What Does the Moon Symbolize?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureToday, August 21, 2017, millions of Americans traveled near and far to witness a spectacular total solar eclipse that cast the moon’s shadow as a wide swath of darkness, the path of totality, (about 100 miles wide) that swiftly swept across the nation (about 10,000 miles long), traveling at a speed of 1,243 miles per hour — more than twice the speed of sound (for comparison, the fastest jet fighter travels 1,550 mph). While we wait for the next total solar eclipse to cross the United States in April 2024, it is worth pondering the rich symbolism of the moon as it appears in literature, cinema, and art. In the context of the humanities, what does the moon symbolize?

One of the most comprehensive reference books on symbolism is A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant originally published in French in 1969 and translated into English in 1994. At over 1,100 pages, it dwarfs the well-known seminal work, A Dictionary of Symbols by Spanish poet and mythologist Juan Eduardo Cirlot, published in 1958. The entry for moon in Chevalier and Gheerbrant’s book continues for seven pages. Here are some of the key concepts that the moon symbolizes:

bad luck
death and resurrection
female deity
good fortune

the passing of time
periodic change and renewal

For further reading: The Symbolism of Storms in Literature
Do Authors Plant Symbolism in Their Work?

For further reading: A Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant

Book Titles Based on Lines from the Bible

alex atkins bookshelf booksWhether you read it or not, believe in it or not, the Bible and its influence is ubiquitous — you find it in film, art, music, language, and literature. There are many books, for example, that focus on how the Bible has directly influenced language. Each day, without even knowing it, we use words and phrases that were introduced in the Bible: dust to dust, to break bread, salt of the earth, a two-edge sword, going the extra mile, a drop in the bucket, wolves in sheep’s clothing, the blind leading the blind… You get the picture. Not only has the Bible had an impact on language, it also has influenced literature — in themes and in titles. Indeed, the Bible has inspired the title of thousands of books. Here are some notable books with titles based on lines from the Bible (reference to Bible appears in parenthesis).

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (2 Samuel 13)

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy  (Genesis 18:1)

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Genesis 4:16)

Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard (Philippians 2:12)

The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway (Genesis 13:10)

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Genesis 31:47)

Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner (Negro spiritual by Fisk Jubilee Singers based on Exodus 8:1)

Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (Job 41:1-34)

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust (Genesis 18:1)

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon 1:1)

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (Ecclesiastes 1:5)

A Time to Love and A Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque (Ecclesiastes 3:8)

The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (I Kings 2:3, Joshua 22:14)

The Wild Palms (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem) by William Faulkner (Psalms 137)

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For further reading: Brush Up Your Bible by Michael Macrone

The Sea Refreshes Our Imagination and Rejoices Our Souls

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“The sea refreshes our imagination because it does not make us think of human life; yet it rejoices the soul, because, like the soul, it is an infinite and impotent striving, a strength that is ceaselessly broken by falls, an eternal and exquisite lament. The sea thus enchants us like music, which, unlike language, never bears the traces of things, never tells us anything about human beings, but imitates the stirrings of the soul. Sweeping up with the waves of those movements, plunging back with them, the heart thus forgets its own failures and finds solace in an intimate harmony between its own sadness and the sea’s sadness, which merges the sea’s destiny with the destinies of all things.”

From “Regrets, Reveries the Color of Time” by French novelist Marcel Proust (born Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust in 1871; he died in 1922), found in The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Proust is best known for one of the longest novels ever written, In Search of Lost Time, published between 1913 and 1927. Published in seven volumes, the novel contains 3,031 pages and 1,267,069 words (9,609,000 characters). It will take the average reader (at 300 words per minute), about 45 hours and 27 minutes to read the entire novel, excluding any meal and bathroom breaks, of course.

For further reading: The Complete Short Stories of Marcel Proust translated by Joachim Neugroschel
Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time by Roger Shattuck

Elvis Presley by the Numbers

alex atkins bookshelf booksToday marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley (1935-1977). But Presley, known as the King of Rock ‘n Roll (or simply, the King), is much more than a music legend — he is a multi-generational cultural phenomenon. Although Elvis has permanently left the building, he is very much alive today — in music, in film, in art, pop culture, and tourism. Each year, more than half a million of the King’s faithful make the pilgrimage to Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, which opened to the public in 1982. And each year, hundreds of babies are named either Elvis or Presley (for example, in 2012 183 babies were named Elvis; 1,659 babies were named Presley). Bookshelf looks at the enduring influence of Elvis Presley by the numbers.

Annual visitors to Graceland: 600,000

Price of admission: $25 (adult); $68 (VIP tour)

Amount Elvis paid for Graceland in 1957: $102,500

Size of Graceland: 10,266 square feet on 13.8 acres

Value of Graceland today: $78-100 million

Average annual earnings of Elvis Presley Enterprises: $40 million

Sales price of Elvis Presley Enterprises: 85% share of company sold for $100 million in 2005

Albums sold: 134.5 million

Best-performing album: Blue Hawaii, selling over 2 million units

Units sold: more than 1 billion

Hot 100 Hits: 108

Top 40 hits: 114 (18 climbed the charts to number 1)

Charted albums: 126

Gold albums from Recording Industry Association of America: 90

Platinum albums: 52

Multiplatinum albums: 25

Encores that Elvis performed at his concerts: 0

Feature films: 31 (and 2 concert documentaries) (His favorite film was King Creole, 1958)

Years on Forbes list of top-earning dead celebrities: 7 (earning more than $565 million in past 12 years)

Official licenses for Elvis merchandise: 260

Grammy Awards: 3

Hall of Fame inductions: 3 (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Country Music Hall of Fame, Gospel Music Hall of Fame)

Amount paid for appearing on Ed Sullivan show in 1956: $50,000

People who watched the Ed Sullivan show: 54 million (almost a third of the entire U.S. population at that time)

People who attended Presley’s funeral in 1977: 80,000

Results for Elvis books on Amazon: 3,521

Book that Elvis was reading at the time of his death: The Scientific Search for the Face of Jesus by Frank Adams

Drugs found in Elvis’ body in autopsy: 10

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For further reading: https://www.usatoday.com/picture-gallery/life/music/2013/08/07/elvis-by-the-numbers/2628057/

Best Commencement Speeches: George Saunders

atkins-bookshelf-educationGeorge Saunders is an award-winning short-story author and a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University. A few years ago, Saunders delivered the convocation speech to the graduating class of 2013 at Syracuse University. Among the many honors he has received are the National Magazine Award, the O. Henry Award, The Story Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the Folio Prize. Below are excerpts from his speech, titled “Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness,” delivered on July 31, 2013:

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you)… Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them [is] ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?..

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever…

If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended…

[Since] your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things… but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

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For further reading: https://6thfloor.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/george-saunderss-advice-to-graduates/
Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders
Way More Than Luck by the editors of Chronicle Books (2015)

What Do Celebrities Collect?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaPsychologist Mark McKinley divides collectors into several camps: those that collect for pure enjoyment; those who collect for investment; those who collect to preserve the past, those who collect to expand their social circles; those who enjoy the quest (knowing that their collection will never be complete in their lifetime); those who collect for prestige or fame; those who are fulfilling a void in their self identity; and those who enjoy experimenting with arranging and re-arranging a microcosm of objects obtained from the larger world. For many collectors, it is a combination of several of these reasons. 

Given their extremely large disposable incomes, celebrities get to indulge their “inner child” with some rather conventional and rather bizarre collectibles:

Nicolas Cage: comic books
George Clooney: motorcycles
Billy Crystal: sports memorabilia
Jamie Lee Curtis: vintage photographs
Johnny Depp: rare books, insects, art deco furniture
Leonardo DiCaprio: vintage toys
Kelsey Grammer: first edition books
Tom Hanks: manual typewriters
Jay-Z: watches

Janet Jackson: pig figurines
Michael Jackson: egyptian harps, Elephant Man artifacts
Elton John: antique art and photography

Angelina Jolie: antique knives and first edition books
Nicole Kidman: rare coins
Jay Leno: cars and motorcycles
Rush Limbaugh: rare coins and Disney memorabilia
Rosie O’Donnell: McDonald toys
Penny Marshall: rare coins
Demi Moore: dolls
Brad Pitt: metal art
Elvis Presley: police badges
Debbie Reynolds: movie memorabilia
Jerry Seinfeld: Superman memorabilia
Frank Sinatra: model trains
Britney Spears: antique dolls
Rod Stewart: model trains
Kiefer Sutherland: Gibson guitars
Quentin Tarantino: pop culture board games
Alan Thicke: hockey memorabilia
John Travolta: aviation memorabilia
Andrew Lloyd Webber: pre-Raphaelite paintings

Robin Williams: toy soldiers
Reese Witherspoon: antique linen
Neil Young: model trains

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For further reading: What Celebrities Collect by Michele Karl and Robin Leach, Pelican Publishing (2006)
Time magazine, August 21, 2017 issue

Profile of a Book Lover: William Gladstone

alex atkins bookshelf booksToday, August 9, is National Book Lover’s Day. It is a day when bibliophiles rejoice. Tom Raabe, a self-c0nfessed bibliophile and author of Biblioholism: the Literary Addiction, describes the allure of the bookstore, especially on a day like today: ” The bookstore — Shangri-la, Camelot, the Seven Cities of Cibola, Nepenthe, Oceana, and Erewhon all rolled into one. Utopia and dystopia — it’s where the excesses of our biblioholism are on ready display. Oh, those happy aisles, those euphoric shelves — there’s something about them that sends a bibliopolic into delirious profligacy… Nothing touches the ecstasy of actually buying books, of getting our predaceous little hands on them for keeps. The bookstore — that’s where the bibliophilism in all of us shines.”

But some bibliophiles shine brighter than others. Take the case of William Gladstone who lived from 1892 to 1894. Not only was he an accomplished statesman — he was Prime Minister for the United Kingdom four separate times and Chancellor of the Exchequer four times — he was also in irrepressible biblioholic. Eugene Field, in The Love Affairs of a Bibliophile, recounts a memorable story of how he once went to a London bookshop to purchase a book. Gladstone happened to be shopping there as well. Field overheard the bookshop owner ask, “What books shall I send?” Gladstone gestured with a sweep of his arm and said, “Send me those!” and promptly walked out of the store. Field found the book he wanted and took it to the counter. The proprietor then informed Field that he could not buy the book because it had already been sold to Gladstone: “I haven’t a book for sale — Mr. Gladstone just bought them all!” The proprietor then explained that this was the third time that Gladstone had come into the store and bought the entire store’s inventory.

I submit to you for your consideration: William Gladstone as poster boy for National Book Lover’s Day 2017. What do you say?

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For further reading: Bibliophilism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe


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