Browsing "Literature"

On a Note of Triumph

It’s Veterans Day, a holiday which I think is getting a whole lot more notice this year on this uncommonly parallel date. Of course, the day and the men and women it honors deserves this much attention every year, but we Americans aren’t particularly gifted at long memory, with such a skinny history on this continent, or laser focus, as our culture is built on perpetually scanning the horizon for the next and the new.

I’ve been incredibly blessed with extraordinary history teachers, from a very early age, as I’ve mentioned earlier. This only fed my inborn affinity and curiosity for the subject, so add what I’ve learned  on my own perambulations to all the excellent instruction I’ve received. In all, I’d like to think myself pretty broadly informed about our past.

So I was shocked and kind of appalled at myself when I discovered a gap in the shape of a man named Norman Corwin. Corwin was a writer and producers of radio dramas for CBS, a colleague of Edward Murrow’s. He made weekly radio dramas throughout World War II, and because CBS was the underdog network, they gave him absolute free rein to do his war dramas however he liked, without having to show scripts or even titles to executives before the hour of its airing.

I’ll give you a minute to just imagine about a world where that happens.

On Armistice Day in 1945, his drama “On a Note of Triumph” aired to an estimated audience of 60 million listeners. America’s population as of July 1, 1945 is recorded as 139,928,165, so that’s almost HALF of the people in America, listening to the same thing at the exact same time. Again, take a minute to just imagine that. It’s a vaguely appalling thought, when we consider the things that get “big ratings” these days, though they’re just a fraction of the population compared to Corwin’s audience.

But they weren’t listening to anything like what we get in media these days. Carl Sandburg called On a Note of Triumph “one of the all-time great American poems.” This isn’t any exaggeration. It is elegant and poetic, reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s work. We just don’t write like this anymore, and we certainly wouldn’t expect an audience comprising half of all Americans — adult and child, more and less educated — to hang on every word of this kind of text anymore.

I found myself crying in the warehouse today, though, listening to some of the most beautiful literature I’ve ever heard in my life. I cannot urge you strongly enough to listen to the entire thing, but I want to share the passage called “The Prayer” here. I’ve got a lot to say about this passage — about the claims of moral rightness that it makes about science, for instance, so foreign from our current cultural notion of ignorance as somehow desirable — but I’ll do that later. For today, please just absorb Corwin’s words about sacrifice and justice and peace.

And share them, because if people made speeches like this, that articulated the best of America, in her halls of power, maybe we would look our veterans in the eye more often when we thank them for their service.


“The Prayer”

An Excerpt from On a Note of Triumph, by Norman Corwin (first broadcast on CBS May 8, 1945)

Music: Preparation: a slow, quiet, reverent theme which builds, not too quickly or obviously, under the Petition:

NARRATOR. Lord God of trajectory and blast,
Whose terrible sword has laid open the serpent
So it withers in the sun for the just to see,
Sheathe now the swift avenging blade with the names of nations writ on it,
And assist in the preparation of the plowshare.
Lord God of fresh bread and tranquil mornings,
Who walks in the circuit of heaven among the worthy,
Deliver notice to the fallen young men
That tokens of orange juice and a whole egg appear now before the hungry children;
That night again falls cooling on the earth as quietly as when it leaves Your hand;
That freedom has withstood the tyrant like a Malta in a hostile sea,
And that the soul of man is surely a Sevastopol
Which goes down hard and leaps from ruin quickly.
Lord God of the topcoat and the living wage
Who has furred the fox against the time of winter
And stored provender of bees in summer’s brightest places,
Do bring sweet influences to bear upon the assembly line:
Accept the smoke of the milltown among the accredited clouds of the sky:
Fend from the wind with a house and a hedge
Him who You made in Your image,
And permit him to pick of the tree and the flock,
That he may eat today without fear of tomorrow,
And clothe himself with dignity in December.
Lord God of test-tube and blueprint,
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,
Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors
and give instruction to their schemes;
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father’s color
or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream
as those who profit by postponing it pretend:
Sit at the treaty table and convoy the hopes of little peoples through
expected straits,
And press into the final seal a sign that peace will come
for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellow man shall be a friend forever.

Music: up to a grand conclusion.

Oct 7, 2011 - Literature    3 Comments

Time Enough At Last

Our house looks like a bomb went off. A small truck bomb, packed with multiplication flash cards, Star Wars guys, broken crayons, clothes, and empty cups.

And let’s not forget the printed material. There could’ve been a simultaneous CIA leafleting-from-the-skies campaign over every inch of our house, dropping readable matter like Minnesota snow. Fantasy books, romance books, picture books, chapter books, RPG books, video game guides, coloring books, workbooks, catalogs, newspapers, magazines, comics, junk mail, recipes, assembly instructions, maps, notes, drafts, calendars, phone messages, receipts, grocery lists, homework. Wobbly stacks, sliding drifts, impenetrable walls of paper.

Maddening as it is — like, “I’d like to drop a match in it before my mom visits for Thanksgiving” maddening — this is more or less how I grew up, always with something to read no further than my elbow. And if it’s there, I can’t not read it, if you know what I mean. The words go in as fast as I see them, so as I gaze around, I’m constantly bombarded by info; I’m not conscious of the time it takes to scan text. The inability to glance past things without absorbing them might be overstimulating for some people. Hell, it might be overstimulating for me, I don’t know; I’ve always been like this, so I don’t know any differently.

