Thursday Oct. 8, 2015

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The green shell of his backpack makes him lean
into wave after wave of responsibility,
and he swings his stiff arms and cupped hands,

paddling ahead. He has extended his neck
to its full length, and his chin, hard as a beak,
breaks the surf. He’s got his baseball cap on

backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.

“Student” by Ted Kooser from Delights & Shadows. © Copper Canyon Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the day that the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus reached the New World. On this day in 1492, one of the sailors on the Pinta sighted land, an island in the Bahamas, after 10 weeks of sailing from Palos, Spain, with the Santa María, the Pinta, and the Niña. Columbus thought he had reached East Asia. When he sighted Cuba, he thought it was China, and when the expedition landed on Hispaniola, he thought it might be Japan. Legend has it that only Columbus believed the earth was round, but that's not true; most educated Europeans at the time knew the earth wasn't flat. However, the Ottoman Empire had cut off land and sea routes to the islands of Asia. Columbus became obsessed with finding a western sea route, but he miscalculated the world's size, and he didn't know the Pacific Ocean existed. He called his plan the "Enterprise of the Indies." He pitched it first to King John II of Portugal, who rejected it, and then to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They also turned him down, twice, before they conquered the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492 and had some treasure to spare. Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World during his lifetime. And over the next century, his discovery made Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth.

Today is the birthday of poet Philip Booth (books by this author), born in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1925. He went to college at Dartmouth, where he met and became a protégé of Robert Frost. His poetry is rooted in the Maine coast, where he grew up and where his ancestors lived for hundreds of years before him. "Almost all my mother's ancestors — my grandparents, great-grand-parents, great-great, and so on — are buried in the cemetery here," he said in an interview with The American Poetry Review. "In the November of the year, I often go and look at their graves and see their names and the years carved on them. It gives me a very pleasant and not at all morbid sense of the relations, the relationships, that one has with a place."

It's the birthday of the comic book writer and essayist Harvey Pekar (books by this author), born in Cleveland, Ohio (1939). He is the creator of American Splendor, one of the first-ever autobiographical comic book series, which was eventually made into a movie starring Paul Giamatti.

His parents were Jewish immigrants. His father was a Talmudic scholar who supported the family by working as a grocer. Pekar was a smart kid, but he dropped out of community college and got a job as a file clerk at a Veterans Administration hospital. He spent his free time reading literature and collecting jazz records. He owned about 15,000 records at the height of his collecting obsession.

It was through record collecting that Pekar became friends with the legendary comic book artist Robert Crumb. One day, while discussing the future of comics as an art form, Pekar complained to Crumb that comic books were all about superheroes or monsters. Even the new alternative comics, geared toward adults, tended to be about sex maniacs and drug addicts. Nobody wrote comic books about real people and their ordinary struggles. After that conversation, Pekar decided to write a comic book about his own life.

Pekar spent the next few weeks writing about his daily difficulties at the supermarket, his interactions with his co-workers, his ordeals with lost keys, and his dating life. Since he couldn't draw anything other than stick figures, he let Robert Crumb illustrate.

The first issue of American Splendor came out in 1976, and Pekar continued publishing a new issue every summer, each one illustrated by a variety of different artists. He printed 10,000 copies of each new issue himself and distributed it to independent bookstores and comic book shops across the country. After 15 years, he was picked up by a publishing house.

Pekar wrote about nearly every important aspect of his life: his job, his friends, meeting his wife, marrying her, their struggles as a couple, buying their first house, and going through his cancer treatment. His work inspired a whole generation of artists to write autobiographical and realist comic books.

When asked why he wanted to turn his life into a comic book, Harvey Pekar said, "I wanted to write literature that pushed people into their lives rather than helping people escape from them."

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