Just looking at them
I grow greedy, as if they were
freshly baked loaves
waiting on their shelves
to be broken open—that one
and that—and I make my choice
in a mood of exalted luck,
browsing among them
like a cow in sweetest pasture.
For life is continuous
as long as they wait
to be read—these inked paths
opening into the future, page
after page, every book
its own receding horizon.
And I hold them, one in each hand,
a curious ballast weighting me
here to the earth.
“The Bookstall” by Linda Pastan from Carnival Evening. © Norton, 1998. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of American poet who once said, “The public needs poetry; I need poetry, to help celebrate and console.” That’s Linda Pastan (books by this author), born in the Bronx, New York City (1932).
About her writing habits, Pastan says: “For me, there are two distinct phases in the writing of a poem — first the inspiration phase, when language and metaphor come mysteriously into my head, then the planting, sowing, farming phase, otherwise known as revision. The first is a kind of gift, as in “gifted” — it can’t be taught. The second is a matter of learning and practicing one’s craft.”
It’s the birthday of novelist and short-story writer John Cheever (books by this author), born in Quincy, Massachusetts (1912). He wrote for more than 50 years and published over 200 short stories. He’s known for writing about the world of American suburbia. Even though he was one of the most popular short-story writers of the 20th century, he once said that he only earned “enough money to feed the family and buy a new suit every other year.”
In 1935, he was published in The New Yorker for the first time, and he would continue to write for the magazine for the rest of his life. His stories were collected in books, including The Way Some People Live (1943) and The Enormous Radio and Other Stories (1953). The Stories of John Cheever, published in 1978, won the Pulitzer Prize and became one of the few collections of short stories ever to make the New York Times best-seller list.
Cheever kept journals his entire life, and a few years before he died in 1982, he told his son that he wanted selections from his journals to be published. The Journals of John Cheever came out in 1990. He wrote about his alcoholism, his depression, his bisexuality, his family, and his writing.
John Cheever said, “Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less) and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly that we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing.”
And, "These stories seem at times to be stories of a long lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, … when you heard the Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat."
And also, “But I awoke at three, feeling terribly sad, and feeling rebelliously that I didn't want to study sadness, madness, melancholy, and despair. I wanted to study triumphs, the rediscoveries of love, all that I know in the world to be decent, radiant, and clear.”
It’s the birthday of detective novelist Dashiell Hammett (books by this author), born in St. Mary’s County, Maryland (1894). He dropped out of high school to help support his family and worked a series of jobs until he became a private detective for the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The job caught his imagination, and he said that his favorite assignment was searching for a stolen Ferris wheel.
Hammett published his stories in pulp magazines like Black Mask, and he was one of the first mystery writers to write about tough, cynical, street-smart detectives, rather than refined, intellectual investigators like Sherlock Holmes.
His style of writing was called “hard-boiled” and it contained almost no extraneous detail. In one story, he described a woman by writing, “Her eyes were blue, her mouth red, her teeth white, and she had a nose. Without getting steamed up over the details, she was nice.”
Critics consider The Maltese Falcon (1930) Hammett’s masterpiece. The novel introduced the character Sam Spade, one of the most famous fictional detectives of all time. Hammett called Sam Spade, “A dream man … a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent bystander, or client.”
Today is the birthday of marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson (books by this author), born in Springdale, Pennsylvania (1907). She was an English major at the Pennsylvania College for Women, but in her junior year, she took a biology course. She loved it so much that she changed her major to zoology.
She was working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries when she wrote some text for a department publication that was so literary, her boss gave it back to her and told her to send it to Atlantic Monthly instead. That essay, which was published in the magazine in 1937, became the basis for her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941). Carson worked for the government for many years, eventually working her way up to the post of editor in chief for all the publications of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She resigned in 1952 to devote herself fully to her own writing.
She won the National Book Award in nonfiction for her second book, the best-seller The Sea Around Us (1951). In her acceptance speech, she said: “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction. It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science. [...] The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they are not there, science cannot create them. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
It was Silent Spring (1962) — first serialized in The New Yorker in the summer of 1962 — that made Rachel Carson a household name and a topic of dinner table conversation across the country. Carson opened the book with a little fable that was a composite of several wilderness areas that she had observed. The fable described a spring morning in which there was no riot of birdsong, but only silence, because the ecosystem had been destroyed by the widespread misuse of harmful pesticides like DDT. Although the book was the result of six years’ rigorous scientific research, Carson’s detractors dismissed the book as “fiction” because of this opening fable. The chemical industry and its allies within and outside the government declared war on Carson, attacking the book and smearing Carson’s reputation as a scientist. Later critics claimed that her campaign against pesticides resulted in millions of malaria deaths that could have been prevented by the use of DDT. But she persisted, urging the American public to think critically about the messages they receive from pesticide companies and the government. “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used,” she wrote. “I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”
President Kennedy read Silent Spring during that summer in 1962 and formed a presidential commission to re-examine the government’s pesticide policy. The commission endorsed Carson’s findings. Her book and her advocacy boosted public awareness of environmental matters, and birthed a conservation movement that would eventually lead to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Rachel Carson died of cancer in 1964, just two years after Silent Spring was published.