There’s a Word for That: Zemblanity

alex atkins bookshelf wordsNo doubt, you’ve heard of the word, “serendipity.” It’s a wonderful word — both in sound and meaning. The word means “finding something valuable or interesting by chance” or “a fortunate or unexpected discovery by accident.” The word was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 in a letter to his friend Horace Mann. In the letter, Walpole references the characters from a Persian fairy tale titled “The Three Princes of Serendip”: “[The princes were] always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” Richard Boyle, a Sri Lankan English consultant of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), argues that the definition of serendipity as “simple accidental discovery” is a watered-down definition of the word. Boyle writes: “Even the OED definition, ‘the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident,’ does not meet Walpole’s prescription of a gift for discovery by accident and sagacity [good judgment] while in pursuit of something else. These ingredients are cumulative and all should be mentioned in the ideal dictionary definition.” [emphasis added]

Zemblanity, on the other hand, is the antonym of serendipity. The definition of zemblanity is making unhappy, unlucky and unexpected discoveries by intent rather than by chance. The word was coined by William Boyd in his novel Armadillo published in 1998. The word is derived from Nova Zembla (meaning “new land”), a frigid, barren land; specifically an archipelago of islands once used for nuclear testing by the Russians. Incidentally, the word is pronounced “zem BLA ni tee.” Here is Boyd’s introduction of the word: “So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.”

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

For further reading:

Books Should be a Window to and a Mirror of the World

alex atkins bookshelf booksWhat’s so important about kids’ books — they can be windows to introduce them to the world, but they also need to see a reflection. They should be a window and a mirror… [For me, libraries have] been sanctuaries, a place I can go to discover.”

Carla Hayden, American librarian and the 14th Librarian of Congress, discussing the importance of books in an interview with Time magazine (September 26, 2016). Hayden, the first African American and first woman to hold that distinguished post, oversees more than 162 million items, filling more than 838 miles of bookshelves, in the extensive collection of the Library of Congress, considered the largest library in the world. That number includes more than 32 million books and print materials as well as more than 61 million manuscripts — in more than 450 languages. The library receives about 15,000 new items each day.

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: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
Types of Book Readers
Signs at an Indie Bookstore: Why Not Try a Book?
Serendipitous Discoveries in Used Bookstores
How Indie Bookstores are Thriving
Bookstores are Full of Stories
Who Will Save Our Bookstores?
The Sections of a Bookstore

Famous Misquotations: We Cannot Live Only for Ourselves

atkins bookshelf quotations

On website after website you find this quotation attributed to American novelist Herman Melville, who famously wrote the Great American novel Moby-Dick (1851): “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow-men; and along those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” And depending on what website you are on, the “sympathetic threads” may appear as ” invisible threads” or “sympathetic fibers.” Regardless of the precise phrasing, the only problem with this quotation is that (1) it has been altered from the original; and (2) Herman Melville never wrote this.

When we turn to the original source text, we find that the individual who wrote this had a similar name — Henry Melvill. Reverend Henry Melvill (1798-1871), no relation, was a famous Anglican preacher known for his very eloquent and periphrastic sermons. He was considered the most popular preacher in London drawing very large devoted crowds. Besides his eloquence, Melvill was known for his distinctive style: speaking very rapidly. The editor to his sermons, Rev. C. P. McIlvaine writes: “Melvill delivers his discourses as a war-horse rushes to the charge. He literally runs, till, for want of breath he can do so no longer. His involuntary pauses are as convenient to his audience as essential to himself. Then it is, that an equally breathless audience, betraying the most convincing signs of having forgotten to breathe, commence their preparation for the next outset with a degree of unanimity and of business-like effort of adjustment, which can hardly fail of disturbing, a little, a stranger’s gravity,”

But we digress. Let us return to the actual quotation which is: “Ye live not for yourselves; ye cannot live for yourselves ; a thousand fibres connect you with your fellow-men, and along those fibres, as along sympathetic threads, run your actions as causes, and return to you as effects.” It is taken from the sermon on the impact of evil deeds entitled “Partaking in Other Men’s Sins” that Melvill delivered on June 12, 1855 at St. Margeret’s Church in London, England. The sermon was published in a collection of his sermons, Melvill’s Golden Lectures for 1855.

Interestingly, Herman Meville (1819-1891) visited London in 1849 and made a point to listen to one of Melvill’s sermons that made quite an impression. In his journal entry for December 16, 1849, Melville wrote: “This morning breakfasted at 10, at the Hotel de Sabloneire (very nice cheap little snuggery being closed on Sundays)  Had a ‘sweet ommelette’ which was delicious. Thence walked to St. Thomas’s Church, Charter House, Goswell Street, to hear my famed namesake (almost) ‘The Reverend H Melvill.’  I had seen him placarded as to deliver a Charity Sermon. The church was crowded–the sermon was admirable (granting the Rev. gentleman’s premises). Indeed he deserves his reputation. I do not think that I hardly ever heard so good a discourse before–that is from an “orthodox” divine.” Despite the impression that Melvill made on Melville, he was not the inspiration for Fr. Mapple that appears in Moby-Dick. According to Melville scholars, Fr. Mapple was based on three individuals: Father E. T. Taylor, Enoch Mudge, and another Methodist minister who preached at Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

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

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: Sermons by Henry Melvill, B.D. edited by the Right Rev. C. Pm McIlvaine, D.D. (1838)


A Book is Not Only a Friend, It Makes Friends for You

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.”

From The Books In My Life (1969) by American author Henry Miller (1891-1980), best known for hissemi-autobiographical novels — which delight adolescents for their explicit language and very detailed sex scenes — Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). These three books had to be smuggled into the United States, where they were banned on the basis of obscenity and pornography. Nevertheless, these books truly made Miller many friends. Moreover, the books made a huge impact on the new Beat Generation of writers, like Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). Reflecting on Miller’s legacy on the centenary of his birth, Ralph Sipper of the Los Angeles Times notes, “Miller’s revolution, though, was not a political one. It was the wedding of his life and his art. Actual and imagined experiences became indistinguishable from each other. ‘I am the hero and the book is myself,’ he says in Tropic of Cancer. In the hands of a less-gifted writer, such blurring of narrative voice invites disaster. Miller pulls it off seamlessly. Exactly how is not so easy to describe. His fictional persona is many things–graphically erotic, elliptically surrealistic, unevenly anarchistic, combatively philosophical, abidingly romantic, downright funny–and always deeply felt. He resoundingly deplores patriotism, modern medicine, financial responsibility and organized religion, presaging emulation by such latter-day iconoclasts as Norman Mailer and Lenny Bruce… Like Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau, two authors whose work he loved, Henry Miller sang his own song, marched to his own gait. Like those noble literary dissenters, he remains an American original.”

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: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
Types of Book Readers
Signs at an Indie Bookstore: Why Not Try a Book?
Serendipitous Discoveries in Used Bookstores
How Indie Bookstores are Thriving
Bookstores are Full of Stories
Who Will Save Our Bookstores?
The Sections of a Bookstore

For further reading: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
The Books in My Life by Henry Miller

What is the Reid Technique?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you watched Netflix’s gripping true-crime series When They See Us (2019), you have seen the Reid Technique in action — and to borrow a line from Holden Caulfied, it makes you want to puke. In the film, we witness detectives, who are feeling pressure from the public to find the rapist(s) of the Central Park jogger as well as pressure from an overzealous prosecutor, implement the Reid technique of interrogation to coerce false confessions from five very scared and innocent teenagers. Recall, that during our school-age years, we learned about Blackstone’s ratio, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer,” that first appeared in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1760) written by the brilliant British jurist William Blackstone. Almost a century later, that idea was echoed by Benjamin Franklin who expressed it more dramatically: “It is better 100 guilty Persons should escape than that one innocent Person should suffer.” And as young students we were naive enough to believe that this fundamental belief in criminal law was sacrosanct. Sadly — it is not; for justice in the hands of imperfect human beings is just that — imperfect. In the case of the Central Park Five, the prosecutor and the detectives wiped their derrières with the Miranda Rights and Blackstone’s ratio and flushed it down the toilet, and then washed their hands of the whole stinking mess. 

“So what exactly is the Reid Technique?” you ask. The Reid Technique was developed by consultant and polygraph expert John E. Reid and is used by many law-enforcement agencies in the United States. According to their website “The Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation,® [is] widely recognized as the most effective means available to exonerate the innocent and identify the guilty. Our specialized interrogation training seminars are designed for law enforcement and government investigators, corporate security and loss prevention professionals.” Journalist Douglass Starr, in an article about the Reid technique for The New Yorker described its ubiquity and tremendous impact on law enforcement: “Today, John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., trains more interrogators than any other company in the world. Reid’s clients include police forces, private security companies, the military, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and the Secret Service—almost anyone whose job involves extracting the truth from those who are often unwilling to provide it. The company’s interview method, called the Reid Technique, has influenced nearly every aspect of modern police interrogations, from the setup of the interview room to the behavior of detectives. The company says that the people it trains get suspects to confess eighty per cent of the time.”

Specifically, the Reid Technique consists of a three phases: (1) Fact analysis (learning the facts of the case), (2) Behavior analysis interview (determining if the suspect is lying), and (3) the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation (the specific steps are delineated here.) Frequently interrogators begin by isolating the subject (eg, placing him or her in a small, windowless room) and immediately coercing the subject to waive his or her Miranda rights (the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney) through false promises, lies, or threats. The interrogator begins with the presumption of guilt (stating that the subject committed the crime) and proceeds with an interrogation, which is more of an accusatory process than a Q&A, and adopting the familiar personas of the “good cop/bad cop routine”, designed to elicit a confession. The interrogator presents various narratives (whether true or not) about means, motive, and opportunity. Depending on how the subject responds, the narratives are altered to drill down on the relevant facts of the crime. Over many hours or days, the interrogator eventually wears down the isolated subject who will ultimately fabricate a story to appease his relentless interrogators; in short, the subject confesses to the crime. Game over.

Although the Reid Technique is a valuable tool for law enforcement that leads to many justifiable confessions and convictions, it is not without controversy. The blatant false confessions of the Central Park Five is an obvious case in point. In several criminology publications, critics point out that the Reid technique can result in false confessions, especially when used with children, non-native individuals who speak English as a second-language, and individuals with mental disabilities. In fact, several European countries prohibit lying to suspects (especially young suspects) about evidence since it can lead to false confessions and wrongful convictions.

In a thorough and fascinating article on how police interrogation works, Julia Layton explores in detail the controversy of the Reid technique. Layton believes the interrogation is not at all fair. First, it is a guilt-presumptive process. A detective, in a headlong pursuit to obtain a confession, can consciously or unconsciously, ignore any evidence of innocence. Second, implementing the Reid technique can be very similar to brainwashing. Layton writes: “[A] lot of the human rights concerns surrounding police interrogation have to do with the fact that psychological interrogation techniques bear an uncanny resemblance to “brainwashing” techniques. The interrogator is attempting to influence the suspect without the suspect’s consent, which is considered an unethical use of psychological tactics. A lot of the techniques used to cause discomfort, confusion and insecurity in the brainwashing process are similar to those used in interrogation: (1) Invading a suspect’s personal space; (2) Not allowing the suspect to speak; (3) Using contrasting alternatives; (4) Positioning confession as a means of escape.”

In the film, we witness how the detectives do everything they can to increase each suspects’ level of stress: isolation from one another and their parents, depriving them of food and water, depriving them of sleep, physical and verbal abuse, threats, etc. All of this causes the subjects to break down emotionally, cognitively, and physically. Layton continues:” The more stress a suspect experiences, the less likely he is to think critically and independently, making him far more susceptible to suggestion. This is even more true when the suspect is a minor or is mentally ill, because he may be poorly equipped to recognize or fight off manipulative tactics. A process designed to cause someone so much stress that he’ll confess just to escape the situation is a process that leaves itself open to false confessions. Researchers estimate between 65 and 300 false confessions per year in the United States.” [emphasis added.]

In his article “Do Police Interrogation Techniques Produce False Confessions?”, Starr explains how psychologist Saul Kassin, a leading expert on false confessions, noted that in most cases, when a confession was introduced in a trial, juries tended to deliver guilty sentences — regardless of any other evidence presented. Starr also describes experiments by Kassin and other psychologists who have devised experiments that test tactics associated with the Reid technique. Time after time, the experiments showed similar results: accusatory questions and direct accusations consistently produced false confessions. Even more problematic is the fact that the Reid technique is extremely dependent of the interrogator’s ability to identify a lie using the suspect’s nonverbal behavior. Starr writes: “Three decades of research have shown that nonverbal signals, so prized by the Reid trainers, bear no relation to deception. In fact, people have little more than coin-flipping odds of guessing if someone is telling the truth, and numerous surveys have shown that police do no better. [Psychologist] Aldert Vrij… found that law-enforcement experience does not necessarily improve the ability to detect lies. Among police officers, those who said they paid close attention to nonverbal cues did the worst. Similarly, an experiment by Kassin showed that both students and police officers were better at telling true confessions from false ones when they listened to an audio recording of an interview rather than watch it on video. In the experiment, the police officers performed less well than the students but expressed greater confidence in their ability to tell who was lying.”

Ultimately, When They See Us is a cautionary tale about what happens when an individual does not know and understand the protections of the Miranda Rights and the Constitution. What is absolutely tragic about this heart-breaking story is that had the teenagers, or more importantly, their parents (or their family friends), known their rights — this travesty of justice could have been easily prevented. First, let’s begin with the fundamental fact that these minors should have never been questioned without a legal guardian in the room. Second, the parents should immediately have invoked their child’s Miranda Rights — the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. The interrogations would have come to a screeching halt. Game over. And third, every American has the protection of the Constitution, specifically three amendments: (1) the Fifth Amendment: the right not incriminate oneself; (2) the Sixth Amendment: the right to a speedy trial; and (3) the Fourteenth Amendment: the right to due process. All of these legal safeguards, however, did nothing to prevent the miscarriage of justice delivered to the Central Park Five. Fortunately, decades later, in 2014, they were all exonerated and won a settlement of $40 million.

You have to wonder: if the Central Park Five could, would they trade that $40 million to go back in time, to April 19, 1989, and regain their innocence, their youth, and live the lives that they were meant to live?

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: The O. J. Simpson Trial and the Chewbacca Defense
Why are People Fascinated by Making a Murderer?
How Much Did O. J. Simpson Pay His Lawyers?

For further reading: Essentials of the Reid Technique (2nd Edition) by Fred Ibai, John Reid, Joseph Buckley, and Brian Jayne
An Expendable Man: the Near Execution of Earl Washington, Jr. by Margaret Edds

What is the Genius of the Constitution?

alex atkins bookshelf movies

Sometimes a film from the past speaks to the present in a very compelling — and perhaps eerie — way. Take the prescience of the 1994 film, With Honors, regarding the topic of the balance of power between Congress and the President that has dominated the news in the last few months. In With Honors, Monty Kessler (played by Brendan Fraser), an honors student in the government program at Harvard University, and his new companion, Simon Wilder (played by Joe Pesci), a homeless man, attend a class lecture. The professor, Mr. Pitkannan (played by legendary author Gore Vidal) poses a question to the class: “Our founding fathers, or to be more politically correct, founding parents designed the Constitution to prevent the presidency from becoming another form of tyranny — an elected king. Well, did they succeed?… Could the President of the United States without consulting those he governs, more or less destroy the entire world?

Monty: “The President cannot bomb without reason.”

Professor Pitkannan: “He has the reason. He thinks we need more parking spaces. The point is — can he destroy the world?”

Monty: “Not without Congress.”

Pitkannan: “Now Mr. Kessler, after four years at Harvard has it escaped your attention that the President can make war for 90 days without consulting Congress… My question still stands: what is the particular genius of the Constitution? You sir [pointing to Simon], do you have an opinion on this?…

Simon: “You asked a question sir. Let me answer it. The genius of the Constitution is that it can always be changed. The genius of the Constitution is that it makes no permanent rule other than its faith in the wisdom of ordinary people to govern themselves.”

Pitkannan [in a sneering tone]: “Faith in the wisdom of the people is exactly what makes the Constitution incomplete and crude.”

Simon: “Crude? No sir. Our founding parents were pompous middle-aged white farmers. But they were also great men because they knew one thing that all great men should know — that they didn’t know everything. They knew they were going to make mistakes. But they made sure to leave a way to correct them. They didn’t think of themselves as leaders. They wanted a government of citizens — not royalty. A government of listeners — not lecturers. A government that could change — not stand still. The President isn’t an elected King, no matter how many bombs he can drop. Because the crude Constitution doesn’t trust him. He’s a servant of the people.”

[The classroom erupts in applause.]

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: Benjamin Franklin’s Warning: A Republic if You Can Keep It
Is the United States a Democracy or Republic?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will be Governed by Idiots

The Most Amazing Private Library in the World

alex atkins bookshelf booksYou are a passionate book collector and have unlimited resources to build the library of your dreams — what kind of library would you build? What would it look like? How many books would it contain? Meet Jay Scott Walker (born 1955), an extremely successful inventor and entrepreneur, who founded Priceline, Synapse Group, and Walker Digital, and worth an estimated $1.6 billion. As an inventor, one of the question that Walker has always faced is: How do we create? To this Walker responded: “Part of the question that I have answered is — we create by surrounding ourselves with stimuli: with human achievement, with history, with the things that drive us and make us human — the passionate discovery, the bones of dinosaurs long gone, the maps of space that we’ve experienced, and ultimately the hallways that stimulate our mind and our imagination.” To that end, Walker, a long-time bibliophile, built the library of his dreams at his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 2002. He calls it, appropriately, “The Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination.” 

The private library, that is connected to his home by a long hallway, holds more than 25,000 books, manuscripts, historical objects and artifacts in a 3.5-level, 3,600 square-foot space. 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. But what makes this library truly spectacular is the completely integrated audio-visual experience. When Walker steps into the library, it wakes up; that is to say, the library begins to glow with carefully directed theatrical lights; glass panels, depicting key moments in the timeline of human invention, that light up with LED lights, and a custom soundtrack begins to play — all of which are computer-controlled. In this unique traditional/high-tech playground for the mind, Walker is able to walk around the books shelves, where books are organized randomly by height and color, and find items by either serendipity or recollection. Interestingly, despite his extraordinary wealth, Walker is not a complete bibliophile snob. Of course, he owns some extremely valuable works, like early-20th-century books with jeweled bindings (containing gold, rubies, and diamonds) that were handcrafted by Sangorski & Sutcliffe that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, refreshingly, he also owns hundreds of leather-bound works by Franklin Press and Easton Press that are worth anywhere from $75 to hundreds of dollars.

The suspended main platform has several wood counters and work areas, a giant lit globe, and a comfortable couch, two chairs, and tables for reading. Directly above is a giant glass chandelier that is lit by 6,000 LEDs from the James Bond movie, Die Another Day. 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, famous for his impossible realities, like Relativity (1953), House of Stairs (1951), and Waterfall (1961). In fact, the wood tiling throughout the library echoes the multi-shaded triangles that appear in Escher’s works. Walker admits, “It is designed to be intentionally disorienting.” At the far end of the library is a massive three-story window with a planetarium, featuring a Clyde Lynds sculpture, a Andrea Cellarius celestial atlas (1660), Quester 7 telescope, and a globe of the moon signed by 9 of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon. The exhibits change all the time because Walker enjoys the ideas that spring forth from interesting juxtapositions, like placing a 16th-century map next to a modern map or globe, or an Enigma code machine next to a early computer.

Building such an incredible library had its challenges. The architect, Mark Finlay (Mark Finlay Architects), known for designing stunning stately country houses, explained the process and construction. Walker directed the architects: “Think of it as a theater, from a lighting and engineering standpoint. But it’s not a performance space. It’s and engagement space.” To meet this objective, the architects initially built a 7-foot long model and used miniature cameras to get a sense of the experience of moving around the stairs and suspended walkways and glass bridges. To build the main floor and intersecting stairs and walkways, the exterior walls had to be constructed with a steel exoskeleton to hold up the room. In addition, the floors and walls required steel framing to support thousands of pounds.

Sadly, the library is not open to the public. However, Walker, as a philanthropist, does conduct tours for school-aged children and used as a setting for raising funds for local nonprofit organizations. Fortunately for curious bibliophiles, David Hofman has filmed a dazzling documentary of the library, tiled “Experience the Walker Library of Human Imagination” that can be seen here:

Walker is also a patron of the TED talks, and is often speaks about inventions. You can hear him talking about some of the historical objects in his library, in addition to a quick tour of the library:

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: The Power of Literature
Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books
The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization
Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
A Beautiful, Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library

For further reading:

%d bloggers like this: