Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

The World Was Built to Develop Character

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsLife is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.

Henry Ford (1863-1947), American industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company. Many people mistakenly believe that Ford invented the automobile or that he invented the assembly line. Who invented the automobile does not have an easy answer — there were several inventors who made important contributions: Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot developed the first steam engine (1769) and Robert Anderson developed the first electric carriage (1832). But it was Karl Benz who developed the first gasoline automobile powered by an internal combustion engine in 1885. Ford is credited as “inventor” of the car simply because the Ford Model T revolutionized transportation in America in the early 1900s. By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts. They were cheap — $360 to $825 — and easy to drive.

The assembly line, on the other hand, was invented by Ransom Olds who founded the Olds Gasoline Engine Works in 1895. In order to build the Curved Dash Oldsmobile car quickly and inexpensively, Olds had workers assigned to fixed workstations, using interchangeable parts in repetitive operations, and vendors were set up to deliver the parts to each station. The reason that Ford is given credited for the assembly line, is that he added one important element: a conveyor: by playing the cars on a conveyor, moving from station to station, Ford created the first moving assembly line.

Ironically, when you think of assembly lines, you think of mass production and cheap labor. But, Ford had it the other way around. He introduced the concept of Fordism: mass production of inexpensive goods by workers who were paid high wages. Talk about anachronisms…

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For further reading: The People’s Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century by Steven Watts
They Made America by Harold Evans


Famous Actors Who Started Out in Commercials

alex atkins bookshelf moviesAll famous highly-paid actors had to begin somewhere — including in the humble world of commercials, hawking products that they probably wouldn’t want to be promoting today. But — hey — you have to start somewhere. Recall what Constantin Stanislavski, one of the most influential theatre directors and father of the Stanislavski method (known as method acting), declared to his acting students: “there are no small parts, only small actors.” Of course, many stars would never want to admit to doing commercials because they have reached such lofty heights; ahem, commercial work is beneath them. For example, before he was cooking blue meth in an RV, Bryan Cranston was smearing Preparation H on his bum. Jennifer Lawrence, on the other hand, possesses a certain amount of humility. During her acceptance speech for Best Actress SAG award, Lawrence graciously thanked MTV for helping her get her start in showbiz with a promo for My Super Sweet 16, a reality TV series about privileged (read: spoiled) teenagers. Back then she earned a pittance; today she commands $10 million plus per film. That’s the meteoric trajectory of showbiz… Inspired by her proud admission, here is a list of famous actors, and the products they hawked, long before they became famous.

Ben Affleck: Burger King

Brad Pitt: Pringles

Bruce Willis: Seagram’s Wine Coolers

Bryan Cranston: Preparation H

Dakota Fannin: Tide

Drew Barrymore: Pillsbury Chocolate Chip Cookies

Dustin Hoffman: Volkswagon

Elijah Wood: Pizza Hut

Elisabeth Moss: Excedrin

Evangeline Lilly: Canadian singles phone chat lines

Jodie Foster: Coppertone

Jason Bateman: Golden Grahams cereal

John Travolta: Lifebuoy soap, Band-Aid

Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Pop Tarts

Keanu Reeves: Corn Flakes, Coca-Cola

Kirsten Dunst: Baby Dolly Surprise

Kristen Stewart: Porsche

Leonardo DiCaprio: Bubble Yum

Lindsay Lohan: Jell-O

Matt LeBlanc: Heinz ketchup

Meg Ryan: Aim toothpaste, Burger King

Mila Kunis: Lisa Frank

Morgan Freeman: Listerine

Naomi Watts: Tampax

Paul Rudd: Super Nintendo

Tina Fey: Mutual Savings Bank

Tobey Maguire: Doritos

Tom Selleck: Close Up toothpaste; Pepsi

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For further reading: The Super Book of Useless Information by Don Voorhees

The Most Beautiful Words in the English Language

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWilfred Funk, Jr. (1883-1965) was the son of Isaac Kaufmann Funk, founder of Funk & Wagnalls that published very popular sets of encyclopedias and dictionaries in the mid 1900s. Funk was literally a man of letters (and words): he was president of Funk & Wagnalls, founder of his own book publishing company, founder and editor of The Literary Digest, wrote poetry, wrote several books on vocabulary and etymology, and wrote the “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power” column for Reader’s Digest. That’s a lot of writing and words — perhaps that what Lipps Inc were talking about when they asked, “Won’t you take me to Funkytown?” [An American disco song from the 1979 album Mouth to Mouth that you either love or loathe. Caution: this song can become a long-lasting earworm, so listen at your own peril. You’ve been warned! On a related note, fans of NBC’s Parenthood, will recall that the Bravermans added an entirely new meaning to funky town [S4E2]…)

In 1932, to publicize the publication of one of Funk & Wagnalls new dictionaries, Funk published a list of what he considered, after a “thorough sifting of thousands of words” the ten most beautiful words (in his words, “beautiful in meaning and in the musical arrangement of their letter”) in the English language. (Incidentally, there is a word for that: euphonious — a euphonious word is a beautifully- sounding word; interestingly, euphonious is itself… euphonious.) Here is Funk’s list of the top ten most beautiful words in the English language:


But a top ten list is so restrictive. Funk was in a bit of a… well, funk. To break out of it, he subsequently published a more extensive list of the most beautiful words in the English language in a column for Reader’s Digest:


What do you consider to be the most beautiful words in the English language? Let’s talk about it, talk about it…

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Quotes Mistakenly Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThere are some notable people from history, who were larger than life — and due to their prolific writings and speeches, over the decades have become magnets for quotations. Martin Luther King, Jr., legendary civil rights activist and recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, is one of those individuals, alongside such luminaries as Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Jefferson. King’s passionate and eloquent “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered to a crowd of more than 250,000 civil rights supporters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, is perhaps one of the most well-known speeches in American history. It is important for several reasons: it marks the defining moment of the civil rights movement in America and it considered King’s oratory magnum opus — considered by many scholars to be one of the best speeches of the 20th century. The original typewritten speech, easily worth more than $3 million, is owned by George Raveling who was volunteering as a security guard on the day that King delivered the speech. After King waved goodbye to the audience he handed it to Raveling.

There are many wonderful quotable lines from the speech itself, such as: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” He wrote those words, and just as important, he said those very same words. But as a quotation magnet, there are a number of quotes that have been attributed to King that he never said, and most likely, never said. Scholars call these types of quotes apocryphal, thus an apocryphal quotation is purported to be true by way of repeated tellings but has never been verified by the person’s corpus or recordings and thus is more likely not be true. But of course, with the Internet, apocryphal quotes spread like wild fire. Here are some of the quotes mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
This sentence was written by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and Transcendalist; it is found in Ten Sermons of Religion, published in 1853.

Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.
This was written by another Martin Luther, specifically Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation.

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
This was written by the aforementioned Martin Luther.

Justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
This line is from the Bible, Amos 5:24.

Peace and justice are goals for man.
This was written by another famous quote magnet, Mahatma Gandhi.

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
The first sentence was written by Jessica Dovey, a University of Pennsylvania graduate teaching English in Japan, on her Facebook page. She added the next two sentences that were written by King (from Strength to Love); however, she attributed the entire quotation to King.

Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.
(Written by a Usenet user on January 15, 2006)

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Read related post: Why “I Have a Dream” Speech Endures
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For further reading: Hemingway Didn’t Say That by Garson O’Toole,_Jr.

The Most Expensive Autograph in the World

alex atkins bookshelf triviaImagine something a person can do in less than five seconds that could be worth millions of dollars years later. If you are the right person, writing your signature on the right piece of paper or item, it is possible. It is that serendipitous combination — the more notable the person and the more rarer the item — that makes some autographs the most valuable, and hence most sought after by a philographist. As famous autograph collector, Thomas Madison noted, “Between the present and the past there exists no more intimate personal connection than an autograph. It is the living symbol of its author.” The holy grail, that is, the most elusive and most expensive autograph in the world, is Acts of Congress, a personal copy of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the First Congress owned and signed by George Washington, the first president of the United States. In 2012, the book was sold at auction fetching $9.8 million. Here are the five most valuable autographs in the world:

1. George Washington (signature on Acts of Congress title page): $9.8 million

2. Abraham Lincoln (signature on Emancipation Proclamation): $3.7 million

3. John Lennon (signature on Double Fantasy album owned by Mark Chapman, who murdered Lennon): $525,000

4. Babe Ruth (signature on a baseball from 1927): $388,375

5. Jimi Hendrix (signature on a contract from October 15, 1965): $200,000

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For further reading:

Kindness is More Important than Wisdom

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.”

Theodore Isaac Rubin (born 1923), American psychiatrist and author of more than 25 books of nonfiction, including Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair. He is the past president of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis.

What is the Great American Novel?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEvery writer, professes or secretly aspires to one day write the Great American Novel. But the Great American Novel, it seems, is as elusive as Ahab’s white whale or perhaps is as elusive as Gatsby’s green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. American writer Frank Norris expressed it this way: “the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff.” [A hippogriff is a beautiful mythical creature with the body of a horse and the wings and head of an eagle.] Using today’s tech culture parlance, one would say that the Great American Novel is a unicorn. Surprisingly, this well-established phrase is not found in most printed dictionaries. So what exactly is the Great American Novel?

The phrase was coined by John William Deforest in an essay titled “The Great American Novel” published in The Nation on January 9, 1868. This date is important because it was several years after the end of the Civil War, when the young nation’s identity was still being forged. Deforest writes: “We may be confident that the Great American Poem will not be written, no matter what genius attempts it, until democracy, the idea of our day and nation and race, has agonized and conquered through centuries, and made its work secure. But the Great American Novel—the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence—the American “Newcomes” or “Miserables” will, we suppose, be possible earlier. “Is it time?” the benighted people in the earthen jars or commonplace life are asking. And with no intention of being disagreeable, but rather with sympathetic sorrow, we answer, “Wait.” At least we fear that such ought to be our answer. This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially—in the production of a few outlines.”

Deforest goes on to dismiss the work of such respected authors of that period, such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Fenimore Cooper, who he considers quintessentially “American” but not serious candidates for the Great American Novel. He does believe, however, that there is a work on the horizon that such deserves such an honor: “The nearest approach to the desired phenomenon is Uncle Tom’s Cabin [by Harriet Beecher Stowe]. [There] was also a national breadth to the picture, truthful outlining of character, natural speaking, and plenty of strong feeling… It was a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait.”

Thus Deforest provides the primary definition of the Great American Novel: a masterfully written novel by an American author that captures American experiences or values or evokes the ethos of a specific time in the country’s history. In her essay, “What is the Great American Novel” for the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Kellogg provides a more eloquent definition: “The Great American Novel: A book that most perfectly imagines the kaleidoscope of our nation, its social fabric and its troubled conscience, its individual voices and strivings, our loves and losses. If some of the classic examples – Moby-DickThe Great Gatsby – are as much about failure as success, the arc of those narratives is always anchored in hope.” The secondary meaning of the Great American Novel focuses on its metaphorical use: the Great American Novel represents a literary aspiration, a literary benchmark “to be devoutly wished,” as Shakespeare would say, as opposed to an attained ideal.

Like choosing the best film of the year, choosing which novel is the Great American Novel is challenging; it is a matter for thoughtful and passionate debate among scholars, literary critics, writers, and readers. As Kellogg mentioned, two novels often come to mind: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Although particularly relevant to the period in which they were written, as great works of literature, they have endured because they continue to speak to successive generations. Below is a list of novels that are considered to be a Great American Novel:

19th Century
1826: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
1850: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
1851: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
1876: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
1884: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

20th Century
1925: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
1925: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
1932: Light in August by William Faulkner
[1936: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
1936: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1938: U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos
1939: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
1940: Native Son by Richard Wright
1951: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
1952: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1953: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
1955: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
1960: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1960: Rabbit, Run by John Updike
1973: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
1975: J R by William Gaddis
1985: Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
1985: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1987: Beloved by Toni Morrison
1996: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
1997: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
1997: American Pastoral by Philip Roth
1997: Underworld by Don DeLillo

21st Century
2000: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
2004: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2010: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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