Daily Trivia : Calvin and Hobbes and Bill Watterson

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In the words of Bill Watterson,

“Calvin is named for a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination. Most people assume that Calvin is based on a son of mine, or based on detailed memories of my own childhood.

In fact, I don’t have children, and I was a fairly quiet, obedient kid—almost Calvin’s opposite. One of the reasons that Calvin’s character is fun to write is that I often don’t agree with him.

Calvin is autobiographical in the sense that he thinks about the same issues that I do, but in this, Calvin reflects my adulthood more than my childhood. Many of Calvin’s struggles are metaphors for my own. I suspect that most of us get old without growing up, and that inside every adult (sometimes not very far inside) is a bratty kid who wants everything his own way.

I use Calvin as an outlet for my immaturity, as a way to keep myself curious about the natural world, as a way to ridicule my own obsessions, and as a way to comment on human nature. I wouldn’t want Calvin in my house, but on paper, he helps me sort through my life and understand it.”

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“Named after a seventeenth-century philosopher with a dim view of human nature, Hobbes has the patient dignity and common sense of most animals I’ve met.

Hobbes was very much inspired by one of our cats, a gray tabby named Sprite. Sprite not only provided the long body and facial characteristics for Hobbes, she also was the model for his personality.

With most cartoon animals, the humor comes from their human-like behavior. Hobbes stands upright and talks of course, but I try to preserve his feline side, both in his physical demeanor and his attitude.

His reserve and tact seem very catlike to me, along with his barely contained pride in not being human. Like Calvin, I often prefer the company of animals to people, and Hobbes is my idea of an ideal friend.”

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Calvin and Hobbes is set in the contemporary United States in an unspecified suburban area. Calvin is six years old and he has some strong opinions. Hobbes is his best friend, someone that he shares everything with. Hobbes can often see the absurdity of Calvin’s opinions and his behavior, but he puts up with it anyway.

Hobbes’ dual nature is a defining motif for the strip: to Calvin, Hobbes is a live tiger; all the other characters see him as an inanimate stuffed toy.

Bill Watterson explains this as follows:

“The so-called “gimmick” of my strip—the two versions of Hobbes—is sometimes misunderstood. I don’t think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin’s around.

Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin’s imagination. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that’s how life works. None of us sees the world exactly the same way, and I just draw that literally in the strip. Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.

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Calvin and Hobbes was conceived when Bill Watterson was working in advertising. It was a job that he detested and he wanted a way out. So he began devoting his spare time to cartooning, his true love. He explored various strip ideas but all of them were rejected by the syndicates.

United Media finally responded positively to one strip, which featured a side character (the main character’s little brother) who had a stuffed tiger. Told that these characters were the strongest, Watterson began a new strip centered on them.

Though United Feature rejected the new strip, Universal Press Syndicate eventually took it. Here is the first strip that was published on November 18, 1985.

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The series was an instant hit and within a year of syndication, it was being published in roughly 250 newspapers. At the height of its popularity, Calvin and Hobbes was featured in over 2,400 newspapers worldwide. Nearly 45 million copies of the Calvin and Hobbes books have been sold and reruns still appear in more than 50 countries.

Like many artists, Watterson incorporated elements of his life, interests, beliefs and values into his work—for example, his hobby as a cyclist, memories of his own father’s speeches about “building character”, and his views on merchandising and corporations.

From the outset, Watterson found himself at odds with the syndicate, which urged him to begin merchandising the characters and touring the country to promote the first collections of comic strips. Watterson refused. He believed that the integrity of the strip and its artist would be undermined by commercialisation which he saw as a major negative influence in the world of cartoon art.

He also grew increasingly frustrated by the gradual shrinking of available space for comics in the newspapers. He lamented that without space for anything more than simple dialogue or sparse artwork, comics as an art form were becoming dilute, bland, and unoriginal.  

Watterson announced the end of Calvin and Hobbes on November 9, 1995, saying that he had achieved what he could within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. He said that he was eager to work  at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises. Here is the last strip of Calvin and Hobbes that was published on December 31, 1995.

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Since then Watterson has taken up painting and he has kept away from the public eye. He has given no indication of resuming the strip, creating new works based on the characters, or embarking on other projects, though he has published several anthologies of Calvin and Hobbes.

Sources:

wikipedia
andrewsmcmeel.com

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Daily Trivia : Carl Sagan

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“I wanted to be a scientist from the moment I first caught on that stars are mighty suns, [and] it dawned on me how staggeringly far away they must be to appear to us as mere points of light.”

That is Carl Sagan who was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1934. He was interested in science from the very beginning and he was particularly fascinated by the stars.

He spent many nights of his childhood in a field, situating himself so he couldn’t see any buildings, trees, or anything else and he would sit there and watch the sky.

He graduated from high school and won a scholarship to the University of Chicago when he was only 16.  He then went on to become a professor of astronomy at Cornell University.

At a time when most other astronomers were focusing on distant stars, other galaxies, and the history of the universe, Sagan focused his research on the planets in our own solar system. He was particularly interested in the possibility that there might be life beyond the planet Earth.

Because he had done extensive research on nearby planets, NASA hired him as an advisor for a mission to send remote-controlled spacecrafts to Venus. Sagan said: “It was just a dream come true. We were actually going to go to the planets!”

In preparation for the mission, Sagan was shocked to learn that there would be no cameras on the robotic spacecrafts, called Mariner I and Mariner II.

The other scientists thought cameras would be a waste of valuable space and equipment. They wanted to measure things like temperature and magnetism. Sagan couldn’t believe they would give up the chance to see an alien planet up close. He said, “Cameras are important precisely because they could answer questions we are too stupid to ask.”

Sagan lost the argument that time, but he won over NASA eventually. The Mariners were the last exploratory spacecraft ever launched by NASA without cameras.

He contributed to the Viking, Voyager, and Galileo planetary exploration missions, and his insistence on the use of cameras helped us get the first close-up photographs of the outer planets and their moons.

Sagan understood that in order to get the public to care about science and be willing to give tax dollars to science, he would have to appeal to their sense of wonder.

He created the TV show Cosmos, which attracted an audience of more than half a billion people in 60 countries. It was the most popular scientific television program ever produced. The book, also called Cosmos,  that Sagan wrote alongside the TV series spent more than 70 weeks on the bestseller list.

He won a Pulitzer Prize for his book The Dragons of Eden (1977), about the evolution of human intelligence, and he was also the author of the best-selling novel Contact (1985), which was later made into a movie.

Sagan wrote 20 popular books and hundreds of scientific studies. Nevertheless, his fame brought him criticism from other scientists and a snub from the National Academy of Scientists, when he was nominated for membership but not accepted.

Carl Sagan was the most well known American scientist of the 80’s and 90’s, but he was more than a just a TV presenter, author and celebrity. He was a serious scientist who wanted to make the wonder and mystery of science available to everyone. His work has inspired many a young scientist and this is perhaps his greatest legacy.

 

Daily Trivia : Coleridge and Kubla Khan

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”

So begins one of the most famous poems in the English language. Coleridge attributed this poem to a dream vision that he had when he fell asleep one day after reading a story in which Kubla Khan commanded the building of a new palace. Coleridge claimed that while he slept, he had a vision and he composed —while sleeping—some two or three hundred lines of poetry.

When he woke up , he seized a pen and began writing furiously. But after writing down the first three stanzas of this dream  poem—the first three stanzas of the current poem as we know it—he was interrupted by a “person on business from Porlock,” who detained him for an hour.

After this interruption, he was unable to recall the rest of the vision or the lines of poetry he had composed in his opium induced dream. The final stanza of the poem which talks of a vision in which he saw “a damsel with a dulcimer” who played and sang of “Mount Abora” were written after the interruption.

The poem as it we know it today is a mere 54 lines long and haunting and beautiful as it is, it leaves you with a sense that there is much more to be said.

 

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Today is the birthday of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was born in Ottery St. Mary, England and he was the youngest of 14 children. He studied at Cambridge, but he struggled there, and he dropped out to join the cavalry. He did as poorly as a soldier as he had as a student, and his brothers ended up getting him discharged by reason of insanity.

At Cambridge, Coleridge had struck up an intense friendship with the poet Robert Southey, and the two men devised a plan to move to Pennsylvania and start a utopian community. Marriage was key to this utopia, so when Southey got engaged, Coleridge married the sister of Southey’s fiancée.

Then Southey abandoned his utopian ideal and decided to become a lawyer instead. Coleridge was devastated. He wrote to Southey: “You have left a large void in my heart — I know no man big enough to fill it.” He was depressed for a while, but shortly after that, Coleridge struck up a friendship with William Wordsworth and they became close friends.

The two men went for daily walks over the hills, discussing poetry, and together they wrote the book, Lyrical Ballads  in 1798 ,which opens with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and ends with Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey.

Between the fall of 1797 and the spring of 1798, a period when he saw Wordsworth daily and smoked a lot of opium, Coleridge wrote his most famous poems: Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan, Christabel, and Frost at Midnight.

He said, “A great poet […] must have the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracing the footsteps of an enemy upon the leaves that strew the forest, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child.”

In addition to being a poet Coleridge was a literary critic and a lecturer of some repute. He was a highly respected thinker and philosopher. But despite all his achievements, Coleridge always seemed to fall just short of his full potential. He was a habitual oversleeper. He broke plans and missed deadlines. He often left his mail unopened in case it contained bad news and he spent  half his life he battlling a crippling opium addiction that made him feel worthless and ashamed.

He never got some of his best ideas down on paper, leaving other, more diligent friends to write the poems Coleridge only talked about. He spent years working on a massive book of philosophy, but he never finished it. Coleridge spent most his life trying to bridge the chasm between the inside world and the outside one, the mind and physical reality. He was tremendously passionate. When he fell in love with an idea or a woman, he fell hard.

His marriage was unhappy from the start but he complicated matters for himself by falling in love with Sara Hutchinson (Wordsworth’s sister in law). He tried to stay faithful to his wife and to maintain a friendship with Sara, but it was too difficult and when Sara distanced herself from him, he was heart-broken. He blamed Wordsworth for advising her to keep her distance and they quarreled.

He separated from his wife and spent the rest of his life giving lectures and writing literary criticism. He continued to write poetry as well, but his best years as a poet were behind him. He finished his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria 1817. It is a volume composed of 23 chapters of autobiographical notes and dissertations on various subjects, including some incisive literary theory and criticism.

He composed some poetry and had many inspirations – a few of them from opium overdose. Perhaps because he conceived such grand projects, he had difficulty carrying them through to completion, and he berated himself for his “indolence”. It is unclear whether his growing use of opium (and the brandy in which it was dissolved) was a symptom or a cause of his growing depression.

He published other writings around this time notably Sibylline Leaves (1817), Hush (1820), Aids to Reflection (1825), and On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830). He died in Highgate, London on 25 July 1834 as a result of heart failure compounded by an unknown lung disorder, possibly linked to his use of opium.

 

Sources:

writer’s almanac

shoomp.com

spark notes.com

wikipedia

Daily Trivia : Tintin and Hergé

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On May 24th this year, a drawing by Hergé was sold for 2.5 million euros, a new world record for a comic strip. The piece, dating from 1937 and signed by the creator is a double page ink drawing created by Hergé for the inside cover of the Tintin adventures published between 1937 and 1958. It went to an American collector after 15 minutes of furious bidding at the Artcurial auction in Paris.

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Although he would go on to be one of the world’s most iconic cartoonists, Hergé (Georges Remi) was not a particularly standout student as a young boy. Instead, he preferred to indulge in his love for adventure and games with his friends on the streets of Brussels.

In secondary school, he joined the Boy Scouts. His drawing skills quickly caught the attention of the Scout leaders, and soon he was illustrating a Scout magazine and creating his first characters. Long before Tintin appeared in 1929, Georges Remi’s active imagination was conjuring up stories of international intrigue.

During the years of the First World War, Georges used the margins of his schoolbooks to scribble stories about a little character who played dirty tricks on German soldiers. He began drawing a comic strip featuring Totor, an adventurous Boy Scout who would become the basis for Tintin.

After leaving school and beginning work at the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siècle, Hergé oversaw a weekly supplement for children entitled Le Petit Vingtième. This got him thinking about a new character: “The little brother of Totor, a Totor-turned-journalist, yet with the spirit of a Boy Scout.”

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Hergé’s job provided him access to all the latest news, including the real-life exploits of French reporter and investigator Albert Londres. Londres’s career, as well as stories from Belgian and foreign papers, became fodder for Tintin’s adventures.

Tintin himself was modelled after Totor, with a round head, a button for a nose and two dots for eyes — but with the iconic quiff that makes him instantly recognizable. Tintin was the reporter that Hergé himself would have liked to be.

Tintin is myself. He reflects the best and brightest in me; he is my successful double. I am not a hero. But like all 15-year-old boys, I dreamt of being one…and I have never stopped dreaming. Tintin has accomplished many things on my behalf.” -Hergé –

The first Tintin adventure, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, was an instant hit with children and adults alike. As the adventures progressed, Hergé added all kinds of characters, some of whom he based on famous people (such as Bianca Castafiore, whose character was inspired by the opera singer Maria Callas). He also based some characters on friends and family (such as Thomson & Thompson, who were inspired by his father and his father’s twin brother).

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Although he started out as an investigative reporter, Tintin developed into a detective. He had a sharp eye for detail and considerable powers of deduction. A bit like James Bond, there was no car, motorcycle, locomotive, submarine, airplane, helicopter, horse or camel that Tintin could not drive, ride, steer or fly. No matter what situation Tintin found himself in, he was never at a loss for what to do.

Tintin was also an explorer, a fact that led to his most memorable achievement — taking the first steps on the moon, some 16 years before the American astronaut Neil Armstrong.

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For any child growing up amid the political and cultural changes of the twentieth century, Tintin was a role model who both inspired and delighted. Hergé drew upon the political events of the time and dedicated his life to creating adventures that transported readers to places around the world — from Japanese-occupied China in The Blue Lotus to the Arctic Ocean in The Shooting Star.

Throughout his career, Hergé strove to bring as much of the real world as he could into the world of Tintin. Although Tintin travelled around the world, Hergé stayed in Belgium for most of his life. In his later years, the artist and author managed to make trips to several countries and see first-hand the places that had inspired Tintin’s adventures.

Hergé’s career as a cartoonist was successful from the start, but it had one major hurdle. It came after the Second World War, after the end of German occupation when he was accused of being a collaborator because of the Nazi control of the paper (Le Soir),that he had been writing for. He claimed that he was simply doing a job under the occupation, like a plumber or carpenter, without any political sympathies.

But he admitted later that: “I recognize that I myself believed that the future of the West could depend on the New Order…In light of everything which has happened, it is of course a huge error…” Tintin, however was never depicted as being pro-German but the comic had hints of anti-Semitic themes that angered quite a few people.

Le Soir was shut down by the allied authorities and Tintin’s adventures were interrupted toward the end of The Seven Crystal Balls. During the chaotic post-occupation period, Hergé was arrested four times and he was publicly accused of Nasi and Rexist sympathies. Like other former employees of the Nazi-controlled press, Hergé found himself barred from newspaper work in post-war Belgium. He spent the next two years adapting many of the early Tintin adventures into colour.

Tintin’s exile ended on 26 September 1946. The publisher and wartime resistance fighter Raymond Leblanc provided the financial support and anti-Nazi credentials to launch Tintin the magazine with Hergé. It was a weekly publication that featured two pages of Tintin’s adventures, beginning with the remainder of The Seven Crystal Balls as well as other comic strips and assorted articles. It became highly successful, and weekly circulation surpassed 100,000 at one time.

Since then Tintin’s adventures continued uninterrupted until Hergé’s death in 1983. Tintin has been translated into over a hundred languages. In German he is called Tim, in Turkish he is called Tenten and in Latin he is known as Titinus. To celebrate Hergé’s seventy-fifth birthday, the Société Belge d’Astronomie gave his name to a newly discovered asteroid. The asteroid Hergé is located between Mars and Jupiter.

Sources:

tintin.com

wikipedia

 

Daily Trivia : Issac Asimov

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Issac Asimov was born in Petrovichi, Russia (1920). Three years later his family immigrated to Brooklyn, New York, where they ran a candy store that carried science fiction magazines. Isaac’s father didn’t allow him to read the magazines but he did it anyway. His family wanted him to go to medical school and become a doctor, which he had no interest in doing, but he applied and was happy when he was turned down and could go to college to study chemistry instead.

Asimov published his first short story in Amazing Stories when he was 18. He was able to put himself through college and graduate school at Columbia University by writing and publishing stories. He published his 32nd story called Nightfall in 1941 in Astounding Science Fiction magazine when he was just 21 years old. It won numerous awards and is often considered the best science-fiction short story ever written.

After graduate school Asimov taught biochemistry at Boston University school of Medicine, but he had no interest in research or academic publishing. He continued to write short stories until 1950 when he published his first science fiction novel, Pebble in the Sky.

1950 was also the year in which he published I, Robot, which featured the ‘Three Laws of Robotics”, which seem so sensible and self-evident almost, that people believed that any future robots would have to have these laws built into them.

Just year after this Asimov published Foundation which is perhaps his best known work. Then came Foundation and Empire (1952) and Second Foundation (1953). There were four more books in this series, two sequels and two prequels a couple of which were published in the 1980’s.

Isaac Asimov called himself “a born explainer” and he is known for writing books on a wide variety of subjects like Astronomy, Biology, Mathematics and Religion.

Kurt Vonnegut once asked him how it felt to know everything, to which he replied, “I only know how it feels to have the reputation of knowing everything. Uneasy.” He said when he had to write about something he knew little about he closed his eyes and typed “very very fast.”

Isaac Asimov died in 1992 after contracting AIDS from an HIV infected blood transfusion he received during a 1982 open heart surgery operation.

Sources:

Writer’s Almanac
Biography.com

Daily Trivia : Gene Roddenberry

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Today is the birthday of the father of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry who was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1921. He was affectionately referred to as the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” and he led a life as colourful and exciting as any high-adventure fiction.

