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The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians, and Philosophers

John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.

Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:

Tom Wolfe at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Tom Wolfe drops some delightful vintage lingo:

Ace daddy, gym rat, Balzolan reporter, Ph.D.

Cheryl Strayed at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Sarah Stacke courtesy NYPL)

The magnificent Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and is one of the best existential favors one can do oneself, goes for truth-by-way-of-its-opposite, offering “seven words that won’t define [her]”:

Reticent.
Boney.
Mahout.
Indifferent.
Tame.
Archipelago.
Republican.

Daniel Dennett, man of infinite wisdom and endlessly quotable insight:

Philosopher, professor, author, sailor, New Atheist

Jim Holt, whose Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story remains indispensable and who has previously shared some mind-bending insight on the nature of “nothing”:

Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.

David Byrne at LIVE from the NYPL, December 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

David Byrne, who knows a thing or two about how music and creativity work, appears blissfully oblivious to the 7-word-limit brief:

unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, underarms, underpants, unfrozen, unsettled, unfussy

Daniel Kahneman in conversation with Nassim Taleb at LIVE from the NYPL, February 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Daniel Kahneman, whose Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most insightful psychology books in recent history, compensates for Byrne’s excess with his own sub-quota answer:

Endlessly amused by people’s minds

Brian Eno at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Brian Eno, sage of timeless insight on art:

I like making and thinking about culture.

Andrew Solomon in conversation with Paul Holdengräber and Krista Tippett at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2010 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Andrew Solomon, whose meditation on horizontal vs. vertical identity and the power of love is a soul-stirring must-read, goes for something his mother used to say to him:

Good listeners: more interesting than good talkers.

Paul Holdengräber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rem Koolhaas at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Hans Ulrich Obrist, legendary curator and art instigator:

Catalyst
Conversation
Curating
Curiosity
Junctionmaking
Protest against forgetting

Malcolm Gladwell, overlord of the contrarian:

Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.

William Gibson in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, April 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

William Gibson, champion of “personal microculture” and a solid daily creative routine, offers an answer somewhere between Yoda and Gertrude Stein:

Postwar. Cold War. Stop the War. Later.

Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, May 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Elizabeth Gilbert playfully riffs off the title of her modern classic:

Eats/Loves too much…should Pray more.

Ed Ruscha in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Ed Ruscha, who does indeed have a soft spot for sign painting:

Lapsed catholic
Newspaper carrier
Hitchhiker
Sign painter
Printer’s devil
Daydreamer
Artist

Rufus Wainwright with Lucinda Childs at LIVE from the NYPL, September 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Rufus Wainwright, music god, rebels against humility with his characteristic charming irreverence:

According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter

Sherry Turkle in conversation with Steven Johnson at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Sherry Turkle stays true to her technodystopia:

Technology doesn’t just change what we do; it changes who we are.

Errol Morris in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Errol Morris, documentarian extraordinaire and bastion of photographic truth:

autodidact, necrophile, voyeur, filmmaker, opinionated writer, father

Don DeLillo at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Don DeLillo, who also abides by a rigorous writing routine, goes for a beautiful format:

       Bronx boy
wondering
       why he is here.

Madeleine Albright echoes Helen Keller:

Optimist who worries a lot; Grateful American

John Irving at LIVE from the NYPL, January 2013 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

John Irving, crusader against censorship, employs a strategic semicolon:

Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.

Irving was apparently so delighted by the exercise that he took the liberty of writing a few more seven-word bios for other notables:

FOR DICKENS (THE WRITER):
Had many kids; wrote about unhappy childhoods.

FOR THE OTHER DICKENS, MY DOG:
Best dog ever — she had a family.

AND THOMAS HARDY:
Fate, the universe driver; stopped writing for idiots.

NATURALLY, I COULDN’T RESIST MELVILLE:
More than a postal worker; knew whales, too.

Edmund de Waal in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Edmund de Waal has some fun with it:

Actually, I still make pots you know.

Rem Koolhaas stays true to form:

Mystic rational sober baroque patient immediate

Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan in conversation at LIVE from the NYPL

Andrew Sullivan, who is one of the living reasons to love the internet and whose decades-long advocacy has been critical in the historic attainment of marriage equality, follows Strayed’s suit with anti-descriptive sarcasm:

French, straight, single, Anglican, diabetic, illiterate, slut.

Then comes Dan Savage, whose own tireless advocacy can’t be overstated:

asshole, blond, slut, shy, sunny, father, husband.

Anish Kapoor offers what’s arguably the most beautiful, in sheer poetics of language, answer:

As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain

Joan Didion at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

But my favorite comes from notebook-lover Joan Didion, who has a rare gift for wry self-awareness and unwavering self-respect:

Seven words do not yet define me.

