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 17:  Subjunctive Mood Day

On this date in 1929, James Thurber (1894-1961), the celebrated American cartoonist and short story writer, published an essay entitled “The Subjunctive Mood” in The New Yorker. In the essay Thurber used the context of a marital disagreement to explore the importance of maintaining the proper mood — the proper grammatical mood that is.  The essay begins as follows:

The importance of correct grammar in the home can not be over-estimated. Two young people should make sure that each is rhetorically sound before they get married, because grammatical precision, particularly in mood, is just as important as anything else. (1)

James Thurber NYWTS.jpgAn understanding of mood in English grammar means understanding the different ways we use verbs.  Most of the time we make statements; this is the indicative mood:  “The student arrived on time to first period.”  Sometimes we ask questions; this is the interrogative mood:  “Is there any homework tonight?”  Other times we are a bit more stern or imperious; this is the imperative mood:  “Take your seats so we can begin class.”  And finally, we sometimes use our imaginations to talk about things that are contrary to fact, such as dreams or fantasies; this is the subjunctive mood: “If I were to take that class, I’d make sure to schedule it after lunch.”

What makes the subjunctive mood tricky, however, is its strange conjugation. When using the verb to be in the subjunctive mood, the verb used is were, even when the subject is first person singular, as in the previous example:

If I were to take that class, I’d make sure to schedule it after lunch.

or the song from Fiddler on the Roof: “If I Were a Rich Man”:

If I were a rich man,

Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.

All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.

If I were a wealthy man.

Today’s Challenge:  Assume the Position
What are some examples of positions of power or authority you might aspire to, and imagining that you did assume one of those positions, what would you do once you attained it?  Write at least 100 words in the subjunctive mood about what you would do if you were in a specific position or occupation, such as “If I were the king of the world I would . . . ” or “If I were the CEO of Microsoft, I would . . ..” (Common Core Writing 2)

Quotation of the Day:  The thing is, proper use of the subjunctive—once you learn it and get over that difficult-sounding word, subjunctive, which has absolutely nothing to do with pinkeye—is one of the most easily deployed copy editing techniques that will put you in good stead with word nerds. Essentially, you’re altering a verb to reflect what is or is not fact.Jen Doll

 

1-http://grammar.about.com/od/readingsonlanguage/a/The-Subjunctive-Mood-By-James-Thurber.htm

2-http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2012/09/if-one-were-use-subjunctive-mood-properly/56739/

 

August 15:  Understatement Day

On this day in 1945, after two atomic bombs had been dropped on his country, Emperor Hirohito of Japan addressed his nation in a radio broadcast.  The speech was notable not only because it was the first time that a Japanese emperor had addressed the common people, but also because of its understatement of the situation.

Hirohito in dress uniform.jpgIn announcing Japan’s surrender to the Allied Forces, Emperor Hirohito attempted to soften the blow of defeat by understating its effect, saying:

the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage . . . .

Understatement is a rhetorical device use by speakers and writers to deliberately make something seem less serious than it actually is.  It may be used to soften serious matters as in the Emperor’s broadcast, or it can be used for humorous effect.  A classic example of this is in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  After confronting King Arthur and having both of his arms cut off, the Black Knight continues to taunt Arthur with the understatement, “It’s just a flesh wound!”

To be precise, Emperor Hirohito’s understatement is categorized as the rhetorical device called litotes, a form of understatement-by-negative (1). The Oxford English Dictionary defines litotes as “an ironical understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary.”  So, for example, imagine Michael Jordan has just hit a 30-foot shot to win the NBA Championship.  You might express your astonishment at the great play.  Or you might use litotes to intentionally understate the play –especially if you’re a fan of the opposing team — by saying, “That Jordan’s not a bad player.”

