This and That from Here and There

I’ve been listening to Fiasco: The AIDS Crisis, an excellent podcast that has to do with the history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.  AIDS first appeared in the 1980s, so it’s easy for us to forget in this time of COVID-19 that this was a viral epidemic which was 100% fatal and still would be except for a cocktail of medications that keep those who have it asymptomatic.  The podcast is in eight parts and features many sound clips from those who have experience it and those who have fought mightily to find the cause of it and to convince certain groups of people to take actions to limit the infections – the gay men who utilized the baths in San Francisco, the United States Government, the blood banks with tainted blood that killed thousands of hemophiliacs and others who required transfusions to live, and religious groups that look at AIDS as a punishment from God for homosexuality.  The series (which is available to Audible members) is worth your time.

I also recommend the 1987 book And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts and the 1993 HBO docudrama based on Shilts’ book.  The book is much more detailed than either the podcast or the HBO movie.  It also documents the bitter battle between researchers to identify the cause of the disease and to receive the fame and honors due the winner. 

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I want to briefly list a few of the excellent books I’ve read over the last few months.  They aren’t in any particular order, but all earned four or five stars on my rating system from one to five stars.

Creatures of the Kingdom: Stories of Animals and Nature by James Michener – Each chapter of this 1993 book is a story about an animal that appeared in different Michener novels.  I was amazed at the amount of research he had to do to come up with these delightful, informative pieces.  Keep in mind that they were only a very small part of novels like Hawaii, but you might think that he was primarily a naturalist rather than a novelist when you read them.  My favorite chapter is about Nerka the salmon.

Trent’s Last Case (in England and The Woman in Black in the U.S.) by E. C. (Clerihew) Bentley – This is a 1913 murder mystery in which Philip Trent, a very clever, very successful detective, seems to have solved the case about halfway through the book.  The trouble is, he’s wrong.  So, he comes up with another solution and he’s wrong again.  Trent is so disgusted that he vows never to take on another case.  Bentley’s novel was a send-up of all the cocky detective who always get it right the first time, and it’s a fun book to read. 

You may have noticed that I gave Bentley’s complete middle name above.  That’s because he invented a type of poem called a Clerihew.  In fact, I made one up myself and will share it with you:

The well-known writer E. C. Bentley

Worked on Trent’s Last Case intently

And when at last his work was through

He said, “it’s good, but not as good as a Clerihew”

I, Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov – This was Asimov’s third and final memoir, and it was published posthumously.  The title alludes to one of his most popular books I, Robot.  It’s a long book with many short chapters.  Each is about a different person or event in his life.  He begins by stating that many people consider him arrogant, but he feels that he’s only being honest about his abilities.  In fact, it would be difficult to not be a little arrogant if you wrote over 400 books, thousands of magazine articles, and gave numerous lectures on diverse subjects.  Furthermore, Isaac Asimov is one of the fathers of science fiction – especially when it comes to robots.  There are three recognized “laws of robotics,” and Asimov came up with them.  He also wrote numerous nonfiction books on subjects as diverse as science, mathematics, the plays of Shakespeare, the Bible, and an annotated guide to the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan.  He loved for someone to suggest a book on anything that he hadn’t written about.  With what he referred to as a near-photographic memory and boundless curiosity, he could retrieve information on almost any subject imaginable and quickly produce a book that was accurate and a money-maker.  By the way, he had triple bypass heart surgery in 1983 and died (supposedly) from heart and kidney failure in 1992.  Ten years later his widow, Janet, and his daughter, Robyn, announced that he had actually died from AIDS – the result of contaminated blood that he received during his heart bypass surgery in 1983.

Doctors from Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans by Vivien Spitz – Most people have heard of the Nuremberg Trials, but few are familiar with the medical trials that took place in Nuremberg after them.  All of the accused were involved in medical experiments that were performed on Jews and other Nazi prisoners against their will during World War II.  Spitz was a young woman who got a job as a court stenographer at many of the medical trials and what she learned changed her life.  It’s an unpleasant book to read, but it shows, I believe, how easily ordinary people can dehumanize other people under certain conditions.  This book has nothing to do with the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, but those on trial were every bit a vile as he was.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2022 we will discuss William Shakespeare’s Othello in my Reading the Classics book club at the Bluebonnet Library here in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  We meet from 12:30 p.m. until 2:00 p.m.  I started the book club in 2006 and it’s still well attended.  Here is a list of the books we have scheduled through the remainder of this year:

May 3, 2022 – Othello by William Shakespeare

June 7, 2022 – I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

August 2, 2022 – The Virginian by Owen Wister

September 6, 2022 – Hiroshima by John Hersey

November 1, 2022 – Innocent Blood by P. D. James

December 6, 2022 – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

As you can see, we have a diverse reading list.  I highly recommend Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to those of you who enjoy mysteries.  Like Trent’s Last Case, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is unique.

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Every Monday night during May 2022, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will present some of the wonderful Warner Brothers Busby Berkeley movies.  (You can read a TCM Magazine article about him here.)  Berkeley choreographed many of the 1930s musicals that offered a brief reprieve from the relentless hardships of the Great Depression.  He is most famous for his synchronized, kaleidoscopic dance routines that were shot from overhead.  For instance, in one movie the gorgeous women had feather fan and they simulated a flower opening and closing.  Every Monday beginning at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time TCM will broadcast Busby Berkeley’s movies through the night.  Watch them or record them, but don’t miss them!

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Beginning at 8:00 a.m. Central time on Sunday, May 8th I will host the three hour long big band era program Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH.  The following Sunday, May 15th we will present another rebroadcast of Pete Soderbergh’s Swingin’ Sunday Morning during the same time period.  Pete’s upcoming show originally aired on May 18, 1997 – almost exactly 25 years ago.  You can listen to the shows at the WBRH website or you can simply tell your Amazon Echo device to “play WBRH.”  You can listen to previous broadcasts of these and other programs at the WBRH website by clicking on “Show Archive” at the top of the page.

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The Return of Pete Soderbergh

Pete Soderbergh During One of His Shows at WBRH
(All Photographs by Katherine Soderbergh)

One of the unique aspects of LSU College of Education professor Pete Soderbergh was that he invariably stood at the door of his classroom ready to greet his students as they filed in.  In fact, he told his students that if the day ever came when he wasn’t at the door when they arrived, one of two things had happened: they had shown up for class on the wrong day or he was dead.  On Monday, February 16, 1998, he wasn’t at the door and his students knew that something was terribly wrong.  In fact, Pete had suffered a stroke the day before and was in a coma in a local hospital.  He died on Tuesday, February 17, 1998 at the age of 69.

There are many interesting components that made up the whole of Pete Soderbergh.  He was a native of Brooklyn, a decorated Marine who served during the Korean War, a published author of books on diverse subjects, a professor and administrator at a number of universities, and the father of six children including moviemaker Steven Soderbergh.  But I want to concentrate on his time as a “disc jockey” at WBRH, a public radio station at Baton Rouge Magnet High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

Pete hosted a three hour program that he called Pete’s Swingin’ Sunday Morning every Sunday between July 3, 1994 and February 15, 1998 – the fateful day of his stroke.  The songs were predominantly but not exclusively from the big band era. This was back in the days when turntables were common in radio stations, and CD players were just catching on.  That was fine with Pete because he had a huge collection of records – 78s, 45s, and LPs.  I should also note that he was a big fan of movies, including musicals.  He combined his love for music and movies with a smattering of history to create an absolutely novel radio show.  And he had a talent for coming up with dialogs between make-believe people that served as “song cues” for his upcoming numbers.  Some of the song cues were funny, such as the one between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara who was worried about paying the rent on Tara, while others, such as those between Dad and Son, were often poignant.  Some of the funniest dialogs took place between Pete and the Old Timer, the crotchety weekend custodian who seemed to hang around the radio station on Sunday mornings just to aggravate Pete.  In all cases the voices we heard were those of Pete Soderbergh.  Pete enjoyed the dialogs he created and the music that followed. His frequent laughter let us know that he was having a wonderful time.

Pete also greeted his listeners by their first names at intervals throughout each show.  In case you aren’t aware, most people enjoy hearing their names mentioned on the radio, so that’s an excellent way to keep them listening.  I mentioned above that he greeted his students at the classroom door – something my wife and I never encountered during our many years at universities.  Why did he do it?  I suspect that he was letting them know that they were important to him.  And when you think about it, reading the names of his listeners on his show was probably meant to sent the same message.  Pete didn’t miss a trick.

I had the opportunity to join Pete on his show during a number of membership drives.  After Pete’s death another LSU professor, Fritz McCameron, took Pete’s place, renaming the show Music on the Sunny Side, and I had the pleasure of occasionally filling in for him.  Over the years I did more and more shows, and we added a third person to the lineup, Winston Day, the former Dean of the LSU Law School. 

A few months ago Winston told me that he found part of one of Pete’s shows while looking through some old cassette tapes he had recorded man years ago.  I asked him for a copy of it, and he gave me a CD from Sunday, December 7, 1997 (the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941) that was about 50 minutes long.  The sound quality was so-so, but the music and stories about World War II brought back lots of wonderful memories of Pete’s programs from long ago.

As I listened to that tape I remembered Pete once saying that someone was taping his show for him.  I had no idea who that “someone” was or where the tapes were – or even if they still existed – but I knew that his daughter, Mary Soderbergh, who lived in the Baton Rouge area at the time of Pete’s death, would know – if anyone did.  But I had no idea how to contact her.

Then I remembered that on Sunday, February 18, 2018 twenty years and a day after Pete’s sudden death, many members of his family contributed in his memory during a membership drive that I hosted.  Mary was one of those contributors, so I asked our music director, Rob Payer, if he had a phone number for her.  Wonder of wonders, he did.  As soon as I got the phone number I contacted her in Los Angeles where she now lives and was astounded to learn that she had Pete’s old tapes – all of them now an average of 25 years old.  I approached her about using one or more of the shows for Music on the Sunny Side if the tapes were of sufficient quality, and she sent me a box that contained over 30 complete shows.  The shows (all were on high quality Maxell XL II tapes) sounded all right, and after a little tweaking sounded excellent. 

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is peter-soderbergh-at-wbrh.jpg

My next step was to see if Rob Payer would be interested in rerunning the old shows – perhaps one a month.  Rob, who knew Pete and loved his show, was very enthusiastic about doing so.  He could not have been more supportive.

I’ve digitized all of the old tapes, and we will rebroadcast parts of two of his old shows this coming Sunday morning, August 15, 2021 from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. central time.  We plan to rebroadcast additional shows on the third Sunday of each month.  You can hear the show locally at 90.3 FM or at on the internet.  If you have an Amazon Echo device, simply tell it to play WBRH.  If you miss the program you can go to, click on “Show Archive,” go down the list of archived programs and click on “Music on the Sunny Side.”  There you’ll find past programs featuring Pete, Fritz, Winston, and me.

Both Pete and his show were unique, and I’m delighted that we’re able to welcome him back to WBRH 23 years after his death.  That sort of thing doesn’t happen every day.

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Readings I’ve Enjoyed

The Good Earth (1931) – Pearl S. Buck Buck, the daughter of missionaries, spent much of her life in China and many of her novels are about China and its people.  The Good Earth, her best known novel is about Wang Lung, a peasant farmer who, with the help of his wife,  O-Lan, becomes wealthy.  They struggle through famine, warfare, and other challenges along the way.  And along the way wealth brings about changes in Wang Lung, though he never loses his love for the soil.  To me, O-Lan, though not pretty or particularly intelligent, is the heroic figure in this novel.  Wang Lung and O-Lan have a number of children including a daughter who is developmentally disabled.  Despite her handicap, Wang Lung has a special bond with her.  Buck had a daughter who had a similar handicap, and it is obvious that Wang Lung’s daughter, “the poor fool,” is modeled on Buck’s own child.

Music as a Mirror of History (2016) – Professor Robert Greenberg This is an offering from The Great Courses.  Most of the courses are available in either audio or video formats.  This is one that works well in the audio-only format because it’s all about the music and the history.  Video would be nice perhaps, but it wouldn’t add much to your understanding.  Professor Greenberg is often irreverent and occasionally a bit crude, but he’s always entertaining and informative.  Most of his courses focus almost totally on the music he has chosen, but this course is, I think, more history than music.  You’ll want to  listen to this course more than once if you expect to absorb all of the interesting information contained in it.  I highly recommend any and all of his courses.  He is a natural performer, and his ability to grab and hold your attention makes his lectures memorable.

The Theory of Everything: The Quest to Explain All Reality (2017) – Don Lincoln This Great Courses course must be seen and well as heard.  It is a deep dive into the world of quantum physics by a teacher who is excellent at making complex science accessible to those of us who aren’t physicists.  That being said, you will probably get lost at times if you’re not a physicist.  What I’m saying is that the course is worthwhile even though you probably won’t understand it all.  After watching and listening to Lincoln’s lectures, you’ll have an idea of just how complex but fascinating subatomic physics is.  And those articles you see about quarks and the newest subatomic particle that’s just been discovered will make more sense to you. The visuals in this course are superb.  As an alternative to The Theory of Everything I suggest Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry.  It’s not as in-depth, but it’s much easier to understand.

The Illustrated Man (1951) – Ray Bradbury The Illustrated Man in Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name has tattoos (or illustrations) all over his body. Each one has the ability to magically “come to life” so you can watch the story associated with the tattoo.  Though I’m not particularly interested in science fiction about travel to other planets and such, I was captivated by Bradbury’s ability to take a vague idea and develop it into a fascinating story.  For instance, he envisioned a spaceship blowing up in outer space and leaving the astronauts floating in different directions, and wondered what might happen to them.  He didn’t know, so he wrote a short story to find out.  Of course his imagination took over and gave us a very good story – one I would never have imagined.  There are 18 stories all of which, except for one, had previously been published.  When some of the stories ended, I thought, “Is that all there is?  What’s the point?”  But some of the stories like “Marionettes, Inc.” had a good storyline with an ending that would have made O. Henry proud.

Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World (2015) – David Lehman Frank Sinatra was arguably the greatest male vocalist in the history of popular music.  He was also a very complex human being.  David Lehman discusses it all in this excellent profile of “the chairman of the board.”  My takeaway from Lehman’s book is that Sinatra the man could be kind and thoughtful one minute and angry and violent the next.  We know that he sometimes trashed the furniture in his hotel rooms, but he also aided many people financially when they were down and out – and often did it anonymously.  He didn’t read music, but he would study every song before he sang it and develop specific ideas about how to approach it.  In effect, he developed a game plan for everything he sang.  He seldom did more than one take and became very upset if he was forced to record a song more than once.  A great singer? Always.  A good human? Sometimes. 

The Only Woman in the Room: A Novel (2019) – Marie Benedict The beautiful and talented Viennese-born actress Hedwig “Hedy” Lamar was much more than an actress.  She was also an inventor.  This biographical novel is about both aspects of her life.  She was not trained in science, but seemed to have a natural knack for scientific thinking.  She married a German businessman who seemed like a nice, thoughtful guy.  After their marriage, she learned how brutal he could be.  She also learned that he was doing business with the Nazis.  Eventually she got away from him, ended up in the U.S., and became a well-known actress.  During World War II the U.S. used torpedoes that could be guided to their targets by remote control.  The problem was that the enemy learned how to detect the guidance signal and its frequency and then interrupted the communication.  Lamar had the idea that multiple frequencies could be used with both the transmitter and the receiver in the torpedoes knowing what the sequence of the frequencies would be and when the switches from one to another would occur.  Since the enemy would not know what the ever-changing frequencies would be, they would be unable to divert the torpedoes.  Unfortunately, Lamar never received credit for her brilliant idea – in part because no one could believe that a beautiful actress could be capable of such complex thought.  Benedict’s novel is based on Lamar’s life, but includes dialogue, etc. that he (by necessity) made up. 

Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution (2018) – Todd S. Purdum Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II both had very successful careers before they teamed up.  Rodgers had a very fruitful partnership with Lorenz “Larry” Hart until Hart’s heavy drinking made it impossible for Rodgers to depend on him.  Hammerstein wrote lyrics for operetta greats Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml, as well as the great Jerome Kern (especially notable was 1927’s Show Boat).  But the Broadway musicals they created together were and are truly unforgettable.  Their first collaboration in 1943 was Oklahoma! which, for the first time, fully integrated the musical numbers into the storyline.  Something Wonderful is the story behind their collaborations – from Oklahoma! in 1943 through their most beloved collaboration The Sound of Music in 1959.  Purdum had lots of stories to tell along the way, and anyone interested in Broadway will quickly devour Something Wonderful.

The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us about the Mind (1999) – Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff,  Patricia K. Kuhl There is some debate about whether or not the human brain in newborns is a blank slate.  That debate will probably never be settled, but this book shows through numerous experiments that babies are capable of thought far earlier than many people imagined. For instance, if a young child sees a toy car go behind a piece of cardboard and come out at the other end, it will quickly learn to expect the car to do so every time it goes behind the cardboard.  It gets confused if the car does not come out where and when it is expected.  The authors site numerous experiments like this to show just how much babies can think.  One of the interesting takeaways for me was the realization that even babies get bored and look for new experiences.  If you give a baby a toy it will play with it for a while, then discard it.  Give the baby a new toy and the sequence of events will be repeated.  I never tired of learning about the ingenious way researchers found to test their ideas about the intelligence of babies, and I was constantly delighted to realize how much their young minds function.

Henrietta  & Eleanor: A Retelling of Jekyl and Hyde (2018) – Libby Spurrier As the title indicates, this book is a retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde but the setting is modern-day London and Jekyl is a woman, not a man.  It is an Audible Original with a full cast, music, and sound effects.  It’s 2 hours 50 minutes long, and  once you start listening to it, you won’t want to stop.  I’m a fan of old-time radio and I assure you that it’s as good as anything produced during radio’s golden age.  The audio book is only available through Audible and Amazon since it  is an Audible Original.

Weird Things Customers Say in Book Stores (2016) – Jen Campbell Jen Campbell works in a bookstore in London.  She has had customers say some very weird things.  Her first experience with this concerned a woman who entered the store when Campbell works.  The woman said she had just finished The Diary of Anne Frank and wanted to know if Frank ever wrote a sequel. At first Campbell thought she was perhaps the only one who ran across odd people, but she soon found out that many, many booksellers had had similar – and sometimes even weirder – experiences.  So she gathered tales from booksellers in many countries and published Weird Things.  I must say that some of the stories in the book made me laugh, while others made me shudder at the thought of the customers mentioned ever getting their hands on the nuclear codes – or even a driver’s license and an automobile.  Here are a few examples:

Customer: Do you have a book on the Enlightenment?

Bookseller: Sure.

Customer: Excellent.  My son’s just about to start studying it at school.  It’s all about the light bulb being invented, right?

            (At a university bookstore)

Customer: I’m looking for a book for my Northern Anthropology Class.

Bookseller: I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that class. Do you know the title, or have your syllabus with you?

Customer: No.

Bookseller: Right. What’s your overall course in?

Customer: Literature.

Bookseller: Oh. (pause) So, not anthropology?

Customer: No.

Bookseller: Right. Are you looking for the Norton Anthology?

Customer: Yes, that’s it!

Customer: Do you have any Willa Catheter?

            (A child is playing with a book on the floor and rips it.)

Child’s mother: Oh, Stephen (she tuts in a non-serious way).  Do be careful.  (She takes the book off the child and puts it back on the shelf)

Bookseller: Excuse me?

Child’s mother: Yes?

Bookseller: Your son just ripped the head off the tiger who came to tea.

Child’s mother: I know. Children, eh?

Bookseller: Yes, but we can’t sell that book now. It’s damaged.

Child’s mother: Well, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.

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Reading and the Human Brain

My six-year-old grandson speaks English well.  He uses nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives and all the rest with complete ease.  He speaks in the present tense, past tense, and future tense without ever thinking about it, and his vocabulary includes the hard-to-pronounce names of numerous dinosaurs.  His five-year-old sister is right behind him.  Now think about this: neither child has ever had a language lesson.  They don’t need them because we are genetically programmed for speech at birth.  All we need to trigger that ability is a few years of life and exposure to other people speaking.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of reading.  We have to be taught to read because that ability is not built into our genes.  Reading is foreign to the human brain.  In fact, writing and reading are only about 3,000 years old.  The Greeks only starting writing after borrowing an alphabet from the Phoenicians over 2,500 years ago. Before then, they had to memorize everything – including Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Many people believe that they actually sang the poems and that seems plausible to me since we seem to have the ability to remember better when our words are put to music.  Think about it:  how many poems do you remember?  How many song lyrics do you remember?  I can’t recite many poems, but I remember the lyrics to songs I sang as a kid, and that was a long, long time ago.

So if reading is foreign to the human brain, how did we ever learn to do it?  Well, according to Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by researcher Maryanne Wolf, we owe it all to the adaptability of the human brain.  She contends that our brains learned to recognize written symbols as representatives for the words we normally only heard.  Using something referred to as a fMRI researches can even tell you what part (or parts) of our brains are modified for reading. 

I’m being noncommittal about the exact parts of our brains that are activated when we read for two reasons: I’m leaving the technical stuff for Dr. Wolf to tell you, and I’m doing it because more than one location in the brain can be responsible for our ability to read.  She claims that if you learn to read English, and then try to learn to read using the 2,000 or so Chinese symbols, your brains has to start from scratch in a location different from where your ability to read English is stored! 

Unfortunately not all brains are wired so that they can learn to read efficiently.  The condition is termed dyslexia, and Dr. Wolf is researching the topic in part because one of her children is dyslexic. Her discussion  of dyslexia will interest anyone who is dyslexic or knows someone who is.  She also talks about the stigma that dyslexic students face because they can’t read like the other kids.  Unfortunately, teachers have not always recognized the problem and have at times accused the students with dyslexia of just being lazy.

Wolf recounts in detail the fascinating story of how reading developed, and points out which area of our brain are used in the process of reading.  Most of her book is very readable, but it gets a bit more technical at times than I could appreciate.  Overall, the book is well constructed and I highly recommend it.

An additional concern – which she discusses in Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital Age – is the effect that reading on digital devices is having on our brains.  Early research seems to shows that reading an actual book and reading the same book in the form of an ebook are not equivalent.  A term she often uses is “deep reading,” and it seems that we may not be able to read a physical book and an identical ebook with the same depth of understanding.  Since this is a relatively new technology we don’t have enough evidence from studies to show how the different reading techniques compare.

Another problem she discusses is the difficulty of finding something you’ve read in an ebook versus a physical book.  I lead the discussions in my Reading the Classics Book Club, and over the years I’ve increasingly read ebook versions of the assigned works.  I’m about to go back to actual books because I find it very difficult to quickly find information in ebooks.  According to Wolf, research seems to indicate that I’m not the only one facing this problem.  The research on this and other matters is inconclusive right now because this is a relatively recent research field, but Wolf is quite concerned, and she may be right to feel the way she does.  The ability to read is a precious gift to me, and I hate to think that my beloved grandchildren and their children might inadvertently be doing something that would imperil their hard-earned ability to read. 

Wolf is also concerned that the internet is having an adverse effect on us.  We are becoming so dependent on the internet that we aren’t bothering to remember things the way we used to.  Also, many people (including my grandson) are spending many hours each day playing mindless, repetitive, and addictive games rather than interacting with other people or reading.

Let me leave you with five quotes from Reader, Come Home that summarize Wolf’s fears about the dangers of moving from print books to ebooks, and our ever increasing interest in the internet and all that is enticing about it.

“What concerns me as a scientist is whether expert readers like us, after multiple hours (and years) of daily screen reading, are subtly changing the allocation of our attention to key processes when reading longer, more demanding texts. Will our quality of attention in reading — the basis of the quality of our thought — change inexorably as our culture transitions away from a print–based culture toward a digital one? What are the cognitive threats to and the promises of such a transition ?”

“Tristan Harris is a Silicon Valley technology expert whose knowledge about the ‘persuasion design’ principles in various apps and devices led him to become an outspoken critic of how features based on these principles are intentionally selected to addict users. Josh Elman, another Silicon Valley expert who applauds Harris’s efforts, compares the use of the addictive features of various devices to the tobacco industry’s use of addiction-forming nicotine before the link with cancer was discovered. The founder of the advocacy initiative Time Well Spent, Harris recently stated in interviews with PBS and The Atlantic, ‘Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in San Francisco, aged 25–35) working at three companies’ — Google, Apple, and Facebook — ‘had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention . . . . We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.’”

“A fascinating study by Julie Coiro looked at preferences for reading by seventh-graders. Her most thought-provoking result was that the highest-performing print readers were often the lowest-performing online readers, and the converse.”

“No self-respecting internal review board at any university would allow a researcher to do what our culture has already done with no adjudication or previous evidence: introduce a complete, quasi-addictive set of attention-compelling devices without knowing the possible side effects and ramifications for the subjects (our kids).”

“We need to ensure that human beings do not fall into the trap that Edward Tenner described when he said, ‘It would be a shame if brilliant technology were to end up threatening the kind of intellect that produced it.’”

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Quiz of the Month

It seems that I haven’t published a “Quiz of the Month” since August 2018.  Sorry about that.  But now it’s back!

