Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 30: Washington's Dictum on Private Life (Vol. 43, pp. 225-228)

George Washington was inaugurated as our first president on this day in 1789, so we get his inaugural address today. He invokes the deity a lot in this speech, which alternates between deep humility for the honor of being this nation's first president and setting the standard for what our government should be.

"The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality," said Washington, "and the pre-eminence of a free government exemplified by all the attributes, which can win the affections of its citizens, and command the respect of the world."

It's ideas like this that made this country great.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 29: How I Got Rich – By Sinbad the Sailor (Vol. 16: pp. 231-242)

Another selection from the "Thousand and One Nights."

Sinbad the Sailor, living large in his mansion by sea, gets a visit by another Sinbad, a poor man looking for a break. After hearing his tale of woe, Sinbad the Sailor invites his namesake in for a feast and some pointers on how to be a player like him.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April 28: "Vanity of Vanities," Saith The Preacher (Vol. 44, pp. 335-341)

The Book of Ecclesiastes, today's selection, is perhaps the classic Biblical work of pessimism. "All is vanity," he proclaims. But at the end, he backs off and proclaims that we "must fear God and keep his Commandments; for this is the whole duty of man."

In other words, the same old, same old.

Monday, April 27, 2009

April 27: He Dared to See Forbidden Beauty (Vol. 5, pp. 297-310)

Ralph Waldo Emerson died this day in 1882, so to mark the occasion, we get his musings on the concept of beauty.

"All our science lacks a human side," wrote Emerson, and it's a good thing too. Humans would just mess it up.

"Beauty is the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world," wrote Emerson. Not quite. Beauty can often be a distraction.

Emerson is over-emoting in his essay, "On Beauty," but considering how much that beauty is feared by the puritanical among us, perhaps he's not that far off the mark.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

April 26: Do Miracles Still Happen (Vol. 37, pp. 375-385)

English philosopher David Hume, who was born this day in 1711, didn't seem fearful of incurring the wrath of the religious when he wrote that "a miracle is a violation of the laws of nature."

But that simple statement sums up the difference between the superstitious nonsense that makes up organized religion and the immutable laws of nature. What some would consider a "miracle," is merely a deviation from the normal course that nature follows day in and day out.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

April 25: Mighty Rome Feared These Men (Vol. 33, pp. 106-120)

Tacitus offers today's selection from "On Germany," his account of the German tribes who were primitives to Romans, but were fearless on the battlefield and ultimately outlasted and defeated the Roman Empire.

Friday, April 24, 2009

April 24: Nineteen Million Elephants (Vol. 11, pp. 74-86)

Finally, we get the best of Darwin — "Origin of Species." Here, he writes about reproduction and the differences between species in producing offspring. Variables such as food, predators, disease and climate change makes numbers go up or down. Ultimately, every species' fate is interconnected with that of every other species.

While Darwin might have been a bit off with his estimate that there would 19 million elephants in 750 years, the rest of it is spot on.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

April 23: "If You Have Poison for Me, I Will Drink It" (Vol. 46, pp. 293-303)

On this day in 1616, William Shakespeare died, so we get this slice of "King Lear." Again, while this Shakespeare, words on the page don't do this stuff justice. Plays have to be performed, not read, to get the full punch.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 22: Happiness as Duty (Vol. 32, pp. 310-317)

Immanuel Kant, among the most influential of German philosophers, was born this day in 1724. In this reading from "Fundamental Principals of Morals," Kant wrote that it is our duty to be happy, not because joy is in and of itself wonderful, but because unhappy people are prone to sin.

One would think this is the opposite of Calvinism, in which happiness is considered sin. Unfortunately, that's the clearest thought in this essay, which quickly boggs down into the mechanics of developing a philosophy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 21: Books as Windows to the Past (Vol. 39, pp. 410-418)

The French writer H.A. Thane was born this day in 1828. Author of "An Introduction to English Literature," he was perhaps the first author to come up with a cogent analysis on why English literature is different from its forbearers.

