Category Archives: Literature

How Blindness Shaped a Famous Author’s Career

alex atkins bookshelf literatureHe was born into a prominent highly-educated British family. His father was a writer and schoolmaster; his mother, a founder of a school, was the niece of poet Matthew Arnold; his grandfather was a well-known biologist and passionate advocate of evolution. But this young man wanted to be a medical doctor. His life changed dramatically when he turned 17. He contracted keratitis punctata, a painful condition where the eye’s cornea becomes inflamed and leads to temporary or permanent blindness. In the case of this person, the condition left him completely blind for two to three years. His brother wrote: “I believe his blindness was a blessing in disguise. For one thing, it put paid to his idea of taking medicine as a career… His uniqueness lay in his universalism, he was able to take all knowledge for his province.” As the author later explained in an interview: “I started writing when I was 17, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it.” He did learn braille in order to read. Fortunately, over time by using a magnifying glass and eye exercises, he was able to regain most of his eyesight in the left eye. (He wrote about this process in his book, The Art of Seeing, published in 1942). He went on to study English literature in college, edit the poetry magazine, and graduate with honors.

So who is this remarkable young man? His name is Aldous Huxley, one of the most successful writers and social satirists of the 20th century. He wrote several novels, Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Those Barren Leaves, Point Counter Point, but it is his fifth novel that is the most recognized: Brave New World, published in 1928. He moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s to become a successful screenwriter, writing screenplays for Madame Curie, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In 1952, Huxley spoke to a crowd at a Hollywood banquet. Editor Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, recounts the author’s ordeal: “[Huxley was] wearing no glasses and apparently reading his paper from the lectern without difficult. Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn’t reading his address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn’t read it, and had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket to make the typing visible to him. It was an agonizing moment.”

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Profile of a Book Lover: Bruce Kahn

alex atkins bookshelf booksBruce Kahn, an attorney in Michigan who specializes in mergers and acquisitions, began collecting books when he was a teenager in the 1950s. He began with collecting comic books and then focused on science fiction first editions. What makes his collection of modern first editions so remarkable is that be purchased books that were in great condition and had them signed or inscribed by their authors. And like many collectors, once he built a library of science fiction first editions that he felt was complete, he sold it in the mid-1980s, so that he could focus on building a new collection. Longtime bookseller Ken Lopez, who is selling a portion of Kahn’s library, continues his story:

“[Beginning in the 1980s, Kahn] started collecting ‘mainstream’ modern literature, along with modern mystery and detective fiction. It was a good time to begin such a collection: fine copies of some of the keynote titles of the postwar era were scarce but were nonetheless much more readily available than they are now, nearly a quarter century later. Beautiful copies of such books as To Kill a Mockingbird, On The Road, and The Catcher in the Rye could be had if one were patient and persistent, and Bruce Kahn was both.

He collected in the style of the old-time book collectors — that is, he collected authors in depth, pursuing all their published titles, variant editions such as proofs, advance copies, and broadsides, and in many cases U.K. editions as well as U.S. ones. As a result, the author collections themselves end up being bibliographically significant, especially for those authors for whom there is not yet an ‘official’ or definitive bibliography…

We are issuing this catalog (Catalog 150: The Bruce Kahn Collection, 2009) at a moment when our economy has experienced the most dramatic turmoil in decades. However, it may prove opportune to remember, as one of my colleagues recently wrote me, that the books and literature that ‘we deal in will endure, and contains the seeds of knowledge and spiritual nourishment.’ It is the understandingof this value — of what underlies monetary value — that can and should reassure us: these books are an important partof our cultural makeup and our intellectual and moral heritage. That is and will remain true. After economic hard times have passed, these will still be the books that have shaped our society’s evolution; in that respect their value will remain unchanged, and they will still be among the important works of literature of the 20th century. If books are still collected — and there is little doubt they will be — the books of the Bruce Kahn collection will still be among the most desirable copies of the most important titles of our time.”

