Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2017

catkins-bookshelf-literatureThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), established in 1982 by English Professor Scott Rice at San Jose State University, recognizes the worst opening sentence (also known as an “incipit”) for a novel. The name of the quasi-literary contest honors Edward George Bulwer Lytton, author of a very obscure 1830 Victorian novel, Paul Clifford, with a very famous opening sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Each year, contest receives more than 10,000 entries from all over the world — proving that there is no shortage of wretched writers vying for acclaim. The contest now has several subcategories, including adventure, crime, romance, and detective fiction. The winner gets bragging rights for writing the worst sentence of the year and a modest financial award of $150 — presumably for writing lessons.

The winner of the 2017 BLFC was Kat Russo of Loveland, Colorado:
The elven city of Losstii faced towering sea cliffs and abutted rolling hills that in the summer were covered with blankets of flowers and in the winter were covered with blankets, because the elves wanted to keep the flowers warm and didn’t know much at all about gardening.

The runner up was submitted by Tony Buccella of Allegany, New York:
Although in the rusty tackle-box of his mind he yearned to be a #3 buck-tail spinner, Bob knew deep down he must accept his cruel fate as a bottom bouncer rig, forever destined to scrape the muddy bottom of the river of life.

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Doug Self of Brunswick, Maine:
Detective Sam Steel stood at the crime scene staring puzzled at the chalk outline of Ms. Mulgrave’s body which was really just a stick figure with a dress, curly hair, boobs, and a smiley face because the police chalk guy had the day off.

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Peter Bjorkman of Rocklin, California:
Pablo wrapped his arms around his dying hermano—the drone strike intended for cartel kingpin Miguel “El Jefe” Guzman had landed off-course, disintegrating Pablo’s casa—and as his fraternal soulmate’s life ebbed in his clutches, Pablo wailed heavenward, “He ain’t Jefe . . . he’s my brother!”

Read related posts: The Worst Sentence Ever Written
The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2014
The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2015
The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2016
The Best Sentences in English Literature

Best Books for Word Lovers
Best Books for Writers
Most Famous Quotations in British Literature

For futher reading:
Dark and Stormy Rides Again by Scott Rice, Penguin Books (1996)


What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?

alex atkins bookshelf musicRocket Man, released in 1972, is one of Elton John’s signature songs and certainly one of his most successful songs, which climbed the singles charts to number 6 in the U.S. and number 2 in the UK. The lyrics of Rocket Man were written by lyricist and poet Bernie Taupin, John’s talented collaborator since 1967. There were two key influences that helped to shape the song in Taupin’s imagination. First, the successful Apollo missions, particularly Apollo 11 that landed men on the moon in 1969, captured the imagination of the nation; every kid in America wanted to be an astronaut. In the span of a less than a decade, the concept of space travel made the giant leap from science fiction to reality. The second influence was the emergence of music from emerging artists that was redefining the sound of rock with innovative instrumentation and lyrics that explored man’s exploration of space, the final frontier. There were two songs, in particular, that made an impact on Taupin.

One year before man stepped foot on the moon, Americans had already been to the moon — via Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey — a film that continues to inspire filmmakers today. The screenplay was based on a short story, “The Sentinel,” written by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke and Kubrick collaborated on the screenplay and the novel (based on the screenplay) that was released after the movie’s premiere. Its depiction of space travel and thought-provoking scientific and philosophical themes mesmerized audiences around the globe. Moreover, in one film, Kubrick redefined the cinematic experience, raising special effects and brilliant story-telling to new heights.

One of the impressionable people sitting in a darkened theatre watching Kubrick’s film was a young man named David Bowie. In an interview, Bowie explained, “[Space Oddity] was written because of going to see the film 2001, which I found amazing. I was out of my gourd anyway, I was very stoned when I went to see it, several times, and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.” The song, featured on the album David Bowie (1969), was about an astronaut, Major Tom, who travels into space, loses communication with ground control, and is stranded in space “floating ’round my tin can/far above the moon… And there is nothing I can do.” Presumably, he runs out of oxygen and perishes.

