August 31: Short Letter Day

Today is the anniversary of a short letter that became the opening salvo in a chain of events that changed television history. The letter, dated August 31, 1988, was sent to NBC President Brandon Tartikoff by George Shapiro, agent for Jerry Seinfeld. This brief letter of recommendation led to a meeting between Seinfeld and NBC executives, and an eventual pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles. That pilot then became one of television’s most successful sitcoms Seinfeld running from 1990 to 1998.

With the popularity and longevity of Seinfeld, you might think success was assured for Jerry Seinfeld, but few people know that he was dropped from an earlier sitcom Benson in 1980 after appearing in three episodes (1).

Looking back at the text of the Shapiro’s letter — only three sentences long — it’s hard to believe it was the spark that set of a powder keg of comedy that dominated American TV ratings from nearly ten years.

Call me a crazy guy, but I feel that Jerry Seinfeld will soon be doing a series on NBC, and I thought you’d like to see this article from the current issue of People Magazine. 

Jerry will be appearing in concert in New York City at Town Hall on Saturday, September 10. If any of you will be in New York at that time I’ll be happy to arrange tickets for you and your guests.

When the show ended in 1998, it was still at the top of the ratings, and Jerry Seinfeld made it into The Guinness Book of World Records under the category “Most Money Refused” when he turned down an offer of $5 million dollars per episode to continue the show. In addition to ratings success, the sitcom also made an impact on American vernacular with catchphrases such as “Yada, Yada, Yada.”

Seinfeld’s Agent George Shapiro, who later became one of the show’s executive producers, had the gift for writing a short but strong letter of recommendation for his client (2).

Unlike an email, a short letter is likely to get the attention of your audience. If you want something done or you want an answer to a question, a short letter is a great way to guarentee a response. However, unlike the sitcom Seinfeld you can’t write a letter about nothing; you need a specific subject and purpose for your letter. Below are four important guidelines for a successful letter.

The Four S’s of Business Letters:

Keep it Short
Cut needless words, needless information, stale phrases, and redundant statements.

Keep it Simple
Use familiar words, short sentences and short paragraphs. Keep it simple, and use a conversational style.

Keep it Strong
Answer the reader’s question in the first paragraph, and explain why. Use concrete words and examples, and stick to the subject.

Keep it Sincere
Answer promptly, be friendly in tone, and try to write as if you were talking to your reader (3).

Today’s Challenge: Short, Simple, Strong, and Sincere Snail Mail
Write a short letter to a specific person about a specific question or request.

Quote of the Day: The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt. Look at it. It’s too high. It’s in no-man’s land. You look like you live with your mother. –First line from the first episode of Seinfeld and the last line from the last episode. In both cases Jerry is speaking to George.

1- Jerry Seinfeld.
http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/contributor/1800082168/bio

2 – Grunwald, Lisa and Stephan J. Adler (Editors). Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999. New York: The Dial Press, 1999.

3. Business Letter Writing – Business Letter Writing Checklist
http://www.business-letter-writing.com/writing-a-business-letter-examples/business-letter-checklist.html

August 30: Top Ten Day

Today is the anniversary of the The Late Show with David Letterman which premiered on CBS on August 30, 1993. Letterman had previously spent eleven years as the host of Late Night with David Letterman, but after he was passed over as the host of the The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson retired, he signed a multi-million dollar deal to move to CBS. This put him in direct competition with Jay Leno, who took over for Johnny on The Tonight Show.

Many aspects of Letterman’s show follow the basic pattern of the late night talk show genre, established and perfected by Johnny Carson. Letterman has added a few new wrinkles of his own that have become staples of his show and focus points for his fans.

One of Letterman’s trademarks is “found comedy”: people, places, and things found on the streets of the city that become the subject of Letterman’s ironic wit. These consist of actual items found in the newspaper, viewer mail, “stupid pet and human tricks” performed on the show, esoteric videos, or person on the street interviews (1).

But perhaps Letterman’s best know feature is his nightly Top Ten List. Based on a topic from current events, each list counts down ten hilariously warped responses. The very first list, for example, featured TOP TEN WORDS THAT RHYME WITH “PEAS”:

10. Heats
9. Rice
8. Moss
7. Ties
6. Needs
5. Lens
4. Ice
3. Nurse
2. Leaks
1. Meats

While this was probably not the funniest top ten list, it is interesting to note that the Top Ten began on a poetic note.

Today’s Challenge: TOP TEN TOP TENS
Below are some of the list topics from David Letterman’s first book of Top Ten Lists. Select one of the topics and try your hand at comedy writing. Visit the Top Ten List Archive for inspiration.

1. Top Ten Ways Life Would Be Better If Dogs Ran The World
2. Top Ten Ways To Pronounce “Bologna”
3. Top Ten Unsafe Toys for Christmas
4. Top Ten Prom Themes
5. Top Ten Questions Science Cannot Answer
6. Top Ten Things We As Americans Can Be Proud Of
7. Top Ten Interview Questions Asked Miss America Contestants
8. Top Ten Reasons To Vote
9. Top Ten Reasons Why TV Is Better Than Books
10. Top Ten Rejected Provisions Of The U.S. Constituion

Quote of the Day: Based on what you know about him in history books, what do you think Abraham Lincoln would be doing if he were alive today?
1) Writing his memoirs of the Civil War.
2) Advising the President.
3) Desperately clawing at the inside of his coffin.
–David Letterman

1 – LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN. The Museum of Broadcast Communications
http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/L/htmlL/latenightwi/latenightwi.htm

2 – Letterman, David and the “Late Night with David Letterman Writers. The Late Night With David Letterman Book of Top Ten Lists. New York: Pocket Books, 1990.

August 29: Akeelah and the Bee Day

Today marks the DVD release of the film Akeelah and the Bee. This 2006 film is a drama about 11 year-old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) who overcomes personal struggles to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Directed by Doug Atchison, the film stars Laurence Fishburn as Dr. Larabee, an English professor who coaches Akeelah.

The film is an off-shoot of the 1999 Oscar-nominated documentary and surprise hit Spellbound, which profiled a number of the competitors in the National Spelling Bee. After the success of Spellbound, the Scripps National Spelling Bee was broadcast on network television for the first time in May 2005. The growing popularity of spelling has even entered the adult world with spelling competitions in bars around the country and even a senior national spelling bee sponsored by the AARP.

In addition, in 2005 the film Bee Season was released, and spelling even hit Broadway with the 2005 musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Today’s Challenge: Prize Winning Bees
The eight words below are the winning words for the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee for the years 1998-2005. See if you can match up each word with its definition.

prospicience

logorrhea

succedaneum

demarche

chiaroscurist

appoggiatura

autochthonous

pococurante

1. 2005: grace note: an embellishing note usually written in smaller size.

2. 2004: of rocks, deposits, etc.; found where they and their constituents were formed.

3. 2003: Indifferent; apathetic.

4. 2002: prevision: seeing ahead; knowing in advance; foreseeing.

5. 2001: (medicine) something that can be used as a substitute (especially any medicine that may be taken in place of another.

6. 2000: a move or step or maneuver in political or diplomatic affairs.

7. 1999: pathologically excessive (and often incoherent) talking

8. 1998: a painter who cares for and studies light and shade rather than color (2, 3).

Quote of the Day: They spell it Vinci and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce. –Mark Twain

Write: Should spelling count when you write essay in school? Make your case.

Answers: 1. apoggiatura 2. autochthonous 3. pococurante 4. prospicience 5. succedaneum 6. demarche 7 logorrhea 8. chiaroscurist

1 – http://www.zwire.com/site/news.cfm?newsid=17112481&BRD=1142&PAG=461&dept_id=568956&rfi=6

2 – http://www.spellingbee.com/bwg/statschamp.shtml

3 – wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn

August 28: Anaphora Day

Today is the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his unforgettable I Have a Dream speech to the crowd of roughly 250,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial (1).

Early in his speech King invokes Lincoln and the unfulfilled promise of the Emancipation Proclamation:

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free (2).

King went on to cite two other vital American documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Using the metaphor of a bad check, King argued that the United States would not be a truly free nation, until it fulfilled these promissory notes for all of its citizens, ending segregation, “withering injustice,” and the persecution of black Americans.

An ordained Baptist Minister and a doctor of theology, King knew how to craft a sermon and how to deliver a speech. His choice of nonviolent protest meant that his words and his rhetoric would determine the success of failure of his civil rights mission. King was up to the task. There is probably no more telling example of the power of words to persuade, to motivate, and to change the course of history than the speech King delivered on August 28, 1963.

