The Pleasure of Learning

atkins-bookshelf-quotations[When] there’s a subject I’m ferociously interested in, then it is easy for me to learn about it. I take it in gladly and cheerfully… [What’s exciting is] the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least you can do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.

Excerpt from Bill Moyer’s 1988 interview with scientist, intellectual, and prolific author Isaac Asimov. Published in Bill Moyer’s World of Ideas by Bill Moyer, Doubleday (1989).

The Nobility of the Writer’s Craft

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsFor myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth. And often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others. The artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge. And if they have to take sides in this world, they can perhaps side only with that society in which, according to Nietzsche’s great words, not the judge but the creator will rule, whether he be a worker or an intellectual.

By the same token, the writer’s role is not free from difficult duties. By definition he cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it. Otherwise, he will be alone and deprived of his art. Not all the armies of tyranny with their millions of men will free him from his isolation, even and particularly if he falls into step with them. But the silence of an unknown prisoner, abandoned to humiliations at the other end of the world, is enough to draw the writer out of his exile, at least whenever, in the midst of the privileges of freedom, he manages not to forget that silence, and to transmit it in order to make it resound by means of his art.

None of us is great enough for such a task. But in all circumstances of life, in obscurity or temporary fame, cast in the irons of tyranny or for a time free to express himself, the writer can win the heart of a living community that will justify him, on the one condition that he will accept to the limit of his abilities the two tasks that constitute the greatness of his craft: the service of truth and the service of liberty. Because his task is to unite the greatest possible number of people, his art must not compromise with lies and servitude which, wherever they rule, breed solitude. Whatever our personal weaknesses may be, the nobility of our craft will always be rooted in two commitments, difficult to maintain: the refusal to lie about what one knows and the resistance to oppression.

Excerpt from author and philosopher Albert Camus’s speech, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 10, 1957 in Stockholm, Sweden.

The House of Fiction

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsThe house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million —  a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other. He and his neighbours are watching the same show, but one seeing more where the other sees less, one seeing black where the other sees white, one seeing big where the other sees small, one seeing coarse where the other sees fine. And so on, and so on; there is fortunately no saying on what, for the particular pair of eyes, the window may not open; “fortunately” by reason, precisely, of this incalculability of range. The spreading field, the human scene, is the “choice of subject”; the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed, is the “literary form”; but they are, singly or together, as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher–without, in other words, the consciousness of the artist. Tell me what the artist is, and I will tell you of what he has been conscious. Thereby I shall express to you at once his boundless freedom and his “moral” reference. 

Henry James, from the preface to his novel, The Portrait of a Lady, initially published in serial form in The Atlantic Monthly and Macmillan’s Magazine from 1880 to 1881. The novel was published in book form in 1881.


Why Writers Write

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsNow with the passing of years I know that the fate of books is not unlike that of human beings: some bring joy, others anguish. Yet one must resist the urge to throw away pen and paper. After all, authentic writers write even if there is little chance for them to be published; they write because they cannot do otherwise, like Kafka’s messenger who is privy to a terrible and imperious truth that no one is willing to receive but is nonetheless compelled to go on.

Were he to stop, to choose another road, his life would become banal and sterile. Writers write because they cannot allow the characters that inhabit them to suffocate them. These characters want to get out, to breathe fresh air and partake of the wine of friendship; were they to remain locked in, they would forcibly break down the walls. It is they who force the writer to tell their stories.

Read related post: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
The Responsibility of the Poet
The Power of Literature

From the essay, “A Sacred Magic Can Elevate the Secular Storyteller” (New York TImes, June 19, 2000) by Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel,  Holocaust survivor, activist, author (his most recognized work is Night, originally published in 1960), and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1986).

Education is the Engine of Personal Development

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsEducation is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.

Nelson Mandela, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize (1993) from Long Walk to Freedom (1995).

Life is a Mystery

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsAs soon as you look at the world through an ideology you are finished. No reality fits an ideology. Life is beyond that. That is why people are always searching for a meaning to life. But life has no meaning; it cannot have meaning because meaning is a formula; meaning is something that makes sense to the mind. Every time you make sense out of reality, you bump into something that destroys the sense you made. Meaning is only found when you go beyond meaning. Life only makes sense when you perceive it as mystery and it makes no sense to the conceptualizing mind.

From Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality (1992) by Anthony De Mello (1931-1987), Jesuit priest,  psychotherapist, and spiritual guru. De Mello was a prolific writer and popular public speaker, known for his incisiveness and witty sense of humor.

The Importance of Books

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsOf all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us for they contain our very thoughts, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to the truth, and our persistent leanings to error. But most of all they resemble us in their precious hold on life.

Joseph Conrad (born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski; 1857-1924), Polish-born British author from the essay Books (1905), included in The Works of Joseph Conrad.

The Wisdom of Finding Forrester

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsIn Gus Van Sant’s touching and inspiring film, Finding Forrester, Sean Connery plays the reclusive, pensive author William Forrester who wrote his magnum opus early in his career and has not written since. Forrester, who rarely leaves his highrise apartment in the Bronx observing the outside world through binoculars, befriends a young high school student and becomes his mentor. Their rapport is as fascinating as it is endearing. As their friendship progresses, Forrester dispenses his pearls of wisdom about love, dreams, and writing…

The key to a woman’s heart is an unexpected gift at an unexpected time.

No thinking – that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!

The rest of those who have gone before us cannot steady the unrest of those to follow.

You don’t know a goddamn thing about reason; There are no reasons! Reasons why some of us live and why some of us don’t! Fortunately for you, you have decades to figure that out!

Writers write things to give readers something to read.

Someone I once knew wrote that we walk away from our dreams afraid that we may fail or worse yet, afraid we may succeed. You need to know that while I knew so very early that you would realize your dreams, I never imagined I would once again realize my own. Seasons change young man, and while I may have waited until the winter of my life, to see the things I’ve seen this past year, there is no doubt I would have waited too long, had it not been for you.

Read related posts: The Wisdom of the Life of Pi
Letters to a Young Poet
William Faulkner on the Writer’s Responsibility

Wise Words Endure

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsColors fade, temples crumble, empires fall, but wise words endure.

Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) American psychologist whose extensive research on behaviorism and the learning process with animals and humans, led to the theory of connectionism, forming the foundation of modern educational psychology. He developed Thorndike’s Theory of Learning that states that all learning is incremental, learning occurs automatically, and that all animals learn the same way. His Law of Effect states that learning that is followed by reward will be strengthened while learning followed by punishment will be weakened. He was an eloquent champion of active learning — letting children learn on their own as opposed to receiving instructions.

Read related post: William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Speech

All You Need Are Books

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsIf you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC), statesman and orator of Ancient Rome, in a letter (dated June 13, 46 BC) to his friend Terentius Varro (contained in Epistulae Ad Familiares, book IX, epistle 4). The original text in Latin, ““Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil” translated literally means “If you have a garden in your library, nothing will fail” that is paraphrased as “If you have a garden and a library, you will want for nothing.” A common misquotation substitutes a book for the library: “If you have a garden and a book, you have everything you need.”

The Right Religion?

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsWe have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.

From Thoughts on Various Subjects from Miscellanies (1726) by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish, writer, essayist, satirist, and poet. He is best known for his political satire, Gulliver’s Travels, originally titled “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts,” using the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver.

Leave a Legacy

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsEveryone should fear death until he has something that will live on after his death.

Attributed to physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), best known for developing the general theory of relativity, his tremendous intellect, and his stubborn refusal to use a comb. At Einstein’s memorial, fellow physicist Robert Oppenheimer noted, “[Einstein] was almost wholly without sophistication and wholly without worldliness… There was always with him a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn.”


It is Much Easier to Believe Than Think

One of the great tragedies of modern education is that most people are not taught to think critically. The majority of the world’s people, those of the West included, are taught to believe rather than to think. It is much easier to believe than think.

Haki Madhubuti, poet, lecturer, founder and director emeritus of the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, and the director of the MFA degree program in creative writing at Chicago State University.

The Responsibility of the Poet

Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth. In the process of telling the truth about what you feel or what you see, each of us has to get in touch with himself or herself in a really deep, serious way. Our culture does not encourage us to undertake that attunement. Consequently, most of us really exist at the mercy of other people’s formulations of what’s important.

But if you’re in the difficult process of living as a poet, you’re constantly trying to make an attunement to yourself which no outside manipulation or propaganda can disturb. That makes you a sturdy, dependable voice—which others want to hear and respond to. So, poetry becomes a means for useful dialogue between people who are not only unknown, but mute to each other. It produces a dialogue among people that guards all of us against manipulation by our so-called leaders.

June Jordan from an interview with Colorlines, a daily news site written by a multiracial team of writers, in December 1998. Jordan (1936-2002), was a highly respected African-American poet, essayist, and professor of African-American studies. A prolific writer, she published more than 25 books of poetry and essays. In 1998 she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Black Writers’ Conference.

The Wisdom of Pi Patel

“It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterwards, even unto our names.”

“I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.”

“If you stumble about believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?”

“That’s what fiction is about, isn’t it, the selective transforming of reality? The twisting of it to bring out its essence?”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?”

“You must take life the way it comes at you and make the best of it.”

“Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness–how can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view of things? This peephole is all I’ve got!”

“If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

“Can there be any happiness greater than the happiness of salvation?”

“When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling.”

“If we, citizens, do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams.”

““The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity; it’s envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud…”

“Misery loves company, and madness calls it forth.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways.”

“I miss him [Richard Parker]. I still see him in my dreams. They are nightmares mostly, but nightmares tinged with love. Such is the strangeness of the human heart. I still cannot understand how he could abandon me so unceremoniously, without any sort of goodbye, without looking back even once. That pain is like an axe that chops at my heart.”

“To lose a brother is to lose someone with whom you can share the experience of growing old, who is supposed to bring you a sister-in-law and nieces and nephews, creatures who people the tree of your life and give it new branches. To lose your father is to lose the one whose guidance and help you seek, who supports you like a tree trunk supports its branches. To lose your mother, well, that is like losing the sun above you.”

“These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart.”

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always… so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

“What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example – I wonder – could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less? I’ll tell you, that’s one thing I have about my nickname, the way the number runs on forever. It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. That bungled goodbye hurts me to this day. I wish so much that I’d had one last look at him in the lifeboat, that I’d provoked him a little, so that I was on his mind. I wish I had said to him then – yes, I know, to a tiger, but still – I wish I had said, “Richard Parker, it’s over. We have survived. Can you believe it? I owe you more gratitude than I can express I couldn’t have done it without you. I would like to say it formally: Richard Parker, thank you. Thank you for saving my life. And now go where you must. You have known the confined freedom of a zoo most of your life; now you will know the free confinement of a jungle. I wish you all the best with it. Watch out for Man. He is not your friend. But I hope you will remember me as a friend. I will never forget you , that is certain. You will always be with me, in my heart. What is that hiss? Ah, our boat has touched sand. So farewell, Richard Parker, farewell. God be with you.”

For further reading: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, Mariner Books (2003).
The Making of Life of Pi: A Film, A Journey by Jean-Christophe Castelli, Harper (2012)

The Legacy of a Life

When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.

African proverb. Variants include: “When an old man dies, a library burns down.” or “Every time an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”

The proverb was popularized by William R. Ferris (1942-2008), a respected professor of English and History with a special focus on African American folklore and culture, co-founder and director of the Center for Southern Folklore in Memphis Tennessee, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1997-2001). As chairman, Ferris argued eloquently and passionately for the establishment of oral history projects throughout the country: “We must establish oral history projects in every American community. I often quote an African proverb that says, ‘When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.’ It we tape a single hour of conversation with a grandparent, think what a legacy their voice will be for the grandchildren. We must encourage our students to be writers, historians, and teachers. We must educate students to understand the culture into which they are born and teach them to drink from its rich waters as they educate future generations of Americans.”

For further reading: You Live and Learn. Then You Die and Forget it All by William Ferris, Anchor Press (1992).

Beautiful People

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), Swiss-American psychiatrist who was the leading authority in the field of death and dying, from her book Death: The Final Stage of Growth (1975).


A Bibliophile’s Priorities

I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes.

Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, dutch philosopher and theologian (1466-1536) in a letter to Jacob Batt written on April 12, 1500. This quotation is often paraphrased: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”


The Triumph of Evil Revisited

Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph.

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia (1930-1974), in a speech delivered in Addis Ababa in 1963.

Read related posts: The Triumph of Evil
The Thirteen Commandments

What to Read Next

You have just finished reading a terrific book, you turn the final page to face a daunting predicament: what should you read next? Meet, a virtual reading group without the personal drama and idle gossiping. Goodreads, founded in December 2006 by Otis and Elizabeth Chandler, is dedicated to bibliophiles, seeking “to help people find and share books they love and improve the process of reading and learning throughout the world.” Members of the website can add books to their own personalized bookshelf, read and review books, recommend titles to others, and participate in discussions about all things literary. Within its first year, Goodreads attracted 650,000 members; by the end of 2012, Goodreads has grown to  more than 13 million members. Besides great book reviews, Goodreads is home to an exceptional collection of thoughtful and meaningful quotations posted by its members who are, of course, very well-read and discerning.

Each year, Goodreads publishes a literary summary of the past year along with the Readers Choice Award, in 20 different categories, chosen by their members. Here are selected highlights from 2012:

Most reviewed book: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Winners of Readers Choice Award:
 The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling for Best Fiction
 Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn for Best Mystery & Thriller
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain for Best Nonfiction
Number of book reviews on entire site: 20 million
Number of books members added to their shelves: 210 million
Most added quote: “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, then all at once.” from The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
Most popular author interviews: Michael Chabon, Lois Lowry, Junot Diaz, Anne Lamott

For further reading: wikipedia.

The Importance of Courage

One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.

Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Ann Johnson), African American writer and poet, best known for her autobiographical novel I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) and her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” written for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration (1993) quoted in USA Today (March 1988).

Nothing Changes Unless You Make it Change

If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on being what you’ve always been — nothing changes unless you make it change. I know what it sounds like but every morning that I wake up I think about what that really means. Nothing changes unless you make it change.

Iris speaking in The Samaritan (2012) written by Elan Mastai and David Weaver, directed by David Weaver.

Where Lies the Final Harbor?

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? 

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or The Whale, Chapter 114, The Gilder.

Read related post: Why Read Moby Dick?

Contribute Joy to the World

I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

Roger Ebert, Life Itself: A Memoir (2011)