Category Archives: Literature

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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Read related posts: Jefferson and Adams Die on Same Day
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For further reading: https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefflib.html
https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2018/07/03/thomas-jefferson-shakespeare/
https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/languages-jefferson-spoke-or-read


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.”

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The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2019

catkins-bookshelf-literatureThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), established in 1982 by English Professor Scott Rice at San Jose State University, recognizes the worst opening sentence (also known as an “incipit”) for a novel. The name of the quasi-literary contest honors Edward George Bulwer Lytton, author of a very obscure 1830 Victorian novel, Paul Clifford, with a very famous opening sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Each year, contest receives more than 10,000 entries from all over the world — proving that there is no shortage of wretched writers vying for acclaim. The contest now has several subcategories, including adventure, crime, romance, and detective fiction. The winner gets bragging rights for writing the worst sentence of the year and a modest financial award of $150 — presumably for writing lessons.

The winner of the 2018 BLFC was Maxwell Archer of Mt. Pleasant, Ontario:
Space Fleet Commander Brad Brad sat in silence, surrounded by a slowly dissipating cloud of smoke, maintaining the same forlorn frown that had been fixed upon his face since he’d accidentally destroyed the phenomenon known as time, thirteen inches ago.

The runner up was submitted by Robert Moore of North Falmouth, Massachusetts:
Emile Zola wondered the dank and soggy streets of a gloomy Parisian night, the injustice of the Dreyfus affair weighing on him like a thousand baguettes, dreaming of some massage or therapy to relieve the tension and pain in his aching shoulders and back, and then suddenly he thought of his Italian friends and their newly invented warm water bath with air jets and he rapturously exclaimed that oft misquoted declaration — “Jacuzzi!”

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Jeremy Das of Loughborough, England:
Realizing that his symptoms indicated a virtually undetectable, fast acting neurotoxin, CIA coroner Quinn Abner frantically wrote up the details, lay on the floor and, as a professional courtesy, did his best to draw a chalk outline of himself.

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Bart King of Portland, Oregon:
After purchasing an oval Chinese frying pan at the diminutive British aristocrat’s yard sale, Nigel realized that he’d just taken a long wok off a short Peer.

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For futher reading: https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/2019
Dark and Stormy Rides Again by Scott Rice, Penguin Books (1996)


Prefaces to Famous Novels: Les Misérables

alex atkins bookshelf literature“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

From the preface to Les Miserables (“The Miserable Ones”), published in 1862, by French novelist and poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885). The novel, one of the longest written (containing 655,478 words), is considered by many literary critics to be one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Although the central story concerns ex-convict Jean Valjean’s difficult path to self-redemption while relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert, the novel explores many important themes; Hugo elaborates: “The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.” Literary critic and novelist Italo Calvino once wrote that a classic book is one “that has never finished saying what it has to say. And Les Misérables is such a timeless classic — it has been adapted more than 100 times for film, television, radio, and theatre. Hugo expressed the novel’s timelessness this way: “Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you.'”

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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: http://mentalfloss.com/article/83243/10-dystopian-facts-about-aldous-huxley
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldous_Huxley


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