A year later, the psychedelic folk band, Pearls Before Swine, released the album The Use of Ashes in 1970. Working in the same milieu as Bowie, songwriter Tom Rapp found his inspiration in the short story “The Rocket Man” in the collection of short stories titled The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury published in 1951. The story is told from the perspective of a young boy who, naturally, wants to be an astronaut like his father. For the past ten years, the father has visited his wife and son for a short stay (three days) in between three-month long space trips. The father is sad that his relationship to his wife has deteriorated. As any father would, he warns his son about his profession — don’t become a rocket man; you’ll never be happy — if you’re home, you yearn for space; if you are in space, you will yearn for home; it is a vicious circle. Rapp’s song tells a similar story about regret and loss: a young boy talks about his father who is an astronaut and how he and his mother worry about his father’s safety (“My father was a rocket man / He often went to Jupiter or Mercury, to Venus or to Mars / My mother and I would watch the sky / And wonder if a falling star / Was a ship becoming ashes with a rocket man inside.” The father was torn between visiting distant planets and the stars and spending time with his family. At some point, the father perishes: “One day they told us the sun had flared and taken him inside.” The song ends with the pain that the mother and son feel when they look up at the sky and are reminded of their loss: “My mother and I / Never went out / Unless the sky was cloudy or the sun was blotted out / Or to escape the pain / We only went out when it rained.”

In several interviews, Taupin has revealed that the Pearls Before Swine version of Rocket Man was the inspiration for his version. All three space songs, Space Oddity, Pearls Before Swine’s Rocket Man, and Elton John’s Rocket Man share the same subject, an astronaut traveling in space, and share some of the same themes: isolation, dedication, self-reliance, ambivalence, regret, and mortality. And musically, Space Oddity and John’s Rocket Man both utilize the spacey sort of sounds of the slide guitar and synthesizer. Thematically, like Space Oddity, John’s Rocket Man is told from the perspective of the astronaut. Taupin’s astronaut is traveling to Mars as part of a scientific mission. The astronaut reflects on the lengthy journeys (“On such a timeless flight / And I think it’s gonna be a long long time / ‘Till touch down brings me round again”) and the impact it has on him: he misses his home and family (“I miss the earth so much I miss my wife / It’s lonely out in space.”) and the challenges he faces dealing with the monotony (“And all this science I don’t understand / It’s just my job five days a week”). The astronaut senses that the long journeys into space are changing him, impacting his psyche, his mental health: “I’m not the man they think I am at home / Oh no no no I’m a rocket man / Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone.” Moreover, the narrator expresses his ambivalence, revealing a sense of triumph as well as defeat, by declaring several times, “I’m the Rocket Man.” The song ends by emphasizing the eternity of the flight, perhaps wondering if he will ever return home: “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time…”

In an insightful essay on the meaning of Rocket Man, the editors of Shmoop, describe the Rocket Man as an iconic American archetype, specifically that of the “cowboy”: “Elton John’s Rocket Man is a conflicted cowboy kind of character, torn between his love of the frontierlike realm of space and his home down on the range. When he’s at home on Earth, he yearns to be ‘high as a kite,’ soaring from Mars to Venus to Mercury. But when he’s in space, he misses the Earth: the blue sky, the warm sun, the salt wind, his wife. Space is both ‘lonely’ and ‘timeless.’ And yet while he never seems at ease with his lot in life, he is totally accepting of it for all of its flaws; it is his very identity: ‘I’m a rocket man.'” From there, they compare the rocket man to the idealized masculine man, as represented in the Western canon of literature (“the masculine man is defined by ‘courage’ (according to Cicero), self-reliance, and adherence to the law.”) But more appropriately, they compare the conflicted cowboy to Ulysses from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem of the same name (based, of course, on Homer’s epic The Odyssey) who is caught between the obligations of his duties as a Greek warrior and as a family man (husband and father). This is a brilliant insight: both Ulysses and the Rocket Man place duty before family, and are committed to completing their missions, willing to sacrifice time with their family (Ulysses asserts: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”) — and ultimately willing to sacrifice their own lives. The editors conclude: “these sacrifices somehow enrich the idea of being a rocket man, sticking it out alone in the name of essential masculine ideals.”

While we are on the topic of Tennyson’s poem, it is important to understand that the poem was written in 1833 as an elegy for a close college friend, Arthur Henry Hallam who died that year. In an interview, Tennyson explained that the poem expressed his own “need of going forward and braving the struggle of life” after the loss of his dear friend. And similarly, Elton John’s Rocket Man is also an elegy; both the poem and the song evoke a profound sense of sadness, knowing that in Ulysses’s words “death closes all.”

On a another level, Elton John’s Rocket Man underscores the paradox of the American Dream. The American Dream was first defined by James Adams in his book, The Epic of America, published in 1931. Adams wrote: “[The American Dream] is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement….  It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” Rooted in the ideals of the Declaration of Independence (equality, democracy, liberty, democracy, and opportunity), the American Dream is the promise of social mobility for men and women and their children; that is to say, America provides parents the opportunities to support their families through work, so that they and their children will have a better life than their parents. The paradox represented in John’s Rocket Man — as well as Bradbury’s short story and Rapp’s Rocket Man — is this: in order to support his family, the narrator must perform a job that pulls him away from his family; sadly he cannot raise his kids if he is not home. It is an age-old struggle: the choice between career (or work) work and family. The paradox of the American Dream is one of the most compelling themes of Elton John’s Rocket Man and why the song is as relevant today as it was almost half a century ago.

Read related posts: Who is Major Tom in the Bowie Songs?
The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
Origin of the Beatles Name
How Rock Bands Got Their Names
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
Best Books for Music Lovers

For further reading: Tennyson (Everyman Library Pocket Poet Series) by Lord Alfred Tennyson
Captain Fantastic: Elton John’s Stellar Trip Through the 70s by Tom Doyle
The American Dream: A Cultural History by Lawrence Samuel

Favorite Words of Dictionary Editors

alex atkins bookshelf wordsPeter Gilliver is a diehard word lover with the perfect job: he is an associate editor with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and author of The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Gilliver and his fellow editors at the OED certainly have a lot to say about words — they are a very opinionated lot. As lexicographers one of the questions they get asked all the time is: what is your favorite word? A number of them will groan or roll their eyes, and state emphatically: “I don’t have a favorite word!” Poppycock. Any one who collects or loves something always has at least one or two favorites (in a survey, even parents admitted that they had a favorite child, but would NEVER admit it to their kids). So put your lexicographic pretensions aside and cough it up!  Gilliver was able to coax some answers from some of the editors; here are some highlights.

“A favorite word of mine is geoduck, because the pronunciation is at such variance with the spelling and consequently demonstrates the basic flaw in syllabification.”

“Inflammable is the first word I remember asking “why” about as a child: why does it mean the same as flammable, when you”d expect it to mean the opposite?”

“As a non-English speaker, I find awesome an awesome word. I don”t have in my mother tongue a direct translation – impresonante is the closest translation, but it is not exactly the same.”

“Bollocks is a word with a glorious ring to it, which can be incredibly comforting to use in stressful situations; it also has a wonderful versatility: able to mean anything from the very best (“the dog”s bollocks”) to the very worst (“complete, total and utter bollocks”). Given its somewhat risqué literal meaning, it carries with it a cheekily subversive charm: able to shock, but not too much.”

“My favorite word in English is numpty, because it somehow conveys exactly what it is. I first heard it when I moved up to Scotland over twenty years ago; now it seems to be fairly widespread in English English, too.”

“I”ve had terrible trouble trying to decide what my favorite word is this week.  In the end, I”ve gone for stravaig. I like the sound of it and the idea it captures of wandering around without purpose but with enjoyment. “

“I first saw the word moribund in an article written by a colleague of mine. I”m just surprised at how such state or situation as a whole could be compressed and expressed by just one word.”

“It took me many years to realize what my favorite words really were, after flirting with a few others in my youth. The words I love are those that describe the English landscape—fell, beck, gill, tarn, crag, dale (with fell being my favorite if I had to choose). I like their simplicity and the fact that they provide a link to our surroundings that has endured for generations—1000 years in some cases. When I”m sitting in an office looking at a computer, thinking of these words makes me happy—they represent escape and freedom.”

“My favorite word is suboptimal, because it is a nice euphemism for something that is far away from being good.”

