Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

We Have to Be True in Order to Know the Truth

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“I am not one who believes that a man has to show his religious party card before one can speak to [God]. And I am well aware that there are plenty of people who shy away from religion and its institutional aspect precisely because of a certain abuse of this kind of thing. God asks of us, first of all, sincerity and truth. Conformity is not the first requisite, or the second, or the tenth. I do not know where it may stand on the list or whether it is on the list at all, since God has not shown me His list. But since He has made us for the truth, it stands to reason that we have to be true in order to know the truth.”

Excerpt from a letter from Thomas Merton (1915-1968) to Steve Eisner, dated February 1962, from Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times of Crisis. Merton was an American Trappist monk who wore many hats: poet, writer, theologian, mystic, scholar of comparative religion, and social activist. He was a prolific author, having written more than 70 books. His best-known work is The Steven Storey Mountain (1948), an autobiography, considered one of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century by the National Review. He was a passionate advocate of interfaith dialogue, i.e., the positive interaction between individuals of different religious, spiritual, or humanistic beliefs at both the institutional and individual levels.

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The Art of Fiction: Every Story Begins With an Ending

alex atkins bookshelf literatureKatherine Anne Porter (1890-1980) was an American journalist and writer, best known for her insightful short stories. She was born as Callie Russel Porter but changed her name to Katherine Anne Porter to honor her grandmother who raised her after her mother passed away. Porter has an interesting literary lineage: she is related to Daniel Boone the American frontiersman, and famous short-story writer O. Henry (the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter). Perhaps there really is a gene for great short-story writing…

Porter published several collections of short stories: Flowering Judas; Pale Horse, Pale Rider; and The Leaning Tower and Other Stories. Her complete collection of short stories published in 1964 won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (1966) and she was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In an interview with Barbara Thompson for the Paris Review in the spring of 1963, Porter discussed the importance of the ending of the story. In fact, she believed that every story begins with an ending and that until the end is known, there is no story. She elaborates: “That is where the artist begins to work: with the consequences of acts, not the acts themselves. Or the events. The event is important only as it affects your life and the lives of those around you. The reverberations, you might say, the overtones: that is where the artist works. In that sense it has sometimes taken me ten years to understand even a little of some important event that had happened to me. Oh, I could have given a perfectly factual account of what had happened, but I didn’t know what it meant until I knew the consequences. If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’ m going. I know what my goal is. And how I get there is God’s grace.”

Thompson then comments that that is a very classical view of the work of art, ie, that a story must end in resolution. Porter responds: “Any true work of art has got to give you the feeling of reconciliation—what the Greeks would call catharsis, the purification of your mind and imagination—through an ending that is endurable because it is right and true. Oh, not in any pawky individual idea of morality or some parochial idea of right and wrong. Sometimes the end is very tragic, because it needs to be. One of the most perfect and marvelous endings in literature — it raises my hair now — is the little boy at the end of Wuthering Heights, crying that he’s afraid to go across the moor because there’s a man and woman walking there.”

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Read related posts: Best Writing Advice From Famous Writers
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: The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter by Kathering Anne Porter
Katherine Anne Porter Conversations by Katherine Anne Porter
Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews edited by Malcolm Cowley


What Is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?

alex atkins bookshelf music“Bohemian Rhapsody,” from Queen’s album A Night at the Opera (1975), is considered one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Despite its tremendous commercial success and influence, it remains one of the most enigmatic, inscrutable songs in the history of rock. It is like the Finnegan’s Wake of rock music. “Bohemian Rhapsody” joins the ranks of other famous chart-topping hits that are sung but never fully understood like Don Mclean’s “American Pie” (1971), Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” (1971), and just about any song by Yes. So what exactly is the meaning of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody?

The short answer is — we will never know for sure. Freddie Mercury began developing the music and the lyrics in the late 1960s and finished writing it in his home in London in 1975. Although he was very deliberate in its writing, he took all of his secrets to the grave. In an interview, Mercury explains that the song, although very methodically composed, was a bit of a Rorschach test: “Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research, although it was tongue-in-cheek and it was a mock opera. Why not?… It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them.” 

