There’s a Word for That: Psephology

alex atkins bookshelf wordsThere’s a lot of it going around right now. Particularly in an election year. What are we discussing? The troublesome coronavirus? Annoying political ads? Nope. We are discussing psephology, defined as the statistical and sociological analysis of election results and trends. The word, pronounced “see FA la gee,” is derived from the Ancient Greek word psephos, meaning “pebble” because citizens of Ancient Greece used pebbles to cast their votes. By extension, a psephologist is one who studies elections results.

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

Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
There’s a Word for That: Jouissance
There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia
There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
There’s a Word for That: Ultracrepidarian
There’s a Word for That: Cacology

Most Expensive Books Sold in 2019

atkins-bookshelf-booksWhen dedicated bibliophiles want to purchase a book, they generally turn to AbeBooks rather than Amazon Marketplace or eBay. AbeBooks was founded in Victoria, British Columbia, as the Advanced Book Exchange in 1995 by four bibliophiles. The company was acquired by Amazon in 2008. The site lists more than 140 million books from thousands of independent booksellers, many former brick-and-mortar establishments, from more than 50 countries.

Each year, AbeBooks publishes the list of the most expensive rare books sold on the site, providing a glimpse into what books have come onto the market and what bibliophiles are willing to pay for their Holy Grails. Despite how high these numbers are, they pale in comparison to the price that bibliophiles pay for exceptionally rare and valuable books that are only sold at auction or through private broker sales.

(1) The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln (1905) by Abraham Lincoln, $40,000
This is one of 50 copies of a 12 volume set that features engraved portraits, views and maps, photogravures, and facsimile letters.

(2) Harry Potter Series, Deluxe Set by J.K. Rowling, $38,560
Each of the seven volumes in this set is signed by J.K. Rowling. This is the most expensive set of this series ever sold on AbeBooks.

(3) The Maltese Falcon (1930) by Dashiell Hammett, $25,000
A first edition published by Knopf with original dust jacket with tears on the top portion of the spine.

(4) The Writings of Mark Twain (1899-1902) by Mark Twain, $25,000
A set of 25 volumes bound in leather by the American Publishing Company. This is a limited edition, one of 512 (500 were numbered, 12 were lettered and reserved for the author); this is set “B.” Volume 1 is signed by the author.

(5) The Canterbury Tales (1735) by Geoffrey Chaucer – $19,752
This is a facsimile of an early 15th century illuminated manuscript, known as the New Ellesmere Chaucer, found in the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. The facsimile is part of a 1995 deluxe limited edition of 50 published by Huntington Library Press and the Yushodo Company.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Most Expensive American Book
The World’s Most Expensive Book
The Most Expensive Books Sold in 2016
 Most Expensive Books Sold in 2015
The Most Expensive Books Sold in 2014
The Most Expensive Books Sold in 2012

For further reading:

What Are the Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels?

alex atkins bookshelf books“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say,” wrote the brilliant Italian writer Italo Calvino. “The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.” And naturally, that is why students are introduced to the classics in elementary and middle school, and explore them more deeply in high school and college.

Even though all classics have something to say, they are not universally liked by students and readers (we will address this a little later). Moreover, the classics are not always taught in the best possible way. In a thought-provoking essay, On Teaching Literature, Victoria Best, a former lecturer of French literature at Cambridge University, discusses the responsibilities that teaching literature places on both the teacher and the student, as well as the challenges that they face. When Best had an opportunity to teach literature, it was time for a critical assessment of pedagogical approaches to literature: “When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.”

As she carefully examined her interactions with her students, Best came to appreciate how literature challenged students and the many obstacles that students faced in fully engaging with literature. She identifies four major obstacles. The first obstacle is the expression of thoughts and emotions: “At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing.

The second obstacle is the discipline that literature requires: “[Students] bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organize their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument.”

The third obstacle is the ability to think deeply and slowly: “This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.”

The fourth obstacle is narcissism. Indeed, great literature shakes us from our complacency — even more critical today as individuals become more isolated in their digital-device-created bubbles, oblivious to life’s nuanced ebbs and flows. Best continues the discussion: “For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side — forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful — they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.”

Best concludes with an eloquent and inspirational testimony about why it is important to study literature: “This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.”

So let us return to the initial question: what are the classic novels that readers like the most and those that are liked the least? Where can we find that data? Enter Daniel Frank, a public policy expert and attorney, who turned to the rich data at GoodReads generated by hundreds of thousands of readers. Frank developed an algorithm to examine the rankings of the classics dividing them into the highest-ranked (most liked) and the lowest-ranked (most hated). So what did he find? Frank writes: “The data also reveals some interesting cultural trends. The first classic novel is Don Quixote which came out in 1615 but the next, Robinsoe Crusoe didn’t come out for more than 100 years later in 1719. The 1930’s produced significantly fewer classics than the surrounding decades, almost certainly as a result of the Great Depression and World War II. The two authors who produced the most classics are the British pair of Jane Austen with 6 and Charles Dickens with 5, followed by the American pair of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck with 4 each. This reflects the cultural reach of Britain during its empire and the evolution of American cultural hegemony. Just because an author produced a number of classics doesn’t make their books universally loved; Dickens’ books all score mediocre, while Hemingway is hated across the board, and Steinbeck fares poorly beyond East of Eden. Jane Austen is unique as the only author with multiple truly beloved classics.” Here are Frank’s lists of the most liked and the most hated classic novels.

The Most Liked Classic Novels:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
1984 by George Orwell
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kessey
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Phantom Toolbooth by Norton Juster
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Most Hated Classic Novels:
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Moby-Dick, or, the Whale by Herman Melville
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Why Study Literature?
Why Read Dickens?

The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

What is a Classic Book?

For further reading:
Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino
Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature by Joseph Epstein
Dan Frank:

Places You Shouldn’t Visit: Runit Dome

alex atkins bookshelf triviaScattered like pebbles in a massive pond, the Marshall Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean about 2,500 east of Hawaii, consists of 29 atolls (for those who slept through Geography 101, an atoll is a ring-shaped chain of islands formed of coral), containing 1,156 small islands and islets. (The official name of this island country, with a population of 59,000 people, is the Republic of the Marshall Islands; it was never formally adopted as a state, and is therefore considered a “United States associated state.”) One of these coral atolls, is the Enewetak Atoll, consisting of 40 tiny islands and a population of 664 people (known as the Marshallese). As you fly above the atoll, one witnesses some of the bluest seas, punctuated with tiny islands outlined by beautiful white sand beaches; and as you head toward the northern part of the atoll, one comes across something incredibly surreal — what appears to be a massive perfectly round beached alien space ship straight out of some apocalyptic sci-fi movie. WTF is this thing and why is it there? To answer these questions, let us go back in time 70 years to learn about the island that time has largely forgotten.

The Enewetak Atoll has to be one of the most unfortunate places on the planet. First, between 1948 to 1958, the United States conducted 43 nuclear tests on the atoll. In one of the tests, the bomb did not explode properly, scattering small chunks of radioactive plutonium all over the islands. Second, the Enewetak Atoll is located just 215 miles east from the Bikini Atoll, where the United States conducted 23 nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958 at seven test sites — underwater, on the reef, inside the atoll, and in the air — the combined release of energy equivalent of 30 million tons of TNT! Holy crap! (For comparison, the blast from Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, released energy equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. Fat Man produced an explosion equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT.) You can imagine what happened to the island. It is extremely radioactive and is uninhabitable for more than 24,000 years — it makes the Chernobyl nuclear disaster looks like a small grassfire. And guess what else happened? During some of the tests, weather forecasts that predicted that the winds would be blowing away from Enewetak were wrong. Surprise! — all that nuclear fallout blew right into those inhabited islands causing an epidemic of radiation sickness.

So what did the U.S. government do? In typical government fashion, military leaders decided to spend $100 million to do a half-assed job. Of course, the military leaders vastly underestimated the costs of the clean-up: in the end, it cost taxpayers more than $239 million! Over a three year period (1977-1979), the government sent thousands of unsuspecting military members (they were told that they were serving on “an island paradise”) to scrape off top soil and debris from nearby islands and bury all of this material in one of the blast craters on Runit Island. In addition, the soldiers had to bag over 400 radioactive chunks of plutonium without wearing any protective or safety gear. (Recall the horrifying scene in HBO’s Chernobyl when the military sends those unsuspecting cleanup workers to the reactor site where radiation exposure was equivalent to 80,000 to 160,000 chest x-rays.) It is estimated that the crater contains up to 95,000 cubic yards of radioactive debris. The crater was then capped with a massive dome of concrete, known as the Runit Dome (locals call it “The Tomb”) — the alien space ship mentioned earlier in this post. Visually, it is spectacular. Imagine this large, round concrete structure, 377 feet in diameter, made up of 358 concrete panels of slightly different shades of gray, each 18 inches thick. People are forbidden to visit Runit Island, but surprisingly, there are no warning signs or barriers of any kind to discourage trespassing.

The geniuses who designed the contamination container in a “cost-saving” move, did not line the bottom of the crater, which is made of porous coral and sand. So even though the crater was capped with a massive dome of concrete, it has been leaking radioactive debris for decades. Studies have shown that the sediments in the lagoon are more radioactive that the debris contained in the dome. If that isn’t bad enough, the dome has been deteriorating as rising sea levels, due to climate change, are causing radioactive elements to seep into the ocean. Furthermore, experts are concerned that the dome can no longer withstand a typhoon. A typhoon would completely destroy the concrete dome, releasing tons of radioactive elements that will contaminate the Pacific Ocean for thousands of years.

