Category Archives: Books

Five Fascinating Facts About English Literature

catkins-bookshelf-literatureWhen Brian Boone, a writer and editor for the trivia-packed Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series, wrote English Lit 101: From Jane Austen to George Orwell and the Enlightenment to Realism, a lively and entertaining romp through seven centuries of Britain’s greatest writers and their works, he stumbled upon five fascinating facts.

1. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a reversed Latinized version of his real first and middle names (he was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). The clever author translated Charles Lutwidge into Latin, Carolus Ludovicus, and then back to English, Carroll Lewis; then he simply reversed their order to Lewis Carroll. 

2. Frankenstein was the first vampire novel were the result of a writing contest. The scene: a house on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The guests: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelly, and John William Polidori. On a dark, stormy day, to pass the time away, they — what else? — read dark German stories, like the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. This, in turn, inspired Byron to propose a ghost story contest. The result? Shelley famous novella, Frankenstein, and Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre — both seminal works that created the monster and romantic vampire genres.

3. George Orwell (born Eric Blair), author of the classics Animal Farm and 1984, was ahead of his time, not only with respect to his insights into the modern world, but also blogging. Orwell, according to Boone, pioneered the concept of writing about a wide variety of rather mundane topics, foreshadowing the blogs of today (eg., listicles, best of lists, how-to guides, etc.) like postcards, how to make tea, and the difference between British and American pulp novels. In short, Orwell was the first blogger — before there was an internet and a real Big Brother!

4. Thanks to the efforts of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the epic The Lord of the Rings, the 1,000-year-old epic poem, Beowulf, is well-known and studied. In 1936, Tolkien, a professor of literature and languages at Oxford University, wrote “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that ignited a 20th century interest in the poem. Moreover, this poem is what inspired him to write fiction — without Beowulf and Grendel, we would not have Frodo and Sauron.

5. King Arthur was not English — at first. The stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, and Robin Hood did not originate in England; they originated from France and Wales. During the 8th century, Nennius, a monk, wrote the story of the warlord Arthur who led the Britons in their defense of the invading Saxons in the 5th century. It is these stories that were passed down via oral tradition in France. By the 1300s, they had been shaped into an epic poem, the inspiration for English writer Thomas Malory’s French-titled (Le Morte d’Arthur) but English-language narrative of the King Arthur legends published in 1484.

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For further reading: English Lit 101: From Jane Austen to George Orwell and the Enlightenment to Realism by Brian Boone

Novels with the Most Exclamation Points

The lively exclamation point (referred to as an exclamation mark by the Brits) was introduced in the Middle Ages (400-1400s). It evolved from Medieval scribes who wrote “io” (Latin for “joy”) at the end of a sentence as — you guessed it — an exclamation of joy (as in “My hand is cramped; thank God I have finally reached the end of copying this really boring passage from an obscure and obtuse religious treatise philosophical work that no one is going to read io”). By the late 1400s, the io evolved into its current form (the i moved about the o, and then became a line and dot) in the world of printing. By then the exclamation transitioned from conveying joy to conveying emphasis. Interestingly, although the typewriter was invented in 1868, it took more than a century, until the early 1970s, before the exclamation point had its own dedicated key. In old typewriters, one had to type a period, backspace and type an apostrophe — imagine that!

Although messages on social media are overwhelmingly peppered with exclamation points (everyone is shouting!), the general rule of thumb in formal or professional writing is to use the exclamation point sparingly; that is say, only when appropriate. And there are very few instances when an exclamation point is appropriate; specifically, used in a direct quotation of a exclamatory sentence or used after an interjection. And you typically only need one!

However, students of English are well aware that as soon as you master the rules of English grammar, you are free to break them. And there are plenty of role models in American and English literature (the poster boy, of course, is James Joyce who gives new meaning to run-on sentences devoid of punctuation). In his recently published book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, journalist Ben Blatt used data analysis to provide insight into famous authors and their works. Here are the top ten novels with the most extensive use of exclamation points!:

(Note: numbers in parentheses indicate rate of exclamation points per 100,000 words; thus, a book with a rate of 2,000 exclamation marks per 100,000 words is equivalent to about six exclamation points per page! )

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie: 2,131

Finnegans Wake by James Joyce: 2,102

The Chimes by Charles Dickens: 1,860

The Cricket by Charles Dickens: 1,793

Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis: 1,352

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 1,351

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence: 1,348

Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe: 1,341

Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis: 1,274

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Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve by Ben Blatt

What is the Most Popular Blogging Topic?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureBloggers develop a considerable amount of content that is published on the internet. Consider that as of 2016, there are more than 250 million blogs online, excluding the all the blogs from Google’s Blogger platform that does not publish statistics. And each month, more than 409 million people read more than 19.7 billion blog pages posted on the WordPress blogging site. The largest portion of blogs is by companies, who realize that blogs are the most effective marketing strategy to promote their products, services, and brands. A survey of businesses indicated that 86% of business to business companies blog, while 77% of business to consumer companies blog.

The balance of the blogs on the internet are written by the hoi polloi. People who blog, generally fall into two camps: those who blog for the fun of it and those who blog to make money. Those who blog to generate income focus on three of the most profitable blogging topics:

1. Heath and Fitness: food, nutrition, weight loss, exercise, mental health, etc.
2. Relationships: parenting advice, relationship advice, dating, marriage, divorce, etc.
3. Finance: making money, managing money, investing, saving, mortgages, real estate, credit cards, etc.

Surprisingly, in a world that is inundated with statistics about every little thing, there is a paucity of research about the most common or popular blogging topics published by individuals pursuing their particular passions. Below is a list of the best or most popular blog topics based on a review of information presented by many blogging experts:

1. Articles that are lists (commonly referred to as listicles); e.g., top ten lists, A to Z lists, best of lists
2. News and political commentary
3. Food and recipes
4. How-to guides, tutorials, or advice; e.g., fashion, health, diet, self-improvement, home repair, fitness, photography, video games, computer software, smartphones, blogging, etc.
5. FAQs
6. Interviews or profiles with experts, leaders, etc. 
7. Personal stories (first person), diaries, or sharing pet stories
8. Philanthropy and volunteering
9. Product reviews; book or movie reviews
10. Video blogs (vlog); audio post (podcast); webinars
11. Short stories (fiction or nonfiction)
12. Travel

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For further reading:

Famous Last Words: Part 2

atkins bookshelf quotations“The tricky thing in the ‘last word’ business, as in so much else, is timing. Do you think of something clever years before and try and remember it to trot out at the appropriate time? Do you rely on last-minute inspiration?” writes Sir Richard Stilgoe in the introduction to Eric Grounds’ entertaining The Bedside Book of Final Words, “How can you control your last seconds so that you say your pithy sentence, check that someone’s got it down accurately, then die? Fortunately for biographers and collectors of last final words, many famous people have said some very clever things that were actually recorded in one form or another for posterity. Here are some selections from Grounds’ collection of famous last words:

Louisa May Alcott: “Is it not meningitis?”

Jane Austen: “Nothing but death…”

James Barrie: “I can’t sleep.”

L. Frank Baum: “Now we can cross the shifting sands.”

Lord George Byron: “I leave something dear to the world.”

Kurt Cobain: “I love you. I love you.”

Salvador Dali: “¿Donde esta mi reloj?” (“Where is my clock?”)

Charles Dickens: “Yes, on the ground.” (In response to someone suggesting that he lie down.)

Benjamin Franklin: “A dying man can do nothing easy.”

Thomas Hobbes: “A great leap in the dark.”

James Joyce: “Does nobody understand?”

Timothy Leary: “Beautiful.”

John Lennon: “Life is why happens while you are busy making other plans.”

Karl Marx: ” Go on, get out. Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough!”

Michelangelo: “Ancora impart.” (“I am still learning.”)

“General John Sedgwick: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist……”

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For further reading: The Bedside Book of Final Words by Eric Grounds (2014)


Sylvester Stallone the Book Collector

atkins-bookshelf-booksYes, you read that right — Sylvester Stallone, acclaimed film actor, screenwriter, producer — and bibliophile. Apparently when Rambo wasn’t tracking down and mercilessly shooting up bad guys, he was visiting antiquarian bookshops. Who knew? Over the decades, he acquired a very impressive collection of first and rare editions from some of the greatest authors of the 18th and 19th centuries. Heritage Auctions, based in New York, will be auctioning Stallone’s private library of more than 1,000 valuable books on March 8, 2017. Here are the some of the literary gems in Stallone’s collection:

The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman (1902): Paumanok edition in 10 volumes, bound in red morocco; limited to 300 sets. Includes a handwritten postcard from Walt Whitman, dated 1890. Value: $4,000.

The Waverly Novels by Sir Walter Scott (circa 1910): 10 volumes, leather bound. Includes a one-page autographed letter by Scott. Value: $2,000.

Complete Writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1900): 22 volumes; limited to 500 sets. Includes a customs certificate signed by Hawthorne. Value: $1,500.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1886): First edition, housed in two protective boxes. Value: $2,000.

The Complete Works of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: 18 volumes; limited to 275 sets (of which this is number 10) signed by the publisher and the editors. Value $1,200.

Works of Washington Irving (1895-1987): Author’s autograph edition, 40 volumes; limited to 500 sets (of which this is number 23) with original, one-page holographic manuscript. Value: $1,200.

The Rougon-Macquart by Emile Zola: The first collected U.S. edition in 12 volumes, limited to 1,000 sets. Value: $1,000. 

The Complete Writings of Lord Macaulay (1899-1900): Large paper edition, limited to 500 numbered sets (of which this is number 212), with original two-page autograph letter, signed by Macaulay (1857). Value: $1,000.

Owning books once owned by Rocky/Rambo: priceless.

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Word Oddities: Contained Words

atkins bookshelf wordsEnglish, with more than one million words, has hundreds of word oddities that have unique and fascinating characteristics. One type of word oddity is called “contained words,” a long word that contains several smaller words spelled consecutively in it. For example “ushers” contains five words spelled consecutively within it: us, she, he, her, hers. The English words with the most contained words are “thitherwards” and “therein:”

therein: contains 13 words

thitherwards contains 24 words


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For further reading: There are Tittles in This Title: The Weird World of Words by Mitchell Symons (2014)

The Real Book Thieves of London

atkins-bookshelf-booksOn January 30, 2017, an intrepid gang of book thieves climbed a warehouse, located near Heathrow airport in London, containing millions of dollars of rare books from three London book dealers, bound for the California International Antiquarian Book Fair. The book thieves bored holes through three skylines and rappelled down a 40 foot rope, carefully avoiding an array of motion sensors. Once on the warehouse floor, the three thieves located and pried open several sealed containers; they spent hours going through all the inventory to find 160 specific books and manuscripts — presumably following a list provided by someone very knowledgeable about antiquarian books. The thieves then used a ladder to climb down and placed the books in a waiting escape van. The value of the stolen books? A cool $2.5 million. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Brian Lake of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association remarked “Quite honestly I have never heard of a heist like this involving books – it is extraordinary. Nothing like this has hit the rare books trade before.” Another shocked source added, “‘It is unbelievably rare to have so many books seized in one go.”

The thieves will most likely sell the rare books to a dealer or middleman, who in turn, will sell them to a private collector. Sadly, these precious, rare books — for example Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Erbium Coelestium (1566) worth $270,000a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and rare works by Galileo and Newton will never be seen again, unless they are discovered by law enforcement. To help recover stolen rare books, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers established a website that list all the books, manuscripts, maps, and prints that have been stolen.

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