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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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

Books to Read When It Feels Like the World is Ending

alex atkins bookshelf booksThis is a very difficult time for many businesses, especially small businesses. About half of the average small businesses in America can survive about a month with cash reserves and not generating any income. One type of small business that has been severely impacted during the coronavirus pandemic is the neighborhood bookstore. Take, for example, Green Apple Books that is one of the most cherished bookstores, selling used and new books, in San Francisco. Co-owner Pete Mulvihill recently did an interview with SFGate, the sister website of the San Francisco Chronicle, where he discussed the many challenges that the bookstore faces during the shelter-in-place order: “Thanks to a wholesale partner, we can accept orders on our website that are fulfilled by their warehouses. It’s providing some income to keep some staff working, but the margins are awful. What we wish we could do is curbside pickup (like restaurants) so we can sell books we’ve already paid for, get more staff working, etc. On the other hand, we don’t want to risk staff or public health, so I’m a bit at sea.” Asked how he would weather the pandemic, Mulvihill responded, “Honestly, I have no idea. Our landlords want (and are legally entitled to) their rent; we want to keep as many staff paid and insured as long as possible; and we owe publishers our regular monthly payments. One of our [satellite] stores relies heavily on author events, and that concept seems dead in the water for 6 to 18 months… Our ‘normal’ practice of buying used books from individuals walking in seems like it may be a long way off, so we may need to rethink all we do.  We DO have TONS of good books that we think readers want; and we have TONS of goodwill in the community.  We hope some combination of government intervention and community support will get us through this, but right now, we’re just running out of money and aren’t even sure what we should do with money if we got some.”

Responding to the reporter’s question about why books are important now more than ever, Mulvihill said, “[For] so many reasons: accurate information, lessons from history, escape, distraction, community (like those book clubs staying in touch remotely through a shared love of books), education for all those kids (and adults) with no school right now. The list goes on and on.” To that end, Mulvihill and his staff have created several suggested reading lists on their website. One of them is a list of books to read when it feels like the world is ending:

Books for When it Feels Like the World is Ending

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14Th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

Annihilation: A Novel by Jeff Vandermeer

Black Death at the Golden Gate: the Race to Save America from the Bubonic Plague by David K. Randall

Black Wave by Michelle Tea

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Chaos Walking: The Complete Trilogy by Patrick Ness

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Doomsday Book: A Novel by Connie Willis

The End of Eternity: A Novel by Isaac Asimov

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Warm Bodies: A Novel by Isaac Marion

During the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, support your local businesses by purchasing locally and helping businesses, like Green Apple Books, weather the storm.

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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There’s a Word for That: Brobdingnagian

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you are a fan of Jonathan Swift you will recognize this mouthful of a word and its meaning. The word brobdingnagian (pronounced “brab ding na GEE an”) means enormous or incredibly huge. The word was coined by Jonathan Swift in his famous novel Gulliver’s Travel, published in 1726, meant as a satire of travel tales and human nature. In the novel, Lemuel Gulliver sets off on a voyage on the sailing ship Adventure. On his second voyage he encounters Brogdingnag, a land that is populated by human giants, known as Brogdingnagians, who stand about 72 feet tall. Naturally, in a land of giants everything is, well… gigantic.

In an earlier voyage, Gulliver lands on the island of Lilliput, where the inhabitants, the Lilliputians, are tiny, standing  less than 6 inches tall. So the antonym of brobdingnagian is lilliputian, meaning very small or trivial. The word is pronounced “lile PYOO shen.”

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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What are Some of the Ugliest Words in English?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsPeople collect all sorts of things — coins, comic books, trading cards, dolls, etc. Then there are word lovers that collect certain types of words: long words, unusual words, unusual or funny names, or ugly words. Yes, ugly words! Perhaps there are some words that only a dictionary would love… or a true word nerd. Meet Tyler Vendetti, author of The Illustrated Compendium of Ugly English Words. Vendetti who decided to study a dead language that ignited a passion for words; she explains, “I continued to take Latin  throughout high school and into college… [I] began writing about words for any and all outlets that would let me. Cute words. Kooky words. Dirty words. Medical words… But out of all the words that I studied, there was one type of word that I kept returning to… ugly words. I became enamored by ugly words for the same reason that most people are drawn to beautiful ones: they’re universal.”

So what makes a word ugly? Vendetti discovered that a word’s ugliness is based on three factors:
1. The nature of the word’s meaning. There are some words that describe something really gross, like barf, maggot, or crap.
2. A pre-existing negative association with a word. Some words, like moist, may have a bad association because it leads to mold, fungus, or other gross conditions.
3. The sound or appearance of a word: Some words are ugly because of their harsh pronunciation, like grotesque or exoskeleton.

Here are some selections (A – C) from Vendetti’s book of ugly English words:


To this list I would like to add coronavirus and COVID-19. What other ugly words can we add that begin with the letter A, B or C?

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Who is the Most Translated Author?

alex atkins bookshelf booksSome used bookstores have a fascinating section called “Translated Authors” or “Translated Works” which include great works translated into foreign languages. Imagine picking up a copy of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in Japanese, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in Tagalog, William Shakespeare’s Sonnets in Russian. Some bibliophiles collect a great work in every foreign language, so these are fantastic finds. (Incidentally, as of this writing, there are 7,117 living languages in the world; although only 23 languages account for about half of the world’s population.) Naturally, these discoveries invite the question: who is the author that has been translated into the most languages? The United Nation’s Organization for Education, Science, and Culture (UNESCO) and surveyed the literature, for works published between 1979 and 2012, and published this list in their “Index Translationum” (number in parenthesis is number of works translated from original language):

1. Agatha Christie (7,236)
2. Jules Verne (4,751)
3. William Shakespeare (4,296)
4. Enid Blyton (3,924)
5. Barbara Cartland (3,652)
6. Danielle Steel (3,628)
7. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (3,593)
8. Hans Christian Andersen (3,520)
9. Stephen King (3,357)
10. Jacob Grimm (2,977)

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For further reading:

Trump’s Response to Coronavirus Crisis and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesThe world was stunned on March 6, 2020 as President Trump toured the Centers for Disease Control  headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia and bragged about his incredible comprehension of science because he had a smart uncle, referring to Donald George Trump (1907-1985), an electrical engineer, physicist, and inventor. Standing next to real doctors and health experts who are earnestly working to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump shamelessly said, “You know my Uncle was a great person. He was at MIT. He taught at MIT for, I think, a record number of years. He was a great super genius, Dr. John Trump. I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of these doctors said: ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.” Remember, this is the same man who stated unequivocally: “I’m an extremely stable genius. OK?”

It is disturbing to witness this egregious example of braggadocio, one of the many indicators of pathological narcissism, from a poorly educated individual who doesn’t read and doesn’t believe in science and medicine, futilely attempts to brag his way out of one of America’s most devastating crises. As many experts have expressed, Trump’s steady stream of lies, misinformation, and provocative statements are simply worsening the coronavirus crisis. Moreover, and more significantly, it is frightening to realize that this is a classic example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The term was coined by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, psychologists at Cornell University, in their 1999 study titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where a person who is incompetent at something is unable to recognize their own incompetence. Moreover, that individual has a false inflated sense of confidence about their supposed competence. And this, of course, is what makes these individual so annoying. Dunning points out the irony of the effect: “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.” Consequently, without appropriate management and training, such a person cannot improve because they are essentially clueless about how bad they are at a particular job. In subsequent research, Dunning has found the Dunning-Kruger Effect rampant among employees of high-tech firms and medical companies, professors at universities, and among drivers.

If you have been reading the news in the last few months, you know that the Dunning-Kruger Effect is alive and well in American politics. In an op-ed for The Washington Post titled “Trump has a dangerous Disability,” political commentator George Will wrote the following about President Donald Trump’s many egregious mistakes about American history: “What is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something [emphasis added].”

Yale psychologist Gordon Pennycock recently published a paper that explores the connection between the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the concept of reflectivity (a trait that can predict whether a person is likely to be highly deluded about his or her own knowledge). Pennycock found that the Dunning-Kruger Effect impacts a person ability to reason and reflect. Subjects in the study were asked to take a test of reflectivity and then asked to evaluate themselves. Most of the subjects who were unreflective believed that they did very well since they had no idea of what it meant to be reflective and thus were too incompetent to accurately evaluate their own behavior. Now think of Trump and his statements. Alarmingly, Trump lacks any modesty about his self-professed intelligence: in many interviews and appearances he has bragged that he is very well-educated, intelligent, and possesses a very high IQ. Is he highly deluded?

This leads us to our next discussion: what happens when a person who exhibits this cognitive bias is surrounded by enablers. And, in the case of Trump, this situation is amplified because he is the President of the U.S., the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world. One is reminded of the famous fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In that story the emperor, who is very vain and a slave to fashion, is swindled by two crafty tailors who fashion the finest clothes with fabric that can only be seen by smart or competent people. The tailors, of course, made nothing at all and the emperor falls for the con and proudly dons his “new clothes.” The pompous emperor then walks around nude (or perhaps wearing underwear, the story is not clear) in his palace, and all of his servants bow down and praise his very fine new clothes. Eager to show off his new clothes to all his subjects, the emperor organizes a parade to walk through the town. Again, like his servants, the public praises the emperor’s fine (but invisible) clothes — except for one little boy, who sees this ridiculous sight and provides a vital reality check: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” However, it is a variation of that line that endures as an idiom: “The emperor has no clothes!” One can only hope that at some point, the elected representatives in Congress and parts of the American electorate should realize that the President has no clothes.

Interestingly, long before there was any formal, scientific research, many philosophers and writers throughout history intuitively understood man’s inflated sense of intelligence or competence. Here are the different ways they expressed this universal truth:
Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
William Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (from As You Like It)
Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

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For further reading: The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President by Brandy Lee

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