Thursday Jun. 23, 2016

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String Theory

I have to believe a Beethoven
string quartet is not unlike
the elliptical music of gossip:
one violin excited
to pass its small story along
to the next violin and the next
until, finally, come full circle,
the whole conversation is changed.

And I have to believe such music
is at work at the deep heart of things,
that under the protons and electrons,
behind the bosons and quarks,
with their bonds and strange attractors,
these strings, these tiny vibrations,
abuzz with their big ideas,
are filling the universe with gossip,
the unsung art of small talk

that, not unlike busybody Beethoven,
keeps us forever together, even
when everything’s flying apart.

“String Theory” by Ronald Wallace from For Dear Life. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1926 that 8,040 college applicants, in 353 locations around the U.S., were administered an experimental college admissions test. The test was the brainchild of Carl Brigham, a professor of psychology at Princeton. Brigham had been an assistant during World War I for the U.S. Army’s IQ testing movement, the “Army Alpha,” which assessed the intelligence of new recruits. After the war, he tinkered with the test, mainly making it more difficult, but also looking for a measurement of pure intelligence, regardless of the test-taker’s educational background. At that time, college applicants took entrance exams for each college they applied to; Brigham thought one exam for all colleges would be more efficient. The Scholastic Aptitude Test, now known as the SAT, was formally adopted in 1942. Today’s test takes three hours to complete.

The typewriter was patented on this date in 1868, by Christopher Latham Sholes of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Sholes was a newspaperman, and he was driven to invention out of necessity: His printers went on strike. He and two colleagues set out to invent a machine to print letters on paper. There had been attempts to make typewriters before, but they weren’t very practical — it took longer to type a letter than to write it by hand, and the devices were viewed as novelties for rich and bored people. Sholes and his collaborators didn’t bother to look at what the other inventors had tried before them, so they repeated a lot of the same mistakes.

The QWERTY keyboard evolved hand in hand with the typewriter. At first glance, it looks like the arrangement of the letters is arbitrary, and it would seem logical to just put them in alphabetical order. That’s what Sholes did originally, but the way his typebars were set up, some letters that were often used together in words ended up with their bars close together as well. The trouble was that an experienced typist would get going so fast that the typebars of those letters would get jammed and have to be unstuck. Sholes rearranged the keys so that there was more space between the frequently paired letters.

Ernest Hemingway loved his Royal typewriter. He kept it in his bedroom so it would never be too far away, and he put it on top of a bookshelf and wrote standing up.

Hunter S. Thompson wrote on a red IBM Selectric. One of his first jobs was as a copy boy for Time, and while he was supposed to be working, he used a typewriter and typed out, word for word, all of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, in order to learn something about writing style.

Jack Kerouac was a fast typist, and it frustrated him to have to change the paper so often. So he took long sheets of drawing paper, trimmed them to fit in the machine, and wrote all of On the Road that way. When he taped them together at the end, the manuscript was 120 feet long.

Today is the birthday of writer David Leavitt (books by this author), born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1961). Both sets of Leavitt’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement; “Leavitt” is the Americanization of “Labovitz.” He grew up in Palo Alto, the son of intellectuals. He said: “I grew up being the only child in the room whose presence everyone forgot about. By the time I was twenty, therefore, I had absorbed an enormous amount, but I had experienced almost nothing.” He was studying writing at Yale with Gordon Lish and John Hersey when an editor at The New Yorker noticed a short story of his in a literary magazine and asked him to submit something. They rejected him nine times before accepting a story, Territory, in 1982. It was the first story the magazine had ever published that was overtly about homosexual life. Leavitt was 20 years old. Two years later, he published his first collection of stories, Family Dancing (1984).

Leavitt is considered the first modern fiction writer to bring gay themes to mainstream literature.

It’s the birthday of novelist Michael Shaara (books by this author), born in Jersey City, New Jersey (1928). His great-grandfather had been wounded at Gettysburg, which inspired Shaara to spend years researching and writing a book about the Civil War. When he finished his book, it was rejected by 15 publishers, and finally bought by the David McKay Company. The Killer Angels was published in 1974. It got mixed reviews and sold poorly, so it was a shock to Michael Shaara and everyone else when The Killer Angels was awarded the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In 1993, Gettysburg, a film based on The Killer Angels, finally made the novel a best-seller.

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