In an interview promoting Queen Videos Greatest Hits DVD, guitarist Brian May stated: “What is Bohemian Rhapsody about? Well, I don’t think we’ll ever know. And if I knew I probably wouldn’t want to tell you anyway, because I certainly don’t tell people what my songs are about. I find that it destroys them in a way, because the great thing about a great song is that you relate it to your own personal experiences in your own life. I think that Freddie was certainly battling with problems in his personal life, which he might have decided to put [a lot of himself] into the song himself. He was certainly looking at re-creating himself. But I don’t think at that point in time it was the best thing to do so he actually decided to do it later. I think it’s best to leave it with a question mark in the air.”

To that we say: poppycock! A song, like a poem or a novel, should be carefully analyzed to find its true meaning. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined song is not worth listening to. Invariably, critical textual analysis always reveals important clues — whether left consciously or subconsciously — that lead to meaningful interpretations, revealing aspects of the writer’s character, beliefs, and/or life. To find our first clue, let us first turn to Lesley-Ann Jones, the author of Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography (1997). She interviewed him extensively for her authorized biography and got to peer behind the curtain — to fully comprehend the enigmatic musician and his life. She firmly believes that the song represents Mercury’s personal struggle with his sexuality and eventual decision to come out. In 1986, she asked him specifically about this, but he refused to give her a straight answer. However — and one cannot overemphasize the significance of this — Mercury did provide the key to unlock this decades-old musical mystery: he admitted to her that the song was “about relationships.” Bingo! Furthermore, Jones’ belief was also confirmed by Jim Hutton, Mercury’s lover. Soon after Mercury passed away, Hutton told Jones that “Bohemian Rhapsody” was about Mercury’s public admission that he was gay.

A close examination of the lyrics will reveal that the song is indeed about relationships — specifically the relationship of Mercury to himself, his spouse, family, and God providing the context for the struggles he faced in deciding to face the music, as it were, to come out. The second clue is that  Mercury “did a bit of research.” The song, like an T. S. Eliot poem, is filled with literary and musical allusions that support the intended meaning of the song.

Let’s begin with the title: Bohemian Rhapsody is a play on composer Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.” A bohemian is a person who has unconventional social habits. A rhapsody is a free instrumental composition played in one extended movement, typically one that is exuberant or full of pathos. So from the very start we have some understanding of both the song and the narrator.

The first stanza introduces us to the narrator, who seems to be living a life that is surreal: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? / Caught in a landslide / No escape from reality.” He is not sure if it is real or a dream and it’s all happening so fast. With Queen’s meteoric success, Mercury was catapulted from a rather traditional, quiet life to a flamboyant rockstar’s life (filled with the obligatory sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll). Mercury is living in two worlds simultaneously: living as a straight man while concealing to his family that he is gay. Mercury felt he had to conceal his homosexuality since his parents practiced Zoroastrianism that specifically condemned it. The next lyric employs antithesis: “I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy,” reflecting his ambivalence. Here poor is being used in the metaphorical (deserving of pity), not literal sense (not having money); in other words, he is saying “although I am deserving of pity, I really don’t need your sympathy.” He has accepted his truth, his fate, and does not need anyone’s sympathy. Expressed another way, he seems to mean “This is my life, this is who I am — don’t feel sorry for me.” The stanza ends with the line “Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me,” revealing that the narrator embraces nihilism, the belief that the world is meaningless, and he doesn’t care where destiny takes him. C’est la vie.

In the second stanza the narrator is telling his wife (here “Mama,” as in Mother Mary, represents Mercury’s wife, Mary Austin) that he has killed a man: “Mama, just killed a man / Put a gun against his head / Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” But here, the killing is metaphorical, not literal. Mercury is saying that he killed his old self: Farrokh Bulsara (the straight, faithful husband) has been replaced by Freddie Mercury (the flamboyant, gay rockstar). The narrator regrets the pain that he has caused his wife so soon after their marriage had begun (Mercury and Mary had just been married seven years before his first homosexual encounter), fearing that he his thrown all of that part of his life away: “Mama, life had just begun / But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away / Mama, oh oh / Didn’t mean to make you cry.” At the end of the stanza the narrator says “If I’m not back again this time tomorrow / Carry on, carry on, as if nothing really matters.” The narrator is encouraging his mother (or wife) to embrace his nihilism in order to carry on without him if he continues his life as a gay man.

This is an ideal time to introduce the fascinating parallels between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Albert Camus’s seminal novel, The Stranger, published in 1942. The novel’s protagonist, Meurseult, is a man (like Mercury) who feels like he doesn’t fit in; he is an outcast. Early in the novel, during an argument he kills an Arab man, is convicted and sentenced to death because he feels no remorse for his crime (the prosecutor accuses Meurseult of being a soulless monster). While awaiting execution, a chaplain meets with Meurseult to guide him to repentance and accepting God’s love and forgiveness. However, Meurseult disavows his crime, rejects God, and accepts the absurdity of the human condition. Ultimately, he finds comfort in his indifference toward the world and the meaninglessness of life. The novel ends with Meurseult happily awaiting to meet his inescapable fate at the guillotine: “And I too felt ready to live my life again. As if this great outburst of anger had purged all my ills, killed all my hopes, I looked up at the mass of signs and stars in the night sky and laid myself open for the first time to the benign indifference of the world. And finding it so much like myself, in fact so fraternal, I realized that I’d been happy, and that I was still happy. For the final consummation and for me to feel less lonely, my last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred.” It is very possible that Mercury read this book as a young lad or while he was developing the song.

Let’s return back to the lyrics. The third stanza reflects the narrator’s ambivalence: saying goodbye to his old self (heterosexual), his wife, his family and friends, and his fellow band members, in order to accept the inescapable truth: that he is a gay man: “Goodbye everybody I’ve got to go / Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth.” The ambivalence he feels tortures him to the point that he regrets being born at all, invoking pathos and using the antithetical construction we say in the first stanza: “I don’t want to die / Sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.” This is a very powerful sentiment that echoes one of William Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet questions whether he should exist or not: “To be or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, / And by opposing end them?”

We now reach the operetta in the fourth and fifth stanzas that function as a sort of Greek chorus, shedding light on the narrator’s psychic and emotional turmoil. Mercury once described this part of the song as “random rhyming nonsense” to his friend, Kenny Everett, a DJ who worked in London. At first glance, just like many nursery rhymes, the jabberwocky of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, or any of James Joyce’s inscrutable stream-of-consciousness ramblings, the text may seem like nonsense, but there is definitely meaning behind the madness. Mercury, who mentioned he “did a bit of research,” on this song, clearly chose his words carefully. Let’s break down this section, focusing on key words and lyrics.

The operetta begins with the narrator seeing the shadow of his former self: “I see a little silhouetto of a man.” The next lines, “Scaramouch, Scaramouch will you do the Fandango / Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me / Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, figaro, magnifico” suggest that the chorus is challenging the man (calling him “scaramouch,” translated from Italian, means a “boastful and cowardly buffoon;” often featured in Italian comedies, known as commedia dell’arte that flourished from 16th to 18th century) to do something outrageous, thereby shocking the sensibility of his former self, his family and friends, and society at large. The chorus of “Galileo’s” are simply expressions of shock and outrage by others in his circle, as if saying “Oh my God!” Because, the narrator, like Camus’s Meurseult, is a nihilist and absurdist, he doesn’t believe in God. So naturally, he appeals to a man of science, Galileo, a revolutionary (pun intended) who was convicted of heresy by the Catholic Church in 1633 for teaching that the Earth is not the center of the universe but actually revolved around the sun. Figaro, of course, is the famous scheming Spanish barber who appears as in two eighteenth-century French plays (The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro as well as two operas (The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini and The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). In popular culture, Figaro represents an individual that is irrepressible, clever, and defiant of authority. Magnifico is another character from the aforementioned commedia dell’arte. The name is based on the Latin, magnificus, which means “doing great things.”Not surprisingly, these characters — Galileo, Figaro, Magnifico — that are outcasts on some level, resonate with Mercury — not to mention that they rhyme magnificently.

The next stanza takes us into the struggle inside the narrator’s mind. Here we see the dynamic interplay, a passionate debate, between the narrator and the Greek chorus, as it were, building to a crescendo. What is interesting here, is how the narrator progresses from soliciting pity (stanza five) to expressing outrage and defiance (stanza six). The initial line is the narrator trying to elicit sympathy: “I’m just a poor boy and nobody loves me.” And the chorus (representing God) jumps in and validates this and wants to spare him from he difficult life he will face once he kills his former self: “He’s just a poor boy from a poor family / Spare him his life from this monstrosity.” The narrator appeals to an indifferent God: “Easy come easy go will you let me go.” But God, will have none of that (Bismillah is the Arabic word for god; literally translated it means “in the name of Allah”); the chorus (God) demands the narrator’s soul: “Bismillah [In the name of Allah], no we will not let you go.” This is quickly countered by an opposing chorus: “Let him go.” This goes back and forth several times. Finally, after a final passionate, and very Italian-sounding appeal, “Mama mia, mama mia let me go” the devil makes an appearance in this escalating confrontation: “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me.” There are two points to make here. First, is that the narrator uses the word “Beelzebub,” the name that appears in the Old Testament (specifically, 2 Kings 1:2-3), for the devil, alluding to the age-old conflict of good (represented by God) and evil (represented by the devil) found in the Bible. Second, the reference to the devil is a very clever allusion to the legend of Faust, that inspired many operas, plays, films, and novels (the most famous is the play Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe). In the classic German legend, Faust, despite his success and wealth, makes a pact with the devil (Mephistopheles) to exchange his soul for unlimited worldly pleasures and infinite knowledge. (This is where we get the phrase Faustian bargain or Mephistophelian bargain.) Obviously, if he is making a pact with the devil, Faust must abandon God. In popular culture, Faust (or Faustian, the adjectival form) refers to an ambitious person who surrenders moral integrity to achieve tremendous wealth, power, or success. But even more relevant to the song is the concept of a Faustian bargain in the context of psychotherapy. Here, a Faustian bargain is a defense mechanism (or several of them) that sacrifice elements of the self in favor of some form of psychical survival. So in this context, we can interpret this last line as the narrator saying: “I must face my demon and strike my Faustian bargain with him: I must sacrifice my old self in exchange for the survival of my new self (my real self as a gay man) who will be rich, famous, and revel in worldly pleasures.”

The sixth stanza presents the narrator’s shift from pity to outrage. The stanza functions as a diatribe or rant, marked by an angry defiance to those who judge him harshly. Having struck his Faustian (or Mephistophelian) bargain, he seems to be saying: “I had to do this — don’t hate me for it!” It is ironic that this narrator, who has rejected God, speaks of his punishment in almost biblical terms: “So you think you can stop me and spit in my eye / So you think you can love me and leave me to die.” Another way to state this is: “How dare you judge me and punish me for who I am and how I must live my life. You can’t just love me and then abandon me.” He makes a final appeal to compassion (and one can assume he is referring to his wife): “Oh baby can’t do this to me baby.” In other words, he asks: How can you do this to me, Mary?” But the narrator knows this is a bad place; he needs to get the hell out of there — to escape a place of harsh judgment and condemnation: “Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here.”

