Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

There’s a Word for That: Thrasonical

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you have ever listened to a world-class narcissist speak (consider Kanye West or Donald Trump) you are very familiar with thrasonical speech. Thrasonical, as you may have surmised from the previous sentence, means “boastful” or “vainglorious.” More specifically, it means “resembling, or relating to, or characteristic of Thraso. “Who the hell is Thraso?” you ask. “Is it one of the new Marvel superheroes? Or perhaps it is one of their nemeses?” Nice try, but no; however he is a fictional character. Thraso appears in the comedy Eunuchus (The Eunuch) written around 2 BC by Terence (c. 185-1509 BC), a slave who was freed and emerged as one of Rome’s most notable playwrights. The play centers on forbidden love between Phaedria, a young Athenian man from a good family, and Thais, a courtesan (a fancy way of saying “prostitute”) from a foreign land. One of the individuals who indirectly thwarts their relationship is Thraso, a warrior and slave owner, who is an insufferable, ostentatious braggart. The word, pronounced “thray SON i kul,” is derived from the Greek word thrasos, meaning “bold” or “spirited.”

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Why Writers Write: Da Chen

alex atkins bookshelf literature“Growing up poor in China during the seventies, I would do anything for a good meal, but I would do even more for a book. Books were a luxury that we often had to hand-copy. Ironic that I should love to read in the book desert China was then. I wanted to read because I was a storyteller even as a little lad,” writes Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain and Sounds of the River. He recounts how a small bookstore, inside a hut, opened up on the outskirts of his village. It cost one fen to rent a book — an amount that his family, living in poverty, could not afford. So Chen and his friends became resourceful, selling whatever items they could find around the village and looking for lost change, to be able to rent books. One of Chen’s favorite books was The Count of Monte Cristo. Sadly a Communist party member torched the bookstore reduced all those literary treasures into a heap of dust. “The party secretary took the books away from us,” writes Chen, “but not the seeds those fine seeds had sown. The deprivation didn’t stop our thirst for books, it only heightened it. Whenever there was a book in circulation among the villagers, we would rip it apart and hand-copy each chapter, and within days a new book would exist.” Years later after earning a law degree from Columbia University and working at an investment bank, Chen reflected back on his childhood and felt compelled to write about his childhood, his “childhood of deprivation.” “One of my silent dreams was to write books so no one could take them away from me,” he shares.

Chen concludes: “Writers write for various reasons. I write because my heart demands so. There is so much freedom in the simple act of sitting there, holding up my hands, waiting to pound on the computer keyboard, waiting for words to pour from the tips of my fingers and compose the melody of life from the faded tapestry of my past. That craving for freedom came from a deep princedom in my childhood, where a book was gold and a dream was but to hold it in your lap on a dreary Saturday afternoon, in that forgotten village far away, near the end of this earth.”

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Read related posts: Why Writers Write
How Reading Makes You Smarter

For further Reading: The Book That Changed My Life edited by Roxanne Coady and Joy Johannessen

This I Believe: In the Connection Between Strangers

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“I believe in the connection between strangers when they reach out to one another.

On June 23, 1970, I had just been mustered out of the Army after completing my one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. I was a 23-year-old Army veteran on a plane from Oakland, Calif., returning home to Dallas, Texas.

I had been warned about the hostility many of our fellow countrymen felt toward returning ‘Nam vets at that time. There were no hometown parades for us when we came home from that unpopular war. Like tens of thousands of others, I was just trying to get home without incident.

I sat, in uniform, in a window seat, chain-smoking and avoiding eye contact with my fellow passengers. No one was sitting in the seat next to me, which added to my isolation. A young girl, not more than 10 years old, suddenly appeared in the aisle. She smiled and, without a word, timidly handed me a magazine. I accepted her offering, her quiet ‘welcome home.’ All I could say was, ‘Thank you.’ I do not know where she sat down or who she was with because right after accepting the magazine from her, I turned to the window and wept. Her small gesture of compassion was the first I had experienced in a long time.”

From the essay “The Connection Between Strangers” by Miles Goodwin, who served as a clerk for the U.S. Army headquarters located outside of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in central Vietnam. The essay appears in This I Believe edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman.

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Read related posts: This I Believe: Good Can be as Communicable as Evil
Wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke

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For further reading: This I Believe and This I Believe II: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman

Let It Be: A Musical Tribute to Mothers

alex atkins bookshelf musicAlmost everyone knows the words by heart: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” While some believe Mother Mary refers to the Virgin Mary, Paul McCartney has clarified several times in interviews, that the song was inspired by his mother, Mary McCartney, a midwife, who passed away when Paul was only 14. Paul described his mother’s tremendous work ethic: “She was very hardworking, my mum,” Sir Paul recalled in an interview a few years ago. “She wanted the best for us. We weren’t a well-off  family – we didn’t have a car, we just about had a television – so both my parents went out to work. At night when mum came home she would cook so we didn’t have a lot of time with each other but she was just a very comforting presence in my life.” He recalls how she would cycle to work at three in the morning when the streets of Liverpool were covered in snow.

Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer at 47. The day before she was scheduled for surgery, Mary had cleaned their modest home from top to bottom, and laid out the boys’ school clothes so that they would be ready for the next morning. She confided to her sister-in-law, “Now everything’s ready for them is case I don’t come back.” And sadly, she didn’t. During the operation, she suffered an embolism and died. It was a huge shock to Paul, his younger brother Mike, and his father, Jim, a cotton salesman and a self-taught pianist. Even harder than losing his mother, was witnessing his father’s profound grief: “That was the worst thing for me, hearing my dad cry. You grow up real quick, because you never expect to hear your parents crying. It shakes your faith in everything. But I was determined not to let it affect me. I carried on. I learnt to put a shell around me.”

Paul found comfort in two things: his music and his deep friendship with John Lennon, who had also lost his mother at a young age (John’s mother died when he was 17). This shared loss was a profound bond between them. Over the years, they would be sitting around and recall their mothers and feel the pain of that loss; Paul shared that “we’d have a cry together.”

Fast forward to 1968. The Beatles were an international success and sensation; but their different visions for their music and bitter arguments foreshadowed the inevitable break up of one of the most popular bands in history. It was during these turbulent times, that Mary reached out to her son in a dream; Paul explained: “One night, somewhere between deep sleep and insomnia, I had the most comforting dream about my mother. There was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be.’ It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point  and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try to go with the flow and it will all work out…. So being a musician I went  to the piano and started writing a song: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.’ The song, released in 1970, quickly climbed the music charts, becoming one of the band’s greatest hits — and their last one, as a band.

In a recent interview, Paul reflected on the personal and universal meaning of the song: “So those words are really very special to me because not only did my mum come to me in a dream and reassure me with them at a very difficult time  but also, in putting them into a song and recording it with the Beatles, it became a comforting, healing statement for other people too.”

Today, Bookshelf honors all the mothers who have stood calmly and resolutely during their children’s times of trouble — when they lost their way — and whispered comforting, healing words of wisdom so they can sail on through life’s tempest-tossed seas.

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Read related posts: What is the Meaning of Bohemian Rhapsody?
What is the Meaning of Elton John’s Rocket Man?
What is the Meaning of I Dreamed a Dream?

For further reading:

What is an Archaism?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you have read the Bible, Shakespeare, or legal documents you have encountered them time and time again. Consider the well-known commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” or Polonius’ advice to Hamlet, “To thine own self be true,” or the wedding vow, “With this ring I thee wed.” Which words seem to stand out in the context of contemporary language? I mean, who even speaks like that any more? There are four words that immediately capture our attention: “thou,”  “shalt,” “thine,” and “thee.” A word or a style of writing (or speech) that belongs to an earlier time is known as an archaism (from the Greek archaikos meaning “antiquated” or “ancient”). These antiquated words or phrases, also known as archaic diction, remain in the modern lexicon because they are kept alive by continued use, such as in literature and poetry, as well as legal and religious rituals. Here are some common archaisms we encounter in our daily lives:

















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Read related posts: What is a Pangram?
What is a Malaphor?
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World of Allusions: Moby Dick

alex atkins bookshelf words“All of us run into (and sometimes use) [allusions], these sideways references that are intended to add color and vigor to language. But they are lost on us if we have forgotten or never knew what they mean,” writes Elizabeth Webber, co-editor of the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions. So that invites the question, when one encounters an allusion in a publication or book, where do we look it up? Most dictionaries, of course, only provide very precise definitions of discrete words, excluding phrases and allusions. Enter the Dictionary of Allusions, which is an absolutely incredible reference work; Webber describes it as “a collection of those tricky allusions that appear without accompanying explanations in our daily reading… The terms come from literature, sports, mythology, Wall Street, history, headlines, Shakespeare, politics, science, standup comics and Sunday comics, and venues from the locker room to the board room.” Today we will turn our attention to the allusion “Moby Dick.”

Many will recognize the title of Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby-Dick, considered the Great American Novel, published in 1851. And they may be familiar with its basic plot, told by Ishmael, the sole survivor of the voyage aboard the whaling ship the Pequod: Captain Ahab obsessively pursues the great white whale, Moby-Dick, seeking revenge for the whale that took his leg many years before. In the novel, Moby-Dick functions as a symbol on many levels: cetological, religious, philosophical, ontological, epistemological — to name a few. Similarly, as an allusion, Moby Dick refers to one of several general meanings: the incarnation of evil, an obsessive, perhaps impossible quest (that may result in the pursuer’s death), a representation of God (hidden, mysterious, unknowable, inscrutable), and finally, a representation of unknowable truth or reality.

Now you understand why Moby-Dick is a whale of a tale…

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Read related posts: Why Read Moby-Dick?
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Famous Misquotations: It is the Mark of an Educated Mind…

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsA common quotation attributed to Aristotle is: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” A great observation, to be sure; however, as is often the case regarding quotations that circulate on the Internet, the person, in this case Aristotle, never said it or wrote it.

The earliest that this quotation appears in print is in Religion and the Pursuit of Truth (1959) by Lowell Bennion. On page 52 of the book, Bennion writes: “In this general approach to the subject of science and religion, the writer does not wish to be misleading. There will continue to be conflict in the minds of those who give earnest thought to both fields. Now and then one may have to choose between the two fields. However, much of the conflict is unnecessary and can be resolved… if he will follow the wisdom of Aristotle’s thought, ‘It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’ (or rejecting it, one might add).”

It’s anyone’s guess where Bennion read that sentence in Aristotle’s writings — or what he was smoking when he misread the relevant passage. One can only assume it is a rather radical paraphrase of the actual sentence that appears in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Book 1, 1094a.18, translated by W. D. Ross), albeit with a very different meaning: “It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.”

Perhaps if Aristotle were alive today he would remark, “It is the mark of an educated mind not to believe everything you read on the Internet.”

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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

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