"The Writer's Almanac" & Good Poems: Garrison Keillor's Services to Poetry

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It's good to know at the beginning of a day that it's George Orwell's birthday. I love George Orwell. Not so much for the two famous novels, which I admire, but more for the essays: the lucidity of his prose, pungent and English, and the hardnosed, pragmatic, humane intelligence flowing through his sentences, pressing forward toward truth. It's good also to be reminded of Orwell's four years of living down and out in Paris and London; of his service in the Imperial police in Burma, and his resignation because he felt ashamed of British rule; of those two famous novels that exposed the nightmare of totalitarian rule in their entirely different but unforgettable ways (books I read in high school, and which were among the first that made me start to take literature seriously); of his retreat at the end of his life to a primitive, weather-beaten island off the coast of Scotland to live out his tuberculosis-numbered days writing 1984.

I thought of George Orwell this morning because I listened to the radio for five minutes. I do this almost every morning. It's become a ritual, and a sort of meditation. I've heard it said that gratitude is the most important attitude to cultivate if one wants to grow a little spiritually, and for me this ritual involves gratitude. The five minutes are Garrison Keillor's "The Writer's Almanac."

Many days, the birthdays and the names that are mentioned are not of Orwell's magnitude, but that's OK. In fact, it's good to think of great writers and personal heroes together with lesser lights, or lights who work in fields that don't happen to be among your particular interests. For example, Orwell shares his birthday, June 25, with George Abbot, Broadway playwright, director, and producer. I knew some of Abbot's shows, but I wouldn't have recognized his name. So I learned something. The names mentioned on a particular day often occupy wildly different places on the spectrums of genre, fame, seriousness, greatness, or personal interest. It's a healthy exercise to contemplate, if only briefly, the director of The Pajama Game and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in juxtaposition with the author of "Politics and the English Language" and "To Kill an Elephant." It reminds you of how wide the arts and the world are, and of how many different purchases on reality there are. There may be something a little Buddhist about the exercise, in the sense that it reminds us that individual people and achievements, even those you most admire, are drops in the river. To think this way whispers to the ego and tells it to calm down and remember its smallness, and to remember that all who live also die. But also, when the writer mentioned is George Orwell or Emily Dickinson or Charles Dickens or Charles Darwin, it whispers, "Be grateful."

There's nothing snobbish in The Almanac's selections. Popular writers are right in there along with literary and intellectual giants. The non-giants also spent their lives in the work of putting words together; putting ink on paper; spending time alone with the blank, and then less blank, page. That is the fundamental act that The Almanac honors, whatever the motivations behind it may have been. So, on July 17, we hear that it is the birthday of Erle Stanley Gardner, the best-selling American author of all time: over eighty mystery novels, 200 million copies sold, 26,000 copies per day at his peak. Erle Stanley Gardner, who said, "I write to make money, and I write to give the reader sheer fun."

"The Writer's Almanac" comes on at 8:30 AM in my area (National Public Radio, needless to say). I'm usually driving to work at this time, or, if I'm working at home, it's the transitional time between breakfast and getting started--the procrastination period. Good scheduling. The birthday announcements are sometimes nothing more than the writer's name, place of birth, and the genre in which he or she worked. Sometimes there's a quotation, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Easy reading is damn hard writing," or Rousseau's "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains. …