Confessions of a Book Scout: Old Bookstores Have Been the Hunting Grounds of My Life

alex atkins bookshelf books“What is a book scout?” you ask. A self-confessed “book scout,” David Meyer author of “Memoirs of a Book Snake,” explains it this way: “Book scouting has been a pursuit of mine since my high school days. The term ‘scout’ is used in the antiquarian book trade to describe a person who buys old books to sell to old book sellers. [Meyer is being facetious here, books don’t necessarily need to be old; neither do the book sellers.] A dealer, operating a store or office with business hours, can’t obtain all his stock by buying at auction or estate sales or from people offering to sell accumulations of old books. Often the best books, the choice and rare titles which make up a good bookseller’s stock, are found in out-of-the-way places where a bookdealer hasn’t had the time to search.” And as any dedicated book collector will readily admit, the hunt for the elusive Holy Grail or the “unknown unknown” (the book you didn’t even know existed) is half the fun.

If you are a book lover you will definitely find a kindred soul in Meyer as he describes his passion for seeking out literary treasures: “Old bookshops have been the hunting grounds of my life. Also antique shops, Salvation Army, Goodwill and other second-hand resale shops, sometimes attics and basements, and just plain junk shops. No respectable dealer in antiquarian books would admit to visiting such places, but that’s where the book scouts, true treasure hunters that they are, usually go. It’s not the place that matters, its what you find there… The treasures that I have rescued are simply survivors in the sea of old books that washes back and forth across this country — through towns, cities, basements and attics, bookstores, garage sales and junk shops — books deserving of better fates.” Amen, brother.

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For further reading: Memoirs of a Book Snake by David Meyer

Books Are Like Seeds — They Lie Dormant for Centuries

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. This room [in the New York Public Library] is full of magic… More recently, books, especially paperbacks, have been printed in massive and inexpensive editions. For the price of a modest meal you can ponder the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the origin of species, the interpretation of dreams, the nature of things. Books are like seeds. They can lie dormant for centuries and then flower in the most unpromising soil.”

Excerpt from American astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan’s thirteen-part television series, Cosmos: A Personal Journey, Episode 11 entitled “The Persistence of Memory.” The science-themed documentary, featuring music by Greek composer Vangelis, was broadcast on PBS in 1980. The mini-series, which won a Peabody Award and two Emmies, was watched by more than 500 million people in over 60 countries. 

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The Most Clever Boat Names

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIf you spend enough time behind the steering wheel of a car, you know that you can amuse yourself from time to time by reading some clever vanity license plates. Due to the limitation of characters (typically 7-10) and number of naming restrictions, many license plates are more like challenging word puzzles that take some time to decipher. For example, it is easy to figure out that a plate with the letters “CHWBCA” means Chewbacca, the lovable Wookie from Star Wars; however “VTHKOLM” is a bit tougher — it stands for “Fifth Column.” Duh! (In fact, deciphering vanity plates is such a skill, it became the premise for a short-lived game show called Bumper Stumpers in the late 1980s).

But sailing the high seas is a different situation altogether. Naming a boat doesn’t have as many restrictions as vanity plates. Of course, seamen need to keep it clean: no profanities and no racial slurs. Boat names are only limited by a boat owner’s creativity and sense of humor. Depending on your perspective, the names that boat owners come up with are very funny, punny, naughty (or should we say “knotty”), weird, or witty. Nevertheless, many of them will bring a smile to your face. Here are some of the most clever boat names:


Bacon in the Sun

Bare-a Cooter


Berth Control

Breaking Bass

The Godfather


Docked Wages

Dock Holiday

Eat Ship and Die

Fifty Shades of Cray

Filthy Oar

Fish ‘n Chicks


Hell on Reels

In Decent Seas

In Deep Ship

Knot On Call

Knot Paid For

Knot Shore

Marlin Monroe

Master Baiter

Mike Roe Wave

Morning Wood

Nauti Boy

Piece of Ship


Reel Time

Row vs. Wade


She Got the House


Ships ‘n Giggles

Tax Sea-vation

Titan Uranus

Usain Boat

Wasted Seamen

Wet Dream

What’s Up Doc?

Wife Evader

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For further reading:

How Many Parts Are Needed to Build an Airplane?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIt’s one thing to build a model airplane out of balsa wood, Lego bricks, or even a detailed plastic model kit. (Remember that awful-smelling glue?) But to build a real airplane — like a 737, 747 or an A380 — takes enough parts to make your head spin: 3 to 7 million individual parts! The Boeing Company is one of the world’s largest and most efficient manufacturers of airplanes. It employs more than 158,000 workers. The Boeing factory located in Everett, Washington, takes about 83 days to build a 777. The timeline breaks down like this:
Time to manufacture: 49 days
Painting: 4 days
Flight testing: 30 days

Over at Boeing’s factory in Renton, near Seattle, workers can build a 737 in nine days. Each month, the factory assembles 42 planes per month with a workforce of 9,800 people. Since 1967, Boeing has manufactured more than 6,700 737s for clients around the globe.

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Why Do We Collect Things?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaJames Halperin is a professional rare coin dealer and the founder of Heritage Auctions, the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer. In an essay for The Intelligent Collector, Halperin answers one of the most frequent questions he gets asked: why do people collect things? Halperin believes collecting is a basic human instinct that has been intensified by centuries of natural selection: “Those of our ancient ancestors who managed to accumulate scare objects may have been more prone to survive long enough to bear offspring.” That is to say, acquisition of rare items led to wealth that allowed someone to have and care for more children. But collecting is not just an instinctive behavior, observes Halperin, it can be a combination of some or all of these other reasons:
Knowledge and learning
Relaxation and stress reduction
Personal pleasure (eg, pride of ownership)
Social interaction (eg, sharing knowledge and pleasure with other collectors)
Recognition from other collectors
Competitive challenge
The desire to possess and control a small part of the world
Connection to history
Accumulation and diversification of wealth
Competitive challenge

And collecting diligently over many decades has its rewards. Halperin shares a story of a friend who with a modest income, who studied coins and built an extensive collection. He even mortgaged his house to be able to travel and purchase rare coins. When he passed away, “with no apparent regrets”, his coin collection was sold at auction for more than $30 million dollars, benefiting his family beyond their dreams. For example one Canadian coin that he bought for $400 in 1954, sold for $345,000 in 1999.

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For further reading:

Lost in Translation: Untranslatable Words 2

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAt the heart of clear communication is diction: choosing the right word. Many times we stumble in a conversation because we cannot find just the right word. We think or say out loud: “I wish there were a word for that.” Of course, the English language is always growing, a magpie that borrows a word from this language or that. But sometimes, foreign language words do not get absorbed into the English language for whatever reason. Bookshelf looks at wonderful, beautiful words from around the globe that express ideas that cannot be translated in a single word in English. Here is a tasty sampling of the global lexical smorgasbord.

flaneur: French – “a person of excruciating idleness who doesn’t know where to parade his burden and ennui” (from a dictionary of low language published in 1808); also, a man who saunters around examining society

drachenfutter: German – a husband’s gift to his wife when he has done something wrong

gezellig: Dutch – a sense of togetherness or a nice atmosphere

nunchi: Korean – the subtle, nuanced art of listening and gauging another person’s mood

Schnapsleiche: German – a person who has passed out from too much drinking

sobremesa: Spanish – after-dinner or after-lunch conversation

tocka: Russian – a complex feeling of melancholy, anguish, ennui, and nostalgia

utepils: Norwegian – drinking a beer outside in the sun

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Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
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For further reading: Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders (2014)


The Wisdom of Tom Wolfe

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsAcclaimed American author and journalist Tom Wolfe (not to be confused with another famous American author, Thomas Wolfe, who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again and Look Homeward Angel) passed away on May 14, 2018. He was instantly recognized wherever he went, because since the early sixties, he always wore a white suit (accessorized by a white homburg hat, white tie, and traditional two-tone shoes), in the style of a Southern gentleman (Mark Twain was also fond of white suits). Wolfe believed that his suit put people at ease; he figured they thought “[here is] a man from Mars, the man who didn’t know anything and was eager to know.”

Aside from his trademark white suite, Wolfe was known for his best-selling works — The Right Stuff, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Text, The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, and I Am Charlotte Simmons. He is also recognized as a pioneer of “New Journalism.” “So what is new journalism?” you ask. Fair question. Literary critics believe that it emerged in the early 1960s and began its decline in the 1980s. Wolfe described it this way: “[New Journalism] is a form that is not merely like a novel. It consumes devices that happen to have originated with the novel and mixes them with every other device known to prose. And all the while, quite beyond matters of technique, it enjoys an advantage so obvious, so built-in, one almost forgets what power it has: the simple fact that the reader knows all this actually happened. The disclaimers have been erased. The screen is gone. The writer is one step closer to the absolute involvement of the reader that Henry James and James Joyce dreamed of but never achieved.” Thus, in general, New Journalism focuses on subjectivism and “truth” whereas traditional journalism is characterized by objectivity and facts. To present a subjective perspective, the new journalist employs four techniques borrowed form literary fiction: (1) presenting the narrative through scenes; (2) complete conversational dialogue; (3) multiple third-person point-of-view, and (4) recording everyday details. Pioneers of the New Journalism include Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, and of course, Tom Wolfe. Most of these writers were often featured in the tend-setting magazines of their time — Esquire, The Rolling Stone, and New York.

Tom Wolfe was erudite and opinionated — and never afraid to speak his mind. Here are some of his insights on reading, writing, and the life of the mind:

“The reason a writer writes a book is to forget a book and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it. ”

“[Being a writer] is the hardest work in the world. The only thing that will get you through it is maybe someone will applaud when it’s over.”

“To me, the great joy of writing is discovering. Most writers are told to write about what they know, but I still love the adventure of going out and reporting on things I don’t know about.”

“I do novels a bit backward. I look for a situation, a milieu first, and then I wait to see who walks into it.”

“Art is a creed, not a craft.”

“It’s fortunate that I am a writer, because that has helped me understand the properties of words. They are what have made life complex. In the battle for status in the animal kingdom, power and aggressiveness have been all-important. But among humans, once they acquired speech, all that changed.”

“Love is the ultimate expression of the will to live.”

“The modern notion of art is an essentially religious or magical one in which the artist is viewed as a holy beast who in some way, big or small, receives flashes from the godhead, which is known as creativity.”

“We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. They two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others.”

“A lie may fool someone else, but it tells you the truth: you’re weak.”

“[Aldous Huxley] compared the brain to a ‘reducing valve’. In ordinary perception, the senses send an overwhelming flood of information to the brain, which the brain then filters down to a trickle it can manage for the purpose of survival in a highly competitive world. Man has become so rational, so utilitarian, that the trickle becomes most pale and thin. It is efficient, for mere survival, but it screens out the most wondrous part of man’s potential experience without his even knowing it. We’re shut off from our own world.”

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

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For further reading: The New Journalism by Tom Wolfe
The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight by Marc Weingarten

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