“My favorite word is one I use with my speech and language therapy students as an example of a “rule-breaker”. I recently had the pleasure of editing the entry for the word spleuchan, which is the only word I”ve ever come across whose British English pronunciation feasibly starts with four consonant sounds (/s/, /p/, /l/, /j/), and hence counters every textbook on English syllable structure. I retain a particular appreciation for smew.”

“Counterintuitive. I love its higgledy-piggledy/oom-pa-pa rhythm; and I love its suggestion that what you think is probably wrong. (For me, it so often is.)”

“I wouldn”t necessarily say it”s my favourite, but the word I seem to notice more than any other is inexorable—for some reason it always seems to trip me up a bit whenever it appears in anything I”m reading, so I find myself thinking vaguely fond thoughts of recognition whenever I come across it.”

“As a non-native English speaker, I like the word scratch. Just because of how it sounds, really.”

“I”m in the “don”t have one” camp. I do, however, have an “official” one for use in response to this very question: echt (italics essential). I like to make people happy.”

“I couldn”t pick a single “favourite” as there are too many that I like an awful lot—all for different reasons. It all depends on my mood. However, one that I”m currently extremely keen on is the transitive verb exeleutherostomize: it has a fantastic rhythm when spoken, that fact of its being extremely close to the original Greek appeals greatly to me (as a Classicist), and I think its meaning (“to say (something) freely”) is one that has carried significant political weight across a number of centuries. I also really like the fact that I don”t think it is has any particularly close synonyms—its meaning is quite unique!”

“Short answer: lineage. Long answer: My favourite word is in fact Dutch—schanskorven. It”s a horribly ugly phenomenon, cages with stones piled up to create “decorative” walls, but the word is just beautiful. I also love beschoeiing and bewegwijzering. For English, a close runner-up is longevity, because its pronunciation is utterly unexpected (at least for a foreigner like me), and because it”s a concept for which we don”t have a word in Dutch, and it”s always nice to find new words that elegantly express something you thought you needed more than one word for. However, its pronunciation is slightly uncomfortable.”

“Having been asked this question quite a lot, I decided many years ago that I needed a standard response, so I selected ombrifuge as my favorite word of choice. It sounds nice and it has a useful but neglected application.”

“I can’t say I really have a single, definitive favorite – but one that”s always stuck with me (since I was a child and had no idea what it meant!) is kerfuffle. When I was small I imagined that it was some kind of furry, loveable creature, a bit like a powder puff but with legs and a face.”

“I really like the word petrichor (“A pleasant, distinctive smell frequently accompanying the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather in certain regions”), because (1) I like the thing it signifies very much (2) there aren”t many nouns referring to specific smells I don”t think (3) the word itself sounds very fantasy-fiction-y (4) I think it”s a good name for a cat.”

Read related posts: Words Invented by Book Lovers
How Many Words in the English Language?
Words with Letters in Alphabetical Order
What is the Longest Word in English?
There’s a Word for That: Epeolatry

For further reading:

The History of the World According to Student Bloopers

alex atkins bookshelf educationRichard Lederer, a life-long word lover and prolific author (more than 30 books on the English language), has been collecting unique and fascinating words for decades. He also enjoys collecting verbal bloopers and malapropisms, the innocent goofs and gaffes that most people make in their daily speech and writing, unaware that they are mangling the English language, as well as important facts. Lederer writes “One of the fringe benefits of being an English or History teacher is receiving the occasional jewel of a student blooper in an essay. I have pasted together the following history of the world from certifiably genuine student bloopers collected by teachers throughout the United States, from eighth grade through college level.” This history of the world according to student bloopers will elicit either a hearty laugh or utter shock (these students actually graduated?), depending on your perspective:

“The inhabitants of ancient Egypt were called mummies. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irritation. The Egyptians built the Pyramids in the shape of a huge triangular cube. The Pramids are a range of mountains between France and Spain.

The Bible is full of interesting caricatures. In the first book of the Bible, Guinesses, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, once asked, “Am I my brother’s son?” God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Montezuma. Jacob, son of Isaac, stole his brother’s birth mark. Jacob was a patriarch who brought up his twelve sons to be patriarchs, but they did not take to it. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, gave refuse to the Israelites.

