Idioms are developed within a culture and are like a language of their own. They convey meaning that extends beyond the definition of individual words to express a fuller collective meaning. Many times, idioms are able to pack more meaning into fewer words because they directly translate a familiar sentiment. A dictionary of idioms is essential for communication in America. This story reveals the origin of idioms that allude to art, history, and American politics in the latest edition of “The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms”. Listen to hear how idioms reveal a snapshot of American society in different time periods.
When Louisa May Alcott wrote “Little Women” at the request of her publisher it became an instant hit. The story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March, still inspires young women nearly 150 years later. What do these four women represent? How can we understand Jo’s independence in the context of her era? And how does the novel reflect and differ from the life of its author Louisa May Alcott? Listen to learn more about the lasting legacy of “Little Women.”
Ray Bradbury is regarded as one of the greatest imaginative writers of the last 100 years. . His stories and novels showed us the promise and wonder of traveling the stars in books such as “The Martian Chronicles” and “R is For Rocket.” But just as often as Bradbury’s fiction looked outward, the future and the cosmos, it also turned its powerful eye inward, peering into the human condition in books such as “Fahrenheit 451” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.” His written works continue to influence and inspire people from filmmakers to astronauts. This story offers a brief profile of Bradbury on the occasion of his death in 2012. Listen to learn more about Ray Bradbury and how his stories have influenced others.
Langston Hughes, an African American writer who lived and wrote during the first half of the 20th century, remains one of the most celebrated writers in American history. He was a social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist and leader of the Harlem Renaissance. In this story, a woman is pleasantly surprised to find one of his poems among her granddaughter’s school papers. She shares with her granddaughter the many things she admired about Hughes, and the many reasons he was such an influential poet and person during his time. She speaks about Hughes’s early life, his travels, and his lyrical poetry. Listen to learn more about this famous poet, who continues to inspire younger generations today.
Though writer Sylvia Plath died more than a half century ago, her life, legacy and work still captivate audiences today. Much of Plath’s work, including her renowned novel “The Bell Jar”, explore issues related to death and mental illness. Plath famously committed suicide, prompting many readers to wonder about her motivations and state of mind. Her passionate and tragic relationship with her husband, Ted Hughes, has also attracted attention. Today, contemporary artists inspired by Plath’s powerful work have reimagined parts of her life through books and movies. Listen to learn more about Sylvia Plath, who died too young but left behind a lasting legacy.
Whether or not to use the “Oxford comma” is a big debate among grammar lovers, journalists, and English teachers. The punctuation mark appears at the end of a series, right before “and” or “or.” Recently, the Oxford comma came into the spotlight during a lawsuit about overtime pay. A close look at the law revealed that its punctuation, or lack thereof, made possible two entirely different interpretations. Listen to hear more about how one missing comma could cost a dairy company millions of dollars.
Many people have mothers or grandmothers who inspire courage and tenacity when facing adversity. This audio story focuses on women who sacrifice and provide for their families, especially when times are tough. One recent high school graduate discusses her family’s challenges and describes how her mother and grandmother find the strength and inspiration to overcome their struggles. Listen to hear more about women who are an example of perseverance and grit and discover what it is that helps them succeed.
When “The Red Badge of Courage” was published in the 1890s, 30 years after the U.S. Civil War, it was one of the first novels to address the psychological effects of combat. The book’s central character is Henry Fleming, a teenager who joins the Union Army with high hopes of glory and adventure. The realities of war soon hit, and Henry must juggle the conflicting emotions of fear, pity, envy, pride, outrage, and eventually, courage. Listen to learn more about a book many consider a coming-of-age novel, while others question whether war is the best way to turn a boy into a man.
William Shakespeare wrote some of the most famous and recognizable love poems of all time, but some historians think that Shakespeare had no intention of publishing these private messages. His sonnets were largely biographical and it is believed they were written to another man. When a collection of these personal sonnets were published by a shady publisher named Thomas Thorpe, Shakespeare tried to stop their distribution. Listen to learn more about Shakespeare’s sonnets and their unwanted publication.
In 1967 Nobel prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote "One Hundred Years of Solitude". The novel takes place in the fictional and fantastical town of Macondo. Macondo serves as a setting as well as a metaphor for Colombia itself. The novel’s magical realism inspired a genre of writing and in an ironic twist of fate inspired the naming of the oil field that was blown out by the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2011. Listen to learn more about the literary and thematic connections between the two.
The characters in our alphabet look the way they do and stand for their unique sounds for a reason. There are many stories behind the letters we use so often. The earliest forms of writing evolved because members of ancient civilizations needed more efficient ways to express themselves. Listen to this story to hear about the origins of individual letters, as well as learn about the connection between shape and meaning in our modern alphabet.
In February of 2018, 17 people were killed in a shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Though not the first mass shooting of its kind, this tragic event, some say, represents a turning point the country’s tolerance for gun violence in schools. Since Parkland, student-led protests have risen up nationwide demanding a change to gun laws in America. This NPR story, told from a student’s perspective, reflects on the impact of school shootings. In particular, it focuses on the impact shootings have on students’ lives and how they shatter the notion of school as a safe haven.
Alfred Tennyson, better known as Lord Tennyson, was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland for 42 years during the reign of Queen Victoria. His short lyrical poems appealed to the people of the 19th century, many of whom couldn’t read. One of this most famous poems “The Charge of the Light Brigade” describes a real event during the Crimean War. This charge, during the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, became the most well-known action of the war thanks to Tennyson’s poem, even though the poem wasn’t entirely accurate. Listen to learn more about the Crimean War, the real charge and how Tennyson’s words brought this event to life for the British people.
In the 17th century, people were determined to overcome communications barriers between the people of the world by creating a universal language. Sir Isaac Newton is known for discovering gravity, but he was also the creator of the “Newtonian” language. The language Newton created was never successful. The language of Esperanto was created in the 1960 but also never caught on. Listen to learn more about invented languages and why they never became universal.
Sandra Cisneros writes about working class Latino life in America and has won many awards for her writing. She is best known for her book, “The House on Mango Street.” The themes in her writing include the meaning of home, belonging, crossing boundaries and cultural expectations of women. Her new memoir, “A House of my Own,” describes how her own life also reflects these themes. In this interview, she talks about being connected to Mexico and to the United States, and how she hopes to be an ambassador passing between the two cultures. Furthermore, she works to honor the women in her family while also being an independent woman and breaking some cultural traditions. Listen to hear more about how Sandra Cisneros has created a house of her own.
Toni Morrison is an American novelist who is best known for her novels exploring the experiences of African Americans. When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in in 1993 she said at the ceremony that she is “pleasantly haunted by ghosts.” In this interview with Morrison she explores how ghosts are a part of some of her writing. The novel “Beloved” has a ghost as a central character in a story about two slaves who fell in love. The novel “Jazz” recalls Harlem in the 1920’s and explores the themes of purgatory and Jazz music. Listen to this story to learn what sparks Morrison’s creativity.
George Orwell is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s most influential authors. His most famous book, “Animal Farm,” is considered to be a commentary on the dangers of Soviet-style totalitarianism. The book follows a group of animals who overthrow their human owners and establish self-rule on the farm. Over time the hopes of a better life fade as a small group of pigs take control and establish a dictatorship over the rest of the animals on the farm. “Animal Farm” continues to resonate with those who read it. This audio story commemorates the 60th anniversary of the publication of the novel and discusses its plot, its influence, and connections to today’s world.
John Steinbeck took a 11,000-mile journey across the United States with his dog, Charley, and then wrote about it in the book, “Travels with Charley”. He wanted to answer the question: “What are Americans like today?”
Recently, a journalist retraced Steinbeck’s steps from Sag Harbor, New York through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, and then straight to the northernmost part of Maine. He used Steinbeck’s "Travels with Charley" as a guide, and discusses his travels and the challenges he has faced while trying to accurately follow Steinbeck’s route. He also discusses the differences and surprising similarities between Steinbeck’s trip and his own, focusing on the places he has visited, the people he has encountered, and the technology he uses along the way.
Dante Alighieri finished writing the three-part epic poem “Divine Comedy” in 1321. The poem is written in three parts: hell, purgatory, and heaven. It follows one man on his journey through all three places. This great work of Italian literature has survived the ages and remains a classic today. There have been many translations of Dante’s work. This story interviews Clive James, the most recent English translator, as he talks about this epic poem and his translated version of “Divine Comedy.”
In 2010, a copper and gold mine in northern Chile caved in. Thirty-three men were trapped 2,300 feet underground and were rescued 69 days later. Fortunately, this group established rules and structure and the confinement did not become a "Lord of the Flies" situation. The miners had little food or privacy, but kept each others' morale up. How do humans respond to isolation and a lack of structure? Listen to hear about the psychological risks and advantages of these scenarios.
John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella Of Mice and Men tells the story of two migrant workers during the Great Depression. George is committed to protecting Lenny, who is well-meaning but limited in his cognitive and social skills. George does all he can to keep Lenny out of trouble, and so the two are often on the move. Of Mice and Men has been adapted for film and stage. Listen to this story to hear how an actor who played Lenny on Broadway reflects on how his own background informed his portrayal of this iconic character.
Author Jane Austen is well known for her novels that reflect on romance and the familial and cultural standards of late 18th century England. Some paint Austen as a drab spinster, but a new biography by Paula Byrne explores the real Austen through objects that were important to her in her life and literature. This portrait of an opinionated, fun loving Austen will help you understand her life, family and themes she revisits in her works.
The Amish are a Christian religious group who are known for their isolation and rejection of modern technology. Popular culture has shaped our understanding of the Amish community, from the Harrison Ford movie Witness to TLC’s show Breaking Amish. But this lens on the Amish doesn’t show the complexities of their religious culture. Listen to learn more about the Amish and their complicated but thoughtful relationship with technology.
Every language has its own collection of idioms, phrases that you can’t take literally. The meanings of idioms have nothing to do with the words in the phrase. Understanding these phrases in different languages is a unique challenge for anyone learning a second language. Listen to hear about the idioms used in a wide array of different languages.
Walt Whitman was an American poet, teacher, and journalist who was born in the early 1800s. His poetry shattered the literary conventions of his time and helped redefine the rules for modern American verse. Although highly unconventional, Whitman still had a strong sense of national pride and was deeply affected by the events of the Civil War. Although he never fought in the war, he visited recuperating union soldiers and helped them write letters to their loved ones. Listen to learn more about how Whitman helped Civil War soldiers.
News about water shortages and droughts have inspired a new trend in dystopian books and movies. Water scarcity has been a source of conflict in places like Africa and the Middle East but also in America’s own history. Some believe that water scarcity is only going to get worse in the decades to come. This audio story features writers and filmmakers who have imagined what life might be like in a waterless world. Listen to learn more about what these storytellers imagine and what audience they hope to reach.
How accurate are memoirs? This public radio story looks at a scandal involving author James Frey and his memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” Frey was charged with exaggerating, and even lying about, his own life in his memoir. Where should a writer draw the line between fact and fiction in memoirs?
Books allow us to transcend the world we live in, but they also help us to connect to the people and places around us. In this audio story, several young students at a school in Washington D.C. talk about the plot, characterization, themes, and motifs in the book “When You Reach Me.” The author, Rebecca Stead, discusses what motivates and inspires her to write. This book includes clues to solve a puzzle, mysterious notes, time travel, and the excitement of figuring out a book as you read it. Listen to more about the novel, “When You Reach Me” as these students discuss the elements of fiction and question the author about her own creative process.
A group of Asian Americans were asked the question: Do you consider yourself brown? Some said “yes,” others said “no,” and the reasons they gave for their answers varied. For some, their answer was based solely on their skin tone. For others, their answer was more complicated and took into account cultural and social factors. In this audio story, a group of Asian Americans discuss the discrimination they have faced based on their skin color. Listen to learn more about why some Asian Americans do or do not consider themselves “brown” and how the way others view them affects their lives.
William Shakespeare is commonly considered one of western civilization's greatest playwrights. But a persistent debate continues to rage around his legacy. Did the man we know as William Shakespeare actually write all those poems and plays? This story features two Shakespearean actors who have come to doubt the author. Listen to learn more about the debate surrounding the authorship of Shakespeare's works.
Published in 1985, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a dystopian novel set in a near future version of America. It tells the story of Offred, a woman living in the theocratic, authoritarian country of Gilead. More than 30 years since it was published, a TV adaptation sparked renewed interest in the novel. Listen to three journalists discuss how Offred’s story relates to contemporary American society.
One of the most enduring novels written for young adults is "Anne of Green Gables," by Lucy Maud Montgomery, published in 1908. It was one of the first YA novels to feature a strong, unconventional female lead—Anne, the unwanted, unloved, but unbowed orphan who grabs hold of a chance for a new life and refuses to let go, no matter how difficult things get. Before Anne, most heroines were beautiful and angelic. "Anne of Green Gables" is over 100 years old, but its heroine measures up to any female lead contemporary YA novels have to offer.
Dystopian fiction is tremendously popular with young people all over the US right now. Books like "The Hunger Games" dominate bestseller lists for young people. But what is so appealing about this genre? This story features commentary from teens themselves and from scholars who study the subject. Listen to find out why this genre has such an impact on its audience.
Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, folklorist and writer. She had a deep love for Eatonville, Florida, the town where she grew up and one of the first all-black towns created after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. In this story you’ll hear a commentator explain that Hurston’s writing “instantly transports” her to Hurston’s world, and she is moved and inspired by the strong women characters Hurston created. Listen to learn more about Hurston and why the commentator believes the author deserves the recognition she has received.