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
Known for the tales of macabre and mystery
he wrote during his life, one specific mystery became associated with Poe after
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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)
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
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.
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.
Age is a defect which we never get over.
The only thing worse than having another birthday is not having another
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.
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
1-Rooney, Andy. Years
of Minutes: The Best of Rooney from 60 Minutes. New York:
Public Affairs, 2003.
Today is the birthday of American writer and poet Carl Sandburg, who was born on this day in 1878 in Galesburg, Illinois.
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
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
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,
-Adjectives like thoughtful or honest or
-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:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and
Shovel them under and let me work–
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:
place is this?
are we now?
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
2-Poetry Foundation. Carl Sandburg.
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
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
The Infinity of Lists. New York: Rizzoli, 2009.
2-Beyer, Susanne and
Lothar Gorris. We Like Lists Because We
Don’t Want to Die. Spiegal.
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:
Hansel and Gretel
Little Red Riding Hood
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)
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
1 –Eiland’s Online
English Materials. A Brief History: The Brothers
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.