Paul Holdengräber (Photograph by Jocelyn Chase)

And, of course, this omnibus wouldn’t be complete without Holdengräber’s own 7-word autobiography, as pointedly brilliant as the man:

Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.

See the full conversations on the LIVE from the NYPL Vimeo channel, treat yourself to one of the upcoming live events, and join me in supporting NYPL programming, which, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by patron donations.

BP

The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol

It’s hard not to love a good book trailer. Enter this fantastic new trailer for John Wilcock‘s The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol. (The second Warhol-related gem to drop this year.)

Granted, the book isn’t actually as much an autobiography so much as it is a biography collaged through interviews with 20 people close to Warhol at the end of the 60’s — from Nico to Taylor Mead to Lou Reed — trying to “explain” and make sense of the pop art icon. Still, it’s a remarkable piece of cultural history offering a rare glimpse of a man full of contradictions.

A lot of people really misunderstood him then and indeed still do, although there’s hardly a day when Andy’s name is not mentioned in the paper. He’s become a kind of icon, kind of representative of what the 60’s were.” ~ John Wilcock

Wilcock is a self-admitted expert on Warhol — he used to go to The Factory, Warhol’s famous studio, two or three times a week during the sixties and early seventies, and accompanied him to the sets of his first films.

Andy taught me an awful lot about life. I learned that artist and poets who hang around together basically tell the future, and even though they maybe explain it in words or in images that you’re not quite clear about, somebody interprets that. And, to some extent, I felt that was my role — to hang around artists and try and explain what I thought was some of the meaning.” ~ John Wilcock

The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol is as wondefully written as it is beautifully art-directed, full of rare images that make it double as a priceless stand-alone photography book. See for yourself — you can preview it on the book’s website.

via Flavorpill

BP

Darwin’s Greatest Regret and His Deathbed Reflection on What Makes Life Worth Living

“If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

A century before an encyclopedia titled Natural Wonders Every Child Should Know fell into Alan Turing’s child-hands and seeded the ideas that bloomed into the computing revolution, an encyclopedia titled Wonders of the World fell into the child-hands of Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882), seeding in him the passion for travel to remote wonderlands of nature that took him aboard the Beagle to make the observations that ultimately came abloom in his evolutionary revolution.

Charles Darwin, age 7. Portrait by Ellen Sharples, 1816.

Darwin grew up in the Golden Age of the great nature-poets — the days of Wordsworth’s proclamation that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge… impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science” — and so the boy’s passion for the science of nature came coupled with a passion for its splendor, channeled in the poetic and aesthetic enchantments of the human arts.

Between lessons on Euclid, the teenage Darwin sat for hours reading poetry: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Milton. Later, when he could only carry a single book on his voyages, he carried Paradise Lost.

Art by William Blake for a rare 1808 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost

At twenty, after traveling to a “music meeting” in Birmingham, Darwin wrote to his cousin: “[It] was the most glorious thing I ever experienced.” His love of music grew so intense that, as he began formulating his ideas about evolutionary descent, he timed his thinking-walks to hear the choir at Kings College Chapel. “It gave me intense pleasure, so that my backbone would sometimes shiver,” he recalled in his old age, baffled that music could move him so deeply despite his own exceptionally bad ear for pitch. (Here Darwin falls victim to his time and training, looking for a physiological explanation before the birth of psychology and neuroscience, before we understood how music moves us not by sense-organ mechanics but by the lever of feeling — that supreme interpretive art of higher consciousness, so that “matter delights in music, and became Bach.”)

This feeling-tone of the beautiful, this delight in the native poetry and musicality of aliveness, accompanied Darwin as he dove deeper and deeper into science to emerge with nothing less than a new world order of understanding the natural world and our place in it. In the last months of finalizing On the Origin of Species, the forty-nine-year-old Darwin wrote in an ecstatic letter to his wife and great love, Emma:

I strolled a little beyond the glade for an hour and a half… the fresh yet dark green of the grand old Scotch firs, the brown of the catkins of the old birches, with their white stems, and a fringe of distant green from the larches, made an excessively pretty view… a chorus of birds singing around me, and squirrels running up the trees, and some woodpeckers laughing… it was as pleasant and rural a scene as ever I saw and did not care one penny how the beasts or birds had been formed.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane — a twenty-first-century act of poetic resistance to the erasure of nature from the human repertoire of ecstatic imagination.

When the Beagle took him to Brazil in his mid-twenties, Darwin gasped in his journal as he beheld the grandeur of the rainforest:

It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.

These “higher feelings” shaped his notion of divinity — he observed that the devotional experience people cite as their proof of God is based on the same “sense of sublimity” that nature’s grandeur stirs in the spirit, the same “powerful though vague and similar feelings excited by music.” (Two centuries later, the poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman would echo and harmonize this idea in her lovely notion of the Earth ecstatic as a personal religion.)

But then, as Darwin grew old, something happened — something he himself struggled to understand, something that caused him great sorrow: This radiant delight in aliveness through the transcendent experience of beauty — be it in spring’s symphony of songbirds or in a Bach sonata, in a Whitman poem or in the slant of sunlight on a centuries-old oak — grew dim, then was altogether extinguished. Darwin found himself mentally alert and active, but blind, deaf, dead to the life of feeling with which beauty inspirits us.

This gave him both his greatest regret and his greatest insight into the purpose of life.

Charles Darwin in his later years. Portrait by the pioneering photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

In his final years, Darwin set aside an hour each afternoon to reflect on his life and to impart the private cosmogony of meaning he had discovered in his seven decades. In a set of autobiographical sketches he wrote for his children, bearing the heading “Recollections of the Development of My Mind and Character,” he considered what makes us human, what makes us happy, and what makes life worth living. After his death, finding in these notes immense insight and universal value, his children edited and published them as The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (public library).

In one of these recollections, the elderly Darwin writes:

My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure… Pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight… But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry…Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.

In a sentiment of extraordinary lucidity and humility, and of immense foresight given what we have since learned about the brain, Darwin bends his mind into examining its own inner workings, illuminating the most essential nature of the human animal — a beast of feeling, wired not for brutality but for beauty:

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not, I suppose, have thus suffered; and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.

Complement with Mary Shelley, writing in Darwin’s epoch about a twenty-first-century world savaged by a deadly pandemic, on what makes life worth living and Walt Whitman, writing shortly after his paralytic stroke, on how an appetite for nature’s beauty restores vitality, then revisit the story of how Darwin’s greatest loss shaped his view of life.

BP

The Other Great Gertrude-and-Alice Love Story: The Life and Legacy of Pioneering Photographer and Bicyclist Alice Austen

Quiet courage and improbable redemption under the sycamore tree.

She has mounted fifty pounds of photography equipment on her bicycle and is pedaling along the shore to the Staten Island ferry, headed for Manhattan. Photography is only a generation old and Alice Austen (March 17, 1866–June 9, 1952) is twenty-nine. She is about to take photographs of the proper technique for mounting, dismounting, riding, and carrying a bicycle for her friend Maria’s trailblazing manifesto-manual for cycling, inciting Victorian women to embrace the spoked engine of emancipation: “You are at all times independent. This absolute freedom of the cyclist can be known only to the initiated.”

Illustration from Bicycling for Ladies based on Alice Austen’s photographs. Available as a print and as a face mask.

Alice — artist, athlete, banjo player, sailor, founder of the Staten Island Garden Club, the first woman to own a car in the borough — has come as close to absolute freedom as a woman of her era could come, transcending the narrow roadways of her time with her wheels, her lens, and her love.

Alice Austen and her bicycle, circa 1897. (Alice Austen House archive.)

As the ferry traverses the East River, Alice is watching the Statue of Liberty rise imperturbable over Ellis Island, where she has just photographed people at New York Harbor’s immigrant quarantine stations — something she did every year for a decade, returning to that crucible of humility and hope to document those tender and terrifying moments when lives are begun afresh with little more than wordless daring and a fragile dream.

Soldiers at the Statue of Liberty docks, August 1887. (Alice Austen House archive.)

As a girl, abandoned by her father before her birth and raised by her mother in a cottage by an enormous sycamore rising strong despite the blackened interior hollowed out by lightning, Alice had watched Lady Liberty being built, part emblem and part promise. The statue was dedicated the year Emily Dickinson died and Alice turned ten — the year her uncle, a sea-captain, gave her a dry-plate camera from England as a birthday present.

Alice Austen. Self-portrait, age nineteen. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Turning a closet into a darkroom, Alice proceeded to teach herself the art of photography, taking meticulous process notes to refine her technique. Not yet out of her teens and already one of the most accomplished photographers in America, she ventured out into world to document its vibrant life, dedicating hers to her art. In an era when almost no women practiced photography — an activity both intensely physical and intensely delicate, given the size, weight, and fragility of early cameras and glass plates — she became the first American woman known to work outside the studio, creating what we now know as street photography.

Young bicycle messenger, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Riding the Manhattan-bound ferry that day in her youth, Alice didn’t yet know — for we never know these things — that she was soon to meet the love of her life.

Formal seated portrait of Alice Austen by Dunn Portrait Studios of New Brunswick, New Jersey, June 30, 1887. (Alice Austen House archive.)

In the final months of the nineteenth century, Alice Austen took a summer vacation in the Catskill Mountains, where she met Gertrude Tate, six years her junior — a vivacious dance instructor and kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn, who wore a wig over her buzz-cut hair and with whom Alice would spend the remaining fifty-three years of her life.

Gertrude Tate dancing in the sun in 1899, the summer she and Alice met in the Catskills. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Gertrude Tate. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Gertrude with and without wig, Catskill Mountains, 1899. (Alice Austen House archive.)

So began the other great Gertrude-and-Alice love story — far less fabled than the one of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas a generation later, but also one in which two people, joined together, become themselves.”

Over her long life, Alice Austen took more than 8,000 photographs, turning her sensitive and daring lens toward the lives of immigrants, child laborers, New York “street types,” and people for whom Victorian culture had neither terms nor tenderness and whom we might call LGBT today.

Alice Austen’s friend Maria Ward, who went by Violet, with partner, circa 1890. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Emerging from her photographs is a lovely testament to Frederick Douglass’s faith in early photography as an instrument of social justice, bridging the ideal and the real.

Trude & I, 1890s. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
Julia Martin, Julia Bredt and self dressed up, sitting down, 1891. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
The Darned Club, 1891. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)
Group Apparatus, 1893. (Alice Austen Photograph Collection, Staten Island Historical Society.)

A generation before Berenice Abbott, another trailblazing lesbian photographer, created her iconic series Changing New York, Alice Austen captured the changing face of the city — this ever-changing emblem of a city — during its most rapid period of transformation as modernity was finding its sea legs and America was becoming America.

Postman collecting the day’s mail at 56th Street and Madison Avenue, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Newsboy at Grand Central Depot, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Organ-grinder with wife at 48th Street and Broadway, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Street-cleaner at 34th Street, New York City, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Two working children at City Hall Park, part of Alice Austen’s 1896 series Street Types of New York. (Alice Austen House archive.)

When the stock market crashed in 1929, Alice was flung into financial struggle. By the end of WWII, she and Gertrude were evicted from the home they had shared for three decades and thrust into the hands of their respective extended families, none of whom approved of their lifelong relationship. Without means and without options, they were separated. Gertrude was taken to Queens. At eighty, Alice ended up at the Staten Island Farm Colony — the euphemistic name for the local poorhouse. Gertrude, who continued teaching dance well into her seventies, visited weekly.

Alice (seated) and Gertrude in their late years. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Like Vivian Maier — another visionary photographer who also captured the street life of the city and who also, by the scant surviving evidence, was very probably queer — Alice Austen lived out her life without artistic recognition. Like Maier’s work, Austen’s was brought to light by a man who chanced upon it and knew he had chanced upon greatness. Unlike Maier, Austen was still alive.

In 1950, while working on his book The Revolt of American Women, Oliver Jensen — a thirty-six-year-old former Life magazine editor and writer — discovered 3,500 of Alice’s glass-plate negatives in the basement of the Staten Island Historical Society and was instantly taken with their uncommon genius. Leafing through phone books, he was staggered to realize that Alice was still alive, then doubly staggered to learn that she was living at a poorhouse.

Drawing on his magazine connections, he secured publication of Alice’s work in Life, which raised enough funds to migrate her to a nursing home. He then built on the initial visibility to organize an exhibition of her work at a local museum in 1951 — the first and only in her lifetime. When the show opened on October 7, now celebrated as Alice Austen Day, Alice was there with Gertrude by her side.

A friend’s young sons in what Alice called her “express wagon,” May 1889. (Alice Austen House archive.)
Six women, Staten Island, 1895. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Shortly after the opening, Alice suffered a stroke. By spring, she was dead. Gertrude survived her by a decade, living to ninety. The couple had expressly wished to be buried together — a wish Gertrude’s family bluntly refused in one final act of assault on their lifelong devotion.

Alice and Gertrude, early 1900s. (Alice Austen House archive.)

Today, the Staten Island home the couple shared for most of their life, the cottage in which Alice grew up and mastered her art, survives as Alice Austen House — part museum and part memorial, celebrating Alice’s trailblazing art and the totality of being from which it sprang, including her lush love for Gertrude. The sycamore tree — one of the sylvan marvels in Benjamin Swett’s wonderful book New York City of Trees (public library), from which I first learned of Alice Austen’s story — still rises by the house, still charred and hollowed, still growing and lush with life.

BP

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