Category Archives: Books

Best Advice for Writers: Iain Banks

atkins-bookshelf-literatureWriting is like everything else: the more you do it the better you get. Don’t try to perfect as you go along, just get to the end of the damn thing. Accept imperfections. Get it finished and then you can go back. If you try to polish every sentence there’s a chance you’ll never get past the first chapter.

Iain Banks (1954-2013), Scottish science fiction author, best known for The Wasp Factory and the nine books that make up the Culture series. Bank was named one of the “50 Greatest British writer since 1945” by The Times in 2008.

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Poets Ranked by Beard Weight

alex atkins bookshelf booksPoets Ranked by Beard Weight, a leaflet privately published in England in 1913 by Upton Uxbridge Underwood (1881-1937), is a classic of Edwardian esoterica. Like his other works focused on pogonology (the study of beards), The Language of the Beard and Whiskers of the World, Poets Ranked by Bear Weight is extremely rare and consequently prized by bibliophiles — whether bearded or clean-shaven. Underwood, who wore a hideous variation of the Hulihee (think of the Wolverine’s beard, with long extensions at the base of the jaw that look like tusks made of hair), developed the Underwood Pogonometric Index (UPI) that ranges from 6 (very, very weak beard) to 60 (a perfect beard). Underwood believed that the beard made the bard, that is to say, there was a direct correlation between personal appearance and artistic proficiency. The higher the score, the more “poetic gravity” that the particular poet possessed. 

Underwood believed that a beard possessed an “odylic” (or “od”) force that was conveyed through a human by means of a nervous fluid, which in turn imbues the poet’s beard with “noetic emanations” and an “ectoplasmic aura.” Further, Underwood believed that the od force generated magnetic waves that could be measured by special laboratory equipment. Undoubtedly, if Underwood were alive today, he would be a perfect candidate for Scientology. The readings gave rise to his UPI scale; the average bearded individual had a score of 10-24. 

Here are the poets, ranked by beard weight (poet’s name, type of beard, followed by beard weight according to the UPI scale):

Walt Whitman (Hibernator): 22

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Dutch elongated): 24

Sir Walter Raleigh (Van Dyck): 27

Henry David Thoreau (Wandering Jim): 29

Lord Alfred Tennyson (Maltese): 33

James Russell Lowell (Queen’s Brigade): 34

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Italian False Goatee): 38

John Greenleaf Whittier (Full Velutinous): 38

Edwin Markham (Box): 39

Sidney Lanier (Spade): 41

John Burroughs (Claus-esque): 43

William Cullen Bryant (Van Winkle): 43

William Ernest Henley (Spatulate Imperial): 47

Joaquin Miller (Forked Elongated): 51

Samuel Morse (Garibaldi Elongated): 58

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For further reading: Poets Ranked by Beard Weight (The Commemorative Edition) by Upton Uxbridge Underwood

The Best Books Based in Every State

alex atkins bookshelf booksEver wanted to tour the entire United States through novels? Well, you’re in luck. The editors of Travel & Leisure put together a list of the best books base in every state, including Washington, D.C. For bibliophiles, it is certainly an interesting idea for building a collection of famous novels that are based in every state. As with any list of novels, there is bound to be some debate about whether the editors’ selection for a particular state is actually the “best” book; however, you be the judge:

Alabama: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Alaska: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Arizona: Here and Gone by Haylen Beck
Arkansas: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
California: Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
Colorado: The Shining by Stephen King
Connecticut: White Fur by Jardine Libaire
Delaware: A Light in the Storm: The Civil War Diary of Amelia Martin by Karen Hesse
Florida: Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Georgia: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Hawaii: The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings
Idaho: The Sheep Queen by Emma Russell Sweringen
Illinois: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Indiana: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Iowa: The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Walker
Kansas: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Kentucky: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Louisiana: The Awakening by Kate Chopin
Maine: The Cider House Rules by John Irving
Maryland: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
Massachusetts: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Michigan: Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Minnesota: On the Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Mississippi: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
Missouri: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Montana: A River Runs Through It  by Norman Maclean
Nebraska: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Nevada: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
New Hampshire: Frindle by Andrew Clements
New Jersey: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
New Mexico: The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages
New York: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
North Carolina: The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks
North Dakota: Beyond the Bedroom Wall by Larry Woiwode
Ohio: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Oklahoma: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Oregon: The Jump-Off Creek by Lydia Sanderson
Pennsylvania: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
Rhode Island: The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike
South Carolina: The Summer Girls by Mary Alice Monroe
South Dakota: The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber
Tennessee: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Texas: Holes by Louis Sachar
Utah: The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff
Vermont: All the Best People by Sonja Yoerg
Virginia: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Washington: Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson
Washington, D.C.: Lost In The City by Edward Jones
West Virginia: The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeannette Walls
Wisconsin: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
Wyoming: Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx

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For further reading:

Book Titles Based on Lines from the Bible

alex atkins bookshelf booksWhether you read it or not, believe in it or not, the Bible and its influence is ubiquitous — you find it in film, art, music, language, and literature. There are many books, for example, that focus on how the Bible has directly influenced language. Each day, without even knowing it, we use words and phrases that were introduced in the Bible: dust to dust, to break bread, salt of the earth, a two-edge sword, going the extra mile, a drop in the bucket, wolves in sheep’s clothing, the blind leading the blind… You get the picture. Not only has the Bible had an impact on language, it also has influenced literature — in themes and in titles. Indeed, the Bible has inspired the title of thousands of books. Here are some notable books with titles based on lines from the Bible (reference to Bible appears in parenthesis).

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (2 Samuel 13)

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy  (Genesis 18:1)

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Genesis 4:16)

Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard (Philippians 2:12)

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway (Genesis 13:10)

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Genesis 31:47)

Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (Negro spiritual by Fisk Jubilee Singers based on Exodus 8:1)

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Job 41:1-34)

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (Genesis 18:1)

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon 1:1)

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (Ecclesiastes 1:5)

A Time to Love and A Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque (Ecclesiastes 3:8)

The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (I Kings 2:3, Joshua 22:14)

The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) by William Faulkner (Psalms 137)

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For further reading: Brush Up Your Bible by Michael Macrone

Profile of a Book Lover: William Gladstone

alex atkins bookshelf booksToday, August 9, is National Book Lover’s Day. It is a day when bibliophiles rejoice. Tom Raabe, a self-c0nfessed bibliophile and author of Biblioholism: the Literary Addiction, describes the allure of the bookstore, especially on a day like today: ” The bookstore — Shangri-la, Camelot, the Seven Cities of Cibola, Nepenthe, Oceana, and Erewhon all rolled into one. Utopia and dystopia — it’s where the excesses of our biblioholism are on ready display. Oh, those happy aisles, those euphoric shelves — there’s something about them that sends a bibliopolic into delirious profligacy… Nothing touches the ecstasy of actually buying books, of getting our predaceous little hands on them for keeps. The bookstore — that’s where the bibliophilism in all of us shines.”

But some bibliophiles shine brighter than others. Take the case of William Gladstone who lived from 1892 to 1894. Not only was he an accomplished statesman — he was Prime Minister for the United Kingdom four separate times and Chancellor of the Exchequer four times — he was also in irrepressible biblioholic. Eugene Field, in The Love Affairs of a Bibliophile, recounts a memorable story of how he once went to a London bookshop to purchase a book. Gladstone happened to be shopping there as well. Field overheard the bookshop owner ask, “What books shall I send?” Gladstone gestured with a sweep of his arm and said, “Send me those!” and promptly walked out of the store. Field found the book he wanted and took it to the counter. The proprietor then informed Field that he could not buy the book because it had already been sold to Gladstone: “I haven’t a book for sale — Mr. Gladstone just bought them all!” The proprietor then explained that this was the third time that Gladstone had come into the store and bought the entire store’s inventory.

I submit to you for your consideration: William Gladstone as poster boy for National Book Lover’s Day 2017. What do you say?

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For further reading: Bibliophilism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe


The Last Book You Read Before You Die

alex atkins bookshelf booksFr. Joseph Gallagher taught poetry, philosophy, and literature at John Hopkins University, Notre Dame College, and Loyola College for many years. In the preface to his brilliant work on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, he shares a fascinating story: “Long ago I heard of a man who so loves Shakespeare that he kept one of his masterpieces unread. He wanted to look forward to savoring a fresh marvel on his deathbed… Through the decades that story has haunted me.”

Speaking of haunting, fans of ABC’s hit series Lost will recall that Desmond always carried a hardback edition (held closed by two rubber bands) of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, the last complete novel written by Dickens before he died (the novel was published in 1865; Dickens died in 1870). The book itself plays a role in key plot twists and the novel shares several narrative elements and themes with the spellbinding show.

Now I know what you’re thinking. If Desmond doesn’t know when he is going to die, how can he know to read the book? A fair question; however, the intent of the question is not what to read before you die by some tragic unpredictable occurrence (like being hit by a bus or being in a plane crash) — of course, that’s impossible. The assumption is that, in old age, Desmond realizes that death is not far beyond the horizon, and that he has some time to get his affairs in order — and read one incredible literary work.

The creators of Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, in turn, got the idea of the “the last book to read before you die” from a New York Times interview with writer and Dickens aficionado John Irving. Irving mentioned that he wanted Our Mutual Friend to be the last book he read before he died.

What will be the book you want to read before you die?

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For further reading: Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens
Shakespeare’s Sonnets Freshly Phrased by Joseph Gallagher

Best Advice for Writers: Diane Ackerman

atkins-bookshelf-literatureDiane Ackerman (born 1948) is an American essayist, naturalist, and poet. She is best known for The Zookeeper’s Wife, The Human Age, An Alchemy of Mind, A Natural History of Love, and A Natural History of the Senses. In Jon Winokur’s Advice to Writers, Ackerman offered this writing advice:

“The best advice on writing I ever received was: Invent your confidence. When you’re trying something new, in security and stage fright come with the territory. Many wonderful writers (and other artists) have been plagued by insecurity throughout their profes sional lives. How could it be otherwise? By its nature, art involves risk. It’s not easy, but sometimes one has to invent one’s confidence.

My own best advice to young writers is: follow your curiosity and passion. What fascinates you will probably fascinate others. But, even if it doesn’t, you will have devoted your life to what you love. An important corollary is that it’s no use trying to write like someone else. Discover what’s uniquely yours.”

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For further reading: Advice to Writers by Jon Winokur

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