Synonyms for Book Lover

atkins bookshelf wordsMany book lovers are also word lovers. Or expressed another way, most bibliolaters are also epeolatrists. Naturally, the largest share of synonyms for book lovers are based on the Ancient Greek root word biblos, meaning “book,” and biblion, meaning “paper” or “scroll.” Below are some delicious words that bibliophilists and logolepts can savor:

abibliophobia: the fear of running out of things to read

biblet: a book or library

bibliobibuli: someone who reads too much

biblioklept: a person who steals books; a book thief

bibliolater: a person who loves books

bibliolatry: the love of books; book worship

bibliomane: a person who loves books and reading

bibliomaniac: a person who is obsessed with collecting books

bibliophagist: a voracious reader

bibliophile: a person who loves books or collects books (or both)

bibliophilist: a book lover

bibliopole: a person who buys and sells rare books

bibliosmia: the aroma of a book; the act of smelling books

bibliotaph: a person who hoards books (often unread); books are stored, keeping them from use

bibliotecha: a list of books in a catalog

book-bosomed: a person who always carries a book

bookman: a person who loves books or reading

booktrovert: a person who prefers the company of fictional characters to people in real life

bookworm: a person devoted to reading and study

epeolater: a person who loves words

epeolatry: worship of words

fascicle: a volume; one of a number of books forming a set or series

finifugal: dislikes endings; someone who avoids reading the end of a novel

incunabulum: a book printed before the year 1500

introuvable: a holy grail book; a book that cannot be found

librocubicultarist: a person who reads in bed

logolept: a person who is very interested in words; person obsessed with words

logolepsy: a fascination or obsession with words

omnilegent: having read everything; characterized by encyclopedic reading

philobiblist: a lover of books

princeps: a first edition of a book

rarissima: an extremely rare book or manuscript

scripturient: an author; a person who has a passion for writing

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There’s a Word for That: Epeolatry

Famous Misquotations: People Were Created to Be Loved. Things Were Created to Be Used. Most of Our Troubles Come From the Fact that We Love Things, and Use People.

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIf you search “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. Most of our troubles come from the fact that we love things, and use people.” you will find it on dozens of websites that feature inspirational or wisdom quotes. You will also encounter a common variant of this quotation is: “Variant: People were created to be loved Things were created to be used. The world is in chaos because things are being loved and people are being used.” It’s a great observation, isn’t it? But who said it? Well, that depends on what website you visit. Most attribute it to the Dalai Lama, others attribute Martin Luther King, John Green (from his novel Looking for Alaska). Problem is, they never said or wrote this.

The earliest use of this quotation appears in the book, Our Christian Vocation (1955) written by John Heuss (1908-1966), an Episcopal priest who promoted Christian education. On page 196, Heuss writes: “Martin Buber said, in effect, ‘People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. Most of our troubles come from the fact that we love things, and use people.’ This is being blind to the first fact of a satisfying life.”

Based on the wording “in effect” in seems that Heuss is paraphrasing something that Buber has said or wrote. It certainly make sense, since Buber — who was a philosopher, author, religious scholar, and political activist — developed the philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism that distinguishes between two modes of existence: I-Thou and I-It. In his influential work, I and Thou (1923), Buber explains that man is defined by his relations between other human beings and things. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides this introduction to this nuanced concept:

The “I-Thou” relation is the pure encounter of one whole unique entity with another in such a way that the other is known without being subsumed under a universal. Not yet subject to classification or limitation, the “Thou” is not reducible to spatial or temporal characteristics. In contrast to this the “I-It” relation is driven by categories of “same” and “different” and focuses on universal definition. An “I-It” relation experiences a detached thing, fixed in space and time, while an “I-Thou” relation participates in the dynamic, living process of an “other.” Buber characterizes “I-Thou” relations as “dialogical” and “I-It” relations as “monological.” 

Buber was a prolific writer, nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature (10 times) and the Nobel Peace Prize (7 times). So although the specific quotation attributed to him by Heuss does not appear in his writings, it is very consistent with his philosophy.

Note: If there is a Buber scholar who can identify a similar passage to this quotation, please let me know.

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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life
Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

For further reading: I and Thou by Martin Buber

What Will Your Contribution Be? How Will History Remember You?

alex atkins bookshelf educationIt is the beginning of the semester at St. Benedict’s, a classic boys prep school. Professor William Hundert places the textbook Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean in the center of each of the neatly lined desks. The classroom resembles a museum, filled with historical artifacts that reflect Greek and Roman culture, as well as busts and drawings of the great thinkers of that era, like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Augustus. Behind the teacher’s time-worn wooden desk is a scale reproduction of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David. As former students can attest, Hundert is very fond of quoting Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” “It is not living that is important but living rightly.”

Twenty young students enthusiastically pour into the classroom and take their place at the desks. Hundert asks them to introduce themselves. He then selects one to read a plaque that hangs above the door. Martin Blythe stands up and turns to face the plaque and reads nervously: “I am Shutruk-Nahhunte, King of Ansham and Susa, sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshunshinak, I destroyed Sippar and took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god, Inshunshinak.  Shutruk-Nahhunte, 1158 B.C.”

The professor begins his lesson: “Shutruk-Nahhunte. Is anyone familiar with this fellow? Texts are permissible.” The students frantically open their textbooks, scanning the pages and the index — but to no avail. A sea of baffled faces look up at the teacher in unison. He takes a moment to register their bewilderment and exclaims, “Shutruk-Nahhunte! King! Sovereign of the land of Elam! Destroyer of Sipper! Behold, his accomplishments cannot be found in any history book. Why? Because great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be? How will history remember you?

He lets this lesson sink in. After a moment’s pause, he continues: “Shutruk-Nahhunte is utterly forgotten — and he is not alone — vanished from history. Unlike the men around you — Aristotle, Caesar, Augustus, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Ovid. Giants of history. Men of profound character. Men whose contributions surpassed their own lifetimes, and survive into our own. ‘De nobis fabula narratur.’ Their story is our story.”

A few days later, Hundert explains to a cynical, corrupt senator why he teaches what he teaches: “Well, Senator, the Greeks and Romans provided a model of democracy, which, I don’t need to tell you, the framers of our own Constitution used as their inspiration. But more to the point, I think when the boys read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Julius Caesar even, they’re put in direct contact with men who, in their own age, exemplified the highest standards of statesmanship, of civic virtue, of character, conviction.

Class dismissed.

Now let’s imagine for a moment, what our government would be like, if the people who govern America had the benefit of William Hubert’s lessons?

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Read related posts: Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will be Governed by Idiots
Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?
A Republic, If You Can Keep It
Is the United States a Democracy or Republic?

Excerpts from the film, The Emperor’s Club (2002) written by Neil Tolkin (based on short story The Palace Thief  by Ethan Canin) and directed by Michael Hoffman.


How Many Books Can You Identify by Their Opening Line?

alex atkins bookshelf literature“There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line,” explained Stephen King in an interview with The Atlantic. “It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar. But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Sometimes the opening line of a novel is not just inviting, it is memorable and becomes intricately linked to the novel in the mind of the reader. Who doesn’t know this one: “Call me Ishmael.”? Or this one: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”? They are, of course, from the famous novels Moby Dick by Herman Melville and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

There are many literary reference books that list the first (and sometimes also the last) lines of famous novels. One of them lists 209 memorable first lines, another lists 801 first sentences, another lists 1001, and yet another lists a whopping 11,000! It’s interesting to open up any of these reference books and flip through the pages to find out how many you know. Out of, say 200, how many would you know?

If you happen to be Monty Lord, a 14-year-old boy from Bolton, England, you would know over 100 books from their opening line. On of January 13, 2020, Bolton set new Guinness World Records by correctly identifying 129 books from their opening lines. The previous record-holder, a man in India, could only identify 30 books.

Lord was inspired to memorize the first sentences of novels when he was studying the powers of memory for a psychology course. He studied the opening lines of 200 well-known novels using visualization techniques over three weeks. His technique involved visualizing a connection between the sentence and the novel.

Are you ready for a challenge: can you break this world record?

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Read related posts: The Best Sentences in English Literature
The Worst Sentence Ever Written
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For further reading:
Call Me Ishmael: 801 Memorable First and Last Lines in Literature by David Spector
Famous Last Lines by Daneil Grogan

There’s A Word for That: Parvanimity

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt sounds like a disease, doesn’t it? Parvanimity, however, is defined as small-mindedness or meanness (the antonym, in this case, would be magnanimity). It is derived from the classical Latin root words parvus (from parvi-, meaning “small”) and animus (meaning “mind” or “soul”). The word is pronounced “PARVE ah nim e tee.”

The word was introduced by Robert Boyle (162-1691), an Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, physicist, and chemist; he was also fascinated with theology. Boyle is considered one of the founders of modern chemistry. Published in 1661, The Skeptical Chymist is a seminal work in the field of chemistry. Boyle introduced the word parvanimity in his work A Free Discourse Against Customary Swearing; and a Discursive from Cursing (1647): “To all this I must add, that when once it is noted, that the apprehension of being derided for retracting is the sole obstacle that stands between your reaction and of great important a change as your conversion, they will justify your parvanimity of great, that you deserve derision for so poorly fearing it; and so you will fall into that contempt you would decline, by your very shunning of it.” [Also found in The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle, Volume 6, published in 1772.]

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Words Invented by Dickens
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There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
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There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
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What is Poe’s Law?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesThere are two different Poe’s Law — both named after different individuals named Poe. While one unwritten law refers to poetry; the other refers to parody. Let’s begin our discussion with the first Poe’s Law named after Edgar Allan Poe, the famous American short-story writer who explored madness and the macabre. In the context of literature, Poe’s Law establishes the proper length of a poem. We learn about this in John Middleton Murry’s book titled Pencillings (1923), a collection of short essays on life and literature. In the essay “The Problem of Size,” Murry writes: “The other day I listened to a famous French poet lecturing on the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe… [One] of Poe’s ideas… has had a very remarkable influence upon the development of modern French poetry. I mean his theory that the unit of poetry must be fixed by the readers capacity of attention, and that the limits of a poem must accord with the limits of a single movement of intellectual apprehension and emotional exaltation. A long poem, said Poe, was really only a sequence of short ones; and it would be a good thing (he thought) if it did not pretend to be anything else.”

