Wednesday Jun. 1, 2016

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Lines from “Song of Solomon”

      I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. As the lily
among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.
      As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved
among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the
banqueting house, and his banner over me was love…
      …The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the
mountains, skipping upon the hills…
      …My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair
one, and come away. For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and
gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of
birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. The
fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender
grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come

Lines from “Song of Solomon” from The Bible: King James Version. Public Domain.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of British linguist, translator, and editor C.K. Ogden (books by this author), born Charles Kay Ogden in Fleetwood, England (1889). Ogden was a promising athlete when he was struck with rheumatic fever; after spending two years in bed and with a weakened heart, he arrived at Cambridge ready to engage solely in the life of the mind.

He founded The Cambridge Magazine as an undergraduate, and co-founded the Heretics Society, an organization dedicated to questioning authority and religious dogma; both the magazine and the society went on to become much bigger than a college kid’s pastimes. The Cambridge Magazine, which Ogden continued to edit for over a decade, published writers like George Bernard Shaw, John Masefield (whose birthday is also today), and Thomas Hardy (whose birthday is tomorrow), and the Society sponsored a forum that hosted speakers like Virginia Woolf and G.K. Chesterton (whose birthday was earlier this week).

Ogden also began translating books from French and German into English, work that took on increasing importance for him through the First World War. International understanding, he believed, could be achieved only through careful attention to language; he also instituted a “Foreign Press Survey” in his magazine, a novel idea that translated articles from 200 foreign newspapers and journals.

Finally, to further supplement his income, Ogden ran a network of bookshops around London. One of these was ransacked by drunken medical students on the day of the Armistice, when the war ended. His friend I.A. Richards had seen some of the pillaging, and the two met up that evening to see if they could identify some of the looters. Instead they spent the night talking, and by the time they parted, they had the idea for a book they would spend four years co-writing: The Meaning of Meaning, a work that studied the influence of language on thought.

Working on this book set the stage for what would occupy the remainder of Ogden’s career: the creation and advocacy of “Basic English.” Also known as Simple English, Basic is a simplified version of English that Ogden believed could become a universal language; there is a vocabulary of 850 words, only 18 of which are verbs — or, as Ogden called them, “operators” — and the rules of grammar have almost no exceptions. Basic English was the solution to the problem of miscommunication and misunderstanding, Ogden believed, and could achieve world peace. Although it gained some popularity after H.G. Wells and George Orwell both wrote in its favor, Orwell changed his mind about it, and used it as the model for “Newspeak,” the state-sanctioned language that has no words to express original thought in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Basic English, and the very concept of a “universal” language, was largely abandoned, but some of its components — like the basic vocab list — are still used to teach English as a second language.

It’s the 50th birthday of novelist and screenwriter Sheri Holman (books by this author), born near Richmond, Virginia, in 1966. She studied theater at the College of William and Mary, and then moved to New York City, where she held a variety of jobs in the publishing industry.

She published her first novel, A Stolen Tongue, in 1997; she’s written four more since then and her most recent is Witches on the Road Tonight (2011). The novel follows three generations of an Appalachian family and explores America’s fascination with scary stories. Holman had just begun to think about the novel when one of her infant twins was diagnosed with cancer. She put the novel aside for four years, during which time she developed a much more vivid understanding of the concept of terror: “Spending time on the pediatric cancer ward among dead and dying children will make you question just about everything you’ve ever held to be true,” she later said. “Especially long-cherished beliefs about control; the ability the choose correctly and thus guarantee a good outcome for your life. This sense of powerlessness — not the delicious, tingly vampire-novel chills, or the kind of sexy-scared way we feel when we’re falling in love — but naked, raw What-is-the-Meaning-of-Life anguish, is at the heart of terror for me.” She asked herself why people seek out frightening experiences, and that question made its way into the novel.

About the same time Holman was publishing her first book, she also became a founding member of The Moth. It’s a storytelling collective that poet and novelist George Dawes Green formed in 1997, and it has since spread to major cities across the country. In recent years it has spawned a podcast and a public radio program, The Moth Radio Hour. And in 2014, Holman joined the writing team behind Longmire, a Netflix series based on the Walt Longmire Mysteries series of books by Craig Johnson.

It’s the birthday of comedian, writer, and actor Amy Schumer, born on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (1981). Her father Gordon ran a successful business selling imported baby furniture in New York, but the family’s fortunes took a downward turn when Gordon was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Amy was nine years old when her father declared bankruptcy. The family moved from Manhattan to Long Island, and her parents divorced. Caring for her father and watching his gradual decline affected Schumer in profound ways. “When I’m dating someone I think, would I want to push their wheelchair?” she said. “Would this guy push my wheelchair? My mind goes there if I’ve been dating somebody for a year or two, and I don’t think that happens to people unless they’ve taken care of a sick relative.”

She was voted Class Clown in high school, and first tried her hand at stand-up comedy in the mid-2000s. In 2007, she placed fourth in NBC’s talent show Last Comic Standing, and by 2013 she had her own series on Comedy Central: Inside Amy Schumer. In 2015, a gunman opened fire at a Louisiana theater showing her movie Trainwreck. “I was by myself in a hotel, and I was just like, I wish I never wrote that movie,” she said later. When her cousin, New York senator Chuck Schumer, asked her to join him in a public call for stricter gun control legislation, she agreed.

She grew up watching comedy legends Carol Burnett, Whoopi Goldberg, and Gilda Radner, and has listed them all as influences. She has also become friends with Margaret Cho, after Cho contacted her on Twitter to ask for a guest appearance on Schumer’s series. Schumer responded enthusiastically: “Of course! I love you! I am like your sister who copies you, but you’re not mean about it!” Schumer’s next film, Mother/Daughter, will come out in 2017.

It’s the birthday of Australian author Colleen McCullough (1937) (books by this author), born in Wellington, New South Wales. She had bachelor’s and master’s degrees in neurophysiology, and she founded the neurophysiology unit at the North Shore Hospital in Sydney in 1958. She worked as a teacher, a librarian, and a bus driver before she published her first novel, Tim, in 1974. She said before she sat down to write, she did a little market research. “I sat down with six girls who were working with me. They were very dissimilar types, and not especially avid readers. Yet, they were all mad about Erich Segal’s Love Story. They enjoyed books that made them cry. If you didn’t cry the book wasn’t worth reading. So, I said, ‘That’s it, mate. No matter what else you do in a book, don’t forget the buckets of tears.’”

That first novel, Tim, was well received, but her second, The Thorn Birds (1977) — the epic saga of the forbidden love between a priest and a young woman — was wildly popular. She also wrote a meticulously researched series about the decline of the Roman Empire, The Masters of Rome, before her death in 2015.

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