Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

The Obscene Books that Oxford Librarians Hid for Centuries

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, founded in 1602, is a legal deposit library which means that it is entitled to a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom — including what is considered obscene. At the height of the Victorian Era, the Obscene Publications Act was passed in 1857 which prohibits the distribution of obscene materials, defined as “[materials that] deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences.” Perhaps they were thinking of rebellious, inebriated, and horny college students. (But they clearly don’t understand college students — there is no greater encouragement for students to read particular literary works when they are classified as “obscene” and locked away. College students are amazingly resourceful — and they will find ways to get to the good stuff!) Nevertheless, any library that allowed individuals access to these books would incur serious legal consequences. Students who read these forbidden materials were warned that they would develop warts on their hands and go blind.

Accordingly the librarians at the Bodleian created the Phi collection (the Greek letter Phi was stamped on the spine of each book, although it is not clear why that particular letter was selected) for the obscene literary works they acquired. Up until 2010, students could not review, let alone check out, a book from the Phi collection unless they received prior permission from faculty and library staff (which means, in plain terms: rarely). There are currently about 3,000 titles in the Phi collection, ranging from scholarly or scientific studies of ancient cultures to novels that initially caused a scandal, that have never seen the light of day. By now you are wondering, “So, what did the library staff and the British bureaucrats consider absence?” Here are some of the titles that are included in the new exhibit at the Bodleian: Story of Phi: Restricted Books. The exhibit is curated by a Latin Professor Jennifer Ingleheart who commented, “The display invites visitors to consider the complexities behind what is currently in the Phi collection versus the hundreds of items that have been reclassified over the years, revealing how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.” You be the judge if this are really obscene:

The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking by Alex Comfort

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

The Love Books of Ovid

The Pop-Up Kama Sutra by Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot

Phallic Objects & Remains: Illustrations of the Rise and Development of the Phallic Idea by Hargrave Jennings

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Satyra Sotadic, a 17th century work of European pornography, by Luisa Siegea de Velasco

Sex by Madonna

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The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Catalog: Dec 2018

An antiquarian bookseller’s catalog is a bibliophile’s dream of a museum between two covers. Open any catalog, and you will find literary treasures — valuable first editions, rare inscribed copies, manuscripts, letters, screenplays, and author portraits — from some of the most famous authors in the world.

Jarndyce Antiquarian Bookseller, established in London England in 1969, specializes in 18-19th century English literature and history. The location of the bookshop, 46 Great Russell Street, was the former home and office of the famous book illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886), for whom the children’s picture book award is named. Prior to that, the building was home to Luzac & Co., a bookshop that was founded in the early 18th century and moved to London in 1890. Over the years, Jarndyce has published more than 200 catalogues. Bibliophiles salivate as they browse through their catalogs, filled with fascinating and valuable literary treasures. Here are some highlights from their most recent catalog, Catalogue Number 234 (Winter 2018-19):

The Novels of Jane Austen (1892), 10 volumes, edited by Reginald Johnson: $3,550

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1870), first Tauchnitz edition: $825

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1894), first edition with illustrations by Hugh Thomson: $2,284

Villette by Charlotte Bronte (1853), 3 volumes, first edition: $3,172

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1867), early edition purchased from Lewis’ library: $1,840

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (1904), first edition: $825

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1867), early American edition by T. B. Peterson & Brothers: $380

Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872), 4 volumes, copyright edition: $1,903

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1896), first edition: $635

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What is Collective Trauma?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureAccording to the American Psychological Association, trauma is defined as “the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. While trauma is a normal reaction to a horrible event, the effects can be so severe that they interfere with an individual’s ability to live a normal life. In a case such as this, help may be needed to treat the stress and dysfunction caused by the traumatic event and to restore the individual to a state of emotional well-being.” Collective trauma is when a certain distressing event, such as an environmental catastrophe, world war, genocide, terrorist attack, mass shootings, financial crisis, mass job losses, oppression, poverty, disease, or political crisis, has a traumatic psychological effect on a large group of people, a community, or an entire country or countries. The most frequently cited collective traumas include: WW I and WW II, The Holocaust, Slavery in America, and the 9-11 terrorist attacks. The concept of collective trauma was developed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim noted that values, rituals, and norms were the bonds that held society together — they provided solidarity, social cohesion. A collective trauma severs these bonds, destroys the social order, causes people to feel disoriented and disconnected, evokes a collective feeling, and can alter a society’s culture and mass actions. Sociologist Kai Erikson, author of Everything in Its Path (about the devastating Buffalo Creek flood of 1972), described how survivors were in a permanent state of shock, and struggled to find meaning and purpose in life. Sousan Abadian, a former fellow at the MIT Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformational Studies, notes that “collective trauma [is] at the level of culture — that culture has been damaged, meaning institutions, cultural practices, values, and beliefs.” Psychologist Jack Saul, author of Collective Trauma, Collective Healing, adds “[Some] of the features we often associate with collective traumas [are]: social rupturing and a profound sense of distress, the challenging of long-held assumptions about the world and national identity, a constricted public narrative, and a process of scapegoating and dehumanization.” Sound familiar?

In his thought-provoking article for The New York Times, “Are Americans Experiencing Collective Trauma?”, sociologist Neil Gross argues that the election of 2016 is a classic example of a collective trauma. Gross writes: “[The 2016] presidential election has collective trauma written all over it…. Mr. Trump’s victory signals that that world, with the assurances it offered that there were some lines those seeking power wouldn’t cross (or that the American electorate wouldn’t let them cross), is no longer. Rightly or wrongly, memories have been activated of historical traumas linked with anti-democratic politics, such as the emergence of fascism in interwar Europe and the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.” Tulane psychology professor Charles Figley also believes that the 2016 election is a collective trauma: “First and foremost it’s on everyone’s mind and it’s discussed frequently. There are signs and symbols associated with it. Mentioning a particular slogan or singing a particular song simply connects people to the phenomenon and reminds everyone they are in the same boat.” And unfortunately, Figley observes, there is a nasty side effect: racism and xenophobia; he elaborates: “People tend to separate from people that are different from them, connecting with people that are like them, and share their concerns, and vilify the opposition.” Yale sociologist Ronald Eyerman, who co-edited Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering, believes that the recent presidential election felt less like losing a election, and more like the assassination of a revered leader, like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, or Harvey Milk. Eyerman explains, “[Milk’s] death was first collectively mourned in a massive march through the streets of San Francisco… The [killer’s manslaughter] verdict was interpreted by many in the collective, the San Francisco gay community, as a betrayal, a failure of American institutions, in this case the courts, the police and the justice system as a whole to do justice to an aggrieved group. This betrayal and loss of faith in American institutions threatened the very foundations of collective identity.”

Is there a path of healing for those communities that suffer from collective trauma? Most experts agree that collective trauma will remain chronic and reoccur if social causes are not properly addressed and if perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions. With respect to historical collective trauma, mental health experts typically identify four required steps for healing: confronting trauma, understanding the trauma, releasing the pain, and transcendence. Joy DeGruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, emphasizes the importance revisiting and studying the initial behavior/event rather as opposed to denying that it ever occurred. Armand Volkas, a psychotherapist and child of Holocaust survivors, explores the potential perpetrator in all of us, as a way of humanizing the enemy, and bringing people together. Figley believes that people eventually figure out a way out of collective trauma: “When a community collectively experiences a trauma, people ask each other questions about what happened and why it happened, who caused it whether it will happen again. Over a period of time there is an accommodation to loss, stock-taking, and gradual acceptance, and then creating new things in the wake of these changes that you didn’t want. People figure out what to do to feel safe again — physically or psychologically.”

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For further reading:

The Best Books About Books for Book Lovers: 2018

The Art of Reading: An Illustrated History of Books in Paint by Jamie Camplin

Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount

A Book of Book Lists: A Bibliophile’s Compendium by Alex Johnson

The Book Lovers’ Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

Book Towns: Forty Five Paradises of the Printed Word by Alex Johnson

The Great American Read: The Book of Books by Jessica Allen

I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Readling Life by Anne Bogel

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells

A Library Miscellany by Claire Cock-Starkey

Massimo Listri: The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries by Elisabeth Sladek

1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List by James Mustich

Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions by Alberto Manguel

Writers: Their Lives and Works edited by Angela Wilkes

Writers and Their Cats by Alison Nastasi

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For further reading:

The Deepest Joys Are The Simple Ones Shared with Family

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIn the obituary of George H. W. Bush, The Washington Post provided this insight into the private life of the 41st President of the United States: “In 1988, Mr. Bush gave a list of the qualities he most cherished to Peggy Noonan, who wrote his speech accepting that year’s Republican presidential nomination. They were: ‘family, kids, grandkids, love, decency, honor, pride, tolerance, hope, kindness, loyalty, freedom, caring, heart, faith, service to country, fair (fair play), strength, healing, excellence. Mr. Bush viewed his family as part of his legacy. He was intensely proud of the sons who followed him into public service.”

Coincidentally, just a few days ago I came across rather serendipitously touching testimony to old age and family by Dick Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania who served as the Attorney General of the United States under President Bush. His words are a gentle reminder, that as George H. W. Bush so firmly believed, family is the most important thing in life and the memories of time spent with family are life’s greatest treasure — but sometimes it takes advancing age to truly appreciate that truism:

“When I was growing up, the thought of someone aged seventy was coupled with images of incapacity and irrelevance. Having reached that age myself this year, I realize how inaccurate those im­ages were. To be sure, we all, sooner or later, reach an age when we begin to slow down. But as the years advance, I find myself more appreciative of everyday joys, especially the companionship of those I love. In an ironic way, my capacity for true enjoyment seems to have deepened with age. The blessings of family and loved ones have al­ways been particularly enriching. Memories of times spent with my wife, children, and grandchildren are among my most valued treasures. Simple events and conversations of the past increase in value as I rec­ollect them in later years. How often my beloved wife of thirty-nine years and I reminisce about the exciting and challenging opportunities we have been granted. And how often we thank God for giving us each other to provide the balance and inspiration necessary to persevere when the going gets tough. 

Four fine sons, two superb daughters-in-law, and now six grandchildren have been a special blessing to us. They assure that life is never dull. Our vicar­ious participations in their lives let us share in the fulfillment of every passing grade, each goal scored or starring role, each friendship cemented, and a suc­cession of job opportunities and residential acquisi­tions and improvements. Our congratulations-and commiserations over inevitable disappointments­ have always been graciously received. 

Such bonds are a two-way street. For my seventi­eth birthday, for example, my oldest son collected a list of “Greatest Hits: 70+ Memories of My Dad,” which he shared with all of us. Even the most dimly remembered of these events sprang to vivid reality with only a little prompting. Some were truly hilari­ous. And all contributed to a tapestry of remem­brance more valuable than any tangible gift could be…

One of our sons has a disability; he has mental retardation. In many ways, he has contributed the most to my comprehension of the good that can evolve from nearly every situation. He possesses a kind of quiet dignity that, despite his limitations, serves as an inspiration to all who know him. And his own values are very much in order. Recently, when visiting with us, he and I went to the Washington zoo. We saw all the animals and laughed to­gether at the antics of many of them. At the end of the excursion, I asked him what he had liked best about our experience, expecting a reply that took into account the unique characteristics of one or more of the animals we had seen. Instead, he responded, quite simply: “Being with you.”

What a precious gift God has given us in life. We all journey together and are sustained and strengthed by wonderful experiences such as these. In the final analysis, the deepest joys are indeed the simple ones and, as they accumulate over the years, we come to look forward to, rather than fear, the next successive milestone. May it ever be so!”

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For further reading: The Older the Fiddle, the Better the Tune: The Joys of Reaching a Certain Age by Willard Scott

Unusual Names Parents Choose For Their Children

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWhen it comes to choosing names for children, parents can politely endure suggestions from meddlesome relatives or consult baby name books with more than 100,000 names — either way, it can be a daunting task. For the most part, parents choose traditional names over unusual or unconventional names — you know the ones, when you wonder “what were the parents thinking?” Speaking of unconventional names, a story that is making the rounds today is titled “Southwest Gate Agent Mocks 5-Year-Old Girl’s Name” about a girl named Abcde (pronounced “AB city”). According to the Social Security Administration, out of more than 74 million children living in the U.S., only 328 girls share that same name. But we digress — choosing a conventional name makes a lot of sense in light of the extensive research on the significant impact that a name has on a child’s life. Research, beginning in the late 1940s to the early 2000s confirms that a name really matters. Specifically, a name can influence what grades a child will earn, where they attend college, choice of profession, where they will be hired, whom they will marry, and where they will live. Serious stuff. Researchers explain this phenomenon as the implicit-egotism effect: that individuals are drawn to things and people that resemble them. In short, similarities attract. Recent research by economists has focused on another effect: name signaling. The crucial question is not “what is the name?” but rather “what signal does the name send?” In other words, what characteristics or values does the name imply? In those studies, individuals with “white-sounding” names (like Emily or Thomas) were most likely to be hired over candidates with “black-sounding” names (like Lakisha or Jamal).

Since naming babies is such serious business, some countries feel compelled to weigh in on the matter. In a 2013 article on baby-naming policies, NPR reported: “Some countries, such as France, have somewhat relaxed once-strict policies that required only government-approved names (many of which either appear in the Bible or are culturally entrenched). Many nations still require baby names to indicate gender (Germany) or to be easily read by a computer scanner (China), as CNN reported in 2010. And it remains common for many governments to give at least a cursory review, to ensure that the parents aren’t potentially sabotaging their child by choosing a profane or demeaning name, or one that might otherwise be an unfair burden to the child.”

Retired editor Larry Ashmead, who worked at Simon and Schuster and Doubleday, has always been fascinated by names. In his very entertaining book, Bertha Venation, Ashmead shares his wonderful collection of funny and strange names of real people. Here are some of the unusual first names he has found over the years:






















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For further reading: Betha Venation by Larry Ashmead

Types of Anagrams

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAn anagram is one of the most popular forms of word play that recombines all the letters of a word or phrase to create a new word or phrase. For example, “inch” is an anagram of “chin.” The anagram, of course, is at the heart of board games like Scrabble, Clabbers, Boggle, and Bananagrams and puzzles like Jumble and Cryptic Crosswords. But did you know that anagram mists have actually coined specific words for specific types of anagrams? So if you want to show off your word scrambling skills, here are the various types of anagrams.

ambigram: an anagram that is ambiguously the opposite of the original phrase
Example: the nuclear regulatory commission = your rules clone atomic nightmares

antigram: an anagram that is the antonym of the original word or phrase
Examples: violence = nice love; fluster = restful; Santa = Satan; united = untied

pairagram: an anagram where the words are linked in meaning or form a sentence
Examples: Elvis = lives; dormitory = dirty room; the Morse code = here come the dots

semordnilap: an anagram that is the reverse spelling of a word that spells a real word (the reverse spelling of palindromes)
Examples: desserts = stressed; diaper = repaid

synanagram: an anagram that is a synonym of the original word
Examples: angered = enraged; statement = testament; evil = vile

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For further reading: The Game of Words by Willard Espy
Oddities and Curiosities of Words and Literature by C. C. Tombaugh edited and annotated by Martin Gardner
A Word of Day by Anu Garg
Wordplay: A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities by Chris Cole
The Dictionary of Wordplay by Dave Morice

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