Here are some of the highlights from the Bruce Kahn Collection:

The Hamlet by William Faulkner (1940): $13,500

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961): $12,500

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940): $12,500

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932): $15,000

On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957): $25,000

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962): $25,000

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (1948): $10,000

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951): $25,000

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (1935): $15,000

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How Reading Makes You Smarter

atkins-bookshelf-booksA few years ago, the Pew Research Center published a report on the reading habits of Americans. The study focused on how often adults (aged 18 and older) read print books, audiobooks, and e-books. Unfortunately the results were not promising: the number of people who are not reading any books has tripled in the past three decades. Specifically in 1978, 8% of American did not read a book within the past year. In 2002 that number jumped up to 18%; and in 2014 that number increased to 23%. What those individuals don’t know, and dedicated readers do know (at least intuitively), is that reading makes you smarter and has several beneficial effects on the brain. Here are seven ways that reading makes you smarter:

1. Reading encourages empathy. Studies indicate that reading literary fiction increases empathy and sympathy as readers respond to the struggles of a protagonist. Reading allows the reader to step into the life of the protagonist and imagine what it would be like to have those experiences.

2. Reading poetry encourages deep self-reflection. Studies show that reading poetry activates areas of the brain that are associated with introspection and autobiographical memory.

3. Reading improves memory. Reading activates the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In one study, readers read simple descriptive phrases (like “dark blue carpet”) while placed in an MRI machine. The MRI indicated that these simple phrases were enough to activate the hippocampus. Using fewer words encourages readers to use their imagination to “fill in the blanks” and create a virtual scene or world.

4. Reading improves decision-making and emotional processing. Researchers have found that reading activates key parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex, lateral temporal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobe. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved with decision-making and memory recall. The lateral temporal cortex is responsible for emotional association and visual memory. The posterior cingulate cortex is involved with episodic memory recall. And finally, the inferior parietal lobe is responsible for understanding emotions and interpreting sensory data.

5. Reading improves your verbal skills and vocabulary. Studies show that there is a direct correlation between verbal skills and reading. As most readers know, reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary by looking up new words you encounter. The more you read, the greater your working vocabulary will be. Reading also helps discover new ways of describing situations, feelings, and places as well as creating images in the mind’s eye.

6. Reading strengthens the mind. The brain is not a muscle, of course, but studies suggests that mind-building (mental exercise) is analogous to body-building. In another MRI study, researchers found that brain retains activity for as long as five days after reading a book. MRI of subjects revealed increased activity in the left angular and supra marginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri areas of the brain that are associated with comprehension.

7. Reading helps slow down mental aging. Studies show that reading improves memory and sentence processing in older adults. The steady exposure to literary ingredients that encourage imagination (eg, metaphors, imagery, abstract ideas, etc), the brain gets mental exercise, remaining active and healthy.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up a book and start getting smarter.

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How Many Hamlets Are There in the World?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsHow many Hamlets are there in the world with intellectual power for large usefulness, who wait day by day and year by year in hope to do more perfectly what they live to do: die, therefore, and leave their lives unused, while men of lower power, prompt for action, are content and ready to do what they can, well knowing that at the best they can only rough-hew, but in humble trust that leaves to God the issues of the little service that they bring. It is a last touch to the significance of this whole play that at its close the man whose fault is the reverse of Hamlet’s — the man of ready action, though it be with little thought, the stir of whose energies was felt in the opening scene — re-enters from his victory over [Poland], and the curtain falls on Fortinbras, King.

From the introduction to Hamlet (Cassell’s National Library Edition, 1899) by Henry Morley (1822-1894), one of Great Britain’s earliest professors of English literature. Morley contrasts Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters whose tragic flaw is his indecisiveness, his inability to act (specifically, to avenge his father’s death) with Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince who is a warrior (he leads an army to attack Poland), a true man of action. As you may recall, at the conclusion of the play, Fortinbras is crowned King and, after hearing the tragic story of Prince Hamlet, orders that he be given a funeral befitting of a soldier. But the key point that Morley is asking is: what use is critical thinking by intelligent individuals without action, without contribution? A question that is so relevant to the many problems we face in modern times.

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There’s a Word for That: Euphuism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt’s one of those words that evokes a double-take: did you say euphemism or euphuism? Is euphuism even a word? Yes – despite spellcheck’s very annoying tendency to autocorrect to “euphemism” euphuism is a seldomly used word that means a very elaborate or roundabout way of speaking or writing. Consider it a fancier way of saying overly wordy.

It’s a fascinating word when you examine its etymology. The word is an eponym (a noun formed after a person), named after the main character from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a romance published in 1578 by English writer and playwright John Lyly. That book was followed by a sequel, Euphues and His England published a year later. There is a specific reason that Lyly chose the name Euphues — it is based on the Greek word euphues, meaning “well-endowed by nature,” which in turn is derived from eu (meaning “well”) and phue (meaning “growth”).

Before prurient adolescent minds get carried away by the word “well-endowed” realize that 16th century writers did not mean its modern slang meaning (“having a large penis” — there, I said it; get over it). Rather, it meant that an individual had many talents. In the case of our friend Euphues, here is a character who didn’t act in porn films due to the aforementioned distinct anatomical feature; instead, he was able to speak in very long, ornate sentences. His speech was also distinctive in that he often spoke in sentences with parallel structure. Here are two examples:

“It is virtue, yea virtue, gentlemen, that maketh gentlemen; that maketh the poor rich, the base-born noble, the subject a sovereign, the deformed beautiful, the sick whole, the weak strong, the most miserable most happy. There are two principal and peculiar gifts in the nature of man, knowledge and reason; the one commandeth, and the other obeyeth: these things neither the whirling wheel of fortune can change, neither the deceitful cavillings of worldlings separate, neither sickness abate, neither age abolish.”

“A sharp sore hath a short cure.”

While most modern readers are quite unfamiliar with Lyly, almost everyone has encountered him — but they just didn’t know it. How is that possible? Lyly was an influence on the greatest dramatist in the English language: William Shakespeare. Shakespearean scholars believe that the Bard not only read Lyly, who was the source of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but also satirized him in the ornate, fancy speeches of Beatrice and Benedick (yet again, another penis reference) in Much Ado About Nothing, the lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Polonius in the Tragedy of Prince Hamlet. So there.

Related terms are circumlocution, periphrasis, grandiloquence, purple prose, wordy, and sesquipedalian.

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The Monument of Language on the Menacing Shore of the Ocean of Gibberish

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Rousseau made the point that writing becomes necessary when speech fails to protect our identity. The written word may be a weak second best to lived experience, but it’s still pretty powerful—our only path to meaning and inner order. I keep being haunted by this phrase of [French poet and philosopher, Paul] Valéry’s: ‘I thought to erect a minor monument of language on the menacing shore of the ocean of gibberish.'”

Polish-Born American journalist, writer and literary critic Francine du Plessix Gray (1930-2019) responding to a question from Regina Weinreich, an interviewer from The Paris Review, about French semiologists who see writing as absence rather than presence. Gray began her career as a reporter, then moved to editing, and finally freelance writing. She became a staff writer for The New Yorker in the late 1960s. Subsequently she began her teaching career in the mid 1970s at City College of New York, followed by Yale University, Columbia University, and Princeton University. She won awards for several books, including Divine Disobedience: Profiles in Catholic Radicalism, Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress, andThem: A Memoir of Parents.

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Best Advice for Writers: B. J. Chute


Beatrice Joy Chute (1913-1987), known as B. J. Chute, was an American novelist and shorty-story writer, adjunct professor of English at Barnard College, and a past president of the PEN American Center, a nonprofit that supports writers. In the 1930s she wrote short stories for several publications, including The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s. She is best known for her novel Greenwillow, published in 1956, about young love and self-discovery. The novel was adapted into a Broadway musical of the same name in 1960 by Frank Loesser. Regrettably, as of this writing, there is no article about Chute in Wikipedia — an editorial oversight that should definitely be rectified. Chute, who taught creative writing for many years, offered this advice to aspiring writers:

“Imagination is as necessary to a novelist or short-story writer as the spinning of webs is to a spider and just as mysterious… Imagination cannot be created, but it can be fostered, and this fostering is part of the writer’s duty. It is not enough to congratulate oneself on having been gifted (lovely word!) with imagination, though it is certainly a major cause for rejoicing. The imagination, like the intellect, has to be used, and a creative writer ought to exercise it all the time. There is no idea, however insignificant or vague it may be, that the imagination cannot touch to new beginnings, turning it around and around in different lights, playing with it, listening to it.”

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For further reading: Good Advice on Writing by William Safire and Leonard Safir

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