November 15:  Balanced Sentence Day

On this day in 1859, the final installment of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities was published.  As with most of Dickens’ novels, A Tale of Two Cities was published in serial form.  Weekly installments of the novel began in April 1859 and the final installment was issued on November 15, 1859.

Tales serial.jpgDickens (1812-1870), the author of such classic works at Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and A Christmas Carol, was the most popular novelist of his time, and A Tale of Two Cities is the single greatest selling book of any genre with more than 200 million copies sold (1).

The book is a historical novel, set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.  It’s appropriate that in a novel with two settings, the author would use the scheme called “balance.”  When writing about two or more similar ideas, writers balance the ideas by stating them in the same grammatical form using parallel structure, as in “United we stand, divided we fall.”  You can see and hear this balance in the famous opening sentence of A Tale of Two Cities.  Notice that although Dickens is introducing contrasting ideas (best and worst, wisdom and foolishness), the clauses of the sentence follow the same grammatical structure to create balance:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . . .  

Using parallelism, anaphora, and antithesis, Dickens creates a long sentence that is nevertheless easy to follow because of its balanced structure.  The asymmetry of the contrasting ideas (antithesis) is brought back into balance by the symmetry of the parallel structure.

Just as Dickens opened his novel with a balanced sentence, he comes full circle in the final sentence of his novel, using a perfectly balanced sentence to express the final thoughts of one the story’s major characters, Sydney Carton:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Noticed how the two sides of the sentence, separated by the semicolon, are balanced by repetition and parallel structure.

Just as with all rhetorical or stylistic devices, you don’t want to overuse balanced sentences; however, it is a powerful club to have in your rhetorical golf bag.

Today’s Challenge:  Claim A Contrast

What claim would you make using two contrasting ideas, such as love/hate or success/failure, in the same sentence? Brainstorm a list of some contrasting ideas, such as,  joy/sorrow, freedom/slavery, war/peace.  Then, write a balanced sentence that makes a claim based on the differences in the two topics.

For example, the following balanced sentences makes a claim about the contrasting ideas logic and creativity:

Logic teaches us about the world; creativity teaches us about ourselves.

Notice how the two independent clauses of the compound sentence are balanced by parallelism.

Once you have your own balanced sentence, use it as your topic sentence for a paragraph that supports your claim using contrast, details, examples, evidence, and explanation. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever. -Mahatma Gandhi

1-http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/7685510/David-Mitchell-on-Historical-Fiction.html

 

November 6:  Punctuation Day

On this date in 2003, one of the all time best selling books on writing was published by British columnist and radio personality Lynne Truss.  The book was entitled Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.  

As her book’s title indicates, Truss takes punctuation quite seriously.  After all, in the old joke about the panda, one comma made all the difference:

A panda walks into a cafe, sits down, and orders a sandwich. After he finishes eating the sandwich, the panda pulls out a gun and shoots the waiter, and then stands up to go.

“Hey!” shouts the manager. “Where are you going? You just shot my waiter and you didn’t pay for your sandwich!”

The panda yells back at the manager, “Hey man, I am a PANDA! Look it up!”

The manager opens his dictionary and sees the following definition: “Panda. A tree-dwelling marsupial of Asian origin, characterised by distinct black and white coloring. Eats shoots and leaves.”

For Truss and other sticklers like her, one missing or one misplaced comma, semicolon, or apostrophe can be a matter of life or death:

To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as “Thank God its Friday” (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence.  The confusion of [its and it’s] is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler.

Clearly Truss is serious about punctuation.  In the course of the 200-plus pages of her book, she reviews the history and the rules of punctuations.  She also provides egregious examples of the errors she has found in ads, signs, and newspapers.  

Two of the heroes of Eats, Shoots & Leaves are the historical figures Aristophanes of Byzantium and Aldus Manutius the Elder (1450-1515).

Aristophanes, a librarian at Alexandria around 200 BC, is the father of punctuation.  He was the first to use a three-part system of dots to assist actors in the recitation of verse.  Aristophanes’ dots are the ancestors of our modern commas, periods, colons, and semicolons.  

With the advent of printing in the 14th and 15th century, a more standard system of punctuation was required.  Aldus Manutius, a Venetian printer, was the man of the hour, inventing not only the italic typeface but also the semicolon.

Although the history of punctuation is interesting, Truss’s real concern is punctuation use and misuse today.  For writers, words matter.  But, as Truss argues, punctuation is just as important:

The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart.  Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.

