Category Archives: Literature

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 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 Poetry of 9/11

alex atkins bookshelf literature“In the aftermath of the spectacular collapse of the twin towers on September 11, 2001, the act of turning to poetry enjoyed a revival,” observed US Poet Laureate Billy Collins. “In times of crisis, poems, not paintings or ballet, are what people habitually reach for… The formalized language of poetry can ritualize experience and provide emotional focus… Poetry also can assure us that we are not alone; others, some of them long dead, have felt what we are feeling.” Moreover, poetry that is thought-provoking and stirs the soul, assures us that we do not forget those who lost their lives; and to affirm that their lives mattered.

On the 17th anniversary of 9/11, Bookshelf presents two powerful poems that provide different perspectives of that tragic day. The first, written by Martin Espada, pays tribute to the 43 members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 100, who worked at the Windows on the World restaurant, who perished that day. Many of these workers were immigrants who had come to America to seek a better life for themselves and their families. The second poem, written by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, was inspired by Richard Drew’s haunting photograph, “The Falling Man,” that captured a man hurtling, seemingly peacefully, toward his death. The clever ending of the poem, achieves the same thing as the iconic photograph: suspending the unknown man in the air for eternity — to keep him alive, if not in this world, then in our collective memory.

Alabanza by Martin Espada

Alabanza. Praise the cook with a shaven head
and a tattoo on his shoulder that said Oye,
a blue-eyed Puerto Rican with people from Fajardo,
the harbor of pirates centuries ago.
Praise the lighthouse in Fajardo, candle
glimmering white to worship the dark saint of the sea.
Alabanza. Praise the cook’s yellow Pirates cap
worn in the name of Roberto Clemente, his plane
that flamed into the ocean loaded with cans for Nicaragua,
for all the mouths chewing the ash of earthquakes.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen radio, dial clicked
even before the dial on the oven, so that music and Spanish
rose before bread. Praise the bread. Alabanza.

Praise Manhattan from a hundred and seven flights up,
like Atlantis glimpsed through the windows of an ancient aquarium.
Praise the great windows where immigrants from the kitchen
could squint and almost see their world, hear the chant of nations:
Ecuador, México, Republica Dominicana,
Haiti, Yemen, Ghana, Bangladesh.
Alabanza. Praise the kitchen in the morning,
where the gas burned blue on every stove
and exhaust fans fired their diminutive propellers,
hands cracked eggs with quick thumbs
or sliced open cartons to build an altar of cans.
Alabanza. Praise the busboy’s music, the chime-chime
of his dishes and silverware in the tub.

Alabanza. Praise the dish-dog, the dishwasher
who worked that morning because another dishwasher
could not stop coughing, or because he needed overtime
to pile the sacks of rice and beans for a family
floating away on some Caribbean island plagued by frogs.
Alabanza. Praise the waitress who heard the radio in the kitchen
and sang to herself about a man gone. Alabanza.

After the thunder wilder than thunder,
after the shudder deep in the glass of the great windows,
after the radio stopped singing like a tree full of terrified frogs,
after night burst the dam of day and flooded the kitchen,
for a time the stoves glowed in darkness like the lighthouse in Fajardo,
like a cook’s soul. Soul I say, even if the dead cannot tell us
about the bristles of God’s beard because God has no face,
soul I say, to name the smoke-beings flung in constellations
across the night sky of this city and cities to come.
Alabanza I say, even if God has no face.

Alabanza. When the war began, from Manhattan and Kabul
two constellations of smoke rose and drifted to each other,
mingling in icy air, and one said with an Afghan tongue:
Teach me to dance. We have no music here.
And the other said with a Spanish tongue:
I will teach you. Music is all we have.

**********************

Photograph from September 11 by Wislawa Szymborska

They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them 
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

They jumped from the burning floors—
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them 
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can do only two things for them—
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

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: One of the Greatest Magazine Stories: Falling Man
The Poem I Turn To
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For further reading: September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond
Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets

 


The Worst Sentence Ever Written: 2018

catkins-bookshelf-literatureThe Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (BLFC), established in 1982 by English Professor Scott Rice at San Jose State University, recognizes the worst opening sentence (also known as an “incipit”) for a novel. The name of the quasi-literary contest honors Edward George Bulwer Lytton, author of a very obscure 1830 Victorian novel, Paul Clifford, with a very famous opening sentence: “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Each year, contest receives more than 10,000 entries from all over the world — proving that there is no shortage of wretched writers vying for acclaim. The contest now has several subcategories, including adventure, crime, romance, and detective fiction. The winner gets bragging rights for writing the worst sentence of the year and a modest financial award of $150 — presumably for writing lessons.

The winner of the 2018 BLFC was Tanya Menezes of San Jose, California:
Cassie smiled as she clenched John’s hand on the edge of an abandoned pier while the sun set gracefully over the water, and as the final rays of light disappeared into a star-filled sky she knew that there was only one thing left to do to finish off this wonderful evening, which was to throw his severed appendage into the ocean’s depths so it could never be found again — and maybe get some custard after.

The runner up was submitted by Shelley Siddall of West Kelowna, Canada:
Dreaded Pirate Larry was somewhat worried, as he looked down at his boot, where his first mate was stretched out, making whooshing sounds, attempting to blow him over, that despite having the fastest ship, the most eye patches, and the prettiest parrots, his crew may need a few lessons on the difference between literal and figurative, as evidenced by the rest of the crew applying ice to the timbers.

The winner in the category of Crime/Detective was Dave Agans of Wilton, New Hampshire:
He glanced at his unsuspecting guests, his slight smile hiding his hateful mood, his calm eyes hiding his evil intentions, and his smooth skin hiding his tensed muscles, skeletal structure, and internal organs.

The winner in the category of Vile Puns was Peter Bjorkman of Rocklin, California (again!):
As Sheriff (and choral conductor) Patrick “Pitch-Perfect” McHenry assessed his perfectly mediocre chorus upon the saloon stage (sopranos that could only sing melody, serviceable altos, screechy tenors, and basses dropping the pitch by more than a quarter step), a wrinkled scowl protruded from under his pristine Stetson and he growled, “I don’t like your tone” at his “okay” chorale.

Read related posts: The Worst Sentence Ever Written
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For futher reading: https://www.bulwer-lytton.com/latest-winners
Dark and Stormy Rides Again by Scott Rice, Penguin Books (1996)


Those Who Fail to Reread are Obliged to Read the Same Story Everywhere

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Rereading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us ‘throw away’ the story once it has been consumed (‘devoured’), so that we can then move on to another story, buy another book, and which is tolerated only in certain marginal categories of readers (children, old people, and professors), rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere), multiplies it in its variety and its plurality: rereading draws the text out of its internal chronology (‘this happens before or after that’) and recaptures a mythic time (without before or after); it contests the claim which would have us believe that the first reading is a primary, naïve, phenomenal reading which we will only, afterwards, have to ‘explicate,’ to intellectualize (as if there were a beginning of reading, as if everything were not already read: there is no first reading, even if the text is concerned to give us that illusion by several operations of suspense, artifices more spectacular than persuasive); rereading is no longer consumption, but play (that play which is the return of the different).”

Roland Barthes (1915-1980), French literary critic, linguist, and philosopher. In one of his most well-known essays, “The Death of the Author “(published in 1967), Barthes dismisses the traditional critical approach to literature that interprets an author’s work based on his or her biography and set of beliefs (religious, political, cultural, etc.). He believed that to assign one interpretation to an author’s text is to impose limits on that text. Instead, Barthes believes that the reader must separate the text from the author. That is to say, that the meaning of the text lies not with the analysis of the author, but with the impressions or perceptions of the reader.


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.

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For further reading: The Once and Future King by T. H. White


The Surprising Original Titles of Famous Novels: 2

alex atkins bookshelf literatureIt is unimaginable to think that one of the novels considered as The Great American Novels, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was originally titled Trimalchio in West Egg. (Trimalchio — a wealthy, but very vulgar emancipated slave — is a character from the famous satirical novel, Satyricon, by Petronius written in 1 A.D.) Thankfully Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife, and legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins, convinced him to select The Great Gatsby as the final title, inspired by Alain-Fournier’s haunting Le Grand Meaulnes (Augustin Meaulnes, the protagonist, searches for his lost love, Yvonne de Galais). Below are some of the surprising original or working titles of famous novels that were changed because the author changed his or her mind or an astute editor stepped in to shape literary history. The original title of the novel is followed by the actual title.

The Last Man in Europe by George Orwell (1984)

Mistress Mary by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden)

The Mute by Carson McCuller (The Heart is a Lonely Hunter)

Nothing New in the West by Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front)

Panasonic by Don DeLillo (White Noise)

Second-Hand Lives by Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead)

Twilight by William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury)

War by Toni Morrison (Paradise)

The Year of the Rose by Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth)

The Undead by Bram Stoker (Dracula)

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: Who Are the Greatest Shakespeare Characters?
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For further reading: Brewer’s Curious Titles by Ian Crofton, Cassell (2002)
Now All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by Andre Bernard, Norton (1996)


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