Category Archives: Books

The World Needs Another Dickens to Stir Our Consciences

alex atkins bookshelf christmasEvery holiday season, the Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, located in New York, displays the original handwritten manuscript of Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. The novella, written in just under six weeks, was published on December 19, 1843 by Chapman and Hall. The initial run of the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out faster than he anticipated. It sold for five shillings (approximately $29 in today’s dollars). By Christmas Eve all of the first editions had been sold; moreover, the story quickly received enthusiastic praise and acclaim. Naturally, Dickens wanted to preserve the original 68-page manuscript, so he had it bound in red morocco leather and gave it to Thomas Mitton, a close friend and creditor (Mitton had lent Dickens 270 pounds over the previous six months). On the title page, Dickens wrote: “My own, and only, MS of the Book/ Charles Dickens.” Soon after Dickens died, Mitton sold the manuscript for 50 pounds. Over the next few decades, the precious manuscript passed through several British book collectors before it was sold to Pierpont Morgan in the 1890s. By then the value had increased dramatically; Morgan paid an estimated 1,200 pounds (about $42,000 in today’s dollars) to a London bookseller. A century later, the value of the manuscript skyrocketed beyond anything Dickens could have ever imagined. In 2017, Dickens’ original manuscript for A Christmas Carol was appraised at $5 million — more than twice what the famous author earned over his writing career (in today’s dollars).

John Mortimer, the former senior vice president of The New York Times, was an admirer of Dickens’ work, particularly A Christmas Carol. On December 24, 1993, he wrote a brilliant op-ed titled “Poorhouses, Pamphlets, and Marley’s Ghost.” Sadly, Mortimer perished in an airplane accident in five years later, on September 4, 1998. On this Christmas day, Bookshelf presents excerpts from that illuminating essay and Mortimer’s eloquent and passionate call for another Dickens “to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed”:

One dark afternoon in January, I sat at a round table in the library on East 36th Street in New York City from which J. Pierpont Morgan once oversaw his collection. A square of velvet was laid reverently before me. Then a leatherbound volume was set on the velvet and opened. The first page of handwriting was crossed out, and crossed out again, the obliterations achieved by a sort of undulating scrawl, patterned like the waves on the sea.

The manuscript was written-over in a way seemingly calculated to give nightmares to the printer whose task it was to set it. The first two sentences emerged from the confusion: “Marley was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.” What I was looking at was once the blank piece of paper on which Charles Dickens struggled and had second thoughts and third thoughts when he set out to write A Christmas Carol

Those unfamiliar with Dickens’s way of working would naturally assume that his imagination and his gift for prose, which could rise above grammar and produce laughter, tears or terror at will, would emerge in a stream of words that called for little alteration.

In fact, Dickens agonized over his plots, suffered with his characters and knew black despair when ideas failed to come on his endless walks. During the composition of “A Christmas Carol,” he wept and laughed and one day walked 15 or 20 miles “about the black streets of London . . . when all the good folks had gone to bed.” Years later, when writing “Little Dorrit,” he described his usual agonies of creation: “I am in a hideous state of mind in which I walk down the stairs every five minutes, look out of the window once in two. . . . I am steeped in my story, and rise and fall by turns into enthusiasm and depression.”

These sudden doubts and elations, these sudden changes of mind, are reflected in the alterations and obliterations in his manuscripts. They show what he called “The story-weaver at his loom,” and he was able to write to one of his sons, “Look at such of my manuscripts as are in the library at [ Gads Hill, his country home ] and think of the patient hours devoted year after year to single lines.”

It’s sad to think that when all writers are equipped with word processors, future generations will never be able to discover the waves of pain, hesitation and changes of mind that go into every page of a great work of fiction.

As he set out to write A Christmas Carol, Dickens had been an enormously successful novelist since the publication of The Pickwick Papers seven years earlier. However, his most recent effort, Martin Chuzzlewit, which was being serialized, had not been quite as triumphant and he had exhausted himself writing it…

He was well off, yet he was perceptive and humane enough to denounce what so many of his contemporaries were blind to: England’s abandoned underclass, left to rot in filthy city slums and rural hovels, giving birth to children who had no education, no comfort or security and whose brightest hope lay in a life of crime.

Although Dickens wrote a hilarious analysis of ways of pleading for money in Our Mutual Friend, he responded generously to begging letters. He also took practical and energetic steps to deal with the problem of outcast children. In the year he wrote A Christmas Carol, the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission had been issued. It had inspired Elizabeth Barrett to write her poem “The Cry of Children”:

And well may the children weep before you
They are weary ‘ere they run;
They have never seen the sunshine or the glory
Which is brighter than the sun
They know the grief of man without his wisdom
They sink in man’s despair without its calm…

In the autumn of 1843, Dickens had visited Samuel Starey’s Field Lane Ragged School, which educated slum children. In letters now in the Morgan Library, he recommended it to a wealthy philanthropist, Burdett Coutts. In October 1843, he presided over at the first annual meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum, founded to bring culture and education to the “laboring classes.”

“Thousands of immortal creatures,” he told his audience, “are condemned . . . to tread, not what our great poet calls the ‘primrose path to the everlasting bonfire’ but over jagged flints and stones laid down by brutal ignorance.”

He contemplated writing a pamphlet to be called “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” Luckily, he changed his mind and channeled his anger into a Christmas story that would last forever. So Ebenezer Scrooge was forced to turn his reluctant eyes on the phantoms of Ignorance and Want, mankind’s children, “yellow, meagre, raged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate too in their humility.”

So Dickens faced a nation, calling itself Christian with a faith that told them the poor were blessed and that little children should come unto God. And he did so in a way that would be far more effective than any pamphlet.

Dickens didn’t always get good reviews, and in later years he avoided reading them in case they should destroy his confidence and cause him unnecessary pain. However, A Christmas Carol was greeted with universal acclaim. Thackeray, writing in Frasers Magazine, called it a “national benefit.” The Sunday Times called it “sublime,” and an American factory owner gave his workers an extra day’s holiday when he had finished reading it. Even Thomas Carlyle ordered a large turkey and was, his wife reported, “seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality and arranged two dinner parties.” Lord Jeffrey, founder of the Edinborough Review and a stern critic, wrote Dickens that the book “has done more good than a year’s work by all the pulpits and confessionals.”…

Sitting in the peace of the Morgan Library, turning those altered and rewritten pages, marveling at the work needed to make the author’s voice sound as though it were entirely improvised, I wondered how far we have really come in the century and a half since that endlessly active pen scratched its Christmas message.

All over the world poverty and ignorance are tolerated. Those great Western democracies, the United States and Britain, accept the existence of an abandoned underclass, unemployed, unwanted, uneducated, and ignored. In Russia, poor children live in garbage dumps. In Africa they starve. What we need is another Dickens, a novelist to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed.

And as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one! Merry Christmas to the faithful readers of Bookshelf; warmest wishes for a happy Holiday season and a healthy and happy New Year

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.

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The Inspiration for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol
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The Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2018

alex atkins bookshelf booksBack 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 2018, it has reached $39,094.93.

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, Bookshelf introduced the Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index in 2014 that would be far more interesting to 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 2018, the Atkins Bookshelf Christmas Price Index is $78,924 (shipping and tax are not included), a decrease of about 18% of the price index of 2017 ($95,683) — something that would be sure to deeply dismay that old 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 ($35,000, a decrease of $5,000 from last year). The second most expensive Christmas book, coming in at $12,000, 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’s A Christmas Carol. The biggest change in value was Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas that shrunk like the Grinch’s heart from $10,415 in 2017 to a mere $4,500 this year — a decrease of 57% — a bit of a let down for the festive folks in Whoville. Below are the individual costs of the books that make up the Atkins Bookshelf Christmas Price Index.

A Christmas Carol (1843) by Charles Dickens: $35,000
A Visit from St. Nicholas (included in Poems, 1844) by Clement C. Moore: $12,000
How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957) by Dr. Seuss: $4,500
A Christmas Memory (1966) by Truman Capote: $1,875
The Polar Express (1985) by Chris Van Allsburg: $2,500
The Nutcracker (1984 edition) by E. T. A. Hoffman: $1,250
Miracle on 34th Street (1947) by Valentine Davies: $875
The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) by L. Frank Baum: $11,385
The Greatest Gift (1944) by Philip Van Doren Stern: $8,800
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: $14

Total $78,924

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
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Words invented by Dickens
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Atkins Bookshelf Literary Christmas Price Index: 2017

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Gifts for Book Lovers in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book 2018

alex atkins bookshelf booksNothing screams holiday conspicuous consumption like the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book — filled with luxury items you can only dream about. Neiman Marcus first published its Christmas Book in 1926 for its best customers. This 16-page catalog featured an assortment of pricey and unique holiday gifts for those with discerning tastes and very deep pockets. Over the years, the size of the catalog has grown exponentially — as well as the price of the most over-the-top and one-of-a-kind holiday gifts featured in between its seductive covers. This year, the Neiman Marcus 2018 Christmas Book (92nd edition, if you’re counting) is 275 pages long and features more than 823 holiday gifts. You have to browse through a lot of merchandise to get to the really good stuff: The 2018 Fantasy Gift Section that begins on page 112; the copy reads: “Get ready to be wowed by the world’s most extraordinary and exclusive gifts.” The fantasy gift section includes a 74-foot Neiman Marcus Edition Serenity Solar Yacht ($7.1 million), a wonder and wellness voyage to India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives ($630,000), Tennis Majors Tours with Sloane Stephens ($555,000), an Ultimate Vice & Virtue Clubhouse ($250,000) — you get the idea. It’s as if the lyrics of Eartha Kitt’s holiday hit, Santa Baby, became a reality (Santa baby, I want a yacht and really that’s not a lot / Been an angel all year / Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight”) To be fair, the catalog does feature dozens of gifts under $250, since it correctly assumes that not every customer is a multi-millionaire of billionaire.

What makes this year’s catalog notable is that includes several unique — and, naturally, very expensive, gifts for the book lover in your life. And as every bibliophile knows, the hunt for the treasure is half the fun. Buried in the middle of the catalog, on page 42, you will find the listing for this amazing book, published by the legendary German publisher Taschen, that is literally [foregive me] the size of a coffee table (it measures 19.7 x 27.6 inches): “Photographer Thomas Laird traveled to the corners of Tibet for more than a decade to capture the land’s most spectacular Buddhist murals. The result: a monument to Tibet like no other. Each limited-edition large-format tome is numbered and signed by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama himself.” The book, Murals of Tibet, comes with its own custom book stand (designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect and humanitarian pioneer Shigeru Ban) to display this 50-pound book. Also included is a smaller illustrated scholarly companion book. The cost for this magnum opus? A cool $12,000. A pair of assistants to carry the book, place it onto the bookstand, and turn the massive pages is not included.

If the purchase of that magnificent book will break the bank, no worries — just turn to page 54. There you will find this listing for three very affordable (and remember that term is relative; remember, this is a Neiman Marcus catalog) books that can be purchased individually: “A trio that begs to be slipped under the tree, this impossibly chic collection of coffee-table books caters to the watch aficionado, the art lover, and the Ferrari buff, respectively. Enclosed in an aluminum display case designed by Marc Newson, the latter features hundreds of photos from Ferrari archives and private collectors.” The Impossible Collection of Rolex is priced at $845; The Impossible Collection of Art is $845; and Ferrari is a cool $6,000.

So if you have recently won the lotto, you can purchase the luxury yacht and all four books so that you will have some reading material for yourself and 11 guests, as you cruise the high seas in style. Otherwise, you will have to hope that you’ve been an angel all year, and Santa Baby will deliver the goods.

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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The Last Message You Receive from Someone Close To You

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe brilliant German writer and poet, Goethe, once observed “The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone who thinks and feels with us, and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.” As the parable in Genesis reveals, we are not meant to travel through the garden alone. One of the great marvels of life is when someone joins us at just the right time — to be able to share the joys of life or help carry a burden or simply be a shoulder to lean on. Whether it is the result of some divine intervention, fate, or coincidence — its impact can be profound and long-lasting. But if life teaches you anything it is this: just as quickly as someone walks into your life, they can leave (to paraphrase the famous Beatles song, “you say ‘Hello’; they say ‘Goodbye’) — and for a variety of reasons: illness, death, suicide, a breakup (friendship or relationship, a profound disagreement, an explosive fight, and so forth. It was this realization that served as an epiphany for Emily Trunko right before she turned 16. She sent out a call for submissions on Tumblr and published them on the blog, “The Last Message Received,” as well as a book of the same title.

Her efforts had a huge impact on her life as well as her readers. In the introduction to her book, Trunko writes: “[The Last Message] has helped bring closure to people who have had to deal with the sudden death of someone close to them, and it has shown suicidal people the shattering impact they actions would have on the the people they would leave behind. It has taught so many people to be more careful with the messages they send, and to remind others how much they care about other people in their lives while they still have the chance to tell them how they feel… I think this Tumblr has made those who read its submissions much more aware and caring.”

The messages and the emotions they evoke are very powerful, and sometimes very raw. They range from elation and hope to sorrow and despair. And some messages are amazingly kind, some are shockingly rude. Here are some excerpts from the book and the blog:

“You have so many personalities and I don’t like any of them.” [written to a person who is bipolar]

“Don’t worry yourself too much about me. I’ll be fine. I have to run, Babe. Only 9 more days.” [individual serving in Libya, two days prior to his convoy being attacked, to his partner; he died a few days later]

“I’m giving up on you.”