Pharaoh forced the Hebrew slaves to make bread without straw. Moses led them to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients. Afterwards, Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. David was a Hebrew king skilled at playing the liar. He fought with the Philatelists, a race of people who lived in Biblical times. Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 500 wives and 500 porcupines.

Without the Greeks we wouldn’t have history. The Greeks invented three kinds of columns–Corinthian, Doric, and Ironic. They also had myths. A myth is a female moth. One myth says that the mother of Achilles dipped him in the River Stynx until he became intolerable. Achilles appears in The Iliad, by Homer. Homer also wrote The Oddity, in which Penelope was the last hardship that Ulysses endured on his journey. Actually, Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name.

Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.

The Renaissance was an age in which more individuals felt the value of their human being. Martin Luther was nailed to the church door at Wittenberg for selling papal indulgences. He died a horrible death, being excommunicated by a bull. It was the painter Donatello’s interest in the female nude that made him the father of the Renaissance. It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented the Bible. SirWalter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

Then came the Middle Ages. King Alfred conquered the Danes, King Arthur lived in the Age of Shivery, King Harold mustarded his troups before the Battle of Hastings, Joan of Arc was cannonized by Bernard Shaw, and victims of the Black Death grew boobs on their necks. Finally, Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense.

During the RenaissanceAmerica began. Christo-pher Columbus was a great navigator who discovered America while cursing about the Atlantic. His ships were called the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Fe. Later, the Pilgrims crossed the Ocean, and this was known as Pilgrims Progress.

George Washington married Martha Curtis and in due time became the Father of Our Country.Then the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility. Under the Constitution the people enjoyed the right to keep bare arms.

Abraham Lincoln became America’s greatest Prec-edent. Lincoln’s mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. When Lincoln was President, he wore only a tall silk hat. He said, “In onion there is strength.” Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope. On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln went to the theater and got shot in his seat by one of the actors in a moving picture show. The believed assinator was John Wilkes Booth, a supposingly insane actor. This ruined Booth’s career.

The sun never set on the British Empire because the British Empire is in the East and the sun sets in the West. Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years. Her reclining years and finally the end of her life were exemplatory of a great personality. Her death was the final event which ended her reign.

The nineteenth century was a time of many great inventions and thoughts. The invention of the steam boat caused a network of rivers to spring up. Cyrus McCormick invented the McCormick raper, which did the work of a hundred men. Samuel Morse invented a code of telepathy. Louis Pasteur invented a cure for rabbis. Charles Darwin was a naturalist who wrote the Organ of Species. Madman Curie discovered radium. And Karl Marx became one of the Marx brothers.

The First World War, caused by the assignation of the Arch-Duck by a surf, ushered in a new error in the anals of human history.”

Even if you enjoyed this historical narrative, don’t expect to see it on the History Channel or a Ken Burns documentary.

Read related posts: Bloopers in English: Excuse Notes Written to Teachers
Fowl Language
The Best of Puns, the Worst of Puns

For further reading: Verbatim by Erin McKean

Would a Million Monkeys on a Million Typewriters Produce the Works of Shakespeare?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIn 1928, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington presented a classical illustration of chance in his book, The Nature of the Physical World: “If I let my fingers wander idly over the keys of a typewriter it might happen that my screed made an intelligible sentence. If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all the books in the British Museum. The chance of their doing so is decidedly more favourable than the chance of the molecules returning to one half of the vessel.” In the 1939 essay, “The Total Library,” Jorge Luis Borges relates a variant of this concept: “a half-dozen monkeys provide with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce all the books in the British Museum.” Over time, the quotation morphed into a more alliterative, memorable phrase invoking the Bard: “a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters to produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.” Huzzah! It is now known as the Infinite Monkey Theorem which states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time would eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare. The probability, however, is very small: mathematicians have calculated to be one in 15 billion.

