Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

What Do Famous Literary Characters Actually Look Like?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureOne of the best aspects of reading is that your imagination gets to play casting director for all the characters in a novel. Sure, the author provides some details, but ultimately, it is your imagination that is the brush that paints the canvas. Each reader gets to come up with their own notion of what Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Juliet Capulet, Ebenezer Scrooge, Elizabeth Bennett, Captain Ahab, and Anna Karenina looks like. And that assumes that your virtual central casting has not been influenced by watching the films and television adaptations of the famous books that introduced their characters.

Enter New Yorker Brian Davis, a filmmaker and digital artist, who uses commercially available law enforcement software to create accurate portraits of literary characters based on the actual descriptions found in their respective novels. The software, which is used to create portraits of perpetrators based on eyewitness descriptions, taps into a large database of facial features — adding them one at a time to build a composite portrait. In an interview, Davis explains his inspiration for the literary character series, The Composites: “The series started when when I wondered if I could buy law enforcement sketch software and discovered that I could. From there I decided to do literary portraits based on text descriptions from novels, focusing on more ‘infamous’ characters who may be deserving of a police sketch.” In many cases Davis’ portraits match up with how a director has cast that character in a film; examples include, Javert (Les Miserables), Lisbeth (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Emma Bovary (Madame Bovary), Constance Chatterley (Lady Chatterley’s Lover), Captain Ahab (Moby Dick) and Jack Torrance (The Shining). Other times, it is clear when directors cast against a character’s description in a novel. For example, in Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho, Norman Bates wears glasses, has sandy hair, and is plump. Anthony Perkins, who was cast as Bates, does not wear glasses, has dark hair, and is very slim. Another example is Frankenstein from Mary Shelley’s novel of the same name. In the novel, Frankenstein looks more like a man than a halloween mask — he has wavy, wispy hair, high check bones, normal forehead and facial features — and no scars along the top of his forehead, nor bolts extruding from his neck.

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Funniest Car Bumper Stickers

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAccording to a 2016 survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers in the U.S. spend more than 294 hours behind the wheel each year — the equivalent of seven 40-hour weeks at the office. During that time, the average driver covers 10,900 miles. Assuming that the average person begins driving at the age of 17, over a lifetime, he or she will drive more than 37,935 hours (1,580 days or 4.32 years), covering more than 798,000 miles. That’s a lot of driving — and if you live in traffic congested cities, that can drive you crazy. That’s where witty car bumper stickers come in. Not only do they make a statement about society, they do it in such a clever way to make you laugh out loud, or at least crack a smile if you are having a really bad day. The key to a really great bumper sticker is that the joke has to deliver a punchline in less than six to ten words. Not always an easy task. Here are some of the funniest car bumper stickers:

Caution: I drive just like you!

Don’t drink and drive — you might spill some!

Be careful — 90% of people are caused by accidents

I took an IQ test and the results were negative

If you lived in your car, you’d be home by now

Learn from your parents’ mistakes — use birth control

You! Out of the gene pool!

How many roads must a man travel down before he admits he is lost?

I’m not a complete idiot — some parts are missing

Instant asshole, just add alcohol

If I’m ever on life support, unplug me, then plug me back in. See if that works.

Dislexics are teople poo

I’m speeding cause I really have to poop

Nobody cares about your stick family

I’m having an out-of-money experience

I saw that… — Karma

Watch out for the idiot behind me

Don’t believe everything you think

Trust me that squirrel was an asshole

Do you follow Jesus this closely?

I’m new at this, what’s your excuse?

