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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Pie Day Trivia

alex atkins bookshelf triviaMarch 14 is a fascinating number for math and science geeks. First off, it is National Pi Day, in honor of the irrational number 3.14. Second, it is Albert Einstein’s birthday (3-14-1879). And third, it is the date that Stephen Hawking died (3-14-18). Put why should pi, the ubiquitous mathematical constant, get all the attention? Princeton University, where Einstein once taught, celebrates pi day with an Einstein look-alike contest (hashtag crazy hair), pie tossing, pie eating, and other pie-related tomfoolery. Now that’s the spirit, mates! To honor the humble pie, Bookshelf presents fascinating, fun — and delicious — pie trivia:

In 1959 rock-and-roll legend Buddy Holly, along with musicians Ritchie Valens and Jiles Richardson (known as “The Big Bopper”), died in an airplane accident. The plane was named “American Pie.” The tragedy inspired Don McLean’s famous song “American Pie” released in 1971. You know the one: “The day that music died / So bye-bye, Miss America Pie / Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry…” In an interview, McLean noted “By the time he was 22 years old, [Holly] had recorded some 50 tracks, most of which he had written himself … in my view and the view of many others, [all absolute hits] … Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the template for all the rock bands that followed.”

In his 38 plays, Shakespeare killed off 74 characters. 30 of them were stabbed to death, 4 were poisoned, 4 were beheaded, and 2 were baked into a pie. In Titus Andronicus, the protagonist exacts revenge on Queen Tamora and her evil family by baking her sons in a pie and serving it to her. Bon appétit! Pass the pepper…

Speaking of meat pies, British actor and producer Peter Shaw wrote The Tale of Sweeney Todd in the late 1990s that was adapted into a screenplay of the same name by Peter Buckman in 1998. It tells the story of an evil barber that murders his clients to sell the victims’ jewelry and gives the corpses to his mistress, Mrs. Lovett, who makes them into meat pies to sell to her clients. Move over Marie Calendar…

Each year, grocery stores in America sell more than 186 million pies, generating more than $700 million

America’s favorite pie: apple pie (19%), pumpkin (13%), pecan (12%), banana cream (10%), and cherry (9%)

Favorite dessert to bring to a dinner party: Top three — pie (29%), cake (17%), and cookies (15%)

Family member that makes the best pie: mom (27%), store bought pie (26%), and grandma (17%)

Number of Americans that identify Apple pie as their favorite: 36 million

Number of men (age 35-54) that have eaten last slice of pie and denied it: 6 million

Percentage of Americans who have eaten an entire pie by themselves: 20%

Americans who believe that a slice of pie represents one of the “simple pleasures in life”: 90%

Americans who have passed off a store-bought pie as homemade: 7%

Americans who have eaten pie in bed: 33%

When is a pie not a pie? Boston Cream Pie is a cake, not a pie.

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For further reading:

The Wisdom of Stephen Hawking

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsOn March 14, 2018, the world lost one of its most brilliant scientific minds in modern history — Stephen Hawking. Coincidentally, another brilliant physicist, also considered a genius, died that same day: Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879). And if that coincidence is not impressive enough, consider this: Hawking was born on January 8, 1942, the day that marked the 300th anniversary of the death of yet another scientific genius — Galileo Galilei (1564-1642).

Despite being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of 21, and being told he only had about two years to live, Hawking lived an extremely productive life. He did not allow his disability to cripple his intellectual life; he once wrote: “By losing the finer dexterity of my hands, I was forced to travel through the universe in my mind and try to visualize the ways in which it worked.” Thanks to these fantastic cerebral journeys, Hawkings made many significant contributions to the study of black holes, the Big Bang, general relativity, quantum physics, and cosmology, to name just a few. At the University of Cambridge, Hawking held the same revered position for 30 years that Sir Isaac Newton once held: Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Hawking wrote seven books and co-authored five books. His most well-known work, A Brief History of Time (1992), sold more than 9 million copies and made the British Sunday Times best-seller list for more than 4.5 years. In honor of his life, Bookshelf presents some of his most famous insights:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.

The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired.

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.

We are all different, but we share the same human spirit. Perhaps it’s human nature that we adapt and survive.

However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Where there’s life, there’s hope.

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.

It surprises me how disinterested we are today about things like physics, space, the universe and philosophy of our existence, our purpose, our final destination. Its a crazy world out there. Be curious.

I am just a child who has never grown up. I still keep asking these “how” and “why” questions. Occasionally, I find an answer.

[Hawking’s advice to his children] One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.

Keeping an active mind has been vital to my survival, as has been maintaining a sense of humor.

If we find the answer to that (why the universe exists), it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason. For then we would know the mind of God.

We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.

Government works best under the glare of public scrutiny. Absent such scrutiny, abuses occur.

Aggression, humanity’s greatest vice, will destroy civilization.

We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet.

It is a waste of time to be angry about my disability. One has to get on with life and I haven’t done badly. People won’t have time for you if you are always angry or complaining.

Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.

We now know that our galaxy is only one of some hundred thousand million that can be seen using modern telescopes, each galaxy itself containing some hundred thousand million stars.

It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.

Some people would claim that things like love, joy and beauty belong to a different category from science and can’t be described in scientific terms, but I think they can now be explained by the theory of evolution.

If a star were a grain of salt, you could fit all the stars visible to the naked eye on a teaspoon, but all the stars in the universe would fill a ball more than eight miles wide.

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For further reading: A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking


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.

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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

Doublets: Overcoming Adversity

atkins bookshelf quotationsMan performs and engenders so much more than he can or should have to bear. That’s how he finds that he can bear anything.

William Faulkner (1897-1962), American writer best known for his novels that take place in the fictional Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. Faulkner’s work won both the Nobel Prize in Literature (1949) and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1962). His acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize is a must-read for any serious writer.

That which we are, we are; / One equal temper of heroic hearts, / Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. 

From the poem “Ulysses by British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) who was Poet Laureate during most of Queen Victoria’s reign. His best known poems include “Break, Break, Break” and “Crossing the Bar.”

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