Prefaces to Famous Novels: Les Misérables

alex atkins bookshelf literature“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

From the preface to Les Miserables (“The Miserable Ones”), published in 1862, by French novelist and poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885). The novel, one of the longest written (containing 655,478 words), is considered by many literary critics to be one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. Although the central story concerns ex-convict Jean Valjean’s difficult path to self-redemption while relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert, the novel explores many important themes; Hugo elaborates: “The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.” Literary critic and novelist Italo Calvino once wrote that a classic book is one “that has never finished saying what it has to say. And Les Misérables is such a timeless classic — it has been adapted more than 100 times for film, television, radio, and theatre. Hugo expressed the novel’s timelessness this way: “Social problems go beyond frontiers. Humankind’s wounds, those huge sores that litter the world, do not stop at the blue and red lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: ‘open up, I am here for you.'”

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

Adventures in Rhetoric: Homeoteleuton

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you listen to music and pay attention to the lyrics, it is very likely that you have heard plenty of homeoteleutons. Say what? Containing six syllables, the word is certainly a mouthful. A homeoteleuton (pronounced “ho me oh TEL yuh ton”) is a near rhyme, also known as a half rhyme or an imperfect rhyme. Homeoteleutons are especially prevalent in rap music. For example, take a look at this lyric from Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul”: “When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the line, / I escape when I finish the rhyme.” Line. Rhyme. Really close — but not a perfect rhyme. In the world of hip-hop music, a near rhyme is referred to as slant rhyme. In his song “Respiration,” rapper Mos Def rhymes the following words: narcotic-optics and watches-colossus. Clever.

Incidentally, the word homeotelueton was introduced by Aristotle, the greatest hip thought artist of Ancient Greece. Word. In his influential work, Rhetoric, Aristotle provided the primary meaning: the use of word-endings that are similar (or the same). The word is derived from the Greek word homoioteleuton which means “like ending.” Aristotle also included samples, which are um… all Greek to me. But here are some examples in English (emphasis added to word-endings):

Abraham Lincoln (Gettysburg Address): “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground.”

William Shakespeare (The Two Gentlemen of Verona): “[My] mother weeping, my father wailing, my sister crying, our maid howling, our cat wringing her hands.”

Since the secondary meaning has already been discussed in the opening paragraph, let us now turn to the third meaning. A homeoteleuton is an error introduced by a scribe while transcribing a frequently reproduced book, like the Bible. For example, the Old Testament contains several textual errors (missing words or sentences) that scribes made while they were making copies of the Good Book. These errors have existed for hundreds of years until biblical scholars found the missing words or sentences in the Dead Sea scrolls discovered in the late 1940s.

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 posts: Adventures in Rhetoric: Adianoeta
What is a Pleonasm?
What is a Rhopalic?

My Best Friend is a Person Who Will Give Me a Book I Have Not Read

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“My best friend is a person who will give me a book I have not read.”

The quotation is attributed to Abraham Lincoln. Although the phrase is not found in any of his writings, most likely it is a paraphrase of something he said. There are two sources that confirm this and both reveal a rather hayseed diction, inconsistent with the eloquence we expect from Lincoln. The first, is from Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (1926): “The next thing Abe would be reading between the plow handles, it seems to them. And once trying to speak a last word, Dennis Hanks [Lincoln’s cousin] said, “There’s suthin’ peculairsome about Abe.” Maybe in books he would find the answers to dark questions pushing around in the pools of this thoughts and the drifts of his mind. He told Dennis and other people, ‘The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll git me a book I ain’t read.” The second is a variation of that first source, found in the essay “Abe Lincoln and His Books” by Frances Cavanah included in the Wilson Library Bulletin (Volume 28, 1953): “For he was one of that fortunate group to whom a book could open a new world. ‘My best friend,’ he told his cousin, Dennis Hanks, ‘is a man who can give me a book I ain’t read.'”

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 posts: How Reading Makes You Smarter
Why Reading is Critical to the Writer
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
The Books that Most People Begin Reading but Don’t Finish


Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“I don’t have to tell you that there is this dark undertow which is connecting us all globally and it is flowing via the [social media] technology platforms. And that is why I am here — to address you directly, the gods of Silicon Valley: Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Jack Dorsey. Because you set out to connect people and you are refusing to acknowledge that this same technology is now driving us apart. And what you don’t seem to understand is that this is bigger than you, and it’s bigger than any of us. And it is not about left or right, or leave or remain, or Trump or not. It’s about whether it’s actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again. And so my question to you is: is this what you want? Is this how you want history to remember you? — as the handmaidens to authoritarianism? And my question to everyone else is: is this what we want? To sit back and play with our phones as this darkness falls?”

From the TED talk on April 2019 by Carole Cadwaller, the investigative journalist who exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cadwaller accused Facebook and other social media companies of damaging democracy by spreading hateful, divisive lies in darkness paid for by illegal cash for millions of dollars worth of ads. Working with a whistleblower from Cambridge Analytica, Cadwaller learned that the data mining company gathered information on millions of people and manipulated their behavior (i.e., their voting) in the U.S. to impact the 2016 presidential election and in the UK to influence the Brexit vote. The quotation that appears above is featured in the Netflix documentary The Great Hack that focuses on how users of social media apps do not have the right to their own data that is being collected every second that they are online. In this context, consumers themselves (or, more precisely, their data) are the commodity; social media companies sell that data to any company that wants to use it — and, as in the case of two important national elections — the data was used to manipulate the voter’s behavior. How Orwellian.

The entire lecture can be seen by searching for “Facebook’s Role In Brexit — and the Threat to Democracy” on YouTube.

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 posts: Notable Words of the 2016 Election
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
Plato’s Warning: If You Don’t Vote, You Will Be Governed by Idiots
Is the United States a Democracy or a Republic?

Profile of a Book Lover: Richard Macksey

alex atkins bookshelf booksOne of the most inspiring professors and book collectors is now exploring the Great Library in Heaven; perhaps it similar to the fantastical, vast library conceived by Jorge Luis Borges in his famous short story “The Library of Babel.” The professor’s name? Richard Macksey, a beloved professor who taught courses on the humanities, comparative literature, and film at Johns Hopkins University for more than 60 years. Sadly he passed away, at the age of 87, on July 22, 2019. The obituary that appeared in The Washington Post gives you a glimpse into his impressive erudition and dedication to the humanities: “Dr. Macksey was a wide-ranging scholar and polymath whose expertise extended from ancient and modern literature — in at least six languages — to medical history, biophysics, critical theory and film. He had joint appointments in Johns Hopkins’s School of Arts and Sciences and the medical school, where he helped design a curriculum that included writing and the humanities. He developed the university’s first courses on African American literature, women’s studies, scholarly publishing and film studies… [He] helped found the Humanities Center (now the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature), for the interdisciplinary study of literature, history, art and philosophy… Dr. Macksey wrote poetry and fiction, edited scholarly journals and published academic papers on everything from Hungarian revolutionary poems to mathematics to French literature… He also was a founder of what is now the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore.” As one student reflected on Macksey’s profound influence: “You’re lucky if, in your lifetime, you have one or two teachers who inspire you the way he did. I think he approached teaching in the way someone creates a work of art. If you think about the way art is created, it comes from some mysterious place. Macksey’s approach to teaching comes from that mysterious place.” Another student said, “You could never mention an author, historian or book that he did not have an expert knowledge of. He had such a capacious mind.”

But of course, in addition to his tremendous intellect and insatiable curiosity, Macksey was a quintessential book collector. His capacious mind was mirrored by an equally capacious library. Over the decades he created a wondrous private library with more than 70,000 books that filled just about every room in his house as well as a converted garage. Several of his colleagues believe it to be one of the largest private libraries in Maryland. Commenting on this, Dean of libraries at Johns Hopkins, Winston Tabb, remarked: “I’m almost certain that that’s true. I’ve been in many, many private libraries, but never one like Professor Macksey’s.” If you are a true book lover it is as spectacular as it is inspiring. Fortunately, there are several videos that provide a tour through the labyrinth of bookshelves (one led by Macksey himself). The viewer will be guided through packed bookshelf after bookshelf, with books in just about every language, piled on every flat surface that is available. Perhaps the organization could be best described as controlled chaos (book lovers know that there is always a method to the madness). Perhaps if Marie Kondo came across this library she would have a heart attack — but that is no matter for Macksey who believed that every single book sparked joy. Take that Kondo!

There are two remarkable videos shot (each about 20 minutes long) by a student, identified as Omda M, titled “In the Library of Richard Macksey” that allow you to step into Macksey’s magnificent library and poke around the stacks. Omda introduces the viewer to his process: “The following is a recorded walk through the Richard Macksey library in an effort to see the books sitting on shelves, chairs, tables, stands. The manner of walking, the logic of focusing on this or that title or tableau rather than the other, has to a great extent to be arbitrary, but the invitation and the seduction to which this walking takes itself as an answer is very much necessary and real.” Interestingly, seduction is one of the guiding principles for book collecting for Macksey; Omda elaborates: “Books, or certain books, seduce and you are drawn to them. To the common question of whether he had read all of these books, he would tend to give two answers. First, he knew all of them, their places, their histories and associations. Second, some books are to be devoured, some tasted, some consumed, some taken like medicine, and others used as garnish. They were all like people to him. Except for letting through light and providing seats, he wouldn’t spare any place for his people. A third answer could resort to an ancient metaphor. Just as you don’t go around in a garden smelling all the flowers each by each, a personal library is populated by books that ought to be left sitting in rest and summoned only when necessity spontaneously calls. His little cosmos remains disorganized in appearance, but it has its own structure through and through. Plus, if you want to have a library of your own, by necessity it has to grow ever larger and larger, because one book leads to another, and why should you stop following the lead?”

What will happen to Macksey’s library? you ask. Fortunately it will be find a permanent home in the libraries of Johns Hopkins.

Search for the following videos on Youtube:
A Rare Collection: Lessons Learned from Dick Macksey
In the Library of Richard Macksey: Take 1
In the Library of Richard Macksey: Take 2

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 posts: Words for Book Lovers
The Most Amazing Private Library in the World
Profile of a Book Lover: William Gladstone
Profile of a Book Lover: Rebecca Goldstein
Profile of a Book Lover: Sylvester Stallone
Confessions of a Book Scout: Old Bookstore Have Been the Hunting Grounds of My Life
Confessions of a Bibliophile: J. Kevin Graffagnino
The Man Who Launched 75,000 Libraries

Most Expensive American Book
The World’s Most Expensive Book
Words Invented by Book Lovers

The Sections of a Bookstore

For further reading: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Famous Misquotations: In a Time of Universal Deceit, Telling the Truth is a Revolutionary Act

atkins bookshelf quotations

This quotation, which has a few variants (such as, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary art” or “Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.”) is often attributed to George Orwell. It’s irresistible to writers — particularly political writers — serving as a brilliant epigram that captures the zeitgeist of the modern world. It certainly sounds like him, but, unfortunately there is no evidence that he either said or wrote those words. (Sorry, Orwell fans.)

Thanks to the dedicated detective work of several persistent quotation sleuths, two early sources of the misattributed quotations have been found. So at the very least, we have identified the rascals! The earliest appearance is in the 1982 book Partners in Ecocide: Australia’s Complicity in the Uranium Cartel by Venturino Venturini. Venturing includes the quote “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” as an epigraph and attributes it to Orwell. The second is a letter from a reader of Science Dimension, a Canadian periodical, that repeats the misattribution: “I think George Orwell said in his book 1984 that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Perhaps the closest that the quotation detectives could find, as a precursor to this famous quotation, is this sentence by Antonio Gramsci, a political theorist, that appeared in the Italian weekly newspaper L’Ordine Nuovo (“The New Order”) in 1919: “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act.”

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

For further reading: Famous Misquotations: Blood, Sweat, and Tears
Famous Misquotations: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats Its Weakest Members
Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life

Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
Famous Phrases You Have Been Misquoting

For further reading:

The Most Poignant Quotes from Mothers Who Lost Their Children to Gun Violence

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIt’s a shocking statistic that cannot be sugar-coated in any way: each day in the United States, an average of seven children (under the age of 19), are killed by gun violence. Seven. (The Washington Post recently reported that since 1966, 1,196 Americans have been killed in public mass shootings.) Award-winning portrait photographer Ali Smith, based in New York City, responded to this tragic reality by launching a photography project titled “7 Kids a Day” to capture the grief and agony of mothers who have lost their children to gun violence. “[They] are members of a club no one wants to be a part of,” explains Smith. The goal of the project is for these grieving mothers’ photos and voices — particularly their united call for policy change — to reach a wider audience. Smith adds, ““There’s actually a sanctioned machine that allows criminals to get guns right now and that’s a very fixable problem. What I would like to do with this project is put faces to the statistics and take the conversation out of the theoretical realm.” Here are some of the most poignant quotes from mothers who have lost their children to gun violence and if you are a parent, you have some understanding of the depth of this unfathomable, heartbreaking loss:

Shianne Norman – lost her son, Lloyd (4 years old): “I turned back towards the bullets and ran against the crowd screaming his name, but I couldn’t find him anywhere. I lost a part of my soul. There is also a feeling of guilt planted inside me that will never go away. This was not supposed to happen. You don’t bury your children. Your children bury you.”

Sandra Frank – lost her son Teshawn (18 years old): “I went into hibernation. For eight months, I didn’t have a period from the stress. I didn’t talk about how I felt for 17 years. I don’t ask the question why, because what could my son have possibly done to deserve that death? Nothing… None of those bullets have a name on them. Violence can fall anywhere.”

Nicole Hockley – lost her son Dylan (6 years old, student at Sandy Hook): “I thought I knew what pain looked like. The first image that comes to my mind when I think about pain now is [his brother] Jake’s face when my husband told him that Dylan had been killed. He just howled. I’d never heard a child make that kind of noise before… I never thought gun violence could touch me or my community, but my eyes are wide open now.”

Natasha Christopher – lost her son Akeal (15 years old): “I miss my son’s smile. I miss his scent. I miss everything about him. Inside, I am broken. A part of me will always be broken.”

Maxine Lewis – lost her son Locksley (16 years old): “When you kill someone, it’s not just him you rob the world of. You rob what he was going to do. The changes he was going to make. You wipe out a part of history.”

Diana Rodriguez – lost her daughter Samantha (18 years old): “Ten years after Samantha’s death, I keep meeting mothers in this loneliest club that nobody wants to be a member of. We mothers are out here crying… Are your guns more important than my child’s life? With rights comes responsibility and accountability. I don’t see a lot of being accountable for what’s happening in our communities to our children.”

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 posts: A Civilization is Measured by How It Treats its Weakest Members
The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing
What is the Reid Technique?

For further reading:

%d bloggers like this: