January 19: Poe Toaster Day


Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849).

Born into a family of traveling actors, Poe was orphaned when he was just three years old.  He was taken in and raised by a Virginia family, the Allans.  

Although Poe was an editor, literary critic, poet, novelist, and writer of short stories, he constantly struggled financially — a struggle that was no doubt fueled by his habits of drinking and gambling.  Not until after his death, at just forty years of age, was his work recognized for its genius.  His short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” have become classics, and his poem “The Raven” is one of the most recognized and recited poems in the English language.  In fact, the poem is so well recognized that when the city of Baltimore, the site of Poe’s death in 1849, acquired its NFL franchise in 1996, they chose the Ravens as their name.  (The team’s three costumed raven mascots are named “Edgar,” “Allen,” and “Poe.”).

Known for the tales of macabre and mystery he wrote during his life, one specific mystery became associated with Poe after his death.

For sixty years, beginning in 1949 (the centennial of his death), an anonymous admirer visited Poe’s cenotaph — a monument erected at the site of Poe’s original grave at Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore, Maryland.  To commemorate Poe’s birthday each January 19th, this mysterious individual — known as the “Poe Toaster” — left three roses, a bottle of French cognac, and occasionally a note.  The clandestine visits ended in 2009, the bicentennial of Poe’s birth (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Gone but “Nevermore” Forgotten

What object would you leave at the grave of an author or other famous person you admire, and what would you write in a note to that person?  Write an explanation of what you would leave at the grave of a person you admire along with an explanation of the object’s significance.  Also, include the contents of a note you would leave along with the object. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?”— Arthur Conan Doyle, at a Poe Centennial Celebration Dinner in 1909

1-Judkis, Maura.  Edgar Allan Poe Toaster Tradition Is No More. Washington Post 19 Jan. 2012.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/arts-post/post/edgar-allan-poe-toaster-tradition-is-no-more/2012/01/19/gIQAOQUBBQ_blog.html.

Quotation of the Day:  Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. -Thomas Henry Huxley

January 18: Thesaurus Day

Print of a portrait of Peter Mark Roget, from Medical Portrait Gallery by Thomas Pettigrew
Peter Mark Roget

On this day in 1779, Peter Mark Roget was born in London. Roget is best known for his groundbreaking work, Roget’s Thesaurus, originally published in 1852.  Roget’s work is a pioneer achievement in lexicography — the practice of compiling dictionaries. Instead of listing words alphabetically, as in a traditional dictionary, Roget classified words in groups based on six large classes of words: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. Each of these categories is then divided into subcategories, making up a total of 1,000 semantic categories under which synonyms are listed. Like a biologist creating a taxonomy of animal species, Roget attempted to bring a coherent organization to the English word-hoard.

In order to make the categories more accessible, Roget’s son, John Lewis Roget developed an extensive index that was published with the thesaurus in 1879. Roget’s grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget, also worked to edit the thesaurus until 1952.

No one knows for certain how many words there are in the English language, but because of its liberal tradition of borrowing and adopting words from any language it rubs up against, there are more words in English than in any other language. In fact, there are so many more words in English that it is unlikely that the idea of a thesaurus would even be conceived of for a language other than English.

Roget continued the English tradition of borrowing words when he selected a Greek word for the title of his collection: thesauros which means treasury or storehouse.  Roget’s original title for his work was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition.

Like the association of Webster with dictionaries, Roget’s name has become synonymous with thesauri (the irregular plural of thesaurus). Also like Webster, the name Roget is no longer under trademark; therefore, just because a thesaurus is called Roget’s does not mean it has any affiliation with the original work of the Roget family (1).

Generations of writers have turned to Roget’s work to assist their writing.  One example is American writer Garrison Keillor, who praised Roget in a 2009 article called, “The Book That Changed My Life”:

The book was Roget’s International Thesaurus.  It not only changed my life, but also transformed, diversified, and modulated it by opening up the lavish treasure trove of English, enabling me to dip my pen into glittering pools of vernacular, idiom, lingo, jargon, argot, blather, colloquialisms, officialese, patois, and phraseology of all sorts.  I discovered Roget’s as a callow youth grazing in the reference books.  I opened it, and it became my guru, master, oracle, mahatma, rabbi, mentor, and also my bible, and I clung to it and consulted it constantly, feverishly, ever in search of the precise color and gradation of words.  Its effect on me was to transformed me from a plain little nerd from Minnesota to a raconteur and swashbuckling boulevardier, sporting man, pilgrim, loafer, sometimes a roughneck, sometimes a fire-eating visionary . . . . Thank you, Peter Roget.  Gracias and merci (2).

