August 14: Macbeth Day

Today is the anniversary of the death in 1057 of the Scottish monarch Macbeth about whom Shakespeare wrote in his play The Tragedy of Macbeth. The facts of the historical Macbeth differ somewhat from the Macbeth of the Elizabethan stage, but like modern writers, Shakespeare was never one to let history get in the way of telling a good story.

Born in 1005, Macbeth rose to the throne of Scotland by election in place of King Duncan’s 14-year old son Malcolm. Duncan was not murdered at Macbeth’s home as in the play; instead, he was killed in battle. The Macbeth of history was a Christian king who ruled for 14 years until August 14, 1057 (some sources say August 15) when he met Malcolm man-to-man in a fight to the death in a stone circle near Lumphanan. Dunsinane and Birnam Wood, locations referred to in Shakespeare’s play, were actual locations of battles; however, these battles took place earlier than 1057. At Lumphanan, Malcolm was victorious, and it was he, not Macduff, who beheaded Macbeth (1).

Shakespeare adapts history in the Tragedy of Macbeth to examine the themes of free will, fate, ambition, betrayal, good, and evil. In his play, Macbeth transforms from war hero to serial killer after he hears the prophecies of the weird sisters. Although he is warned by his friend Banquo to disregard the witches’ words, Macbeth is unable to shake their spellbinding words. There is not a lot of subtlety or subplot in Macbeth. The action is swift and bloody. Even when the action on the stage is seemingly calm, the imagery of the dialogue is full of violent, grotesque images, such as in Lady Macbeth’s plea to her husband to keep his promise to kill Duncan even though the king has honored Macbeth with a promotion and has come to their home as a guest for the night:

I have given suck, and know

How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me;

I would, while it was smiling in my face,

Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums

And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this.(Act I, scene 7, lines 58-63)

It’s probably no accident that a play about a Scottish king was written by Shakespeare during the reign of King James, the first Scottish King of England and the king whose most famous act was the commissioning of the King James Translation of the Bible, completed in 1611.

The history of the play’s production, however, is full of accidents and superstition. From the very start Macbeth acquired a reputation as a cursed play. During its first production in 1606, the boy actor playing Lady Macbeth died backstage. It seems the dark and sinister events of the on-stage plot are echoed backstage. To this day superstitious actors refuse to identify the play by name, alluding to it only by the euphemism: “The Scottish Play” (2).

You’ll get very little argument if you claim that Shakespeare is the single greatest writer in  the history of the English language.  So if there are any words worth committing to memory, doesn’t it make sense to memorize some Shakespeare?  His words are fun to say, even if you don’t know what they mean exactly or if you don’t know the exact context of the words.  One thing you do know, however, is that the words are guaranteed to be brilliant, and once you do study the play and the character from which the words originate, you will discover that the words are well worth remembering and are well worth returning to again and again.  

Today’s Challenge:  Six From Shakespeare
What lines from a Shakespearean character would you say are most memorable?  Select a favorite character from Shakespeare and select a passage of at least six lines.  Commit those words to memory.  Write them down, read them carefully, and say them aloud over and over until they are a part of your long term memory.  Practice sharing them aloud with friends and family, and try to catch the right tone based on what you know about the character and what you know about the context of the words within the play. (Common Core – Speaking and Listening 4)

Below are three examples of six-line passages from the character Macbeth:

How is’t with me, when every noise appalls me?

What hands are here? Hah! They pluck out mine eyes.

Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood

Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

Making the green one red.

-Act 2, scene 2, lines 55-60


Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

-Act 2, scene 2, lines 46-51


Out, Out brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

-Act 5, Scene 5, Lines 23-28

Quotation of the Day:  [Shakespeare] is as a mountain, whose majesty and multitudinous beauty, meaning, and magnitude and impress, must be gotten by slow processes in journeying about it through many days. Who sits under its pines at noon, lies beside its streams for rest, walks under its lengthening shadows as under a cloud, and has listened to the voices of its waterfalls, thrilling the night and calling to the spacious firmament as if with intent to be heard “very far off,” has thus learned the mountain, vast of girth, kingly in altitude, perpetual in sovereignty. -William A. Quayle

 

1 – http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/macbeth.shtml

2-Epstein, Norrie. The Friendly Shakespeare. New York: Winokur/Boates, 1993.

