Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

Stories in Books Matter Because They Connect Us to One Another

“The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of courage — the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.”

From The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Orlean spent six years researching and writing her eighth book. One of the most fascinating stories she investigated was the Los Angeles library fire of 1986 (April 29,1986). It took more than 350 firefighters 7.5 hours to extinguish the fire that reached up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire was devastating — it destroyed more than 400,000 books and damaged another 350,000 volumes. At the time, the library collection included 1.2 million books. The fire was started on the fifth floor by an arsonist.

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What is the Value of a First Edition of A Christmas Carol?

atkins-bookshelf-booksWhen Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843, he wanted to make sure the book was affordable. The first printing of 6,000 copies, each book priced at a mere 5 shillings (about $2 in 1800s currency; about $25 in today’s currency) was sold out by Christmas eve. Dickens received his allotment of presentation copies on December 17, and immediately sent inscribed copies to his close friends and colleagues; he ran out of his copies 5 days later. Dickens’s publisher, Chapman and Hall, quickly printed a second and third edition, bringing the total of books sold to 9,000 by the end of the year — a remarkable achievement in Victorian England. Over the next few years, the book went through a total of 24 printings of that particular edition. Unfortunately, due to its high production costs, A Christmas Carol was not as profitable as Dickens had hoped. Bah humbug!

For almost two centuries, Dickens’s “ghostly little story” about redemption and charity has grown in our hearts — and just as significant, has grown in value exponentially. As bibliophiles and antiquarian booksellers know, there are many factors that contribute to a book’s value — condition, uniqueness, beauty, quality of binding, history, and inscription and/or signature. The first edition of A Christmas Carol (or The Carol, as it is known to collectors of Dickens’s works) has benefited from all these factors, and hence has consistently risen in value. A true first edition (from the first printing) is generally worth from $18,000 to $45,000. Any edition that was masterfully bound in fine leather and jewels by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, the premier bookbinders in London since 1901, is sure to fetch more than $30,000. The value of The Carol skyrockets when you consider the very rare inscribed presentation editions (the ones that Dickens gave to his friends) that range from $50,000 to $280,000! Truly a staggering valuation that would certainly bring a smile to any Scrooge.

A review of auction prices within the last two decades shows how quickly the value of A Christmas Carol has appreciated in modern times. A presentation copy inscribed to poet Thomas Hood was sold at auction in 1997 for $50,000. Just one year later, another presentation copy, this one inscribed to writer and poet Walter Landor, sold for $160,000. The most valuable copy, however, was a presentation copy inscribed to William Macready, an actor and close friend of Dickens, dated January 1, 1844 that was sold by Sotheby’s auction house for $282,408 in 2010.

As of this writing there are two valuable editions of A Christmas Carol for sale. There is is an exceptionally rare “trial issue” edition published by Chapman and Hall in 1844, worth $45,000. The book has an inscription by H. D. Linton, the brother of W. J. Linton who contributed four wood-engraved illustrations for the book. On the other hand, there is the first authorized collection edition of Christmas Books, containing A Christmas Carol and four other Christmas novels, that was published by Chapman and Hall in 1852 that is selling for $81,195. This is the first time that all five of Dickens’ Christmas novels were published together and Dickens wrote a new preface for them. But what makes this volume so valuable is that it is inscribed by Charles Dickens to a young woman, Agnes Sarah Lawrence. The inscription reads: “Agnes Sarah Lawrence, from her affectionate friend Charles Dickens, Twenty Second November 1852.” Agnes was the daughter of John Towers Lawrence of Balsall Heath, an acquaintance of the author. This is a presentation copy of the book, which means that the printer replaced the standard tissue guard that appears at the front of the book with a heavy text leaf, allowing the author to write a personalized note. Furthermore, this book contains the book label belonging to Carrie Estelle Doheny, considered one of the greatest women book collectors in America. Over six auction sales from 1987 to 1989, Doheny’s extraordinary book collection fetched $37.4 million — setting the record for the most lucrative book auction in history.

Certainly, Dickens could never have imagined that his modestly-priced Christmas story would become of the most precious and sought-after books in literature — making him in the end, to use Scrooge’s phrase, “a good man of business.”

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

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For further reading: The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn, Norton (2004)
The Cinderella of the Arts: A short History of Sangorski & Sutcliffe by Rob Shepherd

Little Books, Big Ideas: Words of Wisdom

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches. Some of the smaller ones are 1.5 inches by 2 inches. Unfortunately, miniature books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking miniature book: Words of Wisdom: A Book of Inspiration compiled by Armand Eisen for Andrews McMeel Publishing, a publisher of novelty books, comics, and calendars. In the introduction, Eisen writes: “Wisdom means something different to each of us, yet there is a golden thread that unites the words of great thinkers and writers — a common instinct for truth. Collected here is a sampling of the sages — reflections and advice on life’s joys, beauties, lessons, and eternal truths.” Here are some pearls of wisdom:

“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” (Robert Byrne)

“The man who has lived longest is not the he who has spent the greatest number of years, but he who has had the greatest sensibility of life.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

“If there is any peace it will come through living, not knowing.” (Henry Miller)

“Stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread and we want to know the whole cloth.” (Gustave Flaubert)

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” (Jonathan Swift)

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (William James)

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to Heaven.” (William Shakespeare, from All’s Well That Ends Well)

“Almost every man wastes part of his life in attempts to display qualities which he does not possess, and to gain applause which he cannot keep.” (Samuel Johnson)

“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.” (Marcus Aurelius)

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Famous Misquotations: Growing Old is Mandatory; Growing Up is Optional

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional” is one of those popular quotations you find all over the Internet, emblazoned on mugs, posters, t-shirts, journals, signs, pillows — you name it. Another variation is “Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional.” It is attributed to either Walt Disney (1901-1966), the famous animator, or  Charles Theodore “Chili” Davis (born 1960), a Jamaican-American former baseball player who is now a coach with the New York Mets. Like so many other quotations that seem to endlessly multiply on the Internet, it is a quotation in search of an author.

Let’s take a closer look at the two most commonly attributed authors. It certainly makes sense that the quote is attributed to Walt Disney whose work and theme parks are focused on capturing (or recapturing) a child’s sense of wonder and delight. It certainly sounds like something he would say; however, there is no evidence that proves that Disney ever wrote or said this. On the other hand, there are numerous collections of quotations posted within the last decade that cite Chili Davis as the source of this famous quotation; however, once again, there is no article or interview where this phrase appears. One of the earliest sources for the quotation, but lacking any attribution, is in Keith Evan’s Internet Joke Book: Volume Two (page 131), under the heading “Growing Old.” Lacking any definitive, verifiable written source, one can only conclude that this is an apocryphal quotation, most likely written by some anonymous individual, that has been circulating on the Internet for at least 20 years.

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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: (search Internet Joke Book, Volume Two)

What is the Most Asked Question on Google?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaEver wonder what is the most pressing question on people’s minds? Since almost everyone turns to the same expert — Google (or its handmaiden, Siri) — we can simply look at the search data to find the answer. The curious folks at Mondovo (an SEO marketing company based in Bangalore, India) distilled the data and broke it down into different categories of questions: why, can, who, when, where, what, and which. But the most revealing list is composed of the most frequently asked question in each of these lists. One thing is clear: most people were not paying attention during math class and didn’t retain volume conversions (remember those? How many ounces in a pound? How many ounces in a gallon?, etc.) Back in elementary school you thought you would never need them again. Surprise — you did; and thanks to Google, the answers to those pesky volume conversions are now at your fingertips! Interestingly, those math questions are in 7-way tie with the timing of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. The question that raises an eyebrow is: how to get pregnant? Really? We’re people also sleeping through health/sex education class? So without further ado, here are the top 20 most frequently asked questions on Google within the last few months of 2019 (followed by monthly global search volume):

What is my ip? (3.35 million)

What time is it? (1.83 million)

How to register to vote? (1.22 million)

How to tie a tie? (673,000)

Can you run it? (550,000)

What song is this? (550,000)

How to lose weight? (550,000)

How many ounces in a cup? (450,000)

When is Mother’s day? (450,000)

How many ounces in a pound (450,000)

How many ounces in a gallon? (450,000)

How many weeks in a year? (450,000)

When is Father’s day? (450,000)

What is my ip address? (450,000)

Can I run it? (368,000)

How to get pregnant? (368,000)

How to download Youtube videos? (368,000)

How to screenshot on a Mac? (301,000)

How old is Donald Trump? (301,000)

How to lose weight fast? (301,000)

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

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For further reading:

The Most Asked Questions on Google



Origins of “Talk Turkey” and “Quit Cold Turkey”

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAs Turkey Day approaches, curious minds ponder turkey related phrases, like “talking turkey” or “quitting cold turkey.” So why do we single out the poor turkey and imply that they are frigid? (Around this time of year we should pity them for the sacrifice they must make. No wonder those unfortunate beasts cower at the very mention of Thanksgiving Day. ) We don’t say, “I quit my Netflix binging cold monkey” or “I quit my addiction to Fortnite cold salamander.” Those statements sound so amazingly weird, don’t they?

Although they have different meanings, “talking turkey” means talking frankly and seriously while “quitting cold turkey” means quitting something suddenly and completely (typically used in context of a bad habit like smoking tobacco, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs), both phrases are closely related. Let’s step into the time machine and visit the early 19th century to learn how these phrases came about.

First, if you are American, you can take pride that both are true Americanisms (made in the USA!). The earliest recorded appearance of either phrase, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is in the early 1800s. Specifically, “talking turkey” appears in 1824 referring to speaking affably or frankly: “So that, all things considered, I hope neither the Indian, whom the Yankey could not cheat in the division of their game (a turkey and a buzzard)… will accuse me of not talking turkey.” So how did turkeys getting linked with talking — especially since they gobble? Lexicographers surmise that when settlers and Native Americans went hunting for wild turkeys, at the end of the hunt, they had to divide the spoils. If one of the hunters said, “talk turkey for Indian,” that meant that the Native American received a turkey. (Certainly, the Native American did not want to hear the settler talking buzzard.) Another explanation for the phrase was that the settlers encountered Native Americans, they often asked about the supply of wild turkeys; that is to say, they came to “talk turkey.” Finally, turkeys, being social birds (running around in flocks), came to represent individuals engaged in conversation. Gobble! Gobble!

The use of “taking turkey” slowly changed in meaning from talking affably to talking plainly or directly. We see this use in Dialect Notes from 1903: “I’m going to talk turkey with him and see if I can’t get him to mend his ways.” Over a period of about two decades, a variant of “talking turkey” arose: “talking cold turkey.” To talk cold turkey meant getting straight to the point, without delay or mincing words. The Random House Dictionary of American Historical Slang cites this entry from 1920: “Now tell me on the square — can I get by with this for the wedding — don’t string me — tell me cold turkey.” And from a 1922 letter from American poet and journalist Carl Sandburg: “I’m going to talk cold turkey with booksellers about the hot gravy in the stories.” LOL — Sandburg talking turkey!

Shortly after, the meaning of cold turkey morphs into “stopping suddenly” and is applied to addictions. The OED cites an article in the Daily Colonist (Victoria, B.C., 1921) that states: “Perhaps the most pitiful figures who have appeared before Dr. Carleton Simon … are those who voluntarily surrender themselves. When they go before him, they [drug addicts] are given what is called the ‘cold turkey’ treatment.” Well, thank you very much for that etymological contribution Dr. Simon!

So now you can dazzle your guests by talking turkey at Thanksgiving dinner with this fascinating etymology of “talking turkey” and “cold turkey.” And can you please pass the gravy…

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Peer Into Your Books — Make a Voyage of Discovery

alex atkins bookshelf books“‘What shall I do with all my books?’ was the question; and the answer, ‘Read them,’ sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”

From Thoughts and Adventures (1932) by Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965). Churchill, in addition to being an accomplished statesman, was a voracious reader, an eloquent orator, and a prolific writer. During his career, Churchill wrote 58 books, 260 pamphlets, 840 articles, and thousands of speeches (filling more than 9,000 pages). Through his words, he comforted and inspired a nation during some of Great Britain’s darkest and finest hours. It was therefore fitting, that in 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exited human values.” Interestingly, in the 1890s, many readers confused the British Churchill with another writer, living across the pond — a very successful American novelist, also named Winston Churchill (1871-1947). At that time, the American Churchill, who had written several bestselling novels, including Richard Carvel (1899), The Crisis (1901), and The Crossing (1904), was the more famous of the two. So in order to avoid confusion, the British Churchill began using “Winston S. Churchill” to differentiate himself from the well-known American novelist. The two of them met at least twice, but were never friends. In the end, the writings and legacy of the British Churchill eclipsed that of the American Churchill.

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