Not all writers or English teachers are fans of the Thesaurus, however.  Sometimes it’s a little too easy for a student grab a thesaurus and insert a synonym that doesn’t quite work in context.  For example, a student once wrote the sentence:

Today I ate a really good donut.  

Searching for a synonym for the word “good” in his thesaurus, he revised, as follows:

Today I ate a really benevolent donut.

It’s because of mishaps like this that the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle gives the following advice:

Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.

Because there are so many synonyms in English, it’s important for writers to become students of the subtleties of language. The best way to do this is to look at both the denotation of a word and the connotation of a word.  A word’s denotation is the literal dictionary meaning of a word; connotation is the implied meaning of a word along with the feelings associated with that word.  Denotations can be found easily in a dictionary, but connotations are bit harder to find.  The best way to learn about connotations is to study words in their natural habitat — that is in the writing of professional writers.

Notice, for example, how the writer Charles S. Brooks (1878-1934) explores the subtle differences between the words “wit” and “humor” in the following excerpt:

Wit is a lean creature with sharp inquiring nose, whereas humor has a kindly eye and comfortable girth. Wit, if it be necessary, uses malice to score a point–like a cat it is quick to jump–but humor keeps the peace in an easy chair. Wit has a better voice in a solo, but humor comes into the chorus best. Wit is as sharp as a stroke of lightning, whereas humor is diffuse like sunlight. Wit keeps the season’s fashions and is precise in the phrases and judgments of the day, but humor is concerned with homely eternal things. Wit wears silk, but humor in homespun endures the wind. Wit sets a snare, whereas humor goes off whistling without a victim in its mind. Wit is sharper company at table, but humor serves better in mischance and in the rain. When it tumbles, wit is sour, but humor goes uncomplaining without its dinner. Humor laughs at another’s jest and holds its sides, while wit sits wrapped in study for a lively answer (3).

Today’s Challenge:  Is a Rant the Same as a Diatribe?

What are two words that — even though they are synonyms — do not mean exactly the same thing?  What are the subtle differences in the words’ denotations and connotations?  Using Charles S. Brooks’ paragraph as a model, write a paragraph comparing the differences between one of the word pairs below:

mob/crowd, laugh/giggle, student/scholar, teen/juvenile, old/ancient, wealthy/rich, gregarious/social, frugal/cheap, watch/gaze, bright/smart, late/tardy, sleep/slumber, transform/change, proud/arrogant, wisdom/intelligence, confident/cocky, jail/prison

As you write, consider both the denotations and especially the connotations of the two words.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Today’s Quotation: Words too are known by the company they keep. -Joseph Shipley

1 – Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

2- Keillor, Garrison.  “The Book That Changed My Life.”  Best Life. March 2009: 46.

3-Brooks, Charles.  “On the Difference Between Wit and Humor.”

http://grammar.about.com/od/classicessays/a/brookswithumor.htm.

January 17: Virtues Day

Memoirs of Franklin.jpg
Cover of the First Edition of Franklin’s Autobiography (1793)


Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), writer, inventor, printer, and founding father.

Franklin was a Renaissance man in every sense of the term.  He aided Jefferson in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, persuaded the French to aid the rebel colonies in their fight against England, negotiated the peace with England after the war, and helped in the framing of the U. S. Constitution.

Perhaps Franklin is best known for his writings in Poor Richard’s Almanack, published between 1733 and 1758. Full of proverbs, wit, and advice, Poor Richard’s Almanack made Franklin an eminently quotable figure even though Franklin freely admitted that fewer than 10 percent of the sayings were original.

In his autobiography, which was published in 1791, Franklin recounts one particularly interesting project he undertook when he was only 20 years old.  It was what he called a “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.”  

Franklin’s project began first as a writing project, a list of the virtues that he felt were necessary to practice in order to achieve his goal of moral perfection.  As he explains,

I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurr’d to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully express’d the extent I gave to its meaning.

The names of virtues, with their precepts, were:

1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.

3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.

4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.

6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.

7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.

8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.

9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.

10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.

12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin arranged his list of virtues in strategic order from one to thirteen and created a calendar devoted to mastering one virtue each week. Practicing each virtue, he hoped, would lead to making each a habit, and his thirteen-week plan would culminate in his moral perfection.

Today’s Challenge:  Tale of a Trait

brianbackman

What is the single most important virtue or commendable trait that a person can practice, and what specific story would you tell to illustrate its importance?  The idea of identifying virtues and practicing virtuous behavior did not begin with Franklin.  Dating back to the fourth century B.C., Plato identified in his Republic the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.  The noun virtue comes from the Latin virtus, which was derived from the Latin vir, meaning “man” (the same root that’s in the word virile).  Thus, the original sense of virtue related to manliness, and the qualities that were associated with men of strong character, such as moral strength, goodness, valor, bravery, and courage (1).

As Plato says in his Republic, youth is a vital time for the forming of character, and the stories that are told to youth should be chosen carefully based on the virtues they teach:

Anything received into the mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable; and therefore it is most important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thoughts.

Write an argument for the one virtue you would identify as the most important — one of Franklin’s virtues or another of your choice.  Present your case for why this virtue is so important, along with a specific story or anecdote that illustrates the virtue’s benefits. (Common Core Writing 1/3 – Argument and Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. –Aristotle

1-Online Etymology Dictionary.  “Virtue.”

January 16: Eponymous Adjective Day

El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha.jpg
Title Page of the First Edition

On this day in 1605, Miguel de Cervantes published Don Quixote. Cervantes’ novel, originally written in Spanish, remains one of the most influential, most reprinted, and most translated books ever written.

The novel’s plot begins with an ordinary man named Alonso Quijano who voraciously reads romantic tales of chivalry. Alonso becomes so obsessed with the stories of knights errant that he decides to become one himself.  Taking the new name Don Quixote de La Mancha, he mounts his horse Rocinante and joins forces with his sidekick Sancho Panza to battle the forces of evil and to defend the weak.

Deluded and clearly insane, Don Quixote attacks windmills, thinking they are hulking giants.  Ordinary inns to Quixote become castles, and peasant girls become beautiful princesses.

Literary critics call Don Quixote the first modern novel, and the critic Harold Bloom argued that only Shakespeare approached the genius of Cervantes’ writing.   William Faulkner read Don Quixote every year, and the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaimed Don Quixote his favorite literary character (1).

Often when an idea or a style originates from a specific person, that idea or style takes on new meaning, not just as a noun but as an adjective.  There are many examples of these proper nouns that become eponymous adjectives (sometimes called proper adjectives), such as:  Darwinian, Epicurean, or Kafkaesque.  When proper adjectives spring from literature, it’s usually the author’s name that transforms from noun to adjective (as in Orwellian, Shakespearean, or Byronic), but occasionally a character comes along who is so distinct and so unique that the character’s name takes on a more general adjectival meaning.  Cervantes’ Don Quixote is such a character.  Check any dictionary and you will see that the adjective quixotic refers not just to Cervantes’ famous knight, but also to anyone who is “exceedingly idealistic, unrealistic, or impractical.”

Today’s Challenge:  Autobiography of an Adjective

What are some examples of adjectives that derive from the name of a specific person, real or imaginary?  Select one of the eponymous adjectives below and research the etymology of the word, including the biography of the person behind the word.  Then, imagine the person behind the word is telling the story of how he or she became so well known that his or her name became an adjective.  Also, have the person explain the meaning of their adjective as it is used today and also what ideas or styles it embodies? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Arthurian, Byronic, Chauvinistic, Darwinian, Dickensian, Epicurean, Faustian, Hippocratic, Jeffersonian, Kafkaesque, Leninist, Lutheran, Marxist, Newtonian, Oedipal, Orwellian, Platonic, Pyrrhic, Reaganesque, Sisyphean, Stentorian, Trepsicordian, Victorian, Wilsonian, Zoroastrian

Quotation of the Day:  It is one thing to write as poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth. –Miguel de Cervantes

1- Bloom, Harold. The Knight in the MirrorThe Guardian. 12 Dec. 2003.

January 14: Curmudgeon Day 


On this day in 1919, writer and commentator Andy Rooney was born in Albany, New York.  Rooney worked for decades as a journalist and writer-producer for television, but he is best known for his weekly commentaries on the television show “60 Minutes.”  Between 1978 and 2011, Rooney presented over 1,000 mini-essays sharing his unique and slightly cranky insights on everyday topics, such as almanacs, eyebrows, jaywalking, paint, and the English language.  For 33 years, “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney” was must-see television.

