What to Bookmark in Moby Dick

alex atkins bookshelf literatureFine books are often bound with a ribbon bookmark. Bookmarks in books were introduced as early as 1 A.D., bound into some of the earliest codices found in libraries and monasteries of that period. The primary function of the bookmark, of course, is to the mark the reader’s place in the book as he or she reads it. However, once the book is read, the bookmark has a secondary and very important function: it can be placed in the location of a favorite or beautiful passage that you want to return to again and again.

Herman Melville’s magnum opus, Moby Dick,  is considered “The Great American Novel” however its themes and meaning transcend the shores of America. The novel is literally teeming with meaning and brilliant insights. One wishes the book were bound with two dozen ribbon bookmarks. If you have read and studied the novel you know what I mean. Recently I reached for one of my copies of Moby Dick, a beautiful deluxe leather-bound edition with gilded fore-edges published by Easton Press. The silk ribbon marks a passage in the book from Chapter 114, The Gilder. In this chapter, mesmerized by the calmness of the sea, Captain Ahab reflects on life’s journey:

“There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more?”

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Read related post: Why Read Moby
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For further reading: Moby-Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville
Melville: His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco

Famous Books with Numbers in Their Titles


There are numbers, that heard on their own, are simply prosaic digits. But in the context of literature, certain numbers immediately evoke a famous play or novel, especially when the number is central to the novel (for example, 1984, Catch-22, and Fahrenheit 451). Below are some of the most famous literary works with numbers in their titles.

1984 by George Orwell

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Henry IV (Parts I-II) by William Shakespeare

Henry V by William Shakespeare

Henry VI (Parts I-III) by William Shakespeare

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest by Ken Kesey

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard III by William Shakespeare

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

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Movies About Famous Writers

atkins-bookshelf-moviesFrom time to time, Hollywood gets either bored or tired of producing movies of comic book heroes. So why not movies about the fascinating lives of writers, whose colorful lives can sometimes be stranger than fiction? Although most of these films were not blockbusters, they did attract a rather loyal and well-read audience. Below are films about famous writers (writer, name of film, year of release):

Jane Austen: Becoming Jane (2007)

Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Bronte: To Walk Invisible (2016)

Truman Capote: Capote (2005) and Infamous (2006)

Charles Dickens: The Invisible Woman (2013); The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

Emily Dickenson: A Quiet Passion (2016)

T. S. Eliot: Tom and Viv (1994)

John Keats: Bright Star (2009)

C. S. Lewis: Shadowlands (1993)

Henry Miller: Henry & June (1990)

Lost Generation (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein): Midnight in Paris (2011)

Iris Murdoch: Iris (2001)

Maxwell Perkins: Genius (2015)

Sylvia Plath: Sylvia (2003)

Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven (2012)

William Shakespeare: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

J. R. R. Tolkien: Tolkien (2019)

Leo Tolstoy: The Last Station (2009)

Oscar Wilde: Wilde (1998)

David Foster Wallace: The End of the Tour (2015)

Thomas Wolfe and Max Perkins: Genius (2016)

Virginia Woolf: The Hours (2002)

Are there any other films that can be added?

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Read related posts: Famous Love Quotes from the Movies
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My Most Cherished Book: Rebecca Goldstein

alex atkins bookshelf books“We read over the shoulder of giants,” writes Leah Price in her introduction to Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, “books place us in dialogue not just with an author but with other readers. Six months from now, this book may be supplanted by a Facebook site. What seems unlikely to change is our curiosity about what friends and strangers read — or about what others will make of our own reading.” Price interviewed several writers and their spouses about what is on their bookshelves. One of the couples was Rebecca Goldstein and her husband, Steven Pinker. Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist; she is also a MacArthur Fellow. She has written ten books, including Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (2014), Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (2010), and The Mind-Body Problem (1983). When asked which were her most cherished book, Goldstein did not hesitate even for a moment, and responded:

“My copies of both Spinoza’s Ethics and David Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature are the same ones I had in college. I’ve used them so much­— taught from them, consulted them — that they are crumbling. And my translation of the Ethics is not the one that most scholars use now. There’s a supe­rior one. So when I write scholarly articles and quote from my translation, the editors often object. But I can’t give it up. It’s those words, of that trans­lation, whether inferior or not, that are, for me, Spinoza’s words. Those are the ones I’ve memo­rized. And both those books, the Spinoza and the Hume, are filled with my marginalia, going all the way back to college. There are passages that I’d marked with questions, and then, sometimes years later, there’s the answer I came to. I’ve never kept a diary. These books, with their marginalia, are the closest thing I have to a diary.”

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For further reading: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books by Leah Price

Best Thanksgiving Movies 2

alex atkins bookshelf moviesIn the world of cinema, Thanksgiving is the stepchild to Christmas. According the faithful VideoHound Golden Movie Retriever, there are more than 250 movies about Christmas, while there is only 20 about Thanksgiving. Ask anyone to name some Christmas classics and you will hear films like It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, and A Christmas Carol, to name just a few. Certainly, Thanksgiving deserves its own classics  — films that families can enjoy each year after they have stuffed themselves with turkey and pumpkin pie:

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987)
Prolific director and writer John Hughes gave Christmas the Home Alone films, but he didn’t forget Thanksgiving. This film, starring John Candy and Steve Martin, is very similar to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — it is very funny (plenty of slapstick, silly humor) with an underlying sweetness and sentimentality. And just like many of the favorite Christmas movies, it seems to get better with age. Sadly, John Candy passed away seven years after making this film, but he left us with a cherished, truly lovable character, Del Griffith, that had a lot of heart.

Home for the Holidays (1995)
While Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is aimed at a younger audience, this is a smart, witty, yet sensitive and serious, dramedy for adults. Directed by Jodie Foster, the film stars Holly Hunter, Robert Downey, Jr. Charles Durning, Anne Bancroft, and Charles Durning. This movie is relatable on many levels — focusing on the parent-children relationships, the sibling rivalry, the memorable Thanksgiving dinner, and so forth. Charles Durning and Robert Downey have terrific fun with their roles.

Recent Movies:
Friendsgiving (2020)
The Oath (2018)
Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade (2012)
A Family Thanksgiving (2010)
An Old Fashioned Thanksgiving (2008)
Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower (2006)
What’s Cooking (2000)
The House of Yes (1997)

Synonyms for Book Lover

atkins bookshelf wordsMany book lovers are also word lovers. Or expressed another way, most bibliolaters are also epeolatrists. Naturally, the largest share of synonyms for book lovers are based on the Ancient Greek root word biblos, meaning “book,” and biblion, meaning “paper” or “scroll.” Below are some delicious words that bibliophilists and logolepts can savor:

abibliophobia: the fear of running out of things to read

biblet: a book or library

bibliobibuli: someone who reads too much

biblioklept: a person who steals books; a book thief

bibliolater: a person who loves books

bibliolatry: the love of books; book worship

bibliomane: a person who loves books and reading

bibliomaniac: a person who is obsessed with collecting books

bibliophagist: a voracious reader

bibliophile: a person who loves books or collects books (or both)

bibliophilist: a book lover

bibliopole: a person who buys and sells rare books

bibliosmia: the aroma of a book; the act of smelling books

bibliotaph: a person who hoards books (often unread); books are stored, keeping them from use

bibliotecha: a list of books in a catalog

book-bosomed: a person who always carries a book

bookman: a person who loves books or reading

booktrovert: a person who prefers the company of fictional characters to people in real life

bookworm: a person devoted to reading and study

epeolater: a person who loves words

epeolatry: worship of words

fascicle: a volume; one of a number of books forming a set or series

finifugal: dislikes endings; someone who avoids reading the end of a novel

incunabulum: a book printed before the year 1500

introuvable: a holy grail book; a book that cannot be found

librocubicultarist: a person who reads in bed

logolept: a person who is very interested in words; person obsessed with words

logolepsy: a fascination or obsession with words

omnilegent: having read everything; characterized by encyclopedic reading

philobiblist: a lover of books

princeps: a first edition of a book

rarissima: an extremely rare book or manuscript

scripturient: an author; a person who has a passion for writing

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Famous Misquotations: People Were Created to Be Loved. Things Were Created to Be Used…

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIf you search “People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. Most of our troubles come from the fact that we love things, and use people.” you will find it on dozens of websites that feature inspirational or wisdom quotes. You will also encounter a common variant of this quotation is: “Variant: People were created to be loved Things were created to be used. The world is in chaos because things are being loved and people are being used.” It’s a great observation, isn’t it? But who said it? Well, that depends on what website you visit. Most attribute it to the Dalai Lama, others attribute Martin Luther King, John Green (from his novel Looking for Alaska). Problem is, they never said or wrote this.

The earliest use of this quotation appears in the book, Our Christian Vocation (1955) written by John Heuss (1908-1966), an Episcopal priest who promoted Christian education. On page 196, Heuss writes: “Martin Buber said, in effect, ‘People were created to be loved. Things were created to be used. Most of our troubles come from the fact that we love things, and use people.’ This is being blind to the first fact of a satisfying life.”

Based on the wording “in effect” in seems that Heuss is paraphrasing something that Buber has said or wrote. It certainly make sense, since Buber — who was a philosopher, author, religious scholar, and political activist — developed the philosophy of dialogue, a form of existentialism that distinguishes between two modes of existence: I-Thou and I-It. In his influential work, I and Thou (1923), Buber explains that man is defined by his relations between other human beings and things. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides this introduction to this nuanced concept:

The “I-Thou” relation is the pure encounter of one whole unique entity with another in such a way that the other is known without being subsumed under a universal. Not yet subject to classification or limitation, the “Thou” is not reducible to spatial or temporal characteristics. In contrast to this the “I-It” relation is driven by categories of “same” and “different” and focuses on universal definition. An “I-It” relation experiences a detached thing, fixed in space and time, while an “I-Thou” relation participates in the dynamic, living process of an “other.” Buber characterizes “I-Thou” relations as “dialogical” and “I-It” relations as “monological.” 

Buber was a prolific writer, nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature (10 times) and the Nobel Peace Prize (7 times). So although the specific quotation attributed to him by Heuss does not appear in his writings, it is very consistent with his philosophy.

Note: If there is a Buber scholar who can identify a similar passage to this quotation, please let me know.

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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: I and Thou by Martin Buber

What Will Your Contribution Be? How Will History Remember You?

alex atkins bookshelf educationIt is the beginning of the semester at St. Benedict’s, a classic boys prep school. Professor William Hundert places the textbook Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean in the center of each of the neatly lined desks. The classroom resembles a museum, filled with historical artifacts that reflect Greek and Roman culture, as well as busts and drawings of the great thinkers of that era, like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Augustus. Behind the teacher’s time-worn wooden desk is a scale reproduction of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David. As former students can attest, Hundert is very fond of quoting Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” “It is not living that is important but living rightly.”

Twenty young students enthusiastically pour into the classroom and take their place at the desks. Hundert asks them to introduce themselves. He then selects one to read a plaque that hangs above the door. Martin Blythe stands up and turns to face the plaque and reads nervously: “I am Shutruk-Nahhunte, King of Ansham and Susa, sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshunshinak, I destroyed Sippar and took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god, Inshunshinak.  Shutruk-Nahhunte, 1158 B.C.”

The professor begins his lesson: “Shutruk-Nahhunte. Is anyone familiar with this fellow? Texts are permissible.” The students frantically open their textbooks, scanning the pages and the index — but to no avail. A sea of baffled faces look up at the teacher in unison. He takes a moment to register their bewilderment and exclaims, “Shutruk-Nahhunte! King! Sovereign of the land of Elam! Destroyer of Sipper! Behold, his accomplishments cannot be found in any history book. Why? Because great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be? How will history remember you?

He lets this lesson sink in. After a moment’s pause, he continues: “Shutruk-Nahhunte is utterly forgotten — and he is not alone — vanished from history. Unlike the men around you — Aristotle, Caesar, Augustus, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Ovid. Giants of history. Men of profound character. Men whose contributions surpassed their own lifetimes, and survive into our own. ‘De nobis fabula narratur.’ Their story is our story.”

A few days later, Hundert explains to a cynical, corrupt senator why he teaches what he teaches: “Well, Senator, the Greeks and Romans provided a model of democracy, which, I don’t need to tell you, the framers of our own Constitution used as their inspiration. But more to the point, I think when the boys read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Julius Caesar even, they’re put in direct contact with men who, in their own age, exemplified the highest standards of statesmanship, of civic virtue, of character, conviction.

Class dismissed.

Now let’s imagine for a moment, what our government would be like, if the people who govern America had the benefit of William Hubert’s lessons?

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Excerpts from the film, The Emperor’s Club (2002) written by Neil Tolkin (based on short story The Palace Thief  by Ethan Canin) and directed by Michael Hoffman.


How Many Books Can You Identify by Their Opening Line?

alex atkins bookshelf literature“There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line,” explained Stephen King in an interview with The Atlantic. “It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar. But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Sometimes the opening line of a novel is not just inviting, it is memorable and becomes intricately linked to the novel in the mind of the reader. Who doesn’t know this one: “Call me Ishmael.”? Or this one: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”? They are, of course, from the famous novels Moby Dick by Herman Melville and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

There are many literary reference books that list the first (and sometimes also the last) lines of famous novels. One of them lists 209 memorable first lines, another lists 801 first sentences, another lists 1001, and yet another lists a whopping 11,000! It’s interesting to open up any of these reference books and flip through the pages to find out how many you know. Out of, say 200, how many would you know?

If you happen to be Monty Lord, a 14-year-old boy from Bolton, England, you would know over 100 books from their opening line. On of January 13, 2020, Bolton set new Guinness World Records by correctly identifying 129 books from their opening lines. The previous record-holder, a man in India, could only identify 30 books.

Lord was inspired to memorize the first sentences of novels when he was studying the powers of memory for a psychology course. He studied the opening lines of 200 well-known novels using visualization techniques over three weeks. His technique involved visualizing a connection between the sentence and the novel.

Are you ready for a challenge: can you break this world record?

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For further reading:
Call Me Ishmael: 801 Memorable First and Last Lines in Literature by David Spector
Famous Last Lines by Daneil Grogan


There’s A Word for That: Parvanimity

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt sounds like a disease, doesn’t it? Parvanimity, however, is defined as small-mindedness or meanness (the antonym, in this case, would be magnanimity). It is derived from the classical Latin root words parvus (from parvi-, meaning “small”) and animus (meaning “mind” or “soul”). The word is pronounced “PARVE ah nim e tee.”

The word was introduced by Robert Boyle (162-1691), an Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, physicist, and chemist; he was also fascinated with theology. Boyle is considered one of the founders of modern chemistry. Published in 1661, The Skeptical Chymist is a seminal work in the field of chemistry. Boyle introduced the word parvanimity in his work A Free Discourse Against Customary Swearing; and a Discursive from Cursing (1647): “To all this I must add, that when once it is noted, that the apprehension of being derided for retracting is the sole obstacle that stands between your reaction and of great important a change as your conversion, they will justify your parvanimity of great, that you deserve derision for so poorly fearing it; and so you will fall into that contempt you would decline, by your very shunning of it.” [Also found in The Works of the Honorable Robert Boyle, Volume 6, published in 1772.]

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What is Poe’s Law?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesThere are two different Poe’s Law — both named after different individuals named Poe. While one unwritten law refers to poetry; the other refers to parody. Let’s begin our discussion with the first Poe’s Law named after Edgar Allan Poe, the famous American short-story writer who explored madness and the macabre. In the context of literature, Poe’s Law establishes the proper length of a poem. We learn about this in John Middleton Murry’s book titled Pencillings (1923), a collection of short essays on life and literature. In the essay “The Problem of Size,” Murry writes: “The other day I listened to a famous French poet lecturing on the ideas of Edgar Allan Poe… [One] of Poe’s ideas… has had a very remarkable influence upon the development of modern French poetry. I mean his theory that the unit of poetry must be fixed by the readers capacity of attention, and that the limits of a poem must accord with the limits of a single movement of intellectual apprehension and emotional exaltation. A long poem, said Poe, was really only a sequence of short ones; and it would be a good thing (he thought) if it did not pretend to be anything else.”

The other Poe’s Law, was introduced more recently; It is considered one of a handful of unwritten laws of the internet, that describes common patterns of communication found in chat rooms and comments sections. As the story goes, on August 10, 2005 Nathan Poe, an agnostic, was debating a creationist on the website Christian Forums on the the topic of “big contradictions in the evolution theory.” He used a heavy dose of sarcasm in an argument and punctuated with the winking face emoji to reinforce the sarcasm. Someone responded to Poe’s comment by writing: “Good thing you included the wink. Otherwise people might think you are serious.” It was that comment that inspired Poe to create Poe’s Law, which he defined as: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a creationist in such a way that someone won’t mistake it for the genuine article.” Expressed another way, if you write a sarcastic post without the winking emoji, people will take it seriously. Today, Poe’s Law is more broadly applied to any extreme view — not just creationism — that is expressed on the internet. The editors of Dictionary.com add: “The point [of Poe’s Law] is that fundamentalist or dogmatic views can become so extreme, despite their acceptance, that even parodies of this views are unmistakable for the real thing, to the point that extremists may accidentally embrace a parody as truth.” Yikes!

Through this eponymous law, Poe confirmed what so many people have already surmised over the years: it is very difficult to effectively convey sarcasm, irony, facetious remarks, and certain kind of humor via email or text because the reader is lacking critical non-verbal cues (like body language, facial expressions, and voice intonation) that convey the actual or intended meaning. Poe’s Law made it into the informal English lexicon in 2006 when it was published in the Urban Dictionary. Poe’s Law, however, is not limited to online conversation — it has become mainstream in the discussion of culture and politics. In an article in WIRED magazine, staff writer Emma Grey Ellis observes: “People talking about ‘spin in the era of Trump’ and ‘post truth’ don’t talk about politics in terms of Poe’s Law,” [Whitney Phillips, author of This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Internet Culture] says. “But it’s there, whenever you’re not sure if you should be mad or just roll your eyes.” It’s as present in Julian Assange stoking the Seth Rich conspiracy or Kellyanne Conway’s ‘kidding’ about telling people to buy Ivanka Trump’s clothing as it is in YouTuber PewDiePie’s attempts to justify racism as satire.”

Related to Poe’s Law is Poe’s Corollary which states that a person’s actual expressed views are so extreme that another person misinterprets those views as a parody.

As we have all learned in the past four years,  in the Trumpian world Truth has been eroded to the point that we have “alternative facts” and Rudy Giuliani’s unforgettable statement: “the truth isn’t truth.” All of this insanity, of course, adds another obstacle to clear communication on the internet. As Rupert Taylor observes in his essay “Poe’s Law and Internet Satire” on TurboFuture: “Sometimes, everything gets so tangled up that you don’t know if you’re seeing Poe’s Law in action, a parody of Poe’s Law, or both at the same time.” God help us.

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For further reading: https://www.dictionary.com/e/slang/poes-law


Do Voters Actually Have a Free Choice?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAfter five days of counting votes, the election has been called: Joe Biden is projected to be the 46th U.S. President. For at least half the country, this ends a nightmare of a tumultuous Trump presidency fraught with weekly scandals, lies, ineptitude, and corruption, capped with the mismanagement of a lethal pandemic that took the lives of more than 237,00 Americans (to date). Additionally, the run-away pandemic required the shut-down of the economy, causing a devastating recession, the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world, as evidenced by the highest unemployment levels (14.7%, 23 million Americans) since the Great Depression. In its wake, nearly 100,00 businesses have closed, more than 8 million Americans have been pushed into poverty, and more than 12 million have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. Moreover, Feeding America projects that 50 million Americans are food insecurity (up from 35 million prior to the pandemic). Of course, based on the vote, the other half of the country saw all of this as good news and signed up for another four years. WTF.

Nevertheless, the election reinforces the importance and sanctity of voting — the foundation of a democracy. But when you consider the perplexing results of the recent election, where half of the country fails to hold the incumbent presidential candidate accountable for four years of failures and contempt for the middle and lower classes, one has to ask: was this truly a free and fair election?

If you ask Carole Cadwaller, the investigative journalist who exposed the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal back in 2016 (she is featured in the Netflix documentary, The Great Hack), the answer would be an emphatic “No!” 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.

In a TED talk on April 2019, Cadwaller confronts the leaders of the social media companies head on: “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?”

Recently, Bill Maher asked the same question of his guest, Tristan Harris, co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology and co-host of the podcast “Your Undivided Attention”: was 2020 a free and fair election? What followed was a fascinated discussion of the impact on social media on human behavior and free will, which is the focus of the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, released in January of this year.

Maher begins the discussion with the question: In a world manipulated by social media, did voters actually have a free choice? Harris responds: “No… what people need to get is that we are ten years into this mind warp, where we have been fed an individualized reality [like the Truman Show]… We got 3 billion Truman Shows… Imagine a husband and wife couple — they follow the same friends on Facebook. They’ve got the same friends so that when they open up Facebook they should see the same feed. But that’s not actually how it works. They will actually see completely different realities based on what the [Facebook] algorithms will say “this is the thing that will likely to keep you here.” What that did was to take the shared reality we have, put it through a paper shredder, and gave each of us a micro reality in which we are more and more certain that we’re right and the other side is wrong, and it has totally confused us.”

Maher then asks, is the Facebook algorithm evil? Harris answers, “Yes, it is evil. That’s the whole point [of the algorithm]. Because of this competition for attention, the company started to get really aggressive about what they could dangle in front of your nervous system to get you to come back… It’s like a digital drug lord. It’s destroyed [the] mental health of our teenagers, it’s polarized our societies, it’s addicted each of us, and it’s really warped, I think, the psyche that now we are in the middle of with this election because I think, much like a psychotic patient has a mind that is fractured against itself… our national psyche is fractured against itself. If you look at even the examples of the “count the vote” [protestors] and the “stop the count” [protestors]… We have really been confused by these individual realities that have warped all of our perceptions.”

Maher then moves to recent news about the public putting pressure on the social companies to act on preventing misinformation and falsehoods, taking down sites. Is this helping? Harris explains, “So there’s this really weird situation we’re in where if you let the Frankenstein run without any controls — and so anything goes viral if it gets the most clicks and likes — that just rewards the most conspiracy theories. YouTube, for example, recommended Alex Jones Info Wars conspiracy theories 15 billion times — which is more than the combined traffic of The New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Fox News combined. And when you just realize the scale of all of that, conspiracy theories are especially dangerous because they’re like a trust bomb — they warp your perception of everything that comes after it. In fact, the best predictor whether you will believe in a new conspiracy is if I already got you to believe in one. And once you believe, for example, ‘the election is rigged or it’s stolen,’ you perceive everything through that lens, and it warps all of your perceptions.”

Maher then moves to the issue of freedom of speech, since some of the social media companies have introduced initiatives to either tag misinformation or suspend accounts spreading falsehoods. Harris clarifies: “We have to protect the freedom of speech. I think the distinction [that needs to be made] is freedom of speech is not the same thing as freedom to reach, meaning we’re all granted the right to speak, but are you granted a football stadium-sized audience to say anything you want without accountability? And when you let that become the default, like that’s what makes up our information environment — that the default information all of us are consuming is each of us get a [football stadium-size audience] and say whatever you want without any accountability… you don’t end up with a healthy information environment and we also get more rewarded the more extreme things we we say. And the more extreme the things you say the more likes and feedback you get which leads us into our own distortion of ‘hey we’re really right, we have all these supporters, we are on the right side of history.'”

Maher responds: “But the people who don’t know its bullshit have been trained not to see it as bullshit… The underlying issue of all of this is that the American people are too stupid to be governed. They have no bullshit detector. They believe a lot of kooky stuff on the left and on the right they believe in QAnon [a conspiracy theory that alleges that the world is run by a powerful cabal of pedophiles that worship Satan and operate a child sex trafficking ring that works to undermine President Trump.] … There is no knowledge of the past. You can’t scare them by saying ‘Trump is becoming a totalitarian.’ — [Americans respond:] What’s that? You know like East Germany — What’s that? Like in the Cold War — What’s that? Technology wouldn’t be so scary if people had a better brain to deal with it. Harris quickly responds, “But what has social media done to our brain? That’s the problem. Social media [has led to] the downgrading of attention spans, our critical thinking, our ability to form an opinion on anything that is not the hyperpresent. We don’t read books any more. We have polarization, conspiracy thinking… [All of this due to the business model of Facebook discussed in the documentary Social Network] — So long as we’re the product, we’re worth more when we are addicted, distracted, outraged, narcissistic, polarized, and disinformed than if we are a thriving citizen, an informed citizen of a democracy… [To Facebook] a child is worth more if they’re narcissistic and attention-seeking and seeing how many likes they have than if they’re actually free — growing, developing, and playing with their friends. [As the inventor of the “Like” button explained] so long as the whale is worth more dead than alive and a tree is worth more as 2x4s than as a tree, in this new [business] model… we’re the whale, we’re the tree, we’re the thing that is being mined… [The technology in Facebook’s business model] is converting us into someone who cares more about the number of new likes and followers and comments that we have than living our lives. Each of us get to participate in a system that profits from social performance, where we each perform and that’s what we’re doing with our time, instead of actually doing any of the other things that we care about.”

The discussion of freedom of choice reminds me of the routine of one of the most influential comedians of all time, George Carlin, winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Like Twain, Carlin was a fearless critic always ready and willing to speak his mind — passionately and eloquently. Carlin was the thinking person’s comedian — his razor-sharp, incisive rants about politics, culture, religion, philosophy, and language were not only funny, they were compelling and thought-provoking. Long after watching a Carlin performance, you actually remembered what he had to say because in most cases he was right — the world is fucked up.”

One of Carlin’s most famous bits was his rant on freedom of choice: “Yes, you can [vote for president], but you don’t get much choice in this country about important things. They have all the guns. They have all the tools. They have all the power. We call it freedom of choice. There is an illusion of choice. Americans are led to feel free through the exercise of meaningless choices. There are only two political parties. There is a reduction of the number of media companies. Banking has been reduced to only a handful of banks. Oil companies. These are important, and you’re given very little choice. Oh, but the flavor of jellybeans? The flavor of muffins? A bagel? You can get a Pina Colada bagel. We’re given the illusion of choice by the meaningless of choices of trivial things. You know what your freedom of choice in America is? Paper or plastic, buddy? That’s it. After you’ve said cash or charge, maybe it’s Pepsi or Coke? Window or Aisle? Smoking or [Nonsmoking]? Everything else you’re kinda guided towards by focus groups and marketing research.”

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.

Read related posts: Plato on Idiots and Ignorance
You Should Figure Out a Way to Get Off Facebook
Will We Have Free and Fair Elections Ever Again?
A Republic If You Can Keep It
Is the United States A Democracy or Republic?

For further reading: Real Time with Bill Maher, 11-6-20 (HBO)
The Great Hack, Netflix Documentary (2019)
The Social Dilemma, Netflix Documentary (2020)

Plato On Idiots and Ignorance

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“If you don’t vote, you will be governed by idiots.”

The quote is a variation of the quote most often attributed to Plato, ubiquitous on the internet: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics, is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” The source is The Republic, (Book 1, 346-347), where Plato makes the point that if good, honorable, intelligent men do not to wish to serve in government, then they will be punished by being ruled by those who are bad, dishonorable, and dumb. The actual sentence is: “But the chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule.” There are many other variants of this famous quotation. Among them is this one crafted by poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson that appears in Society and Solitude (1870): “Plato says that the punishment which the wise suffer who refuse to take part in the government, is, to live under the government of worse men.”

“A man may truly say that ignorance is a third case of crimes. Ignorance, however, may be conveniently divided… into two sorts: There is simple ignorance, which is the source of lighter offenses, and double ignorance, which is accompanied by a conceit of wisdom; and he who is under the influence of the latter fancies that he knows all about matters of which he knows nothing. This second kind of ignorance, when possessed of power and strength, will be… the source of great and monstrous crimes…”

A number of websites mistakenly attribute this quotation to Aristotle (384-322 BC), a famous Greek philosopher, who was a student of Plato. However this quotation was written by Plato; it is found in The Dialogues of Plato, Volume 4, (1895) translated by B. Jewett, professor of Greek, University of Oxford. Plato (428-348 BC). Plato was a student of the classical Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 BC). Plato and Socrates are considered the founders of Western philosophy — their ideas and concepts have shaped Western civilization for centuries. We know of Socrates’ teachings through Plato’s writings (The Dialogues) that employ the Socratic method: the deep exploration of topics through endless questioning.

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 Dialogues of Plato by Plato
The Republic by Plato

Finally, A Documentary for Book Lovers: The Booksellers

alex atkins bookshelf moviesThe Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young, a documentary about a group of established antiquarian book dealers in New York City, is a valentine to the used book industry as well as book lovers around the globe. The documentary was released in 2019, and recently began streaming on Amazon Prime. On the official website, Young writes: “Antiquarian booksellers are part scholar, part detective and part businessperson, and their personalities and knowledge are as broad as the material they handle. They also play an underappreciated yet essential role in preserving history. The Booksellers takes viewers inside their small but fascinating world, populated by an assortment of obsessives, intellects, eccentrics and dreamers.” To paraphrase T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, “Let us go, then you and I, when the books are spread across the table…”

The documentary introduces viewers to fascinating, charming, and some rather eccentric booksellers whose comprehensive knowledge and passion for books is infectious. While book dealers tend to be male (according to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, 85% of booksellers are male; 15% female), the documentary presents a balance of genders, as well as ages. Along the way, we meet Dave Bergman (giant books); Adina Cohen, Haomi Hample, and Judith Lowry (Argosy books); Jim Cummins (James Cummins Bookseller with an inventory of over 400,000 books); Arthur Fournier (transformative cultural movements); Stephen Massey (founder of auction house Christie’s book department); Bibi Mohamed (leather bound books), Heather O’Donnell (Honey & Wax Booksellers); William Reese (greatest American rare book dealer); Rebecca Romney (Type Punch Matrix; Pawn Stars book expert); Justin Schiller (children’s books); Adam Weinberger (book hunter and Pawn Stars guest); and Henry Wessells (bookseller, poet, writer, and sci-fi collector).

The segments with booksellers are punctuated with very brief interviews with notable authors like Fran Lebowtiz, Gay Talese, and Susan Orlean. We also get to meet two well-known book collectors: Michael Zinman and Jay Walker. Indeed, one of the highlights of the documentary is a glimpse of Walker’s stunningly beautiful private library — the envy of every book collector. Incidentally, if you don’t recognize his name, Jay Walker happens to be the founder of Priceline.com; his net worth is estimated to be $1.6 billion. And that type of discretionary income can purchase a lot of books — and a very impressive custom-designed library to house them. The library is connected by a hallway to his private residence in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Known as the Walker Library of The History of Human Imagination, it contains more than 25,000 books, manuscripts, historical objects, and artifacts in a 3.5-level, 3,600 square-foot space. As he explains, they are organized by size, not by topic — something that would truly annoy just about every librarian watching this documentary. Historical artifacts include an actual Sputnik, a meteorite, dinosaur bones, model Saturn V rocket, Enigma code machine, an Edison phonograph, and a facsimile of the Gutenberg Bible — to name a few. The walls are lined with wood bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the interior is filled with 25 staircases that lead to balconies and platforms. This maze-like, multi-level design was inspired by the work of M. C. Escher. Unfortunately, the documentary spends very little time in Walker’s library; however, curious bibliophiles can view it in greater detail in the dazzling documentary titled “Experience the Walker Library of Human Imagination” by David Hofman that can be found on YouTube.

Although many worthy used books can be purchased from $10 to $50 dollars, the documentary makers are captivated by very expensive books that are sought after by bibliophiles with deep pockets. Interestingly, how quickly a book can increase in value is illustrated by the bookseller who shares the story of how he purchased the rarest book in American Literature, Tamerlane and Other Poems. That book is a pocket-sized poetry book self-published in 1827 by an anonymous author (the cover reads “A Bostonian”). That Bostonian happens to be the Master of the Macabre, Edgar Allan Poe. The bookseller explains how an individual stumbled upon the book at a garage sale and purchased it for $15. He then sold it to the bookseller for $200,000. Talk about appreciation! We also learn about the scale of value of a first edition of The Great Gatsby: $5,000 for the book without a dust jacket, $15,000 with a torn and tattered dust jacket, and $150,000 for a book with a clean dust jacket. A bookseller shows us a fourth edition of Don Quixote de la Mancha, considered the first modern novel, worth $20,000. He follows that with this stunning biblio-factoid: the value of a first edition of Casino Royale by Ian Fleming $150,000. We get the point: pricing can be capricious; nevertheless, Cervantes must be spinning in his grave. The documentary also discusses to famous rare books at the extreme end of the price continuum. The first, is the sale of the Gutenberg Bible, by the Pfrozheimer Foundation, to the Harry Ransom Center (at the University of Texas at Austin) for $2.2 million in 1978. The second is Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester, which was sold in November 1994 for $28 million to Bill Gates. The seller, Armand Hammer (owner of Occidental Petroleum), made a handsome profit, since he had purchased the rare manuscript several years earlier for a mere $5 million. Who says books are a bad investment? (By the way, if you’re curious about the value of Shakespeare’s First Folio, which was not discussed in the documentary, one was sold on October 14, 2020 by Mills College to Stephan Lowentheil, a rare book collector, for $9.98 million.)

There is much to capture the imagination in this documentary — after all, to paraphrase Jorge Luis Borges, there is an entire universe in books. But there is a thread of lament that runs throughout the documentary. We learn that antiquarian booksellers are a dying breed, many are in their last generation. When they pass away, their inventory, and more significantly, their comprehensive knowledge of books will vanish. Early in the documentary, we learn about New York City’s famous Book Row during the the mid-20th century: 48 bookstores located on six blocks of 4th Avenue. Nancy Bass Wyden, co-owner of The Strand bookstore, explains how her grandfather founded the store in 1927 on Book Row. Her father took it over and grew the store — it currently has an inventory of more than 2.5 million books. Wyden explains the dramatic change in the bookselling industry with this sobering statistic: in the 1950s, New York City had 358 bookstores; presently, there are only 79.

Despite this grim statistic, there is hope for future generation to embrace book collecting. As one of the booksellers notes, “Many people think that collecting is just about high spots or first editions. The truth is the most interesting collections are built by people who see something that other people don’t see.” In an interview with The Guardian, Romney explained, “[The world of used books] is for anyone who is passionate about something. No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter what your education or background is — I want people to watch the film and say: ‘Oh, I could be part of this.’”

The documentary ends with a beautiful, eloquent ode to the book, a poem written and spoken by Henry Wessells, from his a short book of poems titled The Private Life of Books:


In silence between writer and reader
A memory of words and hands takes form.
We learn substance and worth through others’ eyes :
Cloth, flesh, ink, skin, paper, dust — these are but
Material forms in which ideas dwell.
In the roar of a crowded shelf of books
Desert sun and arctic night, distant seas
Of thought awaken, mingle, and are still.
Minds meet where the reading hand grasps the void
And inks its passage in empty margins.
Lost, forgotten, thumbed, split : we bear the scars
Of patient decades and centuries’ dreams.

Whose hands will next hold me I do not know —
The book, too, reads its readers in real time.

The book of poems was published in 2014 by Temporary Culture. The publisher recently printed a pocket-size edition. Special thanks to Henry Wessells for his kind permission to reprint his poem.

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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The Sections of a Bookstore

For further reading: booksellersdocumentary.com
Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Mavin Mondlin and Roy Meador
The Private Life of Books by Henry Wessells
Remarkable Books: The World’s Most Historic and Significant Works
Book Collecting Now: The Value of Print in a Digital Age by Matthew Budman

A Good Book Is a Necessary Commodity

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.”

From The Bookshop, published in 2008, by British novelist, essayist, and biographer Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000). The British Daily, The Times, ranked her as “one of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.” Fitzgerald did not begin writing until she turned 58; nevertheless, she published nine novels and three biographies, winning several literary awards, including the Booker Prize and the Golden PEN Award.

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.

Read related posts: Words for Book Lovers
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The World’s Most Expensive Book
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The Sections of a Bookstore

The Pros and Cons of Remote Learning

alex atkins bookshelf educationAs we observed in a recent post, almost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic required most of the U.S. workforce to make the transition from working in an office location to working remotely from home. Students and teachers — from pre-K to college — had to make that same transition. Teachers had to quickly adapt: mastering online platforms for assigning homework and conducting remote classes (most often, using Zoom) and utilizing email to connect with students. Students learned to transform their bedrooms, or common rooms like a kitchen or family room, into makeshift mini classrooms of one. So how are students and teachers doing with the normal of remote learning (aka distance learning)? Although no official survey has been published to date (several are in the works by educational organizations and schools), there are some smaller surveys conducted by teachers available. Bookshelf also reached out to some teachers and students to determine the pros and cons of remote learning. Anecdotal evidence suggests that remote learning, like working remotely, is not a universal solution: it is fraught with major and minor challenges. Here are some observations: 

Pros of remote learning:
More time to sleep
No need to commute to and from school
Can do school work in comfort of my own home (comfortable furniture, access to snacks and food, privacy of own bathroom)
Increased flexibility to complete assignments
More time to spend with family members
More freedom and independence

Cons of remote learning:
Not everyone has access to laptop and reliable wifi
Children with learning disabilities struggle with remote learning

Loss of social time with friends
Loss of human interaction (teacher and friends) leads to anxiety, depression, and isolation
Being at home offers too many distractions
Without instant teacher or peer feedback, easy to get discouraged
Loss of motivation to do study and do homework
Remote learning is not as effective as in-person learning
No separation from home life and school life
Feel trapped/stuck at home

Increased stress trying to stay on track and keep up with all assignments
Difficult to get personal help from teacher
Homework and workload has increased
No access to school library which has great resources and offers a quiet place to do homework
Feeling overwhelmed by drastic transition
With online classes in college, don’t feel I am getting my money’s worth

If you are a teacher or student, what else should be added to these lists?

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: https://notesfromthechalkboard.com/2020/05/25/my-seventh-grade-students-weigh-in-on-the-pros-and-cons-of-remote-learning

The Pros and Cons of Working From Home

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAlmost overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic required more than half of the U.S. workforce to make the transition from working in an office location to working remotely from home. Most businesses have embraced the new normal — remote working punctuated with dreaded zoom meetings — for the short term; however, some major companies, like Twitter and Facebook, have committed to making remote work permanent, albeit with some caveats. Nevertheless, the new reality of working from home, which at first glance seems so attractive, is actually fraught with some subtle as well as significant challenges. To find out just how challenging this transition was, SellCell conducted a survey in June of this year that included 2,000 American remote employees (23 years and older). As the results indicate, not everyone is suited for telecommuting. Fascinating highlights from the study appear below:

Levels of stress since working from home:
Feel more stressed: 51.4%
Feel less stressed: 21.5%
No change: 27%

Level of productivity of working from home:
Feel more productive: 45%
Feel less productive: 34.5%
No change: 20.6%

Major distractions while working at home:
Social media: 61%
Smartphones: 53.7%
Binge watching: 42.1%
Children: 33.8%
Gaming: 30.4%
News media; 24.3%
Pets: 18.1%
Partner: 16%
Online shopping: 12.3%

The biggest cons to working from home:
Lack of social interaction: 55.8%
No distinction between work and home life: 43.5%
Poor eating habits: 33.2%
Loss of self-discipline: 25.6%
Absence of IT department: 23.5%
Longer work hours: 17.9%
Frequent video meetings: 15.1%

The pros to working from home:
Flexible work schedule: 61%
No more long commutes: 52.5%
No need to dress up: 44.8%
Saving money: 35.7%
No more missed deliveries: 28.4%
Increased family time: 19.6%
Don’t have to deal with annoying colleagues: 10.1%

Activities employees engage in while on the clock:
Browsing the internet: 83.2%
Scrolling through social media: 53.5%
Multitask while binge watching: 44%
Visiting adult websites: 43.2%
Making love with their partners: 19.8%
Online shopping: 17%

Issues to blame for keeping irregular work hours:
Phone usage: 72.4%
Tech and security issues: 67.7%
Household chores; 49.4%
Sleeping in: 46.2%
Looking after children: 34.4%
Lack of motivation: 30.2%
Hungover: 26.3%
Distractions from family and friends: 23.7%
Long lunches: 16.1%

Adverse impacts on telecommuters:
Change in exercise routines: 75.4%
Change in dietary patterns: 70.3%
Change in sleep patterns: 62.8%
No need to shower in the morning: 48.3%
Stay in pajamas all day: 66.4%
Increased alcohol drinking: 39.3%
Overeating: 28.2%
Inconsistent meals: 35%
Skipped meals: 24%
Feel that workload has increased: 55%

Preference for working from home vs. the office:
Prefer splitting time between home and office: 45%
Prefer going back to the office: 32%
Prefer working from home: 23%

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: www.sellcell.com/blog/survey-eight-in-10-remote-workers-admit-to-slacking-off-at-work/

Reading Teaches that the Things that Torment Us Are the Things that Connect Us

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was Dostoevsky and Dickens who taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who ever had been alive. Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people. An artist is a sort of emotional or spiritual historian. His role is to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are. He has to tell, because nobody else can tell, what it is like to be alive.”

Excerpt from an interview with James Baldwin, titled “Doom and Glory of Knowing Who You Are” by Jane Howard, that appeared in LIFE magazine on May 24, 1963. Baldwin’s quotation is often paraphrased as “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”

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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What is the Symbolism of the Fly on Mike Pence’s Head?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIf you watched the vice-presidential debate you couldn’t help notice that rather brave fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head at what seems to be a very critical moment in the debate. Pence was on the defensive when Kamala Harris criticized President Trump for refusing to directly condemn white supremacy. Pence, with the characteristic composure of a cadaver or a zombie (depending on your perspective), began by attacking the liberal media and noting that Trump has Jewish grandchildren. He added, “This is a president who respects and cherishes all of the American people.” Viewers at home gagged at this ridiculous statement; but it was precisely at this moment that a housefly, which had been buzzing around the studio, had enough of the blatant evasiveness, obfuscation, diversion, deflection, and deception on the part this obsequious sycophant, that it landed on his head to make a bold statement: Mike Pence — Lord of the Flies. The black fly stood out starkly on Pence’s helmet-like snowy white hair and it sat there for an astounding two minutes and nine seconds, while Pence’s head swiveled from side to side in a robotic manner as he spoke. After all, black flies matter! Of course, it didn’t take long for viewers to turn to social media to unleash a torrent of snarky commentary. Viewers wanted to hear from the fly. Republicans feared that the bug was placed by the Democrats. Democrats feared that the fly was feeding Pence the answers. Viewers were concerned that the fly was exposed to coronavirus and needed to quarantine. Trump was furious and wanted the fly deported. And so on…

Since the fly was the most memorable character and moment of the debate, it invites the question: what is the symbolism of the fly? Since I alluded to William Golding’s chilling 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, an enduring staple of high school English literature curriculum, let’s begin our discussion there. The title is extremely critical to the meaning of the novel. “Lord of the Flies” of course, is what one of the characters (Simon, the shy, sensitive boy, who represents goodness) names the severed pig head that is impaled on a stake by Jake (who represents savagery and evil). It is a memorable scene in the novel: a pig head, oozing in blood, surrounded by a cloud of buzzing flies, feasting on the pig’s flesh and blood. Thus, the flies symbolize death and decay. By coupling this term with “lord” that conveys unbridled power, Golding is creating a compelling and prescient metaphor: power and corruption lead to decay and death. A perfect metaphor for the Trump administration, wouldn’t you say? But further, Golding is keenly aware that “Lord of Flies” is a literal translation of the Hebrew word Beelzebub (or Beelzebul), found in the Old Testament (Books of Kings; 2 Kings 1:2-3,6). In the Old Testament, Beelzebub is a demonic deity worshipped by the Philistines. This paints quite a distasteful picture: a Philistine deity is that is the lord of flies — disgusting pests that feast on excrement. Moreover, in the noncanonical Testament of Solomon, ascribed to King Solomon, Beezlebul is synonymous with Lucifer (meaning “morning star”; shining one, light bearer”). Solomon describes Beelzebul as the prince of demons, a former heavenly angel gone rogue. Beezlebul’s goal is to encourage worship of demons, empower tyrants, incite wars, and instigate murder and mayhem throughout the world. Thus, “lord of the flies” is synonymous with “lord of demons.”

More generally, the fly is a symbol of evil and pestilence. In the landmark work A Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier writes: “Their ceaseless buzzing, whirling around and stinging make flies unbearable. They breed from corruption and decay, carry the germs of the foulest diseases and breach all defenses against them.” In the Dictionary of Symbolism, Hans Biedermann notes: “Flies of all species are creatures with negative symbolic associations… In ancient Persian mythology the enemy of light, Ahriman, slips into the world in the form of a fly.” Biedermann adds that in several cultures, swarms of flies represent satanic beings or demonic powers.

In A Dictionary of Literary Symbols, Micheal Ferber describes the symbolism of the flies in the context of great literature. Ferber points to the plague of flies that Moses unleashes on the Egyptians (Exodus 8.21-31). “Flies, not surprisingly, are usually considered unpleasant, disease-ridden, and evil.” He turns to Homer who emphasizes the boldness of the fly (Iliad 17.570-72): “the boldness of the fly / which, even though driven away from a man’s skin, / persists in biting out of relish for human blood.” In literature the fly can also mean anything that is insignificance. Recall the famous line from Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear (Lear 4.136-37): “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ Gods. / They kill us for their sport.” 

The website History of Painters has a fascinating article on the hidden symbolism of insects in western painting: “Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical and Christian symbolism regarding insects. From the of time of the Roman persecution Christians used signs and symbols to secretly identify each other. The Church commissioned sacred images that acted as moral instruction to illiterate serfs who clamored for spiritual enlightenment of the holy scriptures. The religious images, carvings and stone work served as a constant reminder of the hellish suffering that awaited heretics and sinners if they strayed from Gods word and church law. Byzantine, Gothic, Northern Renaissance and  Italian Renaissance paintings are rich in philosophical Christian symbolism regarding Insects.” In particular, the fly symbolizes “rot, wasting away, decay, death, and melancholia.” But it gets even more specific, and perhaps more germane to Pence’s fly: “A fly hovering over a church official or nobleman indicates disfavor with the  king or corruption and dereliction of duty.” Bingo!

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For further reading: Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A Dictionary of Literary Symbols (3rd Edition) by Michael Ferber
A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier
Dictionary of Symbolism by Hans Biedermann (Translated by James Hulbert)


The Search for Happiness is Within

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“He who has little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief which he purposes to remove.”

Excerpt from The Rambler, No. 6 (Saturday, April 7, 1750), by Samuel Johnson. The Rambler was a periodic, published every Tuesday and Saturday from 1750 to 1753, that targeted the middle-class that was climbing the social ladder by marrying into aristocratic families. Johnson believed that since these individuals did not possess the education required to integrate into higher social circles, The Rambler would provide reflective, didactic essays written in elevated prose on important topics such as morality, society, religion, literature, and politics. Johnson, a man of great erudition, often drew on the ideas of the giants of the Renaissance humanism, like Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch), Rene Descartes, and Desiderius Erasmus.

In The Rambler, No. 6, Johnson introduces a quotation from his close friend James Elphinston, who was an educator and linguistics expert:

Active in indolence, abroad we roam
In quest of happiness which dwells at home:
With vain pursuits fatigu’d, at length you’ll find,
No place excludes it from an equal mind. 

Johnson comments, “That man should never suffer his happiness to depend upon external circumstances, is one of the chief precepts of the Stoical philosophy; a precept, indeed, which that lofty sect has extended beyond the condition of human life, and in which some of them seem to have comprised an utter exclusion of all corporal pain and pleasure from the regard or attention of a wise man.” In a later passage, he remarks on the plight of the British poet Abraham Cowley (1618-1667):

“If [Cowley] had proceeded in his project [to travel abroad to find an obscure retreat], and fixed his habitation in the most delightful part of the new world, it may be doubted, whether his distance from the vanities of life, would have enabled him to keep away the vexations. It is common for a man, who feels pain, to fancy that he could bear it better in any other part. Cowley having known the troubles and perplexities of a particular condition, readily persuaded himself that nothing worse was to be found, and that every alteration would bring some improvement: he never suspected that the cause of his unhappiness was within, that his own passions were not sufficiently regulated, and that he was harassed by his own impatience, which could never be without something to awaken it, would accompany him over the sea, and find its way to his American elysium. He would, upon the trial, have been soon convinced, that the fountain of content must spring up in the mind: and that he who has so little knowledge of human nature, as to seek happiness by changing any thing but his own dispositions, will waste his life in fruitless efforts, and multiply the griefs which he purposes to remove.”

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.

Read related posts: Experiencing Happiness in Life
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The Comfort of Reading During Difficult Times

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt’s not easy living in the age of coronavirus. These are the best of times. These are the worst of times. How do we get through it? My thoughts drift to a young boy, dirty, destitute, and tired from working in a miserable factory job because his father was imprisoned in a debtor’s prison. That period of desperation and poverty motivated him to eventually achieve great artistic and financial success as a world-renown author. His name? Charles Dickens. However, the memories that misery and humiliation haunted him his entire life. At the peak of his success, Dickens confessed, “My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation of such considerations, that even now, famous and caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children; even that I am a man; and wander desolately back to that time in my life.” In David Copperfield, his favorite and most autobiographical novel, we get a glimpse of how a young boy survived that dark period — he found comfort and escape in literature:

“I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance. It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time, — they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii, — and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them — as I did — and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones – which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels — I forget what, now — that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees – the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.

This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.” (Excerpt from chapter 4 of David Copperfield.)

Let us hope that the image of a scruffy young boy, huddled in the corner, reading a book inspires us to find the comfort of reading during the worst of times. Let us seek the wisdom of literature that reaffirms our shared humanity — however fragile and imperfect — and inspires empathy and understanding that will eventually lead to the best of times.

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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Choosing the Exact Word (Le Mot Juste)

alex atkins bookshelf wordsI had the incredible opportunity to meet the great British writer and intellectual John Fowles many years ago. We discussed our shared fascination with the English language and the writer’s search for the exact word — le mot juste, as the French express it (incidentally, the phrase is pronounced “luh moh ZHYST”). You don’t have to read very far into a Fowles novel to quickly recognize he possesses an expansive vocabulary — far beyond the average vocabulary of 50,000, common to a high-school/college educated speaker. So if you read Fowles, you will want a dictionary by your side; by the end of the novel, you will have learned several dozen fascinating and fancy words (some, from different languages, since Fowles readily draws from all the romance languages). No doubt, Gustave Flaubert, a very precise writer who introduced the term “le mot juste,” would be suitably impressed.

I love words. As proof of this profound lexicological affection, I own over a 1,500 word reference books (adding several each month; the more obscure, the more treasured). One of my favorite thesauri is the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (now in its third edition) which happens to contain one of my favorite essays on choosing the exact word. The essay, titled “In Search of the Exact Word” is written by Richard Goodman, an assistant editor at Random House and teaches creative nonfiction writing. The essay is also found in his book The Soul of Creative Writing, published in 2008. With a bit of sleuthing in the Flaubert corpus, Goodman finds that Flaubert first introduced the term le mot juste in a letter to Sainte-Beuve, a critic, that can be found in a collection of his letters, La Correspondance de Flaubert; Etude Et Repertoire Critique (1968), edited by Charles Carlut. Goodman writes:

“I found Flaubert uses the expression just twice. He writes the critic Sainte-Beuve, “If I put ‘blue’ after ‘stones,’it’s because ‘blue’ is le mot juste, believe me.” In the other instance, he says there has to be a rapport between le mot juste and le mot musical, that is, between the meaning and the music of a word…

Flaubert does say, though, that, “all talent for writing consists after all of nothing more than choosing words. It’s precision that gives writing power.” He also says that, “perfection has everywhere the same characteristic: that’s precision, exactness.” He says he spends hours looking for a word. He expressed the struggle this way: “I am the obscure and patient pearl-fisher, who dives deep and comes up empty-handed and blue in the face.” And at another point, he writes a friend that he spent three days making two corrections and five days writing one page. Practically anything Flaubert says about writing and art is interesting, even if you disagree with him, though you are constantly reminded, as Henry James points out, that “he felt of his vocation almost nothing but the difficulty.”

Mark Twain was memorably good at seizing the exact word, too. Most humourists are… Their humour often depends on a choice of word; in fact the whole laugh can rest on a single word choice. When someone interviewed Evelyn Waugh for the Paris Review, they asked him about the process of creating a character. He said, “I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language.” If you read the books of the comic writers just with this idea in mind — S.J. Perelman, Thurber, Twain, Waugh, even Woody Allen — you’ll see how often the laugh comes from a single, well-chosen word placed exactly where it’s liable to generate the loudest laugh. Of course, Twain wrote perhaps the most famous line about this particular topic ever written, “The difference between any word and the ‘right’ word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

What is the exact word? I think what we usually mean by that is a word that not only conveys precisely what you, the writer, want to say, but also does it in an unforgettable way, a dramatic way, either because of its juxtaposition to its surrounding words or because it’s employed in a fresh way, or both. Something else, too, I think: when it surprises, it’s usually a surprise that doesn’t come out of a vacuum. It communicates resoundingly, because somewhere the reader understands the word well enough to appreciate its use.”

If you have an opportunity, you should read Goodman’s entire essay (it runs about seven full pages). It is full of wonderful and pithy insights that are sure to delight any logophile.

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: Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus compiled by Christine Lindberg
The Soul of Creative Writing by Richard Goodman 

What If Shakespeare Wrote Trump’s Tweets?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEarly in one of William Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies, Hamlet, we hear Polonius (the chief counsellor to Claudius, Hamlet’s evil stepfather), remark, “Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit/ And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief…” But a review of President Trump’s brief, but bumbling tweets quickly disproves Polonius’ observation. Enter AJ Smith, a school teacher and author of the devilish little tome, By the Thumbings of a Prick: The Tweets of Donald Trump as Shakespearean Sonnets. In the introduction to this cheeky book, Smith writes: “[I] come to bury Trump, not to praise him. But not necessarily for his politics. I struggle to grasp a true understanding, and thus opinion, of how tariffs work. I recognize that border security is a complex problem. On foreign policy, I am no Fortinbras. The primary source of my particular brand of what some may call “Trump Derangement Syndrome” is, first and foremost, his Tweeting… I teach high school English, and I’ve spent years preaching on what I consider to be my central ethos for an education focused on written words, words, words: if you cannot form a coherent thought, write down that thought, write it well, and write it convincingly, you will not be taken seriously regardless of your chosen pursuit. What chance do I have of persuading my pupils of this if the president has all the rhetorical sophistication of a Falstaff?” 

To inspire good writing and presenting “[Trump’s] ideas with some semblance of sophistication,” Smith has rolled up his sleeves, inked his trusty quill, and rewritten 154 notable Trump Tweets as Shakespearean sonnets, borrowing some of the phrasing from the first line of Shakespeare’s original 154 sonnets. Fortunately, Smith has renamed them “Donnets” so as not to offend the ageless spirit of Shakespeare and diminish the true beauty of the original sonnets. In the dedication, Smith writes: “To my students. See, writing sonnets is not that hard.” Amen, brother. When you read Smith’s clever sonnet interpretations, following each of the original tweets, you realize what a difference good diction and iambic pentameter makes on Trump’s tortured and tangled writing. Here are examples of Smith’s brilliant craftsmanship:

Original Tweet from December 28, 2017: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year’s Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against. Bundle up!”

Donnet II
When coldest winter shall besiege thy brow,
If thou residest in an Eastern state,
Perhaps heat’s omen thou wilt wish for now,
To warm thee on this celebrated date.
As thou the ball o bservest in descent,
With numbers counted down from ten to one,
In winds Boreas blown, wilt thou lament
The prudeness of a promised slutty sun.
This guarantee, which made a fool of thee,
Is, worse yet, but a drain upon our purse,
While foreign lands spend not their currency
To sickly globe with legislation nurse.
As thou to lips thy frozen bev’rage sup,
Do careful be to thyself bundle up!

Original Tweet from March 3, 2018: “The United States has an $800 Billion Dollar Yearly Trade Deficit because of our “very stupid” trade deals and policies. Our jobs and wealth are being given to other countries that have taken advantage of us for years. They laugh at what fools our leaders have been. No more!”

Donnet IV
Unthrift America, why dost thou spend
So much in trade, by other nations duped;
Such deals do our economy upend,
Such policies are truly “very stupid.”
We are but beauty’s queens in changing room,
With jobs and wealth we wish to with care manage;
But other nations outside wicked loom,
Imprudence lets them in to take advantage.
So we are left to foot the hefty bill,
A bushels worth of debt, our wealth awry;
A leader must on them imposeth will.
And forcibly their privates grab them by.
They laughed at fools that led in days of yore,
But under Trump we will be mocked no more!

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: By the Thumbings of a Prick: The Tweets of Donald Trump as Shakespearean Sonnets by AJ Smith

Adventures in Grandiloquence: Laurence Urdang

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you are an avid reader, you have probably come across a few writers who possess a very large vocabulary and pepper their writing with big or fancy words when perhaps simpler words would suffice. So what do you call this use of big words (or what people call “SAT words”)? The best term is lexiphanicism, defined as the use of pretentious phraseology. Another term that word lovers like to use is “sesquipedalian loquaciousness.” That term is made up of two really big, fancy words: sesquipedalian (meaning “having many syllables, or use of long words”) and loquaciousness (meaning “excessive talking”). Of course these terms are technically archaic and, um, sesquipedalian. There are three other words that exists in most dictionaries: grandiloquence (or its adjectival form, grandiloquent), meaning “a lofty, extravagantly colorful, pompous, or bombastic style, manner, or quality especially in language.” The second is magniloquence, defined as the use of ornate, flowery language to convey simple things. Finally, the word fustian is defined as pompous or pretentious writing or speech.

Whether it reflects a genuine high level of erudition or simply showing off (let’s call it verbal pretentiousness), the effect is the same — it has you reaching for the nearest dictionary (which is not necessarily a bad thing — after all, that’s how you expand your vocabulary). Consider that the English language has more than one million words. The average high-school educated English speaker knows about 45,000 words (as high as 60,000 when including proper names and foreign words). David Crystal, a linguist and world-renown expert on the English language, provides these estimates of how many words people know: a person starting school: 500-6,000; a person without a formal education: 35,000; a high-school educated person: 50,000; a college-educated person 50,000 to 75,000. Thus, the grandiloquent speaker or writer is typically using words outside the more commonly used 75,000 words.

Case in point: Laurence Urdang (1927-2008), American lexicographer, editor and author of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966). Over the course of his career, Urdand wrote and edited more than 100 dictionaries. Consequently, he developed an extraordinarily large vocabulary. In the introduction to The New York Times Dictionary of Misunderstood, Misused & Mispronounced words, Urdang wrote a paragraph to summarize the book, to display (in a tongue-and-cheek fashion) his impressive vocabulary:

This is not a succedaneum for satisfying the nympholepsy of nullifidians. Rather it is hoped that the haecceity of this enchiridion of arcane and recondite sesquipedalian items will appeal to the oniomania of an eximious Gemeinschaftwhose legerity and sophrosyne, whose Sprachgefühl and orexis will find more than fugacious fulfillment among its felicific pages.

Can you translate this passage to simple English? What is your favorite grandiloquent author and specific passage?

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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Learning Is a Spiral Where Important Themes Are Visited Again and Again

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“For many, learning is a spiral, where important themes are visited again and again throughout life, each time at a deeper, more penetrating level.”

From Teaching From the Heart by Jerold Apps, an American teacher and Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has written more than 35 books on education as well as rural history and country life. Teaching From the Heart, published in 1996, was written for teachers and students; it promotes learning for the whole person — not only the intellectual aspect, but also the spiritual, emotional, and biological aspects. Apps observation also applies perfectly to reading literature because when we reread the text, we view it through the lens of broader life experience. In a fascinating lecture, Argentine poet and short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges noted, “And even for the same reader the same book changes, for the change; we are the river of Heraclitus, who said that the man of yesterday is not the man of today, who will not be the man of tomorrow. We change incessantly, and each reading of a book, each rereading, each memory of that rereading, reinvents the text. The text too is the changing river of Heraclitus.”

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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