He wanders a bit in this selection, but the gist is that literature "is not a mere play of the imagination, the isolated caprice of an excited brain, but a transcript of contemporary manners and customs and the sign of a particular state of intellect."

Through our reading of the works of the past, Thane writes that we can understand something about the era a poem or novel was written in, as well as understand the person behind the words. It seems sort of obvious, but someone had to be first to come up with this idea.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April 20: Byron Gave His Life For Freedom (Vol. 41: pp. 801-815)

On this day in Greece in 1824, Lord Byron received a 37-gun salute in honor of the supreme sacrifice he made in aiding the Greeks in battle against the Turks.
"ETERNAL SPIRIT of the chainless Mind!
Brightest in dungeons, Liberty, thou art,—
For there thy habitation is the heart—
The heart which love of Thee alone can bind."

Most of Byron's work is soppy romanticism, but in these two poems, "The Prisoner of Chillon" and "The Isles of Greece," he is a freedom fighter willing to lay down his life so that "freedom's fame finds wings on every wind."

Sunday, April 19, 2009

April 19: Battle of Concord (Vol. 42, pp. 1245-1246)

A short selection, but one of the most weighty — Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Concord Hymn." He wrote this poem in 1837, for a July 4 dedication of a monument to honor the men who fought on this day in 1775.
"By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee."

Of the first stanza, Dr. Eliot said that "in twenty-eight words here is the whole scene and all the essential circumstances ... what an accurate, moving, immortal description is this!"

Emerson was generally a prolix guy, but in this simple poem, he captured the spirit of 1775, the spirit of the fight against tyranny, the spirit of the men who were outnumbered and outgunned but still managed to defeat the mightiest army in the world.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

April 18: Ready for Adventures and Conquests (Vol. 14, pp. 17-28)

To mark this day in 1616, when Cervantes received the last rites of the Catholic Church, we get the introduction to "Don Quixote," where we meet the Man of La Mancha and the mission he launched himself on — to be a knight errant in a age when knights were no longer needed.

Friday, April 17, 2009

April 17: Benjamin Franklin — Book Salesman (Vol. 1, pp. 66-77)

The list of Franklin's accomplishments during his lifetime is long. One of his greatest was his invention of the lending library. On the anniversary of his death this day in 1790, we have this selection from Franklin's "Autobiography" telling how he did it.

In 1730, he convinced his Philadelphia neighbors to pool their books together into a subscription library. There were no bookshops then and books had to be imported from England. He found enough people willing to pay 40 shillings to join and 10 shillings a year thereafter to fund the library and buy more books.

It was a huge success which greatly contributed to the enlightenment of Philadelphia and, eventually, the nation, as other cities copied his idea.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

April 16: Inside the Gates of Hell (Vol. 20, pp. 32-39)

Unfortunately, after the high of Whitman, we get the lunatic ravings of Dante. Not what I would've have followed with.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April 15: O Captain! My Captain! (Vol. 42, pp. 1412-1420)

There is no way around it. It is impossible to mark the death of Abraham Lincoln without Walt Whitman's "O Captain My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."

Lincoln's assassination devastated Whitman and inspired him to write these works. Nothing else has the power, the beauty, the sadness of these two poems — works that encompassed all the emotions of a great national trauma.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 14: A raid on Spanish Treasure in America (Vol. 33, pp. 229-242)

Walter Biggs' "Drake's Great Armada" is today's reading. More imperialist rot about the English soldiers of fortune who raided Spanish settlements in the New World for fun and profit.

Monday, April 13, 2009

April 13: Michelangelo His Boon Companion (Vol. 31, pp. 23-35)

More Renaissance name-dropping by Cellini. Not interesting.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

April 12: The Perfect Argument (Vol. 37, pp. 230-240)

More from Berkeley's "Three Dialogues." Today, Hylas and Philonius yak away on how an argument should be conducted and the existence of God.

"Few men think, yet all have opinions," should be the epitaph for our time.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

April 11: Danger in Being Young and Fair (Vol. 19, pp. 115-131)

In today's selection from Goethe's "Faust," our hero is totally smitten by the lovely young Margaret. With Satan's help, Faust whips out a box of dazzling gems that melts Margaret's heart. Mildly interesting.

Friday, April 10, 2009

April 10: Americans — by Will of the King (Vol. 43, pp. 49-58)

King James granted the royal charter for what became Virginia this day in 1606. The text of the charter is today's reading. In those days, before one could go to the New World to seek his fortune, he had to ask the king's permission. He also had to pledge total obedience to God and the king. A hell of a way to settle a continent.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

April 9: A Perfect Land in a Wilderness of Waters (Vol. 3, pp. 145-155)

Sir Francis Bacon died this day in 1629, and the selection today from "New Atlantis" seems at first to be just another adventure story. However, this piece written toward the end of his life is really more of a vision of what the world could be like if truth and science could be used to promote human freedom and happiness.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

April 8: Beware the Vengeful Hounds! (Vol. 8, pp. 111-121)

Aeschylus may have been one of the inventors of drama, but this selection from "The Libation Bearers," doesn't do it for me. Sound and fury signifying nothing.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

April 7: Nature Guided His Pen (Vol. 41, pp. 639-651)

On this day in 1770, the English poet William Wordsworth was born. We get the famous daffodil poem, and that first stanza tells you all you need to know about his work:

"I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o'er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze."

He did love nature, but his poems laid it on thick in the way that all of his English contemporaries lay it on. Springtime doggerel.

Monday, April 6, 2009

April 6: Who Is Bad? (Vol. 2, pp. 243-253)

The Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius was born this day in 121, which is why we get this selection from his "Meditations" that takes up the question, "What is badness?" He doesn't come right out and answer that question. Instead, he goes round and round in the epigrams that he is famous for.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

April 5: You and Your Dreams (Vol. 34, pp. 313-322)

The great English philosopher Thomas Hobbes was born this day in 1588, but to mark the occasion, the editors select a really odd piece of Hobbes' masterwork, "Leviathan."

Instead of laying out his view of humans in the state of nature living lives "nasty, brutish and short," we get this snippet discussing dreams and imagination. A very un-Hobbes-like sample of his work.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

April 4: The Mistakes of Night (Vol. 18, pp. 205-215)

English playwright Oliver Goldsmith was born this day in 1774, so we get a selection from his best-known work, "She Stoops To Conquer." This play is supposed to be rollicking good fun, but it still seems like the usual overwrought, overwritten drama of the era.

April 3: Romance with a Happy Ending (Vol. 15, pp. 392-404)

I never heard of George Herbert, who was born this day in 1593, but Izaak Walton thought he was grand. In another one of Walton's mini-biographies of obscure English writers, he tells the tale of Herbert's whirlwind courtship with the woman who married him.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April 2: A Spoon Dances in the Moonlight (Vol. 29, pp. 462-471)

Yet another selection from Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle," and his South Seas travelogue. This time, it's the tale of an enormous spoon dressed in human finery and place upon a grave. As the natives chant over the grave in the moonlight, the spoon appears to dance. Not much of interest here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April 1: "Oh, to Be in England Now That April's There" (Vol. 42, pp. 1068-1074)

The poet Robert Browning wrote those words while in Italy, where all was warm and bright. For most of the Northern Hemisphere above 40 degrees latitude, particularly in Vermont, April 1 usually gray and cold and muddy. The daffodils and crocuses are tentatively poking up from the ground, the trees haven't yet budded and the migrating birds are just starting to straggle back north.

Winter may be finished, but spring has yet to fully arrive. Browning, whose poetry we're reading today, never saw a Vermont spring, which is slow to come and quick to leave.