Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Squire

We remember George Washington most for his leadership during the American Revolution and his presidency of our fledgling nation. However, he had many other roles in his life, according to Joseph P. Ellis, author of the All Fairfax Reads selection, His Excellency: George Washington.

For Ellis, Washington’s years at Mt. Vernon between the French and Indian War and the start of the American Revolution seem the most incongruous:

“Perhaps the most jarring picture, because it clashes so dramatically with his subsequent reputation as the epitome of public virtue, is that of the indulged Virginia gentleman for whom the phrase ‘pursuit of happiness’ meant galloping to hounds.”

According to his diaries, Washington’s days at Mt. Vernon were often spent in foxhunting, breeding hounds, and traveling to Alexandria, Annapolis and Williamsburg for the horse races.

Ellis writes that during one 49-day period in 1768, Washington spent between two and five hours daily foxhunting. He traveled in an expensive coach made in London that had leather interiors and his coat of arms emblazoned the side.

Washington played cards about 22 times a year and seemed to win as much as he lost in bets. He bought his Madeira by the butt (150 gallons) and the pipe (110 gallons). Two menservants attended to his needs.

For 15 years, between 1759 and 1774, Washington was the epitome of the Virginia gentleman. His days of fame were yet to come.

For more on life in the colonial period, including original sources, see these librarian-recommended Web sites.

Archiving Early America

Colonial Hall: A Look at America's Founders

Colonial Williamsburg's PastPortal Digital Library

Friday, May 25, 2007

Classics for the Commuter

Want to digest War and Peace on your way to work? According to Reuters, a new Web site, www.dailylit.com, will e-mail bite-sized portions of classics to Blackberries and other hand-held devices each day. For example, Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days is divided into 82 parts. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is more daunting; it would take 430 days to read each five-minute segment!

The site offers about 370 books — mostly classics — for free. DailyLit’s cofounder, Albert Wenger, reports that 50,000 people have signed up so far.

If you like your reading in larger doses, the Fairfax County Public Library offers several methods for reading or listening to hundreds of online ebooks and eAudiobooks. You can find the book titles listed in our online catalog. Just type “ebook” or “eaudiobook” in the Subject field.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Valley Forge — Blood on the Snow

In His Excellency: George Washington, the library’s All Fairfax Reads selection, author Joseph J. Ellis describes Washington’s haunting memories of his army’s six-month encampment at Valley Forge.

“To see Men without Cloathes to cover their nakedness,
without Blankets to lay on, without Shoes, by which
their Marches might be traced by the Blood on their feet
is a mark of Patience and obedience which in my opinion
can scarce be parallel’d.”

No battle was ever fought at Valley Forge, yet it is considered a turning point in the War of American Independence — “a battle not of weapons, but of will.”

By the winter of 1777, initial support for the war had waned and the recruits at Valley Forge came from the lower middle classes, who had few options besides the military. When Washington’s military advisors convinced him that he could not launch another campaign against the better-equipped and more rested British army, he brought 12,000 troops to winter quarters 18 miles outside of Philadelphia. The soldiers built 1,000 huts to live in and received supplies erratically. Some only ate "firecake," an unappetizing meal of flour and water. Clothing was scarce and shoes had been destroyed through long marches. At one point 4,000 Continentals were declared unfit for duty.

But over the course of six months, as supplies began to improve and training become more consistent, the bravery, endurance and sacrifice of the troops imbued them with a new spirit. When they marched away from Valley Forge in June 1778, they were determined to win the war.

For more on that famous winter of 1777-1778, check out:

Valley Forge by David Garland. (fiction)

The Road to Valley Forge by John Buchanan.

Washington’s Secret War by Thomas Fleming.

The Valley Forge Winter by Wayne Bodie.

Washington’s Crossing by David Fischer.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tricky English

If one ever had any doubt about how difficult our native tongue is, check out the sentences below from the Educational Cyber Playground:

● The bandage was wound around the wound.
● The farm was used to produce produce.
● The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
● He could lead if he would get the lead out.
● The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
● When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
● I did not object to the object.
● They were too close to the door to close it.

Is English your second language? What did you find most difficult in learning this complex tongue? Let us know.

Since the turn of the 20th century, libraries have been the place where newcomers come to improve and practice their English skills. Today, we still are. Adults who wish to practice their English language skills might want to visit these upcoming groups at various Fairfax County Public Library branches. No registration required:

John Marshall Library, Thursday, May 24, 7:00 P.M., Practice Your English.

Kingstowne Library, Wednesday, May 23, 10:15 A.M. and Wednesday, May 23, 7:30 P.M., Practice Your English.

Patrick Henry Library, Friday, May 18, 10:00 A.M. and Friday, May 25, 10:00 A.M., English Conversation.

Richard Byrd Library, Monday, May 21, 3:00 P.M., Practice Your English.

Thomas Jefferson Library, Friday, May 18, 4:00 P.M. and Wednesday, May 23, 7:00 P.M. Practice Your English.

Woodrow Wilson Library, Thursday, May 24, 6:00 P.M. English Conversation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Rules of Civility

The first inklings of George Washington’s character are evident in the 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, transcribed sometime before he was 16 (possibly from another source). According to Joseph J. Ellis, author of His Excellency: George Washington, the All Fairfax Reads selection, some of the rules seem quite hilarious centuries later: For example, no. 9 read: “Spit not into the fire … especially if there be meat before it” and no. 13 admonished: “Kill not vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others.”

But, the first of the rules may have guided Washington throughout his life: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

According to Ellis, Washington had a “flair for disappearing within his public persona” and the more formal social mores of the late eighteenth century made such behavior easy.

For more on the social customs of Washington’s colonial world, try these books:

Circles and Lines: The Shape of Life in Early America by John Demos

Colonial Americans at Work by Herbert Applebaum

In Small Things Forgotten: An Archeology of Early American Life by James Deetz

Here Lies Virginia: An Archeologist’s View of Colonial Life and History
by Ivor Noel Hume

As Various As Their Land: The Everyday Lives of Eighteenth Century Americans by Stephanie Wolf

Everyday Life in Early America by David Hawke

So, do good manners and leadership go hand-in-hand? Let us know.

Also, here’s the answers to last week's quiz:

1. False
2. False
3. False
4. False
5. True
6. True

Friday, May 11, 2007

Punniest of Show

For those of you who feel like hopping a plane to Austin, TX, the
30th annual O. Henry Musuem Punoff — a world championship event — is scheduled there May 19. The contest begins at high noon and continues until 5 p.m. The punoff consists of two competitions. The "Punniest of Show" contest is a 90-second freestyle event for punsters using prepared material. In the "High-Lies & Low-Puns" competition, contestants battle in word play on a topic with a strict time limit.

The museum is a former home of the short-story writer William Sidney Porter, who used the pseudonym “O. Henry.” He is known for his wit, word play and twist endings. His most famous story is "The Gift of the Magi."

Puns are often considered the lowest form of wit, but they can be high art. Here are a few decent ones from a Painfully Great Puns blog entry:

Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says, “Dam!"

Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says "I've lost my electron." The other says "Are you sure?" The first replies "Yes, I'm positive."

A vulture boards an airplane, carrying two dead raccoons. The stewardess looks at him and says, "I'm sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger."

Got puns? If you need some inspiration, check out:

Bennett Cerf’s Treasury of Atrocious Puns by Bennett Cerf.

Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit by Leo Rosten.

Puns and Games by Richard Lederer.

Otter Nonsense by Norton Juster.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Man or Myth?

In his preface to His Excellency: George Washington, our 2007 All Fairfax Reads selection, author Joseph J. Ellis reminisces about growing up in Alexandria, VA in the shadow of Mt. Vernon.

He remembers a tour of Washington’s estate as a school child in which he was told that George’s wooden teeth were a myth: “my first encounter with the notion that you could not always trust what you read in history books.”

To Ellis, Washington seemed a bit like the “man in the moon,” a regular feature of the landscape, but inaccessible. His face is on our money; his name on many monuments and avenues, but who exactly was he?

When a newly catalogued version of the papers of George Washington became available at the University of Virginia, Ellis decided to look more closely at the man who had become a national icon. His Excellency is the result.

How much do you really know about our first president? See if you can guess which facts below are true or false.

1. George Washington chopped down a cherry tree. TRUE/FALSE

2. George Washington once threw a silver dollar across the Potomac. TRUE/FALSE

3. George Washington wore a wig. TRUE/FALSE

4. George and Martha Washington had two children. TRUE/FALSE

5. George Washington introduced the mule to America. TRUE/FALSE

6. George Washington declined the opportunity to be king. TRUE/FALSE

Answers next week, or see the link above. In the meantime, check out His Exellency!

Friday, May 04, 2007

Royal Visits

When Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip wrap up their visit to Virginia today with visits to Williamsburg and Jamestown, it won’t be the first time they’ve traveled to our library’s home state.

Before she became queen, Princess Elizabeth and her husband visited the nation’s capital in 1951 and wandered across the border to Mt. Vernon. The Washington Post noted she had to miss her son’s third birthday to make the trip.

Six years later, she returned with Prince Philip for the 350th commemoration of the Jamestown settlement. Richard M. Nixon, the vice president under Dwight D. Eisenhower, was the keynote speaker at the ceremony. For that ceremony, three Air Force jet planes streaked above the Jamestown festival site; the planes had retraced the route of the three ships that carried the Jamestown settlers from London to the New World.

Americans seem fascinated by the nation’s royal roots. For this visit, a musician and educator from southwest Virginia, Helen White, wrote a song for Britain’s monarch, “An Appalachian Waltz for the Queen,” which she performed with teenage fiddling champion Montana Young. In addition, a retired construction equipment salesman, 78-year-old Norman Roderick, was thrilled to introduce the queen to the Virginia General Assembly in his role as Sergeant-at-Arms. He bought a red, blue and green-striped foulard for the occasion.

Check out:

Lilibet: An Intimate Portrait of Elizabeth II by Carolly Erickson.

Queen and Country: The 50-Year Reign of Elizabeth II by William Shawcross.

The Monarchy: An Oral Biography of Elizabeth II by Deborah Strober.

Monarch: The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II by Robert Lacey.

Philip & Elizabeth: Portrait of a Royal Marriage by Gyles Brandreth.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

An Invitation

You’re invited to participate in the Fairfax County Public Library’s “one book, one community” project — All Fairfax Reads — from May through September. The goal of All Fairfax Reads is for adults who live, work or go to school in Fairfax County (or read this moderated discussion) to read and discuss the same book at the same time.

This year, because of the state-wide celebration of Virginia history with the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, we picked His Excellency: George Washington by historian Joseph J. Ellis. History buffs will recognize Ellis as the author of the Pulitzer Prize winner Founding Brothers, as well as American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, a National Book Award winner.

His Excellency captures the man behind the myth. Ellis describes the development of Washington’s character during his years in the French and Indian War; his astute strategy for winning the Revolutionary War; his reluctance in moving from military life to the political arena as the nation’s first president; and his success in leading the fledging democracy.

So, between now and September, check out His Excellency and check back here on Tuesdays for more on our legendary leader who graces American money and monuments.

Here’s a tidbit from the book to get you started. It refers to Washington’s military leadership during the eight-year Revolutionary War:

“[Washington] was not by any standard a military genius. He lost more battles than he won; indeed, he lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history … But in addition to being fortunate in his adversaries, he was blessed with personal qualities that counted most in a protracted war. He was composed, indefatigable and able to learn from his mistakes. He was convinced that he was on the side of destiny — or in more arrogant moments, sure that destiny was on his side.” (p. 74)