Monday, January 18, 2010

Birthday Dude

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worthy reading or do things worth the writing.” So wrote the wily old Philadelphia printer, born way back in another, long-gone January. By way of the calendar adopted by the British Empire in 1752, when said gent was 46, today (the 17th, as I be typing) would be his birthday. If you’re reading this, you most certainly know that I’m referring to the remarkable, Benj. Franklin, a man of many a worthy word and deed. I didn’t like his cracking wise about John Adams’s sanity or lack thereof, but then, nobody’s seamless. The fact that today makes 304 years since yet another baby was born in the already-crowded Franklin household doesn't mean so very much, all in all. Noting birthdays is a little game, pretty much. A good excuse, as if one needed one, to have cake. An anniversary just reminds us to flick a glance in the rearview mirror, reminds us to remember an event and its meaning or the life of a person who came into the world on, perhaps, just such a day as this: snow melting outdoors, turned to filthy slop, making footing even more difficult. Folks worried, then and now, about money and about the future.
B. F.'s birthday – It's Al Capone's b-day [1899], too, and tomorrow? the 18th of January? that of Cary Grant [1904] and A. A. Milne [1882] – gives me a chance to remember writing about him and trying to envision him, watercolor-wise, as a boy, as a broad-shouldered teenager, and as a young businessman and father. What knocks me out about him these days is the fearless, systematic manner in which he took on wordsmithery. Just as he'd plunged into Boston's Mill Pond and taught himself to swim, this teenager set about reading. He inhaled what was being written, dissecting the grammar, the usage and flow of the words and reasoning that lay behind them. It was all part of his larger scheme, his plan - now here's where he really challenges me - to fully utilize the technology at hand: "A printer could publish his own ideas." [So I wrote, a few years ago in The Remarkable Benjamin Franklin] "If they were good and well-written, people would read them, then reader and writer would have better lives."
There we have it. Thank you, Birthday Dude, for reminding me of the unchanging truth: Ideas have power. Sure, the technology has changed and is changing, blast it. And the printed page appears to be dying the death, but it's as true now as it was 304 years ago that ideas conveyed in words well-written have the power to better the lives of those who read them as well as those who write them.

5 comments:

Linda Zajac said...

Nicely written. Words definitely have power that is both good and bad.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

I too am a lover of old B. Franklin. (as you know, he never called himself Ben.) I worked at the Benjamin Franklin Papers at Yale back in the 70s and immersed myself in him for several years, reading his beautiful handwriting on a few hundred of his thousands of letters. Handwriting surpassed by his superb prose style and brilliant, generous spirit. Happy Birthday, Benjamin.

campbele said...

Ben is one of my all time favorites. That we celebrate MLK on Franklin's birthday is a perfect fit. Both were men ahead of their times.

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