7 Essential Collections of Conversations with Cultural Icons
Inside our era’s greatest minds, or what Nelson Mandela has to do with the fringes of the art world.
By Maria Popova
Whatever we might say of the future of the written word, a book remains a remarkable curated package of ideas that matter, one that lives on as a precious time-capsule of the era defined by those ideas. Nowhere is this property of the book more concentrated than in anthologies that gather the first-hand insights and cultural observations of an era’s greatest thinkers. Today, we turn to seven such treasure troves of ideas by some of our time’s most influential writers, artists, scientists, creators, and philosophers.
If you aren’t yet familiar with the work of photographer Andrew Zuckerman, you’re missing some of the most compelling visual philosophy of our day. In Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another, Zuckerman went wisdom-hunting among 50 of our time’s greatest thinkers and doers — writers, artists, philosophers, politicians, designers, activists, musicians, religious and business leaders — all over 65 years of age. (Though Zuckerman himself is just over 30.) He posed 7 questions, recording his subjects’ candid responses in a way that unearths a landslide of intelligence, inspiration, and invaluable insight. From Nelson Mandela to Jane Goodall to Desmond Tutu, the list of modern-day shamans reads like an all-star pickup game between TED and the Nobel Prize.
You don’t stop doing things because you get old. You get old because you stop doing things.” ~ Rosamunde Pilcher, writer
Against the plain white backdrop and in the signature crispness of Zuckerman’s shot, the subjects are stripped down to their core essence, decontextualized and thus democratized in a way that truly captures a cross-cultural cross-section of our era, with all its burdens and triumphs.
Zuckerman subsequently divided the great tome into four smaller, more digestible sub-volumes, each with its own thematic DVD: Wisdom: Life, Wisdom: Love, Wisdom: Peace, and Wisdom: Ideas.
See more, including a behind-the-scenes peek, here.
SCIENCE IS CULTURE
In 2001, Adam Bly founded Seed Magazine with the vision of exploring the social, creative, intellectual, economic, and political transformations underpinned by science. One of the magazine’s most beloved features has been the Seed Salon, pairing a scientist and artist, humanist, or other non-scientist in a conversation about issues of common interest and shared significance. In 2010, Bly collected 12 of these conversations in Science Is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science + Society — a who’s who of contemporary art, science, literature, and philosophy, methodically and thoughtfully bridging the age-old yet, as these conversations prove, artificial divide between science and culture. These tête-à-têtes include momentous pairings like David Byrne + Daniel Levitin, Benoit Mandelbrot + Paola Antonelli, E.O Wilson + Daniel Dennett, and Jonathan Lethem + Janna Levin. (It’s also worth nothing that of the seven books in this omnibus, this one is by far the most gender-balanced in perspectives and representation — something that would be commendable were it not for the tragic admission of male-centricity still being the norm implicit to such commendation.)
Here’s a taste from the salon conversation between author Alan Lightman and choreographer Richard Colton, who discuss the relationship between art and time:
Alan Lightman: If I had a few hours or longer, I could work on a writing project. If I had half an hour, I could do errands or pay bills. If I only had two or three minutes, I could answer telephone messages. I realized that I had carved up the entire day into five-minute units of efficiency, andd I was appalled. I was very upset to think that i was becoming a robot — and I’m wondering, how do you use time in your life?
Richard Colton: One of the things that came to mind when you told this story is something I remember reading during the Gertrude Stein phase, which is that Stein believed the first ingredient for creativity was boredom. You must trust that the mundane will lead to something interesting.
John Cage also taught that if you let the duration of a movement or musical phrase just keep going, it will almost always become more interesting, which is the exact opposite of carving something up into small increments. You will go through a period where the music seems boring, but if you let it keep going it can become quite interesting.”
HANS ULRICH OBRIST INTERVIEWS
Since 1993, curator, critic and art historian Hans-Ulrich Obrist, whom you might remember from the 2010 documentary The Future of Art, has been interviewing hundreds of noteworthy characters who have piqued his curiosity, from renowned luminaries to emerging artists, including writers, scientists, designers, composers, architects, and other thinkers and doers. The project was inspired by two long conversations HUO, as Obrist is often referred to, read when he was a student — one was between Pierre Cabanne and Marcel Duchamp, and the other between David Sylvester and Francis Bacon.
Throughout The Interview Project, HUO has amassed thousands of hours of tapes and more than 300 interviews to date. The first batch of 75 were released in 2003 in Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, currently out-of-print and a collector’s item. In 2010, HUO released the highly anticipated sequel, Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, Volume 2 — an epic 950-page tome featuring 70 fascinating interviews with great minds from inside and outside the art world born between 1900 and 1989, organized by date of birth. Though you might recognize some of the bigger names, like Ai Weiwei and Miranda July, the beauty of the project is that many of its “endless conversations” live in the fringes of culture, where the most provocative art and thought take place.
A meditation on the art of the interview by the exceptional Douglas Coupland captures HUO’s unique gift:
Hans is one of the few people who know what a true interview out to accomplish, and he has an amazing knack for getting to the essence of a person. He’s the press equivalent of laser eye surgery. With HUO you never get to the twenty-first minute, and with HUO you feel like you’ve had a conversation. He does it the old fashioned way, in person, with a microphone, transcribing the results. This second volume of HUO’s interviews is more diverse than his first, and reflects a broader span of voices and points of view. Each person is a person, and each person is unique. This is a difficult feat to accomplish.”
THE INNOVATOR’S COOKBOOK
Speaking of Steven Johnson, the freshest of these anthologies comes precisely from him. On the heels of his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From comes The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next — a formidable compendium of essays, interviews, and insights on innovation featuring big thinkers like Richard Florida, John Seely Brown, Peter Drucker and many more, alongside Johnson’s own narrative mesmerism. The book does away with everything that makes the innovation space a minefield of fluff-lined buzz and offers instead a lucid, thoughtful, cross-disciplinary lens refracting across education, art, science, economics, urban design, and more.
Underpinning the anthology is a message about the essential role serendipity plays in innovation — or, as Johnson puts it, “the importance of getting lost.” And for the ultimate treat, the trailer for it is a stop-motion gem 3D-printed by MakerBot, one of the 7 open-source platforms changing the future of manufacturing:
It may not be possible to ‘win the future,’ in President Obama’s words, but if we’re going to encourage more innovation, it’s not enough for us to just dig in and work harder. We also need to encourage surprise and serendipity. We need to play each other’s instruments.” ~ Steven Johnson
For the past 15 years, literary-agent-turned-crusader-of-human-progress John Brockman has been a remarkable curator of curiosity, long before either “curator” or “curiosity” was a frivolously tossed around buzzword. His Edge.org has become an epicenter of bleeding-edge insight across science, technology and beyond, hosting conversations with some of our era’s greatest thinkers (and, once a year, asking them some big questions.) In Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology, Brockman gathers invaluable essays and interviews by and with icons like Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.
Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.” ~ Brian Eno, “A Big Theory of Culture” (1997)
See the full review, with more excerpts, here.
AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE
By now, you’re no doubt familiar with An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?”, one of our 7 favorite books on optimism and required reading from our summer reading list for cognitive sunshine. To recap: After a stark confrontation with his own mortality, comedian Mark Stevenson spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, hoping to find an optimistic antidote to all the dystopian futurism that constantly bombards us. He synthesized these fascinating insights in an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.
From longevity science to robotics to synthetic biology, these cutting-edge ideas, gathered from all over the world and featuring (alas, mostly male) minds like Chris Anderson, John Seely Brown, and Tim Berners Lee, span a wide spectrum of science and technology, revealing above all the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of disciplines and modes of thinking — a centerpiece of the Brain Pickings ethos.
This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson
PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS
Last year, the excellent Paris Review opened up its archive, containing a half-century worth of fascinating interviews with some of the greatest literary figures in modern history. The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4 is a priceless box-set of these extraordinary interviews and revelatory self-portraits captured between the 1950s and today. From Ernest Hemingway to Maya Angelou to Stephen King, the archive isn’t merely a reflection of literary history, it’s also a goldmine of meditations on culture and creativity by some of our greatest literary icons.
It’s a wonderful thing to be able to create your own world whenever you want to. Writing is very pleasurable, very seductive, and very therapeutic. Time passes very fast when I’m writing—really fast. I’m puzzling over something, and time just flies by. It’s an exhilarating feeling. How bad can it be? It’s sitting alone with fictional characters. You’re escaping from the world in your own way and that’s fine. Why not?” ~ Woody Allen
Here are 10 favorite quotes from the interviews, to give you a taste.
Published October 10, 2011