Brain Pickings

The Unsung Heroes of Innovation: A 1964 Manifesto for the Role of the Critic-Curator in How Ideas Spread

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“It would be a mistake to distinguish too sharply between those who contribute a new way of doing and those who contribute a new way of thinking.”

“Art doesn’t explain itself,” music critic Greil Marcus observed in considering what the history of rock ‘n’ roll reveals about innovation. The role of context — that mesh of explanations enveloping an idea in a sheath of meaning to reveal why it matters and why we should pay attention — is essential in the cultural uptake of any new concept. I have long believed the role of the cultural critic or curator — the celebrator of ideas — to be one of helping people discern what matters in the world and understand why it matters, of elevating the meaningful from the fleeting and, in the process, elevating the human spirit toward progress. The great social science writer John W. Gardner explores this notion with unparalleled elegance and economy of words in a section of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — his excellent, forgotten field guide to keeping your company and your soul vibrantly alive, written in 1964 but enormously relevant to modern entrepreneurship, politics, and personal growth.

The most meaningful, impactful, and enduring innovations, Gardner argues, often come quietly, even surreptitiously:

The new thing rarely comes on with a flourish or trumpets. The historic innovation looks exciting in the history books, but if one could question those who lived at the time, the typical response would be neither “I opposed it” nor “I welcomed it,” but “I didn’t know it was happening.”

The unsung heroes of innovation, Gardner suggests, are those who shed light on the new and noteworthy, who extend an invitation to people to pay attention and care — a function all the more vital today, half a century later, when there is so much more vying for our attention and it is so much more straining to distinguish between the noteworthy and the merely noisy.

Illustration from 'Flashlight' by Lizi Body. Click image for more.

Those who bring attention to valuable ideas, then, are themselves vital agents of change, without whom the inventors and their creations would slide under the cultural radar and into obscurity. Editor Ursula Nordstrom did this for a young and insecure Maurice Sendak. Publisher John Martin did it for Charles Bukowski. Ralph Waldo Emerson did it for young Walt Whitman.

To give a great idea wings, Gardner suggests, is at least as valuable as to hatch it:

The capacity of public somnolence to retard change illuminates the role of the critic… Critics who call attention to an area that requires renewal are very much a part of the innovative process…

One of the most serious obstacles to clear thinking about renewal is the excessively narrow conception of the innovator that is commonly held. It focuses on technology and on the men who intent specific new devices: Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone; Marconi and wireless; Edison and the phonograph; the Wright Brothers and the airplane.

Gardner returns to the underappreciated, vital role of the critic-celebrator in amplifying the ideas that improve society and precipitate progress:

We tend to think of innovators as those who contribute to a new way of doing things. But many far-reaching changes have been touched off by those who contributed to a new way of thinking about things…

It would be a mistake to distinguish too sharply between those who contribute a new way of doing and those who contribute a new way of thinking.

Today, Gardner himself is an underappreciated celebrator of the human spirit and his Self-Renewal endures as a timeless manifesto for what true progress requires. Sample it further with Gardner on what children can teach us about risk, failure, and personal growth, then see some related thoughts on how to cultivate wisdom in the age of information.

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Happy 99th Birthday, Pioneering Psychologist Jerome Bruner: Art as a Mode of Knowing and Its Four Psychological Aspects

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“Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences.”

The question of what art is has been asked and answered at least since we dwelled in caves. Every era has produced a crop of memorable answers from its greatest minds. Oscar Wilde pointed to the “temperament of receptivity” as the secret of art, Leo Tolstoy championed its “emotional infectiousness,” Susan Sontag saw it as “a form of consciousness,” and Alain de Botton considers it therapy of the soul. But one of the most insightful and dimensional explorations of the function of art in human culture comes from legendary Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), whose influential and enduring contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory remain unparalleled.

In an essay titled “Art as a Mode of Knowing,” found in his altogether fantastic 1962 essay collection On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — which also gave us Bruner on “effective surprise” and the six essential conditions for creativity and myth, identity, and “creative wholeness” — Bruner considers the unique language of art and how it complements that of science. He outlines the four psychological aspects of the art experience — connectedness, which deals with the reward of grasping the essential ideas a work of art communicates; effort, which we exert to draw meaning from the ambiguity of art; conversion of impulse, which makes an object of beauty move us; and generality, which deals with the universal aspects of what we find beautiful and moving.

Bruner begins with connectedness, which thrives on our sense of “unfilled possibilities for experience”:

Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences. Perhaps these gaps are the products of reflection or at least its fruits… Science, by reducing the need for empiricism with its statement of general laws, fills these gaps only partly… The general scientific law, for all its beauty, leaves the interstices as yearningly empty as before.

Our effort to bridge these gaps, Bruner argues, is driven by two psychological processes — the creation of effective, economical symbols and the construction of categories of possibility, which we fill with our specific experiences as they unfold. The latter, he points out, is common to both art and science. He illustrates these categories of possibility with an example from the history of particle physics:

The neutrino is created as a fruitful fiction. And in time the neutrino is found.

But the parallel in art, Bruner notes, is often driven by metaphor rather than strict logic, which circles back to the first psychological mechanism of connectedness, the use of symbolism:

Metaphor joins dissimilar experiences by finding the image or the symbol that unites them at some deeper emotional level of meaning. Its effect depends upon its capacity for getting past the literal mode of connecting, and the unsuccessful metaphor is one that either fails in finding the image or gets caught in the meshes of literalness.

Metaphorical thinking, as psychologists have found in the half-century since Bruner’s writing, is central to the development of human imagination. And yet, Bruner cautions, not all metaphorical thinking is created equal in terms of serving this function of connectedness in the experience of art:

There is more to the metaphor of art than mere emotional connectedness. There is also the canon of economy that must operate, a canon that distinguishes the artfully metaphoric from that which is only floridly arty or simply “offbeat.”

The economy of metaphor, Bruner argues, helps mitigate the often paralyzing mismatch between what there is to be known and what we can possibly know — something our minds automatically address by narrowing our attention into an “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” and flattening dimensional identity groups into imprisoning stereotypes. Bruner writes:

There is, perhaps, one universal truth about all forms of human cognition: the ability to deal with knowledge is hugely exceeded by the potential knowledge contained in man’s environment. To cope with this diversity, man’s perceptions, his memory, and his thought processes early become governed by strategies for protecting his limited capacities from the confusion of overloading. We tend to perceive things schematically, for example, rather than in detail, or we represent a class of diverse things by some sort of averaged “typical instance.” The corresponding principle of economy in art produces the compact image or symbol that, by its genesis, travels great distances to connect ostensible disparities.

Art by Sydney Pink from 'Overcoming Creative Block.' Click image for more.

This world of metaphor, Bruner argues, reveals the “primitive similarity” between the modes of connecting in art and science:

The prescientific effort to construct a fruitful hypothesis may indeed be the place where the art of science, like all other art forms, operates by the law of economical metaphor. May it not be that without the myth of Sisyphus, forever pushing his rock up the hill, the concept of the asymptote in mathematics would be less readily grasped? What is Heraclitus’ account but a giant metaphor on instability? He gropes for a picture of the universe. And so it is at the beginnings of insight.

He speaks to the power of intuition in science, something a number of notable scientists have championed as essential to creativity in scientific discovery. Bruner writes:

As Bertrand Russell comments, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” And until they are “discovered” in this more rigorous sense, one proceeds by intuition and metaphor, hoping to be led beyond to a new rigor. Until then, the economical combings of the scientist and the artist share far more than we are often prepared to admit.

Bruner moves on to the second pillar of the art experience, effort, which “consists in departing from the habitual and literal ways of looking, hearing, and understanding in order to resolve the ambiguity that is a feature of works of art.” He explains:

In a deeper sense, it is the effort to make a new connection between different perspectives.

Interestingly, the “the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things,” or what Einstein called “combinatory play” and Arthur Koestler termed “bisociation,” is a defining characteristic of creativity — but Bruner finds in it a symmetry between what it takes to create art and what it takes to enjoy it:

What one feels is the effort to connect. It is not only for the creation of a work of art that one should use the expression unitas multiplex [unity of diversity], but for the experience of knowing it as well.

We’re willing to undertake that effort in the first place, he argues, because it generates a certain momentum of self-refinement:

Perhaps the effort of beholding art is its own reward, or the reward is the achievement of unity of experience, which is to say that it develops on itself. Taste begets better taste. Listen to enough Dvorak and a taste for Beethoven or Wagner will develop.

The amount and nature of the effort, Bruner suggests, is where the distinction between art and entertainment — something David Foster Wallace memorably considered — lies. Playing off Graham Greene’s distinction between his “novels” and his “entertainments,” Bruner looks at the contrast between the beautiful and the merely decorative through the lens of this effort to connect:

Creating new unities is not all the work. There is also control and conversion of the impulses that are aroused in the experience of art, the exercises of restraint that permit the reader to maintain a distance from the hero of a novel and the play-goer to remain on his side of the proscenium arch. Here … the distinction between the decorative and the beautiful is useful. For the decorative achieves its restfulness by permitting us to remain uninvolved, untempted. Indeed, an essay remains to be written on the defense against beauty, about those who, in the face of the awesomeness of a Gothic cathedral, can remain unshaken and find what they behold merely pleasing.

Bruner turns to the third aspect of the art experience, conversion of impulse. Noting that any impulse can be turned into art, Bruner echoes both Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” and Wilde’s of psychological “receptivity” as he considers how the conversion of that impulse bridges artist and beholder:

It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in each case that the impulse be held in check and converted from its original form. It is equally true that the successful beholding of a work of art involves a comparable act of containing impulses that have been aroused. It is not necessary that there be a concordance in the impulse of the creator and the beholder, and, for our purposes, the matter of communicating an impulse from creator to receiver is not at issue.

Two types of cognitive activity propel the actual conversion of the impulse:

One is at the center of awareness as desire: it is directed toward achieving an end and is specialized to the task of finding means. The other is at the fringes of awareness, a flow of rich and surprising fantasy, a tangled reticle of associations that gives fleeting glimpses of past occasions, of disappointments and triumphs, of pleasures and unpleasures.

Portrait of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes from his most revealing interview. Click image for more.

The latter, Bruner points out, is the stuff of James Joyce’s famous stream-of-consciousness writing and it was precisely Joyce’s ability to communicate this “scarcely expressible fringe” that makes us celebrate him as a true master of literary art. Such elegant merging of streams fueled by diverse impulses, Bruner argues, is the key to the power of art as a mode of knowing the world and ourselves:

At this level, thinking is more symphonic than logical, one theme suggesting the next by a rule of letting parts stand for wholes. Where art achieves its genius is in providing an image or a symbol whereby the fusion can be comprehended and bound.

In short, the conversion of impulse into the experience of art comes from the creation of a stream of metaphoric activity and the restraining of any direct striving for ends. In essence, the connecting of experience is given its first impetus by the simultaneous presence of several such streams of fringe-association. It is the formal artifice of the work of art itself, the genius of its economical imagery, that makes possible the final fusing of these inner experiences. The process … requires work from the beholder. Beholding an art object in a manner that may be called knowing is not a passive act. But when the beholder stops beholding, when there is too much involvement with the figures in a canvas, there is an end to the conversion of impulse, distance is lost, and in place of the experience of art there is either a daydream or merely action.

With this, Bruner arrives at the final psychological aspect of beholding art, generality, returning to those lonely gaps in our experience and revisiting the parallels and contrasts between art and science as sensemaking mechanisms:

Any idea, any construct or metaphor, has its range of convenience or its “fit” to experience, and this is one feature that art and science as modes of knowing share deeply… Our techniques for finding out about the range of convenience of ideas in science are rather straightforward, though it requires much ingenuity at times to devise operational techniques for verification. There is no direct analogue of verification in the experience of art. In its place, there is a “shock of recognition,” a recognition of the fittingness of an object or a poem to fill the gaps in our own experience. In this sense, and it is a limited sense, we may say that art is not a universal mode of communication, for each man who beholds a picture or reads a poem will bring to the experience a matrix of life that is uniquely his own.

Chauvet cave drawings from '100 Diagrams That Changed the World.' Click image for more.

And yet there is a deeper, more immutable universality to the experience of art — a work of art, Bruner argues, is scarcely “a function entirely of time, place, and condition,” for if this were the case, such ancient masterworks as the cave paintings of Chauvet or Lascaux or Altamira would leave us cold, failing to produce the “shock of recognition” that they still do. Bruner speaks to this universality:

There are features of the human condition that change only within narrow limits whether one be a cave dweller, a don in medieval Oxford, or a Left Bank expatriate of the 1920s: love, birth, hate, death, passion, and decorum persist as problems without unique solution.

Can it ever be said, then, that life imitates art? If so, then art is the furthest reach of communication. There are perhaps two ways that are somewhat more than trivial. One is the effect of art in freeing us from the forms of instrumental knowing that comprise the center of our awareness; from the tendency to say that this figure here represents Christ, that over there is an apple; apples are good for eating, Christ for worshipping or admiring. When we see the possibility of connecting in internal experience, we strive to recreate it and to live it.

But life imitates art in another, arguably even more important sense:

The experience of art nourishes itself, so that having sensed connectedness one is impelled to seek more of it.

Bruner concludes by returning to the yin-yang of art and science:

The intent of the scientist is to create rational structures and general laws that, in the mathematical sense, predict the observations one would be forced to make if one were without the general laws… Governed by principles of strict logical implication… prediction becomes more and more complete, leading eventually to the derivation of possible observations that one might not have made but for the existence of the general theory. Surely, then, science increases the unity of our experience of nature. That is the hallmark of the way of knowing called science.

Art as a form of knowing does not and cannot strive for such a form of unification. In its most refined form, the myth of Sisyphus is not the concept of the mathematical asymptote. The elegant rationality of science and the metaphoric nonrationality of art operate with deeply different grammars: perhaps they even represent a profound complementarity. For, in the experience of art, we connect by a grammar of metaphor, one that defies the rational methods of the linguist and the psychologist. There has been progress in interpreting the metaphoric transformation of dreams, rendering the latent meaning from the manifest content, progress to which Freud contributed so greatly. Yet to interpret a dream as “a wish to be loved by one’s rejecting mother” or to interpret Marlow’s pursuit of Kurtz at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a man pursuing a bride, neither of these exercises, however revealing, catches fully the nature of metaphor. What is lost in such translations is the very fullness of the connection produced by the experience of art itself.

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is remarkably insightful and wide-ranging in its entirety, exploring such aspects of the human quest for knowledge as the act of discovery, the notion of fate, the role of identity in creativity, and more. Complement this particular excerpt with a contemporary look at the seven psychological functions of art.

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A History of New York in 101 Objects: A Thoughtful Visual Encyclopedia of Collective Memory

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How artifacts abstract the city’s tragedies and triumphs and tell the story of its aliveness.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his spectacular 1949 love letter to New York. “The city is like poetry.” And compress it does — the city’s five boroughs are home to some 8.4 million people, more than the entire population of my native Bulgaria. To capture New York’s dimensional poetics seems like a Herculean task, yet many have attempted it — from Walt Whitman with his raunchy verses to Berenice Abbott with her era-defining photographs to the New Yorker with its high-brow feline history. But to capture it in just a few dozen objects seems near impossible, since of all that New York compresses in its small space, objects are practically innumerable and cacophonous. And yet that is precisely what New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts accomplishes in A History of New York in 101 Objects (public library) — partly a living museum, partly a catalog of events, partly a luminous sidewise gleam at the essence of what makes a great city.

Selected with a lens for the “paradigmatic but quirky,” Roberts’s objects are a far cry from the clichés of tourism or the tired symbols of iconography. Instead, they serve as living records of the city’s triumphs, tragedies, and remarkable resilience in cycling through the two, ranging from the artichoke with its secret history of mafia crime, to the AIDS button, which elevated an anguished community from the ashes of the city’s deadliest epidemic, to the school doorknob, emblematic of New York’s commitment to public education, to the air conditioner, which made windowless workspaces possible for the first time. Tucked between the entries are delightful curiosities, such as the pear tree that became the final living connection to New York’s Dutch heritage, and as well as poignant glimpses of our shared humanity, such as the maelstrom of heartbreak and hope that swept the city after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.

Roberts explains the selection criteria for the project, which was inspired by the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects:

The objects themselves had to have played some transformative role in New York City’s history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation. They also had to be enduring, which meant they could not be disproportionately tailored to recent memory or contemporary nostalgia. Fifty, or even twenty-five years from now, would they seem as vital or archetypal as they do right now?

Objects, of course, are more than mere things — they are, especially in the context of this book, shorthand for events, stand-ins for people, vehicles for the sort of collective storytelling of which history is woven. Rob Walker captured this elegantly in his Significant Objects, where he wrote: “It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.” Such is the emotional energy that emanates from Roberts selections.

When I first moved to New York, I quickly developed a soft spot for the city’s countless and rather distinctive cylindrical water tanks (object #31) that stood as unsung sidekicks to the recognizable landmarks of its iconic skyline. There are a whopping fifteen thousand of them, Roberts explains, but most were built by two large family-owned companies — a wonderfully poetic reflection of New York’s peculiar play of scales and its fusion of private and public, or what E.B. White memorably termed the city’s blend of “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.”

Roberts writes of Gotham’s cityscape fixtures:

The cylindrical tanks, which typically measure about twelve feet high and twelve feet across and are topped by a conical enclosure, hold ten thousand gallons on average and cost about thirty thousand dollars. Tap water is siphoned off the top, while murkier bottom water, mixed with sediment, is reserved for firefighting. As in a toilet tank, a ballcock regulates the level. The tanks can be dismantled and replaced in as little as twenty-four hours and take about three hours to fill.

They are also a feat of natural engineering and ingenuity — typically made of wood, which is cheaper yet more resilient in changing temperatures than steel, they are held together not by paint or adhesives but by sheer physics: when the wood gets wet, it expands and thus seals itself, while galvanized steel hoops keep the tank from bursting. With proper maintenance, each tank lasts around three decades.

As a wholehearted lover of public libraries and regular supporter of the New York Public Library in particular, I was also enchanted by Roberts’s account of how Gotham’s library (object #29) began. Guarded by its two iconic lions, Patience and Fortitude, the main building on 42nd street was the largest marble structure in the United States at the time it was built. The library is now the second-largest in America, after the Library of Congress, and the third-largest in the world. We owe it to a successful lawyer, investor, abolitionist, and political reformer named Samuel J. Tilden, whose will included the bequest to build a free public library.

Tilden’s broader intention, historian Michael Miscione tells Roberts, was “to solidify the city’s commitment to literacy, culture and a public-private partnership that enabled New York City to create so many world-class cultural institutions.” Even though New York had a number of libraries by the latter portion of the nineteenth century, they were privately funded and charged admission. Tilden’s unprecedented gift of $2.4 million — close to $100 million in today’s money — put the majority of his fortune toward the idealistic quest to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.”

Private philanthropy of such scale for the public good was practically unheard of at the time, but New York would go on to become the unheralded philanthropy capital of the world.

Another prescient token of New York’s values and priorities is the early dictionary (object #7), which Roberts aptly calls “a Colonial Rosetta Stone” — an essential tool for cross-pollinating the cultures and communities in American’s early melting pot. He writes:

Language difficulties divided the population (about half of it Dutch at the time) and got in the way of the British laissez-faire approach to governing. Innovations like the jury system were particularly problematic. The problem was solved by an English–Low Dutch dictionary published by a New Jersey schoolmaster. Except for a brief Dutch restoration nine years later, the English would rule for over a century. Their language would, more or less, prevail. Among the enduring linguistic traditions of the Dutch is that we still call little chunks of dough “cookies,” instead of the British “biscuits”. Other words such as “coleslaw,” “waffle,” “doughnut,” “stoop,” and “Yankee” endured.

There is also the famous 25-foot-tall Civic Fame statue (object #42) by Adolph A. Weinman perched atop Manhattan’s municipal building — a structure of scandalous backstory:

Audrey Munson, the model after whom she was sculpted, once appeared naked in a porn film (she of the face that launched a thousand quips, she listed herself in a city directory first as an actress, then as an artist) and later was declared insane.

[...]

In her eighth decade and suffering from exposure, the statue was removed, restored, and regilded with hand-burnished 23.5-karat gold leaf, and hoisted back into position by helicopter in 1991. That was only four years before Audrey Munson died in an upstate asylum, just short of her 105th birthday.

A number of the objects aren’t static mementos from the past but dynamic projections of the future. The famous Bloomberg computer terminal (object #96) was invented by a laid-off investment banker who would go on to become the city’s most beloved Mayor — one whose merits, I should add, all the more appreciated in hindsight by those of us who made New York a home under Mayor Bloomberg’s reign and somewhat naively took for granted that his idealistic and magnanimous rule was a function of mayorship rather than a function of his exceptional personhood.

Roberts considers the broader implications of having a self-made, entrepreneurial man at the helm of the city:

That little beige box soon made him the richest and most powerful man in New York. By affirming his faith in scientific solutions, it also helped deliver the city into the twenty-first century, through devices ranging from the expansion of the CompStat tactical crime-fighting program to the 311 telephone complaint and service system, and encouraged the evolution of Silicon Alley.

Since the nineteenth century, doomsayers have predicted that one scientific breakthrough after another — from the Atlantic cable to the telephone, from television to jet travel — would topple New York as the nation’s financial and cultural capital. Instead, a resilient city that thrives on reinventing itself transformed a potential threat into an opportunity. Milliseconds are vital to global trading, but nothing beats face-to-face contact to foster innovation. A wired city provided both.

Aptly calling Mayor Bloomberg “a modern Medici,” Roberts captures his philosophy:

The perfect is the enemy of the good. In other words, just do it. “Our product,” he said, “would be the first in the investment business where normal people without specialized training could sit down, hit a key, and get an answer to financial questions, some of which they didn’t even know they should ask.” In the decades since, he said, two constants endured: “the need for information; and the users of data, with their bravery, jealousy, adventurousness and fear of the new.”

But the book’s most poignant object is its final one, #101 — the Madonna that remained unscathed through the devastating sweep of Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded and the second costliest in history, with a total tally of $68 billion and 40 lives in New York city alone. By far the most ravaged by the storm was the beach community of New York’s Rockaway Peninsula, home to the families of many of the city’s police officers, firemen, and other civil servants. Roberts writes of the Madonna’s significance as a vitalizing symbol of hope amid such unfathomable heartbreak:

Fittingly, the most visible survivor of the fire was a three-foot-high masonry Madonna, “a triumph of faith in the midst of the ashes,” as Monsignor Michael J. Curran explained it. The Madonna had belonged to Charlie Shannon, who had bought the bungalow at 2 Gotham Walk on the corner of Oceanside Avenue in 1929 for his wife and seven children. Only one of the seven had children of his own, and in 2006 his granddaughter Regina Bodnar inherited a version of the house that her aunt and uncle rebuilt. Her aunt Mary placed the Madonna just outside, Bodnar recalled, “and each morning Breezy neighbors stopped to say a prayer by the statue, and the young children and grandchildren of our neighbors waved and said, ‘Hi Mary!’ as they raced by.”

The statue was neither consumed by the fire nor toppled by the storm surge (it was not cemented in place but stood precariously on its own in the sea grass). Does Bodnar believe in miracles? She’s not sure, but said that somehow her neighbors and rescue workers “were miraculously protected from serious injury and loss of life.” Monsignor Curran, the pastor of St. Thomas More Church, took custody of the Madonna after the storm subsided. “It will be a symbol of the suffering but also of our rise from the ashes,” he said. “It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through, but also of our resurrection.”

A History of New York in 101 Objects is a rich and thoughtfully curated encyclopedia of milestones and values. Complement it with Julia Rothman’s illustrated love letter to the five boroughs, then zoom out with 100 diagrams that changed the world.

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