Category Archives: Books

Stories in Books Matter Because They Connect Us to One Another

“The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen. It was that affirmation that always amazed me. Even the oddest, most peculiar book was written with that kind of courage — the writer’s belief that someone would find his or her book important to read. I was struck by how precious and foolish and brave that belief is, and how necessary, and how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.”

From The Library Book by Susan Orlean. Orlean spent six years researching and writing her eighth book. One of the most fascinating stories she investigated was the Los Angeles library fire of 1986 (April 29,1986). It took more than 350 firefighters 7.5 hours to extinguish the fire that reached up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire was devastating — it destroyed more than 400,000 books and damaged another 350,000 volumes. At the time, the library collection included 1.2 million books. The fire was started on the fifth floor by an arsonist.

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What is the Value of a First Edition of A Christmas Carol?

atkins-bookshelf-booksWhen Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843, he wanted to make sure the book was affordable. The first printing of 6,000 copies, each book priced at a mere 5 shillings (about $2 in 1800s currency; about $25 in today’s currency) was sold out by Christmas eve. Dickens received his allotment of presentation copies on December 17, and immediately sent inscribed copies to his close friends and colleagues; he ran out of his copies 5 days later. Dickens’s publisher, Chapman and Hall, quickly printed a second and third edition, bringing the total of books sold to 9,000 by the end of the year — a remarkable achievement in Victorian England. Over the next few years, the book went through a total of 24 printings of that particular edition. Unfortunately, due to its high production costs, A Christmas Carol was not as profitable as Dickens had hoped. Bah humbug!

For almost two centuries, Dickens’s “ghostly little story” about redemption and charity has grown in our hearts — and just as significant, has grown in value exponentially. As bibliophiles and antiquarian booksellers know, there are many factors that contribute to a book’s value — condition, uniqueness, beauty, quality of binding, history, and inscription and/or signature. The first edition of A Christmas Carol (or The Carol, as it is known to collectors of Dickens’s works) has benefited from all these factors, and hence has consistently risen in value. A true first edition (from the first printing) is generally worth from $18,000 to $45,000. Any edition that was masterfully bound in fine leather and jewels by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, the premier bookbinders in London since 1901, is sure to fetch more than $30,000. The value of The Carol skyrockets when you consider the very rare inscribed presentation editions (the ones that Dickens gave to his friends) that range from $50,000 to $280,000! Truly a staggering valuation that would certainly bring a smile to any Scrooge.

A review of auction prices within the last two decades shows how quickly the value of A Christmas Carol has appreciated in modern times. A presentation copy inscribed to poet Thomas Hood was sold at auction in 1997 for $50,000. Just one year later, another presentation copy, this one inscribed to writer and poet Walter Landor, sold for $160,000. The most valuable copy, however, was a presentation copy inscribed to William Macready, an actor and close friend of Dickens, dated January 1, 1844 that was sold by Sotheby’s auction house for $282,408 in 2010.

As of this writing there are two valuable editions of A Christmas Carol for sale. There is is an exceptionally rare “trial issue” edition published by Chapman and Hall in 1844, worth $45,000. The book has an inscription by H. D. Linton, the brother of W. J. Linton who contributed four wood-engraved illustrations for the book. On the other hand, there is the first authorized collection edition of Christmas Books, containing A Christmas Carol and four other Christmas novels, that was published by Chapman and Hall in 1852 that is selling for $81,195. This is the first time that all five of Dickens’ Christmas novels were published together and Dickens wrote a new preface for them. But what makes this volume so valuable is that it is inscribed by Charles Dickens to a young woman, Agnes Sarah Lawrence. The inscription reads: “Agnes Sarah Lawrence, from her affectionate friend Charles Dickens, Twenty Second November 1852.” Agnes was the daughter of John Towers Lawrence of Balsall Heath, an acquaintance of the author. This is a presentation copy of the book, which means that the printer replaced the standard tissue guard that appears at the front of the book with a heavy text leaf, allowing the author to write a personalized note. Furthermore, this book contains the book label belonging to Carrie Estelle Doheny, considered one of the greatest women book collectors in America. Over six auction sales from 1987 to 1989, Doheny’s extraordinary book collection fetched $37.4 million — setting the record for the most lucrative book auction in history.

Certainly, Dickens could never have imagined that his modestly-priced Christmas story would become of the most precious and sought-after books in literature — making him in the end, to use Scrooge’s phrase, “a good man of business.”

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: The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn, Norton (2004)
rarebooksdigest.com/2011/12/22/charles-dickens-rare-book-a-christmas-carol/
The Cinderella of the Arts: A short History of Sangorski & Sutcliffe by Rob Shepherd


Little Books, Big Ideas: Words of Wisdom

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches. Some of the smaller ones are 1.5 inches by 2 inches. Unfortunately, miniature books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking miniature book: Words of Wisdom: A Book of Inspiration compiled by Armand Eisen for Andrews McMeel Publishing, a publisher of novelty books, comics, and calendars. In the introduction, Eisen writes: “Wisdom means something different to each of us, yet there is a golden thread that unites the words of great thinkers and writers — a common instinct for truth. Collected here is a sampling of the sages — reflections and advice on life’s joys, beauties, lessons, and eternal truths.” Here are some pearls of wisdom:

“The purpose of life is a life of purpose.” (Robert Byrne)

“The man who has lived longest is not the he who has spent the greatest number of years, but he who has had the greatest sensibility of life.” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau)

“If there is any peace it will come through living, not knowing.” (Henry Miller)

“Stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread and we want to know the whole cloth.” (Gustave Flaubert)

“A man should never be ashamed to own that he has been in the wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.” (Jonathan Swift)

“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” (William James)

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to Heaven.” (William Shakespeare, from All’s Well That Ends Well)

“Almost every man wastes part of his life in attempts to display qualities which he does not possess, and to gain applause which he cannot keep.” (Samuel Johnson)

“Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.” (Marcus Aurelius)

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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Peer Into Your Books — Make a Voyage of Discovery

alex atkins bookshelf books“‘What shall I do with all my books?’ was the question; and the answer, ‘Read them,’ sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”

From Thoughts and Adventures (1932) by Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965). Churchill, in addition to being an accomplished statesman, was a voracious reader, an eloquent orator, and a prolific writer. During his career, Churchill wrote 58 books, 260 pamphlets, 840 articles, and thousands of speeches (filling more than 9,000 pages). Through his words, he comforted and inspired a nation during some of Great Britain’s darkest and finest hours. It was therefore fitting, that in 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exited human values.” Interestingly, in the 1890s, many readers confused the British Churchill with another writer, living across the pond — a very successful American novelist, also named Winston Churchill (1871-1947). At that time, the American Churchill, who had written several bestselling novels, including Richard Carvel (1899), The Crisis (1901), and The Crossing (1904), was the more famous of the two. So in order to avoid confusion, the British Churchill began using “Winston S. Churchill” to differentiate himself from the well-known American novelist. The two of them met at least twice, but were never friends. In the end, the writings and legacy of the British Churchill eclipsed that of the American Churchill.


Little Books, Big Ideas: On Things That Really Matter

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches. Some of the smaller ones are 1.5 inches by 2 inches. Unfortunately, miniature books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking miniature book: On Things That Really Matter written by Jackson Brown, Jr. who wrote the New York Times bestseller Life’s Little Instruction Book: Simple Wisdom and a Little Humor for Living a Happy and Rewarding Life (1992). One of Brown’s central beliefs is that “when you take inventory of the things in life that you treasure most, you’ll find that none of them was purchased with money.” “Hey — isn’t there a song about that? you ask?” Yes, it is “The Best Things in Life are Free,” by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson from the musical 1927 Good News. The song was popularized by Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby for an earlier generation. But we digress.

Let’s turn back to Brown’s more recent miniature book. “There is a fundamental question we all have to face,” writes Brown, “How are we to live our lives; by what principle and moral values will we be guided and inspired? I once heard a minister compare life to a slippery staircase—an apt analogy. Slipping and sliding as we all do, we intuitively reach out for support, for anything to keep us from falling. There is a handrail. But its stability is determined by the values we have chosen to guide our lives. It is, therefore, no stronger, no more reliable, than the quality of the choices we have made.” Spot on, brother.

Brown’s little book is filled with big ideas — ones that will fortify the handrails of your life. Here are some of those ideas from notable thinkers and writers, as well as individuals who did not achieve fame but lived full, meaningful, and fulfilling lives and have wisdom to share:

“Treasure the love you receive above all. It will survive long after gold and good health have vanished.” (Og Mandino)

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an art but a habit.” (Aristotle)

“A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.” (Henrik Ibsen)

“Do not care overly much for wealth or power or fame, or one day you will meet someone who cares for none of these things, and you will realize how poor you have become.” (Rudyard Kipling)

“I ve learned that the best way to have friends is to be the kind of friend you’d like to have.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that every person you meet knows something you don’t know. Learn from them.” (Anonymous)

“Never underestimate the influence of the people you have allowed into your life.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that a happy person is not a person with a certain set of circumstances but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that pain is inevitable; misery is optional.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that I don’t need more to be thankful for; I need to be thankful more.” (Anonymous)

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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A Book Can Be Lost But Its Truth and Poetry Remain With You Forever

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn My Life in Paris and Rome, James Arbuthnot (1799-1880) discussed a dedicated book lover that lived in his apartment building in Paris, France. “There was a very ancient man, who had a room above my apartment. His was a sad story; he had been tutor to a noble family but he had been abandoned by his employers in the upheavals of the Revolution. Fearing that their castle would be looted, he had fled, taking with him some of the rarest volumes in their library. Now, in distressed circumstances he was selling off his little hoard book by book. ‘But, do not pity me’ he said, ‘all I sell is the [leather] binding; the truth and poetry remain with me‘; and he would tap his dry, old pate.” (Emphasis added.)

What a beautiful sentiment: the truth and poetry remain with me. In the context of today’s world, we can rephrase it this way: books can disappear — they can be lost, banned, or burned — but once read, their truth and poetry remain with you for a lifetime, providing a wellspring of inspiration and insight. And no one can ever take that away from you. Share this story with a book lover you know.

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: Quotable Quotes: The Book Lover by Tony Mills


What Does Elizabeth Holmes’ Real Voice Sound Like?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureYou’ve probably seen Elizabeth Holmes’ face dozens of times by now — the inventor and CEO of Theranos who was going to revolutionize the blood-testing industry with the Edison machine that could analyze dozens of medical tests from a single drop of blood. Her career mirrored a Shakespearean tragedy: a meteoric rise (at its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion dollars), followed by the revelation of a tragic flaw (Holmes had to spin a web of lies to fool investors and regulators about Edison’s deep flaws), followed by a tumultuous fall from grace. There are so many layers to this modern tragedy that make it such a compelling story, but for now let’s focus on one of the most fascinating aspects of our tragic hero.

There are many videos that show Holmes appearing in interviews or technology conferences. Out walks this tall, attractive woman, dressed entirely in black (black shoes, black slacks, and black turtleneck — her feeble attempt to say: “Hey look at me! — I am the female Steve Jobs!”), creating a sharp contrast from her very fair skin and baby face, framed by a mane of shimmering blond, wispy hair. One is immediately mesmerized by those huge, piercing blue eyes. She stands there for a moment, a female Svengali, sizing up her audience that sits quietly with bated breath. What will she say? And then she speaks. That voice! WTF? Is there something wrong with the microphone? Out of those bright blood-red lips comes this deep, baritone voice that is so amazingly discordant from her appearance. It’s like looking at some clueless old chap who is wearing a terrible toupee that you can spot a mile away (you know the type: light fine hair on the sides, dark thick hair on top). After a few sentences one reaches an inescapable conclusion:  “This voice is totally fake!” Naturally, Holmes’ low, deep voice has been fodder for endless ridicule and criticism: “Her voice sounds like when children try to pretend they are adults.” “Her voice sounds like a woman pretending to be a man.” “Her voice sounds like a woman who has a potato stuck in her throat.” “Her voice sounds like Kevin McCallister in the Home Alone movie when he calls the police near the end of the movie.” “She sounds like a zombie.” “She sounds like Kermit the Frog getting an enema.” “Wasn’t she that whacked-out chick in the movie The Exorcist?” I could go on… 

So this begs the question: what does Elizabeth Holmes’ real voice sound like? The best person to answer that questions is John Carreyrou, the investigative reporter from the Wall Street Journal and author of Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, whose carefully-researched stories brought down the Theranos house of cards. At a talk during his book tour in 2018, Carreyrou explained the truth behind Holmes’ deep, low voice: “It’s an affect. There’s an anecdote in the book where an employee joins in early 2011 and at the end of a long day she concludes a meeting with him in her office. [She] gets up, grabs her jacket to leave and on her way out expresses excitement that he’s joined the company, that he’s on board, and says that they’re gonna do great things. [She] forgets to turn on the baritone and lapses into a more natural sounding young woman’s voice… And I just don’t base it on that anecdote. Her best friend at Stanford was a source for the book… and she says that Elizabeth’s voice sounded nothing like that when she was at Stanford. … A family member was [also] a source for the book and that person says that the voice was affected as well… The best proof of it is that I have a recording of an interview she gave in May 2005 to NPR’s Biotech Nation program and at that point she’s 20 or 21 years old… and she sounds nothing like the Elizabeth Holmes of 2014 or 2015. [In the interview] the pitch of her voice is higher, she speaks fast — almost so fast that she sort of stumbles over her own words. She is like this bubbly young hyper-enthusiastic woman. And when you contrast that to the very poised, contrived persona that she fashioned over the ensuing decade, it’s quite a contrast.” The NPR interview, where you can hear Elizabeth Holmes’ real voice, can be found here.

Several reporters have suspected that Holmes’ must have expended quite a bit of effort to maintain this particular charade. Too bad she didn’t redirect this effort to develop positive and moral leadership skills, to seek better guidance from individuals with integrity and experience, to help guide her company toward triumph rather than an abysmal failure. Through her deceit, on so many levels, Holmes became the poster child for one of the biggest con jobs that Silicon Valley has ever witnessed.

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: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Presentation at Politics and Prose


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