impossible to respond. I can only do something which will leave me unsatisfied." One time when giving a lecture he said, "Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible."

Derrida's most famous words: "There is nothing outside the text."

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