Great Literary Works Lost to History

catkins-bookshelf-literatureThroughout history, some of the greatest literary treasures have been destroyed by foreign invaders who set fire to entire cities, including great libraries in order to erase the cultural history of the conquered inhabitants. These ruthless barbarians have taken the torch to great cultural institutions that belong to the world at large, including the Library of Alexandria, the Imperial Library of Constantinople, the Library of Congress, and more recently, the Central Library of the University of Baghdad, the National Archives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Mosul public library. (Just as tragic, in some instances, scholars were also burned or buried alive.) The loss of these rare historical and literary manuscripts is immeasurable. Other times precious literary works are lost due to natural disasters, accidental fires, deterioration of paper, or simply due to failure to preserve the original literary works. Here are some of the most significant literary works lost to history.

The plays of Euripides: Euripides wrote about 95 plays; 19 plays survived; 75 were lost.

The plays of Sophocles: Sophocles wrote about 120 plays; 7 play survived; 113 were lost.

Margites by Homer: Although two great epics (Iliad, and Odyssey) are attributed to Homer, he actually wrote a third one. Only five fragments discussing Homer’s third epic poem have been found; Aristotle wrote: “[Margites is] an analogy: as are the Iliad and Odyssey to our tragedies, so is the Margites to our comedies.”

Ab Urbe Condita by Titus Livius (Livy): Livy wrote a 142-volume history of Rome between 27 and 9 BC. 35 volumes survived; 107 volumes were lost.

The Aztec and Mayan Codices: Between the actions of Itzcoatl, the fourth Aztec emperor, and Diego de Landa Calderón, a Spanish Franciscan monk, and bishop of the Diocese of Yucatan, thousands of Mayan historic artifacts, including 27 hieroglyphic manuscripts were destroyed. Only three Maya books and fragments of a fourth book (collectively known as the Maya codices) exist. Ironically, much of what we know of Maya culture comes from Landa’s manuscript, Relacion de las cosas de Yucatan, which he wrote upon returning to Spain in 1566 (but not published until 1862).

Cardenio by William Shakespeare: Cardenio, co-written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher based on an episode in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, was first performed in 1613 by the King’s Men. Although there are two existing plays that are related to Cardenio, the original play is lost to time.

Love Labour’s Won by William Shakespeare: A list of Shakespeare’s body of work completed as of 1598, includes the play Love Labour’s Won. Although some Shakespearean scholars believe it is simply an alternate title for The Taming of the Shrew, others believe that it is a completely different play — as evidence they note another list of extant works, compiled in 1603, that includes the titles: The Taming of the Shrew and Love Labour’s Won.

Classic of Music by Confucius: The book, an interpretation of Confucius’s Book of Songs, was destroyed in 213 BC by the order of First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty.

Adam Unparadiz’d by John Milton: Milton began writing Adam Unparadiz’d as a play in the early 1640s. He completed only two acts before he abandoned the work, due to the closure of many of the theaters in London. Soon after, Milton began work on his magnum opus, Paradise Lost.

History of the Liberty of the Swiss by Edward Gibbons: While working on the highly-regarded The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon began work on a history of the Swiss, writing in French. He read some excerpts that received some criticism. Discouraged by that response, Gibbons tossed the nearly completed manuscript into a fireplace.

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How Many Bibles Have Been Sold?

atkins-bookshelf-booksThe Bible, which has been translated into more than 500 languages, is the world’s best-selling book of all time. The stunning success of the Good Book began with Johann Gutenberg’s first printed Bible, written in Latin, using movable metal type. The Gutenberg Bible, 1,286 pages printed in two volumes, remains one of the most valuable books in the world — not only for its rarity (only 180 copies were printed) but for its beauty. The last Gutenberg that was sold, and mind you it was an incomplete edition, fetched $4.9 million in 1987 (a staggering $10.4 million in today’s dollars).

But we digress — let us return to the original question: just how many bibles have been sold or printed? A survey conducted by the Bible Society, revealed that approximately 2.5 billion copies of the Bible have been printed between 1815 and 1975; however, other book experts believe that the number is closer to 5 billion. The number-obsessed folks at Statistic Brain have estimated that there have been 6.1 billion copies of the Bible printed. Consider that the Gideons International, founded in 1899 to distribute free bibles, have distributed 2 billion Gideon Bibles from 1908 to 2015 — an impressive feat. Notwithstanding the Gideons’ charity, and the Bible’s admonition of “thou shalt not steal,” the most stolen book in the world is the Bible, since it is readily available in bookstores, libraries, places of worship, hotels, and motels.

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The Most Beautiful Cover Designs of The Great Gatsby

atkins-bookshelf-booksSince its publication in 1925, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald has sold more than 25 million copies. A first edition, with an original dust jacket in good condition is worth between $100,00 to $150,000. Recently, the editorial team at AbeBooks reviewed all 30 dustjackets and cover designs for The Great Gatsby in their archives and ranked them according to their beauty. Here are the top ten most beautiful cover designs of The Great Gatsby (publisher followed by publication date):

1. Featuring the iconic artwork, “Celestial Eyes” by Spanish artist Francis Cugat (Francisco Coradal-Cougat); Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1925

2. Cover design available as a limited edition print by London designer Aled Lewis (2013)

3. Polish edition, Libros; 2002

4. First Sweish edition, Wahlstrom and Widstrand; 1928

5. First German edition, Th. Knaur Nachf; 1928

6. Barcelona edition, Jose Janes; 1953

7. Buenos Aires edition, Futuro; 1946

8. Orange and off-white paperback cover, Penguin, 1940

9. Cover art featuring a nude woman, Penguin, 1969

10. Pulp edition, Bantam; 1951

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Who is the “Person From Porlock”?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesThe phrase “person from Porlock” (also known as the “man from Porlock” or simply “Porlock”) is a literary allusion that refers to an unwanted intruder who interrupts creative work or more precisely, a flash of inspiration, to the point that the work cannot be completed. Porluck also can mean an evasion or excuse not to work. Poet Robert Pinsky cites the telephone as “the perfect Porlockian escape.” He admits that when he is writing and receives a phone call from another writer, he is eager to take a break, engaging in “mutual Porlockism.”

The phrase has its origins in an incident that occurred to the famous Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797 while living in Nether Stowey, a small town in southwest England. Coleridge had taken opium while reading about Emperor of China Kubla Khan’s palace, Xanadu. While in an opium-induced dream, Coleridge conceived a poem consisting of over 200 lines. When he awoke, he began furiously writing his poem, Kubla Khan, that begins with the famous line: “In Kubla Khan /  A stately pleasure dome decree…” Unfortunately, he was in interrupted by a visitor, a person from Porlock, who was there to conduct some business (some scholars believe it was Coleridge’s drug dealer, a doctor who supplied him with laudanum).

Coleridge, writing in the third person, elaborates on the incident: “On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!”

Alas, Kubla Khan remain unfinished, consisting of only 54 lines. Damn Porluck! Consequently, Coleridge decided not to publish the work. From time to time he read it to friends at private readings. In 1816, Lord Byron encouraged Coleridge to publish the poem. And it’s a good thing he did, since critics now regard Kubla Khan one of Coleridges greatest poems, alongside Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

A copy of Coleridge’s manuscript is on exhibit at the British museum, located in London, England. Cinephiles will instantly recognize that Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan is quoted in Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, as the camera pans along the spectacular estate of Charles Foster Kane in the opening sequence.

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Best-Selling Books by the Numbers

atkins-bookshelf-booksWhat do all best-selling books have in common? That’s what inspired the curious folks at Daily Infographic to place books under the microscope for analysis. Their infographic, entitled “The Anatomy of a Best-Selling Book” is filled with fascinating insights into bestsellers and the book publishing industry. The average bestseller is a romance book with a female protagonist; she is often a lawyer or detective, and the book’s setting is the U.S. Here are some other highlights of best-selling books and book publishing:

Average length of best-selling book: 375 pages
Average number of words per sentence: 9.7 (2005) vs. 23.2 (1811)
Highest grossing genre: Romance – $1.44 billion
Percentage of bestsellers that are romance books: 25% (2012)
Percentage of e-books that are romance books: 40%
Value of publishing industry in U.S.: $27.98 billion (2014)
Percentage of largest book publishing markets in the world: 60% (U.S., China, Germany, Japan, France, and U.K.) 
Numbers of books (all formats) sold in U.S. annually: 2.7 billion (2014)
Percentage of printed vs digital books sold: 80% print; 20% e-books
Median author’s advance: $10,000
Amount publishers spend to market a book: $20,000
Royalty rates from publishers: 7 to 25%
Percentage that writers keep on self-published e-books: 70% (Amazon)

