03 April 2011


PONY EXPRESS. 151 years ago today, the Pony Express began its 18 month life as the then-fastest mail link across the country. Messages were carried "by horseback riders in relays to stations across the prairies, plains, deserts, and mountains of the Western United States", from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. "It became the west's most direct means of east-west communication before the telegraph, and was vital for tying California closely with the Union before the Civil War."

Those were rough and desparate times. Pony Express riders not only had to race the mail across an often-harsh landscape, they did so alone. Most carried two revolvers and a rifle, to defend themselves against highwaymen or hostile Indians, and endure all extremes of weather. Relay stations were 5 to 20 miles apart, and at each station a rider would exchange his tired mount for a fresh one. Roughly 80 riders were used at any one time. I have a commemorative t-shirt on which is reproduced a famous advertisement for prospective riders. It reads, "Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

WEINER. Who says politicians have no sense of humor? At the Congressional Correspondents Dinner last week, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) delivered a raucous address skewering political foes and friends alike ... including himself. Here is a link to the video.

DON QUIXOTE. "Quixotic -- Possessing or acting with the desire to do noble and romantic deeds, without thought of realism or practicality. Impulsive. Romantic to extravagance, absurdly chivalric, apt to be deluded." The pursuit of an unlikely grail derives from one of the most enduring characters in Western literature -- Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote. The archetypal romantic knight's quests have been the inspiration for operas, classical music, plays, ballets, and films -- not to mention the role model for countless quixotic dreamers of impossible dreams.

In The Paris Review, Jonathan Gharraie explores the linguistic legacy and the original character. "Can all the possibilities and implications of a character, or even -- more ambitiously -- a life's work, be contained within the semantic boundaries of just one word? We think of Orwellian as adjectival shorthand for a state apparatus of terror and survaillance, but what if we also took it to mean window-pane clarity of expression or even a marked aversion to the poetry of Stephen Spender? In the same way, Don Quixote is not only a cautionary tale about the perils of idealism: it is also the first great book about books, a visionary parable about the responsibilities of reading and writing fiction that arrived early on in the age of printing. The river feeds into an ocean.

For some, the appeal of Don Quixote derives from "the idealism and the chivalry we've been lacking." For others, "you cannot write in Spanish without having Cervantes in mind .... [Spanish writers] are all heirs to that style." Further, "as well as celebrating the daring moral venture of Don Quixote, this is an occasion for confirmed bibliophiles. Four hundred years after Cervantes' masterpiece emerged, we now stand on the farthest shore of the printing age. We still buy books, we still want them hanging round, causing clutter or mess .... This passion is significant now because we have some idea of how a world without books might work. We at least know that we would continue to read, [whether] the lavish endeavor of the lovingly prepared new edition or the take-out convenience of the virtual text."

May we always pursue impossible dreams .... and may we always, like the protagonist in Robert A. Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold, treasure and pass on to our children the love of books.

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