Famous Letters: Ralph Waldo Emerson Praises Walt Whitman

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhen Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855, he lamented that his collection of twelve poems, celebrating nature and man, was completely ignored by critics and the public — until a famous American writer and philosopher, whom he had never met, wrote a letter of support and helped launch his career. That letter was written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Harvard-educated essayist, philosopher, and father of Transcendentalism. In addition to writing many essays during his career, Emerson was a prolific letter writer — when he died, he left his executor more than 4,000 letters. The one that appears below, written on July 21, 1855, was one of the most famous. It was printed in the New York Tribune and included in Whitman’s second edition of Leaves of Grass published in 1856. In the letter, Emerson (then 52 years old) greets Whitman (36 years old) at the start of his career, praises Leaves of Grass, and expresses his wish to meet him in New York to pay his respects.

Concord, Massachusetts
July 21, 1855

Dear Sir,
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fat & mean.

I give you the joy of your free & brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights us, & which larger perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which you must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illustration; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real & available for a Post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay you my respects.

R. W. Emerson.

Now that’s what you call a true fan letter. The letter touched Whitman deeply; he wrote: “I was simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.” [The contemporary reader might think, “Wow, the letter made Whitman angry;” however, that’s not what Whitman meant; to paraphrase in more modern terms, Whitman was “brimming with excitement.”] Emerson’s letter certainly helped increase sales of Leaves of Grass, but did not completely quell the controversy about the poems explicit sexual imagery (considered “obscene”), which was way ahead of its time. In a postscript to the letter, Max Lincoln Schuster (one of the founders of Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books) elaborates: “The endorsement of so famous and respected a philosopher helped to sell the book but did not too greatly impress a public, outraged and rather vitriolic in its abuse of both the poems and the poet. Soon after writing this letter, Emerson met Whitman. Although the two men were separated by a world of culture and tradition… nevertheless their mutual admiration lasted all their lives.” Little did both men know, but Emerson’s instincts about Whitman’s work was spot on: over the centuries, Leaves of Grass entered the pantheon of great American poetry and has been studied in high schools and colleges around the world. Whitman would take great satisfaction in knowing that many generations found profound insights and inspiration in poems like “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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For further reading: The World’s Great Letters by M. Lincoln Schuster

Bookstores are Places of Curiosity

alex atkins bookshelf books“The wonderful thing about bookstores is that there’s not a single country in the world in which they’re simply there to sell books. Their function is not restricted to merely serving the market — you won’t find any booksellers who have geared their business solely toward economic success. They’re not driven by money, but by their own attitude. In the process, they make a real contribution towards preserving cultural diversity, actively committed as they are to freedom of expression, which comes coupled with a concern for equal opportunities and tolerance, rather than catering to elitist circles. There are few other places that offer visitors a similar atmosphere in such abundance… Bookstores are places of communication, curiosity, and the new, but they never lose sight of the past.”

From the introduction to Do You Read Me?: Bookstores Around the World by Juergen Boos, Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair. The book features 60 of the most beautiful and innovative indie bookstores around the world. Moreove, the book celebrates the bookstore as a modern temple of knowledge, curiosity, and inspiration that connects people and ideas.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

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The Top Ten Most Beautiful Words in the English Language

alex atkins bookshelf wordsThe English language is vast, containing more than a million words and growing at a rate of several thousand words each year. However, most English speakers have a vocabulary that is substantially smaller: generally between 20,000 to 35,000. Every once in a while, through reading or conversation, you come across a word that stands out; you think to yourself “that is such a beautiful word.” Many logophiles keep lists of what they consider to be beautiful words. For example, in 1932, to publicize the publication of one of Funk & Wagnalls new dictionaries, founder Wilfred 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:

chimes
dawn
golden
hush
lullaby
luminous
melody
mist
murmuring
tranquil

More recently, the editors of BuzzFeed cast their net into the vast ocean of the Twitterverse to find out what people considered the most beautiful words in the English words. They came up with a great list of “32 of the most beautiful words in the English language.” The list should be published with some caveats. One of the words, hiraeth, is actually Welsh. A few are actually neologisms (relatively new words that are in the process of entering common use) and will not be found in traditional dictionaries. Here are the top ten most beautiful English words from that list:

aquiver
mellifluous
ineffable
hiraeth
nefarious
somnambulist
epoch
sonorous
serendipity
limerence

To celebrate United Nations English Language Day (April 23), the editors of KBLOG, the blog of Kaplan International Languages, published their own  list of the top 10 most beautiful English words:

sequoia
euphoria
pluviophile
clinomania
idyllic
aurora
solitude
supine
petrichor
serendipity

What do you consider to be the most beautiful words in the English language?

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Read related posts:  What is the Most Beautiful-Sounding Word in English?
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
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The Most Mispronounced Words
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For further reading: https://englishlive.ef.com/blog/language-lab/many-words-english-language/
www.buzzfeed.com/danieldalton/bob-ombinate
http://www.kaplaninternational.com/blog/learning-languages/eng/top-10-most-beautiful-english-words

The Most Annoying Bookstore Customer in the World

alex atkins bookshelf booksBefore there was SNL, and even before there was Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there was a brilliant comedy sketch show titled “At Last the 1948 Show.” One of the funniest skits takes place in a bookstore that is appropriately titled “The Bookshop,” which was first broadcast on March 1, 1967 on ITV in the UK. The bookseller (played by John Cleese) encounters an annoying customer (played by Marty Feldman) who keeps on asking for extremely rare, rather peculiar titles that are next to impossible to find — gradually wearing out the bookseller’s patience to great comedic effect. Surely this is the type of customer that every bookstore owner dreads. Without further ado, let’s meet the most annoying bookstore customer in the world…

[Bookseller]: Good morning, sir.

[Customer]: Good morning, can you help me? Do you have a copy of “Thirty Days in the Samarkand Desert with a Spoon” by A. J. Elliot?

B: No, we haven’t got it in stock, sir.

C: How about “A Hundred-and-One Ways to Start a Monsoon”?

B: By…?

C: An Indian gentleman whose name eludes me for the moment.

B: Well, I don’t know the book, sir.

C: Not to worry, not to worry. Can you help me with “David Copperfield”?

B: Ah, yes, Dickens.

C: No.

B: I beg your pardon?

C: No, Edmund Wells..

B: I think you’ll find Charles Dickens wrote “David Copperfield.”

C: No, Charles Dickens wrote “David Copperfield” with two p’s — this is “David Coperfield” with one p by Edmund Wells.

B: Well in that case we don’t have it.

C: Um – funny, you’ve got a lot of books here.

B: Yes, we do have quite a lot of books here, but we don’t have “David Coperfield” with one p by Edmund Wells. We only have “David Copperfield” with two p’s by Charles Dickens.

C: Pity – it’s more thorough than Dickens.

B: More “thorough”?

C: Yes – I wonder if it’s worth having a look at all the “David Copperfields.”

B: No, no, I’m quite sure that all our “David Copperfields” have two p’s.

C: Probably, but the original by Edmund Wells also had two p’s — it was after that that they ran into copyright difficulties.

B: No, I’m quite sure that all our “David Copperfields” with two p’s are by Charles Dickens.

C: How about “Great Expectations”?

B: Ah yes, we have that.

C: That’s “G-r-a-t-e Expectations,” also by Edmund Wells.

B: “G-R-A-T-E” Well, in that case we don’t have it. We don’t have anything by Edmund Wells. Actually, he’s not very popular.

C: Not “Nicholas Nickleby? That’s K-n-i-c-k-e-r-b-y… Knickerless?

B: No.

C: Or “A Qristmas Qarol” with a q?

B: No, definitely not.

C: Sorry to trouble you. [Heading out the door.]

B: Not at all.

C: I wonder if you have “Rarnaby Budge”?

B: No, as I say, we’re right out of Edmund Wells.

C: No, not Edmund Wells — Charles Dickens.

B: Charles Dickens?

C: Yes.

B: You mean “Barnaby Rudge.”

C: No, “Rarnaby Budge” by Charles Dikkens. That’s Dikkens with two k’s, the well-known Dutch author.

B: No, no… we don’t have “Rarnaby Budge” by Charles Dikkens with two k’s, the well-known Dutch author, and perhaps to save time I should add right away that we don’t have “Carnaby Fudge” by Darles Tikkens, nor “Stickwick Stapers” by Miles Pikkens with four m’s and a silent q. Why don’t you try the chemist?

C: I have – they sent me here.

B: Did they?

C: I wonder if you have “The Amazing Adventures of Captain Gladys Stoat-Pamphlet and Her Intrepid Spaniel Stig Among the Giant Pygmies of Corsica, Volume Two”?

B: No, no, we don’t have that one. Funny, we’ve got quite a lot of books here.

C: Yes, haven’t you.

B: Well, I mustn’t keep you standing around all day…

C: I wonder…

B: No, no, we haven’t. I’m closing for lunch now…

C: But I thought I saw it over “there.”

B: Where?

C: Over there…

B: What?

C: Olsen’s “Standard Book of British Birds.”

B: Olsen’s “Standard Book of British Birds”?

C: Yes.

B: “O-l-s-e-n?”

C: Yes.

B: “B-i-r-d-s”?

C: Yes.

B: Yes, well we do have that one.

C: The expurgated version, of course.

B: I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that.

C: The expurgated version.

B: The expurgated version of Olsen’s “Standard Book of British Birds”?

C: Yes. It’s the one without the gannet.

B: The one without the gannet? They’ve all got the gannet. It’s a standard bird, the gannet — it’s in all the books.

C: Well I don’t like them, long nasty beaks they’ve got.

B: Well you can’t expect them to produce a special edition for gannet-haters!

C: Well, I’m sorry, I specially want the one without the gannet.

B: All right! [tears out the page with the gannet] Anything else?

C: Well, I’m not too keen on robins.

B: Right! Robins – robins… [tears out pages with robins] No gannets, no robins – there’s your book!

C: I can’t buy that – it’s torn!

B: It’s torn! So it is! [throws the book away]

C: I wonder if you’ve got…

B: Go on, ask me another. We’ve got lots of books here. This is a bookshop you know!

C: How about “Biggles Combs His Hair”?

B: No, no, no, we don’t have that one, no, no… funny. Try me again.

C: Have you got “Ethel the Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying”?

B: No, no, we haven’t got… which one?

C: “Ethel The Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying”

B: “Ethel The Aardvark?” I’ve seen it! We’ve got it! Here! Here! Here! “Ethel The Aardvark Goes Quantity Surveying.” There! Now buy it!

C: I haven’t got enough money on me.

B: I’ll take a deposit!

C: I haven’t got any money on me.

B: I’ll take a cheque!

C: I haven’t got a cheque-book.

B: It’s all right, I’ve got a blank one!

C: I don’t have a bank account.

B: Right! I’ll buy it for you! [he rings up the book] There we are. There’s your change. That’s for the taxi on the way home.

C: Wait, wait, wait…

B: WHAT? WHAT?

C: I can’t read!

B: Right. SIT! [customer plops down on the bookseller’s lap and the bookseller begins to read]: “Ethel the Aardvark was trotting down the lane one lively Summer day, trottety-trottety-trot, when she saw a Quantity Surveyor…”

You can watch the video on Youtube. Search for “John Cleese’s Favourite Sketch: The Bookshop.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Franz Kafka: The Storyteller

 

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt would be perhaps Kafkaesque to walk into a used bookstore and not find a fairly large section of books by and about one of the most influential writers of the 20th-century: Franz Kafka (1883-1924). American author John Updike regards him this way: “So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament.”

Fortunately, editions of Kafka’s novels and short stories abound. Perhaps the best collection of Kafka’s short stories was published by Schocken Books in 1983, marking the centennial of the author’s birth. The book, titled Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, was edited by Nahum Glatzer with a forward by John Updike. This collection brings together all of Kafka’s stories, parables, and shorter pieces that were only released after his death. With the exception of his three novels (The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle), all of Kafka’s narrative work is included in this book. Updike’s foreword is excellent, however a far more insightful foreword was written by Joyce Carol Oates for the simultaneous publication of the paperback edition (Quality Paperback Book Club), which is now quite difficult to find. Kafka fans, students, and scholars alike will surely benefit from reading Oates’ exploration of the brilliant writer and his mesmerizing work. Below are some key excerpts:  

“It would be an illuminating if arduous task to tabulate how frequently, and in what surprising contexts, one encounters the adjective “Kafkan” or “Kafkaesque” in the space of a single year-words that entered our language, presumably, only since the Forties, when Kafka’s translated works began to find their public. One always knows immediately what the words mean (as one always knows what Franz Kafka himself “means”) but how to explain to another person? — how to make clear that which is frankly cloudy, mysterious, inexpicable? As Kafka wittily observed in “On Parables”: “All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.” 

Though the words “Kafkan” and “Kafkaesque” invariably point to paradox and human frustration, and suggest childhood memories of terrifying disproportion, it is the case nonetheless that Franz Kafka’s stories and parables are not at all difficult to read and to understand. (To explain — that is another matter: but a peripheral one.) In fact, one might claim that alone among the greatest of twentieth-century writers Kafka is immediately accessible. His unique yet powerfully familiar world can be entered by any reader and comprehended feelingly at once, regardless of background or literary training. (In fact, unsophis­ticated — which is to say unprejudiced-readers respond to Kafka most directly, as he would have wished. Perceptive teenagers love him not because he is “one of the great moderns” but be­cause he speaks their private language by speaking so boldly in his own.) Kafka is no more difficult than any riddle, or fairy tale, or Biblical parable, though of course he can be made to seem so by persons intent on claiming him for their own. 

To open to virtually any of Kafka’s stories or parables, how­ever, is to discover a marvelously direct and uncluttered lan­guage. The voice is frequently meditative, ruminative, quibbling, comically obsessed with minutiae; it ponders, it broods, it at­tempts to explain that which can be explained-while in the background the Incomprehensible looms (“and we know that already”). Kafka is a master of opening sentences, frontal attacks that have left their enduring marks upon our general cultural sensibility; for many admirers of Kafka their admiration­indeed, their capitulation to his genius — began with a first read­ing of [the first sentences of his classic stories]….

It is characteristic of Kafka’s nightmare logic that everything follows swiftly and inevitably from these remarkable first prem­ises. The reader, like the Kafka protagonist, is drawn irresistibly along by a subterranean coherence. (Is there “free will” in Kafka’s universe? Must one deserve his fate? As the priest in­forms Joseph K. in the melancholy penultimate chapter of The Trial: “It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”) 

Kafka’s famous short stories, though they have proven alarm­ingly fertile for every sort of exegesis, are primarily tales­genuine tales — in which things happen. Dream-like in tone, they are not whimsically haphazard or aleatory in their development: Gregor Samsa really has metamorphosed into a dung-beetle; the officer of the Penal Colony will sacrifice his very life in the service of his “apparatus”; the doomed country doctor will have his adventure tending a wounded boy, after which he will wander forever exposed to “the frost of this most unhappy of ages.” In an early story, “The Judgment,” a willful young man is sentenced to death by his father’s simple pronouncement: “I sentence you now to death by drowning!” And in “A Hunger Artist” the dying “artist” of fasting confesses that he is not superior to other human beings after all-he fasts only because he has never found the food he liked. 

In other works of Kafka’s, the parables and certain longer pieces like “The Great Wall of China” and “Investigations of a Dog,” plot is subordinate to what one might call the dialectic or discursive voice. These tales, though less compelling on the superficial level than those cited above, exert by degrees a re­markable inner power. With no introduction one is plunged into an interior obsessive landscape, and carried along by the sheer flow of thought of an alien-but oddly sympathetic-conscious­ness. (“This is too much for the human mind to grasp,” Einstein is said to have remarked to Thomas Mann, regarding Kafka’s short prose pieces.) 

The parables or shorter stories resemble Zen koans in their teasing simplicity, but they are unmistakably Jewish-even lawyerly — in the mock-formal nature of their language. (See “The Animal in the Synagogue,” “Abraham,” “Before the Law,” etc.) These are ingenious arguments or mimicries of argument; anecdotes so undetermined by history and locality that they come to possess the beauty (and the impersonal cruelty) of folk ballads or fairy tales. Their wisdom is childlike yet as old as the race, pruned of all sentiment and illusion. In “Prometheus,” for instance, four legends are briefly considered, with equal empha­sis, whereupon “the gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.” But there remained, still, the “in­explicable.” Which is to say — the legend, or the riddle, simply outlives its principal figures. 

The famous parables “Before the Law” and “An Imperial Message” seem to have been written in response to an identical motive, but provide an illuminating contrast with each other. In the first (which is incorporated in The Trial), a “man from the country” is denied admittance to the Law despite the fact that he submits himself to its authority. He is faithful, he is indefat­igable, he even follows tradition of a sort in attempting to bribe his Doorkeeper — all to no avail. The radiance that streams “inextinguishably” from the gateway of the Law never includes him: he dies unredeemed. The Doorkeeper’s final words are: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” A typically Kafkan irony: the gateway is the means of salvation, yet it is also inaccessible. 

Is the Law an expression of God? — any projected form of the Divine? — of order, coherence, collective or personal salvation? Is the Law merely a private obsession that has shaded into mad­ness? Can one in fact believe the Doorkeeper? — or the parable itself? It might be said that the hapless “man from the country” has been waiting for admittance to his own life, which, as a consequence of his obsession, he has failed to live. Or, conversely, it might be argued that the Law represents his own soul, the “kingdom of God” that lies within. Even in wholly secular terms, the man in his single-minded quest may have failed to realize the fullest flowering of his personality: his relationship to all humanity has been, in fact, only by way of the intrepid Doorkeeper…

While “Before the Law” seems to offer no hope whatsoever, the companion parable “An Imperial Message” offers an unex­pected revelation. The Emperor has sent a message to you but the messenger is impeded by the vast multitudes between the two of you — ”if he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly! “— he wears out his strength in his effort-it is soon clear that the entire mission is hopeless — and the Emperor him­self has long since died. A familiar Kafkan predicament, except for this puzzling final line: “But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream [the message] to yourself.” So the Emperor’s wisdom, after all, lies within…

Kafka’s mysticism assured him that such salvation was pos­sible, even inevitable, though he was to be excluded: his sense of personal guilt precedes all action. That in his father’s eyes he was contemptible, that his writing counted for very little, that his personal misfortune (his tubercular condition, for instance) was related in some mysterious way to his own will, his own secret wish — all these factors set Franz Kafka apart from what he chose to think of as the happiness of normal life: the effortless salvation of those who live without questioning the basic prem­ises of their lives. The “man from the country” is both hero and victim, saint and fool, but he is certainly isolated, and his petition has come to nothing: the bitterest irony being that, perhaps, the Law lay with him all along; he might have dreamt it to himself. 

Kafka reports having been filled with “endless astonishment” at simply seeing a group of people cheerfully assembled together: his intense self-consciousness and self-absorption made such ex­changes impossible. The way of the artist is lonely, stubborn, arrogant, pitiable — yet innocent. For one does not choose one’s condition…

Of course Kafka’s humor is deadpan, surrealist, sometimes rather sado-masochistic; a highly sophisticated kind of comedy that might be missed by even an attentive reader. There is a danger in taking Kafka too seriously — too grimly — simply be­cause he has attained the stature of a twentieth-century classic. (It might be argued that Kafka’s wicked sense of humor is ultimately more painful to absorb than his passages, or his pose, of gravity. For it is nearly always humor directed against the victim-self, the very protagonist for whom the reader wishes to feel sympathy.) Consider the emaciated, dying, self-ordained martyr, the Hunger Artist, who not only insists upon his fasting but seems to imagine that the world should honor it. It is not a religious ideal, it is in the service of no Godhead but the Hunger Artist himself. (“Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer… for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for

It is frequently remarked that Kafka’s language is remarkably forceful and direct, stripped clean of self-conscious figures of speech. In fact there are at least two “voices” in Kafka: that of the omniscient narrator (the strategy by which most of the famous stories are told), and that of the obsessed, perhaps mad protagonist who tells his tale in the first person (“The Burrow,” for example — perhaps the most terrifying of Kafka’s fables). Metaphorical language is unnecessary in Kafka’s fiction because each story, each parable, each novel is a complete and of ten out­rageous metaphor in itself: smaller units of metaphor would be redundant. Consider the marvelous imaginative leap that gives us such images as “The Great Wall of China” (“So vast is our land that no fable could do justice to its vastness, the heavens can scarcely span it — and Peking is only a dot in it, and the imperial palace less than a dot”), the monstrous machine of “transcendent” pain of “In the Penal Colony” (“Can you follow it? The Har­row is beginning to write; when it finishes the first draft of the inscription on the man’s back, the layer of cotton wool begins to roll and slowly turns the body over, to give the Harrow fresh space for writing. Meanwhile the raw part that has been written on lies on the cotton wool, which is specially prepared to staunch the bleeding and so makes all ready for a new deepening of the script … “), the stricken humanity of the legendary Hunter Gracchus, who can neither live nor die, yet seems blameless (“I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I can­not go. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death”). 

The great conceit of The Castle is — simply, and horribly­ — that one cannot get to the castle, no matter his ingenuity; the conceit of The Trial, that one is on trial for his life whether he consents to the authority of the court or not, and whether, in fact, he is guilty of any crime (when hapless Joseph K. protests his innocence he is informed that that is what “guilty men” always say). In the curious and altogether uncharacteristic play­let “The Warden of the Tomb,” the fabulist setting is, as the Prince says, the frontier between the Human and the Other­where naturally he wishes to post a guard; in the brief yet suspenseful story “The Refusal” it is a small anonymous town presided over by a colonel who is really a tax-collector. “The Burrow,” not one of Kafka’s more popular tales, is nonetheless a harrowing and brilliant investigation of anxiety-anxiety as it shades into madness-made unforgettable by way of its conceit of the Burrow itself: the defensive strategies that doom a man (one assumes that the narrator is a man — of sorts) to paranoia and dissolution, even as he believes himself protected from his enemies. The “I” seems to be addressing the reader but is in fact only talking to himself, rationalizing, debating, sifting through possibilities, trying to resist breakdown, trying — with what mad heroic calm!-to forestall disaster. His voice is hypnotic, seduc­tive as any siren of the night, for it is our own voice, diminished, secretive, hardly raised to a whisper…

In these artful cadences we hear the mimicry of reason, the parodied echoes of sanity. Human logic has become burrow logic. Human consciousness has become burrow consciousness. The image is a classic metaphor for one facet of the human condition, limned in prose so compelling it is an unnerving ex­perience to read. And how perfect the terse concluding statement — ”All remained unchanged” — after the long, long sentences in their obdurate paragraphs, as difficult to transverse as the bur­rower’s labyrinthine hiding-place. That it is also a grave — that his claustrophobic maneuvers assure his eventual death — is a realization he cannot make: we alone can make it for him. 

Kafka noted in a diary entry for 25 September 1917 that happiness for him consisted in raising the world “into the pure, the true, and the immutable.” His dark prophetic art — Aesopian fables, religious allegories, inverted romances — limned a future in which bureaucratic hells and “final solutions” are not improb­able: an increasingly dehumanized future of a sort Joseph K. has already endured when, after his struggle to acquit himself of guilt, he is executed and dies “like a dog.” This is a literature, admittedly, of symbolist extremes, in which the part must serve for the whole, the dream — or nightmare — image must suggest the totality of experience. In Kafka we never encounter persons, or personalities: we are always in the presence of souls — humanity peeled to its essence and denuded of the camouflage of external circumstance. We see no faces or features — we experience no bodies — we become mere figures, abbreviations, ciphers — par­ticipants in a vast, timeless, and, indeed, indecipherable drama. This is an art in which the social sphere matters not at all, and even the “human” sphere becomes by degrees irrelevant. Kafka is a realist of mystical perspective, resolutely unsentimental, even rather pitiless in his tracking of our numerous delusions. But he is primarily a superb storyteller.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Read related posts: Kafkaesque
Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: The Trial

For further reading: Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories edited by Nahum Glatzer with a forward by John Updike

Have You Ever Been Breadcrumbed?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsBefore someone can answer the question “Have you ever been breadcrumbed?”, we have to determine what is breadcrumbing is, right? One might ask, “Is that anything like the ice water bucket challenge, but in this case, a person jumps into a large container of breadcrumbs and rolls around, getting breadcrumbed in the process?” That’s not a bad guess; however, breadcrumbing has a less literal meaning. Originally, back in the 90s, breadcrumbing was a metaphor applied to navigating webpages, showing the series of web pages that a user has visited to get a particular page. The origin of this metaphor is from the classic fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel, first included in Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812) by the Brothers Grimm. You probably know the story: a brother and sister are abandoned by their father in a forest. Hansel first uses white pebbles and later bread crumbs to find his way back home. The father, who is clearly out to win “father of the year” award, becomes very angry and drags them them back to the forest, where the children get lost. Eventually, they are captured by a witch who lives in a house made of gingerbread, cakes, and candies. The witch, Satan’s version of Willy Wonka, uses all these sweet foods to fatten up the children before she eats them. (Health warning: such a sugar-rich diet increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.) But one day, Gretel tricks the witch and shoves her into the oven, and the brother and sister escape home.  

Today, breadcrumbing, in the context of the dating scene, means leading someone on by contacting them intermittently even though you aren’t really interested in them, and don’t want to pursue a long-term relationship. Breadcrumbing is made all the easier in the digital age when the perpetrator (the “breadcrumber”) can text the victim (the “breadcrumbed”) or use social media (posting likes or comments) to make him or her think that the breadcrumber is interested in them. “That sounds really mean,” you say repugnantly. There’s no sugarcoating this: you are absolutely right — it is really mean because breadcrumbing, done with the sense of detachment and partial anonymity that digital communication creates, toys with another individual’s self-esteem and emotions. In teen speak, “It’s a total dick move.”

Breadcrumbing is not isolated to the world of dating. It can also applied to friendships. You probably have encountered this scenario at grocery store: you see an acquaintance or old friend, that you now find completely annoying. Despite steering your cart in the opposite direction, careening around meticulously arranged end-caps, and flying down an aisle to pick up some random item and quickly pretending that you are closely reading the ingredients of, say, a package of chicken ramen. But eventually the person, who has been stalking you, catches up to you and foils your ramen inspection. Cornered, you have no alternative other than to catch up briefly — all the while the mindless banter reinforces your prejudices. Soon, the conversation wraps up and the other person tosses our that old chestnut: “We need to get together!” If you can fake an orgasm, you can certainly muster all the acting skills to produce a fake smile and respond, “Oh yes. Let’s get together for coffee or lunch soon!” Welcome to the club — you just breadcrumbed your quasi-friend.

It didn’t take long for breadcrumbing to jump from the realm of personal relationships to the corporate world. In the corporate world, an employer breadcrumbs a job applicant when a company representative strings along a job applicant, giving him or her the impression that a job offer is forthcoming, even though the company is not going to hire that applicant. A company can breadcrumb a job applicant any number of ways: not acknowledging when a job application has been received, no response to follow-up questions regarding an interview, occasional updates without any real specific timeline for a decision or hiring action, or coming up with additional interviews or tasks that the job applicant has to complete before getting the job. You are right! — it’s totally a dick move because now the employer is toying with an individual’s self confidence and financial situation. If the applicant doesn’t get that job,  guess what he or she will be eating day after day? Chicken ramen!

Several other neologisms have popped up in the English lexicon to describe variations of breadcrumbing. Here are three examples:

benching: when a person who maintains contact with a person (as in “the substitute on the bench”) while actively looking for a better partner.

cushioning: when a person in a relationship keeps in touch with other romantic partners to serve as a “cushion” if the relationship goes south.

ghosting: when a person ends a relationship by disappearing (ie., breaking all contact with his or her partner).

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Read related posts: What Rhymes with Orange?
The Most Mispronounced Words
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For further reading:
https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/articles/why-is-it-taking-so-long-to-hear-back-after-your-job-interview

 

What is the Overton Window?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesIf you guessed, “A really heavy window, weighing over a ton,” you get points for discerning the obvious. However, the Overton Window is not a physical object — it is a political science theorem. The Overton Window, also referred to as the “window of discourse,” was developed by Joseph Overton (1960-2003), an American policy analyst and senior vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank that is focused on policy research and educational programs, located in Midland, Michigan. The theorem states: an idea’s political viability depends on whether it falls in the range of being sensible or acceptable as opposed to a politician’s preferences or being radical or unthinkable. Thus, the Overton Window frames a range of policies or ideas that are politically acceptable to the public at any given time. A successful politician, then, is able to assess what is politically acceptable and promote those policies, falling inside the Overton Window, that make him or her appear sensible — as opposed to appearing radical or extreme. The Overton Window lies over a vertical axis that ranges from “More Freedom” at the top to “Less Freedom” at the bottom with respect to government intervention. As the window slides over the axis, a policy or idea moves through six levels of public acceptance (from the center to outward): “Policy” to “Popular” to “Sensible” to “Acceptable” to “Radical” and finally to “Unthinkable.”

Overton believed that think tanks and politicians should propose policies that fall inside the window of acceptability. Overton wrote: “The most common misconception is that lawmakers themselves are in the business of shifting the Overton window. That is absolutely false. Lawmakers are actually in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it.” However, since the late 90s, the concept of the Overton Window has been modified by the media and politicians: politicians now control the Overton Window. That is to say, a fringe idea or theory that falls outside the Overton Window, can become mainstream or conventional wisdom by constant and consistent promotion that shifts public opinion, thus shifting or expanding the Overton Window. A perfect example of this is in the promotion of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which is based on unfounded claims that the deep state, composed of satan-worshipping cannibals and pedophiles, are actively working against President Trump and his administration. By promoting the QAnon theory ad nauseam through television and social media, the Republican party finally shifted the Overton Window (or perhaps smashed it wide open) so that QAnon became mainstream in the party. In 2020, Trump retweeted QAnon-linked accounts about 216 times; there were 19 Republican candidates linked to QAnon who ran for congressional office (and a few actually won!), and QAnon (with its catchy slogan, “Where we go one we go all”) was one of the key inspirations for the assault on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that in September 2020, about 50% of Americans had heard about this conspiracy theory. More disturbing was this find: of those who had heard about QAnon, about 20% had a positive view of the movement.

Indeed, by shifting the Overton Window, a politician can make fringe policies or ideas more acceptable. In his book, The Common Good (1998), social critic and political activist Noam Chomsky warned us how manipulating the Overton Window could not only twist fringe ideas into conventional wisdom, but also create the illusion of free thinking. Chomsky wrote, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum — even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

A related term is “walking through the Overton door,” which is defined as discussing or suggesting policies that are becoming popular but have not become official policies.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Read related posts: Godwin’s Law
The Unwritten Rules of the Internet

Unwritten Rules of Life
What is the Barnum Effect?
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For further reading: http://www.bbc.com/news/53498434
http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/02/25/overton-window-explained-definition-meaning-217010

Daily Rituals of Writers: Nathaniel Hawthorne

atkins-bookshelf-literatureJust about every U.S. high school student is introduced to American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) when they are assigned to read The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850. But what most students don’t know is that Hawthorne adopted a very isolated, structured, and monotonous daily ritual which was ideal for him to deeply ponder the essence of humanity and explore the thought-provoking issues of evil and sin. And they probably are not aware of this fun fact about this reclusive author: Hawthorne was a chocoholic! We get a glimpse of Hawthorne’s daily ritual from legendary literary critic Malcolm Cowley’s introduction in The Portable Hawthorne (1969):

“As the years passed he fell into a daily routine that seldom varied during autumn or winter. Each morning he wrote or read until it was time for the midday dinner; each afternoon he read or wrote or dreamed or merely stared at a sunbeam boring in through a hole in the blind and very slowly moving across the opposite wall. At sunset he went for a long walk, from which he returned late in the evening to eat a bowl of chocolate crumbed thick with bread and then talk about books with his two adoring sisters, Elizabeth and Louisa, both of whom were already marked for spinsterhood; these were almost the only household meetings…

In summer Hawthorne’s routine was more varied; he went for an early-morning swim among the rocks and often spent the day wandering alone by the shore, so idly that he amused himself by standing on a cliff and throwing stones at his shadow. Once, apparently, he stationed himself on the long toll-bridge north of Salem and watched the procession of travelers from morning to night. He never went to church, but on Sunday mornings he liked to stand behind the curtain of his open window and watch the congregation assemble.”

In 1842, Hawthorne (then 38 years old) married Sophia Peabody. She was just as reclusive as Hawthorne which allowed him to keep to his daily routine relatively unchanged. Just as he did during his single days, Hawthorne would stay in his study until dinner time — which for him was 2:00 pm (and you thought elderly people who eat dinner at 5:00 pm was strange!) — and Sophia would join him for dinner. An hour later, he would walk alone to the village to visit the post office and the library. Before the sun set, he would return home and then take a short walk with Sophia to a river located near their home in Concord. Then they would return home, have tea together, and read aloud to one another for a few hours each evening. Now close your eyes for a moment and picture that scene: a middle-aged married couple, sitting by the fireplace reading stories and poems to one another. Could anything be sweeter or more romantic than that?

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Read related posts: Daily Rituals of Writers: Truman Capote
Daily Rituals of Writers: William Faulkner
Daily Rituals of Writers: Isaac Asimov

What Would Famous Authors Order at Starbucks
The Daily Word Quotas of Famous Authors
Random Fascinating Facts About Authors
Words Invented by Famous Authors
Word Related to Drinking

Hair of the Dog
There’s A Word for That: Potvaliant
Three Sheets to the Wind

For further reading: Daily Rituals by Mason Currey (2013)

Shopping for Books Virtually, Shelf by Shelf

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe coronavirus pandemic had a tremendous impact on small businesses, particularly small, independent bookstores who were forced to close their doors to customers as the shelter-in-place orders were rolled out across the country, eliminating much-needed foot traffic. As of October 2020, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) noted that 35 member bookstores had closed their doors — a rate of about one store closure each week. Not only are independent books struggling during the pandemic, even after the CARES act financial relief packages and an infusion of $2.7 million of relief funds from the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, they face a very difficult and uncertain future. According to the ABA, 20% of indie bookstores are dangling by a thread. Some stores were able to shift sales from in-store to online with a certain level of success. From time to time, some book stores issued cries of help and were quickly inundated with online orders which overwhelmed scaled-down staff but brought in critical revenue.

As a long-time bibliophile and book collector, I have been visiting indie bookstores over the years (online and brick-and-mortar) as well as friends of library book sales for decades. I pondered, how can I assist some of these stores, and at the same time, enjoy the best part of book collecting: the thrill of the hunt, searching for the unknown unknown (the book you didn’t know existed). In my recent book, Serendipitous Encounters from the Bookshelf, I coined a word for that: bibleuphoria, defined as: “the euphoric feeling experienced when you finally find a book that has been on your wish list for years or a special book that you didn’t even know existed.” The word bibleuphoria, pronounced “bi blyoo FAW ree uh,” formed from the Greek word-forming elements biblio- (meaning “related to books”) and euphoria (meaning “power of enduring easily,” but more generally, “a sense of elation”).

Any true bibliophile will tell you that pure, unadulterated bibleuphoria can only occur in a bookstore. Finding the book and then holding a precious book in your hands, smelling it, feeling it beats typing in a keyword or title and finding a book on an online database. Sure, there is a slight eureka moment that you found it — but you don’t own it, you do not have it in your hands. You click here, you type some information there, and you hit the “purchase” button, but the only thing that has been exchanged is keystrokes and data. It’s not very fulfilling — it’s like drinking a chocolate milkshake and you have consumed all the ice cream and you just suck up air. So after placing your book order, it takes days — sometimes weeks — for the package to arrive before you can actually hold it in your hands. Only then do you experience true bibleuphoria. It’s true.

One night, after an evening of fighting off the withdrawals that bibliophiles occasionally experience when they haven’t visited a bookstore in a while (that glorious smell of books and ink, the joy of getting lost in stacks of books — you know the feeling) I had an epiphany: why not shop for books virtually, shelf by shelf? Thanks to modern technology and the ubiquity of the smartphone it didn’t require too much effort: it would require for a bookseller to take a photo in landscape mode of each shelf of a certain section of book inventory at about eye level, to mimic the view you would have if you were standing in front of the bookshelf. Then the bookseller would take those image files (typically JPEG files) and send them to me via email or through a messaging app to my mobile phone. The next step was to contact indie booksellers and see if they were game. 

The next day I wrote the email and sent it to an indie bookstore. Since I am currently writing a book on rare words I focused on word reference books. The owner was happy to receive the email and said she would send photos by the end of the day. In the early afternoon, the email came in with 10 photos of attached. I eagerly opened the photos and examined all the spines. I had many of the books already, but I found three unknown unknowns. Eureka! While it wasn’t the same as being in the store, and holding the book and reviewing it, the experience did capture on some level the thrill of the hunt — seeking out that book that seems to be peeking out from surrounding books, or that book that is laying on top, as if in basking in the limelight. I inquired about the prices (which were very reasonable) and placed my order. About a week later the books arrived with a lovely thank you note — the bookseller was so appreciative of the innovative process and the order of several books. I continued this process in the months ahead and enjoyed exploring the bookshelves of so many small indie bookstores across the nation and eventually around the world.

Although it seems the end of the pandemic is drawing near, bookstores will be struggling for months, and perhaps years, until the economy stabilizes and customers return to the normal, pre-pandemic way of shopping. So if you are a book lover, or know someone who is one, try this wonderful way of shopping virtually, shelf by shelf. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how fun it is, provides a fix for your bibliomania, and helps indie bookstores at the same time. Let me know how it works for you.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Read related posts:
There Should Be a Word for That: Bibleuphoria
The Sections of a Bookstore
Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
Types of Book Readers

For further reading: http://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/10/25/21517545/bookstores-pandemic-booksellers-closing

Untranslatable Words: Mamihlapinatapai

alex atkins bookshelf wordsDeveloped over 1,400 years, the English language is astonishingly vast — it contains more than a million words. Moreover, it is not finite — it grows at a rate of about 1,000 words per year. And accordingly, due to its breadth, the English language is incredibly flexible: it offers many alternatives to express an idea with just the right word through synonyms, idioms, and alternate phrases. Despite this, the English language does have some gaps that are only evident when you study other languages from around the world. What is truly fascinating to a lexicographer or linguist is the existence of lexical unicorns — truly unique words that have no single English word translation. Grab your travel bag and let’s go on a trip to a remote part of the world.

For our lexical treasure hunt we must travel to Tierra del Fuego (translated from the Spanish, it means “Land of Fire” named by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan when he saw fires along the shoreline during his approach in 1520) is an archipelago off the southern tip of South America, between the Strait of Magellan and the Beagle Channel. Tierra del Fuego, consisting of over 20 islands, is divided between Chile and Argentina. It was first settled by the Yaghans around 8,000 BC. The Yaghan (or Yagan or Yamana) were initially a nomadic tribe who spoke Yaghan, one of nine indigenous languages spoken by the natives of that region. Over the centuries the native population dwindled dramatically (the population in 2010 was 135,000, of those about 1,700 are Yaghan) and sadly the number of native speakers is down to one, according to the 2010 Guinness Book of World Records that cites Yaghan as the least common language in the world. After the arrival of European settlers in the 16th century, most residents gradually switched to Spanish. Having covered that bit of history, we can now turn our attention to what brings us to this remote corner of the world: a single word that the 1994 The Guinness Book of World Records cited as the most “succinct word,” a single word that cannot be defined briefly in English — mamihlapinatapai, pronounced “ma MEE la pin ah TA pie,” which means “looking at each other hoping that either person will initiate something that both parties want but are unwilling or reticent to do.” For example, mamihlapinatapai describes that moment when two tribal leaders want to negotiate a treaty, but neither one wants to initiate the negotiations; or that moment of attraction between two people, but neither one wants to make the first move. Secondarily, it can also mean “an expressive and meaningful silence shared by two people.” An example of this is when an older couple witnesses something and then glance at one another knowingly, sharing the same unspoken thought. Great word isn’t it?

Now let’s talk about the dictionary that influenced the theory of evolution. British geologist, biologist, and naturalist Charles Darwin first visited Tierra Del Fuego in December 1832 and returned to that area in 1834. He was fascinated by the Fuegians. He initially considered them “Fuegian savages” but slowly his thinking, um… evolved. Darwin noted the similarities between the Fuegian’s and European’s mental capabilities and forms of expressions (emotions and language). In particular, during his visit to the province in the 1850s, Darwin came across a rare dictionary published by a missionary that gave him a deeper understanding of the Fuegan’s rich and nuanced language. These insights into their rich culture would directly influence his ideas about the evolution of humans.

So who wrote that influential dictionary? The writer was Reverend Thomas Bridges, Superintendent of the South America Missionary Society in Tierra del Fuego from 1870 to 1887, who learned the language from the natives and compiled the only dictionary of the Yaghan language titled Yamana – English: A Dictionary of the Speech of Tierra del Fuego. Privately published in 1933, the book contains more than 32,000 words; however, mamihlapinatapai does not appear in that dictionary, but it did appear in a later essay written by Bridges. The dictionary does include some of the morphemes that informed Bridges’ idiomatic translation: ihlapi (awkward), ihlapi-na (to feel awkward), ihlapi-na-ta (to cause to feel awkward), mam-ihlapi-na-ta-pai (to make each other feel awkward). Interestingly, in an article for BBC Travel, writer Anna Bitong interviewed a Yaghan guide in 2018 who noted that prior to Bridges’ translation in the early 1930s, the Yaghan had a different definition of mamihlapinatapai. He explained the importance of campfires in such an isolated, hostile environment: “It is the moment of meditation around the [campfire] when the grandparents transmit their stories to the young people. It’s that instant in which everyone is quiet.”

So the next time you find yourself in such a situation, break the ice by blurting out the phrase and watch the look of surprise turn into a look of amusement when you begin to translate this delightful Yaghan word. You score extra points if you dive into the fascinating history. And take some comfort in knowing that you are keeping an endangered language alive in the 21st century. Incidentally, in 2018, the local government announced the funding of the publication of an illustrated dictionary of the Yaghan language to preserve the province’s linguistic heritage.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
There’s a Word for That: Jouissance
There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia

There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
There’s a Word for That: Ultracrepidarian
There’s a Word for That: Cacology

For further reading: Yamana–English: A Dictionary of the Speech of Tierra del Fuego, Thomas Bridges, 1933.
https://archive.org/details/YAMANA-ENGLISHA/mode/2up
http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20180402-mamihlapinatapai-a-lost-languages-untranslatable-legacy
http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/mamihlapinatapai
http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/least-common-language-
https://books.google.com/books?id=qQhj-D1WpkcC&dq=The+Guinness+Book+of+world+Records+1993&q=succinct#search_anchor
http://www.cambridge.org/core/books/languages-of-the-andes/languages-of-tierra-del-fuego/D5A5C534DAC9DE71597FFFD27761B67D

The Written Word Makes You See the Truth

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand; and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.”

From the preface of The Children of the Sea, a novella by Joseph Conrad, published in 1897. The preface to the novel is an eloquent and enduring manifesto of literary impressionism, wherein the novelist focuses on associations (symbols, allusions, and allegory) as well as the mental life of the characters (thoughts, emotions, and impressions). In the United Kingdom, the book was published under what is now a very objectionable title, The [N-word] of the Narcissus: A Tale of the Forecastle. The American publisher, Dodd, Mead and Company, refused to publish the book with that title not because the n-word was offensive back then, but because they believed that a book about a West Indian black sailor would not sell. Although the book is considered one of his finest earlier works, some believe the book is not assigned in English classes because of the use of the offensive word in the title and text. In 2009, an American publisher published a version titled The N-Word of Narcissus.

Conrad is considered one of the greatest writers in the English language. However, what makes his achievement so impressive is that English was not his native language — it was his third language while Polish was his native language and French was his second language. Conrad was not fluent in English until his early twenties. Conrad’s influence on English literature was profound and far-reaching — his work influenced some of the greatest writers of the 20th century, including T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Graham Green, William Golding, William Burroughs, Saul Bellow, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name a few.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Read related posts: Is Charles Dickens Relevant Today?
Do Authors Plant Symbolism in Their Work?

What is a Lipogram?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureA lipogram is a literary work that does not use certain letters. For example an author could write a novel using words that do not contain a particular vowel. A lipogram is one of many types of a broader category of constrained writing, a literary technique in which the author adheres to a specific pattern (e.g., using words that are only one syllable, or words that begin with the same letter), excludes certain writing elements (e.g., certain letters or punctuation), a mandated vocabulary (e.g,, using only words found a specific literary work), or a restricted length (e.g., six-word memoirs: 6 words; twiction: a short story that is 140 characters long).

The most famous example of a lipogram is Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright (1872-1939) published in 1939. Wright was a graduate of MIT and a veteran of WWI, living in Los Angeles. Prior to Gadsby, he had published three books. Wright was 67 when he published the book and, sadly, died the year his book was finally published. Gadsby, consisting of 43 chapters, 260 pages and over 50,000 words, does not contain the letter “e.” The book was published as a hardcover book with a dust jacket by a vanity press (Wetzel Publishing Co.). The dust jacket of the first edition contains the subtitle: “A Story of Over 50,000 Without Using the Letter ‘E.’” Since the book was self-published the first edition print run was short; moreover, a warehouse fire destroyed most of the copies that had not been distributed.  Thus, a first edition in fine condition is extremely rare and highly sought after by bibliophiles, word lovers, lexicographers, and lipogrammatists. As of this writing, there are two copies for sale, one for $6,500 and another for $9,375. If you don’t have deep pockets, you can order a digital reprint for about $10 for a paperback and $20 for a hardcover. Since the novel is in the public domain, it can also be viewed online for free.

In the introduction to Gadsby, Wright makes an exception and uses words that contain the letter “e.” He explains that he conceived of the book over many years, but it took “five and a half months of concentrated endeavor, with so many erasures and retrenchments that I tremble as I think of them.” His main motivation was to prove to many naysayers that a lipogrammatic novel could be written; Wright explains “This story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that ‘it can’t be done.’” (One is reminded of John Locke’s famous phrase used frequently in the ABC hit show Lost: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”) Wright also discusses his process in typing the manuscript: “The entire manuscript of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down; thus making it impossible for that letter to be printed. This was done so that none of that vowel might slip in accidentally; and many did try to do so!” Astute readers, of course, caught some of the words that actually slipped in: “the” (pages 51, 103, 124) and “officers” (page 213). Writing a novel without a commonly-used vowel had its challenges. Wright elaborates, “The greatest [difficulty is] the past tense of verbs, almost all of which end with ‘-ed.’ Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few. This will cause, at times, a somewhat monotonous use of such words as ‘said;’ for neither ‘replied,’ ‘answered,’ nor ‘asked’ can be used… Pronouns also caused trouble; for such words as he, she, they, them, theirs, her, herself, myself, himself, yourself, etc., could not be utilized. But a particularly annoying obstacle comes when, almost through a long paragraph you can find no words with which to continue that line of though.”

I know what you are wondering: is Wright’s Gadsby related in any way to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, The Great Gatsby and its protagonist? No, not at all — they are completely different stories. Wright’s 43-chapter novel begins in 1906. A unnamed narrator shares the history of the fictional town of Branton Hills up to the early 1920s and introduces the protagonist, John Gadsby. In the second half of the novel, Gadsby, now 51, is disconcerted by the town’s decline. He inspires young people to take pride in their town and invest in its rehabilitation. Over time, the town’s quality of life improves, businesses begin to thrive once again, and the population grows dramatically from 2,000 to 60,000 residents. At the novel’s conclusion, all the young people who contributed to the town’s success are rewarded with diplomas and Gadsby becomes mayor. Since he is alive at the end of the novel and has risen in stature, I suppose that does make him the Great Gadsby (or the Grait Gadsby, since we can’t use the letter ‘e’). Also note that Wright’s Gadsby is unrelated to The Story of the Gadsbys published by Rudyard Kipling in 1888. The book, written as a play with eight scenes, follows the life of Captain Gadsby, a career military man, who falls in love and marries. Through dialogue, the reader witnesses the peaks and valleys of the captain’s bittersweet married life. 

The novel opens up with these two paragraphs:
If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.” A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. “You can’t do this,” or “that puts you out,” shows a child that it must think, practically, or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of “status quo,” as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.

The novel ends with the following sentences:
A glorious full moon sails across a sky without a cloud. A crisp night air has folks turning up coat collars and kids hopping up and down for warmth. And that giant star, Sirius, winking slyly, knows that soon, now, that light up in His Honor’s room window will go out. Fttt! It is out! So, as Sirius and Luna hold an all-night vigil, I’ll say a soft “Good-night” to all our happy bunch, and to John Gadsby—Youth’s Champion. Finis.

Besides Gadsby, there have been several notable lipogrammatic novels published. Here are a few:

Green Eggs and Ham (1960) by Dr. Seuss (pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel). Bennett Cerf, Seuss’ editor at Random House, bet Seuss $50 that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words. Seuss not only won the bet, he made publishing history by becoming the bestselling children’s book of all time — selling more than 200 million copies!

La Disparition (The Disappearance) (1969) by Georges Perec. Inspired by Wright, Perec also used words that did not contain the letter “e.” The novel, written in French, has been translated into many languages, adhering to the vowel omission of the original novel.

Alphabetical Africa (1974) by Walter Abish. Abish’s novel is a tautogram, a form of alliteration in which all words in a sentence began with the same letter. Abish’s 52-chapter novel begins chapter one using only words that begin with A. In chapter two, he uses words that begin with A and B. In chapter three, he uses words that begin with A, B, and C, and continues in that manner until chapter 26, then reverses the process to chapter 52 that contains only words that begin with A.

Never Again (2004) by Doug Nufer. Never Again is an example of a writing using a mandated vocabulary. In this case, Nufer never used a single word more than once.

Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train From Nowhere) (2004) by Michel Thaler (the pen name of Michel Dansel). Thaler’s novel also uses a mandated vocabulary. In his 233-page book, Thaler does not use a single verb.

let me tell you (2008) by Paul Griffiths. Griffiths uses a mandated vocabulary, specifically the 480 words spoken by Ophelia who appears in William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

BUY THE BOOK! If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It is the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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

Read related posts: Why Study Literature?
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

What is a Classic Book?

For further reading:
Gadsby, Ernest Vincent Wright, Wetzel Publishing Co., 1939.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.
The Story of the Gadsbys, Rudyard Kipling, Standard Book Company, 1930.
http://www.mentalfloss.com/article/88172/8-extraordinary-examples-constrained-writing
abcnews.go.com/WN/dr-seuss-green-eggs-ham-50th-anniversary-beloved/story?id=11384227
https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Gadsby
https://archive.org/stream/Gadsby/Gadsby_djvu.txt

New Book: Serendipitous Discoveries From the Bookshelf

alex atkins book coverMy first book, Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf, is now available in paperback and on Kindle. It is the perfect gift for a booklover, literature aficionado, word lover, student, teacher, or writer. Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf was written and designed by a bibliophile for bibliophiles. It is a beautifully designed and eloquent homage to books, reading, and lifelong learning. The book presents over 100 thoughtful and witty essays filled with fascinating insights, inspiring passages and parables, eloquent quotes about books and reading, valuable life lessons, fascinating rare English words, and arcane literary facts. I take the reader on a captivating and inspiring guided tour — through the world of books, literature, words, phrases, wisdom, education, quotations, movies, music, and trivia — to share fascinating serendipitous discoveries from years of book collecting, reading, and research to inspire critical thinking and lifelong learningB. I hope you take a moment to browse the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon and consider purchasing it for yourself or as a gift for a book lover in your life. If you purchase it, please accept my deepest gratitude for choosing my book and supporting my labor of love. And please drop me a note and share your thoughts about the book. The book can be ordered here.


look inside serendipitous discoveries

Famous Misquotations: Education is Not the Filling of a Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThis is one of the most overused quotations in the world of education: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” by William Butler Yeats. You find it on websites for schools and colleges as well as many books about education and teaching. And of course, it is found on all kinds of merchandise: posters, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and so forth. But like many quotes found on the internet, there is no evidence that the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats ever said or wrote this. Some websites attribute the quote to Socrates, Plato, or Plutarch. So which is correct? Let me welcome you into the classroom of Famous Misquotations 101, where we will seek enlightenment.

Garson O’Toole, commonly known as the Quote Investigator, does a deep dive into the origins of this quotation in his fascinating book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That (2017). He begins his investigation with the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch’s essay “On Listening” found in Moralia (“Morals” c. 100): “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth [Loeb Classical Library, 1927].” Almost 70 years later, Robin Waterfield translates the passage a little bit differently for the Penguin Classics edition (1992): “For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting — no more — and then it motivates one towards originality and instills the desire for truth.”

As is common with misquotations, an author’s paraphrase of the ideas of a notable writer mistakenly becomes attributed to that writer. O’Toole presents Exhibit A in The Dialogues of Plato (1892) translated by Benjamin Jowett. In the introduction to “The Republic,” Jowett describes Plato’s concept of enlightenment: “Education is represented by [Plato], not as the filling of a vessel, but as the turning the eye of the soul towards the light.” Note that these are Jowett’s words and not Plato’s. Nevertheless, this quote is often mistakenly attributed to Plato or his famous teacher, Socrates.

By now you may be asking: “So how in the world does a quote attributed to Plutarch, Plato, or Socrates, jump a few centuries and get attributed to a 19th-century poet?” Excellent question, Padawan. O’Toole presents Exhibit B: the attribution of a quote transferred to another writer by proximity. Say what? O’Toole was able to find a book, Visions and Image: A Way of Seeing (1968) by James Sweeney. In the book, Sweeney places the Plutarch quote adjacent to a quote by William Butler Yeats. Here is the sentence: “William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, ‘Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them’ and Plutarch in ‘Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.'” You can see what happens here if you do not read this sentence carefully. It only took one reader to read it this way and erroneously conflate the two quotes: “William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Alas, this careless reading is what ignited the wildfire of this ubiquitous misquotation. It doesn’t help matters when the future editor of a collection of quotations does not research it thoroughly and perpetuates the misquotation by putting it in print. Specifically, Robert Fitzhenry the editor (or perhaps his team) of the Barnes and Noble Book of Quotations (1987) mistakenly attributes the Plutarch quote to William Butler Yeats. Oops!

Interestingly, while researching another topic, I serendipitously came across a beautiful passage by the Italian scholar, Marsilio Ficino, who was a student of Plato and one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the Italian Renaissance. In his letters, written between 1474 to 1494, Facino employs the same metaphor as Plutarch [Volume 4, Letter 7]: “As the sky is to the light of the sun, so is the mind to the light of truth and wisdom. Neither the sky nor the intellect every receive rays of light when they are clouded, but once they are pure and clear they both receive them immediately… the divine cannot be spoke or learned as other things are. However, from continued application and a matching of one’s life to the divine, suddenly, as if from a leaping spark, a light is kindled in the mind and thereafter nourishes itself.”

NOW AVAILABLE: If you love the blog, you will love the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. More than 100 essays in 400+ pages, including inspiring quotes about literature, reading, and books; eloquent passages from famous novels; valuable life lessons; and filled with witty and insightful observations.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

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:
Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, Garson O’Toole, Little A, 2017.

Barnes and Noble Book of Quotations, Robert Fitzhenry, Barnes and Noble, 1987
https://quoteinvestigator.com/2013/03/28/mind-fire/

The Great Gatsby Steps into the Public Domain

alex atkins bookshelf booksAnd as Nick Carraway sat there brooding on the old, unknown world of publishing, he thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night. Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s copyright for The Great Gatsby would expire… Say what? Applesauce, Old Sport!

On New Year’s Eve 2020, as revelers peeled back their face masks to take a sip of champagne and kiss their partners, a classic American novel, The Great Gatsby, without even a glimmer of an ostentatious roaring 20’s party stepped into the vast obscurity of the public domain. Gatsby had a great run. Since 1925, the book has sold over 30 million copies. But the reality is that every year, as literary works pass the 95-year term of their original copyrights, they pass into the public domain. So what does this mean? Readers can access for free the full text of the books on collaborative digital libraries like HathiTrust, the Internet Archive, and Google Books. Moreover, those books can be freely quoted, copied, published, reimagined, or adapted as screenplays or stageplays. For example, on January 5, Michael Farris Smith published Nick, a prequel to The Great Gatsby. (The cover art is reminiscent of the painting “Celestial Eyes” featured on the cover of the first edition.) In this novel, Smith explores the life of Nick Carraway after serving in WWI and traveling through Europe, years before he meets Jay Gatsby. The publisher describes the novel this way: “Before Nick Carraway moved to West Egg and into Gatsby’s periphery, he was at the center of a very different story-one taking place along the trenches and deep within the tunnels of World War I. Floundering in the wake of the destruction he witnessed firsthand, Nick delays his return home, hoping to escape the questions he cannot answer about the horrors of war. Instead, he embarks on a transcontinental redemptive journey that takes him from a whirlwind Paris romance-doomed from the very beginning-to the dizzying frenzy of New Orleans, rife with its own flavor of debauchery and violence. An epic portrait of a truly singular era and a sweeping, romantic story of self-discovery, this rich and imaginative novel breathes new life into a character that many know but few have pondered deeply.”

Here are some other notable works that are in the public domain as of January 1, 2021:
1984 by George Orwell
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis
A Daughter of the Samurai by Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw
Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs by Dorothy Scarborough
The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley
The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill
The Trial (in German) by Franz Kafka
The Writing of Fiction by Edith Wharton

So we read on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the books of the past.

NOW AVAILABLE: If you love the blog, you will love the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. More than 100 essays in 400+ pages, including inspiring quotes about literature, reading, and books; eloquent passages from famous novels; valuable life lessons; and filled with witty and insightful observations.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

Read related posts: What is a First Edition of The Great Gatsby Worth?
The Meaning of the Ending of The Great Gatsby
The Most Beautiful Cover Designs of The Great Gatsby
What Was the Greatest Year for Literature?
The Surprising Original Titles of Famous Novels

For further reading:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nick by Michael Farris Smith
https://publishers.org/news/aap-statshot-annual-report-book-publishing-revenues-up-slightly-to-25-93-billion-in-2019/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_books
https://web.law.duke.edu/cspd/publicdomainday/2021/
 http://www.publicdomainsherpa.com/public-domain-books.html

Where Does A Composer Find Ideas?

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“I carry my ideas about me for a long time, often a very long time, before I commit them to writing. My memory is so good that I never forget a theme that has once come to me, even if it is a matter of years. I alter much, reject, try again until I am satisfied. Then, in my head, the thing develops in all directions, and, since I know precisely what I want, the original idea never eludes me. It rises before me, grows, I hear it, see it in all its size and extension, standing before me like a cast, and it only remains for me to write it down, which is soon done when I can find the time, for some­times I take up other work, though I never confuse that with the other. You will ask where I find my ideas: I hardly know. They come uninvited, directly or indirectly. I can almost grasp them with my hands in the open air, in the woods, while walking, in the stillness of the night, early in the morning, called up by moods which the poet translates into words, I into musical tones. They ring and roar and swirl about me until I write them down in notes.”

Ludwig Van Beethoven’s explanation of how he composes. The question was posed by Louis Schlösser, a German violinist, composer, and conductor. Schlösser published his recollections of Beethoven in the article “Persönliche Erinnerungen an Beethoven” in Hallelujah (VI, 20-21, 1885). The quote is also found in The Major Pleasures of Life (1934) by Martin Armstrong.

NOW AVAILABLE: If you love the blog, you will love the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. More than 100 essays in 400+ pages, including inspiring quotes about literature, reading, and books; eloquent passages from famous novels; valuable life lessons; and filled with witty and insightful observations.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

Read related post:
Great Men and Women of Culture Bring Forth the Best Ideas of Their Time

Word of the Year 2020

alex atkins bookshelf words“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,” wrote the poet T. S. Eliot, “and next year’s words await another voice.” To that observation, we can add: this past year’s words also define the language, the conversations, or more accurately, the zeitgeist of the year. And let’s be candid — it sucked. Big time. It even challenged the editors of major dictionaries who review the stats on their respective websites to spot dramatic spikes in word lookups to determine which words capture the interest of the public. Typically, they develop a list and then debate which one merits the distinction of “word of the year.” This year, the editors could not decide on a single word to capture the essence of an annus horribilis.

For 2020 the editors of Oxford Dictionaries could not settle on one word. So they came up with the “Words of an Unprecedented Year” report. In an interview with the BBC, Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries explained, “I’ve never witnessed a year in language like the one we’ve just had. The Oxford team was identifying hundreds of significant new words and usages as the year unfolded, dozens of which would have been a slam dunk for Word of the Year at any other time. It’s both unprecedented and a little ironic — in a year that left us speechless, 2020 has been filled with new words unlike any other.” The editors selected the following words: bushfire, acquittal, Covid-19, coronavirus, lockdown, social distancing, keyworkers, furlough, reopening, Black Lives Matter, cancel culture, mail-in, Belarusian, moonshot, netzero, support bubbles, superspreader, and conspiracy theory. 

For 2020 Word of the Year, the editors of Merriam-Webster simply looked at the metrics, and the word that showed consistent spikes in dictionary lookups throughout the year was “pandemic.” The editors explained, “On March 11th, the World Health Organization officially declared ‘that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic,’ and this is the day that pandemic saw the single largest spike in dictionary traffic in 2020… [and] it has remained high in our lookups ever since, staying near the top of our word list for the past ten months.” Runners up included: coronavirus, defund, Mamba, Kraken, quarantine, Antebellum, Schadenfreude, asymptomatic, irregardless, icon, and malarkey.

For 2020 Word of the Year, the editors of Macquarie Dictionary (the Webster’s Dictionary of Australia) selected “doomscrolling,” defined as “the practice of continuing to read news feeds online or on social media, despite the fact that the news is predominantly negative and often upsetting.” They also created a special category for pandemic related language. The word they chose in that context is “rona,” the Australian slang for coronavirus. The word rona, incidentally, is an example of a coronacoinage — a neologism related to Covid-19. Runners up included: covidiot, COVID normal, Karen, pyrocumulonimbus.

For 2020 Word of the Year, the editors of Dictionary.com selected “pandemic.” The editors elaborate: “the task of choosing a single word to sum up 2020 — a year roiled by a public health crisis, a crippling economic downturn, racial injustice, political polarization, virulent public discourse, rampant disinformation, corrosion of democracy, topped off with a climate crisis — was a challenging and humbling one. But at the same time, our choice was overwhelmingly clear. From our perspective as documenters of the English language, one word kept running through the profound and manifold ways our lives have been upended—and our language so rapidly transformed—in this unprecedented year.” The pandemic not only infected millions of people, but it also spawned its own unique vocabulary: asymptomatic, contact tracing, flatten the curve, fomites, frontliner, furlough, herd immunity, hydroxychloroquine, infodemic, lockdown, long-hauler, essential/nonessential, PPE, pod, quarantine, shelter in place, social distancing, superspreader, twindemic, and viral load. The list doubles when you add all the clever coronacoinages: anti-masker, bubble, the Before Times, cluttercore, coronababy, coronacation, coronacoaster, coronacut, coronasomnia, COVID-10, covidiot, drive-by birthday, drive-in rally, maskne, quarantini, quaranteam, Zoom-bombing, Zoom fatigue, Zoom mom, and Zoom town.

For 2020 Word of the Year, Atkins Bookshelf has selected “unprecedented,” defined as has never been known or done before. If you watched news clips from just about any week from 2020, you very likely heard an anchor add to the description of an event, “This is unprecedented.” You don’t say? Everything we witnessed — from the Covid-19 crisis, climate crisis, raging brushfires, racial injustice, protests and riots, national quarantine, rampant Trumpism — was freaking unprecedented. It was exhausting, demoralizing, and depressing to watch. No wonder sales of alcohol increased dramatically over the past year. Another reason that unprecedented is the perfect word for 2020 is because it sounds like “unpresidented,” defined as “not having a president.” And that sums up the Trump presidency pretty well: a narcissistic leader who consistently rejected the truth, scientific and medical data, intelligence data, political norms, rule of law, the democratic process, and the Constitution that led to one crisis quickly followed by another. But his most irresponsible action was ignoring the advice of medical experts back in February, as reported by Bob Woodward, that led to a lethal pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans to date, and caused a crippling recession that permanently wiped out over 100,000 businesses and pushed more than 115 million people into poverty. And that is unpresidented and unprecedented in modern history.

NOW AVAILABLE: If you love the blog, you will love the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. More than 100 essays in 400+ pages, including inspiring quotes about literature, reading, and books; eloquent passages from famous novels; valuable life lessons; and filled with witty and insightful observations.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

Read related posts:
Word of the Year 2019
Word of the Year 2018
Word of the Year 2017
Word of the Year 2016

How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
How Many Words in the English Language?
Words Related to Trump

For further reading:
http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-
http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-of-the-year/
http://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/resources/view/word/of/the/year/
http://www.dictionary.com/e/word-of-the-year/
http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/19/unpresidented-trump-word-definition

http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/10/07/covid-19-to-add-as-many-as-150-million-extreme-poor-by-2021
https://fortune.com/2020/09/28/covid-buisnesses-shut-down-closed/
http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/trump-told-bob-woodward-he-knew-february-covid-19-was-n1239658

What Is the Origin of “Hindsight is 20/20”?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesEveryone is familiar with the adage “Hindsight is 20/20” which means having a clearer understanding of an event or situation after it has occurred. The question is, however, just how clear is your understanding of the year 2020? You would be kind if you described 2020 as a series of shit shows pulverized by a mind-numbing succession of escalating train wrecks exploding into a spectacular sequence of cascading cluster f*cks drowned by wave after wave of destructive tsunamis. In short, if you wanted to know what the apocalypse will be like — just look back at 2020. You just lived through it! And, if you are like most people, you really don’t want to see it with 20/20 vision. It’s just too painful.

So let’s turn our view from the catastrophe that was 2020 — annus horribilis, to borrow the words of Queen Elizabeth — and focus on the phrase mentioned earlier. Where did it originate? Let us travel back more than 150 years to Utrecht, Netherlands to the office of ophthalmologist Herman Snellen (1834-1908) at the Netherlands Hospital for Eye Patients. In 1862, Snellen introduced the Snellen chart to study visual acuity. You know the one — you’ve seen it dozens of times over the years. It is either printed as a tall rectangular poster or projected on a wall in the ophthalmologist’s office. It consists of 11 lines of optotypes, specially designed capital letters, that gradually decrease in size. An individual with normal vision can read all those letters from 20 feet away. Thus normal vision is 20/20. “But why 20 feet?” you ask. Excellent question. Although that number appears to be random, it is not. At 20 feet the eye is relaxed in its normal shape and doesn’t require bending light rays to focus an image on the retina. Ah, I see. So if you wear glasses, you are in good company: more than 75% of Americans do not have 20/20 vision. And if you wear glasses or contacts, it is likely that they were designed and manufactured by EssilorLuxottica, a behemoth in the eyewear business. The company has a market capitalization of $70 billion and annual revenue of about $7.8 billion. While you may see competitors in the marketplace (e.g., Glasses.com, LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut, Pearle Vision, and Target Optical) it is only an illusion. All those stores and the brands they carry are all owned by EssilorLuxottica. But we digress…

So years later, the introduction of the Snellen chart in America influenced the phrase. The earliest usage of the “hindsight is 20/20” appears in an article in the California newspaper, The Van Nuys News (February 17, 1949), written by humorist Richard Armour. He wrote, “Most people’s hindsight is 20/20.” Nothing could be clearer.

NOW AVAILABLE: If you love the blog, you will love the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. More than 100 essays in 400+ pages, including inspiring quotes about literature, reading, and books; eloquent passages from famous novels; valuable life lessons; and filled with witty and insightful observations.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

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For further reading:
The Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro
https://www.pressreader.com

The Most Memorable Quotes from 2020

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Quotations are the backbone of much of literature, and of the transmission of art and thought more generally,” writes Fred Shapiro in the introduction to the Yale Book of Quotations. “Text refer to other texts. Today the [Internet] links documents… but such connections have always been pivotal to human discourse… The delight is our natural response to the monuments of creativity and wisdom, kept alive by quotations, a communal bond uniting us with past culture and with other lovers of words and ideas in our own time.”

Indeed, collections of quotations support this concept of communal bonds. But what happens when these collections are not updated frequently. For example, the Yale Book of Quotations (1,068 pages long and containing more than 12,000 quotations) was published in 2006 and has not been updated since. To address that gap in the quotation collection, in 2013 Shapiro (the associate librarian and lecturer at the Yale Law School) began compiling a list of the top 10 notable quotations for each year.

When you read each quotation, it immediately evokes the feelings and thoughts you had about that particular moment in time. In past years, you may have experienced or learned about an event while you were in different locations; however, during the pandemic everyone was pretty much sheltering-in-place. Taken as a whole, it portrays a nation drowning in lies, insults, suffering, and sadness. Isn’t any wonder everyone is eagerly counting down the days of 2020?

Below are Shapiro’s most memorable quotes from 2020:

“Wear a mask.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“I can’t breathe.”
George Floyd

“One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
President Donald Trump

“I see the disinfectant that knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning?”
President Donald Trump

“I will never lie to you. You have my word on that.”
Kayleigh McEnany, White House Press Secretary

“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a statement dictated to her granddaughter Clara Spera.

“If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”
Joseph Biden Jr.

“The science should not stand in the way of this.”
Kayleigh McEnany, White House Press Secretary

“You’re a lying dog-faced pony soldier.”
Joseph Biden Jr., former Vice President, then Presidential candidate

“We are all Lakers today.”
Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers Coach

What other quotes should be considered for this list?

NOW AVAILABLE: If you love the blog, you will love the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. More than 100 essays in 400+ pages, including inspiring quotes about literature, reading, and books; eloquent passages from famous novels; valuable life lessons; and filled with witty and insightful observations.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

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Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

For further reading:
https://news.yale.edu/2012/12/17/can-i-quote-you-yale-librarian-s-annual-list-year-s-best

The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2020

alex atkins bookshelf books

Back in 1984, the PNC Bank (a bank based in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania) developed the Christmas Price Index that totals the cost of all the gifts mentioned in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a flippant economic indicator. In 1984, the Christmas Price Index was $12,623.10; more than three decades later, in 2019, it reached $38,993.59, but due to the economic downturn caused by the COVID-10 crisis, the amount tumbled down a dramatic 58.5% to $16,168.14. The team that calculates the index attributes the significant decrease to the cancellations of live performances.

Despite their symbolism, the twelve gifts of Christmas are not only extremely random, they are more of a nuisance than carefully-selected gifts that you would actually cherish. As if the holidays are not stressful enough, imagine all those animals running and flying about helter-skelter, defecating all over your clean carpets — not to mention the nonstop, grating sound of drummers drumming and pipers piping pushing you toward the brink of a mental breakdown. Truly, no book lover would be happy with these gifts. Bah humbug! Therefore, I introduced the Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index in 2014 that would be far more interesting and appreciated by bibliophiles. The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index replaces all those unwanted mess-making animals and clamorous performers with first editions of cherished classic Christmas books. The cost of current first editions are determined by the latest data available from Abe Books, the leading online antiquarian bookseller.

For 2020, the Atkins Bookshelf Christmas Price Index is $112,145 (shipping and tax are not included), an impressive increase of about 24% from last year ($88,263) — something that would surely bring a smile to that old greedy curmudgeon Scrooge. The biggest hit to your wallet remains — by a very large margin — Charles Dickens’ very coveted and valuable first edition of one of the most well-known literary classics — A Christmas Carol ($75,000, an increase of $30,000 from last year!). The second most expensive Christmas book, coming in at $15,000 (price unchanged from last year), is Clement C. Moore’s classic poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (more commonly known at “The Night Before Christmas”) that has largely influenced how Santa Claus is depicted. The poem was included in a collection of Moore’s poems in 1844, a year after the publication of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Below are the individual costs of the books that make up the Atkins Bookshelf Christmas Price Index.

A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens: $75,000
A Visit from St. Nicholas (included in Poems, 1844) by Clement C. Moore: $15,000
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) by Dr. Seuss: $5,500
A Christmas Memory (1966) by Truman Capote: $3,500
The Polar Express (1985) by Chris Van Allsburg: $2,250
The Nutcracker (1984 edition) by E. T. A. Hoffman: $950
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) by Valentine Davies: $1,500
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) by L. Frank Baum: $5,495
The Greatest Gift (1944) by Philip Van Doren Stern: $2,450
Christmas at Thompson Hall (included in Novellas, 1883) by Anthony Trollope: $150
Old Christmas from the Sketchbook of Washington Irving (1886) by Washington Irving: $125
The Gift of the Magi (included in The Four Million, 1905) by O. Henry: $225

Total $112,145

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Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2019

For further reading: https://www.pnc.com/en/about-pnc/topics/pnc-christmas-price-index.html

There Should Be A Word for That: Bibleuphoria

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you are a bibliophile you know the feeling: that wave of euphoria that washes over you when you serendipitously find that elusive book you have been hunting for years, perhaps decades. Or perhaps you stumble on a special book that you never even knew existed (bibliophiles call this the “unknown unknown.” You think to yourself: “How is it possible this book escaped my attention? This book should have been on my wish list!” Over decades of hunting books, I have experienced this countless times — with books that have been on my wish list for more than 35 years. So I pose this question: shouldn’t there be a word for this profound feeling of elation, a truly Eureka moment, when you finally find that Holy Grail or unknown unknown?

To that end, I present the word bibleuphoria, defined as: “the euphoric feeling experienced when you finally find a book that has been on your wish list for years or a special book that you didn’t even know existed.” The word bibleuphoria, pronounced “bi blyoo FAW ree uh,” formed from the Greek word-forming elements biblio- (meaning “related to books”) and euphoria (meaning “power of enduring easily,” but more generally, “a sense of elation”). There are several other word-element combinations to consider for this neologism, like biblexulatation or bibliolation, however none are as euphonious as bibleuphoria. So the next time you are a bookstore and find a special book, you can yell out “bibleuphoria.” Be sure to cherish the knowing smiles, from nearby book lovers, that will greet you. They may not know the word — but they definitely know the feeling.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Will you help me reach 10,000 followers? Cheers.

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Remarkable Bookstores: Libreria Acqua Alta

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you are in Venice and cross the Ponte Tetta, walking south on the Calle Tetta, and turn right turn (opposite the direction of the Ponte Cavagnis) you will come across a small cul-de-sac on your right. When you get to the end of the cul-de-sac you will be rewarded with the sight of the Liberia Aqua Alta (translated from the Italian it means the “high water bookstore”; visitors often refer to it as the Bookshop Aqua Alta.) At the entrance is a sign that reads “The most beautiful bookstore in the world.” But of course, as everyone knows, beauty is in the eye of beholder. Let’s take a look inside.

What makes the Liberia Aqua Alta truly remarkable is that the owner has had to find a way to protect the books from Venice’s constant flooding. So naturally, the best solution is to place books in water-proof vessels. And since this is Venice, you will find a large colorful gondola filled with stacks of books. Books are also stored in smaller canoes, stacked crates, bathtubs, and barrels. There are traditional shelves that began several inches up from the floor. The store is filled with thousands of books, both in English and Italian, many of them vintage. Customers are guided through the sections of the store, punctuated with colorfully-dressed mannequins, by its gregarious owner. And like many used bookstores, this one is inhabited by a black cat.

The front door is flanked by tables and racked that are filled with magazines, comics, maps and ephemera. At the back of the store is an exit (labelled as a fire escape) that leads to a small courtyard lined with books and a staircase made out of books (which have been damaged by water) that leads to a small canal. On the rock wall adjacent to the steps is hand-drawn lettering that reads “Follow the books / steps / climb” to lead customers to the store from the canal.

You can take a virtual tour at the bottom of this webpage: https://veneziaautentica.com/venice-bookshop-libreria-acqua-alta/

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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What Book Has the Most Disappointing Ending?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEver watched a movie or miniseries and make it the end only to watch a completely disappointing ending: perhaps it is unnecessarily ambiguous, inscrutable, nonsensical, or the worse: it seems to end rushed or randomly. WTF?! You know the ones (remember the ending of The Sopranos?) — where you instinctively reach for the remote while in a state of bewilderment and anger: “There is no way the director just did this! There has to be more. Let me fast forward — maybe there’s a short clip buried in the end credits…” But nothing reveals itself.

Dedicated readers know too well that movies do not have a monopoly on disappointing endings. Novels or plays can be terribly disappointing. William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet comes to mind (I know — it’s a tragedy, but still…) To arrive at a list, we turn to a number of websites that have asked their readers to weigh in on this fascinating topic. A review of the rationale for nomination of novel with worst ending, one thing becomes quite clear: some readers are very passionate about their positions. Some discontented readers have professed to hurling the book across the room. Makes a great image, doesn’t it, especially when uttering something Shakespearean, like “Fly o curséd book, thou hast offended thee! Crash into a heap of wretchedness, for thou is not worth another word!”

From no single reader community, and in no particular order, below are some novels, by famous authors, that readers found to have disappointing endings. So as not to reveal any spoilers, the reason why readers found a particular novel disappointing will not be revealed — for that you have to read the entire novel, and be disappointed on your own. Happy reading.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

The Magus by John Fowles

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Atonement by Ian McEwan

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

What book did you feel had a disappointing ending?

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:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/worst-book-endings/2020/10/17/e9d8635a-0ee3-11eb-b1e8-16b59b92b36d_story.html
http://www.bustle.com/p/11-incredible-books-with-deeply-disappointing-endings-39267
https://www.businessinsider.com/the-10-worst-endings-in-all-of-literature-2016-8
http://forreadingaddicts.co.uk/polls-and-discussion/the-20-books-voted-the-worst-ever-ending/1119

Famous Books with Numbers in Their Titles

atkins-bookshelf-literature

There are numbers, that heard on their own, are simply prosaic digits. But in the context of literature, certain numbers immediately evoke a famous play or novel, especially when the number is central to the novel (for example, 1984, Catch-22, and Fahrenheit 451). Below are some of the most famous literary works with numbers in their titles.

1984 by George Orwell

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Henry IV (Parts I-II) by William Shakespeare

Henry V by William Shakespeare

Henry VI (Parts I-III) by William Shakespeare

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard III by William Shakespeare

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

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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My Most Cherished Book: Rebecca Goldstein

alex atkins bookshelf books“We read over the shoulder of giants,” writes Leah Price in her introduction to Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, “books place us in dialogue not just with an author but with other readers. Six months from now, this book may be supplanted by a Facebook site. What seems unlikely to change is our curiosity about what friends and strangers read — or about what others will make of our own reading.” Price interviewed several writers and their spouses about what is on their bookshelves. One of the couples was Rebecca Goldstein and her husband, Steven Pinker. Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist; she is also a MacArthur Fellow. She has written ten books, including Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (2014), Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (2010), and The Mind-Body Problem (1983). When asked which were her most cherished book, Goldstein did not hesitate even for a moment, and responded:

“My copies of both Spinoza’s Ethics and David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature are the same ones I had in college. I’ve used them so much­— taught from them, consulted them — that they are crumbling. And my translation of the Ethics is not the one that most scholars use now. There’s a supe­rior one. So when I write scholarly articles and quote from my translation, the editors often object. But I can’t give it up. It’s those words, of that trans­lation, whether inferior or not, that are, for me, Spinoza’s words. Those are the ones I’ve memo­rized. And both those books, the Spinoza and the Hume, are filled with my marginalia, going all the way back to college. There are passages that I’d marked with questions, and then, sometimes years later, there’s the answer I came to. I’ve never kept a diary. These books, with their marginalia, are the closest thing I have to a diary.”

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: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books by Leah Price