Category Archives: Literature

Why Writers Write: Da Chen

alex atkins bookshelf literature“Growing up poor in China during the seventies, I would do anything for a good meal, but I would do even more for a book. Books were a luxury that we often had to hand-copy. Ironic that I should love to read in the book desert China was then. I wanted to read because I was a storyteller even as a little lad,” writes Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain and Sounds of the River. He recounts how a small bookstore, inside a hut, opened up on the outskirts of his village. It cost one fen to rent a book — an amount that his family, living in poverty, could not afford. So Chen and his friends became resourceful, selling whatever items they could find around the village and looking for lost change, to be able to rent books. One of Chen’s favorite books was The Count of Monte Cristo. Sadly a Communist party member torched the bookstore reduced all those literary treasures into a heap of dust. “The party secretary took the books away from us,” writes Chen, “but not the seeds those fine seeds had sown. The deprivation didn’t stop our thirst for books, it only heightened it. Whenever there was a book in circulation among the villagers, we would rip it apart and hand-copy each chapter, and within days a new book would exist.” Years later after earning a law degree from Columbia University and working at an investment bank, Chen reflected back on his childhood and felt compelled to write about his childhood, his “childhood of deprivation.” “One of my silent dreams was to write books so no one could take them away from me,” he shares.

Chen concludes: “Writers write for various reasons. I write because my heart demands so. There is so much freedom in the simple act of sitting there, holding up my hands, waiting to pound on the computer keyboard, waiting for words to pour from the tips of my fingers and compose the melody of life from the faded tapestry of my past. That craving for freedom came from a deep princedom in my childhood, where a book was gold and a dream was but to hold it in your lap on a dreary Saturday afternoon, in that forgotten village far away, near the end of this earth.”

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For further Reading: The Book That Changed My Life edited by Roxanne Coady and Joy Johannessen

World of Allusions: Moby Dick

alex atkins bookshelf words“All of us run into (and sometimes use) [allusions], these sideways references that are intended to add color and vigor to language. But they are lost on us if we have forgotten or never knew what they mean,” writes Elizabeth Webber, co-editor of the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions. So that invites the question, when one encounters an allusion in a publication or book, where do we look it up? Most dictionaries, of course, only provide very precise definitions of discrete words, excluding phrases and allusions. Enter the Dictionary of Allusions, which is an absolutely incredible reference work; Webber describes it as “a collection of those tricky allusions that appear without accompanying explanations in our daily reading… The terms come from literature, sports, mythology, Wall Street, history, headlines, Shakespeare, politics, science, standup comics and Sunday comics, and venues from the locker room to the board room.” Today we will turn our attention to the allusion “Moby Dick.”

Many will recognize the title of Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby-Dick, considered the Great American Novel, published in 1851. And they may be familiar with its basic plot, told by Ishmael, the sole survivor of the voyage aboard the whaling ship the Pequod: Captain Ahab obsessively pursues the great white whale, Moby-Dick, seeking revenge for the whale that took his leg many years before. In the novel, Moby-Dick functions as a symbol on many levels: cetological, religious, philosophical, ontological, epistemological — to name a few. Similarly, as an allusion, Moby Dick refers to one of several general meanings: the incarnation of evil, an obsessive, perhaps impossible quest (that may result in the pursuer’s death), a representation of God (hidden, mysterious, unknowable, inscrutable), and finally, a representation of unknowable truth or reality.

Now you understand why Moby-Dick is a whale of a tale…

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How Blindness Shaped a Famous Author’s Career

alex atkins bookshelf literatureHe was born into a prominent highly-educated British family. His father was a writer and schoolmaster; his mother, a founder of a school, was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold; his grandfather was a well-known biologist and passionate advocate of evolution. But this young man wanted to be a medical doctor. His life changed dramatically when he turned 17. He contracted keratitis punctata, a painful condition where the eye’s cornea becomes inflamed and leads to temporary or permanent blindness. In the case of this person, the condition left him completely blind for two to three years. His brother wrote: “I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking medicine as a career… His uniqueness lay in his universalism, he was able to take all knowledge for his province.” As the author later explained in an interview: “I started writing when I was 17, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it.” He did learn braille in order to read. Fortunately, over time by using a magnifying glass and eye exercises, he was able to regain most of his eyesight in the left eye. (He wrote about this process in his book, The Art of Seeing, published in 1942). He went on to study English literature in college, edit the poetry magazine, and graduate with honors.

