Category Archives: Education

The Library as Open Door to Wonder and Achievement

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsI received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.

From I. Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), prolific science fiction writer (he wrote more than 506 books and more than 90,000 letters during his lifetime), best known for his Foundation, Galactic Empire, and Robot series of novels.

Ten Tips for Writing Clearly

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn his recently published book, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, legendary British author and editor Sir Harold Evans argues that clarity and concision are the greatest virtues of a writer. And he should know — he has impeccable credentials. Not only did he write two best-selling history books, The American Century and They Made America, Evans was also the editor of many highly respected publications, like the Sunday Times, US News and World Report, The Week, Conde Nast Traveler, the New York Daily News, The Atlantic Monthly, and Reuters. And if that wasn’t enough, he was also president and publisher of Random House for several years. Based on seven decades of experience, Evans presents a chapter entitled “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear.” “[Keep] ten shortcuts [with all due respect, perhaps “tips” or “rules” would be more appropriate here] in mind when you write and edit,” Evans advises, “[the ten tips] are mainly intended to help a writer convert meaning, and stages of meaning; help an editor engage with piles of dross to produce concise, direct English any reasonably literate person can understand; and help a reader unravel spaghetti… I weighted the ten injections for conciseness and clarity, rather than literary effect, because windiness is the prevailing affliction.” Here are the first seven tips or rules:

1. Get moving: avoid passive voice; cast sentences in the active voice.

2. Be specific: eschew abstract words in favor of specific words.

3. Ration adjectives, raze adverbs: ask yourself: is the adjective really necessary to define the subject of the sentence? Does the adverb really enhance the verb or adjective?

4. Cut the fat, check the figures: avoid verbosity; write as concisely as possible.

5. Organize for clarity: use parallel structure to put things that belong together.

6. Be positive: write assertive sentences; even a negative should be expressed in a positive form.

7. Don’t be a bore: eschew monotony by implementing different sentence structures.

Best Writing Advice from Famous Writers
The Best Advice for Writers
Best Advice for Writers: P.D. James
Best Books for Writers

For further reading: Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, by Harold Evans 

The Importance of Reading

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhen we read we get to step into the shoes of another human being. In that journey of a mile — or perhaps hundreds of miles if you consider the great epics — comes greater understanding, empathy, and the humility that comes from the realization that you don’t know everything (and you shouldn’t have to; besides no one likes a no-it-all). In short, we read to understand ourselves and our fellow man in the hope that we can become better human beings. But don’t take my word for it, here are some of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers on the importance of reading:

Socrates: Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writing so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.

Aldous Huxley: Every man who knows who to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, and interesting.

T.S. Eliot: Someone once said, “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

Henry David Thoreau: A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint… What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.

William Ellery Channing: It is chiefly through books that we enjoy the intercourse with superior minds… In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their soul into ours. God be thanked for books.

William Faulkner: [Man] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Emily Dickinson:
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

Read related posts:
The Poem I Turn To
Great Literature Speaks

William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
What is Your Legacy?

The Power of Literature
Universal Human Values
The Poem I Turn To
Why Read Dickens?
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
Why Reading is Critical to the Writer
Is Reading Essential for Success?
The Books that Most People Begin Reading but Don’t Finish

For further reading: The Delights of Reading by Otto Bettmann

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

alex atkins bookshelf educationChimamanda Negozi Adichie (born 1977) is a novelist and short story writer, born in Enugu, Nigeria. She is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant (2008). She is best known for her first novel, Puple Hibiscus, published in 2006. Her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” (October 2009), about the underrepresentation of cultural differences, is one of the top ten most viewed TED Talks of all time.

Below is an excerpt from her commencement speech to Kalamazoo College (Kalamazoo, Michigan) in 2009:

I’ve noticed that people who give commencement addresses are usually people who are supposed to have it all figured out. I’m afraid I haven’t. And so instead of giving you the secret formula to a perfect life – which I really wish I had because I certainly need it myself – I’d like to end with some random suggestions I have accumulated at the grand age of almost 32.

Suggestion 1: Please think about what you want to value.
Now, money is of course very important and can change the world for the better, but now that you have that diploma, think about creating a society, an organization, a company that values the things that you want to value rather than the things that you are supposed to value.

Suggestion 2: Read books.
Books are still the best ways to truly come close to understanding complexity in our very complex world. When we read… we become alive in bodies not our own. It seems to me that we live in a world where is has become increasingly important to try and live in bodies not our own, to embrace empathy, to constantly be reminded that we share, with everybody in every part of the world, a common and equal humanity.

Suggestion 3: Please remember that there is never a single story about anything.
Please try as much as you can to have as many stories about the world as you can.

Suggestion 4: Please think about how little you know.
Leave room in your mind to revise opinions, to avoid smugness… I hope that your diploma will remind you of what you still don’t know.

Suggestion 5: Please leave room for hope and for fear.
I’ve often imagined that fiction and faith are very alike – faith in God, faith in humanism, faith in the power of goodness. To write fiction is to jump into this journey not knowing where it will end but wanting to go on the journey anyway. To write fiction is to start a long walk knowing you will trip and fall down but still keen to take the walk… It seems to me that this is not a bad way to look at the rest of your life. You will trip many times. Don’t be surprised when you fall. Maybe even lounge in the dirt for a little while. And then, get up!

Congratulations again. I wish you a life filled with meaning and with laughter. Thank you.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Wear Sunscreen Commencement Speech
Best Books for Graduates
Best Books for Graduates 2015

Wisdom of a Grandmother
Wisdom of Tom Shadyac
Wisdom of Morrie Schwartz

For further reading: The World Is Waiting For You by Tara Grove and Isable Ostrer

The Power of Literature: A Tribute to a Remarkable Teacher

alex atkins bookshelf literatureBookshelf dedicates this post to Tom A., a brilliant, inspiring English teacher at a Jesuit college prep, who shuffled off his mortal coil this morning after suffering a heart attack. He had a profound impact on my life, fostering a lifelong passion for literature and cinema as windows into humanity and the world. Tom was a giant among teachers, representing the apotheosis of academia: unwavering passion, insatiable curiosity, brilliant insights, genuine warmth, and dazzling wit. For many students, he was not only a teacher, but he was a deeply nurturing and caring paternal figure, a mentor, and an incredible friend who gently nudged you to be a better student and a better human being. He was one of the most engaging, thought-provoking conversationalists — weaving threads from great works of literature, poetry, theatre, and cinema from the past and present into a fascinating tapestry of ideas. You know — “big picture” stuff. My personal library of more than 7,000 books is a homage to the intellectual journey begun so many years ago in his classroom.

This afternoon, I visited the campus to pay tribute to him. As I walked around the empty campus, I played the tape inside my head to listen to some of the conversations that I we had over the past 40 years. (Coincidentally, he and I had just visited with one another three days ago, at a funeral mass for a Jesuit priest who was my first English teacher.)  I felt a wave of sadness wash over me, realizing that his voice will never be heard again in these classrooms, these hallways. As I walked past one of the classrooms where he taught the Faulkner Seminar, a slight breeze picked up; colorful leaves danced before me and the warmth of the sun caressed my tear-soaked face. In an instant, I felt so grateful as I embraced the realization that although Tom is now gone, he lives inside me and so many students, across several generations, whose lives were inspired by his guidance and wisdom. Indeed, the work we do each day not only carries on his work, but honors a great man, a great teacher. This blog post, “The Power of Literature,” is dedicated to Tom. I will never forget you.

As an aside, if you have had a great teacher in your life — please reach out to them and thank them. Let them know what they meant to you. It will mean the world to them.

Inside stories lies transformational power,
Power that moves the invisible us,
Power that stirs our emotions,
To experience the experiences of others;
Stories allow us to imagine and live momentarily the lives of others.
And thereafter set a different course and perspective for the life we seek to live.
   Emmanuel Reed Manirakiza (c.1993-2012) in a speech to the
African Leadership Academy held in South Africa in September of 2010.

This is an insightful and profound testimony about the power of literature, why literature endures, and why we read. But what makes these words so memorable and compelling is that they were not written by an academic, an accomplished author or playwright, but by a young man, a Rwandan refugee, who experienced first-hand the darkest side of humanity, seething with intolerance, hatred, and cruelty. Through an unlikely conjunction of events, perseverance and faith, Emmanuel managed to escape its evil clutches. As a young boy (6 years old) he witnessed the vicious slaughter of his extended family — his aunts, uncles, cousins; his father was stoned to death and he lost his mother and sister to cholera. For years, they lived as feral children, foraging for food in the Congo, the weeks and months punctuated by a seemingly endless cycle of fleeing and hiding until the war ended in 2001.

Fortunately for Emmanuel, an Anglican bishop took an interest in him and placed him at Sonrise School, founded for orphans of the genocide, and it was there that this frightened but tenacious boy (now age 9) blossomed as a student, a provider (earning money to support his sisters), as a community leader (helping others develop a trade, tutoring, mentoring), as a writer (writing for a newspaper and public performances of his poetry), and as an English teacher. Emmanuel’s scarred skin and the bullet fragments lodged in his calf were a constant reminder of the brutality that helped forge his character: “Perhaps because I was old enough to distinguish a boil scar from a bullet scar. It is also these haunting memories that remind me time and again that I have a responsibility to fight against evil and divisionism. Such ideology caused terror and brought tragedy that ruined my life and fellow Rwandan citizens’ life. It cannot be repeated.”

Despite the world he was born into, Emmanuel never considered himself a helpless victim. Quite the opposite, he was graced with a maturity and self-awareness to discover the one inescapable truth in life that separates achievement and failure, hope and despair, life and death: in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, “we are our choices.” Emmanuel lived by a motto: “tough times make tough minds”; however even a brave, determined, and resilient young boy had moments of doubt — but he persevered because he believed in himself and his choices. In his diary, during some of the darkest days of his life, he records his struggles with the turmoil that exists in his world and within his soul: “Emmanuel, do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of justifying why you can’t climb the ladder of success. You owe no one an explanation why you will not achieve your goals. Your success or failure in life largely depends on you and what you are doing with life today but not what life had done to you in the past. Though you’re to look for God and others for comfort and instructions, you alone are responsible for your choices and you hold the key to your future. Do not let the world define how far you can travel and how much you can achieve. The speed by which you run is set by the speedometer of your mind.” With the kind help of teachers and mentors, Emmanuel allowed the wisdom and insights of literature into his heart and into his life, a glimpse of the vast canvas of life and humanity not obscured by the shadows at its edges.

Tragically, Emmanuel life’s was cut short by a swimming accident; he drowned on July 15, 2012 in Kigali. He had just learned how to swim and enjoyed it immensely.

Knowing something about this remarkable young man, and rereading his words about literatures’s transformational power, one cannot help but feel humbled by the teachings of an extraordinary human being who severed the shackles of his past, to crawl through the pitch-black night of evil and hatred to reach daybreak, filled with the light of love and kindness. How extraordinary that he was able to look past man at his worst, transcend his suffering and sacrifice, and use the lens of literature to see man at his best; to renounce hatred and intolerance and have the courage to live and love with an open heart. Despite all the violence and brutality that he experienced, Emmanuel believed in the intrinsic goodness of man. And for all that was taken from him, he gave back so generously, so selflessly. Indeed, Emmanuel’s story is a powerful reminder that stories can heal and transform — and here’s the rub — if we let them.

The world will never know how much more Emmanuel could have contributed to the world; however this much is clear: his words (thanks to Andrew Powell’s blog) will continue to resonate, illuminate and inspire us to live our lives more authentically, more courageously, more responsibly, more generously. He challenges us to battle hatred and intolerance, and use our talents and skills to contribute to the world to help — and not hurt — one another. And it is important to share and reflect on this story; by doing so we honor him, his family, his teachers and mentors, and what he believed in. Like all great stories, Emmanuel’s story is fragile — it must be treasured, it must be remembered, and preserved so that it may speak to future generations. Emmanuel came to appreciate what any student of literature knows: that when we stop reading and sharing, when we stop reflecting and learning from these stories we will forget where we came from and who we really are; we sever the delicate thread that binds all of mankind.

One has to wonder: why was Emmanuel taken so early? Perhaps he was too pure, too innocent, too good for this world. His time, however short, was full of purpose and meaning; he touched so many lives so deeply, bringing illumination through his good nature, acts of kindness, and mature wisdom. Divine Providence must have looked upon this angelic child — who had suffered enough, sacrificed enough, and given enough — and knew that it was time for him to slip the surly bonds of earth to return to his eternal home, to be reunited with his family, leaving behind the struggle and the strife of human existence.

Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
Universal Human Values
The Poem I Turn To
Why Read Dickens?

The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

What Becomes of High School Valedictorians?

alex atkins bookshelf educationMost every high school student dreams of being the valedictorian of his or her class. To the adolescent mind, it is the equivalent on winning the Oscar and the obligatory acceptance speech (OMG! the whole world is watching!) The long held assumption is that the valedictorian represents the best of the best students, speaking on behalf of the entire graduating class. The valedictorian is supposed to dazzle the audiences with his or her brilliance, insights, and aspirations for the future. What will members of the class accomplish? How will they make an impact on the world? But if you have sat on those uncomfortable metal chairs, under the hot sun, and listened to enough of these speeches, have you ever wondered what really became of those eloquent valedictorian so full of hope and promise?

That question inspired Karen Arnold, an associate professor at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College, to find out. She tracked 81 high school valedictorians from graduation and beyond to see what they accomplished. So what did she learn? Arnold found that although valedictorians were academically successful, they did not blaze any new trails to change or run the world. The majority of valedictorians went to college (95%), maintained a respectable GPA in college (average 3.6), and 60% went on to graduate school, and then they settle into rather ordinary, comfortable jobs. Arnold elaborates: “Even though most are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of former high school valedictorians do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas… Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries… they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” [emphasis added] So what is the explanation for this rather counterintuitive situation?

Arnold believes there are two reasons why valedictorians don’t become true innovators or disruptors in the real world. First, valedictorians are not necessarily smart, but they are hard-working, pragmatic, and have a higher tendency to conform. Think of the opposite of Herman Melville’s famous scrivener, Bartleby. Arnold adds “Essentially, [schools] are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system.” Not surprisingly, the subjects in the studies considered themselves “careerists,” that is to say, more interested in earning good grades rather than actually learning. Warning — tiger parents may not want to read beyond this point. It is also important to note that academic grades do not necessarily reflect intelligence, but rather self-discipline, conscientiousness, and compliance with rules. Shawn Achor, a professor of psychology at Harvard and an expert on positive psychology, demonstrated that college grades do not predict success after college any better than the roll of the dice. Measuring income as a metric for success, he found that over 700 millionaires in America only achieved an average college GPA of 2.9. Who says C+ work doesn’t get rewarded? Try justifying that to tiger parents when they are spending a quarter of a million dollars on your undergrad education! Incidentally, Achor believes that the conventional wisdom (“work hard to be successful, and when you are successful, you will find happiness”) is completely wrong — happiness fuels success, not the other way around.

The second reason that most valedictorians don’t rise to the top of the real world, is that they are generalists — they are not necessarily passionate or experts about one specific topic. Arnold elaborates: “They’re extremely well rounded and successful, personally and professionally, but they’ve never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence.” Being a generalist has its rewards, of course; however it does not necessarily lead to expertise — something that is highly rewarded in the real world — and the exact opposite of what is rewarded in high school.

Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly Wrong) concludes that conformists and generalists cannot live up to the assumed lofty expectations of a valedictorian. In short, the belief that the valedictorian will be the most successful person of his class is simply a myth. In fact, most likely, the valedictorian will struggle without the rules and structure of the academe. Barker writes: “School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down… Following the rules doesn’t create success; it just eliminates extremes — both good and bad. While this is usually good and all but eliminates downside risk, it also frequently eliminates earthshaking accomplishments. It’s like putting a governor on your engine that stops the car from going over fifty-five; you’re far less likely to get into a lethal crash, but you won’t be setting any land speed records either.”

So if you are in high school and were not selected to be a valedictorian, take a deep breath, relax. Everything will be fine. Understand that a valedictorian is not a euphemism for “most likely to succeed” but rather “most likely to conform and settle into a quiet life.” And it doesn’t hurt to have the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds (AKA as the theme song to Weeds on Showtime) playing in the background. Rejoice in your “nonvaledictorianess;” proclaim to yourself — and your parents — “be hopeful; the real success is yet to come… “

For further reading: Is Reading Essential for
Books Recommended by Successful People
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books That Shaped America
The Books that Influence Us
What to Read Next

For further reading: Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly Wrong) by Eric Barker
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor

Is Reading Essential for Success?

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn a recent interview for Time magazine, Bill Gates was asked “Do you think reading has been essential to your success, and is it to others?” Gates responded: “Absolutely. You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning. Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read. Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career and in the world that I do now with my foundation.”

Read related posts: Why Reading is Critical to the Writer
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
The Books that Most People Begin Reading but Don’t Finish

For further reading: Time magazine, June 5, 2017 issue.

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