Language Lover


Here’s the answer to a question that has probably been puzzling you for some time. What do the Sphinx and the sphincter have in common? Well, they share a root in the Greek verb sphingein, to squeeze. The Sphinx, if you recall, punished those unable to solve its riddles by strangling—squeezing the air out of them. And if you’ve ever been eight months pregnant, desperately searching for the nearest ladies’ restroom, you’ve done a little squeezing yourself.

This post is in honor of Roy Blount, Jr., whose birthday it is today, and thanks to whom I discovered this etymological nugget. I first became acquainted with Roy Blount, Jr. through listening to NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” a humorous and intelligent Saturday morning current-events quiz show to which I am sufficiently addicted to plan my weekend cooking blitz for its time slot. Blount is one of the participants, and I said to myself, “Who is this smart, funny man with the sexy, crumbly, Southern-accented voice?” and I immediately added him to the list of Guys I Admire, which includes my husband and son (at the top, naturally), Gregor Mendel, and Hektor, hero of Troy, among others.

Blount was actually born in Indiana, so he must have picked up his Southern accent in high school in Georgia. Besides the vast amount of work he does for radio and numerous periodicals, he’s written plays, screenplays, and song lyrics, and is the author of many works of fiction and non-fiction about (to name a few subjects) sports, politics, gender relations, domestic animals, poetry, and hair. The first book of his I opened was Alphabet Juice, a book hard to describe but a must-have for the bookshelf of any language-lover. Therein Blount explores from A to Zyzzyva (a class of weevils) words that intrigue, excite, or annoy him, contemplating in the process multiple dictionaries, Indo-European roots, and popular culture. Happy Birthday, Roy! How’s this for a birthday present: a “roy blount” as a meme for “curious word or phrase worthy of investigation.”

Answer: A cow.

Cleveland Park Day

If you wander today along Connecticut Avenue between Macomb and Porter Streets between 1 and 5 pm, you will encounter neighbors, local merchants, and folks from the elementary school, library, fire department, and other neighborhood organizations celebrating what’s interesting and fun about Cleveland Park. Attractions include music, food, clowns, a moon bounce, McGruff the Crime Dog, and President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland, long-ago residents presumably returning to check out old stomping grounds and new restaurants.

Among the events will be a tribute to Cleveland Park Library staff whose positions were suddenly and gracelessly slashed over the summer, especially beloved children’s librarian Hillary Fennell, a living encyclopedia of children’s literature and a lovely lady besides, who had served the library and its community for over thirty years. What is story hour without Ms. Hillary? (More on this in the October 5th post.)



Thistle, late summer

Does anyone out there know the work of Indiana writer and farm wife Rachel Peden? I came across her by accident, and some of her books, out of print for a while, have recently been re-issued in paperback. I’ll bet our library used to carry her work before they started tossing out everything published before the 21st century.


Purple ironweed is diminishing in the pastures; thistles are down to their last silken tassels; goldenrod pours its heap of raw gold into the general fund.

—Rachel Peden

Live and Learn

Despite my misgivings, my daughter packed sixteen (16!) chapter books for this vacation. I regretted toting any extra unecessary weight in our poor Prius, already stressed with four people and a dog and ten days of their presumably vital supplies. I pictured lugging the books home again mostly unread.

However, in addition to swimming, tubing, badminton and boules, a little Botany sketching, numerous board games, stargazing with her brother’s Star Walk app, and capably starting up and driving an 18-foot power boat (courtesy of the neighbors), here she is finishing book number 16. Now she’ll have to begin on her brother’s stack.


CakeWeddingMary & Brian

The Secret of the New Jersey Town


This spring we visited Maplewood, New Jersey, where my husband grew up. In exploring his old haunts, like the town library, we discovered that Maplewood, New Jersey is the Home of Nancy Drew! (The library carries the entire collection.) Not to mention the Bobbsey Twins, and the Hardy Boys, and Tom Swift! I don’t see how my husband could have lived there all those years without realizing he was sharing his home town with so many celebrities. (Actually, with the publisher of their series.) I think he was busy reading the Horatio Hornblower stories.

Well, with a daughter making her way through the Nancy Drew books, he now has total Nancy Drew Awareness. Here they are having some father-daughter-dog time. I’m fairly sure he’s awake. My husband, not the dog.


Library of Congress-Part 3

(If this picture is baffling, please see the news story on the Texas school board’s decision to eliminate Thomas Jefferson from its textbooks.)


Continued from Library of Congress–Part 2, May 7th

Spofford proposed a separate building for a library that would equal (or surpass! he suggested temptingly to Congress) the great libraries of Europe. It took about 15 years to hold a design competition and authorize funds, but at last, between 1886 and 1897, an astonishing team of architects, engineers, artists, and craftspeople created the Thomas Jefferson Building, probably the most magnificent structure in Washington, DC, and certainly the most labor-intensive per square inch.

The award-winning design was a building in the style of the Italian Renaissance, “efficient, beautiful, and safe,” and its thoughtful embellishment and finishing—despite a hovering Congress with its eye on the budget—is a suitable tribute to that period of cultural flowering. Stroll through and marvel at the multi-layered ornamentation, in paint, marble, and mosaic, depicting images and figures historical and mythological honoring the higher achievements of humanity: philosophy, natural science, music, art, theology, astronomy, law.

And these many wonders house a collection even more wondrous. Who could have foreseen, on that day in 1800 when John Adams signed the appropriations bill, what would develop from an initial purchase of 740 books and three maps? This is from the Library’s own website:

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with nearly 145 million items on approximately 745 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 33 million books and other print materials, 3 million recordings, 12.5 million photographs, 5.3 million maps, 6 million pieces of sheet music and 63 million manuscripts… The Library receives some 22,000 items each working day and adds approximately 10,000 items to the collections daily… In 1992 it acquired its 100 millionth item.

Not only that, but at the Library you will find:

Works in 470 languages. Four Hundred and Seventy.

Newspapers in many of those languages, from all over the world.

Over 5,000 books printed BEFORE 1500, including a Gutenberg Bible.

Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, with Talking Books and other resources available free of charge.

The Center for the Book, created to promote literacy and reading, with affiliates in all 50 states.

The American Folklife Center, with 4,000 collections of stories, music, and oral history.

An ongoing program of lectures, symposia, exhibitions, concerts, book-signings, films, and tours both general and specific.

The Library of Congress also sponsors the popular annual National Book Festival on the Mall, bringing authors and readers together for readings and discussion.

Whew! And that’s not even all….for the rest of it you must go to the website to discover. Or to the Library itself.

The Library of Congress remains a work in progress, an almost unimaginable organizational, classification, conservation and retrieval challenge. Its evolution from modest beginnings is astounding. It has survived fires, civil and world wars, recessions and depressions, and an international information explosion.

And you, dear Reader, should you manage to make it to Washington, DC, and if you are at least 16 years of age (high school students must show that they have first exhausted their other sources for research) and have a valid identification card, such as a driver’s license: YOU are eligible for a Library of Congress Reader Identification card, and you may pursue your studies, with access to hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge and beauty, in the splendid Reading Room of this marvelous, this amazing, this thank-your-lucky-stars national treasure.


Sugarloaf Mountain hike


This sketch is from a Mothers Day hike at Carderock a couple of years ago, and I’m posting it as an excuse to tell you Washingtonians about another hike entirely, on Saturday, May 22nd, sponsored by the Audubon Naturalist Society. Melanie Choukas-Bradley and Tina Brown (respectively, author and illustrator of Sugarloaf: The Mountain’s History, Geology and Natural Lore) will lead a hike at Sugarloaf Mountain while simultaneously discussing the botany, wildlife, geology, and history of the area. (They must have better lungs than I do!) At the lunch break, Tina Brown will give a nature-sketching demonstration, so carry your sketchbooks.

Some of you may have attended Melanie Choukas-Bradley’s wonderful Earth Day talk about the botanical highlights of the Washington area, which was entertainingly intertwined with local history and biography. If you didn’t make it to the talk, you can look for her book, City of Trees. (It’s not often I can find three of my favorite subjects in ONE book.)

You can find more details about the hike at the Audubon website.

Library of Congress-Part 2

Continued from Library of Congress–Part 1, on April 24th


In its two-plus centuries, the Library of Congress has had a mere thirteen Librarians. They often serve a very long time, a sort of Library Supreme Court Justice. One of them was Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), whose birthday it is today.

Born in Illinois, educated at Yale with a major in English, and at Harvard Law School, MacLeish might have had a straightforward uneventful law career, with writing and teaching as secondary pursuits, but for having served in the Army in World War I. Perhaps it was this wartime-planted seed that was sprouting when he left his law firm after three years and moved to Paris with his wife. There he spent five years writing poetry and drama and hanging out with the Hemingway-Fitzgerald-Pound crowd.

Well, how do you keep ’em down on the firm, after they’ve seen Paree. Instead of resuming his law practice after returning stateside, MacLeish continued to write, and to work for Fortune magazine. He had been, after all, an English major, and some of them do find employment—look at Garrison Keillor.

The anti-fascist viewpoint expressed in MacLeish’s writing drew the attention of President Roosevelt, who decided to appoint MacLeish as the next Librarian of Congress, over Republican Congressional opposition (“Expatriate!” “Communist!” “Poet!”). Professional librarians weren’t too happy about it either, since MacLeish was a Library World illegal immigrant. Once installed, however, he proved his skills and dedication, beginning with a major administrative reorganization of the rather uneven and semi-catalogued Library, clarifying its collection goals (Where are the holes to be filled?) and acquisitions policies (How can we fill them?), and requesting (and receiving!) a major expansion of Library budget and staff.

MacLeish also brought writers onto Library staff, launched poetry readings, wrote speeches for FDR, and much more which you can read about in detail on the Library’s website. Pretty amazing that he could accomplish all this in his 1939 to 1944 term, move on to serve as Assistant Secretary of State, then follow up with a writing/teaching career, winning Pulitzer Prizes for his drama and poetry, for which he is probably better-known.

The current Librarian, Dr. James Billington, has been a serious advocate of the National Digital Library Program, an ongoing project to digitize resources within the Library of Congress, making them accessible to that part of the world’s population (i.e., nearly everyone) which cannot make a personal visit to the physical Library in Washington, DC. In conjunction with this he proposed the creation of a multilingual World Digital Library, which was launched, with UNESCO, in 2009. Billington is a writer and a Russian scholar with a list of talents, awards, and accomplishments inside and outside the Library that is far too long to include here, but you can peruse his bio on the Library’s website, and then ponder sorrowfully how you yourself have frittered away your allotted time on this earth. Each Librarian brings his (so far it’s only been His) distinctive interests and talents to the post, thus enriching the Library.

Possibly the best known Librarian of Congress—the “Father” of its modern incarnation—is Ainsworth Rand Spofford (served 1865-1897), who increased the Library’s collection dramatically AND acquired for it a new home.

Spofford, born in New Hampshire and homeschooled (homeschoolers take note), was clearly headed for a life among books—avid reader, bookstore clerk, a founder of the Literary Club of Cincinnati, newspaper reporter and editor, and finally Assistant Librarian, then Librarian, of Congress. He managed to get the Smithsonian’s vast library transferred to the Library of Congress, and he persuaded Congress to pass a copyright law of 1870 that centralized all U.S. copyright registration at the Library—huge in itself!—and also required authors to deposit in the Library two copies of every book, map, print, and piece of music registered in the United States. (The copyright protection law extends even to works of foreign origin, with reciprocal protection. But there is apparently nothing the Library of Congress, or anyone else, can do about peculiar Chinese versions of Harry Potter that incorporate Chinese wizards, hobbits, and a belly dancer.) As you might guess, even if you have not a mathematical mind, such a law rapidly increased the Library’s collections.

A terrible fire on Christmas Eve, 1851, apparently due to a spark from an unattended fireplace, had, sadly, destroyed about two-thirds of the Library’s contents, including much of Jefferson’s original library. But the collection had been replenished in the 1850s, and by now the Library was stuffed to the gills. Over its history it had been moved around the Capitol, in and out of various spaces, to accommodate its growth. But the moment had come—the moment that we ourselves experience when we say, “I cannot put one more dishtowel into this kitchen drawer! We need to move!” And Spofford recognized that moment.

Library of Congress–Part 3


Library of Congress-Part 1


On this day in 1800, President John Adams approved legislation appropriating $5,000 to fund a hitherto nonexistent Congressional library.

Now, when the United States was young and the ink was still drying on the [mostly] ratified Constitution, its first Congress met for a short while (1790 to 1800) in Philadelphia. This contender for the role of Nation’s Capital was merely a disappointed temporary location, resigned to the government’s eventual transfer south. In the meantime, however, Philadelphia was, thanks largely to William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, a highly livable city—the most populated in the country (Washington, DC wasn’t even in the Top Twenty), with paved and lighted streets lined with sidewalks, fine masonry buildings, a university, a hospital, a fire department, gardens and parks, theaters and shops and philosophical societies and libraries—much like today, but without WiFi. The Library Company of Philadelphia offered the use of its fine collection to members of Congress free of charge, at a time when library use was by paid subscription.

When the government packed up and trudged southward to the Potomac in 1800, they said to one another in despair, “Where in this muddy village of farms, taverns, and unfinished government buildings will we do the research and study necessary for Congressional legislation and malediction?”

Fortunately, the previous Congress had been planning ahead, and in 1801, a collection of 740 books and three maps, purchased with the appropriated funds, arrived from London. They were stored, along with the papers Congress had brought from Philadelphia, in a room of the partially-built Capitol Building. It was primarily a collection of legal, economic, and historical works. The next President, Thomas Jefferson (He Who Must Not Be Named in Texas), a voracious scholar himself—if there was any subject that never interested him it is apparently unrecorded—signed a law creating the post of Librarian of Congress.

Fire is a perpetual threat to the flammable cities of civilization, and disaster can result merely from an unsnuffed candle. The Library has suffered from several, mostly minor, fires. But in August 1814, during the War of 1812, the British set about destroying Washington’s public buildings, to avenge the Americans’ destruction of the public buildings of Toronto. Although parts of the Capitol held up remarkably well, its interior, filled with wooden furniture, paintings, and irreplaceable documents and books, was highly flammable. That was the end of the library.

But only temporarily. Because Jefferson, now in retirement and short of cash, offered to sell his personal library to the U.S. government as the foundation of a new collection. So in 1815 he was paid $23,900 for his 6,487 books, which arrived by horse and wagon from Monticello.

What a collection it was. Not only works of law, economics, and history, to replace the lost books. But also: Biography. Geography. Chemistry. Botany. Medicine. Anatomy. Architecture. Philosophy. Painting and sculpture. Theater. Music. Literature. Essays. Mythology. Religion (including a copy of the Koran). And not only in English, but also works in French, Spanish, German, Latin, Greek, and Russian, several of which languages Jefferson spoke or read.

Some members of Congress objected to the collection’s breadth, explaining rather myopically, “the library was too large for the wants of Congress,” but Jefferson famously responded, “There is…no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” and that statement has guided the Library in its acquisitions over the years.

For Library of Congress-Part 2: Please see May 7th

My Heart Leaps Up

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky.
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
—William Wordsworth


(painting is a detail from a larger work, The Age of Reason)

Whenever someone in the family mentions a rainbow, my husband launches into this poem. (It’s now inevitably become a sort of family tradition—wait for it….) And today we celebrate the fortuitous birthday of its author, William Wordsworth (1770-1850), born in Cumberland, England.

Is it obligatory for English poets to have had unhappy childhoods? Wordsworth’s was no exception—his father, mysteriously, lived apart from the family, and when the children’s mother died, instead of taking them in, he parcelled them out between boarding schools and a series of unpleasant misery-inducing relatives. Wordsworth wasn’t reunited with his beloved favorite sister Dorothy for years. The highlight of his dismal schooling (besides introducing him to his future wife) was the holidays, which he consistently spent going long walks in nature and writing poetry.

At twenty Wordsworth set off on a walking tour of Italy, Switzerland, and post-Revolutionary France, where he became a passionate advocate of the republican cause. In France he formed a liaison with a local girl, but the relationship was discouraged by her parents (despite his having fathered a daughter whom he visited and supported rather erratically over the years). He returned home alone, disillusioned by the increasing violence of the revolution and England’s violent response to it, aimless, without profession, depressed.

This dark period was finally relieved by a legacy from Raisley Calvert, a sculptor and loyal former classmate, that allowed Wordsworth to support himself while writing poetry. May we all be so fortunate in our old school friends! With a steady income, he was able to form a household with Dorothy and their mutual friend Samuel Coleridge that Dorothy termed “three persons with one soul.”

It was a creative partnership that marked the birth of English Romanticism. Inspired by one another, Wordsworth and Coleridge produced innovative, experimental, controversial poetry, and Dorothy’s letters (luckily for literary historians) documented the process. Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” but his rapture was borne within measured frameworks, among them the sonnet form, which Wordsworth reawakened after its long disuse. In 1798 they published Lyrical Ballads (“Tintern Abbey,” “The Idiot Boy,” “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) and Romanticism was up and running.

The Romantic movement emphasized the value of individual experience, the contributions of ethnic traditions and folklore, the primal power of wild landscape and the wonders of nature, a consciousness of the infinite, and the use of imagination and the senses as a path to spiritual truth. It was a break from the formal elegance, polish, dignity and conservative restraint that characterized the formerly hot movement, Neoclassicism. Instead of, say, a series of elevated dramatic couplets on the epic semi-divine hero of ancient tragedy, we have a lyrical meditation on the soul-response to a sea of daffodils, or to the loss of a much-loved child. A personal perspective on life, the natural world, and mortality.

Yes…quite a break! taken up by Blake, Scott, and Göethe, followed by a whole string of younger Romantic poets and writers (Byron, Shelley, Keats, Hugo, Dumas, Pushkin) and the Transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau) and later the Victorians (Browning, Tennyson). Where would it end?? Culture as well as politics seems to be an ongoing struggle between the poles of head and heart, with adherents of each movement certain of having achieved a universally valid means of expression. But that is a subject for another post.

The partnership foundered on a falling-out with Coleridge, a pretty gloomy fellow, as one would expect of someone who writes a lengthy baffling poem about a curse-bearing dead albatross. Wordsworth and Dorothy moved on, settling eventually in the beautiful Lake District, that region abundant in literary inspiration and indomitable tourists. Joined by Robert Southey, the two became known as the “Lake Poets,” and Wordsworth married and proceeded to have five children. A sizable household. But a household that, as any other, had its share of suffering, with the drowning of William and Dorothy’s brother, and the deaths of three of the children. Wordsworth’s poetry grew more sober, restrained, and elegiac. In fact in his later years, while serving as England’s poet laureate, he was criticized by younger writers for his increasing conservatism. Suffering and loss does shade and temper youthful abandon.

Even if you can’t recite a Romantic poem in entirety, you know that your head is filled with lovely memorable fragments (“Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still…” “I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar…”) that are part of our literary legacy and that emerge in moments of wonder and joy. For the fragments, for the poetry, for the consciousness that shaped them, and for my husband’s regular recital of the rainbow poem, thank you, William Wordsworth, and Happy Birthday.