Quotes of Note

“The young man, they found, was a naturalist, an astronomer, a geographer, a geologist, a botanist, an authority on Indian antiquities, a linguist, an artist—an academy unto himself, as the poet Goethe [one of Humboldt’s friends] would say. He was at home in any subject. He had read every book. He had seen things almost impossible to imagine. ‘We all consider him as a very extraordinary man,’ [Albert] Gallatin told his wife, speaking apparently for [Thomas] Jefferson’s entire official family, ‘and his travels, which he intends publishing on his return to Europe, will, I think, rank above any other productions of the kind.’ He also talked at double the speed of anybody Gallatin had ever met before and would shift suddenly from English, which he spoke superbly, into French or Spanish or German, seemingly unaware of what he was doing, but never hesitating for a word, apparently to the very great confusion of his newfound American friends, Jefferson and the Swiss-born Gallatin not included.

“Gallatin, a man not easily impressed, found the extent of the visitor’s reading and scientific knowledge astonishing. ‘I was delighted,’ he said, ‘and swallowed more information of various kinds in less than two hours than I had for two years past in all I had read and heard.’” – David McCullough describing the polymath  Alexander von Humboldt in Brave Companions: Portraits in History.  Unfortunately, Humboldt is mostly remembered today for the Pacific Ocean current that bears his name – despite the facts that its existence had been known for centuries before he studied it and that he never claimed to have discovered it.

“For centuries, children were part of women’s realm and therefore deemed unworthy of serious scientific interest.  So long as men dominated academia, developmental psychology was inevitably marginalized.  At Berkeley, for example, a number of renowned developmental psychologists worked in research institutes; none of them was ever offered a position in the university proper. (In fact, until 1973 there were no women at all in the Berkeley psychology department.)  the work that did go on often was in the context of practical issues in education and child rearing.  One male colleague discovered in the sixties at Cornell that he had to take a home economics degree in order to study developmental psychology.  The advent of women academics in the university helped, very slowly, to make studying babies and children seem respectable.” – Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl; The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Brain

 “The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of courage—the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.” – Susan Orlean, The Library Book

“And now, what about a Watson? Are we to have a Watson? We are. Death to an author who keeps his unraveling for the last chapter, making all the other chapters but prologue to a five-minute drama. This is no way to write a story. Let us know from chapter to chapter what the detective is thinking. For this he must Watsonize or soliloquize; the one is merely a dialogue form of the other, and, by that, more readable. A Watson, then, but not of necessity a fool of a Watson. A little slow, let him be, as so many of us are, but friendly, human, likeable . . .” – A. A. Milne, The Red House Mystery

“Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person ‘the world today’ or ‘life’ or ‘reality’ he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.” – John Knowles, A Separate Peace

“I can imagine  my mother’s fear on the night I was born.

“It was April 3, 1941.  She and two hundred other women, all waiting to give birth, were gathered in the dark, airless basement of a hospital in Kiel, Germany.  Bombs from the Allied forces of World War II thundered around them, sirens screamed, the ground shook with one explosion after another, and she must have felt so alone and so terrified as she lay there praying for the safe delivery of her child.

“I arrived just in time.  A few days later, another swarm of bombs destroyed the hospital where I took my first breath.” – Eric Braeden (Victor Newman of The Young and the Restless), I’ll  Be Damned: How My Young and Restless Life Led Me to America’s #1 Daytime Drama

“I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister–anything a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.” – Willa Cather, My Ántonia

“He wanted to know how they prayed to God in Eldorado. ‘We do not pray to him at all,’ said the reverend sage. ‘We have nothing to ask of him. He has given us all we want, and we give him thanks continually.’” – Voltaire, Candide

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Talking About Books . . .

steamboat willie

On January 1, 1998 works including music, books, films, and plays, published during or before 1922 were in the public domain.  That meant that they could be reproduced, performed, used or modified without restriction.  Works that were copyrighted in 1923 should have entered the public domain on January 1, 1999, but they didn’t due to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act that added 20 years to copyright protection.

The Sonny Bono mentioned above is, of course, the Sonny Bono of Sonny and Cher fame.  By 1998 the couple had divorced, Sonny had remarried, and had been elected to Congress from California.  One of the bill’s major supporters was Sonny’s wife, Mary Bono, who was elected to Congress shortly after Sonny’s death in a skiing accident on January 5, 1998.  The bill that lengthened copyrights by 20 years was the idea of Walt Disney who wanted to extend the copyright protection of his most famous cartoon character Mickey Mouse who made his official debut in the 1928 film Steamboat Willie.  The bill also meant that nothing more would enter the public domain until 2019.  The 20-year extension has now ended, so works from 1923 went into the public domain on January 1, 2019 and the same process will continue year after year.

Major works that moved into the public domain this year include The Great American Novel by William Carlos Williams, Winston Churchill’s The World Crisis, Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Pigeons, and Edith Wharton’s A Son at the Front.  Two notable silent movies, Charlie Chaplin’s The Pilgrim and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, are also now in the public domain.  Those works will be followed by Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in 2020, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney in 2021, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 2022, and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer in 2023.  Steamboat Willie and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence will follow in 2024.

Speaking of copyright issues, a 2014 article from The Economist illustrates the problems of copyright laws that differ from country to country.

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sears catalog

In the Jim Crow south it was difficult for black folks to get the things they wanted and needed.  Most businesses were owned by white people, and those that sold to blacks often required that the black people wait until all the white customers were served before they could get what they needed.  Additionally, white merchants would often sell items to black customers at inflated prices.  However, a book was published in 1888 (and for many years thereafter) that somewhat leveled the playing field.  That book so infuriated merchants that they often burned copies of it on bonfires.

The book was the Sears, Roebuck & Company mail order catalog.  It was the Amazon of its time with just about anything you wanted – from clothing to musical instruments to even a house – but you looked for items in the catalog instead of searching for them on the internet.  When you ordered something, which would be mailed to your home, no one knew if you were black or white.  You got it for the same price and in the same amount of time as everyone else.

The catalog was particularly popular in rural areas, but I remember quite well getting a copy of this huge book at our local Sears store every year.  The catalog and the Christmas-gift “Wish Book” were discontinued many years ago, and it seems that Sears may soon go the way of their wonderful catalog.

By the way, when the old catalog was replaced with a newer copy, the old one took on another important use – at least for poor people with outhouses.

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If you like ideas you might enjoy the BBC Radio 4’s 48 animated videos that explain the history of ideas from Aristotle to Sartre.  The animations are by Cognitive and the scripts are written by British philosopher and author Nigel Warburton.  I find “The Trolley Problem” (video 11) particularly fascinating though I don’t know why most people (including me) would trade one life for five in the first scenario, but not in the second.

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mockingbird on broadway

Aaron Sorkin, creator of NBC’s The West Wing, has adapted Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird for Broadway, and it is breaking records.  But it hasn’t been easy.  Lee’s estate took issue with some of Sorkin’s changes – including having Atticus drink whiskey and curse – and it took a while to work out a settlement.  As a Variety article notes, most records are set by Broadway musicals, not dramas.  Nevertheless, America’s favorite novel seems indomitable in any form.

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the library book

Looking for some good books that were published this past year?  You can find lists all over the internet, but I doubt that any website is more complete than NPR’s Book Concierge.  You can scroll down to see the covers of all 319 books or you can choose categories such as Staff Picks, Book Club Ideas, Funny Stuff, Rather Long, Rather Short, Young Adult, No Biz Like Show Biz, and Let’s Talk About Sex.  Once you’ve chosen a category, click on a book that interests you, and you’ll get some info on the book plus links to NPR segments that have been about the book.  Absolutely awesome!

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old yeller

So you’ve seen the movie Old Yeller based on the book by Fred Gipson, but you can hardly stand to think about what happens to that brave, faithful dog near the end of the story?  Go to the Electric Lit article where the sad stories of noble dogs are rewritten so that they don’t die.  You’ll feel much better.  And you’re welcome.

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, January 6, 2019 from noon to 3:00 p.m. ET.  The featured guest will be author and bureau chief of Mother Jones magazine David Corn.  His books include Blond Ghost, Showdown, and Russian Roulette.

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Popular Music from World War I

Smile and Show Your Dimple

World War I ended on November 11, 1918 when Germany declared an armistice – that is a cessation of fighting prior to the signing of an official peace treaty.  The day that commemorated the end of the conflict was called Armistice Day until 1947 when the name was changed to Veteran’s Day in order to honor all veterans, not solely those who fought in World War I.  The change, by the way, was spearheaded by a World War II veteran from Birmingham, Alabama named Raymond Weeks.

I’ve decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I with a three hour retrospective of some of the music that was popular during the years of that conflict.  The war began in Europe in 1914; the United States entered the war in 1917; and it ended in 1918 when Germany was finally defeated.  In case you’re wondering, you won’t be listening to scratchy old recordings that are a century old.  Vocal music is predominant and the vocalists include Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney (George Clooney’s aunt), Doris Day and Nat King Cole.  The program will be broadcast as part of a weekly program called Music on the Sunny Side on WBRH (90.3 FM and at wbrh.org) on Sunday morning between 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. Central Standard Time.

About a month ago one of my listeners suggested that I do a segment on the popular music of “the war to end all wars,” and I was so intrigued when I researched the subject that it changed from a segment into an entire show.  I was surprised at how many songs from that period have remained popular – at least with people of a certain age.  I also found some novelty songs that I fell in love with – songs like “Fido Is a Hot Dog Now” (1914), “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?” (1916), and “Would You Rather Be a Colonel with an Eagle on Your Shoulder or a Private with a Chicken on Your Knee?” (1918).  Another interesting find was an Irving Berlin song called “Smile and Show Your Dimple” (1917) which he reworked years later into one of his best-known songs of all time.  What did it become?  Tune in Sunday morning and find out.

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Quotes of Note

“A book is a hand stretched forth in the dark passage of life to see if there is another to meet it.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

“Some women have a weakness for shoes. . . I can go barefoot if necessary. I have a weakness for books.” – Oprah Winfrey

“The commas are the most useful and useable of all the stops.  It is highly important to put them in place as you go along.  If you try to come back after doing a paragraph and stick them in the various spots that tempt you, you will discover that they tend to swarm like minnows into all sorts of crevices whose existence you hadn’t realized, and before long the whole sentence becomes immobilized and lashed up squirming in commas.  Better to use them sparingly and with affection. Precisely when the need for each arises.  Nicely.  By itself. . . Exclamation Points are the most irritating of all.  ‘Look,’ they say, ‘Look at what I just said. How amazing is my thought.’  It is like being forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention.  If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn’t need a mark to point it out.  And if it really is, after all, a banal sentence needing more zing, the exclamation point simply emphasizes its banality.” – “Notes on Punctuation” from The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, Lewis Thomas

“I don’t know how history is taught here in Japan, but in the United States in my college days, most of the time was spent on the study of political leaders and wars—Caesars, Napoleons, and Hitlers.  I think this is totally wrong.  The important people and events of history are the thinkers and innovators, the Darwins, Newtons, Beethovens whose work continues to grow in influence in a positive fashion.” – Mathematician Claude Shannon quoted in The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation by Jon Gertner

“The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was not what he called ‘a loyal Beethovenite,’ but when he came to write down his thoughts on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony he had to confess that he was ‘left dumb in the presence of its greatness.’  Of the first two movements he said they were ‘like no other music before or since.  It seems sometimes to have come from the eternal source of truth without human intervention.’ When we think of eternity, he went on, ‘we turn to Beethoven.’” – Fifty Things You Need to Know about World History, Hugh Williams

“After years of working with a psychiatrist, I have finally forgiven myself for not being Beethoven.” – Neil Diamond

“Dolores had no hobbies, made no contribution to society and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life.  I speak for the majority of her family when I say her presence will not be missed by many, very few tears will be shed and there will be no lamenting over her passing . . . All of us will really only miss what we never had, a good and kind mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.  I hope she is finally at peace with herself.  As for the rest of us left behind, I hope this is the beginning of a time of healing and learning to be a family again . . . There will be no service, no prayers and no closure for the family she spent a lifetime tearing apart.” – An actual obituary according to the book  Ultimate Book of Trivia: The Essential Collection of over 1,000 Curious Facts to Impress Your Friends and Expand Your Mind by Scott McNeely

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We’ve Finally Come of Age

We homo sapiens have existed for about 300,000 years, but we have made more progress in understanding and controlling the world in which we live in the past 200 years than we have made in the rest of our existence put together.  Why?  Why did we let so much time pass before we learned how to control diseases, harness energy in order to improve our lives, and to put men on the moon?  What set off the avalanche of understanding and progress that has given us the world we live in today?

Has our intellectual capacity dramatically increased lately – that is, in the last few hundred years?  That seems unlikely since we know that the evolution of our species has been an extremely slow process.  We also know it because we have written records from various societies stretching back to the time of the ancient Greeks.  Plato and Socrates, for instance, had the ability to reason in the same way that we reason today.  And many cultures around the world were practicing medicine, and discovering mathematical principals long before Plato and Socrates were born.

Many years ago I was in a Great Books discussion group.  I gave a talk at a church one time in which I mentioned that my Great Books group discusses all sorts of works even going back to the plays written during the Golden Age of Greece.  A young man in the front row asked me why we would read and discuss anything written so long ago.  After all, he contended, ancient Greek plays have no relevance to life today.  In fact, those plays plainly show that the “human condition” has not changed in the thousands of years since they were written.

So, what’s the answer?  Why have we made so much progress in the past few hundred years?  My answer is that I don’t know.  Perhaps the explosion of knowledge began during the Age of Enlightenment.  The exact period of that Age is debated by scholars, but it can be defined as the time in which we began to be ruled by reason rather than by superstition and custom.  We began to understand that our world is controlled by natural laws rather than the whims of supernatural beings or by chance, and we began to search for the causes of the things we observed.  Lightning doesn’t occur because Zeus is hurling thunderbolts and people aren’t getting sick because they failed to properly propitiate some angry god with sacrifices or because of an imbalance of the four humors (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm).

Regardless of the cause (or causes), during a brief period of our long existence we began to discover things that explained our world and, to some extent, allowed us to control it.  It’s as though there was a nearly instantaneous change – a case of “punctuated equilibrium” in the vernacular of the popular writer and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould – that altered human beings forever.

Discovering how our world works and then learning how to control it has not been a simple process.  Things have occurred that almost seem miraculous.  For instance consider the discovery of the treatment for rabies.  The great French researcher Louis Pasteur thought he had found a way to save the lives of people who had been bitten by rabid animals, but he wasn’t sure.  Until his discovery, the death rate of such people was almost certain.  Yet somehow Pasteur was able to discover the virus that caused rabies, learned how to isolate and weaken it, and then how to use it to destroy the virus in lab animals.  Even then he didn’t know if he could use the weakened virus to save the lives of rabies-infected people.  He didn’t know if his injections would arrest the disease in people or cause it to act even more quickly than usual.  Think about the questions that faced him: How soon after being bitten must the vaccine be administered?  How many doses would be required?  How much of the vaccine should be in each injection?  What is the optimal time interval between doses?

His reluctance to actually use the vaccine on humans finally ended when a grieving mother brought her son to Pasteur on July 6, 1885.  The 9-year-old boy had been bitten by a rabid dog and his mother, who had heard of Pasteur’s work, begged him to save her son’s life.  After pondering over the situation, Pasteur reluctantly decided on a dosage, a treatment schedule, and the number of injections that he thought would be required to arrest the disease.  In each case he guessed, since no one had used his vaccine on a human before, and he guessed right.  Had his guesses been wrong he probably would have been considered a murderer rather than a hero.  But somehow – almost unbelievably – he guessed right.

The history of our advancement is overflowing with cases similar to that of Pasteur’s treatment for rabies where guesses or hunches lead to some of our greatest advancements.  Someone discovered that steam could be used to create an engine.  Someone else discovered a way to transplant organs from one person to another.  A research group discovered that a piece of silicon “dosed” with certain carefully introduced impurities (about one non-silicon impurity atom per 100 million silicon atoms) would become what we know as a “transistor.”  And other researchers discovered DNA and how to map it.  The list, thankfully, is endless.

Again I’ll state that I don’t know what has caused the monumental growth of knowledge over the last few hundred years.  However, that shouldn’t stop us from hailing the progress that’s been made and musing over the potential discoveries that may further enrich our lives during the next few hundred years.  Let’s celebrate.  After about 300,000 years of existence we’ve finally come of age.

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Oregon 3

The PBS Newshour recently ran a story about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. I’ve heard about it for years, but have not had an opportunity to attend.  A British friend of mine – a Shakespeare fanatic – raved about it, so you might consider attending it next time you’re on the west coast.

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The Selfish Gene

In his book The Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins writes that the mother cuckoo bird doesn’t build a nest.  Instead, she lays her eggs in other birds’ nests.  Unbelievably the other birds incubates the cuckoo eggs along with their own. However, the baby cuckoos hatch first and actually push the other eggs out.  Here is a video demonstrating exactly what Dawkins described in his book.  Note: if you’re disturbed by things like this, please skip the video.

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Murders in mystery novels are common and don’t bother people much, but murders in real life are different.  Every time I open a product that has a “safety seal” I think about the people who died in 1982 when they took Tylenol that someone had laced with cyanide.  Everybody was scared.  Nothing like that had ever happened before, and we all wondered if anything was safe. That incident caused manufacturers to come up with the array of safety seals that are everywhere today. Forget about the small inconveniences they cause and be happy that many copycat murders may have been foiled by the manufacturers’ pesky safety precautions.  Now, get back to that murder mystery you were reading.

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The reading habits of millennials are different from those of their predecessors, so the book industry has changed, too – even from the late twentieth century.  The bestseller lists are much more fluid also.  A qz article explores the monumental changes that have occurred.

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I grew up with strict rules about how you should treat books.  Well, you may want to ditch some of those rules after you read 11 Book “Rules” That Everyone Should Just Give Up On for Good from Bustle.  Rule 4 is “Read a Book All the Way Through.”  If you’ve followed my blog for a while you probably know that I like the guidance that Nancy Pearl (“America’s librarian”) follows in her own reading: Subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages of a book.  If you’re not hooked by then, set the book aside and move on to something else.  If you’re 40 years old, read 60 pages (100 – 40 = 60) and then decide if the book is worth reading all the way through.  If you’re 70 years old read only 30 pages (100 – 70 = 30) before deciding what to do.  You can always go back to the discarded books later.

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Goodbye to All That

Last summer Medium published an article by the late Senator John McCain in which he listed his all-time favorite books.  As you might expect, his list contained many books that were military in nature – both fiction and nonfiction.  Regardless, many of the books have stood the test of time and deserve your consideration.

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Each Wednesday Alex Johnson of The Independent writes about a unique library of books. They include the personal libraries of Barack Obama, David Cameron, Oscar Wilde, Art Garfunkel, David Bowie, Osama bin Laden, and Charles Darwin.  He also writes about the books that are most left behind in the Travelodge chain of hotels, books that JPMorgan recommends to its clients, what books students are told to read at top universities, the top reads on BookCrossing, and the books that British soldiers read in the trenches during World War I.  There are some fascinating lists to be perused and lots of books that will appeal to you – no matter where your reading interests lie.

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The next edition of the live author interview program In-Depth on Book TV (C-SPAN2) will air Sunday, August 2, 2018 from noon to 3:00 p.m. EDT.  The featured guest will be novelist Cory Doctorow.  His books include Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Little Brother, and Walkaway.

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The Legacy of Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein image here


The great Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. During his 72 years of life he would touch the lives of countless people.  He was a gifted conductor, speaker, composer, writer, and probably the finest music educator to the masses.

Music was his life.  “I can’t live one day without hearing music, playing it, studying it, or thinking about it,” he said.  And his knowledge of it – in all its forms – was evident.  He was the long-time conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as well as a guest conductor for orchestras around the world; he composed West Side Story, Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town, and On the Waterfront for Broadway; and he composed three symphonies and a Mass among other works.

Most importantly, perhaps, were his Young People’s Concerts on CBS television that brought symphonic music and opera to the attention of millions of people (“young people” of all ages) who would never have been exposed to those art forms if he hadn’t existed.  He would appear on stage with a piano, while the New York Philharmonic Orchestra waited at the ready for the waving of his baton.  He captivated us with his explanations and his musical examples.  He even tried to sing occasionally, but singing, as he admitted during one of the concerts, was not one of his gifts.  He was one of those teachers who you might run across once in your life – if you were lucky – and we were blessed to hear his lectures (in the best sense of that word), and his musical examples that accompanied them, for many years.  In addition to his concerts for young people, he also appeared often on Omnibus, a TV series that was hosted by Alistair Cooke – the same Alistair Cooke who hosted Masterpiece Theatre for many years.

As we celebrate the 100th birthday of the remarkable maestro Bernstein, spend a little time delving into the legacy he bequeathed to us.  Much of his work with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra is still available. You can see bits and pieces of his Young People’s Concerts and many other examples of his life’s work on YouTube.  (Don’t miss the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s tribute to Bernstein at 100 on YouTube.  The two hour concert is hosted by noted trumpeter Wynton Marsalis who sits in with the group.)  And be sure to explore West Side Story.  It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet reset in New York City.  Instead of feuding families we have feuding gangs.  Also consider listening to Candide which is a musical based on the wonderful satire by another genius – Voltaire.

He was unique.  There will never be anyone else quite like Leonard Bernstein.

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WQXR, the premier classical music station in the U.S., has an exhaustive playlist of Bernstein’s compositions.  Take time to listen to them here.

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Can you tell much about a person by looking at the books in his/her library?  WQXR gives us a peek into Bernstein’s library – and possibly into his restless mind.

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Amazon gives us a stunning listing of both books and music associated with Bernstein.

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