 

August 12:  Mythology Day

Today is the birthday of Edith Hamilton whose writings on ancient civilization and mythology have been read by generations of students.

File:Edith Hamilton.jpgBorn in Dresden, Germany in 1867, Hamilton immigrated to the United States with her family as a child. At the age of seven, she began studying Latin and committing biblical passages to memory. She completed her education in classics at Bryn Mawr College in Baltimore where she later became headmistress. She gained a reputation as an excellent teacher, storyteller, translator, and interpreter of Greek tragedies. Encouraged by her friends to write, she published her first book, The Greek Way (1930), in her 60s.

Hamilton continued writing into her 90s, publishing a total of nine books. Although she wrote about ancient Rome and Israel, the civilization she seemed to admire the most was ancient Greece:

The fundamental fact about the Greek was that he had to use his mind. The ancient priests had said, “Thus far and no farther. We set the limits of thought.” The Greek said, “All things are to be examined and called into question. There are no limits set on thought.”

Hamilton’s best known and most widely read book is Mythology (1942), which she wrote as an overview of Greek, Roman, and Norse mythology. This book is known by generations of middle school and high school students who read it as a primer on the myths.

Prior to her death in 1963 at the age of 96, Hamilton received several honorary degrees in the U.S. and was also honored internationally as an official citizen of Athens, Greece in 1957 (1).

Words from the Gods

Many common English words spring from the stories that Hamilton told of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Given the eight clues below, see if you can name the words.

  1. This word for any grain, such as wheat or oats comes from the name of the Roman goddess of agriculture.
  1. This word for a repeating sound comes from the name of a nymph who loved Narcissus.
  1. This word for maintaining health and preventing disease comes from the name of the Greek goddess of health.
  1. This word for psychically induced sleep comes from the name for the Greek god of sleep.
  1. This word for being full of happiness and playfulness comes from the name of the most powerful Roman god.
  1. This word for being changeable or volatile comes from the name for the Roman messenger of the gods.
  1. This word for sudden fear comes from the name of the Greek god of fields, forests, and wild animals.
  1. This word, used to refer to something that induces sleep, comes from the name of the Roman god of sleep.

In addition to being embedded in the etymology of English words, the characters from mythology and their stories are frequently alluded to by many writers.  The works of Edith Hamilton are one the best ways for students to become familiar with these fascinating stories as well as to become familiar with allusions – indirect or passing references – to these characters that are made throughout our culture, both past and present.

Here is a list of a few prominent figures from Greek Mythology:

Achilles

Ariadne

Hercules

Odysseus

Oedipus

Orpheus

Pandora

Paris

Persephone

Prometheus

Theseus

Today’s Challenge:
What characters and stories from mythology to you think are the most captivating?  Brainstorm a list of characters from mythology that come to mind. Identify which one character you think has the most captivating and fascinating story.  Then, tell the story of that character and explain what makes it such a captivating story. (Common Core Writing 2 and 3)

Today’s Quote: It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid on the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life. To be able to be caught up into the world of thought — that is to be educated. –Edith Hamilton

Answers: 1. cereal 2. echo 3. hygiene 4. hypnosis 5. jovial 6. mercurial 7. panic 8. somniferous

 

1 – Sicherman, Barbara. “Edith Hamilton.” The Reader’s Companion to American History, Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors, published by Houghton Mifflin Company

 

July 31:  Harry Potter Day

Today is the birthday of the literary character Harry Potter and Harry’s creator, J.K. (Joanne Kathleen) Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone Book Cover.jpgThe British author was born on July 31, 1965. The idea of a story about boy wizard came to Rowling one day on a long train ride from Manchester to London in the Summer of 1990.

