August 9:  Walden Day

WORD DAYS is now available for the first time in paperback!

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.

In 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.

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 seasons. In his own famous words from Walden, he explains why returning to nature is so important:

Walden Thoreau.jpgI 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.

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.

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.

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 337-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 330-word sentence, Thoreau’s syntax is precise and clear. Thoreau is a master of every tool of the writer’s trade, including sentence variety.

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.

Quotation 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.

 

July 30:  Paperback Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of the first modern paperback books. On July 30, 1935, Penguin Books issued its first 10 paperback titles.

Penguin logo.svgPenguin owes its success to a German publisher, Tachnitz, which had been publishing paperbound books in a variety of languages, including English, as early as 1845. In 1931 an English language offshoot of Tachnitz was established in London. Wanting a name for the company that could be understood in a variety of languages, the German company selected the name Albatross Books.

Albatross had early success in selling English books, but when the Nazis seized the company’s presses in Germany, the company failed.

The brief success of Albatross was noted by Allan Lane, the president of England’s Bodley Head Publishing House. Lane approached the head buyers of F.W. Woolworth, a chain of retail stores, with the idea of publishing ten literary titles in paperback in the Woolworth stores at a cost of sixpence each, about the same price as a pack of cigarettes. Imitating the Albatross model, Allan called his company Penguin Books.

Lane’s plan doesn’t sound very radical today, but in the 1930s books were sold in bookstores, not retails stores. In addition, the 10 titles Lane proposed were considered too highbrow for the lower classes, the main buyers of paperbacks.

Here are the titles and authors of the first Penguin paperbacks:

  1. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Agatha Christie
  2. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Dorothy L Sayers
  3. Gone to Earth, Mary Webb
  4. William, E. H. Young
  5. Carnival, Compton Mackenzie
  6. Poet’s Pub, Eric Linklater
  7. Madame Claire, Susan Ertz
  8. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway
  9. Twenty-five, Beverley Nichols
  10. Ariel, Andre Maurois

The conventional wisdom of the publishing world was wrong, however, and Lane’s plan was a rousing success. Paperbacks became all the rage in England. By the end of the year over 3 million books had been sold, and by 1937, Penguin paperbacks were being sold from vending machines at train stations.

Making books less expensive has certainly done much to spread the cause of literacy.  Another excellent feature of the inexpensive paperback is that it can be given away and enjoyed by others.  In April 2001 a website was created to encourage book sharing.  The site is called Bookcrossing.com founded by Ron Hornbaker. Taking the idea of PhotoTag.org, a site that tracks disposable cameras, and WheresGeorge.com, which tracks U.S. currency, Hornbaker had the idea of creating a site where readers could register a book and then deposit it in some public place: a park bench, a laundromat, or a coffee shop. The Bookcrossing.com website provides an ID number for each book and a registration card that can be attached to the inside cover of the book. The card briefly explains the Bookcrossing mission and directs finders of books to the online journal page of the website where they can document where and how they found the book and, if they read it, what they thought of the book.

To date, nearly half a million people have become bookcrossers. The practice has become so popular that it has been added as a word in the August 2004 edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary:

bookcrossing n. the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.

To date, the two most popular books at Bookcrossing.com both have over 50,000 registrations:

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Caution – Bookcrossing
What one book do you think everyone should read?  What makes that book so special?  Write your own literary message in a bottle. Imagine you are writing a note that would be placed on the inside cover of your favorite book.  Write the note to invite and to entice the finder to take the book home and to take the time to read it.

Quote of the Day: A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold. –Henry Miller

 

1 – http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/first-penguin-paperbacks

2-  Bookcrossing website

July 15: Amazon Day  

Today is the anniversary of the first book sold on Amazon.com in 1995. The title of the book was Fluid Concepts & Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought by Douglas Hofstadter.

Amazon.com was founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, who originally called it “Cadabra.” To rename his mega-online store he searched for an appropriate metaphor and rediscovered the Amazon River. The Amazon is exotic, it’s different, and it starts with an “A,” which puts it at the top of alphabetical lists. The Amazon River is not the world’s longest river (it’s the second longest next to the Nile), but it is by far the world’s largest river when measured by water volume. Thus the name for the world’s most voluminous river also became the name of the world’s most voluminous bookstore.

The word Amazon has its origins in Greek mythology. The Amazons were a tribe of female warriors, so ferocious and bellicose that each warrior would cut off and cauterize her right breast to increase her accuracy with bow and arrow. In two myths featuring Amazons, Achilles killed Penthesila, Queen of the Amazons, and Hercules, in one of his twelve labors, stole the girdle of another Amazon queen.

Amazon became the appellation of South America’s great river when explorers noticed a resemblance between the indigenous women of the region and the Amazons of antiquity (1).

In addition to revolutionizing the way books are sold, Amazon.com has also created a whole new world of book reviews.  Reviewers rate books on a five star rating scale, and all kinds of reviews are published — the good, the bad, and the ugly.  Reviewer’s reviews are also rated based on how helpful other customers find their comments.

Eleven years to the day after Amazon appeared online, another online juggernaut made its debut.  Twitter became available to the public on July 15, 2006. What Amazon has done for online sales, Twitter has done for online communication (2).  A free online social networking service, Twitter allows users to send and read short 140-character messages called “tweets.”

Today’s Challenge:  Brevity is the Soul of Tweets
How would you describe or review your favorite book, or the book you’re reading right now, in 140 characters or fewer?  Make every word count by writing a review of your favorite book or the book you’ve read recently in 140 characters or fewer.  Write your first draft without worrying about the length; then, edit carefully to reach the character limit by eliminating any unnecessary words.  Economy in writing is just as valuable as economy in online purchases.

Quote of the Day: When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. –Erasmus

 

1 – Ammer, Christine. Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

2-http://www.thewire.com/technology/2012/03/today-twitters-real-birthday-no/50151/

July 7:  Utopia Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

July 1:  Strunk and White Day

Today is the birthday of William Strunk, Jr. (1869-1946), the principal author of The Elements of Style.  This book, also known as Strunk & White, is the single most influential style guide ever written, selling over ten million copies.  Strunk originally published the book as an instructional pamphlet for his students at Cornell University in 1918, but it didn’t gain its great notoriety until after it was revised and published by Strunk’s former student E. B. White in 1959.

Elements of Style cover.jpgOne of Strunk’s recommendations, which dates from the original 1918 edition, still holds today as one of the most insightful things ever said about the characteristics of effective writing:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.  

This passage not only proclaims one of the key principles of effective writing, it also exemplifies it, by omitting needless words.  Below is a list of Stuck and White’s other Principles of Composition, each of which is explained in The Elements of Style:

  1.      Choose a suitable design and stick to it.
  2.      Make the paragraph the unit of composition.
  3.      Use the active voice.
  4.      Put statements in positive form.
  5.      Use definite, specific, concrete language.
  6.      Omit needless words.
  7.      Avoid a succession of loose sentences.
  8.      Express coordinate ideas in similar form.
  9.      Keep related words together.
  10.      In summaries, keep to one tense.
  11.      Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

Today’s Challenge:  What’s Your Primary Principle for Proper Prose?
What would you argue is the single most important rule for effective writing? Select one of the 11 principles from Struck and White, or come up with your own.  Then, support your rule by explaining it in detail along with showing examples where appropriate. (Common Core 2 – Expository)

Quote of the Day:  The mind travels faster than the pen; consequently, writing becomes a question of learning to make occasional wing shots, bringing down the bird of thought as it flashes by. A writer is a gunner, sometimes waiting in the blind for something to come in, sometimes roaming the countryside hoping to scare something up. –E. B. White

June 30:  One-Book Author Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 21:  Bibliophile Day

On this day in 2003, 16-year old Emerson Spartz traveled nearly 4,000 miles, from Chicago to London, to buy a copy of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Spartz could have stayed in the United States since the American release of the book was on the same day as the British release, but Spartz said that he wanted to be “where the story began” and to “feel the weight of that book” (1). The fifth installment in the Harry Potter series, Order of the Phoenix weighed in at 768 pages.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.jpgAlmost ten years earlier the New York Times featured an article called The End of Books that speculated whether or not books and other print-based media were on their way out, being superseded by computer technology. This is certainly not the first time that anyone prematurely declared books dead. As early as 1894 Scribner’s Magazine published an article entitled The End of Books, relaying the predictions of Arthur Blackcross, who claimed that inventions like the photograph and the Kinetoscope, the first silent movie projector, would replace the antiquated written page.

John H. Lienhard, Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston, makes an interesting analogy, challenging the conventional wisdom that says that new technologies replace old ones:

So, are paper books doomed? Oddly enough, they’re not. Think about pianos. Pianos evolved from harpsichord improvements. But soon they were something wholly different. You still need a harpsichord for harpsichord music. In this century, cars replaced horses. But cars aren’t much use in rough, roadless country (2).

Lienhard continues to argue in the article that books do something for us that no other media can. Instead of just supplying us with images and sounds in a passive manner, books allow us to participated in the creation of images as we read actively and interact imaginatively with the text. Perhaps that’s why readers like Emerson Spartz are willing to travel to distant cities to feel the weight of a book in their own hands.

And speaking of distant cities –the Greek word for book biblos originates from the name of a Phoenician city, Byblos, renowned for its manufacturing of paper from the Egyptian papyrus plant. It’s the same root from which we get the word Bible, meaning book of books.

Bibliomania

A book for all book lovers(sometimes called bibliophiles) is A Passion for Books, a treasury of stories, essays, and lists all related to books. In a chapter called Bibliolexicon, it lists a number of words with the biblio root. See if you can match up each word with its correct definition. When you finish, go to your local bookstore and buy a book.

  1. Bibliobibule
  2. Biblioclast
  3. Bibliodemon
  4. Biblioklept
  5. Bibliolater
  6. Bibliophage
  7. Bibliophobe
  8. Biblioriptos
  9. Bibliosopher
  10. Bibliotaphe

A. One who steals books
B. One who buries or hides books
C. One who worships books
D. One who tears pages from or otherwise destroys books
E. A book fiend or demon
F. One who eats or devours books
G. One who reads too much
H. One who fears books
I. One who throws books around
J. One who gains wisdom from books (3)

Today’s Challenge:   RUSH for MORE Books

What are four books that should be on every bookshelf?  What four books should readers buy today, read immediately, and keep on their bookshelf forever?  Make your argument for your Mount Rushmore of books.  Give a brief overview of each book along with an explanation of why each book is so essential.  (Common Core Writing 1 -Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  A room without books is like a body without a soul. Marcus Tullius Cicero

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

1 – Grobman, Paul. Vital Statistics: An Amazing Compendium of Factoids, Minutiae, and Random Bits of Wisdom. New York: Plume Books, 2005.

2 – Lienhard, John H. Engines of Ingenuity Episode No. 2009: “The End of Books: 1894” http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2009.htm

3 – Rabinowitz, Harold and Rob Kaplan (Editors). Passion for Books: A Book Lover’s Treasury. New York: Times Books, 1999.

 

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.

May 25:  Towel Day

Today fans of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, honor his life and work by wearing or displaying towels. Why towels? Well, the explanation can be found in an excerpt from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

H2G2 UK front cover.jpgA towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitch hiker can have. Partly it has great practical value – you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you – daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Adams was born in Cambridge, England in 1952. His publishing career began with a short story that was published in a comic book called Eagle when he was 11 years old. His best known work, the comic sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy began as a BBC Radio 4 series in 1978. The novel was published in 1979. The original novel spawned four sequels and a cult following that bought more than 15 million books. The Hitchhikers Guide was made into a movie in 2005.

Towel day was established in 2001 after Adam’s unexpected death of a heart attack on May 11, 2001. He was 49 at the time, living in California with his wife and daughter.

The following proclamation is from the official Towel Day website:

You sass that hoopy Douglas Adams? Now there’s a frood who knew where his towel was. You are invited to join your fellow hitchhikers in mourning the loss of the late great one. Join in on towel day to show your appreciation for the humor and insight that Douglas Adams brought to all our lives.

Today’s Challenge:  The Catalog of Literary Swag

If you were putting together a catalog of physical objects from various great literary works, what are some of the items you would include?  Brainstorm some physical objects that would be included in a catalogue featuring items from great literary works, such as Adams’ Towel, Yorick’s Skull, Huckleberry Finn’s Raft, Scout’s Ham Costume, Romeo’s Vile of Poison, or Hester Prynne’s Scarlet Letter.  Select and name three specific items from three separate works. Next to the name of each item, write a brief description, the kind of description you would find in a catalog to entice buyers. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer–so that both men and women who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time–was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

-Nathaniel Hawthorne, description of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter