Every morning, I wake up and follow a sleepy routine. Unless Husband has beat me to it, I let the dog out, turn on the coffee maker, feed the dog, make my regular breakfast—one egg with two pieces turkey sausage—and ease into my chair to watch some banter on CNN and check email. And then I select 90 percent of the emails for deletion without reading them. They’re mostly marketing messages from Williams Sonoma, Eddie Bauer and Tea Forte anyway.
But there is one daily email I never delete without reading, and one of my morning sources of delight is to have breakfast as I read it—Today in Literature. I learn something new every single day, just a fact sometimes, something that may not matter apart from Trivial Pursuit, but it all adds up to learning regardless.
Today, I learned that on this date in 1942, Anne Frank wrote the first entry of her diary, for example. “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone….,” she wrote. And I learned Frank wrote short stories she would sometimes read aloud to the other residents of the secret annex and that she kept a journal she titled “Book of Nice Sentences,” sentences she collected from books that had been smuggled into the hiding place. From Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, she selected this—“Well, she wore far too much rouge last night, and not quite enough clothes. That is always a sign of despair in a woman.”
Yesterday, I learned that William Smith, an 18th-century British geologist, mapped the strata of England in such a way that had never been done previously and created the Table of Strata. Up to that point, polite society accepted the Book of Genesis as absolute history and not metaphor, but with the Table of Strata published in map form, everything changed. In fact, Simon Winchester published a biography about Smith titled The Map That Changed the World. This is all new information to me, and I followed leads to read more about Smith and the social effects of his map of the underground.
As if that weren’t enough, I discovered an author whose name I did not recognize, William Styron—his birthday was Monday (1925). The author wrote prize-winning novels, which I may look into later after I’ve cleared some of my current reading list, but those titles he is most known for weren’t what caught my attention.
Styron suffered from unipolar depression, and subsequently his family suffered right along with him.
He wrote a memoir, Darkness Visible, in which he described his decision to kill himself. He was alone one night and thinking through the methods he might use when he heard Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody, a love song written as a wedding gift for Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter, and instead of following through with suicide, he wrote this:
“This sound, which like all music—indeed, like all pleasure—I had been numbly unresponsive to for months, pierced my heart like a dagger, and in a flood of swift recollection I thought of all the joys the house had known: the children who had rushed through its rooms, the festivals, the love and work, the honestly earned slumber, the voices and the nimble commotion, the perennial tribe of cats and dogs and birds…. All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon, even as what I had set out so deliberately to do was more than I could inflict on those memories, and upon those, so close to me, with whom the memories were bound. And just as powerfully I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself.”
According to Styron’s daughter, his memoir helped prevent “legions of would-be suicides,” and he went on to live into his 80s, family by his side though wounded by his condition. In his daughter's words: "At times querulous and taciturn, cutting and remote, melancholy
when he was sober and rageful when in his cups, he inspired fear and
loathing in us a good deal more often than it feels comfortable to
I can’t seem to soak in enough information. I read mostly fiction when I sit down to read for any length of time, but every day I long to learn something new. I hope that never ends, and that if I live to be an old woman, I'll sit in my rickety rocker with cats by my side, learning at least one new thing each day.
Take a listen to Alto Rhapsody and see if it elicits some of the same life-saving thoughts it did for Styron (then look up the translation and see if the lyrics' true meaning alters your thoughts), and then subscribe to Today in Literature: