Category Archives: Books

Books Should be a Window to and a Mirror of the World

alex atkins bookshelf booksWhat’s so important about kids’ books — they can be windows to introduce them to the world, but they also need to see a reflection. They should be a window and a mirror… [For me, libraries have] been sanctuaries, a place I can go to discover.”

Carla Hayden, American librarian and the 14th Librarian of Congress, discussing the importance of books in an interview with Time magazine (September 26, 2016). Hayden, the first African American and first woman to hold that distinguished post, oversees more than 162 million items, filling more than 838 miles of bookshelves, in the extensive collection of the Library of Congress, considered the largest library in the world. That number includes more than 32 million books and print materials as well as more than 61 million manuscripts — in more than 450 languages. The library receives about 15,000 new items each day.

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: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
Types of Book Readers
Signs at an Indie Bookstore: Why Not Try a Book?
Serendipitous Discoveries in Used Bookstores
How Indie Bookstores are Thriving
Bookstores are Full of Stories
Who Will Save Our Bookstores?
The Sections of a Bookstore

A Book is Not Only a Friend, It Makes Friends for You

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.”

From The Books In My Life (1969) by American author Henry Miller (1891-1980), best known for hissemi-autobiographical novels — which delight adolescents for their explicit language and very detailed sex scenes — Tropic of Cancer (1934), Black Spring (1936), and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). These three books had to be smuggled into the United States, where they were banned on the basis of obscenity and pornography. Nevertheless, these books truly made Miller many friends. Moreover, the books made a huge impact on the new Beat Generation of writers, like Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). Reflecting on Miller’s legacy on the centenary of his birth, Ralph Sipper of the Los Angeles Times notes, “Miller’s revolution, though, was not a political one. It was the wedding of his life and his art. Actual and imagined experiences became indistinguishable from each other. ‘I am the hero and the book is myself,’ he says in Tropic of Cancer. In the hands of a less-gifted writer, such blurring of narrative voice invites disaster. Miller pulls it off seamlessly. Exactly how is not so easy to describe. His fictional persona is many things–graphically erotic, elliptically surrealistic, unevenly anarchistic, combatively philosophical, abidingly romantic, downright funny–and always deeply felt. He resoundingly deplores patriotism, modern medicine, financial responsibility and organized religion, presaging emulation by such latter-day iconoclasts as Norman Mailer and Lenny Bruce… Like Walt Whitman and Henry Thoreau, two authors whose work he loved, Henry Miller sang his own song, marched to his own gait. Like those noble literary dissenters, he remains an American original.”

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: Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores
Types of Book Readers
Signs at an Indie Bookstore: Why Not Try a Book?
Serendipitous Discoveries in Used Bookstores
How Indie Bookstores are Thriving
Bookstores are Full of Stories
Who Will Save Our Bookstores?
The Sections of a Bookstore

For further reading: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
The Books in My Life by Henry Miller

The Most Amazing Private Library in the World

alex atkins bookshelf booksYou are a passionate book collector and have unlimited resources to build the library of your dreams — what kind of library would you build? What would it look like? How many books would it contain? Meet Jay Scott Walker (born 1955), an extremely successful inventor and entrepreneur, who founded Priceline, Synapse Group, and Walker Digital, and worth an estimated $1.6 billion. As an inventor, one of the question that Walker has always faced is: How do we create? To this Walker responded: “Part of the question that I have answered is — we create by surrounding ourselves with stimuli: with human achievement, with history, with the things that drive us and make us human — the passionate discovery, the bones of dinosaurs long gone, the maps of space that we’ve experienced, and ultimately the hallways that stimulate our mind and our imagination.” To that end, Walker, a long-time bibliophile, built the library of his dreams at his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 2002. He calls it, appropriately, “The Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination.” 

The private library, that is connected to his home by a long hallway, holds more than 25,000 books, manuscripts, historical objects and artifacts in a 3.5-level, 3,600 square-foot space. Historical artifacts include an actual Sputnik, a meteorite, dinosaur bones, model Saturn V rocket, Enigma code machine, an Edison phonograph, and a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible — to name a few. But what makes this library truly spectacular is the completely integrated audio-visual experience. When Walker steps into the library, it wakes up; that is to say, the library begins to glow with carefully directed theatrical lights; glass panels, depicting key moments in the timeline of human invention, that light up with LED lights, and a custom soundtrack begins to play — all of which are computer-controlled. In this unique traditional/high-tech playground for the mind, Walker is able to walk around the books shelves, where books are organized randomly by height and color, and find items by either serendipity or recollection. Interestingly, despite his extraordinary wealth, Walker is not a complete bibliophile snob. Of course, he owns some extremely valuable works, like early-20th-century books with jeweled bindings (containing gold, rubies, and diamonds) that were handcrafted by Sangorski & Sutcliffe that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, refreshingly, he also owns hundreds of leather-bound works by Franklin Press and Easton Press that are worth anywhere from $75 to hundreds of dollars.