This quiz has to do with books and movies.  You may find that you’ve seen some of this information in past posts.  As always, you can find the answers here.

  1. What was the setting for Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds”?
  1. This well-known 1947 Broadway play and the 1951 movie that was based on it take place in New Orleans and feature a woman who has “always depended on the kindness of strangers.”  Name the play and its author as well as the famous male actor who had the leading role in both the Broadway play and the movie.
  1. Name the first book that featured Hannibal Lecter.  Who was the author?
  1. Robert Block’s best-known book is based on the real-life 1950s murderer Ed Gein.  Name the book and name the character who represents Gein in the 1960 movie that was based on Block’s novel.
  1. Who wrote The Stepford Wives?  What well-known author penned the screenplay?
  1. What was the setting for H. G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds?
  1. What Nobel prize winning southern author wrote movie scripts in Hollywood for a while due to his need for money?
  1. What was the first name of the second Mrs. de Winter in Daphne Du Maurier’s novel Rebecca?
  1. The first movie based on Ian Fleming’s James Bond character was Dr. No in 1962.  Name the first James Bond novel to be published. 
  1. The Philadelphia Story, written by Philip Barry, began as a romantic comedy on Broadway in 1939.  The 1940 film, which was based on the play, starred Katherine Hepburn in the same role she had in the Broadway play.  In 1956 it was re-imagined as a musical comedy film.  What was the name of the film, who composed the music and lyrics for it, and who took the Hepburn role in the movie musical?
  1. Both the Broadway musical and the film, The Sound of Music, were based on what book?  Who was the author?
  1. This 1910 novel by French writer Gaston Leroux has been filmed many times – beginning with a silent movie in 1925 – and was the basis for a well-known 1986 musical.  Name the book and the composer of the music for the musical.
  1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a 1968 science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick.  What is the name of the movie that was made from this book?
  1. This 1939 novel about a family of “Okies” who travel to California to flee the dust bowl was made into a 1940 movie starring Henry Fonda.  Name the book and its author and, for extra credit, cite the source for the book’s title.
  1. Name the famous British actress who won her only Best Actress Academy Awards for her starring roles in two movies set in the Southern United States.
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Quotes of Note

I recently read a delightful book of quotes titled Wild Words from Wild Women: An Unabridged Collection of Candid Observations and Extremely Opinionated Bon Mots by Autumn Stevens.  (She also has a 2021 day-to-day calendar, which might interest you if you like the quotes below.)  Some of the quotes are, of course, better than others, but Stevens’ comments on the quotes are always interesting and informative.  For instance: “My husband said he wanted to have a relationship with a redhead, so I dyed my hair.” – Activist/film star Jane Fonda capable of changing her colors at the drop of an aerobics sock.

The book contains many funny quotes as well as lots of very serious ones.  I’ve chosen some of the lighter-hearted ones because we can all use a laugh at this point in time.  Also, I won’t include Stevens’ comments about the quotes.  For those you’ll have to buy or borrow the book. 

“Success didn’t spoil me; I’ve always been insufferable.” – Fran Lebowitz

“The people I’m furious with are the women’s liberationists.  They keep getting up on soap boxes and proclaiming that women are brighter than men.  It’s true, but it should be kept quiet or it ruins the whole racket.” – Author Anita Loos

“I dress for women, and undress for men.” – Actress Angie Dickinson

“A woman is like a teabag—you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” – Nancy Reagan

“If I were going to convert to any religion I would probably choose Catholicism because it at least has female saints and the Virgin Mary.” – Margaret Atwood

“Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’  ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?’” – Author Annie Dillard

“Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” – Novelist Susan Ertz

“Of course, there’s no such thing as a totally objective person, except Almighty God, if she exists.” – Writer Antonia Fraser

“I know God is not a woman—no woman would have created men with so many imperfections.” –  Jill M. Consideine

“When you see what some girls marry, you realize how they must hate to work for a living.” – Author Helen Rowland

“I married beneath me.  All women do.” – Lady Nancy Astor

“After all, God made man and then said: I can do better than that—and made woman.” – Adela Rogers St. Johns

“The poor wish to be rich, the rich wish to be happy, the single wish to be married, and the married wish to be dead.” – Advice columnist Ann Landers

“Wisdom doesn’t automatically come with age.  Nothing does—except wrinkles.  It’s true some wines improve with age.  But only if the grapes were good in the first place.” – Advice columnist Abigail van Buren who was the real-life sister of Ann Landers

“Errol Flynn died on a 70-foot boat with a 17-year-old girl.  Walter has always wanted to go that way, but he’s going to settle for a 17-footer with a 70-year-old.” – Betsy Cronkite, wife of Walter Cronkite who loved to sail

“Sexiness wears thin after a while, and beauty fades, but to be married to a man who makes you laugh every day, ah, now that’s a real treat.” – Actress Joanne Woodward, the wife of Paul Newman

“Now at least I know where he is.” – Queen Alexandra of Great Britain referring to her deceased husband and well-known philanderer Edward VII

“I never married because there was no need.  I have three pets at home which answer the same purpose as a husband.  I have a dog which growls every morning, a parrot which swears all afternoon, and a cat that comes home late at night.” – Marie Corelli

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Talking About Books . . .

Both National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman and her poem “The Hill We Climb” were big hits at President Biden’s inauguration.  You can read her poem here.  The Great Books Foundation has developed a set of discussion questions about the poem which you can find here.  You can also see Ms. Gorman recite her poem at the same website.  If you are a teacher you can sign up for one of three upcoming internet discussions about the poem during February.  This would be a good way to become familiar with the Foundation’s “shared inquiry” method of discussing literary works.

By the way, Gorman will recite her poem as part of the Super Bowl LV pre-game activities on Sunday.  NPR has an article concerning this upcoming event and the wonderful future that this marvelous young lady has before her.

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Audible recently created a category of subscribers called Audible Premium Plus.  Members of that group have access to thousands and thousands of Audible’s books free of charge.  The titles are broken into categories such as “Biographies & Memoirs,” “Children’s Audiobooks,” “Literature & Fiction,” “Mystery, Thriller & Suspense,” “Science & Engineering,” and “Teen & Young Adult.”  Each category is further broken down into a number of sub-categories.  You can download as many titles as you wish and can keep them as long as you wish.  However, when you end your Audible subscription, the titles disappear from your collection.  If you fit into the Audible Premium Plus category, be sure to check out this fantastic benefit here.

You might also want to check out Chirp, a relatively new company, started by Bookbub, that features audiobooks.  You can sign up for their daily deal which is normally priced between $1.99 and $4.99.  You should also check out their catalog of limited time deals.

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1924 Bestseller

What was the bestselling book the year you were born?  If you were born during or after 1920 you can find out here.  Many of the entries also contain additional information on other popular books as well.  As you’ll see, nobody has had a better run than John Grisham.

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Books That Made Me” is an interesting Guardian series of questions to and answers from a wide variety of writers.  In each installment you not only learn about the featured authors, but you also learn a lot about the books they’ve read.  It’s fun to read and a great way to get ideas for future reads.

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“I am not very good at speaking, in public or private. If it’s a matter of recounting facts, I manage more or less to bring them to a conclusion. But if I have to explain my reasoning, argue rigorously, I get agitated, confused – everything seems to fly out of my head. Things go badly in particular if I’m dealing with people who I think have some authority. I have everything clear in my mind to start with, and yet it’s as if, after a few words, something gives way. I lose faith in what I wanted to say, the taut thread of the argument I had in mind breaks, I keep repeating: “I’m sorry, but I can’t explain.”

The quote above is from one of the weekly columns written by the very popular Neapolitan novelist Elena Ferrante for The Guardian for a short time in 2018 and 2019.  The topics were quite diverse.  You can find all of them here.

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Jon Meacham and country music singer Tim McGraw have jointly authored a book titled Songs of America.  You can read the book or listen to the audiobook which contains the text of the book plus the music that is a very important part of the work.

Meacham, a presidential historian, has recently started It Was Said, a podcast about famous speeches.  You can access it in whatever way you listen to podcasts. He indicates that there will be ten episodes, but I also see that this is said to be season 1.  Meacham is a very effective teacher, so let’s hope that there will be additional seasons in the future.

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The sixth post I did for this blog (on October 28, 2012) was about one of the strangest authors I’ve ever heard of.  His name was Charles Webb and his wife’s name was Fred.  Webb, author of the novel The Graduate, died in England at the age of 81 on June 16, 2020.  Here is an article about him from The New York Times.  

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With today’s computers being ubiquitous, it’s difficult to see how authors rethink and rewrite portions of their books.  In the days when authors used pens and paper, they often scribbled notes in the margins, scratched through passages, and rewrote them above the originals.  How do we know?  We have some of the original first drafts to peruse, that’s how.  A BBC article,   “Surprising Secrets of Writers’ First Book Drafts” gives us examples of how much some first drafts differed from the final products.  It’s like looking into the minds of some of our most famous writers.

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Open Culture gives us 25 animations of literary works that may interest you.  You may find some of them a bit strange, but they’re quite interesting and imaginative.

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Has the pandemic got you down?  Some people have found coloring books to be therapeutic.  Open Culture provides a list of websites that are offering free coloring books for those of you who enjoy this hobby.  Here is a post that I wrote some time ago on the adult coloring book craze.

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In this edition of Lagniappe (a Cajun French word that means “something extra”), I’ve gathered together more items than I normally include in a single post.  It seems appropriate to do so in view of the pandemic that has most of us at home – or at least avoiding social settings.  I hope you find something here that interests you.

By the way, let’s hope that 2021 is a better year for us than 2020 has been.  I’m glad to see 2020 end!

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I recently read an article in The Guardian that shocked me.  The title was “Not a wonderful world: why Louis Armstrong was hated by so many.”  It seems that some jazz aficionados fault him for abandoning the jazz he played in the 1920s, and some African Americans saw him as an “Uncle Tom” – a black man who sold out to whites in order to lead the good life.  I often play music featuring Armstrong on the radio show that I co-host with Winston Day on WBRH, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Armstrong in movies such as The Five Pennies, and High Society. Some of the live recordings I have of Armstrong feature him in numbers with performers like singer Bing Crosby and trombonist Jack Teagarden.  In both the movies and the recordings I felt that Armstrong was being treated with respect and as an equal.

In his book Heart Full of Rhythm: the Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong, writer Ricky Riccardi tries to set the record straight about what Armstrong accomplished, and he goes into the complexity of the matter in doing so.  Armstrong accomplished a number of “firsts” for black men even while being victimized by racism.  Perhaps he abandoned jazz and concentrated on popular music because he wanted to make money.  So what?  Perhaps he worked within the system rather than screaming angrily for his rights.  Some people are like W. E. B. Dubois, others are like Booker T. Washington.  Both helped to make life better for future generations of black people, but they did it in different ways.   Armstrong did the same thing, but perhaps not in the way some preferred.  Music is the universal language of mankind, and Louis Armstrong used it to make this a better world for all of us. 

Note: Riccardi is also the author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years.

As lagniappe I offer two of my favorite Louis Armstrong numbers.  The first is “Now You Has Jazz” a Cole Porter song from  the 1956 movie musical High Society which starred Bing  Crosby and Grace Kelly. The second is “The Dummy Song,” a delightful novelty number featuring Mr. Armstrong.  The song  was written by Lew Brown, Billy Rose, and Ray Henderson.

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I have been a fan of The Great Courses for many years.  When I listen to or view a course, I feel like I’ve gone back to college, but without leaving my home and without those tedious exams.  Looking at it that way, the cost of the courses is extremely reasonable.  Let me assure you, I’m not here as a salesman for The Great Courses or anything else.  In fact, I’m here to let you know about free access to various Great Courses lectures and informative articles that you may not be aware of.  If you go to the two websites I’m going to recommend, be prepared to stay for a while.  You won’t want to leave.  The first website is The Great Courses Daily.  There, you’ll find video lectures from various courses, blog posts, articles on the arts, history, literature, philosophy, and other subjects.  And under the “Free Video Lectures” tab, you’ll find many family friendly videos – many of which are both informative and entertaining.

At one time The Great Courses had a podcast called The Torch.  Each podcast featured a different teacher from The Great Courses.  You can listen to (and in some cases watch) each podcast, or you can read the content.  The podcasts are about a great variety of subjects including the removal of Confederate statues, making math fun, Edgar Allan Poe’s place in the modern mystery genre, and America’s founding fathers.

If you have a broad range of interests, you’ll love the two websites associated with The Great Courses.

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Here are some reading lists that might interest you:

100 Must-Read Books of 2020 from Time magazine

NPR’s Book Concierge 2020

Book of the Day from  The Guardian

How about a reading list based on chess?  Before you answer, “No thanks!” and move on, take a minute to look at “22 Books for Fans of The Queen’s Gambit” compliments of the New York Public Library.

Literary Hub asks two interesting questions: Where do reading lists come from? (And why do we love them?) Then they answer the questions here.

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What was the link between writer Vladimir Nabokov and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg?  Mental Floss has the answer.

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John le Carré, probably the greatest of the Cold War spy novelists, died from pneumonia on December 12, 2020 at the age of 89.  The articles I’ve chosen about him talk about his life, his works, and about interactions that other famous people had with him.  The articles are from CBS News, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and NPR.

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A New Yorker article from  December 4, 2020 introduces us to “Books for the Midnight Hour: What We Read When the World Gets Dark.”

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First question: Do you know the meanings of “quarantini” and “Blursday”?

Second question: If you do, did you ever heard of those words before 2020?

Fast Company lists – and defines – six terms you probably hadn’t heard of before this infernal COVID-19 pandemic.

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If you’re a fan of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel Rebecca, you’ll love the Mental Floss article that tells us 11 interesting facts about du Maurier and Rebecca.

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I found a video of someone making a Japanese woodblock print.  You’ll be fascinated by the ten-step process necessary to make a single print.  Be sure to explore some of the “Related Content” links at the end of the article.

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Books by the Foot is a company that provides books to those who wish to be perceived as well read.  During the pandemic their business has seen a shift in its customer base.  Their newest customers are people who will appear on Zoom and want to make a good impression by having impressive books as a backdrop.  Politico has the scoop.

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Island of the Blue Dolphins is a classic children’s novel that was published in 1960 by the respected author Scott O’Dell who wrote a total of 26 novels for young people.  When the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, decided to produce a special 50th anniversary edition of the book, they engaged Lois Lowry, another well-known author of children’s books, to write an introduction.  If you go to the Amazon website, you’ll find the following letter that Lowry wrote to the readers about some encounters she had with O’Dell.

Last summer, when I was asked to write an introduction to a new edition of Island of the Blue Dolphins, my mind went back in time to the 1960s, when my children were young and it was one of their best-loved books.

But a later memory surfaced, as well, of a party I was invited to in the summer of 1979. By now the kids were grown. I was in New York to attend a convention of the American Library Association, and Scott O’Dell’s publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was honoring him at a reception being held at the St. Regis Hotel. I had never met Mr. O’Dell. But because of my own children I knew his books, and I was pleased to be invited to such an illustrious event.

I was staying at a nearby hotel and planned to walk over to the party. But when I began to get dressed, I encountered a problem. I was wearing, I remember, a rose-colored crêpe de Chine dress. It buttoned up the back. I was alone in my hotel room. I buttoned the bottom buttons, and I buttoned the top buttons, but there was one button in the middle of my back that I simply couldn’t reach. It makes me laugh today, thinking about it, picturing the contortions I went through in that hotel room: twisting my arms, twisting my back, all to no avail.

The clock was ticking. The party would start soon. I had no other clothes except the casual things I’d been wearing all day and which were now wrinkled from the summer heat.

Finally I decided, The heck with it. I left the room with the button unbuttoned and headed off. When I got in my hotel elevator, a benign-looking older couple, probably tourists from the Midwest, were already standing inside, and I explained my predicament politely and asked if they could give me a hand. The gray-haired man kindly buttoned my dress for me.

We parted company in the lobby of my hotel and off I went to the St. Regis, where I milled around and chatted with countless people, sipped wine, and waited for the guest of honor, Scott O’Dell, to be introduced. When he was, of course he turned out to be the eighty-one-year-old man who had buttoned my dress.

But wait! There’s more. Ten years passed.

I had never seen Mr. O’Dell during the intervening years, but now, suddenly, we were the two speakers at a luncheon being held on a college campus somewhere. I think it may have been Vassar.

We sat next to each other at the head table, nibbling our chicken, chatting about the weather. I knew he wouldn’t remember me, but I certainly remembered him, and I was secretly thinking that when it was my turn to speak, I might tell the audience the amusing little anecdote about the button on my dress. But he went first. And, eyes twinkling, he started his speech with “The last time I was with Lois Lowry, we were in a New York hotel. I was helping her get dressed.” He was ninety-one at the time. All of this floated back into my mind when I found myself rereading, last summer, The Island of the Blue Dolphins. None of it was appropriate to the book’s introduction, of course, and I went on to write, instead, about the power of the story and the magnificence of the writing. Not that anyone needed reminding! There has never been a question about Scott O’Dell’s brilliance as a writer and storyteller. But it’s nice to have a chance, here, to tell an audience that he was also a sweet and funny man.

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Quotes of Note

“Age doesn’t alter one’s outlook on the world, Belle.  The essential person is always there.  Sometimes, I’m perfectly horrified to look at myself in the mirror and see an ancient crone staring back.  I feel no different than I did at forty or even sixty; why shouldn’t my face and body match my spirit?” – Nero Blanc, A Crossword to Die For

“Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year.  And to have the ability to explain afterwards why it didn’t happen.” – Winston S. Churchill

“I do not want actors and actresses to understand my plays.  That is not necessary.  If they will only pronounce the correct sounds I can guarantee the rest.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Autobiography is an unrivaled vehicle for telling the truth about other people.” – Philip Guedalla

“[Singer Julius] La Rosa also told me [at lunch one day] that Sinatra was number one and that the next-best singer ‘was number thirty-seven.’” – David Lehman, Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World

“Around February 1622, printing began on Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, remembered by the world today as the First Folio.  This landmark publication has been called, in classic canonical book-speech, ‘incomparably the most important work in the English language.’  Of the thirty-eight (or thirty-nine) plays known to be authored by Shakespeare, eighteen of them (almost half) appear here for the first time, meaning they still exist only because of this collection.  Without the efforts of [John] Heminges and [Henry] Condell, there would be no Macbeth, no Twelfth Night, no Julius Caesar.” – J. P. Romney and Rebecca Romney, Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History

“The moment the book [Ulysses by James Joyce] was published on February 2, 1922, it ceased to be his and became ours.  Thanks all the same, Jim, but further assistance is no longer required of the author; we’ll make the decisions from here on out.  Writers can suggest meaning and significance, but ultimately, readers make the final call.” – Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form 

“The bottom line, for me, is that in the early days of the novel, it was all exciting.  Readers couldn’t say, ‘Oh, we’ve seen that before; that’s so old hat.’  Every novel was experimental, every foray opened new ground.  That may not have been the case, of course, but it’s certainly how it looks from the twenty-first century.” – Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form 

“Today we stand on the brink of discovering the ultimate ‘theory of everything,’ which may, after a two-millennium search provide us with a detailed understanding of how our universe is built and ordered at the most fundamental level. At the foundation of that theory lies one key idea: All matter is really made of is quarks and leptons.” – Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil, Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy [The word “quark” was used by James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake.  American physicist Murray Gell-Mann decided to use it as the name for the building blocks of both protons and neutrons.  “Leptons,” based on a Greek word meaning “small,”  are the building blocks of electrons and neutrinos.]

“. . . in the previous century [the 19th century] upper-class American women were insulated against the raw sights and sounds of life.  A man might curse and tell “dirty” stories, but a woman was expected to swoon if she heard the taboo word leg instead of the more appropriate limb; pianos were even draped with cloth pantalets to conceal from feminine eyes those obscene supports which are now unblushingly called piano legs.  Because of the taboo on leg and breast in  America, the custom arose of referring to the parts of a chicken as dark  meat and white meat.” – Peter Farb, Word Play: What Happens When People Talk

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Happy 100th Birthday!

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On November 2, 1920 radio station KDKA in Pittsburg, PA, which was owned by Westinghouse, became the first commercially licensed radio station in the United States.  It transmitted a signal of a whopping 100 watts.  Radio existed prior to 1920, but it was only a toy for the same sort of people who played with early computers – which also seemed to have no obvious use. 

Radio was conceived as a way for one person to communicate with another over the airwaves, but the nature of the signal was such that anyone could pick up any transmission.  There was no privacy whatsoever, so the big question became “Is there anything useful that we can do with radio?”  There weren’t any good answers until someone came up with the idea of using radio to sell radios.  Then others decided to use radio to sell their products, and so they set up their own stations.  In between commercials for themselves they came up with various ways to fill the time such as weather reports, farm crop reports, and even live music.

Soon there were hundreds of radio stations around the country and that created total chaos.  Stations interfered with one another because they used the same frequencies, plus the range of frequencies used by the stations was unregulated.  So the federal government stepped in to bring order to the world of radio.  The Federal Radio Commission (later to be called the Federal Communications Commission) stepped in to set limits on the frequency range that stations could use, set times when the various stations could be on the air, and even regulated the content of radio broadcasts.  For instance, only live music was allowed.  The use of recordings was prohibited. 

All early radio stations broadcasted using AM, that is Amplitude Modulation, signals.  FM, or Frequency Modulation, which was invented in 1933 by an engineer named Edwin Armstrong, had the advantage of giving much greater fidelity, and it was not affected by adverse weather like AM.  For many years automobile radios were only equipped to pick up AM stations because FM was not very popular and because the signal didn’t carry as far as an AM signal.  Now, most of the radio stations we listen to are FM stereo while AM is mostly used for talk shows since bandwidth and fidelity aren’t issues in the range of the human voice.  Some home radios no longer even include the AM band.

Any evening during the 1930s and 1940s you could hear live broadcasts featuring the most popular bands and vocalists of the time – Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, The Andrews Sisters, and Al Jolson.  You could even tune in to the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the renowned Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, and you could hear the greatest operas in the world on the Saturday matinees from the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City.  All came into our homes to entertain us free of charge. 

Well, almost free of charge, because commercials eventually became ubiquitous.  Many evening shows were sponsored by cigarette companies including Camel, Lucky Strike, Chesterfield, Philip Morris, and Pall Mall.  Daytime serials, such as The Guiding Light, The Goldbergs, One Man’s Family, Ma Perkins, and Stella Dallas were often sponsored by soap companies because women were the primary audience.  Thus, the “soap opera” was born.  The Dinah Shore Show was sponsored by Mum deodorant, though the word “deodorant” was never used.  Instead, the commercials stated that Mum would keep the ladies “dainty” all day long.  Any woman who failed to use Mum, the sponsor warned, would be “undainty.”  For some reason, Mum was never suggested for men. 

Many of the dramas on radio every evening made their way to television.  Examples include Superman, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and Dragnet.  Some programs, such as The Lux Radio Theater offered adaptations of popular films – many with the original cast members – while other evening programs did adaptations of classic novels.

Comedy was a staple of radio during its golden age.  Jack Benny had a very popular program as did his foil Fred Allen.  Lucille Ball starred in My Favorite Husband from 1948 to 1951, and then moved on to television with the immensely popular I Love Lucy which aired from 1951 to 1957.  The popular comedienne, Fanny Brice, portrayed a little girl named Baby Snooks in a series that ran from 1937 to 1951.  One dummy even had a comedy series on radio: Charlie McCarthy (accompanied by his mouthpiece Edgar Bergen).

In fact Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were on the air on the night of October 30, 1938 when the most famous radio show ever broadcast on radio scared the hell out of many Americans.  While their very popular program, The Chase and Sanborn Hour was on, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air presented their adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds on another network.  It was announced at the beginning of the program that the evening’s offering was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel, but many tuned in after that announcement and thought that a Martian invasion was actually under way.  People tuning in late heard a live music program that was frequently interrupted by news bulletins having to do with strange flashes of light coming from Mars.  Later the bulletins came from a live remote at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey where the Martians had landed.  Soon the announcer said that the Martians were using flames to incinerate the humans near the alien spacecraft, screams were heard, and the announcer said the flames were coming in his direction.  Then the remote abruptly ended.  That’s when people went crazy – many of them heading to their automobiles to escape the area.  Car radios were available in 1938, but they weren’t as popular as they are today, so many people were late in learning that they had been fooled by a cleverly produced radio show.  Noted critic and wit Alexander Woolcott sent a telegram to Welles that read, “This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to the dummy, and that all the dummies were listening to you.”

On Sunday morning, November 1, 2020 I’ll feature a three hour broadcast of Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH that will feature “live” music from the golden age of radio and some recordings that discuss the history of this wonderful medium.  The program will air between 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Central Standard Time.  You can hear the program locally by tuning in to WBRH at 90.3 FM or at on the internet.  During the final part of the third hour I’ll feature excerpts from the famous 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds.  Don’t miss it.

There are many books about the history of radio.  I suggest the following:

Hello, Everybody!: The Dawn of American Radio (2008) by Anthony Rudel

The Great American Broadcast (1997) by Leonard Maltin

Raised on Radio (1998) by Gerald Nachman

The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism (1996) by Lynne Olsen and Stanley W. Cloud

On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (1998) by John Dunning

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