Tuesday Feb. 16, 2016

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The Danger of Wisdom

We learn to live without passion.
To be reasonable. We go hungry
amid the giant granaries
this world is. We store up plenty
for when we are old and mild.
It is our strength that deprives us.
Like Keats listening to the doctor
who said the best thing for
tuberculosis was to eat only one
slice of bread and a fragment
of fish each day. Keats starved
himself to death because he yearned
so desperately to feast on Fanny Brawne.
Emerson and his wife decided to make
love sparingly in order to accumulate
his passion. We are taught to be
moderate. To live intelligently.

“The Danger of Wisdom” by Jack Gilbert from The Dance Most of All. © Knopf, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of the printer Giambattista Bodoni, born in Saluzzo, Italy (1740). He came from a family of engravers, and by the time he died, he had opened his own publishing house that reprinted classical texts, and he had personally designed almost 300 typefaces. His typeface Bodoni is still available on almost any word processing program. He said, “The letters don’t get their true delight, when done in haste and discomfort, nor merely done with diligence and pain, but first when they are created with love and passion.”

It’s the birthday of Henry Adams (books by this author), born in Boston (1838). His grandfather was John Quincy Adams and his great-grandfather was John Adams. He wasn’t too thrilled about coming from such a prominent family, but he was encouraged to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a lawyer, historian, and Massachusetts legislator. Like the three generations before him, he went to Harvard, and then to law school. Then, as John Adams had done for his son, John Quincy Adams, Henry’s father, offered his son a position as his private secretary. Years later, Adams wrote about himself in the third person in The Education of Henry Adams: “As for Henry Adams, fresh from Europe and chaos of another sort, he plunged at once into a lurid atmosphere of politics, quite heedless of any education or forethought. His past melted away. The prodigal was welcomed home, but not even his father asked a malicious question about the Pandects. At the utmost, he hinted at some shade of prodigality by quietly inviting his son to act as private secretary during the winter in Washington, as though any young man who could afford to throw away two winters on the Civil Law could afford to read Blackstone for another winter without a master. The young man was beyond satire, and asked only a pretext for throwing all education to the east wind. [...] Of all the crowd swarming in Washington that winter, young Adams was surely among the most ignorant and helpless, but he saw plainly that the knowledge possessed by everybody about him was hardly greater than his own. Never in a long life did he seek to master a lesson so obscure. Mr. Sumner was given to saying after Oxenstiern: — ‘Quantula sapientia mundus regitur!’ Oxenstiern talked of a world that wanted wisdom; but Adams found himself seeking education in a world that seemed to him both unwise and ignorant. [...] He had little to do, and knew not how to do it rightly, but he knew of no one who knew more.”

He served as his father’s private secretary for seven years, accompanying him to England after Abraham Lincoln appointed the senior Adams as a diplomat. When Henry came back, he decided that despite his father’s wishes, he did not want to go into politics. Instead, he became a political journalist, and wrote smart and sometimes nasty political editorials. He particularly disliked Ulysses S. Grant, whom he described as “pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers.” He became increasingly more frustrated with political life, and decided to be a historian instead. His books included a nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison and biographies of George Cabot Lodge and Albert Gallatin. But he is best known for his autobiographical The Education of Henry Adams.

And it was on this day in 1978 that social networking got its start when the first public, dial-up Computerized Bulletin Board System (CBBS) went online in Chicago, Illinois. In those days, the Internet was in its infancy, not available to most computer users. Two computer hobbyists, Ward Christensen and Randy Seuss, got the idea to create a virtual message board where CBBS members could dial into the system using a telephone modem and post notes to each other in the same way a family might communicate by sticking messages to a corkboard using pushpins. It was the beginning of social networking.

On this day in the year 600, Pope Gregory the Great declared “God bless you” to be the correct response to a sneeze. It was once thought that sneezing was an omen of death, since many dying people fell into sneezing fits. People responded to sneezing with good luck chants. Later, the Hebrew Talmud called sneezing “pleasure sent from God”; and the Greeks and Romans believed that sneezing was a good omen. They responded to sneezes with “Long may you live!” or “May you enjoy good health.” Pope Gregory introduced the response of “God bless you” when the plague was at its height in Europe, hoping that the quick prayer would protect the sneezer from sickness and death. As the plague spread across Europe, the new response spread with it and has survived to this day.

It’s the birthday of a novelist who said: “For me to do well at anything, I have to work harder than other people.” That’s Richard Ford (books by this author), born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). His father was a traveling salesman who left the house whistling on Monday mornings and returned the same way on Fridays, and Ford said his father’s whistling inspired in him the sense that work was something good and satisfying.

When he was 16, his father died of a heart attack, and Ford was sent to live with his grandparents, who ran a hotel in Arkansas. He said: “When you live in a hotel, you’re excluded from almost everything that goes on there. So I understood that in people’s lives, there was always an interior, private part [...] It made private lives — secret lives — seem very dramatic and attractive to me.” As a teenager, Ford wasn’t particularly interested in writing. He was an average student who struggled with dyslexia, and he went off to Michigan State to study hotel administration. After a semester, he switched to literature. He said: “When I read Absalom, Absalom! — the first novel I ever read — it just took me over. In a way, it left me with a reverence for literature which does not require an encyclopedic knowledge. I read what I read really closely. People always know more than I do, but what I know I know.” At Michigan, he fell in love with a fellow student named Kristina, and the two were married in 1968.

Ford went on to get his MFA, and in 1976 he published his first novel, A Piece of My Heart, set in the South. He was offered a tenure-track teaching job at the University of Michigan, but his wife convinced him to turn it down and pursue his writing instead. She offered to earn enough money for both of them. He took her up on her offer, and wrote a second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (1981). After his two books together only sold about 12,000 copies, he figured that he had tried and failed at being a novelist, so he went to work as a sportswriter for Inside Sports. A year later, the magazine folded; Ford applied to Sports Illustrated, but they turned him down. He had committed himself to a career as a sportswriter, but now, unsure what else to do with himself, he turned back to fiction.

His wife suggested that he try writing about someone who was happy for a change. He said: “She’s a quite happy person by nature, and it might’ve been that she thought I’d find a wider audience if I stopped writing about dark souls and dark fates. In retrospect, I’d say she was right.” Since he himself had enjoyed life as a sportswriter, he made his new character a sportswriter named Frank Bascombe living in New Jersey, where he and Kristina had spent the past few years. He said: “I thought, well, nobody writes happy things about New Jersey. Nobody writes good things about New Jersey at all. And I thought, well, maybe that would be the thing to do.” The Sportswriter (1986) was a big success, and he ended up writing three more celebrated books featuring Frank Bascombe: Independence Day (1995), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award; The Lay of the Land (2006); and Let Me Be Frank with You (2014).

His other books include Rock Springs (1987), Wildlife (1990), and Canada (2012).

He said: “I always think that if Frank and I agree on anything, I’m probably not doing my job well enough. I believe that a piece of imaginative work is better when it bears the least resemblance to its maker.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®