The appeal of Rooney’s three-minute monologues was his homespun insights on the mundane.  But another part of his appeal was his consistent curmudgeonly tone, like that of a cantankerous uncle who is bothered by just about everything.

On Apostrophes

Because I write my scripts to read myself, I dont spell “don’t” with an apostrophe.  I spell it “dont.” We all know the word and it seems foolish to put in an extraneous apostrophe.

On Birthdays

Age is a defect which we never get over.  The only thing worse than having another birthday is not having another one.

On Progress

I keep buying things that seem like the answer to all my problems, but Im never any better off . . . . And this is universal. Edison invented the lightbulb, but people dont read any more than our grandparents did by candlelight.

On The Moon

Remember when the astronauts brought those rocks back?  They said it might be weeks before the scientists could analyze them and give us their results.  Do you ever remember hearing that rock report?  I think the scientists are embarrassed to tell us those rocks are just like the ones we have on Earth.

On Dictionaries

The argument in the dictionary business is whether to explain the proper use of English or whether to tell you how it’s being used by the most people — often inaccurately.  For instance, I never say “If I were smart.”  I always say “If I was smart.”  I dont like the subjunctive no matter what the dictionary likes. (1)

Today’s Challenge:  Mini-Monologue on a Mundane Matter

What are some pet peeves you have about everyday objects, events, or ideas?  What and why do these things frustrate you? Write a Rooney-esque monologue that expresses the reasoning behind one specific pet peeve or frustration.  Go beyond the obvious, by providing your unique insights on what makes this thing so bad and how either it should be changed or what it tells us about society. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: I don’t like food that’s too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.  -Andy Rooney

1-Rooney, Andy.  Years of Minutes: The Best of Rooney from 60 Minutes.  New York:  Public Affairs, 2003.

January 6: Personification Day

Photograph of Sandburg
Carl Sandburg

Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Carl Sandburg, who was born on this day in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.

Image result for word days book

The son of Swedish immigrants, Sandburg left school at the age of thirteen to work odd jobs to help support his family.  In 1898, he volunteered to travel to Puerto Rico where he served with the 6th Illinois Infantry during the Spanish-American War.  After the war, he attended the United States Military Academy at West Point but dropped out after just two weeks after failing a mathematics and grammar exam (1).  Returning to his hometown in Illinois, Sandburg enrolled in Lombard College.  At Lombard, he honed his skills as a writer of both prose and poetry, and after college, he moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he worked as an advertising writer and a journalist.

Sandburg achieved unprecedented success as a writer of both biography and poetry.  His great work of prose was his biography of Abraham Lincoln, an exhaustively detailed six-volume work that took him 30 years to research and complete. Not only did he win the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his stellar writing, he was also invited to address a joint session of Congress on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth on February 12, 1959.  This was the first time a private citizen was allowed to make such an address (2).

Before he began his biography of Lincoln, Sandburg established himself as a great poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1919.  Writing in free verse, Sandburg’s poems captured the essence of industrial America.  

Perhaps his best-known poem Chicago begins:

HOG Butcher for the World,

              Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

              Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

              Stormy, husky, brawling,

              City of the Big Shoulders . . .

One of the primary rhetorical devices at work here is personification.  Sandburg does not just describe the city, he brings it to life, giving it job titles, such as “Tool Maker,” and human characteristics, such as “brawling,” and even human anatomy, such as “Big Shoulders.”

Personification is figurative language used in either poetry or prose that describes a non-human thing or idea using human characteristics.  As Sandburg demonstrates, the simple secret of personification is selecting the right words to animate the inanimate.  The key parts of speech for personification are adjectives, nouns, verbs, and pronouns:

-Adjectives like thoughtful or honest or sneaky

-Verbs like smile or sings or snores

-Nouns like nose or hands or feet

-Pronouns like I, she, or they.

In the following poem, Sandburg personifies the grass.  Notice how he makes the grass human by giving it not just a first person voice, but also a job to do:

GRASS

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work–

         I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and the passengers ask the conductor:

         What place is this?

         Where are we now?

         I am the grass.

         Let me work.

Today’s Challenge:  I Am the Homework, I Make You Sweat

What are some everyday objects that you might bring to life using personification?  If these things had a voice, what would they say?  Using “Grass” as a model, select your own everyday non-human topic and use personification to give it a first person voice, writing at least 100 words of either poetry or prose.  Imagine what it would say and what it would say about its job.  Your tone may be serious or silly.

Possible Topics: alarm clock, coffee cup, textbook, guitar, bicycle, paper clip, pencil, car, microwave, baseball

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Carl Sandburg was more than the voice of America, more than the poet of its strength and genius. He was America. -President Lyndon B. Johnson

1- Wikipedia Carl Sandburg. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Sandburg.

2-Poetry Foundation. Carl Sandburg.  https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/carl-sandburg.

January 5: List Day

Today is the birthday of Umberto Eco (1932-2016), the Italian novelist, literary critic, philosopher and semiotician (one who studies signs and symbols).  Although he is best known for his historical mystery novel The Name of the Rose, Eco’s most interesting work might just be a work of nonfiction that he published in 2009 called The Infinity of Lists.  In his book, Eco collects and catalogs examples of lists from literature, music, and art, showing over and over how people have turned to lists in an attempt to bring order to chaos (1).

Some people are critical of lists as a writing form.  They see the ubiquitous internet listicles as a sign of the apocalypse (See March 19:  Listicle Day).  Eco, however, views lists differently:

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists (2).

The following are some of the lists from literature that Eco includes in his book:

-A list of the residents of Hades from Virgil’s Aeneid, Book VI.

-A list of conditions for manhood from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.”

-A list of items that Tom obtained from his friends as payment for the privilege of whitewashing his fence, from Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

-A list of book categories from the bookstore in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

Lists fascinate us because they appeal to our inherent need for organization.  A list’s title gives the reader immediate and easily categorized information, such as “The Ten Commandments” or “Thirteen Signs You’re Addicted to Lip Balm.”

Lists are an essential tool that assist writers to shovel up heaping helpings of savory details for the reader to enjoy.  Too often writers dwell too much on abstractions and generalities. Lists remind the writer that the reader is hungry for concrete details.  Readers can be told things for only so long; they prefer, instead, to be shown things, things that they can see, hear, taste, smell, and feel.

Today’s Challenge:  Your Personal Parade of Particulars

What are some titles of lists that you would find interesting to enumerate and catalogue your life experiences?  Generating your own lists is a great way to practice generating specific, concrete details in your writing.  Generate at least three list titles of your own, or use some of the examples below.  Then, based on the three titles, generate three separate lists, each containing at least seven items.

Things I’ve Found

Songs on My iPod

Jobs I’d Hate to Have

Things I Love to Hate

Things I Hope to Do by the Time I’m Fifty

Reasons I Get Up in the Morning

Important Numbers in My Life

Things I Can Rant About?

Things I Can Rave About?

Places I’d Like to Go Before I Die

Nicknames I’ve Had in My Life

Most Memorable People I’ve Met

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with . . . . We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.  -Umbeto Eco

1-Eco, Umberto.  The Infinity of Lists.  New York:  Rizzoli, 2009.

2-Beyer, Susanne and Lothar Gorris. We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to DieSpiegal.

http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/spiegel-interview-with-umberto-eco-we-like-lists-because-we-don-t-want-to-die-a-659577.html.

January 4: Grimm’s Fairy Tales Day

Today is the birthday of Jacob Grimm, who was born in Hanau, Germany on this day in 1785.  Grimm, along with his brother Wilhelm, is the author of one of the best-known works of German literature, Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

While in college at the University of Marburg, the Brothers Grimm developed an interest in German folklore and began a lifelong process of collecting and recording folk tales.  The first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published in 1812 and contained 86 stories.  The book was revised and expanded several times, until 1857 when the 7th edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales was published with over 200 stories.  Published in more than 100 languages, the fairy tales became known throughout the world, and even today the name Grimm remains synonymous with children’s literature (1).  

Whether we were read adapted versions as bedtime stories or whether we watched filmed versions adapted by Walt Disney, the stories originally collected by the Brothers Grimm remain some of the most familiar stories of our youth:

Snow White

Sleeping Beauty

Rapunzel

Hansel and Gretel

Little Red Riding Hood

Rumpelstiltskin

The Pied Piper of Hamlin

Today’s Challenge:  Your Fairy Tales and Fables Final Four

What children’s stories would you enshrine in the Children’s Literature Hall of Fame?  What makes them so memorable and enduring?  Select four separate children’s stories from Grimm’s Fairy Tales or from other children’s literature.  Write an explanation of why you would enshrine each of your chosen stories into the Children’s Literature Hall of Fame.  (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.  –Albert Einstein

1 –Eiland’s Online English Materials.  A Brief History:  The Brothers Grimm. http://englit.org/eiland_shared/critical/grimm.htm.

December 28: Great Ideas Day

Today is the birthday of philosopher and author Mortimer J. Adler (1902-2001).  As a teen, Adler dropped out of high school and worked as a copyboy for the New York Sun, but he later resumed his education at Columbia University.  After he finished the academic requirements for his bachelor’s degree, Adler was not allowed to graduate because he had refused to participate in physical education.  Nevertheless, Adler continued at Columbia as a teacher and a graduate student until he earned his Ph. D. in experimental psychology.  When he finally walked across the stage to collect his doctorate, he was the only Ph.D. in the country without a master’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or a high-school diploma.

Soon Adler moved to the Midwest to teach philosophy at the University of Chicago.  At Chicago, he worked closely with his university’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins, to develop a new liberal arts curriculum based on a core collection of outstanding works that constitute the foundation of the literature of Western culture.  Together Adler and Hutchins initiated the Great Books Foundation, a non-profit organization founded to promote continuing liberal education among the general public.

In 1952, Adler compiled a 54-volume collection called Great Books of the Western World.  This collection included the works that Adler considered the canon of Western culture, the best writing from fiction, history, poetry, science, philosophy, drama, politics, religion, economics, and ethics.

In addition to the writings of the canon, the Great Books of the Western World included a two-volume index to the 102 “Great Ideas.” Compiled by Adler, this index is called the Syntopicon and contains all references to each of the Great Ideas in the Great Books.   

By Great Ideas, Adler means the “vocabulary of everyone’s thought.”  The ideas are not technical terms or specialized jargon of different branches of learning; instead, the Great Ideas are “the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live (1).  For Adler, philosophy is not just an academic pursuit; instead, philosophical thought is the business of everyone, and inquiring and conversing about big ideas is a core part of what it means to be human.

Below is an A to W listing of some of the Great Ideas. Each of these ideas is universal in the sense that each is a “common object of thought,” meaning these are ideas which any two human beings should be able discuss.  Unlike the tangible, common objects we interact with, these are ideas — intangible, abstract objects that live in the mind.

Art, Beauty, Change, Democracy, Emotion, Fate, Government, Happiness, Induction, Justice, Knowledge, Language, Mind, Nature, Opinion, Progress, Quality, Rhetoric, Science, Truth, Universal and Particular, Vice and Virtue, Wisdom

Today’s Challenge:  One Great Idea, Two Great Works

What is a single universal idea or theme that appears in the work of two separate authors?  Identify a single universal idea, such as truth, wisdom, or democracy, and explain how that idea appears in two different written works. The works may be fiction, drama, poetry, or non-fiction.  In the course of explaining your idea, relate your interpretation of what you think each author is saying about this idea, along with specific evidence from the text that supports your interpretation. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Adler, Mortimer.  How to Think About the Great Ideas.  Open Court, 2000.

December 17: Page 99 Test Day


Today is the birthday of British novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939).

Ford is best known for his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, a novel which routinely turns up on lists of the greatest novels ever written.  The novel chronicles the lives of two seemingly perfect couples, one American and one British, who become acquainted at a German spa.  

The novel’s famous opening line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” is a more accurate indicator of its plot than is its title.  As events unfold, the reader discovers that the lives of these couples are not as happy as they appear.  Ford’s original title was The Saddest Story, but Ford’s publisher John Lane thought the title was a bit too dour, especially since World War I was raging in Europe at the time.  Ford, who himself had enlisted in the army, was too preoccupied to concern himself with the title.  He later recounted how his novel came to have a somewhat incongruous title:

One day, when I was on parade, I received a final wire of appeal from Mr Lane, and the telegraph being reply-paid I seized the reply form and wrote in hasty irony: ‘Dear Lane, Why not The Good Soldier?’

In addition to being a novelist, Ford was a well-known critic, and he left us with a handy method for judging a book.  The method is not to judge the book by its cover or by its opening line; instead, Ford suggested to judge a book by the quality of its writing on one specific page:

Open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Putting Ford’s Test to the Test

What are the qualities you look for when judging a book?  Select a book that you have not read, and open it to page 99.  Read the page carefully, and then write a Page 99 Review based on what you have read on that page.  What do you notice about the quality of the writing?  Based on what you see on page 99, explain your verdict as to whether or not you think the book is worth reading. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-The 100 Best Novels: No. 41 – The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. The Guardian 30 Jun. 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/30/good-soldier-ford-madox-ford-100-best-novels.