At her website, Rowling recounts the day Harry was born in her imagination:

. . . I was travelling back to London on my own on a crowded train, and the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head.

I had been writing almost continuously since the age of six but I had never been so excited about an idea before. To my immense frustration, I didn’t have a pen that worked, and I was too shy to ask anybody if I could borrow one…

I did not have a functioning pen with me, but I do think that this was probably a good thing. I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain, and this scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.

Perhaps, if I had slowed down the ideas to capture them on paper, I might have stifled some of them (although sometimes I do wonder, idly, how much of what I imagined on that journey I had forgotten by the time I actually got my hands on a pen). I began to write ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ that very evening, although those first few pages bear no resemblance to anything in the finished book. (1)

It took seven years for Rowling to bring Harry Potter to life in a published book. After rejections from several publishers, Bloomsbury Children’s Books published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in June 1997.

After the publication of Philosopher’s Stone, success and awards came fast for Rowling. She sold the American rights to her books to Scholastic Books, and quit her job teaching French to write full time.  When published in the United States, the title was changed from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone because publishers felt that Sorcerer’s Stone would be more suggestive of magic, whereas Philosopher’s Stone was more suggestive of togas.

Sales of the seven books in the series have reached unprecedented numbers with  more than 400 million copies sold.

In 2003, Rowling achieved the rare distinction of having one of her coined words added to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — a very rare achievement for a living author.

The word is muggle, defined as:

A person who possesses no magical powers. Hence in allusive and extended uses: a person who lacks a particular skill or skills, or who is regarded as inferior in some way.

The editors of the OED had little choice but to include the word in the dictionary after considering the seemingly universal popularity of Rowling’s books and the fact that the word was being used everyday by people all over the world. A similar feat was accomplished by J.R.R. Tolkien when the OED included his word “hobbit” in the 1976 edition of the OED. Tolkien, however, had died before seeing his word in the dictionary (2).

Seven Spellbinding Roots

The made-up language of spells in J. K. Rowling’s books is not a totally random creation. Hidden in the spells are word parts that resemble familiar Latin and Greek roots:

  1. Wingardium Leviosa!  Root: LEV – To Raise Up Common Words: lever, elevator, levee, elevate
  1. Locomotor Mortis!  Root: LOCO – Place Common Words: locomotive, locate, dislocate, allocate
  1. Expelliarmus!  Root: PEL To Push – Common Words: propel, expel, repel, compel
  1. Lumos!  Root: LUM – Light  Common Words: illuminate, lucid, bioluminescence, elucidate
  1. Fidelus! Root: FID -Trust  Common Words: confide, confidence, fidelity, infidel
  1. Expecto Patronus!  Root: PATR – Father Common Words: paternal, patron, patronize, patriot
  1. Finite incantatem!  Root: FIN – End or Limit Common Words: infinite, define, affinity, infinitesimal (3)

Today’s Challenge: I Put a Spell on You

What fictional character do you think special enough to warrant a birthday celebration?  What makes this character so special, and what kind of things might be done to truly honor his or her birth and fictional life?  Brainstorm a list of fictional characters that are so distinctive that although they are fictional they seem to be as real as any person who ever lived.  Select the one you like the best and write a proclamation honoring the character’s “birth” and “life” as well as suggesting what kind of unique activities might be appropriate to celebrate the character’s birthday. (Common Core Writing 2)

Quote of the Day: The book is really about the power of the imagination. What Harry is learning to do is to develop his full potential. Wizardry is just the analogy I use. –J. K. Rowling

 

1-http://www.jkrowling.com/en_GB/#/timeline/it-all-started/

2 – ‘Muggle’ Goes Into Oxford English Dictionary. BBC Newsround 24 March 2003.

3 – Resource Room: Free-spirited Structured Multisensory Learning. Reading Comprehension. Vocabulary words parts index (Greek and Latin Roots)

 

 

 

July 26:  Ghoti Day  

Today is the birthday of playwright George Bernard Shaw. He was born in Dublin in 1856 and began his writing career as a journalist and theater critic in London. Eventually he began writing plays of his own, his most famous being Pygmalion (1912) — the play upon which the musical My Fair Lady is based. In 1925, Shaw was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature (1).

In addition to writing plays, Shaw was active in political causes, most notably socialism, vegetarianism, and spelling reform.

To illustrate the troubled state of English spelling, Shaw gave a famous example by fabricating a word spelled G-H-O-T-I. He said it was a new way to spell the word fish and was perfectly logical based on the spelling in existing English words:

-The gh in Ghoti was the f sound in enough.

-The o was from the i sound in women.

-The ti was from the sh sound in nation.

Clearly, argued Shaw, the spelling of words in the English alphabet had little logical relationship with the sounds of words.  It’s little wonder we have problems with spelling since we have an alphabet of twenty-six letters and a language with more than 40 sounds.  On top of that there are over 300 different ways to spell those forty-plus sounds.

Shaw’s passion for the spelling reform cause is reflected in the tone of his writing in a preface to a book by R.A. Wilson, The Miraculous Birth of Language in 1941:

Professor Wilson has shewn that it was as a reading and writing animal that Man achieved his human eminence above those who are called beasts. Well, it is I and my like who have to do the writing. I have done it professionally for the last sixty years as well as it can be done with a hopelessly inadequate alphabet devised centuries before the English language existed to record another and very different language. Even this alphabet is reduced to absurdity by a foolish orthography based on the notion that the business of spelling is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound and meaning. Thus an intelligent child who is bidden to spell “debt,” and very properly spells it d-e-t, is caned for not spelling it with a “b” because Julius Caesar spelt the Latin for it with a “b” . . . .

If the introduction of an English alphabet for the English language costs a civil war, or even, as the introduction of summer time did, a world war, I shall not grudge it. The waste of war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another in English through an alphabet with sixteen letters missing. That must be remedied, come what may.

Shaw, like many others before and after him, failed to reform English spelling (Shaw died in 1950).  The fight for spelling reform, however, goes on even today as seen in a headline from a 2006 Associated Press article:  Puush for Simpler Speling Perzists — despiet th lak of public intrest (2).

Today’s Challenge: The Spelling List From Hell
What are examples of words in English that are difficult to spell because their pronunciation has very little correlation with their spelling?  On this 26th day of the month, create an abecedarian list of words from A-Z that are extremely difficult to spell.  To check how challenging the words on your list are, write each word phonetically and compare that to the word’s actual spelling.  For example, notice how words like psychology, chaos, colonel, and tsunami are spelled quite differently from the way they are pronounced.

Quote of the Day: You must remember that it is permissible for spelling to drive you crazy.  Spelling had this effect on Andrew Jackson, who once blew his stack while trying to write a Presidential paper.  “It’s a damn poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word!” the President cried. -John Irving

 

1 – George Bernard Shaw. The Novel Prize in Literature 1925.

2 – http://www.newstimes.com/news/article/Puush-for-simpler-speling-perzists-despiet-lak-of-119163.php

 

July 21:  Six-Word Memoir Day

Today is the birthday of Ernest Hemingway, born in Illinois in 1899.  Like so many other American writers, Hemingway began his writing career as a journalist.  At 17 he worked as a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star. When America entered World War I, he tried to enlist but was rejected on the basis of a medical condition. He traveled to Europe anyway and became an ambulance driver for the Italian Army. He later wrote one of his best-known novels A Farewell to Arms (1929) based on his experiences in the war.

Six-wordmemoir.jpgAfter World War I, he returned to the states, but soon was back in Europe as a journalist for the Toronto Star. Living in Paris, he met other expatriate American writers such as Ezra Pound and F. Scott Fitzgerald who encouraged him to write fiction. He took their advice, writing about his experiences as an American living in Europe in The Sun Also Rises (1926). He traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the setting of his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Old Man and the Sea in 1953, and the next year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961.

