Category Archives: Literature

What is the Meaning of the Ides of March?

atkins-bookshelf-phrasesIn the ancient Roman calendar, before the Christian Era, every month had three named days: the Calends (or Kalends), the first day of the month when accounts were due; the Nones, the fifth or seventh day of the month; and the Ides, the middle of the month (between the 13th to 15th day). There was nothing particularly significant about the ides of January, the ides of February, and so forth.

All that changed in 1599 when William Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Julius Ceasar. In Act 1, Scene 2, in a public place on March 15th, 44 BC, a soothsayer among the crowd approaches Caesar and calls out: “Caesar!… Beware the ides of March.” Caesar is not sure he has heard the man correctly, so Brutus repeats it: “A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.”  The soothsayer repeats the line, warning that the Roman leader’s life is in danger. But Caesar immediately dismisses him: “He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass.” As we all know, Caesar should have heeded the soothsayer’s warning. In a scene filled with brutality and treachery, Caesar is surrounded by an angry mob of senators who walk up to him and stab him to death. He is stabbed a total of 23 times. As his life slips away, a feeble Caesar turns to his closest friend and ally, Marcus Junius Brutus, and utters the famous line, “Et tu, Brute?” (you too, Brutus?), signifying the ultimate betrayal.

So from that point on, thanks to Shakespeare’s dramatic genius, the phrase “Beware the Ides of March” being linked to Caesar’s barbarous assassination, imbued upon March 15 a rather ominous and nefarious connotation that has been passed down through the centuries. However, Tom Frail, senior editor of Smithsonian magazine, notes that March 15th lives in infamy beyond Casear’s murder. He cites several events in history that occurred on that same fateful day that were filled with villainy or mortalities:

Raid on Southern England, March 15, 1360: The French raided a town in southern England and began a two-day spree of murder, rape, and pillage. King Edward III initiated a pillaging spree in France in retaliation.

Cyclone strikes Samoa, March 15, 1889: A cyclone strikes six warships that were at barber in Apia, Samoa. More than 200 sailors were killed.

Czar Nicholas II abdicates throne, March 15, 1917: Czar Nicholas II or Russia is forced to abdicate his royal throne (ending a dynasty of 304 years). A few months later, he and his family are executed.

Blizzard in Great Plains, March 15, 1941: A devastating blizzard, with 60-MPH winds, struck the northern Great Plains, killing more than 66 people.

Depletion of ozone layer, March 15, 1988: NASA reported that the ozone layer over the Northern Hemisphere has been depleted three times faster than had been predicted.

Outbreak of SARS, March 15, 2003: WHO reported a breakout of Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

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For further reading: The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare


The Most Beautiful Valentine Ever Written

catkins-bookshelf-literatureChilean poet Pablo Neruda (born  Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basalto) finished a collection of sonnets, entitled One Hundred Love Sonnets in October 1959. He then penned a beautiful, moving tribute to his wife, Matilde Urrutia Neruda, to serve as the book’s introduction. In short, the tribute — not to mention the brilliant love sonnets — make it one of the most beautiful valentines ever written:

“My beloved wife, I suffered while I was writing these misnamed “sonnets”; they hurt me and caused me grief, but the happiness I feel in offering them to you is vast as a savanna. When I set this task for myself, I knew very well that down the right sides of sonnets, with elegant discriminating taste, poets of all times have arranged rhymes that sound like silver or crystal or cannonfire. But—with great humility—I made these sonnets out of wood; I gave them the sound of that opaque pure substance, and that is how they should reach your ears. Walking in forests or on beaches, along hidden lakes, in latitudes sprinkled with ashes, you and I have picked up pieces of pure bark; pieces of wood subject to the comings and goings of water and the weather. Out of such softened relics, then with hatchet and machete and pocketknife, I built little houses, so that your eyes, which I adore and sing to, might live in them. Now that I have declared the foundations of my love, I surrender this century to you: wooden sonnets that rise only because you gave them life.”

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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For further reading: Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon by Pablo Neruda (1997)
100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda (1986)
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (1993)
The Book of Love: Writers and Their Love Letters by Cathy Davidson (1992)



Why Attend an Antiquarian Book Fair?

atkins-bookshelf-booksThe 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair was recently held in Oakland. More than 200 booksellers from across the country and around the world gathered to exhibit and sell one of the most endangered species of the modern world — the printed book. Although the number of exhibitors has dwindled slightly through the decades, the level of passion for books and bookcollecting has not waned. You will never find this many book lovers and experts gathered under one roof in all the world. And no, there are no booths for iPads, Kindles, or Nooks in the exhibit hall.

For a dedicated bibliophile, the feeling of attending the International Antiquarian Book Fair is like a child stepping into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and being overwhelmed and dazzled by every candy you can dream of. Amid neat rows of booksellers’ booths, creating mini-bookstores with their neatly arranged bookcases, are great literary and historical wonders that you can actually touch and hold in your hands. Unlike a museum’s priggish, stern docents that admonish you to “look with your eyes and not your hands,” the book fair’s exhibitors encourage you to touch and feel the treasures that sit on the bookshelves. Imagine holding a first edition of The Wasteland signed by T.S. Eliot, or a first edition of Great Expectations or a note signed by Charles Dickens. You run your finger gently across the signature, touching the very paper that the great author once held in his hand — magically you are connected in time. You may not be able to afford the books, but the experience is absolutely priceless.

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

There is a misconception that the books and items sold at an antiquarian book fair require the deep pockets of a vested employee of Google or Facebook, but booksellers know that there is a broad range of collectors, and a large portion of the inventory is within the budget of most mortals with a moderate income. However, for those bibliophiles with vast disposable incomes, there are a number of very rare and precious items for sale this year:

Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies by William Shakespeare: Third folio edition, printed for Philip Chetwinde in 1664, generally regarded as the rarest of the 17th-century folio editions. An unknown number of copies is thought to have been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Value: $625,000.

The Tragedy of Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare: A rare 6th edition of the play. Value: $65,000.

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer by Geoffrey Chaucer: First complete edition of his works printed in 1532. Value: $187,500.

The Republic of Plato translated by Scottish classicist Henry Spens: Bound in contemporary calf in ten volumes. Printed in 1763 by the University of Glasgow. Spens was inspired to translate Plato’s seminal work from the original Greek “to stir up the youth to the study of the Ancients.” Value: $18,000

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: First edition, third issue, printed by Chapman & Hall (London) in 1843: Value: $12,500.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle: A first edition, first issue printed in 1902: Value: $5,000.

 Facsimile Reproduction of Original Manuscript of Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: 1 of a limited run of 250 copies printed in 1890. Value: $1,100.

Ulysses by James Joyce: Printed by John Lane the Bodley Head (London) in 1937). Value: $1,000.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville: Printed by Random House in 1930, featuring the woodcuts of Rockwell Kent: Value: $1,000.

Handwritten note from Charles Dickens to Charles Reade, author of The Cloister and the Hearth: Note, written on stationery from “Office of All the Year Round (No. 26 Wellington Street, Strand, London)” is signed by Charles Dickens and dated August 27, 1869. Value: $800.

The Magus by John Fowles: Printed by Jonathan Cape in 1977, signed by the author: Value $250

The Aleph and Other Stories by Jorge Luis Borges: First edition printed in 1970 : Value: $65.

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For further reading:

Literature as Divine Revelation

catkins-bookshelf-literature“[L]iterature was my first intellectual love. [At age] 12, I saw my equally aged inamorata reading Pickwick Papers, how I borrowed the book from her, and then ungratefully divided my affection between her and Dickens. I save fourteen cents, bought David Copperfield, read every word of its eight hundred pages, and ranked it, for a time, next to the Bible and the Imitation of Christ. Literature became an almost divine revelation, a miraculous multiplication of the world and life.”

