Thursday Aug. 24, 2017

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All my life I’ve been lucky. Not that I made money,
or had a beautiful house or cars. But lucky to have
had good friends, a wife who loves me, and a good
son. Lucky that war and famine or disease did not
come to my doorstep. Lucky that all the wrong
turns I made, even if they did turn out well, at least
were not complete disasters. I still have some of my
original teeth. All that could change, I know, in the
wink of an eye. And what an eye it is, bright blue
contrasting with her dark skin and black hair. And
oh, what long eyelashes! She turns and with a slight
smile gives me a long slow wink, a wink that says,
“Come on over here, you lucky boy.”

“Lucky” by Louis Jenkins from In the Sun Out of the Wind. © Will o’ the Wisp Books, 2017. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying the Roman city of Pompeii, on this date in the year 79. Pompeii was about five miles away from the mountain, and it was a resort town for Rome's elite. It's estimated that about 20,000 people lived in and around Pompeii at that time, and most of them were able to escape relatively unscathed.

Just after noon, a plume of ash, pumice rock, and debris shot up into the air and began falling on the surrounding area. Before long, the ash in the streets of Pompeii lay nine feet deep. Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius from across the Bay of Naples, and noted that the billowing soot, rocks, and gas looked like an enormous pine tree. It eclipsed the sun. "Darkness fell," Pliny wrote, "not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a dark room." Even from his safe distance, he observed, "I believed I was perishing with the world, and the world with me." About five thousand people died — most likely from a blast of blistering hot, poisonous gas, not debris or lava — and the whole city was buried under millions of tons of ash and debris.

Pompeii and the nearby city of Herculaneum were rediscovered in the 18thcentury. They were almost completely intact, buried under about 23 feet of volcanic debris. The modern science of archaeology was born with the widespread excavations of the two cities. The excavation is still ongoing today, with about one-third of Pompeii still buried.

Mount Vesuvius erupted last in 1944, and experts believe it could erupt again at any time. Today, about 3 million people live within a few miles of the crater; 600,000 of them live close enough to the volcano that they would not survive an eruption today. Scientists monitor the volcano — one of the world's most dangerous — around the clock and have a plan to evacuate the area in advance, if an eruption seems imminent.

It's the baptismal day of poet Robert Herrick (books by this author), born in London (1591). He's the author of the lines, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old Time is still a-flying, / And this same flower that smiles to-day / To-morrow will be dying." They appear in his poem "To the Virgins, to make much of Time." He worked as a goldsmith, went to college, and left London for the English countryside, where he stayed for many years and wrote most of his poetry. He wrote short lyric poems and songs. He wrote about seducing women and taking advantage of your youth, but he never married and most of the women in his poems were probably imaginary. He also wrote religious poems. His poetry was distributed among friends and eventually reached people in higher places, making Herrick known throughout England. In 1648, he published Hesperides, which contained more than 1,000 poems.

Rome was sacked by the Visigoths on this date in the year 410. It was the first time in 800 years that Rome was successfully invaded, and marked the beginning of the end of the Western Roman Empire.

Alaric, a chieftain in his mid-30s, was the leader of the Visigoths. They came from what is now Germany, and were one of the many tribes who were suffering at the hands of the Roman Empire. Roman leaders enforced higher and higher taxes on the people in their outer provinces, and corrupt local officials grew wealthy while the people stayed poor. Rebellions broke out, and the Visigoths started moving toward Rome.

The Visigoths began their siege of Rome in 408, and soon residents were starving. Alaric wanted land on which he and his people could settle. He also wanted a position of respect within the empire. He ended his first siege when the Roman Senate paid him off. But after his chief demands were repeatedly rebuffed, he returned to his siege on Rome, this time waging an all-out attack. Rebellious Roman slaves — many of whom had been captured from Germanic tribes — opened the gates to Alaric in the middle of the night. The Visigoths burned, looted, raped, and pillaged, but they treated Christian sites and relics with respect.

St. Jerome, one of the great Church leaders of the day, was living in Bethlehem when Rome fell. He wrote: "In one city, the whole world perished." At its height, the Roman Empire had stretched from Britain and the Atlantic to North Africa and Mesopotamia.

It was on this day in 1456 that the first edition of the Gutenberg Bible was bound and completed in Mainz, Germany. The Gutenberg Bible was the first complete book printed with movable type. The press produced 180 copies of the Bible. Books had been printed on presses before, in China and Korea, with wood and bronze type; but Gutenberg used metal type, and made a press that could print many versions of the same text quickly. His contributions to printing were huge: he created an oil-based printing ink, he figured out how to cast individual pieces of type in metal so that they could be reused, and he designed a functioning printing press. But others before him had come up with similar ideas. Probably the most important thing that Gutenberg did was to develop the entire process of printing — he streamlined a system for assembling the type into a full book and then folding the pages into folios, which were then bound into an entire volume — and to do it all quickly. The techniques that Gutenberg refined were used for hundreds of years, and the publication of the Gutenberg Bible marked a turning point in the availability of knowledge to regular people.

Today is the birthday of Argentine poet, short-story writer, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges (books by this author), born in Buenos Aires (1899), whose dreamlike, labyrinthian prose gave rise to the term "magical realism."

Borges grew up comfortably, but not wealthily. His family was rich in literature, though, and he had access to over 1,000 books in his family's large library. He began reading Shakespeare at 12 and always knew he would be a writer. At nine, he translated Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince into Spanish. It was published in a newspaper and was so good that many people thought his father must have done it, not Borges.

Borges's family moved to Switzerland when he was 15, traveling widely throughout Europe. He began writing poems in the fashion of Walt Whitman and reading the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, which would influence his later writing.

His family returned to Buenos Aires and Borges published his first collection of poetry, Fervor de Buenos Aires (1923). He got a job in a municipal library with a very small collection, which allowed him to finish his daily cataloguing duties quickly. He spent the rest of the day in the basement, writing. His first collection of short stories, A Universal History of Infamy (1935), which is a fictionalized account of real-life criminals, is considered to be the beginning of magical realism and Borges's true style. After Borges suffered a serious head wound (1938), he wrote his most famous works, creating his own worlds, languages, and symbols. His second collection of short stories, El jardín desenderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of the Forking Paths, 1941), is a combination of book and maze, featuring stories about a library containing every possible 410-page text and a man who forgets nothing. He even wrote strange detective stories with a friend under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. They were published as Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi (1941). When dictator Juan Domingo Perón came to power in 1946, Borges was fired from the library for his support of the Allies during World War II. Perón made him head inspector of rabbit and poultry to punish him. Borges resigned the post.

Borges was famous in Argentina, but didn't become famous in America until after his books began to be translated in 1961. He traveled and lectured frequently, but he also began to go blind, which he called "a slow, summer twilight." He never learned to read Braille, and his mother — who lived into her 90s — became his secretary. He dictated his stories to her and, gradually, began writing only poetry. He said: "Blindness made me take up the writing of poetry again. Since rough drafts were denied me, I had to fall back on memory." Jorge Luis Borges died in 1986. His books include Ficciones (1944), The Aleph (1949), Book of Imaginary Beings(1967), and The Book of Sand (1975).

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