Penman No. 307: Minding the Magazine (2)

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Penman for Monday, June 18, 2018

 

LAST WEEK, I wrote about acquiring copies of English magazines from the 1770s so my students in English and American literature could see what people in those days actually read, and what “entertainment” may have meant to them. I noted how magazines are arguably better chroniclers of everyday social life than books, especially since they also came to be profusely illustrated, and may even have sold copies more on the strength of their illustrations than their text.

This was certainly true for Ilustracion Filipina, an illustrated magazine that came out twice a month between March 1859 and December 1860—a pitifully short life-span for such a glorious publication. Not to be confused with the similarly titled La Ilustracion Filipina, published between 1891 and 1905, Ilustracion Filipina featured exquisite lithographs depicting scenes and aspects of Filipino life, produced by such renowned artists as Baltasar Giraudier and C. W. Andrews. I have yet to be so fortunate as to find even one copy of this magazine, which was bought by subscription and lasted for no more than 44 issues. (An 1859 compilation with 14 lithographs by Andrews sold in Spain in 2013 for 1,400 euros.)
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What I did come across in my near-daily trawlings of eBay a few weeks ago were issues of The Filipino People (Vol. 1, No. 12) and Lipang Kalabaw (April 9, 1949). In all these years of looking at hundreds of publications, I had not seen these two magazines.

When I got my hands on them, the older magazine proved particularly interesting, because it was published and edited in Washington, DC by none other than Resident Commissioner Manuel L. Quezon (who would have been about 35 then), “as an official medium for expressing the views of the people whose name it bears.” The magazine is “devoted solely to… the fair and truthful exposition of the relations between the Philippines and the United States, with a view to hastening the ultimate establishment of Philippine independence upon a self-governing republican basis.” Tellingly, its masthead contains a quotation from (of all people) McKinley: “Forcible annexation is criminal aggression.”

As a political magazine, it’s full of polemical articles, not very interesting today to anyone but historians, and brief biographical profiles of Apolinario Mabini, Sergio Osmeña, Emilio Aguinaldo (whose doorkeeper informs the American interviewer “If the American gentleman would be pleased to wait but a moment he would be joined by the master of the house”). It contains a Spanish section, basically a translation of the English pages. While I was hoping for a poem or a short story, the only touches of art in the magazine were a photograph of a majestically clean San Sebastian Church, and the cover (sadly only in black and white) by Fabian de la Rosa.

Lipang Kalabaw, as it turns out (and many thanks to Crispin Ponce for the source material), went through three incarnations—first as a weekly owned edited by Lope K. Santos between 1907 and 1909, with caricatures drawn by Jorge Pineda. This first version struck hard at its political targets, which struck back even harder, forcing the magazine to shut down. Santos revived it in 1922 under banner of Bagong Lipang Kalabaw, promising to be gentler in its tone—but it zeroed in on Governor-General Leonard Wood, and also closed shop after two years following a libel suit. Its third, last, and supposedly most tepid version came out in 1947. (The “lipa” refers to a big-leafed tree.)

My 1949 issue curiously has few real bylines and no editorial board, just pseudonyms like “Binatang Balo” and “Igueng Bel-Bel”—probably the smart thing to do if you were skewering President Quirino and the Congress, with jibes like “Paligsahan sa Pagnanakaw: Ngayon, sa ating Kongreso, and mga usapan ay hindi na ukol sa ‘kung sino ang magnanakaw at sino ang hindi,’ kung di ay ‘sino sa ating lahat ang nakapagnakaw ng lalong marami.’ Samakatwid, lumalalabas na ‘todos na parejo, camaron y cangrejo.’”

Perhaps this magazine deserves a fourth incarnation?

If it’s not too late to dream, one of the things I’d like to do in my impending retirement is to create and edit a magazine—even just an e-zine—I’ll call The Filipinist, devoted to antiquarian books, periodicals, paintings, sculpture, photographs, prints, maps, coins, stamps, and historical memorabilia—anything and everything having to do with the Filipino past. It won’t be for scholars (we have enough of those) but for enthusiasts, although scholars would of course be welcome to contribute their insights. I think I should be able to assemble a pretty credible team of editors and writers among like-minded friends and fellow collectors, and in the very least, The Filipinist should fill a gap in media overloaded with articles about tomorrow, technology, and the world out there. And just in case these musings become more than an idle wish, I’ve set aside the domain name for filipinist.ph, as my small personal investment in the future of the Pinoy magazine.

Penman No. 306: Minding the Magazine (1)

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Penman for Monday, June 11, 2018

 

IF YOU collect old books like I do, the chances are that you’ll be picking up more than books as you scour the Web, garage sales, and library throwaways for that elusive first edition or that childhood textbook. I’m referring, of course, to other printed matter such as magazines journals, posters, and maps, but also to manuscripts, letters, and such other ephemera as restaurant receipts, plane tickets, and school report cards (yes, I collect those, too).

Books—especially good ones—tend to exude a certain timelessness about them, maybe because they’re meant to be read beyond the present. They like to lay down general (and, authors like to think, immutable) principles of life, of art and science, of philosophy. The characters of fiction may live in the moment—whether it be in Charles Dickens’ London or William Gibson’s matrix—but the context, implicitly, is forever.

Magazines, on the other hand, are typically meant for no higher purpose than to capture the instant—this week, this month—in all its topical and pictorial variety. When I pick them up, it’s not because they’re going to reveal to me some eternal verity (although that might sometimes happen), but because they’ll show me exactly what people were wearing on June 11, 1898 or what the price of a Parker 51 was in August 1947. Newspapers, of course, can bring everything down almost literally to the very hours and minutes of what eventually becomes history, but magazines have just a bit more of a leisurely sweep, making them ideal for doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms, beauty parlors, and barber shops.

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It was in a barber shop in Pasig, back in the mid-‘60s, that I first got to read about people like Jose Garcia Villa in The Philippines Free Press while getting my head shaved for PMT. I didn’t understand his poetry then (and maybe I still don’t), but I was mighty impressed by what I remember him saying, in so many words: “There’s only one literary genius born every thousand years, and I’m sorry for everyone else, but for these thousand years, that’s me.”

The Free Pressand its literary pages became staple reading for me, but I also devoured the Graphic, the Sunday Times Magazine, Life, TIME, Newsweek, National Geographic, and whatever I could get my hands on at the public library (including, away from prying eyes, women’s magazines—and a bit later on in life, magazines with, uhm, women).

These memories came swarming back to me a couple of weeks ago as I received several bound collections of magazines from the 1960s—the Mirror Magazine, the Manila Chronicle Magazine, and Action Now, among others. They’ll join a large pile of Sunday Tribune Magazine issues from the late 1930s and 1940s that I’d acquired more than 20 years ago from a seller who was disposing boxes of them. Sadly, most of them have crumbled (this was before I became more serious about collecting and more organized). While I’ve gently turned away people offering busloads of National Geographic and LIFE (just as I routinely decline offers of family Bibles, law books, and encyclopedias), I’ve sought out samples of historically important or just plain interesting magazines to round out my collection.

One of the reasons I began my antiquarian collection was to be able to show my literature students—in real life, and not just in some Googled picture—what people were reading way back when. For example, when we discuss American literature during the time of the Benjamin Franklin, what would the literate Bostonian or Philadelphian have held in his or her hands?

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As it happens, I have the answer to that, thanks to a bit of instruction from my professor in Bibliography back in Wisconsin, Dr. James Kuist, whose type of final exam was to ask us (in those pre-Internet, pre-Google days), “If the year is 1662, and I’m a member of the Royal Society, what books would I likely have on my shelves?” Jim did his doctoral dissertation on the history of one particular publication—indeed, the very first one of its kind to call itself a magazine (derived from the French for “storehouse”)—The Gentleman’s Magazine, founded by a cobbler’s son named Edward Cave in January 1731. It became immensely popular, made Cave (also known by his pen name Sylvanus Urban) a rich man, and was published uninterrupted until 1922.

I pretty much forgot about Dr. Kuist and The Gentleman’s Magazine until recently, when I realized that there were actual copies (not reproductions) available on eBay. The issue I secured comes from November 1773, and is a special issue devoted to “The FRUGAL HOUSEWIFE, Or Complete WOMAN COOK…. including various bills of fare for dinners and suppers, in every month in the year, and a copious index to the whole.” (And before you think otherwise, The Gentleman’s Magazine did not have a centerfold or anything of the sort; it would have been, well, ungentlemanly.)

I was searching for issues ca. 1763-64, which should have had reports on the British occupation of Manila, and I do have two issues of The London Magazine, from September 1763 and February 1764. But while they have gruesome stories about Englishmen being captured and burnt by the Indians (“The blood which flowed from him almost extinguished the fire”), and other reports from the empire, they say nothing about the Philippines.

Next week, we’ll look at two Filipino magazines from August 1913 and April 1949.

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 187: Journalists and Fictionists

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Penman for Monday, February 15, 2016

 

MY GRADUATE fiction writing workshop—CW 211—opened last month, and I was glad to see that all my 12 or so students were taking fiction with me for the first time. I don’t mind when students study with me over two or three semesters—especially the best ones you want to see through to their first book—but a fresh crop of faces is always a relief of sorts, because you can be assured that everything you say in class will be new to them.

As a first-day practice, I ask the class members to give a brief self-introduction, as a writing workshop is almost like a support group, and requires a certain degree of intimacy, so people should know each other right from the beginning. The self-intros also give me a sense of my students’ backgrounds, from which I might be able to get an idea—albeit a very tentative and imperfect one—of the kind of fiction I can expect from them.

This semester, I have several students coming from Journalism, and I told them, with a semi-serious laugh which they returned, that it was usually the journalists I had the most trouble with in Fiction class. Now why did I say that?

Let me explain, first of all, that I was a journalist myself, and still see myself as a part-time member of the press. Indeed when, in high school, I began firming up my ambition to become a writer, it wasn’t to become a novelist or a short story writer—it was to become a journalist, in the belief that there was nothing nobler and more exciting than to get the news and be the first to tell the world about it. I achieved that ambition—or at least the start of it—when I was hired as a general-assignments reporter by the Philippines Herald and later as a suburban correspondent by Taliba in 1972, as an 18-year-old dropout, but martial law put an abrupt end to that. It wouldn’t be until 20 years later, in 1993, when I was back in a newsroom, though no longer as a reporter but as an editorial writer for TODAY, and in 2001 as a copyeditor for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, about the same time that I began writing this Lifestyle column for the STAR.

That’s not much of a career as lifelong journalists go, but it’s been enough to leave me with a healthy respect for the work that journalists do, especially in comparison to that of the fictionist, which I became as well. Both are difficult, and require their own kind of discipline; neither is particularly remunerative, although journalism, if undertaken as a regular job, will at least provide a steady income, while fiction must remain a strictly part-time avocation for 99% of its practitioners in this country.

When I teach a class in Creative Writing, I always tell my CW majors that they should never feel superior to journalists, because they don’t know what it’s like to have to find, write, and turn in a story every afternoon of every working day. Creative writing students like to bitch that they don’t have enough material, enough inspiration, and enough time to finish their magnum opus (which at the end of all that whining might turn out to be profoundly underwhelming). Journalists can’t even complain about these things, because they simply don’t factor into the making and delivery of a news story. Material? That’s for you to find or create. Time? A few hours. Inspiration? Your paycheck. I’ve commiserated beerside with journalist-friends over the travails they had to suffer to get a particular story—but only after the story was sent in, and not before.

So with all this admiration and respect for journalists and their job, why do I say they give me problems as fictionists? I’m generalizing here, of course, but the answer isn’t too far from from what, ironically, is a journalist’s chief virtue: they can’t let go of the facts. They find it very difficult to switch to a make-believe mode, and even when they do, their stories are thinly-disguised newsfeatures wanting in compelling, internally driven drama. When you point out a problem in the narrative—say an unlikely turn in the plot—the journalist’s defense will invariably be, “Well, that’s what really happened!”

Unfortunately, in fiction, “It really happened” just doesn’t cut it. What’s real in fiction is what’s on the page. Real life might provide the material and the inspiration for the fictional story, but that story has to acquire a life of its own, regardless of its origins in fact. This is why I tell my students that everything they submit to the workshop is fair game for criticism, and that they can’t and shouldn’t take it personally when someone comments that “I think the mother in this story is very narrow-minded and selfish,” even if that mother was based on one’s beloved mom—it’s “the mother on the page,” as I call that character, that we’re following, believing, and either rooting for or disliking.