Hemingway’s characters reflected his own experiences and personality. War, adventure, drinking, bull-fights, big game hunting, and fishing were his favorite topics, and, when he wasn’t writing, these were his own favorite activities.

Hemingway’s writing style is known for its clarity, simplicity, and terseness. His characters’ dialogue is straightforward and honest, except for the occasional understatement. In talking about writing, Hemingway said: “All you have to do is write one true sentence, a true simple declarative sentence” (1, 2).

One legend that reflects his penchant for clear, forceful language goes like this: Hemingway was once challenged to write a short story in only six words.  Not one to back down ever, Hemingway responded with, “For sale:  baby shoes, never worn.”  The anecdote is probably more folklore than fact; nevertheless, it inspired an online phenomenon called Six-Word Memoirs, a project of SMITH Magazine.  To date nearly 1 million stories have been shared at sixwordmemoirs.com.

In 2008 a book of Six Word Memoirs was published called Not Quite What I Was Planning.  The book is probably the most “crowdsourced” book in history and contains the mini-memoirs of 950 contributors.  Here are a few samples:

Oldest of five. Four degrees. Broke. -Kaitline Walsh

Bad breaks discovered at high speed. -Paul Schultz

Happiness is a warm salami sandwich. -Stanley Bing

On her birthday, my life began.  -Lisa Parrack

Veni, vidi, but haven’t vici yet. -Neenakshi Nadini

Nerdy, wordy, learned to shut up.  -Caren Lissner (3)

Today’s Challenge:  Your Memoir in Only Six Words

How would you sum up your life so far in just six words or fewer?  Write your own six-word memoirs.  Create a variety of memoirs based on different themes, such as work, school, moms, dads, technology, love, advice, and food.  For inspiration, visit sixwordmemoirs.com for more themes and more examples. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Today’s Quotation:  Brevity is the soul of wit.  -William Shakespeare

 

1 – “Ernest Hemingway.” The Nobel Prize in Literature 1954.Nobelprize.org

2 – Adler, Mortimer. “Biographical Note on Ernest Hemingway” from Great Books of the Western World. Edition 60: Imaginative Literature: Selections from the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1996.

3-Fershleiser, Rachel and Larry Smith (Editors).  Not Quite What I Was Planning:  Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.  New York:  Harper Perennial, 2008.

 

 

July 12: Thoreau Day

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of American writer, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau. Born in 1817, Thoreau graduated from Harvard in 1837, where he studied classics and languages.

After college, he taught and traveled, but he eventually returned to his home in Concord, Massachusetts, to live with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, the founder and leader of the Transcendental movement.

In 1845, Henry bought a small patch of land from Emerson on Walden Pond and built a cabin. On July 4, 1845 he declared his own independence and began living there in the woods; he stayed for two years, two months, and two days.

In his classic work Walden (1854), Thoreau recounts his life in the wild and his observations about nature and about simple living:

I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . .

In 1847 Thoreau spend one night in jail after refusing to pay his poll tax in protest against the war with Mexico (1846-1848). Based on this experience, he wrote his essay “Civil Disobedience” where he explains that individual conscience must trump governmental dictates: “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Clearly Thoreau’s thoughts and words were way ahead of his time; both Walden and “Civil Disobedience” influenced future generations in both the conservation and civil rights movements. For example, in his autobiography Martin Luther King credits Thoreau:

I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea across than Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.

Another disciple of Thoreau was Gandhi, who put Thoreau’s ideas regarding nonviolent resistance into action as he led India to independence (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Thorough Thinking with Thoreau
One of the prominent themes of Thoreau’s writing is the individual’s role in society.  What would you say is the key to maintaining your individuality and unique character, while at the same time living productively as a member of a society made up of groups – family, friends, and co-workers? Write your own statement on this question; then, reflect on the statements below by Thoreau.  Pick the one you agree with or disagree with the most, and explain how Thoreau’s words align or conflict with your personal philosophy:

  • Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.
  • You cannot dream yourself into a character: you must hammer and forge yourself into one.
  • . . . if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours
  • The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.
  • If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Quotation of the Day:  It still seems to me the best youth’s companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one’s valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feelings without religious images, and it steadfastly refused to record bad news. –E. B. White on Walden

1 – Seymour-Smith, Martin. The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written. New York: Kensington Publishing Corp., 1998.