In fact, I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I was spelling and mastering simple sight words at 18 months, and I tested at a fourth-grade reading level when they tried to figure out what to do with me in kindergarten testing. I was lucky to have parents and grandparents who were pretty relaxed about letting me chow through reading material far beyond my age level, and I satisfied my voracious appetite for it by simply keeping as many books going at once as I could. Even now, I’m rarely reading fewer than three or four separate titles at once.

Now I’m going to ask you to do something. Take all of what I’ve just described — in my home, in my youth — and erase it. Just use that little Photoshop tool and scrub every last piece of reading material out of the picture, like a neutron text bomb. Imagine a house messy with toys and clothes and dishes, but no books or magazines or newspapers or homework. Imagine a young child, hungry to learn, curious about the world, stuck gazing out a window or watching TV or sitting on a stoop. Try, just try, to imagine a setting with absolutely nothing to read.

To me, this is the purest science fiction. It’s the Twilight Zone. I can wrap my head around time travel, and quantum physics, and non-humanoid aliens, and a billion other things, but I literally can’t conjure the image of a home without books. I shudder to imagine growing up in one, and it is pure horror to imagine raising my kids in one.

I’ve been trying to imagine this all week, since I heard a statistic from a 2006 study publicized by the United Way. The study found that, in middle-income homes, the ratio of books per child is 13 books for each child, which is itself a ludicrously low number compared with the bounty to which I am accustomed. That won’t even fill a single shelf — they’ll keep falling over.

But in low-income neighborhoods, that number flips and sinks like the Poseidon. The ratio becomes only one book for every THREE HUNDRED CHILDREN. Let me rephrase: one poor child gets one book, and 299 poor children get none. No books. Zero. Inconceivable.

My kids’ school has about 450 children. If this statistic extended into that setting, the school in that low-income neighborhood would have two books. But at least in a school, those two books would get passed around. Households don’t usually do that, so that one book doesn’t make its way around among the 300 kids. The other 299 just do without.

My first impulse, of course, is to go directly into the boys’ bedroom with a trash bag and sweep up every single book they haven’t read in the last two weeks, and drive down to the poor neighborhoods and just start handing out books. I know that’s not practical, and I know there are groups designed to put books into exactly the hands that need them most. You can bet your backside I’ve been doing research into exactly which groups can use exactly which books, and how to make those donations — if I find anything beyond United Way that’s available on a national level, I’ll post it in comments.

Ever seen that episode of The Twilight Zone with Burgess Meredith as the harried bank teller who just wants time to read his book without his boss or his wife interrupting him? That episode’s what I named this post after. Eventually, he gets the time and the books, along with a cruel, ironic twist. But imagine if you had the time, and the desire to read, but no books. That episode’s playing all day, every day.


NB — Another point worth making: lack of access to books means lack of access to ideas that empower people to change their circumstances. Often, the ideas that motivate people to change their lives are found in banned books, which are even harder to access if you depend on schools and libraries, rather than your own purchasing power.

The Uprise Books Project aims to change that by putting free copies of banned books in the hands of impoverished and at-risk youth, exposing them to radical, perspective-shifting ideas. You can learn more and support the project here:

Sep 9, 2011 - Literature, Sex Ed    2 Comments

In Praise of Smut

I read a lot. Probably several people’s worth of reading, both in terms of volume and taste. I’m one of those readers with several books going at any given moment, juggling them based on location, time of day, and mood. And one of those books is always a romance novel.

This is not going to be a full-throated defense of romance. That, dear readers, will come another day. What I want to say today is that, when I read a romance, I want to read some high-quality smut.

That’s right — bring on the sexytimes. It’s certainly not the only, or even the main, thing I’m in that book for, but I expect those characters to get it on, for several pages, several times, in interesting and athletic ways, well before the last quarter of the book. Character development is all well and good, and pacing and plot make the world go round, but if I don’t hear about some rampant man-staffs and perfect pink pleasure parts, I’m out of here.

I don’t need to venture into any seedy truck stop bookstore to find what I’m looking for. I know all the tricks for finding this stuff, and I’ve known them for years. If you fan a well-read paperback open slowly, it’ll open to the naughty bits because previous readers’ hot little hands have put more stress on the binding at those points. Trade paperback romances tend to have more graphic sex scenes than mass markets for some reason, except for those “inspirational” romances, but those always have the same cover art: some gormless twit, standing in a field of grass, in clothes that make a burqa look burlesque.

And it’s not all pen names and bodice-ripping covers. The list of NYT Bestselling authors that meet my criteria is as long as my arm, and I can buy their books in Target or Barnes & Noble without the slightest bit of embarrassment. All those books with women in flowing gowns or bare-chested men in kilts you see at the grocery checkout? Full of lusty virgins and urgent thrusting. You have NO idea what’s going on in there.

Now imagine what the girl on the bus is reading  on  her   KINDLE.

And if anyone is uncomfortable over women getting their wrinkly bits tingly right there in broad daylight, let me tell you what makes me uncomfortable: it’s every person who gets a hard-on when they crack the cover on a novel that lets you put yourself on the zipline down from a Black Hawk behind enemy lines, where you land and deliver silent righteous justice to the filthy terrorist. Total porn. Worse yet, moralizing porn that warps your worldview while getting you off.

So if I want to read about exciting, multi-hour, contortionist sex with a large, strong, attentive lover who sees the hidden value in the heretofore neglected woman? Sue me. What’s the worst that happens? Maybe I decide that I’m turned on enough to ignore the backache, and to pretend the sleeping kids in the other room is “the threat of discovery,” and that sleep is for the weak, and actually get it on with my unsuspecting husband. At least my porn doesn’t encourage me to invade another country.