So who is this remarkable young man? His name is Aldous Huxley, one of the most successful writers and social satirists of the 20th century. He wrote several novels, Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, Point Counter Point, but it is his fifth novel that is the most recognized: Brave New World, published in 1928. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s to become a successful screenwriter, writing screenplays for Madame Curie, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In 1952, Huxley spoke to a crowd at a Hollywood banquet. Editor Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, recounts the author’s ordeal: “[Huxley was] wearing no glasses and apparently reading his paper from the lectern without difficult. Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn’t reading his address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn’t read it, and had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket to make the typing visible to him. It was an agonizing moment.”

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For further reading:

Profile of a Book Lover: Bruce Kahn

alex atkins bookshelf booksBruce Kahn, an attorney in Michigan who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, began collecting books when he was a teenager in the 1950s. He began with collecting comic books and then focused on science fiction first editions. What makes his collection of modern first editions so remarkable is that be purchased books that were in great condition and had them signed or inscribed by their authors. And like many collectors, once he built a library of science fiction first editions that he felt was complete, he sold it in the mid-1980s, so that he could focus on building a new collection. Longtime bookseller Ken Lopez, who is selling a portion of Kahn’s library, continues his story:

“[Beginning in the 1980s, Kahn] started collecting ‘mainstream’ modern literature, along with modern mystery and detective fiction. It was a good time to begin such a collection: fine copies of some of the keynote titles of the postwar era were scarce but were nonetheless much more readily available than they are now, nearly a quarter century later. Beautiful copies of such books as To Kill a Mockingbird, On The Road, and The Catcher in the Rye could be had if one were patient and persistent, and Bruce Kahn was both.

He collected in the style of the old-time book collectors — that is, he collected authors in depth, pursuing all their published titles, variant editions such as proofs, advance copies, and broadsides, and in many cases U.K. editions as well as U.S. ones. As a result, the author collections themselves end up being bibliographically significant, especially for those authors for whom there is not yet an ‘official’ or definitive bibliography…

We are issuing this catalog (Catalog 150: The Bruce Kahn Collection, 2009) at a moment when our economy has experienced the most dramatic turmoil in decades. However, it may prove opportune to remember, as one of my colleagues recently wrote me, that the books and literature that ‘we deal in will endure, and contains the seeds of knowledge and spiritual nourishment.’ It is the understandingof this value — of what underlies monetary value — that can and should reassure us: these books are an important partof our cultural makeup and our intellectual and moral heritage. That is and will remain true. After economic hard times have passed, these will still be the books that have shaped our society’s evolution; in that respect their value will remain unchanged, and they will still be among the important works of literature of the 20th century. If books are still collected — and there is little doubt they will be — the books of the Bruce Kahn collection will still be among the most desirable copies of the most important titles of our time.”

Here are some of the highlights from the Bruce Kahn Collection:

The Hamlet by William Faulkner (1940): $13,500

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961): $12,500

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940): $12,500

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932): $15,000

On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957): $25,000

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962): $25,000

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (1948): $10,000

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951): $25,000

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (1935): $15,000

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How Reading Makes You Smarter

atkins-bookshelf-booksA few years ago, the Pew Research Center published a report on the reading habits of Americans. The study focused on how often adults (aged 18 and older) read print books, audiobooks, and e-books. Unfortunately the results were not promising: the number of people who are not reading any books has tripled in the past three decades. Specifically in 1978, 8% of American did not read a book within the past year. In 2002 that number jumped up to 18%; and in 2014 that number increased to 23%. What those individuals don’t know, and dedicated readers do know (at least intuitively), is that reading makes you smarter and has several beneficial effects on the brain. Here are seven ways that reading makes you smarter:

1. Reading encourages empathy. Studies indicate that reading literary fiction increases empathy and sympathy as readers respond to the struggles of a protagonist. Reading allows the reader to step into the life of the protagonist and imagine what it would be like to have those experiences.

2. Reading poetry encourages deep self-reflection. Studies show that reading poetry activates areas of the brain that are associated with introspection and autobiographical memory.

3. Reading improves memory. Reading activates the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In one study, readers read simple descriptive phrases (like “dark blue carpet”) while placed in an MRI machine. The MRI indicated that these simple phrases were enough to activate the hippocampus. Using fewer words encourages readers to use their imagination to “fill in the blanks” and create a virtual scene or world.

4. Reading improves decision-making and emotional processing. Researchers have found that reading activates key parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex, lateral temporal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobe. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved with decision-making and memory recall. The lateral temporal cortex is responsible for emotional association and visual memory. The posterior cingulate cortex is involved with episodic memory recall. And finally, the inferior parietal lobe is responsible for understanding emotions and interpreting sensory data.

5. Reading improves your verbal skills and vocabulary. Studies show that there is a direct correlation between verbal skills and reading. As most readers know, reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary by looking up new words you encounter. The more you read, the greater your working vocabulary will be. Reading also helps discover new ways of describing situations, feelings, and places as well as creating images in the mind’s eye.

6. Reading strengthens the mind. The brain is not a muscle, of course, but studies suggests that mind-building (mental exercise) is analogous to body-building. In another MRI study, researchers found that brain retains activity for as long as five days after reading a book. MRI of subjects revealed increased activity in the left angular and supra marginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri areas of the brain that are associated with comprehension.

7. Reading helps slow down mental aging. Studies show that reading improves memory and sentence processing in older adults. The steady exposure to literary ingredients that encourage imagination (eg, metaphors, imagery, abstract ideas, etc), the brain gets mental exercise, remaining active and healthy.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up a book and start getting smarter.

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For further reading:

How Many Hamlets Are There in the World?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsHow many Hamlets are there in the world with intellectual power for large usefulness, who wait day by day and year by year in hope to do more perfectly what they live to do: die, therefore, and leave their lives unused, while men of lower power, prompt for action, are content and ready to do what they can, well knowing that at the best they can only rough-hew, but in humble trust that leaves to God the issues of the little service that they bring. It is a last touch to the significance of this whole play that at its close the man whose fault is the reverse of Hamlet’s — the man of ready action, though it be with little thought, the stir of whose energies was felt in the opening scene — re-enters from his victory over [Poland], and the curtain falls on Fortinbras, King.

From the introduction to Hamlet (Cassell’s National Library Edition, 1899) by Henry Morley (1822-1894), one of Great Britain’s earliest professors of English literature. Morley contrasts Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters whose tragic flaw is his indecisiveness, his inability to act (specifically, to avenge his father’s death) with Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince who is a warrior (he leads an army to attack Poland), a true man of action. As you may recall, at the conclusion of the play, Fortinbras is crowned King and, after hearing the tragic story of Prince Hamlet, orders that he be given a funeral befitting of a soldier. But the key point that Morley is asking is: what use is critical thinking by intelligent individuals without action, without contribution? A question that is so relevant to the many problems we face in modern times.

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There’s a Word for That: Euphuism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt’s one of those words that evokes a double-take: did you say euphemism or euphuism? Is euphuism even a word? Yes – despite spellcheck’s very annoying tendency to autocorrect to “euphemism” euphuism is a seldomly used word that means a very elaborate or roundabout way of speaking or writing. Consider it a fancier way of saying overly wordy.

It’s a fascinating word when you examine its etymology. The word is an eponym (a noun formed after a person), named after the main character from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a romance published in 1578 by English writer and playwright John Lyly. That book was followed by a sequel, Euphues and His England published a year later. There is a specific reason that Lyly chose the name Euphues — it is based on the Greek word euphues, meaning “well-endowed by nature,” which in turn is derived from eu (meaning “well”) and phue (meaning “growth”).

Before prurient adolescent minds get carried away by the word “well-endowed” realize that 16th century writers did not mean its modern slang meaning (“having a large penis” — there, I said it; get over it). Rather, it meant that an individual had many talents. In the case of our friend Euphues, here is a character who didn’t act in porn films due to the aforementioned distinct anatomical feature; instead, he was able to speak in very long, ornate sentences. His speech was also distinctive in that he often spoke in sentences with parallel structure. Here are two examples:

“It is virtue, yea virtue, gentlemen, that maketh gentlemen; that maketh the poor rich, the base-born noble, the subject a sovereign, the deformed beautiful, the sick whole, the weak strong, the most miserable most happy. There are two principal and peculiar gifts in the nature of man, knowledge and reason; the one commandeth, and the other obeyeth: these things neither the whirling wheel of fortune can change, neither the deceitful cavillings of worldlings separate, neither sickness abate, neither age abolish.”

“A sharp sore hath a short cure.”

While most modern readers are quite unfamiliar with Lyly, almost everyone has encountered him — but they just didn’t know it. How is that possible? Lyly was an influence on the greatest dramatist in the English language: William Shakespeare. Shakespearean scholars believe that the Bard not only read Lyly, who was the source of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but also satirized him in the ornate, fancy speeches of Beatrice and Benedick (yet again, another penis reference) in Much Ado About Nothing, the lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Polonius in the Tragedy of Prince Hamlet. So there.

Related terms are circumlocution, periphrasis, grandiloquence, purple prose, wordy, and sesquipedalian.

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