Author Archives: Alexander Atkins

Word Oddities

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWith more than a million words, the English language is full of fascinating oddities — words that have truly unique characteristics. Below is a list of some of the fascinating word oddities lurking in your English dictionary:

SWIMS is the longest word that reads the same way right-side up and upside down.

Princes is the only plural word that can be turned into a singular word by adding an “s.” Princes becomes princess. 

There is only one common word that has five vowels in a row: queueing

There is only one common word that has three dotted letters in a row: hijinks

The only word that has three consecutive doubled letters: bookkeeper

Words that are pronounced exactly the same but do not share any letters: ewe, you; eye, I; ox, auks; oh/eau (as in “eau de cologne”)

The only words that begin and end with “und”: underground and underfund

The only words the end in “gry”: angry and hungry

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For Writers, the Story Chooses You

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsWhen asked how he came up with his stories, American short-story writer Raymond Carver (1938-1988) responded, “Ideally the story chooses you, the image comes and then the emotional frame. You don’t have a choice about writing the story. I think that writers reach a point where they realize most areas of experience are not available to them—through lack of interest, lack of knowledge, lack of emotional involvement. I would be quite incapable of writing a story about young politicians, or even old politicians, or lawyers, or the world of high finance and fashion. There’s a filter at work which says this is or is not a story. And maybe there will be some little something, the germ of an idea, which will strike some kind of chord and begin to grow. I think a story ideally comes to the writer; the writer shouldn’t be casting the net out, searching for something to write about.”

From Conversations with Raymond Carver by Raymond Carver


A Beautiful, Inspiring Letter to Borges, the Patron of the Great Library

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIn 2013, Shaun Usher published a fascinating book, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. It was followed up a Volume 2 three years later. It is an absolutely brilliant concept — and there are some incredibly insightful and touching letters. But there are many letters that Usher left out, perhaps because he is not aware of them or he had to make some difficult decisions about what to leave out. Nevertheless, I came across this beautiful, eloquent — and more significantly, inspiring — letter rather serendipitously during research on Jorge Luis Borges, a brilliant writer, essayist, intellectual, and unabashed bibliophile. The letter by a recent friend, American writer Susan Sontag, was written on June 13, 1996, marking the 10th anniversary of Borges’ death.

If you have read and studied Borges, you know that what Sontag proclaims is not hyperbole or excessive sentimentality: “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.” Borges, was the quintessential student, like a child playing with building blocks with ceaseless and passionate curiosity; except that for Borges those building blocks were the great, timeless novels and stories that defined humanity. Even the blindness that affected him in his later life did not affect his vision, his clarity for the significance of literature — both its ability to be enlightening and transformative; if anything, his blindness helped sharpen his mind, and his memory (he began memorizing his favorite passages of literature). Reading Sontag’s letter I am transported back to my youth, when I first encountered Borges at a Jesuit boarding school. The impact of Borges on my intellectual growth cannot be overstated. The library of almost 8,000 books that surrounds me, as I write this, is a profound testament to his lifelong influence — and perhaps the best part, is that this gift, this passion for books, literature, and insatiable curiosity, has been passed onto my son, who continues the exploration in the Great Library.

If Sontag’s letter to Borges isn’t worthy of a wider audience — especially in today’s world when the humanities are under assault and libraries and printed books are endangered species — I don’t what is. I simply ask the you share this with a friend, colleague, students, or your children. May Borges continue to speak to, and inspire future generations.

Dear Borges,

Since your literature was always placed under the sign of eternity, it doesn’t seem too odd to be addressing a letter to you. (Borges, it’s 10 years!) If ever a contemporary seemed destined for literary immortality, it was you. You were very much the product of your time, your culture, and yet you knew how to transcend your time, your culture, in ways that seem quite magical. This had something to do with the openness and generosity of your attention. You were the least egocentric, the most transparent of writers, as well as the most artful. It also had something to do with a natural purity of spirit. Though you lived among us for a rather long time, you perfected practices of fastidiousness and of detachment that made you an expert mental traveller to other eras as well. You had a sense of time that was different from other people’s. The ordinary ideas of past, present and future seemed banal under your gaze. You liked to say that every moment of time contains the past and the future, quoting (as I remember) the poet Browning, who wrote something like, “the present is the instant in which the future crumbles into the past.” That, of course, was part of your modesty: your taste for finding your ideas in the ideas of other writers.

Your modesty was part of the sureness of your presence. You were a discoverer of new joys. A pessimism as profound, as serene, as yours did not need to be indignant. It had, rather, to be inventive – and you were, above all, inventive. The serenity and the transcendence of self that you found are to me exemplary. You showed that it is not necessary to be unhappy, even while one is clear-eyed and undeluded about how terrible everything is. Somewhere you said that a writer – delicately you added: all persons – must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. (You were speaking of your blindness.)

