Category Archives: Books

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/


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
The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
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I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

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


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.


What is the Most Stolen Book?

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn 1971, American activist and poster boy for the counterculture movement Abbie Hoffman published Steal This Book. (For those who were not born before the 1970s, Hoffman was as famous as the Kardashians; he was one of the most well-known anti-Vietnam War protestors). And obliging teens and young adults did exactly that — thousands were stolen, but at least Hoffman sold more than 250,000 copies. The book was essentially a handbook for protesting against “the Pig Empire” and surviving on as little money as possible. There’s no crime in being frugal, right? To Hoffman, not stealing from the establishment was immoral. In contrast, today the establishment considers it immoral not to steal from the middle and lower class.

Since we are discussing Hoffman’s controversial book, it certainly invites the question: what is the most stolen book? And according to recent research, it seems there are really two questions to address: what is the most stolen book from libraries? and what is the most stolen book from bookstores?

The curious folks at TheStreet visited libraries and bookstores to addressed both of these questions. Librarians and booksellers had no problem listing all the books that seemed to grow legs and walk out the door. Ironically, the two most stolen books are The Guinness Book of Records and The Bible. So much for the 8th commandment: thous shall not steal. As one librarian noted: there is a special kind of hell for those who steal books, especially those that are quite rare. Here are the lists of the most commonly stolen books from libraries and bookstores:

The Most Stolen Books From Libraries:

The Guinness Book of Records
The Bible
Test preparation books (SAT, ACT, GRE, etc)
Books of legal advice or forms
Sports Illustrated (Swimsuit Edition)
Books with nude photos or paintings; especially the Kama Sutra and erotica novels

Art Books
Books on college reading lists
Books about the paranormal, witchcraft, etc.
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series

The Most Stolen Books from Bookstores:

Anything by Charles Bukowski or William S. Burroughs
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Graphic Novels
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
 Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman (of course)
The Alchemist by Paul Coelho

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: The Real Book Thieves of London
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For further reading: https://www.thestreet.com/slideshow/12795590/1/most-stolen-library-books.html
http://www.openculture.com/2016/07/what-are-the-most-stolen-books.html
https://www.quora.com/Which-books-are-most-commonly-stolen-from-libraries


The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Catalog: Sept 2018

atkins-bookshelf-booksAn 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.

Ken Lopez has been an antiquarian bookseller since the early 1970s. Formerly the president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, Lopez focuses on first editions, literature of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, nature writing, and Native American literature. He is the quintessential bibliophile — as passionate about discovering rare books as he is about preserving literary history. Bibliophiles salivate as they browse through his comprehensive catalogs, filled with fascinating and valuable literary treasures. Here are some highlights from his most recent catalog, Modern Literature No. 170 (September 2018):

William Burroughs: First British Edition, The Naked Lunch ($2,500)

E. E. Cummings: Handwritten draft of poem “Will out of the kindness of their hearts a few philosophers tell me” ($13,000)

F. Scott Fitzgerald: First edition, first issue from Scribner (1925), no dust jacket, The Great Gatsby ($2,500)

Ernest Hemingway: First edition of The Old Man and the Sea, signed and inscribed by the author ($9,500)

Lee Harper: First edition, no dust jacket, To Kill a Mockingbird ($3,500)

Vladimir Nabokov: Pnin ($3,500)

Tom Wolfe: Unique edition in custom clamshell case, book inscribed by Tom Wolfe, fingerprinted by Ken Kesey, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test ($7,500)

Read related posts: The Most Expensive Dust Jacket
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For further reading: http://www.lopezbooks.com


The Most Beautiful College Libraries in America

alex atkins bookshelf booksAs most librarians know, college libraries have been on the endangered species list for some time. Over the last two decades, college libraries have downsized, relocated, or — gasp — entirely eliminated their books as they shifted to digital resources or repurposed the space. Which begs the question: if a library does not have any books, is it still a library? But we digress. In the article “The Disappearance of Books Threatens to Erode Fine Arts Libraries,” journalist Sarah Bond discusses this disturbing trend: “Across the country, many university libraries are engaged in a book purge. This has meant reassessing the use of library spaces and consolidating book holdings in a bid to attract more visitors. In states like Missouri and Kansas, libraries have begun to spend more and more of their annual budgets on digital subscriptions and spaces for people, rather than on the acquisition of physical books. As in Austin and Madison, such shifts have often been met with resistance. At Syracuse University in New York, there was a faculty uproar over the proposed movement of books to a far-away warehouse. The struggle ultimately resulted in the university building a 20,000-square-foot storage facility nearby for over 1 million books — guaranteeing next-business-day delivery.”

Twenty years ago, book stores also thrived. Consumers took them for granted. And then, before you knew it, they disappeared — one by one. That is why Town & Country’s recent feature, “22 of America’s Most Beautiful College Libraries,” is a reminder to appreciate their significance of what they contain as well as their stunning architecture. If you have an opportunity, visit them while they are still around. Here is the list of the 22 most beautiful college libraries in America:

Bapst Art Library at Boston College

Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington

Widener Library at Harvard University

Uris Library at Cornell University

Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College

Riggs Library at Georgetown University

Washington University Law Library

Hoose Philosophy Library at the University of Southern California

Harper Memorial Library at the University of Chicago

George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University

Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania

Cook Legal Research Library at the University of Michigan

Butler Library at Columbia University

Beinecke Rare Book And Manuscript Library at Yale

Anne Bremer Memorial Library at San Francisco Art Institute

Mclure Education Library at the University of Alabama

Joe And Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago

Firestone Library at Princeton University

Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego

Albert And Shirley Small Special Collections Library at University of Virginia

William R. Perkins Library at Duke University

Powell Library at UCLA

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: A Tale of Two Donkeys and a Mobile Library
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For further reading: https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/news/g3006/most-beautiful-college-libraries/
https://hyperallergic.com/433583/fine-arts-libraries-books-disappearing/


What is the Best Cure for Sadness?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureSadness is an inevitable part of life. It washes up on your shores one day completely unexpected or perhaps as a result of some event in your life. So what do you do? If you turn to the web, you will find thousands of articles on the best ways to deal with or overcome sadness. They trot out the usual suspects: take a walk, go out in nature, listen to music, work, meditate, take a bath, and eat. But why not turn to literature? A great book, is like a childhood friend that has never forgotten you and has not finished sharing its insights. Long after you read it, it whispers to you — in your dreams, in your unconscious — reminding you of its timeless wisdom.

Recently, I was feeling sad, having learned about the serious illness of an old friend. Not only was I aware of his mortality; I was reminded of mine. How quickly time passes — you blink, and you are graduating from high school; then you blink again, you are graduating from college, racing toward adulthood, middle age and beyond. Tempus fugit. So here I was — standing in front of a bookcase in my private library looking for a specific book, when I came across a cherished hardback edition of T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. Just then, in that silent moment awash with contemplation and sadness, it whispered to me, like a siren’s call, “Pick me up; turn my pages, once again, old friend.” Without even thinking, I carefully lifted up the book and noticed a red satin ribbon disappearing into its pages. I opened it up to the page marked by the ribbon, and my eyes drifted right to the passage where Merlyn shares the best cure for sadness:

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”

I gently placed the tome back in its place on the shelf, shoulder to shoulder with other great classic works. I smiled on this serendipitous literary remedy. Truly, the greatest insights are in literature — awaiting discovery; or in this case, rediscovery. I spent the next hour browsing, reading and learning. And slowly the sadness melted away, cherishing the memory of the day I rediscovered Merlyn’s wisdom.

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:
The Poem I Turn To
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William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
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For further reading: The Once and Future King by T. H. White


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