From the preface to Interpretations of Life: A Survey of Contemporary Literature, by Will and Ariel Durant (1970). The two historians are best known for their 11-volume magnum opus, The Story of Civilization (published between 1935 and 1975), were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968. In their 80s, they turned their attention to literature, focusing not only on the authors’ works, but on their lives; Will writes: “In almost all these studies I have found the author himself more interesting than any character in his books, and his career more instructive than the imaginary world by which he revealed or cloaked himself.”

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Daily Rituals of Writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

atkins-bookshelf-literatureColumbian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez (born Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez but known as “Gabo” to his fans and dubbed “Latin America’s Don Quixote” by Carlo Fuentes) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 for “his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent’s life and conflicts.” The Nobel committee was referring to Marquez’s most acclaimed novels: One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch, and Love in the Time of Cholera. Some of the greatest literary influences on his writing were Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, and William Faulkner. Each day, Marquez would wake up before sunrise, read a book and several newspapers, and then sit down at this desk and write for four hours. And every day of their married life, that spanned more than 55 years, his wife, Mercedes, would place a yellow rose on his desk. He was often seen in public wearing a yellow rose in the lapel of his suits. When he passed away in 2014 at the age of 87, Marquez was honored with a sea of yellow roses at his memorial service held in Mexico City.

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For further reading:

Suffering is a Strong Teacher

atkins bookshelf quotations“[S]uffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but—I hope—into a better shape.”

Estella speaking to Pip in the final chapter of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Most readers do not know that Dickens actually wrote two endings to Great Expectations. In the original manuscript, Pip and Estella meet; she has suffered greatly. Estella’s first husband was abusive and when he died, she married a poor doctor. Estella and Pip then part as strangers. One of Dicken’s friends read the manuscript and suggested that he end the novel on a more positive note. And that is the ending we all know: Pip and Estella reunite, walking off hand-in-hand.

What Books Should You Read to Be Well-Read?

atkins-bookshelf-booksSince American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson was a well-read person, it is not surprising how important books were to him; he wrote in one of his journals: “A man is known by the books he reads, by the company he keeps, by the praise he gives, by his dress, by his tastes, by his distastes, by the stories he tells, by his gait, by the notion of his eye, by the look of his house, of his chamber; for nothing on earth is solitary but every thing hath affinities infinite.” Emerson is absolutely right — you can judge a person by the books that he or she has read. So often we hear that a particular person is “well-read.” But what does it really mean to be well-read?

Fortunately, the well-read folks in the GoodReads community put down their books long enough to conduct a poll to provide a precise answer to the important question: which books do you need to read to be considered well-read? Rather than taking the easy route and simply suggesting the Western Canon (via The Great Books or the Harvard Classics) they came up with a helpful list of 100 books — consisting of classic or contemporary novels, short story anthologies, poems, and plays — that a person should read to earn the title (pun intended) of being “well-read.” In short, their list is a precise literary roadmap to becoming well-read. God bless their hearts. Most readers will recognize all the authors and titles (incidentally, Shakespeare and Dickens are the most frequently cited authors, each with four titles; however the least known title is The Man Without Qualities by Austrian author Robert Musil. Musil’s 1,774-page unfinished magnum opus has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses (number 91 on the list) and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (number 51 on the list).

Here are the first 50 titles in the list of books you should read to be well-read:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
2. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
3. The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
4. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke
5. 1984 by George Orwell
6. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
8. The Arabian Nights by various translators
9. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
10. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
11. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
12 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
13. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
14. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
16. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
17. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
18. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
19. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
20. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
21 Last of Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
22. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
23. Dracula by Bram Stoker
24. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
25. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
26. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
27. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
28. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
29. The Iliad by Homer
30. The Agricola and The Germania by Tacitus
31. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
32. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
33. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
34. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
35. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
36. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
37. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
38. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
39. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
40. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
41. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
42. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
43. The Stranger by Albert Camus
44. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
45. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
46. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll
47. Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited by Aldous Huxley
48. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
49. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
50. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

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For further reading:

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