And the first day of fiction class is also when I trot out one of my favorite quotes, paraphrased from Mark Twain: “Of course fact is stranger than fiction; fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Just think about it: we accept incredible reports in the news that we wouldn’t buy for a minute in a short story, even in a fantasy, because we expect fiction to adhere to an internal dramatic logic, whether it’s set in a garage or in a galaxy far, far away. The factual world has no such givens; things just happen, often for no apparent reason. That’s why fiction had to be invented: to make sense of life in the raw and all of its inconsistencies, paradoxes, and mysteries. (The opinion writer aims to do that as well, but on the plane of the abstract, using words like “justice” and “freedom”, which you normally won’t find in a well-crafted story; they’d be implied.)

If it’s any comfort to the fact-loving journalist, there’s another kind of writer whom I’ve discovered to have equal difficulty transitioning to fiction: the poet, for whom every word and turn of phrase is painfully precious, and a ten-page story might as well be an epic. But that’s fodder for another time.

 

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Penman No. 162: To Be a Journalist (2)

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Penman for Monday, August 17, 2015

LAST WEEK’S look back at my early days as a journalist brought back a flood of memories that hadn’t crossed my mind in ages, so I’ll beg my reader’s indulgence with this extended reminiscence of what it was like to be a young newspaper reporter just before martial law was declared in September 1972.

Come to think of it, that first stint in journalism didn’t last too long, from April to September of that fateful year. (I keep saying “first” because I would return to newspapering more than 20 years later in 1993, as an editorial writer and then Lifestyle columnist for the late, lamented newspaper TODAY.) To recap, I was 18, and my bosses at the Philippines Herald had taken a chance on a college dropout who barely knew a thing about professional newspapering but who seemed to be able to string sentences together decently enough—and fast.

Man, was I fast—I was so eager to impress my editors that I jumped at assignments the way a dog goes after a ball, and when my editors found out about the new boy in the room, they assigned me to fill up half of Page 5—the features page—every day. The topic was up to me. That sounded like the most wonderful thing in the world—imagine, my own corner of the newspaper, all mine to fill up!—for about three days. I took stories out of history books and turned them into features; I wrote about the latest crazes like fun houses and pool halls; and when, inevitably, I ran out of ideas, I took a bus out to Tagaytay, got off, and looked around for anything that I could weave a feature story from (I saw a drug rehab center in the distance and got a story out of that; I did the same thing in Muntinlupa another day and interviewed a Death Row convict).

Thankfully my editors pulled me out of Page 5 and designated me a general assignments reporter—meaning, I would report for work every morning and take on whatever odd assignment they tossed me. But before I could do that, and to give me some training, they had me spend a few weeks each on a specific beat—police, sports, and City Hall. On each beat, a senior Herald reporter took me under his wing, and while they may not have been too happy to babysit me, I soaked up their streetsmarts and tried not to be a nuisance (not always successfully—we were covering a MICAA basketball game when Jun Pantig saw that I was cheering for one team at courtside. “Stop cheering!” he shushed me. “You’re a reporter, you shouldn’t be taking sides!”)

Of all the beats I was assigned to, the most exciting and instructive was police. I took the graveyard shift at the old Manila Police Department headquarters and from there covered mayhem at its worst—an 18-year-old American girl who shot herself in the mouth at the Dutch Inn; a nighttime fire that razed a hospital in Dapitan (I can still recall the sickening thud of falling patients who jumped off the roof in desperation; my specific task, early that morning, was to count all the bodies in the morgues); demonstrations at the US Embassy where I could see the police preparing for an assault on the rallyists, many of whom happened to be my friends (prompting me, again, to break journalistic protocol by picking up the injured in our service jeep and bringing them to the hospital).

I grew inured to the sight and smell of blood, and I can say, today, that I had no better preparation for the kind of realist fiction that I would come to write than those weeks on the police beat, confronting death by the day (which didn’t make me feel any braver, but rather more aware and respectful of the finitude of life).

It was all very exhilarating, even in the most difficult and trying of moments; sometimes the toughest tests took place in the newsroom itself—once, for example, I was driven close to tears by having to rewrite a story half a dozen times to please an editor who, I now realize, was teaching me a valuable lesson in verbal economy.

Coming off the beats as a general assignments reporter, I looked forward to and did get some assignments that no other teenager would have experienced. At the onset of the biblically catastrophic July-August floods of 1972, I was put on board an amphibious ship that sailed in the night from Manila to Lingayen Gulf, and I covered rescue operations in Pangasinan, riding rubber rafts and flying out in a US Army helicopter that dropped us off at Clark Air Base, then still busy with the Vietnam War. Also at about that time, I volunteered to go to Isabela to cover the reported landing of a shipload of arms by the CPP-NPA, convinced (wrongly—it turned out to be the MV Karagatan episode) that it was a military hoax that I could heroically unmask; sensibly, my bosses told me that I was too young—they didn’t say too foolish—to undertake the mission. Instead, I stayed in Manila, and interviewed Mrs. Marcos in Malacañang about her relief efforts in front of a mountain of Nutribuns.

Like I said last week, I soon resigned in solidarity with a union strike at the Herald, and was half-surprised when management accepted my resignation. I finagled my way to a spot at Taliba (in the Manila Times organization that it had been my dream to join one way or the other) as suburban correspondent, and it was in that capacity—albeit outside my assigned zone in Makati—that I filed, or at least called in, the last story of my brief reportorial career. It was the night of September 22, 1972, and I was on the UP campus, not as a journalist but as an off-hours activist hanging out with comrades and fraternity brothers to denounce the imminence of martial law.

I should’ve sensed something when I saw my brod Bobby Crisol, son of the Defense Undersecretary, suddenly being spirited away by his dad’s security men. Shortly after, we heard gunshots in the distance. I ran for the nearest phone and called the night desk: “I have a scoop!” I said breathlessly. “I can hear gunfire—UP is under attack!” (It later turned out that the Iglesia ni Cristo radio station was being taken over by the military.) What should have been the biggest story of my young life fizzled out with a laconic reply on the other end of the line. “So are we,” said the fellow I spoke to. “There are soldiers in the office. It’s martial law!”

Within four months, I would be in prison, still aged 18. Another year later, I would get married, on my 20th birthday. Life seemed terribly short, and I was in an awful hurry, hardly imagining I would last on to seniorhood.

Today, I tell my Creative Writing majors that they may think of themselves as God’s gift to literature, but until they’ve spent a week or two as a reporter, sniffing out a story, they should shut up and be happy they can write odes to the moonlight without an editor screaming at them for a tighter rewrite.

Penman No. 60: Enter the Listicle

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Penman for Monday, Aug. 19, 2013

 

I WAS online last week looking up the rumors about the impending release of the iPhone 6 on September 10 when I glanced at the sidebar of the page I was reading and spotted a new word out of the corner of my eye. The word was “listicle”, and immediately I wondered if it was something cold, sweet, and edible, or some sinister medical malady, some unnerving imbalance afflicting grown men.

I clicked the link, and learned something new, thanks to Anna Lawlor of The Guardian: “The journalistic lexicon has a new entry; the ‘listicle’, describing a list-based article. From The Sunday Times’ ‘100 Best Companies’ to Buzzfeed’s ’31 Things You Can Make Out of Cereal Boxes’, listicles are equally beloved for their condensed information format and online virility and decried as lazy journalism for the perennial lunchtime ‘news snacker’.”

News snacker? What the heck was a news snacker? Farther down the piece was the definition: someone who engages in “checking news content far more frequently, for short, sharp bursts of attention.” In other words, that’s someone who checks out the headlines on his or her mobile phone or tablet five to six times a day.

I suppose that’s me—I’m online all the time, and can’t help peeking into the news, my eBay bids, and the chatter on my favorite fountain-pen and Apple websites every few hours—but I’m also old enough to still be reading the newspaper from the front page to the back page with my morning coffee, and to watch one or two TV newscasts before bedtime. So rather than a news snacker, call me a news glutton, which I almost had to be to pick up a new word and concept like “listicle.”

Come to think of it, we are in the full-blown age of the listicle, and you don’t have to look much farther than the STAR to realize that. Toward the end of every July, the STAR celebrates its anniversary by coming out with lists of anything and everything its inspired Lifestyle writers can put together (in my case, this year, I offered “27 bits of advice I give to young writers”).

If lists float your boat, then you have to be a regular on listverse.com, which serves up lists of such engrossing subjects as “10 strange non-sexual ways people have orgasms,” “10 creepy historical vampires you’ve never heard of,” and “10 unconfirmed victims of famous murderers.” (Talk about learning something new: from a list of “10 earliest versions of everyday technologies,” we learn that the first smartphone—with email, predictive typing, and some basic “apps”—was an IBM phone named Simon, which weighed a pound, was the size of a brick, and sold for nearly $1,000 back in 1994.)

But there were lists, of course, long before the Internet. In 1977, David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace compiled the first Book of Lists. Featuring such irresistible morsels as “famous people who died during sexual intercourse,” the book became a hit, and was periodically updated and reissued.

As you can see, some lists are more serious and some more ridiculous than others, although we should probably admit that silly lists are usually more fun to read. No one really talks much about lists like “10 things we need to do as a nation to move forward,” although we should. By their very nature, lists draw attention and achieve popularity because they seem to create patterns we’ve never seen before in the raw, undigested mess of our daily lives; patterns are intriguing if not mesmerizing, a kind of eye candy of the mind, but also reassuring at the same time, in that they bear the promise of an underlying logic to everything. Lists create mass, and mass creates credibility if not consequence.

To get on the serious side of lists, the first “listicle”—certainly the best known to lit geeks like me—has to be the “catalog of ships” in Book II of Homer’s Iliad, where every Greek and Trojan chieftain who took part in the Trojan War is listed along with a description of his home city and the ships he brought with him. There’s a lot of debate among scholars about the historical veracity of this catalog, there being a 500-year gap between the war and Homer’s own time, but some scholars have come to the all-too-human conclusion that, well, lists change and grow with time. As a website devoted to Greek studies puts it:

“An intermediate theory is that the catalogue developed through a process of accretion during the poem’s oral transmission and reflects gradual inclusion of the homelands of local sponsors by individual singers… In the most recent extended study of the Catalogue, Edzard Visser, of the University of Basel, concludes that the Catalogue is compatible with the rest of the Iliad in its techniques of verse improvisation, that the order of the names is meaningful and that the geographical epithets evince concrete geographical knowledge. Visser argues that this knowledge was transmitted by the heroic myth, elements of which introduce each geographical section… W. W. Minton places the catalogue within similar ‘enumerations’ in Homer and Hesiod, and suggests that part of their purpose was to impress the audience with a display of the performer’s memory.”

(Note to self: add “Edzard Visser” and “W. W. Minton” to a list of “names that sound like heavyweight professors’ names.”)

The sidestep to Homer and the literary catalog reminded me of another famous employer of the catalog, the American poet Walt Whitman (known to many of us as the author of that perennial declamation favorite, “O Captain, My Captain!”), whose epic Leaves of Grass surveyed the broad American landscape and used poetry to do what Instagram might have achieved in another time, taking snapshots of the passing scene, creating quick portraits of “newly-come immigrants,” “the squaw,” “the connoisseur,” “the one-year-wife,” “the paving man,” “the canal boy,” and so on.

At its best—and Whitman shows how—the listicle, or at least its literary form, can achieve a transcendent significance, a more-than-the-sum-of-the-parts meaningfulness that ordinary lists such as “the 10 best-selling burgers in America” can’t convey. Whitman scholar Betsy Eikkila explains it thus:

“Whitman’s catalog technique serves as a democratizing device, inscribing the pattern of many and one. By basing his verse in the single, end-stopped line at the same time that he fuses this line—through various linking devices—with the larger structure of the whole, Whitman weaves an overall pattern of unity in diversity. This pattern of many and one—the e pluribus unum that was the revolutionary seal of the American republic—is the overarching figure of Leaves of Grass.”

If that was a bit much for you, no problem. There’s always listverse.com and its promise of a yummy news snack to get you through another day of tedium at the office, and you don’t even have to choose between “10 of the slowest plants to ever bloom” and “11 cool facts about polar bears”—you can have them both, and more. They may be low on fiber, but hey, they’re high on sugar.