The suspended main platform has several wood counters and work areas, a giant lit globe, and a comfortable couch, two chairs, and tables for reading. Directly above is a giant glass chandelier that is lit by 6,000 LEDs from the James Bond movie, Die Another Day. The walls are lined with wood bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the interior is filled with 25 staircases that lead to balconies and platforms. This maze-like, multi-level design was inspired by the work of M. C. Escher, famous for his impossible realities, like Relativity (1953), House of Stairs (1951), and Waterfall (1961). In fact, the wood tiling throughout the library echoes the multi-shaded triangles that appear in Escher’s works. Walker admits, “It is designed to be intentionally disorienting.” At the far end of the library is a massive three-story window with a planetarium, featuring a Clyde Lynds sculpture, a Andrea Cellarius celestial atlas (1660), Quester 7 telescope, and a globe of the moon signed by 9 of the 12 astronauts who walked on the moon. The exhibits change all the time because Walker enjoys the ideas that spring forth from interesting juxtapositions, like placing a 16th-century map next to a modern map or globe, or an Enigma code machine next to a early computer.

Building such an incredible library had its challenges. The architect, Mark Finlay (Mark Finlay Architects), known for designing stunning stately country houses, explained the process and construction. Walker directed the architects: “Think of it as a theater, from a lighting and engineering standpoint. But it’s not a performance space. It’s and engagement space.” To meet this objective, the architects initially built a 7-foot long model and used miniature cameras to get a sense of the experience of moving around the stairs and suspended walkways and glass bridges. To build the main floor and intersecting stairs and walkways, the exterior walls had to be constructed with a steel exoskeleton to hold up the room. In addition, the floors and walls required steel framing to support thousands of pounds.

Sadly, the library is not open to the public. However, Walker, as a philanthropist, does conduct tours for school-aged children and used as a setting for raising funds for local nonprofit organizations. Fortunately for curious bibliophiles, David Hofman has filmed a dazzling documentary of the library, tiled “Experience the Walker Library of Human Imagination” that can be seen here:

Walker is also a patron of the TED talks, and is often speaks about inventions. You can hear him talking about some of the historical objects in his library, in addition to a quick tour of the library:

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: The Power of Literature
Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books
The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization
Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
A Beautiful, Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library

For further reading:

This I Believe: In the Connection Between Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

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

The Wisdom of Anthony de Mello: Enlightenment

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAnthony de Mello (1931-1987) was an Indian Jesuit priest, spiritual teacher, psychotherapist, writer, and public speaker. He founded the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling in Poona, India in 1972. Fr. de Mello earned international acclaim for his profound spiritual insights, via the mystical traditions of East and West, and his unique approach to the inner life. He was best known for his mesmerizing storytelling — using insightful stories, parables, and humor — as well spiritual exercises to lead people to greater awareness (self-discovery), helping them to be more in touch with their body, sensations, and living life more fully. Fr. de Mello believed that humanity could learn from every religious tradition. In his stories, when he speak of the Master, he is not just referring to Jesus, following the Catholic/Christian tradition; de Mello writes “He is a Hindu Guru, a Zen Roshi, A Taoist Sage, a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Monk, a Sufi Mystic. He is a Lao-Tau and Socrates. Buddha and Jesus, Zarathustra and Mohammed. His teaching  is found in the seventh century B.C. and the twentieth century A.D. His wisdom belongs to East and West alike.” Remarkably, the Catholic Church did not appreciate this synthesis of East and West, especially the consideration of Jesus as a master alongside many others (particularly the Buddha, which de Mello respected a great deal), the promotion of other spiritual works other than the Bible, and the belief that you didn’t need religion to achieve self-discovery and enlightenment. (Interestingly, there are significant similarities between the beliefs of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, mystic, theologian, scholar of comparative religion, and author of The Seven Story Mountain, and de Mello.) Consequently — and rather ironically considering that Jesus taught in parables and also broke with the traditions and thinking of his time — the Catholic Church condemned his writings. Unfortunately, this had an unintended consequence: it increased the sale and publications of his work (20+) — many which were published posthumously. Here is an excerpt from One Minute Wisdom, published in 1985), entitled “Enlightenment.”

The Master was an advocate both of learning and of Wisdom.

“Learning,” he said when asked, “is gotten by reading books or listening to lectures.”

“And Wisdom?”

“By reading the book that is you.”

He added as an afterthought: “It is not an easy task at all, for every minute of the day brings a new edition of the book!”

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: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
The Wisdom of Maya Angelou
The Wisdom of a Grandmother
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks
The Wisdom of Lady Grantham
The Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz
The Wisdom of Yoda
The Wisdom of George Carlin
The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery

For further reading: One Minute Wisdom by Anthony de Mello
Taking Flight by Anthony de Mello
The Heart of the Enlightened by Anthony de Mello

There’s A Word for That: Meretricious

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn the modern, digital world we are bombarded by meretricious items day after day, week after week. That’s a good thing right? On the face of it, meretricious sounds nice — a blending of merit and delicious. Nope, not even close. Something that is meretricious is superficially attractive but lacks any real value or merit. Ouch!

Case in point: the Kardashians. Sure, they are all flash and style — but do the real question is: do they really matter? Or consider the Fyre Festival, the ultimate “luxury music festival,” that is the very definition of meretricious. According to the documentaries, Fyre Fraud and Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, the founders of the festival promoted videos of beautiful young models (also known as “social media influencers”) chilling on the shores of an exotic island, creating a massive wave of FOMO that motivated thousands of fans to open up their wallets and shell out millions of dollars to attend an event that was destined for absolute disaster. In short, there was no “there” there; launching a volley of lawsuits and indictments.

So how is it that the word meretricious is so counterintuitive? That is to say, why does it sound like a positive adjective when it is not? The key is in the etymology. And to arrive at the correct etymology we need to focus on the spelling. Note that the target word is spelled “meret” with a second “e” as opposed to “merit” with an “i.” While “merit” is derived from the Latin meritum, meaning “kindness, benefit, favor; worth, value,” “meret” is derived from the Latin meretricious, meaning “of or pertaining to prostitutes,” which is formed from meretrix, meaning “prostitute.” Now we’re getting somewhere!

Around 1630s, the word took on a more general meaning. The prostitute was dropped from the meaning, but her trademark seduction was not — wink, wink: something that was meretricious was gaudily alluring or alluring by false attraction. Over the centuries, this meaning morphed to the modern sense of being superficially attractive but lacking in merit or value. Interestingly, although the word “meretricious” is rarely encountered in the modern world, its existence is both ubiquitous and unavoidable. Perhaps now we know why some of the prostitutes from the 17th century were smiling so knowingly.

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: 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

Forgotten Bookmarks

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you’ve purchased used books at antiquarian bookstores and “friends of the library” book sales, you will know that from time to time, that treasured book you just purchased also contains its own treasure — something that was deliberately inserted into the book, but has been missed or forgotten. The range of the ephemera is broad — from handwritten notes, letters, photographs, greeting cards, postcards, bills, newspaper articles, to objects like feathers or dried flowers. While many have functioned as haphazardly selected bookmarks, others were very deliberately chosen. Despite their form or intentions all of these share one thing in common — they reveal a glimpse into the life story of the person who previously owned the book. And that is worth pondering for a moment. As dedicated book collectors know — and deeply cherish — every book of value has a story of how it became part of a personal library. But imagine now, that a particular newly acquired book has two stories — the one that brought it to you and the one that brought it to its original owner many years ago. What was going on in their lives at the time? Who gave it to them or how did they come across this book? Did the book provide some insight into whatever they were struggling with? Did they mean to retrieve this item from the book or did they forget about it? In some cases, the forgotten bookmarks provide a few clues to be able to answer some of these questions; in general, they remain a wonderful little mystery that will linger on with the book. Without further ado, here are some of the forgotten bookmarks that I have found in books over the past year:

Handwritten notes about the novel

An offer from the Columbia Music Collection (1400 N. Fruitridge, Terre Haute, IN 47811) for the Legends of Jazz recordings. $29.95 for 3 CDs or $19.95 for 3 cassettes. “If you decide to return the entire set, simply do so withing 14 days and owe nothing.”

Note card in book about when they bought the book, where, and who was with them; as well as the context of when they purchased the book (in this case, Ward’s Book Barn)

Slip of paper containing dates of when they began reading the book, and when they finished it

Articles related to Hamlet and Shakespeare from newspapers and magazines


Receipt from an estate sale

$650 check (void) from a teacher’s credit union

Small faded color photographs of a young girl wearing leg braces, sitting on a lawn chair

In book of rhymes, a condensed summary of most common rhyming words

Computer punch card

Flier from Book of the Month Club. (Key Ideas in Human Thought by Kenneth McLeish, 1993) Special selection; member’s price $34.95; publisher’s price: $45.00

Paycheck stub

Valentine heart: “From me to you”

Cursive penmanship homework

Bookmark from Shirley Cobb Book Store, long out of business in the SF Bay Area

A book plate resembling a library check-out sleeve and card: From the Library of __________. A good book is the best of friends the same today and forever. The card reads: Title:  On Loan To:  Name: and Date. In this case it was loaned to Professor Stanlye on October 19

Moon Landing July 20, 1969 Commemorative Book Mark: “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Toledo Edison Employees Federal Credit Union pay stub

Bookmark from Little Professor Book Company, Columbus Ohio

A pricing slip from a Friend of the Library book sale. At the top it notes: “Section manager please discard after pricing.” List different pricing levels: Less than $1, $1-3, $3-5, and $5-10. Then it lists “Checklist Reasons: Loose pages, binding; scuffed, torn, chipped; writing/marks on pages; liquid damage, stains. At the bottom is a line for Researcher and Date.

Invitation to a reception to honor a donor of a music education program

Church bulletin from May 1972

Newspaper clipping: obituary of Lewis Mumford, A Visionary social Critic dies at 94 (Jan 28 1990)

Mid-term exam for English 44-A dated March 19, 1958

Handwritten poem “All that I want to hear/is that you like me”

Memo to allow a person to be excused so that he can be present for the delivery of his first child in April 1978

Car repair bill

Amazon receipt from October 15, 2011

Boarding pass from Virgin America, Flight from San Francisco to Orange County, Feb 2009

Computer punch card (1970s) for student registration; class: Mind of Jesus (100) 2 units, Stanford University

Book Review note: Books for young readers review copy, Doubleday & Company New York

Newspaper article “Hamlet is brief respite in migrant migrant camp” (undated) about a performance of Hamlet by the Globe Theatre company for refugees in Calais, France.

Thank you card: “Thank you for your hard work and contributions over the last year.”

Neatly typed notes on chronology of events in Light in August; parallels between Joe Christmas and Christ.

Self portrait drawn in black ink

Class syllabus with complete class roster and contact information for teacher and each student (Sociolinguistics Fall 1991, Stanford University) and assignment schedule

A small Christmas card, “Christmas Cheer”

Happy Sweet Sixteenth Birthday card and a recipe for an orange julius drink

Elegant Christmas Greetings bookmark from books printed in Italy from early 1900s

Bookmark from Crown Books (still the cheapest bookstore in town) announcing 45% off feature bestsellers and 40% off NYT hardcover bestsellers

List of 25 word reversals (mimeograph)

A poem, thanking for someone for always being there.

A bookmark from A Common Reader, a book club for intelligent, discerning readers.

Note: “To E_______ and A________, whom I am please to count as friends as well as family. May this book, in some small way, enrich your lives as you have enriched mine.”

To my three children: Enjoy the wonders of our language. With great love, Dad. (Christmas 2006) Inscribed in pencil in a word reference book

“Examination Copy” note from Harcourt Brace & World , Inc. “We are pleased to send you this book, with our compliments, so that you may have an opportunity to review it for possible class use. We hope you will enjoy examining it.” (King Lear: Text, Sources, Criticism). Blank note card. At the top: “Here are my comments.”

A handwritten letter from a mother reaching out to an estranged daughter. The letter begins: “Dear C____, I hope this letter finds you in the best of health.” The letter then discusses recent news of family members (illnesses, births, etc.) Suddenly, the letter turns to a difficult matter: “Now let’s talk about you and me. I don’t know why you resent me so much. We are like strangers. If I did something to you now or before, I would like to know. I’d give my life for you. I don’t know, did I bring you up wrong? Did I ever mistreat you? Did I ever begrudge you anything? I don’t know. But if you know, let me in on it so I can correct it. Before I get off this earth. Take care and please no hard feelings. God Bless you. All my love, Mom.” The most fascinating part of this rather haunting letter is that is was found in a very intellectual, philosophical work, Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, winner of the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. It’s a very complex work (Becker is a student of Kierkegaard, Freud, Rank, and Nietschzoe among many other notable thinkers) but if you could summarize it simply, it would be this: man is trapped by his symbolic, intellectual self and his primitive self and inescapable demise. Denial of, or fear of, death has become the main motivation for modern life, and paradoxically, the source of its many neuroses.

Letter from Reader’s Digest. Thanking you for purchasing one of their books and mentioning some highlights from the book. (The Lost Bible: Forgotten Scriptures Revealed)

Pressed leaves in between sheets of paper in a large dictionary (Random House Dictionary, 2nd ed)

Bookmark that promotes a loyalty program for Kepler’s Bookstore established in 1955 in Menlo Park.

Postcard from Sierra Club featuring two a mother polar bear and her cub.

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: Words Invented by Book Lovers
Words for Book Lovers
Profile of a Book Lover: William Gladstone
Profile of a Book Lover: Sylvester Stallone
Most Expensive American Book
The World’s Most Expensive Book
Words Invented by Book Lovers
The Sections of a Bookstore
Profile of a Book Lover: Rebecca Goldstein

%d bloggers like this: