Category Archives: Books

What Valuable Lesson Has Life Taught You?

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsWhen H. Brown Jackson turned 51, he sat down to write down what half century of living had taught him. It became a cherished weekly ritual and soon he began asking his family, friends, acquaintances, and students of all ages to answer this compelling question: what valuable lesson has life taught you?

Over time, he collected all these pearls of wisdom in a little book entitled Live and Learn and Pass It On published in 1992. “This book,” he writes in the introduction, “contains the combined wisdom of thousands of years of living… It is lessons learned from loving and winning and… losing, from the school of hard knocks, and the old method of trial and error… Regardless of how much we know, it is never enough… with every new experience, we are offered new opportunities for discovery and growth… School is always in session and life challenges us to excel at being both enthusiastic student and inspired teacher.” Amen, brother. And the beautiful thing about personal wisdom is that is priceless — and free. As Jackson pleasantly discovered, you just need to have the curiosity to ask — and the willingness to learn from it. Here are some highlights (age of contributor in parenthesis).

I’ve learned that deciding whom you marry is the most important decision you’ll ever make. (95)

I’ve learned that most of the things I worry about never happen. (64)

I’ve learned that the great challenge in life is to decide what’s important and disregard everything else. (51)

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t compare yourself to the best others can do, but to the best you can do. (68)

I’ve learned that it doesn’t cost anything to be nice. (66)

I’ve learned that nothing of value comes without effort. (64)

I’ve learned that even the simplest task can be meaningful if I do it in the right spirit. (72)

I’ve learned that enthusiasm is caught, not taught. (51)

I’ve learned that in every face-to-face encounter, regardless of how brief, we leave something behind. (45)

I’ve learned that you can’t hug your kids too much. (54)

What valuable lesson has life taught you?

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The Greatest Lesson from Childhood by Pablo Neruda

alex atkins bookshelf literatureSome of life’s greatest lessons come from childhood — a time of innocence, optimism, and openness. Regrettably, some of these lessons are lost because they seem so simple that they don’t warrant a great deal of scrutiny at the time; however, in retrospect — with the wisdom of age — they can be appreciated for the gems that they truly are. Pablo Neruda, the brilliant Chilean poet, shares  one of life’s greatest lessons when he was a child in the essay “Childhood and Poetry” found in the introduction to Neruda & Vallejo: Selected Poems (1971). The enchanting story takes place in the backyard of his childhood home, when he serendipitously discovers a hole in one of the fence boards. This brief, almost magical encounter, with a kind stranger (another child), made a huge impact on Neruda in two ways: first, it inspired his poetry writing; second, by offering friendship to a complete stranger, it strengthened his connectedness to all human beings. This second concept is related to the central metaphor in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch — society is a web and one cannot disentangle a single strand without touching all the others; that is to say, there is a kinship between every person. Here is the unforgettable story of the sheep and the pinecone by Neruda:

“One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared, a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

I never saw either the hand or the boy again. And I have never again seen a sheep like that either. The toy I lost finally in a fire. But even now, in 1954, almost fifty years old, whenever I pass a toy shop, I look furtively into the window, but it’s no use. They don’t make sheep like that anymore.

I have been a lucky man. To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses, that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together. That experience came to me again much later; this time it stood out strikingly against a background of trouble and persecution.

It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

That is the great lesson I learned in my childhood, in the backyard of a lonely house. Maybe it was nothing but a game two boys played who didn’t know each other and wanted to pass to the other some good things of life. Yet maybe this small and mysterious exchange of gifts remained inside me also, deep and indestructible, giving my poetry light.”

This story, like his poetry, is Neruda’s gift to humanity — given out of love. The American poet, Robert Bly, shares this fascinating insight: “What is most startling about Neruda, I think, when we compare him to [T. S.] Eliot or Dylan Thomas, or [Ezra] Pound, is the great affection that accompanies his imagination… When Eliot gave a reading, one had the feeling that the reading was a cultural experience… When Dylan Thomas read, one had the sense that he was about toe perform some magical and fantastic act… Pound used to scold the audience for not understanding what he did. When Neruda reads, the mood in the room is one of affection between the audience and himself.”

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For further reading: Neruda and Vallejo: Selected Poems (translated by Robert Bly)

Poems That Inspire: Sonnet 29 by William Shakespeare

alex atkins bookshelf literatureOne of the most beautiful and inspiring sonnets by William Shakespeare is Sonnet 29 (“When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes”). And due to its impeccable diction and brilliant metaphors it is one of the most accessible. Sadly, it is mainly Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era vocabulary (what linguists call “Early Modern English” that occurred soon after The Great Vowel Shift of the mid 1500s) and syntax (often inverted) that makes them a real challenge to modern readers. In the introduction to Shakespeare’s Sonnets Freshly Phrased, Joseph Gallagher notes, “Though usually straightforward is some respects, they can be quite difficult for modern readers — thanks to their often compact, allusive, elliptical, and highly metaphoric quality, and thanks to four centuries of vocabulary and stylistic changes.” Thou speakest truth, my lord!

However, regardless of their linguistic distinctiveness (or idiosyncrasies, based on your perspective), the brilliance of the sonnets is in their timelessness, that it is to say, they speak to every generation, subject to their interpretations. As Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate observed, “The genius of [Shakespeare’s] sonnets is their power to generate readings [ie, interpretations].” Which is an ideal segue to Sonnet 29. Shakespeare scholars divide the sonnets into two groups: Sonnets 1-126 are addressed to an alluring young man; Sonnets 127-154 are addressed to a woman or mistress (often referred to as the Dark Lady). Sonnet 29, of course, belongs to the first group and concerns itself with uplifting brotherly love (as opposed to sexual or agape love). But the poem, which is about the power of love, can apply to a friend, a lover, a spouse, or even on a spiritual level — Jesus’, God’s, or any deity’s redemptive love. The transformative message is found in the sonnet’s final couplet (known as the volta, “the turn” that expresses a profound epiphany): no matter how bad life seems to be or how alone you feel, the recollection of the love of a friend, lover, etc. is enough to make you feel extremely fortunate and enriched. Or expressed more succinctly, if you are loved take comfort that your life has meaning and you are never alone.

Below is Sonnet 29 as it was published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe followed by a rephrased version for modern readers by Joseph Gallagher. Note that Shakespeare’s sonnets were meant to be read aloud, not silently in your mind. Take a moment to discover — or rediscover — its enduring beauty and inspiring message; and more importantly, share it with someone you love.


When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heav’n with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
  For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings,
  That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Sometimes, when I am in the bad graces of good fortune and have lost the esteem of others,
I find myself in utter loneliness.
Then shedding tears over my plight as an outcast, I badger deaf heaven with my useless prayers.
I gaze into the mirror and curse my fate.
I wish I had someone else’s richer prospects
or better looks, or more numerous friends.
I wish I had that man’s artistry, or that man’s influence.
My favorite delights please me least.
Yet, even in the midst of these almost self-hating thoughts,
I sometimes happen to think of you.
Then my state of mind becomes like the lark that rises
from sullen earth at daybreak and sings its hymns at the gates of heaven.
  For when I remember your sweet love I feel so rich
  that I would treat with contempt the chance to trade places with a king.

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For further reading: Shakespeare’s Sonnets: Freshly Pressed by Joseph Gallagher
The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate
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Shakespeare’s Sonnets with Commentary by Stephen Booth

Literary Treasures Found in Auction Catalogs: March 2018

alex atkins bookshelf booksAn auction house’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.

Bonhams is one of the world’s oldest and largest auctioneers. Although Bonhams was created in 2001, the firm was a merger of two esteemed long-standing auction houses, Bonhams & Brooks (founded in 1793) and Philips Son & Neale (founded in 1796). It holds its auctions of antiques, art, books, and manuscripts in London, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Paris, Singapore, and Sydney. As you can imagine, the auction business is extremely lucrative. In 2007, sales of auction items brought in more than $600 million. Here are some of the items found in their most current catalog, Extraordinary Books and Manuscripts (New York, March 9, 2018).

Saint Augustine: De Civitate Dei, second edition ($200,000 – 300,000)

Claudius Ptolemaeus: Cosmographia, third edition ($600,000 – 800,000)

Sir Isaac Newton, Manuscript Detailing Creation of Philosopher’s Stone ($200,000 – $300,000)

George Washington, Signed Letter to Governor Morris, dated May 6, 1779 ($40,000 – $60,000)

Alexander Hamilton, Letter to Baron von Steuben, dated June 12, 1780 ($10,000 – $15,000)

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, First Edition, first binding, 1855 ($50,000 – $70,000)

Inaugural Bible of Ulysses S. Grant, 1869, only presidential inauguration bible in private hands ($80,000 – $120,000)

Oscar Wilde, Manuscript Draft of an Unknown Wilde Poem, 1890s ($50,000 – $70,000)

Albert Einstein, Letter Addressing his Involvement with Creation of the Atom Bomb to his son, Hans Albert, dated Sept. 2, 1945 ($100,000 – $150,000)
The letter includes this paragraph: ““My scientific work has only a very indirect connection with the atomic bomb. Indeed, I showed (39 years ago already) that according to the special theory of relativity, there exists an equivalence between the mass and energy of a system, that is, that the two are only different manifestations of the same thing. Also I noted that the energies released by radioactive decay are great enough to be emitted in a nuclear reaction when there is an imbalance of mass. That is all.”

The Only Copy of the Navigator Log of the Flight of the Enola Gay by Major Theodore Van Kirk, dated August 6, 1945 ($100,000 – $150,000)

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There Should Be A Word for That: Bibliorts

alex atkins bookshelf wordsPeople who read real books (you know the ones made of paper) use all sorts of things, other than bookmarks, to mark their place — random scraps of paper, ticket stubs, photos, postcards, notes, post-its, tissues, letters, etc. Lexicographer Paul Dickson believes these types of alternative bookmakers deserve their own name. He calls them bibliorts, derived from the Greek word biblio meaning “books” and orts, an old and rare term for “scraps.” Interestingly, some readers use various bibliorts to mark several places in a book. High school and college students, for example, are notorious for using dozens of colorized post-it notes to mark important passages in a famous novel that they are studying.

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: Words by Paul Dickson.

Profile of a Book Lover: 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 favorite books, this was her response:

“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.”

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: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books by Leah Price

Most Influential Female Authors of All Time

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhat would the world be like without Elizabeth Bennet, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Jane Eyre, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, the March sisters, Hermione Granger, Scout — and Frankenstein? These are just some of the iconic characters that sprang from the imagination of the world’s most influential female authors. Through their characters they explore women’s history, experiences, and issues with clarity, courage, and compassion — inspiring a new generation of women to not only embrace the rich tradition of literature by women, but to build on it, and expand it. Despite major differences, many lists recognize Jane Austen as the most influential female writer of all time. Of course, everyone can agree that it is impossible to create a definitive list of the most influential female writers of all times without excluding some notable author with an ardent fan base. Nevertheless, Ranker asked its reader to rank the most influential female writers in history. More than 1,500 readers voted to create this list of the “Best Female Authors of All Time.” In honor of International Women’s Day, Bookshelf presents the first twenty writers from that list:

1. Jane Austen
2. Virginia Woolf
3. Charlotte Brontë
4. Agatha Christie
5. Mary Shelley
6. Louisa May Alcott
7. J. K. Rowling
8. Harper Lee
9. George Eliot
10. Emily Dickinson
11. Sylvia Plath
12. Daphne du Maurier
13. Toni Morrison
14. Emily Brontë
15. Margaret Atwood
16. Elizabeth Gaskell
17. Edith Wharton
18. Willa Cather
19. Dorothy Parker
20. Flannery O’Connor

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For further reading: Masterpieces of Women’s Literature by Frank Magill

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