The seventh and final stanza (the “outro” in music jargon) begins with the chorus expressing their sympathy for the narrator’s plight: “Oh oh oh yeah, oh oh yeah” as if saying: “yes, of course — you are right, you don’t deserve this, you have no other option to run, to move forward with your life, given who you truly are.” The deliberation — the debate over how to be, how to live — has finally come to its natural conclusion, which the narrator believes should be obvious to everyone. The song comes full circle by returning to the themes introduced in the first stanza: “Nothing really matters / Anyone can see / Nothing really matters / Nothing really matters to me.” The narrator, like Camus’ Meurseult, ultimately finds comfort in the meaninglessness and “the benign indifference of the world” (to borrow Meurseult’s phrase). The stanza ends with quiet resignation: “Anyway the wind blows.” The narrator is resigned to go wherever destiny takes him. 

In short, “Bohemian Rhapsody” reflects Mercury’s personal journey — it is about the personal turmoil he experienced prior to finally coming out. Clearly, he wrote it for himself, as an artistic cathartic exercise. But it was also his gift to the world because the song speaks to so many — and this is why the song endures, resonating so profoundly with succeeding generation. In a larger sense, Bohemian Rhapsody is an inspiring nihilistic anthem about an individual who must accept his truth — to embrace who he is, and live according to who he truly is — regardless of what his family, loved ones, or society want him to be. Indeed, this is not an easy path and, inevitably, it comes with a cost — to the individual (the internal struggles, second-guessing, feelings of isolation, etc.) and to his many relationships (their feelings of pain, betrayal, disappointment, disapproval, etc.). But in an indifferent, meaningless world, Mercury believed, we need to simply discover who we are, accept who we are, and be who we are. So if we had to reduce Bohemian Rhapsody down to its simplest terms, it would be this: live and let 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: What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?
Who is Major Tom in the Bowie Songs?
The Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream
Origin of the Beatles Name
How Rock Bands Got Their Names
The Most Misinterpreted Songs
Best Books for Music Lovers

For further reading: Freddie Mercury: The Definitive Biography by Lesley-Ann Jones
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Faust: A Tragedy by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2015/10/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-queens-bohemian-rhapsody
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/music/11519641/10-songs-nobody-understands.html
https://www.songfacts.com/facts/queen/bohemian-rhapsody


Famous Misquotations: We Can Easily Forgive a Child Who is Afraid of the Dark, the Real Tragedy…

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsYou have probably seen it a hundred times — you will find it in many collections of quotes (online and in print) as well as posters and tshirts. The full quotation, of course, is “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light” and invariably it is attributed to one of the greatest philosophers of all time: Plato. Only problem is that Plato, who lived around 428 to 347 BC, never said this. Oops.

Attributing this quote to Plato is not far-fetched, perhaps because it is understandably conflated with his well-known allegory of the cave. In his seminal work, Republic (written about 380 BC) Plato writes about a discussion Socrates had with some Athenians. Socrates described the following setting: there are humans chained to the side of a cave, facing a blank wall. Because they are deep inside the cave, they cannot see the outside world — all they can see are shadows (“forms”) of things that pass by the fire. Consequently, they give names to each of these shadows. These shadows are the prisoners’ only reality. One fateful day, one of the prisoners breaks free and ventures out into the real world and is astonished by what he sees. Feeling sorry for his fellow men, he returns to explain how amazing the real world is, and that all they have seen and known is an illusion — merely shadows on a wall. You can imagine the response: most think he is a few peas short of a pod. And they stay put — better to stick with what we know then to walk out into the light, following the ramblings of a crazy escapee. And that image leads us to the meaning of the allegory: don’t stay chained in the dark, go out and explore the world, question everything. Socrates said it best at his trial (described in Plato’s Apology), “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The discussion of dark and light aligns neatly with the allegory of the cave, right? I mean, the sentiment is quintessential Plato? Not so fast, Padawan. To find the true source of this quote you will need to step into a time machine and transport yourself almost 2,500 years later — to 1997! Alas, the true source of this quote is not an ancient Greek but a very modern Canadian — namely, Robin Sharma, a writer and motivational speaker. This famous quote appears in his book, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, a self-help book that was published in 1997. According to the author, the book “gently offers answers to life’s biggest questions as well as a practical process to help you create prosperity, vitality, happiness and inner peace. This inspiring tale provides a step-by-step approach to living with greater courage, balance, abundance, and joy.  A wonderfully crafted fable, The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari tells the extraordinary story of Julian Mantle, a lawyer forced to confront the spiritual crisis of his out-of-balance life. On a life-changing odyssey to an ancient culture, he discovers powerful, wise, and practical lessons that teach us to [live a fuller, more meaningful life].” Something that Plato could definitely give an enthusiastic high five to. Of course, Plato, would not be happy with the false attribution of the quote. But imagine Sharma’s annoyance of having his aphorism being universally attributed to Plato — “Hey, Robin, you stole that great line from Plato, didn’t you?” It’s about time that we give this living author the credit he deserves. Share this post when you see someone mistakenly attribute the quote to Plato and truly enlighten them (pun intended).

