Category Archives: Books

Untranslatable Words: Mamihlapinatapai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Written Word Makes You See the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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


What is a Lipogram?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a Classic Book?

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


New Book: Serendipitous Discoveries From the Bookshelf

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


look inside serendipitous discoveries


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life
Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

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

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


The Great Gatsby Steps into the Public Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where Does A Composer Find Ideas?

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

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

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

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

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


Word of the Year 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Most Memorable Quotes from 2020

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

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

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

Below are Shapiro’s most memorable quotes from 2020:

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

“I can’t breathe.”
George Floyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What other quotes should be considered for this list?

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

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

Read related posts: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life
Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

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


The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2020

alex atkins bookshelf books

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

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

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

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

Total $112,145

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

Read related posts: The 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?
Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2019

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


There Should Be A Word for That: Bibleuphoria

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

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

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

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Remarkable Bookstores: Libreria Acqua Alta

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

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

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

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

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

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What Book Has the Most Disappointing Ending?

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

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

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

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

The Magus by John Fowles

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

Atonement by Ian McEwan

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

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

King Lear by William Shakespeare

Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

What book did you feel had a disappointing ending?

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

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


Famous Books with Numbers in Their Titles

atkins-bookshelf-literature

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

1984 by George Orwell

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Henry IV (Parts I-II) by William Shakespeare

Henry V by William Shakespeare

Henry VI (Parts I-III) by William Shakespeare

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard III by William Shakespeare

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

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

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My Most Cherished Book: Rebecca Goldstein

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

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

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

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For further reading: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books by Leah Price


What Will Your Contribution Be? How Will History Remember You?

alex atkins bookshelf educationIt is the beginning of the semester at St. Benedict’s, a classic boys prep school. Professor William Hundert places the textbook Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean in the center of each of the neatly lined desks. The classroom resembles a museum, filled with historical artifacts that reflect Greek and Roman culture, as well as busts and drawings of the great thinkers of that era, like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Augustus. Behind the teacher’s time-worn wooden desk is a scale reproduction of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David. As former students can attest, Hundert is very fond of quoting Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” “It is not living that is important but living rightly.”

Twenty young students enthusiastically pour into the classroom and take their place at the desks. Hundert asks them to introduce themselves. He then selects one to read a plaque that hangs above the door. Martin Blythe stands up and turns to face the plaque and reads nervously: “I am Shutruk-Nahhunte, King of Ansham and Susa, sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshunshinak, I destroyed Sippar and took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god, Inshunshinak.  Shutruk-Nahhunte, 1158 B.C.”

The professor begins his lesson: “Shutruk-Nahhunte. Is anyone familiar with this fellow? Texts are permissible.” The students frantically open their textbooks, scanning the pages and the index — but to no avail. A sea of baffled faces look up at the teacher in unison. He takes a moment to register their bewilderment and exclaims, “Shutruk-Nahhunte! King! Sovereign of the land of Elam! Destroyer of Sipper! Behold, his accomplishments cannot be found in any history book. Why? Because great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be? How will history remember you?

He lets this lesson sink in. After a moment’s pause, he continues: “Shutruk-Nahhunte is utterly forgotten — and he is not alone — vanished from history. Unlike the men around you — Aristotle, Caesar, Augustus, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Ovid. Giants of history. Men of profound character. Men whose contributions surpassed their own lifetimes, and survive into our own. ‘De nobis fabula narratur.’ Their story is our story.”

A few days later, Hundert explains to a cynical, corrupt senator why he teaches what he teaches: “Well, Senator, the Greeks and Romans provided a model of democracy, which, I don’t need to tell you, the framers of our own Constitution used as their inspiration. But more to the point, I think when the boys read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Julius Caesar even, they’re put in direct contact with men who, in their own age, exemplified the highest standards of statesmanship, of civic virtue, of character, conviction.

Class dismissed.

Now let’s imagine for a moment, what our government would be like, if the people who govern America had the benefit of William Hubert’s lessons?

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Read related posts: Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will be Governed by Idiots
Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?
A Republic, If You Can Keep It
Is the United States a Democracy or Republic?

Excerpts from the film, The Emperor’s Club (2002) written by Neil Tolkin (based on short story The Palace Thief  by Ethan Canin) and directed by Michael Hoffman.

 


How Many Books Can You Identify by Their Opening Line?

alex atkins bookshelf literature“There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line,” explained Stephen King in an interview with The Atlantic. “It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar. But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Sometimes the opening line of a novel is not just inviting, it is memorable and becomes intricately linked to the novel in the mind of the reader. Who doesn’t know this one: “Call me Ishmael.”? Or this one: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”? They are, of course, from the famous novels Moby Dick by Herman Melville and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

There are many literary reference books that list the first (and sometimes also the last) lines of famous novels. One of them lists 209 memorable first lines, another lists 801 first sentences, another lists 1001, and yet another lists a whopping 11,000! It’s interesting to open up any of these reference books and flip through the pages to find out how many you know. Out of, say 200, how many would you know?

If you happen to be Monty Lord, a 14-year-old boy from Bolton, England, you would know over 100 books from their opening line. On of January 13, 2020, Bolton set new Guinness World Records by correctly identifying 129 books from their opening lines. The previous record-holder, a man in India, could only identify 30 books.

Lord was inspired to memorize the first sentences of novels when he was studying the powers of memory for a psychology course. He studied the opening lines of 200 well-known novels using visualization techniques over three weeks. His technique involved visualizing a connection between the sentence and the novel.

Are you ready for a challenge: can you break this world record?

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 Best Sentences in English Literature
The Worst Sentence Ever Written
Best Books for Word Lovers
Best Books for Writers
Most Famous Quotations in British Literature
There’s a Word for That: Piphilology

For further reading:
Call Me Ishmael: 801 Memorable First and Last Lines in Literature by David Spector
Famous Last Lines by Daneil Grogan
http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/07/why-stephen-king-spends-months-and-even-years-writing-opening-sentences/278043/

http://www.theboltonnews.co.uk/news/18711305.father-son-fabian-monty-lord-world-record-holders/
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-7883347/Its-Guinness-WORD-record-Boy-14-identifies-129-books-opening-line.html


What is Poe’s Law?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesThere are two different Poe’s Law — both named after different individuals named Poe. While one unwritten law refers to poetry; the other refers to parody. Let’s begin our discussion with the first Poe’s Law named after Edgar Allan Poe, the famous American short-story writer who explored madness and the macabre. In the context of literature, Poe’s Law establishes the proper length of a poem. We learn about this in John Middleton Murry’s book titled Pencillings (1923), a collection of short essays on life and literature. In the essay “The Problem of Size,” Murry writes: “The other day I listened to a famous French poet lecturing on the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe… [One] of Poe’s ideas… has had a very remarkable influence upon the development of modern French poetry. I mean his theory that the unit of poetry must be fixed by the readers capacity of attention, and that the limits of a poem must accord with the limits of a single movement of intellectual apprehension and emotional exaltation. A long poem, said Poe, was really only a sequence of short ones; and it would be a good thing (he thought) if it did not pretend to be anything else.”

The other Poe’s Law, was introduced more recently; It is considered one of a handful of unwritten laws of the internet, that describes common patterns of communication found in chat rooms and comments sections. As the story goes, on August 10, 2005 Nathan Poe, an agnostic, was debating a creationist on the website Christian Forums on the the topic of “big contradictions in the evolution theory.” He used a heavy dose of sarcasm in an argument and punctuated with the winking face emoji to reinforce the sarcasm. Someone responded to Poe’s comment by writing: “Good thing you included the wink. Otherwise people might think you are serious.” It was that comment that inspired Poe to create Poe’s Law, which he defined as: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.” Expressed another way, if you write a sarcastic post without the winking emoji, people will take it seriously. Today, Poe’s Law is more broadly applied to any extreme view — not just creationism — that is expressed on the internet. The editors of Dictionary.com add: “The point [of Poe’s Law] is that fundamentalist or dogmatic views can become so extreme, despite their acceptance, that even parodies of this views are unmistakable for the real thing, to the point that extremists may accidentally embrace a parody as truth.” Yikes!

Through this eponymous law, Poe confirmed what so many people have already surmised over the years: it is very difficult to effectively convey sarcasm, irony, facetious remarks, and certain kind of humor via email or text because the reader is lacking critical non-verbal cues (like body language, facial expressions, and voice intonation) that convey the actual or intended meaning. Poe’s Law made it into the informal English lexicon in 2006 when it was published in the Urban Dictionary. Poe’s Law, however, is not limited to online conversation — it has become mainstream in the discussion of culture and politics. In an article in WIRED magazine, staff writer Emma Grey Ellis observes: “People talking about ‘spin in the era of Trump’ and ‘post truth’ don’t talk about politics in terms of Poe’s Law,” [Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture] says. “But it’s there, whenever you’re not sure if you should be mad or just roll your eyes.” It’s as present in Julian Assange stoking the Seth Rich conspiracy or Kellyanne Conway’s ‘kidding’ about telling people to buy Ivanka Trump’s clothing as it is in YouTuber PewDiePie’s attempts to justify racism as satire.”

Related to Poe’s Law is Poe’s Corollary which states that a person’s actual expressed views are so extreme that another person misinterprets those views as a parody.

As we have all learned in the past four years,  in the Trumpian world Truth has been eroded to the point that we have “alternative facts” and Rudy Giuliani’s unforgettable statement: “the truth isn’t truth.” All of this insanity, of course, adds another obstacle to clear communication on the internet. As Rupert Taylor observes in his essay “Poe’s Law and Internet Satire” on TurboFuture: “Sometimes, everything gets so tangled up that you don’t know if you’re seeing Poe’s Law in action, a parody of Poe’s Law, or both at the same time.” God help us.

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

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

Unwritten Rules of Life
What is the Barnum Effect?
What is the Pinocchio Effect?

For further reading: https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/poes-law
http://www.wired.com/2017/06/poes-law-troll-cultures-central-rule/
https://netculturetalk.com/?q=article/internet-laws-poes-law
https://turbofuture.com/internet/Poes-Law-and-Internet-Satire
https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/19/politics/rudy-giuliani-truth-isnt-truth/index.html

 


Do Voters Actually Have a Free Choice?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAfter five days of counting votes, the election has been called: Joe Biden is projected to be the 46th U.S. President. For at least half the country, this ends a nightmare of a tumultuous Trump presidency fraught with weekly scandals, lies, ineptitude, and corruption, capped with the mismanagement of a lethal pandemic that took the lives of more than 237,00 Americans (to date). Additionally, the run-away pandemic required the shut-down of the economy, causing a devastating recession, the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, as evidenced by the highest unemployment levels (14.7%, 23 million Americans) since the Great Depression. In its wake, nearly 100,00 businesses have closed, more than 8 million Americans have been pushed into poverty, and more than 12 million have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. Moreover, Feeding America projects that 50 million Americans are food insecurity (up from 35 million prior to the pandemic). Of course, based on the vote, the other half of the country saw all of this as good news and signed up for another four years. WTF.

Nevertheless, the election reinforces the importance and sanctity of voting — the foundation of a democracy. But when you consider the perplexing results of the recent election, where half of the country fails to hold the incumbent presidential candidate accountable for four years of failures and contempt for the middle and lower classes, one has to ask: was this truly a free and fair election?

If you ask Carole Cadwaller, the investigative journalist who exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal back in 2016 (she is featured in the Netflix documentary, The Great Hack), the answer would be an emphatic “No!” Cadwaller accused Facebook and other social media companies of damaging democracy by spreading hateful, divisive lies in darkness paid for by illegal cash for millions of dollars worth of ads. Working with a whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica, Cadwaller learned that the data mining company gathered information on millions of people and manipulated their behavior (i.e., their voting) in the U.S. to impact the 2016 presidential election and in the UK to influence the Brexit vote.

In a TED talk on April 2019, Cadwaller confronts the leaders of the social media companies head on: “I am here — to address you directly, the gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey. Because you set out to connect people and you are refusing to acknowledge that this same technology is now driving us apart. And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you, and it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right, or leave or remain, or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. And so my question to you is: is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you? — as the handmaidens to authoritarianism? And my question to everyone else is: is this what we want?”

Recently, Bill Maher asked the same question of his guest, Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology and co-host of the podcast “Your Undivided Attention”: was 2020 a free and fair election? What followed was a fascinated discussion of the impact on social media on human behavior and free will, which is the focus of the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, released in January of this year.

Maher begins the discussion with the question: In a world manipulated by social media, did voters actually have a free choice? Harris responds: “No… what people need to get is that we are ten years into this mind warp, where we have been fed an individualized reality [like the Truman Show]… We got 3 billion Truman Shows… Imagine a husband and wife couple — they follow the same friends on Facebook. They’ve got the same friends so that when they open up Facebook they should see the same feed. But that’s not actually how it works. They will actually see completely different realities based on what the [Facebook] algorithms will say “this is the thing that will likely to keep you here.” What that did was to take the shared reality we have, put it through a paper shredder, and gave each of us a micro reality in which we are more and more certain that we’re right and the other side is wrong, and it has totally confused us.”

Maher then asks, is the Facebook algorithm evil? Harris answers, “Yes, it is evil. That’s the whole point [of the algorithm]. Because of this competition for attention, the company started to get really aggressive about what they could dangle in front of your nervous system to get you to come back… It’s like a digital drug lord. It’s destroyed [the] mental health of our teenagers, it’s polarized our societies, it’s addicted each of us, and it’s really warped, I think, the psyche that now we are in the middle of with this election because I think, much like a psychotic patient has a mind that is fractured against itself… our national psyche is fractured against itself. If you look at even the examples of the “count the vote” [protestors] and the “stop the count” [protestors]… We have really been confused by these individual realities that have warped all of our perceptions.”

Maher then moves to recent news about the public putting pressure on the social companies to act on preventing misinformation and falsehoods, taking down sites. Is this helping? Harris explains, “So there’s this really weird situation we’re in where if you let the Frankenstein run without any controls — and so anything goes viral if it gets the most clicks and likes — that just rewards the most conspiracy theories. YouTube, for example, recommended Alex Jones Info Wars conspiracy theories 15 billion times — which is more than the combined traffic of The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Fox News combined. And when you just realize the scale of all of that, conspiracy theories are especially dangerous because they’re like a trust bomb — they warp your perception of everything that comes after it. In fact, the best predictor whether you will believe in a new conspiracy is if I already got you to believe in one. And once you believe, for example, ‘the election is rigged or it’s stolen,’ you perceive everything through that lens, and it warps all of your perceptions.”

Maher then moves to the issue of freedom of speech, since some of the social media companies have introduced initiatives to either tag misinformation or suspend accounts spreading falsehoods. Harris clarifies: “We have to protect the freedom of speech. I think the distinction [that needs to be made] is freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom to reach, meaning we’re all granted the right to speak, but are you granted a football stadium-sized audience to say anything you want without accountability? And when you let that become the default, like that’s what makes up our information environment — that the default information all of us are consuming is each of us get a [football stadium-size audience] and say whatever you want without any accountability… you don’t end up with a healthy information environment and we also get more rewarded the more extreme things we we say. And the more extreme the things you say the more likes and feedback you get which leads us into our own distortion of ‘hey we’re really right, we have all these supporters, we are on the right side of history.'”

Maher responds: “But the people who don’t know its bullshit have been trained not to see it as bullshit… The underlying issue of all of this is that the American people are too stupid to be governed. They have no bullshit detector. They believe a lot of kooky stuff on the left and on the right they believe in QAnon [a conspiracy theory that alleges that the world is run by a powerful cabal of pedophiles that worship Satan and operate a child sex trafficking ring that works to undermine President Trump.] … There is no knowledge of the past. You can’t scare them by saying ‘Trump is becoming a totalitarian.’ — [Americans respond:] What’s that? You know like East Germany — What’s that? Like in the Cold War — What’s that? Technology wouldn’t be so scary if people had a better brain to deal with it. Harris quickly responds, “But what has social media done to our brain? That’s the problem. Social media [has led to] the downgrading of attention spans, our critical thinking, our ability to form an opinion on anything that is not the hyperpresent. We don’t read books any more. We have polarization, conspiracy thinking… [All of this due to the business model of Facebook discussed in the documentary Social Network] — So long as we’re the product, we’re worth more when we are addicted, distracted, outraged, narcissistic, polarized, and disinformed than if we are a thriving citizen, an informed citizen of a democracy… [To Facebook] a child is worth more if they’re narcissistic and attention-seeking and seeing how many likes they have than if they’re actually free — growing, developing, and playing with their friends. [As the inventor of the “Like” button explained] so long as the whale is worth more dead than alive and a tree is worth more as 2x4s than as a tree, in this new [business] model… we’re the whale, we’re the tree, we’re the thing that is being mined… [The technology in Facebook’s business model] is converting us into someone who cares more about the number of new likes and followers and comments that we have than living our lives. Each of us get to participate in a system that profits from social performance, where we each perform and that’s what we’re doing with our time, instead of actually doing any of the other things that we care about.”

The discussion of freedom of choice reminds me of the routine of one of the most influential comedians of all time, George Carlin, winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Like Twain, Carlin was a fearless critic always ready and willing to speak his mind — passionately and eloquently. Carlin was the thinking person’s comedian — his razor-sharp, incisive rants about politics, culture, religion, philosophy, and language were not only funny, they were compelling and thought-provoking. Long after watching a Carlin performance, you actually remembered what he had to say because in most cases he was right — the world is fucked up.”

One of Carlin’s most famous bits was his rant on freedom of choice: “Yes, you can [vote for president], but you don’t get much choice in this country about important things. They have all the guns. They have all the tools. They have all the power. We call it freedom of choice. There is an illusion of choice. Americans are led to feel free through the exercise of meaningless choices. There are only two political parties. There is a reduction of the number of media companies. Banking has been reduced to only a handful of banks. Oil companies. These are important, and you’re given very little choice. Oh, but the flavor of jellybeans? The flavor of muffins? A bagel? You can get a Pina Colada bagel. We’re given the illusion of choice by the meaningless of choices of trivial things. You know what your freedom of choice in America is? Paper or plastic, buddy? That’s it. After you’ve said cash or charge, maybe it’s Pepsi or Coke? Window or Aisle? Smoking or [Nonsmoking]? Everything else you’re kinda guided towards by focus groups and marketing research.”

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: Plato on Idiots and Ignorance
You Should Figure Out a Way to Get Off Facebook
Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?
A Republic If You Can Keep It
Is the United States A Democracy or Republic?

For further reading: Real Time with Bill Maher, 11-6-20 (HBO)
The Great Hack, Netflix Documentary (2019)
The Social Dilemma, Netflix Documentary (2020)
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hunger-50-million-americans-2020-projections-show/
https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid19/index.htm


Finally, A Documentary for Book Lovers: The Booksellers

alex atkins bookshelf moviesThe Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young, a documentary about a group of established antiquarian book dealers in New York City, is a valentine to the used book industry as well as book lovers around the globe. The documentary was released in 2019, and recently began streaming on Amazon Prime. On the official website, Young writes: “Antiquarian booksellers are part scholar, part detective and part businessperson, and their personalities and knowledge are as broad as the material they handle. They also play an underappreciated yet essential role in preserving history. The Booksellers takes viewers inside their small but fascinating world, populated by an assortment of obsessives, intellects, eccentrics and dreamers.” To paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, “Let us go, then you and I, when the books are spread across the table…”

The documentary introduces viewers to fascinating, charming, and some rather eccentric booksellers whose comprehensive knowledge and passion for books is infectious. While book dealers tend to be male (according to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, 85% of booksellers are male; 15% female), the documentary presents a balance of genders, as well as ages. Along the way, we meet Dave Bergman (giant books); Adina Cohen, Haomi Hample, and Judith Lowry (Argosy books); Jim Cummins (James Cummins Bookseller with an inventory of over 400,000 books); Arthur Fournier (transformative cultural movements); Stephen Massey (founder of auction house Christie’s book department); Bibi Mohamed (leather bound books), Heather O’Donnell (Honey & Wax Booksellers); William Reese (greatest American rare book dealer); Rebecca Romney (Type Punch Matrix; Pawn Stars book expert); Justin Schiller (children’s books); Adam Weinberger (book hunter and Pawn Stars guest); and Henry Wessells (bookseller, poet, writer, and sci-fi collector).

The segments with booksellers are punctuated with very brief interviews with notable authors like Fran Lebowtiz, Gay Talese, and Susan Orlean. We also get to meet two well-known book collectors: Michael Zinman and Jay Walker. Indeed, one of the highlights of the documentary is a glimpse of Walker’s stunningly beautiful private library — the envy of every book collector. Incidentally, if you don’t recognize his name, Jay Walker happens to be the founder of Priceline.com; his net worth is estimated to be $1.6 billion. And that type of discretionary income can purchase a lot of books — and a very impressive custom-designed library to house them. The library is connected by a hallway to his private residence in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Known as the Walker Library of The History of Human Imagination, it contains more than 25,000 books, manuscripts, historical objects, and artifacts in a 3.5-level, 3,600 square-foot space. As he explains, they are organized by size, not by topic — something that would truly annoy just about every librarian watching this documentary. Historical artifacts include an actual Sputnik, a meteorite, dinosaur bones, model Saturn V rocket, Enigma code machine, an Edison phonograph, and a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible — to name a few. The walls are lined with wood bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the interior is filled with 25 staircases that lead to balconies and platforms. This maze-like, multi-level design was inspired by the work of M. C. Escher. Unfortunately, the documentary spends very little time in Walker’s library; however, curious bibliophiles can view it in greater detail in the dazzling documentary titled “Experience the Walker Library of Human Imagination” by David Hofman that can be found on YouTube.

Although many worthy used books can be purchased from $10 to $50 dollars, the documentary makers are captivated by very expensive books that are sought after by bibliophiles with deep pockets. Interestingly, how quickly a book can increase in value is illustrated by the bookseller who shares the story of how he purchased the rarest book in American Literature, Tamerlane and Other Poems. That book is a pocket-sized poetry book self-published in 1827 by an anonymous author (the cover reads “A Bostonian”). That Bostonian happens to be the Master of the Macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The bookseller explains how an individual stumbled upon the book at a garage sale and purchased it for $15. He then sold it to the bookseller for $200,000. Talk about appreciation! We also learn about the scale of value of a first edition of The Great Gatsby: $5,000 for the book without a dust jacket, $15,000 with a torn and tattered dust jacket, and $150,000 for a book with a clean dust jacket. A bookseller shows us a fourth edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha, considered the first modern novel, worth $20,000. He follows that with this stunning biblio-factoid: the value of a first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming $150,000. We get the point: pricing can be capricious; nevertheless, Cervantes must be spinning in his grave. The documentary also discusses to famous rare books at the extreme end of the price continuum. The first, is the sale of the Gutenberg Bible, by the Pfrozheimer Foundation, to the Harry Ransom Center (at the University of Texas at Austin) for $2.2 million in 1978. The second is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, which was sold in November 1994 for $28 million to Bill Gates. The seller, Armand Hammer (owner of Occidental Petroleum), made a handsome profit, since he had purchased the rare manuscript several years earlier for a mere $5 million. Who says books are a bad investment? (By the way, if you’re curious about the value of Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was not discussed in the documentary, one was sold on October 14, 2020 by Mills College to Stephan Lowentheil, a rare book collector, for $9.98 million.)

There is much to capture the imagination in this documentary — after all, to paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges, there is an entire universe in books. But there is a thread of lament that runs throughout the documentary. We learn that antiquarian booksellers are a dying breed, many are in their last generation. When they pass away, their inventory, and more significantly, their comprehensive knowledge of books will vanish. Early in the documentary, we learn about New York City’s famous Book Row during the the mid-20th century: 48 bookstores located on six blocks of 4th Avenue. Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of The Strand bookstore, explains how her grandfather founded the store in 1927 on Book Row. Her father took it over and grew the store — it currently has an inventory of more than 2.5 million books. Wyden explains the dramatic change in the bookselling industry with this sobering statistic: in the 1950s, New York City had 358 bookstores; presently, there are only 79.

Despite this grim statistic, there is hope for future generation to embrace book collecting. As one of the booksellers notes, “Many people think that collecting is just about high spots or first editions. The truth is the most interesting collections are built by people who see something that other people don’t see.” In an interview with The Guardian, Romney explained, “[The world of used books] is for anyone who is passionate about something. No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter what your education or background is — I want people to watch the film and say: ‘Oh, I could be part of this.’”

The documentary ends with a beautiful, eloquent ode to the book, a poem written and spoken by Henry Wessells, from his a short book of poems titled The Private Life of Books:

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF BOOKS by Henry Wessells

In silence between writer and reader
A memory of words and hands takes form.
We learn substance and worth through others’ eyes :
Cloth, flesh, ink, skin, paper, dust — these are but
Material forms in which ideas dwell.
In the roar of a crowded shelf of books
Desert sun and arctic night, distant seas
Of thought awaken, mingle, and are still.
Minds meet where the reading hand grasps the void
And inks its passage in empty margins.
Lost, forgotten, thumbed, split : we bear the scars
Of patient decades and centuries’ dreams.

Whose hands will next hold me I do not know —
The book, too, reads its readers in real time.

The book of poems was published in 2014 by Temporary Culture. The publisher recently printed a pocket-size edition. Special thanks to Henry Wessells for his kind permission to reprint his poem.

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 Most Amazing Library in the World
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Profile of a Book Lover: Sylvester Stallone
Most Expensive American Book
The World’s Most Expensive Book
Words Invented by Book Lovers

The Sections of a Bookstore

For further reading: booksellersdocumentary.com
Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Mavin Mondlin and Roy Meador
The Private Life of Books by Henry Wessells
Remarkable Books: The World’s Most Historic and Significant Works
Book Collecting Now: The Value of Print in a Digital Age by Matthew Budman
http://www.abaa.org
http://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/mar/04/documentary-the-booksellers-antiquarian-books
wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_expensive_books_and_manuscripts


Reading Teaches that the Things that Torment Us Are the Things that Connect Us

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people. An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.”

Excerpt from an interview with James Baldwin, titled “Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are” by Jane Howard, that appeared in LIFE magazine on May 24, 1963. Baldwin’s quotation is often paraphrased as “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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The Power of Literature
The Poems We Turn To
The Parable of the Farmer and His Fate


The Comfort of Reading During Difficult Times

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt’s not easy living in the age of coronavirus. These are the best of times. These are the worst of times. How do we get through it? My thoughts drift to a young boy, dirty, destitute, and tired from working in a miserable factory job because his father was imprisoned in a debtor’s prison. That period of desperation and poverty motivated him to eventually achieve great artistic and financial success as a world-renown author. His name? Charles Dickens. However, the memories that misery and humiliation haunted him his entire life. At the peak of his success, Dickens confessed, “My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time in my life.” In David Copperfield, his favorite and most autobiographical novel, we get a glimpse of how a young boy survived that dark period — he found comfort and escape in literature:

“I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance. It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, — they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, — and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them — as I did — and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones – which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels — I forget what, now — that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees – the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.

This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.” (Excerpt from chapter 4 of David Copperfield.)

Let us hope that the image of a scruffy young boy, huddled in the corner, reading a book inspires us to find the comfort of reading during the worst of times. Let us seek the wisdom of literature that reaffirms our shared humanity — however fragile and imperfect — and inspires empathy and understanding that will eventually lead to the best of times.

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The Power of Literature
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Confessions of a Bibliophile: Michael Dirda

alex atkins bookshelf books

“I’ve never counted how many books I own, but my attic is stuffed with genre fiction from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century–needed for a big project–and the basement is solidly packed with recent novels and non-fiction, some of it on industrial shelving but the bulk in boxes piled higgledy-piggledy. It’s really quite apalling. There’s also a rented storage unit, which has sucked a fortune out of me, probably more than its contents are worth. I’d estimate that I own between 15,000 and 20,000 books, conceivably more. From many quite reasonable points of view I have ‘too many books’, but to my mind I just need more bookshelves. Or a bigger house.

‘Yet am I, in fact, a collector?’ Somewhere I read that if you couldn’t lay your hands on any book you owned in five minutes, you were just an accumulator, a hoarder. I couldn’t lay my hands on some of my books if I had five days to search for me. The great bibliographical scholar G. Thomas Tanselle contends that any true collection requires an overarching theme, a plan, defined limits. My only plan is to keep books I might need in my work or that I hope to read some day for my own sweet pleasure. That means Tarzan and the insidious Fu Manchu as well as Dickens and Proust. The novelist and bookseller Larry McMurtry once observed that only those with basements or storage units like mine can enjoy the highly rarefied delight of scouting their own books: you never know what might be waiting at the bottom of the next box. Of course, McMurtry used to buy entire bookshops to stock the used and rare shelves of Archer City, Texas, his American version of Hay-on-Wye.”

From the essay “Snow Day” by Michael Dirda included in Browse: The World in Bookshops edited by Henry Hitchings. Michael Dirda is an American columnist for The Washington Post. In 1993, Dirda won a Pulitzer Prize for his insightful book reviews. He has written several books, including An Open Book, a memoir, and of four collections of essays: Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments; Bound to Please; Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life; Classics for Pleasure; and Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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When You Don’t Have Time to Read the Classics: Crime and Punishment

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWe live in the Google Era, where information comes so fast, it’s like drinking water from a fire hose. That information overload combined with the prevalence of apps like Twitter and TikTok has dramatically decreased the reader’s attention span to 144 characters or 15 seconds — whichever comes first. With that kind of an attention span, who is ever going to take the time to read literary classics. And let’s face it — some of these classics run a little long; for example, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes  runs about 900 pages (containing more than 180,000 words), while Moby-Dick by Herman Melville runs about 700 pages (containing 135 chapters, and more than 209,117 words). If you read 250 words per minute, it would take about 19 hours to read Don Quixote and 14 hours to read Moby-Dick.  (Incidentally, at readinglength[dot]com you can enter any book title and see how long it takes to read it based on your own reading speed). Who has that kind of time?

That’s where Maurice Sagoff’s little book, ShrinkLits comes in. Sagoff has managed to shrink 70 of the world’s most famous literary classics down to size. If you have a minute, you can read a summary of one of the classics, like Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, King Lear, or The Great Gatsby. During these uncertain and turbulent times, what better time to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment that focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas faced by a poor former student (Rodion Raskkolnikov) who murders a devious, dishonest pawnbroker. It is quintessentially Russian: dark, brooding, and tragic. Like the work of Charles Dickens, Crime and Punishment was originally published serially in 1866 in 12 monthly issues of The Russian Messenger, a literary journal. Late that year, it was published as a single volume in Russian and translated into English. Coming in at 565 pages (and 203,145 words) it will take the average reader 13 hours and 33 minutes to read the novel. But hey, if you don’t have 13 hours, Atkins Bookshelf presents ShrinkLit’s version of Crime and Punishment.

Murderer feels bad.

Confesses. Goes to jail.

Feels better.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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For further reading: ShrinkLits by Maurice Sagoff
http://www.readinglength.com


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