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06 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Everything Sings: Making the Case for a New Cartography

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What Ira Glass has to do with atlas antagonism, or what plotting carved pumpkins reveals about place.

The most intimate infographics of all may be maps, those images that tell of our complicated relationships to place, bounded by time. Or at least, this is just one of the interesting arguments made by the book Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, a beautiful exploration of a small North Carolina neighborhood that also provides a platform for much larger ideas, published by Siglio Press in 2010.

We’ve long believed in the transformative power of maps, which was why we immediately fell in love with Everything Sings and its author, Denis Wood. A kind of counter-culture cartographer, Wood has for decades sought ways to call the seeming objectivity of maps into question. In his fascinating introduction to the book, Wood wonders why map-making was an artistic discipline that somehow escaped modernism’s critical overhaul, its conventions barely changing in the centuries since it was first practiced.

Admitting that atlases were narrative — that they were texts — would force the admission that the individual maps were texts too, that maps constituted a semiological system indistinguishable from other semiological systems, like those of paintings or novels or poems.” ~ Denis Wood

His argument for a kind of “poetics of cartography” provides context to the maps that follow, a narrative about how life was in his Boylan Heights neighborhood in the early 1980s.

Everything Sings grew out of an episode of NPR’s This American Life in which host Ira Glass inadvertently came across Wood’s shelved project from a university course he’d previously taught to landscape architecture students. Glass contributes a fantastic foreword that pretty much sums up what makes the collection so special.

These maps are completely unnecessary. The world didn’t ask for them. They aid no navigation or civic-minded purpose. They’re just for pleasure. They laugh at the stupid Google map I consult five times a day on my phone. They laugh at what a square that map is. At its small-mindedness. They know it’s a sad, workaholic salaryman.” ~ Ira Glass

Here are just a few of our favorite images from the atlas, with excerpts from Wood’s accompanying texts:

Wind Chimes

They were all over -- bamboo, glass, shell, metal tubes. Depending on where you stood, the force of the wind, and the time of day, you could hear several chiming, turning the neighborhood into a carillon.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Jack-O'-Lanterns

I rode through the neighborhood on my bicycle--it was 1982--and took pictures of all the jack-o'-lanterns.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Police Calls

All over Boylan Heights, numerous calls to report disturbances reveal a general reluctance to knock on a neighbors' doors and ask them to 'turn it down.' Boylan Heights is small and hardly crime ridden, but this is only a six month's harvest of calls to 911.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Squirrel Highways

Nervous squirrels, afraid of an attack on the ground, use the phone and television cables as highways wherever the tree canopy's broken. Birds rest on the power lines.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Pools of Light

When, in the later 19th century, Americans began systematically to light their streets, it was seen as a wholesome influence to cleanliness, as a deterrent to throwing garbage into the streets under the cover of darkness, and as an inducement to leaving windows open at night for healthier sleep.

Image and caption copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Everything Sings may be an antagonist to the traditional practice of cartography, and yet it accomplishes exactly the end that all maps must, if they’re to be of any lasting use: forcing us to see our world, and its many wonders, anew each day.

Images and captions copyrighted Denis Wood & Siglio Press reproduced with permission

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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23 AUGUST, 2011

Architects’ Sketchbooks: Behind the World’s Most Magnificent Buildings

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How to limn a skyscraper in a line, or why the Centre Pompidou was inspired by a Chinese bamboo hat.

The sketchbook as surface for envisioning, inventing, and thinking in motion, has been somewhat of an idée fixe on Brain Pickings of late. We’ve looked at the lists of great thinkers, and peeked inside the pages of private notebooks from artists to zoologists around the world.

Today we’re taking a moment to focus on sketchbooks from a discipline that is itself interdisciplinary, brilliantly balancing the demands of both science and art — namely, architecture. The inspiring recent release Architects’ Sketchbooks celebrates the earliest traces of a building’s coming into being, the ideas that pave the way for the precision of engineers’ calculations or CAD renderings. Through the book’s beautiful reproductions of original blots, jots, and scribbles, we can see that even the most awe-inspiring edifices begin as a line — as reassuring an insight into the creative process as any.

Architects’ Sketchbooks assembles work from 85 of the world’s best-known practitioners, including Shigeru Ban, Norman Foster, Terry Pawson, and Rafael Viñoly, as well as names less familiar to those of us outside the practice. Alongside the often functional but occasionally fantastical images from their flat files, the book also contains essays that place the images in context (and the buildings into their eventual environs). Equally fun is seeing all the different media in which architects work today, from comic strips to crayons, and how these choices are literally representative of different worldviews about how we might live.

Here’s a preview of a few of the book’s pages:

Evidence that even the most imposing monuments have their humble beginnings as one person’s notion in a notebook, Architects’ Sketchbooks is a guide to viewing the world’s human wonders in a whole new way.

Kirstin Butler currently lives in Cambridge, MA where she is working on an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs.

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10 AUGUST, 2011

Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge

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Going beyond biology’s limits, or how laboratory advances will change the way we think about the law.

What consumes the best and brightest minds working in science today? With the brand-new anthology Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge, literary agent Max Brockman poses (and provides a spectrum of answers to) the question. From astronomy to virology to computer science, 19 first-rate researchers contributed short pieces to this collection, intended for the curious layperson. Their participation isn’t without risk since, as Brockman notes in his introduction, “if you’re an academic who writes about your work for a general audience, you’re thought by some of your colleagues to be wasting your time and perhaps endangering your academic career. For younger scientists (i.e., those without tenure), this is almost universally true.”

Given our optimism for the future and soft spot for intellectual anthologies, we’re certainly glad the contributors to Future Science took the chance. The result is a fascinating tour of academy’s advanced guard on, among other topics, why stress causes some people to crumble even as it spurs others on, what sense computer science can make of social media’s vast digital data, and how infinity has entered the realm of testable science. The breadth of subjects and their authors’ ability to make them accessible is thrilling — it’s like TED in book form.

Here’s just a small sampling from Future Science‘s contents:

For much of human history, we have been explorers of other continents — examiners of rocks and regions ripe for habitation, the culmination being the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the capstone being our flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon. But in the decades and centuries to come, exploration — both human and robotic — will increasingly focus on the ocean depths, of both our own ocean and the subsurface oceans believed to exist on at least five moons of the outer Solar System: Jupiter’s Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. The total volume of liquid water on those worlds is estimated to be more than a hundred times the volume of liquid water on Earth.” ~ Kevin P. Hand, “On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration”

If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.” ~ Jennifer Jacquet, “Is Shame Necessary”

This afternoon I received in the post a slim FedEx envelope containing four small vials of DNA. The DNA had been synthesized according to my instructions in under three weeks, at a cost of 39 U.S. cents per base pair (the rungs adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine in the DNA ladder). The 10 micrograms I ordered are dried, flaky, and barely visible to the naked eye, yet once I have restored them in water and made an RNA copy of this template, they will encode a virus I have designed.” ~ William McEwan, “Molecular Cut and Paste: The New Generation of Biological Tools”

We were particularly excited about Future Science given Brockman’s own pedigree — his father, John Brockman, has spent a lifetime investigating audacious intellectual inquiries as founder of the EDGE Foundation. (In fact, prior to this new volume, the younger Brockman also edited a 2009 book for EDGE’s own imprint as a kind of prequel to Future Science called What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science.)

For a provocative survey of the ever-expanding scientific frontier, you’ll find much to enjoy among the big ideas, probing techniques, and intriguing insights of Future Science.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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09 AUGUST, 2011

Comic Books for Grown-Ups: 10 Masterpieces of Graphic Nonfiction

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Seeing the world in six-panel strips, or what Allen Ginsberg has to do with the wonders of zygotes.

Who doesn’t love comic books? While infographics may be trendy today (and photography perennially sexy), there’s just something special about the work of the human hand. Good old-fashioned manual labor, literally, brings a unique richness to storytelling where words alone sometimes fall flat. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite graphic non-fiction, excluding Maus-style memoirs — perhaps another time — since narrowing down to ten picks was tough enough. These hybrid works combine the best elements of art, journalism, and scholarship to command our attention and gratify our curiosity.

THE BEATS

We’ve long loved authors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, so we were thrilled to discover The Beats: A Graphic History, an anthology that mashes up biography, criticism, and literary readings from the seminal creative movement. Comic art legend Harvey Pekar presides over the enterprise with a boldness befitting the Beatniks’ sensibility, along with graphic geniuses Peter Kuper (of Mad magazine fame), Ed Piskor, and other big names in the medium.

The Beats invokes the immediacy of 1940s and 50s art, music, and writing; even better, it provides political context and introduced us to an entire panoply of artists whose contributions to the era are lesser known. From painting sessions in Jay DeFeo’s flat to strains of mental illness throughout the movement, The Beats is an invaluable addition to our picture of a charged moment in creative history.

EDIBLE SECRETS

How do you make 500,000 declassified documents yield up their stories? Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified U.S. History pulls it off with a combination of stellar journalism and informative, witty illustration. Scholar Mia Partlow, graphic designer Michael Hoerger, and illustrator Nate Powell collaborated to create what started out as a serialized zine on the relationship between food and politics in America, and the highly confidential government coverups of these strange bedfellows’ intersection.

Upton Sinclair-style muckraking for our modern era, Edible Secrets covers the CIA’s milkshake assassination plot of Fidel Castro, popcorn mind-control schemes, and how a box of Jello led to two death sentences during the 1950s Communist red scare. Like a graphic interpretation of Wikileaks, the slim but delectable volume investigates the down-and-dirty ways in which the U.S. government altered history using the most common of comestibles.

Whether you’re an activist, foodie, or history buff, Edible Secrets is a fascinating and fun creation about acts of agriculture — something each one of us, consciously or not, commits every day.

A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE

Cartoonist Josh Neufeld accomplishes the nearly impossible in his award-winning A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, namely, taking a subject as tragic and media-saturated as 2005’s Hurricane Katrina and making a page-turner out of its retelling and aftermath. Neufeld shows the story through five (real-life) New Orleans residents to whom we became completely attached, which is precisely the point. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge demonstrates what the comic medium does best — namely, completely immerse the reader-viewer in another world by engaging multiple cognitive functions — and offers a fascinating parallel to last week’s Hurricane Story.

Through the parallax narratives of Neufeld’s five characters, we came away with a fittingly complex perspective of the human experience of this news story.

THE 14TH DALAI LAMA

The history of modern Tibet gets told via one man’s life in The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography. Llhamo Döndrub was the two-year-old child of a peasant family in northeast Tibet when he was named the new spiritual leader of a people; traditional Japanese manga style and first-person perspective bring intimacy to the sweeping story that unfolds from that watershed moment. It’s easy to see why the Dalai Lama authorized this life story, an imminently human treatment of large-scale historical narrative. We live vicariously through Tibet’s takeover by communist China under Mao Zedong, and the Dalai Lama’s decision to live exiled in India in an effort to save his people’s culture.

The 14th Dalai Lama is a quick read that still does justice to its spiritual subject matter.

THE STUFF OF LIFE

If only all biology textbooks were as cool as The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA. The great news is that it’s never too late for continuing education, and The Stuff of Life‘s pictorial approach is much more fun — and conceptually sticky — than we remember science being in school. The book starts with the mind-boggling story of how an inchoate mass of chemical elements formed into life over five billion years ago, and then drills down to the cellular level before getting into applied genetics (even Dolly the Sheep makes an appearance). With the help of friendly black-and-white cartoon panels, A,T,C, and G molecules cohere into a narrative beyond alphabet soup and the double helix, and we’re proud to be able to explain the difference between phenotypes and polypeptides again.

SMARTERCOMICS BUSINESS BOOKS

A new series of books by SmarterComics is harnessing the human tendency toward what’s known as the pictorial superiority effect, and adapting popular business and strategy books by iconic thought-leaders into visually-driven narratives. Among the series so far: Wired editor Chris Anderson‘s The Long Tail, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, and the Sun Tzu classic The Art of War. Great graphics illustrate Anderson’s argument around the death of “common culture,” Hill’s endorsement of the practical power of positive thinking, and entrepreneur Robert Renteria‘s rise from gang violence to civic leadership.

Read our full review of the SmarterComics series here.

THE INFLUENCING MACHINE

One of the coolest and most charming book releases of this year, The Influencing Machine is a graphic novel about the media, its history, and its many maladies — think The Information meets The Medium is the Massage meets Everything Explained Through Flowcharts.

Written by Brooke Gladstone, longtime host of NPR’s excellent On the Media, and illustrated by cartoonist Josh Neufeld (yup, he of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge fame), The Influencing Machine takes a refreshingly alternative approach to the age-old issue of why we disparage and distrust the news. And as the book quickly makes clear, it has always been thus.

Read our recent full review here.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Melding a graphic novel, photo essay, and travelogue, The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders tells the story of photographer Didier Lefèvre’s 1986 journey through Afghanistan with the international non-profit organization Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Lefèvre documented the group’s harrowing covert tour from Pakistan into a nation gripped by violence in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. While a few of his 4,000-plus images were published upon his return to France, years passed before Lefèvre was approached by his friend, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, about collaborating on a book that would finally tell his remarkable story. The resulting effort, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier, is a seamless tour de force of reportage.

Read our full review here.

BURMA CHRONICLES

The lovely Burma Chronicles is another fortuitous creative byproduct of Doctors Without Borders. Comic book artist Guy Delisle travels around the world with his wife Nadège, an MSF doctor, tours which previously resulted in two other gorgeous works of graphic nonfiction — Shenzen: A Travelogue from China, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Delisle lives the atypical life of an NGO house husband-cum-cartoonist, alternating between inking panels and daily perambulations near Nobel Prize winner’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi‘s home, where the opposition figure was still under house arrest at the time he was in the country.

What makes Burma Chronicles so charming is its balance of quotidian domestic life and international affairs. Delisle’s growing knowledge of the country’s culture plays off the constant development of his infant son, lending the whole work (and the world) refreshing perspective.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED

If anyone could make grammar fun, it’s Maira Kalman. An update of William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White‘s definitive reference text on composition and form, The Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman’s signature whimsy with the indispensable styleguide to create an instant classic. The original Elements of Style was first published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use, and became canon after a 1959 reprint. We’re all for achieving “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English,” as White — who had studied under Strunk in college — described their collaboration; and the goal is made appropriately joyful in this new edition. In other words, we’d much rather be schooled in the basics of language usage by Kalman’s vibrant work than the old black-and-white Strunk & White.

A must-have for art lovers and the editorially exact alike, essays by White and fellow New Yorker contributor (and his stepson) Roger Angell put The Elements of Style Illustrated into historical context.

* * *

We hope you had as much fun as we did with this short survey of masterworks in a medium that doesn’t often get its due. Graphic nonfiction provides a clever solution to a perpetual problem — how to make audiences care about new or challenging material. These 10 books bring a childlike sense of wonder to their subjects, something that comes in part from the cross-disciplinary collaborations between artists, designers and writers that yielded the work in the first place. And they’re proof that you’re never too old to pick up a comic book.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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