The Monument of Language on the Menacing Shore of the Ocean of Gibberish

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Rousseau made the point that writing becomes necessary when speech fails to protect our identity. The written word may be a weak second best to lived experience, but it’s still pretty powerful—our only path to meaning and inner order. I keep being haunted by this phrase of [French poet and philosopher, Paul] Valéry’s: ‘I thought to erect a minor monument of language on the menacing shore of the ocean of gibberish.'”

Polish-Born American journalist, writer and literary critic Francine du Plessix Gray (1930-2019) responding to a question from Regina Weinreich, an interviewer from The Paris Review, about French semiologists who see writing as absence rather than presence. Gray began her career as a reporter, then moved to editing, and freelance writing. She became a staff writer for The New Yorker in the late 1960s. She then began her teaching career in the mid 1970s, beginning at City College of New York, then teaching at Yale University, Columbia University, and Princeton University. She won awards for several books, including Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress, andThem: A Memoir of Parents.

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

Fo further reading:

A Reader Lives a Thousand Lives Before He Dies

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

From George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the sprawling epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the source of HBO’s highly acclaimed series, Game of Thrones. The quotation appears in chapter 34, when Jojen Reed is talking to Bran Strark. Jojen, a member of the House Reed, possesses greensight, the power of prophetic green dreams. Although Jojen has greensight, he is not a greenseer, as he explains to Bran: “No, [I am not a greenseer] only a boy who dreams. The greenseers were more than that. They were wargs [a skinchanger, a person with the ability to enter the mind of an animal and control its actions] as well, as you are, and the greatest of them could wear the skins of any beast that flies or swims or crawls, and could look through the eyes of the weirwoods [deciduous trees of Westerns that have blood red leaves and bone white trunks] as well, and see the truth that lies beneath the world.”

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: Why Reading is Critical to the Writer
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
The Books that Most People Begin Reading but Don’t Finish

Why Reading and Diction are Critical to the Writer

Life Belongs to the Whole Community; It Is A Sort of Splendid Torch

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. “

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it onto future generations.”

The first paragraph is from the play Man and Superman (1903) by Irish playwright, critic, and political activist George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). It appears in the eloquent, thought-provoking (and lengthy: more than 11,400 words!) dedication, “Epistle Dedicatory to Arthur Bingham Walkley,” of the play. The second paragraph comes from one of his speeches (found in George Bernard Shaw: His Life and His Works by Archibald Henderson). Interestingly, as the Internet has a tendency to do, the first and second paragraphs are erroneously combined, as if they were one thought written by Shaw. This cobbled-together quotation, taken from two completely separate works, appears in dozens of books, all — of course — without proper attribution. American actor Jeff Goldblum is quite fond of this quote and often recites it (most recently, for example, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, February 15, 2019) as if it were one long paragraph, perpetuating the mistake.

The “brief candle” that appears in the second paragraph is an allusion to the famous soliloquy in William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (1606) spoken by Macbeth: ““Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, /  and is heard no more. It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing.”

Incidentally, the complete paragraph, from which the first sentence is taken, reads as follows: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. And also the only real tragedy in life is the being used by personally minded men for purposes which you recognize to be base. All the rest is mere misfortune or mortality: this alone is misery, slavery, hell on earth; and the revolt against it is the only force that offers a man’s work to the poor artist, whom our personally minded rich people would so willingly employ as pandas, buffoon, beauty money, sentimentalizer and the like.”

Shaw wrote Man and Superman because Arthur Bingham Walkley, who was the respected theatre critic for The Times, suggested that he write a play based on the theme of Don Juan/Don Giovanni, the archetypical womanizer. Shaw wrote: “My dear Walkley: You once asked me why I did not write a Don Juan play. The levity with which you assumed this frightful responsibility has probably by this time enabled you to forget it; but the day of reckoning has arrived: here is your play! I say your play, because qui facit per alium facit per se [from Latin: “He who acts through another does the act himself”]. Its profits, like its labor, belong to me: its morals, its manners, its philosophy, its influence on the young, are for you to justify. You were of mature age when you made the suggestion; and you knew your man. It is hardly fifteen years since, as twin pioneers of the New Journalism of that time, we two, cradled in the same new sheets, made an epoch in the criticism of the theatre and the opera house by making it a pretext for a propaganda of our own views of life. So you cannot plead ignorance of the character of the force you set in motion. You meant me to épater le bourgeois [from French, “to shock the bourgeoisie”, a rallying cry for French Decadent poets of the late 19th century]; and if he protests, I hereby refer him to you as the accountable party.” The dedication continues for 31 more paragraphs.

Shaw was a prolific playwright — he wrote 60 plays during his lifetime. His best-known works in addition to Man and Superman (1903) are Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1925. Some literary critics believe that Shaw was the second most important playwright after Shakespeare in the British theatrical tradition. Shaw created the “intelligent” theatre that required theatergoers to think deeply about the meaning of a play, setting the stage, as it were, for modern playwrights like David Mamet and Harold Pinter.

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: What if Shakespeare Wrote the Hits: Don’t Stop Believin
Were Shakespeare’s Sonnets Written to a Young Man?
When Was Shakespeare Born?
The Legacy of Shakespeare
Shakespeare the Pop Song Writer

The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
Who Are the Greatest Characters in Shakespeare?
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare
Shakespeare and Uranus
Best Editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

For further reading:

Valentine’s Day by the Numbers: 2019

alex atkins bookshelf cultureDid you hear the story about the wife who sent her husband a text that read: “I’ve just got you the best Valentine’s Day present ever! xox” When he read it, he turned to his colleague at work and said: “I really hope she misspelled ‘Xbox.'” So what is Valentine’s Day without rampant, over-the-top consumerism?

Consider that this year Americans will spend $20.7 billion on Valentine’s Day — and that accounts for only 51% of Americans who actually celebrate it. (Apparently love is on the decline, since last year 55% of Americans celebrated Valentine’s Day.) And sadly, many gifts that will be purchased with the very best of intentions, will end up in the recycling bin: $9.5 million will be spent on unwanted gifts. What a shame — but perhaps an unwanted gift is better than no gift at all, since according to a recent survey, 53% of women expressed that they would end their relationship if they didn’t receive a gift on Valentine’s Day. Can you say “tough love”?

Ironically, about 41% of women in a relationship dread Valentine’s Day (perhaps they are afraid of getting those unwanted gifts or being disappointed by their partner). However, over on the opposite side of the love spectrum, singles really look forward to Valentine’s Day — with good reason — since about 9 million marriage proposals are made on that special day.

So how do Americans say “I love thee?” Let us count the ways:

Total amount spent by consumers in U.S.: $20.7 billion
Average amount spent by consumer: $161.96
Amount average male will spend: $229.54
Amount average woman will spend: $97.7

Amount spent on unwanted gifts: $9.5 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase candy: 52%
Amount spent on candy: $1.8 million
Percentage of consumers that will purchase greeting cards: 44%
Percentage of cards bought by women: 85%
Amount spent on greeting cards: $933 million

Percentage of consumers that will purchase flowers: 35%
Amount spent on flowers: $1.9 billion
Percentage of consumers that will take their partner out to dinner: 34%
Amount spent at restaurants: $3.5 billion
Percentage of consumers that will give jewelry: 18%
Amount spent on jewelry: $3.9 billion

Percentage of consumers that will purchase gift certificates: 15%
Amount spent on gift certificates: $1.3 billion

Percentage of Americans NOT celebrating Valentine’s Day: 49%
Of those, 49% of women and 40% of men will treat themselves to jewelry, apparel, or a spa service
Of those 32% of women and 41% of men will plan a get-together with friends or family
Of those about 10% will purchase an anti-valentine’s gift

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 Most Beautiful Valentine Ever Written: Pablo Neruda
Pablo Neruda on Love
The Best Love Stories
Best Academy Award Quotes
Best Books for Movie Lovers
The Paradox of Love

The Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke
The Fluidity of Love

Doublets: Love

For further reading:

There’s A Word for That: Torschlusspanik

alex atkins bookshelf wordsYou have to love the German  language. It has a single word for just about any idea that other languages, like English for example, requires several words — or sentences — to express or define the concept. Take this harsh-sounding, mouthful of a word: torchlusspanik (pronounced “TURSH luss pan ik”). Literally translated, it means “gate-shut panic” or  “fear of the gate shutting.” What a great metaphor. Thus, its more general meaning is: the sense of fear or anxiety, particularly by someone who is middle-aged, due to the profound realization that time is running out to achieve important life goals or seize great opportunities. It is a far more interesting term to describe what is commonly known as the “mid-life crisis.” The feeling is sometimes referred to as the “male menopause syndrome.”

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

The Liberating Power of Music

alex atkins bookshelf musicHave you ever wondered what life would be like without music? Undoubtedly, it would be a drab and gray existence, where one monotonous day slowly fades into the next — a week turns into a month, months quickly turn into years. You blink, and a decade has slipped past. And that is exactly what the inmates at the Shawshank State Penitentiary experienced in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, a profound allegory or preserving one’s integrity and self-worth in the face of adversity and hopelessness. But all of that changed for the prisoners on one memorable, transcendent day. That day Andy Dufresne, an innocent man who was framed for murder, locked himself in the warden’s office and played a song on the record player. The song, “Canzonetta sull’aria” (Italian for “A little song on the breeze”) is from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s famous opera, The Marriage of Figaro (1786). As the song was played over the penitentiary’s public address system, all of the prisoners in the yard froze mid-step, staring up at the speakers, mesmerized by the beautiful sound. It’s a remarkably beautiful moment as we listen to the two women singing, their voices both elegiac yet soaring. Dufresne’s friend and mentor, Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, in a touching voiceover explains the profound impact that the music had on these weary, worn-down souls: 

“I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin’ about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin’ about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away… and for the briefest of moments — every last man at Shawshank felt free.”

Ah, the liberating power of music that stirs men’s souls. Sadly, Dufresne pays a steep price for liberating the souls of his fellow prisoners — even if for just a fleeting moment — by serving two weeks in solitary confinement. But even in his cell, Dufresne felt the liberating effect of the operatic song. When asked if playing the record was worth it, Dufresne responds: “Easiest time I ever did… I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company. Hardly felt the time at all… The music was here [pointing at his head] and here [pointing at his heart]. That’s the one thing they can’t confiscate, not ever. That’s the beauty of it.”

Let us return for a moment to Red’s narration. He raises a good question: what were those two Italian ladies singing about? The song, a short duet (known as a “duettino”) occurs in act three of The Marriage of Figaro. The words to the song (known at the “libretto”) were written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, an Italian poet and opera librettist who collaborated with Mozart on two other operas (Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutti). In this duet, the Countess Almaviva dictates an invitation to Susanna, her maid. The invite, addressed to Almaviva’s womanizing husband, Count Almaviva, is for a romantic rendezvous in order to expose his infidelity. Almaviva speaks a line and Susanna repeats it while she writes it down. Here are the translated lyrics without the repetition:

On the breeze…
What a gentle little Zephyr
This evening will sign
Under the pines in the little grove
And the rest he’ll understand.

It is only when you understand the context and meaning of the operatic song that you can appreciate the irony of its selection, whether intended or not, by Dufresne: the opera singers are writing a letter to expose an infidelity, while it is the discovered infidelity that indirectly leads to Dufresne being framed for the murder of his wife and her lover and being convicted and sentenced to prison.

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 Highest Rated Movie in IMDb: The Shawshank Redemption
How Do We Spend Our Time During a Lifetime?

For further reading: The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script by Frank Darabont, New Market Press (1996), Roger Ebert: The Great Movies by Roger Ebert, Broadway Books (2002). 

Best Advice for Writers: B. J. Chute


Beatrice Joy Chute (1913-1987), known as B. J. Chute, was an American novelist and shorty-story writer, adjunct professor of English at Barnard College, and a past president of the PEN American Center, a nonprofit that supports writers. In the 1930s she wrote short stories for several publications, including The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. She is best known for her novel Greenwillow, published in 1956, about young love and self-discovery. The novel was adapted into a Broadway musical of the same name in 1960 by Frank Loesser. Regrettably, as of this writing, there is no article about Chute in Wikipedia — an editorial oversight that should definitely be rectified. Chute, who taught creative writing for many years, offered this advice to aspiring writers:

“Imagination is as necessary to a novelist or short-story writer as the spinning of webs is to a spider and just as mysterious… Imagination cannot be created, but it can be fostered, and this fostering is part of the writer’s duty. It is not enough to congratulate oneself on having been gifted (lovely word!) with imagination, though it is certainly a major cause for rejoicing. The imagination, like the intellect, has to be used, and a creative writer ought to exercise it all the time. There is no idea, however insignificant or vague it may be, that the imagination cannot touch to new beginnings, turning it around and around in different lights, playing with it, listening to it.”

Read related posts: Best Writing Advice From Famous Writers
Best Advice for Writers: P.D. James

The Best Advice for Writers
Best Books for Writers

William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
The Responsibility of the Poet
The Power of Literature
Why Writers Write

For further reading: Good Advice on Writing by William Safire and Leonard Safir

%d bloggers like this: