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What Color Is Night? Grant Snider’s Illustrated Invitation to Discover the Subtle Beauty of Darkness

A spare serenade to the spectrum of wonder between black and white.

What Color Is Night? Grant Snider’s Illustrated Invitation to Discover the Subtle Beauty of Darkness

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty,” the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki wrote in his gorgeous 1933 love letter to darkness. More than a century before him, Goethe observed in his theory of color and emotion that “color itself is a degree of darkness.” Darkness, we could say, is the sum total of all the colors and all the emotions — a totality of consummate beauty awaiting those willing to look.

That is the sentiment radiating from the spare, singsong pages of What Color Is Night? (public library) by beloved cartoonist Grant Snider.

Half a century after the great graphic artist Edward Gorey invited children to contemplate why we have night, Snider invites them to learn how to have night, dispelling the specter of nocturnal fright, and replacing it with an exuberant hunt for beauty and delight.

He shepherds the reader to discover that night is not a mere mosaic of black and white but a vivid tessellation of “colors unseen” — subtle hues beckoning eye and heart alike — the silver of starshine, the warm brown of the moths flickering under the streetlamp, the neon green of the raccoon’s flash-lit eyes, the spectrum-crowning miracle of moonbow.

Complement What Color Is Night? with the great nature writer Henry Beston on how the beauty of night serenades the human spirit and Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry on night as an existential clarifying force, then revisit Belgian artist and author Anne Herbauts’s synesthetic masterpiece What Color Is The Wind?, inspired by a blind child.

BP

I Am Loved: Nikki Giovanni’s Poems for Kids, Selected and Illustrated by Beloved Nonagenarian Artist Ashley Bryan

A vibrant ode to the inherent poetry of existence.

I Am Loved: Nikki Giovanni’s Poems for Kids, Selected and Illustrated by Beloved Nonagenarian Artist Ashley Bryan

It is often said that we are born scientists — naturally curious, tickled rather than daunted by the unknown, unafraid to experiment and to stumble in learning the world. Broadening the common ground between science and poetry is the awareness that we are equally born poets — children rejoice in the sandbox of language, where word and image are castled into wild possibilities of meaning, their minds sculpted by the magic of metaphor.

In the tradition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s illustrated poems for young people, Maya Angelou’s courageous children’s verses illustrated by Basquiat, and T.S. Eliot’s classic cat poems illustrated by Edward Gorey, now comes I Am Loved (public library) — a lovely set of poems by Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), one of the great poets of our time, illustrated by the prolific ninety-four-year-old artist, storyteller, and humanitarian Ashley Bryan (b. July 13, 1923).

Animated by his lifelong ardor for poetry, Bryan selected a dozen of Giovanni’s poems to bring to life in his unmistakable style — artwork vibrant and irrepressibly alive, radiating the native poetry of existence. Here he is reciting the Langston Hughes poem that ignited and continues to stoke his love of poetry:


Art by Ashley Bryan for I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni

A SONG FOR BLACKBIRD
by Nikki Giovanni

(for Carolyn Rodgers, October 4, 2010)

We look for words:
    intelligent    intense
    chocolate    warm
    ambitious    cautious

to describe a person

We design monuments:
    the Pyramids    the Taj Mahal
    the Lincoln Memorial    the Empire State Building
    the Wrigley Building    Coffins

to say someone was loved

We sing a sad blue
    Song
We sing a river — no — bridge
    Song
We sing a Song of a Blackbird
    To Say

You will be missed.

Art by Ashley Bryan for I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni

BECAUSE
by Nikki Giovanni

I wrote a poem
for you because
you are
my little boy

I wrote a poem
for you because
you are
my darling daughter

and in this poem
I sang a song
that says
as time goes on
I am you
and you are me
and that’s how life
goes on

Art by Ashley Bryan for I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni

KIDNAP POEM
by Nikki Giovanni

ever been kidnapped
by a poet
if i were a poet
i’d kidnap you
put you in my phrases and meter
you to jones beach
or maybe coney island
or maybe just to my house
lyric you in lilacs
dash you in the rain
blend into the beach
to complement my see
play the lyre for you
ode you with my love song
anything to win you
wrap you in red Black green
show you off to mama
yeah if i were a poet i’d kid
nap you

Art by Ashley Bryan for I Am Loved by Nikki Giovanni

NO HEAVEN
by Nikki Giovanni

How can there be
No heaven
When rain falls
gently on the grass
When sunshine scampers
across my toes

When corn bakes
into bread
When wheat melts
into cake

When shadows
cool
And owls
call
And little finches
eat upside
down

How can there be
No Heaven

When tears comfort
When dreams caress
When you smile
  at me

Complement the immeasurably wonderful I Am Loved with this illustrated collection of classic love poems, then revisit Nikki Giovanni on love, her poems celebrating libraries and librarians, and her fantastic forgotten conversation with James Baldwin.

BP

Great Writers on the Letters of the Alphabet, Illustrated by David Hockney

A choral serenade to the building blocks of language starring Susan Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, Martin Amis, Doris Lessing, John Updike, and more titans of literature.

Great Writers on the Letters of the Alphabet, Illustrated by David Hockney

In the final years of his life, the English poet, novelist, essayist, and social justice advocate Sir Stephen Spender undertook a playful and poignant labor of love — he asked artist David Hockney to draw each letter of the alphabet, then invited twenty-nine of the greatest writers in the English language to each contribute a short original text for one of the letters. The result was the 1991 out-of-print treasure Hockney’s Alphabet (public library) — a sublime addition to the canon of imaginative alphabet books, with all proceeds going toward AIDS research and care for people living and dying with AIDS.

The twenty-nine pieces — essays, poems, micro-memoirs — come from such titans of literature as Susan Sontag, Seamus Heaney, Martin Amis, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Ted Hughes, Ian McEwan, Erica Jong, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Iris Murdoch.

X by David Hockney

“I have never liked the look of E,” Gore Vidal declares, “so very like a comb, unsnarling hyacinthine locks, taming Medusan curls — E — a cry!” Anthony Burgess writes a long elegy for X, the “unnecessary” letter that is also our mightiest cypher, “the great unknown.” Dorris Lessing takes P on a culinary adventure in pumpkin. “‘Why’ is the only question which bothers people enough to have an entire letter of the alphabet named after it,” quips Douglas Adams as he launches into an eulogy for the unanswerable. Norman Mailer alone declined to participate in the project, but his feisty rejection so befits the letter F he had been assigned that, with his permission, it appears in the book in place of an actual contribution.

B by David Hockney

One of the most beautiful, arresting, and nuanced entires comes from Joyce Carol Oates, for B — a roaming part-Aristotelian, part-Darwinian, wholly Oatsian meditation on existence, time, and the universe itself:

Of all Bs surely BIRTH is the most profound. The most mysterious. BIRTH. BEGET. BEING. BEGINNING. BEFORE. Nothing is so intimidating, so elusive. No riddle so haunting. If death is decomposition, and (mere) decomposition is death, the disintegration of BEING, still we can grasp its principle: the shattering of a pane of glass, the melting of a snowflake, the shredding of a flower’s perfect petals by a fool’s nervous fingernails, so idle, so purposeless, so common. But BIRTH? BEGETTING? BEGIN? Who can grasp such principles, such phantasmagoria? Out of what void can BEING spring? — not NON-BEING, surely. Is there a time BEFORE time? Are we BEGOTTEN out of nothing? at a point equidistant from various nowheres? How I wish, before I die, I could know how, still less why, a seemingly undirected flow of energy washes life, consciousness, particularity, BEING into the universe!

Our BIRTHS are double. The human, historical BIRTHDAY. A time, a place; a mother, a father. The BIRTHDAY to be linked, eventually, with a deathday. But there is also the BIRTH of the idea of us; the BIRTH of the species, excruciatingly slow, apparently blind, groping, relentless; the BIRTH of all animate matter, out of the inanimate materials of stars; the mysterious composition of disparate elements out of the singularity of time zero. Our collective BIRTH out of a single BEGETTING, how many billions of years ago.

Thus BIRTH, of all Bs the most profound. The most mysterious.

C by David Hockney

Iris Murdoch, who herself had once considered the interplay of causality and chance in human existence, takes a much lighter lens to the letter C:

I find the letter C a warm comforting friendly sort of letter, perhaps because I first came across it in action in the word cat. However, there is much to be said against it. It lacks authority. It is not interesting or imposing, certainly not self-assertive. When scrawled by hand it can be easily overwhelmed by its more prominent neighbors. It may even be described as a mean shadowy unattractive little sign, scarcely more than an enlarged comma. It is not elegant and comely to contemplate; by comparison, for instance, with A or M it lacks form, it cannot claim to be in itself a little work of art. (Esthetically, surely the handsomest of letters is the Russian Ж.) Moreover, a different charge, C may be said to be actually otiose. Some of our local languages do without it, leaving its tasks to unambiguous S and K signs, others persecute it almost to extinction or disfigure it with unseemly hats or tails. It suffers all sorts of bizarre pronunciations. Nevertheless, for the sake of that old friendship, I feel affection for the poor little letter. After all, who wants a kat?

D by David Hockney

Paul Theroux picks up where Oates left off — or, rather, where Emily Dickinson left off a century earlier — and takes on D for Death, that great consecrator of life:

Death is oblivion, the end of life. Sudden or slow, it is an impartial terror, respecting no one, visiting every being on earth, the old and the young, the sick and the healthy, the wise and the foolish, the innocent and the wicked.

We are dying every second and that unstoppable tick of our mortal clock can fill us with such anxiety that our fear may make us brilliant and ingenious. Throughout history people have invented ways to defy death, by creating works of art, imagining strange gods, taking risks, making sacrifices, attempting to appease its terror, even constructing a whole kingdom beyond death in order to bestow immortality on ourselves.

Death for some is a virus, for others a bullet, a dagger, an oncoming car. It can be a fatal dose of gas or water or fire. For most it is within, the age and decay of the body — struggle, then collapse.

Still death grins at us, omnipotent, godlike — often death is depicted as a fearless skeleton with no sex, a bony comedian wearing a lipless grin. Some see death as evil, a murderer, a revenger, because it is all-powerful. But why see death as a hangman when it is truer to see it as a harvester leveling the earth with its scythe?

Oddly, we take hope from the seasons — the rebirth of spring after the death of winter — or from the rising and setting of the sun. But no spring, no dawn beyond death, has ever been proven. Death is an endless night so awful to contemplate that it can make us love life and value it with such passion that it may be the ultimate cause of all joy and all art.

G by David Hockney

Seamus Heaney contributes a poem for G — an ode to language itself, the riverine fluidity and richness of it:

Guh. Guh.
Like breath being shunted.
The sound of the Gaelic
word for voice —
written as guth
and in the plural
having the sense
of vowels and rhymes.
Another, different
voice is glór,
voice of the river, say,
voice of the wind
that shakes the barley in
gort, a cornfield.
And gort is the Irish
name for the letter:
field full of guh-grain,
granary of G-ness.

H by David Hockney

“H is for Homosexual” for Martin Amis, who relays a heartbreaking childhood memory of awakening to his difference, then writes:

I wish I understood homosexuality. I wish I could intuit more about it — the attraction to like, not to other. Is it nature or nurture, a predisposition, is it written in the DNA? When I think about it in relation to myself … its isolation and disquiet become something lifelong. In my mind I call homosexuality not a “condition” (and certainly not a “preference”), I call it a destiny. Because all I know for certain about homosexuality is that it asks for courage. It demands courage.

J by David Hockney

In a recollection that parallels Virginia Woolf’s epiphany about the interconnectedness of everything and echoes Willa Cather’s memorable passage about the essence of happiness, Ian McEwan chooses Joy for J:

When I was nine and living in Tripoli, Libya, I had an experience of joy, thirty seconds or so that count as the real beginning of my conscious life.

One early morning during the summer holidays my mother dropped me off at the local beach on her way in to work. I was to spend a few hours there alone. I had packed lunch and some piasters to spend on a fizzy drink.

It was probably seven-thirty when I stood at the top of a low cliff by a set of wooden stairs. The tranquility of the Mediterranean — a cleaner, brighter sea then — seemed inseparable from a sweetness in the air and the sound of small waves breaking. The beach of white sand was deserted. It was all mine. The space which separated me from what I saw sparkled with significance. Everything I looked at — yesterday’s footprints in the sand, an outcrop of rock, the wooden rail beneath my hand — seemed overpoweringly unique, etched in light, and somehow to be aware of itself, to “know.” At the same time, everything belonged together, and that unity was knowing, too, and seemed to say, Now you’ve seen us. I felt myself dissolving into what I saw. I was no longer a son or a schoolboy or a Wolf Cub. And yet I felt my individuality intensely, as though for the first time. I was coming into being. I murmured something like, “I am me,” or “This is me.” Even now, I sometimes find this kind of formulation useful.

The rest of that day is lost. As soon as I moved from where I stood, the memory fades. I suppose I must have run down the steps and across the sand to the water to begin…

W by David Hockney

Susan Sontag fills the twin trenches of W with her singular gift for wresting from the mundane the miraculous, the existential, the sublime:

W might be for the weather, an accordion topic of proven use in avoiding the not supposed to be mentioned or dwelt on… I usually don’t want to talk about weather… But why not have a white topic, one that carries as much or as little weight as we wish?

Weather is always happening, always changing. What’s going to happen? we ask fearfully. Whatever happens, it will be something else.

When we’re talking about the weather, well, we’re giving ourselves a break.

The wonder is that one thing does succeed another. Distracting us from the wound, from awareness of what coexists. I am walking in the woods or gulping fresh water or encircling a child with watchful tenderness. And at that very moment, at this very moment, in the final agonies of a torture session in the wicked war a nearby government is waging against its citizens, inside a cardboard box in the doorway of the windward corner of my street, someone is, someone has just…

I don’t know, it’s been explained, it’s called having a whole world.

I was sleepy. Id’ stayed up all night working on my book. But I went to the museum. It was the last day. It was worth it, the paintings were wonderful. Then came the news we were waiting for. She wept. He wept. I wept. What amazing weather we’ve been having. Then we wandered over to a bar (this is Berlin) very near where the wall was (how we had rejoiced) and drank some wine (and went on weeping). We move from one mood to another, giving due attention to each. (“Our moods do not believe in one another,” Emerson said.) There is no final mood. It is winter now.

Hockney’s Alphabet is magnificent in its totality, and perhaps its oblivion will not be total — perhaps someday, the publisher who mistook the temporal for the dated will bring its timeless splendor back into print. Complement it with David Hockney’s rare illustrations for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, then revisit other uncommonly wonderful alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Oliver Jeffers, Maurice Sendak, Edward Gorey, Quentin Blake, and Maira Kalman.

Thanks, Maria Konnikova

BP

The Vampire Problem: A Brilliant Thought Experiment Illustrating the Paradox of Transformative Experience

“Many of [life’s] big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself.”

The Vampire Problem: A Brilliant Thought Experiment Illustrating the Paradox of Transformative Experience

To be human is to suffer from a peculiar congenital blindness: On the precipice of any great change, we can see with terrifying clarity the familiar firm footing we stand to lose, but we fill the abyss of the unfamiliar before us with dread at the potential loss rather than jubilation over the potential gain of gladnesses and gratifications we fail to envision because we haven’t yet experienced them. Emerson knew this when he contemplated our resistance to change and the key to true personal growth: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” Rilke, too, knew it when he considered how great upheavals bring us closer to ourselves: “That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.”

When faced with the most transformative experiences, we are ill-equipped to even begin to imagine the nature and magnitude of the transformation — but we must again and again challenge ourselves to transcend this elemental failure of the imagination if we are to reap the rewards of any transformative experience.

In Transformative Experience (public library), philosopher L.A. Paul illustrates this paradox and examines how we are to unbind ourselves from it in a simple, elegant thought experiment: If you were offered the chance to become a vampire — painlessly and without inflicting pain on others, gaining incredible superpowers in exchange for relinquishing your human existence, with all your friends having made the leap and loving it — would you do it?

Art by Edward Gorey from his special illustrated edition of Dracula

Paul writes:

The trouble is, in this situation, how could you possibly make an informed choice? For, after all, you cannot know what it is like to be a vampire until you are one. And if you can’t know what it’s like to be a vampire without becoming one, you can’t compare the character of the lived experience of what it is like to be you, right now, a mere human, to the character of the lived experience of what it would be like to be a vampire. This means that, if you want to make this choice by considering what you want your lived experience to be like in the future, you can’t do it rationally. At least, you can’t do it by weighing the competing options concerning what it would be like and choosing on this basis. And it seems awfully suspect to rely solely on the testimony of your vampire friends to make your choice, because, after all, they aren’t human any more, so their preferences are the ones vampires have, not the ones humans have.

This hypothetical situation, she points out, is an apt analogue for our most important life decisions:

When you find yourself facing a decision involving a new experience that is unlike any other experience you’ve had before, you can find yourself in a special sort of epistemic situation. In this sort of situation, you know very little about your possible future, in the same way that you are limited when you face a possible future as a vampire. And so, if you want to make the decision by thinking about what your lived experience would be like if you decided to undergo the experience, you have a problem… You find yourself facing a decision where you lack the information you need to make the decision the way you naturally want to make it — by assessing what the different possibilities would be like and choosing between them. The problem is pressing, because many of life’s big personal decisions are like this: they involve the choice to undergo a dramatically new experience that will change your life in important ways, and an essential part of your deliberation concerns what your future life will be like if you decide to undergo the change. But as it turns out, like the choice to become a vampire, many of these big decisions involve choices to have experiences that teach us things we cannot know about from any other source but the experience itself.

Our minds, lest we forget, are prone to misleading us — just as people’s confidence in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence upon which those beliefs are founded, the cost-benefit estimations we make of an as-yet unknown state reflect the suppositions drawn from our current state and not the actual features of the potential and wholly unfamiliar state. When faced with a choice on one side of which lies life as we know it and on the other a transformative experience, we can’t imagine what life on the other side would be like — what we are currently missing — until after we’ve undergone the transformation. (Interestingly, an intuitive awareness of this is at the root of the psychology of our fear of missing out.) Paul writes:

You know that undergoing the experience will change what it is like for you to live your life, and perhaps even change what it is like to be you, deeply and fundamentally.

It seems, then, that there is an equivalent to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem about the limits of logic in consciousness and its vassal, the imagination.

In consonance with psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s memorable assertion that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” Paul adds:

In many ways, large and small, as we live our lives, we find ourselves confronted with a brute fact about how little we can know about our futures, just when it is most important to us that we do know. For many big life choices, we only learn what we need to know after we’ve done it, and we change ourselves in the process of doing it. I’ll argue that, in the end, the best response to this situation is to choose based on whether we want to discover who we’ll become.

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita from his project Sea

In a sentiment that calls to mind the deaf-blind Helen Keller’s touching account of her first experience of dance and affirms the value of marine biologist Rachel Carson’s pioneering invitation to imagine Earth from the perspective of nonhuman creatures, Paul writes:

Unless you’ve had the relevant experiences, what it is like to be a person or an animal very different from yourself is, in a certain fundamental way, inaccessible to you. It isn’t that you can’t imagine something in place of the experience you haven’t had. It’s that this act of imagining isn’t enough to let you know what it is really like to be an octopus, or to be a slave, or to be blind. You need to have the experience itself to know what it is really like.

This brings out another, somewhat less familiar fact about the relationship between knowledge and experience: just as knowledge about the experience of one individual can be inaccessible to another individual, what you can know about yourself at one time can be inaccessible to you at another time.

How to access that invaluable perspective — what Seamus Heaney called “your own secret knowledge” — is what Paul explores in the remainder of her immensely insightful Transformative Experience.

BP

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