January 30:  Blurb Day

Today is the birthday of American author and humorist Frank Gelett Burgess (1866-1951).  Some might argue that today should be “Purple Cow Day” because Burgess is best known for the four-line nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow”:

I never saw a Purple Cow,
I never hope to see one,
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I’d rather see than be one!*

Although “The Purple Cow” is one of the most quoted American poems of the twentieth-century, Burgess is also known for another momentous literary achievement:  the coining of the word “blurb,” the short promotional descriptions or reviews by which consumers judge a book by its cover.

The story of the blurb begins in 1906.  Burgess was promoting his latest book Are You a Bromide? at trade association dinner.  To capture the attention of potential buyers, he created a dust jacket with the book’s title and a brief description.  To make the book more eye-catching, he added a picture of fictitious young woman he called Miss Belinda Blurb.  The name stuck as a way of describing the promotional text that publishers place on book jackets.  Today the term is also used to refer to the written endorsements  by fellow writers or celebrities that are found typically on a book’s back cover.

One could argue that American poet Walt Whitman should be given some credit for inventing the concept of the blurb — though not the word itself.  After Whitman published the first edition of his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855, he received a letter of praise from the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely of fortifying and encouraging.

Seeing an opportunity to use Emerson’s words for promotional purposes, Whitman had them stamped in gold leaf on the spine of his second editon.

Today blurbs have expanded beyond books.  They’re written for movies, for websites, and just about any product you can imagine.

Today’s Challenge:  Judging a Book by It Blurb

What is a book, movie, or other product that you are enthusiastic enough to endorse with words of praise?  Brainstorm some titles or products your really love.  Then, select one and write a blurb.  Image that your words of praise will be placed on the actual item and that your words will determine whether or not consumers buy the item.  

(Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . consumers aren’t stupid, and they’ve grown increasingly cynical about the dubious art of the blurb. After you’ve been tricked into paying for a couple of really bad movies because of one, you realize the difference between real praise and a plain old con job. Every good blurb of bad work numbs the consumer’s confidence and trust.  -Stephen King (3)

*A purple cow is the mascot of Williams College, a private liberal arts college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

1-http://www.npr.org/2015/09/27/429723002/forget-the-book-have-you-read-this-irresistible-story-on-blurbs

2-http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/12/i-greet-you-at-beginning-of-great.html

3-http://www.ew.com/article/2008/03/20/stephen-king-art-blurb/2

 

January 25:  Burns Day

Today is the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).  Born in Alloway, Scotland, on a tenant farm, Burns began writing poems at an early age.  Although he had little formal education, suffered much poverty and hardship, and died at just 37 years of age, his poetry and songs have made him one great poets, especially to the Scottish who recognize him as their national poet.

PG 1063Burns Naysmithcrop.jpgEven though he wrote his poetry in the Scottish dialect, today Burns’ poetry is read, remembered, and loved by people around the world.  One prime example is his song Auld Lang Syne, which is sang around the world each New Year’s Eve (1).

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson is just one of many American who recognized Burns’ genius.  On the centennial of Burns’ death in 1859, Emerson addressed commemorated burns at a gathering of admirers in Boston:

He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. (2)

Beginning in 1801, five years after Burns’ death, his friends gathered at a dinner in Alloway to honor the Scottish Bard.  Ever since Burns’ admirers around the world have gathered on his birthday at Burns Suppers.  More than just a meal, the Burns Supper has evolved into an elaborate, scripted event involving the playing of bagpipes, the presentation of formal speeches and toasts, and the recitation and singing of Burns’ poetry and songs.

One vital menu item for ever Burns Supper is haggis, Scotland’s national dish: a pudding made of sheep offal (the liver, heart, lungs), oatmeal, minced onion, all encased in the sheep’s stomach.  Pipes play as the haggis is presented to the dinner guests, and before anyone digs in, Burns’ poem Address to the Haggis is recited.

The highlight of the evening, however, is the keynote address called the “Immortal Memory,” presented by one of the attendees.  The purpose of this speech is revive the memory of Burns’ life and to express appreciation for his work.

Today’s Challenge:  Immortal Memory, Memorable Meal

What person, who is no longer living, was so important and influential that he or she should be immortalized with an annual birthday supper?  What would be the menu, and what would be the agenda of activities for honoring the person and symbolizing the person’s life and achievements?  Brainstorm some individuals that you would recognize as having made a significant contribution to the world.  Select one individual and write an explanation of why this person should be honored.  Also, give a preview of the meal’s menu and festivities. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Quotation of the Day:  I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence. -Robert Burns