A Love Letter to Punctuation

To illustrate just how important punctuation is, Truss presents two “Dear Jack” letters with the exact same words but with different punctuation.  One of the letters reveals Jill’s undying love for Jack, while the second letter, with different punctuation but the exact same words, reveals Jill’s disdain for Jack.  Given the two letters below, see if you can, by adding only commas and periods and without changing any of the words, make the first letter a love letter and the second a break-up letter:

Version A:  Jill Loves Jack

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind and thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours

Jill

Version B:  Jill Dislikes Jack

Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind and thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours

Jill

Today’s Challenge:  Abused or Confused

What is a punctuation rule that you either hate to see abused or that you are continually confused by?  Brainstorm some of the different rules for using different punctuation marks.  Then, select one error that you think is significant, either because you hate to see it broken, or because you are unclear about how to apply it.  Do a bit of research to specify the rule and to gather examples of its correct and incorrect application.  Then, write a brief Public Service Announcement (PSA) that states the rule along with correct and incorrect examples.  To give your rule added relevance, find actual examples/pictures of where you have seen it used correctly and incorrectly on signs or advertisements. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The rule is:  don’t use commas like a stupid person.  I mean it.  More than any other mark, the comma requires the writer to use intelligent discretion and to be simply alert to potential ambiguity. -Lynne Truss

Answers:

Version A:  Dear John,

I want a man who knows what love is all about.  You are generous, kind, and thoughtful.  People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me for other men.  I yearn for you.  I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart.  I can be forever happy.  Will you let me be yours?

Jill

Version B:  Dear Jack,

I want a man who knows what live is.  All about you are generous, kind, and thoughtful people, who are not like you.  Admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me.  For other men I yearn!  For you I have no feelings whatsoever.  When we’re apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Yours,

Jill

1-Truss, Lynne.  Eats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books, 2003.

 

October 30: All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Day

On this date in 1989, Robert Fulghum published his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  The book, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller lists for almost two years, is a collection of short essays, subtitled “Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things.”

Robert Fulghum - All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.jpgFulghum grew up in Waco, Texas, and before he began writing full time, he was a Unitarian minister and an art and philosophy teacher.

The first essay in Fulghum’s book, called “Credo,” explains the origin of his book’s title.  Fulghum explains that each spring throughout his life he would sit down and write a personal credo, a list of  statements of personal belief.  This list evolved over the years with statements that were sometimes comical, sometime bland, sometimes cynical, and sometimes over-complicated.  The final version of his credo came to him, however, when he realized that true meaning in life did not need to be complicated.  In fact, he already knew what he needed to know; he had learned it a long time ago in kindergarten, and he could state it in clear, simple terms:

-Share everything.

-Play fair.

-Don’t hit people.

-Put things back where you found them.

-Clean up your own mess.

-Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

-Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

-Wash your hands before you eat.

-Flush.

-Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

-Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

-Take a nap every afternoon.

-When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.

-Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

-Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.

And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten has spawned numerous imitations, spinoffs, and parodies based on television shows, movies, books, etc.  These imitations adopt Fulghum’s title and list as their template, beginning with “All I Really Need to Know I Learned From ______,” followed by a list of principles based on the source of inspiration.  

For example:

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from My Dog

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Fairy Tales

A further adaptation narrows the learning a bit to a single specific area, as in:

All I Really Need to Know about ___________ I Learned from ___________

One example of this kind of spinoff is a book, published in 2014 by Paul Oyer, Everything I Ever Needed to Know about Economics I Learned from Online Dating.

Today’s Challenge:  Create Your Credo

How would you finish the following titles, and what principles would you include in your personal credo?  

“All I Really Need to Know I Learned in/from ______.”

“All I Really Need to Know about ___________ I Learned in/from ___________.”

Create your own spin off of Fulghum’s credo.  Brainstorm some ideas based on books, movies, television shows, the internet, or some other aspect of life that you know well.  Once you have selected a single focus, generate a list of principles that spring from your selected area.  Your list may contain serious insights or humorous insights. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side of the fence. No, not at all. Fences have nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered. When crossing over fences, carry water with you and tend the grass wherever you may be. -Robert Fulghum

 

October 1:  A Book Can Save a Life Day

On this day in 1901, Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim was published.  The novel is an adventure story set in 19th century India, a time of British colonial rule.  The adventure in the book, however, pales when compared to the adventure surrounding what happened when a soldier in the French Foreign Legion acquired a French edition of the novel in 1913.  

KimKipling.jpgThe soldier’s name was Maurice Hamonneau, and his decision to take Kipling’s book into combat saved his life.  Shot in the battle, Hamonneu lay unconscious for hours.  When he regained consciousness he realized that the book which he was carrying in his breast pocket had deflected the bullet.  The bullet had pierced the book, leaving a hole that stopped 330 pages into the book, leaving only 20 intact pages between the bullet and Hamonneu’s heart.

In gratitude Hamonneu sent the bullet-pierced book to Kipling along with the medal he was awarded for his bravery in battle.  Kipling was moved by the gesture, but later when he learned that Hamonneu had become a father, he returned the book and the medal with a note to Hamonneu’s son, advising him to always carry a book of at least 350 pages in his breast pocket.

Today the book and Hamonneu’s medal are preserved in the rare book section of the United States Library of Congress (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Books Not Bullets
What one book is so good that it’s worth taking into battle — a book that everyone should read as if his or her life depended on it?  What makes the book so special, so inspirational?  Explain your choice, and assume you are writing to an audience who has not read the book. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  A book is good company. It is full of conversation without loquacity. It comes to your longing with full instruction, but pursues you never. -Henry Ward Beecher

1- http://www.history.com/shows/history-originals/videos/the-book-that-saved-a-life

 

 

September 13:  Literary Hoax Day

On this day in 1956, the novel I, Libertine was published.  What makes this novel such a literary oddity is that it made the New York Times bestseller list before a single word of it had been written.

Frewing.jpgThe story begins with the writer Jean Shepherd, best known as the narrator and co-writer of the film A Christmas Story.  In 1956 Shepherd hosted a late-night talk radio show in New York City.  Annoyed that bestseller lists were being influenced not just by book sales but also by the number of requests for a book at bookstores, Shepherd hatched one of the great literary hoaxes in history. Shepherd encourages his radio listeners to visit their local bookstores and request a book that did not exist, a novel whose title and author were totally fabricated:   I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing.

The plot thickened once the nonexistent book hit the bestseller list.  With the imaginary book now in demand, publisher Ian Ballantine met with Shepherd and novelist Theodore Sturgeon.  Sturgeon was hired to write the novel based on the rough plot outline provided by Shepherd, and on this date the fabricated fictional work became fact.

Today’s Challenge:  Fabricated First Lines
What would be the opening line of your bestselling novel?  Try your own hand at fabricated fiction.  Grab a novel that you haven’t read.  Look at the title, and then compose a captivating first sentence.  Next, grab a friend.  Read your friend your sentence along with the actual opening sentence (in no particular order) to see if your friend can tell which is the actual opening sentence.  Your goal is to pass your prose off as professional!

Quote of the Day:  My own luck has been curious all my literary life; I never could tell a lie that anyone would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe.  –Mark Twain

1-http://www.theawl.com/2013/02/the-man-behind-the-brilliant-media-hoax-of-i-libertine

 

September 8:  International Literacy Day

Today is International Literacy Day sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). First observed in 1966, International Literacy Day calls attention to the need to promote literacy and education around the world as an antidote to poverty and as an agent for empowerment and global progress.

UNESCO logo English.svgEducation and literacy are central to the stability, prosperity, and well-being of any country. As explained by Koichiro Matsuura, UNESCO Director-General:

Literacy is not merely a cognitive skill of reading, writing and arithmetic, for literacy helps in the acquisition of learning and life skills that, when strengthened by usage and application throughout people’s lives, lead to forms of individual, community and societal development that are sustainable.

While literacy rates are on the rise around the world, there are still millions of people who are unable to read and write.  The goal of International Literacy Day is to both celebrate literacy and to promote ideas for stamping out illiteracy.

Today’s Challenge: Read All About It
What can people do to celebrate and promote literacy?  Read and reflect on the quotations below about the importance of literacy and education.  Then, write a text of a Public Service Announcement (PSA) to promote literacy and International Literacy Day.  Incorporate a direct quotation on literacy into your PSA. You can use one of the quotations below, or research one of your own. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

-“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  -Frederick Douglass

-“Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary thing that happens to the human brain and if you don’t believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it.” -John Steinbeck

-“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity.” -Kof Annan

-“Bigotry is the disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free discussion are the antidotes of both.” –Thomas Jefferson

-“One of the greatest gifts adults can give — to their offspring and to their society — is to read to children.” –Carl Sagan

Quotation of the Day: It’s easy to forget what a crippling disability it is to be unable to read. To be illiterate is not like being deprived of television, or any other medium. It is more like being deaf, or being deprived of music. Literacy does not just give us access to knowledge of facts or skills. Some skills and some facts can more easily be taught with pictures or video, and some things can only be learned by practice. Literacy supplies a whole mode of thought. It lets us follow arguments longer and more complex than are available without writing. It allows us to talk across time, with our younger and older selves as well as with other people.  -The Guardian View on the Importance of Literacy (2).

1- UNESCO – Education – Literacy Day 

2-http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/12/editorial-guardian-view-on-literacy

 

August 25:  Encyclopedia Day

On this date in A.D. 79, Pliny the Elder died, a casualty of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Based on his thirty-seven volume work called Natural History, Pliny is known as the father of the encyclopedia .  

Pliny the Elder.pngBorn in Italy in A.D. 23, Pliny was educated in Rome and served as a commander in the Roman army.  He is best known, however, for his prodigious efforts to catalog the knowledge of his age in his Natural History.  Using a plain, non-dogmatic style, Pliny covered cosmology, astronomy, zoology, botany, agriculture, medicine, and minerals.  Not only was the comprehensive coverage of his multi-volume work unprecedented, but also his citation of over 100 sources set the standard for the modern encyclopedia.  His work truly lived up the meaning of the word encyclopedia, which means an “all-around education.”  The root cyclo is from the Greek for “circle” and paideia is from the Greek for “education.”

On the day of his death in 79 A.D., Pliny was serving as a fleet commander in the Bay of Naples.  This was the same day that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Pliny might have survived; however, he went ashore to assist citizens in need and was overcome by the toxic fumes from Vesuvius’ eruption (1).

Today we experience an encyclopedia format that has evolved from book form, to compact disk form, to online form.  Whatever the form, however, it still is a format that attempts to encircle all that is know from A to Z.  One fascinating adaptation made to the encyclopedia was published in 2005 by Amy Krouse Rosenthal in her book Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  Departing from the traditional objective tone of general knowledge, Rosenthal adapted the encyclopedia template to reflect subjectively on the topics that have made up her life so far.  Part memoir, part autobiography, Rosenthal’s book presents her humorous, wry insights on an array of topics.  Here’s a small sample of some of the topics covering the letters A to I:

Anxious, things that make me

Birthmark

Childhood Memories

Deli Trays

Escalator

Folding Chairs

Groceries

Humbling

Infinity

The topics Rosenthal covers are diverse.  Some are abstract and others are concrete, but each of her insights, though personal, seem to touch on something universal.  For example, Rosenthal shares her personal insight on the topic “Palindrome”:  “I am overly enamored with the palindrome: Won Ton, Not Now.”

On “Pie” she says, “There are few gestures kinder than a friend baking you a pie” (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Encycloautobiography
What would be the topics from A to Z that you would include in the encyclopedia of your life?  Brainstorm a list of at least 26 topics; use a dictionary if you get stuck for ideas.  Then, take one of your topics and write at least 6 sentences about it, providing personal insights and/or personal experience to bring the topic alive and to help the reader see it in a new way. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  My brother, who grew up with three sisters, was I won’t say how many years old when he finally realized that he did not have to wrap the towel around his chest when he came out of the shower. -Amy Rosenthal

 

1-”Pliny the Elder”  Britannica Online Encyclopedia

2-Rosenthal, Amy Krouse.  Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  New York:  Three Rivers Press, 2005.

August 22:  Fahrenheit 451 Day

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

Cover shows a drawing of a man, who appears to be made of newspaper and is engulfed in flames, standing on top of some books. His right arm is down and holding what appears to be a paper fireman's hat while his left arm is wiping sweat from the brow of his bowed head. Beside the title and author's name in large text, there is a small caption in the upper left-hand corner that reads, "Wonderful stories by the author of The Golden Apples of the Sun".He began writing full time in 1943, publishing a number of short stories in various periodicals. His first success came in 1950 when he published The Martian Chronicles, a novel made up of a number of his short stories about the human colonization of Mars (1).