Sadly, many of the soldiers who worked on the Runit Dome have come down with illnesses (cancer, tumors, brittle bones, skin lesions, birth defects, etc.) related to their exposure to radioactive contamination, and consequently facing crippling medical bills. Moreover, many of these soldiers have died at a young age, suffering terrible pain, as a result of radiation poisoning. A declassified cable (1972) from the U.S. government states: “Radiological conditions Runit island… the number of nuclear devices exploded on Runit and subsequent earth and debris moving activities have resulted in a complex radiological situation in which each unit division of island is unique from adjacent islands… Actual surveys have been superficial but have identified the presence of a plutonium bearing sand layer outcropping on the ocean side of the midisland area and the existence of apparently solid plutonium bearing chunks, grains and other particulate on the island surface.”  The government’s response has been to deny the problem by denying that the soldiers’ illnesses are not linked to the work on the island (they deny that it was a nuclear clean up project) and refusing them healthcare and refusing them the medical help they need. Decades later, the soldiers continue to battle for justice.

In the documentary, “This Concrete Dome Holds A Leaking Toxic Time Bomb” Enewetak veteran Ken Kasik, now restricted to a hospital bed due to declining health, makes a powerful statement that evokes the same lessons of the Chernobyl disaster: “There’s nobody trained [for] the [removal of] atomic waste. There’s people trained in the actual making of bombs, testing the bombs, and all like that, but not [for] picking [up the waste from the bomb.] You cannot get rid of this. The island should just be destroyed… America dumped all of their worst rubbish to the Marshallese and abandoned them with it — and we don’t want to hear about it. It’s a disgusting shame and it it makes us look bad.” In many ways, it seems that Runit Dome is America’s Chernobyl, a cold, concrete tomb that continues to haunt its victims psychologically and physically.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Founding Father that Vandalized Shakespeare’s Chair
What are the Most Common Words Used in Songs?
What is the Word for Two Bad Choices?
Why is it Called the Golden Gate? 
Jefferson and Adams Die on Same Day
How Fast is the Earth Moving?
What is the Oldest Object in the World?
What is the World’s Biggest Problem?

Famous People Who Died on the Same Day

For further information: “This Concrete Dome Holds a Leaking Toxic Time Bomb” on YouTube

What is the Most Important Lesson in Life? – Robert Frost

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAt his eightieth birthday celebration, Robert Frost, America’s most famous poet, and winner of four Pulitzer Prizes, was asked: “In all your years and all your travels, what do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned about life?” He paused for just a moment, then replied:

‘’In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on. In all the confusions of today, with all our troubles, with politicians and people slinging the word ‘fear’ around, all of us become discouraged, tempted to say this is the end, the finish. But life — it goes on. It always has. It always will. Don’t forget that.

Just a little while back, at my farm near Ripton, Vermont, I planted a few more trees. You wonder why? Well, I’m like the Chinese of ninety who did the same thing. When they asked him why, he said that the world wasn’t a desert when he came into it and wouldn’t be when he departed. Those trees will keep on growing after I’m gone and after you’re gone.

I don’t hold with people who say, ‘Where do we go from here?’ or ‘What’s the use?’ I wouldn’t get up in the morning if I thought we didn’t have a direction to go in. But if you ask me what the direction is, I can’t answer. It’s different for each of us. The important thing to remember is that there is a direction and a continuity even if so often we think we’re lost. 

Despite our fears and worries — and they’re very real to all of us — life continues… it goes on. Three words above all else. In my eighty years, that I’ve learned.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Greatest Life Lesson: Life is Transitory
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

For further reading: “Robert Frost’s Secret” by Ray Josephs, appearing in This Week magazine, September 1954.

Isaac Asimov: There is a Cult of Ignorance in the United States

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you have watched any of the recent impeachment hearings or the President’s recent State of the Union Address, not to mention general coverage of politics over the past few years, one must sadly arrive at the inescapable conclusion that we are living in a post-truth world, where Truth does not matter, where a belief or opinion — no matter how ill-informed or irrational — has trumped (pun intended) objective facts. In short, we are living in an Orwellian world. Indeed, George Orwell’s dystopian novel (written more than seven decades ago) is a magnifying glass that exposes how language and disinformation is used as a powerful political tool to conceal the truth in order to manipulate the masses. Listen to these notable lines from 1984: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command… In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it… Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness… And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.” It’s eerie isn’t it?

But few know that another influential writer and intellectual would mine this same territory thirty years later — as the actual year 1984 approached. For many years, Newsweek magazine contained a feature titled “My Turn” where a notable individual wrote about any issue that they felt was important. For the January 21, 1980 issue, world-renown science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote a very thought-provoking essay entitled “A Cult of Ignorance” that is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. Interestingly, the essay was never reprinted in any collection of essays — a disservice to what Asimov saw then and is happening now: the rise of anti-intellectualism. So what does anti-intellectualism mean? Anti-intellectualism, according to Richard Hofstadter, professor of American history at Columbia University, public intellectual, and author of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), is defined as “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” In his essay, Asimov argues that there is a cult of anti-intellectualism in America that perpetuates a very flawed concept of democracy: that every person’s opinion, whether ill-informed or well-informed, is considered equal. Stated another way, in a democracy, equality of rights does not necessarily mean equality of knowledge — an opinion formed on the basis of lies does not have the same significance of an opinion based on objective facts. And this is something that politics parties misuse to their advantage: it is in their best interest to disseminate lies, to perpetuate ignorance — indeed, to create a cult of ignorance — to manipulate the masses. And here are some of critical questions: can we ever get back to a world that values Truth? How do we do it? How long will it take?

Here is Asimov’s essay, “A Cult of Ignorance,” for your consideration and discussion:

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, “America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?”

None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school. Thus, Adlai Stevenson, who incautiously allowed intelligence and learning and wit to peep out of his speeches, found the American people flocking to a Presidential candidate who invented a version of the English language that wall all his own and that has been the despair of satirists ever since.

George Wallace, in his speeches, had, as one of his prime targets, the “pointy-headed-professor,” and with what a roar of approval that phrase was always greeted by his pointy-head-audience.

Now we have a new slogan on the part of the obscurantists: “Don’t trust the experts!” Ten years ago, it was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” But the shouters of that slogan found that the inevitable alchemy of the calendar converted them to the untrustworthiness of the over-30, and, apparently, they determined never to make that mistake again. “Don’t trust the experts!” is absolutely safe. Nothing, neither the passing of time nor exposure to information will convert these shouters to experts in any subject that might conceivably be useful.

We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called “elitists.” That’s the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don’t know what an “elitist” is, or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts “Elitist” it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

All right, then, forget my ingenuous question. America’s right to know does not include knowledge of elitist subjects. America’s right to know involves something we might express vaguely as “what’s going on” in the courts, in Congress, in the White House, in industrial councils, in the regulatory agencies, in labor unions — in the seats of the mighty, generally.

Very good. I’m for that, too. But how are you going to let people know all that?

Grant us a free press, and a corps of independent and fearless investigative reporters, comes the cry, and we can be sure that the people will know.

Yes, provided they can read!

To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headlines — but how many non-elitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic?

Moreover, the situation is growing worse. Reading scores in the schools decline steadily. The highway signs, which used to represent elementary misreading lessons (“Go Slo,” “Xroad”) are steadily being replaced by little pictures to make them internationally legible and incidentally to help those who know how to drive a car but, not being pointy-headed professors, can’t read.

Again, in television commercials, there are frequent printed messages. Well, keep your eyes on them and you’ll find out that no advertiser ever believes that anyone but an occasional elitist can read that print. To ensure that more than this mandarin minority gets the message, every word of it is spoken out loud by the announcer.

If that is so, then how have Americans got the right to know? Grant that there are certain publications that make an honest effort to tell the public what they should know, but ask yourselves how many actually read them.

There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent — or less — of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.

What shall we do about it?

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism.”

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like “America’s right to know” and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Again?
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will Be Governed by Idiots
Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic?

For further reading: 1984 by George Orwell
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The Roving Mind by Isaac Asimov
The Tyrannosaurus Prescription and 100 Other Essays by Isaac Asimov

Profile of a Book Lover: Cal Gough

alex atkins bookshelf booksOne of the benefits of writing a blog dedicated to lifelong learners and book lovers is that once in a while you have the opportunity to discover another site that also inspires the joy and benefits of reading. One day I received an email notice that The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog reblogged a unique quotation about reading that I had recently posted. My initial reaction was: this person really knows the realm of quotations about books and reading, because this quotation is extremely rare — in fact, up until the time I posted it, it had never existed on the Internet. (Interestingly, quotations about reading — at least good ones — are very difficult to find on the Web. That topic has not been mined very deeply; consequently, most sites recycle the same tired quotations over and over. It’s disappointing really.) Naturally, being curious, I visited the site and was immediately impressed by this impeccably curated site. Creating a truly fascinating curated site, especially as comprehensive as this — is not an easy endeavor. To achieve this level of quality, one has to review hundreds of sites, and sift through thousands of posts, to find content that is truly relevant and meaningful. Unfortunately, there are many —  perhaps far too many — curated sites that simply recycle the same information (sometimes filled with egregious errors) ad nauseum.

The best way to describe The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog is that it is like an expansive card catalog (remember those?) that every time you open a drawer, you discover that it is filled with fascinating information. You close it and open another drawer, and there is more interesting information. And so on and so forth. There are dozens of categories to delight every type of book lover: books about books, book lists, bookish factoids, bookish quotes, etc. You could spend hours exploring all the bookish nooks and crannies, as it were. So who is the person behind this blog that is a wondrous homage to books? Meet Cal Gough, a retired Atlanta-based librarian who created this comprehensive online resource for bibliophiles — young and old — all around the globe (not just Atlanta!). In an exclusive interview with Atkins Bookshelf, Gough shares his lifelong love of books and reading, and generously shares his successful and fulfilling career as a librarian. His passion and reverence for books and libraries — and the compassionate, patient, and understanding people who work there — is insightful and inspiring.

What was the first book you read as a child that inspired your love of books? What were the types of books you enjoyed growing up?

My parents seldom read to me as a child; however, some of the teachers in elementary school read to their classes of fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-graders after lunch most days. So it was those teachers, rather than my parents, who introduced me to books like Johnny Remain and The Secret Garden. The earliest book I remember checking out of the school library myself and loving was a sea adventure story featuring a young boy that was entitled Call It Courage– although it was probably the woodcuts in that book that fascinated me more than the inspiring story. In high school, I read – almost exclusively – a lot of science fiction, and got hold of my SF books by joining a mail-order book club. I was especially entranced by books by A.E. van Vogt. The other book-related experiences that I remember as a young person were my weekly walks to and from the nearest public library. At some point I convinced the librarian there to allow me into the adult section. I think it might’ve been the summer before my first or second year of high school that I discovered – and read! – Marx’s Das Capitaland Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams– because I wanted to find out why they were so revered – or disparaged – by so many people.

When did you have your epiphany to become a librarian?

Not until I was mid-way through my introductory course in library school! I had enrolled in Emory’s graduate librarianship program mainly because I wanted to quit the job I had at the time, working in the state government’s administrative offices that coordinated community mental health centers. Having been warned never to quit a job without having another one, and not knowing what I wanted to do next (other than get out of mental health services administration), I decided to take a year off working and get a graduate degree while I figured out how to earn a living in a field I could enjoy. I never imagined wanting to work in a library; at the time I only knew that (a) Emory offered a graduate degree that I could obtain in a year’s time, (b) Emory had found a semi-obscure scholarship that I qualified for that would pay for some of this graduate education, and (c) I figured that, if nothing else, library school would teach me how to find out how to solve all sorts of intellectual puzzles or practical problems that were sure to come up in anyone’s life at some point. What I didn’t count on was falling in love with librarianship. I had excellent instructors and I found very congenial to my idealistic, social-change-seeking temperament the “missionary zeal” aspects that working in a public library offered. Later on, many of my coworkers in the library system where I worked, as well as many of the colleagues who I met through my participation in the American Library Association, told me they thought I would be happier working in a college or university library, but I think I made the right choice in deciding which branch of library work to prepare myself for.

Tell us about your undergraduate education. What classes did you enjoy? What was your major?

I double-majored in Philosophy and Psychology (and minored in the History of Christianity) at Mercer University, a small liberal arts college in Macon, Georgia. This was in the late-1960s: an exciting time to be a college student because it was going on in the country during those years. My time at Mercer were definitely the most stimulating and formative four years of my life, and it was during my senior year there that I got married. There is hardly a day that goes by that I don’t have some flashback about something I learned, something I learned to care about,  or someone I met at Mercer who made a big impact on how I looked at the world; certainly my values and idealism and expectations for myself were forged there.

After college, where did you work?

After graduation (and a celebratory summer trip to Europe), my wife and I moved to Atlanta to find jobs. After several mortifying interviews with various corporate firms (trying to land a job that somehow involved writing), I decided – out of desperation to start earning money and because there was no corporate dress code! – to take a job as an attendant on the night shift in a regional mental hospital operated by Georgia’s state government. From there I worked my way up the career ladder there in that hospital’s alcohol and drug addiction treatment unit. Eventually, I was hired as the hospital’s Public Information Officer, then took a promotion in the state government’s community mental health coordination office. It was while working in that job that I decided to get out of the mental health treatment biz and escaped into grad school at Emory. Incidentally, my years of working directly and indirectly with mentally ill people was great training for my years working at the service desk of an urban public library: my career as a librarian coincided with the epidemic of urban homelessness in this country, and many homeless people suffer from mental problems and a lot of them use public libraries. I always felt less intimidated by, and perhaps occasionally more useful to, our library’s homeless users than the people I worked with who hadn’t had much exposure to mentally ill people.

Tell us about your career at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. What were some of your specific duties and roles? What did you enjoy the most? What did you enjoy the least? Some of the exhibits you were proudest of?

I spent my entire library career with AFPLS. My first job there was a several-years stint in the library system’s extremely stimulating/stressful and wildly unpredictable Telephone Reference Department. My supervisor was an unusually talented librarian and I learned a great deal from her in terms of honing efficient ready reference skills (our goal was to answer questions received over the phone – these were pre-Internet days – within 10 minutes). From there, I was hired into the Central Library’s Arts/Humanities Department, then later was transferred into the Sciences, Business & Government Department. In both departments, I was responsible for building specific collections as well as working at those departments’ reference desks. My favorite experiences during those years were very different from each other. On the one hand, I very much enjoyed writing research guides on various often-asked-about subjects, or writing reference desk policy and procedure manuals; I also very much enjoyed becoming an expert in some field I knew little about and buying books that would strengthen the Central Library’s collections in those areas. My collection-building abilities got noticed by the person then in charge of the system’s Collection Development Unit, and she eventually recruited me to coordinate adult collections system-wide. That era – before a reorganization of the library’s administration resulted in many of us working at Central being “exiled” to branch libraries located all over our 85-mile-long county – was my favorite time working at AFPLS. Besides training approximately 100 selectors located throughout the system in how to better and more responsibly select materials for the adult readers in their communities, I published a monthly newsletter for those selectors and completed several intensive collection-building projects or useful tools for selectors. (One of my favorite projects was a catalog of the differences among the various travel guide series published by English-language publishers.) All through those years, and afterwards when I worked at two different branch libraries (either as manager or assistant manager or acting manager), I continued to undertake specific collection-building projects. Some of my favorites were creating selection lists (and/or making purchases) for classics in science, classics in nature writing, science fiction classics, film classics for branch’s DVD collections, classics in various music genres for a branch’s music CD collection, expanding a branch’s collection of home décor books, and improving the GLBTQ+ collection housed at one of the branches I worked in. My love of creating library exhibits started early in my career, and I enjoyed doing those frequently up until I retired. While working at Central (even when I was working in the system’s Collection Management Unit there), I put together a lot of exhibits in the Central Library’s lobby, the most extensive being an exhibit marking the centennial of Oscar Wilde’s trial. While I remember doing annual book displays for National Gay & Lesbian History Month, probably my single most favorite exhibits in Central’s lobby were the ones about the joys of reading and about the history of tea!

What are some of your fondest memories of working there?

The first two-thirds of my 30-year career at AFPLS was mostly very positive. I was lucky to have numerous supervisors I respected, daily duties I enjoyed, and long-term collection-building projects that were exciting. Even when my career path was aborted during a horrific era in the library’s history that resulted in a five-year-long federal race discrimination lawsuit against library administrators, library trustees, and county government enablers involved in that discrimination, my involuntary exile from the Central Library to one of its 33 branch libraries – luckily, to the branch that just happened to be the one serving the neighborhood I live in – turned out to be productive and interesting, despite the appalling circumstances the entire library system was embroiled in at the time, and for so long a time afterwards. Equally interesting in a different way was a later (also unsought) transfer to another branch library when its manager retired. I was very fortunate to work under talented supervisors for most of my career (there were a few awful exceptions, but only a few), and I was working among many  intelligent, competent, and committed colleagues. I would have probably continued working for several more years if I’d believed the library system could have fully recovered from the aftermath of the catastrophe that overtook it midway through my career there.  

When did you retire?

Almost seven years ago, in March 2013.  I haven’t missed the daily wage-earner grind one bit, although I do miss my frequent interactions with certain colleagues (most of whom are now also retired). It was gratifying to know that most days I was helping connect certain library users with materials they wanted or needed. An example of what I don’t miss: the chronic problems resulting from so many homeless people using libraries for safety and shelter. I also miss the opportunity to create book displays and opportunities to improve library collections.

As an Emory alumni, you have borrowing privileges at Emory University’s graduate library. Tell us about what impresses you about that library and its collection.

I’ve been a patron of Emory’s graduate library ever since I discovered some of its treasures while I was a librarianship student at Emory in 1979. Because of my unusual reading interests, I find more of the books I want to read at Emory’s library than in the collections of the two county library systems I have borrowing privileges with. I love the fact that you can renew a book from Emory’s library as many times as you want (providing no one else has asked for it). For books on my (alas, way-too-long) list of books I hope to read that Emory’s graduate library doesn’t own (and especially for the relatively obscure novels I hope to read), I order them through my public library’s Interlibrary Loan service (which I can access online) and I pick up those books at, and return them to, one of the three public library branches near me.

What philosophy (or quotation or proverb) has guided you throughout your life?

“Everything in moderation” is probably the single most useful precept I’ve used to make many of my decisions. As a philosophy lover and an idealist, I’d like to believe that I can think my way out of any challenge confronting me, or reason my way through any decision I need to make, or eventually understand the larger scheme of how the universe (and the Earthlings in it) operate, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve begun to wonder whether people’s behavior, including mine, is more often than not dictated bytemperamentrather than by beliefs or a belief system. My recent study of the Enneagram (a personality-typing system I’ve long been fascinated by) seems to be confirming this notion that my rational thoughts are often rationalizations or are stories I tell myself to justify certain default thought-patterns or reactions or attitudes that were set a long time ago

Over the course of your career, what are some of the biggest changes you have seen in libraries (their evolution; their use by students, by educators, researchers; interesting technological innovations)?

The invention of the Internet – and the use of it by librarians and library users alike – is, to my mind, the most far-reaching technological change in both providing and accessing library services that’s occurred during my lifetime. I still believe, however, that the single most valuable thing about public libraries today is something that’s always been true in this country: they are open to everyone and you aren’t expected to fork over money to be there or to borrow its materials or resources. The perennial weakness of most public libraries is that they are too small or insufficiently funded to accommodate large collections; most branch libraries are forced to keep on hand only the most likely-to-be-popular materials – which often means what’s been most recently published – despite whatever perennial wisdom or practical information might be contained in a not-recently-published, infrequently-asked-for, or under-marketed item. That’s why I think Interlibrary Loan – whenever and as long as users can use it free of charge – is the single most useful service offered by public libraries. The strength of most collegelibraries is that the pressure to discard infrequently-asked-for items is not so great, because their buildings (or off-campus storage units) are so much larger than the space available to public libraries.

What is one of your most serendipitous discoveries in the libraries collections (finding a fascinating book that you never knew existed)?

Gosh, there’ve been so many! One I remember well is coming across a book one day when I was shelving a cartful of books at the last branch library where I worked. It was a short but absolutely riveting book by Eugene C. Harter entitled The Lost Colony of the Confederacy, about the thousands of southerners who left the United States after the U.S. Civil War and migrated to Brazil in an attempt to re-establish their pre-war “way of life” there. And who knew that Jimmy Carter (in 1972, when he was Georgia’s governor) visited the remains of the colony and made a speech there to the colony’s descendants?

