June 24:  Devil’s Dictionary Day  

Today is the birthday of Ambrose Bierce, American journalist and short-story writer. He was born in Ohio in 1842, and after serving in the Civil War, he traveled west, where he worked as a journalist in San Francisco. His best-known work of fiction is a short story called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a war story about the last thoughts of man before his execution.

Abierce.jpgBierce’s best-known work though is his Devil’s Dictionary, a satirical work featuring definitions that display Bierce’s sardonic, piercing wit. Bierce began publishing his definitions as a part of his newspaper column in 1875 and continued until 1906. A complete collection of words and definitions was first published in 1911.

Here are some samples of the definitions:

Bigot: n. One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.

Cynic: n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.

Dictionary: n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work (1).

Year: n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.

The Devil Made Me Define It

Given the definitions below from Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, see if you can come up with the appropriate word.

  1. n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.
  2. Adj. Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.
  3. n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.
  4. n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage . . . .
  5. n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.
  6. n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.
  7. n. A rich thief.
  8. n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
  9. n. A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.
  10. n. A despot whom the wise ridicule and obey (1).

Today’s Challenge:  The Glass is Half Full and Half Empty

What are some examples of nouns that you would find in a book called ‘The ABCs of Life’?  Select five nouns that represent universal aspects of human experience, such as school, walking, breakfast, parents, and job.  Next, generate two contrasting creative definitions for each of your words.  For the first, follow Bierce’s example from the Devil’s Dictionary and write a definition that reflects a cynical, pessimistic mindset.  For the second definition, put yourself in a positive, optimistic frame of mind.

JOB:

Half Empty Definition:  A tedious way to spend one third of each day in exchange for a few greenbacks.

Half Full Definition:  A daily opportunity to transform your passion into a livelihood.

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: There is nothing either good nor bad, but thinking makes it so. -William Shakespeare

Answers: 1. telephone 2. ambidextrous 3. wit 4. love 5. patriot 6. heaven 7. kleptomaniac 8. peace 9. dentist 10. fashion

1 – Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/972/972-h/972-h.htm#link2H_4_0001

June 19:  Create a Monster Day

Today marks the anniversary of one history’s most remarkable meeting of literary minds. On the night of June 19, 1816, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Byron’s doctor and travel companion Dr. John Polidori met in a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

Frankenstein 1818 edition title page.jpgInspired no doubt by the unseasonably stormy weather of that summer, caused by the eruption of Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, the group gathered to read aloud from a collection of German ghost stories, called The Fantasmagoriana. These stories inspired Lord Byron to challenge each person in the group to compose a ghost story (1).

One might guess that the two established poets Byron and Shelley would battle for first place in the contest; however, it was the two members of the party without literary reputation who rose to the challenge, each creating a monster that would change literature forever.

The English Doctor, John Polidori, wrote what has come to be called the first vampire tale, a short story called “The Vampyre,” published in 1819. Although his story is not widely read today, it predates other stories in the vampire genre and is seen as the inspiration of the masters of the form: Sheridan le Fanu, Edgar Allen Poe, and, of course, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (2).

As far as the overall winner of the contest, based on the criteria of both influence and creativity, the award must go to Mary Shelley, whose contribution to the contest later became her novel Frankenstein (1818). In her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary credits a conversation between Byron and her husband, Shelley, as the inspiration for her story. She listened attentively as the two poets discussed Darwin’s discoveries and as they speculated about whether or not the secret of life could be found and whether or not a human corpse could be reanimated.

That evening the seeds of the poets’ conversation germinated in Mary’s mind, producing a vivid nightmare that gave her the story that would captivate readers and moviegoers for generations. In her introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley describes what she saw in her nightmare:

I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to make the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world. His success would terrify the artist; he would rush away from his odious handiwork, horror-stricken. He would hope that, left to itself, the slight spark of life which he had communicated would fade, that this thing which had received such imperfect animation would subside into dead matter, and he might sleep in the belief that the silence of the grave would quench forever the transient existence of the hideous corpse which he had looked upon as the cradle of life. He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.

As a result of Byron’s challenge, on this one fateful day, two unique literary monsters were born.

Famous Monsters of Book Land

Long before Shelley and Polidori created their monsters, other monsters filled the pages of ancient myth. See if you can match up each monster below with its appropriate description. Then, challenge your family or a group of friends to create their own horror stories and monsters.

  1. Grendal
  2. Cyclopes
  3. Minotaur
  4. Cerberus
  5. Hydra
  6. Sphinx
  7. Harpies
  8. Medusa

A. The many-headed snake that Hercules defeated in one of his labors.

B. The monster that Beowulf fought and killed in the Old English epic.

C. The creature with a bull’s head and a man’s body that was confined in the Labyrinth until it was killed by Theseus.

D. The Gorgon who had snakes for hair and turned anyone who looked at her into stone. She was killed by Perseus.

E. The monster with the wings and claws of a vulture and the head and body of a woman.

F. The winged monster with a woman’s head and a lion’s body. It challenged travelers with a riddle and killed them when they failed to solve it. It killed itself when Oedipus finally solved its riddle.

G. The three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades.

H. The race of one-eyed giants who made thunderbolts for Zeus.

Today’s Challenge:  A Dark and Stormy Story

What would make a good setting for a horror story?  How might you create tension and suspense at the very beginning of a scary story?  Write the opening paragraph of a tale of horror.  Start your tale with a specific setting, and use the kind of specific description that creates a mood that is appropriate to a horror story.  For inspiration, read the first paragraph of a Stephen King story or novel. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day: Everyone thinks I’m a horrible person, but I’m really not. In fact, I have the heart of a child, and I keep it in a jar on my desk. -Stephen King

Answer: 1. B 2. H 3. C 4. G 5. A 6. F 7. E 8. D

1 – Woodbridge, Kim. “The Summer of 1816.” http://www.kimwoodbridge.com/maryshel/summer.shtml

2 – John Polidori & The Vampyre Byron http://www.angelfire.com/jazz/louxsie/polidori.html

 

June 18:  Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary Day

On this date in 1746, Dr. Samuel Johnson, poet and critic, signed a contract with bookseller Robert Dodsley to write the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Johnson thought he would complete the project in three years, but the dictionary was not completed and published until April 15, 1755.

JohnsonDictionary.pngAlthough it took six years longer than he first estimated, it was worth the wait. The dictionary contained 40,000 words and definitions, along with 114,000 supporting quotations, and is written with precision, clarity, and wit. Johnson did for English in nine years what it had taken 40 French lexicographers 40 years to complete for the French language (1).

Here are few examples of words and definition from Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language:

Amulet: An appended remedy, or preservative: a thing hung about the neck, or any other part of the body, for preventing or curing some particular diseases.

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.

Microscope: An optick instrument, contrived various ways to give to the eye a large appearance of many objects which could not otherwise be seen.

Zootomy: Dissection of the bodies of beasts.

In his Preface, Johnson talks about the challenges he faced in trying to harness the recalcitrant words of English:

When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetick without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity, and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.

Having therefore no assistance but from general grammar, I applied myself to the perusal of our writers; and noting whatever might be of use to ascertain or illustrate any word or phrase, accumulated in time the materials of a dictionary, which, by degrees, I reduced to method, establishing to myself, in the progress of the work, such rules as experience and analogy suggested to me; experience, which practice and observation were continually increasing; and analogy, which, though in some words obscure, was evident in others.

Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language set the standard for future dictionaries. Unlike other languages like French and Italian that established academies to fix the language and prescribe how words should be used, Johnson’s approach was not to prescribe but rather to describe the language. In this way, instead of fixing the language, Johnson registered the English language by basing his definitions not solely upon his own whims, but upon the written record of centuries of writers in English. In the words of author Simon Winchester, Johnson’s method created “a whole new way of dictionary making, and an entirely new intellectual approach to the language, had been inaugurated” (2).

Johnson’s process inspired the writers of the Oxford English Dictionary, whose 10 volumes were completed in 1928. And still today English lexicographers take the descriptive approach to dictionary writing by reading all kinds of published words and recording how the meaning of words are changing and what new words are appearing.

Today’s Challenge: The Only Constant is Change

If you were writing a dictionary, what are ten words — all starting with the same letter — that you would define?  New editions of dictionaries in English are published every year because the language is constantly changing. Because of this change, some of the words from Johnson’s Dictionary have very different definitions today than they did in 1755. Visit the online edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, and select five unfamiliar words.  Record the parts of speech and definitions of the words.  (Common Core Language – 4)

Quotation of the Day: At painful times, when composition is impossible and reading is not enough, grammars and dictionaries are excellent for distraction. -Elizabeth Barrett Browning

1 – McCrum, Robert, Wiliam Cran, and Robert MacNeil. The Story of English. New York: Penguin Books, 1987.

2 -Winchester, Simon. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

3 – Hitchings, Henry. Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

June 12:  Daily Diary Day

On this day in 1942, a 13-year-old girl received a birthday gift — a red and white checkered autograph book.  Instead of collecting the signatures of others in the book, the girl decided to use it as a diary to record her own thoughts.  

AnneFrank1940 crop.jpgThe young girl was Anne Frank, the German-Jewish girl who went into hiding with her family during World War II. She spent 25 months hiding in an annex above her father’s office in Amsterdam before she and her family were betrayed, arrested, and transported to Nazi concentration camps.

While Anne died of typhus in 1945 at the age of fifteen at Bergen-Belsen, the diary that she received for her thirteenth birthday in 1942 was saved and published by her father in 1947. Over five million Jews died in the Holocaust, but through her diary, one voice lives on to remind us that in times of humiliation, degradation, and even during the horrors of war, the human spirit can be triumphant.

In her diary, Anne’s remarkable courage and vivid insights into the human condition live on. Anne’s diary has inspired millions of readers around the world and has been translated into 67 languages (1).

From the very beginning Anne wrote in her diary as if she were talking to an intimate friend; in fact, she even gave it a name, Kitty, and throughout her entries, she addresses it by name.

One of her last diary entries in July 1944, shows the maturity, wisdom, and honesty of Anne’s voice:

“For in its innermost depths youth is lonelier than old age.” I read this saying in some book and I’ve always remembered it, and found it to be true. It is true then that grownups have a more difficult time here than we do? No. I know it isn’t. Older people have formed their opinions about everything, and don’t waver before they act. It’s twice as hard for us young ones to hold our ground, and maintain our opinions, in a time when all ideals are being shattered and destroyed, when people are showing their worst side, and do not know whether to believe in truth and right and God (2).

The word diary comes from Latin diarium, “daily allowance, daily journal” a derivation of dies, “day .”

Today’s Challenge: Today is the First Day of the Diary of Your Life

What would you say in the first entry of a daily diary that you started today?  You don’t need to wait until your birthday to start a diary. At the end of your day today, take a moment and reflect on what you did, what you said, and what you heard. Write down anything that you think might be worth remembering, what might be worth a second thought, or what might be noteworthy ten years from now.  If you can’t think of anything to write about, follow Anne’s example and record your reaction to what someone else has said or written.

Here are a few of Anne’s thoughts as examples:

-We all live with the objective of being happy; our lives are all different and yet the same.

-No one has ever become poor by giving.

-Laziness may appear attractive, but work gives satisfaction.

-Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quote of the Day: How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. –Anne Frank

1- Anne Frank Center, USA. http://www.annefrank.com/1_life.htm

2- Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Bantam Books, 1993.

June 5:  Bedtime Story Day

Today is the birthday of Rick Riordan, the bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  An award-winning author of mysteries for adults, Riordan’s great success as a children’s author began at the bedside of his son.  When his son requested a bedtime story from Greek Mythology, Riordan, a former middle school teacher, was more than willing to share some stories about gods and heroes.  Riordan’s major breakthrough happened when he ran out of material. His son asked him to make up some new stories with the same characters.

The Lightning Thief cover.jpgIn addition to the familiar characters from Greek mythology, there is one conspicuously new character:  Percy Jackson, a 12-year old demigod with dyslexia and ADHD.

A 2007 study entitled “Reading Across the Nation” found that under half of parents surveyed in the U.S. read every day to their children.  The study tracked results by state. The highest scoring state was Vermont, where 67% of respondents claimed to read to children daily; the lowest scoring state was Mississippi with 38%.

The results of the “Reading Across the Nation” study are distressing.  The nightly bedtime story ritual is more than just a time for preparing children to sleep; it’s an essential part of preparing them for a lifetime of literacy.  The study’s authors state the following:

Reading aloud is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading. Early language skills, the foundation for later reading ability, are based primarily on language exposure and human interaction – parents and other adults talking to young children. The more words parents use when speaking to an eight-month-old infant, the greater the size of the child’s vocabulary at age three (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Tell Me a Story

Which mythological characters do you think have the most dramatic stories?  Brainstorm some memorable characters from mythology.  Research their background and stories. Then, using your own words, tell a single story about your featured character aimed at a young audience.  Remember to include the essential story elements, such as dialogue, setting, conflict, climax, and resolution. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quote of the Day:  A nation that does not read much does not know much. And a nation that does not know much is more likely to make poor choices in the home, the marketplace, the jury box, and the voting booth. And those decisions ultimately affect the entire nation…the literate and illiterate. -Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook

1 -Biography – Rick Riordan.  https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/authors/rick-riordan/

2 –http://www.reachoutandread.org/FileRepository/RORChartbook.pdf

 

May 31:  Barbaric Yawp Day

Today is the birthday of American poet Walt Whitman, born in 1819. Like many American writers, Whitman began his career as a printer and journalist, but we know him today because of his poetry. Because he was so revolutionary in his approach to verse, he had trouble finding a publisher for his poetry. He finally published his first book of poetry himself in 1855. It’s this book Leaves of Grass that Whitman edited and expanded throughout his life. Several critics lambasted Leaves of Grass, but Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated it: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed” (1).

Walt Whitman - George Collins Cox.jpgOne of the great contributions that Whitman made to poetry was his experimentation with free verse. Without regular meter or rhyme, free verse combines rhythm, repetition, and parallelism to create music for the reader’s ears. Whitman’s verses with their optimistic, robust tones, celebrated the individual, painted images of democratic America, and reveled in the colloquial language of its common people.

Characteristic of his break with traditional verse, Whitman begins his epic Leaves of Grass with no mention or invocation of a muse; instead, he audaciously focuses on himself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Who can forget the scene in the movie Dead Poet’s Society (1989), where Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, writes one of Whitman’s lines on the blackboard to inspire his students to leave their self-consciousness behind and to embrace their individual creativity?

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

Whitman died in 1892, but his poetry lived on, inspiring the unique voices of American poets of the 20th century.

Today’s Challenge:   Get in Your Yawping Stance

What are key questions that you can ask to help you comprehend a poem?  In one memorable scene from the film Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating explains to his students that the greatness of poetry cannot be plotted on a graph by rating a poem’s perfection and its importance; instead, poetry is about a higher purpose:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Certain essential questions can be asked by any reader of any poem.  These questions don’t promise to unearth a poem’s entire meaning, but they are a good starting place for beginning your comprehension of a poem’s sound and sense:

Who is the speaker in the poem?

What is the situation or subject that the poem is addressing?

What is the speaker’s tone or attitude toward the situation or subject?

What are some universal ideas or themes that are addressed in the poem?

Read the Whitman poem below.  Before you begin asking questions, read it a number of times, and read it out loud.  Then, answer the four questions above. If you’re working with a partner or a group, discuss your answers and compare what you said to what others said.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

by Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

(Common Core Reading 1-3:  Ideas and Details)

Quotation of the Day: Language is not an abstract construction of the learned or of dictionary makers, but something arising out of the work, needs, joys, tears, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. -Walt Whitman

1-https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/walt-whitman

 

May 27:  Green Day

Today is the birthday of biologist Rachel Carson (1907-1964). Carson’s book Silent Spring, published in 1962, is credited with launching the environmental movement. Carson became concerned with the increased use of pesticides, especially D.D.T., after World War II. Her book brought to light the harmful effects of these chemicals on the chain of life.

SilentSpring.jpgCarson’s book was not without its critics, but it did lead to a heightened public awareness of conservation issues, and it also lead to Congressional hearings into the impact of pesticides on the environment and human health. Within 10 years of the publication of Silent Spring, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was founded, Earth Day was established, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts had become law (1).

The words below are examples of words that emerged in the 20th Century to describe issues related to the environment. For example, Greenpeace, an international organization that campaigns for the protection of the environment, was founded in 1971. Its activities contributed a new definition to the adjective green: “relating to or supporting environmentalism, especially as a political issue.”

conservation (1922)

D.D.T (1943)

eco- (1969)

ecofreak (1970)

green (1972)

environmentalism (1972)

global warming (1977)

eco-terrorist (1988)

eco-friendly (1989) (2)

Today’s Challenge: It’s Easy Being Green

How many words or phrases (expressions, idioms, titles, names, quotations, etc.) can you think of that contain the word “green”?  Brainstorm at least ten words or phrases that contain “green.”  Then, use one of your words or expressions as a title and a launching pad for an original composition of at least 250 words.  

The following are some green words and expression:

The Green Mile, The Green Berets, The Green Door, How Green Was My Valley, Mr. Green Jeans, The Green, Green Grass of Home, Green Eggs and Ham, The grass is always greener, green room, greenback, greenhorn, green about the gills, green-eyed jealous, green with envy, green thumb, green light, Green Eyed Lady, Greensleeves, Greenback Dollar, Bowling Green, The Ballad of the Green Berets,  Little Green Apples, Anne of Green Gables, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Big Green Monster, Soylent Green, Greenpeace, greenbelt

Quotation of the Day: When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you rot. –Ray Kroc

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

 

May 19:  Literacy Narrative Day

Black nationalist leader Malcolm X was born on this day in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Born Malcolm Little, he considered Little his slave name, so he replaced it with an X to represent the lost name of his African tribal ancestors.

Malcolm X in March 1964When he was 21 years old, Malcolm was convicted of burglary and received a ten-year sentence.  In prison, Malcolm transformed his life through voracious reading and study. He stopped using drugs and became a member of the Nation of Islam.  After his early-release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Like Martin Luther King’s quest for civil rights, Malcolm advocated for racial equality.  However, unlike King’s tactics of nonviolent resistance, Malcolm promoted a more militant approach, saying “There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.” Shortly before he died, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam.  While preparing to give a speech in New York, he was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

In his autobiography, Malcolm recounts the events that led to his education behind bars.  With time on his hands, he attempted to read but due to his limited vocabulary, he could comprehend few of the words on the page.  To remedy this he decided to study a dictionary. Beginning with the letter A, he read and copied by hand page after page and soon discovered that he was learning more than just vocabulary:  “With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia.”

As his knowledge base and vocabulary grew, Malcolm turned to other books beside the dictionary, reading in every free moment during the day, and well into the night by a small corridor light outside his jail cell.

Talking about his prison studies, Malcolm says:  

I never have been so truly free in my life. . . . the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive . . . . My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America.

Today’s Challenge:  Your Love Letter to Literacy

What are some memorable experiences that would be in your autobiography regarding your acquisition of literacy?  What do you remember about learning to read, about learning to write, and about being influenced by books?  Imagine you are writing your autobiography and that it must include a literacy narrative, that is a story of your experiences with learning to read and write.  Write about a specific incident from your life that is related to books, reading, or writing.  Also consider the people who have influenced your experiences with literacy. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-The Autobiography of Malcolm X 1965

 

May 16: Biographer’s Day

Today is the anniversary of the first meeting between Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the author of the landmark Dictionary of the English Language, and his biographer James Boswell (1740-1795) (See June 18:  Dictionary Day). The two men met in Davies’s London bookshop in 1763, and established a relationship that would allow Boswell to produce what is recognized as the greatest biography ever written: The Life of Samuel Johnson, published in 1791.

James Boswell of Auchinleck.jpgThe word biography derives from the Greek (bio = life + graph = writing).

A number of words feature the graph root as it relates to writing. Here are words and definitions from English Vocabulary Quick Reference by Roger S. Crutchfield (1):

Autobiography: The story of one’s life written by oneself (auto-, self)

Autograph: Written or made with one’s own hand, as a signature (auto– self)

Bibliography: A list of writings (biblio– book)

Cacography: Illegible handwriting (caco, poor)

Cryptography: The art or science of writing and deciphering secret codes (crypto, secret)

Dysgraphia: Impairment of the ability to write (dys-, impaired)

Hagiography: Biographies written about saints (hagio, holy)

Lexicography: The branch of linguistics dealing with the writing or compiling of dictionaries (lex, word)

Orthography: Correct spelling (ortho, correct)

If you are a bit behind on your reading of biography, an excellent way to get caught up is to read the book 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium. As the title suggests, this excellent book features 1,000 mini-biographies that are models of concise and clear prose. In addition, the authors created what they call the BioGraph System of ranking each of the 1,000 people. To lend some objectivity to their process, they created a list of five specific criteria and awarded points in each category. For example, number one on the list is Johannes Gutenberg with a score of 21,768 and number 1,000 is Andy Warhol with 1,000 points (2).

Criteria for Inclusion in the Top 1,000 People of the Millennium:

  1. Lasting Influence 10,000
  2. Effect on the sum total of wisdom and beauty in the world: 5,000
  3. Influence on contemporaries: 5,000
  4. Singularity of contribution: 3,000
  5. Charisma: 2,000

Today’s Challenge: Biomania

Who are at least ten people whose biography or autobiography you would like to read? Brainstorm the top ten people you would like to read about in a biography or autobiography.  Then, for your top person, write a brief biography that provides background details on who the person is and why you believe they lived an influential life.  Identify at least two key general principles that can be drawn from the individual’s life and applied to helping anyone live a fuller life. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. –William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night.

1 – Crutchfield, Roger S. English Vocabulary Quick Reference. Leesburg, VA: LexaDyne Publishers, Inc., 1999.

2 – Gottlieb, Agnes Hooper, Henry Gottlieb, Barbara Bowers, and Brent Bowers. 1,000 Years, 1,000 People: Ranking the Men and Women Who Shaped the Millennium. New York: Kodansha International, 1998.

May 7:  Dramatic Monologue Day

Today is the birthday of poet Robert Browning. Born in Camberwell, England in 1812, Browning was exposed to books at a young age. His father owned a collection of some 6,000 rare volumes, and Browning learned to share his father’s passion for literature, reading books in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish.

Robert Browning by Herbert Rose Barraud c1888.jpgBrowning wrote both poetry and drama, and his most influential innovation, the dramatic monologue, combined both.

The dramatic monologue is characterized as a poem with a single speaker with an implied listener or audience. The speaker is not the poet; instead, the poet takes on the persona (Latin for “mask’) of an imaginary character and brings that character alive solely through the words spoken.  A specific dramatic situation is important in the poem, as well as a tone that captures both the voice and the character of the speaker.

Perhaps the greatest of all dramatic monologues was one written by Browning in 1842 called “My Last Duchess.”  In the poem, set during the Italian Renaissance, Browning speaks in the persona of an arrogant, cold, and controlling duke who is in the process of negotiating the dowry for his next marriage.  Taking a break from the negotiations, he gives a tour to one of his future father-in-law’s envoys. The major focus of the duke’s remarks is on a portrait of his deceased wife, his “last duchess,” which he shows the envoy.  The major criticism he had with this duchess, as he explains to the envoy, is that she had “A heart . . . too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed.” Because she did not make her husband the sole focus of her universe and because she allowed herself to be moved by other persons and other things than her husband, he “gave commands” –a suggestion that he had her killed to open the door of opportunity for a new, less disagreeable wife.

My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,  
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Today’s Challenge:  Grab Your Mask and Your Poetic License

What are some examples of dramatic situations a person might be in that would produce a dramatic monologue?  Try your hand at writing your own dramatic monologue. You can try to write it in verse if you want, but more importantly, try to capture the authentic voice of your narrator. In a dramatic monologue you can take on the voice of ANYONE, or anything, you desire. In other words, you take on a persona and use your poetic license to channel the voice of whomever you wish.

Before you begin writing, you’ll need four things:

  1. A specific character/narrator  
  2. A dramatic situation
  3. An attitude the speaker has toward the situation (tone)
  4. A listener or audience of the monologue

Before you commit to a single idea, do some brainstorming on possible combinations of the four elements. You can go for comedy or tragedy — a really good dramatic monologue might have elements of both.

Here are some examples:

  1. An angry teacher, complaining to her husband about her students’ lack of enthusiasm.
  2. A teenager pleading with his parents to allow him to get a tattoo.
  3. A desperate elderly salesman trying to persuade his boss not to fire him.
  4. An enthusiastic teenager trying to persuade her grandmother to get an iPod.
  5. A shocked postal worker calling the police to report a UFO sighting.
  6. A concerned father advising his son on how to approach the challenges of life.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Below is an example based on #6, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling:

HOW YOUR RACE IS RUN

If you can keep your head about you when everybody’s losing theirs

Step up to the starting line, and stare down your fears

Be ready for the gun as you start the race

Get out at a good strong pace

Don’t let the pack box you in.

Run your own race to win.

Whether you win or lose the race my son,

It matters more how your race is run

Will you run your race to win?

And when you fall down will pick yourself back up again?

You’ve  gotta make your own breaks in this human race

Three fingers pointing back in your face

Fill each minute with sixty seconds run.

You can’t stop the sun, but you can make him run.

Triumph and disaster are two imposters just the same,

Don’t spend your time looking for someone to blame.

Because the rain comes down and the way gets hard,

And it seems like you haven’t gotten very far

Push beyond the pain

Through the mud and the rain

Whether you win or lose the race my son

It matters more how your race is run

Try to see the world in your neighbor’s shoes

And whether you win or you lose

You’re not the only one who has a race to run

Do all you can to lend a helping hand

Pray to God each day

That He’ll light your way

Whether you win or lose the race my son

It matters more how your race is run

Quotation of the Day: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp – or what’s a heaven for? -Robert Browning