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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Best Books for Word Lovers
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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
The Power of Literature
The Poems We Turn To
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
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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.

Read related posts: The Comfort of Reading During Difficult Times
World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times
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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.

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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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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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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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?

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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!

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

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For further reading: 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

The Comfort of Reading During Difficult Times

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt’s not easy living in the age of coronavirus. These are the best of times. These are the worst of times. How do we get through it? My thoughts drift to a young boy, dirty, destitute, and tired from working in a miserable factory job because his father was imprisoned in a debtor’s prison. That period of desperation and poverty motivated him to eventually achieve great artistic and financial success as a world-renown author. His name? Charles Dickens. However, the memories that misery and humiliation haunted him his entire life. At the peak of his success, Dickens confessed, “My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time in my life.” In David Copperfield, his favorite and most autobiographical novel, we get a glimpse of how a young boy survived that dark period — he found comfort and escape in literature:

“I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance. It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, — they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, — and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them — as I did — and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones – which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels — I forget what, now — that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees – the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.

This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.” (Excerpt from chapter 4 of David Copperfield.)

Let us hope that the image of a scruffy young boy, huddled in the corner, reading a book inspires us to find the comfort of reading during the worst of times. Let us seek the wisdom of literature that reaffirms our shared humanity — however fragile and imperfect — and inspires empathy and understanding that will eventually lead to the best of times.

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

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What If Shakespeare Wrote Trump’s Tweets?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEarly in one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Hamlet, we hear Polonius (the chief counsellor to Claudius, Hamlet’s evil stepfather), remark, “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit/ And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief…” But a review of President Trump’s brief, but bumbling tweets quickly disproves Polonius’ observation. Enter AJ Smith, a school teacher and author of the devilish little tome, By the Thumbings of a Prick: The Tweets of Donald Trump as Shakespearean Sonnets. In the introduction to this cheeky book, Smith writes: “[I] come to bury Trump, not to praise him. But not necessarily for his politics. I struggle to grasp a true understanding, and thus opinion, of how tariffs work. I recognize that border security is a complex problem. On foreign policy, I am no Fortinbras. The primary source of my particular brand of what some may call “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is, first and foremost, his Tweeting… I teach high school English, and I’ve spent years preaching on what I consider to be my central ethos for an education focused on written words, words, words: if you cannot form a coherent thought, write down that thought, write it well, and write it convincingly, you will not be taken seriously regardless of your chosen pursuit. What chance do I have of persuading my pupils of this if the president has all the rhetorical sophistication of a Falstaff?” 

To inspire good writing and presenting “[Trump’s] ideas with some semblance of sophistication,” Smith has rolled up his sleeves, inked his trusty quill, and rewritten 154 notable Trump Tweets as Shakespearean sonnets, borrowing some of the phrasing from the first line of Shakespeare’s original 154 sonnets. Fortunately, Smith has renamed them “Donnets” so as not to offend the ageless spirit of Shakespeare and diminish the true beauty of the original sonnets. In the dedication, Smith writes: “To my students. See, writing sonnets is not that hard.” Amen, brother. When you read Smith’s clever sonnet interpretations, following each of the original tweets, you realize what a difference good diction and iambic pentameter makes on Trump’s tortured and tangled writing. Here are examples of Smith’s brilliant craftsmanship:

Original Tweet from December 28, 2017: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”

Donnet II
When coldest winter shall besiege thy brow,
If thou residest in an Eastern state,
Perhaps heat’s omen thou wilt wish for now,
To warm thee on this celebrated date.
As thou the ball o bservest in descent,
With numbers counted down from ten to one,
In winds Boreas blown, wilt thou lament
The prudeness of a promised slutty sun.
This guarantee, which made a fool of thee,
Is, worse yet, but a drain upon our purse,
While foreign lands spend not their currency
To sickly globe with legislation nurse.
As thou to lips thy frozen bev’rage sup,
Do careful be to thyself bundle up!

Original Tweet from March 3, 2018: “The United States has an $800 Billion Dollar Yearly Trade Deficit because of our “very stupid” trade deals and policies. Our jobs and wealth are being given to other countries that have taken advantage of us for years. They laugh at what fools our leaders have been. No more!”

Donnet IV
Unthrift America, why dost thou spend
So much in trade, by other nations duped;
Such deals do our economy upend,
Such policies are truly “very stupid.”
We are but beauty’s queens in changing room,
With jobs and wealth we wish to with care manage;
But other nations outside wicked loom,
Imprudence lets them in to take advantage.
So we are left to foot the hefty bill,
A bushels worth of debt, our wealth awry;
A leader must on them imposeth will.
And forcibly their privates grab them by.
They laughed at fools that led in days of yore,
But under Trump we will be mocked no more!

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

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For further reading: By the Thumbings of a Prick: The Tweets of Donald Trump as Shakespearean Sonnets by AJ Smith

How Long is Eternity?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEnduring the coronavirus seems like an eternity, doesn’t it? That recent impression certainly invites the question: how long is eternity? That is to say, if you could measure it using current concepts of time as we know it, how long would eternity be? While philosophers like Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and Boethius have addressed eternity, it turns out several authors have also provided answers to this fascinating question.

The first to address the length of eternity were two brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (better known as the Brothers Grimm), German cultural researchers, philologists, and lexicographers, who collected traditional folktales written by other writers or passed down through oral tradition and published them as Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) in 1812; a second volume was published in 1815. All 200 or so stories are found in a collection we recognize today as The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. You are probably familiar with the stories of Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty, to name just a few (all of which have been translated into more than 100 languages and have been adapted countless times in literature and cinema — imagine the royalties the Grimm family could have collected!). But what interests us today, in discerning the length of eternity, is a lesser known story — the insightful, charming tale of the Shepherd Boy, originally written by Ludwig Aurbacher (1784-1847), a German teacher and writer, in 1819 titled Das Hirtenbüblein. In this timeless tale, a king summons a precocious shepherd and challenges him to answer three difficult questions. The third question is: “how many seconds of time are there in eternity?” He answers: “In Lower Pomerania [northern Poland, at the southern tip of the Baltic Sea] is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” Brilliant answer! Here is the complete story:

There was once on a time a shepherd boy whose fame spread far and wide because of the wise answers which he gave to every question. The King of the country heard of it likewise, but did not believe it, and sent for the boy. Then he said to him: “If thou canst give me an answer to three questions which I will ask thee, I will look on thee as my own child, and thou shall dwell with me in my royal palace.” The boy said: “What are the three questions?” The King said: “The first is, how many drops of water are there in the ocean?” The shepherd boy answered: “Lord King, if you will have all the rivers on earth dammed up so that not a single drop runs from them into the sea until I have counted it, I will tell you how many drops there are in the sea.” The King said: “The next question is, how many stars are there in the sky?” The shepherd boy said: “Give me a great sheet of white paper,” and then he made so many fine points on it with a pen that they could scarcely be seen, and it was all but impossible to count them; any one who looked at them would have lost his sight. Then he said: “There are as many stars in the sky as there are points on the paper; just count them.” But no one was able to do it. The King said: “The third question is, how many seconds of time are there in eternity.” Then said the shepherd boy: “In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.” The King said: “Thou hast answered the three questions like a wise man, and shalt henceforth dwell with me in my royal palace, and I will regard thee as my own child.”

A century later, Irish writer James Joyce tackles the same question in his autobiographical novel, A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, published in serialized form in Ezra Pound’s literary magazine, The Egoist, in 1914 and 1915. In the novel, we meet the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, a sensitive, reflective young man, raised as a Catholic in Dublin, Ireland and, naturally, attends Clongowes Wood College, a Jesuit boarding school. Dedalus begins to question long-established Catholic beliefs and eventually rebels against them. Early in the novel, soon after his first sexual encounter, Dedalus feels guilt over this “first violent sin.” Consequently, he attends a three day spiritual retreat hoping to cleanse his soul. On the second day of the retreat, Fr. Arnall delivers one of his well-known fire-and-brimstone sermons on the consequences of sinning. If you grew up in Catholic schools in the mid-20th century, you know the drill: you will burn in the inferno of Hell — for an eternity. It is here, that speaking through Fr. Arnall, Joyce presents his metaphor, also employing a bird, to describe how long eternity is (you can imagine the impact this searing sermon had on impressionable, insecure young lads):

“What must it be, then, to bear the manifold tortures of hell forever? Forever! For all eternity! Not for a year or an age but forever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness, and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of air. And imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all. Yet at the end of that immense stretch time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been carried all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals — at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not even one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time, the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would have scarcely begun.”

Nearly a century later, American author Lois Duncan, best known for her young adult novels, returns to this the metaphor of the bird in describing eternity in her horror novel titled Stranger with My Face, published in 1981. Duncan writes:

“If there were a mile-high mountain of granite, and once every ten thousand years a bird flew past and brushed it with a feather, by the time that the mountain was worn away, a fraction of a second would have passed on the context of Eternity.”

The Irish-Norwegian band, Secret Garden, was also inspired by this image of a dove’s feather marking time. In their song, Dawn of a New Century, from the album of the same name released in 1999, songwriters Petter Skavlan and Rolf Lovland focus on the flight of a white dove:

Imagine
Our planet floating silently in space
Around it, a white dove flies—
Forever circling
Every one hundred years, the dove’s wing
Gently touches the surface of the earth
The time it would take for the feathered wing
To wear this planet down to nothing
Is eternity
Within eternity, time passes
Within time, there is change
Soon, the wing of the white dove
Will touch our world again
The dawn of a new Century
Time for a new beginning
Now is eternity
At the break of
Dawn of a century
A thousand years
Of joy and tears
We leave behind
Love is our destiny
Celebrate the
Dawn of a century
Let voices ring
Rejoice and sing
Now is the time
Now is eternity
Love is our destiny

So the next time you look up in the sky, and see a bird flying by with a feather in its beak, realize that at that very moment you are living an infinitesimal sliver of eternity. Tempus fugit… make the moment matter.

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

Read related posts: World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times
The Power of Literature
The Poems We Turn To

For further reading: The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm (3rd Edition)
A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan
http://www.grimmstories.com/en/grimm_fairy-tales/the_shepherd_boy

What Can Literature Teach Us About Illness?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureThe coronavirus pandemic has shaken people of all ages out of their complacency to confront human frailty and the inevitability of mortality. It’s a lot to handle — the physical and emotional toll is overwhelming, especially when you’re isolated. No wonder psychologists have seen a dramatic increases in cases of depression and anxiety. Naturally, people have turned to many places to seek help in coping with such widespread illness and death. In a fascinating essay for Oxford University Press Blog, Lisa Mendelman, an assistant professor of English at Menlo College, suggests we turn to literature. In her essay, titled “What literature can tach us about living with illness,” Mendelman observes that some twentieth-century writers, like Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, focus on the challenges of being ill; she writes “These authors express a self-conscious skepticism about what we learn from being sick and highlight how readily we embrace the advantages of wellness, even when we judge ourselves harshly for doing so… [These] writers’ snapshots of illness capture the ambivalence inspired by physical vulnerability and offer some lessons in how psychic strategies for confronting disease at once protect and restrict our senses of self.” Mendelman shares six specific lessons that literature can teach us about illness.

The first lesson that literature teaches us about illness is that illness proves our vulnerability. Authors dismiss sentimentality in favor or rigorous objectivity to highlight the fact that illness is a function of biology and not a psychological weakness.

The second lesson is that illness, even in its disorientation and self-alienation, can be instructive. For example, Cather’s The Song of the Lark presents us with Thea who is suffering from pneumonia: “Thea had been moaning with every breath since the doctor came back, but she did not know it. She did not realize that she was suffering pain. When she was conscious at all, she seemed to be separated from her body; to be perched on top of the piano, or on the hanging lamp, watching the doctor sew her up. It was perplexing and unsatisfactory, like dreaming.” Mendelman notes: “Thea’s enigmatic distance from everyone, including herself, persists long after her feverish dissociation abates—and has valuable consequences. Her capacity for detached self-witness fuels her creative development and enables her success as an international opera star.”

The third lesson is that it is difficult to witness someone else’s pain. In the same novel, Thea sits next to a sick young woman and she feels empathetic toward her, but her thoughts turn to her own suffering: “[Thea] smiled—though she was ashamed of it—with the natural contempt of strength for weakness.” Mendelman adds “Cather’s point, I think, is that we have a tendency to deny our own mortality. This defense mechanism allows us to keep moving through the world, even as it can undermine intimate connection.”

The fourth lesson is that psychological suffering can be more isolating than physical illness, especially for people living in marginalized communities. We meet Angela, a Black-passing-as-white character in Jessie Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without A Moral, who suffers from mumps and the additional anguish that is brought about by racism (i.e., the illness is not understood outside her community.

The fifth lesson is that we should not be afraid of pain. A grandmotherly character in Edith Wharton’s The Gods Arrive declares “Maybe we haven’t made enough of pain—been too afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of it.” Mendelman states “This line encapsulates Wharton’s career-long interest in modernity’s problematic attempts to obviate human suffering. From drugs and dancing to science and self-care, Wharton suggests that cultural innovations are often driven by the short-sighted desire to find a panacea for the human condition.”

The sixth lesson is that melancholic uncertainty can impact psychic wisdom and health. In Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep we see the impact that several life events have on the Nona Wyant. Nona finds that “the business of living [is] a tortured tangle.” Later while recovering from a gunshot wound, she experiences her father’s proximity to her as “[fleeting] comfort… as if the living warmth he imparted were something they shared indissolubly.

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

Read related posts: World Literature Has the Power to Help Mankind in These Troubled Times
The Power of Literature
The Poems We Turn To

For further reading: https://blog.oup.com/2020/06/what-literature-can-teach-us-about-living-with-illness/

When You Don’t Have Time to Read the Classics: Crime and Punishment

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

That’s where Maurice Sagoff’s little book, ShrinkLits comes in. Sagoff has managed to shrink 70 of the world’s most famous literary classics down to size. If you have a minute, you can read a summary of one of the classics, like Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, King Lear, or The Great Gatsby. During these uncertain and turbulent times, what better time to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece Crime and Punishment that focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas faced by a poor former student (Rodion Raskkolnikov) who murders a devious, dishonest pawnbroker. It is quintessentially Russian: dark, brooding, and tragic. Like the work of Charles Dickens, Crime and Punishment was originally published serially in 1866 in 12 monthly issues of The Russian Messenger, a literary journal. Late that year, it was published as a single volume in Russian and translated into English. Coming in at 565 pages (and 203,145 words) it will take the average reader 13 hours and 33 minutes to read the novel. But hey, if you don’t have 13 hours, Atkins Bookshelf presents ShrinkLit’s version of Crime and Punishment.

Murderer feels bad.

Confesses. Goes to jail.

Feels better.

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

Read related posts: What to Read Next?
Books that Shaped America
The Best Love Stories
Books that will Change Your Life
Why Read Moby Dick?
The Great Gatsby Coda
Great Literature Speaks

World of Allusions: Moby Dick
I Should Have Bookmarked That: Moby Dick
Moby Dick by the numbers

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