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Favorite Books of 2019

From the hidden universe beneath our feet to delight as a countercultural force of courage and resistance, by way of Patti Smith, Toni Morrison, and the Greek myths.

Long ago, when the present and the living appealed to me more, I endeavored to compile “best of” reading lists at the close of each year. Even then, those were inherently incomplete and subjective reflections of one person’s particular tastes, but at least my scope of contemporary reading was wide enough to narrow down such a selection.

In recent years, these subjective tastes have taken me further and further into the past, deeper and deeper into the common record of wisdom recorded decades, centuries, millennia ago, drawn from the most timeless recesses of the human heart and mind. Outside the year’s loveliest children’s books — a stratum of literature with which I still actively and ardently engage — I now nurse no illusion of having an even remotely adequate sieve for the “best” of what is published each passing year, given that I read so very little of it (and given, too, that this particular year I birthed the first book of my own — itself the product of a long immersion in the past). But of the books I did read in 2019, these are the ones that will stay with me for life.

YEAR OF THE MONKEY

“Life is a dream. ‘Tis waking that kills us,” Virginia Woolf wrote in Orlando — her groundbreaking novel that gallops across centuries of history, across lines of logic and convention, to telescope a vision for a different future of the human heart.

There are moments in life when it is no longer clear whether we dream our dreams or are dreamt by them — moments when reality presses against us with such intensity, acute and overwhelmingly real, that all we can do is sit on its sharp edge of uncertainty, feet dangling into a dream, hoping for clarity and fortitude. And then, on these dream-drenched feet, we get back up and march into the uncertainty, then soar over it on the wingspan of perspective we call hope.

That is what Patti Smith offers with uncommon elegance of thought and feeling in Year of the Monkey (public library) — a dream-driven, reality-reclaiming masterpiece, laced with poetry and philosophy and surrealism and the hardest realism there is: that of hope.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

Where her stunning memoir M Train rode on the arrowy vector of time and transformation, Year of the Monkey revolves around the cyclical nature of time and being — of personal, cultural, and civilizational history — evocative of the Australian aboriginal notion of “dream time.” The story — part dream and part reality, haunted and haunting, unfolding in a place where “the borders of reality had reconfigured,” a place with “the improbable logic of a child’s treasure map” — begins at a real motel called the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, where Smith has traveled just before her 69th birthday to visit a friend of forty years, now comatose at the ICU. The motel sign comes alive, speaks to her, becomes her ongoing interlocutor, demands that she admit to dreaming, insists that she assent to unreality — conversations that become the book’s undergirding creative trope.

“Dream Inn. Santa Cruz.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

As she moves through this unfamiliar world of side streets and taco bars, each unvisited place radiates the aura of what Mark Strand called, in his gorgeous ode to dreams, “a place that seems always vaguely familiar.” At the Dream Inn, she dreams many dreams that are “much more than dreams, as if originating from the dawn of mind.” She dreams of being left behind — on the side of the road, in the middle of the desert, in a flooding apartment; dreams of being a young girl in the 18th century, gazing at Goethe’s color wheel, “bright and obscure”; longs for her long-dead mother’s voice. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep — the space Nathaniel Hawthorne so memorably described as “a spot where Father Time, when he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the way side to take breath” — she hears her mother recite a Robert Louis Stevenson poem about the meaning of home.

Through it all, there is a fierce commitment to facing reality — the disquieting reality we live in, a reality of unrest and injustice, of ecological and moral collapse. But there is also something else, something mighty. Beneath the blanket of gloom — friends dying, strangers’ children dying, species dying, icebergs melting, truth burning, justice crumbling — she senses something buoyant pressing up, insisting on existence, “like the birth of a poem or a small volcano erupting.” It is this sort of optimism that animates the book — optimism that feels not human but geologic, more kindred to the optimism of a tree, rooted in deep time, in strata of cultures and civilizations who all lived and died, hoped and despaired, foraged for meaning, dwelt in dreams; the optimism of uncertainty, the kind Václav Havel recognized as the willingness “to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Lurching into the lacunae between self and world, between poetry and politics, between history and future, Smith invites us to relinquish the different names we give to the living of life and just live it, with all its disorienting uncertainty. Reading this small, miraculous book, I get the feeling of being at open sea, far from land, on one of those rare nights when the surface of the water becomes so still and the reflections of the stars so crisp that the horizon line vanishes and there is no longer a sense of sky or water, of up or down or East or West, of what is reflection and what is reality — only the feeling of being immersed in a cosmic everythingness, with pure spacetime stretching in all directions, star-salted and possible.

She moves through this world as a time-traveler, an eavesdropper, a vagrant, a vagabond in the land of literature and life, where people, always seemingly unwitting of her identity, engage her in diners to talk about Roberto Bolaño novels, take her on as a hitchhiker so long as she pays for the gas and vows to keep perfectly silent, ditch her at a gas station when she breaks the vow to compliment a playlist of songs from her youth. She is nameless, fameless, a human mirror held up to the world — a Borgesian mirror, in which each reflection sparks another reflection, never quite clear whether real or dream-drawn, in an infinity-leaning regress of memories and meditations.

“Fortune cookie. Venice Beach.” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

In Venice Beach, passing by a mural of Fiddler on the Roof, she nods at the Yiddish fiddler “commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.” A woman waves her into a restaurant called Mao’s Kitchen, “a communal kind of place,” which sparks the memory of journeying with a poet-friend “through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most,” looking for the cave near the Chinese border where the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was written. She reads a fortune cookie — “You will step on the soul of many countries.” — only to realize she has misread “soul” for “soil”; she doesn’t belabor the poignancy of the inadvertently revised prophecy and nor will I. She packs her few possessions — “jacket, camera, identity card, notebook, pen, dead phone and some money” — to go visit that same poet-friend in Tucson and remembers him sitting on the wide veranda of a temple they had visited together in Phnom Penh long ago, singing to the children that congregated around him, “the sun a halo around his long hair.” Radiating from the pages is the delicious bittersweetness of life lost to time but fully lived in the course of being. The memory-portrait she paints is suffused with this bittersweetness, tender and transcendent and Blakean:

He looked up at me and smiled. I heard laughter, tinkling bells, bare feet on the temple stairs. It was all so close, the rays of the sun, the sweetness, a sense of time lost forever.

There is also, of course, Smith’s ferocious lifelong love of reading, animating the book as it animates the self from which it sprang. She dreams of a street named Voltaire and a horse named Noun. Shakespeare, Nabokov, and Proust, The Magic Mountain, The Divine Comedy, and Pinocchio flit in and out. Lewis Carroll bends her logic. Gauss and Galileo taunt her with the necessity of proof. A mental trick inspired by Melville helps her salve insomnia. “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live,” Marcus Aurelius scolds her on the eve of her seventieth birthday, as he has scolded millions of us across the millennia from the pages of his timeless Meditations. She meets the Stoic’s charge with a Jimi Hendrix retort: “I’m going to live my life the way I want to.” All the while, the Dream Inn sign continues sending her dispatches from the recesses of her own unconscious:

Nothing is ever solved. Solving is an illusion. There are moments of spontaneous brightness, when the mind appears emancipated, but that is mere epiphany.

“Joshua Tree cactus” by Patti Smith from Year of the Monkey.

A recurring dream-companion she meets in a Virginia Beach diner — a Russian-Mexican Bolaño-lover named Ernest with a melancholy, metaphysical bend and eyes that “kept changing like a mood ring, from pure grey to the color of chocolate” — tells her:

Some dreams aren’t dreams of all, just another angle of physical reality.

I hear the voice of the painter, poet, and philosopher Etel Adnan whisper that “the logic of dreams is superior to the one we exercise while awake” as Ernest’s words become the soundwave of Smith’s unconscious mind:

There’s no hierarchy. That’s the miracle of a triangle. No top, no bottom, no taking sides. Take away the tags of the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and replace each with love. See what I mean? Love. Love. Love. Equal weight encompassing the whole of so called spiritual existence.

Read more here.

THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS

“The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy,” Hermann Hesse wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century in trying to course-correct the budding consumerist conscience toward the small triumphs of attentive presence that make life worth living, adding: “My advice to the person suffering from lack of time and from apathy is this: Seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys.” Delights, we may call them. And that is what poet Ross Gay does call them as he picks up, a century and a civilizational failure later, where Hesse left off with The Book of Delights (public library) — his yearlong experiment in learning to notice, amid a world that so readily gives us reasons to despair, the daily wellsprings of delight, or what Wendell Berry, in his gorgeous case for delight as a countercultural force of resistance, called the elemental pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”

Ross Gay in his beloved community garden

Each day, beginning on his forty-second birthday and ending on his forty-third, Gay composed one miniature essay — “essayettes,” he calls them, in that lovely poet’s way of leavening meaning with makeshift language — about a particular delight encountered that day, swirled around his consciousness to extract its maximum sweetness. (Delight, he tells us, means “out from light,” sharing etymological roots with delicious and delectable.) What emerges is not a ledger of delights passively logged but a radiant lens actively searching for and magnifying them, not just with the mind but with the body as an instrument of wonder-stricken presence — the living-gladness counterpart to Tolstoy’s kindred-spirited but wholly cerebral Calendar of Wisdom.

Page after page, small joy after small joy, one is reminded — almost with the shock of having forgotten — that delights are strewn about this world like quiet, inappreciable dew-drops, waiting for the sunshine of our attention to turn them into gold.

Photograph by Maria Popova

He writes:

Patterns and themes and concerns show up… My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.

In a passage evocative of those delicious lines from Mary Oliver’s serenade to life — “there is so much to admire, to weep over / and to write music or poems about” — he adds:

It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study… I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight. I also learned this year that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.

Art by Cindy Derby from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

And so we learn, as passengers on Gay’s delightcraft, that it is not just a matter of paying attention, but of taking attention, of deliberately shifting it, of diverting the glycogen that pumps our despair muscle and clenches the fist scanning for danger, for that selfsame glycogen is needed to pump our delight muscle and open the palm to hold joy.

He writes:

When I began this gathering of essays, which, yes, comes from the French essai, meaning to try, or to attempt, I planned on writing one of these things — these attempts — every day for a year. When I decided this I was walking back to my lodging in a castle (delight) from two very strong espressos at a café in Umbertide (delight), having just accidentally pilfered a handful of loquats from what I thought was a public tree (but upon just a touch more scrutiny was obviously not — delight!), and sucking on the ripe little fruit, turning the smooth gems of their seeds around in my mouth as wild fennel fronds wisped in the breeze on the roadside, a field of sunflowers stretched to the horizon, casting their seedy grins to the sun above, the honeybees in the linden trees thick enough for me not only to hear but to feel in my body, the sun like a guiding hand on my back, saying everything is possible. Everything.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener.

To be sure, this capacity for drinking in the glorious everythingness of the world is rooted in recognizing the immense and improbable elemental delight of one’s own existence — the consequence of what Gay calls “the many thousand — million! — accidents — no, impossibilities! — leading to our births,” that miracle of chance he had contemplated a decade earlier in a wondrous poem. He marvels at the improbable origin of his own delight:

For god’s sake, my white mother had never even met a black guy! My father failed out of Central State (too busy looking good and having fun, so they say), got drafted, and was counseled by his old man to enlist in the navy that day so as not to go where the black and brown and poor kids go in the wars of America. And they both ended up, I kid you not, in Guam. Black man, white woman, the year of Loving v. Virginia, on a stolen island in the Pacific, a staging ground for American expansion and domination. Comes some babies, one of them me.

One of the readiest sources of daily delight comes — predictably, given the well documented physiological and psychological consolations of nature — from his beloved community garden. (Gay is as much a poet as he is a devoted gardener, though perhaps as Emily Dickinson well knew, the two are but a single occupation.) In an early-August essayette titled “Inefficiency,” he writes:

I don’t know if it’s the time I’ve spent in the garden (spent an interesting word), which is somehow an exercise in supreme attentiveness — staring into the oregano blooms wending through the lowest branches of the goumi bush and the big vascular leaves of the rhubarb—and also an exercise in supreme inattention, or distraction, I should say, or fleeting intense attentions, I should say, or intense fleeting attentions — did I mention the hummingbird hovering there with its green-gold breast shimmering, slipping its needle nose in the zinnia, and zoom! Mention the pokeweed berries dangling like jewelry from a flapper mid-step. Mention the little black jewels of deer scat and the deer-shaped depressions in the grass and red clover. Uh oh.

Illustration by Ashleigh Corrin from Layla’s Happiness by Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

In an early-autumn essayette, drawing on Zadie Smith’s elegant reflections on joy, and on Rilke, and on Edmund Burke and the Romantics, Gay offers the daring theory that joy is “not a feeling or an accomplishment: it’s an entering and a joining with the terrible.” He then tests it in the only laboratory we have for our life-theories — our own being-in-the-world:

I dreamed a few years back that I was in a supermarket checking out when I had the stark and luminous and devastating realization — in that clear way, not that oh yeah way — that my life would end. I wept in line watching people go by with their carts, watching the cashier move items over the scanner, feeling such an absolute love for this life. And the mundane fact of buying groceries with other people whom I do not know, like all the banalities, would be no more so soon, or now. Good as now.

[…]

Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about her pedagogical aspirations or ethos, how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classrooms to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” Sit with that for a minute.

[…]

It astonishes me sometimes — no, often — how every person I get to know — everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything — lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything. Not to mention the existential sorrow we all might be afflicted with, which is that we, and what we love, will soon be annihilated. Which sounds more dramatic than it might. Let me just say dead. Is this, sorrow, of which our impending being no more might be the foundation, the great wilderness? Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is — and if we join them — your wild to mine — what’s that? For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation. What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

Read more here.

UNDERLAND

“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.

Nearly a century later, Robert Macfarlane — a rare writer of Carson’s sensibility, who rises to the level of enchanter — extends a lyrical invitation to a vicarious journey into another mysterious earthly universe of all-pervading darkness with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library).

Art by Andrea D’Aquino from a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Macfarlane writes:

We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.

Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:

Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.

Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.

[…]

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.

Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).

Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).

Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).

Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.

Echoing Oliver Sacks’s lovely case for nature’s beauty as a lens on deep time and the interleaving of the universe, Macfarlane writes:

“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.

But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:

We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:

When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.

To probe the mysteries of this largely unfathomed underland, Macfarlane explores mines and railway tunnels, catacombs and particle colliders, seeks answers from a spectrum of scientists and indigenous cultures, contemplates the relationship between landscape and language, and draws on the work of pioneers like forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the astonishing science of how trees communicate, and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species.

Read more here.

HEALING THE DIVIDE

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Tolstoy wrote in looking back on his long and imperfect life. These words with which he encased the most immortal truth of the human heart open poet James Crews’s wondrous anthology Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection (public library) — a tender, truthful mirror held up to what is best in us amid a culture that so readily caricatures us at our worst, featuring soul-salving, rupture-suturing, sanity-resuscitating poems by virtuosos of verse like Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Tracy K. Smith, Lucille Clifton, W.S. Merwin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ross Gay, Rita Dove, Donald Hall, and Jane Kenyon.

WINTER SUN
by Molly Fisk

How valuable it is in these short days,
threading through empty maple branches,
the lacy-needled sugar pines.

Its glint off sheets of ice tells the story
of Death’s brightness, her bitter cold.

We can make do with so little, just the hint
of warmth, the slanted light.

The way we stand there, soaking in it,
mittened fingers reaching.

And how carefully we gather what we can
to offer later, in darkness, one body to another.

Radiating from the pages is a soulful testament to Adrienne Rich’s insistence that “poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire” and affirmation of Muriel Rukeyser lovely formulation of what poetry does for us: “However confused the scene of our life appears, however torn we may be who now do face that scene, it can be faced, and we can go on to be whole.”

THE SOURCE OF SELF-REGARD

Among the colossal losses of this year was Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019) — one of the titanic thinkers and writers of our time, who received her Nobel Prize in Literature — the first black woman to be awarded the accolade — with what remains the most beautiful Nobel speech ever given. That speech, along with other invaluable remnants of this irreplaceable mind, appears in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library) — Morrison’s final nonfiction collection, replete with her wisdom on subjects as varied as borders and belonging, the singular humanistic power of storytelling, and our search for wisdom in the age of information.

Toni Morrison (Courtesy  Alfred A. Knopf)
Toni Morrison (Courtesy Alfred A. Knopf)

At the center of the collection is Morrison’s insistence on the power of art as a humanistic force of transformation. Half a century after James Baldwin asserted that “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and he must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven,” Morrison writes in her PEN/Borders Literary Service Award acceptance speech, which opens the volume:

Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.

[…]

Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.

Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches — a celebration of trailblazing women writers who have enchanted and transformed the world.

In another piece, drawn from her 1990 Massey Lectures at Harvard, Morrison echoes Ursula K. Le Guin’s astute observation that “storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,” and probes deeper into the singular gift and responsibility of the writer:

Writers are among the most sensitive, most intellectually anarchic, most representative, most probing of artists. The writer’s ability to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange, and to mystify the familiar — all this is the test of her or his power. The languages she or he uses (imagistic, structural, narrative) and the social and historical context in which these languages signify are indirect and direct revelations of that power and its limitations.

A quarter century later, in an award acceptance speech delivered at Vanderbilt University in the spring of 2013, also included in the book, Morrison considers her core credo as a writer and the central function of art in human life:

I am a writer and my faith in the world of art is intense but not irrational or naïve. Art invites us to take the journey beyond price, beyond costs into bearing witness to the world as it is and as it should be. Art invites us to know beauty and to solicit it from even the most tragic of circumstances. Art reminds us that we belong here. And if we serve, we last. My faith in art rivals my admiration for any other discourse. Its conversation with the public and among its various genres is critical to the understanding of what it means to care deeply and to be human completely. I believe.

Read more from the book here.

AUTUMN LIGHT

Rilke considered winter the season for tending to one’s inner garden. A century after him, Adam Gopnik reverenced the bleakest season as a necessary counterpoint to the electricity of spring, harmonizing the completeness of the world and helping us better appreciate its beauty — without winter, he argued, “we would be playing life with no flats or sharps, on a piano with no black keys.”

What, then, of autumn — that liminal space between beauty and bleakness, foreboding and bittersweet, yet lovely in its own way? Colette, in her meditation on the splendor of autumn and the autumn of life, celebrated it as a beginning rather than a decline. But perhaps it is neither — perhaps, between its falling leaves and fading light, it is not a movement toward gain or loss but an invitation to attentive stillness and absolute presence, reminding us to cherish the beauty of life not despite its perishability but precisely because of it; because the impermanence of things — of seasons and lifetimes and galaxies and loves — is what confers preciousness and sweetness upon them.

So argues Pico Iyer, one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time, in Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (public library).

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Having spent a long stretch of life in bicultural seasonality, traveling between the California home of his octogenarian mother and the Japanese home he has made with his wife Hiroko, Iyer reflects on what the country of his heart — home to the beautiful philosophy of wabi-sabi — has taught him about the heart’s seasons:

I long to be in Japan in the autumn. For much of the year, my job, reporting on foreign conflicts and globalism on a human scale, forces me out onto the road; and with my mother in her eighties, living alone in the hills of California, I need to be there much of the time, too. But I try each year to be back in Japan for the season of fire and farewells. Cherry blossoms, pretty and frothy as schoolgirls’ giggles, are the face the country likes to present to the world, all pink and white eroticism; but it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart.

We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last; it’s their frailty that adds sweetness to their beauty. In the central literary text of the land, The Tale of Genji, the word for “impermanence” is used more than a thousand times, and bright, amorous Prince Genji is said to be “a handsomer man in sorrow than in happiness.” Beauty, the foremost Jungian in Japan has observed, “is completed only if we accept the fact of death.” Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.

Art from Trees at Night, 1926. (Available as a print.)

The sudden death of Iyer’s father-in-law focuses that existential light to a burning beam and pulls him, unseasonably, to Japan in the flaming height of autumn, to the small wooden house where his wife’s parents lived and loved for half a century. With the suprasensory porousness to life that the death of a loved one gives us, Iyer travels across time and space, to another season and another loss in the California wildfires, and writes:

Everything is burning now, though the days have lost little in clarity or warmth. The leaves are scraps of flame, the hills electric with color; as we fall into December, everything is ready to be reduced to ash. From the windows of the health club, I see bonfires sending smoke above the gas stations; I walk up through magic-hour streets and wonder how long these days of gold can last.

It still has the capacity to chill me: the memory of the flames tearing through the black hillsides all around as I drove down after forty-five minutes of watching our family home, some years ago, reduced to cinders. Death paying a house call; and then, when the house was rebuilt on its perilous ridge — where my mother sleeps right now — again and again, new fires rising all around it. One time after another, we receive the reverse-911 call telling us we have to leave right now, and we stuff a few valuables in the car, then watch, from downtown, as the sky above our home turns a coughy black, the sun pulsing like an electrified orange in the heavens.

Between terror and transcendence, between epochs and cultures, Iyer locates the common hearth of human experience:

“Everything must burn,” wrote my secret companion Thomas Merton, as he walked around his silent monastery in the dark, on fire watch. “Everything must burn, my monks,” the Buddha said in his “Fire Sermon”; life itself is a burning house, and soon that body you’re holding will be bones, that face that so moves you a grinning skull. The main temple in Nara has burned and come back and burned and come back, three times over the centuries; the imperial compound, covering a sixth of all Kyoto, has had to be rebuilt fourteen times. What do we have to hold on to? Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.

Art from Wabi-Sabi — a picture-book about the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.

He time-travels once again to several years earlier, when his father-in-law had just turned ninety and Japan had just suffered one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history, to wrest from a moment of life beautiful affirmation for Mary Oliver’s Blake- and Whitman-inspired insistence that “all eternity is in the moment”:

I glance at Hiroko’s watch; later this afternoon, I’ll have to drop the aging couple at their home, and take the rented car to Kyoto Station. Then a six-hour trip, via a series of bullet trains, up to a broken little town in Fukushima, where a nuclear plant melted down after the tsunami seven months ago.

A war photographer is waiting for me there, and we’re going to talk to some of the workers who are risking their lives to go into the poisoned area to try to repair the plant, and ask them why they’re doing it. How learn to live with what you can never control?

For now, though, there’s nowhere to go on the silent mountain, and a boy who’s just turned ninety is surveying the landscape with the rapt eagerness of an Eagle Scout, while his wife of sixty years sings, “We’re so lucky to have a long life!”

Hold this moment forever, I tell myself; it may never come again.

Read more here.

THE SCHOOL OF LIFE

The School of Life: An Emotional Education (public library) is the book companion, a decade in the making, to Alain de Botton’s wonderful global academy for self-refinement, a project born just a few years after Brain Pickings and tremendously kindred in spirit. At the heart of it is De Botton’s conviction that of all the species of intelligence, emotional intelligence is the one most vital to our sense of being, to our sanity, to our selfhood, yet our entire educational model omits it completely in favor of other, more reducible intelligences. He writes:

The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.

Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.

The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.

Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

This irrational orientation to our emotional lives, De Botton argues, is our inheritance from the Romantics, who crowned the untrained intuition the supreme governing body of human conduct. (And yet the Romantics contained multitudes — for all their belief in the unalterable givenness of emotional reality and the fidelity of feeling, they had a glimmering recognition that reason must be consciously applied to reining in the wildness of the emotions. Mary Shelley, offspring of the greatest power couple of political philosophy, placed at the heart of Frankenstein — one of the most prescient and psychologically insightful works of literature ever composed, triply so for being the work of an eighteen-year-old girl — an admonition against the unbridled reign of the ego’s emotional cravings unchecked by reason and forethought of consequence.) Exception aside, De Botton’s broader point is excellent:

The results of a Romantic philosophy are everywhere to see: exponential progress in the material and technological fields combined with perplexing stasis in the psychological one. We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.

In 1983, the psychologist Howard Gardner devised his seminal theory of multiple intelligences, expanding our narrow cultural definition of intelligence as verbal and mathematical skill to include seven other modes of intellectual ability. A decade later, Daniel Goleman added a tenth form of intelligence — emotional intelligence — which quickly permeated the fabric of popular culture as hoards of humans felt suddenly recognized in an endowment long neglected as a valuable or even extant faculty of consciousness. Building on that legacy, De Botton brings his own sensitive perspicacity to a richer, more dimensional definition:

The emotionally intelligent person knows that love is a skill, not a feeling, and will require trust, vulnerability, generosity, humor, sexual understanding, and selective resignation. The emotionally intelligent person awards themselves the time to determine what gives their working life meaning and has the confidence and tenacity to try to find an accommodation between their inner priorities and the demands of the world. The emotionally intelligent person knows how to hope and be grateful, while remaining steadfast before the essentially tragic structure of existence. The emotionally intelligent person knows that they will only ever be mentally healthy in a few areas and at certain moments, but is committed to fathoming their inadequacies and warning others of them in good time, with apology and charm… There are few catastrophes, in our own lives or in those of nations, that do not ultimately have their origins in emotional ignorance.

De Botton is careful to acknowledge that this line of inquiry might trigger the modern intellectual allergy to the genre of learning dismissively labeled self-help. And yet he reminds us that the quest for self-refinement has always accompanied the human experience and animated each civilization’s most respected intellects — it is there at the heart of the Stoics, and in the essays of Montaigne, and at the center of Zen Buddhism, and in the literary artistry of Proust (whom De Botton has especially embraced as a fount of existential consolation). He aims a spear of simple logic to the irrational and rather hubristic disdain for self-help:

To dismiss the idea that underpins self-help — that one might at points stand in urgent need of solace and emotional education — seems an austerely perverse prejudice.

Art by Corinna Luyken from My Heart — an emotional intelligence primer in the form of an uncommonly tender illustrated poem.

Read more here.

OUR DOGS, OURSELVES

That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.

That question — along with myriad other auxiliary scientific and moral questions strewn across the lacuna between the canine consciousness and our projectionist, propertarian orientation toward it — is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explores in a chapter of her altogether fascinating book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond (public library).

Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:

As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?

Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!

Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.

Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.

Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.

And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:

As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).

I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.

In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.

Read more here.

WORDS IN PAIN

Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.

First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook from a rare edition of Whitman’s poems, published in the final year of Jacoby’s life. (Available as a print)

In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.

With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:

We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.

A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:

Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.

Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.

Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:

Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a the 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:

My Dear Doctor,

Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.

Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:

Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.

[…]

Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.

Read more here.

EATING THE SUN

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

See more of it here.

CINDERELLA LIBERATOR

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge,” Bertrand Russell wrote in his 1925 treatise on the nature of happiness shortly after Freud asserted that love and work are the bedrock of our mental health and our very humanity. In the century since, this notion has been taken to a warped extreme — love has been industrialized into the one-note Hollywood model of romance and work has metastasized into aching workaholism. Russell, one of the deepest and most nuanced thinkers our civilization has produced, was closer to the subtler truth, which we as a culture are still struggling to enact: that, while love and work are central to the good life, romantic love is not the only or even necessarily the most rewarding pinnacle of love; that a sense of curiosity and purpose, rather than the mechanistic drive for reward in exchange of effort, is the richest animating force of work; and that these two faces of life-satisfaction must face each other. Just as work alone is not enough for a fulfilling life, love alone is not enough for a fulfilling relationship, romantic or otherwise. No partnership of equals — that is, no truly satisfying partnership — can be complete without each partner recognizing and respecting in the other a sense of purpose beyond the relationship, a contribution to the world that reflects and advances that person’s deepest values and most impassioned dreams, in turn adding creative, intellectual, and spiritual fuel to the shared fire of the relationship.

We may know this intuitively, and we may have even demonstrated it empirically — that is just what Harvard’s landmark 75-year study of what makes a good life indicated — yet we remain trapped in the millennia-old cultural mythologies that have permeated even our most enlightened and progressive belief systems so deeply and so invisibly that their precepts remain largely unquestioned.

Rebecca Solnit offers a mighty antidote to those limiting precepts in Cinderella Liberator (public library), also among the year’s loveliest children’s books — an empowered and empowering retelling of the ancient story, which dates back at least two millennia and has recurred in various guises across nearly every culture since, reflecting and perpetuating our most abiding cultural myths about love, work, gender, success, waste and want, the measure of prosperity, and the meaning of purpose.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Governed by her conviction that “key to the work of changing the world is changing the story” and by her lifelong love of books as “toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart,” Solnit retells the classic story, illustrated with century-old silhouettes by the great Arthur Rackham from a 1919 edition of the tale, in a way that liberates each character from the constrictions imposed upon him or her by someone else’s story and confers upon each the dignity of a complete human being with agency and autonomous dreams. Emerging from these simply worded, profound, richly rewarding pages is Solnit the literary artist, Solnit the revolutionary, Solnit the enchanter, Solnit the subtle and endlessly delightful satirist, Solnit the sage.

In one of the loveliest passages in the book, she wrests from the sad small lives of the two stepsisters, Pearlita and Paloma — who are later redeemed as mere victims of a cultural hegemony, and liberated — insight into and liberation from some of our most limiting beliefs. In consonance with Frida Kahlo’s touching testament to how love amplifies beauty and with my own conviction that there are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives, Solnit writes of the stepsisters’ preparations for the great ball:

Pearlita was doing her best to pile her hair as high as hair could go. She said that, surely, having the tallest hair in the world would make you the most beautiful woman, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest.

Paloma was sewing extra bows onto her dress, because she thought that, surely, having the fanciest dress in the world would make you the most beautiful woman in the world, and being the most beautiful would make you the happiest. They weren’t very happy, because they were worried that someone might have higher hair or more bows than they did. Which, probably, someone did. Usually someone does.

But there isn’t actually a most beautiful person in the world, because there are so many kinds of beauty. Some people love roundness and softness, and other people love sharp edges and strong muscles. Some people like thick hair like a lion’s mane, and other people like thin hair that pours down like an inky waterfall, and some people love someone so much they forget what they look like. Some people think the night sky full of stars at midnight is the most beautiful thing imaginable, some people think it’s a forest in snow, and some people… Well, there are a lot of people with a lot of ideas about beauty. And love. When you love someone a lot, they just look like love.

There is love, then there is work: Along the way, we meet persons of various animations and occupations, unhinged from gender — the town blacksmith and the painter are each a “she,” the bird-doctor is a “he,” the dancing teacher is a “they,” and all are content making their particular contribution to the world. We learn that Cinderella is living with her evil stepmother because her own mother is a sea captain lost at sea. We see Cinderella and Prince Nevermind become friends rather than romantic partners, magnetized by a sincere curiosity about each other’s dreams rather than a possessive demand for romantic bondage. We find out that the prince would rather labor in an orchard than idle in a castle and Cinderella would rather open a farm-to-table cake shop that feeds refugee children from warring kingdoms than be court lady whose sole value is as a prince’s spouse and who has ceased to work because there are servants to do everything.

On the other side of the enchantment, the lizards-turned-footwomen and the mice-turned-horses and the rat-turned-coachwoman are each asked whether they actually want to remain footwomen and horses and a coachwoman for perpetuity — some do and some don’t, being individuals who dream different dreams and have different notions of self-actualization.

Solnit wrote the book for her beloved great-niece Ella, to whom her classic Men Explain Things to Me is also dedicated and whose name, Solnit realized with a shock only in the course of writing the story, is Cinderella liberated of the cinders. In the afterword to the book, on the cover of which Rackham’s cake-holding Cinderella resembles The Statue of Liberty and her torch, Solnit considers how these century-old silhouettes resonated with her broader motivations for the retelling:

I was also touched by Rackham’s image of the ragged child at work and thought of unaccompanied minors from Central America and immigrant domestic workers, who are a strong presence where I live, of foster children, and of all the children who live without kindness and security in their everyday lives, all the people who are outsiders even at home, or for whom home is the most dangerous place, or who have no home.

I liked the spirit of the silhouette-girl that Rackham portrayed. Even in rags she is lively, and she labors with alacrity, and runs and frolics wholeheartedly. She is stranded but not defeated. When it came time to write her story for our time, it seemed to me that the solution to overwork and degrading work is not the leisure of the princess, passing off the work to others, but good, meaningful work with dignity and self-determination — and one of the things the cake shop gives Cinderella, aside from independence, is the power to benefit others, because it’s also a meeting place.

Solnit reflects on the more personal roots of her story, inspired also by her two grandmothers, “both of whom were motherless girls, neglected, undereducated; neither of whom quite escaped that formative immersion in being unloved and unvalued.” She writes of one of them, a real-life Cinderella of the most tragic kind:

My paternal grandmother, Ida, was an unaccompanied refugee child who, after years without parents, made it from the Russian-Polish borderlands to Los Angeles with her younger brothers when she was fifteen. There, her long-lost father and stepmother also treated her as a servant.

Their tragedies were a century ago and more, but this book is also with love and hope for liberation for every child who’s overworked and undervalued, every kid who feels alone — with hope that they get to write their own story, and make it come out with love and liberation.

Read more here.

A DREAM ABOUT LIGHTNING BUGS

“The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not,” the astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diary at the apogee of her improbable and pathbreaking career as she was reflecting on the art of finding one’s purpose. A century later, in his wonderful advice to young artists, E.E. Cummings offered: “To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.” This, of course, is the perennial battle of every creative person in any field — what James Baldwin called “the artist’s struggle for integrity” — and it has played out again and again on the scale of generations and civilizations, fought by every visionary creator, from Sappho and Shakespeare to Cummings and Baldwin. It is a battle won only with the courage to create rather than cater, to unflaggingly buoy one’s singular vision and sensibility against the billowing tide of convention and conformity. And so, in any body of work marked by true originality, creativity and courage are inextricably linked — for creativity without courage dissolves into fruitless daydreaming, and courage without creativity festers into the most insufferable hubris.

All of that, and so much more, is what musician Ben Folds — an artist of convention-breaking vision and unrelenting creative courage — explores in his lovely memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons (public library), which radiates his goofy, brilliant, genuine, deeply empathetic spirit, marked by the kind of amiable self-consciousness with which unboastful genius often shades itself from the harsh stage-glare of attention.

Even the title bespeaks Folds’s disarming self-deprecation, which makes the book so pleasurable and uncontrived: The lessons, of course, are not cheap — they are costly learnings from innumerable tribulations, relayed with unselfconscious sincerity and ample humor; they are the un-autotuned record of hard-earned, messy triumphs of maturity and artistic integrity; they are the life-tested, vitalizing assurance that such triumphs await anyone talented enough and willing enough to risk humiliation, heartbreak, poverty, endless toil, and repeated rejection by the establishment for the sake of turning an improbable vision into something that changes the artistic landscape of reality.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… by Thierry Lenain

In the tradition of visionaries relaying a symbolic childhood experience that illuminated their creative path — Pablo Neruda and the hand through the fence, Albert Einstein and the compass, Patti Smith and the swan with the blue sail — Folds opens with the first dream he remembers, dreamt when he was three:

It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies — “lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them — lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy. This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.

[…]

At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.

Art by the Brothers Hilts from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Artists, Folds reflects, are as obsessed with the pursuit of luminosity as they are animated by the irrepressible impulse to share the light with others — a testament to Annie Dillard’s insistence that a generosity of spirit is the mightiest animating force of art. He writes:

As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.

We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else.

Art from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Artists, he argues, are not inventors but uncoverers of truth and beauty — people who “point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky,” making them visible for all to delight in. He adds:

My job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.

But for Folds, born into a working-class family in the South, where it was far more common and condoned to become a contractor than a composer, the creative spark might have been extinguished early on, were it not for his mother. Having grown up in an orphanage and marked by a rebellious creative streak of her own, she became “a defense attorney of sorts” for her son’s intense creative leanings. An unusual child, obsessed with music and astronomy, hyper-focused and unable to cope with interruption, young Ben was spending eight hours a day blissfully splayed before the record player, absorbing every note. His grandmother found this supremely worrisome and sent for a child psychologist, who deemed Ben developmentally challenged and recommended that he be held back a year or two in school. His mother flatly dismissed the diagnosis, sensing an uncommon gift in her child. Instead, she let him spend his days at the record player, began reading to him every night for years, and started him in first grade a year early. Folds reflects:

She saw my flunking of the doctor’s test as proof of my imagination. I reminded her of herself.

Ben, age 6, at his turntable, with his brother.

Continue reading what Folds learned about creativity, empathy, and the courage to know yourself here.

THE APOLOGY

A century after the young Franz Kafka set out to hold his abusive, narcissistic father accountable in an extraordinary letter he never actually sent to the living perpetrator, playwright, activist, and V-Day founder Eve Ensler confronts her own monstrously abusive father, long after his death, in The Apology (public library) — a rare dual triumph of absolute self-possession and radical empathy, radiating Dostoyevsky’s hard-earned conviction that there are no inherently bad people despite the worst of human acts and James Baldwin’s insistence that “freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.”

Eve Ensler (Photograph: Paula Allen)

Ensler writes:

I am done waiting. My father is long dead. He will never say the words to me. He will not make the apology. So it must be imagined. For it is in our imagination that we can dream across boundaries, deepen the narrative, and design alternative outcomes.

This letter is an invocation, a calling up. I have tried to allow my father to speak to me as he would speak. Although I have written the words I needed my father to say to me, I had to make space for him to come through me.

There is so much about him, his history, that he never shared with me, so I have had to conjure much of that as well.

This letter is my attempt to endow my father with the will and the words to cross the border, and speak the language, of apology so that I can finally be free.

[…]

What is an apology? It is a humbling. It is an admission of wrongdoings and a surrender. It is an act of intimacy and connection which requires great self-knowledge and insight.

Channeling her father’s voice — the voice he never used to speak the words of apology that every survivor of violence wishes to hear from the perpetrator of that violence — she writes:

An apology must be thorough and can only be trusted in its veracity and dedication to details. I have done my best. I have followed your very strict guidelines: Recognize what I have done as a crime. Face how deeply my actions and violations have impacted and devastated you. See you as a human being. Attempt to experience or feel what it felt like inside you. Feel profound remorse and regret over my actions. And finally, take responsibility for my actions by doing extensive work to understand what made me do what I did.

What emerges from these intensely beautiful and harrowing pages is the reminder that redemption for our suffering is not something we get from others but something we claim for ourselves — that most difficult, most rewarding pinnacle of personal responsibility. (The act of writing the book prompted Ensler to reflect on her own creaturely responsibility in a different light, which she channeled in a stunning letter of apology to Mother Nature — the single most beautiful and important thing I read all year).

MYTHOS

“Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges wrote in his sublime meditation on the most elemental and paradoxical dimension of existence. But what was there before there was time, before there was substance? Before, in the lovely words of the poet Marie Howe, “the singularity we once were” — “when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all”?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, this question has gnawed at the insouciance of our species and animated the most restless recesses of our imagination. It is the foundation of our most ancient origin myths and the springboard for our most ambitious science. It is also — curiously, thrillingly — where these two seemingly irreconcilable strains of our hunger for truth and meaning entwine.

So argues Stephen Fry in the opening of Mythos (public library) — his gloriously imaginative, erudite, warmhearted, and subversively funny retelling of the classic Greek myths, illuminating the origins of so many of our cultural givens: the names of planets and constellations and chemical elements and diseases, the words “fraud” and “doom” and “enthusiasm,” our precepts of beauty, our taxonomies of love.

“Chaos” by George Frederic Watts, circa 1875. (Tate Museum)

Millennia before James Gleick wrested chaos theory from the obscure annals of meteorology to make it a locus of magnetic allure for modern science and a fixture of the popular imagination, the ancient Greeks placed chaos at the center of their cosmogony. (So enduring and far-reaching is their civilizational sway that we owe even the word cosmogony to them, from kosmos, Greek for “world” or “order,” and their suffix -gonia, “-begetting.”) Fry writes:

Was Chaos a god — a divine being — or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?

Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn.

As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.

Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way, I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit, or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea lions, seals, lions, human beings, and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.

Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over eons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers — not now, I hope — and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.

So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.

There is, of course, the favorite question, that eternal fulcrum of human restlessness: What was there before the beginning? Before the Big Bang, before Chaos, before the everythingness of being? In consonance with Stephen Hawking’s wryly phrased and elegantly argued observation that “the universe is the ultimate free lunch,” Fry reminds us that before there was everything, there was, simply, nothing — not even the Borgesian substance we are made of:

We have to accept that there was no “before,” because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like “before,” “during,” “when,” “then,” “after lunch,” and “last Wednesday” had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.

The Greek word for “everything that is the case,” what we could call “the universe,” is COSMOS. And at the moment — although “moment” is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase “just now”) — at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra…

Read more here.

A THOUSAND SMALL SANITIES

Half a century after the 18th-century political philosophers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin pioneered the marriage of equals, and just as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller were contorting themselves around the parameters of true partnership, another historic power couple modeled for the world the pinnacle of an intimate union that is also an intellectual, creative, and moral partnership nourishing not only to the couple themselves but profoundly influential to their culture, their era, and the moral and political development of the world itself.

In 1851, after a twenty-one-year bond traversing friendship, collaboration, romance, and shared idealism, John Stuart Mill (May 20, 1806–May 8, 1873) and Harriet Taylor (October 8, 1807–November 3, 1858) were married. Mill would come to celebrate Taylor, like Emerson did Fuller, as the most intelligent person he ever knew and his greatest influence. In her titanic mind, he found both a mirror and a whetstone for his own. They co-authored the first serious philosophical and political case against domestic violence. Taylor’s ideas came to shape Mill’s advocacy of women’s rights and the ideological tenor of his landmark book-length essay On Liberty, composed with steady input from her, published shortly after her untimely death, and dedicated lovingly to “the friend and wife whose exalted sense of truth and right was my strongest incitement.”

Taylor and Mill

In A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism (public library) — an elegant, impassioned, and rigorously reasoned effort to re-humanize the most humanistic moral and political philosophy our civilization has produced — Adam Gopnik argues that Mill and Taylor pioneered something even greater than a true marriage of equals on the intimate plane of personal partnership: a vision for the building blocks of equality on the grandest human scale.

Gopnik — a Canadian by birth, a New Yorker (and longtime New Yorker staff writer) by belonging, and one of the most lyrical, lucid thinkers in language I have ever read — recounts trying, and failing, to comfort his intelligent, politically engaged, disconsolate teenage daughter in the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. For consolation and clarity, as much hers as his own, he turns to Taylor and Mill:

My idea of liberalism, while having much to do with individuals and their liberties, has even more to do with couples and communities. We can’t have an idea of individual liberty without an idea of shared values that include it.

A vision of liberalism that doesn’t concentrate too narrowly on individuals and their contracts but instead on loving relationships and living values can give us a better picture of liberal thought as it’s actually evolved than the orthodox picture can.

[…]

Images illuminate ideas, and pictures of people are usually clearer than statements of principle. When I think about the liberal tradition I wanted to show my daughter, my inner vision kept returning to a simple scene, one that had delighted me for a long time. It’s of the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill and his lover, collaborator, and (as he always insisted) his most important teacher, the writer Harriet Taylor. Desperately in love, they were courting clandestinely, and they would meet secretly at the rhino’s cage at the London Zoo. “Our old friend Rhino,” Taylor called him in a note. It was a place where they could safely meet and talk without fear of being seen by too many people, everyone’s attention being engaged by the enormous exotic animal.

They were pained, uncertain, contemplating adultery, if not yet having committed it — opinions vary; they had been to Paris together — and yet in those conversations began the material of “On Liberty,” one of the greatest books of political theory ever written, and “On the Subjection of Women,” one of the first great feminist manifestos and one of the most explosive books ever written. (One of the most successful, too, inasmuch as almost all of its dreams for female equality have been achieved, at least legally, in our lifetime.)

Gopnik reflects on the intellectual and ideological resonance at the heart of Mill and Taylor’s love, which in turn became the pulse-beat of our modern notions of political progress:

What they were was realists — radicals of the real, determined to live in the world even as they altered it. Not reluctant realists, but romantic realists. They were shocked and delighted at how quickly women and men began to meet and organize on the theme of women’s emancipation, but they accepted that progress would be slow and uncertain and sometimes backward facing. They did more than accept this necessity. They rejoiced in it because they understood that without a process of public argument and debate, of social action moved from below, the ground of women’s emancipation would never be fully owned by women nor accepted, even grudgingly, by men.

They had no illusions about their own perfection — they were imperfect, divided people and went on being so for the rest of their lives, with the rueful knowledge of human contradiction that good people always have.

Read more here.

ALSO: FIGURING

I’d be remiss not to mark 2019 as the year that greeted the book that took twelve years of Brain Pickings and the most beautiful, difficult, disorienting experience of my personal life.

Figuring (public library) — some excerpts from which I have published throughout the year — explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

Long ago, a kindly interviewer asked me why I routinely declined offers for the types of easy, marketable books I am frequently approached about doing. I told him (please suspend judgment: I was in my twenties) that I had no interest in putting into the world a book that has the shelf life of a banana. I hope Figuring has the shelf life of a shelf.

Here is the prelude — chapter 0 of 29:

All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

One autumn morning, as I read a dead poet’s letters in my friend Wendy’s backyard in San Francisco, I glimpse a fragment of that atomic mutuality. Midsentence, my peripheral vision — that glory of instinct honed by millennia of evolution — pulls me toward a miraculous sight: a small, shimmering red leaf twirling in midair. It seems for a moment to be dancing its final descent. But no — it remains suspended there, six feet above ground, orbiting an invisible center by an invisible force. For an instant I can see how such imperceptible causalities could drive the human mind to superstition, could impel medieval villagers to seek explanation in magic and witchcraft. But then I step closer and notice a fine spider’s web glistening in the air above the leaf, conspiring with gravity in this spinning miracle.

Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider — and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.

Some truths, like beauty, are best illuminated by the sidewise gleam of figuring, of meaning-making. In the course of our figuring, orbits intersect, often unbeknownst to the bodies they carry — intersections mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries. Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth — not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have. We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once: our first names and our last names, our loneliness and our society, our bold ambition and our blind hope, our unrequited and part-requited loves. Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed nonlinearly, figured not in the straight graphs of “biography” but in many-sided, many-splendored diagrams. Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love? Two Nobel Prizes don’t seem to recompense the melancholy radiating from every photograph of the woman in the black laboratory dress. Is success a guarantee of fulfillment, or merely a promise as precarious as a marital vow? How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

So much of the beauty, so much of what propels our pursuit of truth, stems from the invisible connections — between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place, between the interior world of each pioneer and the mark they leave on the cave walls of culture, between faint figures who pass each other in the nocturne before the torchlight of a revolution lights the new day, with little more than a half-nod of kinship and a match to change hands.

Although fragments hardly serve a book so predicated on the cohesive interleaving of lives and ideas, you can read some excerpts here.

BP

A Brave and Startling Truth: Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan and Read by Astrophysicist Janna Levin

“Out of such chaos, of such contradiction / We learn that we are neither devils nor divines…”

A Brave and Startling Truth: Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan and Read by Astrophysicist Janna Levin

The second annual Universe in Verse — a charitable celebration of science through poetry, and a voice of resistance against the assault on nature — opened with the poem “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928–May 28, 2014), which flew to space on the Orion spacecraft and which Angelou dedicated to “the hope for peace, which lies, sometimes hidden, in every heart.” I chose this poem to set the tone for the show in part because it is absolutely stunning and acutely relevant to our cultural moment, and in part because the first time I read it, it sparked in me a sudden insight into the often invisible ways in which science and poetry influence and inspire one another — into how the golden threads of thought and feeling stretch and cross-hatch across disciplines to weave what we call culture.

Angelou composed the poem for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. In 1994, Carl Sagan delivered a beautiful speech at Cornell University, inspired by the Voyager’s landmark photograph of Earth seen for the very first time from the outer reaches of the Solar System — a now-iconic image the spacecraft took on Sagan’s spontaneous insistence before shutting off the cameras upon completion of the planned mission to photograph the outer planets.

The “Pale Blue Dot” photograph captured by the Voyager 1 (NASA/JPL)

In describing what the Voyager captured in that grainy photograph of mostly empty space, Sagan limned Earth as a “pale blue dot.” That became the moniker of the photograph itself and the title of his bestselling book published later that year, in which he wrote that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives” on this “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This poetic phrase imprinted itself on the popular imagination and permeated culture in the months following the book’s publication — the months during which Angelou was composing her poem. Like all great poets, she was extremely precise and deliberate about her word choice. Mote is a rather peculiar word, particularly in this cosmic context, and I can’t help but think that by using the phrase “mote of matter” in the final stanzas, Angelou was paying tribute to Sagan and to the message of the Voyager — a message about our place in the cosmic order not as something separate from and superior to nature, but as a tiny pixel-part of it, imbued with equal parts humility and responsibility.

Reading the poem at The Universe in Verse is astrophysicist Janna Levin — a recent performer of some beautiful poetry and a member, alongside Sagan, of the tiny peer group of working scientists who write about science with uncommon poetic might. Please enjoy:

A BRAVE AND STARTLING TRUTH

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet
Traveling through casual space
Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns
To a destination where all signs tell us
It is possible and imperative that we learn
A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it
To the day of peacemaking
When we release our fingers
From fists of hostility
And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it
When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate
And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean
When battlefields and coliseum
No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters
Up with the bruised and bloody grass
To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

When the rapacious storming of the churches
The screaming racket in the temples have ceased
When the pennants are waving gaily
When the banners of the world tremble
Stoutly in the good, clean breeze

When we come to it
When we let the rifles fall from our shoulders
And children dress their dolls in flags of truce
When land mines of death have been removed
And the aged can walk into evenings of peace
When religious ritual is not perfumed
By the incense of burning flesh
And childhood dreams are not kicked awake
By nightmares of abuse

When we come to it
Then we will confess that not the Pyramids
With their stones set in mysterious perfection
Nor the Gardens of Babylon
Hanging as eternal beauty
In our collective memory
Not the Grand Canyon
Kindled into delicious color
By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe
Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji
Stretching to the Rising Sun
Neither Father Amazon nor Mother Mississippi who, without favor,
Nurture all creatures in the depths and on the shores
These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
In whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

“A Brave and Startling Truth” was published in a commemorative booklet in 1995 and was later included in Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry (public library).

More highlights from the second annual Universe in Verse will be released at here over the coming weeks and months. For some high points of the inaugural event, see Levin’s exquisite reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, then savor the complete show for a two-hour poetic serenade to science.

BP

The 13 Best Art and Design Books of 2013

Imaginative maps, illuminating infographics, literary cats, vintage Soviet propaganda, Gertrude Stein’s favorite objects, and other treats for eye and spirit.

After the year’s best psychology and philosophy books and best biographies, memoirs, and history books, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the finest art and design tomes published this year. (Catch up on last year’s best art books here and best design books here, then revisit the 2011 roundup here — one thing that truly great art and design books have in common is timeless mesmerism, independent of publication date.)

1. SELF-PORTRAIT AS YOUR TRAITOR

“Still this childish fascination with my handwriting,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1949. “To think that I always have this sensuous potentiality glowing within my fingers.” This is the sort of sensuous potentiality that comes aglow in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor (public library) — the magnificent collection of hand-lettered poems and illustrated essays by friend-of-Brain-Pickings and frequent contributor Debbie Millman. In the introduction, design legend Paula Scher aptly describes this singular visual form as a “21st-century illuminated manuscript.” Personal bias aside, these moving, lovingly crafted poems and essays — some handwritten, some drawn with colored pencils, some typeset in felt on felt — vibrate at that fertile intersection of the deeply personal and the universally profound.

In “Fail Safe,” her widely read essay-turned-commencement-address on creative courage and embracing the unknown from the 2009 anthology Look Both Ways, Millman wrote:

John Maeda once explained, “The computer will do anything within its abilities, but it will do nothing unless commanded to do so.” I think people are the same — we like to operate within our abilities. But whereas the computer has a fixed code, our abilities are limited only by our perceptions. Two decades since determining my code, and after 15 years of working in the world of branding, I am now in the process of rewriting the possibilities of what comes next. I don’t know exactly what I will become; it is not something I can describe scientifically or artistically. Perhaps it is a “code in progress.”

Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, a glorious large-format tome full of textured colors to which the screen does absolutely no justice, is the result of this progress — a brave and heartening embodiment of what it truly means, as Rilke put it, to live the questions; the stunning record of one woman’s personal and artistic code-rewriting, brimming with wisdom on life and art for all.

Originally featured in November. See an exclusive excerpt here, then take a peek at Debbie’s creative process here.

2. ART AS THERAPY

The question of what art is has occupied humanity since the dawn of recorded history. For Tolstoy, the purpose of art was to provide a bridge of empathy between us and others, and for Anaïs Nin, a way to exorcise our emotional excess. But the highest achievement of art might be something that reconciles the two: a channel of empathy into our own psychology that lets us both exorcise and better understand our emotions — in other words, a form of therapy.

In Art as Therapy (public library), philosopher Alain de Botton — who has previously examined such diverse and provocative subjects as why work doesn’t work, what education and the arts can learn from religion, and how to think more about sex — teams up with art historian John Armstrong to examine art’s most intimate purpose: its ability to mediate our psychological shortcomings and assuage our anxieties about imperfection. Their basic proposition is that, far more than mere aesthetic indulgence, art is a tool — a tool that serves a rather complex yet straightforwardly important purpose in our existence:

Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties. … Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.

‘What hope might look like.’ Henry Matisse, ‘Dance’ (II), 1909.

De Botton and Armstrong go on to outline the seven core psychological functions of art — remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth, and appreciation — which you can read about at length in the original article, featured in October.

3. THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF CATS

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell proclaimed in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012 and among the finest pet-related books of all time. Cats, on the other hand — despite their long history as literary muses, poetic devices, creative catalysts, and targets of artful grievances — are largely about something else, about some facet or other of our human needs, desires, and conceits: our relationships, our cities, our grappling with mortality.

So bespeaks The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (public library), the highly anticipated feline sequel to last year’s canine edition — a shiny, well-fed tome that gathers the best cat-coddling articles, essays, short stories, poems, cartoons, covers, and other feats of literature and art from the New Yorker archives. Spanning nearly nine decades, the collection featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, James Thurber, Susan Orlean, and even the patron saint of “the other side,” famed dog-lover E. B. White.

In the foreword, the great New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane lays out the decrees of cat-connoisseurship:

The first rule of felinology: you need to learn to look at cats down to the last whisker, every bit as closely as they look at you. To them, remember, nothing is lost in the dark.

And another solemn dictum:

Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity. Believing is seeing.

Lane considers the singular allure of using the feline psyche as literary fodder:

This will never be anything but challenging, even if you wear motorcycle gauntlets and a knight’s visor, but it remains a quest to which many writers are lured. Perhaps they view it as a kind of scratching post — ready-made, abrasive chance to sharpen their natural skills.

Even Joyce, Lane tells us, was privy to it — in the fourth chapter of Ulysses, he tackled a “very specific quandary, the spelling of a cat’s ululation … and came up with the infinitesimal swell of ‘mkgnao’ into ‘mrkgnao.’” Lane illustrates the affectionate absurdity of it all with a tongue-in-cheek invitation: “Try both, out loud, but not after eating crackers, and see if you can tell them apart.”

More than anything, however, the anthology embodies the cat’s defining characteristic: its cluster of opposites, rolled together into a giant hairball of cultural attitudes — something, perhaps, at once uncomfortably and assuringly reflective of our own chronically conflicted selves. Lane writes:

So it is, as this well-fed book stretches out in languor, that the array of feline opposites starts to emerge. Cats must be destroyed; cats should be saved. Cats are like us; no, cats are not of this world. Cats can be savored for their fellowship, then eaten for their flesh. . . . Cats exist in these pages, as they do throughout our lives, both as obsessively singular … and as a barely controllable mass, doomed to proliferate forever, like poison ivy or biographies of Napoleon. Above all, for every cat who is liked, accepted or worshipped from afar, there is another who peers into our eyes — those hopeless orbs, superfluous at night — and spies only horror, indifference, and fear.

Indeed, despite the bountiful and often ardent cat-lovers among literary history’s famous pet-owners, Lane challenges the very notion that cats and literature go together:

Perhaps we need to rethink the assumption, deep-rooted but far from well grounded, that writers and cats are a good mix. Sure, Mark Twain had cats, such as Sour Mash and Blatherskite, and, up at the more louche and loping end of American literature, in the life and work of Poe, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Edward Gorey, and Stephen King, you are never that far from the patter of ominous paws; whether a cat has been reared on a diet of neat Burroughs would find a niche at The New Yorker, however, is open to debate. We aim at the scrutable, the translucent, the undrugged, and the verified; whether we even get close is not for us to say, but such aspirations find no echo in the bosom of the cat. The cat sneers at clarity and career plans, and even its major stratagems can be dropped upon a whim. . . .

One of the best pieces in the collection, both for the sheer joy of exquisite language and for its disarming insight into the baffling paradoxes of the human-feline psychic bond, is a long 2002 feature by Susan Orlean, titled “The Lady and the Tigers.” Beyond the undeniable freakshow mesmerism of a true story about a New Jersey woman who owns more than two dozen tigers for no other reason than her intense love for the species, the essay, much like good visual caricature, also reveals a whole lot about the psychology of our ordinary relationships with small domestic cats through this woman’s extraordinary relationship with her gigantic felines. Take, for instance, the evolution of the woman’s tiger menagerie:

After arriving in Jackson, Byron-Marasek got six more tigers — Bengal, Hassan, Madras, Marco, Royal, and Kizmet — from McMillan and from Ringling Brothers. The next batch — Kirin, Kopan, Bali, Brunei, Brahman, and Burma — were born in the back yard after Byron-Marasek allowed her male and female tigers to commingle. More cubs were born, and more tigers obtained, and the tiger population of Holmeson’s Corner steadily increased. Byron-Marasek called her operation the Tigers Only Preservation Society. Its stated mission was, among other things, to conserve all tiger species, to return captive tigers to the wild, and “to resolve the human/tiger conflict and create a resolution.”

And so we get the perfect Orleanean spear at the heart of the human condition in all its absurdity:

You know how it is — you start with one tiger, then you get another and another, then a few are born and a few die, and you start to lose track of details like exactly how many tigers you actually have.

Tucked between the essays and short stories are also a number of delightful poems, such as this 1960 gem by Ted Hughes:

TOMCATS

Daylong this tomcat lies stretched flat
As an old rough mat, no mouth and no eyes.
Continual wars and wives are what
Have tattered his ears and battered his head.

Like a bundle of old rope and iron
Sleeps till blue dusk. Then reappear
His eyes, green as ringstones: he yawns wide red,
Fangs fine as a lady’s needle and bright.

A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain’s there

On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom:
That was at Barnborough. The tomcat still
Grallochs odd dogs on the quiet,
Will take the head clean off your simple pullet.

Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point-blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings

Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon
Nightly over the round world of men
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.

(The poem was penned the year Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, was born — a child nursed on nursery rhymes — so one can’t help but find in Hughes’s playful verses the hint of an irreverent nursery rhyme.)

In his 1992 piece “Cat Man,” George Steiner tells the story of “the most illustrious, compelling cat in the history of literature” — a Montparnasse tabby named Bébert, who was abandoned by his Germany-bound owners at the onset of WWII and met his second owner, the novelist, physician and “manic crank” Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, better-known as Céline, in Paris. Bébert promptly proceeded to enthrall the man into describing him as “magic itself, tact by wavelength.” When the cat’s time came in his Sphinx-like years at the end of 1952, the obituary Destouches wrote — rivaled only by E. B. White’s remembrance of his beloved dog Daisy — was nothing short of a literary micro-masterpiece:

After many an adventure, jail, bivouac, ashes, all of Europe … he died agile and graceful, impeccably, he had jumped out the window that very morning. . . . We, who are born old, look ridiculous in comparison!

Perhaps the most recurring theme of all, however, is the concept of the cat not as an extension of the human self, as a dog might be, but rather as something otherworldly, mysterious, with a mind of its own onto which we may project our human intentions and interpretations, but one which we will ultimately never comprehend — a force of nature, often as uncontrollable as its elements, as in this 1960 poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

ELECTRICAL STORM

Dawn an unsympathetic yellow.
Cra-aack! — dry and light.
The house was really struck.
Crack! A tinny sound, like a dropped tumbler.
Tobias jumped in the window, got in bed —
silent, his eyes bleached white, his fur on end.
Personal and spiteful as a neighbor’s child,
thunder began to bang and bump the roof.
One pink flash;
then hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls.
Dead-white, wax-white, cold —
diplomats’ wives’ favors
from an old moon party —
they lay in melting windrows
on the red ground until well after sunrise.
We got up to find the wiring fused,
no lights, a smell of saltpetre,
and the telephone dead.

The cat stayed in the warm sheets.
The Lent trees had shed all their petals:
wet, stuck, purple, among the dead-eye pearls.

Originally featured in October, with lots more art and excerpts.

4. INTERACTION OF COLOR: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

“Hundreds of people can talk, for one who can think,” John Ruskin wrote, “but thousands of people can think, for one who can see.” “We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object,” Alexandra Horowitz lamented in her sublime meditation on looking. Hardly anyone has accomplished more in revolutionizing the art of seeing than German-born American artist, poet, printmaker, and educator Josef Albers, as celebrated for his iconic abstract paintings as he was for his vibrant wit and spellbinding presence as a classroom performer. In 1963, he launched into the world what would become the most influential exploration of the art, science, psychology, practical application, and magic of color — an experiment, radical and brave at the time, seeking to cultivate a new way of studying and understanding color through experience and trial-and-error rather than through didactic, theoretical dogma. Half a century later, Interaction of Color (public library), with its illuminating visual exercises and mind-bending optical illusions, remains an indispensable blueprint to the art of seeing.

Albers, who headed the legendary Black Mountain College that shaped such luminaries as Zen composer John Cage and reconstructionist Ruth Asawa, lays out the book’s beautifully fulfilled and timeless promise in the original introduction:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.

First, it should be learned that one and the same color evokes innumerable readings. Instead of mechanically applying or merely implying laws and rules of color harmony, distinct color effects are produced-through recognition of the interaction of color-by making, for instance, two very different colors look alike, or nearly alike.

THE RELATIVITY OF COLOR
A color has many faces, and one color can be made to appear as two different colors. Here it is almost unbelievable that the left small and the right small squares are part of the same paper strip and therefore are the same color. And no normal human eye is able to see both squares — alike.

Albers defied the standard academic approach of “theory and practice,” focusing instead on “development of observation and articulation,” with an emphasis not only on seeing color, but also feeling the relationships between colors. He writes:

[Interaction of Color] reverses this order and places practice before theory, which after all, is the conclusion of practice. … Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical — neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side — so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color. This is parallel to the recognition that no theory of composition by itself leads to the production of music, or of art.

Practical exercises demonstrate through color deception (illusion) the relativity and instability of color. And experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. What counts here — first and last — is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision — seeing. Seeing here implies Schauen (as in Weltanschauung) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination.

AFTERIMAGE EFFECT
The ‘afterimage effect’ demonstrates the interaction of color caused by interdependence of color: On the left are yellow circles of equal diameter which touch each other and fill out a white square. There is a black dot in its center. On the right is an empty white square, also with a centered black dot. Each is on a black background. After staring for half a minute at the left square, shift the focus suddenly to the right square. Instead of the usual color-based afterimage that would complement the yellow circles with blue, their opposite, a shape-based afterimage is manifest as diamond shapes — the ‘leftover’ of the circles — are seen in yellow. This illusion double, reversed afterimage is sometimes called contrast reversal.

To mark the book’s fiftieth anniversary, here is an excerpt from a fantastic Design Matters conversation with Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and Philip Tiongson, who designed the magnificent iPad app accompanying the new edition of the book, who discuss Albers’s far-reaching legacy and his fundamental contributions to our everyday understanding of color:

Albers believed that in normal seeing, we use our eyes so much because the world is controlled by our vision, but we become so accustomed to it that we take things for granted. And when he talked about visual perception, he meant something much more profound than just the way we look at the world — he would stop and look at the world, look at the smallest object, smallest event, and see through it in a deep kind of way. … He would see magic, he would see something deeper. And he believed that the majority of people just missed the true reality — it was available for everyone to see, but nobody was looking. And that was where his notion of “to open eyes” really comes from.

Originally featured in August — read the full article here.

5. MAPPING MANHATTAN

“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation … so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul,” E. B. White memorably wrote in his 1949 masterpiece Here Is New York. And indeed what a canvas of glorious shared eclecticism Gotham is — city of cats and city of dogs, city of beloved public spaces and beloved secret places, of meticulous order and sparkling chaos, but above all a city of private memories woven together into one shared tapestry of belonging.

Maps, meanwhile, have long held unparalleled storytelling power as tools of propaganda, imagination, obsession, and timekeeping. From Denis Wood’s narrative atlas to Paula Scher’s stunning typo-cartographic subjectivity maps impel us to overlay the static landscape with our dynamic lived experience, our impressions, our selves.

The convergence of these two — New York’s extraordinary multiplicity and the emotive storytelling power of maps — is precisely what Becky Cooper set out to explore in an ongoing collaborative art project that began in an appropriately personal manner: The summer after her freshman year of college in 2008, Cooper became an accidental cartographer when she was hired to help map all of Manhattan’s public art. As she learned about mapping and obsessively color-coded the locations, she considered what it took to make “a map that told an honest story of a place” and was faced with the inevitable subjectivity of the endeavor, realizing that an assemblage of many little subjective portraits revealed more about a place than any attempt at a “complete” map.

And so the idea was born — to assemble a collaborative portrait of the city based on numerous individual experiences, memories, and subjective impressions. She painstakingly hand-printed a few hundred schematic maps of Manhattan on the letterpress in the basement of her college dorm, then walked all over the island, handing them to strangers and asking them to draw “their Manhattan,” then mail the maps back to her — which, in a heartening antidote to Gotham’s rumored curmudgeonly cynicism, they readily did. Dozens of intimate narratives soon filled her inbox — first loves, last goodbyes, childhood favorites, unexpected delights. In short, lives lived.

Off The Grid (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

The finest of them are now collected Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers (public library) — a tender cartographic love letter to this timeless city of multiple dimensions, parallel realities, and perpendicular views, featuring contributions from both strangers and famous New Yorkers alike, including Brain Pickings favorites like cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson, artist-philosopher Yoko Ono, wire-walked Philippe Petit, The Map as Art author Katharine Harmon and Paris vs. New York creator Vahram Muratyan, as well as prominent New Yorkers like writer Malcolm Gladwell and chef David Chang.

Malcolm Gladwell, writer (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)
Yoko Ono, visual artist, musician, and activist (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Cooper writes of the project:

The maps were like passports into strangers’ worlds. … I talked to gas station workers, MTA employees, artists, tourists, and veterans; to Columbia med students, Mister Softee drivers, city planners, San Francisco quilters, bakery owners, street cart vendors, Central park portraitists, jazz musicians, Watchtower distributors, undergrads, can collectors, and mail carriers. … These are their maps. Their ghosts. Their past loves. Their secret spots. Their favorite restaurants. These are their accidental autobiographies: when people don’t realize they’re revealing themselves, they’re apt to lay themselves much more bare.

[…]

I hope to show Manhattan as a cabinet of curiosities, a container of portals to hundreds of worlds; if I’ve succeeded, this portrait of the city will be as true as any of the seventy-five others.

Vahram Muratyan, French graphic artist (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

The inimitable Adam Gopnik — a New Yorker’s New Yorker — writes in the foreword:

Maps and memories are bound together, a little as songs and love affairs are. The artifact envelops the emotion, and then the emotion stores away in the artifact: We hear ‘All the Things You Are’ or ‘Hey There Delilah’ just by chance while we’re in love, and then the love is forever after stored in the song. … This attachment requires no particular creative energy. It just happens. … Maps, especially schematic ones, are the places where memories go not to die, or be pinned, but to live forever.

Gopnik pads the metaphorical with the scientific, echoing Richard Dawkins, who famously speculated that drawing maps may have “boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross,” and turns to the brain:

Cognitive science now insists that our minds make maps before they take snapshots, storing in schematic form the information we need to navigate and make sense of the world. Maps are our first mental language, not our latest. The photographic sketch, with its optical hesitations, is a thing we force from history; the map, with its neat certainties and foggy edges, looks like the way we think.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E. B. White wrote. “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” It is this poetry of the internal engine — the emotional excess necessary for creativity, the compressed feeling bursting out of the poet’s soul like a rocket — that Gopnik, too, observes in reverence:

A remembered relation of spaces, a hole, a circle, a shaded area — and a whole life comes alive. The real appeal of the map, perhaps, is not so much that it stores our past as that it forces our emotions to be pressed into their most parsimonious essence — and, as every poet knows, it is emotion under the force of limits, emotion pressed down and held down to strict formal constraints, that makes for the purest expression. These maps are street haiku, whose emotions, whether made by the well known or the anonymous, are more moving for being so stylized.

[…]

Each map in this book diagrams the one thing we most want a map to show us, and that is a way home.

The final page of Mapping Manhattan contains a blank map, inviting you to draw your Manhattan and mail it to Cooper.

Originally featured in April, with more maps and video.

6. BEFORE I DIE

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Chang, queen of thoughtful installations in public spaces that invite collaborative storytelling, covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence “Before I die I want to . . .,” which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. To Chang’s surprise, the wall was completely filled by the next day. Soon, the project took on a life of its own and was replicated in over 10 languages across more than thirty countries, giving voice to millions of such private yearnings.

Before I Die (public library) collects the best of these public yet anonymous walls, from Alaska to Australia, Brooklyn to Berlin, filled with answers ranging from the poignant (“see a year without war”) to the silly (“sleep with a harp player”) to the disarmingly honest (“repair my broken heart”). Alongside the photographs are the stories of some of the people who chalked in their anonymous answers

Chang shares the genesis of the project, her harrowing personal brush with the mortality paradox:

Joan died on a quiet August day. She was a mother to me for fifteen years. She was kind and thoughtful. She loved to garden and she taught me how to plant flowers. When I was a confused teenager, she told me to be true to myself. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were so many things she still wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in Paris, and see the Pacific Ocean. I spent a long time filled with grief. Then I felt gratitude for the time we had together.

Death was always on my mind. It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.

[…]

Death is something we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about. … Perhaps that is why it took me so long to explore these thoughts, but when I finally did, I found a comfort and clarity that I did not expect. Beyond the tragic truth of mortality lies a bright calm that reminds me of my place in the world. When I think about death, the mundane things that stress me out are reduced to their small and rightful place; the things that matter most to me become big and crisp again. … Thinking about death clarifies your life.

The book opens with the perfect amuse-bouche of wisdom by none other than Carl Sagan:

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.

But in a wonderfully paradoxical way, the project both embodies and counters this sentiment: The question at its heart isn’t particularly “courageous,” nor are the majority of the answers particularly “deep,” but the combination produces something profound and deeply human, and that’s precisely the point: What makes the world significant — more than that, what makes “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” significant — is perhaps the simplicity and sincerity of our answers to the simplest and most sincere of questions.

Indeed, the answers brim with seeming individual simplicity which somehow unravels the collective complexity of the human condition: World peace, curing cancer, and learning to love might not be the most original of answers, but something magical happens when anonymity strips us of the compulsion for originality and lays bare our deepest, most unoriginally human and heartfelt longings with crisp, urgent sincerity. In aggregate, they are a reminder of what truly matters — a moral lens on what should matter — as we face the immutable fact that one day, when we turn to look back on our lives, all the cleverness and pretentiousness and witticism will dissipate into dust over the burning coals of our innermost, simplest, most earnest desires for a meaningful life.

The project also inhabits — champions — another important dimension, the notion that public spaces anchor us to our physical reality and, at their best, awaken a richer relationship with our surroundings. Chang writes:

Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. … At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and celebrate together and console one another and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Candy Chang (Photograph by Randal Ford)

Originally featured in October — see more here.

7. FRITZ KAHN

Around the time when Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath was building his ISOTYPE visual language, which laid the foundation for pictogram-based infographics, another infographic pioneer was doing something even more ambitious: The German polymath Fritz Kahn — amateur astronomer, medical scientist by training, gynecologist by early occupation, artist by inclination, writer, educator and humanist by calling — was developing innovative visual metaphors for understanding science and the human body, seeking to strip scientific ideas of their alienating complexity and engage a popular audience with those essential tenets of how life works. Best-known today for his iconic 1926 poster Man as Industrial Palace, Kahn inspired generations of scientific illustrators, including such legends as Irving Geis and such cultural treasures as the 1959 gem The Human Body: What It Is And How It Works. His influence reverberates through much of our present visual communication and today’s best infographics .

Fritz Kahn (1888–1968)

Now, visual culture powerhouse Taschen has captured the life’s work of this infographic pioneer in the magnificent monograph Fritz Kahn (public library) — a 6-pound tome in English, French and German that collects and contextualizes his most influential images and essays and, above all, celebrates a boundless mind that never settled for limiting itself to a single discipline, to any one area of curiosity, to the onus and hubris of specialization that our culture so vehemently and so toxically fetishizes.

In the introduction, the prolific design historian and writer Steven Heller calls Kahn and Neurath “two sides of the same pie chart,” despite the fact that they likely never met:

Each passionately sought to devise a distinct graphic design language to replace the jargon and lay waste to an ever-growing Tower of Babel.

Like Neurath, who didn’t actually create the symbols he became known for, Kahn was not an artist himself but compensated for it with the potent combination of his powers of logic and his ability to surround himself with top talent, who would execute his visions while also expanding his taste and visual literacy. Though his innovative methods were themselves a force to be reckoned with, the underlying impetus was as simple as it was profound: Kahn was just a brilliant science communicator who sought to engage the public’s imagination in popularizing science. He used his infographics as Carl Sagan did narrative and the moving image, subverting the medium — and subverting it masterfully — to the goals of the message. Heller writes:

His graphic design preferences were eclectic and included such methods as photo-collage, painting and drawing and styles like comic, surrealist, dada and more. The art of analogy was Kahn’s forte (sometimes to the extreme): he might compare an ear with a car or a bird’s feather with railroad tracks, all meant to explain ever more impenetrable phenomena by means which triggered the viewer’s imagination. Kahn employed whatever visual trick he could cobble together for the end result: popular comprehension.

[…]

The legacy of Kahn’s work has resonance now and will continue into the future.

‘Man as Industrial Palace,’ 1926

Kahn found his greatest power in enlisting the physical to explain the metaphorical. As a scientist, he understood the visual bias of our brains; as an artistically minded design-thinker, he knew how powerfully graphics could convey ideas and ideologies; as a man of medicine, he grasped the importance of visualizing the body to illuminate its inner workings.

What goes on in our heads when we see a car and say ‘car’ (1939)
‘Daily hair growth: the human body produces 100 feet of hair substance every day. If all this growth were to converge into one single hair, that hair would grow by one inch every minute.’ (1929)

Kahn was also keenly aware of the importance of pictures in education. He trawled textbooks and scientific journals for material to use in his famous “man book,” but he enlisted his artists and the design department of his publishing house in infusing the images with more life, more vibrancy, greater calls to the imagination. He developed a style based on architectural and industrial visual metaphors and began depicting the human body as a series of modern workplaces, with each organ and organ-system operated by different machines, control panels, and circuits, as in his famous Man as Industrial Palace, seeking “to depict the most important processes of life, which can never be observed directly, in the form of familiar technical processes.” (Bear in mind, he was working long before some of the most now-fundamental notions in modern science were known, decades before even the discovery of DNA.)

‘The speed of thought — overtaken by technology!’ (1939)
‘The five points in common between muscle operation and an electric doorbell circuit: (1) volition — bell button, (2) motor center — battery, (3) nerve — wire, (4) motor end-plate — interpreter, (5) muscle — clapper.’ (1924, 1927)
‘The cycle of matter and energy’ (1926)

Kahn could also be considered a pioneer of interactive storytelling long before the technologies of interaction existed. He transformed the pictorial image from a static object to passively behold to an active invitation to engage, reimagine, and connect:

Kahn’s conceptual illustrations inverted the text-image relationship that had prevailed until then. The picture took prominence and switched from observed object to active agent, opening up new imaginary spaces for the viewer. It challenged the viewer to explore these spaces independently, to find [his or her] place in them, and develop new perspectives from there — a life-saving ability in a crisis-torn age like that of [the world war].

[…]

Apart from instruction and entertainment, edification is another important function of the illustrated factual book. Meaning, comfort, fresh perspectives, and ideally a faith that can move mountains, often form in reaction to a strong aesthetic impulse — for example, in the borderland between science and art. Kahn knew the healing effect of the “imagination” from personal and medical experience, especially in relation to observing the macro- or microcosm. … Verbal and visual images can help man (re)connect with himself, his group, the world and the universe, to find his way or place.

‘Travel experiences of a wandering cell: the villi currents of the intestinal tract.’ (1924)

Above all, however, Kahn was a kind of scientific poet who enlisted the tenets of literature and the arts in making scientific ideas not only accessible but exciting. One of the most beautiful examples of this comes from his 1924 article for the journal Kosmos, titled “Fairy-tale Journey on the Bloodstream.” In it, he extols “the drama which, since its discovery 200 years ago, has repeatedly stirred the ecstasy of all who have seen it: the circulation of the blood” and writes — sings, almost:

“What a drama, but alas, only a drama!” The microscope’s field of vision is narrowly limited and we see the blood cells arriving on one side and disappearing again on the other… where from? where to? — we don’t know […]. The researcher stops at the rigid circle of his microscope’s field of vision, but we, we are poets, and who will forbid the imagination to travel to magical realms over lands and over seas like the child with the seven swans? […] Like the hero of the “last fairy-tale” we become smaller and smaller until at last we stand microscopically tiny, mini-Lilliputians on the bank of the vein-stream, and see the cells drifting past us, as big as the barques [large sailing ships] of men. We climb up one of the cliffs that loom into the stream, and wait. Cell after cell swims past, but quick and in the middle of the stream, unattainable to our desires. At last, however, a cell-boat drifts close to us on the beach, settles askew like a ship run aground, we leap across and into it, now it tilts from side to side, we push off and sail away. We are sailing! In our cell-boat on the red-gold stream of blood! Farewell, realm of man! We are in the land of fairy-tales, the fairy-tale land of truth, above which you rough giants gap blithely away on your great feet, and we sail towards miracles, true miracles!

Originally featured in November — read the full article here.

8. TENDER BUTTONS

Given my affinity for all things Gertrude Stein and my enduring admiration for the art of my frequent collaborator and talented friend Lisa Congdon, I was instantly enamored with Tender Buttons: Objects (public library) — Stein’s 1914 collection of avant-garde verses celebrating everyday objects in her signature style of semantic somersaults, brought to fresh life with Lisa’s vibrant illustrations of birds, boxes, cups, clocks, umbrellas, and other ordinary objects made extraordinary.

A FEATHER.

A feather is trimmed, it is trimmed by the light and the bug and the post, it is trimmed by little leaning and by all sorts of mounted reserves and loud volumes. It is surely cohesive.

I asked Lisa about the project’s particular mesmerism:

Every now and again an illustration project comes your way that feels like sheer kismet. I’ve had an infatuation with the life of Gertrude Stein since I was in my early 20s, and I’ve always been intrigued by her bizarre poetry.

Hope in gates, hope in spoons, hope in doors, hope in tables, no hope in daintiness and determination. Hope in dates.

In the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling.

Originally featured in March.

9. BEST AMERICAN INFOGRAPHICS

As an appreciator of the art of visual storytelling by way of good information graphics — an art especially endangered in this golden age of bad infographics served as linkbait — I was thrilled and honored to be on the advisory “Brain Trust” for a project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who has set out to highlight the very best infographics produced each year, online and off. (Disclaimer for the naturally cynical: No money changed hands.) The Best American Infographics 2013 (public library) is now out, featuring the finest examples from the past year — spanning everything from happiness to sports to space to gender politics, and including a contribution by friend-of-Brain Pickings Wendy MacNaughton — with an introduction by none other than David Byrne. Accompanying each image is an artist statement that explores the data, the choice of visual representation, and why it works.

Byrne, who knows a thing or two about creativity and has himself produced some delightfully existential infographics, writes:

The very best [infographics] engender and facilitate an insight by visual means — allow us to grasp some relationship quickly and easily that otherwise would take many pages and illustrations and tables to convey. Insight seems to happen most often when data sets are crossed in the design of the piece — when we can quickly see the effects on something over time, for example, or view how factors like income, race, geography, or diet might affect other data. When that happens, there’s an instant “Aha!”…

Byrne addresses the healthy skepticism many of us harbor towards the universal potency of infographics, reminding us that the medium is not the message — the message is the message:

A good infographic … is — again — elegant, efficient, and accurate. But do they matter? Are infographics just things to liven up a dull page of type or the front page of USA Today? Well, yes, they do matter. We know that charts and figures can be used to support almost any argument. . . . Bad infographics are deadly!

One would hope that we could educate ourselves to be able to spot the evil infographics that are being used to manipulate us, or that are being used to hide important patterns and information. Ideally, an educated consumer of infographics might develop some sort of infographic bullshit detector that would beep when told how the trickle-down economic effect justifies fracking, for example. It’s not easy, as one can be seduced relatively easily by colors, diagrams and funny writing.

And, indeed, at the heart of the aspiration to cultivate a kind of visual literacy so critical for modern communication. Here are a few favorite pieces from the book that embody that ideal of intelligent elegance and beautiful revelation of truth:

America’s Most Popular Birthdays
The days of the year, ranked by the number of babies born on each day in the United States (Matt Stiles, NPR data journalist)

Byrne — who believes the best use of infographics allows us to “experience a kind of geeky rapture as our senses are amplified and expanded through charts and illustrations” — is especially fond of one sub-genre:

Flowcharts [are] a form of poetry. And poetry is its own reward.

Indeed, flowcharts have a singular way of living at the intersection of the pragmatic and the existential:

Email: Help for Addicts
A handy flowchart to help you decide if you should check your email. (Wendy MacNaughton, independent illustrator, for Forbes)
How to Be Happy
Just ask yourself one question. (Gustavo Vieira Dias, creative director of DDB Tribal Vienna)

Some appear more visually abstract yet derive from precise and concrete data sets:

Planets Everywhere
All of the planets discovered outside the Solar System. (Jan Willem Tulp, freelance information designer, for Scientific American)

Then there’s the mandatory love of pie charts and its derivatives:

Ten Artists, Ten Years
A revolution in color over ten extraordinary years in art history. Each pie chart represents an individual painting, with the five most prominent colors shown proportionally. (Arthur Buxton)
Seasonal Produce Calendars
The availability of produce in the northern hemisphere by month and season. (Russell van Kraayenburg)

The greatest power of infographics, however, lies in two things: Their ability to weave visual metaphors that enhance our understanding, something particularly potent given how essential metaphorical thinking is to the way we communicate and learn, and their role in igniting the very pattern recognition that fuels our creative comprehension. Byrne writes:

We have an inbuilt ability to manipulate visual metaphors in ways we cannot do with the things and concepts they stand for — to use them as malleable, conceptual Tetris blocks or modeling clay that we can more easily squeeze, stack, and reorder. And then — whammo! — a pattern emerges, and we’ve arrived someplace we would never have gotten by any other means.

Originally featured in September — see more here.

10. MAURICE SENDAK

Maurice Sendak is celebrated by many, myself included, as the greatest and most influential children’s book artist of the past century. A year after Sendak’s death comes Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — the companion volume to the wonderful 2013 exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators, and also among the year’s best biographies, memoirs, and history books. From rich essays by historians and artists who contextualize Sendak’s life and legacy to a selection of his best-loved and notable little-known illustrations, the book is a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.

Dive deeper with excerpts exploring Sendak’s lessons on art and storytelling and his lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

11. LOLITA: THE STORY OF A COVER GIRL

“I am a slave of images,” Vladimir Nabokov declared through his character John Krug, the brilliant philosopher in Bend Sinister. In fact, the author himself — a man of notoriously strong opinions — was both a slave of images himself and an exacting master seeking to enslave them. He famously instructed publishers on how to — and how not to — cover his 1955 masterpiece Lolita, one of literary history’s most controversial classics:

I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls. … Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.

He eventually rescinded his dictum, but it endures as emblematic of Lolita’s demanding complexity and the strain it places on any attempt to synthesize that conflicting intricacy in a static image. That’s precisely what Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (public library) addresses through a magnificent collection of concept covers for the Nabokov classic, which editors John Bertram and Yuri Leving describe as planted “firmly in the public consciousness, but more often for its misunderstood subject than for its masterful and dazzling prose,” by eighty of the world’s most celebrated graphic designers and illustrators, including such favorites as Paula Scher, Jessica Hische, and Debbie Millman. Featuring a number of essays on the novel’s cover history, its evolving pop culture interpretations, and the challenging art of cover design, the book presents the most exhaustive and dimensional topography of Lolita’s cultural landscape examined through the lens of design and visual communication.

Jamie Keenan
Paula Scher

In the preface, celebrated author and Guggenheim Fellow Mary Gaitskill reflects on the appalling blurb Vintage printed on what’s considered the most successful Lolita cover of all time — “The only convincing love story of the century,” taken from a review by Vanity Fair’s Gregor von Rezzori — and reflects on the chronically misunderstood dualities at the heart of the Nabokov classic:

Lolita is not about love, because love is always mutual; Lolita is about obsession, which is never, ever love, and Nabokov himself was so disappointed that people did not understand this and take away the right message… For how could anyone call this feeding frenzy of selfishness, devouring, and destruction “love”?

How vigorously Henry Miller would nod in agreement. But Gaitskill goes on to demonstrate that no one-dimensional interpretation is better than any other, for Lolita is above all about our contradictory multiplicity of selves:

Lolita is about obsession and narcissistic appetite, misogyny and contemptuous rejection, not only of women, but of humanity itself. And yet. It is also about love; if it were not, the book would not be so heart-stoppingly beautiful.

[…]

Purity of feeling must live and breathe in the impure gardens of our confused, compromised, corrupt, and broken hearts. Love itself is not selfish, devouring or cruel, but in human beings it suffers a terrible coexistence with those qualities. . . . In most people, this contradiction will never take the florid form it takes in Humbert Humbert. But such impossible, infernal combinations are there in all of us, and we know it. That Lolita renders this human condition at such an extreme, so truthfully, and yes, as von Rezorri says, convincingly, is the book’s most shocking quality. It is why it will never be forgotten. It is also why no one will ever succeed in describing it fully on a book jacket. But how wonderful that so many have tried.

And try they did. Given no conceptual constraints and liberated from the marketing burden of using the cover as an actual sales tool, the eighty designers — ranging from in-house talent from major publishing houses to notable freelancers — brought to the subject uncommon freedom of thought and bravery of interpretation, with graphics spanning from the unabashedly provocative to the brilliantly subtle. Some intentionally violated Nabokov’s “no girls” injunction, others winked at it irreverently and assaulted it obliquely, while others still paid full heed and went with the expressly metaphorical. (Though, as John Gall thoughtfully admonishes in one of the chapters, “the land of metaphor is filled with furrows and ruts and roads going off into the distance.”)

Michael Bierut
Ellen Lupton
The Heads of State
Jessica Hische
Debbie Millman
Henry Sene Yee

Originally featured in August — read and see more here.

12. INSIDE THE RAINBOW

Since the golden age of children’s literature in mid-century America and Europe, we’ve seen children’s books used for purveying everything from philosophy to propaganda to science. But two decades before this Western surge of design innovation and conceptual experimentation in children’s books, a thriving scene of literature and art for young readers was taking root on the other side of the soon-to-be Iron Curtain. Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times (public library), edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, collects the most vibrant masterpieces of Russian children’s literature from the short but pivotal period between 1920 and 1935 — a time-capsule of the ambitious aesthetic and imaginative ideology that burned bright for a few brief moments before the onset of communism cast down its uniform grayness.

Philip Pullman, who knows a thing or two about the permeating power of children’s storytelling, writes in the foreword:

The world of Russian children’s illustrated books in the first twenty years or so of Soviet rule is almost incomparably rich. What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses? I expect the rule that applies to children’s books was just as deeply interiorized in the Soviet Union as it has been in the rest of the world: they don’t matter. They can be ignored. They’re not serious.

(Coincidentally, Neil Gaiman recently lamented that “there is [no] such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”)

Pullman contrasts the distinctive, indigenous style of this Russian book art with its Western counterparts from the same era:

The kind of modern art that lives so vigorously and joyously in these pages is, of course, one with a Russian ancestry. There is no Cubism here … no Post-Impressionism … no Dada. What there is is Constructivism, and plenty of it, and of its metaphysical parent, Suprematism. Basic geometrical shapes, the square, the circle, the rectangle, are everywhere; flat primary colors dominate.

And yet, conceptually, many of these illustrations find — and often presage — certain Western counterparts. Take, for instance, these spreads from Boris Ermolenko’s 1930 visual taxonomy of occupations, Special Clothing, which call to mind beloved French illustrator Blebolex’s book People, one of the best children’s books of 2011:

Some of the most charming pieces explore the burgeoning world of transportation:

Then there are the sheer, unmediated delights, such as Kornei Chukovsky’s playful 1927 poetry book The Telephone.

It begins:

Ting-a-ling-a-ling… A telephone ring! “Hallo! Hallo!”
“Who are you?” “Jumbo Joe,
“I live at the zoo!” “What can I do?” “Send me some jam For my little Sam.” “Do you want a lot?” “A five-ton pot,
And send me some cake — The poor little boy
Has swallowed a toy
And his tummy will ache If he gets no cake.”
“How many tons of cake will you take?” “Only a score.
He won’t be able to eat any more —
My little Sam is only four!”
And after a while
A crocodile rang from the Nile:
“I will be ever so jolly
If you send us a pile
Of rubber galoshes —
The kind that one washes —
For me and my wife and for Molly!”
“You’re talking too fast! Why, the week before last I posted ten pair
Of galoshes by air.”
“Now, doctor, be steady!
We’ve eaten already
The pile that you posted!
We ate them all roasted,
And the dish it was simply delicious, So everyone wishes
You would send to the Nile
A still bigger pile
That would do for a dozen more dishes.”

What’s most striking about these vibrant, colorful, exuberant images and verses, however, is their stark contrast to the cultural context in which they were born — alongside them we find grim photographs of desolate little faces in shabby schoolrooms, the faces of a generation that would be soon engulfed by communism’s dark descend. And yet these children’s books, Pullman marvels, emanate “a lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun” — a light at once heartening as a glimmer of generational hope and bittersweet against the historical backdrop of the oppressive regime that would eventually extinguish it as communism sought to purge the collective conscience of whimsy and imaginative sentimentality.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

13. A MAP OF THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ILLUSTRATORS AND STORYTELLERS

“Could it have been the drawing of maps that boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross?,” Richard Dawkins famously speculated. Maps have undoubtedly changed the world as both objects of art and tools of political power. They help us understand time and make sense of the universe. At their most beautiful, they reflect a level of stunning subjectivity.

In A Map of the World According to Illustrators and Storytellers (public library), the fine folks of Gestalten — who have a knack for pictorial magic and visual storytelling — collect more than 500 maps by artists, illustrators, and designers representing the creative zeitgeist of modern cartography around the world, ranging from the astoundingly accurate and detailed to the marvelously abstract and utopian.

Antonis Antoniou writes in the preface:

Only few graphic representation devices have been such a fountainhead of wonderment, controversy, and utility as maps have. What seems to have begun on a more intuitive level has evolved over time into a sophisticated visual instrument. Maps have proven to be a versatile medium through which to express our inquisitive nature and make sense of our physical world. Within a singular visual, we are able to impose order by appropriating reality and its complex layers. It is an endeavor that emanates an intoxicating sense of power in harnessing knowledge.

[…]

Maps make compelling promises. … They grasp greater concepts, detect patterns, prognosticate, and reveal new layers of meaning. … Cartography can be an incredible form of escapism, as maps act as proxies for experiences, real or fabricated. Whatever their purpose or subject matter, even the most rudimentary of maps have an inherent beauty, an attraction in their way of ordering things.

Vesa Sammalisto
Mallorca
João Lauro Fonte
Boots Adventures in London (Converse)
Martin Haake
Cruising Around Africa
Vic Lee
London
Harriet Lyall
3.2 Miles / 9 Bridges
Famille Summerbelle
London cut-paper map
Vesa Sammalisto
Island of Manhattan
Dorothy
LA Film Map

Originally featured in March — see more here.

BP

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