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For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life

Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

For further reading: They Never Said It: A Book of Fake, Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions by Paul Boller, Jr. and John George
https://www.robinsharma.com/book/the-monk-who-sold-his-ferrari
http://ianchadwick.com/blog/nope-this-quote-is-not-from-plato/
http://www.mesacc.edu/~davpy35701/text/plato-things-not-said.html


Words Invented by Book Lovers 2

alex atkins bookshelf wordsBook Depository, a London-based online bookseller founded by a former Amazon employee (and now owned by Amazon), recently borrowed a page from Powell’s Books, based in Portland Oregon. (While Book Depository offers more than 18 million books, Powell’s is the real deal — it is the world’s largest brick-and-mortar independent bookstore with an inventory of more than a million new and used books. It is truly the book lover’s Mecca.) Book Depository was inspired by “Readerly Terms” featured on Powell’s Books’ blog. Readerly terms are witty made-up words (neologisms, to be precise) and phrases related to reading that are submitted by book lovers. Correspondingly, Book Depository created a series of bookmarks featuring neologisms that only a book lover would truly appreciate. Here are the words invented by the book lovers who work at Book Depository.

readlaxing: An enjoyable, relaxing moment when you sit down to read your book.

bookphoria: The feeling of great excitement when you receive a book you ordered.

motionblurb: Reading a book while on the move.

plotplash: That warm, cozy feeling when you get lost in a book on a dull rainy day.

novelicious: When you take that first sip of your chosen beverage and begin the journey of a new book.

What other words should they add to this series?

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 Invented by Famous Authors
Words Invented by Dickens
Words Invented by Disney
Words Invented by Book Lovers
The Teacher Who Invented Words

For further reading: http://www.bookdepository.com/bookmarks


Word of the Year 2018

alex atkins bookshelf words“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, “and next year’s words await another voice.” To that observation, we can add: this past year’s words also define the language, the conversations, or more accurately, the zeitgeist of the year. Each year, editors of major dictionaries review the stats on their respective websites to spot dramatic spikes in word lookups to determine which words capture the interest of the public. They develop a list and then debate which one merits the distinction of “word of the year.”

For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of Oxford Dictionaries selected toxic. Toxic is defined as “(1) poisonous, (2) relating to or caused by poison, or (3) very bad, unpleasant, or harmful.” The editors explain their rationale for choosing this word: “In 2018, toxic added many strings to its poisoned bow becoming an intoxicating descriptor for the year’s most talked about topics. It is the sheer scope of its application, as found by our research, that made toxic the stand-out choice for the Word of the Year title. Our data shows that, along with a 45% rise in the number of times it has been looked up on [online dictionary], over the last year the word toxic has been used in an array of contexts, both in its literal and more metaphorical senses.” The contexts include, in order of frequency: chemical, masculinity, substance, gas, environment, relationship, culture, waste, algae, air. Words that made the shortlist included: gaslighting, incel, techlash, gammon, big dick energy, cakes, overtourism, and orbiting.

For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of Merriam-Webster selected justice. Justice is defined as “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments.” The editors justify their selection: “The concept of justice was at the center of many of our national debates in the past year: racial justice, social justice, criminal justice, economic justice. In any conversation about these topics, the question of just what exactly we mean when we use the term justice is relevant, and part of the discussion.” Words that made the shortlist included: nationalism, pansexual, lodestar, epiphany, feckless, laurel, pissant, respect, maverick, and excelsior.

