The Dog that Ate the Manuscript of a Famous American Novel

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt’s one thing when you’re dog eats your homework and you have to face your skeptical teacher — but what if your dog eats a manuscript considered one of the most famous American novels set in the Great Depression? Now that’s a tragedy! American writer John Steinbeck experienced that exact situation and imagine the reaction from his publisher when he had to explain that his dog ate his manuscript Of Mice and Men. The dog of this sad tale was a setter puppy named Toby that in Steinbeck’s words “[was] a very serious dog who doesn’t care much for jokes.” Apparently, he didn’t care too much for his regular dog food and switched to something with a bit more fiber. In his journal entry for May 27, 1937, Steinbeck wrote: “Minor tragedy stalked. My setter pup [Toby], left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my manuscript book. Two months work to do over again. It set me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript I’m not sure is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking… I’m not sure Toby didn’t know what he was doing when he ate the first draft. I have promoted Toby-dog to be a lieutenant-colonel in charge of literature. But as from he unpredictable literary enthusiasms of this country, I have little faith in them.”

The title Of Mice and Men was inspired by two of the lines from the poem “To A Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Lough, November, 1785” by Scottish poet Robert Burns. The poem is written in a light Scots dialect which is foreign to modern readers. The specific lines from the seventh stanza are: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley. (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)” Steinbeck completed his work on his manuscript for Of Mice and Men and the book was published later that year in 1937. Toby eventually recovered from his spanking and never ate another manuscript again.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts:
The Founding Father that Vandalized Shakespeare’s Chair
Which Author has the Most Film Adaptations?

For further reading: Conversations with John Steinbeck by Thomas Fensch

To learn more about Alexander Atkins Design please visit www.alexatkinsdesign.com

What Can Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Teach Us?

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 day after Christmas, 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

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens gives us one of the most famous endings in literature, highlighting the fact that the holidays present a special opportunity for redemption, the chance to be a better human being:

“Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Why Read Dickens?
The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”

Words invented by Dickens
The Power of Literature

For further reading: 52 Little Lessons From A Christmas Carol by Bob Welch (2015)

To learn more about Alexander Atkins Design please visit www.alexatkinsdesign.com

Twas The Night Before Christmas History and Trivia

atkins-bookshelf-literatureTwo literary works that have had the greatest impact on how we celebrate Christmas today are A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (also known as “The Night Before Christmas,” or “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) by Clement Clarke Moore. Like A Christmas Carol, Twas the Night Before Christmas has never been out of print for over 150 years. The poem endures as a cherished tradition as parents read the poem to the entertainment and delight of their children on Christmas eve as they anxiously await the magical visit of St. Nicholas.

Who Really Wrote Twas the Night Before Christmas?
Although the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was originally published anonymously in the Troy Sentinel (New York) on December 23, 1823 (under the title “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas”), it was eventually attributed to Moore (1779-1863), a professor of Theology and Oriental and Greek Literature at the General Theological Seminary in New York, who had written the poem a year earlier. Moore eventually included the poem in an anthology titled Poems published in 1844.

Because Moore had not taken credit for the poem much earlier, relatives of Henry Livingston, Jr. (a distant relative of Moore’s wife, Catherine), began promoting a story that Livingston, an aspiring poet, had actually written “A Visit” in the early 1800s. The main evidence was their recollection (Elizabeth Clement Brewer Livingston recalled in 1848 or 1861 after reading Moore’s poem, that her father had actually written the poem in 1808); the only manuscript, they claimed, had been destroyed by fire. The claim gained traction when Don Foster, an English literature professor and expert on textual analysis (he worked on the Unabom case), examined writings by Moore and Livingston and concluded (based on the metrical scheme, phraseology, and Dutch references) that it was indeed Livingston who wrote the poem.

The evidence supporting Moore is overwhelming. First there is contemporaneous testimony from colleagues that Moore wrote the original poem (they physically handled and read a handwritten copy). Seth Kaller, a leading expert in American historic documents, who once owned one of the four handwritten copies of the poem, did extensive research and disputed Foster’s analysis point by point. Kaller’s research also turned up earlier writings and poems by Moore that are consistent with the meter and phraseology of “A Visit.” Moreover, Kaller could not find any written evidence to support the Livingston claim; he writes: “By the time [Moore] included it in his own book of poems in 1844, the original publisher and at least seven others had already acknowledged his authorship. Four manuscripts penned by Moore… survive: in The Strong Museum, The Huntington Library, The New-York Historical Society, and one in private hands.”

Why is the Poem Twas the Night Before Christmas so Important?
The poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” is significant because it directly influenced the mythology of Santa Claus in the 19th century: the red suit, the bundle of toys, the eight flying reindeer (and their names) pulling a sleigh, filling the stockings with gifts, the smoking pipe, and entering and exiting the house through the chimney. Prior to Moore’s colorful depiction, Christians were familiar with the legend of the original St. Nicholas (Saint Nicholas of Myra), a Greek bishop who lived in the 4th century (270-343). He was the patron saint of sailors, merchants, children, brewers, unmarried people, students [take a breath here] — and a partridge in a pear tree. Depicted as a tall, slender man, St. Nicholas was known for his charity work — during the evening he would secretly bestow gifts to his parishioners. Moore was also influenced by the depiction of Santa Claus in Washington Irving’s famous work, A History of New York (also known as Knickerbocker’s History of New York) published in 1809. Irving, of course, drew from the Dutch and German lore of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus). Unlike St. Nicholas who was an actual person, Sinterklaas is a fictitious character who is based on St. Nicholas. Sinterklaas was depicted as a willowy bishop who rode a white horse. He carried a large red book that contained children’s names and whether they behaved good or bad the previous year.

From a literary and linguistic point of view, the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” is significant on two fronts: first, it is one of the best known verses composed by an American poet. Just about everyone knows the line even if they have never read the poem. Second, it is one of the most well-known uses of a clitic — a morpheme that functions like a word but is not spelled or pronounced completely: “twas” is a contraction of the two words “it was.” Because the morpheme is attached before the host word, it is known as a proclitic. Two other common proclitics are the words “c’mon” (a contraction of “come on”) and “y’all (a contraction of “you all”).

What is the Origin of the Poem Twas the Night Before Christmas?
The actual origin of the poem is a fascinating story. The staff of Heritage Auctions, which sold a handwritten and signed copy of Moore’s famous poem for $255,000 on December 9, 1994 summaries the origin of the poem in the manuscript’s listing: “Eliza [Moore’s wife], was roasting turkeys to be given to the less fortunate parishioners from their church, and she found that one additional turkey was needed. Being a good husband and a compassionate man, he set out on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1822 to make the requested purchase. Calling for his coachman and sleigh, he set out for the market, which was then in the Bowery section of town. It was cold and snowy in Manhattan and Moore sat back and composed a poem for his children, the meter of which was probably inspired by the sleigh bells… Later that evening, after dinner, he read the quickly composed poem to his family as a surprise present… Written only for the entertainment of his family, Moore probably put his original manuscript in a desk and forgot about it.. [The] next year, a family visitor to the Moore home by the name of Miss Harriet Butler (daughter of the Reverend David Butler of St. Paul’s Church in Troy, New York) was told about it by the Moore children. She copied the poem into her album and later gave a handwritten copy of it to the editor of the local newspaper, The Troy Sentinel where it was printed anonymously on December 23, 1823, with the editor-assigned title “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas.” The response to the poem was overwhelmingly positive and he reprinted it every year thereafter. Soon it was being printed and reprinted in almanacs, books, and school primers. It was not until 1837 that Moore allowed his name to be published as author and, in 1844, he included it in a published collection of his poetry.”

The Value of the Poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas”
Heritage Auctions sold a handwritten and signed copy of Moore’s famous poem for $255,000 on December 9, 1994. The buyer was Ralph Gadiel, founder of International Resourcing Services Company (Northbrook, IL) that marketed miniature Christmas village houses (Liberty Falls Collection) from 1990 to 1998. Gadiel died of cancer in 1998 and sold his company to another businessman. The Liberty Falls Collection, never regained its popularity and success and was eventually discontinued in 2008. The poem went up for auction again through Heritage Auctions on December 20, 2006. The auction house identified the buyer as a CEO of a media company who wanted to read it to friends and business associates at his holiday party held in his Manhattan apartment.

Twas the Night Before Christmas By the Numbers
Number of lines: 56
Number of words: 500
Meter: two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable (anapestic meter)
Number of reindeer: 8

First written: December 24, 1822
First published in newspaper: 1823

First published in a book: 1844
Poem is first illustrated: 1863
Number of hand-written copies of poem: 4 (3 are owned by museums; one is privately owned)
Value of a hand-written copy: $280,000
Value of a first edition of Poems: $15,000
Number of editions of “The Night Before Christmas” owned by the Carnegie Mellon Hunt Library: 400
Number of results for “The Night Before Christmas” on Amazon: over 6,000
Number of results for “The Night Before Christmas” on Google: 1.86 billion
Number of results for “The Night Before Christmas” on Google Books: 5.7 million

“Account of A Visit From St. Nicholas” as originally published in the Troy Sentinel (New York), on Tuesday, December 23, 1823
The poem, under the title “Account of A From St. Nicholas,” was printed with the following introduction, most likely written by the newspaper’s editor, Oroville Holley. Careful readers may note that in line 22 of the poem, two of the reindeer are named Dunder and Blixem. There are two explanations for this mistake: either the newspaper’s typesetter misread Harriet Butler’s handwriting or perhaps Butler transcribed Moore’s poem incorrectly; Moore used the names “Donner” and “Blitzen.”

“We know not to whom we are indebted for the following description of that unwearied patron of children—that homely, but delightful it personification of parental kindness—Sante Claus, his costume and his equipage, as he goes about visiting the fire-sides of this happy land, laden with Christmas bounties; but, from whomsoever it may have come, we give thanks for it. There is, to our apprehension, a spirit of cordial goodness in it, a playfulness of fancy, and a benevolent alacrity to enter into the feelings and promote the simple pleasures of children, which are altogether charming. We hope our little patrons, both lads and lasses, will accept it as proof of our unfeigned good will toward them —as a token of our warmest wish that they may have many a merry Christmas; that they may long retain their beautiful relish for those unbought, homebred joys, which derive their flavor from filial piety and fraternal love, and which they may be assured are the least alloyed that time can furnish them; and that they may never part with that simplicity of character, which is their own fairest ornament, and for the sake of which they have been pronounced, by authority which none can gainsay, the types of such as shall inherit the kingdom of heaven.”

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads,
And Mama in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap—
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprung from the bed to see what was the matter,
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters, and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new fallen snow,
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below;
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer, and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves before the wild hurricane fly,
When they-meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys—and St. Nicholas too:
And then in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound:
He was dress’d all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnish’d with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys was flung on his back,
And he look’d like a peddler just opening his pack:
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry,
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry;
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face, and a little round belly
That shook when he laugh’d, like a bowl full of jelly:
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laugh’d when I saw him in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And fill’d all the stockings; then turn’d with a jirk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.
He sprung to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle:
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight
Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.—

The Night After Christmas by Clement C. Moore
The Library at the General Theological Seminary in New York City owns several copies of the poem, including a first edition of Poems (1844) that is signed by Moore to the the Reverend Samuel Seabury; it reads: “To the Reverend Dr. Seabury, with the respect of his friend the author, July 1844.” The library also owns a copy of “The Night after Christmas” that is a follow-up to the original poem. The “Night after Christmas” was published anonymously after Moore’s death in 1863. The poem appears below:

Twas the night after Christmas, when all through the house
Every soul was in bed, and as still as a mouse;
Those stockings, so lately St. Nicholas’s care;
Were emptied of all that was eatable there;
The darlings had duly been tucked in their beds,
With very dull stomachs and pain in their heads;
I was dozing away in my new cotton cap,
And Fancy was rather far gone in a nap,
When out in the nursery arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my sleep, crying “What is the matter?”

I flew to each bedside, still half in a doze,
Tore open the curtains and threw off the clothes,
While the light of the taper served clearly to show
The piteous plight of those objects below;
But what to the fond father’s eyes should appear
But the little pale face of each little sick dear,
For each pet had crammed itself full as a tick,
And I knew in a moment now felt like old Nick.

Their pulses were rapid, their breathings the same;
What their stomachs rejected I’ll mention by name;
Now turkey, now stuffing, plum pudding of course,
And custards and crullers and cranberry sauce,
Before outraged nature all went to the wall;
Yes — lolypops, flapdoodle, dinner and all;
Like pellets that urchins from pop-guns let fly,
Went figs, nuts and raisins, jam, jelly and pie,
Till each error of diet was brought to my view-
To the shame of mamma, and of Santa Claus too.

I turned from the sight, to my bed room stepped back,
And brought out a phial marked “Pulv. Ipecac,”
When my Nancy exclaimed, for their sufferings shocked her,
“Don’t you think you had better, love, run for the doctor?”
I ran — and was scarcely back under my roof,
When I heard the sharp clatter of old Jalap’s hoof;
I might say that I had hardly turned myself around,
When the doctor came into the room with a bound.

He was covered with mud from his head to his foot,
And the suit he had on was his very worst suit;
He had hardly had time to put that on his back,
And he looked like a Falstaff half muddled with sack.
His eyes how they twinkled! Had the doctor got merry?
His cheeks looked like port and his breath smelt of sherry.
He hadn’t been shaved for a fortnight or so,
And his short chin wasn’t as white as the snow;
But inspecting their tongues in spite of their teeth,
And drawing his watch from his waistcoat beneath,
He felt of each pulse, saying “Each little belly
Must get rid” — here they laughed — “of the rest of that jelly.”

I gazed on each chubby, plump, sick little elf,
And groaned when he said so in spite of myself;
But a wink of his eye when he physicked our Fred,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.
He didn’t prescribe, but went straightway to work
And dosed all the rest; — gave his trousers a jerk,
And added directions while blowing his nose,
He buttoned his coat, from his chair he arose,
Then jumped in his gig, gave old Jalap a whistle,
And Jalap jumped off as if pricked by a thistle;
But the doctor exclaimed, ere he drove out of sight.
“They’ll be well by to-morrow; good night Jones, good night.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Story Behind “The Night Before Christmas”
The Origin of the Name Scrooge
The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
What is a First Edition of A Christmas Carol Worth?
The Story Behind “Twas The Night Before Christmas”
Adventures in Linguistics: Clitic

Words invented by Dickens

For further reading: Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous by Don Foster, Henry Holt (2000)
The World Encyclopedia of Christmas by Gerry Bowler, McClelland & Stewart (2000).
Diedrich Knickerbocker’s History of New York by Washington Irving, Easton Press (1980).
http://iment.com/maida//familytree/henry/xmas/poemvariants/troysentinel1823.htm
http://www.cmu.edu/cmnews/031217/031217_nitebefore.html
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17382/17382-h/17382-h.htm
theconversation.com/twas-the-night-before-christmas-helped-make-the-modern-santa-and-led-to-a-literary-whodunit-171637
http://www.americanantiquarian.org/Exhibitions/Christmas/nightafter.htm
http://www.sethkaller.com/about/educational/tnbc/
historical.ha.com/itm/autographs/authors/handwritten-and-signed-fair-copy-of-clement-clarke-moore-s-twas-the-night-before-christmas-the-only-one-in-private-hands-/a/629-25885.s
https://apnews.com/article/efdeb698d67ff9dbf0074e7410f1665e
https://www.telegram.com/story/news/local/north/2006/12/21/1860-christmas-poem-twas-sold/52998978007/
https://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/xmas/vsn/vsn01.htm

To learn more about Alexander Atkins Design please visit www.alexatkinsdesign.com

What Do You Call That Wonderful Old Book Smell?

alex atkins bookshelf booksA fews decades ago, in a top ten list of holiday gifts to give or receive, books were the number one gift. (Today, according to Statista, the top five gifts for consumers are: clothing, toys/hobbies, gift cards, and food.) One of the most cherished memories of those earlier times was visiting bookstores, especially used bookstores where holiday shoppers could delight in that wonderful, enchanting old book or bookstore smell. Any book lover knows what I am talking about — that initial blissful sight of countless stacks of books enriched by the aroma of old books. It’s hard to explain exactly — a bit of mustiness mixed with a hint of vanilla. A team of British chemists that tested the air surrounding old books using electronic sniffing equipment described the bouquet more precisely: “A combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.” Bingo. This is of course, a very different smell than walking into a bookstore that sells new books. There, the bibliophile immediately detects the “new book smell.” So what exactly creates the unique scent of old books?

The scent of a book is created by four main factors: paper (and the chemicals used to make it), ink, adhesives used to bind the book, and to a minor degree environment (the smells that paper absorbs during its lifetime). Let’s start with the paper. Paper is made of would pulp that is processed with many chemicals during its manufacturing — sodium hydroxide, hydrogen peroxide, alkyl ketene dimer (AKD), among several others. These chemicals, through their presence or reactions, contribute to the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which produce unique odors. The same thing happens with the chemicals found in the ink to print the book (e.g., AKD and hydrogen peroxide) and the adhesives used to bind the book (e.g., vinyl acetate ethylene). Since new books have not absorbed much of their environment (e.g., cigar smoke, coffee, mold etc.), this is not a critical factor for new books.

When it comes to old books, things become far more interesting, chemically speaking. The most salient factor in “old book smell” is the chemical breakdown of compounds within paper due to the presence of acids in the environment. Researchers at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage at University College London were interested in studying the smells that are a part of our cultural heritage. The scientists write: “We don’t know much about the smells of the past. Yet, odors play an important role in our daily lives: they affect us emotionally, psychologically and physically, and influence the way we engage with history. Can this lead us to consider certain smells as cultural heritage? And if so, what would be the processes for the identification, protection and conservation of those heritage smells?… The smell of historic paper was chosen as the case study, based on its well-recognized cultural significance and available research.” The scientists found that the breakdown of cellulose and lignin produces eight classes of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) depicted in their “Historic Book Odor Wheel” that shows these eight unique scents: smoky/burnt; fragrant/fruity/vegetable/flowers; medicinal; fishy/rancid; chemical/hydrocarbons; earthy/musty/moldy; sweet/spicy; grassy/woody. More specifically, the researchers identified the unique aromas of these key VOCs: benzaldehyde creates an almond scent; vanillin creates a vanilla scent; 2-ethyl hexanol creates a slightly floral scent; and ethyl benzene and toluene create sweet scents. In fact, some compounds, like furfural (which smells like almond), can even be used to determine the age of a book. Unlike a new book, an old book’s paper has had time to absorb some environmental odors (e.g., smoke, coffee, etc.) that can add to its rich aroma.

A rich, nuanced, and evocative aroma like this deserves a proper name, doesn’t it? Enter Dr. Oliver Tearle, an English professor at Loughborough University (UK) and author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lover’s Journey Through the Curiosities of History. Teale, a true bibliophile and scholar, introduces us to the word “bibliosmia” derived from the Greek words biblio (meaning “book”) and osme (meaning “scent, smell, or odor”). He writes, “Clearly ‘bibliosmia’ names something which people feel is an important part of the reading experience, and something which Bradbury’s ‘burned fuel’ cannot provide. In the supposed age of the e-book, bibliosmia is one of the key weapons of the resistance.” By ‘burned fuel,’ Teale is referring to an oft-quoted remark made by Ray Bradbury at BookExpo America (New York City, May 2008): “There is no future for e-books, because they are not books. E-books smell like burned fuel.” Ironically, this is after his publisher, Simon & Schuster, announced that they would be making thousands of titles available for the Kindle — including Fahrenheit 451. Awkward.

Coming up with a word for the smell of old books was also the subject of a discussion on Facebook post back in 2017. A contributor named Arun Prasad (writing with the user name “The Bookoholics”) wrote: “The most commonly used word to describe the smell of old books is ‘musty.’ However, there’s no defined word yet. A bibliophile refers to the smell [of old books] by the word ‘bibliochor.'” Prasad explains that the word was inspired by the beautiful word petrichor (introduced by Australian mineral chemists in 1964; petrichor is defined as the distinctive smell associated with the first rainfall after a long dry period), a word that combines the Greek word-forming element biblio- (meaning “book,” derived from biblion meaning “paper, scroll”) and from the Modern Latin word ichor or Greek word ikhor (meaning “ethereal fluid that flows in the veins of the gods.”) So now, dear reader, you have beautiful, wonderful words to define that pleasant, intoxicating smell of old books: bibliosmia and bibliochor.

This invites the question: if they can make “new car smell” sprays, why can’t they make “old book smell” sprays? No company has actually tried and succeeded; it remains the elusive Holy Grail of the burgeoning ebook market. In an article for The Guardian titled “Old Spines — Why We Love the Smell of Secondhand Books,” David Shariatmadari introduces two perfumes that evoke the smell of a used bookstore: Paperback (made by Demeter) and Dzing! (made by L’Artisan Parfumeur). in their fascinating book, Perfumes: The A-Z Guide, perfume critics Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez discuss how lignin, a polymer that stops trees from drooping and is chemically related to the molecule vanillin, is the key ingredient in Dzing! that evokes that alluring old book smell. The authors elaborate, “When made into paper and stored for years, it breaks down and smells good. Which is how divine providence has arranged for secondhand bookstores to smell like good-quality vanilla absolute, subliminally stoking a hunger for knowledge in all of us.” 

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: interestingliterature.com/2017/07/on-the-science-of-bibliosmia-that-enticing-book-smell/
theguardian.com/fashion/shortcuts/2015/nov/25/old-spines-why-love-smell-of-secondhand-books-perfume
http://www.colorado.edu/libraries/2020/05/01/science-behind-smell-books-explained-preservation
doaj.org/article/891aa13d1caa455ea8703ea4953ecce8
http://www.gordostuff.com/2008/06/do-e-books-smell-like-burned-fuel.html
http://www.statista.com/statistics/246589/holiday-gifts-to-be-bought-by-consumers-by-item/
m.facebook.com/thebookoholics/photos/the-most-commonly-used-word-to-describe-the-smell-of-old-books-is-musty-however-/1383423145109246/

To learn more about Alexander Atkins Design please visit www.alexatkinsdesign.com

The Best Gift for Book Lovers: A Christmas Book Advent Calendar

alex atkins bookshelf christmasOne of the most popular decorations in a home during the Christmas holiday season is the advent calendar. Advent calendars were introduced in Germany in the late 19th century. Since the birth of Christ is the most important date in the calendar for Christians, the advent calendar (from the Latin adventus, meaning “a coming or arrival”; in Church Latin it means “the coming of the Savior”) counts down the days until Christmas. Lutherans began by making chalk marks on their doors from December first to the 24th. There are two claims for the first advent calendar that bears some resemblance to the ones we see today: one claim is that protestant bookshop owner in Hamburg produced the first advent calendar. The other claim is that the mother of Gerhard Lang made the first advent calendar, cutting squares to reveal small sweets. Soon after, she added small doors adorned with pictures. By 1930, printers began printing advent calendars, often using biblical verses behind each door.

But a book lover is not that interested in sweets or biblical verses, or even sweet biblical verses. Moreover, everyone knows how challenging it is to shop for a book lover. Holiday shoppers meet the Christmas Book Advent Calendar: a basket (or box) filled with 25 gift-wrapped books about Christmas. Here are 25 classic literary works, modern novels, and anthologies that celebrate the spirit of Christmas, culminating in the greatest Christmas story of all time — Charles Dickens’ timeless novella, A Christmas Carol that has never been out of print. All these books are easy to find in paperback, hardback, or elegant leather-bound editions. Book lovers will be thrilled to count down to Christmas with these literary classics. Happy Holidays!

1. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
2. Letters From Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
4. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
5. The Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann
6. Old Christmas by Washington Irving
7. The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern
8. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
9. Christmas at Thompson Hall by Anthony Trollope
10. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum
11. A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd
12. Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies
13. Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
14. Silent Night: The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub
15. The Christmas Bookshop by Jenny Colgan
16. The Christmas Shoes by Donna VanLiere
17. The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans
18. The Penguin Book of Christmas Stories by Jessica Harrison
19. A Classic Christmas: A Collection of Timeless Stories and Poems by editors of Thomas Nelson
20. The Valancourt Book of Victorian Christmas Ghost Stories by Tara Moore
21. A Treasury of African American Christmas Stories by Bettye Collier-Thomas
22. Christmas Stories (Everyman’s Pocket Classics) by Diana Secker Tesdell
23. The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn
24. The Night Before Christmas by Nikolai Gogol
25. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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To learn more about Alexander Atkins Design please visit www.alexatkinsdesign.com

The Gift of 11 Cents that Made A Lifelong Reader

alex atkins bookshelf booksMost people who love books and reading can instantly recall from their youth a single book that opened the door to literature and changed their lives forever. One is reminded of Carl Jung’s concept of collective unconscious when one observes the deep sense of wonder and enchantment that washes over a reader’s face as they share this “literature discovery” story. You feel instantly connected to one another in this vast, universal community of fellow travelers along the seemingly infinite byways of literature… “wandering with our heroes and poets.”

I recently came across such a story in American historian Will Durant’s (1885-1981) fascinating autobiography titled Transition: A Mental Autobiography (1955). Durant and his wife, Ariel, are best known for their monumental work, The Story of Civilization. Written over four decades, encompassing 11 volumes, the series presents the compelling history of eastern and western civilizations. The series was a bestseller (2 million copies in nine languages) and the Durants won a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1968. What is remarkable about Durant’s “literature discovery” story is that it was the serendipitous conjunction of two experiences: encouragement from a friend and the kindness of a stranger — specifically a gift of 11 cents — that helped open the door to become a lifelong reader. Durant writes: 

“It was Irene [a friend from school] who introduced me to literature… One day I saw in Irene’s hand a book called Pickwick Papers. I opened it and was at once allured by the abundance of conversation it contained; here was a lively book and a juicy one and it was so immense-seven or eight hundred pages; surely the author had been paid by the page, and had had an extravagant wife. I thought it would be quite a feat to read such a volume through; perhaps I should be the first boy in the world to accomplish it. But what moved me most was that it was Irene’s book; it must be good if her soft hands had touched it and her bright eyes had traveled along its lines. I begged it from her, and that night, against the protest of my parents, I burned the midnight oil over the adventures of the Pickwick Club, and Sam Weller, and the fat boy who always fell asleep. O happy and undisillusioned Victorians! maligned and misunderstood, what a delight it must have been to watch the creation, week after week, of that incom­parable imaginary world! What a delight it was even now, across a thousand obscuring differences of land and speech and time, to know this vivacious style, this inexhaustible drama, this endless chain of existing incident! I read every word and marvelled that I had lived twelve years without discovering the book. I returned it to Irene, and begged her for more. 

“It’s all I have by Dickens,” she said, sorrowfully. “But Papa says he’ll get me David Copperfield for Christmas.” 

Christmas was several months away; I could not wait that long. Within a week I had managed to accumulate fourteen pennies; and armed with them I walked the three miles be­tween our new home in Arlington and Dressel’s book-store in Newark. I asked the grouchy old gentleman behind the counter for the cheapest edition of David Copperfield. He went into a rear room, worked his way precariously among stacks of brokendown books, and emerged with a copy that might have rivaled Ulysses’ wanderings. 

“I will let this go for twenty five cents,” he said, munifi­cently.

My heart was broke temporarily.

“But mister,” I said, with a politeness which I seldom achieved, “I’ve only got fourteen cents.” 

He was unmoved, and turned away to another customer. I looked longingly at the book, and helplessly at space in general. Then a tall handsome gentleman, whom I conceived as a millionaire philosopher but who turned out to be a butcher, came over to me and put his arm around my shoul­der.

“What do you want, sonny?” he said.

David Copperfield,” I replied. 

“How much do you need?” 

“Eleven cents.”

“Is that all? Here you are; when you get rich you can pay me back.” 

Fortunately, he is dead now. But I was so grateful that I could not speak. I accepted the eleven cents as a gift from God, and walked out of the store in a daze. I trudged home in ecstasy over the kindness of Providence, the goodness of human nature, and the pleasures in store for me in the 860 pages which I carried under my arm. 

From that day I became a tremendous reader. When every­body else in the house was asleep I would read on despite a thousand admonitions about the injury I was doing to my health, and the cost of gas. It is true that I lost something of my taste for sport, and more of my skill in it… But what a new universe I had found! I no longer lived in prosaic New Jersey; I wandered around the world with my heroes and my poets.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2022

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

Each year, contest receives more than 5,000 entries from all over the world — proving that there is no shortage of wretched writers vying for acclaim. The contest now has several subcategories, including adventure, crime, romance, and detective fiction. The winner gets bragging rights for writing the worst sentence of the year and a modest financial award of $150 — presumably for writing lessons.

Below are the winners of the 40th Annual Lyttoniad:

The Grand Prize winner was John Farmer of Aurora, Colorado:
“I knew she was trouble the second she walked into my 24-hour deli, laundromat, and detective agency, and after dropping a load of unmentionables in one of the heavy-duty machines (a mistake that would soon turn deadly) she turned to me, asking for two things: find her missing husband and make her a salami on rye with spicy mustard, breaking into tears when I told her I couldn’t help—I was fresh out of salami.”

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Jim Anderson of Flushing, Michigan:
“The detectives wore booties, body suits, hair nets, masks and gloves and longed for the good old days when they could poke a corpse with the toes of their wingtips if they damn well felt like it.”

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Peter Bjorkman of Rocklin, California:
“Prior to his CNN career, Wolf Blitzer slummed the gossip magazines, once inquiring of Hugh Grant’s then-wife, Liz Hurley, why he had never been in a film with Virginia Madsen, to which she replied, “Hugh’s afraid of Virginia, Wolf.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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For futher reading: https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/2022
Dark and Stormy Rides Again by Scott Rice, Penguin Books (1996)

The Beauty of Literature is that You Discover that You Belong

alex atkins bookshelf literature“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” 

From a letter written in 1938 by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his lover, Sheilah Graham. During the Great Depression, the popularity of his novels dramatically decreased. He needed to secure a steady income to pay for his wife’s (Zelda) psychiatric treatment for schizophrenia at an asylum, his estranged daughter’s (Scottie) college tuition (Vassar), and support his chronic drinking habit. Consequently, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in the mid 1930s to be a screenwriter for MGM. In 1936, Fitzgerald met Graham at a cocktail party held at the Garden of Allah, playground for the Hollywood elite (like Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe). For the next four years, Fitzgerald’s reputation continued to decline and his alcoholism got worse. He began work on his fifth novel, The Last Tycoon, where Graham served as his model for the character Kathleen. Graham tolerated Fitzgerald’s drunken binges and verbal abuse and encouraged him to embrace his talent and write. For her troubles, Fitzgerald provided Graham with a college education. Fitzgerald finally achieved sobriety in 1940, claiming that this time with Graham was one of the happiest times of their relationship; he died of a heart attack in December of that year. When he died, he was considered a failed alcoholic and his work was largely forgotten. Graham later wrote about her life and relationship with Fitzgerald in a book titled Beloved Infidel published in 1959. 

