Little Books, Big Ideas: Life Stinks

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature or compact books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches; some are even smaller: 1.5 inches by 2 inches. A compact book, also known as an octodecimo in American Library Association lingo, generally measures 4 x 6 inches. Unfortunately, these types of books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain ideas that are worth pondering.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a little book: Life Stinks: A Wry Look at Hopelessness, Despair, & Disaster by Armand Eisen published by Andrews and McMeel in 1995. In the introduction, Eisen writes: “It’s sad but true that fate stays in the background most of our lives, showing up only to hand us the fuzzy end of a lollipop. The overwhelming weight of evidence proves that life stinks: If there’s a fifty-fifty chance of toast falling on the floor buttered side down, why does it do so 99% of the time? There’s no rhyme, no reason, and absolutely no justice. It seems there’s only on certainty in life — it’s unfair… Only blind optimism could doubt the facts… The truth is that we’re all bound by Murphy’s Law, which states that anything can go wrong, especially when you least expect it.”

Below are some wry and pithy quotations (Ever look up the word “pithy” in a dictionary? It’s one of those useless definitions where the editors, for whatever reason, were just too lazy to finish the definition: “containing much pith.” You don’t say?), collected by the book’s author, to build the case that life stinks. You be the judge — does life really stink?

Optimism is a mania for saying things are well when one is in hell. (Voltaire)

Hell is other people. (Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit)

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. (William Shakespeare, The Tempest)

The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. (H. L. Mencken)

The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane. (Marchus Aurelius)

Meditate upon exile, torture, wars, diseases, shipwreck so that you may not be a novice to any misfortune. (Seneca)

In the depths of my heart I can’t help being convinced that my dear fellow men, with a few exceptions, are worthless. (Sigmund Freud, Private Letter to Lou Andreas-Salome, 1929)

It is not true that life is one damn thing after another — it’s one damn thing over and over. (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Success is merely one achievement that covers up a multitude of blunders. (George Bernard Shaw)

A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain. (Robert Frost, [attributed])

Nothing is so good as it seems beforehand. (George Eliot)

I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy. (Franz Kafka, The Diaries of Franz Kafka: 1914-1923)

The secret of being miserable is to have the leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not. (George Bernard Shaw)

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

Words Invented by Bibliophiles: Book-Wrapt

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn the fascinating essay, “Why Read the Classics?” Italian writer and literary critic Italo Calvino described the ideal library: “All that can be done is for each of us to invent our own ideal library of our classics; and I would say that one half of it would consist of books we have read and that have meant something for us and the other half of books which we intend to read and which we suppose might mean something to us. We should also leave a section of empty spaces for surprises and chance discoveries.” There are many bibliophiles that would argue that the ideal library should actually be divided into three sections: books we have read, books we want to read, and books we want to re-read again and again.

No matter how books are organized in a home library, bibliophiles enjoy being surrounded by books. Journalist and bibliophile Reid Byers, author of The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom, has coined a term for this: book-wrapt. Book-wrapt, a clever pun on the words wrapped and rapped, as in rapt/rapture — means being simultaneously wrapped (surrounded) by books and being held rapt in a magical space, experiencing the rapture of exploring exciting new worlds or seeing the world through the eyes of another. Calvino would concur with Byers’ description of the private library: “The private library is the domestic bookroom: that quiet, book-wrapt space that guarantees its owner that there is at least one place in the world where it is possible to be happy… Entering our library should feel like easing into a hot tub, strolling into a magic store, emerging into the orchestra pit, or entering a chamber of curiosities, the club, the circus, our cabin on an outbound yacht, the house of an old friend. It is a setting forth, and it is a coming back to center.”

Naturally, the realization of a home library invites the question: how many books does it take to experience being book-wrapt? Although many bibliophiles believe that a true home library begins with at least 1,000 books, Byers believes that at least 500 books ensures that a room will begin to feel like a library. The key words Byers’ statement are “will begin to feel like.” Let’s do the math: an average bookcase (eg, Ikea’s bestselling bookcase model, Billy) holds up to 280 paperback books (or 210 hardcover books), so two full bookcases do make a very modest home library — but the real magic happens when you fill five, ten, or fifteen bookcases. I recall my journey as a book collector, beginning with a few hundred books in one bookcase, that slowly increased to 1,000 books, then 2,000, to 5,000, and a few decades later reached its current size of 10,000+ volumes, filling dozens of floor-to-ceiling bookcases in a space dedicated to the home library. Then you reach the point where you begin double stacking: there is a row of books in front of a back row of books on each shelf. At this size, the magic that you experience is timelessness: you enter a world of ideas, where one thought leads to another, one passage leads to another, and one book leads to another… and another, and so forth. As impressive as this library might be, it pales in comparison to the library of the late Professor Richard Maksey, of John Hopkins University, who had a home library of more than 70,000 books or the library of Gary Hoover, founder of Bookstop and a passionate advocate for reading lifelong learning, who bought a 6,600 square foot building to house his collection of more than 60,000 reference books. From an architectural standpoint, perhaps the most stunning home library is that of Jay Scott Walker, founder of Priceline. His private library (3,600 square feet), called “The Walker Library of the History of Human Imagination,” is more like a library/museum containing more than 25,000 books and fascinating historical artifacts. (You can read about these fascinating book collectors in the links below.)

In her essay “How Many Books Does It Take to Make a Place Feel Like a Home [Library]” for The New York Times Julie Lasky hones in on the home library’s greatest attribute: the sense of wonder it evokes: “[Byers’ The Private Library] goes to the heart of why physical books continue to beguile us. Individually, they are frequently useful or delightful, but it is when books are displayed en masse that they really work wonders. Covering the walls of a room, piled up to the ceiling and exuding the breath of generations, they nourish the senses, slay boredom and relieve distress.” Indeed, the home library is a homage to the great truths and topics pondered and explored by great writers and thinkers; it is a shrine to the accumulated knowledge of mankind as well as a portal to what scholars call the “unknown unknown”; and finally it is a temple to bibliophilism or biblioholism — depending on your perspective. True bibliophiles understand that a great home library not only evokes a profound sense of wonder, it also evokes a deep sense of humility: that you are standing among giants of history and the vast record of mankind filled with tales of achievement and failure; courage and fear; hope and despair; compassion and cruelty; endurance and capitulation. I am reminded of one of the greatest definitions of a library expressed by Vartan Gregorian, former president of the New York Public Library (NYPL), who stood in the middle of the glorious, seemingly infinite stacks of the NYPL and remarked, “This [gesturing at all the stacks] is the DNA of our civilization.” Amen.

The library as a depository of knowledge, as a research tool, is explored by essayist Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan. Taleb cites another great writer and scholar, Umberto Eco, who very much like Calvino, was passionate about books and learning: “The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing more than 30,000 books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have. How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market alow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary. We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.”

Naturally, the antilibrary gives rise to its dutiful steward, the antischolar. According to Taleb, the antischolar is “someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.” Perhaps the greatest antischolar was Socrates who said, “”The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This sentiment of intellectual humility is also expressed by a famous quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” 

With all due respect to Taleb, the term “antilibrary” is terrible. Surely an individual with his level of erudition knows that anti- is the Greek prefix meaning “against.” Think of all these words: antihero, antigravity, anticlimax, antimatter, antiaircraft — all of which mean the opposite of something. So the anti-library is the opposite of a library (no books) or opposition to or suppression of a library (think censorship or book burning). There has to be a better term — and I believe there is. I submit for your consideration the term the “desired library” or the “aspirational library” — filled with the books that you desire or that you aspire to read one day. Sounds much more hopeful, doesn’t it?

READ THE BOOK: 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.

Words for Book Lovers
The Most Amazing Private Library in the World
Profile of a Book Lover: Richard Macksey
Profile of a Book Lover: Gary Hoover
Profile of a Book Lover: William Gladstone
Profile of a Book Lover: Rebecca Goldstein
Profile of a Book Lover: Sylvester Stallone
Confessions of a Book Scout: Old Bookstore Have Been the Hunting Grounds of My Life
Confessions of a Bibliophile: J. Kevin Graffagnino
The Man Who Launched 75,000 Libraries
Most Expensive American Book
The World’s Most Expensive Book
Words Invented by Book Lovers
The Sections of a Bookstore
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

For further reading: The Private Library by Reid Byers
Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino
http://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/24/realestate/why-do-people-keep-books.html

The Sun Also Rises in the Public Domain

alex atkins bookshelf booksJust as Jake Barnes and Lady Brett Ashley wake up after a long night of carousing with other members of the Lost Generation and a contingent of macho, hard-drinking bullfighters, the sun rises on a new year — 2022. As these disillusioned and drunk expatriates sober up, they face the harsh reality that Ernest Hemingway’s copyright for The Sun Also Rises has expired. My fellow expats — let’s celebrate with a round of Tequila Mockingbirds for everyone in the bar!

On January 1, 2022, Hemingway’s first published novel The Sun Also Rises originally published in 1926, entered the public domain, passing the 95-year term of its original copyright. So what does this mean to most readers?

Readers can expect to free access for 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. Readers can expect many affordable and collectible versions of cherished classics. Take a look at what happened last year, when F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby entered the public domain. Within months, publishers introduced more than a dozen editions: some absolutely beautifully illustrated hardback editions, editions with new illuminating essays, and several paperback editions with new cover art — all at different price points. On January 5, 2021, American writer Michael Farris Smith published the first pastiche based on the classic novel: Nick, a prequel to The Great Gatsby, that was criticized for not providing any deeper understanding of the novel’s protagonist.

Here are some other notable works that are in the public domain as of January 1, 2022:

Bambi, A Life in the Woods by Felix Salten

Enough Rope by Dorothy Parker

My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather

Notes on Democracy by H. L. Mencken

Sand and Foam by Kahlil Gibran

Show Boat by Edna Ferber

Soldiers’ Pay by William Faulkner

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Plumed Serpent by D. H. Lawrence

The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (adapted into the film Lawrence of Arabia) by T. E. Lawrence

The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes

Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne

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

The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2021

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 2021, it reached $41,205.58 — a dramatic bounceback from $16,168.14 in 2020, an aberration caused by the economic downturn caused by the COVID-10 crisis (the significant decrease was due 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 2021, the Atkins Bookshelf Christmas Price Index is $108,625 (shipping and tax are not included), a slight decrease of $3,520 (about 3%) from last year ($112,145). 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 valued at $75,000 (a price unchanged from last year) — a valuation that would be sure to warm Scrooge’s heart. The second most expensive Christmas book, coming in at $15,000 (the price is also 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: $3,500

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: $1,250

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) by Valentine Davies: $1,500

The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) by L. Frank Baum: $1,250

The Greatest Gift (1944) by Philip Van Doren Stern: $5,000

Christmas at Thompson Hall (included in Novellas, 1883) by Anthony Trollope: $150

Old Christmas from the Sketchbook of Washington Irving (1886) by Washington Irving: $150

The Gift of the Magi (included in The Four Million, 1905) by O. Henry: $75

Happy Holidays!

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: The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”

Words invented by Dickens
Why Read Dickens?

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

Best Gifts that Book Lovers Can Wear

alex atkins bookshelf booksDaedalus Books, located in Hudson, Ohio, was founded in 1980. The company sells remaindered books, music, and video via catalogs (typically 68 pages long) and website. Since 2018, Daedalus has expanded its retail division that focuses on book related products that now brings in 60% of its revenues. During the holidays, the catalogs feature clever t-shirts promoting books, reading, and book collecting that any book lover would love. Here are some of the slogans, often accompanied by stylized artwork, that are printed on cotton t-shirts of various colors:

My workout is reading in bed until my arms hurt

It’s not hoarding if its books

Better to have a book and no time to read than time to read and no book

One does not stop buying books just because one has run out of space

Dinosaurs didn’t read books… and look what happened to them

I’ll stop buying books when they grow wings and fly

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it is too dark to read. – Groucho Marx

The following t-shirts are for word lovers:

Team Oxford comma

Synonym Rolls. [Image of cinnamon rolls] Same as Grammar used to make.

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: Best Books About Books for Book Lovers: 2018
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Best Gifts for Book Lovers
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What is the Value of a Harry Potter First Edition?

alex atkins bookshelf booksChristmas came early for the owner of a pristine, rare first edition of J.K. Rowling’s first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone who sold it at auction on December 9, 2021. The auction was conducted by Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas, as part of a two-day “Firsts Into Film” auctions, that is to say, first editions of famous works that were adapted for film or television. The bidding for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone opened at $75,000, but a fierce bidding war initiated by a gaggle of determined, competitive — and affluent — Muggles quickly drove the price past the previous record of $138,000 (set earlier this year) to reach the final astronomical sale price of $471,000 — almost half a million dollars! This is one book you will never find on the kitchen table or a nightstand; most likely it will find a new home inside a home safe or bank vault. The sale of this book breaks two world records: it is the highest price paid for a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and it is the highest amount paid for a commercially published 20th-century work of fiction. Both of these records are powerful testimony for the value of printed books and the importance of book collecting in the Digital Age.

All of the books in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series are highly collectible, but a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, initially published in the UK in 1997, is the Holy Grail for serious book-collecting muggles (the book was retitled as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in US). As the legend goes, 12 publishing houses rejected her first manuscript. Only one publisher had the courage and foresight to publish this first-time author and her boy wizard: Bloomsbury. However, Bloomsbury initially had very low expectations for a first novel by an unknown author (the dust jacket indicates Joanne [Kathleen] Rowling as the author) so the initial run was very small: only 500 hardback copies. 300 of those were shipped to libraries where they were vandalized — I mean, processed with the conventional library ink stamps, markings, and security stickers. So those fortunate 200 individuals that purchased the first edition were rewarded with an opportunity of a lifetime: a literary pot of gold, that is if they took very good care of the book and dust jacket over the years.

This particular book, and the books from 138 other lots, were all owned by a single book collector who fell in love with specific films and then made it his or her mission to track down the first edition, in the best condition that could be found, for each of those films. Talk about a wonderful lifelong hobby with an incredible return on investment! Curious to learn what else this book collector sold that day? Here are some other prized possessions that were sold during the “Firsts Into Film” auction:

Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954-55): $103,125

Chronicles of Narnia set of 7 novels by C.S. Lewis (1950-56): $100,000

Pride and Prejudice in 3 volumes by Jane Austen (1813): $60,000

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930): $47,500

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1953): $42,500

Sense and Sensibility in 3 volumes by Jane Austen (1811): $37,500

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960): $35,000

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964): $23,750

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: Most Expensive American Book
The World’s Most Expensive Book
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 Most Expensive Books Sold in 2015
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For further reading:
http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/news/harry-potter-first-edition-sells-471000-sets-modern-literature-world-record

The Best Gifts for Book Lovers: 2021

The Madman’s Library: The Greatest Curiosities of Literature by Brooke-Hitching, published by Chronicle Books

Mental Floss: The Curious Reader: Facts About Famous Authors and Novels; Book Lovers and Literary Interest; A Literary Miscellany of Novels & Novelists by Erin McCarthy, published by Weldon Owen

Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf by Alexander Atkins, published by AAD Publishing (A book written by a book collector and graphic designer specifically for book lovers!)