The other Poe’s Law, was introduced more recently; It is considered one of a handful of unwritten laws of the internet, that describes common patterns of communication found in chat rooms and comments sections. As the story goes, on August 10, 2005 Nathan Poe, an agnostic, was debating a creationist on the website Christian Forums on the the topic of “big contradictions in the evolution theory.” He used a heavy dose of sarcasm in an argument and punctuated with the winking face emoji to reinforce the sarcasm. Someone responded to Poe’s comment by writing: “Good thing you included the wink. Otherwise people might think you are serious.” It was that comment that inspired Poe to create Poe’s Law, which he defined as: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.” Expressed another way, if you write a sarcastic post without the winking emoji, people will take it seriously. Today, Poe’s Law is more broadly applied to any extreme view — not just creationism — that is expressed on the internet. The editors of add: “The point [of Poe’s Law] is that fundamentalist or dogmatic views can become so extreme, despite their acceptance, that even parodies of this views are unmistakable for the real thing, to the point that extremists may accidentally embrace a parody as truth.” Yikes!

Through this eponymous law, Poe confirmed what so many people have already surmised over the years: it is very difficult to effectively convey sarcasm, irony, facetious remarks, and certain kind of humor via email or text because the reader is lacking critical non-verbal cues (like body language, facial expressions, and voice intonation) that convey the actual or intended meaning. Poe’s Law made it into the informal English lexicon in 2006 when it was published in the Urban Dictionary. Poe’s Law, however, is not limited to online conversation — it has become mainstream in the discussion of culture and politics. In an article in WIRED magazine, staff writer Emma Grey Ellis observes: “People talking about ‘spin in the era of Trump’ and ‘post truth’ don’t talk about politics in terms of Poe’s Law,” [Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture] says. “But it’s there, whenever you’re not sure if you should be mad or just roll your eyes.” It’s as present in Julian Assange stoking the Seth Rich conspiracy or Kellyanne Conway’s ‘kidding’ about telling people to buy Ivanka Trump’s clothing as it is in YouTuber PewDiePie’s attempts to justify racism as satire.”

Related to Poe’s Law is Poe’s Corollary which states that a person’s actual expressed views are so extreme that another person misinterprets those views as a parody.

As we have all learned in the past four years,  in the Trumpian world Truth has been eroded to the point that we have “alternative facts” and Rudy Giuliani’s unforgettable statement: “the truth isn’t truth.” All of this insanity, of course, adds another obstacle to clear communication on the internet. As Rupert Taylor observes in his essay “Poe’s Law and Internet Satire” on TurboFuture: “Sometimes, everything gets so tangled up that you don’t know if you’re seeing Poe’s Law in action, a parody of Poe’s Law, or both at the same time.” God help us.

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Read related posts: Godwin’s Law
The Unwritten Rules of the Internet

Unwritten Rules of Life
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For further reading:


Do Voters Actually Have a Free Choice?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAfter five days of counting votes, the election has been called: Joe Biden is projected to be the 46th U.S. President. For at least half the country, this ends a nightmare of a tumultuous Trump presidency fraught with weekly scandals, lies, ineptitude, and corruption, capped with the mismanagement of a lethal pandemic that took the lives of more than 237,00 Americans (to date). Additionally, the run-away pandemic required the shut-down of the economy, causing a devastating recession, the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, as evidenced by the highest unemployment levels (14.7%, 23 million Americans) since the Great Depression. In its wake, nearly 100,00 businesses have closed, more than 8 million Americans have been pushed into poverty, and more than 12 million have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. Of course, based on the vote, the other half of the country saw all of this as good news and signed up for another four years. WTF.

Nevertheless, the election reinforces the importance and sanctity of voting — the foundation of a democracy. But when you consider the perplexing results of the recent election, where half of the country fails to hold the incumbent presidential candidate accountable for four years of failures and contempt for the middle and lower classes, one has to ask: was this truly a free and fair election?

If you ask Carole Cadwaller, the investigative journalist who exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal back in 2016 (she is featured in the Netflix documentary, The Great Hack), the answer would be an emphatic “No!” Cadwaller accused Facebook and other social media companies of damaging democracy by spreading hateful, divisive lies in darkness paid for by illegal cash for millions of dollars worth of ads. Working with a whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica, Cadwaller learned that the data mining company gathered information on millions of people and manipulated their behavior (i.e., their voting) in the U.S. to impact the 2016 presidential election and in the UK to influence the Brexit vote.

In a TED talk on April 2019, Cadwaller confronts the leaders of the social media companies head on: “I am here — to address you directly, the gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey. Because you set out to connect people and you are refusing to acknowledge that this same technology is now driving us apart. And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you, and it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right, or leave or remain, or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. And so my question to you is: is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you? — as the handmaidens to authoritarianism? And my question to everyone else is: is this what we want?”

Recently, Bill Maher asked the same question of his guest, Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology and co-host of the podcast “Your Undivided Attention”: was 2020 a free and fair election? What followed was a fascinated discussion of the impact on social media on human behavior and free will, which is the focus of the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, released in January of this year.

Maher begins the discussion with the question: In a world manipulated by social media, did voters actually have a free choice? Harris responds: “No… what people need to get is that we are ten years into this mind warp, where we have been fed an individualized reality [like the Truman Show]… We got 3 billion Truman Shows… Imagine a husband and wife couple — they follow the same friends on Facebook. They’ve got the same friends so that when they open up Facebook they should see the same feed. But that’s not actually how it works. They will actually see completely different realities based on what the [Facebook] algorithms will say “this is the thing that will likely to keep you here.” What that did was to take the shared reality we have, put it through a paper shredder, and gave each of us a micro reality in which we are more and more certain that we’re right and the other side is wrong, and it has totally confused us.”

Maher then asks, is the Facebook algorithm evil? Harris answers, “Yes, it is evil. That’s the whole point [of the algorithm]. Because of this competition for attention, the company started to get really aggressive about what they could dangle in front of your nervous system to get you to come back… It’s like a digital drug lord. It’s destroyed [the] mental health of our teenagers, it’s polarized our societies, it’s addicted each of us, and it’s really warped, I think, the psyche that now we are in the middle of with this election because I think, much like a psychotic patient has a mind that is fractured against itself… our national psyche is fractured against itself. If you look at even the examples of the “count the vote” [protestors] and the “stop the count” [protestors]… We have really been confused by these individual realities that have warped all of our perceptions.”

Maher then moves to recent news about the public putting pressure on the social companies to act on preventing misinformation and falsehoods, taking down sites. Is this helping? Harris explains, “So there’s this really weird situation we’re in where if you let the Frankenstein run without any controls — and so anything goes viral if it gets the most clicks and likes — that just rewards the most conspiracy theories. YouTube, for example, recommended Alex Jones Info Wars conspiracy theories 15 billion times — which is more than the combined traffic of The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Fox News combined. And when you just realize the scale of all of that, conspiracy theories are especially dangerous because they’re like a trust bomb — they warp your perception of everything that comes after it. In fact, the best predictor whether you will believe in a new conspiracy is if I already got you to believe in one. And once you believe, for example, ‘the election is rigged or it’s stolen,’ you perceive everything through that lens, and it warps all of your perceptions.”

Maher then moves to the issue of freedom of speech, since some of the social media companies have introduced initiatives to either tag misinformation or suspend accounts spreading falsehoods. Harris clarifies: “We have to protect the freedom of speech. I think the distinction [that needs to be made] is freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom to reach, meaning we’re all granted the right to speak, but are you granted a football stadium-sized audience to say anything you want without accountability? And when you let that become the default, like that’s what makes up our information environment — that the default information all of us are consuming is each of us get a [football stadium-size audience] and say whatever you want without any accountability… you don’t end up with a healthy information environment and we also get more rewarded the more extreme things we we say. And the more extreme the things you say the more likes and feedback you get which leads us into our own distortion of ‘hey we’re really right, we have all these supporters, we are on the right side of history.'”

Maher responds: “But the people who don’t know its bullshit have been trained not to see it as bullshit… The underlying issue of all of this is that the American people are too stupid to be governed. They have no bullshit detector. They believe a lot of kooky stuff on the left and on the right they believe in QAnon [a conspiracy theory that alleges that the world is run by a powerful cabal of pedophiles that worship Satan and operate a child sex trafficking ring that works to undermine President Trump.] … There is no knowledge of the past. You can’t scare them by saying ‘Trump is becoming a totalitarian.’ — [Americans respond:] What’s that? You know like East Germany — What’s that? Like in the Cold War — What’s that? Technology wouldn’t be so scary if people had a better brain to deal with it. Harris quickly responds, “But what has social media done to our brain? That’s the problem. Social media [has led to] the downgrading of attention spans, our critical thinking, our ability to form an opinion on anything that is not the hyperpresent. We don’t read books any more. We have polarization, conspiracy thinking… [All of this due to the business model of Facebook discussed in the documentary Social Network] — So long as we’re the product, we’re worth more when we are addicted, distracted, outraged, narcissistic, polarized, and disinformed than if we are a thriving citizen, an informed citizen of a democracy… [To Facebook] a child is worth more if they’re narcissistic and attention-seeking and seeing how many likes they have than if they’re actually free — growing, developing, and playing with their friends. [As the inventor of the “Like” button explained] so long as the whale is worth more dead than alive and a tree is worth more as 2x4s than as a tree, in this new [business] model… we’re the whale, we’re the tree, we’re the thing that is being mined… [The technology in Facebook’s business model] is converting us into someone who cares more about the number of new likes and followers and comments that we have than living our lives. Each of us get to participate in a system that profits from social performance, where we each perform and that’s what we’re doing with our time, instead of actually doing any of the other things that we care about.”

The discussion of freedom of choice reminds me of the routine of one of the most influential comedians of all time, George Carlin, winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Like Twain, Carlin was a fearless critic always ready and willing to speak his mind — passionately and eloquently. Carlin was the thinking person’s comedian — his razor-sharp, incisive rants about politics, culture, religion, philosophy, and language were not only funny, they were compelling and thought-provoking. Long after watching a Carlin performance, you actually remembered what he had to say because in most cases he was right — the world is fucked up.”

One of Carlin’s most famous bits was his rant on freedom of choice: “Yes, you can [vote for president], but you don’t get much choice in this country about important things. They have all the guns. They have all the tools. They have all the power. We call it freedom of choice. There is an illusion of choice. Americans are led to feel free through the exercise of meaningless choices. There are only two political parties. There is a reduction of the number of media companies. Banking has been reduced to only a handful of banks. Oil companies. These are important, and you’re given very little choice. Oh, but the flavor of jellybeans? The flavor of muffins? A bagel? You can get a Pina Colada bagel. We’re given the illusion of choice by the meaningless of choices of trivial things. You know what your freedom of choice in America is? Paper or plastic, buddy? That’s it. After you’ve said cash or charge, maybe it’s Pepsi or Coke? Window or Aisle? Smoking or [Nonsmoking]? Everything else you’re kinda guided towards by focus groups and marketing research.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Plato on Idiots and Ignorance
You Should Figure Out a Way to Get Off Facebook
Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?
A Republic If You Can Keep It
Is the United States A Democracy or Republic?

For further reading: Real Time with Bill Maher, 11-6-20 (HBO)
The Great Hack, Netflix Documentary (2019)
The Social Dilemma, Netflix Documentary (2020)

Plato On Idiots and Ignorance

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“If you don’t vote, you will be governed by idiots.”

The quote is a variation of the quote most often attributed to Plato, ubiquitous on the internet: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” The source is The Republic, (Book 1, 346-347), where Plato makes the point that if good, honorable, intelligent men do not to wish to serve in government, then they will be punished by being ruled by those who are bad, dishonorable, and dumb. The actual sentence is: “But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule.” There are many other variants of this famous quotation. Among them is this one crafted by poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson that appears in Society and Solitude (1870): “Plato says that the punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is, to live under the government of worse men.”

“A man may truly say that ignorance is a third case of crimes. Ignorance, however, may be conveniently divided… into two sorts: There is simple ignorance, which is the source of lighter offenses, and double ignorance, which is accompanied by a conceit of wisdom; and he who is under the influence of the latter fancies that he knows all about matters of which he knows nothing. This second kind of ignorance, when possessed of power and strength, will be… the source of great and monstrous crimes…”

A number of websites mistakenly attribute this quotation to Aristotle (384-322 BC), a famous Greek philosopher, who was a student of Plato. However this quotation was written by Plato; it is found in The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 4, (1895) translated by B. Jewett, professor of Greek, University of Oxford. Plato (428-348 BC). Plato was a student of the classical Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC). Plato and Socrates are considered the founders of Western philosophy — their ideas and concepts have shaped Western civilization for centuries. We know of Socrates’ teachings through Plato’s writings (The Dialogues) that employ the Socratic method: the deep exploration of topics through endless questioning.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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For further reading:
The Dialogues of Plato by Plato
The Republic by Plato

Finally, A Documentary for Book Lovers: The Booksellers

alex atkins bookshelf moviesThe Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young, a documentary about a group of established antiquarian book dealers in New York City, is a valentine to the used book industry as well as book lovers around the globe. The documentary was released in 2019, and recently began streaming on Amazon Prime. On the official website, Young writes: “Antiquarian booksellers are part scholar, part detective and part businessperson, and their personalities and knowledge are as broad as the material they handle. They also play an underappreciated yet essential role in preserving history. The Booksellers takes viewers inside their small but fascinating world, populated by an assortment of obsessives, intellects, eccentrics and dreamers.” To paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, “Let us go, then you and I, when the books are spread across the table…”

The documentary introduces viewers to fascinating, charming, and some rather eccentric booksellers whose comprehensive knowledge and passion for books is infectious. While book dealers tend to be male (according to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, 85% of booksellers are male; 15% female), the documentary presents a balance of genders, as well as ages. Along the way, we meet Dave Bergman (giant books); Adina Cohen, Haomi Hample, and Judith Lowry (Argosy books); Jim Cummins (James Cummins Bookseller with an inventory of over 400,000 books); Arthur Fournier (transformative cultural movements); Stephen Massey (founder of auction house Christie’s book department); Bibi Mohamed (leather bound books), Heather O’Donnell (Honey & Wax Booksellers); William Reese (greatest American rare book dealer); Rebecca Romney (Type Punch Matrix; Pawn Stars book expert); Justin Schiller (children’s books); Adam Weinberger (book hunter and Pawn Stars guest); and Henry Wessells (bookseller, poet, writer, and sci-fi collector).

The segments with booksellers are punctuated with very brief interviews with notable authors like Fran Lebowtiz, Gay Talese, and Susan Orlean. We also get to meet two well-known book collectors: Michael Zinman and Jay Walker. Indeed, one of the highlights of the documentary is a glimpse of Walker’s stunningly beautiful private library — the envy of every book collector. Incidentally, if you don’t recognize his name, Jay Walker happens to be the founder of; his net worth is estimated to be $1.6 billion. And that type of discretionary income can purchase a lot of books — and a very impressive custom-designed library to house them. The library is connected by a hallway to his private residence in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Known as the Walker Library of The History of Human Imagination, it contains more than 25,000 books, manuscripts, historical objects, and artifacts in a 3.5-level, 3,600 square-foot space. As he explains, they are organized by size, not by topic — something that would truly annoy just about every librarian watching this documentary. Historical artifacts include an actual Sputnik, a meteorite, dinosaur bones, model Saturn V rocket, Enigma code machine, an Edison phonograph, and a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible — to name a few. The walls are lined with wood bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the interior is filled with 25 staircases that lead to balconies and platforms. This maze-like, multi-level design was inspired by the work of M. C. Escher. Unfortunately, the documentary spends very little time in Walker’s library; however, curious bibliophiles can view it in greater detail in the dazzling documentary titled “Experience the Walker Library of Human Imagination” by David Hofman that can be found on YouTube.

Although many worthy used books can be purchased from $10 to $50 dollars, the documentary makers are captivated by very expensive books that are sought after by bibliophiles with deep pockets. Interestingly, how quickly a book can increase in value is illustrated by the bookseller who shares the story of how he purchased the rarest book in American Literature, Tamerlane and Other Poems. That book is a pocket-sized poetry book self-published in 1827 by an anonymous author (the cover reads “A Bostonian”). That Bostonian happens to be the Master of the Macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The bookseller explains how an individual stumbled upon the book at a garage sale and purchased it for $15. He then sold it to the bookseller for $200,000. Talk about appreciation! We also learn about the scale of value of a first edition of The Great Gatsby: $5,000 for the book without a dust jacket, $15,000 with a torn and tattered dust jacket, and $150,000 for a book with a clean dust jacket. A bookseller shows us a fourth edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha, considered the first modern novel, worth $20,000. He follows that with this stunning biblio-factoid: the value of a first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming $150,000. We get the point: pricing can be capricious; nevertheless, Cervantes must be spinning in his grave. The documentary also discusses to famous rare books at the extreme end of the price continuum. The first, is the sale of the Gutenberg Bible, by the Pfrozheimer Foundation, to the Harry Ransom Center (at the University of Texas at Austin) for $2.2 million in 1978. The second is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, which was sold in November 1994 for $28 million to Bill Gates. The seller, Armand Hammer (owner of Occidental Petroleum), made a handsome profit, since he had purchased the rare manuscript several years earlier for a mere $5 million. Who says books are a bad investment? (By the way, if you’re curious about the value of Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was not discussed in the documentary, one was sold on October 14, 2020 by Mills College to Stephan Lowentheil, a rare book collector, for $9.98 million.)

There is much to capture the imagination in this documentary — after all, to paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges, there is an entire universe in books. But there is a thread of lament that runs throughout the documentary. We learn that antiquarian booksellers are a dying breed, many are in their last generation. When they pass away, their inventory, and more significantly, their comprehensive knowledge of books will vanish. Early in the documentary, we learn about New York City’s famous Book Row during the the mid-20th century: 48 bookstores located on six blocks of 4th Avenue. Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of The Strand bookstore, explains how her grandfather founded the store in 1927 on Book Row. Her father took it over and grew the store — it currently has an inventory of more than 2.5 million books. Wyden explains the dramatic change in the bookselling industry with this sobering statistic: in the 1950s, New York City had 358 bookstores; presently, there are only 79.

Despite this grim statistic, there is hope for future generation to embrace book collecting. As one of the booksellers notes, “Many people think that collecting is just about high spots or first editions. The truth is the most interesting collections are built by people who see something that other people don’t see.” In an interview with The Guardian, Romney explained, “[The world of used books] is for anyone who is passionate about something. No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter what your education or background is — I want people to watch the film and say: ‘Oh, I could be part of this.’”

The documentary ends with a beautiful, eloquent ode to the book, a poem written and spoken by Henry Wessells, from his a short book of poems titled The Private Life of Books:


In silence between writer and reader
A memory of words and hands takes form.
We learn substance and worth through others’ eyes :
Cloth, flesh, ink, skin, paper, dust — these are but
Material forms in which ideas dwell.
In the roar of a crowded shelf of books
Desert sun and arctic night, distant seas
Of thought awaken, mingle, and are still.
Minds meet where the reading hand grasps the void
And inks its passage in empty margins.
Lost, forgotten, thumbed, split : we bear the scars
Of patient decades and centuries’ dreams.

Whose hands will next hold me I do not know —
The book, too, reads its readers in real time.

The book of poems was published in 2014 by Temporary Culture. The publisher recently printed a pocket-size edition. Special thanks to Henry Wessells for his kind permission to reprint his poem.

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For further reading:
Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Mavin Mondlin and Roy Meador
The Private Life of Books by Henry Wessells
Remarkable Books: The World’s Most Historic and Significant Works
Book Collecting Now: The Value of Print in a Digital Age by Matthew Budman

A Good Book Is a Necessary Commodity

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.”

From The Bookshop, published in 2008, by British novelist, essayist, and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000). The British Daily, The Times, ranked her as “one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.” Fitzgerald did not begin writing until she turned 58; nevertheless, she published nine novels and three biographies, winning several literary awards, including the Booker Prize and the Golden PEN Award.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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The Pros and Cons of Remote Learning

alex atkins bookshelf educationAs we observed in a recent post, almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic required most of the U.S. workforce to make the transition from working in an office location to working remotely from home. Students and teachers — from pre-K to college — had to make that same transition. Teachers had to quickly adapt: mastering online platforms for assigning homework and conducting remote classes (most often, using Zoom) and utilizing email to connect with students. Students learned to transform their bedrooms, or common rooms like a kitchen or family room, into makeshift mini classrooms of one. So how are students and teachers doing with the normal of remote learning (aka distance learning)? Although no official survey has been published to date (several are in the works by educational organizations and schools), there are some smaller surveys conducted by teachers available. Bookshelf also reached out to some teachers and students to determine the pros and cons of remote learning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that remote learning, like working remotely, is not a universal solution: it is fraught with major and minor challenges. Here are some observations: 

Pros of remote learning:
More time to sleep
No need to commute to and from school
Can do school work in comfort of my own home (comfortable furniture, access to snacks and food, privacy of own bathroom)
Increased flexibility to complete assignments
More time to spend with family members
More freedom and independence

Cons of remote learning:
Not everyone has access to laptop and reliable wifi
Children with learning disabilities struggle with remote learning

Loss of social time with friends
Loss of human interaction (teacher and friends) leads to anxiety, depression, and isolation
Being at home offers too many distractions
Without instant teacher or peer feedback, easy to get discouraged
Loss of motivation to do study and do homework
Remote learning is not as effective as in-person learning
No separation from home life and school life
Feel trapped/stuck at home

Increased stress trying to stay on track and keep up with all assignments
Difficult to get personal help from teacher
Homework and workload has increased
No access to school library which has great resources and offers a quiet place to do homework
Feeling overwhelmed by drastic transition
With online classes in college, don’t feel I am getting my money’s worth

If you are a teacher or student, what else should be added to these lists?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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For further reading:

The Pros and Cons of Working From Home

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAlmost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic required more than half of the U.S. workforce to make the transition from working in an office location to working remotely from home. Most businesses have embraced the new normal — remote working punctuated with dreaded zoom meetings — for the short term; however, some major companies, like Twitter and Facebook, have committed to making remote work permanent, albeit with some caveats. Nevertheless, the new reality of working from home, which at first glance seems so attractive, is actually fraught with some subtle as well as significant challenges. To find out just how challenging this transition was, SellCell conducted a survey in June of this year that included 2,000 American remote employees (23 years and older). As the results indicate, not everyone is suited for telecommuting. Fascinating highlights from the study appear below:

Levels of stress since working from home:
Feel more stressed: 51.4%
Feel less stressed: 21.5%
No change: 27%

Level of productivity of working from home:
Feel more productive: 45%
Feel less productive: 34.5%
No change: 20.6%

Major distractions while working at home:
Social media: 61%
Smartphones: 53.7%
Binge watching: 42.1%
Children: 33.8%
Gaming: 30.4%
News media; 24.3%
Pets: 18.1%
Partner: 16%
Online shopping: 12.3%

The biggest cons to working from home:
Lack of social interaction: 55.8%
No distinction between work and home life: 43.5%
Poor eating habits: 33.2%
Loss of self-discipline: 25.6%
Absence of IT department: 23.5%
Longer work hours: 17.9%
Frequent video meetings: 15.1%

The pros to working from home:
Flexible work schedule: 61%
No more long commutes: 52.5%
No need to dress up: 44.8%
Saving money: 35.7%
No more missed deliveries: 28.4%
Increased family time: 19.6%
Don’t have to deal with annoying colleagues: 10.1%

Activities employees engage in while on the clock:
Browsing the internet: 83.2%
Scrolling through social media: 53.5%
Multitask while binge watching: 44%
Visiting adult websites: 43.2%
Making love with their partners: 19.8%
Online shopping: 17%

Issues to blame for keeping irregular work hours:
Phone usage: 72.4%
Tech and security issues: 67.7%
Household chores; 49.4%
Sleeping in: 46.2%
Looking after children: 34.4%
Lack of motivation: 30.2%
Hungover: 26.3%
Distractions from family and friends: 23.7%
Long lunches: 16.1%

Adverse impacts on telecommuters:
Change in exercise routines: 75.4%
Change in dietary patterns: 70.3%
Change in sleep patterns: 62.8%
No need to shower in the morning: 48.3%
Stay in pajamas all day: 66.4%
Increased alcohol drinking: 39.3%
Overeating: 28.2%
Inconsistent meals: 35%
Skipped meals: 24%
Feel that workload has increased: 55%

Preference for working from home vs. the office:
Prefer splitting time between home and office: 45%
Prefer going back to the office: 32%
Prefer working from home: 23%

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Reading Teaches that the Things that Torment Us Are the Things that Connect Us

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people. An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.”

Excerpt from an interview with James Baldwin, titled “Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are” by Jane Howard, that appeared in LIFE magazine on May 24, 1963. Baldwin’s quotation is often paraphrased as “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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What is the Symbolism of the Fly on Mike Pence’s Head?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIf you watched the vice-presidential debate you couldn’t help notice that rather brave fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head at what seems to be a very critical moment in the debate. Pence was on the defensive when Kamala Harris criticized President Trump for refusing to directly condemn white supremacy. Pence, with the characteristic composure of a cadaver or a zombie (depending on your perspective), began by attacking the liberal media and noting that Trump has Jewish grandchildren. He added, “This is a president who respects and cherishes all of the American people.” Viewers at home gagged at this ridiculous statement; but it was precisely at this moment that a housefly, which had been buzzing around the studio, had enough of the blatant evasiveness, obfuscation, diversion, deflection, and deception on the part this obsequious sycophant, that it landed on his head to make a bold statement: Mike Pence — Lord of the Flies. The black fly stood out starkly on Pence’s helmet-like snowy white hair and it sat there for an astounding two minutes and nine seconds, while Pence’s head swiveled from side to side in a robotic manner as he spoke. After all, black flies matter! Of course, it didn’t take long for viewers to turn to social media to unleash a torrent of snarky commentary. Viewers wanted to hear from the fly. Republicans feared that the bug was placed by the Democrats. Democrats feared that the fly was feeding Pence the answers. Viewers were concerned that the fly was exposed to coronavirus and needed to quarantine. Trump was furious and wanted the fly deported. And so on…

Since the fly was the most memorable character and moment of the debate, it invites the question: what is the symbolism of the fly? Since I alluded to William Golding’s chilling 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, an enduring staple of high school English literature curriculum, let’s begin our discussion there. The title is extremely critical to the meaning of the novel. “Lord of the Flies” of course, is what one of the characters (Simon, the shy, sensitive boy, who represents goodness) names the severed pig head that is impaled on a stake by Jake (who represents savagery and evil). It is a memorable scene in the novel: a pig head, oozing in blood, surrounded by a cloud of buzzing flies, feasting on the pig’s flesh and blood. Thus, the flies symbolize death and decay. By coupling this term with “lord” that conveys unbridled power, Golding is creating a compelling and prescient metaphor: power and corruption lead to decay and death. A perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, wouldn’t you say? But further, Golding is keenly aware that “Lord of Flies” is a literal translation of the Hebrew word Beelzebub (or Beelzebul), found in the Old Testament (Books of Kings; 2 Kings 1:2-3,6). In the Old Testament, Beelzebub is a demonic deity worshipped by the Philistines. This paints quite a distasteful picture: a Philistine deity is that is the lord of flies — disgusting pests that feast on excrement. Moreover, in the noncanonical Testament of Solomon, ascribed to King Solomon, Beezlebul is synonymous with Lucifer (meaning “morning star”; shining one, light bearer”). Solomon describes Beelzebul as the prince of demons, a former heavenly angel gone rogue. Beezlebul’s goal is to encourage worship of demons, empower tyrants, incite wars, and instigate murder and mayhem throughout the world. Thus, “lord of the flies” is synonymous with “lord of demons.”

More generally, the fly is a symbol of evil and pestilence. In the landmark work A Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier writes: “Their ceaseless buzzing, whirling around and stinging make flies unbearable. They breed from corruption and decay, carry the germs of the foulest diseases and breach all defenses against them.” In the Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann notes: “Flies of all species are creatures with negative symbolic associations… In ancient Persian mythology the enemy of light, Ahriman, slips into the world in the form of a fly.” Biedermann adds that in several cultures, swarms of flies represent satanic beings or demonic powers.

In A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Micheal Ferber describes the symbolism of the flies in the context of great literature. Ferber points to the plague of flies that Moses unleashes on the Egyptians (Exodus 8.21-31). “Flies, not surprisingly, are usually considered unpleasant, disease-ridden, and evil.” He turns to Homer who emphasizes the boldness of the fly (Iliad 17.570-72): “the boldness of the fly / which, even though driven away from a man’s skin, / persists in biting out of relish for human blood.” In literature the fly can also mean anything that is insignificance. Recall the famous line from Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear (Lear 4.136-37): “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ Gods. / They kill us for their sport.” 