Rhetoric is the use of language to persuade. Aristotle defined it as “the faculty of discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Martin Luther King, Jr. used many of these “means of persuasion” (also known as rhetorical devices) to persuade his audience. He used metaphor: beacon of hope and manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. He used alliteration:  dark and desolate, sweltering summer, and Jews and Gentiles. He used antithesis: will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

But more than any other device, King used repetition and anaphora, the repetition of one or more words at the beginning of a phrase or clause.

Certain words echo throughout his speech. Unlike redundancy, this repetition is intentional. These words ring like a bell, repeatedly reminding the listener of key themes. In the I Have a Dream speech the words justice and dream both ring out eleven times. But one word is repeated far more than any other; the word freedom tolls 20 times. In King’s dream there is no crack in the Liberty Bell; instead, it rings out loudly and clearly, a triumphant declaration that American has finally lived up to its potential.

Anaphora comes from the Greek meaning “I repeat.” It’s the kind of repetition at the beginning of a line or a sentence that you see in the Psalms or in the Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

(Matthew 3:3-6 King James Version)

King uses anaphora for six different phrases that echo throughout his speech:

One hundred years later . . .

We refuse to believe . . . 

Now is the time . . . 

With this faith . . .

I have a dream . . .

Let freedom ring . . . (3)

King also chose one of these examples of anaphora as the title of his speech. The repeated clause I have a dream comes at the climactic moment in the speech which is probably why it is the most frequently quoted part:

I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. 

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” 

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. 

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. 

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 

I have a dream today. 

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor’s lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers. 

I have a dream today. 

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together (2).

Today’s Challenge: Three-Peat After Me
Sometimes writers repeat the same word in succession to get the reader’s attention. In each of the following quotes, the same word is repeated three times. See if you can guess each word.

1. There are three things which the public will always clamor for, sooner or later: namely, ________, _______, and _______. –Thomas Hood

2. Three things in human life are important. The first is to be _____. The second is to be _____. And the third is to be _____. — Henry James

3. To succeed as a conjurer, three things are essential — first, _______; second, _______, and once again _______. –Gian Giacomo Di Trivulzio

4. Dancing is just ________, ________, _______.

5. Three things make you a winner in business: _______, _______. And, of course, _______. –Harry Benson

6. The world rests on three things: _______, _______, and _______.

Quote of the Day: Have no unreasonable fear of repetition. . . . The story is told of a feature writer who was doing a piece on the United Fruit Company. He spoke of bananas once; he spoke of bananas twice; he spoke of bananas yet a third time, and now he was desperate. “The world’s leading shippers of the elongated yellow fruit,” he wrote. A fourth banana would have been better. –James J. Kilpatrick

Answers: 1. scandal 2. kind 3. courage 4. practice 5. sales 6. love

1 – Nammour, Chris. The March on Washington for Jobs and FreedomOnline Newshour Posted: 8/27/03
http://www.pbs.org/newshour/extra/features/july-dec03/march_8-27.html

2 – King, Martin Luther, Jr. “I Have a Dream”
http://www.mecca.org/~crights/dream.html

3 – http://www.speaklikeapro.co.uk/MLK_dream.htm

August 27: Superlative Day

On this date in 1955, the first edition of the the Guinness Book of World Records was published in the United Kingdom.

The idea for the book began on November 10, 1951 when Sir Hugh Beaver, Chairman of the Guinness Brewery, was hunting in Ireland.  After missing a shot at a golden plover, Beaver wondered if the plover was the fastest game bird in Europe. Sir Hugh was unable to get his answer, however, because he could not find a reference book that answered his question.

In 1954 Sir Hugh commissioned twin brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter to make his idea a reality. Today the Guinness World Records reference book is published annually in 20 different languages in over 100 countries.  In fact, the book holds a world record of its own, being the best-selling copyrighted book of all time (1).

When using adjectives to make comparisons, think of three forms:  positive adjectives, comparative adjectives, and superlative adjectives.

Positive:  I am tall.

Comparative:  Sam is taller than I am.

Superlative:  Bill is the tallest one in the class.

As you can see by the examples above, the superlative form is the highest degree of comparison, as in tallest, greatest, fastest, richest, or highest.

When an adjective is three syllables or more, add the word more to the comparative form and the word most to the superlative form.

Examples:

Comparative:  more beautiful or more memorable

Superlative:  most beautiful or most memorable

Today’s Challenge:  Speaking in Superlatives
Write a review of something, some place, or someone you consider to be the worthy of superlatives.  Explain what makes your topic the greatest.

Quotation of the Day:  It’s very important that people know that I really enjoy everything that has happened to me. And I tell my kids… you’re not going to be the tallest, fastest, prettiest, the best track runner, but you can be the nicest human being that someone has ever met in their life. And I just want to leave that legacy that being nice is a true treasure. —George Foreman

 

 

August 26: Will Shortz Day

Today is the birthday of Will Shortz, the crossword editor of The New York Times.

Shortz was born in 1952 in Indiana and attended Indiana University, studying Enigmatology, the study of puzzles. To earn his degree, Shortz had to persuade his professors that puzzles were a legitimate course of study. Once he got the go ahead, he then designed his own curriculum. Completing his degree in 1974, is the only person in the world with a degree in the field.

Shortz’s studies did not go to waste. He is the former editor of Games magazine and the current director of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which he founded in 1978. In addition to his work with The New York Times, Shortz has been heard each week on National Public Radio stations since 1987, where he is known as the Puzzle-Master (1).

In 2006 a documentary called Wordplay profiled Shortz and his passion for crossword puzzles.

The following synopsis of the film is from the Wordplay movie site:

WORDPLAY focuses on the man most associated with crossword puzzles, New York Times puzzle editor and NPR puzzle-master Will Shortz. Director Patrick Creadon introduces us to this passionate hero, and to the inner workings of his brilliant and often hilarious contributors, including syndicated puzzle creator Merl Reagle.

Along the way, the film presents interviews with celebrity crossword puzzlers such as Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls, who reveal their process, insight and the allure of the game. In addition to deconstructing this uniquely American institution, Wordplay takes us though the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament where almost five hundred competitors battled it out for the title “Crossword Champ” and showed their true colors along the way (1).

Today’s Challenge: Crosswords Shortz-cuts
Below are definitions of words that commonly appear in crossword puzzles, but they are not necessarily common in everyday speech. Given the clues below, see if you can come up with the words.

1. 4 letters: A solo vocal piece with instrumental accompaniment, as in an opera.

2. 5 letters: The main trunk of the systemic arteries carrying blood from the left side of the heart to the arteries of all limbs and organs except the lungs.

3. 3 letters: A gradual decline or the outward flow of the tide.

4. 4 letters: A mild, yellow Dutch cheese, pressed into balls and usually covered with red wax.

5. 5 letters: Any of several large sea ducks especially of the genus Somateria of northern regions, having soft, commercially valuable down and predominantly black and white plumage in the male.

6. 3 letters: An indefinitely long period of time; an age.

7. 4 letters: A fencing sword with a bowl-shaped guard and a long, narrow fluted blade that has no cutting edge or tapers to a blunted point.

8. 3 letters: A female sheep, especially when full grown.

9. 4 letters: A pitcher, especially a decorative one with a base, an oval body, and a flaring spout.

10. 4 letters: A very small amount; a bit.

11. 3 letters: A strong desire or inclination; a yearning or craving (1).

Quote of the Day: We try to do a Shakespeare play every year, because I feel that it provides the best tool for actor training. It’s challenging in performance and language, physicality, analytical skills, and this particular one is along the serious lines, which seemed to fit the bill in terms of the kind of genre we wanted to explore. I call this the Sunday Times Crossword Puzzle for actors. —Jack Cirillo

Answers: 1. aria 2. aorta 3. ebb 4. edam 5. eider 6. eon 7. epee 8. ewe 9. ewer 10. iota 11. yen

1 – “Will Shortz Biography.” NPR.

2 – http://www.wordplaythemovie.com/.

August 25: Prepositional Phrase Day

On this date in 1984, American author, playwright, and screenwriter Truman Capote died of liver cancer at the age of 59.  Born in 1924 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Capote greatest fame came not from his fiction but from his nonfiction novel In Cold Blood published in 1966.  Capote spent four years researching the book, which is based on the murder of a family on their Kansas farm in 1959.  The book essentially pioneered the true crime genre.

For the title of his acclaimed book, Capote chose a prepositional phraseIn Cold Blood.  This type of phrase is an essential element of English syntax, a phrase that begins with a preposition and ends, most often, with a noun, as in these examples from The Gettysburg Address:  “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Of course, Capote is not alone in turning to the prepositional phrase to assist in crafting a title.  Here are a few more examples of titles that contain prepositional phrases:

The Grapes of Wrath

Of Mice and Men

Flowers for Algernon

The Wizard of Oz

The Taming of the Shrew

The House of Seven Gables

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Clan of the Cave Bear

War of the Worlds

Gone With the Wind

The Hunt For Red October

The Red Badge of Courage

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Prince of Tides

The Call of the Wild

The Man in the Iron Mask

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Today’s Challenge:  Propose With a Prepositional Phrase
Generate a title of your own for a book or movie; make sure, however, that your title contains at least one prepositional phrase.