“You don’t have to be so fucking dramatic all the time.” [written by a best friend who cut ties with the other friend]

“I love you so much.” [written by best friend; he died two days later]

“Hey! U still wanna hang out?” [written by friend on the day he took his life]

“I’ll fix this.” [written by a boyfriend who left the relationship]

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: Best Poems for Funerals: When Great Trees Fall
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For further reading: The Last Message Received by Emily Trunko

The Thrill of Finding the Book You Weren’t Looking For

alex atkins bookshelf booksGabe Boyers is a professional violinist who, over time, developed a passionate interest in musicians’ autographs and rare printed material. He stumbles upon rare and valuable sheet music in all sorts of places: attics, garage sales, library sales, and of course, online. Boyers is always on the hunt: “It’s hard for me to pass a garage sale and not stop. And certainly a library sale. I assume that that’s the case for many if not most dealers. That thrill of finding something that you’re not looking for, or a diamond in the rough, is impossible to deny.” In the bibliophile world, that book that you find that you weren’t looking for has many names: sleeper, unknown unknown, novel novel, stumbling book, book hunter’s prize, or serendipitous discovery. Boyers shares such a discovery when he purchased an item on Ebay several years ago. The item was listed as “Old Music Book” selling for about $25. He took a chance and ordered it. When the package arrived, he opened it and couldn’t believe his good fortune: it was a first edition of a piano vocal score of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni published in Germany in 1791. And the value of that serendipitously discovered masterpiece? $20,000. Now that’s a remarkable return on investment worth singing about!

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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The Obscene Books that Oxford Librarians Hid for Centuries

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, founded in 1602, is a legal deposit library which means that it is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom — including what is considered obscene. At the height of the Victorian Era, the Obscene Publications Act was passed in 1857 which prohibits the distribution of obscene materials, defined as “[materials that] deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences.” Perhaps they were thinking of rebellious, inebriated, and horny college students. (But they clearly don’t understand college students — there is no greater encouragement for students to read particular literary works when they are classified as “obscene” and locked away. College students are amazingly resourceful — and they will find ways to get to the good stuff!) Nevertheless, any library that allowed individuals access to these books would incur serious legal consequences. Students who read these forbidden materials were warned that they would develop warts on their hands and go blind.

Accordingly the librarians at the Bodleian created the Phi collection (the Greek letter Phi was stamped on the spine of each book, although it is not clear why that particular letter was selected) for the obscene literary works they acquired. Up until 2010, students could not review, let alone check out, a book from the Phi collection unless they received prior permission from faculty and library staff (which means, in plain terms: rarely). There are currently about 3,000 titles in the Phi collection, ranging from scholarly or scientific studies of ancient cultures to novels that initially caused a scandal, that have never seen the light of day. By now you are wondering, “So, what did the library staff and the British bureaucrats consider absence?” Here are some of the titles that are included in the new exhibit at the Bodleian: Story of Phi: Restricted Books. The exhibit is curated by a Latin Professor Jennifer Ingleheart who commented, “The display invites visitors to consider the complexities behind what is currently in the Phi collection versus the hundreds of items that have been reclassified over the years, revealing how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.” You be the judge if this are really obscene:

The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

The Love Books of Ovid

The Pop-Up Kama Sutra by Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot

Phallic Objects & Remains: Illustrations of the Rise and Development of the Phallic Idea by Hargrave Jennings

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Satyra Sotadic, a 17th century work of European pornography, by Luisa Siegea de Velasco

Sex by Madonna

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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The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Catalog: Dec 2018

An antiquarian bookseller’s catalog is a bibliophile’s dream of a museum between two covers. Open any catalog, and you will find literary treasures — valuable first editions, rare inscribed copies, manuscripts, letters, screenplays, and author portraits — from some of the most famous authors in the world.

Jarndyce Antiquarian Bookseller, established in London England in 1969, specializes in 18-19th century English literature and history. The location of the bookshop, 46 Great Russell Street, was the former home and office of the famous book illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), for whom the children’s picture book award is named. Prior to that, the building was home to Luzac & Co., a bookshop that was founded in the early 18th century and moved to London in 1890. Over the years, Jarndyce has published more than 200 catalogues. Bibliophiles salivate as they browse through their catalogs, filled with fascinating and valuable literary treasures. Here are some highlights from their most recent catalog, Catalogue Number 234 (Winter 2018-19):

The Novels of Jane Austen (1892), 10 volumes, edited by Reginald Johnson: $3,550

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1870), first Tauchnitz edition: $825

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1894), first edition with illustrations by Hugh Thomson: $2,284

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853), 3 volumes, first edition: $3,172

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1867), early edition purchased from Lewis’ library: $1,840

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (1904), first edition: $825

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1867), early American edition by T. B. Peterson & Brothers: $380

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872), 4 volumes, copyright edition: $1,903

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1896), first edition: $635

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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