Such a theoretical discussion of probability begs the discussion of a real-world experiment. What would happen if you gave a half-dozen monkeys their own typewriters? Would they type anything of literary value? Glad you asked. In 2003, researchers at the University of Plymouth received a grant from the Arts Council to study that very question. The researchers placed specially modified computer keyboards in the enclosure of six monkeys, specifically Celebes crested macaques, at the Paignton Zoo (Devon, England) for a month. Vicky Melfi, a biologist at Paignton zoo, explained that the macaques (named Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe, and Rowan) were ideal animals to test the Infinite Monkey Theorem. “They are very intentional, deliberate and very dexterous, so they do want to interact with stuff you give them. They would sit on the computer and some of the younger ones would press the keys.” The researchers did not reward the monkeys for typing because they did not want them to become fixated on typing to the exclusion of other natural behavior. So what literary work did these budding writers produce?

The six monkeys produced only five pages of text between them. Alas, there was no iambic pentameter prose here; the pages were very monotonous, filled with the letter S. Near the end, they added some variation, adding the letters A, J, L, and M. There was nothing in the text that came close to being an English word. Perhaps they were writing the story of a hissing snake. Nevertheless, when they got bored of typing, they simply sat on the keyboards and defecated on them. This is, of course, nothing new — a mercurial author who is displeased with his manuscript and trashes it — in this case, literally shits on it! S’wounds!

We end this discussion of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, with computer scientist Robert Wilensky’ observation: “We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the complete works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know that is not true.” Touché!

Read related posts: What if Shakespeare Wrote the Hits: Don’t Stop Believin
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When Was Shakespeare Born?
The Legacy of Shakespeare
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The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
Who Are the Greatest Characters in Shakespeare?
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare
Shakespeare and Uranus
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One of the Greatest Magazine Stories: Falling Man

alex atkins bookshelf cultureRichard Drew pressed the camera’s shutter button at 9:41 am on the morning of September 11, 2001, capturing an image of man leaping to his death that is horrific, elegiac, and poetic. This iconic photograph — “The Falling Man” — depicted one of more than 200 innocent people who jumped to their deaths that morning. It was printed on page 7 of the New York Times on the following day, etched forever in the American consciousness as a reminder of that dreadful day. Equally powerful was the thought-provoking story that writer Tom Junod wrote about the identity of that lone figure in the September 2003 issue of Esquire magazine, titled “The Falling Man.” When you read the introduction to the story, it is easy to understand why the editors of Esquire consider it one of the greatest stories in the magazine’s 75-year history.

“In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity’s divine suction or by what awaits him. His arms are by his side, only slightly outriggered. His left leg is bent at the knee, almost casually. His white shirt, or jacket, or frock, is billowing free of his black pants. His black high-tops are still on his feet… The man in the picture… is perfectly vertical, and so is in accord with the lines of the buildings behind him. He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun. Some people who look at the picture see stoicism, willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something else — something discordant and therefore terrible: freedom. There is something almost rebellious in the man’s posture, as though once faced with the inevitability of death, he decided to get on with it; as though he were a missile, a spear, bent on attaining his own end. He is… in the clutches of pure physics, accelerating at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared. He will soon be traveling at upwards of 150 miles per hour, and he is upside down. In the picture, he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps dropping until he disappears.”

Almost 20 years later, reflecting on that photo, Richard Drew states: “I never regretted taking that photograph at all. It’s probably one of the only photographs that shows someone dying that day. We have a terrorist attack on our soil and we still don’t see pictures of our people dying — and this is a photograph of someone dying. “

The Falling Man’s true identity has never been established.  The photos reveal that he was dark-skinned, lanky, wore a goatee, dressed in black pants, and a bright-orange shirt under a white shirt. Some believe it was Jonathan Briley, an employee at the Windows on the World restaurant. Miraculously, the FBI found his body the next day. Juno concludes his article:

“Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn’t jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn’t jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.

Oh, no. You have to fall.

Yes, Jonathan Briley might be the Falling Man. But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky—falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame—the Falling Man—became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew’s photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.

That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.”

For further reading:


Best Advice for Writers: Iain Banks

atkins-bookshelf-literatureWriting is like everything else: the more you do it the better you get. Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. Accept imperfections. Get it finished and then you can go back. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.

Iain Banks (1954-2013), Scottish science fiction author, best known for The Wasp Factory and the nine books that make up the Culture series. Bank was named one of the “50 Greatest British writer since 1945” by The Times in 2008.

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