The website History of Painters has a fascinating article on the hidden symbolism of insects in western painting: “Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding insects. From the of time of the Roman persecution Christians used signs and symbols to secretly identify each other. The Church commissioned sacred images that acted as moral instruction to illiterate serfs who clamored for spiritual enlightenment of the holy scriptures. The religious images, carvings and stone work served as a constant reminder of the hellish suffering that awaited heretics and sinners if they strayed from Gods word and church law. Byzantine, Gothic, Northern Renaissance and  Italian Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical Christian symbolism regarding Insects.” In particular, the fly symbolizes “rot, wasting away, decay, death, and melancholia.” But it gets even more specific, and perhaps more germane to Pence’s fly: “A fly hovering over a church official or nobleman indicates disfavor with the  king or corruption and dereliction of duty.” Bingo!

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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For further reading: Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (3rd Edition) by Michael Ferber
A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier
Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann (Translated by James Hulbert)

The Search for Happiness is Within

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“He who has little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief which he purposes to remove.”

Excerpt from The Rambler, No. 6 (Saturday, April 7, 1750), by Samuel Johnson. The Rambler was a periodic, published every Tuesday and Saturday from 1750 to 1753, that targeted the middle-class that was climbing the social ladder by marrying into aristocratic families. Johnson believed that since these individuals did not possess the education required to integrate into higher social circles, The Rambler would provide reflective, didactic essays written in elevated prose on important topics such as morality, society, religion, literature, and politics. Johnson, a man of great erudition, often drew on the ideas of the giants of the Renaissance humanism, like Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Rene Descartes, and Desiderius Erasmus.

In The Rambler, No. 6, Johnson introduces a quotation from his close friend James Elphinston, who was an educator and linguistics expert:

Active in indolence, abroad we roam
In quest of happiness which dwells at home:
With vain pursuits fatigu’d, at length you’ll find,
No place excludes it from an equal mind. 

Johnson comments, “That man should never suffer his happiness to depend upon external circumstances, is one of the chief precepts of the Stoical philosophy; a precept, indeed, which that lofty sect has extended beyond the condition of human life, and in which some of them seem to have comprised an utter exclusion of all corporal pain and pleasure from the regard or attention of a wise man.” In a later passage, he remarks on the plight of the British poet Abraham Cowley (1618-1667):

“If [Cowley] had proceeded in his project [to travel abroad to find an obscure retreat], and fixed his habitation in the most delightful part of the new world, it may be doubted, whether his distance from the vanities of life, would have enabled him to keep away the vexations. It is common for a man, who feels pain, to fancy that he could bear it better in any other part. Cowley having known the troubles and perplexities of a particular condition, readily persuaded himself that nothing worse was to be found, and that every alteration would bring some improvement: he never suspected that the cause of his unhappiness was within, that his own passions were not sufficiently regulated, and that he was harassed by his own impatience, which could never be without something to awaken it, would accompany him over the sea, and find its way to his American elysium. He would, upon the trial, have been soon convinced, that the fountain of content must spring up in the mind: and that he who has so little knowledge of human nature, as to seek happiness by changing any thing but his own dispositions, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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The Comfort of Reading During Difficult Times

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt’s not easy living in the age of coronavirus. These are the best of times. These are the worst of times. How do we get through it? My thoughts drift to a young boy, dirty, destitute, and tired from working in a miserable factory job because his father was imprisoned in a debtor’s prison. That period of desperation and poverty motivated him to eventually achieve great artistic and financial success as a world-renown author. His name? Charles Dickens. However, the memories that misery and humiliation haunted him his entire life. At the peak of his success, Dickens confessed, “My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time in my life.” In David Copperfield, his favorite and most autobiographical novel, we get a glimpse of how a young boy survived that dark period — he found comfort and escape in literature:

“I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance. It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, — they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, — and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them — as I did — and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones – which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels — I forget what, now — that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees – the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.

This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.” (Excerpt from chapter 4 of David Copperfield.)

Let us hope that the image of a scruffy young boy, huddled in the corner, reading a book inspires us to find the comfort of reading during the worst of times. Let us seek the wisdom of literature that reaffirms our shared humanity — however fragile and imperfect — and inspires empathy and understanding that will eventually lead to the best of times.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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Choosing the Exact Word (Le Mot Juste)

alex atkins bookshelf wordsI had the incredible opportunity to meet the great British writer and intellectual John Fowles many years ago. We discussed our shared fascination with the English language and the writer’s search for the exact word — le mot juste, as the French express it (incidentally, the phrase is pronounced “luh moh ZHYST”). You don’t have to read very far into a Fowles novel to quickly recognize he possesses an expansive vocabulary — far beyond the average vocabulary of 50,000, common to a high-school/college educated speaker. So if you read Fowles, you will want a dictionary by your side; by the end of the novel, you will have learned several dozen fascinating and fancy words (some, from different languages, since Fowles readily draws from all the romance languages). No doubt, Gustave Flaubert, a very precise writer who introduced the term “le mot juste,” would be suitably impressed.

I love words. As proof of this profound lexicological affection, I own over a 1,500 word reference books (adding several each month; the more obscure, the more treasured). One of my favorite thesauri is the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (now in its third edition) which happens to contain one of my favorite essays on choosing the exact word. The essay, titled “In Search of the Exact Word” is written by Richard Goodman, an assistant editor at Random House and teaches creative nonfiction writing. The essay is also found in his book The Soul of Creative Writing, published in 2008. With a bit of sleuthing in the Flaubert corpus, Goodman finds that Flaubert first introduced the term le mot juste in a letter to Sainte-Beuve, a critic, that can be found in a collection of his letters, La Correspondance de Flaubert; Etude Et Repertoire Critique (1968), edited by Charles Carlut. Goodman writes:

“I found Flaubert uses the expression just twice. He writes the critic Sainte-Beuve, “If I put ‘blue’ after ‘stones,’it’s because ‘blue’ is le mot juste, believe me.” In the other instance, he says there has to be a rapport between le mot juste and le mot musical, that is, between the meaning and the music of a word…

Flaubert does say, though, that, “all talent for writing consists after all of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.” He also says that, “perfection has everywhere the same characteristic: that’s precision, exactness.” He says he spends hours looking for a word. He expressed the struggle this way: “I am the obscure and patient pearl-fisher, who dives deep and comes up empty-handed and blue in the face.” And at another point, he writes a friend that he spent three days making two corrections and five days writing one page. Practically anything Flaubert says about writing and art is interesting, even if you disagree with him, though you are constantly reminded, as Henry James points out, that “he felt of his vocation almost nothing but the difficulty.”

Mark Twain was memorably good at seizing the exact word, too. Most humourists are… Their humour often depends on a choice of word; in fact the whole laugh can rest on a single word choice. When someone interviewed Evelyn Waugh for the Paris Review, they asked him about the process of creating a character. He said, “I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language.” If you read the books of the comic writers just with this idea in mind — S.J. Perelman, Thurber, Twain, Waugh, even Woody Allen — you’ll see how often the laugh comes from a single, well-chosen word placed exactly where it’s liable to generate the loudest laugh. Of course, Twain wrote perhaps the most famous line about this particular topic ever written, “The difference between any word and the ‘right’ word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

What is the exact word? I think what we usually mean by that is a word that not only conveys precisely what you, the writer, want to say, but also does it in an unforgettable way, a dramatic way, either because of its juxtaposition to its surrounding words or because it’s employed in a fresh way, or both. Something else, too, I think: when it surprises, it’s usually a surprise that doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It communicates resoundingly, because somewhere the reader understands the word well enough to appreciate its use.”

If you have an opportunity, you should read Goodman’s entire essay (it runs about seven full pages). It is full of wonderful and pithy insights that are sure to delight any logophile.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts:  What is the Most Beautiful-Sounding Word in English?
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
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The Most Mispronounced Words
Common Latin Abbreviations
Words Invented by Dickens

What Are the Most Beautiful Words in the English Language?
Favorite Words of Dictionary Editors

For further reading: Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus compiled by Christine Lindberg
The Soul of Creative Writing by Richard Goodman 

What If Shakespeare Wrote Trump’s Tweets?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEarly in one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Hamlet, we hear Polonius (the chief counsellor to Claudius, Hamlet’s evil stepfather), remark, “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit/ And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief…” But a review of President Trump’s brief, but bumbling tweets quickly disproves Polonius’ observation. Enter AJ Smith, a school teacher and author of the devilish little tome, By the Thumbings of a Prick: The Tweets of Donald Trump as Shakespearean Sonnets. In the introduction to this cheeky book, Smith writes: “[I] come to bury Trump, not to praise him. But not necessarily for his politics. I struggle to grasp a true understanding, and thus opinion, of how tariffs work. I recognize that border security is a complex problem. On foreign policy, I am no Fortinbras. The primary source of my particular brand of what some may call “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is, first and foremost, his Tweeting… I teach high school English, and I’ve spent years preaching on what I consider to be my central ethos for an education focused on written words, words, words: if you cannot form a coherent thought, write down that thought, write it well, and write it convincingly, you will not be taken seriously regardless of your chosen pursuit. What chance do I have of persuading my pupils of this if the president has all the rhetorical sophistication of a Falstaff?” 

To inspire good writing and presenting “[Trump’s] ideas with some semblance of sophistication,” Smith has rolled up his sleeves, inked his trusty quill, and rewritten 154 notable Trump Tweets as Shakespearean sonnets, borrowing some of the phrasing from the first line of Shakespeare’s original 154 sonnets. Fortunately, Smith has renamed them “Donnets” so as not to offend the ageless spirit of Shakespeare and diminish the true beauty of the original sonnets. In the dedication, Smith writes: “To my students. See, writing sonnets is not that hard.” Amen, brother. When you read Smith’s clever sonnet interpretations, following each of the original tweets, you realize what a difference good diction and iambic pentameter makes on Trump’s tortured and tangled writing. Here are examples of Smith’s brilliant craftsmanship:

Original Tweet from December 28, 2017: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”

Donnet II
When coldest winter shall besiege thy brow,
If thou residest in an Eastern state,
Perhaps heat’s omen thou wilt wish for now,
To warm thee on this celebrated date.
As thou the ball o bservest in descent,
With numbers counted down from ten to one,
In winds Boreas blown, wilt thou lament
The prudeness of a promised slutty sun.
This guarantee, which made a fool of thee,
Is, worse yet, but a drain upon our purse,
While foreign lands spend not their currency
To sickly globe with legislation nurse.
As thou to lips thy frozen bev’rage sup,
Do careful be to thyself bundle up!

Original Tweet from March 3, 2018: “The United States has an $800 Billion Dollar Yearly Trade Deficit because of our “very stupid” trade deals and policies. Our jobs and wealth are being given to other countries that have taken advantage of us for years. They laugh at what fools our leaders have been. No more!”

Donnet IV
Unthrift America, why dost thou spend
So much in trade, by other nations duped;
Such deals do our economy upend,
Such policies are truly “very stupid.”
We are but beauty’s queens in changing room,
With jobs and wealth we wish to with care manage;
But other nations outside wicked loom,
Imprudence lets them in to take advantage.
So we are left to foot the hefty bill,
A bushels worth of debt, our wealth awry;
A leader must on them imposeth will.
And forcibly their privates grab them by.
They laughed at fools that led in days of yore,
But under Trump we will be mocked no more!

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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For further reading: By the Thumbings of a Prick: The Tweets of Donald Trump as Shakespearean Sonnets by AJ Smith

Adventures in Grandiloquence: Laurence Urdang

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you are an avid reader, you have probably come across a few writers who possess a very large vocabulary and pepper their writing with big or fancy words when perhaps simpler words would suffice. So what do you call this use of big words (or what people call “SAT words”)? The best term is lexiphanicism, defined as the use of pretentious phraseology. Another term that word lovers like to use is “sesquipedalian loquaciousness.” That term is made up of two really big, fancy words: sesquipedalian (meaning “having many syllables, or use of long words”) and loquaciousness (meaning “excessive talking”). Of course these terms are technically archaic and, um, sesquipedalian. There are three other words that exists in most dictionaries: grandiloquence (or its adjectival form, grandiloquent), meaning “a lofty, extravagantly colorful, pompous, or bombastic style, manner, or quality especially in language.” The second is magniloquence, defined as the use of ornate, flowery language to convey simple things. Finally, the word fustian is defined as pompous or pretentious writing or speech.

Whether it reflects a genuine high level of erudition or simply showing off (let’s call it verbal pretentiousness), the effect is the same — it has you reaching for the nearest dictionary (which is not necessarily a bad thing — after all, that’s how you expand your vocabulary). Consider that the English language has more than one million words. The average high-school educated English speaker knows about 45,000 words (as high as 60,000 when including proper names and foreign words). David Crystal, a linguist and world-renown expert on the English language, provides these estimates of how many words people know: a person starting school: 500-6,000; a person without a formal education: 35,000; a high-school educated person: 50,000; a college-educated person 50,000 to 75,000. Thus, the grandiloquent speaker or writer is typically using words outside the more commonly used 75,000 words.

Case in point: Laurence Urdang (1927-2008), American lexicographer, editor and author of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966). Over the course of his career, Urdand wrote and edited more than 100 dictionaries. Consequently, he developed an extraordinarily large vocabulary. In the introduction to The New York Times Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused & Mispronounced words, Urdang wrote a paragraph to summarize the book, to display (in a tongue-and-cheek fashion) his impressive vocabulary:

This is not a succedaneum for satisfying the nympholepsy of nullifidians. Rather it is hoped that the haecceity of this enchiridion of arcane and recondite sesquipedalian items will appeal to the oniomania of an eximious Gemeinschaftwhose legerity and sophrosyne, whose Sprachgefühl and orexis will find more than fugacious fulfillment among its felicific pages.

Can you translate this passage to simple English? What is your favorite grandiloquent author and specific passage?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts:  What is the Most Beautiful-Sounding Word in English?
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
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The Most Mispronounced Words
Common Latin Abbreviations
Words Invented by Dickens

What Are the Most Beautiful Words in the English Language?
Favorite Words of Dictionary Editors

Learning Is a Spiral Where Important Themes Are Visited Again and Again

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“For many, learning is a spiral, where important themes are visited again and again throughout life, each time at a deeper, more penetrating level.”

From Teaching From the Heart by Jerold Apps, an American teacher and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written more than 35 books on education as well as rural history and country life. Teaching From the Heart, published in 1996, was written for teachers and students; it promotes learning for the whole person — not only the intellectual aspect, but also the spiritual, emotional, and biological aspects. Apps observation also applies perfectly to reading literature because when we reread the text, we view it through the lens of broader life experience. In a fascinating lecture, Argentine poet and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges noted, “And even for the same reader the same book changes, for the change; we are the river of Heraclitus, who said that the man of yesterday is not the man of today, who will not be the man of tomorrow. We change incessantly, and each reading of a book, each rereading, each memory of that rereading, reinvents the text. The text too is the changing river of Heraclitus.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

How Long is Eternity?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEnduring the coronavirus seems like an eternity, doesn’t it? That recent impression certainly invites the question: how long is eternity? That is to say, if you could measure it using current concepts of time as we know it, how long would eternity be? While philosophers like Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and Boethius have addressed eternity, it turns out several authors have also provided answers to this fascinating question.

The first to address the length of eternity were two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (better known as the Brothers Grimm), German cultural researchers, philologists, and lexicographers, who collected traditional folktales written by other writers or passed down through oral tradition and published them as Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) in 1812; a second volume was published in 1815. All 200 or so stories are found in a collection we recognize today as The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. You are probably familiar with the stories of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few (all of which have been translated into more than 100 languages and have been adapted countless times in literature and cinema — imagine the royalties the Grimm family could have collected!). But what interests us today, in discerning the length of eternity, is a lesser known story — the insightful, charming tale of the Shepherd Boy, originally written by Ludwig Aurbacher (1784-1847), a German teacher and writer, in 1819 titled Das Hirtenbüblein. In this timeless tale, a king summons a precocious shepherd and challenges him to answer three difficult questions. The third question is: “how many seconds of time are there in eternity?” He answers: “In Lower Pomerania [northern Poland, at the southern tip of the Baltic Sea] is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” Brilliant answer! Here is the complete story:

There was once on a time a shepherd boy whose fame spread far and wide because of the wise answers which he gave to every question. The King of the country heard of it likewise, but did not believe it, and sent for the boy. Then he said to him: “If thou canst give me an answer to three questions which I will ask thee, I will look on thee as my own child, and thou shall dwell with me in my royal palace.” The boy said: “What are the three questions?” The King said: “The first is, how many drops of water are there in the ocean?” The shepherd boy answered: “Lord King, if you will have all the rivers on earth dammed up so that not a single drop runs from them into the sea until I have counted it, I will tell you how many drops there are in the sea.” The King said: “The next question is, how many stars are there in the sky?” The shepherd boy said: “Give me a great sheet of white paper,” and then he made so many fine points on it with a pen that they could scarcely be seen, and it was all but impossible to count them; any one who looked at them would have lost his sight. Then he said: “There are as many stars in the sky as there are points on the paper; just count them.” But no one was able to do it. The King said: “The third question is, how many seconds of time are there in eternity.” Then said the shepherd boy: “In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” The King said: “Thou hast answered the three questions like a wise man, and shalt henceforth dwell with me in my royal palace, and I will regard thee as my own child.”

A century later, Irish writer James Joyce tackles the same question in his autobiographical novel, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, published in serialized form in Ezra Pound’s literary magazine, The Egoist, in 1914 and 1915. In the novel, we meet the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, a sensitive, reflective young man, raised as a Catholic in Dublin, Ireland and, naturally, attends Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school. Dedalus begins to question long-established Catholic beliefs and eventually rebels against them. Early in the novel, soon after his first sexual encounter, Dedalus feels guilt over this “first violent sin.” Consequently, he attends a three day spiritual retreat hoping to cleanse his soul. On the second day of the retreat, Fr. Arnall delivers one of his well-known fire-and-brimstone sermons on the consequences of sinning. If you grew up in Catholic schools in the mid-20th century, you know the drill: you will burn in the inferno of Hell — for an eternity. It is here, that speaking through Fr. Arnall, Joyce presents his metaphor, also employing a bird, to describe how long eternity is (you can imagine the impact this searing sermon had on impressionable, insecure young lads):

“What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell forever? Forever! For all eternity! Not for a year or an age but forever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness, and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of air. And imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been carried all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals — at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not even one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time, the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would have scarcely begun.”

Nearly a century later, American author Lois Duncan, best known for her young adult novels, returns to this the metaphor of the bird in describing eternity in her horror novel titled Stranger with My Face, published in 1981. Duncan writes:

“If there were a mile-high mountain of granite, and once every ten thousand years a bird flew past and brushed it with a feather, by the time that the mountain was worn away, a fraction of a second would have passed on the context of Eternity.”

The Irish-Norwegian band, Secret Garden, was also inspired by this image of a dove’s feather marking time. In their song, Dawn of a New Century, from the album of the same name released in 1999, songwriters Petter Skavlan and Rolf Lovland focus on the flight of a white dove:

Our planet floating silently in space
Around it, a white dove flies—
Forever circling
Every one hundred years, the dove’s wing
Gently touches the surface of the earth
The time it would take for the feathered wing
To wear this planet down to nothing
Is eternity
Within eternity, time passes
Within time, there is change
Soon, the wing of the white dove
Will touch our world again
The dawn of a new Century
Time for a new beginning
Now is eternity
At the break of
Dawn of a century
A thousand years
Of joy and tears
We leave behind
Love is our destiny
Celebrate the
Dawn of a century
Let voices ring
Rejoice and sing
Now is the time
Now is eternity
Love is our destiny

So the next time you look up in the sky, and see a bird flying by with a feather in its beak, realize that at that very moment you are living an infinitesimal sliver of eternity. Tempus fugit… make the moment matter.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times
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For further reading: The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (3rd Edition)
A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan

You Should Figure Out a Way to Get Off Facebook

alex atkins bookshelf culture“There are many different kinds of people, and [for] some, the benefits of Facebook are worth the loss of privacy. But to many, like myself, my recommendation is… you should figure out a way to get off Facebook. People think they have a level of privacy they don’t. Why don’t they give me a choice? Let me pay a certain amount, and you’ll keep my data more secure and private than everybody else [who is] handing it to advertisers…”

“Users provide every detail of their life to Facebook and Facebook makes a lot of advertising money off this. The profits are all based on the user’s info, but the users get none of the profits back… Apple [on the other hand] makes its money off of good products, not off of you. As they say, with Facebook, you are the product… I am in the process of leaving Facebook. It’s brought me more negatives than positives. Apple has more secure ways to share things about yourself. I can still deal with old school email and text messages.”

From two interviews that Steve Wozniak, American engineer and Apple co-founder, gave to TMZ (June 2019) and USA Today (April 2018). While Wozniak is criticism of Facebook is focused on privacy issues, there are many other experts warning about other more significant impacts of using Facebook: addiction to social apps (physical and psychological addiction), increased levels of anxiety and depression (that lead to declining mental and physical health, disruption of relationships, loss of sleep, and in severe cases even suicide), and the systemic corrosion of democratic elections (allowing foreign countries to launch hate and misinformation campaigns). Recall the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the focus of the alarming documentary The Great Hack (2019), where data from more than 70 million users was used to manipulate voter behavior. (If you haven’t watch this, it should be required viewing for every FB user: at its conclusions, you will be shocked and really pissed off.) Despite the chorus of criticism and warnings, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is utterly indifferent; in an interview with Vox (April 2018) he responded to the criticism of making money off of users’ personal data: “At Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use. I don’t think at all that that means that we don’t care about people.” [emphasis added] WTF? It would be curious to note how he regulates his children’s use of social media apps.

Are you ready to leave Facebook?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?
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For further reading:

Best Commencement Speeches: Chadwick Boseman

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

On May 12, 2018, a young actor delivered the 150th commencement speech to a capacity crowd of over 20,000 people at Howard University. There was tremendous excitement and anticipation surrounding his appearance since his recent film was one of the highest grossing films that year, earning over $1 billion worldwide at the box office. Little did the graduates know that the actor was not just a hero in films, he was a hero in real life as he courageously and silently was battling colon cancer since 2016. After his death in August 2020, his words of wisdom on that summer day would be even more meaningful to that graduating class — and now the world. Who is this actor? The then 42-year-old American actor Chadwick Boseman, star of Black Panther, two Avengers films, Get On Up, and Marshall. Variety film critic Owne Gleiberman observed, “Boseman was a virtuoso actor who had the rare ability to create a character from the outside in and the inside out [and he] knew how to fuse with a role, etching it in three dimensions… That’s what made him an artist, and a movie star, too. Yet in Black Panther, he also became that rare thing, a culture hero.” Michele and Barack Obama added, “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.” Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, expressed his conflicting emotions: “I feel strange. I am overjoyed — not that I got to know him — but that he lived and in doing so, he taught us how to live fully and how to embrace life through all its opportunities, flaws, and weaknesses. I don’t think he hid from any of those things. He wore them gracefully. His ability to set that example is so touching and that, to me, is what is resonating now. He lived fully. His time wasn’t short. He maximized what he had.”

One of the most quoted passages from the speech is this: “Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.” Here is the full text of Chadwick Boseman’s inspiring commencement speech to the graduates at Howard University:

“It is a great privilege, graduates to address you on your day, a day marking one of the most important accomplishments of your life to date. This is a magical place, a place where the dynamics of positive and negative seem to exist in extremes. I remember walking across this yard on what seemed to be a random day, my head down lost in my own world of issues like many of you do daily. I’m almost at the center of the yard. I raised my head and Muhammad Ali was walking towards me. Time seemed to slow down as his eyes locked on mine and opened wide. He raised his fist to a quintessential guard.

I was game to play along with him, to act as if I was a worthy opponent. What an honor to be challenged by the GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time, for a brief moment. His face was as serious as if I was Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila. His movements were flashes of a past greater than I can imagine. His security let the joke play along for a second before they ushered him away, and I walked away floating like a butterfly. I walked away amused at him, amused at myself, amused at life for this moment that almost no one would ever believe. I walked away light and ready to take on the world. That is the magic of this place. Almost anything can happen here. HU! You know!

Howard University, I was riding here and I heard on the radio, somebody called it Wakanda University. But it has many names, the Mecca, the Hilltop. It only takes one hour, one tour of the physical campus to understand why we call it the Hilltop. Every day is leg day here. That’s why some of you have cars. During my junior and senior years, I lived in a house off campus at Bryant Street. For those of you… That’s right, Bryant Street. For those of you who don’t know what that means, that’s at the bottom of the hill where the incline gets real. Almost every day I would walk the full length of the hill to Fine Arts, where most of my classes were, carrying all of my books, because once you walked that far on foot, you are not walking back home until it’s time to go home for good.

But beyond the physical campus, the Hilltop represents the culmination of the intellectual and spiritual journey you have undergone while you were here. You have been climbing this academic slope for at least three or four years. For some of you, maybe even a little bit more. Throughout ancient times, institutions of learning have been built on top of hills to convey that great struggle is required to achieve degrees of enlightenment. Each of you had your own unique difficulties with the hill. For some of you, the challenge was actually academics. When you hear the words magna cum laude, cum laude, you know that’s not you. That’s not you. You worked hard. You did your best, but you didn’t make A’s or B’s, sometimes C’s. You never made the dean’s list, but that’s okay. You are here on top of the hill.

I want to say something to that. You know, sometimes your grades don’t give a real indication of what your greatness might be. So, it really is okay. For others it was financial. You and your family struggled to make ends meet. Every semester of your matriculation you had to stand in one line to get to another line, to get to another line for somebody that might help you. You had to work an extra job, or two, but you are here.

For a lot of you, not all, but a lot of you, your hardest struggle was social. Some of you never fit in. You were never as cool and as popular as you wanted to be, and it bothers you. So, your social struggles here became psychological. Even though you made it up to hill, you carried the baggage of rejection with you, but you are here.

Some of you went through something traumatic. You made it to the top of the hill but not without scars and bruises. Some of you fit in too much. You were on the yard rapping on your frat block when you were supposed to be in class. Or you got caught up into DC party life. I know how that is. I mean, we are right here in the midst of the city. Sometimes you forgot you were in school. You probably could have graduated with honors, but instead you are getting an “Oh yeah” degree today. Oh yeah, I have class. Oh yeah, I have that paper due. Oh yeah, I have a final. You were literally too cool for school. You waited until the last minute to do your best work and it’s a wonder that you made it up the hill at all because you carry the baggage of too much acceptance.

Most of you graduating here today struggled against one or more of the impediments or obstacles I’ve mentioned in order to reach this hilltop. When completing a long climb, one first experiences dizziness, disorientation and shortness of breath due to the high altitude, but once you become accustomed to the climb, your mind opens up to the tranquility of the triumph.

Oftentimes, the mind is flooded with realizations that were, for some reason, harder to come to when you were at a lower elevation. At this moment, most of you need some realizations because right now you have some big decisions to make. Right now, I urge you in your breath, in your eyes, in your consciousness — invest in the importance of this moment and cherish it. I know some of you might’ve partied last night. You should, you should celebrate, but this moment is also a part of that celebration. So, savor the taste of your triumphs today. Don’t just swallow the moment whole without digesting what has actually happened here. Look down over what you conquered and appreciate what God has brought you through.

Some of you here struggled against the university itself. This year, students protested and took over the A building, formulated a list of demands and negotiated with our president and administration to determine the direction of our institution. It’s impressive. Similarly, during my years here at Howard, we also protested and took over the A building in order to preserve Howard’s alum, in order to preserve Howard’s annual appropriations from Congress. President H. Patrick Swygert decided to reduce the number of colleges at the university. By his plan, engineering would need to merge with architecture. Nursing would merge with allied health and the fine arts, my school, will be absorbed by arts and sciences. That’s how we saw it, absorbed.

For many of us in fine arts, this signaled to us that our curriculums, all the curriculums of students following us, might become watered-down concentrations. This undermined the very legacy we were proud to be a part of and aimed to continue. The fine arts program had produced Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Isaiah Washington, Richard Wesley, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, just to name a few. We felt that… Yes, yes. You could go on and on. You can go on and on. You can go on and on. We felt that we could compete with students from Juilliard, NYU and Carroll Arts as long as we continued to have a concentrated dosage that rivaled a conservatory experience, but without it…

Although we took over the A building for several days and presented our arguments to President Swygert and the administration, the schools were still merged. Thus, the current collection or formation of schools exists. That’s why I view your recent protest as such an accomplishment for both sides of the debate, student and administration. I didn’t come here to take sides. My interest is what’s best for the school.

A Howard University education is not just about what happens in the classroom, students. In some ways, what you were able to do exemplifies some of the skills you learned in the classroom. It takes the education out of the realm of theory and into utility and practice. Obviously, your organizational skills were unprecedented. I’m told that you organized shifts so that you could at least continue some of your classes. We missed all our classes. We were in the A building. I’m told that through donations, there was always an ample helping of food. I probably ate a slice of pizza during the entirety of our three-day protest.

Your organization and planning was impeccable. You received the majority of your demands, making a significant impact on those who came after you. As is often the case, those that follow most often enjoy the results of the progress you gained. You love the university enough to struggle with it. Now, I have to ask you that you have to continue to do that even now that you received your demands. Even if you are walking today, you have to continue to do that. Everything that you fought for was not for yourself. It was for those that come after. You could have been disgruntled and transferred, but you fought to be participants in making this institution the best that it can be. But I must also applaud President Wayne Frederick and the administration for listening to the students.

Your freedom of speech was exercised in a way where you can contribute to this place. It also shows that you can contribute to the democracy. The administration and the campus police at the time when I was protesting were not nearly as open-minded as this current one. I know this was a difficult time, but because of both of you, I believe Howard is a few steps closer to the actualization of its potential, the potential that many of us have dreamed for it. Students, your protests are also promising because many of you will leave Howard and enter systems and institutions that have a history of discrimination and marginalization. The fact that you have struggled with this university that you love is a sign that you can use your education to improve the world that you are entering.

I was on a roll when I entered the system of entertainment, theater, television and film. In my first New York audition for a professional play I landed the lead role. From that play, I got my first agent. From that agent, I got an on-screen audition. It was a soap opera. It wasn’t Third Watch. It was a soap opera on a major network. I scored that role, too. I felt like Mike Tyson when he first came on the scene knocking out opponents in the first round. With this soap opera gig, I was already promised to make six figures, more money than I had ever seen. I was feeling myself. But once I got the first script, with soap operas you very often get the script the night before and then you shoot the whole episode in one day with little to no time to prepare.

Once I saw the role I was playing, I found myself conflicted. The role wasn’t necessarily stereotypical. A young man in his formative years with a violent streak pulled into the allure of gang involvement. That’s somebody’s real story. Never judge the characters you play. That’s what we were always taught. That’s the first rule of acting. Any role played honestly can be empowering, but I was conflicted because this role seemed to be wrapped up in assumptions about us as Black folk. The writing failed to search for specificity. Plus, there was barely a glimpse of positivity or talent in the character, barely a glimpse of hope. I would have to make something out of nothing. I was conflicted. Howard had instilled in me a certain amount of pride and for my taste this role didn’t live up to those standards.

It was just my luck that after filming the first two episodes, execs of the show called me into their offices and told me how happy they were with my performance. They wanted me to be around for a long time. They said if there was anything that I needed, just let them know. That was my opening. I decided to ask them some simple questions about the background of my character, questions that I felt were pertinent to the plot. Question number one: Where is my father? The exec answered, “Well, he left when you were younger.” Of course. Okay. Okay. Question number two: In this script, it alluded to my mother not being equipped to operate as a good parent, so why exactly did my little brother and I have to go into foster care? Matter-of-factly, he said, “Well, of course she is on heroin.”

That could be real, I guess, but I didn’t want to assume that’s what it was. If we are around here assuming that the Black characters in the show are criminals, on drugs and deadbeat parents, then that would probably be stereotypical, wouldn’t it? That word stereotypical lingered. One of the execs pulled out my resume and began studying it. The other exec wore a smile and was now trying to live up to what they had promised me only a few moments before — “If there is anything you need, just let us know.” She said, “As you have seen, things move really fast around here, but we are more than happy to connect you with the writers if you have suggestions.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that would be great.” I said, “because I’m just trying to do my homework on this. I didn’t know if you guys have decided on all the facts, but maybe there are some things we could come up with, some talent or gift that we can build. Maybe he is really good at math or something. He has to be active. I’m doing my best not to play this character like a victim.”

“So, you went to Howard University, huh?” the exec holding my resume interrupted, peeking over the pages. “Yes,” I said proudly. He slid my resume back in his desk and said, “Thank you for your concerns. We will be watching you.”

I left the office. I shot the episode I had come in to shoot on that day. Probably the best one I did out of the three because I got one that was bothering me off my chest. I was let go from that job on the next day. I got a phone call from my agent. They decided to go another way. The questions that I asked set the producers on guard and perhaps paved the way for less stereotypical portrayal for the Black actor that stepped into the role after me.

As the Scripture says, “I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God kept it growing.” God kept it growing. Yet and still, when you invest in a seed, watching it grow without you, that is a bitter pill to swallow, a bitter pill. Anybody that has ever been fired knows what I’m talking about. Even if you really don’t want the job, when they let you go, it’s like any break-up, you act like you don’t care. I didn’t need that damn job anyway. I didn’t need them.

But when you have those moments alone, you start to wonder if there was a better way to handle it. If you could have handled it better maybe you could help your family. Then before you know it, you are broke. You find yourself scraping together change just so you can ride the subway, so that you could get the next job. Maybe if you could book something else that would eclipse the feeling of doubt that’s building, but it seems like you can’t pay them to hire you now.

My agents at the time told me it might be a while before I got a job acting on screen again. Well, that was fine because I never wanted to act in the first place. And I definitely didn’t want to be caught dead going after a fake Hollywood pipe dream. I’m more of a writer, director anyway, so forget their stories. I can tell my own stories. But am I actually blackballed? “We are hesitant about sending you out to some people right now because there is a stigma that you are difficult.” As conflicted as I was before I lost the job, as adamant as I was about the need to speak truth to power, I found myself even more conflicted afterwards. I stand here today knowing that my Howard University education prepared me to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa.

But what do you do when the principle and the standards that were instilled in you here at Howard closed the doors in front of you? Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how need to fight it. At some point, my mind reverted back to my experiences here, to the professors that challenged me and struggled against me, Professor Robert Williams, Doctor Singleton, George Epstein, to name a few, the ones that will fail you out of the goodness of their hearts.

This may be hard to grasp for some of you right now, but I even considered President Swygert and how negotiating with him was practice for a world that was considerably more cruel and unforgiving than any debate here, one that had no interest in my ideals and beliefs. How would I maneuver through all of this?

Finally, I thought of Ali in the middle of the yard in his elder years, drawing from his victories and his losses. At that moment I realized something new about the greatness of Ali and how he carried his crown. I realized that he was transferring something to me on that day. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter in me. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter to me. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter to me. Sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you. God says in Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Graduating class, hear me well on this day. This day, when you have reached the hilltop and you are deciding on next jobs, next steps, careers, further education, you would rather find purpose than a job or career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.

When God has something for you, it doesn’t matter who stands against it. God will move someone that’s holding you back away from the door and put someone there who will open it for you if it’s meant for you. I don’t know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory then you will not regret it.

Now, this is your time. The light of new realizations shines on you today. Howard’s legacy is not wrapped up in the money that you will make but the challenges that you choose to confront. As you commence to your paths, press on with pride and press on with purpose. God bless you. I love you, Howard. Howard forever!”

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What are the Most Beautiful Words in the English Language?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsThe English language is vast, containing more than a million words and growing at a rate of several thousand words each year. However, most English speakers have a vocabulary that is substantially smaller: generally between 20,000 to 35,000. Every once in a while, through reading or conversation, you come across a word that stands out; you think to yourself “that is such a beautiful word.” Many logophiles keep lists of what they consider to be beautiful words. For example, in 1932, to publicize the publication of one of Funk & Wagnalls new dictionaries, founder Wilfred Funk published a list of what he considered, after a “thorough sifting of thousands of words” the ten most beautiful words (in his words, “beautiful in meaning and in the musical arrangement of their letter”) in the English language. (Incidentally, there is a word for that: euphonious — a euphonious word is a beautifully-sounding word; interestingly, euphonious is itself… euphonious.) Here is Funk’s list of the top ten most beautiful words in the English language:


More recently, the editors of BuzzFeed cast their net into the vast ocean of the Twitterverse to find out what people considered the most beautiful words in the English words. They came up with a great list of “32 of the most beautiful words in the English language.” The list should be published with some caveats. One of the words, hiraeth, is actually Welsh. A few are actually neologisms (relatively new words that are in the process of entering common use) and will not be found in traditional dictionaries. Nevertheless, read the list and see how many you know (the definitions will be added in a few days). The challenge is to start using them in conversation and in your writing. If you want a greater challenge: try writing a clever sentence using all 32 words.


What do you consider to be the most beautiful words in the English language?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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The Song Every Parent Should Dedicate to Their Children

alex atkins bookshelf musicWe live in such troubling and tempest-tossed times. Young children, bewildered and scared, look up to their parents, searching for security and solace. As a parent, what can you possibly say? At times like this, there are four magic words that a parent can utter: “I’ll Keep You Safe.”

“I’ll Keep You Safe” is the title of a song written by Ryan O’Neal, founder of the band Sleeping at Last. The song appears on their debut album, Ghosts, released in 2003. The song really touches your heart: it’s beautiful melody and tender lyrics convey the profound feelings and intentions of every parent who wants to instinctively protect his or her child: “I’ll keep you safe… Don’t be afraid/ Our mistakes they were bound to be made/ But I promise you I’ll keep you safe.” The song resonates with parents deeply on its own, but certainly in the context of the coronavirus crisis, its reassuring message takes on deeper meaning. 

Take a moment today and gather your children around you and listen to this song as a family. Say to them: “If I were a songwriter/musician this is the song that I would write for you, to sustain you during dark, difficult times. When you hear it, think of me and know that you are never alone. My love will keep you safe.” The link for the song appears at the end of the lyrics.

“I’ll Keep You Safe” by Ryan O’Neal

I’ll keep you safe
Try hard to concentrate
Hold out your hand
Can you feel the weight of it
The whole world at your fingertips
Don’t be, don’t be afraid
Our mistakes they were bound to be made
But I promise you I’ll keep you safe

You’ll be an architect
So pull up your sleeves
And build a new silhouette
In the skylines up ahead
Don’t be, don’t be afraid
Our mistakes they were bound to be made
But I promise you I’ll keep you safe
I’ll keep you safe

And darkness will be rewritten
Into a work of fiction, you’ll see
As you pull on every ribbon
You’ll find every secret it keeps
The sound of the branches breaking under your feet
The smell of the falling and burning leaves
The bitterness of winter or the sweetness of spring
You are an artist
And your heart is your masterpiece
And I’ll keep it safe

Dismiss the invisible
By giving it shape
Like a clockmaker fixes time
By keeping the gears in line
Don’t be, don’t be afraid
God knows that mistakes will be made
But I promise you I’ll keep you safe

As you build up your collection
Of pearls that you pulled from the deep
A landscape more beautiful
Than anything that I’ve ever seen
The sound of the branches breaking under your feet
The smell of the falling and burning leaves
The bitterness of winter or the sweetness of spring
You are an artist
And your heart is your masterpiece
And I’ll keep it safe

Listen to it here.

Let me know what you think of the song.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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