Well behaved women rarely make history

Buckle up… it makes it harder for aliens to suck you out of your car

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Seeing the Words Fly About the Room in All Directions

alex atkins bookshelf literatureYou may not know the name of Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867), a British lawyer who published his diary in 1869. What is significant about that work, titled Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence, was that it provided a window into the minds and daily lives of the key figures of the English romantic movement — William Blake, Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and William Wordsworth. Poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne who wrote extensively about Blake noted: “Of all the records of these his latter years, the most valuable, perhaps, are those furnished by Mr. Crabb Robinson, whose cautious and vivid transcription of Blake’s actual speech is worth more than much vague remark, or than any commentary now possible to give.” Here is an excerpt of Robinson interviewing Blake about his writing process and philosophy:

“I enquired about his writings. ‘I have written more than Voltaire or Rousseau—six or seven epic poems as long as Homer, and 20 tragedies as long as Macbeth.’ He showed me his Vision (for so it may be called) of Genesis—’as understood by a Christian Visionary,’ in which in a style resembling the Bible the spirit is given. He read a passage at random. It was striking. He will not print any more. ‘I write,’ he says, ‘when commanded by the spirits, and the moment I have written I see the words fly about the room in all directions. It is then published, and the spirits can read. My MSS. of no further use. I have been tempted to burn my MSS., but my wife won’t let me.’ She is right, said I—and you have written these, not from yourself, but by a higher order. The MSS. are theirs and your property. You cannot tell what purpose they may answer unforeseen to you. He liked this, and said he would not destroy them. His philosophy he repeated—denying causation, asserting everything to be the work of God or the Devil—that there is a constant falling off from God—angels becoming devils. Every man has a devil in him, and the conflict is eternal between a man’s self and God, etc. etc. etc. He told me my copy of his songs would be 5 guineas, and was pleased by my manner of receiving this information. He spoke of his horror of money—of his turning pale when money had been offered him, etc.”

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For further reading: Diary, Reminiscences and Correspondence by Henry Crabb Robinson
William Blake: A Critical Essay by Algernon Charles Swinburne

The Proust Questionnaire: Deepak Chopra

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsDuring the late 1800s, a fascinating parlor game arose in Paris. The game consisted of about three dozen probing questions that were believed to reveal a person’s true nature. The game was popularized by Antoinette Faure, daughter of the French president at the time, Felix Faure. One of the individuals that Faure presented the set of questions was the famous French writer and critic Marcel Proust. When published in 1892, Proust’s answers to the questions became quite famous; henceforth, the set of questions became known as the Proust Questionnaire. Fast forward to 1993 — the editors of Vanity Fair decided to adopt the Proust Questionnaire as one of their regular features. In 2009, a collection of the best of those interviews were published the insightful and beautifully illustrated book Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, and the Meaning of Life. Deepak Chopra (born 1946) is a well-known alternative medicine advocate, prolific author, and public speaker. Here are some of his answers to the Proust Questionnaire:

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It does not exist. If it did, we’d all be doomed to eternal senility.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

What is your greatest regret?
That I have no regrets to talk about or be nostalgic about.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
My children.

What do you regard the lowest depth of misery?
The hypnosis of social conditioning.

Who are your favorite writers?
Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, T. S. Eliot, George Bernard Shaw, William Shakespeare

How would you like to die?
In meditation.

What is your motto?
“Don’t take yourself seriously.”

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For further reading: Vanity Fair’s Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, and the Meaning of Life edited by Graydon Carter

A Dictionary May Be Read an Infinite Number of Ways

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThough a work of literature can be read in a number of ways, this number is finite and can be arranged in a hierarchical order; some readings are obviously “truer” than others, some doubtful, some obviously false, and some, like reading a novel backwards, absurd. That is why, for a desert island, one would choose a good dictionary rather than the greatest literary masterpiece imaginable, for, in relation to its readers, a dictionary is absolutely passive and may legitimately be read in an infinite number of ways.

From The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays by W. H. Auden, English-American poet and essayist. Auden was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1948 for his long poem, The Age of Anxiety. His most popular poems include “Funeral Blues,” “Refugee Blues,” “The Unknown Citizen,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and “September 1, 1939.”

Most Expensive Watch Sold at Auction

alex atkins bookshelf triviaImagine purchasing a Rolex Daytona watch in 1968 for about $200, and then 49 years later, selling it for $17,752,500! That’s a return on investment of whopping 8,876,200%! Impossible, you say? Not if the watch was owned by one of the most famous actors (1960-80s), race car drivers, and philanthropists (Newman’s Own). And not if the watch,  known as the “Paul Newman Daytona,” became the Holy Grail of watch collectors — and really wealthy ones. In an interview, Geoff Hess who is a vintage Rolex collector expressed how valuable this watch has become: “Many people are saying this is the greatest watch on the planet. This watch transcends watch collecting, it transcends the watch community. This watch appeals to people way beyond the watch world. I don’t recall a watch that has roots and ties in so many [collecting] communities, and it’s an incredibly potent mix. It, of course, attracts those who love and admire motor sports and cars, it also appeals to people who love Hollywood memorabilia. It’s also a piece of Americana, so it appeals to the American history community.”

The Rolex Cosmography Daytona Reference 6239 watch was produced by Rolex from 1964 to 1976. (The Daytona has actually been produced in three separate series: Series One, from 1963 to 1980s; Series Two, from 1988 to 2000; and Series Three, from 200o on.) It sports watch was named after the famous Daytona racetrack in Florida. The watch features a whimsical, art deco style white face with three smaller black sub dials; it was the first wristwatch with the tachometer scale engraved on a stainless steel bezel. The watch case is silver paired with a black leather band. The watch was a gift to Newman from his wife Joanne. On the back of the case, she had the following words inscribed: “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME.” The watch became known as the Paul Newman Daytona because in just about every photo during the 1980s, Newman was wearing the watch.

In 1984, Newman gave the watch to James Cox, who was a boyfriend of Nell Newman, Newman’s daughter. Recently, Cox turned to Phillips auction house in New York to sell the watch. The watch came up for auction on October 26, 2017, and within 12 minutes of fierce bidding (only 32 bidders were allowed), a telephone bidder won  the bid. The watch was sold for $15.5 million plus the buyer’s premium of 12.5%, bringing the total price to $17,752,500. In the process, the sale of the Paul Newman watch set a new record for highest price paid for a wristwatch at auction. The previous record was $11,136,642 for a Patek Philippe reference 1518 timepiece sold in a Geneva auction on November 12, 2016.

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The Little Pun Book

alex atkins bookshelf booksIt was easy to miss in the used bookstore crammed with a maze of floor to ceiling bookshelves: a slim, little volume measuring 4.5 x 7 inches, 62 pages long, with a colorful red and blue dust jacket, titled The Little Pun Book. Back in 1960, it sold for $1. Naturally, I rescued it from its forlorn and dusty existence. The book, featuring puns collected by Robert Margolin, was published in 1960by the Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, New York. Peter Pauper Press, established in 1928, is a small publisher of finely bound letterpress books that featured slipcovers and illustrations by acclaimed artists. Some of the press’s finest books were published between 1930-1950s, however, it continues to print children’s books, journals, calendars, and holiday cards to this day.

Instead of a foreword or introduction, the book begins with a quote attributed to English writer Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), considered the most distinguished man of letters in English history, largely for his publication of the A Dictionary of the English Language (1755):

I should be punished
For every pun I shed:
Do not leave a puny shred
Of my punish head!

Puns are supposed to be timeless; you be the judge. Here are some notable highlights:

The explorer came down from the North Pole; when he reached the last Lapp he knew he was at the Finnish line.

A nudist is one who suffers from clothestrophobia.

When the principal asked the teacher how long she planned to teach school, she replied, “From here to maternity.”

A good masseur leaves no stern untoned.

An ass can never be a horse, but he can be a mayor.

The electric chair is period furniture. It ends a sentence.

A fad is in one era and out the other.

There was a knock at the hospital-room door. “Who goes there,” said the patient, “friend or enema?”

A room full of married people is empty because there isn’t a single person in it.

When a group of cattle were put in Sputnik, it became the herd shot round the world.

A prominent Turk got an audience with the Sultan who said, “I don’t know your name, but your fez is familiar.”

An anthologist is one who likes to spend a quiet evening raiding a good book.

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For further reading: The Little Pun Book by Robert Margolin.

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