Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

In honor of his birthday, today we dive into the world of early American poetry and the incredible, lasting impact of Walt Whitman. In the mid-19th century, American literature was primed to experience an almost seismic shift. That’s where Whitman – with his larger-than-life personality, strong opinions and groundbreaking verses – stepped in and became a figurehead of the American dream. As poet Ezra Pound once said about Whitman… “America’s poet… He is America.” 

Walt Whitman was born on May 31st, 1819, in West Hills, New York. After a rather long period of time working in editing and freelancing (and getting fired from several jobs in the process), Whitman decided to write poetry. He began writing poems in 1850, and in a time when strict poetic forms and rhymes were expected – Whitman broke free from these conventional norms. His first book of poetry and magnum opus, “Leaves of Grass,” first published in 1855, shattered the traditional poetic protocol of the time. He celebrated the beauty of everyday life (what a novel idea!), embraced a democratic spirit, and wove together the interconnectedness of all beings, human and nature alike. He opted for free verse, aiming to set poetry free from the rigid confines it had been heeding to. It even seemed to some that Whitman wished the art of poetry to be as free as he himself was.

Whitman’s ideas aligned perfectly with the transcendentalist movement of the time. Transcendentalists believed in the power of the individual, the transcendence of the self, and a connection between humans and nature. Minds like those of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were Whitman’s philosophical comrades, Emerson praising Leaves of Grass far and wide, and almost certainly aided in the work’s popularity. Transcendentalists were all about embracing spiritual in the mundane, finding beauty in the everyday, and recognizing the oneness of all existence. Whitman’s revolutionary approach to form and subject matter not only rocked the American literary scene, but paved a way for future poets to break free from using more traditional verse. Emily Dickinson, often regarded as one of the greatest American poets, was profoundly influenced by Whitman’s somewhat unorthodox style, and proceeded to use her own brevity and lyricism to explore similar themes of individualism and the human condition. Other notable poets who fell under Whitman’s spell include Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich. Each poet, in their own way, channeled Whitman’s spirit of rebellion, using poetry as a tool to challenge societal norms, advocate for social justice, and shed light on the diversity of the American experience.

Walt Whitman’s celebration of democracy, inclusivity, and everyday beauty continues to inspire modern American readers. Whitman’s embrace of individuality and his refusal to be confined by societal expectations serves as a powerful reminder that we all have a unique voice and our own stories to tell… if only we have the courage to open our mouths!


Honoring some OG Bibliophiles – the Royal Library of Alexandria

The written word has the power to transport us to different worlds, to inspire us, to challenge us, and to comfort us. It is no wonder that libraries and bookstores have been an integral part of our culture for centuries. But where did it all begin? While trying to pinpoint the first bookstore in the world is impossible to do with any degree of certainty, we certainly know some of the oldest bibliophile hubs!


One of the first known libraries in the world was established (unsurprisingly) in ancient Egypt, in the city of Alexandria. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and quickly became (what some consider) the center of learning and scholarship in the world. The rulers of Alexandria recognized the importance of the written word and knowledge, and they established the Royal Library of Alexandria to house the world’s greatest collection of books. The library was a magnificent structure, with lecture halls, gardens, and reading rooms. It was said to contain almost a half a million scrolls (though reports throughout history go anywhere between 40,000 to 400,000 scrolls lining its walls), most of which were kept in stacks that reached all the way to the ceiling. Scholars from all over the world came to study at the library, and it became a symbol of the city’s intellectual and cultural achievements. As what is considered today to have been the largest library in the ancient world, it must have been a sight to behold!

Interestingly, the library was not just a place for scholars. It was apparently open to the public, and anyone who wanted to read or even borrow books (scrolls) could do so. This was a revolutionary idea at the time, as “books” were traditionally only available to the wealthy and powerful. According to some, the library’s founders believed that knowledge ought to be accessible to everyone, and they made sure that the written word was available to all who sought it. Granted, at the time this was mainly scholars, but many believe that all who were interested in knowledge were able to consult and utilize the library.

Some also argue that library had a type of ‘bookstore’ located on its grounds. It is possible that this area of the library sold scrolls that had been copied out by scribes, who would sit in the library and replicate entire works by hand. These copies were often very expensive, and only the wealthiest individuals could afford to buy them. But the “bookstore” could potentially have sold cheaper versions or duplicates, made from papyrus instead of expensive parchment. These cheaper versions would have made reading more accessible to the general public, helping to spread knowledge and literacy throughout Alexandria. Sadly, the Library of Alexandria was destroyed in a fire in 48 BC, and much of its collection was lost. 


However, the legacy of the library and bookstores lived on. The idea that knowledge should be accessible to all has became a cornerstone of Western culture, and libraries and bookstores continue to be places where people can come together to learn, share ideas, and explore the world of literature. We should know… we run one!

Fun Fact: Another one of the earliest known bookstores in the world was the Library of Ashurbanipal in ancient Assyria, which was established in the 7th century BCE and contained tens of thousands of clay tablets!

I mean – WOW! And to think… all full of books! A bibliophile’s dream.

In honor of Niccolo Machiavelli’s Birthday – an In Depth look at his Controversial Work “The Prince”

In 1532, Niccolo Machiavelli’s book, “The Prince,” was published in Italy. While today it is considered one of the most famous and influential political treatises of all time, at the time of its publication it was looked down on as a work of evil and immorality. At that time, Italy was a country deeply divided, and its political scene was characterized by chaos, corruption, and constant wars between rival city-states. Machiavelli, a diplomat and political philosopher, had a front-row seat to all of it, and he wrote “The Prince” as a guide for rulers on how to gain (and maintain) political power in a volatile environment. Little did he know how influential his work would become!

The book is divided into 26 chapters, each of which focuses on a specific aspect of leadership. They run the gamut… some examples are qualities of a good ruler, how to gain power, how to handle friends and enemies, and the importance of military strength. Machiavelli’s advice to rulers is often ruthless and sometimes amoral, as he emphasizes the importance of using any means necessary to achieve one’s goals. One of the most controversial aspects of “The Prince” is Machiavelli’s advocacy of deception and cruelty. He argues that a ruler must be willing to lie, cheat… even kill in order to maintain power. He famously wrote that “it is better to be feared than loved,” and he advises rulers to use fear as a tool to control their subjects. He also argues that a ruler should not be bound by traditional notions of morality, and defended his beliefs by arguing that these qualities were necessary for survival in a world where political power was constantly being contested.

One of the key themes of “The Prince” is the importance of appearing to be good… rather than actually being good. Machiavelli believed that rulers should focus on maintaining a positive public image, even if it meant sacrificing their own principles. He argues that people are easily deceived by appearances, and that a ruler who appears to be virtuous and just will be more successful in the long run than one who actually is virtuous and just. He also argues for the use of force and violence in politics. Machiavelli believed that a ruler should always be willing to use force to achieve their goals, and that a reputation for cruelty and violence could actually be an asset in certain situations. As stated, he argued that it was better to be feared than loved, because fear is a more reliable motivator than love. Machiavelli believed that the world of politics was a ruthless game, and that only the strongest and most cunning players would succeed. These rather stark ideas were shocking to many of Machiavelli’s contemporaries, most of whom had been deeply influenced by Christian morality and classical ideals of virtue and honor. The book was severely criticized as a work of evil and immorality, and it was even banned by the Catholic Church! (Then again… what work hasn’t been, at some point or another?)

What people often don’t know is that Machiavelli never saw “The Prince” published in his lifetime. He wrote “The Prince” in 1513, during Italy’s political turmoil and while acting as a diplomat and advisor to the Florentine government. However, when he finally presented his manuscript to the Medici family (the rulers of Florence at the time), they were far from impressed. The Medici had recently come to power and were keen to present themselves as benevolent rulers guided by Christian morality. Machiavelli’s book, which advocated the use of deception and cruelty in politics, was seen as a direct challenge to this image.


As a result, the Medici refused to publish “The Prince” and even had Machiavelli arrested and tortured on invented charges of conspiracy. Machiavelli was eventually released, but he was banished from Florence and forced to retire to his estate outside the city. It was during this period of exile that Machiavelli wrote others of his most famous works, including “Discourses on Livy” and “The Art of War.” Unfortunately, Machiavelli died in 1527, without ever seeing “The Prince” published.

Despite its controversial nature, “The Prince” was widely read and had a significant impact on political thought. It was particularly influential in the development of modern political science, as it introduced the idea of studying politics as a science rather than a moral philosophy. Machiavelli’s emphasis on the practical aspects of politics, such as the use of force and the manipulation of public opinion, has been a major influence on modern political theory and practice. In addition to its impact on political science, “The Prince” also had a significant impact on literature and popular culture. The book has been referenced in countless works of fiction, and Machiavelli’s own name has become synonymous with qualities like cunning and deceit. The term “Machiavellian” is often used to describe politicians or other individuals who are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, regardless of the moral implications. What a reputation!


The SS Sultana: A Heartbreaking yet Forgotten Tale of Disastrous Proportions


On April 27th 1865, the American steamboat the SS Sultana met a tragic end on the Mississippi River. The magnitude of this disaster (like all others of its kind) is incomprehensible, and yet… many remain unaware of its existence. The sinking of the SS Sultana is considered the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. 

April 1865 marked a turning point in American history – the Civil War had finally come to an end, and people, desperate for solace and healing, began to rebuild their lives. The SS Sultana, a wooden side-wheel steamboat, was built in 1863 and was originally designed to transport both passengers and cargo up and down the Mississippi River. But with the end of the war came the responsibility of transporting thousands of Union soldiers back to their homes in the northern states. This seemingly innocuous task would end in a disaster that would claim more lives than the sinking of the infamous Titanic in 1912.

On April 24, 1865, the SS Sultana was docked at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where it began taking on an unbelievable amount of Union soldiers, many of whom were recently released prisoners of war from Confederate camps in Andersonville and Cahaba. As the soldiers boarded the steamboat, their excitement and anticipation filled the air. These weary men were finally going home to their families and friends, and the SS Sultana was their ticket back to freedom.

One day before the tragedy, the Sultana stopped at Helena, Arkansas, where photographer Thomas W. Bankes took a picture of the grossly overcrowded vessel.


The SS Sultana was 260 feet long and 42 feet wide, and was designed to carry a maximum of 376 passengers. However, the pressing need to transport the soldiers along with gross negligence on the part of the captain (Captain J. Cass Mason – an experienced steamboat pilot), owners and ticket-masters led to a severe overcrowding of the vessel. Approximately 2,300 passengers boarded the steamboat, including soldiers, civilians and crew members. The boat’s capacity was pushed to its limits, with soldiers stacked on every available surface, even sleeping packed in like sardines on the decks.

Despite the overcrowding, the true catalyst for the impending disaster lay in the steamboat’s boiler system. Prior to the Sultana’s arrival in Vicksburg, a leak had been discovered in one of the boilers. Instead of properly repairing or replacing the damaged boiler, a temporary patch was applied – a decision driven by greed and expediency, as the captain and the ship’s owners did not want to lose out on the lucrative government contract for transporting the soldiers. This choice would ultimately lead to the deadliest maritime disaster the United States has ever seen.

Tragedy struck after three full days on the river, on the night of April 27th, when the steamboat was about 7 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. At around 2 in the morning the hastily patched boiler exploded, instantly killing the captain and at least 500 people, followed in quick succession by the explosion of the two other boilers and even more destruction. In a mere instant, the once-bustling vessel was transformed into a scene of utter chaos and devastation. The explosion ripped through the heart of the Sultana, killing hundreds of passengers instantly, hurling others into the cold, dark waters of the Mississippi River, and setting the wooden steamboat on fire. 

Many of the injured survivors found themselves caught in the river’s swift currents, clinging to debris or trees and fighting for their lives. Even more of them succumbed to drowning or hypothermia. Rescue boats (mainly other steamers) from Memphis rushed to the scene (though the earliest to arrive wasn’t for a half hour after the explosions) – but the chaos, darkness, fire and smoke made their efforts difficult and mostly unsuccessful. As dawn broke, the grim reality of the disaster became clear. The SS Sultana, once a beacon of hope for these soldiers, was now a smoldering mass sinking into the Mississippi River.

By the time the Sultana had burned to the waterline and finally sank, an estimated 1,200 to 1,800 lives were lost. This made the SS Sultana disaster the deadliest maritime disaster in American history. The Sultana tragedy shook the nation, as thousands of families mourned the loss of loved ones who were supposed to be finally returning home from a gruesome war where they fought for their country.

Despite the sheer magnitude of this disaster, and though several men involved with the boat were court-martialed, no one person was ever held formally accountable. The death of the Captain and crew made it extraordinarily difficult to place blame, and with the United States still reeling from the aftermath of the Civil War, the SS Sultana did not necessarily receive the place in US history that it ought to. So today, 158 years to the day of this tragic accident, we bring attention to it and to the lives so needlessly lost. 


This Civil War item was published in 1865, the same year of the SS Sultana disaster. Meant to be carried in the pockets of Civil War soldiers, this little “convenient pocket manual for soldiers in the army and navy” includes a Soldier’s Calendar, a Pay Table and details, objects, principles and plans of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, as well as religious hymns and psalms, meant for civil war soldiers. See it here.


“The tigers have found me and I do not care.” A Blog on the King of the Underground… Charles Bukowski

Cheer up. Maybe you’ll be famous after you’re dead.


29 years ago, the “King of the Underground” Charles Bukowski, passed away from leukemia in his (adopted) home city of Los Angeles, California. Bukowski is well known for his poetry and short stories, but even more known for his intense subject matters and persona. Publishing almost exclusively in small presses and literary magazines (hence the King of the Underground), and focusing on the plight of the every-man, the dirty, sometimes terrifying, sad and isolating aspects of humanity – he really was an impressive spokesperson for the average man. That being said, Bukowski is often considered more famous now than he was during his life (for as popular as he was in his lifetime, he was definitely underestimated in the American literary/academic arena).

What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.

Bukowski was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, on August 16th, 1920. His early life in Germany was difficult, as WWI war reparations had stagnated the German economy forcing his father to attempt to find employment elsewhere. In April of 1923 the small family traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, where they lived until moving to Los Angeles in 1930. Bukowski’s childhood was ripe with problems. According to the author, his father struggled with alcoholism and frequently emotionally and physically abused his family – his behavior teaching Charles at a young age about “undeserved pain” and part of his sons work for the rest of his life. Charles’ family’s foreign ways, the clothes his parents made him wear, and a terrible case of acne further isolated the young man, and the bullied Charles became a quiet, somewhat repressed teen. All that changed, however, when a friend of his introduced a 13 year old Charles to alcohol – a substance he would depend on for life.

I want so much that is not here and do not know where to go.

After high school, Bukowski began a two year stint at Los Angeles City College, thriving in his humanities courses on journalism, art and literature. However, at the onset of WWII in 1944 he quit and moved to New York City, hoping to try his hand at being a writer. During this time he was actually arrested by the FBI for 16 days for potential draft evasion, as was frequently happening to those of German heritage. After failing a physical, however, he was determined unfit for military service and was released. At the age of 24 he began writing and started to be published in a couple of small magazines and presses, but the acceptances of his work were few and far between. Deciding it a failed experiment, Bukowski quit writing for almost a decade – a time in his life he referred to as “a ten-year drunk”. He moved back to Los Angeles, worked at a pickle factory, drifted around the United States working odd jobs when it suited him, moved back to LA and worked for the United States Postal Service, and then quit that for a short time as well.

But then if you lied to a man about his talent just because he was sitting across from you, that was the most unforgivable lie of them all, because that was telling him to go on, to continue which was the worst way for a man without real talent to waste his life, finally. But many people did just that, friends and relatives mostly.

In 1955, a brush with death made Bukowski revisit his original dreams of writing. After a hospital stay for a bleeding ulcer, Charles started writing poetry once more. In the late 1950s, after his “ten-year drunk” period had finished, Bukowski began to be published in a couple poetry and literary magazines, such as Gallows and Nomad – finally giving the credit he was looking for to Bukowski’s early work. As a matter of fact, not only was Bukowski published in both of the only two issues of Gallows to ever exist, but two of his other poems were featured works in the inaugural issue of Nomad in 1959. The same magazine would also go on to publish his essays, including one of his best known essays, Manifesto: A Call for Our Own Critics. By 1960, the small Hearse Press was beginning to publish Bukowski’s work – they put out his collection Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail, and then continued publishing his poetry through the decades, all the way up until the early 80s.

He asked, What makes a man a writer? Well, I said, it’s simple. You either get it down on paper, or jump off a bridge.

By the 1970s, Bukowski had accepted an offer from John Martin, publisher of the Black Sparrow Press, to leave his post office job behind (yes, Bukowski had gone back to the job several times) and write full time. Bukowski accepted the offer, writing in a letter “I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy… or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.” A mere month after his retirement from the postal service, he completed his very first novel, entitled (drumroll, please) Post Office. For the remainder of his years, Bukowski would publish many of his works with Black Sparrow Press – making it a successful press in the long run! That being said, he always favored small presses and underground magazines, and published with many over the course of his lifetime. 

And if you have the ability to love, love yourself first.

Throughout his life, Charles Bukowski wrote over forty books of prose and poetry. His work continued to come out after his death, and he was heavily posthumously published (with new material) for over a decade after he passed away. He was a controversial writer, using a hard, clear voice and often centering his subjects on violence, drinking, sexuality, gambling, death, desolation and abandonment. His work spoke to those who ever felt dehumanized by society or by others, to those who felt desperation, but weren’t always able to act on their most basic desires. Today, Bukowski continues to inspire. 

Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.


Sometimes you climb out of bed in the morning and you think, I’m not going to make it, but you laugh inside – remembering all the times you’ve felt that way.


Five Lesser-Known Facts About Jack London



Happy Birthday to Jack London! On this day 147 years ago, the author of Call of the Wild was born in the slums of San Francisco. Let’s look at five interesting facts about this author, in honor of his special day.

1. London had extremely interesting parents. We all know that the most interesting people come from the most fantastical backgrounds (yes, we made this statistic up to feel better about our own crazy families), and London is no exception! His mother, Flora Wellman, was a spiritualist who claimed to have the ability to channel indigenous Sauk chief Black Hawk. His father is believed to be astrologer William Chaney, whom she lived with after moving with him from Seattle to the bustling Pacific city of San Francisco. In 1876, while living with Cheney, she gave birth to her son, John Griffith Chaney, who would later on go by the name of Jack London.

2. You thought the interesting-parent background ended there, didn’t you? Not a chance! Not only did Flora give birth to Jack against William Chaney’s wishes (he wished her to have an abortion), but out of stress and anger Flora shot herself while pregnant. She obviously did not die, but she was wounded enough that Jack was given to Virginia Prentiss (a friend, as well as a formerly enslaved African American woman) as a baby, and she would be his formative motherly influence throughout his life. When he was studying at the University of California, Berkeley as a young adult, he found the name of his father from old newspaper articles reporting his mother’s suicide attempt, and contacted Chaney who was, by then, living in Chicago. Chaney’s return letter left London (who had taken his stepfather’s name after his mother’s marriage) heartbroken, as the astrologer took no responsibility and asserted that Flora had too many sexual partners at the time for him to be the father. London’s distress at this letter led him to quit school at the University… and then to move north to the Yukon for the Alaskan Klondike gold rush. One might argue that despite the personal stress, Chaney’s awful behavior did London a great favor in the long run!


3. Despite being extremely influential on his writing, working the Klondike gold rush was very detrimental to London’s health and well-being. After moving up to Alaska, the harsh conditions for the gold rush miners caused London to develop scurvy, a typical illness of miners who were experiencing malnutrition. London lost several of his front teeth, developed marks and scars on his face that he would carry with him for life, and endured pain in his joints… not an easy illness. Though he recovered, his constitution would always be a bit weaker than it had been before, and he would go on to develop an alcohol dependency that began around this time. His experiences in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, however, were quite obviously extraordinarily influential on the aspiring young author, and would serve as inspiration in his upcoming works.

4. Hoping to escape hard physical labor for the rest of his life, London decided that he could try to “sell his brains” by writing and being published. Upon his return to California from the Klondike in 1898, London put monumental effort into becoming an author. He began writing 1,000 words a day (no small feat for someone who hadn’t written since high school). He was first published with his story “To the Man On Trail” and was thereafter a frequent published author in journals and magazines. By 1900, London made $2,500 a year. In 1903 Jack London had his story The Call of the Wild published in The Saturday Evening Post. He sold it for $750. The story was an almost immediate success.

5. Local provenance. Did you know that Jack London lived just ten minutes from us, here in Alameda, California? At one point he rented a home (or a villa, as it was once called) on Lake Merritt… a beautiful area of Oakland just through the tunnel out of Alameda. It is while he lived here that he met poet George Sterling and later moved to a home in Piedmont simply to be closer to his best friend. Nevertheless, we are always happy to feel “at home” with authors we admire!

george sterling, mary austin, jack london,

George Sterling, Mary Austin, Jack London and Jimmie Hooper on a beach in Carmel, California.

Happy, happy birthday to an author that has inspired so very many… Happy Birthday, Jack London!


New Year, New You… New Book! Learn to Practice the Art of Tsundoku


Raise your hand if you’ve ever picked up a new title at a bookstore, excited to read it, then gotten home and taken one look at your bookshelf, and felt the cold familiar feeling of dread when you’ve realized that you still have 47 other unread titles that came skipping home with you similarly, only to be left abandoned on a shelf, to taunt you?

Oh good, it’s not just me.

This familiar feeling isn’t new to the rest of the world either, apparently. As a matter of fact, the Japanese have a word for being surrounded by piles of unread books. It’s called tsundoku, and plenty of people consider it an art form. Instead of making a resolution this year to finally tackle our unread shelves, here at Tavistock Books we are learning instead to embrace our mini libraries, to acknowledge and admire our uncracked spines, adoringly.

Tsundoku is a word dating back to the Meiji era in Japanese culture (from roughly 1868 to 1912, to be exact), and comes from a combination of two words… tsunde-oku, meaning “allowing things to pile up” and dokusho, meaning “to read books”. In essence… allowing piles of books to be read to sit around, untouched. Feels good, doesn’t it? To know you aren’t alone? To know that your tendency to overindulge in bibliomania is a worldwide phenomenon, one that has even had a word created to describe it. It was first seen in publication in 1879, as an ironic dig at scholars and academics who owned books they never read. That being said, in Japan (and elsewhere), the word does not carry with it a negative connotation – it isn’t an insult or something to be ashamed of. As a matter of fact, it has become more of an art form, for some. To surround yourself with books… with new worlds, with other ways of thinking, with doors to be opened… can only serve as a reminder that the world is so very big. It can show us that no matter where we are in our lives we still have much to learn, and so many ways to enrich our lives through the world of books.

So this year? Make a resolution not to feel bogged down by your ever expanding library. Head to your favorite bookstore, pick up an interesting new find, and add it to the pile with a flourish and a smile… knowing you’re simply practicing the art of tsundoku. 🙂

Find out more about tsundoku in this article on Big Think.