In the digital age, where so much information is available at an individual’s fingertips, why are librarians still relevant, still important?

Libraries are the only non-commercial institutions promoting literacy and reading as both an educational and leisure activity, and encouraging and enabling independentcasual or serious research, and that provide such a wide range of (free, portable) how-to information – whether that information takes the form of a self-help book that you don’t need a machine to read, a cookbook that you don’t need a machine to read, or a printed, easy-to-consult book on how to file for a divorce without hiring a lawyer. Public libraries also make available (usually free of charge) meeting spaces for community groups, including informal interest groups (like book clubs or, say, stamp collectors’ clubs). Public libraries remain relatively safe havens for kids, with staff members paid to supplement (or replace) the efforts of busy parents to teach very young children how to read and/or to regularly entertain kids by telling aloud stories from books. Public libraries pay employees to help people find whatever information – from tax forms to family tree resources – that they’re looking for or wondering about, and without regard to the social status of the person seeking that help. And some librarians can help citizens deal with or sort through the firehose of data and misinformation that the Internet can overwhelm an Internet user with, and/or provide a curious individual with a less-unwieldy starting point for learning about something that the Internet usually does not offer.

What do you think libraries will be like in 50 years?

I have no idea. Public libraries have weathered many previous social upheavals and evolving social structures, and I suspect they’ll continue to do so. My biggest worry is that government or academic bureaucrats will continue their periodic, short-sighted efforts to privatize, outsource, or under-fund library collections and/or services. So far, attempts to do that have been resisted by library users, sometimes successfully.

What books (reference or otherwise) should every household have?

In my opinion, most reference books – especially ones containing lists, statistics, or indexable factoids, are ideal candidates, from both a financial and a practical viewpoint, for converting to online databases. The problem is that a machine (a computer) is required to use a database, and database owners often charge a fee to use them. Hence the vital role of the library in setting aside funds to license those databases for the benefit of the library’s users. Because reference books must be constantly repurchased if they are to contain the most recently-available information, I don’t advise buying any of them for personal, in-home use – assuming you have convenient access to a public library system – especially one with a good telephone (or online) reference service. The only printed “reference book” I would hate to do without myself would be the always-reliable Joy of Cooking – not to imply that cookery is a hobby of mine, as it isn’t.

Being well-educated and being well-read are too different things. If you had to recommend a few books that college students should read, according to your experience, what 3-5 books should be on that list?

I’m not an educator so don’t feel qualified to answer this. I do suspect that college-age people are not very receptive to reading anything very important, especially anything very long. With the acknowledgement that I am probably an iconoclastic reader (and rebel) I do wish that I had read a lot earlier than I did such not-short-but definitely life-changing books like A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn or From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Presentby Jacques Barzun, or Doubt: A Historyby Jennifer Michael Hecht.

What is the most cherished book you own and tell us the story behind that selection?

It is maddening (and possibly misleading) to name only one most-cherished book, as what’s going on in one’s life when one stumbles upon a particular book can lend that book its special importance. Look Homeward, Angelby Thomas Wolfe was a book an early mentor of mine in high school gave me to read when I was 17. Reading it was enthralling, probably because my mentor assured me that I resembled its main character, and because 17 is probably the ideal age anyoneshould read Look Homeward, Angel. The role in my adolescent life of that mentor (which was to morph into a life-long friendship that ended only when she died two years ago) infused Look Homeward, Angelwith an aura and an importance that’s unique among the other books I own (including others I also cherish for different reasons).

How many books are in your collection?

Until you asked, I’d never counted them! To my surprise, I own approximately 1,250 books. For as avid a reader as I am, that’s probably an extremely modest-sized personal library, especially since I’m a homeowner rather than an apartment-dweller. On the other hand, my library career enabled several decades worth of borrowingfrom librariesmost of the books I’ve read; the books I own I either want to have around to (theoretically) re-read, or to (theoretically) loan out to friends. About half my books are stored in floor-to-ceiling bookcases that dominate my living room; the hundreds of tiny knickknacks I also keep in those bookcases results in the other half of my personal library overflowing into other rooms: my guest room houses four completely filled large bookcases, and I’ve crammed my 65 (neglected) cookbooks into shelves in my kitchen. Given my lifelong reading habits – and this is not something I am not proud of – most of my books are nonfiction. The largest subject-specific nonfiction collections are 140 interior decoration books, a nearly-equal number of books about gardening, 90 books about my favorite places to travel (most of them about England, Italy, Provence, or Greece), those 65 (mostly neglected) cookbooks, 40 books about calligraphy (along with gardening, one of my hobbies), and books by and about Virginia Woolf (or her circle) or by and about Oscar Wilde.

What are some of the notable bookstores in Atlanta? What are some of your favorite places and why?

