One Bookstore Finds the Secret to Succeeding in the Amazon Age

Frank Reiss’s business spent 10 years on the edge of collapse.

During the late 1990s and 2000s, his independent bookstore—like so many of its peers—faced intense pressure from Amazon and big-box chains. At his lowest point, Mr. Reiss was a quarter of a million dollars in debt, with wavering hope that he could survive the digital age.

Now Atlanta-based A Cappella Books has become a success story. Its sales have doubled from a decade ago and are now closing in on $1 million. Profit margins have risen, too, as have many of its peers’.

What happened?

First, Mr. Reiss added a whole other side to his operation, author events, which proved lucrative and bolstered his storefront operation. And he focused his events and his bookstore selections to reflect his interests—a personal touch that resonates with a lot of customers these days.

“I think the facelessness of e-commerce has stirred in enough people…a sense of nostalgia for real stores, buying real products from real people having conversations,” Mr. Reiss says.

The story of how Mr. Reiss turned his business around says much about the surprising revival of the independent-bookstore industry, which was pretty much left for dead a short time ago. In part, the stores have been helped by the fall of large chains—their prime nemesis before the advent of Amazon and other online sellers. But independent bookstores have also had to leverage that opportunity to the fullest, and more often than not, that has meant rethinking the whole way they make money.

The big turnaround

The numbers tell a stark story. Experts who track the industry say that the mid-1990s saw a huge erosion of privately owned bookstores. But now the American Booksellers Association, an industry trade group, says that those independent stores are making a strong comeback, with the number of locations rising to 2,470 currently from 1,651 in 2009, the first year the ABA started tracking the number.

Oren Teicher, chief executive of the association, credits the boom to several factors, including cheaper back-office technology; the use of social media for promotion; and more favorable distribution terms from publishers.

Customers themselves have also changed. More people want to shop local, and they want shops with personality.

“Book curation is a critical part of the story for indie booksellers that are not just surviving, but are growing,” says Ryan L. Raffaelli, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, who studies industries in transition, with a focus on bookstores in recent years. Customers seem to be willing to pay a higher price, he says, for books that have been “carefully selected from the mass of options.”

Most successful longtime bookstores have their own distinctive flavor. The King’s English in Salt Lake City, in business since 1977, specializes in literary fiction. R.J. Julia in Madison, Conn., 30 years in business, offers a subscription service that sends books based on readers’ personal preferences. Chartwell Booksellers in New York City specializes in books about Winston Churchill.

In Mr. Reiss’s case, the selling point has evolved into speakers and a book selection that generally represent his liberal political slant, distinctive musical interests, such as protest and folk music, and a fresh take on Southern history.

Harry Belafonte and former A Cappella Books bookseller Chantal James. PHOTO: CHRIS BUXBAUM

It’s a combination that has delivered rising sales and earnings for most of the past seven years, he says. In 2018, he recorded $830,000 in sales, and earnings of $37,000 before tax, for a margin of 4.4%. In his best year, 2017, he posted sales of $880,000, profits of $74,000, and margins of 8.5%.

Mr. Reiss’s biggest expenses are the cost of goods sold—that is, the books—which eat up half his sales. Then there are salaries for the store’s five full-time employees—including Mr. Reiss himself—which take up 25%. Rent, licenses and other expenses account for the rest.

Mr. Reiss expects sales to climb in 2019, “with that $1 million mark something that I’m always keeping my eye on,” he says.

Still, Mr. Reiss emphasizes that even though book selling is better than it was a decade ago, it remains a highly unpredictable business—and his trade isn’t a lucrative one. This is “not a business to get into to make money, at least in the traditional way,” he says.

Sales, however, aren’t the only measure of his success. There’s also influence. “For its size and scope as a new and used bookstore with a proven ability to host celebrity artists, musicians and politicians, A Cappella is one of the most successful indie bookstores in America today,” says Linda-Marie Barrett, assistant executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.

A changing field

Mr. Reiss founded A Cappella Books in 1989, in Atlanta’s bohemian neighborhood of Little Five Points. It got its name from Mr. Reiss’s interest in music—he was a onetime aspiring musician himself—and because he figured he would have to work without accompaniment.

The place started as an antiquarian bookstore, its shelves crammed with used and rare books. Mr. Reiss picked up inventory from retiring philosophy professors or widows of Civil War buffs, often for pennies, then turned them around for $40 or $50. Some especially rare titles went for thousands of dollars. The store quickly became successful, and Mr. Reiss took on an employee and moved to a new, larger location.

A Cappella Books evolved into a gathering place for intellectuals, musicians, writers and artists, earning the store cachet.

But the “cool” factor wasn’t enough to overcome the tsunami that hit book selling in the 1990s. At first, Mr. Reiss didn’t worry. He was selling something different than the big guys. But by 2000, he says, the store was struggling. With rare titles easy to find online, it was tough to get even $5 for books that Mr. Reiss had once sold for as much as $50.

In 2005, he moved to a new spot, hoping to give the store a refresh, and experimented with running a dessert shop next door. Now the slim profits went to paying down debts incurred on a renovation, and to prop up the side business—which failed.

Then he tried adding new books to the mix to attract people who might otherwise buy from big operators. But in contrast to carefully selected rare books, which had enjoyed wide profit margins and could be purchased in manageable quantities, new books had to be bought in bulk, based on what sales reps pushed.

Mr. Reiss bought the new titles from publishers on credit, at up to 46% off the cover price. He then sold the books at 20% off the cover price, hoping to move enough to cover forthcoming payments. What didn’t sell had to be returned—a job that was both costly and labor-intensive. Margins shrank to almost nothing.

What’s more, the store underwent an identity crisis as new, mainstream titles began crowding out titles reflecting Mr. Reiss’s tastes.

Sales held steady in the high $200,000s—much of it from the lower-margin new books—which covered Mr. Reiss’s costs but didn’t afford much breathing room. He had to keep staff lean, and he cut his salary below $30,000. He and his wife, a government attorney, increasingly relied on her salary to support themselves and their two daughters. Even in more profitable years, Mr. Reiss says, his salary has never exceeded $50,000.

Eventually, Mr. Reiss went to friends and family, who agreed to lend him money at low interest, which helped save him from defaulting.

New ventures

Then Mr. Reiss got advice from his dad, who also owned a bookstore. Author events, his father told him, could be the answer.

Mr. Reiss gave it a shot. The events were slow at first, and not lucrative. Then, in 2005, Mr. Reiss heard that Al Franken would embark on a tour for “The Truth (With Jokes).” Mr. Reiss begged Sen. Franken’s producer to include Atlanta on his tour; he got a “yes.” (Sen. Franken says he doesn’t specifically remember the conversation with Mr. Reiss but recalls that he did want to go to Atlanta.)

Musician and songwriter Jimmy Webb and A Cappella Books bookseller Chris Buxbaum.PHOTO: FRANK REISS

Mr. Reiss asked the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum to host a talk and signing at no cost, and the venue agreed. He then rented the 750-seat Variety Playhouse for about $1,500 for another event: Sen. Franken was doing his radio show on the road, and listeners could attend.

“I tried to act like I knew what I was doing,” Mr. Reiss recalls. “But this was all uncharted territory for me.”

The venues were packed—and Mr. Reiss was there with plenty of books to sell to attendees. He sold them at full retail price, and kept all the proceeds.

Mr. Reiss figures that between the signing and radio show, he sold 500 books for full retail price—$25.95 each—clearing about $13,000 in sales in one day and one night. That equaled almost half of his revenue for an average month.

Other events and off-site book sales followed. Mr. Reiss sold books at comedy clubs, Atlanta City Hall, museums, libraries, churches and synagogues. His growing cachet reacquainted him with author-customers from the past seeking promotion. And it attracted ever more prominent authors, among them Pat Conroy and Malcolm Gladwell.

Although sales at the bookstore stagnated, sales at book signings and events at other venues boomed. He continued to purchase books for events at the usual 46% discount to the cover price and then sell them at full cover price. To keep as much of that money as possible, Mr. Reiss hosts nearly all of his 200 or so annual events at free venues, and never pays speakers nor covers their expenses.

For most of those events, admission is free, but for some—up to 15 each year—Mr. Reiss sells tickets. In free venues, the ticket price is the cover price of the book plus tax, and a copy is included. In the rare cases when a venue is rented, as with a Bernie Sanders event, ticket buyers get a copy of the book, but the price is higher than the cover price.

He keeps about 75% of the total proceeds for most events, after paying for website listings, setting up online ticket-sales programs and paying his staff to promote the event on social media.

In 2012, Mr. Reiss moved to a smaller space, which was all he figured he needed as events got more popular. During the first year there, he recorded his highest sales volume up to that point. Today, Mr. Reiss figures book sales through events account for up to half of A Cappella’s overall sales, with the rest generated by the bookstore operation.

His older books remain as distinctive as ever, Mr. Reiss says, but the new ones are curated more subtly; he chooses a broader selection of new titles than he used to, but avoids books that don’t interest him and picks up more of those that do.

These days, most of the books that A Cappella sells are new. Although rare books occasionally go for big money—signed first editions of “Gone With the Wind,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and William Faulkner’s “The Town,” to name a few, each sold for more than $10,000 in recent years. But Mr. Reiss says, in most cases, these kinds of titles don’t hold their value in the internet economy.

On the other hand, he feels that he is now in a position to charge full cover price, without the old practice of discounting. And that’s a sign of health for the industry, he says.

“Like many indie bookstores, we’ve been lucky to see a genuine rebound of interest among people,” he says. “So now I can sell books for full retail even without having the author signing and visiting, because once again, people are reminding themselves that they really do like real bookstores, and they will pay what it costs to keep us in business.”

Ms. Kitchens is a writer in Connecticut. Email

Ketamine offers lifeline for people with severe depression, suicidal thoughts

– Read full CNN article here –

Mount Horeb, Wisconsin (CNN)A few months ago, Alan Ferguson decided he was ready to die — for the third time. In 2014, he attempted suicide twice, and the persistent thoughts of “I need to be dead” were echoing in his brain once again.

Now 54 years old, Ferguson was diagnosed with clinical depression when he was 18. Since then, he estimates, he’s been prescribed more than a dozen medications — SSRIs, SNRIs, tricyclic antidepressants — all to little or no avail.
“I never got to the point that I thought, ‘OK, I’m feeling good,’ ” he said. “It was always, ‘OK, this is tolerable.’ But yet those thoughts [of wanting to die] were still there.”

In early May, Ferguson abruptly stopped taking all of his medications, quit his job and gave away his dog, Zeke. That evening, he called his sister, Linda.
“It was a very good conversation,” he said. “Linda and I disagree on a lot of stuff, and that night I avoided the hot-button topics because I did not want her to have bad memories or bad thoughts of what I thought was going to end up being our last conversation.”
As luck or fate or professional intuition would have it, on a prescheduled call the very next day, Ferguson’s psychiatrist offered to refer him to a ketamine clinic in Milwaukee, about an hour and a half from his home.
Ketamine is a powerful medication used in hospitals primarily as an anesthetic, but recent scientific studies have shown significant promise with treatment-resistant depression and suicidal ideation.
Ketamine is also used recreationally, and illegally, as a club drug known as “Special K.” It generates an intense high and dissociative effects.
“I knew of the drug from having been a police officer, so I knew of its street use — illicit use — but I’m a pretty open-minded person too, and after all the traditional medications I’ve been on with no success, I thought, ‘Well, maybe they’re on to something here with this,’ ” Ferguson said. “I wasn’t worried about trying something I had never tried before. I was worried about trying something else that wasn’t going to work.”

A last hope

Ferguson put off his plans to end his life for another week and made his way to Ketamine Milwaukee. The clinic operates once a week, on Fridays, in a space subleased from a weight-loss clinic in a nondescript strip mall just outside the city.
Party drug ketamine closer to approval for depression
Party drug ketamine closer to approval for depression
Dr. Kevin Kane, a practicing anesthesiologist, is Ketamine Milwaukee’s medical director. Referring to the fact that there haven’t been any new classes of drugs developed to treat depression in decades, Kane said that using ketamine to successfully treat the disorder’s most stubborn cases might just be “the biggest breakthrough in mental health in the last 50 years.” He estimates that it is effective for 70% of patients with treatment-resistant depression.

“It’s indicated right now for … somebody who has tried and failed at least two medications, but that’s really not who we’re seeing,” Kane said. Instead, the patients who seek his care have tried more medications than they can count. Some of them have been depressed for as long as they can remember.
“The people we’re seeing aren’t walking off the street because [they’re] feeling a little down,” he said. “They’ve been struggling without relief for a long time.”

The ketamine is administered intravenously, and relief can come quickly — in just a matter of hours.
Ferguson said he woke up the next morning anxiously anticipating his pervasive “I need to be dead” thoughts. But there were none. Mid-morning: still none. Afternoon: none. Evening: none.

“No negative thoughts!” he recalled. “My problems still existed … but things were different. My most faithful, lifelong companion was gone!”
Ferguson doesn’t like to use what he calls the “m-word”: miracle. But he will refer to the way in which ketamine worked for him a medical marvel.
Whatever you call it, the treatment doesn’t come cheap. Infusions at Ketamine Milwaukee cost $495 each, and Kane typically recommends an initial series of five to six infusions, after which patients generally return every four to six weeks for booster infusions.

Because treating depression with ketamine is an “off-label” use of the drug, it is not covered by health insurance, even when it is recommended by a doctor. Ferguson was able to scrape together enough cash for his first infusion. A good friend gave him the money for his second. And his church rallied around him and paid for his third treatment. But the results, he will tell you, are priceless.

The efficacy of Ferguson’s treatment is evident in a mood chart provided to CNN by Kane, with his patient’s permission. The black lines indicate Ferguson’s ketamine infusion dates, and the red dots are his scores on the PHQ-9 (a standardized depression questionnaire). On May 25, the day of his first infusion, Ferguson’s depression was rated “severe.” By his second infusion on June 1, it had improved to “moderate.” And by his third infusion on June 8, for the first time in his adult life, Ferguson’s depression rating measured “none.”

No more suicidal thoughts

Because of how quickly and how well ketamine works in some patients, some doctors have referred to it as a “save shot” for people who are suicidal.
“The ketamine may be a way to improve their mood and stop their suicidal thinking until the other antidepressants — the more standard antidepressants — have the six-week time window to work,” Kane said. “Ketamine may be just the thing that gets someone through that window until other medications get the chance to kick in.
“Sometimes, when you get so depressed that you can barely get out of bed, it’s hard to do the things that your therapist tells you to do to try and help yourself,” he said. “My hope is … that it gives people that lift in mood that allows them to start doing the other things that they know they can do to help themselves.”
A rat neuron before, top, and after ketamine treatment. The increased number of orange nodes are restored connections in the rat's brain.
A rat neuron before, top, and after ketamine treatment. The increased number of orange nodes are restored connections in the rat’s brain.
Kane explained that ketamine works in depressed patients by growing synapses in areas of the brain that have atrophied, namely the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. “If you think of it like a tree that loses its leaves in wintertime, ketamine helps grow those leaves back,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to grow an entire new branch or an entire new tree. It just has to sprout new leaves.”

Moreover, the same dissociative properties that made ketamine a popular party drug are what makes the medication so effective in treating severe depression.
“Sometimes, that can be a very powerful thing, that dissociation,” Kane said. “While you’re dissociating from your body, you may be dissociating [from] your mind as well. And, you may be able to see your problems and your issues that have really been consuming you as, ‘Yes, they’re still here, but now they’re over there. They’re in a little ball in the corner, and they don’t have the power over me anymore.’
“Sometimes, people can have very profound thoughts along those lines and realizations that they can take back to their therapy session, and [it] can be a really wonderful stepping stone for them to help maintain their relief.”

Dr. Gerard Sanacora, a psychiatry professor at the Yale School of Medicine, said little to no doubt remains about the rapid, robust anti-suicidal effect of ketamine. “I think the bigger question is: How do you maintain this? And how do you decide who is the best patient to receive this?”

Clinical studies have established that immediate side effects of ketamine can include increased heart rate and blood pressure. But Sanacora said further research is needed to determine the long-term cognitive impacts of ketamine treatment, as well as to develop standard dosing guidelines.
Sanacora, who is a co-author of “A Consensus Statement on the Use of Ketamine in the Treatment of Mood Disorders,” published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry, said that “for the majority of people — not everybody — symptoms do tend to return after some period of time.”

At least as of now, more than two months since beginning ketamine therapy, Ferguson said he hasn’t had a single thought of taking his own life.
“It really is remarkable for me to be able to wake up and not be sorry I woke up in the morning,” he said. Still, Ferguson is keenly aware that the drug is not a miracle cure, and he will require ongoing care for the rest of his life.
After receiving a ketamine infusion in June, Ferguson thanked Kane not just for saving his life but for giving him a life he never knew was possible.

Why ‘getting lost in a book’ is so good for you, according to science

– Read original article here –

“Transportation” — or the act of losing yourself in a book — makes you more empathetic, more creative and (hello!) it’s an escape.

Whether you’re the reader who rips through a new book each week or the one still slogging through that bestseller your friend recommended months ago, psychologists (and their research) say your time is being well spent.

And if it’s been a while since your last date with a good book, the experts have a few reasons that might convince you to give it another go.

“One of the benefits to reading fiction is simply that it provides enjoyment and pleasure,” Melanie Green, PhD, associate professor in the department of communication at University at Buffalo, tells NBC News BETTER. “It can provide an escape from boredom or stress.”

Plus, reading has been shown to help us better understand and interact with other people, keep our brains sharp, expand our world views and grow as individuals, Green says. “Stories allow us to feel connected with others and part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Green researches the idea of “transportation” — or what makes it possible to get “lost in a book.” She says it’s more likely to happen if you’re reading a high-quality text, but “quality” in this case is subjective and something that gets determined by you. For some it’s a quick-moving plot that’s critical, while for others engaging characters or a poetic writing style is most important if you want to get lost in the storyline. And some people are just more interested in one type of story (romance, for instance) versus another (thriller), she adds.

Regardless of the specific volumes that suck you in the most, here are just some of the things that can happen when you get lost in a novel.

Stories about other people teach us to be the types of people we want to be

Reading makes us think and feel in new and different ways, explains Keith Oatley, PhD, professor emeritus in the department of applied psychology and human development at University of Toronto. “You give up some of your own habits and thoughts, and you take on your own idea of being a different person in circumstances that you might otherwise never had been in.”

Back in 2009, Oatley and his colleagues found that after reading one of two different versions of the same story — one an original piece of fiction and the other a retelling of the same story written in a non-fiction style — participants who read fiction changed in their personality traits more than those who read the non-fiction version of the story, and reported feeling higher levels of emotions.

Objectively, Oatley and his colleagues haven’t measured whether these changes might be labeled as “good” or “positive,” but he says to think about it in terms of personal growth akin to how we want kids to grow and develop in their own ways (not because society is telling them to be one person or another).

“It is very important in the social world to understand others, to understand ourselves, and not just get stuck,” he says.

Reading helps provide that sense of belonging that all humans need

Reading can give us a sense of belongingness that we all instinctively want as human beings, according to Green.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo showed in an experiment that reading actually satisfies that need for human connection because it can mimic what we feel during real social interactions. A group of 140 undergraduate students were asked to read either “Twilight” or “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for a half-hour. Afterward the students reported (psychologically-speaking) becoming part of the characters’ worlds during that time and having some of the same feelings of satisfaction and happiness that we get from real-world social interactions.

“Social connection is a strong, human need,” the study’s author Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at UB, said in a press release shortly after the research was published. “Anytime we feel connected to others, we feel good in general and feel good about our lives.”

It bolsters all sorts of social skills

Reading fiction also helps us better understand, connect with and interact with others in the real world (after we put that book down).

“We get to enter the minds of these other people. And in doing that we understand other people better,” Oatley says. Research from he and his colleagues showed that people who reported reading the most fiction scored higher on both empathy tests and social ability tests.

Research shows that people who reported reading the most fiction scored higher on both empathy tests and social ability tests.

If you can identify with a character in some way, you actually get to lead a different life (temporarily and, of course, in a limited way), says Oatley. Multiple studies have replicated these findings, Oatley says. And data suggests the same area of the brain actually gets fired up when people read and comprehend fictional stories, as gets activated when we’re in the process of understanding other people.

Think of learning how to fly an airplane by using a flight simulator in addition to flying an actual plane. You get to encounter a lot of different scenarios where you’re completely safe, but you can learn a lot about what to do in an emergency, unusual weather conditions, and more. “Fiction is the mind’s flight simulator,” Oatley says.

And importantly, the research shows it’s reading fiction that improves empathy and not the other way around, Oatley adds. (It isn’t that people who are empathetic happen to prefer to read more.)

Reading is good for our brains and may even help us live longer

We’ve all heard from countless grade-school teachers that reading improves our vocabulary. But neuroscience research shows it’s good for other cognitive skills, too, by stimulating the neural networks in the brain that improve our social cognition and conceptual processing of abstract content. And evidence suggests that may have measurable benefits in terms of health.

“Reading, by engaging the brain, may keep the brain active enough to prevent cognitive decline that is associated with a variety of diseases associated with earlier mortality,” explains Avni Bavishi, an MD candidate at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University.

A 2013 study found that people who reported reading and doing other similarly cognitively stimulating activities throughout their lives had less cognitive decline compared with people who didn’t read or engage in other such stimulating activities as much. And a subsequent study by Bavishi and colleagues showed that people who report reading more actually live longer on average compared with individuals who didn’t report reading.

Getting lost in a good book provides the good kind of escape

And finally, if you need a break from the daily grind or everyday stressors, reading can take your mind away from what’s worrying you — in a good way — by letting you temporarily escape, Green says. “People who are absorbed in a story world aren’t ruminating on their own personal concerns.”

Studies show that several types of media, from books to TV shows to music, can definitely help with mood management.

Of course, ignoring a problem in the real world isn’t the answer, but spending too much time thinking about things that are out of your control (like current events, a pending job offer or family squabbles) isn’t good either, Green says. So the next time you’re feeling anxious or stressed, use it as an excuse to dust off the novel on your bedside table.

Out of the Darkness Ann Arbor Walk

“When you walk in the Out of the Darkness Walks, you join the effort with hundreds of thousands of people to raise awareness and funds that allow the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to invest in new research, create educational programs, advocate for public policy, and support survivors of suicide loss.”

Event Details…

Family and friends of Ben Price may join team Blackbird Ann Arbor to walk in Ben’s memory.

Thank you!

50 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences In Literature

1. “At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great”
—Willa Cather, My Antonia

2. “In our village, folks say God crumbles up the old moon into stars.”
—Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

3. “She wasn’t doing a thing that I could see, except standing there leaning on the balcony railing, holding the universe together.” —J. D. Salinger, “A Girl I Knew”

4. “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart; I am, I am, I am.”
—Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

6. “Beauty is an enormous, unmerited gift given randomly, stupidly.”
—Khaled Hosseini, And the Mountains Echoed

7. “Sometimes I can feel my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.”
—Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

8. “What are men to rocks and mountains?”
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

10. “‘Dear God,’ she prayed, ‘let me be something every minute of every hour of my life.’”
—Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

11. “The curves of your lips rewrite history.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

12. “A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

14. “As Estha stirred the thick jam he thought Two Thoughts and the Two Thoughts he thought were these: a) Anything can happen to anyone. and b) It is best to be prepared.”
—Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

15. “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.” —W. H. Auden, “The More Loving One”

16. “And now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
—John Steinbeck, East of Eden

18. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet

19. “America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.” —Allen Ginsburg, “America”

20. “It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.”
—W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage

22. “At the still point, there the dance is.” —T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”

23. “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”
—Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

24. “In spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.”
—Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank

26. “The pieces I am, she gather them and gave them back to me in all the right order.”
—Toni Morrison, Beloved

27. “How wild it was, to let it be.”
—Cheryl Strayed, Wild

28. “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” —T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

30. “She was lost in her longing to understand.”
—Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

31. “She was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world.” —Kate Chopin, “The Awakening”

32. “We cross our bridges as we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and the presumption that once our eyes watered.”
—Tom Stoppard, Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead

34. “The half life of love is forever.”
—Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her

35. “I sing myself and celebrate myself.”
—Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

36. “There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights, the light of all lights.”
—Bram Stroker, Dracula

37. “Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it yet.”
—L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

38. “I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” —Raymond Carver, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

39. “I would always rather be happy than dignified.”
—Charlotte Brontë , Jane Eyre

41. “I have spread my dreams under your feet; / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” —W. B. Yeats, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”

42. “It frightened him to think what must have gone to the making of her eyes.”
—Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

43. “For poems are like rainbows; they escape you quickly.”
—Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

45. “I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded; not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.”
—Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

46. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

47. “Journeys end in lovers meeting.”
—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

49. “It does not do well to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.”
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

50. “One must be careful of books, and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.”
—Cassandra Clare, The Infernal Devices

List courtesy

Speak of me

Ah yes, all lies, God and man, nature and the light of day, the heart’s outpourings and the means of understanding, all invented, basely, by me alone, with the help of no one, since there is no one, to put off the hour when I must speak of me.

— Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable

My lesson

Under the skies, on the roads, in the towns, in the woods, in the hills, in the plains, by the shores, on the seas, behind my mannikins, I was not always sad, I wasted time, abjured my rights, suffered for nothing, forgot my lesson. Then a little hell after my own heart, not too cruel, with a few nice damned to foist my groans on, something sighing off and on and the distant gleams of pity’s fires biding their hour to promote us to ashes.

— Samuel Beckett, The Unnamable


Imagine you’ve gone to a party where you know very few people there, and then on your way home afterwards you suddenly realize that you just spent the whole party so concerned about whether the people there seemed to like you or not that you now have absolutely no idea whether you liked any of them or not. Anybody who’s had that sort of experience knows what a totally lethal kind of attitude this is to bring to a party. (Plus of course it almost always turns out that the people at the party actually didn’t like you, for the simple reason that you seemed so inbent and self-conscious the whole time that they got the creepy subliminal feeling that you were using the party merely as some sort of stage to perform on and that you barely even noticed them and that you’d probably left without any idea whether you even liked them or not, which hurts their feelings and causes them to dislike you (they are, after all, only human, and they have the same insecurities about being liked as you do).)

— David Foster Wallace, “Octet”

Enter Death

We know nothing of this going.
It excludes us. Faced with death,
what cause have we to respond
with the fear and grief or even hatred

that twist the features to a mask of tragedy?
On this side of death we play roles.
So long as we seek to please the audience,
death, who needs no approval, plays us.

When you died, there broke across the stage,
through the gash your leaving made,
a shaft of reality: green of real green,
real sunlight, real trees.

Still we keep acting: fearful and solemn,
reciting our script, taking on gestures.
But you, who have been withdrawn from us,
subtracted from our very being,

now and again you overcome us,
showing us the reality we glimpsed,
so that for a while, jolted back, we are life
with no thought of applause.

— Rilke, New Poems

Not really thinking

By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

– George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Write for the gladiators

Three in the morning. I realize this second, then this one, then the next: I draw up the balance sheet for each minute. And why all this? Because I was born. It is a special type of sleeplessness that produces the indictment of birth.


No one has lived so close to his skeleton as i have lived to mine: from which results an endless dialogue and certain truths which I manage neither to accept nor to reject.


I forgive X everything because of his obsolete smile.


It is easier to get on with vices than with virtues. The vices, accommodating by nature, help each other, are full of mutual indulgence, whereas the jealous virtues combat and annihilate each other, showing in everything their incompatibility and their intolerance.


He who hates himself is not humble.


In certain men, everything, absolutely everything, derives from physiology: their body is their mind, their mind is their body.


Time, fertile in resources, more inventive and more charitable then we think, possesses a remarkable capacity to help us out, to afford us at any hour of the day some new humiliation.


I have always sought out landscapes that preceded God. Whence my weakness for Chaos.


I have decided not to oppose anyone ever again, since I have noticed that I always end by resembling my latest enemy.


For a long while I have lived with the notion that I was the most normal being that ever existed. This notion gave me the taste, even the passion for being unproductive: what was the use of being prized in a world inhabited by madmen, a world mired in mania and stupidity? For whom was one to bother, and to what end? It remains to be seen if I have quite freed myself from this certitude, salvation in the absolute, ruin in the immediate.


Write books only if you are going to say in them the things you would never dare confide to anyone.


We say: he has no talent, only tone. But tone is precisely what cannot be invented — we’re born with it. Tone is an inherited grace, the privilege some of us have of making our organic pulsations felt — tone is more than talent, it is its essence.


The same feeling of not belonging, of futility, wherever I go: I pretend interest in what matters nothing to me, I bestir myself mechanically or out of charity, without ever being caught up, without ever being somewhere. What attracts me is somewhere else, and I don’t know what that elsewhere is.


My vision of the future is so exact that if I had children, I should strangle them here and now.


In a metropolis as in a hamlet, what we still love best is to watch the fall of one of our kind.


A disease is ours only from the moment we are told its name, the moment when the rope is put around our neck. . . .


The ideal being? An angel ravaged by humor.


Indispensable condition for spiritual fulfillment: to have always placed the wrong bet.


We have convictions only if we have studied nothing thoroughly.


I do nothing, granted. But I see the hours pass — which is better than trying to fill them.


No need to elaborate works – merely say something that can be murmured in the ear of a drunkard or a dying man.


There is a god at the outset, if not at the end, of every joy.


True contact between beings is established only by mute presence, by apparent non-communication, by that mysterious and wordless exchange which resembles inward prayer.


In the deepest part of yourself, aspire to be as dispossessed, as lamentable as God.


What I know at sixty, I knew as well at twenty. Forty years of a long, a superfluous, labor of verification.


Even in childhood I watched the hours flow, independent of any reference, any action, any event, the disjunction of time from what was not itself, its autonomous existence, its special status, its empire, its tyranny. I remember clearly that afternoon when, for the first time, confronting the empty universe, I was no more than a passage of moments reluctant to go on playing their proper parts. Time was coming unstuck from being — at my expense.


If death had only negative aspects, dying would be an unmanageable action.


Everything exists; nothing exists. Either formula affords a like serenity. The man of anxiety, to his misfortune, remains between them, trembling and perplexed, forever at the mercy of a nuance, incapable of gaining a foothold in the security of being or in the absence of being.


“In this our life” — to be in life: suddenly I am struck by the strangeness of such an expression, as if it applied to no one.


Whenever I flag and feel sorry for my brain, I am carried away by an irresistible desire to proclaim. That is the moment I realize the paltry depths out of which rise reformers, prophets, and saviors.


As the years pass, the number of those we can communicate with diminishes. When there is no longer anyone to talk to, at last we will be as we were before stooping to a name.


Some have misfortunes; others, obsessions. Which are worse off?


Thought is never innocent, for it is pitiless, it is aggressive, it helps us burst our bonds. Were we to suppress what is evil and even demonic in thought, we should have to renounce the very concept of deliverance.


It is not my beginnings, it is the beginning that matters to me. If I bump into my birth, into a minor obsession, it is because I cannot grapple with the first moment of time. Every individual discomfort leads back, ultimately, to a cosmogonic discomfort, each of our sensation, by which Being crept out of somewhere. . . .


There was a time when time did not yet exist. . . . The rejection of birth is nothing but the nostalgia for this time before time.


In major perplexities, try to live as if history were done with and to react like a monster riddled by serenity.


Amid anxiety and distress, sudden calm at the thought of the foetus one has been.


Endlessly to refer to a world where nothing yet stooped to occurrence, where you anticipated consciousness without desiring it, where, wallowing in the virtual, you rejoiced in the null plenitude of a self anterior to selfhood. . . .

Not to have been born, merely musing on that — what happiness, what freedom, what space!


There is a kind of knowledge that strips whatever you do of weight and scope: for such knowledge, everything is without basis except itself. Pure to the point of abhorring even the notion of an object, it translates that extreme science according to which doing or not doing something comes down to the same thing and is accompanied by an equally extreme satisfaction: that of being able to rehearse, each time, the discovery that any gesture performed is not worth defending, that nothing is enhanced by the merest vestige of substance, that “reality” falls within the province of lunacy. Such knowledge deserves to be called posthumous: it functions as if the knower were alive and not alive, a being and the memory of a being. “It’s already in the past,” he says about all that he achieves, even as he achieves it, thereby forever destitute of the present.


If we could see ourselves as others see us, we would vanish on the spot.


When I happen to be busy, I never give a moment’s thought to the “meaning” of anything, particularly of whatever it is I am doing. A proof that the secret of everything is in the action and not in abstention, that fatal cause of consciousness.


To stretch out in a field, to smell the earth and tell yourself it is the end as well as the hope of our dejections, that it would be futile to search for anything better to rest on, to dissolve into. . . .


This craving to revise our enthusiasms, to change idols, to pray elsewhere . . .


Only God has the privilege of abandoning us. Men can only drop us.


This very second has vanished forever, lost in the anonymous mass of the irrevocable. It will never return. I suffer from this, and I do not. Everything is unique — and insignificant.


Self-knowledge — the bitterest knowledge of all and also the kind we cultivate least: what is the use of catching ourselves out, morning to night, in the act of illusion, pitilessly tracing each act back to its root, and losing case after case before our own tribunal?


Once we appeal to our most intimate selves, once we begin to labor and to produce, we lay claim to gifts, we become unconscious of our own gaps. No one is in a position to admit that what comes out of his own depths might be worthless. “Self-knowledge”? A contradiction in terms.


At the climax of failure, at the moment when shame is about to do us in, suddenly we are swept away by a frenzy of pride which lasts only long enough to drain us, to leave us without energy, to lower, with our powers, the intensity of our shame.


More than once I have managed to leave my room, for if I had stayed there I could not be sure of being able to resist some sudden resolution. The street is more reassuring, you think less about yourself there, there everything weakens and wilts, beginning with your own confusion.


He detested objective truths, the burden of argument, sustained reasoning. He disliked demonstrating, he wanted to convince no one. Others are a dialectician’s invention.


The mind that puts everything in question reaches, after a thousand interrogations, an almost total inertia, a situation which the inert, in fact, know from the start, by instinct. For what is inertia but a congenital perplexity?


Having lived in fear of being surprised by the worst, I have tried in every circumstance to a get a head start, flinging myself into misfortune long before it occurred.


Imaginary pains are by far the most real we suffer, since we feel a constant need for them and invent them because there is no way of doing without them.


O to have been born before man!


The most effective way to avoid dejection, motivated or gratuitous, is to take a dictionary, preferably of a language you scarcely know, and to look up word after word in it, making sure that they are the kind you will never use. . . .


As long as you live on this side of the terrible, you will find words to express it; once you know it from inside, you will no longer find a single one.


To realize, in rage and desolation alike, that nature, as Bossuet says, will not long grant us “this morsel of matter she lends.” — This morsel of matter: by dint of pondering it we reach peace, though a peace it would be better never to have known.


Paradox is not suited to burials, nor to weddings or births, in fact. Sinister — or grotesque — events require commonplaces; the terrible, like the painful, accommodates only the cliche.


The Aztecs were right to believe the gods must be appeased, to offer them human blood every day in order to keep the universe from sinking back into chaos.

We long since ceased to believe in the gods, and we no longer offer them sacrifices. Yet the world is still here. No doubt. Only we no longer have the good luck to know why it does not collapse on the spot.


Think about those who haven’t long to live, who know that everything is over and done with, except the time in which the thought of their end unrolls. Deal with that time. Write for the gladiators. . . .


Moral disintegration when we spend time in a place that is too beautiful: the self dissolves upon contact with paradise. No doubt it was to avoid this danger that the first man made the choice he did.


We had nothing to say to one another, and while I was manufacturing my phrases I felt that the earth was falling through space and that I was falling with it at a speed that made me dizzy.


Years and years to waken from that sleep in which the others loll; then years and years to escape that awakening . . .


A task to be done, something I have undertaken out of necessity or choice: no sooner have I started in than everything seems important, everything attracts me, except that.


Erosion of our being by our infirmities: the resulting void is filled by the presence of consciousness, what am I saying? — that void is consciousness itself.


The substance of a work is the impossible — what we have not been able to attain, what could not be given to us: the sum of all the things which were refused us.


Gogol, in hopes of a “regeneration,” journeys to Nazareth and discovers he is as bored there as “in a Russian railroad station” — this is what happens to us all when we look outside ourselves for what can exist only inside.


Kill yourself because you are what you are, yes, but not because all humanity would spit in your face!


Why fear the nothing in store for us when it is no different from the nothing which preceded us: this argument of the Ancients against the fear of death is unacceptable as consolation. Before, we had the luck not to exist; now we exist, and it is this particle of existence, hence of misfortune, which dreads death. Particle is not the word, since each of us prefers himself to the universe, at any rate considers himself equal to it.


When we discern the unreality of everything, we ourselves become unreal, we begin to survive ourselves, however powerful our vitality, however imperious our instincts. But they are no longer anything but false instincts, and false vitality.


If you are doomed to devour yourself, nothing can keep you from it: a trifle will impel you as much as a tragedy. Resign yourself to erosion at all times: your fate wills it so.


To live is to lose ground.


To think that so many have succeeded in dying.


Impossible not to resent those who write us overwhelming letters.


In a remote province in India, everything was explained by dreams, and what is more important, dreams were used to cure diseases as well. It was according to dreams that business was conducted and matters of life and death decided. Until the English came. Since then, one native said, “We no longer dream.”

In what we have agreed to call “civilization,” there resides, undeniably, a diabolic principle man has become conscious of too late, when it was no longer possible to remedy it.


Lucidity without the corrective of ambition leads to stagnation. It is essential that the one sustain the other, that the one combat the other without winning, for a work, for a life to be possible.


We cannot forgive those we have praised to the skies, we are impatient to break with them, to snap the most delicate chain of all: the chain of admiration . . . , not out of insolence, but out of aspiration to find our bearings, to be free, to be . . . ourselves. Which we manage only by an act of injustice.


The problem of responsibility would have a meaning only if we had been consulted before our birth and had consented to be precisely who we are.


The energy and virulence of my taedium vitae continue to astound me. So much vigor in a disease so decrepit! To this paradox I owe my present incapacity to choose my final hour.


Children turn, and must turn, against their parents, and the parents can do nothing about it, for they are subject to a law which decrees the relations among all the living: i.e., that each engenders his own enemy.


In a Gnostic work of the second century of our era, we read: “The prayer of a melancholy man will never have the strength to rise unto God.” . . . Since man prays only in despondency, we may deduce that no prayer has ever reached its destination.


He was above all others, and had had nothing to do with it: he had simply forgotten to desire. . . .


No one exclaims he is feeling well and that he is free, yet this is what all who know this double blessing should do. Nothing condemns us more than our incapacity to shout our good luck.


To have failed in everything, always, out of a love of discouragement!


The sole means of protecting your solitude is to offend everyone, beginning with those you love.


A book is a postponed suicide.


Say what we will, death is the best thing nature has found to please everyone. With each of us, everything vanishes, everything stops forever. What an advantage, what an abuse! Without the least effort on our part, we own the universe, we drag it into our own disappearance. No doubt about it, dying is immoral. . . .


— E. M. Cioran
(probably from The Trouble with Being Born)

A matter of perspective

But it wouldn’t have made you a fraud to change your mind. It would be sad to do it because you think you somehow have to.

It won’t hurt, though. It will be loud, and you’ll feel things, but they’ll go through you so fast that you won’t even realize you’re feeling them (which is sort of like the paradox I used to bounce off Gustafson — is it possible to be a fraud if you aren’t aware you’re a fraud?). And the very brief moment of fire you’ll feel will be almost good, like when your hands are cold and there’s a fire and you hold your hands out toward it.

The reality is that dying isn’t bad, but it takes forever. And that forever is no time at all. I know that sounds like a contradiction, or maybe just wordplay. What it really is, it turns out, is a matter of perspective. The big picture, as they say, in which the fact is that this whole seemingly endless back-and-forth between us has come and gone and come again in the very same instant that Fern stirs a boiling pot for dinner, and your stepfather packs some pipe tobacco down with his thumb, and Angela Mead uses an ingenious little catalogue tool to roll cat hair off her blouse, and Melissa Betts inhales to respond to something she thinks her husband just said, and David Wallace blinks in the midst of idly scanning class photos from his 1980 Aurora West H.S. yearbook and seeing my photo and trying, through the tiny little keyhole of himself, to imagine what all must have happened to lead up to my death in the fiery single-car accident he’d read about in 1991, like what sorts of pain or problems might have driven the guy to get in his electric-blue Corvette and try to drive with all that O.T.C. medication in his bloodstream — David Wallace happening to have a huge and totally unorganizable set of inner thoughts, feelings, memories and impressions of this little photo’s guy a year ahead of him in school with the seemingly almost neon aura around him all the time of scholastic and athletic excellence and popularity and success with the ladies, as well as of every last cutting remark or even tiny disgusted gesture or expression on this guy’s part whenever David Wallace struck out looking in Legion ball or said something dumb at a party, and of how impressive and authentically at ease in the world the guy always seemed, like an actual living person instead of the dithering, pathetically self-conscious outline or ghost of a person David Wallace knew himself back then to be. Verily a fair-haired, fast-track guy, whom in the very best human tradition David Wallace had back then imagined as happy and unreflective and wholly undaunted by voices telling him that there was something deeply wrong with him that wasn’t wrong with anybody else and that he had to spend all of his time and energy trying to figure out what to do and say in order to impersonate an even marginally normal or acceptable U.S. male, all this stuff clanging around in David Wallace ’81’s head every second and moving so fast that he never got a chance to catch hold and try to fight or argue against it or even really even feel it except as a knot in his stomach as he stood in his real parents’ kitchen ironing his uniform and thinking of all the ways he could screw up and strike out looking or drop balls out in right and reveal his true pathetic essence in front of this .418 hitter and his witchily pretty sister and everyone else in the audience in lawn chairs in the grass along the sides of the Legion field (all of whom probably already saw through the sham from the outset anyway, he was pretty sure) — in other words David Wallace trying, if only in the second his lids are down, to somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself in such a dramatic and doubtlessly painful way — with David Wallace also fully aware that the cliché that you can’t ever truly know what’s going on inside somebody else is hoary and insipid and yet at the same time trying very consciously to prohibit that awareness from mocking the attempt or sending the whole line of thought into the sort of inbent spiral that keeps you from ever getting anywhere (considerable time having passed since 1981, of course, and David Wallace having emerged from years of literally indescribable war against himself with quite a bit more firepower than he’d had at Aurora West), the realer, more enduring and sentimental part of him commanding that other part to be silent as if looking it levelly in the eye and saying, almost aloud, ‘Not another word.’

— David Foster Wallace, “Good Old Neon”

Life has time to flash like neon

One clue that there’s something not quite real about sequential time and the way you experience it is the various paradoxes of time supposedly passing and of a so-called ‘present’ that’s always unrolling into the future and creating more and more past behind it. As if the present were this car — nice car by the way — and the past is the road we’ve just gone over, and the future is the headlit road up ahead we haven’t yet gotten to, and time is the car’s forward movement, and the precise present is the car’s front bumper as it cuts through the fog of the future, so that it’s now and then a tiny bit later a whole different now, etc. Except if time is really passing, how fast does it go? At what rate does the present change? See? Meaning if we use time to measure motion or rate — which we do, it’s the only way you can — 95 miles per hour, 70 heartbeats a minute, etc. — how are you supposed to measure the rate at which time moves? One second per second? It makes no sense. You can’t even talk about time flowing or moving without hitting up against paradox right away. So think for a second: What if there’s really no movement at all? What if this is all unfolding in the one flash you call the present, this first, infinitely tiny split second of impact when the speeding car’s front bumper’s just starting to touch the abutment, just before the bumper crumples and displaces the front end and you go violently forward and the steering column comes back at your chest as if shot out of something enormous? Meaning that what if in fact this now is infinite and never really passes in the way your mind is supposedly wired to understand pass, so that not only your whole life but every single humanly conceivable way to describe and account for that life has time to flash like neon shaped into those connected cursive letters that businesses’ signs and windows love so much to use through your mind all at once in the literally immeasurable instant between impact and death, just as you start forward to meet the wheel at a rate no belt ever made could restrain — THE END.

— David Foster Wallace, “Good Old Neon”