You have been a great resource, for other writers. In 1982  —— that is, four years before you died — I said in an interview, “There is no writer living today who matters more to other writers than Borges. Many people would say he is the greatest living writer… Very few writers of today have not learnt from him or imitated him.” That is still true. We are still learning from you. We are still imitating you. You gave people new ways of imagining, while proclaiming over and over our indebtedness to the past, above all, to literature. You said that we owe literature almost everything we are and what we have been. If books disappear, history will disappear, and human beings will also disappear. I am sure you are right. Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the “real” everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that books are now considered an endangered species. By books, I also mean the conditions of reading that make possible literature and its soul effects. Soon, we are told, we will call up on “bookscreens” any “text” on demand, and will be able to change its appearance, ask questions of it, “interact” with it. When books become “texts” that we “interact” with according to criteria of utility, the written word will have become simply another aspect of our advertising-driven televisual reality. This is the glorious future being created, and promised to us, as something more “democratic.” Of course, it means nothing less then the death of inwardness – and of the book.

This time around, there will be no need for a great conflagration. The barbarians don’t have to burn the books. The tiger is in the library. Dear Borges, please understand that it gives me no satisfaction to complain. But to whom could such complaints about the fate of books – of reading itself – be better addressed than to you? (Borges, it’s 10 years!) All I mean to say is that we miss you. I miss you. You continue to make a difference. The era we are entering now, this 21st century, will test the soul in new ways. But, you can be sure, some of us are not going to abandon the Great Library. And you will continue to be our patron and our hero.

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: http://www.faena.com/aleph/articles/susan-sontags-admirable-letter-to-j-l-borges/


The World Breaks Every One… Many are Strong at the Broken Places

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

The quotation is taken from this passage from A Farewell to Arms (1929) by American novelist and journalist Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): “If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

The world eventually broke Hemingway. At the age of 61, he died of a self-inflicted wound to the head using a double-barreled shotgun. Sadly, there were several suicides in the Hemingway family, which the press dubbed the “Hemingway Suicide Curse.” Hemingway’s father, Dr. Clarence Hemingway shot himself in the head with a .32 Smith and Wesson revolver back in 1928. Ernest’s brother, Leicester Hemingway, also a writer, committed suicide in 1982 with a gunshot to the head. Ursula Hemingway, Ernest’s sister, died of a drug overdose in 1966. Ernest’s granddaughter, Margaux Hemingway, a model, died of overdose in 1996. The Ernest Hemingway Memorial, located in Sun Valley, Idaho, displays a eulogy to the famous author, one that he himself had written for a friend a few decades earlier, written in his distinctive, simple style: “Best of all he loved the fall / the leaves yellow on cottonwoods / leaves floating on trout streams / and above the hills / the high blue windless skies / …Now he will be a part of them forever.”


What is an Antilibrary?

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn an interview many years ago, the erudite Argentinian writer and literary critic Jorge Luis Borges once remarked that individuals should own two libraries — one containing the books that they have read, the other containing the books that they plan to read. It is that second type of library that interests essayist Nassim Taleb; in fact, he even gave it a name: the antilibrary: the books you plan to read. In his discussion of knowledge in his book, The Black Swan, Taleb cites another great writer and scholar, Umberto Eco, who very much like Borges, was passionate about books and learning:

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have. How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point is that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendages but a research tool. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market alow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.”

Naturally, the antilibrary gives rise to its dutiful steward, the antischolar. According to Taleb, the antischolar is “someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.” Perhaps the greatest antischolar was Socrates who said, “”The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” This sentiment is echoed by a famous quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” Amen, brother.

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

Read related posts: Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books
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For further reading: The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb
https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Albert_Einstein#The_more_I_learn,_the_more_I_realize_I_don’t_know


Weird Words

alex atkins bookshelf wordsAlthough the English language contains over a million words, the printed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) only defines about 750,000 of them. Of course one of the joys of owning the OED is that the entire English language (or at least most of it) can be held in yours hands. One way to expand your vocabulary quickly is by serendipity — looking at the words around your target words. A dictionary should never be read cover to cover (unless, of course, you are Ammon Shea, who read the entire OED in one year), but it should be browsed or explored from time to time. And it is by serendipity, that one might encounter some of the most wonderful and weird words. Astonish and amaze your friends by using them soon in a text or email. Here are some of the fascinating weird words in the dictionary.

absquatulate: to leave abruptly

anfractuous: circuitous

argute: shrewd

Barmecide: imaginary and thus disappointing

blatherskite: a person who talks a lot and doesn’t make a lot of sense; i.e., Trump

cacoethes: the urge to do something inadvisable

chiliad: a thousand things or 1,000 years

colporteur: a person who sells bibles

criticaster: an incompetent critic

doryphore: a pedantic and annoyingly persistent critic of other people

emacity: fondess for buying things

eucatastrophe: the happy ending to a story

gasconade: extravagant boasting, e.g., Trump

humdudgeion: an imaginary illness

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

Read related posts: How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?
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For further reading: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/weird-and-wonderful-words?utm_source=Sept27-18&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=new-od-newsletter&utm_content=listicle-secondpanelright

 


I Am the Culmination of a Lifetime of Reading

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Who I am, what I am, is the culmination of a lifetime of reading, a lifetime of stories. And there are still so many more books to read. I’m a work in progress.”

American author Sarah Addison Allen, the New York Times bestselling author of Garden Spells, The Sugar Queen, and The Girl Who Chased the Moon.


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