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The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization’s Word of the Year: 2016

atkins bookshelf wordsFor the past 25 years, as the end of the year approaches, the editors of several dictionaries review the news of the year and spikes in word lookups to determine which specific word reflects the zeitgeist of the world. The editors of announced today that the 2016 word of the year is “xenophobia.” The editors note: “This year, some of the most prominent news stories have centered around fear of the ‘other.’ Fear is an adaptive part of human evolutionary history and often influences behaviors and perceptions on a subconscious level. However, this particular year saw fear rise to the surface of cultural discourse.” The editors cite pronounced worldwide spikes in the lookups in the context of the Syrian refugee crisis, the UK’s controversial exit from the European Union (referred to as “Brexit”), and a number of issues that impacted the U.S. — policy shootings, transgender bathroom designations, and a very hostile and divisive presidential race. defines xenophobia as “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers. It can also refer to fear or dislike of customs, dress, and cultures of people with backgrounds different from our own.” The word is derived from the Greek words xenos (meaning “stranger or guest”) and phobos (meaning “fear”).

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What is Disintermediation?

atkins bookshelf wordsIn the context of business or economics, disintermediation refers to cutting out the middleman (the intermediaries) in a business transactions, wherein the company deals directly with the consumer, bypassing traditional brick-and-mortar retail stores, distributors, and/or wholesalers. The Internet, of course, has been the biggest and most obvious disrupter to this traditional supply chain. In the age of the Internet, consumers are used to buying products directly from the manufacturer, e.g, buying iPhones from Apple, computers from Dell, car rides from Uber, furniture from Ikea, etc.

However, in light of the recent presidential election and Donald Trump’s surprising political victory, the term disintermediation keeps coming up again and again in articles and talk shows. In a broader sense, disintermediation refers to people having direct access to information in specific fields without intermediaries from those respective fields, e.g, medical information or advise from medical websites, legal advice from legal websites, and so forth. Now, disintermediation is recognized in the context of journalism and politics. For the first time in America’s history of presidential campaigns, Trump bypassed the traditional media, political parties, and powerbrokers to take his message directly to the people via twitter posts and town hall talks where the media was often banned. Although Trump’s campaign methods left journalists concerned, baffled, upset, and frustrated, many believe that his consistent use of disintermediation contributed to his victory over Hillary Clinton. And in the process and aftermath, the Trump campaign shook traditional institutions from their seemingly invincible foundations. And the damage could be sweeping and long-lasting — as Jonathan Rauch of The Atlantic  observed, “The establishment, to the extent that there still is such a thing, is demoralized and shattered, barely able to muster an argument for its own existence.”

All of this malarky makes most Baby Boomers reminisce about the time, three to four decades ago, when the news was — well, the news. People returned from work, plopped down on the living room sofa to unwind and watch the evening news from one the big three networks (ABC, CBS, NBC). It didn’t matter which network they watched, the news was reported objectively and dispassionately — after being carefully written, fact-checked, and edited. Viewers trusted the news; moreover, news anchors were some of the most trusted individuals in America — Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Ted Koppel, Dan Rather, and Edward Murrow. Sadly, the days of trusting the news like that are long gone.

In her talk, “The Disintermediation of Media and Politics,” Time editor Nancy Gibbs candidly reflected on how the media was cut out of the news cycle: “We are raising a generation now in which everyone is in the media business… I think that [the prevalence of disintermediation] is a bracing situation for those of us who have spent our lives as professional journalists. But I also think it’s a fascinating opportunity, and I would argue a moment for some humility. One of the reasons media has been disintermediated is because we have gotten a lot wrong, particularly in this race… [Trump and Sanders were discounted by the media] because we have systems and rules and arbitrators and power brokers who will prevent anything this wild and unprecedented from happening. That has all turned out to be wrong.” What Gibbs doesn’t mention is the cost of the media getting it wrong. A recent Pew Research Center report indicates that 61% of Americans have little or no confidence in the news media; only 5% have a great deal of confidence in the media. Those dismal numbers now match Americans’ distrust of business leaders and elected officials.

Going forward, government and the media have to do a better job of utilizing the technology that is informing the public. “Change is hard” Gibbs said, “and fear seldom brings out the best in people or in institutions… it is going to take a particular kind of courage on the part of the press, on the part of the political class, even on the part of voters to explore the new territory that we find ourselves in… we need to be open to the idea that this first generation of digital natives has a great deal to teach the rest of us, in whatever field we are in.”

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