Today’s Challenge:  The Understatement of the Century
What is an example of a major news story that appeared within the last twenty years that you might intentionally understate?  Generate a list of bad news stories from the past twenty years.  Imagine a spokesperson trying to break the bad news utilizing understatement to soften the blow. (Common Core Writing 2)

Example:  Payton Manning speaking to Denver Bronco fans after losing Super Bowl XLVIII to the Seattle Seahawks by a score of 43-8:  “We got down early and just ran out of time to mount a comeback.  The Seahawks defense was not bad.”

Quotation of the Day:  I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain. -Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

 

1-Forsyth, Mark.  The Elements of Eloquence.  London:  Icon Books, 2013:  77.

 

August 13: Americanisms from 1950s Day

Today is the anniversary of an article published in the show-business magazine Variety that featured a new word. The article published on August 13, 1950 used the term disc jockey for the first time, reporting the phenomenon of New York radio hosts selecting and playing phonograph records for an eager audience of young fans of popular music. The term stuck, sometimes abbreviated as DJ or deejay. DJ is an example of an Americanism, an English word or expression that is born in the U.S.A. and that is used in the writing and speech of Americans.

The book America in So Many Words by David K. Barnhart and Allan A. Metcalf documents Americanisms from the 1600s to the end of the 20th century. For each year, the authors select a single representative Americanism that was “newly coined or newly prominent.” Looking at the words and the background of each is a reminder that every English word is like a fossil or an archeological artifact that reveals the attitudes and trends of the age in which it was coined.

The below list of Americanisms from 1949 to 1960, for example, gives interesting insights into the characteristics of post-war America; the list also foreshadows several political, cultural, social, and economic trends that would emerge in the second half of the 20th century.

1949 cool

1950 DJ

1951 rock and roll

1952 Ms.

1953 UFO

1954 Fast Food

1955 hotline

1956 brinkmanship

1957 role model

1958 Murphy’s Law

1959 software

1960 sit-in (1)

If English is the global language of the 21st century, then it is certainly American English which is the most influential variety of English. Whereas the English language of the British Empire dominated and propagated English around the world in the first half of the 20th century, American English, since the end of World War II, has exported English even farther than the Brits, via satellite and computer technology.

As early as 1780, John Adams envisioned this linguistic American Revolution:

English is destined to be in the next and succeeding centuries more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age. The reason of this is obvious, because the increasing population in America, and their universal connection and correspondence with all nations will, aided by the influence of England in the world, whether great or small, force their language into general use.

One aspect that characterizes the American variety of English is its brevity. Americanisms are typically single syllable words or at least single syllable compounds. Americanisms include a variety of classifications that produce words that are short and sweet: Americanisms are clipped words (such as fan from fanatic), blends(such as motel from motor + hotel), abbreviations (such as Ms. from mistress), initialisms (such as UFO from Unidentified Flying Object), and acronyms (such as AWOL from absent without leave).

In fact, even the word acronym is an Americanism that emerged from the government and military build-up of World War II to give Americans a way to compress multiple-word expressions into easy-to-communicate small packages. This Americanism uses Greek roots: acro- meaning top, peak, or initial and -nym meaning name. Using the initial letters of words, acronyms condense names, titles, or phrases into single words, such as radar for radio detection and ranging.

Born in the U.S.A.

Given the number of letters and a brief definition, see if you can identify the Americanisms below. None are more than four letters long:

  1. Three-letter word in response to someone stating to obvious.
  1. A three-letter clipped word that emerged from rap music and its performers’ desire for respect.
  1. Two-letter initialism that reflects the American faith in the ability to measure anything, including the quality of a person’s gray matter.
  1. A three-letter clipped word that refers to any liquid, especially a sticky one.
  1. A frequently used two-letter initialism with two different meanings. The first came out of the world of technology; the second meaning came out of the multicultural movement.
  1. A two-letter initialism that refers to American soldiers.
  1. A four-letter acronym that evolved from the Civil War to refer to soldiers who fled the battlefield or their assigned posts.
  1. A three-letter initialism that reflects the American tendency to live life at a fast pace and to get things done in a hurry.

Today’s Challenge:  Yankee Doodle Lexicon
Based on your best guesses, what are some examples of words or expressions that are Americanisms, that is words or expressions that emerged from American English and the culture and history of the Unites States?  Select a single word or phrase, and do some research to verify whether or not it is an Americanism.  Once you have identified one, do some research to determine the etymology of the word or phrase.  Write an extended definition of the word that includes its definition, evolution, and history. (Common Core Writing 2)

The following are some examples:

bottom line

workaholic

Watergate

soundbite

stealth

gridlock

wannabe

yuppie

soccer mom

millennium bug

Quote of the Day: Thus the American, on his linguistic side, likes to make his language as he goes along, and not all the hard work of his grammar teachers can hold the business back. A novelty loses nothing by the fact that it is a novelty; it rather gains something, and particularly if it meets the national fancy for the terse, the vivid, and, above all, the bold and imaginative. —H. L. Mencken

Answers:

  1. duh (1963) 2. dis (1986) 3. IQ (1916) [intelligence quotient] 4. goo (1902) 5. PC (1990) [personal computer; politically correct] 6. GI (1917) [See Word Daze June 22 GI Day 7. AWOL [absent without leave] (1863) 8. P.D.Q [Pretty Darn Quick] (1875)

1- Barnhart, David K. and Alla A. Metcalf. America in So Many Words: Words That Have Shaped America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

2 – Algeo, John. “Americans are Ruining English.” Language Myth #21. Do You Speek American? PBS.

http://www.pbs.org/speak/words/sezwho/ruining/

 

August 12:  Mythology Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words from the Gods

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

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

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

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

Achilles

Ariadne

Hercules

Odysseus

Oedipus

Orpheus

Pandora

Paris

Persephone

Prometheus

Theseus

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

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

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

 

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

 

August 11:  Presidential Gaffe Day

On this date in 1984, President Ronald Reagan, known as the “great communicator,” made one of the rare gaffes of his political career. While warming up for a radio address, Reagan said:

My fellow Americans, I am pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.

At the time Reagan was running for re-election against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, and the President’s faux pas resulted in a temporary dip in his poll numbers. However, Reagan won the November election and went on to continue his get-tough policy towards Russia. Ironically one of Reagan defining moments came in later comments about Russia; in 1987 he visited the Berlin Wall where he famously commanded: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (1).

Some might argue that the most glaring faux pas in presidential history was committed by President William Henry Harrison at his inauguration on March 4, 1841. Ignoring advisers who told him to wrap up against the cold, he proceeded to give the longest ever inaugural address (one hour and forty-five minutes) and died from the resulting chill one month later of pneumonia.

The focus here, however, is on verbal faux pas (French for “false step). Based on this criteria, Harrison’s gaffe doesn’t quite qualify; his speech was long (10,000 words), but today no one quotes any of his slips of the tongue. One gaffe that does qualify, however, was one by President George W. Bush.  When making his successful run for president in 2000, he said:

Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning? (2)

Today’s Challenge:  Foot in Mouth Faux Pas
What is the best way to recover from a verbal gaffe? What advice would you give a public figure or anyone who has said something that they wish they hadn’t?   In an age of social media and online communications everyone, not just presidents or other public figures, is more susceptible than ever to verbal or written gaffes.  Write a brief Public Service Announcement (PSA) that gives clear, concise advice on what should be done in the event of a gaffe. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day: When a great many people are unable to find work, unemployment results. -President Calvin Coolidge

 

1 – This Day In History – Presidential – August 11. The History Channel

 

2 – List of U.S. presidential faux-pas, gaffes, and unfortunate incidents

 

 

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.

 

August 6:  Interjection Day

Today is the anniversary of the British release of the Beatles album Help!, the soundtrack of their second film by the same title.

The title song, like most Beatles songs, is credited to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, but it was primarily a Lennon composition. John Lennon explained that the song was written during the height of Beatlemania and was a literal cry for help.

The Beatles, standing in a row and wearing blue jackets, with their arms positioned as if to spell out a word in flag semaphoreThe covers of both the British and the American albums show the Fab Four standing with their arms outstretched to signal semaphore letters. Strangely the letters do not spell out H – E – L -P; instead, they spell N – V – U – J.

The Beatles second film, a James Bond spoof, was not as well received as their critically acclaimed first film A Hard Day’s Night. The music of the film, however, revealed the Beatles maturing songwriting talent with such songs as “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “Ticket to Ride,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and “Yesterday.” The varied tempos of the songs and the lyrics, more sophisticated than those on previous albums, showed that the Beatles were moving beyond “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.”

The words help and yeah are both interjections: words or phrases that express emotion but have no grammatical connection to the rest of a sentence. One of the most overlooked and underrated parts of speech, interjections are an important part of the way we communicate.  Interjections are the one part of speech that is definitely a significant part of our everyday speech.  One example is the simple phone greeting hello.  Today we take it for granted, but when phones first appeared there was no standard greeting.  In fact, the phone’s inventor Alexander Graham Bell advocated the nautical Ahoy!  Another famous inventor, Thomas Edison lobbied for hello.  Bell got final credit for inventing the phone, but Edison’s choice of interjection prevailed.

The book ZOUNDS! A Brower’s Dictionary of Interjections is a catalog of over 500 interjections, their definitions and origins. Where else can you learn that there are a total of 109 two-letter words allowable for Scrabble, and that 23 of those two-letter words are interjections:

ah, aw, ay, bo, eh, er, fy, ha, hi, ho, io, lo,

my, oh, oi, ow, sh, st, ta, um, ur, ou, yo

The book, written by Mark Dunn and illustrated by Sergio Aragones, gives fascinating and funny background explanations for each interjection.

Here is a small A-Z sample of some of the interjections featured. You can also watch the unforgettable School House Rock video.

aha

bravo

check

definitely

eureka

far-out

gadzooks

hi

I declare

jeepers

knock-knock

la-di-da

my bad

no soap

O.K.

please

quiet

rats

sorry

thanks

uff-da

very well

way to go

yadda-yadda

zounds (1)

Read each of the famous interjections below and see if you can identify the name of the person or character who made it famous.

  1. “Eureka!”
  1. “Badabing-badaboom”
  1. “Stuff and nonsense!”
  1. “Bah! Humbug!”
  1. “Fiddle-dee-dee !”
  1. Leapin’ lizards!”
  1. “Nanoo, nanoo”
  1. “Dyn-O-Mite!”
  1. “Bully!” (1)

Today’s Challenge: Wow! The Interjection Hall of Fame!
What are your favorite interjections — exclamatory blurt-outs or quips?  Brainstorm a list of interjections you use or ones that have been used by others.  They may be famous (cowabunga!), familiar (yeah, right!), or original to you.  Select the one interjection you like the best, and write an explanation of what it is, how it is used, and what makes it so special. (Common Core Writing 2)

Quote of the Day:  If language were some beautiful, intricately woven rug, interjections might be those end tassels that knot and mat and collect all the cat hair. -Mark Dunn

Answers: 1. Archimedes 2. Tony Soprano 3. Alice, in Alice in Wonderland 4. Scrooge 5. Scarlet O’Hara 6. Little Orphan Anne 7. Mork, from “Mork & Mindy” 8. Jimmy Walker from “Good Times” 9. President Theodore Roosevelt

 

1 – Dunn, Mark and Sergio Aragones. Zounds!: A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.

August 3:  Idiot Letter Day

On this date in 1993, one of the most hilarious missives in the history of letter writing was sent to an American corporation. Before we look at the letter, let’s look at the history of how it came to be written.

In July of 1993 Paul Rosa received a piece of junk mail that changed his life. It was a brief letter from Pizza Hut’s delivery unit saying that they had not received an order from Rosa’s address in a long time. The letter from the Vice-president of Pizza Hut marketing reminded Rosa of the quality, variety, and value of Pizza Hut pizza. It might have been just another piece of junk mail, but one line in the letter resonated with Rosa. It said: “You see, you’re the kind of customer we’d like to see more often.” Rosa wrote back a letter to Pizza Hut asking “What kind of customer wouldn’t you like to see more often?”

This first letter started a letter-writing campaign that went on for months, covering more than 100 different corporations. Rosa’s mission statement was: Since American corporations are treating their customers like idiots, “while reaching for their wallets,” I am going to get even by writing them letters in which I act like an idiot.

The letters from Rosa’s “kamikaze consumer crusade” were published in 1995 in the book Idiot Letters: One Man’s Relentless Assault on Corporate America.

The following is the letter that Rosa sent to Oil-Dri Corporation of America the makers of Cat’s Pride Premium Cat Litter on August 3, 1993.

Dear Cat Lovers,

For the first ten years of my cat’s life, it was a living hell trying to get her to use her litter box! Whenever she would get the call from nature (night or day), she would howl until someone would let her out. Needless to say, this made my wife (Vicki) and I extremely angry, as we were often woken from a sound slumber, or interrupted during…Matlock. We tried many litter boxes (circular, octagonal, etc.) and brands of cat litter, but she simply refused to cooperate. We were actually tempted to give her away, but simply love her too much — she was a gift from my mother (Irene).

This all changed a few months ago when, at wits’ end, we tried Cat’s Pride on the suggestion of a friend (Max). Well, we were delighted, nay ecstatic, when Jesse – without hesitation – stepped into the litter box and “unloaded.” After ten years of treating her box like it was filled with glass chips, we finally found something she likes! And her attitude hasn’t changed! Since that day she has ventured to the basement on a daily basis to fulfill her duty. The increased cleaning chores on our part are quite acceptable, considering the time now saved from letting her in and out and in and out and …. I don’t know what’s in that stuff, but it has done the impossible: changed the lifestyle of a ten year old cat (70 to you and me)! Yippee!

The only thing I thought was a bit odd was the name “CAT’S PRIDE.” I can understand that your corporation would be proud of this cat litter, but a cat? When Jesse is heaving and straining in her box, I don’t think pride is one of her sentiments. In fact I don’t think cats are proud of anything at all, ever! So, why did you choose this name? It seems wrong to suggest what cats are “feeling” without offering any proof. Isn’t that dishonest?

In conclusion, I am thrilled with your product – it’s a godsend – but must take exception to the misleading name. Would you be so kind as to get back to me on this subject matter? In the meantime, I’d be honored to recommend “Cat’s Pride” to my friends!

Feline Fine,

Paul C. Rosa

To their credit, the makers of Cat’s Pride answered Rosa’s letter and even sent along some coupons.

Today’s Challenge: Going Postal
Letter writing is a lost art in an age of cellphones and email, but there are few more thoughtful ways to communicate with another person. Paul Rosa wrote to get his questions answered and to offer a suggestion to the company on its name. What question would you like to have answered by a business or corporation, or what suggestion would you like to provide? Look around you, ask questions, and then write a letter to get your answer and/or provide your suggestions. Write a idiot letter like Paul Rosa or a serious letter.

As a reminder, even humorous letters like Rosa’s follow a format. Here are the key parts of a letter:

  1. Heading with your name and address
  2. Date
  3. Inside Address: name and address of the recipient of the letter
  4. Salutation (“Dear Mr. Smith”)
  5. Body of Letter
  6. Complimentary Closing (“Sincerely”)
  7. Your Signature

Quotation of the Day:  I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead. -Mark Twain

 

1 – Rosa, Paul. Idiot Letters: One Man’s Relentless Assault on Corporate America. New York: Doubleday, 1995