On October 19, 1953, he published his most popular and critically acclaimed novel Fahrenheit 451, a story about a dark future in which books are illegal, and instead of putting out fires, firemen answer calls to burn illegal caches of books. The main character is one of these firemen, Guy Montag. Instead of reading, the general public immerse themselves in pleasure, watching television screens that take up three of the four walls in their homes and listening to seashell radios that fit in their ears. Like Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984, Guy Montag begins to question his job and the entire status quo of the society in which he lives. He begins to become curious about the books he’s burning. However, Montag’s curiosity and his books betray him, and the firemen one day arrive to burn his home and his books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s Challenge: On Fire for a Book
Near the end of Fahrenheit 451, the main character Montag finds himself among a group of people who each memorize a forbidden book.  Each person becomes the keeper of the book, preserving the book for future generations.  If you found yourself in a society that banned books, what single book would you select to memorize, and what makes that book so special?  Brainstorm some titles of important books that should always remain alive in the hearts and minds of readers.  Select a single book that you would commit to memory, and write an explanation of what the book is about and what makes that book important and special? (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

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

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

1- About Ray Bradbury

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

 

August 18:  CliffNotes Day

Today is the birthday of Cliff Hillegass, the founder of CliffsNotes. Working for a college bookstore in the 1930s, Hillegass developed contacts with a Toronto bookseller named Jack Cole, who published guides in Canada called “Cole’s Notes.” Years later Cole suggested to Hillegass that an American version of Cole’s Notes might be a good idea for U.S. students.

In August 1958, Hillegass took out a $4,000 loan and began CliffsNotes with his first title: Hamlet. He continued by publishing 15 more guides to Shakespeare’s plays. At the beginning, the guides were simply Cole’s Notes repackaged with a new cover: Cliff’s characteristic, and now famous, yellow and black cover.

In fact, CliffsNotes have become so popular and recognizable that they have become a part of the English language. For example, you might hear someone say, “Just give me the Cliffsnotes version,” meaning: “Give me a short summary instead of all the details.”

Hillegass never intended his guides to just summarize the classics or replace the reading of the classics. Nevertheless his work has spawned numerous imitators, to the point that test prep and reading guides have become a multi-million dollar industry. Fairtest.org estimates that the amount spent on test prep material for the SAT alone amounts to $100 million dollars annually.

Hillegass sold his business to Hungry Minds, Inc. in 1999 for $14 million dollars. However, CliffsNotes.com still carries the following message from its founder:

Cliff’s Message to Students

A thorough appreciation of literature allows no short cuts. By usingCliffsNotes responsibly, reviewing past criticism of a literary work, and examining fresh points of view, you can establish a unique connection with a work of literature and can take a more active part in a key goal of education: redefining and applying classic wisdom to current and future problems.

—Cliff Hillegass

First Impressions

The editors of CliffsNotes put together a list of the ‘Ten Titles that Every Adult Should Read.’ See if you can match each of the opening lines below with the appropriate title from the list.

  1. This is the story of Achilles’ rage.
  1. Robert Cohn was once the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.
  1. Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
  1. 124 was spiteful.
  1. When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor ….
  1. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
  1. “Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”
  1. “Who’s there?”

9.  Call me Ishmael.

10.  Who is John Galt?

A A Tale of Two Cities

B The Sun Also Rises

C War and Peace

D Walden

E The Sound and the Fury

F Moby Dick

G Beloved

H The Iliad

I Atlas Shrugged

J Hamlet

Today’s Challenge: Short Story, Short Version
What is your favorite published short story?  How would you summarize its key characters, plot, and theme in just a few words?  Brainstorm a list of your favorite short stories.  Then, select one, and write a CliffNotes version, summarizing the key characters, setting, conflict, resolution, and theme of the story.  Assume your reader has not read the story, but also try to write such a great summary that your reader will want to read the actual complete version.
(Common Core Writing 2)

Quotation of the Day: Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have. -Louis E. Boone

Answers: 1. H, 2. B, 3. E, 4. G, 5. D, 6. A, 7. C, 8. J, 9. F, 10. I

 

August 9:  Walden Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Two thousand copies were printed and put on sale for $1 each on August 9, 1854.

It took five years to sell those first thousand copies, but today Walden is one of the all-time best sellers in American literary history. It has also sold well overseas and has been translated into over 20 languages.

File:Walden Thoreau.jpgIn his essay “Five Ways of Looking at Walden,” Professor Walter Harding (1917-1996) talks about the different reasons that Walden has appealed to readers through the years. Below Harding’s five points are summarized.

  1. Walden’s first appeal was as a nature book. In an age of American progress and expansion, Thoreau left the city to live in the woods for two years and commune with nature. In today’s modern age Thoreau reminds us that nature provides us with infinite metaphors for understanding our own existence. He reminds us to watch for signs of the changing of the season. In his own famous words from Walden, he explains why returning to nature is so important:

I went to the woods because I wished 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 is 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, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

  1. The second appeal of Walden is its lessons on how to live life more simply. This aspect of Thoreau’s work is especially relevant to the modern reader who is mired in possessions and the fast pace of the consumer culture.

Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say let your affairs be as two or three , and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the clouds and storms and quicksands and thousand-and-one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and refuse other things in proportion.

  1. The third appeal of Walden is its satire. Thoreau doesn’t just observe life in the woods; he reflects on the life he has left in the city, and his biting commentary pokes fun at progress. Here are samples of his views on the transatlantic telegraph cable and French fashion:

We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.

  1. The fourth appeal of Walden is simply the pleasure of reading great writing. Thoreau is a master of the abstract and the particular. Think of how many times you have seen Thoreau quoted. The clarity of his sentences and the exactness of his word choice make Thoreau’s prose eminently quotable.

Here is one example from Walden. It’s a 351 word sentence from the “House-Warming” section. It would be considered long even by 19th century standards. With Thoreau at the pen though, even an average reader can follow the sentence’s path from beginning to end:

I sometimes dream of a larger and more populous house, standing in a golden age, of enduring materials, and without gingerbread work, which shall consist of only one room, a vast, rude, substantial, primitive hall, without ceiling or plastering, with bare rafters and purlins supporting a sort of lower heaven over one’s head, — useful to keep off rain and snow, where the king and queen posts stand out to receive your homage, when you have done reverence to the prostrate Saturn of an older dynasty on stepping over the sill; a cavernous house, wherein you must reach up a torch upon a pole to see the roof; where some may live in the fireplace, some in the recess of a window, and some on settles, some at one end of the hall, some at another, and some aloft on rafters with the spiders, if they choose; a house which you have got into when you have opened the outside door, and the ceremony is over; where the weary traveler may wash, and eat, and converse, and sleep, without further journey; such a shelter as you would be glad to reach in a tempestuous night, containing all the essentials of a house, and nothing for housekeeping; where you can see all the treasures of the house at one view, and everything hangs upon its peg that man should use; at once kitchen, pantry, parlor, chamber, storehouse, and garret; where you can see so necessary a thing as a barrel or a ladder, so convenient a thing as a cupboard, and hear the pot boil, and pay your respects to the fire that cooks your dinner, and the oven that bakes your bread, and the necessary furniture and utensils are the chief ornament where the washing is not put out. nor the fire, nor the mistress, and perhaps you are sometimes requested to move from off the trapdoor, when the cook would descend into the cellar, and so learn whether the ground is solid or hollow beneath without stamping.

Certainly not every sentence in Walden is this long, but whether writing a 2-word sentence or a 350-word sentence, Thoreau’s syntax is precise and clear. Thoreau is a master of every tool of the writer’s trade, including sentence variety.

  1. The fifth appeal of Walden, as Professor Harding explains below, is its spiritual content:

It is a major thesis of Walden that the time has come for a spiritual rebirth — a renewal and rededication of our lives to higher things. It is true that we have progressed a long way from the status of the caveman. But our progress has been for the most part material rather than spiritual. We have improved our means, but not our ends. We can unquestionably travel faster than our ancestors, but we continue to waste our time in trivial pursuits when we get there. We have cut down the number hours of labor required to keep ourselves alive, but we have not learned what to do with the time thus saved. We devote the major part of our national energy to devising new ways of blowing up the rest of the world and ignore attempts to make better men of ourselves.

Thoreau is sometimes mislabeled as a misanthrope. Although he does at times lament man’s state, he nevertheless sees man’s potential for better things. At the conclusion of Walden, for example, his words sound like a sermon from a pastor who is full of hope for his congregation:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that 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. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them (1).

Walden rewards the reader in many ways. One of these rewards is Thoreau’s word choice. Professor Harding says the following about Thoreau’s diction:

Perhaps the most noticeable characteristic of Thoreau’s word choice is the size of his vocabulary. Walden is guaranteed to send the conscientious student to the dictionary. In a random sampling we find such words as integument, umbrageous, deliquium, aliment, fluviatile, and periplus. Yet Thoreau cannot be termed ostentatious in his word-usage. He simply searches for and uses the best possible word for each situation (1).

Today’s Challenge: Why Henry’s Words Are Worth It
What is it that makes Walden, published in 1854, still relevant today.  What did Thoreau say in the 19th century that has meaning to people living in the 21st century?  Read some excerpts from Walden.  Then, write a brief promo for Walden that provides both a little bit of background on the book and some details on why it is still relevant today.

Quote of the Day: I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. –Henry David Thoreau.

 

1- Harding, Walter. Five Ways of Looking at Walden. Massachusetts Review (Autumn 1962) ca. 1986.