Category Archives: Books

The Ultimate Victory of Tomorrow is Democracy with Education

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“There may be times when men and women in the turmoil of change lose touch with the civilized gains of centuries of educa­tion: but the gains of education are never really lost. Books may be burned and cities sacked, but truth, like the yearning for free­dom, lives in the hearts of humble men and women. The ulti­mate victory of tomorrow is with democracy, and through de­mocracy with education, for no people in all the world can be kept eternally ignorant or eternally enslaved.”

From President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address, titled “If the Fires of Freedom and Civil Liberties Burn Low in Other Lands, They Must be Made Brighter in Our Own,” delivered to the National Education Association on June 30, 1938. The address in included in the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Franklin D. Roosevelt (Volume 7).

What Was the First Banned Book in America?

alex atkins bookshelf booksLong before there were uptight, narrow-minded librarians and school board members that banned books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ulysses, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men, there were provincial, simpleminded, and holier-than-thou Puritans of Massachusetts. When they weren’t burning witches at their community bonfires (bring your smores and wicked witches!), they were burning books that were critical of their practices and beliefs. The first banned book in America was titled New English Canaan (often referred to a New Canaan) by Thomas Morton (1579-1647), a lawyer, social reformer, writer, and world-class party animal. Let’s learn the fascinating story that inspired the book.

Around 1625, Morton founded a colony named Ma-Re Mount (later called Merry Mount), meaning “Hill by the Sea”, in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts. In more ways than one, Merry Mount was a rival to Plymouth Colony, led by William Bradford, to the south. Unlike the conservative Puritans of Plymouth Colony, Morton was a freewheeling playboy and um…. merrymaker, earning the title of “Lord of Misrule,” a Puritan euphemism for a “real bad ass.” The name of the colony on the hilltop came from a pun; Morton had written that the buzzkills at the Plymouth Colony were “threatening to make it a woeful mount and not a merry mount.” So clever, that rascal. In a short period of time, Morton and the Merrymounters let their freak flags fly — getting drunk at every opportunity and “dancing and frisking together like so many fairies, or furies rather” with former indentured slaves and local Algonquin Native Americans. And if you haven’t figure it out, “frisking” was a euphemism for what Shakespeare described as “making the beast with two backs” (Othello, Act 1, Scene 1). Come to think of it, it gives Merry Mount yet another meaning. But we digress. One of the most cherished traditions was the Mayday festival, where colonists and their rowdy consorts, in various states of inebriation, danced around a tall Maypole decorated with colorful ribbons. Who says puritanical Puritans can’t have a little fun? In addition to all the booze, frolicking, and fornicating, the colonists also traded guns with Native Americans. Why was this bad? Well, the Plymouth colonists believed that dealing with Native Americans armed with guns diminished their defensive advantage and made genocide a bit more challenging.

As you can imagine, none of this sat well with the greater Puritan community. They were shocked at the depravity, debauchery, and decadence of the Merrymount colonists. Sigmund Freud would have a field day with this conflict. From a psychoanalytic perspective the communities reflect man’s inner conflict: the id vs. the superego. And in this story, Morton played the part of the id, to Bradford’s superego. In his book, American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt, John Beckman, a Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, describes how most Puritans perceived Morton: “[Morton] founded a camp of free-loving bondservants within striking distance. A lover of the wilderness who consorted with Indians, a radical democrat and reckless hedonist, Morton represented an opposing side of the incipient American character, the gleefully unruly side. Cheerful, curious, horny, and lawless, he anticipated the teeming masses, the mixing millions who would exploit the New World as an open playground for freedom, equality, and saucy frolic. His experiment in insanely energized democracy at his anything goes Merry Mount colony, thirty miles north of Plymouth’s spiky fortress, made confetti of their Mayflower Compact. Bradford’s coup to bring it down, in the spring of 1627, counts as the first volley on the battlefield of American fun.” By 1628, the colonists from Plymouth had enough. They sent the militia, led by Myles Standish, to chop down the Maypole and arrest Morton. Morton defended himself by declaring: “Hey, this is nothing but a witch hunt! And there were very fine people on both sides!” He was arrested and eventually exiled to Maine; he died at the age of 71.

New English Canaan, published in three volumes in 1637, was Morton’s historical account of his legal battles with Plymouth Colony. And because the book was extremely critical of the Plymouth Puritans, they quickly condemned and banned it. And nothing makes a book more popular than some authoritarian person or organization that states “Don’t read this!” Fine Books Magazine, which describes a rare edition that is going to auction this month, provides an excellent summary of the book: “Blending picaresque literary flourish with historical accounts and poetic interludes, this work — composed with the help of literary friends — is an unremitting satirical attack on the Puritans as well as a joyous Jacobite romp telling a lost true story of America’s early colonial history. Morton denounces the Puritan’s policy of land enclosure and genocide of the native population while ending with a call for the ‘demartialising’ of the colonies and the creation of a multicultural New Canaan in the New World.” Copies of New English Canaan are extremely rare (only two copies have come to auction in the past three decades) and extremely valuable. Christies’ of New York expects this copy to fetch between $35,000 to $45,000 at the forthcoming auction.

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Read related posts: Best-Selling Banned Books
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For further reading: American Fun: Four Centuries of Joyous Revolt by John Beckman

America’s First Banned Book and the Battle for the Soul of the Country

The Founding Father that Vandalized Shakespeare’s Chair

alex atkins bookshelf triviaFew know that one of the Founding Fathers was a museum vandal. Say what!? Historical sacrilege! First let’s identify the Founding Father. Here’s a hint — he wrote the introduction to one of the most important documents in American history: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” That, of course, is the opening sentence to the Declaration of Independence. Its author? Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson, who served as the third President of the United States, was a polymath driven by an insatiable curiosity and had a tremendous capacity for wonder. He was a voracious reader and over the years, Jefferson built a private library of about 6,500 books in the six languages that he read: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. When the British burned down the Capitol in 1814, he sold his entire collection to the library of Congress for $23,950 (imagine the great deal that the library received: priceless books for only $3.70 each!). As a student of classical literature, grammar, and rhetoric, Jefferson was a passionate admirer of the work of William Shakespeare, also a student of classical education, and of course, acknowledged as the greatest writer in the English language. “Shakespeare,” he wrote to a friend, “must be singled out by one who wishes to learn the full powers of the English language.” When asked by a friend, what books he should read, Jefferson advocated that “a lively and lasting sense of filial duty is more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the dry volumes of ethics, and divinity that were ever written.” Jefferson not only read and studied Shakespeare, he often attended the Bard’s plays that were performed in the playhouses of Williamsburg, Virginia. He also had the opportunity to see several plays performed in the theaters of London.

A biographer reports that in 1786, John Adams and Jefferson made a trip to England to visit Shakespeare’s childhood home at Stratford-upon-Avon. Unlike the heavily guarded and monitored tours of today, museum docents and staff took a rather cavalier attitude toward protecting Shakespeare’s valuable possessions. During the late 1700s, museum visitors would surreptitiously cut a souvenir piece of wood from one of Shakespeare’s chairs. Jefferson, being such an aficionado of the Bard, could not resist. With Adams as his lookout, he cut off a small piece of wood and hid it to take it back to his home in Monticello, where it would be cherished. Who knew Jefferson could be such a rascal? Curators of Jefferon’s estate found the piece of wood and placed it on exhibit in 2006 with a note from Jefferson: “A chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespeare’s house at Stratford on Avon said to be the identical chair in which he usually sat. If true, like the relics of the saints, it must miraculously reproduce itself.”

We can now add one additional item to Jefferson’s long list of accomplishments: lawyer, statesman, diplomat, architect, inventor, Founding Father, third President of the United States — and vandal. 

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San Francisco’s Spectacular Big Book Sale

alex atkins bookshelf booksEach year, the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library (FSFPL) holds one of the most spectacular book sales any mortal will see in this lifetime: the spectacular Big Book Sale. The 55th annual sale opened to the public on Wednesday, September 18 (running through September 22) at the Fort Mason Center’s 50,000 square-foot Festival Pavilion, with views of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. It’s a sight to behold. For a book lover, it is an entirely unique and exciting shopping experience. The best analogy one can use is that it is a cross between Costco and Barnes & Noble. In short, it is a book lover’s paradise.

When you first step into the pavilion, you are overwhelmed: row after row of large tables stacked with books as far as the eye can see. According to the FSFPL marketing materials, more than 500,000 items are offered for sale! Books are neatly organized, with their spines facing up, into more than 70 very discrete subject areas (eg, Americana, Ancient History, Anthropology, Antiques, etc.). Beneath each table are boxes filled with surplus books that will be used to replenish the tables. All of this work is done by an army of volunteers (paid by books!) that walk from table to table, tidying up books, replenishing, and helping shoppers find their way around the massive warehouse. Very few shoppers attempt shopping using a bag; most quickly realize the benefits of grabbing a shopping cart from the front of the warehouse and steering it to their favorite sections. Once there, they park it and dive into perusing the titles and start loading their carts as quickly as they can. Books are priced very simply: all hardbacks are $4, paperbacks are $3, children’s books are $2, and media (CDs, DVDs) are $2; on Sunday, all pricing drops to $1 per item. With pricing this low, it doesn’t take long for book lover to calculate the tremendous savings. In a matter of minutes they start loading their carts to the brim. While some shoppers attempt to build tall pyramids of books in their carts; others pursue an easier option and begin to fill a second cart… or a third.

Like in most used book stores, the quality of book ranges from brand new (some still shrink-wrapped) to acceptable or fair condition. Regardless of the condition, the breadth of the selection is incredible. You will find some extremely rare and valuable works that have long been out of print. Some of these are worth hundreds of dollars, and even more surprising, some of these cannot be found on Amazon or ABE Books. And yes, lurking in many of those piles and boxes are several first editions of notable works. One of the most interesting sections on the pavilion floor is the “Unusual & Collectible” section that holds many rare vintage books that are priced much higher than the sale prices to match their value.

Selling donated books is big business for FSFPL. Each year, the organization raises approximately $1.5 million to support the San Francisco Public Library. In fact, they take in so many donations that they run two fully-stocked stores year-round. One of the Friends Bookstore is located at Fort Mason in Building C, while the other is located at the Main Library, 30 Grove Street. These stores are organized just like any used bookstore and their inventory changes depending on level of donations and sales. Prices at those stores is slightly higher than at the Big Book Sale.

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Discovering the Moral Truth About Human Existence is the Highest Truth of Art

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Telling the truth in fiction can mean one of three things: [1] saying that which is factually correct, a trivial kind of truth, though a kind central to works of verisimilitude; [2] saying that which, by virtue of tone and coherence, does not feel like lying, a more important kind of truth; and [3] discovering and affirming moral truth about human existence — the highest truth of art. This highest kind of truth, we’ve said, is never something the artist takes as a given. It’s not his point of departure but his goal. Though the artist has beliefs, like other people, he realizes that a salient characteristic of art is a radical openness to persuasion. Even those beliefs he’s surest of, the artist puts under pressure to see if they will stand. He may have a pretty clear idea where his experiment will lead, as Dostoevsky did when he sent Raskolnikov on his unholy mission; but in so far as he’s a true artist, he does not force the results. He knows to the depths of his soul that when an artist creates in the service of wrong beliefs — that is, out of wrong opinions he mistakes for knowledge — or when he creates in the service of doctrines that may or may not be true but cannot be tested — for instance, doctrinaire Marxism or belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead — the effect of his work, admirable or otherwise, is not the effect of true art but of something else: pedagogy, propaganda, or religion.”

From The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (1983) by American novelist and literary critic John Gardner (1933-1982). Gardner wrote more than 20 books (fiction and nonfiction); however, his most popular novel was Grendel, published in 1971, that tells the story of Beowulf from the monster’s perspective. Gardner published several books on writing, two of which, On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction (both published posthumously in 1983), that are considered classics. Gardner is known for his succinct summary of all of literature: “There are only two plots in literature: a person goes on a journey, or the stranger comes to town.”

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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Are We Living in an Orwellian World?

alex atkins bookshelf booksGeorge Orwell (born Eric Blair, 1903-1950) grew up at a time in history that exhibited mankind at its worst. He saw how totalitarian regimes (eg, Fascism in Italy; Nazism in Germany) set the stage for two World Wars that left unimaginable devastation, profoundly scarring several generations. Nevertheless, Orwell was as astute student of human nature and was able to view it through the lens of language. In his insightful essay, Politics and the English language (1946), which foreshadowed many of the themes of his timeless classic 1984, Orwell believed that language had become a powerful political tool used to conceal the truth in order to manipulate the masses. “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics,” he wrote, “All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia… Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind… [And] if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

It was in the shadow of the horrors of WWII and its aftermath that Orwell wrote his dystopian novel 1984 in 1949. The novel introduces us to Winston Smith living in a world where every individual is under surveilliance because the Party (a totalitarian government) wants to suppress individualism and independent, critical thinking. Smith’s job is to write the news so that it reflects what the Party wants people to believe — regardless of the truth. The novel also introduces several enduring concepts, such as the Thought Police, Newspeak, Big Brother, the Brotherhood, the Ministry of Truth, thoughtcrimes, and the Party that reflect the tremendous power and egregious abuses of a totalitarian government. The story is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. Literary critic Lionel Trilling observed, “1984 is a profound, terrifying, and wholly fascinating book. It is a fantasy of the political future, and like any such fantasy, serves its author as a magnifying device for an examination of the present.” Now I know what you are thinking. You are asking yourself: is 1984 really a “fantasy of the political future?” When you read today’s headlines, particularly those that cover any of the totalitarian regimes around the globe — and consider the Trump administration’s assault on truth over the past three years — you will note an eerie coincidence between the world depicted in 1984 and the present day. No wonder many journalists have remarked over the past few years how Orwellian the world is becoming. And they are not trying to be flippant.

So the question we face today is: are we living in an Orwellian world? Ironically, Orwell wrote 1984 as a cautionary tale; however, many political leaders in the U.S. and around the globe have used it as a manual on how to lead. How Machiavellian! Let’s take a look at some of the notable quotes from 1984 and you be the judge:

“In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. It was inevitable that they should make that claim sooner or later: the logic of their position demanded it. Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.”

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”

“One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

“Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”

“Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

“The best books… are those that tell you what you already knew.”

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

“We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing…The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end.”

“What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy?”

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.”

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

“For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”

“War is a way of shattering to pieces, or pouring into the stratosphere, or sinking into the depths of the sea, materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable, and hence, in the long run, too intelligent.”

“There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

“Stupidity was as necessary as intelligence, and as difficult to attain.”

“If you can feel that staying human is worth while, even when it can’t have any result whatever, you’ve beaten them.”

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”

“To die hating them, that was freedom.”

It’s amazing — isn’t it — how 2019 is a lot like 1984?

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Book Title Mashups

alex atkins bookshelf booksTo honor National Read a Book Day, Bookshelf presents the first installment of book title mashups — taking two titles of classic literary works and combing them together to create a completely, um… novel reading experience. Happy reading.

The Grapes of Gatsby


Lord of the Animal Farm

One Flew Over the Catcher’s Rye

A Clockwork Purple

All the King’s Invisible Men

Gone with the Mockingbird

One Hundred Years of Possession

Much Ado About Portnoy’s Complaint

Taming of Lolita

A Tale of Two Utopias

Go Tell It on the Magic Mountain

What are some other possible titles?

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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