Category Archives: Literature

James Joyce’s Ulysses Written in Code?

alex atkins bookshelf booksJames Joyce’s Ulysses, published in 1922, is considered one of the finest works of modernist fiction of the 20th century; however it was considered extremely controversial. Set aside for a moment that it was considered obscene due do its masturbation and sex scenes, it was also considered inscrutable for its challenging stream-of-consciousness narrative style, obscure allusions, wordplay, foreign phrases, and minimal punctuation. In fact, British war censors considered Joyce’s novel so enigmatic (in their words, “unreadable, unquotable, and unreviewable”) that they believed it was actually written in spy code. I guess you can say that Joyce was the first human “enigma machine.”

Read related posts: Why Did James Joyce Burn His Manuscript?
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Banned Books that Shaped America
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For further reading: The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham


Books Are the Windows Through Which the Soul Looks Out

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Books are not made for furniture, but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house. The plainest row of books that cloth or paper ever covered is more significant of refinement than the most elaborately carved étagére or sideboard.

Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A home without books is like a room without windows.

No man has a right to bring up his children without surrounding them with books, if he has the means to buy them. It is a wrong to his family. He cheats them! Children learn to read by being in the presence of books. The love of knowledge comes with reading and grows upon it. And the love of knowledge, in a young mind, is almost a warrant against the inferior excitement of passions and vices.

Let us pity these poor rich men who live barrenly in great bookless houses! Let us congratulate the poor that, in our day, books are so cheap that a man may every year add a hundred volumes to his library for the price of what his tobacco and beer would cost him. Among the earliest ambitions to be excited in clerks, workmen, journeymen, and, indeed, among all that are struggling up from nothing to something, is that of owning, and constantly adding to a library of good books. A little library, growing larger every year, is an honorable part of a young man’s history. It is a man’s duty to have books. A library is not a luxury, but one of the necessities of life.” [Emphasis added]

From Sermons by Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887), American clergyman, journalist, and social reformer who passionately advocated for the abolition of slavery, supported the theory of evolution, and supported Chinese immigration in the U.S. Beecher was so eloquent that President Abraham Lincoln sent him to Europe on a speaking tour to build a compelling case for the abolition of slavery. He lectured widely and was a prolific writer for several journals; his only novel was Norwood published in 1868.


The Art of Literature

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsLiterature was born not the day when a boy crying wolf, wolf came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels: literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him. That the poor little fellow because he lied too often was finally eaten up by a real beast is quite incidental. But here is what is important. Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between. That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.

From Lectures on Literature (1980) by Russian author Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), best known for his novels Speak, Memory (1951), Lolita (1955), and Pale Fire (1962).


How Did O. Henry Get His Pen Name?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaAmerican short story writer O. Henry was born William Sidney Porter (1862-1910). Incidentally, in 1898, Porter changed the spelling of his middle name from Sidney to Sydney. His short stories feature colorful characters, skillful unfolding of plot, realistic and witty dialogue, and often with a distinctive surprise plot twist ending (often referred to as the “O. Henry twist”). He was a prolific writer, having written more than 600 short stories, published in 13 separate collections of short stories. In the early 1900s, Porter was one of the most widely read and admired storytellers in the country. Two of his best-known short stories are the “The Last Leaf” and the holiday classic “The Gift of the Magi.”

Many people often wonder how Porter came up with the pen name “O. Henry” that seems to have no connection with his birth name, his place of birth (Greensboro, North Carolina), or his professions (pharmacist, bank teller, bookkeeper, and journalist). During his writing career, Porter used many pen names, including James L. Bliss, T.B. Down, Howard Clark, Olivier Henry, O. Henry, and S.H. Peters. Porter used the pseudonym for the first time in December 1899 for the short story entitled “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking.” There are several accounts on the internet that attribute the pen name to individuals he met during his prison term in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. (He was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling funds from a bank where he worked as a bank teller and bookkeeper; he served only three, being released early for good behavior — and writing really great short stories). Another common fallacy is that he was named after a candy bar (read below). Yet another story claims that he derived the pen name from the name of a girlfriend’s cat. There is no evidence for any of these explanations.

In an interview with The New York Times in 1909 ( entitled “O. Henry on Himself, Life, and Other Things”), Porter gave this definitive account:
It was during these New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: “I’m going to send out some stuff. I don’t know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one.” He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. “Here we have our notables,” said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, “That’ll do for a last name,” said I. “Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me.” “Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?” asked my friend. “Good,” said I, “O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is.”…. “A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, ‘O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver.’ And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.”

Despite some accounts on the internet, O. Henry was not named after the Oh Henry! candy bar introduced by the Williamson Candy Company of Chicago in 1920. Nor was the Oh Henry! candy bar named after the author. According to Nestle, this is the official story of the naming of the chocolate candy bar: “Way back when, there was a little candy shop owned by George Williamson. A young fellow by the name of Henry who visited this shop on a regular basis became friendly with the young girls working there. They were soon asking favors of him, clamoring Oh Henry, will you do this?, and Oh Henry, will you do that? So often did Mr. Williamson hear the girls beseeching poor young Henry for help, that when he needed a name for a new candy bar, he called it OH HENRY! and filed a trademark application the following year.” Now that would have made a wonderful O. Henry short story, don’t you think?

The O. Henry Award, established in 1918, is an annual American award given to short stories of exceptional merit was named after the author. The award, presented by the Society of Arts and Sciences, promotes the art of the short story. His love of language and wordplay was the inspiration for the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships established in 1978 that celebrates the often-maligned but wickedly funny pun. Punsters from around the globe travel to the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas each May to compete in the Punniest of Show, PunSlingers, and Most Viable Punster competitions.

One of the most common questions that librarians and booksellers hear is: “where can I find O. Henry? Is it organized under O or H?” The proper alphabetization of O. Henry is under “H” not “O” — remember the name is not spelled “O’Henry” but rather “O. Henry” as in Olivier Henry. Still, many bookstores stock O. Henry’s books in the “O” section of fiction. Oh Henry!

Read related posts: The Best of Puns, the Worst of Puns
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For further reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O._Henry
http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0377958/bio
http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9C01EFDA153EE733A25757C0A9629C946897D6CF


The Most Influential Novels of the 20th Century

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn 1998 the Library Journal asked its members: what is the most influential novel of the 20th century? And by influence, they meant impact on the larger world or on their own lives. Librarians love lists, just as much as they love books. They came up with a list of 150 titles. Here are the first 25 of the most influential novels:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2. The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger
3. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
4. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
5. Beloved by Toni Morrison
6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker.
7. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
8. Animal Farm by George Orwell
9. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
10. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
11. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
12. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
14. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
15. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
16. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
17. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
18. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
19. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
20. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
21. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
22. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
23. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
24. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
25. My Antonia by Willa Cather

Read related posts: The Books That Shaped America
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For further reading: http://www.hcpl.net/read/most-influential-fiction-20th-century


The Most Controversial Books of All Time

alex atkins bookshelf booksNothing increases a book’s popularity and its sales like the controversy that arises when it becomes banned. Tell a person, especially an adolescent, that you can’t read something — and chances are high that they will find a copy — by hook or by crook — and read it. “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t read — Goddamnit!” Call it an act of defiance, insatiable curiosity, or intellectual freedom; it’s inevitable. But that sheer force of will demonstrated by readers young and old has not stopped narrow-minded, dogmatic librarians, teachers, and school administrators to remove books from the shelves due a wide range of issues — like, sex, racism, profanity, sex (again), blasphemy, obscenity, drugs, cruelty, violence, sex (did we mention it?), and religious views — throughout the decades. Here are 25 of the most controversial books of all time (controversial issues in parenthesis). Most have been banned at one time or another. Go out and read one of these books today!

1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (sex with a minor)
2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (rape, drug abuse, racism, profanity)
3. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis (brutal, graphic murder, sadism)
4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (sex, profanity, communism)
5. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (homosexuality)
6. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (slavery)
7. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (sex, profanity, sex, drugs, sex)
8. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (religion)
9. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky (homosexuality, drugs)
10. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (ironically, banned by Soviet and Nazi regimes for being “decadent and despairing”)
11. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (dystopia)
12. A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck (animal cruelty)
13. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (witchcraft)
14. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (sex, profanity)
15. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers (violence, racism)
16. Ulysses by James Joyce (sex, obscenity)
17. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (rape, sex, homosexuality)
18. A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (denounced by Oprah Winfrey because author fabricated parts of his memoir)
19. Origins of the Species by Charles Darwin (blasphemy, anti-Christian)
20. The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell (terrorism)
21. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (racism, profanity)
22. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Egles (communism)
23. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (profanity)
24. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (racism, banned by Malaysian and Nigerian government for negative portrayal of colonialism)
25. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland (sex)

Read related posts: Best-Selling Banned Books
Banned Books that Shaped America
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For further reading: Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds by Dawn Sova
http://www.ala.org/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks
http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/about
http://time.com/4505713/banned-books-week-reasons-change/?utm_content=buffer33928&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/most-shocking/the-25-most-controversial-books-of-all-time/


Five Fascinating Facts About English Literature

catkins-bookshelf-literatureWhen Brian Boone, a writer and editor for the trivia-packed Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader series, wrote English Lit 101: From Jane Austen to George Orwell and the Enlightenment to Realism, a lively and entertaining romp through seven centuries of Britain’s greatest writers and their works, he stumbled upon five fascinating facts.

1. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is a reversed Latinized version of his real first and middle names (he was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). The clever author translated Charles Lutwidge into Latin, Carolus Ludovicus, and then back to English, Carroll Lewis; then he simply reversed their order to Lewis Carroll. 

2. Frankenstein was the first vampire novel were the result of a writing contest. The scene: a house on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The guests: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelly, and John William Polidori. On a dark, stormy day, to pass the time away, they — what else? — read dark German stories, like the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. This, in turn, inspired Byron to propose a ghost story contest. The result? Shelley famous novella, Frankenstein, and Polidori’s novella, The Vampyre — both seminal works that created the monster and romantic vampire genres.

3. George Orwell (born Eric Blair), author of the classics Animal Farm and 1984, was ahead of his time, not only with respect to his insights into the modern world, but also blogging. Orwell, according to Boone, pioneered the concept of writing about a wide variety of rather mundane topics, foreshadowing the blogs of today (eg., listicles, best of lists, how-to guides, etc.) like postcards, how to make tea, and the difference between British and American pulp novels. In short, Orwell was the first blogger — before there was an internet and a real Big Brother!

4. Thanks to the efforts of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the epic The Lord of the Rings, the 1,000-year-old epic poem, Beowulf, is well-known and studied. In 1936, Tolkien, a professor of literature and languages at Oxford University, wrote “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” that ignited a 20th century interest in the poem. Moreover, this poem is what inspired him to write fiction — without Beowulf and Grendel, we would not have Frodo and Sauron.

5. King Arthur was not English — at first. The stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, and Robin Hood did not originate in England; they originated from France and Wales. During the 8th century, Nennius, a monk, wrote the story of the warlord Arthur who led the Britons in their defense of the invading Saxons in the 5th century. It is these stories that were passed down via oral tradition in France. By the 1300s, they had been shaped into an epic poem, the inspiration for English writer Thomas Malory’s French-titled (Le Morte d’Arthur) but English-language narrative of the King Arthur legends published in 1484.

Read related posts: Random Fascinating Facts About Authors
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Who Were Barnes and Noble?
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For further reading: English Lit 101: From Jane Austen to George Orwell and the Enlightenment to Realism by Brian Boone
http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/5-amazing-things-learned-english-literature-writing-english-literature-101/


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