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Reading Teaches that the Things that Torment Us are the Things that Connect Us
The Comfort of Reading During Difficult Times
World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times
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The Parable of the Farmer and His Fate

Intriguing Connections: John Steinbeck, Route 66, and Sirup

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn October 1929, the collapse of the Stock Market ushered in the Great Depression. Its impact on the country was devastating: America’s GDP declined by 30%, unemployment reached more than 20% (about 15 million workers) leading to increased rates of poverty and homelessness, and almost 50% of banks failed. Even those who kept their jobs, lost about a third of their income. Adding to the crippling economic depression was a severe drought that brought destructive dust storms in the prairies of the country (an event known as “the Dust Bowl”), destroying over 100 million of acres of farmland. Unable to work the land, farmers lost their farmland and their homes. More than 200,000 families from the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, and adjacent areas in Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, piled their families and few belongings into cars and made the desperate exodus to California, hoping to find work and a better life.

A few years after the Great Depression ended, John Steinbeck published his most famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath (1939). The realist novel, that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, chronicled the plight of the migrant families fleeing the Dust Bowl seeking employment in California. Most of the migrants traveled on Route 66, which Steinbeck nicknamed the “Mother Road” in the novel. However, Route 66 is not just a setting in The Grapes of Wrath, it also serves as a profound symbol for escape and loss. In chapter 12, he describes the migrants’ journey that was filled with hardship and challenges:

“Highway 66 is the main migrant road. 66 — the long concrete path across the country, waving gently up and down on the map, from the Mississippi to Bakersfield — over the red lands and the gray lands, twisting up into the mountains, crossing the Divide and down into the bright and terrible desert, and across the desert to the mountains again, and into the rich California valleys.

66 is the path of a people in flight, refugees from dust and shrinking land, from the thunder of tractors and shrinking ownership, from the desert’s slow northward invasion, from the twisting winds that howl up out of Texas, from the floods that bring no richness to the land and steal what little richness is there. From all of these the people are in flight, and they come into 66 from the tributary side roads, from the wagon tracks and the rutted country roads. 66 is the mother road, the road of flight.

…And 66 goes on over the terrible desert, where the distance shimmers and the black center mountains hang unbearably in the distance. At last there’s Barstow, and more desert until at last the mountains rise up again, the good mountains, and 66 winds through them. Then suddenly a pass, and below the beautiful valley, below orchards and vineyards and little houses, and in the distance a city. And, oh, my God, it’s over.

The people in flight streamed out on 66, sometimes a single car, sometimes a little caravan. All day they rolled slowly along the road, and at night they stopped near water. In the day ancient leaky radiators sent up columns of steam, loose connecting rods hammered and pounded. And the men driving the trucks and the overloaded cars listened apprehensively. How far between towns? It is a terror between towns. If something breaks — well, if something breaks we camp right here while Jim walks to town and gets a part and walks back and — how much food we got?”

Route 66, Steinbeck’s “Mother Road,” begins in Chicago, Illinois and cuts across seven states to reach Santa Monica, California, covering more than 2,448 miles. Route 66 (originally named Route 60) was the brainchild of two midwest businessmen: Cyrus Avery (known as the “Father of Route 66”) from Tulsa, Oklahoma and John Thomas Woodruff from Springfield, Missouri. Together, they lobbied the Associated Highways Association of America to build a commercial highway from Chicago to Los Angeles to link the small towns (supporting local stores and farms) of the midwest with the major markets on either end. The idea was that thousands of travelers would support all the local stores (and the farms that supplied these stores) that lined the Main Street of each small town; thus the highway was also known as the “Main Street of America.” Route 66 was officially started in 1926 upgrading dirt and gravel roads as well as building new connecting roadways. Once the highway was completed, it had a huge economic impact on all the towns — small and large — that were located along or near its path.

One of those small towns where Route 66 passes nearby is Funk’s Grove, located in central Illinois, which is named after its earliest settlers, Isaac and Absalom Funk, who arrived in the state in 1824. One of the most famous small businesses in town is Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup which has been producing Maple Sirup from the local sugar maple trees since 1891. I know what you’re thinking: sirup is a typo — it should be spelled “syrup.” There are actually two types of syrup with different spellings. If you visit the quaint Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup store you will see a handwritten sign that provides the following explanation:

WHY DO WE SPELL SIRUP WITH AN “I”?
Historically, and according to [Noah] Webster, “sirup” was the preferred spelling when referring to the product made by boiling sap. “Syrup” with a “y”, however, was defined as the end product of adding sugar to fruit juice. Though the “i” spelling is no longer commonly used, the United States Department of Agriculture and Canada also still use it when referring to pure maple sirup. Hazel Funk Holmes, whose trust continues to preserve and protect this timber for maple sirup production, insisted on the “i” spelling during her lifetime. It’s another tradition that will continue at Funk’s Grove.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Fiction is A Compassion-Generating Machine

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth. Is life kind or cruel? Yes, literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of ‘Open the Hell Up.’”

American writer George Saunders, from a talk on the transformative power of the short story, sponsored by Seattle Arts & Lecture (March 24, 2014). Saunders is best known for his short stories and essays. His novel, Lincoln in the Bardo published in 2017, won the Man Booker Prize. Many literary critics consider it to be one of the best novels of that period. In an interview with The Guardian (March 4, 2017), Saunders explains the inspiration for the deeply poignant novel: “Many years ago, during a visit to Washington DC, my wife’s cousin pointed out to us a crypt on a hill and mentioned that, in 1862, while Abraham Lincoln was president, his beloved son, Willie, died, and was temporarily interred in that crypt, and that the grief-stricken Lincoln had, according to the newspapers of the day, entered the crypt ‘on several occasions’ to hold the boy’s body. An image spontaneously leapt into my mind – a melding of the Lincoln Memorial and the Pietá. I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read ‘Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt,’ decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion — no commitments.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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Reading Makes Immigrants of Us All

alex atkins bookshelf booksTo celebrate National Read Across America Day, an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association, Atkins Bookshelf shares this timeless reflection on reading — and ultimately inclusion and acceptance — by American author and editor Hazel Rochman, who grew up in South Africa during the dark days of apartheid (emphasis added to last lines):

“Apartheid has tried to make us bury our books. The Inquisition and the Nazis burned books. Slaves in the United States were forbidden to read books. From Latin America to Eastern Europe, they’ve trashed books. But the stories are still here.

I believe that the best books can make a difference in building community….

As an immigrant, I’m still unable to take for granted the freedoms of the First Amendment. In Johannesburg I worked as a journalist, and over many years I saw freedom of thought and expression whittled away until it was forbidden to criticize the government or even to ask questions about children detained and tortured without trial. The result of that kind of censorship is that most people can shut out, can not know, what is happening all around them.

Walls were what apartheid was about. Walls and borders…

Borders shut us in, in Johannesburg, in Los Angeles, in Eastern Europe, in our own imaginations. The best books can help break down that apartheid. They surprise us — whether they are set close to home or abroad. They change how we see ourselves; they extend that phrase ‘like me’ to include what we thought was strange and foreign.

Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but, most importantly, it finds homes for us everywhere.”

From the essay “Against Borders” that appeared in The Horn Book Magazine, March/April 1995 issue, by Hazel Rochman. Rochman is an assistant editor at ALA Booklist and author of several books, including Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa (1988) and Bearing Witness: Stories of the Holocaust (1995).

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Reading Teaches that the Things that Torment Us are the Things that Connect Us
The Comfort of Reading During Difficult Times
World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times
The Power of Literature
The Poems We Turn To
The Parable of the Farmer and His Fate

Why Is So Little Known About Shakespeare’s Life?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureAlthough he is considered the greatest dramatist in English literature, little is truly known about William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Like some of the most famous characters in his plays, he remains “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” — to borrow Winston Churchill phrase [Churchill was actually referring to Russia in 1939, after they had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact, at the beginning of WWI]. The scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library describe the challenges that biographers and scholars face when writing about Shakespeare: “Since William Shakespeare lived more than 400 years ago, and many records from that time are lost or never existed in the first place, we don’t know everything about his life… We do know that Shakespeare’s life revolved around two locations: Stratford and London. He grew up, had a family, and bought property in Stratford, but he worked in London, the center of English theater. As an actor, a playwright, and a partner in a leading acting company, he became both prosperous and well-known. Even without knowing everything about his life, fans of Shakespeare have imagined and reimagined him according to their own tastes.” In his seminal work, The Facts About Shakespeare (1913), William Neilson adds this context: “In the time of Shakespeare, the fashion of writing lives of men of letters had not yet arisen. The art of biography could hardly be said to be even in its infancy, for the most notable early examples [Wolsey; Sir Thomas More]… are far from what the present age regards as scientific biography. The preservation of official records makes it possible for the modern scholar to reconstruct with considerable fullness the careers of public men; but in the case of Shakespeare, as of others of his profession, we must needs be content with a few scrappy documents, supplemented by oral traditions of varying degrees of authenticity.”

Despite this lack of biographical information, hundreds of biographies have been written about Shakespeare which are based on inferences gleaned from his body of work (“decoding” his plays), contemporary images (illustrations, maps, portraits), and his actual history (limited to about 60-70 actual facts that can be verified by documentary evidence, such as church records, parish records, court cases, wills, memoirs, letters, written accounts and anecdotes). It is from these “scrappy documents” that allows biographers to reimagine the Swan of Avon.

One of those reimagined biographies is by British novelist Anthony Burgess, best known for his violent dystopian novel Clockwork Orange, who published his speculative biography (or biographical novel) of Shakespeare in 1970. In the book’s foreward, Burgess writes: “I know that, as the materials available for a Shakespeare biography are very scanty, it is customary to make up the weight with what Dr Johnson would have termed encomiastic rhapsodies, but we are all tired of being asked to admire Shakespeare’s way with vowels or run-on lines or to thrill at the modernity of his philosophy or the profundity of his knowledge of the human heart… What I claim here is the right of every Shakespeare-lover who has ever lived to paint his own portrait of the man… Given the choice between two discoveries — that of an unknown play by Shakespeare and that of one of Will’s laundry lists — we would all plump for the dirty washing every time. That Shakespeare persists in presenting so shadowy a figure… is one of our reasons for pursuing him.”

Like Burgess, Isaac Asimov, the American writer best known for his popular science-fiction novels, was fascinated by the life and works of Shakespeare. Asimov was an amazingly prolific writer, having published more than 500 books during his career. One of those was Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, published in 1978 (and republished several times thereafter) that explores Shakespeare’s 38 plays scene-by-scene including their historical, geographical, and mythological contexts; it also provides insights into the two narrative poems. In a later reference work, Asimov addressed the dearth of information about Shakespeare’s life: “It wasn’t until the Restoration [the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, when King Charles II returned from an exile in continental Europe in 1660], which began nearly half a century after Shakespeare’s death, that anyone began to write about the bard. Biographically, it was too late; Shakespeare’s colleagues and acquaintances were dead, and the conditions under which he had worked were completely different. In addition, the world’s most distinguished playwright left no words about himself.” And that is perhaps the greatest irony in English literature: that the greatest writer who left the world such timeless and influential dramas, using language with such beauty, power, and eloquence, never left a single word about himself.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
Who Are the Greatest Characters in Shakespeare?
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare
Shakespeare and Uranus
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For further reading:
Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess
The Facts About Shakespeare by William Neilson
Outlines of the Life of Shakespeare by J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps
William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Volume 1-2) by E. K. Chambers
Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov’s Book of Facts by Isaac Asimov
The Truth About William Shakespeare: Fact, Fiction and Modern Biographies by David Ellis

Nine Lives of William Shakespeare by Graham Hoderness
Shakespeare Survey (Volume 70): Creating Shakespeare edited by Peter Holland

shakespearedocumented.folger.edu
anthonyburgess.org/anthony-burgess-and-shakespeare/

A Heroine’s Self-Education in a Hidden Library

alex atkins bookshelf books“Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret-room
Pile high with cases in my father’s name,
Piled high, packed large, —where, creeping in
and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,

Like some small nimble mouse between the
ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,

An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books! At last because the time was ripe,
I chanced upon the poets.”

From Aurora Leigh (1857), an epic poem/novel written in blank verse by American poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The novel, broken up into nine chapters, is narrated by the heroine, Aurora Leigh, who describes her childhood, growing up in Florence, London, and Paris. Since her mother died when she was young, Aurora’s father raised her. He was a scholar and shared his passion for Greek and Latin and inspired her love of learning. When she was thirteen, her father died and she moved to London to be raised by her aunt. At the aunt’s home, Aurora discovers her father’s hidden library where she begins her self-education through the works of Shakespeare and all the great writers. She pursues a literary career as a poet and eventually marries Romney Leigh, a philanthropist. Aurora reflects on the significance of poetry as well as the individual’s responsibility to society. English art critic and writer John Ruskin believed that Aurora Leigh was the greatest poem of the 19th century.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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What was the Most Checked Out Book at a Library in 2021?

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. Last year, the New York Public Library began keeping track of the most checked out books of the year. For 2021, the librarians looked at the circulation data from all three branches (Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island) to develop their list of the most checked out books (including printed and e-books) for 2021:

1. The Vanishing Half: A Novel by Brit Bennett

2. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

3. Klara and the Sun: A Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

4. A Promised Land by Barack Obama

5. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

6. The Guest List: A Novel by Lucy Foley

7. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

8. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

9. The Other Black Girl: A Novel by Zakiya Dalila Harris

10. Malibu Rising: A Novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The editors of Quartz, an online business magazine, conducted a survey to find out the most checked out book among all U.S. public libraries. Although there are 9,057 public libraries in the U.S. (116,867 total if you included special, armed forces, and government libraries), they focused on public libraries in major cities. Based on the data from 14 libraries that responeded, here are the most popular U.S. library books of 2021:

1. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

2. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

3. The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

4. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Deep End by Jeff Kinney

5. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

6. The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

7. A Promised Land by Barack Obama

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: The Most Assigned Books in College Classrooms
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The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
A Beautiful, Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library

For further reading: http://www.nypl.org/spotlight/top-checkouts-2021
qz.com/2102283/the-most-popular-us-library-books-of-2021/

 

Melville’s Obituary Misspelled Moby-Dick

alex atkins bookshelf literatureHerman Melville — American novelist, short-story writer, and poet — was born in New York City on August 1, 1819 and died, at the age of  72 on September 28, 1891. He is best known for his seafaring tales: Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), White Jacket (1850), Moby-Dick; or The Whale (1851), White Jacket, and Billy Budd, Sailor, published posthumously in 1891. Melville wrote many short stories, but his most famous one is “Bartleby, the Scrivener” published in 1853. But of course, the literary work that endures, because it is considered one of the Great American Novels, is Moby-Dick. Although millions of students have not read the novel from cover to cover (resorting to study guides — you know who you are), they know its first line: “Call me Ishmael.” — one of the most famous sentences in American literature.

The novel Moby-Dick was inspired by several nautical events and literary influences. The most direct influence on the novel was Melville’s 18 months of experience aboard the commercial whaling ship, Acushnet, where at the age of 21, he learned about whaling first-hand. Melville was fascinated with the stories of Mocha Dick, a giant albino sperm whale that swam the waters surrounding Mocha Island, near the central coast of Chile. Mocha Dick was extremely aggressive and sank nearly two dozen ships between 1810 and 1838, when he was killed while coming to the aid of a distressed a female whale (known as a cow) whose calf had been killed by whalers. Melville was also fascinated by the tragedy of the Essex, a whaling ship that was rammed and sunk by a large sperm whale on November 20, 1820. The crew of the Essex scrambled onto three whaleboats and drifted more than 3,000 miles, resorting to cannibalism to survive. One of the eight survivors wrote about this tragic event, publishing the Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex in 1821. The two major literary influences on the novel, on the other hand, were William Shakespeare and the Bible.

Unfortunately, Moby-Dick was a critical and commercial failure in its time: critics and readers did not know what to make of this lengthy (635 pages), complex, multi-layered theological, philosophical, and psychological work. As John Bryant and Haskell Springer noted in the Longman Critical Edition (2009), the language in Moby-Dick is allusive as the great white whale; the language is “nautical, biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Miltonic, cetological, alliterative, fanciful, colloquial, archaic and unceasingly allusive.” To quote Ahab’s own words: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate.” In his lifetime, Melville only earned about $1,259 on the sale of 3,215 copies of the novel. Unable to support himself solely as an author, Melville had to take a job as a customs inspector. By the time Melville died, most of his novels had gone out of print. When Melville died on September 28, 1891, there was barely a notice of his death and little acknowledgment of the most famous American novel. Even worse, the extremely short obituary in the New York Times misspelled Moby-Dick — can you imagine that? The obituary reads “Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East Twenty-sixth Street, this city, of heart failure, aged seventy-two. He was the author of ‘Typee,’ “Omoo,’ ‘Mobie Dick’ and other seafaring tales, written in earlier years.” Moreover, the obituary identified Melville as “one of the founders of Navesink, N.J.”; “a civil engineer”; “a special partner in the picture-importing firm of Reichard & Co.”; “the best known criminal lawyer in Connecticut”; and “the oldest resident of the Oranges” before identifying him as an author. On October 2, 1891, the editors, perhaps feeling remorse for not giving this talented author his due, wrote a subsequent piece: “There has died and been buried in this city, during the current week, at an advanced age, a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines. Yet forty years ago the appearance of a new book by Herman Melville was esteemed a literary event.”

It wasn’t until the centennial of Melville’s birth, 1919, when American biographer and critic Carl Van Doren (his biography of Benjamin Franklin won the 1939 Pulitzer Prize for Biography) bought a copy of Moby-Dick at a used bookstore (probably for a few pennies, since the first edition cost $1.50; today, a first edition of Moby-Dick fetches up to $75,000!) and recognized his genius. Van Doren wrote: [Moby-Dick is] one of the greatest sea romances in the whole literature of the world.” This initiated the Melville revival, ushering renewed interest and in-depth study of the author and his works. The first full-length biography of Melville, titled Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic by Raymond Weaver, was published in 1921. Over the following decades, Melville’s Moby-Dick was widely recognized as one of the Great American Novels in the canon of American literature.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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Moby Dick by the numbers
When You Don’t Have Time to Read the Classics: Moby-Dick
Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: Moby-Dick

For further reading: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville
Melville: His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco
mobydick-hermanmelville.com/Media_Reviews_News_Archives_Latest_Publications/New_York_Times200Years_Of_Herman_Melville%27s_Obituary_Death.html
https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2011/11/14/herman-melville-a-voyage-into-history/
https://melville.electroniclibrary.org/moby-dick-side-by-side

The Wisdom of the Epigraph

alex atkins bookshelf literatureAn epigraph is a short motto or quotation that appears at the beginning of a book that suggests the book’s theme or tome. The word is derived from the Greek word epigraphe from epigraphein which means “write on.” In the captivating little tome, The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin, Rosemary Ahern notes: “For many book lovers, there is no more pleasing start to a book than a well-chosen epigraph. These intriguing quotations, sayings, and snippets of songs and poems do more than set the tone for the experience ahead: the epigraph informs us about the author’s sensibility… The epigraph hints at hidden stories and frequently comes with one of its own.” In addition, as you read the more than 250 epigraphs that Ahern has collected, you quickly realize that authors are also readers — just like you. And while most authors preface their literary works with one or two epigraphs, Herman Melville clearly went overboard (pun intended) by including nearly 80 in the American edition of his magnum opus Moby Dick; however the editor of the British edition included only one. Below are some notable epigraphs that not only set the tone for a literary work but stand alone as a timeless pearl of wisdom.

“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once.” [Essay titled “The Old Benchers of the Inner Temple” found in Essays of Elia (1823) by Charles Lamb]
Appears in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

“There is no present of future — only the past, happening over and over again—now.” [A Moon for the Misbegotten by Eugene O’Neill]
Appears in Trinity (1976) by Leon Uris

“It is certain my Conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe it.” [Novalis]
Appears in Lord Jim (1900) by Joseph Conrad

“Taking it slowly fixes everything.” [Ennuis]
Appears in The Red and the Black (1830) by Stendahl

“Life treads on life, and heart on heart;
We press too close in church and mart
To keep a dream of grave apart.”  [“A Vision of the Poet” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning]
Appears in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W.E.B. Du Bois

“O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but
exhaust the limits of the possible” [Pythian II by Pindar]
Appears in The Myth of Sisyphus (1942) by Albert Camus

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mold me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?” [Paradise Lost, Book X, 743-45, by John Milton]
Appears in Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley

“As long as hope maintains thread of green.” [The Divine Comedy, Purgatory, III by Dante]
Appears in All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

“There Leviathan,
Hugest of living creatures, in the deep
Stretch’d like a promontory sleeps or swims,
And seems a moving land; and at his gills
Draws in, and at this breath spouts out a sea.” [Paradise Lost, Book VII, 412-416 by John Milton]
Appears in The Whale, the three-volume British edition of Moby-Dick (1851)

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin by Rosemary Ahern (2012)
http://www.angelfire.com/nv/mf/elia1/benchers.htm
https://www.paradiselost.org/8-Search-All.html

Famous Letters: Ralph Waldo Emerson Praises Walt Whitman

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhen Walt Whitman first published Leaves of Grass in 1855, he lamented that his collection of twelve poems, celebrating nature and man, was completely ignored by critics and the public — until a famous American writer and philosopher, whom he had never met, wrote a letter of support and helped launch his career. That letter was written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Harvard-educated essayist, philosopher, and father of Transcendentalism. In addition to writing many essays during his career, Emerson was a prolific letter writer — when he died, he left his executor more than 4,000 letters. The one that appears below, written on July 21, 1855, was one of the most famous. It was printed in the New York Tribune and included in Whitman’s second edition of Leaves of Grass published in 1856. In the letter, Emerson (then 52 years old) greets Whitman (36 years old) at the start of his career, praises Leaves of Grass, and expresses his wish to meet him in New York to pay his respects.

Concord, Massachusetts
July 21, 1855

Dear Sir,
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fat & mean.

I give you the joy of your free & brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights us, & which larger perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which you must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illustration; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real & available for a Post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay you my respects.

R. W. Emerson.

Now that’s what you call a true fan letter. The letter touched Whitman deeply; he wrote: “I was simmering, simmering. Emerson brought me to a boil.” [The contemporary reader might think, “Wow, the letter made Whitman angry;” however, that’s not what Whitman meant; to paraphrase in more modern terms, Whitman was “brimming with excitement.”] Emerson’s letter certainly helped increase sales of Leaves of Grass, but did not completely quell the controversy about the poems explicit sexual imagery (considered “obscene”), which was way ahead of its time. In a postscript to the letter, Max Lincoln Schuster (one of the founders of Simon & Schuster and Pocket Books) elaborates: “The endorsement of so famous and respected a philosopher helped to sell the book but did not too greatly impress a public, outraged and rather vitriolic in its abuse of both the poems and the poet. Soon after writing this letter, Emerson met Whitman. Although the two men were separated by a world of culture and tradition… nevertheless their mutual admiration lasted all their lives.” Little did both men know, but Emerson’s instincts about Whitman’s work was spot on: over the centuries, Leaves of Grass entered the pantheon of great American poetry and has been studied in high schools and colleges around the world. Whitman would take great satisfaction in knowing that many generations found profound insights and inspiration in poems like “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

For further reading: The World’s Great Letters by M. Lincoln Schuster

What to Bookmark in Moby Dick (Part 2)

alex atkins bookshelf literatureFine books are often bound with a ribbon bookmark. Bookmarks in books were introduced as early as 1 A.D., bound into some of the earliest codices found in libraries and monasteries of that period. The primary function of the bookmark, of course, is to the mark the reader’s place in the book as he or she reads it. However, once the book is read, the bookmark has a secondary and very important function: it can be placed in the location of a favorite or beautiful passage that you want to return to again and again.

Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby Dick,  is considered “The Great American Novel” however its themes and meaning transcend the shores of America. The novel is literally teeming with meaning and brilliant insights. One wishes the book were bound with two dozen ribbon bookmarks. If you have read and studied the novel you know what I mean. Recently, I reached for one of my copies of Moby Dick, a beautiful deluxe leather-bound edition with gilded fore-edges published by Easton Press. The silk ribbon marked a passage in the book from Chapter 60, “The Line.” In this chapter, Ishmael, the novel’s pensive narrator, discusses the importance of the whale-line, a rope made of hemp that is attached to a large harpoon at one end and at the other end, tied to the whale boat or to the lines of other whale boats:

“Again: as the profound calm which only apparently precedes and prophesies of the storm, is perhaps more awful than the storm itself; for, indeed, the calm is but the wrapper and envelope of the storm; and contains it in itself, as the seemingly harmless rifle holds the fatal powder, and the ball, and the explosion; so the graceful repose of the line, as it silently serpentines about the oarsmen before being brought into actual play — this is a thing which carries more of true terror than any other aspect of this dangerous affair. But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life. And if you be a philosopher, though seated in the whale-boat, you would not at heart feel one whit more of terror, than though seated before your evening fire with a poker, and not a harpoon, by your side.”

What we learn from this passage is how dangerous the whale-line is: as the rope unwinds from its coil, it can quickly wrap around a limb and sever it. Even worse, the whale-line can wrap around a seaman’s torso and fling him into the ocean (where he will most likely drown) or the rope can wind around his neck and strangle him. Ishmael observes that “all men live enveloped in whale-lines.” Therefore, the whale-line not only represents the real dangers of whaling but also, metaphorically, the perils of life that all men must face. In other words, we must navigate life’s path, carefully stepping over and avoiding these inescapable, ever-present whale-lines that threaten to trip us up or lead us to our doom. As we learn in Chapter 135, Captain Ahab meets his poetic demise at the end of a such a rope: “The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the grooves; — ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him round the neck, and voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim, he was shot out of the boat, ere the crew knew he was gone. Next instant, the heavy eye-splice in the rope’s final end flew out of the stark-empty tub, knocked down an oarsman, and smiting the sea, disappeared in its depths.”

A reader recommended a very relevant video titled, Down to the Sea Sea in Ships (1922) by Elmer Clifton. If you forward to the 1:00 mark, you can watch a whaler throw a harpoon and see how the whale-line unwinds as the whale pulls it forward. The film, inspired by Moby-Dick, was filmed in New Beford, Massachusetts. Go to YouTube and search “Down to the Sea in Ships.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related post: Why Read Moby
The Books That Shaped America
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For further reading: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville
Melville: His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco

We Are the Sum of All the Moments of Our Lives

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“But we are the sum of all the moments of our lives — all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape or conceal it. If the writer has used the clay of life to make his book, he has only used what all men must, what none can keep from using. Fiction is not fact, but fiction is fact selected and understood, fiction is fact arranged and charged with purpose. Dr. Johnson remarked that a man would turn over half a library to make a single book: in the same way, a novelist may turn over half the people in a town to make a single figure in his novel. This is not the whole method but the writer believes it illustrates the whole method in a book that is written from a middle distance and is without rancour or bitter intention.” 

From the preliminary note to the reader in Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life by Thomas Wolfe. Unlike his contemporaries (e.g., William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck), Wolfe remains one of the most overlooked 20th-century novelists. Nevertheless, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929, is a stunning literary achievement: a deeply felt and beautifully written Bildungsroman about a restless young man (Eugene Gant, a character based on the author) from North Carolina who yearns for a meaningful intellectual life. The novel covers the period from the protagonist’s birth to his leaving home in his late teens. Wolfe originally titled the novel The Building of a Wall, and then O Lost. Famed scribner editor Maxwell Perkins suggested a different title. For the final title, Wolfe was inspired by John Milton’s poem “Lycidas” which includes the lines: “Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth: / And, O ye Dolphins, waft the hapless youth.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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Franz Kafka: The Storyteller

 

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt would be perhaps Kafkaesque to walk into a used bookstore and not find a fairly large section of books by and about one of the most influential writers of the 20th-century: Franz Kafka (1883-1924). American author John Updike regards him this way: “So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament.”

Fortunately, editions of Kafka’s novels and short stories abound. Perhaps the best collection of Kafka’s short stories was published by Schocken Books in 1983, marking the centennial of the author’s birth. The book, titled Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories, was edited by Nahum Glatzer with a forward by John Updike. This collection brings together all of Kafka’s stories, parables, and shorter pieces that were only released after his death. With the exception of his three novels (The Metamorphosis, The Trial, and The Castle), all of Kafka’s narrative work is included in this book. Updike’s foreword is excellent, however a far more insightful foreword was written by Joyce Carol Oates for the simultaneous publication of the paperback edition (Quality Paperback Book Club), which is now quite difficult to find. Kafka fans, students, and scholars alike will surely benefit from reading Oates’ exploration of the brilliant writer and his mesmerizing work. Below are some key excerpts:  

“It would be an illuminating if arduous task to tabulate how frequently, and in what surprising contexts, one encounters the adjective “Kafkan” or “Kafkaesque” in the space of a single year-words that entered our language, presumably, only since the Forties, when Kafka’s translated works began to find their public. One always knows immediately what the words mean (as one always knows what Franz Kafka himself “means”) but how to explain to another person? — how to make clear that which is frankly cloudy, mysterious, inexpicable? As Kafka wittily observed in “On Parables”: “All these parables really set out to say merely that the incomprehensible is incomprehensible, and we know that already. But the cares we have to struggle with every day: that is a different matter.” 

Though the words “Kafkan” and “Kafkaesque” invariably point to paradox and human frustration, and suggest childhood memories of terrifying disproportion, it is the case nonetheless that Franz Kafka’s stories and parables are not at all difficult to read and to understand. (To explain — that is another matter: but a peripheral one.) In fact, one might claim that alone among the greatest of twentieth-century writers Kafka is immediately accessible. His unique yet powerfully familiar world can be entered by any reader and comprehended feelingly at once, regardless of background or literary training. (In fact, unsophis­ticated — which is to say unprejudiced-readers respond to Kafka most directly, as he would have wished. Perceptive teenagers love him not because he is “one of the great moderns” but be­cause he speaks their private language by speaking so boldly in his own.) Kafka is no more difficult than any riddle, or fairy tale, or Biblical parable, though of course he can be made to seem so by persons intent on claiming him for their own. 

To open to virtually any of Kafka’s stories or parables, how­ever, is to discover a marvelously direct and uncluttered lan­guage. The voice is frequently meditative, ruminative, quibbling, comically obsessed with minutiae; it ponders, it broods, it at­tempts to explain that which can be explained-while in the background the Incomprehensible looms (“and we know that already”). Kafka is a master of opening sentences, frontal attacks that have left their enduring marks upon our general cultural sensibility; for many admirers of Kafka their admiration­indeed, their capitulation to his genius — began with a first read­ing of [the first sentences of his classic stories]….

It is characteristic of Kafka’s nightmare logic that everything follows swiftly and inevitably from these remarkable first prem­ises. The reader, like the Kafka protagonist, is drawn irresistibly along by a subterranean coherence. (Is there “free will” in Kafka’s universe? Must one deserve his fate? As the priest in­forms Joseph K. in the melancholy penultimate chapter of The Trial: “It is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”) 

Kafka’s famous short stories, though they have proven alarm­ingly fertile for every sort of exegesis, are primarily tales­genuine tales — in which things happen. Dream-like in tone, they are not whimsically haphazard or aleatory in their development: Gregor Samsa really has metamorphosed into a dung-beetle; the officer of the Penal Colony will sacrifice his very life in the service of his “apparatus”; the doomed country doctor will have his adventure tending a wounded boy, after which he will wander forever exposed to “the frost of this most unhappy of ages.” In an early story, “The Judgment,” a willful young man is sentenced to death by his father’s simple pronouncement: “I sentence you now to death by drowning!” And in “A Hunger Artist” the dying “artist” of fasting confesses that he is not superior to other human beings after all-he fasts only because he has never found the food he liked. 

In other works of Kafka’s, the parables and certain longer pieces like “The Great Wall of China” and “Investigations of a Dog,” plot is subordinate to what one might call the dialectic or discursive voice. These tales, though less compelling on the superficial level than those cited above, exert by degrees a re­markable inner power. With no introduction one is plunged into an interior obsessive landscape, and carried along by the sheer flow of thought of an alien-but oddly sympathetic-conscious­ness. (“This is too much for the human mind to grasp,” Einstein is said to have remarked to Thomas Mann, regarding Kafka’s short prose pieces.) 

The parables or shorter stories resemble Zen koans in their teasing simplicity, but they are unmistakably Jewish-even lawyerly — in the mock-formal nature of their language. (See “The Animal in the Synagogue,” “Abraham,” “Before the Law,” etc.) These are ingenious arguments or mimicries of argument; anecdotes so undetermined by history and locality that they come to possess the beauty (and the impersonal cruelty) of folk ballads or fairy tales. Their wisdom is childlike yet as old as the race, pruned of all sentiment and illusion. In “Prometheus,” for instance, four legends are briefly considered, with equal empha­sis, whereupon “the gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.” But there remained, still, the “in­explicable.” Which is to say — the legend, or the riddle, simply outlives its principal figures. 

The famous parables “Before the Law” and “An Imperial Message” seem to have been written in response to an identical motive, but provide an illuminating contrast with each other. In the first (which is incorporated in The Trial), a “man from the country” is denied admittance to the Law despite the fact that he submits himself to its authority. He is faithful, he is indefat­igable, he even follows tradition of a sort in attempting to bribe his Doorkeeper — all to no avail. The radiance that streams “inextinguishably” from the gateway of the Law never includes him: he dies unredeemed. The Doorkeeper’s final words are: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.” A typically Kafkan irony: the gateway is the means of salvation, yet it is also inaccessible. 

Is the Law an expression of God? — any projected form of the Divine? — of order, coherence, collective or personal salvation? Is the Law merely a private obsession that has shaded into mad­ness? Can one in fact believe the Doorkeeper? — or the parable itself? It might be said that the hapless “man from the country” has been waiting for admittance to his own life, which, as a consequence of his obsession, he has failed to live. Or, conversely, it might be argued that the Law represents his own soul, the “kingdom of God” that lies within. Even in wholly secular terms, the man in his single-minded quest may have failed to realize the fullest flowering of his personality: his relationship to all humanity has been, in fact, only by way of the intrepid Doorkeeper…

While “Before the Law” seems to offer no hope whatsoever, the companion parable “An Imperial Message” offers an unex­pected revelation. The Emperor has sent a message to you but the messenger is impeded by the vast multitudes between the two of you — ”if he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly! “— he wears out his strength in his effort-it is soon clear that the entire mission is hopeless — and the Emperor him­self has long since died. A familiar Kafkan predicament, except for this puzzling final line: “But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream [the message] to yourself.” So the Emperor’s wisdom, after all, lies within…

Kafka’s mysticism assured him that such salvation was pos­sible, even inevitable, though he was to be excluded: his sense of personal guilt precedes all action. That in his father’s eyes he was contemptible, that his writing counted for very little, that his personal misfortune (his tubercular condition, for instance) was related in some mysterious way to his own will, his own secret wish — all these factors set Franz Kafka apart from what he chose to think of as the happiness of normal life: the effortless salvation of those who live without questioning the basic prem­ises of their lives. The “man from the country” is both hero and victim, saint and fool, but he is certainly isolated, and his petition has come to nothing: the bitterest irony being that, perhaps, the Law lay with him all along; he might have dreamt it to himself. 

Kafka reports having been filled with “endless astonishment” at simply seeing a group of people cheerfully assembled together: his intense self-consciousness and self-absorption made such ex­changes impossible. The way of the artist is lonely, stubborn, arrogant, pitiable — yet innocent. For one does not choose one’s condition…

Of course Kafka’s humor is deadpan, surrealist, sometimes rather sado-masochistic; a highly sophisticated kind of comedy that might be missed by even an attentive reader. There is a danger in taking Kafka too seriously — too grimly — simply be­cause he has attained the stature of a twentieth-century classic. (It might be argued that Kafka’s wicked sense of humor is ultimately more painful to absorb than his passages, or his pose, of gravity. For it is nearly always humor directed against the victim-self, the very protagonist for whom the reader wishes to feel sympathy.) Consider the emaciated, dying, self-ordained martyr, the Hunger Artist, who not only insists upon his fasting but seems to imagine that the world should honor it. It is not a religious ideal, it is in the service of no Godhead but the Hunger Artist himself. (“Why should he be cheated of the fame he would get for fasting longer… for beating his own record by a performance beyond human imagination, since he felt that there were no limits to his capacity for

It is frequently remarked that Kafka’s language is remarkably forceful and direct, stripped clean of self-conscious figures of speech. In fact there are at least two “voices” in Kafka: that of the omniscient narrator (the strategy by which most of the famous stories are told), and that of the obsessed, perhaps mad protagonist who tells his tale in the first person (“The Burrow,” for example — perhaps the most terrifying of Kafka’s fables). Metaphorical language is unnecessary in Kafka’s fiction because each story, each parable, each novel is a complete and of ten out­rageous metaphor in itself: smaller units of metaphor would be redundant. Consider the marvelous imaginative leap that gives us such images as “The Great Wall of China” (“So vast is our land that no fable could do justice to its vastness, the heavens can scarcely span it — and Peking is only a dot in it, and the imperial palace less than a dot”), the monstrous machine of “transcendent” pain of “In the Penal Colony” (“Can you follow it? The Har­row is beginning to write; when it finishes the first draft of the inscription on the man’s back, the layer of cotton wool begins to roll and slowly turns the body over, to give the Harrow fresh space for writing. Meanwhile the raw part that has been written on lies on the cotton wool, which is specially prepared to staunch the bleeding and so makes all ready for a new deepening of the script … “), the stricken humanity of the legendary Hunter Gracchus, who can neither live nor die, yet seems blameless (“I am here, more than that I do not know, further than that I can­not go. My ship has no rudder, and it is driven by the wind that blows in the undermost regions of death”). 

The great conceit of The Castle is — simply, and horribly­ — that one cannot get to the castle, no matter his ingenuity; the conceit of The Trial, that one is on trial for his life whether he consents to the authority of the court or not, and whether, in fact, he is guilty of any crime (when hapless Joseph K. protests his innocence he is informed that that is what “guilty men” always say). In the curious and altogether uncharacteristic play­let “The Warden of the Tomb,” the fabulist setting is, as the Prince says, the frontier between the Human and the Other­where naturally he wishes to post a guard; in the brief yet suspenseful story “The Refusal” it is a small anonymous town presided over by a colonel who is really a tax-collector. “The Burrow,” not one of Kafka’s more popular tales, is nonetheless a harrowing and brilliant investigation of anxiety-anxiety as it shades into madness-made unforgettable by way of its conceit of the Burrow itself: the defensive strategies that doom a man (one assumes that the narrator is a man — of sorts) to paranoia and dissolution, even as he believes himself protected from his enemies. The “I” seems to be addressing the reader but is in fact only talking to himself, rationalizing, debating, sifting through possibilities, trying to resist breakdown, trying — with what mad heroic calm!-to forestall disaster. His voice is hypnotic, seduc­tive as any siren of the night, for it is our own voice, diminished, secretive, hardly raised to a whisper…

In these artful cadences we hear the mimicry of reason, the parodied echoes of sanity. Human logic has become burrow logic. Human consciousness has become burrow consciousness. The image is a classic metaphor for one facet of the human condition, limned in prose so compelling it is an unnerving ex­perience to read. And how perfect the terse concluding statement — ”All remained unchanged” — after the long, long sentences in their obdurate paragraphs, as difficult to transverse as the bur­rower’s labyrinthine hiding-place. That it is also a grave — that his claustrophobic maneuvers assure his eventual death — is a realization he cannot make: we alone can make it for him. 

Kafka noted in a diary entry for 25 September 1917 that happiness for him consisted in raising the world “into the pure, the true, and the immutable.” His dark prophetic art — Aesopian fables, religious allegories, inverted romances — limned a future in which bureaucratic hells and “final solutions” are not improb­able: an increasingly dehumanized future of a sort Joseph K. has already endured when, after his struggle to acquit himself of guilt, he is executed and dies “like a dog.” This is a literature, admittedly, of symbolist extremes, in which the part must serve for the whole, the dream — or nightmare — image must suggest the totality of experience. In Kafka we never encounter persons, or personalities: we are always in the presence of souls — humanity peeled to its essence and denuded of the camouflage of external circumstance. We see no faces or features — we experience no bodies — we become mere figures, abbreviations, ciphers — par­ticipants in a vast, timeless, and, indeed, indecipherable drama. This is an art in which the social sphere matters not at all, and even the “human” sphere becomes by degrees irrelevant. Kafka is a realist of mystical perspective, resolutely unsentimental, even rather pitiless in his tracking of our numerous delusions. But he is primarily a superb storyteller.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: Kafkaesque
Literary Classics Reimagined in the Age of Coronavirus: The Trial

For further reading: Franz Kafka: The Complete Stories edited by Nahum Glatzer with a forward by John Updike

The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2020

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

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

The winner of the 2020 BLFC was Lisa Kluber of San Francisco, California:
Her Dear John missive flapped unambiguously in the windy breeze, hanging like a pizza menu on the doorknob of my mind.

The runner up was submitted by Lisa Hanks or Euless, Texas:
As hard-nosed P.I. Dan McKinnon stepped out into the gray gritty dawn, a bone chilling gust of filth-strewn wind wrapped the loose ends of his open trench coat around him like a day-old flour tortilla around a breakfast burrito with hash browns, sausage, and scrambled eggs, hold the pico.

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Yale Abrams of Santa Rosa, California:
When she walked into my office on that bleak December day, she was like a breath of fresh air in a coal mine; she made my canary sing.

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Aaron Cabe of Hillsboro, Oregon:
As the passing of Keith Richards was announced on the evening news, just as had been done with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood before him, Jorge gazed at the television in his Tijuana home and felt a sickening knot form in his stomach, for he realized that finally, after all the albums, concert tours, and era-defining cultural impact, the Rolling Stones would gather no más.

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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For futher reading: https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/2020
Dark and Stormy Rides Again by Scott Rice, Penguin Books (1996)

What to Bookmark in Moby Dick

alex atkins bookshelf literatureFine books are often bound with a ribbon bookmark. Bookmarks in books were introduced as early as 1 A.D., bound into some of the earliest codices found in libraries and monasteries of that period. The primary function of the bookmark, of course, is to the mark the reader’s place in the book as he or she reads it. However, once the book is read, the bookmark has a secondary and very important function: it can be placed in the location of a favorite or beautiful passage that you want to return to again and again.

Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby Dick,  is considered “The Great American Novel” however its themes and meaning transcend the shores of America. The novel is literally teeming with meaning and brilliant insights. One wishes the book were bound with two dozen ribbon bookmarks. If you have read and studied the novel you know what I mean. Recently I reached for one of my copies of Moby Dick, a beautiful deluxe leather-bound edition with gilded fore-edges published by Easton Press. The silk ribbon marks a passage in the book from Chapter 114, The Gilder. In this chapter, mesmerized by the calmness of the sea, Captain Ahab reflects on life’s journey:

“There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?”

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For further reading: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville
Melville: His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco

Famous Books with Numbers in Their Titles

atkins-bookshelf-literature

There are numbers, that heard on their own, are simply prosaic digits. But in the context of literature, certain numbers immediately evoke a famous play or novel, especially when the number is central to the novel (for example, 1984, Catch-22, and Fahrenheit 451). Below are some of the most famous literary works with numbers in their titles.

1984 by George Orwell

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Henry IV (Parts I-II) by William Shakespeare

Henry V by William Shakespeare

Henry VI (Parts I-III) by William Shakespeare

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard III by William Shakespeare

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

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Movies About Famous Writers

atkins-bookshelf-moviesFrom time to time, Hollywood gets either bored or tired of producing movies of comic book heroes. So why not movies about the fascinating lives of writers, whose colorful lives can sometimes be stranger than fiction? Although most of these films were not blockbusters, they did attract a rather loyal and well-read audience. Below are films about famous writers (writer, name of film, year of release):

Jane Austen: Becoming Jane (2007)

Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Bronte: To Walk Invisible (2016)

Truman Capote: Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006)

Charles Dickens: The Invisible Woman (2013); The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

Emily Dickenson: A Quiet Passion (2016)

T. S. Eliot: Tom and Viv (1994)

John Keats: Bright Star (2009)

C. S. Lewis: Shadowlands (1993)

Henry Miller: Henry & June (1990)

Lost Generation (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein): Midnight in Paris (2011)

Iris Murdoch: Iris (2001)

Maxwell Perkins: Genius (2015)

Sylvia Plath: Sylvia (2003)

Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven (2012)

William Shakespeare: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

J. R. R. Tolkien: Tolkien (2019)

Leo Tolstoy: The Last Station (2009)

Oscar Wilde: Wilde (1998)

David Foster Wallace: The End of the Tour (2015)

Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins: Genius (2016)

Virginia Woolf: The Hours (2002)

Are there any other films that can be added?

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 Symbolism of the Fly on Mike Pence’s Head?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIf you watched the vice-presidential debate you couldn’t help notice that rather brave fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head at what seems to be a very critical moment in the debate. Pence was on the defensive when Kamala Harris criticized President Trump for refusing to directly condemn white supremacy. Pence, with the characteristic composure of a cadaver or a zombie (depending on your perspective), began by attacking the liberal media and noting that Trump has Jewish grandchildren. He added, “This is a president who respects and cherishes all of the American people.” Viewers at home gagged at this ridiculous statement; but it was precisely at this moment that a housefly, which had been buzzing around the studio, had enough of the blatant evasiveness, obfuscation, diversion, deflection, and deception on the part this obsequious sycophant, that it landed on his head to make a bold statement: Mike Pence — Lord of the Flies. The black fly stood out starkly on Pence’s helmet-like snowy white hair and it sat there for an astounding two minutes and nine seconds, while Pence’s head swiveled from side to side in a robotic manner as he spoke. After all, black flies matter! Of course, it didn’t take long for viewers to turn to social media to unleash a torrent of snarky commentary. Viewers wanted to hear from the fly. Republicans feared that the bug was placed by the Democrats. Democrats feared that the fly was feeding Pence the answers. Viewers were concerned that the fly was exposed to coronavirus and needed to quarantine. Trump was furious and wanted the fly deported. And so on…

Since the fly was the most memorable character and moment of the debate, it invites the question: what is the symbolism of the fly? Since I alluded to William Golding’s chilling 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, an enduring staple of high school English literature curriculum, let’s begin our discussion there. The title is extremely critical to the meaning of the novel. “Lord of the Flies” of course, is what one of the characters (Simon, the shy, sensitive boy, who represents goodness) names the severed pig head that is impaled on a stake by Jake (who represents savagery and evil). It is a memorable scene in the novel: a pig head, oozing in blood, surrounded by a cloud of buzzing flies, feasting on the pig’s flesh and blood. Thus, the flies symbolize death and decay. By coupling this term with “lord” that conveys unbridled power, Golding is creating a compelling and prescient metaphor: power and corruption lead to decay and death. A perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, wouldn’t you say? But further, Golding is keenly aware that “Lord of Flies” is a literal translation of the Hebrew word Beelzebub (or Beelzebul), found in the Old Testament (Books of Kings; 2 Kings 1:2-3,6). In the Old Testament, Beelzebub is a demonic deity worshipped by the Philistines. This paints quite a distasteful picture: a Philistine deity is that is the lord of flies — disgusting pests that feast on excrement. Moreover, in the noncanonical Testament of Solomon, ascribed to King Solomon, Beezlebul is synonymous with Lucifer (meaning “morning star”; shining one, light bearer”). Solomon describes Beelzebul as the prince of demons, a former heavenly angel gone rogue. Beezlebul’s goal is to encourage worship of demons, empower tyrants, incite wars, and instigate murder and mayhem throughout the world. Thus, “lord of the flies” is synonymous with “lord of demons.”

More generally, the fly is a symbol of evil and pestilence. In the landmark work A Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier writes: “Their ceaseless buzzing, whirling around and stinging make flies unbearable. They breed from corruption and decay, carry the germs of the foulest diseases and breach all defenses against them.” In the Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann notes: “Flies of all species are creatures with negative symbolic associations… In ancient Persian mythology the enemy of light, Ahriman, slips into the world in the form of a fly.” Biedermann adds that in several cultures, swarms of flies represent satanic beings or demonic powers.

In A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Micheal Ferber describes the symbolism of the flies in the context of great literature. Ferber points to the plague of flies that Moses unleashes on the Egyptians (Exodus 8.21-31). “Flies, not surprisingly, are usually considered unpleasant, disease-ridden, and evil.” He turns to Homer who emphasizes the boldness of the fly (Iliad 17.570-72): “the boldness of the fly / which, even though driven away from a man’s skin, / persists in biting out of relish for human blood.” In literature the fly can also mean anything that is insignificance. Recall the famous line from Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear (Lear 4.136-37): “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ Gods. / They kill us for their sport.” 

The website History of Painters has a fascinating article on the hidden symbolism of insects in western painting: “Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding insects. From the of time of the Roman persecution Christians used signs and symbols to secretly identify each other. The Church commissioned sacred images that acted as moral instruction to illiterate serfs who clamored for spiritual enlightenment of the holy scriptures. The religious images, carvings and stone work served as a constant reminder of the hellish suffering that awaited heretics and sinners if they strayed from Gods word and church law. Byzantine, Gothic, Northern Renaissance and  Italian Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical Christian symbolism regarding Insects.” In particular, the fly symbolizes “rot, wasting away, decay, death, and melancholia.” But it gets even more specific, and perhaps more germane to Pence’s fly: “A fly hovering over a church official or nobleman indicates disfavor with the  king or corruption and dereliction of duty.” Bingo!

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Read related posts: What is the Meaning of the Feather in Forrest Gump?
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For further reading: Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (3rd Edition) by Michael Ferber
A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier
Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann (Translated by James Hulbert)
http://www.historyofpainters.com

http://www.historyofpainters.com/symbols.htm