For 2018 Word of the Year, the editors of Dictionary.com selected misinformation. Misinformation is defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead.” The editors point out the difference between two related words: “The meaning of misinformation is often conflated with that of disinformation. However, the two are not interchangeable. Disinformation means ‘deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.’ So, the difference between misinformationand disinformation comes down to intent… Further confusing the issue is the fact that a piece of disinformation can ultimately become misinformation. It all depends on who’s sharing it and why. For example, if a politician strategically spreads information that they know to be false in the form of articles, photos, memes, etc., that’s disinformation. When an individual sees this disinformation, believes it, and then shares it, that’s misinformation.” The editors explain why they selected misinformation: “While the word misinformation has been around since the late 1500s, the nature of how information spreads has gone through drastic transformations over the last decade with the rise of social media. For most individuals on social media, fact-checking is an afterthought, if it is a thought at all, and misinformation thrives. This year, we saw technology platforms grapple with the role they play in the spread of misinformation.” The editors cite several specific examples: Cambridge Anayltica’s work on Facebook to influence Brexit and 2016 U.S. Presidential election; fake political ads on Facebook, Facebook’s allowing postings by Holocaust deniers, and impact of Facebook and WhatsApp on the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar. Words that made the shortlist included: representation, self-made, and backlash. This year, the editors also listed a number of terms associated with misinformation, their word of the year: disinformation, post-truth, fake news, bubble, filter bubble, echo chamber, confirmation bias, implicit bias, influencer, gatekeeper, homophily.

For 2018 Word of the Year, Bookshelf has selected complicit (and by extension the noun form, complicity, the state of being complicit). Complicit is defined as “(1) choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; (2) having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.” One is reminded of the famous quote attributed to Irish political philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Or consider an even more dramatic quote attributed to Dante Alighieri, who wrote the famous epic poem The Inferno: “The hottest [or darkest] places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.” Collusion, defined as “a secret agreement for an illegal purpose,” is a synonym for the first meaning of complicity; however, collusion (being very specific about an illegal act) is not synonymous with the secondary meaning of complicity (being very general — being involved on some level with wrongdoing, such as knowing about it, but not being the chief perpetrator).

Just look at any of the major news stories from the past year and you will distinctly see that ogre, complicity, rearing its ugly head in each case. In all of these narratives, one person (or several people) who should know better could have spoken up and either stopped or exposed the wrongdoing; however, for whatever reason, they chose to remain silent — they chose to be complicit. Want specifics? For your consideration, think of the executives at several entertainment companies who looked the other way while high profile, powerful individuals sexually abused and/or harassed subordinates over decades. Think of elected officials in Congress who looked the other way while President Trump degraded the integrity of the office of the President, eroded the institutions of bipartisan government, recklessly attacked the press calling the fourth estate “the enemy of the people,” destroyed the concept of “truth” by consistently lying (The Washington Post has kept track of them: as of this writing Trump has made 7,644 false or misleading claims, averaging about ten a day), and commanded his sycophantic, obdurate appointees to throw out key regulations and laws that protect most Americans on several fronts (dismantling the EPA, attempting to eliminate affordable healthcare, repeal of consumer protection rights, shocking treatment of immigrants, reducing taxes only for the upper class, eliminating debt relief for students defrauded by for-profit colleges… the list goes on), not to mention all the findings of complicity coming to light as a result of the Mueller investigation. Think of the bishops and priests at the highest level of the Catholic Church that looked the other way while priests sexually abused thousands of innocent young boys and girls over several decades. Think of the university leaders that looked the other way while coaches or doctors sexually abused young athletes. Think of the executives at the most powerful social media companies who looked the other way while hackers and data-mining companies influenced Brexit as well as the U.S. 2016 Presidential and 2018 mid-term elections.

Let us end the year with some hope. For that we turn to Yehuda Bauer, professor of Holocaust studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who delivered a speech to the German Bundestag on January 27, 1998. The quotation gained greater recognition when Bauer included these lines in a speech to the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust on January, 26, 2000. Bauer said, “I come from a people who gave the Ten Commandments to the world. Time has come to strengthen them by three additional ones, which we ought to adopt and commit ourselves to: thou shall not be a perpetrator; thou shall not be a victim; and thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.” So let us not forget that commandment in 2019 and beyond “thou shall never, but never, be a bystander.” Expressed another way, help your fellow man or woman — don’t be complicit when you see that they are being harmed in some way.

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

Read related posts:
Word of the Year 2017

Word of the Year 2016
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
Words Related to Trump

For further reading:
https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/word-of-the-year/word-of-the-year-2018
https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year-2018-justice
https://www.dictionary.com/e/word-of-the-year/
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/trump-claims-database/?utm_term=.96b36812acbf
https://wikidiff.com/collusion/complicity


The Most Famous Christmas Villains

alex atkins bookshelf moviesOn Saturday, December 22, a day after the U.S. government entered a partial shutdown, the New York Daily News featured a cover photo of President Trump rendered as the mean old Grinch, from Dr. Seuss’ well-known holiday story How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The copy on the newspaper reads: “How the Trump Stole Christmas! Shuts down government over wall to put coal in stockings of 800,000 workers. It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right. It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight. But we think that the most likely reason of all may have been that his heart was two sizes too small.” Touché!

It’s ironic that when we think of Christmas, imbued with goodness and generosity, that we also think of its polar opposites: evil and greediness. Indeed, literature, television, and film have created some of those most enduring and evil Christmas villains that have become so embedded in our culture that they have entered the English lexicon. Calling someone a Scrooge, a Grinch, or a Mr. Potter instantly evokes the most miserable, misanthropic, and miserly curmudgeons. Bah, humbug!

Without further ado, here are some of the most famous villains of Christmas, in chronological order (character, appearance in film or book, followed by evil deed):

Ebenezer Scrooge: appears in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843); the quintessential Christmas villain. In Dickens’ memorable prose: “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.” Scrooge is a truly wretched curmudgeon; listen to his bitter response to his nephew’s cheerful holiday greeting: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

Henry F. Potter (known as Old Man Potter): appears in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946); the Scrooge of Bedford Falls who is hellbent on either destroying or gaining control of George Bailey’s building and loan company. Potter has a heart made of ice — check out his response to Bailey’s plea for help: “Look at you… you used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me “a warped, frustrated old man!” What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk… crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No security, no stocks, no bonds; nothing but a miserable little five-hundred dollar equity and a live insurance policy. Eh he he he! You’re worth more dead than alive!Why don’t you go to the riff-raff you love so much and ask them to let you have eight-thousand? You know why? Well, because they’d run you out of town on a rail! But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do for you, George. Since the state examiner is still here, as a stockholder of the Building and Loan, I’m going to swear out a warrant for your arrest!”

The Grinch: appears in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957); steals the decorations and gifts of all the adorable Whos of Whoville

Bumble: appears in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964); the abominable snowman who terrifies all those who venture through the icy north pole

Bürgermeister Meisterburger: appears in Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970); bans toys for tripping on a toy duck

Heat and Snow Miser: appears in The Year Without Santa Claus (1974); use their weather powers for evil

Scut Farkas: appears in A Christmas Story (1983); a bully who regularly ambushes Ralphie and his friends

Frank Shirley: appears in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989); cancels employee bonuses and instead gives them a membership in the jelly-of-the-month club

Marv and Henry: appear in Home Alone (1990); two career burglars that scare and attempt to rob a young boy who is left alone in his home

SHARE THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS: 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 Art of Giving Good Gifts
What Returns Cost Retailers
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation Trivia
The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
Twas the Night Before Christmas
A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life
Best Quotes from A Christmas Carol
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
The Story Behind Scrooge
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”

 

 


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