He flew B-17 bombers during World War II and he was decorated with the Distinguished flying Cross and the Air Medal.

It was while he was in the South Pacific during the war that Roddenberry began to write. He sold stories to flying magazines, and later poetry to different publications, including The New York Times.

He flew commercially for Pan-Am after the war, and he later served as an officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.

He really wanted to be a writer, though, and he got some freelance jobs consulting and writing scripts for several TV shows, including  Dragnet, Have Gun — Will Travel, and Dr. Kildare. In 1956, he resigned from the LAPD and began writing full time.

The first show he created and produced was NBC’s The Lieutenant, which aired from 1963 to 1964. Set at Camp Pendleton, it examined social issues through the lens of a military environment.

He’d always loved science fiction, though, so in 1964 he developed the idea of a new series about space exploration — “a Wagon Train to the stars,” as he described it — and shopped it around to several studios, most of which were uninterested.

Desilu Productions, the company run by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, finally expressed an interest, and NBC agreed to run it. The first of the two pilots was pronounced “too cerebral” by the network and rejected.

Once on the air, however, Star Trek developed a loyal following as viewers grew to love the Starship Enterprise and its crew. The first episode was aired on September 8, 1966.

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The show only ran for three seasons, but it was a huge success in syndication, and has since spawned an animated series, four spin-off live-action TV series, and 11 feature films.

Star Trek was so wildly popular that it was the first television series to have an episode preserved in the Smithsonian, where an 11-foot model of the U.S.S. Enterprise is also exhibited on the same floor as the Wright brother’s original airplane and Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis.”

In addition to the Smithsonian honors, NASA’s first space shuttle was named Enterprise, in response to hundreds of thousands of letters from fans demanding that the shuttle be named after the beloved starship.

What made the show special is the fact that it was the first science-fiction series to depict a generally peaceful and progressive future…This stemmed from Roddenberry’s fundamental optimism about the human race.

“It speaks to some basic human needs,” he said in 1991, “that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans.”

The show went outside television to win science fiction’s coveted Hugo award and on September 4, 1986, Gene Roddenberry’s fans presented him with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the first writer/producer to be so honored.

His novelization of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (Pocket Books, 1979) sold close to a million copies and was ranked number one on the national bestseller lists for many weeks.

Roddenberry died in 1991 and his ashes were carried on a 1992 mission of the space shuttle Columbia. The following year, NASA awarded him their Distinguished Public Service Medal for “distinguished service to the Nation and the human race in presenting the exploration of space as an exciting frontier and a hope for the future.”

Sources:
http://www.rodenberry.com
Writer’s Almanac

Daily Trivia : Agatha Christie

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Agatha Christie is the most widely published author of all time and in any language, outsold only by the Bible and Shakespeare. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in English and another billion in a hundred foreign languages.

She is the author of eighty crime novels and short-story collections, nineteen plays, two memoirs, and six novels written under the name Mary Westmacott. She is till date, the most translated author of all time.

She first tried her hand at detective fiction while working in a hospital dispensary during World War I, creating the now legendary Hercule Poirot with her debut novel The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

With The Murder in the Vicarage, published in 1930, she introduced another beloved sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. Additional series characters include the husband-and-wife crime-fighting team of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, private investigator Parker Pyne, and Scotland Yard detectives Superintendent Battle and Inspector Japp.

Many of Christie’s novels and short stories were adapted into plays, films and television series. The Mousetrap, her most famous play of all, opened in 1952 and is the longest-running play in history.

Among her best-known film adaptations are Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Death on the Nile (1978), with Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov playing Hercule Poirot, respectively.

Agatha Christie was first married to Archibald Christie and then to archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, whom she accompanied on expeditions to countries that would also serve as the settings for many of her novels.

In 1971 she achieved one of Britain’s highest honors when she was made a Dame of the British Empire. She died in 1976 at the age of eighty-five.

Source:

http://www.AgathaChristie.com

Daily Trivia : Aldous Huxley and Brave New World

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Aldous Huxley was born on 26th July, 1894, in Godalming, England. Huxley completed his first (unpublished) novel at the age of 17 and began writing seriously in his early 20s.

He spent much of his time in Italy until the late 1930s, when he settled in California. He established himself as a major author with his first two published novels,  CromeYellow and Antic Hay.

But it is for Brave New World that he is most remembered today. Published in 1932, Brave New World arose out of Huxley’s distrust of 20th-century politics and technology.

He started out intending to write a parody of H.G. Wells’ utopian novel 
Men Like Gods (1923). He ended by envisioning a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford’s assembly lines: a mass-produced culture in which people are fed a steady diet of bland amusements and take an antidepressant called soma to keep themselves from feeling anything negative.

Brave New World is often compared with George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), since they each offer a view of a dystopian future. Cultural critic Neil Postman spelled out the difference between the two books as follows:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”

“Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

“Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture. … In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”

Sources:

Writers Almanac
Wikipedia
Biography.com

Daily Trivia : Erle Stanley Gardner

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Erle Stanley Gardner was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1889. He went to Valparaiso University to study law, but he was kicked out after only a month for participating in an illegal boxing match.

So he studied law on his own, and he passed the California bar exam when he was 21. He went to his swearing-in ceremony after a boxing match, and said that he was probably the only attorney in the state to be sworn in with two black eyes.

Innovative and restless in nature, he was bored by the routine of legal practice, the only part of which he enjoyed was trial work and the development of trial strategy. So in his spare time, he began to write stories for pulp magazines.

He created many different characters for the pulps, including the ingenious Lester Leith, a “gentleman thief” in the tradition of Raffles, and Ken Corning, a crusading lawyer who was the basis of his most successful creation, the fictional lawyer and crime-solver Perry Mason.

In 1933, he published The Case of the Velvet Claws, his first novel featuring detective and defense attorney, Perry Mason.

Gardner wrote more than 80 Perry Mason novels, and his books have sold more than 300 million copies.

With the success of Perry Mason, he gradually reduced his contributions to the pulp magazines, eventually withdrawing from the medium entirely, except for non-fiction articles on travel, Western history, and forensic science.

He said: “I still have vivid recollections of putting in day after day of trying a case in front of a jury, which is one of the most exhausting activities I know about, dashing up to the law library after court had adjourned to spend three or four hours looking up law points with which I could trap my adversary the next day, then going home, grabbing a glass of milk with an egg in it, dashing upstairs to my study, ripping the cover off my typewriter, noticing it was 11:30 p.m. and settling down with grim determination to get a plot for a story. Along about 3 in the morning I would have completed my daily stint of a 4,000-word minimum and would crawl into bed.”

After a few years of this, Gardner gave up the practice of law to devote himself to writing. In 1937 he moved to Temecula, California, where he lived for the rest of his life. On August 9, 1968 he married his long-time secretary Agnes Jean Bethell, the “real Della Street”.

Gardner also devoted thousands of hours to a project called “The Court of Last Resort”, which he undertook with his many friends in the forensic, legal and investigative communities.

The project sought to review and, if appropriate, to reverse, miscarriages of justice against possibly innocent criminal defendants who were originally convicted owing to poor legal representation; or to the inadequate, careless or malicious actions of police and prosecutors; or most especially, because of the abuse or misinterpretation of medical and other forensic evidence.

The resulting 1952 book earned Gardner his only Edgar award In the Best Fact Crime category.

Sources:

Writer’s Almanac
Goodreads
Wikipedia

Daily Trivia : The Catcher in the Rye and J D Salinger

It was on this day that The Catcher in the Rye was published back in 1951. The book is about a 16-year-old prep school boy named Holden Caulfield, who is fed up with all the “phonies” and wants to go live in a cabin in California. Salinger took ten years to write this book and it was at one time the most banned book and the most frequently taught book in America.

The book begins with Holden Caulfield saying,  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

And later he says: “I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

The book earned its share of positive reviews, but some critics weren’t so kind. A few saw the main character of Caulfield and his quest for something pure in an otherwise “phony” world as promoting immoral views. But over time the American reading public ate the book up and The Catcher in the Rye became an integral part of academic literature curriculum. To date the book has sold more than 120 million copies worldwide.

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The Catcher in the Rye, set a new course for literature in post-WWII America and vaulted Salinger to the heights of literary fame.  For the young writer, who had fiercely boasted in college about his talents, the success he had seemingly craved early in life became something he ran away from once it came.

In 1953, just two years after the publication of Catcher, Salinger pulled up stakes in New York City and retreated to a secluded home in New Hampshire. There, Salinger did his best to cut-off contact with the public and significantly slowed his literary output.

Two collections of his work, Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters—all of which had appeared previously in The New Yorker—were published in book form in the early 1960s. The June 19, 1965, edition of The New Yorker was devoted almost entirely to a new Salinger short story, the 25,000-word Hapworth 16, 1924, a novella in the form of a long letter from seven-year-old Seymour Glass while at summer camp.

His first new work in six years, the novella was almost universally panned. This was the last Salinger piece ever to be published while he was still alive. Despite the lack of published work over the last four decades of his life, Salinger continued to write. Those who knew him said he worked every day and speculation swirled about the amount of work that he may have finished by the time of his death in 2010. In 2013, Shane Salerno and David Shields published a biography of J D Salinger in which they revealed that there are about five unpublished works of his that are scheduled to be released over the next few years.

Sources:

Writer’s Almanac

Biography.com

 

Daily Trivia : Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust was born in Auteuil, France, in 1871. His major work is the seven-volume À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (originally translated as Remembrance of Things Past and  more recently, as In Search of Lost Time.) It is 3,000 pages long and it is Proust’s own life story, written in a stream of consciousness style and told as an allegorical search for truth.

Proust was born during the violence that surrounded the suppression of the Paris Commune, and his childhood corresponds with the consolidation of the French Third Republic. Much of Remembrance of Things Past concerns the vast changes, most particularly the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the middle classes, that occurred in France during the Third Republic.

Proust had a serious asthma attack when he was nine and from then on he was considered a sickly child, so he spent long holidays in the village of Illiers. This village, combined with aspects of the time he spent at his great-uncle’s house in Auteuil became the model for the fictional town of Combray, where some of the most important scenes of Remembrance of Things Past take place. (Illiers was renamed Illiers-Combray on the occasion of the Proust centenary celebrations.)

Despite his poor health, Proust served for a year as an enlisted man in the French army, stationed at Coligny Caserne in Orléans, an experience that provided the basis for a lengthy episode in The Guermantes Way, volume three of his novel.

As a young man, Proust was a dilettante and a successful social climber, whose aspirations as a writer were hampered by his lack of application to work. His reputation from this period, as a snob and an aesthete, contributed to his later troubles with getting his book published.

Towards the end of the 1890s Proust began to withdraw more and more from society, and although he was never entirely reclusive, as is sometimes made out, he lapsed more completely into his lifelong tendency to sleep during the day and work at night. He was also plagued with severe asthma, which had troubled him intermittently since childhood, and a terror of his own death, especially in case it should come before his novel had been completed.

Proust started writing Remembrance of Things Past in 1905, but he put it aside after a while. He realised that he needed to think about his book a little more and  to clarify what  it’s philosophy would be. He did other writing in the mean time…plays, parodies and essays. He had an epiphany in January 1909, and he went back to his novel the following June.

He produced the first volume, Swann’s Way, in 1913, publishing it at his own expense after several publishers rejected it.  He spent the next decade working on the rest of his book which has a total of eight volumes, the last three of which Proust was  proofreading and editing on his deathbed in 1922.

Proust is widely recognised today as one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, and À la recherche du temps perdu is considered one of the most dazzling and significant works of literature to be written in modern times.


Source:

Writer’s almanac

Goodreads

Wikipedia

Daily Trivia : The Type-Writer and the QWERTY keyboard.

sholes-prototypeIt was in June of 1868, that the typewriter was patented by Christopher Latham Sholes. It only had capital letters and it took up as much room as a large table. Typewriters were slow sellers at first, but Mark Twain bought one almost as soon as they came out, and in 1883 Twain sent the manuscript of his book Life on the Mississippi to his publisher in typed form, the first author ever to do so.

Sholes’ machine was not the first typewriter. It wasn’t even the first typewriter to receive a patent. But it was the first typewriter to have actual practical value for the individual, so it became the first machine to be mass-produced. After receiving his patent, Sholes licensed it to Remington & Sons. The first commercial typewriter, the Remington Model 1, hit the shelves in 1873.

The earliest typewriter keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys. It was assumed that this would be the most efficient arrangement. Anyone who used the typewriter would know where to find each letter without having to look for it and typing speed would be increased.

So why did the typewriter switch to the qwerty layout that we all use today? There are two very different theories about this.  One story goes that with the old alphabetical typewriter, the keys tended to get stuck whenever a user typed a succession of letters whose type bars were near each other. So Sholes redesigned the arrangement to separate the most common sequences of letters like “th” or “he”. In theory then, the QWERTY system should maximize the separation of common letter pairings. But the idea doesn’t quite hold when you consider that “er” is the fourth most common letter pairing in the English language.

The other story says that the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. This theory suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators.

Whatever the reason for its creation, the qwerty keyboard was quickly accepted. Sholes took out a patent for the qwerty layout in 1878.  When the first generation of computer keyboards emerged, there was no longer any technical reason to use the qwerty layout…computers don’t get jammed. But against this was the fact that millions of people had learned to type on QWERTY keyboards and the layout was familiar.

So the QWERTY stayed and we continue to use it not just in computers, but even on tablets and smart phones…a 136 years after it was created.

Source: smithsonianmag.com

ideafinder.com

 

Daily Trivia : Hans Christian Andersen, story-teller, novelist and travel writer

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Hans Christian Anderson is the man who created Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina,
The Ugly Duckling and many other beloved fairy tales which have become a part of our collective consciousness. His stories have been translated into 125 languages and are read around the world.

But they were not particularly well received when they were first published. Andersen was in fact, recognised as a novelist and a travel writer before he came to be known for his fairy tales.

His first, successful book was The Improvisatore. It is an autobiographical novel, reflecting Andersen’s travels in Italy in 1833 and it reveals much about his own life and aspirations as experienced by Antonio, the novel’s principal character.

Considered by some to be the first modern European novel, it was published by Reitzels Forlag in 1835. It was an immediate success. It was published in Germany the following year and, in France three years later. For many years, The Improvisatore was the most widely read of all of Andersen’s works.

In 1851, he published to wide acclaim
In Sweden, a volume of travel sketches. A keen traveler, Andersen published several other travelogues: Shadow Pictures of a Journey to the Harz, Swiss Saxony, A Poet’s Bazaar, In Spain, and A Visit to Portugal.

In his travelogues, Andersen paid heed to some of the contemporary conventions of travel writing, but he manipulated the genre to suit his own purposes.

Each of his travelogues combines documentary and descriptive accounts of the sights he saw with more philosophical passages on topics such as being an author, immortality, and the role of fiction in a travelogue.

But it’s for his three collections of fairy tales that he is remembered today. Andersen wrote in the everyday language of the common Danish people, and he refused to talk down to children or shelter them from the dark and scary.

Later translators cut out some of the scarier parts and gave the tales happy endings, and so we think of them as lighthearted and innocent, but that was not originally the case.

Sources : Writer’s almanac

Biography.com

Wikipedia

Daily Trivia : Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

These are lines from what has to be one of the best known poems ever written. Published in 1923, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, continues to resonate with readers even today. It was first published in The New Republic magazine. It was Frost’s favourite of his own poems, and he called it “my best bid for remembrance.” Though it’s a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. He’d stayed up the night before working on a long and difficult poem called New Hampshire.

It was morning when he finally finished it. Feeling relieved he went outside and watched the sunrise. While he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page. He said, “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.” He struggled with the ending, until he decided to repeat the famous last line, “And miles to go before I sleep.”

Sources : Writer’s almanac

 

Daily Trivia : ASF magazine…The story of a visionary editor

Astounding Stories was one of the most popular science fiction magazines in America in the 1930’s. It was a pulp magazine which published stories that were action packed and fantastic, though they often had little to do with real science.

A state of affairs that changed when John W Campbell took over as the editor of the magazine in 1937. Campbell changed the name of the magazine to Astounding Science-Fiction (and later to Analog), and he transformed it. He wanted to change its reputation from that of a pulp fiction publication to one based on real science.

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He recruited and championed writers like Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon. He insisted that the stories published in the magazine should have convincing science as well as convincing characters. He preferred uncomfortable ideas that would push readers, and he had no qualms insisting that his writers completely change the endings of stories if he didn’t like them.

Isaac Asimov said of Campbell that, “What he wanted were people who would write stories in which the science was realistic. Not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t go out into the blue yonder, not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t extrapolate wildly, but realistic in the sense that people who worked in science resembled people who actually worked in science. That scientists acted the way scientists do, that engineers acted the way engineers do — and in short, that the scientific culture be represented accurately.”

According to Brian Aldiss, Campbell, “forced his writers to think much harder about what they were trying to say, and clamped down on the Gosh-wowery.”

His training as a scientist also aided his stable of authors, many of whom would receive notations back with their manuscripts that helped with the technical side of the fiction. No longer satisfied with gadgetry and action per se, Campbell demanded that his writers try to think about how science and technology might really develop in the future-and, most importantly, how those changes would affect the lives of human beings.

This new sophistication soon made Astounding Science Fiction the undisputed leader in the field, and Campbell began to think the old title was too “sensational” to reflect what the magazine was actually doing. He chose Analog in part because he thought of each story as an “analog simulation” of a possible future, and in part because of the close analogy he saw between the imagined science in the stories he was publishing and the real science being done in laboratories around the world.

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One of the key resources that Campbell was able to draw upon was a new generation of authors who had grown up reading the science fiction stories from the pulp era. They didn’t have to define the genre that they worked in: Within the long boundaries of the genre, they were able to create and respond to other stories. With the focus on realism over the sensational, Campbell had set the tone for the stories that would come over the next several decades.

As of 2013, Analog Science Fiction and Fact is the longest running continuously published magazine of its genre

Sources:

writer’s almanac

Analog science fiction website.

Daily Trivia : Gilbert and Sullivan

“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”

That’s Sir W S Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. The two of them wrote 14 comic operas; Gilbert was the librettist, and Sir Arthur Sullivan composed the music. The operas, which lampooned hot topics of the Victorian era, are still widely popular even though the barbs are dated and modern audiences miss most of the references; Sir Gilbert’s wordplay is so skillful that no greater knowledge of context is necessary.

Gilbert and Sullivan met in 1870, and they began collaborating the following year. Their working relationship was often strained because they had very different personalities and different ambitions. Gilbert, who was often contentious and prickly, poked fun at the upper classes. Sullivan, who avoided conflict whenever possible, longed to be accepted by them.

They also argued because they each felt the other’s work was given more prominence. Gilbert favored absurd stories where Sullivan preferred more genuine emotion and realism. They nevertheless managed to produce such enduring favorites as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885).

Source:

writer’s almanac

Daily Trivia : Jules Verne

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Often referred to as the “Father of Science Fiction,” Jules Verne wrote his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, at the age of 35. He went on to be the second most translated author of all time, writing books about a variety of innovations and technological advancements years before they were practical realities.

Jules Verne was born on February 8, 1828, in the city of Nantes, France, a busy maritime port city. There, Verne was exposed to schooners and ships departing and arriving, sparking his imagination for travel and adventure. While attending boarding school, he began to capture his imagination in short stories and poetry. After Verne left boarding school, his father sent him to Paris to study law.

While in Paris, instead of immersing himself in the law, Verne found himself attracted to the theater, and after obtaining his law degree and setting up a practice in 1850, he began writing numerous plays, dramas and operettas.

His plays got him attention but they did not make him enough money to live comfortably. So Verne became a stockbroker to support himself. The job meant little to him, but it provided him with enough financial stability to marry Honorine de Viane, a young widow with two daughters, in 1857.

Verne then began to write novels but his initial efforts were all rejected. His luck changed when he made the acquaintance of editor and publisher Jules Hetzel, who would become Verne’s champion, Verne’s literary career truly began, with the 1863 publication of Five Weeks in a Balloon (serialized in Hetzel’s Magazine d’Éducation et de Récréation, as most of his works were). The book garnered wide acclaim, but poor sales.

Regardless of the revenue created by the book, Verne knew that he had finally found his place in the world. He then immersed himself in his work with unbridled enthusiasm, and over the course of the next ten years, he would create many of his classic novels.

In all, Verne wrote more than 70 books and conjured hundreds of memorable characters and countless innovations years before their time, including the submarine, space travel, terrestrial flight and deep-sea exploration.

His works of imagination, and the innovations and inventions contained within, have appeared in countless forms, from motion pictures to the stage, to television and his writings on scientific endeavors have sparked the imaginations of writers, scientists and inventors for over a century.

Source: biography.com

Daily Trivia: G K Chesterton

Chesterton

“I think I owe my success [as a journalist] to having listened respectfully and rather bashfully to the very best advice, given by all the best journalists who had achieved the best sort of success in journalism; and then going away and doing the exact opposite. . . I have a notion that the real advice I could give to a young journalist is simply this: to write an article for the Sporting Times and one for the Church Times and put them in the wrong envelopes. . . What is really the matter with almost every paper, is that it is much too full of things suitable to the paper.”

– G.K. Chesterton

That is just one example of Chesterton’s refreshing sense of humour. A lot of his writing is suffused with mischief and a certain unwillingness to be serious that makes him a delight to read. He says in the introduction to one of his books, a collection of essays called All things Considered that “Their (the essays in the book) chief  vice is that so many of them are serious because I had no time to make them flippant. It is so easy to be solemn, so hard to be frivolous.”

Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English critic and author of verse, essays, novels, and short stories.

He was a witty, intelligent, and insightful defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, and especially of the family. He loved good beer, good wine, and good cigars. He wrote in just about every genre: history, biography, novels, poetry, short stories, apologetics and theology, economic works, and more.

As a literary critic, Chesterton was without parallel. His biography of Charles Dickens is credited with sparking the Dickens revival in London in the early 20th century. His biography of St. Thomas Aquinas was called the best book on St. Thomas ever written, by no less than Etienne Gilson, the 20th century’s greatest Thomistic scholar.

His books Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are considered the 20th century’s finest works of Christian and Catholic apologetics. And audiences still delight in the adventures of Chesterton’s priest sleuth, Father Brown, as well as such timeless novels as The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Despite the large number of books he published, Chesterton considered himself to be primarily a journalist. During his lifetime, he published literally thousands of essays in newspapers and journals on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Illustrated London News, the Daily News, his own newspaper, G.K’s Weekly, and the New York American. These essays are as fresh, invigorating, and relevant today as when they were first published.

 

 

Daily Trivia : The greatest library of the ancient world

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2300 years ago, Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s pupil, brought his dream of culture and conquest, of uniting the world and launching a new era to the timeless land of Egypt.  Alexander selected the site for a new capital:  Alexandria.   

His successors in Egypt, the Ptolemies, built Alexandria, and made it the intellectual capital of the world.   Its lighthouse, the Pharos, was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  But a greater legacy was the Ancient Library of Alexandria.  

Launched in 288 BC by Ptolemy I (Soter) under the guidance of Demetrius of Phaleron, the temple to the muses, or Mouseion (in greek), or museum (in latin) was part academy, part research center, and part library.  The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all civilizations came to study and exchange ideas.

As many as 700,000 scrolls, the equivalent of more than 100,000 modern printed books, filled the shelves.  The library was open to scholars from all cultures.  Girls and boys studied regularly at the Ancient Library. It was while living and working here that

Aristarchus realised and declared that the earth revolves around the sun, a full 1800 years before Copernicus;

Eratosthenes proved that the earth was spherical and calculated its circumference with amazing accuracy, 1700 years before Columbus sailed on his epic voyage

Hipparchus established the first atlas of the stars and calculated the length of the solar year accurately to within 6.5 minutes

Callimachus the poet described the texts in the library organized by subject and author, becoming the father of library science,

Euclid wrote his elements of geometry, the basic text studied in schools all over the world even now

Herophylus identified the brain as the controlling organ of the body and launched a new era of medicine

Manetho chronicled the pharaohs and organized our history into the dynasties we use to this day.

Zenodotus and the grammarians established the basics of literary scholarship with their meticulous definition of the Homerian text for the Iliad and the Odyssey

And the list of great names and great achievements goes on and on…

Diophantes, Appolonius of Perga, Heron and visiting scholars such as Archimedes…

They and many others were all members of that amazing community of scholars, which mapped the heavens, organized the calendar, established the foundations of science and pushed the boundaries of our knowledge.

They opened up the cultures of the world, established a true dialogue of civilizations.  Indeed, it was at the ancient Library of Alexandria that 72 specialists first translated The Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek (the famous Septuagint).  

Together these scholars promoted rationality, tolerance and understanding and organized universal knowledge. For over six centuries the ancient Library of Alexandria epitomized the zenith of learning, as later scholars, such Claudius Ptolemy and Dioscoredes built on that explosion of knowledge and added their contributions.

The Library of Alexandria was located in at least three buildings: (i) the original Muesum in the royal district of the city, (ii) the additional building mostly for book storage, located on the harbor, and  (iii) the “daughter Library” located in the Serapeum, the temple to Serapis, cult god of Alexandria.  The Serapeum was located in the southwest part of the city, the popular quarter

To this day it symbolizes the noblest aspirations of the human mind, global ecumenism, and the greatest achievements of the intellect.  

The Library disappeared slowly, suffering a slow decline from the time of Caesar and Cleopatra. Indeed, the first disaster was in 48 B.C., when the part of the library located at the harbor was accidentally set afire during the Alexandrian war of Julius Caesar.

However, Marc Anthony gave Cleopatra the 200,000 scrolls of Pergamon, to make up for the losses.  Yet, subsequent upheavals within the Roman Empire resulted in the gradual neglect and ultimate destruction of the library. 

Roman armies came to Alexandria to “restore order several times between 200 and 300 AD, and it was on one of those occasions, (probably the campaign of Aurelius in 272 AD) that the entire royal quarter and the original Museum were destroyed.  

Christianity was brought to Africa through Alexandria by St. Marc in the first century AD, and it was followed by merciless and brutal persecution of the Christians by the Romans in the first three centuries.  

Persecution ceased with the conversion of Constantine the Great, but schisms erupted in the church. Tensions were running high. In 391 AD Emperor Theodosius issued a decree banning all religions other than Christianity and Christian Groups under Bishop Theophilus burnt the Serapeum in 391 AD.  This was the end of the ancient library as a public institution. 

What remained were the scholars in an uneasy co-existence with an increasingly militant Christian mob.Tragedy struck in 415 AD when Hypatia, one of the most respected scholars of her time, the first woman to study and master mathematics and astronomy, a neo-Platonist philosopher and charismatic orator, was declared a witch and brutally murdered by the mob. She became the first martyr to science.

Thus by 400 A.D. the Library had vanished, and the era of Alexandrian scholarship came to an end.

But the memory of the ancient Library of Alexandria lived on and continued to inspire scholars and humanists everywhere.  

In 2002 the Egyptian government inaugurated a new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, near the site of the ancient institution.


Source: Ishmael Serageldin

Ismail Serageldin is the Founding Director of The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), the new Library of Alexandria, inaugurated in 2002.

Daily Trivia : Walt Whitman

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Today is the birthday of Walt Whitman born on Long Island, New York in 1819. Whitman was working as a carpenter and living with his mother in Brooklyn, when he read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” which claimed the new United States needed a poet to properly capture its spirit. Whitman decided he was that poet. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman later said. “Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Whitman began work on Leaves of Grass, crafting an American epic that celebrated the common man. He did most of the typesetting for the book himself, and he made sure the edition was small enough to fit in a pocket, later explaining, “I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air.” He was 37 years old when he paid for the publication of 795 copies out of his own pocket.

Many of Whitman’s poems were criticized for being openly erotic. One of Whitman’s earliest reviews had called the book “a mass of stupid filth,” accusing Whitman of “that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians.” But rather than censoring himself, Whitman added 146 poems to his third edition.

He began to grow a literary reputation that swung from genius to moral reprobate, depending on the reader. Thoreau wrote, “It is as if the beasts spoke.” Willa Cather referred to Whitman as “that dirty old man.” Emerson praised Whitman’s collection as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed,” and the critic William Michael Rossetti proclaimed that Whitman was a talent on par with Shakespeare.

Whitman left New York when his brother was wounded in the Civil War, traveling to Virginia and then to Washington, D.C., to serve as a volunteer Army hospital nurse. He had a reputation for unconventional clothing and manners.

With the help of well-placed friends, Whitman eventually found work as a low-level clerk in the Department of the Interior. But when former Iowa Senator James Harlan discovered Whitman worked in his department, he had him dismissed, proclaiming Leaves of Grass was “full of indecent passages,” and that Whitman himself was a “very bad man” and a “free lover.”

Whitman’s friend William Douglas O’Connor immediately came to his defense. He arranged for Whitman to be transferred to the attorney general’s office, and he published a pamphlet refuting Harlan’s charges. Titled The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, the small book praised Whitman’s “nobleness of character” and went on to quote from positive reviews — and to ridicule Harlan as an under-read philistine.

The pamphlet became more than a vindication: it helped to radically alter the average reader’s perception of Whitman as both a writer and as a man: Out with the image of the bawdy nonconformist and in with the “good gray poet,” the nickname for Whitman that is still popular to this day.

Whitman spent the last 20 years of his life revising and expanding Leaves of Grass, issuing the eighth and final edition in 1891, saying it was “at last complete — after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old.”

Today, most scholars agree that Whitman was likely gay. When he was asked directly, toward the end of his life, Whitman declined to answer. But he did say, shortly before he died, that sex was “the thing in my work which has been most misunderstood — that has excited the roundest opposition, the sharpest venom, the unintermitted slander, of the people who regard themselves as the custodians of the morals of the world.”