The Most Beautiful Words in the English Language

alex atkins bookshelf wordsWilfred Funk, Jr. (1883-1965) was the son of Isaac Kaufmann Funk, founder of Funk & Wagnalls that published very popular sets of encyclopedias and dictionaries in the mid 1900s. Funk was literally a man of letters (and words): he was president of Funk & Wagnalls, founder of his own book publishing company, founder and editor of The Literary Digest, wrote poetry, wrote several books on vocabulary and etymology, and wrote the “It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power” column for Reader’s Digest. That’s a lot of writing and words — perhaps that what Lipps Inc were talking about when they asked, “Won’t you take me to Funkytown?” [An American disco song from the 1979 album Mouth to Mouth that you either love or will drive you to madness. Caution: this song can become a long-lasting earworm, so listen at your own peril. You’ve been warned!)

In 1932, to publicize the publication of one of Funk & Wagnalls new dictionaries, Funk published a list of what he considered, after a “thorough sifting of thousands of words” the ten most beautiful words (in his words, “beautiful in meaning and in the musical arrangement of their letter”) in the English language. (Incidentally, there is a word for that: euphonious — a euphonious word is a beautifully- sounding word; interestingly, euphonious is itself… euphonious.) Here is Funk’s list of the top ten most beautiful words in the English language:


But a top ten list is so restrictive. Funk was in a bit of a… well, funk. To break out of it, he subsequently published a more extensive list of the most beautiful words in the English language in a column for Reader’s Digest:


What do you consider to be the most beautiful words in the English language? Let’s talk about it, talk about it…

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Quotes Mistakenly Attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThere are some notable people from history, who were larger than life — and due to their prolific writings and speeches, over the decades have become magnets for quotations. Martin Luther King, Jr., legendary civil rights activist and recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, is one of those individuals, alongside such luminaries as Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill, and Thomas Jefferson. King’s passionate and eloquent “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered to a crowd of more than 250,000 civil rights supporters gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963, is perhaps one of the most well-known speeches in American history. It is important for several reasons: it marks the defining moment of the civil rights movement in America and it considered King’s oratory magnum opus — considered by many scholars to be one of the best speeches of the 20th century. The original typewritten speech, easily worth more than $3 million, is owned by George Raveling who was volunteering as a security guard on the day that King delivered the speech. After King waved goodbye to the audience he handed it to Raveling.

There are many wonderful quotable lines from the speech itself, such as: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.
Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” He wrote those words, and just as important, he said those very same words. But as a quotation magnet, there are a number of quotes that have been attributed to King that he never said, and most likely, never said. Scholars call these types of quotes apocryphal, thus an apocryphal quotation is purported to be true by way of repeated tellings but has never been verified by the person’s corpus or recordings and thus is more likely not be true. But of course, with the Internet, apocryphal quotes spread like wild fire. Here are some of the quotes mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
This sentence was written by Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister and Transcendalist; it is found in Ten Sermons of Religion, published in 1853.

Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.
This was written by another Martin Luther, specifically Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation.

Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.
This was written by the aforementioned Martin Luther.

Justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.
This line is from the Bible, Amos 5:24.

Peace and justice are goals for man.
This was written by another famous quote magnet, Mahatma Gandhi.

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
The first sentence was written by Jessica Dovey, a University of Pennsylvania graduate teaching English in Japan, on her Facebook page. She added the next two sentences that were written by King (from Strength to Love); however, she attributed the entire quotation to King.

Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.
(Written by a Usenet user on January 15, 2006)

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For further reading: Hemingway Didn’t Say That by Garson O’Toole,_Jr.

The Most Expensive Autograph in the World

alex atkins bookshelf triviaImagine something a person can do in less than five seconds that could be worth millions of dollars years later. If you are the right person, writing your signature on the right piece of paper or item, it is possible. It is that serendipitous combination — the more notable the person and the more rarer the item — that makes some autographs the most valuable, and hence most sought after by a philographist. As famous autograph collector, Thomas Madison noted, “Between the present and the past there exists no more intimate personal connection than an autograph. It is the living symbol of its author.” The holy grail, that is, the most elusive and most expensive autograph in the world, is Acts of Congress, a personal copy of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and the First Congress owned and signed by George Washington, the first president of the United States. In 2012, the book was sold at auction fetching $9.8 million. Here are the five most valuable autographs in the world:

1. George Washington (signature on Acts of Congress title page): $9.8 million

2. Abraham Lincoln (signature on Emancipation Proclamation): $3.7 million

3. John Lennon (signature on Double Fantasy album owned by Mark Chapman, who murdered Lennon): $525,000

4. Babe Ruth (signature on a baseball from 1927): $388,375

5. Jimi Hendrix (signature on a contract from October 15, 1965): $200,000

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For further reading:

Kindness is More Important than Wisdom

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Kindness is more important than wisdom, and the recognition of this is the beginning of wisdom.”

Theodore Isaac Rubin (born 1923), American psychiatrist and author of more than 25 books of nonfiction, including Compassion and Self-Hate: An Alternative to Despair. He is the past president of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis.

What is the Great American Novel?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureEvery writer, professes or secretly aspires to one day write the Great American Novel. But the Great American Novel, it seems, is as elusive as Ahab’s white whale or perhaps is as elusive as Gatsby’s green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. American writer Frank Norris expressed it this way: “the Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff.” [A hippogriff is a beautiful mythical creature with the body of a horse and the wings and head of an eagle.] Using today’s tech culture parlance, one would say that the Great American Novel is a unicorn. Surprisingly, this well-established phrase is not found in most printed dictionaries. So what exactly is the Great American Novel?

The phrase was coined by John William Deforest in an essay titled “The Great American Novel” published in The Nation on January 9, 1868. This date is important because it was several years after the end of the Civil War, when the young nation’s identity was still being forged. Deforest writes: “We may be confident that the Great American Poem will not be written, no matter what genius attempts it, until democracy, the idea of our day and nation and race, has agonized and conquered through centuries, and made its work secure. But the Great American Novel—the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence—the American “Newcomes” or “Miserables” will, we suppose, be possible earlier. “Is it time?” the benighted people in the earthen jars or commonplace life are asking. And with no intention of being disagreeable, but rather with sympathetic sorrow, we answer, “Wait.” At least we fear that such ought to be our answer. This task of painting the American soul within the framework of a novel has seldom been attempted, and has never been accomplished further than very partially—in the production of a few outlines.”

Deforest goes on to dismiss the work of such respected authors of that period, such as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and James Fenimore Cooper, who he considers quintessentially “American” but not serious candidates for the Great American Novel. He does believe, however, that there is a work on the horizon that such deserves such an honor: “The nearest approach to the desired phenomenon is Uncle Tom’s Cabin [by Harriet Beecher Stowe]. [There] was also a national breadth to the picture, truthful outlining of character, natural speaking, and plenty of strong feeling… It was a picture of American life, drawn with a few strong and passionate strokes, not filled in thoroughly, but still a portrait.”

Thus Deforest provides the primary definition of the Great American Novel: a masterfully written novel by an American author that captures American experiences or values or evokes the ethos of a specific time in the country’s history. In her essay, “What is the Great American Novel” for the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Kellogg provides a more eloquent definition: “The Great American Novel: A book that most perfectly imagines the kaleidoscope of our nation, its social fabric and its troubled conscience, its individual voices and strivings, our loves and losses. If some of the classic examples – Moby-DickThe Great Gatsby – are as much about failure as success, the arc of those narratives is always anchored in hope.” The secondary meaning of the Great American Novel focuses on its metaphorical use: the Great American Novel represents a literary aspiration, a literary benchmark “to be devoutly wished,” as Shakespeare would say, as opposed to an attained ideal.

Like choosing the best film of the year, choosing which novel is the Great American Novel is challenging; it is a matter for thoughtful and passionate debate among scholars, literary critics, writers, and readers. As Kellogg mentioned, two novels often come to mind: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Although particularly relevant to the period in which they were written, as great works of literature, they have endured because they continue to speak to successive generations. Below is a list of novels that are considered to be a Great American Novel:

19th Century
1826: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
1850: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
1851: Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
1852: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
1876: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
1884: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

20th Century
1925: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
1925: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
1932: Light in August by William Faulkner
[1936: Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
1936: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
1938: U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos
1939: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
1940: Native Son by Richard Wright
1951: The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
1952: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
1953: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
1955: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
1960: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
1960: Rabbit, Run by John Updike
1973: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
1975: J R by William Gaddis
1985: Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
1985: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
1987: Beloved by Toni Morrison
1996: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
1997: Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
1997: American Pastoral by Philip Roth
1997: Underworld by Don DeLillo

21st Century
2000: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
2004: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
2010: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

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How Much Food is Wasted Each Year?

alex atkins bookshelf triviaAmerica is the land of plenty, particularly when it comes to food. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American household spends $7,023 per year on food. That can be broken down into groceries ($4,015) and dining out ($3,008). Now let’s do the math. Since there are about 125.82 million households in the U.S., the total amount that the Americans spend on food is a staggering $883.6 billion per year. That’s a lot of food. In fact, it is so much food that 40% of all food produced in the U.S. is not eaten. An average of $162 billion worth of food is wasted each year — that’s right: a billion with a “B.”

Food waste is a huge problem in America. Consider these sobering statistics presented by the American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI): broken down by household, the average American family throws out about 25% of the beverages and food that they buy each year. A family of four, for example, wastes about $1,350 to $2,275 worth of food each year — which means that all the labor, water, and fuel that went into growing and shipping that food is also wasted: a loss of over $162 billion per year. To combat food waste, the AFFI is encouraging consumers to buying frozen food and frozen prepared meals, as well as freezing leftovers, meals, and ingredients.

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Living Descendants of Famous Writers

alex atkins bookshelf triviaIt fascinating to think that there are living descendants of famous writers still living among us. Understandably, some live in obscurity to avoid the prying lens of the media, but some are quite proud of their lineage. Here are a few famous relatives of famous writers. Do you know of any more?

Louis Victoria Tolstoy (born 1974), who goes by the stage name Viktoria Tolstoy, is a popular Swedish jazz singer. She is the great-great-grandaughter of legendary Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910), best known for his lengthy novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). The other great-great-grandaughter is Alexandra Tolstoy who is a socialite, providing fodder for the British tabloids. Tolstoy was married to Sophia (Sonya) Andreevna Behrs; together they had 13 children; however, only eight of them survived childhood.

Richard Melville Hall (born 1965), who goes by the stage name of Moby, is an American singer, songwriter, record producer, and DJ. He is best known for his electronica and house-music influenced work. In an interview, Moby stated that Herman Melville was his great-great-great-grand uncle. Herman Melville (1819-1891) magnum opus, Moby Dick, is considered one of the Great American Novels. Melville married Elizabeth Knapp Shaw and they had four children.

Mark Charles Dickens is the leading supporter of the Charles Dickens Museum in London. He is the great-great-grandson of Charles Dickens and is considered the head of the Dickens family of direct descendants. To date, there are more than 300 living descendants of Charles Dickens (1812-1870). In February 2014, 40 Dickens descendants gathered in Portsmouth, the city where Dickens was born, for the unveiling of a life-size bronze sculpture honoring his 202nd birthday. Several of his great great great grandchildren gathered around the bronze statue for the obligatory selfies, including Tom Dickens, Lydia Dickens, and Oliver Dickens. The youngest descendent to attend the event was Joe Robinson, who is the author’s great-great-great-great-grandson. There are several authors in the family: Monica Dickens (great-granddaughter) has writing more than 30 novels and Lucinda Dickens Hawksley (great great great granddaughter) has published several bestselling nonfiction works. Mark’s nephew, Harry Lloyd, is an actor and has appeared in Game of Thrones and Robin Hood. Charles Dickens was married to Catherine (Kate) Thomson Hogarth and had 10 children.

Michael Tolkien, a children’s book writer, is grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien(1892-1973), best known for the popular fantasy novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Mariel Hemingway is an actress and model; she is the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), legendary author of The Old Man and the Sea and The Sun Also Rises.

Christopher Merlin Vyvyan Holland is a Oscar Wilde scholar and editor of The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. He is the only grandson of Irish playwright and poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), best known for The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Anna Chancellor is an actress who plays Caroline Bingley in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She is the high-times great niece of Jane Austen (1775-1817), author of the aforementioned adaptation, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma.

Benjamin Cheever and Susan Cheever are both successful writers. They are the children of American author John Cheever (1912-1982), best known for his short stories and the four novels that make up The Wapshot Chronicle.

Canadian Dacre Stoker, author of Dracula: The Undead, is the great-grand nephew of Irish author Bram Stoker (1847-1912 ) who wrote one of the most famous gothic novels, Dracula.

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