Category Archives: Quotations

Reading Gives Us Someplace to Go When We Have to Stay Where We Are

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.”

This is a perfectly apt quotation about reading while we shelter in place during the coronavirus pandemic by Mason Cooley (1927-2002) an American aphorist. After earning his BA from San Diego State University and his Ph.D. from Oxford University, Colley was professor emeritus of world literature and French at the College of Staten Island at The City University of New York, an assistant professor of English (1959-1967) and an adjunct professor (1980-1980) at Columbia University. He is the author of The Comic Art of Barbara Pym (1980),  Aphorisms of the All-Too-Human (2002) and the City Aphorisms series. Here are some other Cooley aphorisms related to reading:

What I eat turns into my body. What I read turns into my mind.

Readers transform a library from a mausoleum into many theaters.

Reading more than life teaches us to recognize ethos and pathos.

Avid readers are enchanted by meaning, which available chiefly in books.

While we are reading, we are all Don Quixote.

If you do not throw in a few promises of better things to come, gloomy one, I am going to take you back to the library.

If I found the words I was looking for, I would not have read so much.

Reading civilized the inner life.

There are different rules for reading, for thinking, and for talking. Writing blends all three of them.

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Poems to Inspire During the Coronavirus Pandemic: No Man Is an Island

“In the aftermath of the spectacular collapse of the twin towers on September 11, 2001, the act of turning to poetry enjoyed a revival… In times of crisis, poems, not paintings or ballet, are what people habitually reach for… The formalized language of poetry can ritualize experience and provide emotional focus… Poetry also can assure us that we are not alone; others, some of them long dead, have felt what we are feeling.”

The excerpt above was written by Billy Collins, US Poet Laureate (2001-2003) from the introduction to The Poem I Turn To: Actors and Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them. Sadly, poetry books tend to stand forlorn on dusty bookshelves, often relegated to the back of whatever bookstores are still in business. In general, most people don’t read or buy poetry; paradoxically people have an insatiable appetite for songs — that are essentially poems set to music — as evidenced by the steady sale of digital music (mp3s) and music streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Pandora. Nevertheless, Collins is correct in stating that during special events in our lives — whether tragic or joyful — we inevitably turn to poetry. One of the greatest students of the human psyche, Sigmund Freund, expressed it this way: “Everywhere I go, I find a poet has been there before me.”

The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will be a period that will have an indelible imprint on our collective consciousness. It is unlike anything the world has ever experienced — a devastating, crippling worldwide pandemic that triggered a financial meltdown and an economic depression that will rival the Great Depression of the 1930s. In a matter of weeks we lost so much: the loss of 42,016 lives (as of this writing); more than 850,000 are sick; our way of life has been disrupted; businesses will falter or fail; and our trust and faith in government leaders has eroded. However, paradoxically, we have gained something: the pandemic has shattered our complacency of living selfish, isolated lives to discover an eternal truth that has been obscured by the fog of narcissism and the headlong pursuit of money: that all humans are connected to one another. Moreover, we are interdependent — alas, our survival today, and in the coming years, depends on this realization and the obligation to care for one another, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, or political affiliation. During a dark and difficult time like this, I cannot think of a poem that is more relevant and inspirational than John Donne’s short, but eloquent, poem known as “No Man is an Island.” Donne, a cleric of the Church of England, wrote many devotionals and sermons. This poem appear in Meditation 17, that appears in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions published in 1624, during a very difficult time in his life when he was mourning the death of his wife, some of their children, and several friends. In this timeless poem, Donne reflects on mortality and an individual’s relation to humanity: 

No Man is an Island

No man is an island entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as any manor of thy friend’s,
Or of thine own were.

Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

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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Einstein’s Touching Letter to a Grieving Father

For further reading: The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne
The Poem I Turn To: Actors & Directors Present Poetry That Inspires Them edited by Jason Shinder

Where Do We Find the Courage to Do What is Right?

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Here we are at the end of the century, drifting through a heroless age. We have no leaders we can trust, no visions to invest in, no faith to ride. All we have are our own protean moralities, our countless private codes, which we each shape and reshape according to our own selfish needs. We don’t dare to think too far ahead, we can’t see too far ahead. Here we are, trapped by whatever season we find ourselves enduring, waiting out the weather, staring at a drought sun, stupefied, helpless – or scrambling like fools to make it home before the rain really comes down and the dry river floods and the hills crash into the valley. Where do we find the courage to do what is right?”

From the novel The Long Rain, by American author Peter Gadol, published in 1997. Having been written over 20 years ago, one is struck by how eerily prescient this passage is particularly in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The novel explores how the protagonist confronts several moral dilemmas and the choices he makes and how they impact others. One of the key takeaways from the novel is that one of the most significant measures of success in life is based on the how people treat one another, evoking the wisdom of the Golden Rule.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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Doublets: Idiocy and Morons in Politics

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorship foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.”

Argentine short-story writer and essayist Jorge Luis Borges in a letter to the Argentine Society of Letters in the mid 1940s.

“As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

From one of the essays that American journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken wrote for the Baltimore Evening Sun, from 1920 to 1948, featured in the book H. L. Mencken On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe.

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What Makes Facebook So Popular?

alex atkins bookshelf culture“What makes Facebook so popular? What makes Facebook so unique is that it is able to marry two of the most powerful human emotions: narcissism and insecurity. First, Facebook allows you to create a world that centers on you. Then it lets you protect that world by surrounding it with only people you accept as friends. It’s like controlling the guest list to an exclusive party where you are the star. Facebook allows you to feel important and safe — at the same time.”

Brant Pinvidic, from his documentary Why I’m Not on Facebook (2015). The documentary was inspired by Pinvidic’s question: should I or shouldn’t I join Facebook, the world’s largest social networking site with more than 1.6 billion users? To answer that question, Pinvidic interviews dozens of people, including Facebook members, those who hate Facebook, the original founders of Facebook, celebrities, wannabe celebrities, Facebook friends, real friends, and family members. He learns how Facebook can bring out the best in people (families staying in touch, classmates who organize reunions, and sharing hobbies) as well as the worst in people (unfaithful spouses who cheat and destroy their marriages, criminals who learn about their targets and when to rob a home, pick-up artists who set up one-night stands, serial stalkers, and people who are so highly addicted to Facebook that they cannot have a face-to-face conversation — ironic huh?). Even though Facebook is about bringing people together, it also breaks them apart: about 30% of divorces are due to Facebook. Pinvidic also meets with Dr. Drew Pinsky who introduces him to the Dr. Drew Narcissism Test, from his book The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America, that helps assess an individual’s level of narcissism. Incidentally, the score for a typical person is 15; a highly narcissistic person will score 40. Pinvidic took the test and his score was both revelatory and disturbing. He couldn’t leave Dr. Drew’s office fast enough. Ultimately, at the end of his quest for enlightenment of all things Facebook, Pinvidic discovers that the happiest people are the ones who are not on Facebook — so he decides not to join Facebook.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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For further reading:

Isaac Asimov: There is a Cult of Ignorance in the United States

alex atkins bookshelf cultureIf you have watched any of the recent impeachment hearings or the President’s recent State of the Union Address, not to mention general coverage of politics over the past few years, one must sadly arrive at the inescapable conclusion that we are living in a post-truth world, where Truth does not matter, where a belief or opinion — no matter how ill-informed or irrational — has trumped (pun intended) objective facts. In short, we are living in an Orwellian world. Indeed, George Orwell’s dystopian novel (written more than seven decades ago) is a magnifying glass that exposes how language and disinformation is used as a powerful political tool to conceal the truth in order to manipulate the masses. Listen to these notable lines from 1984: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command… In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it… Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness… And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth.” It’s eerie isn’t it?

But few know that another influential writer and intellectual would mine this same territory thirty years later — as the actual year 1984 approached. For many years, Newsweek magazine contained a feature titled “My Turn” where a notable individual wrote about any issue that they felt was important. For the January 21, 1980 issue, world-renown science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote a very thought-provoking essay entitled “A Cult of Ignorance” that is as relevant today as it was 40 years ago. Interestingly, the essay was never reprinted in any collection of essays — a disservice to what Asimov saw then and is happening now: the rise of anti-intellectualism. So what does anti-intellectualism mean? Anti-intellectualism, according to Richard Hofstadter, professor of American history at Columbia University, public intellectual, and author of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963), is defined as “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.” In his essay, Asimov argues that there is a cult of anti-intellectualism in America that perpetuates a very flawed concept of democracy: that every person’s opinion, whether ill-informed or well-informed, is considered equal. Stated another way, in a democracy, equality of rights does not necessarily mean equality of knowledge — an opinion formed on the basis of lies does not have the same significance of an opinion based on objective facts. And this is something that politics parties misuse to their advantage: it is in their best interest to disseminate lies, to perpetuate ignorance — indeed, to create a cult of ignorance — to manipulate the masses. And here are some of critical questions: can we ever get back to a world that values Truth? How do we do it? How long will it take?

Here is Asimov’s essay, “A Cult of Ignorance,” for your consideration and discussion:

It’s hard to quarrel with that ancient justification of the free press: “America’s right to know.” It seems almost cruel to ask, ingenuously, “America’s right to know what, please? Science? Mathematics? Economics? Foreign languages?”

None of those things, of course. In fact, one might well suppose that the popular feeling is that Americans are a lot better off without any of that tripe.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Politicians have routinely striven to speak the language of Shakespeare and Milton as ungrammatically as possible in order to avoid offending their audiences by appearing to have gone to school. Thus, Adlai Stevenson, who incautiously allowed intelligence and learning and wit to peep out of his speeches, found the American people flocking to a Presidential candidate who invented a version of the English language that wall all his own and that has been the despair of satirists ever since.

George Wallace, in his speeches, had, as one of his prime targets, the “pointy-headed-professor,” and with what a roar of approval that phrase was always greeted by his pointy-head-audience.

Now we have a new slogan on the part of the obscurantists: “Don’t trust the experts!” Ten years ago, it was “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” But the shouters of that slogan found that the inevitable alchemy of the calendar converted them to the untrustworthiness of the over-30, and, apparently, they determined never to make that mistake again. “Don’t trust the experts!” is absolutely safe. Nothing, neither the passing of time nor exposure to information will convert these shouters to experts in any subject that might conceivably be useful.

We have a new buzzword, too, for anyone who admires competence, knowledge, learning and skill, and who wishes to spread it around. People like that are called “elitists.” That’s the funniest buzzword ever invented because people who are not members of the intellectual elite don’t know what an “elitist” is, or how to pronounce the word. As soon as someone shouts “Elitist” it becomes clear that he or she is a closet elitist who is feeling guilty about having gone to school.

All right, then, forget my ingenuous question. America’s right to know does not include knowledge of elitist subjects. America’s right to know involves something we might express vaguely as “what’s going on” in the courts, in Congress, in the White House, in industrial councils, in the regulatory agencies, in labor unions — in the seats of the mighty, generally.

Very good. I’m for that, too. But how are you going to let people know all that?

Grant us a free press, and a corps of independent and fearless investigative reporters, comes the cry, and we can be sure that the people will know.

Yes, provided they can read!

To be sure, the average American can sign his name more or less legibly, and can make out the sports headlines — but how many non-elitist Americans can, without undue difficulty, read as many as a thousand consecutive words of small print, some of which may be trisyllabic?

Moreover, the situation is growing worse. Reading scores in the schools decline steadily. The highway signs, which used to represent elementary misreading lessons (“Go Slo,” “Xroad”) are steadily being replaced by little pictures to make them internationally legible and incidentally to help those who know how to drive a car but, not being pointy-headed professors, can’t read.

Again, in television commercials, there are frequent printed messages. Well, keep your eyes on them and you’ll find out that no advertiser ever believes that anyone but an occasional elitist can read that print. To ensure that more than this mandarin minority gets the message, every word of it is spoken out loud by the announcer.

If that is so, then how have Americans got the right to know? Grant that there are certain publications that make an honest effort to tell the public what they should know, but ask yourselves how many actually read them.

There are 200 million Americans who have inhabited schoolrooms at some time in their lives and who will admit that they know how to read (provided you promise not to use their names and shame them before their neighbors), but most decent periodicals believe they are doing amazingly well if they have circulations of half a million. It may be that only 1 per cent — or less — of Americans make a stab at exercising their right to know. And if they try to do anything on that basis they are quite likely to be accused of being elitists.

I contend that the slogan “America’s right to know” is a meaningless one when we have an ignorant population, and that the function of a free press is virtually zero when hardly anyone can read.

What shall we do about it?

We might begin by asking ourselves whether ignorance is so wonderful after all, and whether it makes sense to denounce “elitism.”

I believe that every human being with a physically normal brain can learn a great deal and can be surprisingly intellectual. I believe that what we badly need is social approval of learning and social rewards for learning.

We can all be members of the intellectual elite and then, and only then, will a phrase like “America’s right to know” and, indeed, any true concept of democracy, have any meaning.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

Read related posts: Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Again?
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For further reading: 1984 by George Orwell
Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter
The Roving Mind by Isaac Asimov
The Tyrannosaurus Prescription and 100 Other Essays by Isaac Asimov

The Wisdom of Cornel West

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomWhat better way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day than to attend a lecture by Cornel West, discussing democracy, justice, and race. West, like Noam Chomsky, is a public intellectual, philosopher, social critic, and political activist. He graduated from Harvard College magna cum  laude with a degree in Near Eastern languages and civilization. He received his PhD in philosophy from Princeton University. West taught at Harvard, the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Yale Divinity School, and the University of Paris. He is the recipient of 20 honorary degrees and has written over 20 books. Race Matters, published in 1994, and Democracy Matters, published in 2004, are two of his most notable and influential works. Filmgoers will recognize the famous philosopher as Councilor West in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) movies. If that isn’t impressive enough, he has also recorded several soul, hip-hop, and spoken word albums.

The excitement in the packed auditorium was palpable. Heads turned as he walked through the center aisle, wearing his trademarked black three piece suit with a gold pocket watch chain dangling from his waist. He marched on the stage and with his deep, booming voice proclaimed, “I am only scheduled for an hour, but I feel moved by the spirit!” What followed was a mesmerizing two-hour presentation that was one part college lecture (evoking the great names of philosophy, history, and literature), one part tribute to jazz and Motown (the man knows his music and lyrics!), and two parts Baptist sermon and gospel revival (with scattered shouts from the audience of “Amen!” “Preach it, Brother!” and an uplifting, foot-stomping sing-along of the timeless gospel song “This Little Light of Mine” that was popularized by the civil rights movement). You couldn’t help but think that this is what is must have been like to attend an event featuring  Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. The evening ending with a long, thunderous standing ovation that lifted everyone’s spirits.

Bookshelf honors Martin Luther King Jr. Day by sharing the wisdom of Cornel West drawn from his writings and his lecture of that memorable evening.

“Justice is what love looks like in public; tenderness is what love looks like in private.”

“I take my fundamental cue from John Coltrane that says there must be a priority of integrity, honesty, decency, and mastery of craft.”

“I have tried to be a man of letters in love with ideas in order to be a wiser and more loving person, hoping to leave the world just a little better than I found it.”

“I’ve never been tied to one party or one candidate or even one institution. And that’s true even with one church as a Christian. I’m committed to truth and justice.”

“I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years ‘Be successful, be successful, be successful!’ as opposed to ‘Be great, be great, be great.’ There’s a qualitative difference.

“King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a reevaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.“

“There is a sense in which there has to be a poetic mode of expression that moves people — you have to communicate in the form of stories and narratives that carry with them certain kinds of values and virtues. When the values and virtues are cached in light of Christian stories of love and justice but connected to a whole host of non-Christian persons, so that you’re speaking to human beings and fellow citizens, you make an intervention as a Christian. But the stories and narratives that you put forward in a poetic form still are able to seize the hearts, minds, and souls of fellow citizens of all different traditions and viewpoints. That is precisely what Martin Luther King Jr. was able to do, and there was a real sense in which his example is something that we need to learn from in the early part of the twenty-first century as the American empire wafers and wobbles.”

“The country is in deep trouble. We’ve forgotten that a rich life consists fundamentally of serving others, trying to leave the world a little better than you found it. We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

“If you view life as a gold rush, you’re going to end up worshiping a golden calf. And when you call for help, and that golden calf can’t respond, you go under.”

“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”

“Music at its best…is the grand archeology into and transfiguration of our guttural cry, the great human effort to grasp in time our deepest passions and yearnings as prisoners of time. Profound music leads us — beyond language — to the dark roots of our scream and the celestial
heights of our silence.”

“To accept your country without betraying it, you must love it for that which shows what it might become. America — this monument to the genius of ordinary men and women, this place where hope becomes capacity, this long, halting turn of ‘no’ into the ‘yes’ — needs citizens who love it enough to re-imagine and re-make it.”

“In these downbeat times, we need as much hope and courage as we do vision and analysis; we must accent the best of each other even as we point out the vicious effects of our racial divide and pernicious consequences of our maldistribution of wealth and power. We simply cannot enter the twenty-first century at each other’s throats, even as we acknowledge the weighty forces of racism, patriarchy, economic inequality, homophobia, and ecological abuse on our necks. We are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation–and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately. Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

“It is a beautiful thing to be on fire for justice… there is no greater joy than inspiring and empowering others –– especially the least of these, the precious and priceless wretched of the earth!”

“[My religious grounding] has everything to do with taking the Christian gospel seriously by trying to take love seriously, connecting love to justice, and recognizing what Martin Luther King Jr. rightly said, that justice is what love looks like in public. Therefore, looking at the world through the lens of the cross means putting a premium on the least of these; to echo the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, it means looking at the prisoners, the widow, the orphan, the workers, gay brothers, lesbian sisters, people of color, indigenous peoples, and so forth. Whatever kind of theology you want to call it, I’m just trying to be truthful to the gospel. If we take the cross seriously—which has so much to do with unarmed truth, and the condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak, and the cross has so much to do with unconditional love—then we can’t love people simply by hating when they are treated unjustly. If we take the cross seriously, we must consider how we understand the world, think about the world, and act in the world. Then, certainly in that regard, my attempt to live the Christian life is at the center of what I think and do.”

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

Read related post: Why “I Have a Dream” Speech Endures
The Wisdom of Martin Luther King
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The Singer Who Inspired Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream Speech

Quotes Mistakenly Attributed to Martin Luther King

For further reading: The Cornel West Reader by Cornel West

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