From the porch at dusk I watched
a kingfisher wild in flight
he could only have made for joy.
He came down the river, splashing
against the water’s dimming face
like a skipped rock, passing
on down out of sight. And still
I could hear the splashes
farther and farther away
as it grew darker. He came back
the same way, dusky as his shadow,
sudden beyond the willows.
The splashes went on out of hearing.
It was dark then. Somewhere
the night had accommodated him
—at the place he was headed for
or where, led by his delight,
“Before Dark” by Wendell Berry from Collected Poems. © North Point Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, born in Paris in 1840. He created the masterpieces The Thinker and The Kiss. He said: “I invent nothing, I rediscover,” and “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.”
It’s the birthday of philosopher and literary critic Roland Barthes (books by this author), born in Cherbourg, France (1915). His father was killed in World War I, and his mother struggled to support the family, working as a bookbinder. Barthes did well in school and wanted to be a professor of literature and philosophy, but he came down with tuberculosis as a young man. Because of his frequent relapses, and the periods of time he had to spend in sanatoriums, he couldn’t hold down a teaching job.
So instead of writing long books about great works of literature, he began to support himself by writing short essays about popular culture. He was one of the first literary critics to apply sophisticated literary theory to things like movies, stripteases, toys, and wrestling matches. He said, “I have tried to be as eclectic as I possibly can with my professional life, and […] it’s been pretty fun.”
He greatly expanded the scope of cultural studies, and it is partially thanks to him that college students can now take classes on subjects like Bugs Bunny. His essays are collected in books such as Mythologies (1957) and Empire of Signs (1970).
It’s the birthday of American nonfiction writer Tracy Kidder (1945) (books by this author). He’s written about public education, a nursing home, an American doctor in Haiti, and a young medical student in Burundi. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Soul of a New Machine (1981), about his experiences watching engineers at the Data General Corporation build a new microcomputer. He lived in the basement of the building for eight months, taking notes and observing the work. He called the engineers “knights errant, clad in blue jeans and open collars, seeking with awesome intensity the grail of technological achievement […] They believe that what they do is elegant and important, but they have the feeling that no one else understands or cares.”
Kidder started out as a fiction writer, but figured out early on that he preferred to write about real people. He once said: “In fiction, believability may have nothing to do with reality or even plausibility. It has everything to do with those things in nonfiction. I think that the nonfiction writer’s fundamental job is to make what is true believable.”
He often spends months, and even years, observing his subjects and story, taking detailed notes. For his book Among Schoolchildren (1989), he spent 178 days in the classroom, only missing two days, once because he sick, and the other just to play hooky. He says: “A lot of the time I had a desk, right near the teacher’s. I think after a while, the kids just thought of me as a big fifth-grader.”
Tracy Kidder’s books include The Soul of a New Machine (1981), Home Town (1999), Mountains Beyond Mountains (2003), My Detachment (2005), and Strength in What Remains (2009).
When he was asked about the differences between writing literary nonfiction, nonfiction, and literary journalism, he answered: “I think all these terms are trying to suggest is that the literature of fact, or factual writing, nonfiction, that there can be more of it. To signify a kind of nonfiction writing in which not only the information but the writing is important. For me the essence of it is really storytelling, and of course, the techniques of storytelling never belonged exclusively to fiction. Surely there is no single means of understanding the world.”
And, “The heart of the story is usually a place to arrive at, not a place to begin.”
It’s the birthday of novelist Katharine Weber (books by this author), born in New York City in 1955. Her novels include Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear (1995), The Little Women (2003), a retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic story, and Triangle (2006), about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. She decided to write about the fire because her grandmother worked at the factory, although she left her job two years before the fire because she was pregnant with Katharine Weber’s father.
Her latest novel book is The Memory of All That: George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities (2011).
Weber writes: “Life seems sometimes like nothing more than a series of losses, from beginning to end. That’s the given. How you respond to those losses, what you make of what’s left, that’s the part you have to make up as you go.”
It’s the birthday of Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young, born in Toronto in 1945. He had a rough childhood: he was stricken with polio when he was six years old, and nearly died. Even after he recovered from the outbreak, his health was so bad that he could hardly walk. His parents took him to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, that December so he could regain his strength; they ended up staying for six months, and young Neil spent hours watching all the shiny new American cars drive by. He developed a lasting love of cars during this period, and he always names them. Over the years, he’s had vehicles named “Hank,” “LincVolt,” and “Pocahontas.” “Every car is full of stories,” he once said. “Who rode in ’em, where they went, where they ended up, how they got here.”
Even as a kid, he loved music, and he learned to play the ukulele after he received a cheap plastic one in his Christmas stocking. As the years went by, his love for music deepened, until it meant more to him than school. He dropped out of high school to form a band — the Squires — in 1963. They played in coffeehouses and clubs around Winnipeg, where Neil had moved with his mother after his parents’ divorce. Neil bought himself a car to get the band to their gigs. It was a hearse, which he dubbed “Mortimer Hearseburg.” When “Mort,” as he called it, inevitably broke down beyond repair, Young bought another hearse, a 1953 Pontiac that he named “Mort II.”
He got to know a lot of up-and-coming musicians, like Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, and the Guess Who, while touring on the Canadian folk circuit. Mitchell loved his song “Sugar Mountain” so much that it inspired her song “The Circle Game.” By 1966, Young had formed the band Buffalo Springfield with his friend Bruce Palmer, along with Steven Stills, Richie Furay, and Dewey Martin. “For What It’s Worth” was the first single off their debut, self-titled album, and it hit the Top Ten. That same year, Young developed epilepsy, and began having seizures — sometimes while on stage with the band. And in 2005, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm.
Neil has three kids: a son, Zeke, with actress Carrie Snodgress; and Ben and Amber Jean with Pegi Morton. Zeke and Ben both have cerebral palsy; Zeke’s case is mild, but Ben uses a wheelchair and speaks through a computerized communication device. Ben shares a love for model trains with his dad, and Neil built a 3,000-square-foot model railway system on his California ranch so that he and Ben would have something to do together. He also bought a part-ownership of the Lionel Train Company, helping to save the company from bankruptcy. In return, he worked with Lionel to design controls that would be easier for his sons to operate. In the 1980s, Neil and Pegi co-founded the Bridge School for children with severe physical and speech impairments. Up until this year, Neil and Pegi held an annual, weekend-long benefit concert that brought in big names like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, and Tom Petty to raise money for Bridge School.
Young broke his toe in 2011, which took him out of commission for a while. To kill the time, he wrote an autobiography: Waging Heavy Peace (2012). In the book, he writes: “Writing is very convenient, has a low expense and is a great way to pass the time. I highly recommend it to any old rocker who is out of cash and doesn’t know what to do next.”