 

 

July 7:  Utopia Day

On this date in 1535, Sir Thomas More, English statesman and author, was executed for treason.

More was caught in the middle of religious and governmental conflict when Henry VIII established the Church of England, separating from the Catholic Church.  Because More disagreed with the King’s decision, he resigned his office in the English Parliament and refused to take a loyalty oath. As a result, he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded.

The 1966 film A Man for All Seasons portrays the events surrounding More’s execution.

More is best known for his 1516 satirical novel Utopia, in which he envisioned a perfect island state with universal education, common land ownership, religious tolerance, and shared labor (1).

Because of the sharp contrast between the less than perfect island of England and More’s idyllic island of Utopia, the satirical aspect of the novel was clear to 16th century readers. Today utopia and utopian have become a part of the English lexicon, describing any ideal or perfect condition or place. Of course this is an idea that exists purely in the imagination since establishing any perfect society is impossible. More certainly understood this, since he used Greek roots to generate a name for his island that translates literally as “no place,” [ou, not + topos, place].

More is not the first writer to envision an idyllic place in literature. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions has an entire chapter devoted to these utopias:

Albion:  In Arthurian legend, this was the place to which Arthur was conveyed after his death.

Arcadia:  An idealized region in classical poetry found in the mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece.

Avalon:  In poetry and literature this name is sometimes used to refer to Britain as a green paradise.

Eden:  The garden home of Adam and Eve where the Tree of Knowledge was found.

El Dorado: The fabled city of gold sought in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors.

Shangri-la:  A Tibetan utopia depicted in James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon.’

Valhalla:  A great banqueting hall from Norse mythology where heroes, slain in battle, feasted with Odin eternally.  

Xanadu:  The name of a dreamlike place of beauty and luxury in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” (2).

Today’s Challenge: Go To Your Happy Place
What is the most idyllic place you have ever been? Describe it so that your reader can experience it vicariously.  Try to capture its idyllic nature in both your tone and your imagery. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious, discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. -Helen Keller

1 – Raftery, Miriam. 100 Books That Shaped World History. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood Books, 2002.

2 – Delahunty, Andrew, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock (Editors). The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

 

June 30:  One-Book Author Day

On this day in 1936, Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) published her first and only novel Gone with the Wind.  The book became a blockbuster, mesmerizing readers with its story, set in the Old South, and its fascinating characters, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler.

Gone with the Wind cover.jpgMitchell worked as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal until 1926 when complications from an ankle injury prevented her from walking. To occupy herself, she began to read.

Mitchell read voraciously, so voraciously that her husband John Marsh became tired of carting books back and forth from Atlanta’s Carnegie Library.  One day instead of a pile of books, he arrived with something else to keep her occupied, and announced, “. . . here is a typewriter.  Here is some copy paper.  Write your own book to amuse yourself” (1).

Although her experience as a writer was in journalism, she began to write fiction, turning to the stories she had heard from her family about the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Because she always struggled to write the openings of her newspaper stories, Mitchell got in the habit of writing the last part first.  She followed this same pattern with Gone With the Wind, beginning with the last chapter, Chapter 63.

Mitchell wrote for nine years without any real ambition to publish, until she had a chance meeting with a publishing representative in 1935.  Bashful about sharing her work, Mitchell was at first reluctant to show anyone her book.  Fortunately, she reconsidered.  Pulling together her manuscript of over one thousand pages, she placed it in a suitcase and delivered it to the publisher.  A few days later Mitchell received a wire announcing that her book had been accepted for publication.

When the book went on sale on June 30, 1936, Mitchell hoped it would sell 5,000 copies.  The book sold one million copies in its first six months, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937.  Two years later the film version of the book premiered in Atlanta on December 15, 1939.

Although Gone With the Wind became the most successful book ever published by an unknown author of a first novel, Mitchell never wrote another book.  Besieged by admiring readers, the press, and fan mail, Mitchell found little time to write fiction.  Mitchell died in 1949 after being struck by a speeding car near her home in Atlanta (2).

Margaret Mitchell is not the only author to write only one book. Other one hit wonders include J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Emile Bronte (Wuthering Heights), Anna Sewell (Black Beauty), and Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar).  The 2003 documentary The Stone Reader traces one reader’s quest for one-book author Dow Mossman, who published The Stones of Summer in 1976.

Today’s Challenge:  One Book, One City
Many communities across the United States have participated in One Book, One City projects where a single book is chosen to be read and discussed by everyone in that community.  The first such program began in Seattle in 1998 with Russell Banks’ 1991 novel The Sweet Hereafter (3).  What one book would you argue would be worth reading by your entire hometown?  What makes this one book something special?  Write the pitch for the book that you think would be a good fit for your hometown, explaining why it is a book that would appeal to all ages and interests. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day: The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.  -Samuel Johnson

1-http://www.npr.org/2011/06/30/137476187/margaret-mitchells-gone-with-the-wind-turns-75

2-http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1108.html

3-http://read.gov/resources/

June 27:  Short Story Day

One of the most iconic and most anthologized short stories ever written is set on this day.  The story is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

The date is established in the story’s opening line:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

ShirleyJack.jpgWhile the story’s opening sentence paints a calm, serene picture, the events of the story soon turn dark and even horrifying as the reader discovers why the residents of an unidentified small American village have gathered.  In an annual rite, the villagers draw lots to determine which one of them will be stoned to death.

Soon after the story was published in the June 26, 1948 edition of the New Yorker, a deluge of letters arrived expressing the shock and bewilderment of its readers.  In fact, “The Lottery” sparked more letters to the New Yorker than any work of fiction it ever published.  Some of the readers were critical — including some who cancelled their subscriptions — but most were simply confused by the story, wanting an explanation of its meaning (1).

On July 22, 1948, nearly one month after the story’s publication, Jackson wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle, giving a brief explanation of the story’s meaning:

Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives (2).

The day and month of the story’s setting are noteworthy.  June 27th has significance dating back to the Roman calendar as the first day of summer.  It was known as Initium Aestatis or the Feast of Aestas, the Roman Goddess of summer (3).  

But perhaps more noteworthy in determining the meaning of “The Lottery” is the year of its publication:  1948.  In her take on the meaning of the story, Ruth Franklin, biographer of Shirley Jackson, explains why it makes sense that a story like this would emerge three years after one of history’s darkest and most brutal wars — World War II:

[“The Lottery”] anticipates the way we would come to understand the twentieth century’s unique lessons about the capacity of ordinary citizens to do evil—from the Nazi camp bureaucracy, to the Communist societies that depended on the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor and the experiments by the psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo demonstrating how little is required to induce strangers to turn against each other. In 1948, with the fresh horrors of the Second World War barely receding into memory and the Red Scare just beginning, it is no wonder that the story’s first readers reacted so vehemently to this ugly glimpse of their own faces in the mirror, even if they did not realize exactly what they were looking at (4).

Today’s Challenge:  Short Story Almanac
If you were to write a short story that takes place on a specific day and month, what would it be and why?  Write the opening paragraph of a short story that takes place on a specific day and month.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?  –Miriam Friend in a letter to the editor of The New Yorker.

 

1- http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters

2-http://northbennington.org/jackson.html

3-http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/aestas.html

4-http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters

June 25:  Dead Metaphor Day

Today is the birthday of British journalist, essayist, and novelist George Orwell (1903-1950). His birth name was Eric Arthur Blair, and he was born in Motihari, India, where his father was serving as an official in the British colonial government. Orwell left India to get his education in British schools, but he returned to Asia in 1922 to work with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. He decided to devote himself to writing full time in 1928, and in 1933 he published his first novel Down and Out in Paris and London and adopted his pen name, George Orwell.

PoliticsandtheEnglishLanguage.jpgOrwell’s best known and most widely read novels are Animal Farm and 1984. Both novels are potent warnings against big government, totalitarianism, and fascism.

In Animal Farm, a political allegory, Mr. Jones’ animals take over his farm, and in events that parallel the Russian Revolution, they learn that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four tells the story of a future dystopia called Oceania. The one-party government is in a perpetual state of war and is led by the all-seeing but unseen leader called Big Brother. From the very beginning of the book, the novel’s main character, a party work named Winston Smith, is doing something that is both radical and unlawful: he is questioning his government, and he is writing his thoughts in a journal.

Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 (reversing the numbers 4 and 8), but he probably should have called it 2084 since questions about big government, privacy, and the role of technology make this novel even more relevant in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

Two words created by Orwell in 1984, doublethink and newspeak have been melded in our modern lexicon to become doublespeak, meaning language that is deliberately constructed to disguise rather than clarify meaning. William Lunz, author of the 1989 book Doublespeak, keeps Orwell’s memory alive in his annual Doublespeak Awards, which call attention to language from government, business, and the military that is “grossly deceptive, evasive and euphemistic.”

Orwell’s use of the suffix -speak in 1984, for words such as newspeak, duckspeak, and oldspeak, popularized the use of the suffix -speak to refer to any particular variety of spoken English, such as Haigspeak, Bushspeak, or soccer-speak.

The 1946 essay Politics and the English Language is George Orwell’s plea for writing that is clear, concise, and thoughtful. In a famous example, he presents the following passage from Ecclesiastes as a model of clarity:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

He then translates the passage into modern gobbledygook:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Also in Politics and the English Language, Orwell practices what he preaches when he presents the following concise list of rules for writers:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive [voice] where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (2)

In order to elaborate on his first rule, Orwell discusses dead metaphors, which are figures of speech that once evoked images, but because they have been used and recycled so often by writers, they have lost their luster.  Today the most common term for a trite and overused figure of speech is cliche.  Orwell’s goal is to get writers to eschew cliches and instead create fresh figures of speech that will bring their writing to life.  

In the following 170 words, Orwell explains the writing process meticulously, showing how fresh figures bridge the gap between the abstract and the concrete and how good writing must be intentional and thoughtful:

When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.

Today’s Challenge:  Five Fresh Figures
What are some examples of abstract words – ideas or concepts that live in the mind but that are not tangible?  Brainstorm a list of abstract words, such as truth, beauty, or justice.  Select five of the words from your list, and practice Orwell’s advice on crafting fresh figures of speech.  Use figurative language (metaphors, similes, or personification) to define or explain each of your abstract ideas.  Before you begin drafting your own, read the following fresh figures for inspiration.  Each is from Dr. Mardy Grothe’s book Metaphors Be With You:

Curiosity:  Curiosity is the wick in the candle of learning. -William Arthur Ward

Fear:  Fear is a pair of handcuffs on your soul. -Faye Dunaway

Language:  Language is the apparel in which your thoughts parade before the public.  Never clothe them in vulgar or shoddy attire. -George W. Crane

Learning:  There is no royal road to learning; no short cut to the acquirement of any art. -Anthony Trollope

Memory:  Memory is the personal journalism of the soul. -Richard Schickel

Power:  The jaws of power are always open to devour, and her arm is always stretched out, if possible, to destroy the freedom of thinking, speaking, and writing. -John Adams (3)

Quotation of the Day:  Effective metaphor does more than shed light on the two things being compared. It actually brings to the mind’s eye something that has never before been seen. It’s not just the marriage ceremony linking two things; it’s the child born from the union. An original and imaginative metaphor brings something fresh into the world. -Rebecca McClanahan

1 – Lunz, William. Doublespeak. New York: Random House, 1989.

2 – Politics and the English Language

3 – Grothe, Mardy.  Metaphors Be With You.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2016.