Quotation of the Day:  A preposition is something never to end a sentence with.  –William Safire

 

August 24: McWords Day

On this date in 1986, sociologist Amitai Etzioni coined the term mcjob in an article published in the Washington Post.  In the article entitled The Fast-Food Factories: McJobs are Bad for Kids, Etzioni critiqued the “low-pay, low-prestige, low-benefit, no-future” jobs in the fast food industry (1).  McDonald’s franchises were the first to employ the prefix, attaching it to their own menu items (Egg McMuffin, Chicken McNuggets, etc.).  As demonstrated by Etzioni’s neologism, the prefix Mc- began to be used for things besides food, particularly for things that were seen as quick, cheap, and superficial, such as McTheater, McFashion, McPaper, and McMansion (2).

Today’s Challenge: McWord Game
Generate your own neologism by attaching the prefix Mc- to something that you view as quick, cheap, or superficial.  Then, write your definition of the word including an explanation of what makes your definition distinctive.

Quotation of the Day:  ‘Star Trek’ is the McDonald’s of science fiction; it’s fast food storytelling. Every problem is like every other problem. They all get solved in an hour. Nobody ever gets hurt, and nobody needs to care. You give up an hour of your time, and you don’t really have to get involved. It’s all plastic.David Gerrold

1 – Dickson, Paul.  Authorisms.  New York:  Bloomsbury, 2014.

2- Steinmetz, Sol and Barbara Ann Kipfer.  The Life of Language.  New York: Random House, 2006.

 

August 23: First Lady Day

Today is the anniversary of a letter sent by First Lady Dolley Madison (1768-1849) to her sister on August 23, 1814, the eve of the burning of the White House by invading British troops during the War of 1812. The letter is of particular interest to historians as it details First Lady Madison’s efforts to save important presidential papers and a full-length portrait of George Washington, by artist Gilbert Stuart.

Some historians doubt the authenticity of the letter’s date, saying is was probably written 20 years later; nevertheless, they do not dispute the facts of the letter, particularly First Lady Madison’s intrepid efforts to save Washington’s portrait:

Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out it is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. 

No original of the letter exists; however, the full text of the letter can be read at the web site of The White House Historical Association.

Dolley Madison first came to Washington, D.C., when her husband was appointed Secretary of State under President Jefferson. She gained a reputation as a charming hostess, frequently entertaining large gatherings at the White House. In fact, the night she left the White House, the dinner table was set for 40 guests.

The expansion of hostilities in the War of 1812 made it necessary for Dolley to finally flee the White House. The U.S. had declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812. The first years of the war were confined to Canada, the Great Lakes, and the high seas, but after Great Britain’s victory over Napoleon in April 1814, the British focused more of their forces against the U.S. After defeating the Americans at Bladensburg, Maryland, the British advanced toward Washington.

The night after Madison had penned the letter to her sister and fled the White House to safety, the British arrived. After consuming the meal that had been prepared for American military and cabinet officers, the British soldiers looted and set fire to the White House.

The war continued for a few months until February 17, 1815 when the United States declared victory and ratified the Treaty of Ghent. President James Madison and his wife never lived in the White House again, but they did dedicate themselves to its reconstruction and the reconstruction of other governmental buildings destroyed in the war. in 1817 President James Monroe moved into a restored White House.

Today’s Challenge: All the Presidents’ Wives
Dolley Madison is not the only First Lady of note. Below are ten quotes by the wives of U.S. Presidents. See if you can identify the speaker of each quote.

1. Just say no to drugs!

2. I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.

3. I may be the only mother in America who knows exactly what their child is up to all the time.

4. The power of a book lies in its power to turn a solitary act into a shared vision. As long as we have books, we are not alone.

5. The First Lady is an unpaid public servant elected by one person – her husband.

6. I have sacrificed everything in my life that I consider precious to advance the political career of my husband.

7. I’m not some Tammy Wynette standing by my man.

8. If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.

Quote of the Day: No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. –Eleanor Roosevelt

Answers: 1. Nancy Reagan 2. Eleanor Roosevelt 3. Barbara Bush 4. Laura Bush 5. Lady Bird Johnson 6. Pat Nixon 7. Hillary Clinton 8. Jackie Kennedy

1 – The White House Historical Association – Classroom
http://www.whitehousehistory.org/04/subs/04_b_1812.html

August 22: Ray Bradbury Day

Today is the birthday of Ray Bradbury, the American writer best known for his science fiction novels and short stories. He was born in Illinois in 1920 and later moved to Los Angeles where he graduated high school in 1938. After high school he continued learning by educating himself, spending long hours roaming the stacks in the public library.

He began writing full time in 1943, publishing a number of short stories in various periodicals. His first success came in 1950 when he published The Martian Chronicles, a novel made up of a number of his short stories about the human colonization of Mars (1).

In 1953, he published his most popular and critically acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451, a story about a dark future in which books are illegal, and instead of putting out fires, firemen answer calls to burn illegal caches of books. The main character is one of these firemen, Guy Montag. Instead of reading, the general public immerse themselves in pleasure, watching television screens that take up three of the four walls in their homes and listening to seashell radios that fit in their ears. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, Guy Montag begins to question his job and the entire status quo of the society in which he lives. He begins to become curious about the books he’s burning. However Montag’s curiosity and his books betray him, and the firemen one day arrive to burn his home and his books.

Montag flees the city and comes upon a group of educated but homeless men who each memorize a great work of literature or philosophy. When the time comes to return to the city and rebuild civilization from the ashes of burned books, these men will be ready to play their part. Montag will join them with his book, Ecclesiastes.

Bradbury published over 30 books, almost 600 short stories, as well as a number of poems, essays, and plays. Along with Fahrenheit 451, his most read book, his short stores are published in numerous anthologies and textbooks.

Fahrenheit 451 began as a short story called “The Fireman” published in Galaxy Science Fiction Magazine in 1950. Bradbury’s publisher then asked him to expand the story into a novel in 1953. The first draft of the novel was completed in a typing room located in the basement of the University of California Library. The typewriter was on a timer connected to a change slot. For one dime Bradbury got thirty minutes of typing. (He spent $9.80 to complete the first draft).

When he wasn’t typing furiously against the clock, Bradbury would go upstairs to explore the library:

There I strolled, lost in love, down the corridors, and through the stacks, touching books, pulling volumes out, turning pages, thrusting volumes back, drowning in all the good stuffs that are the essence of the libraries. What a place, don’t you agree, to write a novel about burning books in the Future.

Bradbury had more than just a love affair with books. For him they are the backbone of civilization as illustrated by a statement he made in an interview published in the 50th Anniversary Edition of Fahrenheit 451:

Let’s imagine there’s an earthquake tomorrow in the average university town. If only two buildings remained intact at the end of the earthquake, what would they have to be in order to rebuild everything that had been lost? Number one would be the medical building, because you need that to help people survive, to heal injuries and sickness. The other building would be the library. All the other buildings are contained in that one. People could go into the library and get all the books they needed in literature or social economics or politics or engineering and take the books out on the lawn and sit down and read. Reading is at the center of our lives. The library is our brain. Without the library, you have no civilization (2).

It’s no wonder that one of Bradbury’s most famous quotes is: There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. 

Today’s Challenge: Words on Fire
Every love affair with books begins with a love affair with words. The list of 10 words below are all found in Fahrenheit 451. See if you can match each word with its correct definition.

cacophony
tactile
olfactory
litterateur
scythe
filigree
cadence
oblivion
verbiage
teem

1. To be full of things; to swarm.
2. Harsh, jarring sound; noise.
3. Related to the sense of touch.
4. Someone devoted to the study of literature.
5. The state of being forgotten.
6. Excess words.
7. Delicate, ornamental work made from twisted wire of gold or silver.
8. Rhythmic; expressive.
9. A bladed toll with a long bent handle, used for cutting or mowing.
10. Related to the sense of smell (3).

Quote of the Day: The television, that insidious beast, that Medusa which freezes a billion people to stone every night, staring fixedly, that Siren which called and sang and promised so much and gave, after all, so little. –Ray Bradbury

Answers: 1. teem 2. cacophony 3. tactile 4. litterateur 5. oblivion 6. verbiage 7. filigree 8. cadence 9. scythe 10. olfactory

1- About Ray Bradbury
http://www.raybradbury.com/bio.html

2 – Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. The 50th Anniversary Edition. New York: Random House.

3. Fahrenheit 451 Vocabulary List.
http://www.monmouth.com/~literature/f451/fahrenheit_451_vocabulary_list.htm