Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

The Blind Book Date Manifesto

Friday, November 7th, 2014

Or, why not knowing what you’re going to read can be good thing now and then

When was the last time you discovered a book that you didn’t know you were looking for?
When was the last time you read something that you didn’t think you would read in a million years but were so glad you did after turning the last page?
When was the last time you read a novel that unexpectedly broadened your horizon?

If the answer is ‘quite a long time ago’ or ‘uhhh, never’, a blind date with a book might be the solution for you.

As readers we live in the best of times and in the worst of times. Never before in history have books been so readily accessible. With just a click or two you can have your pick from a selection of books that would have easily filled the library of Alexandria several times over. Finding and locating a specific book is easy now with all the different search engines and websites like Goodreads. Recommendations are fully automated with algorithms making predictions based on the books you liked. Not sure if this is the right book for you? Google it and hundreds if not thousands of reviews and ratings will help you make your choice.

There is, however, a downside to this age of abundance and ease. On the one hand, walk into a random bookstore, or visit a website like Amazon, and you will probably only encounter the usual suspects – the bestsellers and series everyone has heard about. On the other hand, with more and more books available to choose from it becomes harder and harder for the lesser-known good reads to grab your attention. Books by authors who are not G.R.R. Martin or J.K Rowling are unfortunately often hidden or not displayed prominently. Of course, if you know what you are looking for you can still find it in a matter of seconds. But if you don’t know what you are looking for, the chance of going beyond your usual reads are slim. If you love Game of Thrones, you can easily discover ten other books that are just like it. Easy, because we know you like it, but finding something you didn’t know you would like, that’s the challenge. Both yours and ours.

It is the paradox of choice: the more choices we have the more we will read the same thing over and over again. As readers we run the risk of losing that element of discovery and surprise, of letting books broaden our horizons.

The solution to recapture that sense of discovery and adventure might actually be less information instead of more. A year ago I discovered that if you wrap a book and just put a few keywords with cryptic descriptions on it, suddenly something mysterious started to happen. People were drawn to this unknown book. They started to try to guess the obscured title. Interestingly enough, not knowing the title and the author made people more likely to try a new read. All the great (but not widely known) books suddenly started to fly off the shelves. And people came back for more Blind Book Dates. They tried new books, novels that they usually wouldn’t have picked up, and they really liked them.

So, sometimes not knowing what you’re going to read can be the trick to stumble upon a great discovery. Going on a Blind Book Date is the new and exciting way for you to discover that one book you didn’t know you were looking for.

-  Tiemen

Come to our Blind Book Date Party in Amsterdam on November 22nd to find out for yourself how much fun not knowing what you’re getting into can be!

A Song of Ice and Fire: The Books behind HBO’s Game of Thrones

Monday, April 7th, 2014

By Elizabeth Eckhart

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series has gained immense popularity from the HBO television adaptation, Game of Thrones. The show has caused quite a frenzy, and even caused many fans to pick up the books in order to discover the fate of their favorite characters. What they may find in the novels, however, is a much deeper story than they ever knew existed.

While the show relies entirely on action and what viewers can see, the books delve deeply into each character’s inner thoughts. The chapters are told in third person from over 30 different points of view, and George R. R. Martin is a master at getting inside each and every one of their heads. In the books, popular characters such as Jon Snow, Daenerys and Tyrion are even more multi-layered than in the show – not only are they more complex, but often they are nastier than the generally morally correct versions viewers are shown on-screen.

Catelyn Stark, another primary example, is a popular point of view character in Martin’s books, but the show entirely removes her cold behavior toward Jon Snow, her husband Ned’s alleged bastard son. In the novels, she is resentful that Ned brought home an illegitimate child and is often cruel toward Jon, but the show softens her bitterness to a few measly remarks. With more time focused on her internal thoughts in the books, readers are able to become acquainted with her and have sympathy for her, despite her flaws, as is the case for several other characters as well.

It seems unlikely that HBO will truly be able to manage the growing cast of characters in the television format. After his third book, A Storm of Swords, Martin began to add so many point of view characters that he could not tell all of their stories within one installment. Only half of the characters appear in A Feast for Crows, and the other half appear in the fifth novel,  A Dance of Dragons. The events of the two books are simultaneous until the timeline catches up in the final chapters of Dance.

George R.R. Martin is known for making his fans wait years for his books, as long as half a decade, and many fear that the show (the fourth season of which is already done filming and set to premiere in the Netherlands on HBO tonight) will catch up to the events of the books before he is able to finish them. Especially since the wait for the sixth book, The Winds of Winter, is likely to be long as well.

Besides feeling the heat of the show’s progress, fans are also worried that that perhaps Martin himself will never finish the series, (he is after all, in his 60’s and above a healthy weight) in which case no one would ever find out who wins the game of thrones and rules the seven kingdoms. Show fans are busy worrying if Daenerys will ever make it to Westeros, but fans of the book are more concerned regarding the multiple additional mysteries that may never be resolved.

For example, Jon Snow’s parentage is a huge unanswered question in the series, and many fans suspect that he is not actually Ned’s bastard, but perhaps the offspring of Rhaegar Targaryen and Ned’s sister, Lyanna Stark, instead. Another unsolved mystery is the identity of Azor Ahai, the legendary hero who wields the sword Lightbringer (according to a prophecy). Under the influence of the red sorceress Melisandre, Stannis Baratheon believes himself be Azor Ahai, but many suspect Azor Ahai is actually Daenerys or Jon.

With the huge amount of character threads and plots that have arisen in Martin’s most recent book, it seems almost impossible for each character’s story to be tied up conclusively. Because of Martin’s tendency toward complexity, a clear “winner” of the Iron Throne seems unlikely, and perhaps the seven kingdoms of Westeros will be ruled independently, rather than having one true king.

Martin has stated that the ending he anticipates writing is “bittersweet.” Indeed, fans want concrete answers, but it is still unclear whether Martin will deliver them (after all, Martin is known for not catering to his fans’ wishes regarding plot). Much of his writing focuses on the journey rather than the outcome, but there is no question that the entire A Song of Ice and Fire series is a thrilling journey for its readers.

Elizabeth can be found on Twitter @elizeckhart.

Ebooks are available for each separate title as well as for the entire series (so far) in one:  A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons (part 1 and part 2) and altogether.

The Frankfurt Book Fair Experience

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

By Buchmesse veterans Lynn and Rick.

Every year we send a crew of ABC’ers to scout the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest book exhibition and trade fair, looking for new trends. We refresh relationships with our trusted suppliers, make new deals and bring home book samples to delight and surprise you. News and gossip fly through the atmosphere, but let’s be honest, we’re like pigs hunting truffles – to find new books that still excite us after all these years and to be able to share that find on the spot with colleagues is an experience worth repeating.

Buchmesse veterans Lynn and Rick travel to Frankfurt every year, and share some of their decades’ worth of adventures…


My first time was forty years ago.  It started with a death-defying cruise down the autobahn at 180 km/hour in little red Fiat which stopped at a hangar-like exhibition space. Mitch, who was then ABC’s director, walked around looking for new things to sell and contacts to be made. I tagged along trying to learn something. At that time, we were barred from buying directly from the largest US and UK publishers, so we were always looking for smaller publishers with unique books and persuading them to sell to us. Hotel rooms were in such short supply that the four of us (three gay guys and myself) had to share one room, and slept in shifts. (After just one such night we were too tired to do any more business, so we drove back to Amsterdam. When I walked into the dormitory a day earlier than expected, my then-boyfriend said, “Oh, you’re home early. *sad sigh*”, while my now-husband said “Oh, you’re home already!!!” …but that’s another story!)

In the decades that followed, more publishers would talk to us and we figured out that some of them left their samples at the fair rather than transport them back to the States. So we offered to buy them for a good price and brought the samples home – first in a car, then in a van, then in a truck, and now in a full container.

This October we’ll go again, both veterans and new ABC staff. The newbies are always overwhelmed by the size of the Fair and by ABC’s name recognition among English-language publishers. Hotel rooms are still scarce, so we stay outside the city and get lost every year, music blasting, and singing along, full of pasta and wine. After a hefty weekend, the container arrives at ABC and it still feels like Christmas has come early as we unpack the goodies we found and brought home to feed the avid and curious readers we still love to excite.


In my second year at ABC (that being 1989), I was asked by my boss to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair to “buy books and publishers’ stands.” I was extremely nervous and apprehensive about talking to the most powerful people in the book industry and asked my owner what I should say, how I should dress, etc.  I was told to dress “casual”, and to just approach the publisher in question, introduce myself and state what I wanted from them.

Upon entering the great Hall (commonly known as Hall 8 for representing all English-language publishers), I noticed that virtually everyone was dressed to the hilt, in designer clothes, suits, ties and fancy dresses.

As I approached my first publisher, in my slightly worn Prince t-shirt, wearing my favorite Levis (which had a few tiny rips from its “vintage” old age I stammered: “Hi, my name is Rick Lightstone from the American Book Center in Amsterdam and I would like to buy all the books displayed here for a very cheap price, please.”  At which point the publisher raised his eyes from his desk with utter disdain, looked me up and down (he in his Armani suit) and muttered “Excuse me, do we have an appointment? And who are you ?”

I vowed then and there, that when I next returned to The Frankfurt Book Fair, I would be attired in the most beautiful suit, with the most impressive business cards known to mankind!

Visiting the other Anne Frank House

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

The flat in South Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family lived for nine years before going into hiding at the Secret Annex on the Prinsengracht was open to the public for one day on Saturday, 10 December, 2011. Friend of the ABC Ellyn Cook was there and shares the experience.

“In rivers, the water that you touch is the last of what has passed and the first of that which comes; so with present time.” – Leonardo da Vinci

The second floor flat in Amsterdam South where Anne Frank and her family lived prior to going into hiding.

The second floor flat in Amsterdam South where Anne Frank and her family lived prior to going into hiding.

The Franks made their home in a three bedroom flat on the second floor of number 37 Merwedeplein. Here they lived from December 1933 until July 6 1942, when they were forced to leave the flat and go into hiding at the Secret Annex on the Prinsengracht (Princes’ canal), now the Anne Frank House Museum.

Merwedeplein in Amsterdam

For sixty years tenants came and went until, in 2004, the flat was purchased by the Ymere housing association, restored in 1930s style and refurbished with furniture from the Department for Cultural Heritage to recreate the look of the Franks’ home; a feat requiring extensive research and greatly assisted by the Anne Frank Foundation and Otto Frank’s own photographs.

Wallpaper detail in the hall of the Frank family's flat. Photo Credit: Luuk Kramer Fotographie Amsterdam

One Saturday in December 2011, the flat was opened to the public, for just one day. I just had to take a look inside

Looking from the Frank's living room into the dining room in their flat in South Amsterdam. Photo Credit: Ellyn Cook

Swing left from the landing at the top of the entry stairs and you enter the bright dining room, used as a bedroom for Anne’s grandmother who joined the family here from 1939 until her death in January 1942.

The wooden-framed window overlooks the square, inviting one to peer to the street below. Indeed it was leaning from this window to watch a wedding party below that Anne was captured, in the only known film taken of her, on 22 July 1941.

The view from the living room of the Frank family's flat. Photo Credit: Luuk Kramer Fotographie Amsterdam

The large adjoining living room echoes with the animated Saturday discussions long gone, brought to life by Miep Gies in Anne Frank Remembered,

‘At these Saturday gatherings we all sat around a large round dark oak table in the Franks’ living room. The table was filled with coffee cups, creamers, Mrs Frank’s beautifully polished silver, and delicious home made cake. Everyone talked at once.’

Across the intricately painted hall, near the bathroom with (original) bathtub and hot running water – each of these a luxury in the 1930’s – lies the smallest bedroom, that of Otto and Edith Frank. It is a modest square room with doors to the balcony but it’s winter and the heavy green curtains are drawn.

Adjacent is the bright blue kitchen with original 1930’s tiles  - here donated from neighbouring properties – of the sort that surrounded Edith when she was working on the cakes so admired by Miep.

Kitchen at the Frank's flat at the Merwedeplein. Photo Credit: Luuk Kramer Fotographie Amsterdam

In Anne and Margo’s bedroom hangs a letter from Anne to her grandmother in Switzerland, invaluable to the refurbishment process:

‘ We have a commode, a washbasin and a wardrobe, opposite which is mother’s desk that we have made into a lovely writing table’.

A replica of the writing desk stands at the window before us. It was seated here that Anne began writing in the diary she received for her 13th birthday, on 12 June 1942, a month before the family fled.

Exact replica of the desk at which Anne Frank began her diary at the Merwedeplein flat. Photo Credit: Ellyn Cook

Today, her diary continues to educate millions about the Holocaust. As Ernst Schnabel put it in The Footsteps of Anne Frank,

‘Out of the millions that were silenced, this voice no louder than a child’s whisper… It has outlasted the shouts of the murderers and has soared above the voices of time.’

On leaving the house I remember that it is by this front door that the summons ordering Margo to report for relocation to a work camp in Germany arrived. Now as then, there is a moment of deep, uneasy silence. Today the flat has a new purpose, it is a writers’ house. Leased to the Dutch Foundation for Literature it is a place where foreign writers who are persecuted in their own lands can come to work in freedom. In 2006, Maarten Asscher, board member of the Foundation, noted,

‘It is of rare historical symbolism that writers can finish their work at the exact location where Anne Frank started her diary.’

Here flows more than memory, here hope lives on.

Anne Frank at her writing desk in the family's South Amsterdam flat. Photo Credit: AFF Basel and AFS Amsterdam.

With grateful thanks to Ymere, Het Nederlands Letterenfonds (The Dutch Foundation for Literature), and Bookshop Jimmink.

Further Reading

Further information about Anne and Margo’s childhood on the Merwedeplein can be found in: Childhood Friend of Anne Frank by Hannah Goslar and Leslie Anne Gold My Name Is Anne, She Said, Anne Frank: The Memoirs of Anne Frank’s Best Friend by Jacqueline Van Maarsen Het andere huis van Anne Frank: Geschiedenis en toekomst van een schrijvershuis is sadly out of print. If you’d like a copy, ask us to find one for you via our Used and Rare Books Service – they have plenty!

Essay: The Course in Miracles and the Advaita Vedanta

Monday, September 19th, 2011

The Course in Miracles and the Advaita Vedanta: When Mystical Christianity meets Non-duality

“In order to find out who you are, You must disappear”. This is one of the most remembered quotes from Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, one of the enlightened Masters in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta, a philosophy within the Hinduism that points directly to the “Self” as the source of “I am” the underlying field of awareness which is the primal field or source of creation. By realizing the Self, Advaita practitioners awaken to this unfathomable field of Awareness.

Advaita Vedanta teaches that is through a process called self-enquiry that the Self can be realized. Self-enquiry is encouraged as an inner process of enquiry or investigation in which the fundamental question is contemplated: “What am I?” Realizing the “I am” consciousness, according to Advaita is the sure path to unlock the mystery of existence and to unleash the indescribable gifts of utter Peace, Freedom and Joy in a pure state of Oneness.

Oneness is referred to as “Non-duality”, which in sanskrit is known as “Advaita”. This philosophy is contained within two jewels of the Vedic Scriptures: The Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. Both scriptures are available in English and some of the most handy translations are given by Eknath Easwaran.

But, what is the relation between the Advaita Vedanta and the Course in Miracles? Well, for both the Advaita Vedanta and the Course in Miracles, Truth is contained and realized in a state of Oneness, which in the Course in Miracles is known as “the Atonement” and one which is shared in the “Sonship”.

In order to be established in the state of Oneness, according to the Advaita Vedanta one must awake to the pervading field of Awareness. For this to be attained, the Self must be realized. The Self is the essence, the primordial nature of “I am”, our true identity in other words. Similarly, in the Course in Miracles we learn that “the goal of the curriculum, regardless of the Teacher you choose, is know thy-Self”. …”There is nothing else to seek.”

The all pervading field of Awareness pointed to in the Advaita Vedanta is none other than “The Kingdom of Heaven” in the Course in Miracles. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven”…”But seek this only, because you can find nothing else”. If nothing else is to be found , then the Kingdom of Heaven must be the underlying field of existence or pure “Awareness” that the Advaita Vedanta points to as well.

But, what keep us from realizing the Self or from awakening to the Kingdom of Heaven? Identically, both teachings assert that the sole obstruction to that is the Ego, which is the false idea of what/who we are and through which we, for the most part, experience the world. Since for both teachings the ego does not really exist, because is just a thought powered by our belief system created around it in our minds, the ego can and it must disappear.

The disappearance of the ego for both the Advaita Vedanta and the Course in Miracles requires a resolved determination to undo and to unlearn all our dearest beliefs that support and sustain the ego existence. Mere curiosity, or scattered attempts to “question everything you learned about yourself” (from the Course in Miracles), will not be enough to dissolve the ego.

In order to go through the process of dissolving the ego, the Advaita Vedanta stresses the importance of finding a Teacher. In the Course in Miracles, the Teacher presents himself already as the “older brother” Jesus Christ.

The promise of both Teachings (Advaita and the Course in Miracles), is that the ego can be dissolved -It’s just a thought!- in an instant. Furthermore, the Course in Miracles explains that the notion that this is a “process” that “takes time” is but an Illusion because time is nothing but the outward projection of the Present into the future by the false idea that there are obstacles to learning that need to be removed “in time”. “Fear not this Holy instant in which you remember what you have always been”: -says the Course in Miracles-, Unbounded Truth beyond belief, timeless and changeless, free from the ego, indestructible and beyond measure.

Two clear paths that lead to one clear indivisible Truth by departing from a limiting and unbelievable ego. This is the heritage that Masters and Sages alike embodied and reminded us about and whose promise of attaining it is total Freedom from the World. Only one choice is to be made in this moment of now, says the Course in Miracles: “Would you be hostage to the ego or host to God -Truth-?”

By Oscar Petit, member of ABC’s Spiritual Book Club

If you have an essay or a story about books you simply need to share with the rest of the world, please email it to us at  We also welcome Top 5s, a digital snoop around your bookshelves, your Book of Revelations, and more, in return for book vouchers. See the original post for all the details.

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