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A Wonderfully Nerdy Marriage Proposal at the National Book Festival

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Like most 20-somethings using social media, my Facebook newsfeed often features "Jane Doe is now engaged to John Smith" posts, with requisite thumbs-up, squeals of glee from friends, and photos of the engagement rings. Last weekend brought a round of several new proposals, but one in particular caught my eye—it was so unique and so wonderfully nerdy that I had to share it with you all.

On Sunday, September 23, Mike Muller proposed to my friend Rebecca Berkowitz at the Library of Congress's National Book Festival on the National Mall. With a ring hidden in a book. A book that was then autographed—and illustrated!—by the author.

The accompanying caption on Facebook: "Oh you know just hanging out in the media tent at the national book festival on the mall waiting to be interviewed about my engagement!!!!"

But let's start at the beginning...

Becca and Mike dated for years. Last year, though, they broke up; at the time, they were living several states apart and still figuring out their post-college lives. While they were broken up, Becca discovered Craig Thompson's autobiographical graphic novel Blankets (2003), which depicts Thompson's coming-of-age and first love. (The book won 3 Harvey Awards in 2004, 2 Eisner Awards in 2004, 2 Ignatz Awards in 2004, and the Prix de la critique, a French award for best comic album/book, in 2005.) She encouraged Mike to read Blankets as well, her message to Mike being for them "to have faith and to let each other grow and see if we come back together."

They rekindled their relationship during a New Year's trip to Costa Rica, where Mike purchased a wooden lady bug box—lady bugs have a special meaning to them—and they agreed that if he was ever to propose, the ring would go inside that very lady bug box.

So when Mike headed to the DC area last weekend to visit Becca, he brought the lady bug box, an engagement ring he designed himself, and one of their two copies of Blankets, in which he had carved a ringbox-sized hole. The initial proposal plan involved the Capybara exhibit at the Smithsonian, which would have been equally nerdy. That fell through, though, so Mike moved on to Plan B: the National Book Festival.

Once at the Festival, Mike and Becca listened to Thompson speak and then got in line to meet the man himself. When festival workers handed out Post-It notes so the fans could write down what they wanted Thompson to sign in their books, Becca asked Mike what he wanted, taking the book out of her backpack and opening it. As soon as she saw the box, she knew—and Mike dropped to one knee and asked her to marry him.

"We had a few wonderful moments to ourselves," Mike says, before the rest of the fans realized what had happened. The happy couple was soon being cheered and photographed by the Thompson fans around them, and word of the proposal quickly spread. The Festival workers "thought the idea was wonderful" and photographed the two to tweet the news. "It took a full 20 minutes for us to realize they had broken to news to our friends and family before we could," Mike told me; they then rushed out "the typical Facebook update" to alert their nearest and dearest.

The tweet that broke the story from the Junior League of Washington

And then their happy day got even better. Mike and Becca were rushed to the front of Thompson's signing line, where "Thompson seeemed as excited as [they] were." Mike reports that Thompson "was as friendly as could be" and was "flattered" that his book meant so much to them and was such an integral part of their story. Thompson not only signed and dedicated their proposal copy of Blankets, he also drew a personal picture in it.


Left: Showing Thompson their special book. Right: The author and the newly engaged couple posing together


Thompson signing Becca and Mike's book

Becca and Mike were asked by Festival workers if they would tape an interview for the web site, to which they agreed, and they were whisked off to the media tent. (In the photo at left, Becca and Mike prepare for their interview with event staff.) They had a few moments to call their families and have their "own little private celebration," enjoying the free coffee and food provided.

As the party guests—all the prominent authors of the Festival—filed in, they asked Mike and Becca who they were. Upon hearing Mike and Becca's story, the authors wanted to get photos with the happy couple. How many other newly engaged couples celebrate with the likes of Peter Reynolds (illustrator of the Judy Moody children's series), Ed Young (Caldecott Medal-winning author and illustrator), Christopher Paolini (author of Eragon), and Patricia Polacco (children's book author and illustrator)? For Becca and Mike, "it was beyond amazing" to share their day with such literary and artistic minds.

Becca with, from left, Ed Young, Patricia Polacco, and Christopher Paolini


Posing with Peter Reynolds. Says Becca: "He was inspired by us! Amazing."

Becca, an elementary teacher, considers it "a teacher's dream to be 'engaged' in a book." Mike, an aspiring author, found the whole thing "surreal," to have a story "leave the pages and come to life in such a real and profound way." As he wrote to me, "We were able to touch the story that inspired us [Craig Thompson's amazing work] and build it into our own, reinventing the narrative of our lives with every step of the way. All-in-all, not a bad Plan B."

I have to agree with his assessment—not a bad Plan B at all!


The proposal copy of the book, complete with the hole for the ring box and Craig Thompson's dedication and illustration


The custom ring Mike designed for Becca

Congratulations, Mike and Becca!

All photographs courtesy of Rebecca Berkowitz and Mike Muller.

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15 Powerful Quotes From Margaret Atwood
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MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images

It turns out the woman behind such eerily prescient novels as The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake is just as wise as her tales are haunting. Here are 15 of the most profound quips from author, activist, and Twitter enthusiast Margaret Atwood, who was born on this day in 1939.

1. On her personal philosophy

 “Optimism means better than reality; pessimism means worse than reality. I’m a realist.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

2. On the reality of being female

“Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid? It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

3. On limiting how her politics influence her characters

“You know the myth: Everybody had to fit into Procrustes’ bed and if they didn’t, he either stretched them or cut off their feet. I’m not interested in cutting the feet off my characters or stretching them to make them fit my certain point of view.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

4. On so-called “pretty” works of literature

“I don’t know whether there are any really pretty novels … All of the motives a human being may have, which are mixed, that’s the novelists’ material. … We like to think of ourselves as really, really good people. But look in the mirror. Really look. Look at your own mixed motives. And then multiply that.”

— From a 2010 interview with The Progressive

5. On the artist’s relationship with her fans

“The artist doesn’t necessarily communicate. The artist evokes … [It] actually doesn’t matter what I feel. What matters is how the art makes you feel.”

— From a 2004 interview with The Guardian

6. On the challenges of writing non-fiction

“When I was young I believed that ‘nonfiction’ meant ‘true.’ But you read a history written in, say, 1920 and a history of the same events written in 1995 and they’re very different. There may not be one Truth—there may be several truths—but saying that is not to say that reality doesn’t exist.”

— From a 1997 interview with Mother Jones

7. On poetry

“The genesis of a poem for me is usually a cluster of words. The only good metaphor I can think of is a scientific one: dipping a thread into a supersaturated solution to induce crystal formation.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

8. On being labeled an icon

“All these things set a standard of behavior that you don’t necessarily wish to live up to. If you’re put on a pedestal you’re supposed to behave like a pedestal type of person. Pedestals actually have a limited circumference. Not much room to move around.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

9. On how we’re all born writers

“[Everyone] ‘writes’ in a way; that is, each person has a ‘story’—a personal narrative—which is constantly being replayed, revised, taken apart and put together again. The significant points in this narrative change as a person ages—what may have been tragedy at 20 is seen as comedy or nostalgia at 40.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

10. On the oppression at the center of The Handmaid's Tale

“Nothing makes me more nervous than people who say, ‘It can’t happen here. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right circumstances.” 

— From a 2015 lecture to West Point cadets

11. On the discord between men and women

“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine. … ‘They’re afraid women will laugh at them,’ he said. ‘Undercut their world view.’ … Then I asked some women students in a poetry seminar I was giving, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ ‘They’re afraid of being killed,’ they said.”

— From Atwood’s Second Words: Selected Critical Prose, 1960-1982

12. On the challenges of expressing oneself

“All writers feel struck by the limitations of language. All serious writers.”

— From a 1990 interview with The Paris Review

13. On selfies

“I say they should enjoy it while they can. You’ll be happy later to have taken pictures of yourself when you looked good. It’s human nature. And it does no good to puritanically say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that,’ because people do.”

— From a 2013 interview with The Telegraph

14. On the value of popular kids' series (à la Harry Potter and Percy Jackson)

"It put a lot of kids onto reading; it made reading cool. I’m sure a lot of later adult book clubs came out of that experience. Let people begin where they are rather than pretending that they’re something else, or feeling that they should be something else."

— From a 2014 interview with The Huffington Post

15. On why even the bleakest post-apocalyptic novels are, deep down, full of hope

“Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.”

— From a 2011 interview with The Atlantic 

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China's New Tianjin Binhai Library is Breathtaking—and Full of Fake Books
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A massive new library in Tianjin, China, is gaining international fame among bibliophiles and design buffs alike. As Arch Daily reports, the five-story Tianjin Binhai Library has capacity for more than 1 million books, which visitors can read in a spiraling, modernist auditorium with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

Several years ago, municipal officials in Tianjin commissioned a team of Dutch and Japanese architects to design five new buildings, including the library, for a cultural center in the city’s Binhai district. A glass-covered public corridor connects these structures, but the Tianjin Binhai Library is still striking enough to stand out on its own.

The library’s main atrium could be compared to that of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City. But there's a catch: Its swirling bookshelves don’t actually hold thousands of books. Look closer, and you’ll notice that the shelves are printed with digital book images. About 200,000 real books are available in other rooms of the library, but the jaw-dropping main room is primarily intended for socialization and reading, according to Mashable.

The “shelves”—some of which can also serve as steps or seating—ascend upward, curving around a giant mirrored sphere. Together, these elements resemble a giant eye, prompting visitors to nickname the attraction “The Eye of Binhai,” reports Newsweek. In addition to its dramatic main auditorium, the 36,000-square-foot library also contains reading rooms, lounge areas, offices, and meeting spaces, and has two rooftop patios.

Following a three-year construction period, the Tianjin Binhai Library opened on October 1, 2017. Want to visit, but can’t afford a trip to China? Take a virtual tour by checking out the photos below.

A general view of the Tianjin Binhai Library
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman taking pictures at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A man visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A woman looking at books at China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

A general view of China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

People visiting China's Tianjin Binhai Library.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

[h/t Newsweek]

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