Category Archives: Literature

Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening lines to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse that has devastated the working class — and now, riots triggered by systemic racial oppression and police brutality with impunity? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the initial stanza of T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The poem is considered one of the first modernist poems, using no consistent rhyme scheme and utilizing mouth traditional and innovative poetic techniques. Eliot’s use of imagery and diction is absolutely masterful. And of course, since this is an Eliot poem, there are many literary allusions, including the works of Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. The poem begins with a dramatic monologue by our narrator, J. Alfred Prufrock, a complex middle-aged modern man: neurotic, frustrated, emasculated, alienated, weary, and suffering from Hamlet’s analysis paralysis (I could go on!). He invites us to walk through seedy, half-deserted, confusing streets, representing the chaotic state of the world. This is juxtaposed by a short stanza where high society woman come and go, discussing the arts, indifferent to the decay around them. Although there are many important messages in this brilliant poem, the main theme highlights man’s fragile, tormented psychological state as he muddles through the destructive forces of the modern world  — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

Let us go then, you and I,
When tear gas and flash grenades are spread out against the sky
Like a zip-tied protestor pushed onto the pavement by bended knee
Let us go, through scorched streets littered with shattered glass
The angry mobs shouting in retreat
Of restless nights captives in homes, sheltered-in-place
And half-empty restaurants with their tables spaced apart
Streets that follow like a belligerent Trumpian tweet
Of insidious, despotic intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
Oh, do not ask, “What the fuck is happening to America?”
Stop your whining, put on your coronavirus face mask, and let’s make a visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking about Covid-19 and Chauvin

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Read related posts: Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Cities
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Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: The Trial

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial. The novel begins by introducing us to K., the ambitious Chief of a bank who wakes one day to find himself arrested. But why and by whom? It is never clear. Ultimately K. is helpless against the Law and the elusive and powerful Court that is holding his trial. K. is living a nightmare — he experiences a wide range of emotions: confusion, frustration, hope, and despair — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

Someone must have been telling lies — fake news! — about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong since he had been sheltering in place for months; he hadn’t gone to the bank in all that time; but, one morning, he was arrested. WTF! Every day at eight in the morning he was brought his breakfast by Dr. Fauci’s cook — Dr. Fauci was his landlord — but today she didn’t come. That had never happened before — she was as reliable as an Uber Eats driver (before the pandemic, of course). K. waited a little while, looked from his pillow at the old woman who lived opposite. She was wearing an N95 face mask and disposable gloves — typical attire for the “new normal” — while she watched him with an inquisitiveness quite unusual for her, and finally, both hungry and disconcerted, he rang the bell. There was immediately a knock at the door and a man entered. He had never seen the man in this house before. Anyone who came into K’s room would have been tested for COVID-19. The man was slim but firmly built, his clothes were black and close-fitting, with many folds and pockets, buckles, buttons and a belt, along with the obligatory PPE — all of which gave the impression of being very practical but without making it very clear what they were actually for. “Who are you? Am I being punked?” asked K., sitting half upright in his bed, confused to be found in this rather um… Kafkaesque situation. The man, however, ignored the question just like Trump avoids questions at his self-aggrandizing coronavirus press  carnival shows. His eyes were obscured by the plastic face shield and his expression was inscrutable under the face mask; he merely replied, “You rang?” “Did you mean that sarcastically?” K. asked. “Anna isn’t here; and I know she wasn’t furloughed. She told me she had applied to that financial fiasco known as the PPP program administered by the incompetent bureaucrats at the SBA. So she should have brought me my breakfast,” said K. He tried to work out who the man actually was, first in silence, just through observation and by thinking about it, but the man didn’t stay still to be looked at for very long. Is that Mike Pence? he thought; the resemblance was uncanny — the neatly combed white hair, the deep-sunk beady eyes, the monotone robotic voice, and the uptight stick-up-his-ass posture. Instead the man went over to the door, opened it slightly, and said to his obsequious assistant from the feckless coronavirus task force who was clearly standing immediately behind it, “He wants Anna to bring him his breakfast.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Cities
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The Surprising Original Titles of Famous Novels
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Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: Lord of the Flies

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. The novel begins by introducing us to Ralph who will clash with Jack over leadership of a young group of survivors of a plane crash that are stranded on a deserted island. Golding has created two characters that represent different approaches to living in society: while Ralph represents democracy and peace, Jack represents dictatorship and violence. Lord of the Flies is a powerful allegory about mankind’s dueling impulses: good vs evil, reason vs. impulse, law vs. anarchy, civilization vs. savagery, altruism vs. selfishness. In a short period of time, these young boys descend into the darkness of man’s heart, exposing the best and worst of humanity — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. After weeks of sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, he welcomed the fresh air in his lungs and the warm sun beating down on his fair skin.Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him, his hair was plastered to his forehead, and his face mask pressed uncomfortably hard on his nose and mouth, leaving a deep impression on his skin. All round him the long rock outcrop smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat. He thought to himself: didn’t that idiot Trump say that the heat was going to miraculously destroy all the coronavirus by April? What a moron! But thinking of this imbecile just made him angry — the boy had lost so many friends to coronavirus; for now he had to concentrate on his survival and the path directly ahead. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Cities
Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: The Old Man and the Sea
Literary Classics: Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: Moby-Dick
The Surprising Original Titles of Famous Novels
Who Are the Greatest Shakespeare Characters?
The Most Influential People Who Never Lived
The Power of Literature
The Most Influential Authors
The Most Influential Characters in Literature
The Best Sentences in English Literature


When Was William Shakespeare Born?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureFor Shakespeare scholars, Shakespeare’s actual birthdate is still a bit of a mystery. To paraphrase King Lear’s famous lament, “When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools — especially when they forget to record the date of your actual birth.” Coincidentally, his birth is tied to a deadly pandemic, very similar to what we are experiencing now with coronavirus.

So when was Shakespeare born? The short answer is — no one really knows. Shakespearean scholars and biographers have simply settled on a date, a best guess, on which to honor the world’s most famous and gifted poet and playwright: April 23, 1564. What is known for certain is when he was baptized — April 26, 1564 — and when he died — April 23, 1616 at the age of 52. For all we know, Shakespeare’s birthday jumped around the calendar, much like modern-day Easter, frustrating poor little Will: “When do I get to blow out my birthday candles this year, Mum?”

So why did biographers settle on April 23? Bill Bryson, drawing on the work of many respected Shakespearean biographers explains: “Much ingenuity has been expended on deducing from one or two certainties and some slender probabilities on the date on which he came into the world. By tradition, it is agreed to be 23 April, St. George’s Day. This is the national day of England, and coincidentally also the date on which Shakespeare died 52 years later, giving it a certain irresistible symmetry.”

Similar to the coronavirus pandemic of the present day, Shakespeare was also born during a frightening, deadly pandemic. The bubonic plague (known as the Black Death) was sweeping through Europe. The Black Death was painful and lethal: people who were infected suffered headaches, vomiting, fever, delirium, coughing up blood, and painful enlarged lymph nodes (known as buboes). The mortality rate was 50%; and 65% for infants. Thus, given the high rates of mortality during the 16th century (about 20% of the entire population), it was customary to baptise an infant soon after birth — but exactly how many days later is simply conjecture. As S. Schoenbaum notes in his landmark biography, Shakespeare’s Lives, “It would be frequently be assumed that [Shakespeare] was born on  the 23rd on the unwarranted assumption that baptism customarily took place three days after birth. The Prayer Book of 1559 merely prescribed baptism not later than the next Sunday or other holy day following birth. In 1564, 23 April fell on Sunday; if Shakespeare was born then, he should have been baptized by the 25th, St. Mark’s Day.” Bryson adds: “Some people thought St. Mark’s Day was unlucky and so, it is argued — perhaps just a touch hopefully — that the christening was postponed an additional day, to 26 April.”

Understanding the impact of the bubonic plague when William Shakespeare was born leads to the realization of one of the most remarkable strokes of good fortune in the world of literature — it was a miracle that Shakespeare escaped the lethal clutches of the bubonic plague. Realize that just a few houses over, a neighbor of the Shakespeares lost four children to the plague that year. Bryson summarizes it this way: “In a sense William Shakespeare ‘s greatest achievement in life wasn’t writing Hamlet or the sonnets but just surviving his first year.” Evidently, where there’s a Will, there’s a way…

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please LIKE and FOLLOW (via email or WordPress Reader) or share with a friend. The coronavirus quarantine is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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For further reading: Shakespeare’s Lives by S. Schoenbaum
Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition by Bill Bryson
The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 by James Shapiro
http://www.biography.com/news/shakespeare-tragedies-macbeth-king-lear-antony-cleopatra-plague
thwww.theguardian.com/books/2015/sep/24/shakespeares-great-escape-plague-1606–james-shapiro
http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/application/files/5014/5434/6066/london-plagues-1348-1665.pdf
http://www.historytoday.com/archive/black-death-greatest-catastrophe-ever
/www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/blogs/pestilence-and-playwright/


Why You Should Start a Coronavirus Diary

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAs you read this, you are making history. That’s right — you are making history along with millions of other people around the globe who are sheltering in place to ensure that health professionals and essential workers are not endangered or overwhelmed. In short we are staying home to save someone’s life. In the absence of any vaccine or cure, we have to work together to get through this existential nightmare. Each day we must brace ourselves to endure the seemingly endless waves of fear, anxiety, frustration, depression, or uncertainty that wash over us. On good days, those waves are relatively low; but on bad days, the waves get so high that they drown you. And each day we must get up and renew our collective pledge: “Together we will get though this.” But it isn’t very easy. So how do we make sense of all the ceaseless “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?” How do we soldier on?

For a way out of this maw of misery, let us step back in time — specifically to June 12, 1942. We climb up the stairs to find a hidden attic apartment where a young girl, who just turned 13, has just received a special birthday gift: a red and white checkered diary. On that day, she opens it and writes her first entry: “I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.” The girl’s name? Annelies Marie Frank, better known as Anne Frank.

78 years later, Anne Frank’s personal writings, published as The Diary of a Young Girl (commonly referred to as The Diary of Anne Frank; it has sold more than 35 million copies), transcend time and place to speak to us today, amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Her diary is both a testament to the endurance of the human spirit as well as a brilliant beacon that pierces the darkness to guide us to hope, encouragement, comfort, and courage. Indeed, one of the most significant contributions of Anne Frank’s diary is the enduring power of voice. Recall William Faulkner’s powerful and eloquent observation about the duty of the writer in his Nobel acceptance speech: “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking… I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He 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.” Amen, brother.

Another significant contribution of Anne Frank’s diary is the therapeutic value of writing a diary. Keeping a diary serves as a lens to reflect on and help understand what is happening all around us. Writing provides the welcomed opportunity to contemporaneously process all of one’s thoughts and feelings. Today, many mental health experts are suggesting that we all take a page from Anne Frank’s diary and start keeping a coronavirus diary or journal. Over the last few weeks, several articles with titles like “Why You Should Start a Coronavirus Diary” are being published as a way to help people deal with the negative impact of the coronavirus (eg, anxiety, depression, loneliness, severe illness, and death). Many people who are infected report that reading how other patients are coping with the coronavirus has a very positive healing effect.

In an interview with The New York Times, Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, explained, “It’s incredibly useful both for us personally and on a historical level to keep a daily record of what goes on around us during difficult times.” Herbert Braun, a professor of history at the University of Virginia adds, “We have to convince ourselves that we’re writing something that perhaps other people want or need to read… When we write these words, they don’t have to be great. They don’t have to be perfect.” The critical thing is that years from now, future generations will want to know what people went through. One archivist said it best: “Some of the best stories we get are from ordinary people who are experiencing something extraordinary.”

Another article by the Los Angeles Times titled “Coronavirus Diaries are Helping People Cope — They’re Also a Research Gold Mine” highlights how infected individuals who post COVID-19 diaries are helping many others who cannot see a doctor or obtain tests. The diaries help readers self-diagnose or confirm symptoms. The coronavirus diaries also help guide others through the illness so they know what to expect and learn what remedies to explore. Sean Young, an associate professor at UCLA who studies digital behavior noted that people turn to social media doing a health crisis: “When the government is inconsistent in their messaging, then that creates confusion, fear and chaos. People want to share their symptoms because they’re looking for a community. They’re looking to find out how other people have recovered with similar symptoms. It’s a good resource to hear from others if it makes us feel better, if it doesn’t make us feel more anxious.” The information gleaned from diaries is also a big help to researchers who are studying the coronavirus pandemic. Of course, while turning to coronavirus diaries can help reduce anxiety, the flip side is that diaries can also spread misinformation that can be dangerous — or even lethal. So readers need to do some research on what they read.

So how do you get started on writing a coronavirus diary? Simple — start writing about today. You can take the old school approach and write in a specially bound journal or a spiral-bound notebook. Or you can take the digital route and create a Google document, a Word document, or start a daily blog. Begin with questions like: what did I do today? What did you read about or learn in the news that caught your attention? How did that news make you feel? What reflections did that news evoke? What did you learn about a colleague, friend, or relative today? What were your thoughts or feelings about that news? What is the saddest thing that happened today? What made you happy today? What did you read, hear, or watch that inspired you to get through the day?

If you need inspiration, read some of the current coronavirus diaries online, or curl up with The Diary of Anne Frank. Who knows — one day students will be reading from your diary and understanding what it was really like to live through America’s deadliest pandemic and most crippling financial recession. And like Anne Frank’s diary it will inspire them to endure whatever hardships they might be facing.

Are you writing a coronavirus journal? How is it helping you to cope?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please LIKE and FOLLOW (via email or WordPress Reader) or share with a friend. The coronavirus quarantine is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Power of Literature
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William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
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How to Grieve for a Departed Friend
Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

For further reading: Anne Frank: Her Life and Legacy by the editor of Life Magazine
http://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/smarter-living/why-you-should-start-a-coronavirus-diary.html

http://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-04-10/coronavirus-daily-covid-19-diaries-online-are-helping-people-cope
http://www.annefrank.org/en/anne-frank/

http://www.livescience.com/59449-anne-frank-diary-75th-anniversary.html


Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: The Catcher in the Rye

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. The novel’s narrator,  Holden Caulfield, is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive voices in modern American literature. Just about every adolescent can relate to this memorable coming of age story: leaving behind the innocence of youth, stepping into young adulthood often characterize by superficiality and hypocrisy. Moreover, the period is marked with stress, anxiety, and uncertainty — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

If you are bored out of your mind from self-sheltering and really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were incorrigible workaholics that barely made time for me, and all that pity-party, tell-all testimonial kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would take away my iPhone and internet access if I told anything pretty personal about them beyond their phony LinkedIn profiles. They’re quite prickly about anything like that, especially my father, a recent victim of identity fraud. I mean for Chrissakes he uses “password” as his password. It kills me. Any way, they’re nice and all ­— I’m not saying that — but they’re also thin-skinned as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything, especially since you’re glued to your smartphones watching stupid cat videos or watching the Tiger King’s cat fight with that creepy big cat activist. (BTW what really happened to her husband?) Watch enough of this crap and it will turn your brain to mush. But let me tell you about this batshit crazy stuff that happened to me during the coronavirus pandemic that made me pretty sick and had to come out and recover. All I have to show for my suffering is this “I took hydroxycholoquine and all I got was heart arrhythmia” t-shirt that I’m wearing. It totally sucks! I recently Facetimed A.J. about, and he’s my brother and all. He’s in New York City — of all places! — right at the epicenter of this COVID-19 cluster-fuck. That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every weekend to load up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and N95 face masks. He’s preppy but not a prepper — if you know what I mean. A real dope — I swear to God. Anyhoo… he’s going to drive me home when I complete my self-quarantine next month (assuming I can get my hands on one of those coronavirus tests) since flying in an airplane is like stepping into a giant phallic-shape petri dish swirling with coronavirus and the smell of a dozen stinky perfumes that phonies wear when they travel. It makes me wanna puke. A.J. just got a Tesla. One of those over-priced electric cars that crashes into all kinds of crap when it’s on autopilot. Artificial intelligence is really dumb, ya know? It cost him damn near sixty thousand bucks. A.J.’s got a lot of dough, now  — he finally got one of those PPP loans through the SBA. Ha! the SBA — what a bunch of phonies, thinking that they can prevent a deep recession by tossing out all that loot. A.J. didn’t use to seek out government help. He was a proud Republican and believed that the government shouldn’t help out the little guy. That’s socialism he said. Nobody likes losers. Boy, things changed pretty darn fast when he fell on his ass financially, though. He sure sounds like a whiny socialist now: why doesn’t the government help me now? It’s enough to make you puke. Any way, he used to be just a regular writer, when he was home before the coronavirus shit show. He wrote this terrific book of short stories, The Pandemic is a Deep State Hoax, in case you never heard of him. The best one in it was ‘The Smartest Man in the World.’ It was about this megalomaniac, self-aggrandizing buffoon (how do you like my SAT words?) who was the leader of a country. But he was a real phony — he barely read anything, he never listened to anyone. He really believed he was the smartest man in the world. I’m a real  stable genius he said. So when all the medical experts at WHO and elsewhere were ringing the alarm bells — a fucking pandemic is coming! — this bozo said there was nothing to worry about. What a bunch of B.S.! The delay in response meant that hundreds of thousands of poor saps suffered unnecessarily. And then — get this — the entire economy came crashing down. But all he cared about were his goddam poll numbers and being re-elected. Gosh, it really killed me. Now he’s itching to go campaigning and rewriting history by denying how badly he bungled the response to the pandemic. Hashtag DELUSIONAL! If there’s one thing I hate, it’s politics. Don’t even bring it up.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Cities
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The Surprising Original Titles of Famous Novels
Who Are the Greatest Shakespeare Characters?
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Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: Notes from Underground

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from Underground. This novel was Dostoevsky’s response to the western influence on Russia which he felt was destructive and undermined traditional Russian values rooted in the lower classes. In the first paragraph, Dostoevsky introduces the reader to a well-educated but sick, self-loathing narrator, the Underground Man, who is disillusioned with the absurdity and predictability of modern society. He eschews utopian socialism and utilitarianism, believing instead that man truly desires to exercise free will — even when it runs contrary to society’s or their own best interests. Thus man engages in behavior that is unproductive or destructive, or takes pleasure in illness or misery to assert his free will. His contempt for himself is only exacerbated by his crippling lethargy — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

I am a sick man…. I was diagnosed with the coronavirus last week. I am a resentful man… this pandemic could have been diminished back in January. I am an unattractive man (to give you an idea, just picture senior policy advisor Stephen Miller with long, filthy uncombed hair). I believe my lungs are compromised by COVID-19. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and the medical experts at WHO do not know for certain why the virus kills some patients and spares others. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have — I lost my medical plan last year thanks to the callous Republicans who are hellbent on repealing Obamacare — though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). I also believe in conspiracy theories, like the one that claims that Trump is Putin’s spineless, brainless puppet so that Russia can divide America and ultimately take over the world. Or the one that asserts that the coronavirus was China’s bioweapon to infect the world, topple the financial markets, then emerge as an economic powerhouse by making money off the pandemic and purchasing companies that recently lost value. But I digress… no, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand, especially if you are healthy and have a decent private medical plan. Well, I understand it, though. Despite a culture that has digressed to tribal, cult-like discourse and the manipulation of truth into fake news, I still retain the greatest benefits of my college education: independent, critical thinking. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “pay out” the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My lungs are bad, well — let it get worse!

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Cities
Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: The Old Man and the Sea
Literary Classics: Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: Moby-Dick
The Surprising Original Titles of Famous Novels
Who Are the Greatest Shakespeare Characters?
The Most Influential People Who Never Lived
The Power of Literature
The Most Influential Authors
The Most Influential Characters in Literature
The Best Sentences in English Literature


Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: 1984

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of George Orwell’s eerily prescient dystopian novel 1984. Having witnessed the horrors of autocratic governments of Russia and Spain in the mid 20-century, Orwell wrote 1984 to warn readers about the dangers of autocracy — physical torture and execution of political foes or disloyal citizens, suppression of the press and critical voices, monitoring of citizens, promoting conformity, the propaganda of lies, manipulation of the truth, the use of language to control thought, and technology used for evil. In the first sentence, Orwell immediately introduces something highly unusual: a clock striking thirteen. How is that even possible? And not just one clock — all the clocks are striking thirteen. Welcome to the tightly controlled world of Oceana where things are not what they seem: it is the role of a totalitarian government to control what you believe, how you behave — in short, every every aspect of your life: “the clock has thirteen hours because the Party says it does. Accept it and don’t ever question it.” The protagonist, Winston Smith steps into a world that is vile and dusty — not just physically, but psychologically, politically, and philosophically. When you carefully analyze how mercurial President Trump and his administration works, you can’t help notice so many similarities with the Party portrayed in Orwell’s novel — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin, covered by a N95 face mask, nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind whipping past FEMA’s medical tent city that had sprung up almost overnight, slipped quickly through the glass doors of the Beresford though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. 

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a color poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a meter wide: the face of a man of about seventy, with a ridiculous hairstyle: a sandy-reddish helmet of hair, where all the ends are drawn up, meeting in the center, then swept back and glued into place with hair spray. The hair accentuated a squarish head that was distinguished by an odd orangish complexion, except for pinkish circles surrounding each eye, creating the effect of a raccoon’s face. The expression was menacing — narrowed, beady eyes, beneath lowered bushy eyebrows and the mouth was firmly set. Winston made for the stairs using his iPhone as a flashlight. It was no use trying the elevator due to social distancing protocols. Even at the best of times it was seldom working, and at present the electricity was cut off during daylight hours because the Party deemed that the electric company was not an essential business during the COVID-10 pandemic. Besides, most electricians were sheltering in place. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for Hate Week — Congressmen’s way of spreading their dysfunctional hatred of one another to the citizens they were supposed to represent. The apartment was seven flights up, and Winston, who was thirty-nine and had an untreated varicose ulcer above his right ankle since he couldn’t afford healthcare (the Party repealed the Affordable Care Act because citizens were expendable), went slowly, resting several times on the way. On each landing, opposite the elevator shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. TRUMP IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

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Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: Moby-Dick

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of Herman Melville’s magnum opus Moby-Dick or The Whale, a highly symbolic, profound allegory wrapped around a simple whaling story. In the first paragraph, Melville introduces us to one of the most famous, but most enigmatic, narrators in literature: Ishmael.  Ishmael, a highly intelligent, articulate, but humble, individual is the counter to the larger-than life captain of the Pequod, Ahab who represents the classic tragic hero. Recall Aristotle’s definition of the tragic hero: “a person who must evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience. He is considered a man of misfortune that comes to him through error of judgment.” In this case, Ahab’s tragic flaw is hubris. Ahab obsessively pursues his nemesis: the mighty white whale known as Moby-Dick. Moby-Dick is a potent multi-faceted symbol in the novel, transcending time and space; the whale represents evil; purity; the inscrutable;  as well as the all-powerful, all-knowing God. Ishmael is our guide through this deeply spiritual, psychological, and philosophical journey highlighting man’s age-old struggle between good and evil, the reconciliation of the known and the unknown, and the comprehension of man’s relationship with God — something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

Call me Ishmael, my pronoun is “he,” my Twitter handle is #ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my digital wallet due to the economic collapse following the coronavirus pandemic, and nothing particular to interest me on shore after months of sheltering in place at the Spouter-Inn, I thought I would sail about a little, avoiding the perpetually virus-stricken cruise ships, and see the watery part of the world which is expanding exponentially due to the catastrophic climate crisis. It is a way I have of driving off my foul mood and regulating the ole blood circulation without having to resort to smoking crack. Whenever I find myself unhappy (especially after watching blowhard Trump rant about his ratings on another coronavirus daily briefing); whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before the beleaguered FEMA warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral — burying the latest COVID-19 victims — I meet; and especially whenever my feelings of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and beating someone mercilessly over a roll of toilet paper — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can to escape this soul-numbing shit show. This is my substitute for repeatedly touching my face after touching highly infected surfaces. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all my Facebook friends in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me based on all their “likes.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: The Old Man and the Sea

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

Today we will reimagine the opening paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s timeless allegorical novella The Old Man and the Sea. In the first paragraph, Hemingway introduces the two key archetypal characters with subtle religious allusions: Santiago (Spanish for St. James, the apostle of Jesus), the fisherman who represents old age, the teacher, the spiritual mentor — full of life experience and wisdom. The other character is Manolin (diminutive of Manuel, Spanish for Emmanuel, the Redeemer) who represents youth, the son, the student — who has much to learn. In the opening scene sets the stage for what appears to be a simple story about an old man who teaches a young boy about fishing. Despite the simple storyline, the deeper universal theme of The Old Man and the Sea is that of an old man struggling with old age, loneliness, poverty, hunger, and mortality; ultimately, we witness his his last heroic attempt to retain his dignity and define his legacy, something we can relate to in the age of coronavirus:

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream, away from the coronavirus-stricken cruise ships desperately looking for a harbor that would allow them to dock, and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man, unable to eat for days, was now the worst form of risky for COVID-19 since his immune system was compromised. The boy had gone at their orders, as long as he practiced social distancing, to work on another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man, not wearing gloves or a face mask, come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry highly coveted bags of rice, canned goods, and bleach-based cleaning supplies and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with pieces of hoarded double-ply toilet paper, and furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat. Of course, the old man could sail once again if he applied for a small business loan through the recently passed $2 trillion Cares Act.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts: Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Cities
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Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: A Tale of Two Cities

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat if the opening paragraphs to some of the greatest works of literature were reimagined through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic exacerbated by a staggering economic collapse? Atkins Bookshelf presents “Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus” series.

We’ll begin with one of the most well-known opening paragraphs of a novel: Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. What makes the opening paragraph so memorable is Dickens’ masterful use of anaphora, a rhetorical device that involves the repetition of an initial phrase (“It was the age… it was the age; it was the season… it was the season) to emphasize the paradoxical themes of the French Revolution, as well as foreshadow the themes of the novel. Those themes were so relevant then; they are eerily relevant to the world in the age of coronavirus:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was an age of robust health and an age of the insidious coronavirus pandemic, it was the age of dedicated and knowledgeable medical professionals, it was the age of ignorant and irresponsible politicians, it was the age of complacency, it was the age of anxiety, it was the epoch of facts and the epoch of lies, it was the season of intimacy and the season of social distancing, it was a time of urgency and a time of delayed response, it was a time of economic prosperity and a time of economic hardship, it was the period of empathy, it was the period of indifference, it was the spring of hope before an election year, it was the winter of despair of an insufferable corrupt president’s four-year term, it was an age of transparency and an age of obfuscation, we had all the hospitals and ICUs, we did not have enough PPE or respirators, we were all going to work, we were all sheltering at home — in short, the period was so far unlike the previous year that only the idiots on Fox News, endorsing the rants of an narcissistic and irresponsible president, insisted that this pandemic and its impact was just a hoax and that it would disappear miraculously by Easter.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

Read related posts:
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Poems to Inspire During the Coronavirus Pandemic: No Man Is an Island

“In the aftermath of the spectacular collapse of the twin towers on September 11, 2001, the act of turning to poetry enjoyed a revival… In times of crisis, poems, not paintings or ballet, are what people habitually reach for… The formalized language of poetry can ritualize experience and provide emotional focus… Poetry also can assure us that we are not alone; others, some of them long dead, have felt what we are feeling.”

The excerpt above was written by Billy Collins, US Poet Laureate (2001-2003) from the introduction to The Poem I Turn To: Actors and Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them. Sadly, poetry books tend to stand forlorn on dusty bookshelves, often relegated to the back of whatever bookstores are still in business. In general, most people don’t read or buy poetry; paradoxically people have an insatiable appetite for songs — that are essentially poems set to music — as evidenced by the steady sale of digital music (mp3s) and music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. Nevertheless, Collins is correct in stating that during special events in our lives — whether tragic or joyful — we inevitably turn to poetry. One of the greatest students of the human psyche, Sigmund Freund, expressed it this way: “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.”

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will be a period that will have an indelible imprint on our collective consciousness. It is unlike anything the world has ever experienced — a devastating, crippling worldwide pandemic that triggered a financial meltdown and an economic depression that will rival the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a matter of weeks we lost so much: the loss of 42,016 lives (as of this writing); more than 850,000 are sick; our way of life has been disrupted; businesses will falter or fail; and our trust and faith in government leaders has eroded. However, paradoxically, we have gained something: the pandemic has shattered our complacency of living selfish, isolated lives to discover an eternal truth that has been obscured by the fog of narcissism and the headlong pursuit of money: that all humans are connected to one another. Moreover, we are interdependent — alas, our survival today, and in the coming years, depends on this realization and the obligation to care for one another, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, or political affiliation. During a dark and difficult time like this, I cannot think of a poem that is more relevant and inspirational than John Donne’s short, but eloquent, poem known as “No Man is an Island.” Donne, a cleric of the Church of England, wrote many devotionals and sermons. This poem appear in Meditation 17, that appears in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions published in 1624, during a very difficult time in his life when he was mourning the death of his wife, some of their children, and several friends. In this timeless poem, Donne reflects on mortality and an individual’s relation to humanity: 

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as any manor of thy friend’s,
Or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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For further reading: The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne
The Poem I Turn To: Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them edited by Jason Shinder
https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/coronavirus-death-toll/


Dislocating Language Into Meaning

“We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, and this variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results. The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.”

From the essay “The Metaphysical Poets” included in Selected Essays by T. S. Eliot. Eliot argued that plain, direct language (exotericism) was not effective in communicating deeply with the modern reader. Rather, the poet should develop new forms and devices for the expression of feelings and ideas. To that end, Eliot advocates for esotericism, that is to say, using language rich in symbolism and hidden meanings. Eliot scholar, Amar Nath Dwivedi, elaborates: “Eliot was fully convinced of ‘the uselessness of the wide appeal to an audience incapable of full appreciation.’ He was also fully convinced of the demands of our complex civilization. As art is a reflection of the spirit of the age, it also requires the resurrection of the lost and the development of the new artistic devices. Esotericism… is at once ‘a discipline for the easier desires of the artist and of the audience’ and ‘a necessary result of the conditions in which the poet’s sensibility has to operate.’ The ‘esoteric’ poet aims at ‘cultivating all the possibilities of words as a medium,’ and when the speech of one sense is insufficient to convert the burden of meaning, he uses the language of another.”

Eliot, of course, followed his own advice. His poems are rich in symbolism and hidden meanings; perfect examples include his two most famous poems: The Waste Land and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Prufrock is considered a masterpiece of modern poetry. The Waste Land is a long poem, divided into five sections, that challenges readers due to its disjointed structure and dozens of symbols and allusions to the great works of the Western canon and Eastern philosophies. It is not hyperbole to state that you could spend an entire semester in college, studying that one poem.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Why We Read Poetry
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For further reading: Selected Essay by T.S. Eliot
T. S. Eliot: A Critical Study by Amar Nath Dwivedi


What is the Borgesian Conundrum?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureA Borgesian Conundrum, as you may have surmised, is a eponym — named after the brilliant Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). Before we define the conundrum, let’s place the writer in proper context. Borges is considered one of the most influential writers of all time, writing imaginative short stories that eschew the conventions of modern short fiction. American writer Susan Sontag proclaimed, “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.”

If you have never read a Borges short story, you are in for a real treat. As fellow Argentine writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares (he wrote the fantastic The Invention of Morel which greatly influenced the ABC hit series Lost), once noted, Borges’ writings are “halfway houses between an essay and a story.” Borges’ short stories, which often focus on the notion of the infinite, paradoxes, and interconnectedness of all things, are characterized by abrupt beginnings or endings; feature fantastic, complex, intellectual landscapes; lack traditional characteristics like plot, cause-and-effect, and conflict; and present the reader with fascinating, dazzling lessons about arcane topics. Not only was Borges a great writer, he was also an insatiable reader; as a boy he spent a great deal of time in libraries. That lifelong erudition is reflected in his stories and essays.

Knowing something about the writer now places you in a position to better appreciate the definition of the Borgesian Conundrum. In short, the Borgesian Conundrum poses the following ontological question: does the writer write the story, or does the story write the writer? Sounds like a quintessential Borges essay, doesn’t it? According to Wikipedia, the conundrum is alluded to in this passage from Borges’ essay, “Kafka and His Precursors,” published in the book Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings (1988): “If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. The second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”

Not so fast Wikipedia! The discerning, literary-minded folks at Weekly Wonder blog believe this particular passage is not necessarily support the Borgesian Conundrum. One of the editors elaborates: “As much as I appreciate ‘Kafka and His Precursors,’ I do not understand how the philosophers get the Borgesian conundrum from this essay: rather, if there is a question in this essay it is not “does the author create the story or the story, the author?” but “how does a writer create his own precursors?” Touché! The editor suggests a more relevant passage from an essay titled “Borges and I”:

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.

Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.

I do not know which of us has written this page.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: A Beautiful Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library
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The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

For further reading: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges
https://weekly-wonder-blog.tumblr.com/post/102354267041/borgesian-conundrum


What Are the Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels?

alex atkins bookshelf books“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say,” wrote the brilliant Italian writer Italo Calvino. “The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.” And naturally, that is why students are introduced to the classics in elementary and middle school, and explore them more deeply in high school and college.

Even though all classics have something to say, they are not universally liked by students and readers (we will address this a little later). Moreover, the classics are not always taught in the best possible way. In a thought-provoking essay, On Teaching Literature, Victoria Best, a former lecturer of French literature at Cambridge University, discusses the responsibilities that teaching literature places on both the teacher and the student, as well as the challenges that they face. When Best had an opportunity to teach literature, it was time for a critical assessment of pedagogical approaches to literature: “When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.”

As she carefully examined her interactions with her students, Best came to appreciate how literature challenged students and the many obstacles that students faced in fully engaging with literature. She identifies four major obstacles. The first obstacle is the expression of thoughts and emotions: “At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing.

The second obstacle is the discipline that literature requires: “[Students] bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organize their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument.”

The third obstacle is the ability to think deeply and slowly: “This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.”

The fourth obstacle is narcissism. Indeed, great literature shakes us from our complacency — even more critical today as individuals become more isolated in their digital-device-created bubbles, oblivious to life’s nuanced ebbs and flows. Best continues the discussion: “For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side — forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful — they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.”

Best concludes with an eloquent and inspirational testimony about why it is important to study literature: “This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.”

So let us return to the initial question: what are the classic novels that readers like the most and those that are liked the least? Where can we find that data? Enter Daniel Frank, a public policy expert and attorney, who turned to the rich data at GoodReads generated by hundreds of thousands of readers. Frank developed an algorithm to examine the rankings of the classics dividing them into the highest-ranked (most liked) and the lowest-ranked (most hated). So what did he find? Frank writes: “The data also reveals some interesting cultural trends. The first classic novel is Don Quixote which came out in 1615 but the next, Robinsoe Crusoe didn’t come out for more than 100 years later in 1719. The 1930’s produced significantly fewer classics than the surrounding decades, almost certainly as a result of the Great Depression and World War II. The two authors who produced the most classics are the British pair of Jane Austen with 6 and Charles Dickens with 5, followed by the American pair of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck with 4 each. This reflects the cultural reach of Britain during its empire and the evolution of American cultural hegemony. Just because an author produced a number of classics doesn’t make their books universally loved; Dickens’ books all score mediocre, while Hemingway is hated across the board, and Steinbeck fares poorly beyond East of Eden. Jane Austen is unique as the only author with multiple truly beloved classics.” Here are Frank’s lists of the most liked and the most hated classic novels.

The Most Liked Classic Novels:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
1984 by George Orwell
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kessey
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Phantom Toolbooth by Norton Juster
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Most Hated Classic Novels:
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Moby-Dick, or, the Whale by Herman Melville
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Why Study Literature?
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What is a Classic Book?

For further reading: https://litlove.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/on-teaching-literature/
Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino
Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature by Joseph Epstein
Dan Frank: danfrank.ca/the-most-loved-and-hated-classics-according-to-goodreads-users/


The Literary Treasures at an Antiquarian Book Fair 2020

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe 2020 San Francisco Antiquarian Book Print and Paper Fair was recently held in South San Francisco. More than 100 booksellers from across the country and around the world gathered to exhibit and sell one of the most endangered species of the modern world — the printed book. Although the number of exhibitors has dwindled slightly through the decades, the level of passion for books and bookcollecting has not waned. 

For a dedicated bibliophile, the feeling of attending an antiquarian book fair is like a child stepping into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and being dazzled by every candy you could imagine. Amid neat rows of booksellers’ booths, creating mini-bookstores with their neatly arranged bookcases, are great literary and historical wonders that you can actually touch and hold in your hands. Unlike a museum’s priggish, stern docents that admonish you to “look with your eyes and not your hands,” the book fair’s exhibitors encourage you to touch and feel the treasures that sit on the bookshelves — even ones worth more than $100,000! And then there are remarkable signed first editions. Imagine holding a first edition of Collected Poems of Robert Frost signed by Robert Frost ($1,000), or a first edition of any of the past Pulitzer Prize-winning novels signed by their respective authors ($150-1,500). You run your finger gently across the signature, touching the book that the great author once held in his hand — magically you are connected across time. You may not be able to afford the books, but the experience is absolutely priceless.

The antiquarian book fair is also a sprawling time machine, transporting the attendee back in time, a half century — or several centuries — to behold rare books, collectible books (eg, first editions of literary masterpieces, some even signed by the author), manuscripts, historical documents, maps, incunabula (pamphlets printed in the 15th century), photographs, and artifacts. Books cover a wide range of topics: literature, children’s literature, arts, architecture, religion, science, medicine, history, law, commerce, travel and exploration.

There is a misconception that the books and items sold at an antiquarian book fair require the deep pockets of a vested employee of Google or Facebook, but booksellers know that there is a broad range of collectors, and a large portion of the inventory is within the budget of most mortals with a moderate income. Here are some of the treasures at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair:

Sense and Sensibility (1899); first edition: $1,250

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1866), second edition: $50,000

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952); first edition: $2,500

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973); first edition: $750

The Catcher in the Rye (1955); first edition: $6,000; another copy for $1,500; Modern Library edition (1958): $250

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957); first edition: $2,500

Moby Dick (1930); Random House edition illustrated by Kent Rockwell: $750

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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What is the Most Checked-Out Book at a Library?

alex atkins bookshelf booksA measure of a community can be measured, to some extent, by the books that patrons of the local library check out the most. It gives you a sense of what they are concerned about, what they are curious about, and age range of reader (child or adult). Since the legendary New York Public Library is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, they focused their efforts to answer this question; specifically, in their entire history, which books have been checked out the most? In their post, titled “Top 10 Checkouts of All Time,” the librarians write: “Since The New York Public Library’s founding in 1895, millions of books have been checked out by patrons of all ages throughout the city. In honor of the 125th anniversary, a team of experts from the Library carefully evaluated a series of key factors to determine the most borrowed books, including historic checkout and circulation data (for all formats, including e-books), overall trends, current events, popularity, length of time in print, and presence in the Library catalog.”

Can you guess which books made the top ten? Six of the titles are children’s books, while four are adult titles. Interestingly, no book cracked the million or half million mark for checkouts. Without further ado, here is their list of the most checked out books (number of checkouts in parentheses):

1. “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats, 1962 (485,583)

2. “The Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss, 1957 (469,650)

3. “1984” by George Orwell, 1949 (441,770)

4. “Where The Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak, 1963 (436,016)

5. “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, 1960 (422,912)

6. “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White, 1952 (337,948)

7. “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury, 1953 (316,404)

8. “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, 1936 (284,524)

9. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” by J.K. Rowling, 1997 (231,022)


When You Don’t Have Time to Read the Classics: Moby Dick

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWe live in the Google Era, where information comes so fast, it’s like drinking out of a fire hose. That information overload combined with the prevalence of apps like Twitter and TikTok has dramatically decreased the reader’s attention span to 144 characters or 15 seconds — whichever comes first. With that kind of an attention span, who is ever going to take the time to read literary classics. And let’s face it — some of these classics run a little long; for example, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes  runs about 900 pages (containing more than 180,000 words), while Moby-Dick by Herman Melville runs about 700 pages (containing 135 chapters, and more than 209,117 words). If you read 250 words per minute, it would take about 19 hours to read Don Quixote and 14 hours to read Moby-Dick.  (Incidentally, at readinglength[dot]com you can enter any book title and see how long it takes to read it based on your own reading speed). Who has that kind of time?

That’s where Maurice Sagoff’s little book, ShrinkLits comes in. Sagoff has managed to shrink 70 of the world’s most famous literary classics down to size. If you have a minute, you can read a summary of one of the classics, like Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, King Lear, or The Great Gatsby. Here is the ShrinkLit version of Melville’s magnum opus, Moby Dick.

Whale chomped Ahab’s leg in two.
“Hunt that beast! he tells his crew.

First, a welter of whaling schmooze,
Then comes Moby and hell breaks loose.

Smashup! Ahab’s drowned in brine,
Lashed to the whale by a harpoon line.

Good (symbolic) with Evil vies,
If you’d fathom it, you must rise.

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: What to Read Next?
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Moby Dick by the numbers

For further reading: ShrinkLits by Maurice Sagoff
http://www.readinglength.com


The Best Books About Jane Austen: 2020

atkins-bookshelf-booksDuring Jane Austen’s lifetime (1775-1817), her novels were published anonymously and although they were generally well-received, they were not runaway bestsellers. It was only after her death that her popularity grew dramatically. Sigh — the stereotypical life of the struggling artist. Today, of course, her novels are considered classics and Austen remains one of the world’s most widely read writers in English literature, along with William Shakespeare (who preceded her by two centuries) and Charles Dickens (who was born five years before Austen died). Although not as prolific as her literary counterparts, her six romantic novels have been adapted into many films, plays, and television mini-series over the decades — proof that her insightful and biting commentary on society and championing of feminism are still very relevant today. Her novels have also inspired dozens of books about her life, her characters, her culture, and her writing. And each year, this is no shortage of books about Jane Austen. Bookshelf presents some of the best books about Jane Austen for Janeites, young and old. If you happen to own most of these books, which is an impressive achievement, please send me a note — would love to do an interview about your collection.

The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen by Carol Adams
Jane Austen’s England
by Roy Adkins

Walking Through Jane Austen’s London by Louise Allen
Jane Austen: In Her Own Words and the Words of Those Who Knew Her by Helen Amy
The Complete Novels of Jane Austen (Knickerbocker Classics) by Jane Austen

In Her Own Hand (Facsimilies of her early manuscripts) by Jane Austen
Emma: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen
Persuasion: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen
Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition by Jane Austen
The Works of Jane Austen (6 Volume Set, Easton Press) by Jane Austen (illus. by C.E. and H.M. Brock)
A Memoir of Jane Austen by J. E. Austen-Leigh (Jane Austen’s nephew)
The Lost Books of Jane Austen by Janine Barchas
Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity by Janine Barchas

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron
The Jane Austen Cookbook by Maggie Black
Jane Austen’s Manuscript Works edited by Linda Bree
Why Jane Austen? by Rachel Brownstein

The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things by Paula Byrne
The Genius of Jane Austen: Her Love of Theatre and Why She Works in Hollywood by Paula Byrne
A Truth Universally Acknowledge: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen by Susannah Carson
The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen by Edward Copeland

A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz
A Jane Austen Christmas: Celebrating the Season of Romance, Ribbons, and Mistletoe by Carlo DeVito
Jane Austen’s Names: Riddles, Persons, Places by Margaret Doody
Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen by Sarah-Jane Downing

The Wit and Wisdom of Jane Austen by Dominique Enright
Jane Austen’s Country Life: Uncovering the Rural Backdrop to her Life by Deirdre Le Faye
Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels by Deirdre Le Faye

Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece by Susannah Fullerton
A Dance with Jane Austen: How a Novelist and Her Characters Went to the Ball by Susannah Fullerton
Performing Jane: A Cultural History of Jane Austen Fandom by Sarah Glosson
Dear Cassandra: The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen by Penelope Hallett
101 Things You Didn’t Know About Jane Austen by Patrice Hannon
Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman

Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Private Journal by Edith Hawe
The Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen by Penelope Hughes-Hallett

Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James
A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen by Richard Jenkyns
Jane on the Brain: Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen by Wendy Jones
The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor
Jane Austen: The Complete Novels in One Sitting by Jennifer Kasius
Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
Jane Austen and Names by Maggie Lane
Jane Austen’s World: The Life and Times of England’s Most Popular Author by Maggie Lane
The Making of Jane Austen by Devoney Looser
Fan Phenomena: Jane Austen by Gabrielle Malcolm
Jane Austen on Love and Romance edited by Constance Moore
What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan
The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide to Modern Love by Sinead Murphy
Jane Austen Obstinate Heart: A Biography by Valerie Myer
Jane Austen Made Me Do It: Original Stories Inspired by Literature’s Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart by Laurel Ann Nattress
The Jane Austen Miscellany by Lauren Nixon
Young Jane Austen: Becoming a Writer by Lisa Pliscou and Massimo Mongiardo
The Jane Austen Rules: A Classic Guide to Modern Love by Sinead Murphy
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England by Daniel Pool
The List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen by Joan Strasbaugh

What Would Jane Do?: Quips and Wisdom from Jane Austen by Potter Style
Jane Austen in Bath: Walking Tours of the Writer’s City by Katharine Reeve
Jane Austen’s Guide to Good Manners by Josephine Ross
The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy: A Novel by Maya Slater
The Jane Austen Writers’ Club: Inspiration and Advice from the World’s Best-Loved Novelist by Rebecca Smith
The List Lover’s Guide to Jane Austen by Joan Strasbaugh

Jane Austen Cover to Cover: 200 Years of Classic Book Covers by Margaret Sullivan
The Jane Austen Handbook by Margaret Sullivan
Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Times, Her Novels by Janet Todd

The Jane Austen Treasury by Janet Todd
Jane Austen: A Life by Clair Tomalin
Dinner with Mr. Darcy: Recipes Inspired by the Novels of Jane Austen by Pen Vogler
A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England by Sue Wilkes
At Home with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson
Tea with Jane Austen by Kim Wilson
The Hidden Jane Austen by John Wiltshire
Jane Austen at Home: A Biography by Lucy Worsley
Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe
Jane Austen: The Illustrated Library by Midpoint Press

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For further reading: www.janeaustenfestivalbath.co.uk
http://www.austenprose.com


Life Lessons from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

atkins-bookshelf-xmasStudents of literature, indeed anyone who loves books and stories, can agree on one universal truth — that, in the words of C. S. Lewis “we read to know that we are not alone.” Novelist and essayist James Baldwin adds: “You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone.”

Another universal truth is that we read to learn, to heal, and to transform ourselves. As George Dawson, an English literature lecturer and founder of the Shakespeare Memorial Library in Birmingham, observed: “The great consulting room of a wise man is a library… the solemn chamber in which man can take counsel with all that have been wise and great and good and glorious amongst the men that have gone before him.”

On this Christmas day, we turn our attention to a ghostly little story that has much to teach: Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a story of about redemption, forgiveness, and generosity. But Dickens did not write A Christmas Carol simply to amuse us; he wrote it to inspire self-reflection and change — to help us become better human beings. “Beyond entertaining us,” writes Bob Welch in 52 Little Life Lessons From A Christmas Carol, “Dickens wanted to make us uncomfortable, because it’s only after we get a touch uneasy with ourselves that we open ourselves to change… to create a spark that might lead to flames of action: changing how we look at the world, changing how we act in the world, and ultimately changing how we will be remembered in the world.” Indeed, if we are able to transform ourselves, in light of the lessons from Dickens’s classic story, this is the Christmas miracle.

Bookshelf presents some important life lessons from A Christmas Carol gleaned from Welch’s enlightening little book:

Don’t be selfish
Don’t let people steal your joy
See life as a child
Everyone has value
Life isn’t just about business
You make the chains that shackle you
Humility enhances vision
To heal you must feel
Your actions affect others
The love of money costs you in the end
Life is best lived when you are awake
Learning begins with listening
Attitude is everything

The past can be empowering
Don’t return evil for evil
Bitterness will poison you
Dying lonely is the result of living lonely
Pain is the privilege of losing someone you care deeply about
Amid tragedy, others still need you
Before honor comes humility
Give because you have been given to
Giving changes your perspective
Live with the end in mind
It is never too late to change
Be the change you want to see

And as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless us, everyone!”

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. Introduce them to the world of ideas. Best of all, a subscription by email is free. Happy Holidays.

Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
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For further reading: 52 Little Lessons From A Christmas Carol by Bob Welch (2015)


What is the Value of a First Edition of A Christmas Carol?

atkins-bookshelf-booksWhen Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol on December 19, 1843, he wanted to make sure the book was affordable. The first printing of 6,000 copies, each book priced at a mere 5 shillings (about $2 in 1800s currency; about $25 in today’s currency) was sold out by Christmas eve. Dickens received his allotment of presentation copies on December 17, and immediately sent inscribed copies to his close friends and colleagues; he ran out of his copies 5 days later. Dickens’s publisher, Chapman and Hall, quickly printed a second and third edition, bringing the total of books sold to 9,000 by the end of the year — a remarkable achievement in Victorian England. Over the next few years, the book went through a total of 24 printings of that particular edition. Unfortunately, due to its high production costs, A Christmas Carol was not as profitable as Dickens had hoped. Bah humbug!

For almost two centuries, Dickens’s “ghostly little story” about redemption and charity has grown in our hearts — and just as significant, has grown in value exponentially. As bibliophiles and antiquarian booksellers know, there are many factors that contribute to a book’s value — condition, uniqueness, beauty, quality of binding, history, and inscription and/or signature. The first edition of A Christmas Carol (or The Carol, as it is known to collectors of Dickens’s works) has benefited from all these factors, and hence has consistently risen in value. A true first edition (from the first printing) is generally worth from $18,000 to $45,000. Any edition that was masterfully bound in fine leather and jewels by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, the premier bookbinders in London since 1901, is sure to fetch more than $30,000. The value of The Carol skyrockets when you consider the very rare inscribed presentation editions (the ones that Dickens gave to his friends) that range from $50,000 to $280,000! Truly a staggering valuation that would certainly bring a smile to any Scrooge.

A review of auction prices within the last two decades shows how quickly the value of A Christmas Carol has appreciated in modern times. A presentation copy inscribed to poet Thomas Hood was sold at auction in 1997 for $50,000. Just one year later, another presentation copy, this one inscribed to writer and poet Walter Landor, sold for $160,000. The most valuable copy, however, was a presentation copy inscribed to William Macready, an actor and close friend of Dickens, dated January 1, 1844 that was sold by Sotheby’s auction house for $282,408 in 2010.

As of this writing there are several valuable editions of A Christmas Carol for sale. There is is an exceptionally rare “trial issue” edition published by Chapman and Hall in 1844, worth $45,000. The book has an inscription by H. D. Linton, the brother of W. J. Linton who contributed four wood-engraved illustrations for the book. There are several first editions, without any signatures, selling for about $25,000 and one selling for $11,000. Finally, there is a first American edition, published in 1844 by Carey & Hart of Philadelphia, selling for $30,000.

One of the most expensive editions of Dickens’ timeless holiday story for sale is the first authorized collection edition of Christmas Books, containing A Christmas Carol and four other Christmas novels, that was published by Chapman and Hall in 1852 that is selling for $81,195. This was the first time that all five of Dickens’ Christmas novels were published together and Dickens wrote a new preface for them. But what makes this volume so valuable is that it is inscribed by Charles Dickens to a young woman, Agnes Sarah Lawrence. The inscription reads: “Agnes Sarah Lawrence, from her affectionate friend Charles Dickens, Twenty Second November 1852.” Agnes was the daughter of John Towers Lawrence of Balsall Heath, an acquaintance of the author. This is a presentation copy of the book, which means that the printer replaced the standard tissue guard that appears at the front of the book with a heavy text leaf, allowing the author to write a personalized note. Furthermore, this book contains the book label belonging to Carrie Estelle Doheny, considered one of the greatest women book collectors in America. Over six auction sales from 1987 to 1989, Doheny’s extraordinary book collection fetched $37.4 million — setting the record for the most lucrative book auction in history.

Certainly, Dickens could never have imagined that his modestly-priced Christmas story would become of the most precious and sought-after books in literature — making him in the end, to use Scrooge’s phrase, “a good man of business.”

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: A Christmas Carol by the Numbers
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For further reading: The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn, Norton (2004)
rarebooksdigest.com/2011/12/22/charles-dickens-rare-book-a-christmas-carol/
The Cinderella of the Arts: A short History of Sangorski & Sutcliffe by Rob Shepherd


Peer Into Your Books — Make a Voyage of Discovery

alex atkins bookshelf books“‘What shall I do with all my books?’ was the question; and the answer, ‘Read them,’ sobered the questioner. But if you cannot read them, at any rate handle them and, as it were, fondle them. Peer into them. Let them fall open where they will. Read on from the first sentence that arrests the eye. Then turn to another. Make a voyage of discovery, taking soundings of uncharted seas. Set them back on their shelves with your own hands. Arrange them on your own plan, so that if you do not know what is in them, you at least know where they are. If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances. If they cannot enter the circle of your life, do not deny them at least a nod of recognition.”

From Thoughts and Adventures (1932) by Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965). Churchill, in addition to being an accomplished statesman, was a voracious reader, an eloquent orator, and a prolific writer. During his career, Churchill wrote 58 books, 260 pamphlets, 840 articles, and thousands of speeches (filling more than 9,000 pages). Through his words, he comforted and inspired a nation during some of Great Britain’s darkest and finest hours. It was therefore fitting, that in 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exited human values.” Interestingly, in the 1890s, many readers confused the British Churchill with another writer, living across the pond — a very successful American novelist, also named Winston Churchill (1871-1947). At that time, the American Churchill, who had written several bestselling novels, including Richard Carvel (1899), The Crisis (1901), and The Crossing (1904), was the more famous of the two. So in order to avoid confusion, the British Churchill began using “Winston S. Churchill” to differentiate himself from the well-known American novelist. The two of them met at least twice, but were never friends. In the end, the writings and legacy of the British Churchill eclipsed that of the American Churchill.


When We Blindly Adopt a Religion or Political System We Cease to Grow

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“When we blindly adopt a religion, or political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.”

From the April 1944 entry from The Diary of Anais Nin (1944-47) by French-Cuban American writer Anais Nin (born — get ready for it: Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell). Nin began writing her diary at the age of 11 in 1914 and kept writing until her death in 1977. Initially the diary was to be a letter to her father, who had left the family when she was young. Over time, even though she had a psychotherapist (Ott Rank), the diary turned out to be her best therapist. By the end of her life, the diary encompassed over 15,000 typewritten pages in 150 volumes — talk about dedication! It was her wish to have the diaries published. Due to its length, many publishers passed; however she eventually found a publisher who began with Volume 1 in 1966. The quotation that began this post is ubiquitous on the internet, largely because it is incredibly relevant to what is happening with respect to politics and religion in America and around the globe, yet there is rarely a precise source or context. So let’s learn a bit more about the specific context for Nin’s piercing observation and prescience.

In the 1944 letter, Nin describes her encounter with Olga, a political journalist who wants to return to writing poetry: “Olga felt she had deserted her poet self for a more altruistic occupation. Now her task was over. It was rendered futile by the turn of events… When the system failed (historically), there was never a question that it may have failed because it was composed of incompleted human beings, human beings who had ceased to work on their individual development. And it is this development which I believe will influence history from within, rather than systems. If enough individuals had worked at their own development, history would be formed as natural things are formed, organically, from the impulse of quality and maturity…. [Olga was] no longer the political journalist, no longer the woman of the world, but a woman in quest of her poetic self, trying to unlock the many doors she had closed upon this self. She had not only locked them, as she said, but she had lost the key.”

Nin ponders her friend’s situation and advocates focusing on inner reflection and growth. She writes: “Every time our hope for a better world is based on a system, this system collapses, due to the corruptibility and imperfection of human beings. I believe we have to go back and work at the growth of human beings, so they will not need systems, but will know how to rule themselves. Now you have suffered the shock of disillusion in an ideology which has betrayed its ideals. It is a good time to return to the creation of yourself, not as a blind number in a group, but as an individual. Poetry is merely the language of our night-self, in which are imbedded the seeds of all we do and are in the day. We can only control it by knowing it. Better to make this journey back to what you had intended, rather than to die of disillusion.”

Nic then gave her friend a copy of Nightwood by Njuna Barnes and Choix des Elues by Jean Giraudoux “to help her re-enter the world of myth which alone makes the monstrosities of history bearable. She had to return to an incomplete woman because the task she had undertaken had not matured her. When we blindly adopt a religion, or political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.”

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: Religion vs Spirituality
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What Advice Does Polonius Give His Son?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureAny parent who has a child going to college faces that moment when they must let his or her child leave the proverbial nest on a journey of discovery, to seek out those transformative experiences that will shape the edifice of young adulthood to be built on the foundation of familial values, traditions, and years of parental guidance. As your child hugs you and says goodbye, what final parental advice should you impart? If you are Polonius, the chief counselor to King Claudius (father of Prince Hamlet), you want to dispense some life lessons covering a wide variety of topics before your son, Laertes (brother to Ophelia), leaves to attend university in France. This is one of the most famous speeches in Hamlet — and certainly, its eloquence is matched by its verbosity.

Modern readers who read or listen to Polonius’ famous fatherly advice with its verbal flourishes and rather peculiar Elizabethan diction typically have one response: WTF? What is that Polo dude really saying? Can someone please translate this into modern English? Sure. But before we proceed, we should mention that in the context of the play, Polonius is considered to be a bit of a pretentious buffoon, much like a modern congressman or presidential spokesperson. Although Polonius is a sincere father, we have to question his intentions because the sum of his advice is rather ironic: as his son prepares to leave for college (ostensibly to take chances and explore the world, discover his true self, etc.), he tells him essentially to play it safe. Say what? You also have to question the timing: realize that Laertes is now in his late teens or early 20s, and it might be late for some of this advice. For this reason, some literary critics believe that Polonius is a bit of a hypocrite: he hasn’t been around for his son, and now as his son is leaving for college, Polonius decides to cram 18 years of fatherly wisdom into one speech. Thanks for nothin, Pops! Nevertheless, when the advice is taken individually, one has to admit that it is quite sound. So let’s break it down into bite-sized chunks and see if you agree.

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory

Meaning: Laertes, my boy, you’re still here? Get going! Your ship awaits. I give you my blessings (again). But, before you leave, I do have a few life lessons to share with you. You might want to record this on your iPhone so you don’t forget my longwinded speech. Besides, realize that you cannot count on Siri to dispense meaningful life lessons!

See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Meaning: Don’t just say what you are thinking (think before you speak!) and don’t act in haste (don’t be impulsive!). Be friendly to people but don’t go overboard and embarrass yourself.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. 

Meaning: Know who are your true friends (news flash: they are not your Facebook friends or Twitter followers!). Really appreciate those friends and hang on to them. Don’t work too hard to make new friends — they will never be as good as the ones you already have.

Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Meaning: Don’t be too quick to pick a fight, but if you do — hold your own. (And if you are going to be in a sword fight, make sure you are holding the sword with the poisoned-dipped tip!) Next, learn to be a good listener. Listen to people, but be circumspect. Listen to the views or opinions of others, but don’t necessarily share your own. It’s OK for someone to disapprove of you, but try not to judge others.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.

Meaning: Be a good consumer: spend as much as you can on nice clothes. Don’t waste your money on tacky clothes from strip mall outlets. Shop the good sales at A&F, Gap, etc. And since you are going to France, where fashion is king, remember that “clothes make the man.”

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Meaning: Don’t be stupid and lose a friendship by borrowing from or lending money to a friend. Trust me, you’ll lose both! Besides, borrowing money just makes you careless with money. Live within your means — or I am cancelling your credit cards!

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Meaning: And the most important lesson, of course, is to be true to yourself. (Of course, this last advice sort of contradicts all the very specific advice that he just dished out). That way you will not come off as a phoney (and you know how much Salinger’s Holden Caulfield hates those kind of people!) Goodbye, my boy, I hope my blessing helps you understand the life lessons I have shared with you. If not, you’ll end up in crazy town, like your sister.

So now that we have translated or paraphrased Polonius’ advice to Laertes into modern English, let us now ponder the inescapable question: is this the best advice that a father could give his son? What — or more precisely, what other — life lessons should Polonius have imparted to his college-bound son?

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 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. 

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: 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


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