Unlike, say, even many small towns in the New England states, Atlanta is not known for its excellent or venerable bookstores. Atlanta’s largest and best-curated bookstore (Oxford Books) went out of business decades ago. The city still has a few independently-owned bookstores, but they are relatively small; the numerous big-box Barnes & Nobles are the easiest to find – despite how difficult it can be to browse in them, to find anything in particular in any of them, or to locate a staff member who is knowledgeable enough about his/her store’s stock to help you. (Thank goodness for Atlanta’s libraries – especially for me, since current bestsellers, especially the fiction bestsellers, are the leastlikely category of books I want to read.) If I wasn’t able to rely so heavily on Interlibrary Loan, I’d probably be a more frequent customer of Atlanta Vintage Books, which I like because of the sheer size of its (mostly used) book collection, the old-fashioned atmosphere created by its labyrinthine layout, and its friendly and knowledgeable staff.

What was one of your most serendipitous book finds in a bookstore?

I happen to love books about language and books about the history of typography. A book along those lines I’d never have found without browsing at the local Half-Price Books bookstore near me was Michael Rosen’s Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story. Ditto an even more recent browsing-based find at Half-Price Books: ABC Et Cetera: The Life & Times of the Roman Alphabetby Alexander and Nicholas Humez.

Your blog, The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog, is an incredible resource for booklovers — a true labor of love. Would it be correct to call it a carefully curated site? Tell us about your inspiration for your blog. When did you start it? About how many separate entries exist on that site?

I started the blog ten years ago, back when I was still working as a librarian, as yet another way to connect my branch library’s frequent users with the treasures of the library system and to celebrate the joys of reading. After I retired, I realized I still wanted some sort of platform to share with others not only the joys of the reading life, but various book-related tools or factoids I was reading about on the Internet. So I continued posting to the Atlanta Booklover’s Blog. (I’d included the “Atlanta” part of the blog’s name when I hoped it might eventually become part of the library system’s website, but that never happened.)  Since starting the blog in 2009,I’ve managed to post over 800 items in 70 categories – mostly links to articles or images I’ve gleaned from the book-related blogs that I list in the blog’s blogroll; I also post links to articles and images I notice from the websites I follow via Facebook. What I post at the Booklover’s Blog is just about anything I think a “bookish” person like myself might be interested in being alerted to or amused by. What I don’t post are notices about or reviews of particular books. (There are plenty of Internet sites that review new books – and even a few, thank goodness, that review non-newbooks.) I also maintain at the Booklover’s Blog several Internet-based resources for avid readers: a “booklover’s toolkit,” which is essentially an index of Internet hyperlinks based on a list of such sites that I compiled during my days as a library collection development specialist; a separate set of links to book-related images; a collection of quotations about books, libraries, and reading and readers; and a list of fiction and nonfiction “books about books.” Keeping my blogroll and these other semi-permanent resources up to date is the most challenging task connected with the blog. And I am woefully behind what I hoped would be a weekly posting to the blog of recent or semi-recent “news” or articles of interest to booklovers. (At the moment I’ve got a backlog of at least 50 items I’ve seen on Facebook that are waiting for me to review for possible posting at the Booklover’s Blog.) According to my blog software’s statistics, my most-often-used category is, by far, “The Reading Life.” In second place, and in approximately equal numbers, are items I’ve indexed as “Books vs. Screens,” “Home Libraries,” “Bookish Humor,” “Bookcases,” “Bookstores,” “Bookshelves,” “Public Libraries,” “Booklists,” “[Newly-Discovered] Tools for Booklovers,” and “[Newly-Discovered] Bookish Quotations.”

As you have collected all this information, what factoids, quotations, or new insights have been the most notable or memorable for you?

I’ve been surprised to see, over the years, how support for public libraries remains persistent and widespread, despite the periodic predatory schemes of government funders at all levels. Probably the most unnerving information I’ve gleaned over the years have been the calculations various people have made to determine how many – i.e., how dishearteningly few– books it is possible for a typical human to read in a lifetime: the “Too Many Books, Too Little Time” dilemma facing all booklovers.

What is a disappointment or frustration working on the Atlanta Booklover’s Blog?

The fact that not more people know about it, decide to follow it, or write comments. I’ll probably continue my “evangelizing” regardless, but I certainly envisioned the project would be more interactive than it’s turned out to be so far.My hunch is that having the word “Atlanta” in the name of my blog prevents some potential readers (anyone who doesn’t live in Atlanta) from investigating it. Nevertheless, I really appreciate bloggers who include The Atlanta Booklover’s Blog on their own blogs’ blogrolls. Meanwhile, I still get a kick out of ferreting out and posting links to articles and images I think booklovers like myself might enjoy along with whatever book(s) they happen to be reading at the moment.

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

Read related posts: Words for Book Lovers
The Most Amazing Private Library in the World
Profile of a Book Lover: Gary Hoover
Profile of a Book Lover: William Gladstone
Profile of a Book Lover: Rebecca Goldstein
Profile of a Book Lover: Sylvester Stallone
Confessions of a Book Scout: Old Bookstore Have Been the Hunting Grounds of My Life
Confessions of a Bibliophile: J. Kevin Graffagnino
The Man Who Launched 75,000 Libraries

%d bloggers like this: