Category Archives: Books

What Do Famous Literary Characters Actually Look Like?

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

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

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The Proust Questionnaire: Deepak Chopra

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

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

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

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

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

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

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

How would you like to die?
In meditation.

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

Read related posts: 

The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
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The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

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

A Dictionary May Be Read an Infinite Number of Ways

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

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

The Little Pun Book

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

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

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

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

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

A nudist is one who suffers from clothestrophobia.

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

A good masseur leaves no stern untoned.

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

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

A fad is in one era and out the other.

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

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

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

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

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

Read related posts: The Best of Puns, the Worst of Puns
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For further reading: The Little Pun Book by Robert Margolin.

Reading Is, in the Highest Sense, Exercise

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsBooks are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is nor a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, not on a few coteries of writers.

From Prose Works of Walt Whitman (1819-1892),one of the most influential American poets, considered the father of free verse. He believed that there was s symbiotic relationship between society and the poet: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” His seminal work, Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, celebrates nature and man’s relationship to it. Whitman was known for his unfettered experience of nature: he was an unabashed nudist and greatly enjoyed sunbathing in the nude.

Confessions of a Bibliophile: J. Kevin Graffagnino

alex atkins bookshelf booksAs with most human passions, there is disagreement over whether booklovers are born or made. For my part, I can only say that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a biblio­phile. I grew up surrounded by books. When I was a boy in Montpelier, Vermont, in the 1960s, our house contained somewhere around 1,000 books — then (and now, I suppose) considerably more than the average for an American home. My family’s “library” was an eclectic, unplanned mix of subjects and titles. Thirty years later, I can remember concentrations in European and American history, dozens of beautifully printed Limited Editions Club volumes from the 1930s to the 1950s, various impressive but impenetrable classics from the Everyman Library series, and an assortment of mod­ern literature, economics, biography, and philosophy. Even though there was almost nothing specifically aimed at chil­dren, beginning at about the age of nine or ten I still managed to fill many happy hours at home reading books I was too young to understand, plowing cover-to-cover through a near-complete run of American Heritage, and mining the tissue-thin pages of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica for arcane, out-of-date information to include in school papers and assignments. The absence of television — we were the only family I knew in Montpelier that didn’t own a TV — may well have steered me toward books for entertainment, but I don’t recall any particular sense of deprivation over having to substitute books for the delights of My Three Sons, Bonanza and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

From Only in Books: Writers, Readers, and Bibliophiles on Their Passion by J. Kevin Graffagnino. Graffagnino is director of the library at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Books are Magic Doors

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsBooks are, indeed, “Magic Doors” through which one can walk into innumerable wonderful worlds. The desirable thing — if chance has not solved the matter for us — is to enter first through the door which attracts us personally. The book to start with is the book which will cause the most intense mental excitement and leave an indelible impression that books can be alive. The individual should begin with those books which deal with subjects or people or places which exercise some strong attraction on his curiosity.

American journalist Jesse Lee Bennett (1885-1931) from What Books Can Do For You: A Sketch Map of the Frontiers of Knowledge (1923)

For further reading:$b658756;view=1up;seq=34

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