Ex Libris: 100+ Books to Read and Reread by Michiko Katutani, published by Clarkson Potter

Guarded by Dragons: Encounters with Rare Books and Rare People by Rick Gekoski, published by Constable

Remarkable Books: The World’s Most Historic and Significant Works by DK Publishing

Do You Read Me? Bookstores Around the World by Marianne Strauss, published by Gestalten

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich, published by Workman Publishing Company

The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Reread by Harold Bloom, published by Knopf

Bookstores: A Celebration of Independent Booksellers by Stuart Husband, published by Prestel

The Library: A Fragile History by Andrews Pettegree, published by Basic Books

Treasures of the New York Public Library by staff of NYPL, published by St. Martin’s Press

For the Love of Books: Designing and Curating a Home Library by Thatcher Wine, published by Gibbs Smith

The Writer’s Library: The Authors You Love on the Books that Changed Their Lives by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager, published by HarperOne

Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature by Angus Fletcher, published by Simon & Schuster

Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word by Alex Johnson, published by Frances Lincoln

The Look of the Book by David Alworth, published by Ten Speed Press

Any leather-bound book from Easton Press or the Folio Society

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: Best Books About Books for Book Lovers: 2018
Best Books About Books for Book Lovers: 2017
Best Gifts for Book Lovers: 2015

The Art of Giving Good Gifts
Holiday Book Gift Guide 2014
Best Books for Movie Lovers
Best Books About Jane Austen
Best Gifts for Book Lovers
Best Books for Movie Lovers

For further reading:https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/despite-pandemic-2020-u-s-book-sales-on-par-with-past-five-years/
https://www.spbooks.com/en/
https://www.miniboox.de
https://www.foliosociety.com
https://www.eastonpress.com
https://www.taschen.com
https://www.dk.com/us/
https://www.loa.org

The Wisdom of a Bookseller and Former Garbage Man

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

As a lifelong book collector, one of the greatest rewards of collecting books is the fantastic people you meet along the way. A subgroup of those people is the bookseller. Sadly, the bookseller is part of a dying breed of passionate and enlightened custodians of that often-overlooked commodity — the glorious printed book that passes wisdom and wondrous stories from one generation to the next. If you have traveled around the globe, you know that you will find these bookstores and their dedicated bibliophilic stewards in some of the most unlikely places, toiling away, silently, amid the stacks and bookshelves that inhabit their quaint shops, filled with that enchanting aroma of old books.

Bibliophiles will feel instant kinship with such a bookseller: John Scott, the owner and proprietor of New Morning Books, a small bookshop with an incredible inventory located in Adelaide, Australia. Thanks to filmmaker David Thorpe’s short documentary, titled “Turned Pages,” you don’t have to travel around the world to meet him. As soon as the interview begins, Scott captures your interest with his profound love of books and fascinating perspectives on book collecting and the book business.

One of the first questions that I ask booksellers is, “How did you get started in the bookselling business?” Thorpe must have asked that question off-camera because Scott addresses it early in the documentary. His answer will surprise many bibliophiles and booksellers because, at least initially, it so unorthodox (and perhaps paradoxical): “The real seed [to becoming a bookseller], I think, was sown when I was working as a garbage man in the north of England, when I was knocking around England in the 60s, and we would often get books that we would pick up. It was a very posh area [that] produced a lot of antiques and collectibles. I was living in a household full of university students and [in] every university there was a very good secondhand bookshop. I thought that this looked like a pretty nice way to spend one’s life and a nice way to meet one’s living. So it was there as a vague ambition in the back of my mind from my teens. I started working in the very early 70s for university coop bookshop in Sydney and before very long I was managing one of their shops and I had not been long in the bookselling environment when I realize this was for me — this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life and indeed I have.”

One of the most memorable moments in the documentary occurs near the end, when Scott generously offers this timeless, sage advice: “If anybody happens to see this, [anybody] who is young and who has a consuming interest in life — my advice to them would be: identify what it is in life you love the most and then try to commercialize it, so you can spend your life doing just that…. I’ve had nearly 30 years doing [what I love]; [but] I wish I’d had 50. I wish I’d done it when I was in my late teens or early twenties. But, you know, [the old proverb] “if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” And I have no right to complain; [I’ve] had a wonderful career and I’ve met the most fantastic people. You know that’s one of big emotional payoffs —  sort of — [in a] business like this — the people that you meet. But I have [known] people that have been corporate lawyers who are multimillionaires who are hooked on the money and hooked on the lifestyle but who, at the end of their lives, wish they devoted themselves to something that was more soul nurturing. It’s well said that nobody on their deathbed ever wishes they worked harder. Very few people on their deathbed wish they made more money — what they want is the idea that they live a life that has some spiritual content and value to it. And I can say that this [career as a bookseller] has had plenty.” Amen to that, brother — if an individual wants a fulfilling life, he or she should choose meaning over money.

Not only is Scott’s advice so valuable to people, particularly those graduating from high school or college, he also introduces us to that wonderful Scottish proverb that you do not hear that often: “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.” The proverb means that if wishing something would make it happen, then even the poorest individuals would have everything they wanted. Another defintion is that simply wishing for something does not yield anything or expressed another way: rather than wishing for things, one should work to get them. This proverb comes from a collection of proverbs, Proverbs in Scot by James Carmichael, published in 1628 which, in turn, is based on a rhyme included in Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine by William Camden, published in 1605. The original line was quite different than the one recorded by Carmichael: “If wishes were thrushes, beggars would eat birds.”

Watch the documentary on YouTube by searching “Turned Pages Second-hand Bookstore Documentary”

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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Books are Keys to Wisdom’s Treasure

alex atkins bookshelf booksOne of the most gratifying experiences as a book collector is finding a thought-provoking inscription or bookmark inside a used book that has sat forlorn on a bookshelf, silently collecting dust for years, perhaps decades. One feels a special kinship with the intrepid archaeologist toiling at an ancient site who gently brushes off centuries of dust and grime to reveal a glorious relic that has patiently waited to reveal its secrets to a world that has passed it by, a world that it no longer recognizes. And so I found such a relic — a book — a few days ago at a used bookstore. The title was No Idle Words by Ivor Brown (1891-1974, a prolific British journalist and author of books on literature and the English language (over 75 books!) and editor of The Observer for more than three decades. As I carefully blew off a thin blanket of dust and opened the cover, I was delighted to find this enchanting little poem, truly a serendipitous discovery, on the free endpaper written in neat cursive writing:

“Books are keys to wisdom’s treasure;
Books are gates to lands of pleasure;
Books are paths that upward lead;
Books are friends. Come, let us read.”

The poem was unattributed poem; however, it did not spring from the mind of the inscription’s author, but rather he or she was quoting Emilie Poulsson (1853-1939), an American author of children’s books and advocate for early childhood education. Soon after she was born, she lost her vision and learned to read braille. Her blindness did not diminish her passion for reading, pursuing a comprehensive education, and a life of contribution. She wrote several books for children, books on parenting, and translated the works of Norwegian authors. This particular poem is from Rhyme Time for Children published in 1929 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Company. The poem is often quoted to support libraries and literacy campaigns. You really can’t ask for a better invitation to read: “Books are friends. Come, let us read.”

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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Why We Don’t Say “Happy Franksgiving”

alex atkins bookshelf wordsNo — that’s not a typo. If you lived in the United States during the Great Depression, people wished one another “Happy Franksgiving.” The word Franksgiving was coined by Charles White, mayor of Atlantic City, as a portmanteau (a term that linguists use to describe what is essentially a mash-up of words; the word portmanteau, as it refers to words, was introduced by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There published in 1871) of Franklin and Thanksgiving, meant to ridicule President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s well-intentioned but highly criticized decision to move Thanksgiving one week earlier than the last Thursday of November of 1939, a tradition introduced by President Abraham Lincoln over seven decades ago in 1863.

Back in the 1930s, the American public actually frowned upon retailers that displayed holiday decorations or merchandise before Thanksgiving (imagine that! What a difference a century makes — now the holiday retail season begins before Halloween — Black Friday seems to happen every week from Halloween to Christmas!), so in August 1939, several leading business leaders, including Lew Hahn (general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association), Fred Lazarus, Jr. (founder of Federated Department Stores, now known as Macy’s), and Commerce Secretary Harry Hopkins warned FDR that the late celebration of Thanksgiving (November had five Thursdays in 1939) would adversely impact retail sales that year. Worried that inaction would hurt the economy, FDR decided to declare that Thanksgiving would be moved to November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of that month. Outside of retailers who embraced the date switch and the opportunity to cash in on Christmas sooner, most Americans opposed the switch — 62% to 38% according to a Gallup poll of that time. One constant in American history is political polarization: support for Franksgiving was divided along partisan lines: Democrats favored it 52% to 48% while Republicans opposed it 79% to 21%. So in 1939, it was not unusual for Democrats to celebrate November 23 as “Democratic Thanksgiving” while Republicans celebrated “Republican Thanksgiving” on November 30.

Many Republicans argued that FDR’s decision was disrespecting President Lincoln’s legacy. Republican Presidential candidate Alf Landon went so far as to compare FDR to Hitler: “[Franksgiving is] another illustration of the confusion which [FDR’s] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out… instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler.” Ouch. Landon’s comment also prefigures one of the most famous rules of the internet — Godwin’s Law (introduced in 1990) that states that given enough time in an online discussion on just about any topic, a person will inevitably make some comparison to the Nazis or Hitler.

In short, the date switch that occurred in 1939 and 1940 was an absolute fiasco. The decision was unpopular among the voters and the dramatic increase in holiday retail sales that retailers had predicted never materialized. Another constant in American history is Congress’ glacial speed in addressing a colossal screwup. It took Congress two years to fix this mess — in 1941 Congress finally declared that Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday of November — where it has remained to this day. 

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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For further reading: http://www.realclearhistory.com/articles/2014/11/26/when_fdr_tried_to_move_thanksgiving.html
http://www.columbusunderground.com/history-lesson-how-lazarus-laid-the-foundation-for-black-friday/

Flying on the Wings of Books

alex atkins bookshelf booksWhen visitors enter my library of more than 10,000 books, they are almost always drawn to a particular section, as if seduced by a siren’s song. “Where do they go?” you ask. They stand before a tall, narrow bookcase that contains 124 volumes of the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poem series — all neatly lined up, with their colorful but uniform design, shelf after shelf. Each of these volumes is a pocket-sized hardcover book with a beautifully designed jewel-toned dust jacket, a matching silk ribbon marker, and gold stamping. Each book highlights the work of one poet or a theme, for example, love, friendship, gratitude, home, healing, trees, and Christmas. And speaking of Christmas…. just in time for the holidays, when book lovers browse the bookshelves of bookstores, enjoying the rich aroma of ink and paper and the songs of the holiday — a great introduction to the series was just published: Books and Libraries: Poems, edited by Andrew Scrimgeour. The dust jacket aptly introduces this lovely little book: “An utterly enchanting book about books, this globe-spanning poetry anthology testifies to the passion books and libraries have inspired through the ages… A remarkably diverse treasury of literary celebrations, Books and Libraries is sure to take pride of place on the shelves of the book-obsessed.” The 272-page book includes poems by all the poets you would expect to find: Emily Dickenson, William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Maya Angelou, Wallace Stevens, Andrew Marvell, and so forth. One of the poems is a sonnet by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) from The Book of Sonnet (1867) edited by Leigh Hunt and Samuel Adams Lee:

Personal Talk and Books

Wings have we, and as far as we can go
We may find pleasure: wilderness and wood,
Blank ocean and mere sky, support that mood
Which with the lofty sanctifies the low:
Dreams, books, are each a world; and books, we know,
Are a substantial world, both pure and good:
Round these, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
Our pastime and our happiness will grow.
There find I personal themes, a plenteous store,
Matter wherein right voluble am I
To which I listen with a ready ear.
Two shall be named, pre-eminently dear:—
The gentle Lady married to the Moor,
And heavenly Una with her milk-white Lamb.

These books make great gifts; however, trust me when I tell you, from one book lover to another — once you own one or two, you get hooked and want to own the entire collection. The good news is that this is one of the most successful poetry series ever published (beginning in 1995) and has never gone out of print. You can find just about every volume online in new or used condition. Happy collecting!

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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For further reading: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/series/PTO/everymans-library-pocket-poets-series

Little Books, Big Ideas: Greek Proverbs

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature or compact books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches; some are even smaller: 1.5 inches by 2 inches. A compact book, also known as an octodecimo in American Library Association lingo, generally measures 4 x 6 inches. Unfortunately, these types of books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking little book: Greek Proverbs by Vailiki Stathes published by Aeolos in Athens, Greece in 1998. In the introduction, Stathes, a language teacher, writes: “Proverbs are man’s insight into human nature. Handed down from generation to generation, they irony and wisdom are still on point in countless present-day situations. They strike so true that they are incorporated into our common speech. We allude to them without ever realizing our indebtedness to parents and grandparents.” Over the years, Stathes has collected over 500 proverbs. For this book, he selected the most popular ones, as well as those that originated in Greece: “popularity and familiarity were the main criteria for their inclusion.” Here are some notable Greek proverbs:

Those who are not dancing, sing many songs.

From the child and from the fool, one learns the truth.

A clear sky is not afraid of lightning

Little by little, one goes far.

Listen to all and believe what you want.

A small hole can sink a big ship.

You can knock all you want at a deaf man’s door.

One is the product of his teacher.

From the thorn comes a rose, and from the rose comes a thorn.

Where you are I’ve been, and where I am you’ll be.

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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Remarkable Bookstores: Henry Miller Library

alex atkins bookshelf booksOne of the most scenic highways in America is California State Route 1 (designated as Coast Highway, Cabrillo Highway, or Pacific Coast Highway) that hugs the coastline for most of its 656 miles from Leggett (home of the Chandelier Tree, better known as the Drive-through Tree, located about 170 miles north of San Francisco) in the north to Dana Point (about 60 miles south of Los Angeles) in the south. Although its views of the Pacific Ocean are breathtaking, it’s a harrowing drive filled with a serpentine roadway that dips and rises, bordered by sheer jagged cliffs that disappear into the Pacific Ocean. But once you pass Carmel-by-the-Sea (about 75 miles south of San Jose), you are treated to one of the most beautiful and most photographed bridges in the world: the Bixby Bridge, a reinforced concrete open-spandrel arch bridge, that crosses over Big Sur Creek, spilling into the ocean. But the real treat for bibliophiles is just 16 miles to the south of that iconic bridge — but you have to pay attention because it is easy to miss. As you drive down Cabrillo Highway, passing Mule Canyon Road on your right, less than half a mile on your left you will see a sign for one of the most remote but remarkable small bookstores in the country. The wooden sign that reads “Henry Miller Memorial Library Books Music Art” leads you to an enchanting bookstore surrounded by beautiful, majestic redwood trees, with views of the shoreline of Big Sur.

By now you are asking, “You mean Henry Miller, the famous author of the banned book Tropic of Cancer and friend of Anasis Nin, Otto Rank, Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos?” Yes, that Henry Miller. After his famous travels in Europe, and time spent in New York, Miller moved to California in 1942, and settled in Big Sur in 1944. By then, he was famous for his Tropic of Cancer trilogy that was banned in the U.S. on the grounds of obscenity (the books had to be smuggled into America). He began writing The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945) there, and later Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch (1957). In the early 1960s, Emil White, a friend, confidant, and painter, built a small log cabin house for Miller in the forest. Miller once said of White: “One of the few friends who has never failed me.” Miller lived in the house for three years, and moved to Los Angeles in 1963. He died there in 1980 at the age of 88. A year later, White founded the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a nonprofit to house a collection of his works (the library houses the second largest collection of his work, manuscripts, and letters in the world; UCLA has the largest collection), promote his legacy and the arts, and sell books and artwork. The mission statement reads: “The Henry Miller Library is a public benefit, non-profit 501 (c) 3 organization championing the literary, artistic and cultural contributions of the late writer, artist, and Big Sur resident Henry Miller. The Library also serves as a cultural resource center, functioning as a public gallery/performance/workshop space for artists, writers, musicians and students. In addition, the Library supports education in the arts and the local environment. Finally, the Library serves as a social center for the community.” During the summer, the Library hosts lectures, musical performances, book signings, and film festivals. White was the director of the nonprofit until his death in 1989; he bequeathed the library to the Big Sur Land Trust. Interestingly, Miller disapproved of memorials; he once remarked: “Memorials defeated the purpose of a man’s life. Only by living your own life to the full can you honor the memory of someone.”

When you walk up the short ramp to the Henry Miller Library the first thing you notice is an expansive deck, adjacent to the rustic building. In the center of the deck is a beautiful tree; hanging from the branches of the trees are plastic bags that contain curated books. Along the exterior walls are several tables that are curated by theme: nature, Big Sur, spirituality, classic fiction, modern fiction, children’s fiction, the Beats, and of course: Anais Nin and Henry Miller. The exterior walls are also lined with bags of books. You will find obligatory signs about reading, including “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” (Ray Bradbury) and “A book lying on a shelf is wasted ammunition. Like money, books must be kept in constant circulation. Lend and borrow to the maximum — of both books and money!” (Henry Miller). Once inside you step inside the cabin, a visitor will find small wooden tables with neat stacks of books, walls with narrow bookcases, artwork, and more books hanging in plastic bags. The best part of buying a book here is that they will stamp emboss it with the Henry Miller Library logo that features a rendering of a crab (similar to the one that appeared on the first edition of Tropic of Cancer; in that illustration, by artist Maurice Kahane, the crab is gripping the body of a limp male body) holding a copy of Tropic of Cancer standing over a writer’s desk. Incidentally, a first edition of Tropic of Cancer published by Obelisk Press in September 1934 (only 1,000 copies were printed) and featuring a preface by Anais Nin (now known to be largely written by Miller), is worth over $6,600. Since it was banned for obscenity the cover features the line: “Not to be imported into Great Britain of U.S.A.” The first American edition, published by Grove Press of New York in 1961 is worth over $2,500. The typescript of the book was purchased by Yale University in 1986 for $165,000.

Of course, if you don’t have the nerve to navigate the long and winding road of the Coast Highway to get to the Henry Miller Library, you can also hop on the internet and order directly from their website. You will also find a fascinating timeline of Miller’s fascinating life. And yes, you can buy Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, raw and uncensored, considered to be a remarkable novel by George Orwell; he wrote: “I earnestly counsel anyone who has not done so to read at least Tropic of Cancer. With a little ingenuity, or by paying a little over the published price, you can get hold of it, and even if parts of it disgust you, it will stick in your memory… Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance.” [From the essay, “Inside the Whale” published in 1940.]

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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For further reading: https://henrymiller.org

The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Catalog: September 2021

alex atkins bookshelf booksAn antiquarian bookseller’s catalog is a bibliophile’s literary treasure trove between two covers. Open any catalog, and you will find beautiful, sought-after gems — rare first editions, inscribed copies, manuscripts, letters, screenplays, and author portraits — from some of the most famous authors in the world.

Ken Lopez has been an antiquarian bookseller since the early 1970s. Formerly the president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, Lopez focuses on first editions, literature of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, nature writing, and Native American literature. He is the quintessential bibliophile — as passionate about discovering rare books as he is about preserving literary history. Bibliophiles salivate as they browse through his comprehensive catalogs, filled with fascinating and valuable literary treasures. Here are some highlights from his most recent catalog, Modern Literature No. 172 (September 2021):

The Naked Lunch by William Burroughs (1959), in a custom clamshell: $3,500

The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac (1958), his novel after success of On the Road, limited edition (99 of 100): $3,500

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962), first edition inscribed by Kesey: “For Jason: It’s getting so I can’t install a single frigging component. By the way, this is an original print… I was sued by this woman who said she was the Red Cross Nurse so I had to change her to The Public Relations. I think there were less than 1000 of these sold before the recall.”: $15,000

The Shadow Over Innsmouth by H. P. Lovecraft (1936), 1 of only 400 printed during the author’s lifetime: $6,000

Rabbit Redux by John Updike (1971), uncorrected proof copy of second book in Rabbit Angstrom series: $750

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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For further reading: lopezbooks.com

There Should Be a Word for That: Bibliodisposophobia

alex atkins bookshelf words

If you are a serious book lover you have probably encountered this predicament: the bookshelves in your bookcases are sagging under the weight of so many books and you just came home with another stack of books from yet another book-buying binge. You have been in denial as book piles begin forming around the bookcases, spilling into other rooms, with every nook and cranny becoming a clever place to store books. You cannot put off the inevitable — it is time to do what many librarians are required to do: deaccession, the formal term for culling or weeding out books. While librarians can use certain metrics to make a decision about what books to weed out (the frequency that a book is checked out, last time the book was checked out, etc.), a bibliophile does not have metrics to fall on because he or she has an emotional and intellectual connection to each book. As any bibliophile fully knows, the KonMari Method of decluttering a bookshelf, introduced by Marie Kondo in her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014), is absolutely useless: of course every book sparks joy! Books not only spark joy, they spark critical thinking, new ideas, connections with other books and ideas, deep feelings (like empathy), as well as serving as markers on an intellectual journey. When most bibliophiles attempt to weed their collection of books they encounter the ingrained unwillingness, no — the inability to get rid of a single precious book. Interestingly, there is no formal term for this; however, there should be! Atkins Bookshelf submits a new word for your thoughtful consideration: bibliodisposophobia — defined as the fear of losing books or the inability to discard books.

The word bibliodisposophobia is formed from the Greek word-forming element biblio- (meaning “related to books”), the Old French verb disposer (meaning “to arrange, to order) that is, in turn, from the Latin verb disponere (meaning “to arrange, to distribute”) and the Greek word-forming element -phobia (meaning “panic fear of”). If you happen to Google disposophobia you will find that it is considered a synonym for hoarding disorder. But it is important to note that book collecting (or collecting anything of value, actually) is not the same thing as hoarding. A book collector acquires books in a very intentional and organized way. Many careful considerations are made before a book collector actually purchases a book. Consequently, a book collector will typically organize and display the acquired books in a bookshelf, and then enjoy and admire the assembled collection. A hoarder, on the other hand, collects things impulsively — without any focus, and without any intention of displaying and organizing. The possessions of a hoarder are thrown into a cluttered pile that disrupts the ability to use the space for comfortable living, which leads to problems in relationships and social activities. There now… aren’t you feeling so much better about your book collecting and library?

Oh, and if you are wondering if there is an antidote or solution to bibliodisposophobia, you will be thrilled to learn that there is. Most psychologists (who happen to be bibliophiles) all agree: simply buy more bookcases or buy a larger house and keep building your library. Either solution is far easier than having to weed out books from your library. Happy shopping…

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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There’s a Word for That: Bibliotaph

 

How Did the Pandemic Impact Reading Habits and the Book Industry?

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe deadly Covid-19 pandemic mandated lockdowns for millions of people around the globe beginning in March 2020. Confined in their own homes for months at a time, people turned to their televisions sets for entertainment and on some level, companionship. Streaming services, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, experienced dramatic increases in number of new subscriptions. But how did the pandemic impact people’s reading habits and the book industry in general? A year later, a review of the data by the folks at Global English Editing suggests that there was somewhat of a silver lining to the pandemic for the book industry: more than a third of the world’s population turned to books to read for entertainment and education. Along with that good news, was some bad news: in 2020, the American Bookseller’s Association reported that 70 independent bookstores closed last year due to the pandemic; as of May 2021, 14 bookstores have closed. Independent bookstores weathered the toughest financial storm in recent history by quickly adapting to the new online economy (e.g., holding virtual events and sales, curb-side pick-up, engaging social media campaigns, crowd-funding, etc.), financial support from Covid-19 economic relief grants and loans, as well as grants from the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. Below is a summary of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on reading and the book industry by the numbers:

The global Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns caused:
35% of the world’s people to read more
14% of those read significantly more

Visits to book and literature ecommerce sites in March 2020:
1.51 billion (an increase of 8% from February)

Impact on physical book sales:
In France, physical book sales dropped by 57%
In United States, physical book sales dropped 38%
In United Kingdom, educational book sales increased 234%

Reading habits in America in 2020:
Americans read an average (mean) 12 books per year
The average American has read 4 books in past year
Percentage of Americans who did not read a book in past year: 27%
48% of Americans read the Bible at least 3 times per year
The likelihood of Americans reading was directly correlated with wealth and level of education:
17% of Americans who earn over $75K did not read books
36% of Americans who earn less than $30K did not read books
7% of Americans with a college degree did not read books
37% of Americans with a high school degree or less did not read books

Country that reads the most (number of hours spent in reading per person each week):
1. India: 10:42
2. Thailand: 9:24
3. China: 8:00
4. Philippines: 7:36

5. Egypt: 7:30

22. United States: 5:42

Generation that read more books during pandemic:
Millennials: 40%
GenZ: 34%
GenX: 31%
Baby Boomers: 28%

Size of the global book industry in 2020:
Market size: $119 billion
Number of businesses: 16,395
Number of employees: 315,579

Country that publishes the most books each year:
1. China: 440,000
2. United States: 304,912
3. United Kingdom: 184,000
4. Japan: 139,078
5. Russia: 101,981

Best-selling books of 2020 (Amazon.com):
1. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
2. My First Learn to Write Workbook by Crystal Radke
3. The Room Where It Happened by John Bolton
4. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
5. Untamed by Glennon Doyle

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: 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
The Sections of a Bookstore

For further reading: apnews.com/article/amazoncom-inc-health-coronavirus-pandemic-business-arts-and-entertainment-ede783f276dae54ad4eb4f2c8a7d1138
http://www.kvue.com/article/news/health/coronavirus/adjusting-to-the-pandemic-how-bookstores-continue-to-stay-open/269-d4060f39-810f-487b-9a55-8cec6ec72ed5
http://www.bincfoundation.org
geediting.com/world-reading-habits-2020/

George Orwell: Why I Don’t Want to Be a Bookseller

alex atkins bookshelf booksAt the corner of Pond Street and South End Green in Hamstead, London, England you will be lured by the delightful aroma of fresh baked bread from Gail’s Bakery. As you face the entrance to the bakery, turn your gaze slightly to the left. Right about eye level you will find what seems to be an out-of-place architectural embellishment protruding from the building’s facade. It is small plaque dedicated to Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. The plaque reads: “GEORGE ORWELL, WRITER 1903-1950, LIVED AND WORKED IN A BOOKSHOP ON THIS SITE, 1934-1935.” Adjacent to the inscription is a bas relief of the famous author. British novelist and biographer Margaret Drabble was instrumental in helping erect this plaque; Orwell’s widow, Sonia, unveiled the plaque before she died in 1980.

Orwell worked at the Booklovers’ Corner, a used bookstore, early in his career when he was struggling to make a living as a writer. He worked in exchange for board and lodging in one of the three apartments located above the bookshop from October 1934 to March 1935. Nellie Limouzin, Orwell’s aunt, knew the owners of the bookshop (Francis and Myfanwy Westrope) who also owned the apartments and helped to arrange the housing and the job. Orwell worked at the bookshop in the afternoons, spending the mornings and evenings writing. In a letter to a friend he described his routine: “My time-table is as follows: 7am get up, dress etc., cook & eat breakfast. 8.45 go down & open up the shop, & I am usually kept there until about 9.45. Then come home, do out my room, light the fire etc. 10.30am – 1pm do some writing. 1pm get lunch & eat it. 2pm to 6.30pm I am at the shop. Then I come home, get my supper, do the washing up & after that sometimes do about an hour’s work.” It was there, that Orwell wrote the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying, published in 1936. With respect to this novel, art imitates life: Gordon Comstock, the protagonist, happens to work in a bookshop as he pursues a career as a writer. A first edition of this early novel is now worth $35,000.

Like any successful, prolific writer, Orwell loved books and collected books — however, just don’t ask him to be a bookseller. Shortly after he completed his gig at the Booklovers’ Corner, Orwell reflected on his experience there that reflected his aversion to bookselling. Since Orwell was a clever satirist, one must keep in mind that some of his statements are an exaggeration to make a point. Clearly, Orwell did not care for a job he considered menial and mundane in order to support himself as a struggling writer. Here is an excerpt from his essay:

“When I worked in a second-hand bookshop — so easily pictured, if you don’t work in one, as a kind of paradise where charming old gentlemen browse eternally among calf-bound folios — the thing that chiefly struck me was the rarity of really bookish people. Our shop had an exceptionally interesting stock, yet I doubt whether ten per cent of our customers knew a good book from a bad one. First edition snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all…

Like most second-hand bookshops we had various sidelines. We sold second-hand typewriters, for instance, and also stamps — used stamps, I mean… But our principal sideline was a lending library — the usual ‘twopenny no-deposit’ library of five or six hundred volumes, all fiction… In a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones, and one thing that strikes you is how completely the ‘classical’ English novelists have dropped out of favour. It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc. into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say, ‘Oh, but that’s old!’ and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are ‘always meaning to’ read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand.

Would I like to be a bookseller de métier? On the whole — in spite of my employer’s kindness to me, and some happy days I spent in the shop — no. Given a good pitch and the right amount of capital, any educated person ought to be able to make a small secure living out of a bookshop. Unless one goes in for ‘rare’ books it is not a difficult trade to learn, and you start at a great advantage if you know anything about the insides of books. Also it is a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman. But the hours of work are very long — I was only a part-time employee, but my employer put in a seventy-hour week, apart from constant expeditions out of hours to buy books — and it is an unhealthy life. As a rule a bookshop is horribly cold in winter, because if it is too warm the windows get misted over, and a bookseller lives on his windows. And books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle [a large blow fly with shiny blue body] prefers to die.

But the real reason why I should not like to be in the book trade for life is that while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro. There was a time when I really did love books — loved the sight and smell and feel of them, I mean, at least if they were fifty or more years old. Nothing pleased me quite so much as to buy a job lot of them for a shilling at a country auction. There is a peculiar flavour about the battered unexpected books you pick up in that kind of collection: minor eighteenth-century poets, out-of-date gazeteers, odd volumes of forgotten novels, bound numbers of ladies’ magazines of the sixties. For casual reading — in your bath, for instance, or late at night when you are too tired to go to bed, or in the odd quarter of an hour before lunch — there is nothing to touch a back number of the Girl’s Own Paper. But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.”

From the essay, “Bookshop Memories” (1936) by George Orwell, included in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell (1968).

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: 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
The Sections of a Bookstore

Profile of a Book Lover: Rebecca Goldstein

For further reading: https://www.londonremembers.com/memorials/orwell-pond-street
https://www.nytimes.com/1984/03/25/travel/on-the-streets-where-they-lived.html
https://orwellsociety.com/keep-the-aspidistra-flying-in-hampstead/
https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/articles/gordon-bowker-orwells-library/
https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/24114/lot/131/

Melville’s Obituary Misspelled Moby-Dick

alex atkins bookshelf literatureHerman Melville — American novelist, short-story writer, and poet — was born in New York City on August 1, 1819 and died, at the age of  72 on September 28, 1891. He is best known for his seafaring tales: Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), White Jacket (1850), Moby-Dick; or The Whale (1851), White Jacket, and Billy Budd, Sailor, published posthumously in 1891. Melville wrote many short stories, but his most famous one is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” published in 1853. But of course, the literary work that endures, because it is considered one of the Great American Novels, is Moby-Dick. Although millions of students have not read the novel from cover to cover (resorting to study guides — you know who you are), they know its first line: “Call me Ishmael.” — one of the most famous sentences in American literature.

The novel Moby-Dick was inspired by several nautical events and literary influences. The most direct influence on the novel was Melville’s 18 months of experience aboard the commercial whaling ship, Acushnet, where at the age of 21, he learned about whaling first-hand. Melville was fascinated with the stories of Mocha Dick, a giant albino sperm whale that swam the waters surrounding Mocha Island, near the central coast of Chile. Mocha Dick was extremely aggressive and sank nearly two dozen ships between 1810 and 1838, when he was killed while coming to the aid of a distressed a female whale (known as a cow) whose calf had been killed by whalers. Melville was also fascinated by the tragedy of the Essex, a whaling ship that was rammed and sunk by a large sperm whale on November 20, 1820. The crew of the Essex scrambled onto three whaleboats and drifted more than 3,000 miles, resorting to cannibalism to survive. One of the eight survivors wrote about this tragic event, publishing the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex in 1821. The two major literary influences on the novel, on the other hand, were William Shakespeare and the Bible.

Unfortunately, Moby-Dick was a critical and commercial failure in its time: critics and readers did not know what to make of this lengthy (635 pages), complex, multi-layered theological, philosophical, and psychological work. As John Bryant and Haskell Springer noted in the Longman Critical Edition (2009), the language in Moby-Dick is allusive as the great white whale; the language is “nautical, biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Miltonic, cetological, alliterative, fanciful, colloquial, archaic and unceasingly allusive.” To quote Ahab’s own words: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.” In his lifetime, Melville only earned about $1,259 on the sale of 3,215 copies of the novel. Unable to support himself solely as an author, Melville had to take a job as a customs inspector. By the time Melville died, most of his novels had gone out of print. When Melville died on September 28, 1891, there was barely a notice of his death and little acknowledgment of the most famous American novel. Even worse, the extremely short obituary in the New York Times misspelled Moby-Dick — can you imagine that? The obituary reads “Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of ‘Typee,’ “Omoo,’ ‘Mobie Dick’ and other seafaring tales, written in earlier years.” Moreover, the obituary identified Melville as “one of the founders of Navesink, N.J.”; “a civil engineer”; “a special partner in the picture-importing firm of Reichard & Co.”; “the best known criminal lawyer in Connecticut”; and “the oldest resident of the Oranges” before identifying him as an author. On October 2, 1891, the editors, perhaps feeling remorse for not giving this talented author his due, wrote a subsequent piece: “There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines. Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event.”

It wasn’t until the centennial of Melville’s birth, 1919, when American biographer and critic Carl Van Doren (his biography of Benjamin Franklin won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Biography) bought a copy of Moby-Dick at a used bookstore (probably for a few pennies, since the first edition cost $1.50; today, a first edition of Moby-Dick fetches up to $75,000!) and recognized his genius. Van Doren wrote: [Moby-Dick is] one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world.” This initiated the Melville revival, ushering renewed interest and in-depth study of the author and his works. The first full-length biography of Melville, titled Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic by Raymond Weaver, was published in 1921. Over the following decades, Melville’s Moby-Dick was widely recognized as one of the Great American Novels in the canon of American literature.

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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For further reading: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville
Melville: His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco
mobydick-hermanmelville.com/Media_Reviews_News_Archives_Latest_Publications/New_York_Times200Years_Of_Herman_Melville%27s_Obituary_Death.html
https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2011/11/14/herman-melville-a-voyage-into-history/
https://melville.electroniclibrary.org/moby-dick-side-by-side

The Wisdom of the Epigraph

alex atkins bookshelf literatureAn epigraph is a short motto or quotation that appears at the beginning of a book that suggests the book’s theme or tome. The word is derived from the Greek word epigraphe from epigraphein which means “write on.” In the captivating little tome, The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin, Rosemary Ahern notes: “For many book lovers, there is no more pleasing start to a book than a well-chosen epigraph. These intriguing quotations, sayings, and snippets of songs and poems do more than set the tone for the experience ahead: the epigraph informs us about the author’s sensibility… The epigraph hints at hidden stories and frequently comes with one of its own.” In addition, as you read the more than 250 epigraphs that Ahern has collected, you quickly realize that authors are also readers — just like you. And while most authors preface their literary works with one or two epigraphs, Herman Melville clearly went overboard (pun intended) by including nearly 80 in the American edition of his magnum opus Moby Dick; however the editor of the British edition included only one. Below are some notable epigraphs that not only set the tone for a literary work but stand alone as a timeless pearl of wisdom.

“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” [Essay titled “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple” found in Essays of Elia (1823) by Charles Lamb]
Appears in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

“There is no present of future — only the past, happening over and over again—now.” [A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill]
Appears in Trinity (1976) by Leon Uris

“It is certain my Conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe it.” [Novalis]
Appears in Lord Jim (1900) by Joseph Conrad

“Taking it slowly fixes everything.” [Ennuis]
Appears in The Red and the Black (1830) by Stendahl

“Life treads on life, and heart on heart;
We press too close in church and mart
To keep a dream of grave apart.”  [“A Vision of the Poet” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning]
Appears in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois

“O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but
exhaust the limits of the possible” [Pythian II by Pindar]
Appears in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) by Albert Camus

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?” [Paradise Lost, Book X, 743-45, by John Milton]
Appears in Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley

“As long as hope maintains thread of green.” [The Divine Comedy, Purgatory, III by Dante]
Appears in All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

“There Leviathan,
Hugest of living creatures, in the deep
Stretch’d like a promontory sleeps or swims,
And seems a moving land; and at his gills
Draws in, and at this breath spouts out a sea.” [Paradise Lost, Book VII, 412-416 by John Milton]
Appears in The Whale, the three-volume British edition of Moby-Dick (1851)

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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For further reading: The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin by Rosemary Ahern (2012)
http://www.angelfire.com/nv/mf/elia1/benchers.htm
https://www.paradiselost.org/8-Search-All.html

Elvis Presley: The Avid Reader and Truth Seeker

alex atkins bookshelf booksAugust 16 marks the 44th anniversary of the death of music legend Elvis Presley (1935-1977). But Presley, known as the “King of Rock and Roll” (or simply, “Elvis” or “the King”), is really much more than a music legend — he is a multi-generational cultural phenomenon. Although Elvis has permanently left the building, he is very much alive today — in music, film, art, pop culture, and tourism. Each year, more than half a million of the King’s faithful fans make the pilgrimage to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, which opened to the public in 1982. In 2020, the Elvis Presley estate earned more than $23 million from album sales, movie and concert royalties, and Graceland. And every year, hundreds of babies are named either Elvis or Presley (for example, in 2020, 2,835 American babies were named Elvis; 458 babies were named Presley; not surprisingly, none were named Elvis Presley). But what captures our interest today is the fact that Presley was an avid reader and seeker of Truth. Who knew? But perhaps Elvis is only fulfilling his destiny found in his name, which was came from his father’s middle name: Elvis is derived from the Alvis from Norse mythology that means “all wise.” 

According to the stewards of Graceland Museum, Presley was a voracious reader and enjoyed reading books while on tour. He was fascinated in a variety of topics, including sports, history, and religious/spiritual books. Presley was baptized as a Christian and possessed a deep and abiding faith since childhood. He regularly wore a cross, prayed, meditated, and read the Bible. In fact, Presley never traveled without his Bible. Late in life, according to biographer Gary Tillery, Presley confessed to a friend that he was a seeker of truth: “All I want is to know the truth, to know and experience God. I’m a searcher, that’s what I’m all about.” In his biography of the music legend, Inside Elvis, Ed Parker, a close friend, karate teacher, and occasional bodyguard, elaborated, “[Presley] used to frighten some of his Christian friends when he would talk about concepts like transcendental meditation, Zen Buddhism, reincarnation, numerology, and the occult… [Presley] was interested in all facets of life, death, resurrection, psychic healing, and other phenomena which, when put together, seemed to give many answers to the mysteries of the universe. He was keenly aware of his mortality, and felt impelled to learn how man and the universe interact.”

Like many dedicated readers, Presley liked to read when he was on the toilet. Nothing wrong with doing a little educatin’ while you are defecatin’ — you know what I mean? Of all the book-related trivia that I have serendipitously discovered over the years, perhaps one of the most fascinating factoids is that Presley was reading an interesting book when he was sitting on a toilet in the bathroom of Graceland just before he died on August 16, 1977 of cardiac arrest and drug overdose (and perhaps by Valsalva maneuver — straining so hard on the toilet that it leads to cardiac arrest — yup, there’s a word for that! While we are on this topic, if you are a boomer, you might recall the song “You’re Pushing Too Hard” by The Seeds released in 1966. Elvis should have heeded the warning). In her book, Elvis and Ginger, Ginger Alden, Presley’s fiancee at the time, was in the house that night and recalled, “Elvis looked as if his entire body had completely frozen in a seated position while using the toilet and then had fallen forward, in that fixed position, directly in front of it… It was clear that, from the time whatever hit him to the moment he had landed on the floor, Elvis hadn’t moved.” Perhaps he was leaning toward to touch the face of Jesus that was beckoning him toward the light.

“OK enough with the morbid details — so what was the title of the book?” you ask. The book that Elvis was reading was A Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank Adams. Published in 1972, the 80-page book presents scientific evidence that the Shroud of Turin is authentic — that it is indeed the actual burial cloth of Jesus Christ and the faded bloodstains correspond to his wounds following his crucifixion. As you can imagine, the book is extremely rare and valuable. As of this writing, there are two for sale on Ebay: one is priced at $15,000 and the other is being sold via auction with an initial price of $5,000. If you want to see the face of Jesus, as Elvis saw it in his final moments, you need to dig deep, brother. Although the Shroud of Turin is revered by the faithful, since its discovery in 1354, it has been a source of controversy among theologians, historians, archaeologists, and scientists. Nevertheless, one exhibit you definitely will not see on the Graceland tour is “Elvis Studies Shroud on the Shitter.”

In addition to the Bible, Presley’s favorite religious/spiritual books included The Prophet, The Tao Te Ching, The Autobiography of a Yogi, The Book of Mormon (which he was reading months before his death). In particular, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran was one of Presley’s favorite books. He would annotate each book and give it to his friends as a special gift. In July 2021, one of those rare copies (this edition, printed in 1966, was owned by Ed Parker) is for sale in Peter Harrington’s Summer 2021 catalog for $26,670. Pom Harrington, owner of Peter Harrington, a leading dealer in rare books in the UK, commented: “The Prophet made a deep and lasting impression on Elvis, and he read it so often that he memorized it. [He] annotated a few copies of The Prophet over the course of his career which he presented to significant individuals in his life, so you do see copies come up for sale from time to time. It is a really wonderful association copy, extensively annotated and underlined by the King himself.”

By now you are probably wondering, “What sort of annotations did Elvis Presley make in The Prophet?” Fortunately, the catalog features some examples, including a photo of page 56 and 57 that reveals Presley’s ideas about teaching [italicized portion reflects sentences that Presley has underlined]: “Then said the teacher, speak to us of Teaching. And he said: No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind. The astronomer may speak to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding. The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm nor the voice that which echoes it. And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither. For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man. And even as each one of you stands alone in God’s knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.” Underneath this passage, Presley printed his thoughts in all caps using a thick black ink marker: “A SINGER CAN SING HIS SONGS BUT THEY MUST HAVE A [sic] EAR TO RECEIVE THE SONG… YOU HAVE WITHIN YOURSELF ALL POSSIBILITIES TO UNLOCK ALL THE ANSWERS THAT PLAGUE ONES [sic] INNER HEART[.] GOD WILL GIVE YOU THE KNOWLEDGE IF YOU ONLY SEEK IT.”

There are two passages that, although not shown in the catalog, are described. On pages, 12 and 13 where Gibran is discussing love (“Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself, Love possesses not nor would it be possessed: For love is sufficient unto love…”). Presley wrote, “WHEN YOU’RE NOT IN LOVE, YOUR [sic] NOT ALIVE… GOD IS LOVE. THESE PATHS ARE NOT ALWAYS CLEAR TO US… BUT LIKE GOD HIMSELF, THESE THINGS WILL REVEAL THEMSELVES.” Then on the last page of the book, Presley added this note: “LESS THAN 1% OF THE POP[ULATION] OF THE EARTH HAS ANY KNOWLEDGE OF TRUE SPIRITUAL WISDOM OF WHAT WE ARE DISCUSSING! E.P.”

Wow, just reading Elvis Presley’s deep parting words — I’m all shook up…

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: Elvis Presley by the Numbers
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
The Sections of a Bookstore

Profile of a Book Lover: Rebecca Goldstein

For further reading: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/08/08/faith-america-elvis-presley-baptisms/548719001/
http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/blog/sale-elvis-presleys-annotated-copy-prophet?utm_source=fbnotes&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20210805
http://www.peterharrington.co.uk/about-us
http://www.townandcountrymag.com/society/a26721749/elvis-presley-death-true-story/
http://www.britannica.com/topic/Shroud-of-Turin
http://www.history.com/news/shroud-turin-facts
http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/entertainment-articles/decades-after-his-death-the-estate-of-elvis-presley-is-still-making-a-ton-of-money/
http://www.babycenter.com/top-baby-names
http://www.thinkbabynames.com/meaning/1/Elvis

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.

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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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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Common Latin Abbreviations
Words Invented by Dickens

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.”

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