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Author Archive

15 JUNE, 2012

Iconic Designer Charles Eames’s Most Memorable Aphorisms


“Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.”

Charles Eames (June 17, 1907–August 21, 1978) — legendary furniture designer, deft universe-explainer, celebrated champion of design as a force of culture, creative genius of uncommon “sincerity, honesty, conviction, affection, imagination, and humor” — is one of the most celebrated creative icons of the past century.

100 Quotes by Charles Eames (public library) is a tiny gem of a book, originally published for Eames’s centennial in 2007, full of exactly what it says on the tin. Each of the 100 pearls of Eames wisdom, culled from his articles, books, films, interviews, lectures, notes, and office files, appears in 7 languages — English, Complex Chinese, Simplified Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Brazilian, Portuguese, and Spanish. A beautiful, minimalist cover with debossed typography adds a layer of joy to holding and touching the micro-tome.

Here are 15 of my favorite quotes.

Eventually everything connects — people, ideas, objects… the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.

Most people aren’t trained to want to face the process of re-understanding a subject they already know. One must obtain not just literacy, but deep involvement and re-understanding.

Beyond the age of information is the age of choices.

If nothing else, a student must get from his training a feeling of security in change.

Innovate as a last resort. More horrors are done in the name of innovation than any other.

Recent years have shown a growing preoccupation with the circumstances surrounding the creative act and a search for the ingredients that promote creativity. This preoccupation in itself suggests that we are in a special kind of trouble — and indeed we are.

To be realistic one must always admit the influence of those who have gone before.

(Because we already know everything is a remix, all art builds on what came before, and creativity is combinatorial.)

We work because it’s a chain reaction, each subject leads to the next.

I don’t believe in this “gifted few” concept, just in people doing things they are really interested in doing. They have a way of getting good at whatever it is.

(Cue in some famous thoughts on finding your purpose and doing what you love.)

Unlike Keats, who said that knowing about the rainbow shatters its beauty, I feel that the knowledge about an object can only enrich your feelings for the object itself.

(Cue in Richard Feynman on the pleasure of finding things out.)

Don’t be like I was. Don’t be afraid of history. Take all of it you can get.

At all times love and discipline have led to a beautiful environment and a good life.

Any time one or more things are consciously put together in a way that they can accomplish something better than they could have accomplished individually, this is an act of design.

Ideas are cheap. Always be passionate about ideas and communicating those ideas and discoveries to others in the things you make.

Take your pleasure seriously.

Used copies can be found online and at Eames Gallery.

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15 JUNE, 2012

From Fitzgerald to Reagan, 5 Letters of Fatherly Advice from History’s Greatest Public Dads


“The secret of success is concentrating interest in life… interest in the small things of nature… In other words to be fully awake to everything.”

With Father’s Day around the corner, let’s take a moment to pay heed to some of the wisest, most heart-warming advice from history’s famous dads. Gathered here are five timeless favorites, further perpetuating my well-documented love of the art of letter-writing.


In a 1933 letter to his 11-year-old daughter Scottie, F. Scott Fitzgerald produced this poignant and wise list of things to worry, not worry, and think about, found in the altogether excellent F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters:

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about…

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?


In this beautiful 1928 letter, culled from American Letters 1927-1947: Jackson Pollock & Family, Jackson Pollock’s dad, LeRoy, offers his son a sincere, optimistic lens on what matters most in life and how to cultivate it.

Dear Son Jack,

Well it has been some time since I received your fine letter. It makes me a bit proud and swelled up to get letters from five young fellows by the names of Charles, Mart, Frank, Sande, and Jack. The letters are so full of life, interest, ambition, and good fellowship. It fills my old heart with gladness and makes me feel ‘Bully.’ Well Jack I was glad to learn how you felt about your summer’s work & your coming school year. The secret of success is concentrating interest in life, interest in sports and good times, interest in your studies, interest in your fellow students, interest in the small things of nature, insects, birds, flowers, leaves, etc. In other words to be fully awake to everything about you & the more you learn the more you can appreciate & get a full measure of joy & happiness out of life. I do not think a young fellow should be too serious, he should be full of the Dickens some times to create a balance.

I think your philosophy on religion is okay. I think every person should think, act & believe according to the dictates of his own conscience without too much pressure from the outside. I too think there is a higher power, a supreme force, a governor, a something that controls the universe. What it is & in what form I do not know. It may be that our intellect or spirit exists in space in some other form after it parts from this body. Nothing is impossible and we know that nothing is destroyed, it only changes chemically. We burn up a house and its contents, we change the form but the same elements exist; gas, vapor, ashes. They are all there just the same.

I had a couple of letters from mother the other day, one written the twelfth and one the fifteenth. Am always glad to get letters from your mother, she is a Dear isn’t she? Your mother and I have been a complete failure financially but if the boys turn out to be good and useful citizens nothing else matters and we know this is happening so why not be jubilant?

The weather up here couldn’t be beat, but I suppose it won’t last always, in fact we are looking forward to some snowstorms and an excuse to come back to the orange belt. I do not know anything about what I will do or if I will have a job when I leave here, but I am not worrying about it because it is no use to worry about what you can’t help, or what you can help, moral ‘don’t worry.’

Write and tell me all about your schoolwork and yourself in general. I will appreciate your confidence.

You no doubt had some hard days on your job at Crestline this summer. I can imagine the steep climbing, the hot weather, etc. But those hard things are what builds character and physic. Well Jack I presume by the time you have read all this you will be mentally fatigued and will need to relax. So goodnight, pleasant dreams and God bless you.

Your affectionate Dad

Originally featured here in February.


Days before 26-year-old Michael Reagan’s wedding in June of 1971, would-be U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent him this thoughtful and strikingly honest letter of marital advice, found in Reagan: A Life In Letters:

Dear Mike:

Enclosed is the item I mentioned (with which goes a torn up IOU). I could stop here but I won’t.

You’ve heard all the jokes that have been rousted around by all the “unhappy marrieds” and cynics. Now, in case no one has suggested it, there is another viewpoint. You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life. It can be whatever you decide to make it.

Some men feel their masculinity can only be proven if they play out in their own life all the locker-room stories, smugly confident that what a wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her. The truth is, somehow, way down inside, without her ever finding lipstick on the collar or catching a man in the flimsy excuse of where he was till three A.M., a wife does know, and with that knowing, some of the magic of this relationship disappears. There are more men griping about marriage who kicked the whole thing away themselves than there can ever be wives deserving of blame. There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it. The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out. Sure, there will be moments when you will see someone or think back to an earlier time and you will be challenged to see if you can still make the grade, but let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life. Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn’t take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear. Do that and keep her still feeling a warm glow and you will know some very beautiful music. If you truly love a girl, you shouldn’t ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors.

Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.



P.S. You’ll never get in trouble if you say “I love you” at least once a day.

Letters of Note


Half a century ago last month, 37-year-old Malcolm Scott Carpenter piloted the Aurora 7 into space, becoming only the second American to orbit the Earth. The day before his landmark journey, he received the following letter from his father, Marion, found in For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut:

Dear Son,

Just a few words on the eve of your great adventure for which you have trained yourself and anticipated for so long — to let you know that we all share it with you, vicariously.

As I think I remarked to you at the outset of the space program, you are privileged to share in a pioneering project on a grand scale — in fact the grandest scale yet known to man. And I venture to predict that after all the huzzas have been uttered and the public acclaim is but a memory, you will derive the greatest satisfaction from the serene knowledge that you have discovered new truths. You can say to yourself: this I saw, this I experienced, this I know to be the truth. This experience is a precious thing; it is known to all researchers, in whatever field of endeavour, who have ventured into the unknown and have discovered new truths.

You are probably aware that I am not a particularly religious person, at least in the sense of embracing any of the numerous formal doctrines. Yet I cannot conceive of a man endowed with intellect, perceiving the ordered universe about him, the glory of the mountain top, the plumage of a tropical bird, the intricate complexity of a protein molecule, the utter and unchanging perfection of a salt crystal, who can deny the existence of some higher power. Whether he chooses to call it God or Mohammed or Buddha or Torquoise Woman or the Law of Probability matters little. I find myself in my writings frequently calling upon Mother Nature to explain things and citing Her as responsible for the order of the universe. She is a very satisfactory divinity for me. And so I shall call upon Her to watch over you and guard you and, if she so desires, share with you some of Her secrets which She is usually so ready to share with those who have high purpose.

With all my love,


Letters of Note


Nobel laureate John Steinbeck was a prolific and eloquent letter-writer, as the magnificent Steinbeck: A Life in Letters reveals. Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck’s words of wisdom — tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious — should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.



Originally featured here in January.

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15 JUNE, 2012

How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read


“Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”

At first blush, a book titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (public library) sounds at once sacrilegious in its proposition and wildly meta-ironic. Then again, it gets to the heart of a painfully familiar literary bind — that book about a fascinating sliver of science, written by a breathlessly boring academic; the fetishized Ulysseses of the world, reluctantly half-read and promptly forgotten; the Gladwellian tome that could’ve been, should’ve been, and likely at some point was a magazine article. Must we read those from cover to cover in order to be complete, cultured individuals?

Beneath the no doubt intentionally scandalizing title, psychoanalyst and University of Paris literature professor Pierre Bayard offers a compelling meditation on this taboo subject that makes a case for reading not as a categorical dichotomy but as a spectrum of engaging with literature in various ways, along different dimensions — books we’ve read, books we’ve skimmed, books we’ve heard about, books we’ve forgotten, books we’ve never opened. Literature becomes not a container of absolute knowledge but a compass for orienteering ourselves to and in the world and its different contexts, books become not isolated objects but a system of relational understanding:

As cultivated people know (and, to their misfortune, uncultivated people do not), culture is above all a matter of orientation. Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others. The interior of the book is less important than its exterior, or, if you prefer, the interior of the book is its exterior, since what counts in a book is the books alongside it.

But our culture, argues Bayard, is wrought with “obligations and prohibitions” that have created a repressive system full of hypocrisy about what books we have actually read — and our lies tend to be in proportion to the perceived significance of the book in question. “I know few areas of private life, with the exception of finance and sex,” he quips, “in which it’s as difficult to obtain accurate information.”

So how, then, do we navigate that system and its burden of expectations?

A book is an element in the vast ensemble I have called the collective library, which we do not need to know comprehensively in order to appreciate any one of its elements… The trick is to define the book’s place in that library, which gives it meaning in the same way a word takes on meaning in relation to other words.

To engage with literature — and, by extension, with the world — in meaningful ways, argues Bayard, we need to understand the relationships between works and their position relative to each other within the collective library:

Rather than any particular book, it is indeed these connections and correlations that should be the focus of the cultivated individual, much as a railroad switchman should focus on the relations between trains — that is, their crossings and transfers — rather than the contents of any specific convoy.

Of particular note is Bayard’s conception of non-reading as a kind of curatorial choice every bit as indicative of our intellectual curiosity as the choice of reading:

Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.

As a proponent of codifying our transparency about information, I was particularly delighted by Bayard’s proposed notation system for the different levels of non-reading and subjective interpretation:

UB book unknown to me

SB book I have skimmed

HB book I have heard about

FB book I have forgotten

++ extremely positive opinion

+ positive opinion

negative opinion

extremely negative opinion

Citing Umberto Eco, Bayard observes:

The book is an undefined object that we can discuss only in imprecise terms, an object forever buffeted by our fantasies and illusions. The second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics, impossible to find even in a library of infinite capacity, is no different from most other books we discuss in our lives. They are all reconstructions of originals that lie so deeply buried beneath our words and the words of others that, even were we prepared to risk our lives, we stand little chance of ever finding them within reach.

Bayard points out that one dimension of reading we often forget is that of time — a dimension inextricably linked to the biases, imperfections, and limited capacity of our memory, to which even the most dedicated of readers aren’t immune — furthering the portrait of reading by way of the intellectual negative space around it:

Reading is not just acquainting ourselves with a text or acquiring knowledge; it is also, from its first moments, an inevitable process of forgetting.


To conceive of reading as loss — whether it occurs after we skim a book, in absorbing a book by hearsay, or through the gradual process of forgetting—rather than as gain is a psychological resource essential to anyone seeking effective strategies for surviving awkward literary confrontations.

Echoing William Gibson’s notion of personal microculture and Austin Kleon’s insight that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life,” Bayard puts it beautifully:

In truth we never talk about a book unto itself; a whole set of books always enters the discussion through the portal of a single title, which serves as a temporary symbol for a complete conception of culture. In every such discussion, our inner libraries — built within us over the years and housing all our secret books — come into contact with the inner libraries of others, potentially provoking all manner of friction and conflict.

For we are more than simple shelters for our inner libraries; we are the sum of these accumulated books. Little by little, these books have made us who we are, and they cannot be separated from us without causing us suffering.

Having once fallen in love with someone who heartily recommended to me a terrible piece of fiction, only to find out after a series of more tangible disappointments that we were wildly incompatible, I can’t help but nod wistfully at Bayard’s observation:

The books we love offer a sketch of a whole universe that we secretly inhabit, and in which we desire the other person to assume a role.

One of the conditions of happy romantic compatibility is, if not to have read the same books, to have read at least some books in common with the other person—which means, moreover, to have non-read the same books. From the beginning of the relationship, then, it is crucial to show that we can match the expectations of our beloved by making him or her sense the proximity of our inner libraries.

Bayard advocates for redefining our culture’s expectations of reading, away from the linear, the absolutist, and the unbudgingly comprehensive, and towards the nonlinear, the relativist, the selective:

To speak without shame about books we haven’t read, we would thus do well to free ourselves of the oppressive image of cultural literacy without gaps, as transmitted and imposed by family and school, for we can strive toward this image for a lifetime without ever managing to coincide with it. Truth destined for others is less important than truthfulness to ourselves, something attainable only by those who free themselves from the obligation to seem cultivated, which tyrannizes us from within and prevents us from being ourselves.


Only in accepting our non-reading without shame can we begin to take an interest in what is actually at stake, which is not a book but a complex interpersonal situation of which the book is less the object than the consequence.

Some of Bayard’s opinions, particularly in defending the idea that we’re somehow supposed to develop our own point of view not via critical thinking but by taking cue from the impressions of others, stand in stark contrast with my own. He argues:

If a book is less a book than it is the whole of the discussion about it, we must pay attention to that discussion in order to talk about the book without reading it. For it is not the book itself that is at stake, but what it has become within the critical space in which it intervenes and is continually transformed. It is this moving object, a supple fabric of relations between texts and beings, about which one must be in a position to formulate accurate statements at the right moment.

Beneath the discussion of books, however, bubbles a larger discussion of information’s systems and paradigms of creation and consumption. In contrasting the networked knowledge and wealth of context necessary for criticism with the subjective expression at the heart of art, Bayard concludes:

Criticism demands infinitely more culture than artistic creation.

But Baynard’s keenest insight is perhaps this one, which has less to do with the social connotations of reading than with our individual experience of it:

The paradox of reading is that the path toward ourselves passes through books, but that this must remain a passage. It is a traversal of books that a good reader engages in — a reader who knows that every book is the bearer of part of himself and can give him access to it, if only he has the wisdom not to end his journey there.

So what is really at stake here, and why should any of it matter? Bayard offers in the epilogue:

Such an evolution implies extricating ourselves from a whole series of mostly unconscious taboos that burden our notion of books. Encouraged from our school years onward to think of books as untouchable objects, we feel guilty at the very thought of subjecting them to transformation.

It is necessary to lift these taboos to begin to truly listen to the infinitely mobile object that is a literary text. The text’s mobility is enhanced whenever it participates in a conversation or a written exchange, where it is animated by the subjectivity of each reader and his dialogue with others, and to genuinely listen to it implies developing a particular sensitivity to all the possibilities that the book takes on in such circumstances.

He ties it back to our broken formal education system:

Our educational system is clearly failing to fulfill its duties of deconsecration, and as a result, our students remain unable to claim the right to invent books. Paralyzed by the respect due to texts and the prohibition against modifying them, forced to learn them by heart or to memorize what they ‘contain,’ too many students lose their capacity for escape and forbid themselves to call on their imagination in circumstances where that faculty would be extraordinarily useful.

To show them, instead, that a book is reinvented with every reading would give them the means to emerge unscathed, and even with some benefit, from a multitude of difficult situations.


All education should strive to help those receiving it to gain enough freedom in relation to works of art to themselves become writers and artists.

Ultimately, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read isn’t permission to dismiss books but an ode to the very love of books, the totality of which we use as a powerful sensemaking mechanism for the world.

Austin Kleon

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14 JUNE, 2012

An Invisible Flower: Yoko Ono’s Time Machine of Love


“I wrote this story almost a decade before I met my Smelty John.”

When she was nineteen years old, Yoko Ono conceived and illustrated An Invisible Flower (public library) — a simple, touching story about the invisible beauty of the world we all know is there and one man, Smelty John, who is able to see it. Decades later, her son, Sean Ono Lennon, discovered the sketches in Ono’s archives and instantly knew the book, a tender treasure of visual poetry and a curious time machine of romantic serendipity, had to be published. He explains in the introduction:

My mom was born in 1933, and much of her childhood was spent starving during the Second World War. Many materials from her past have been lost, but some still remain between her bookshelves and in her closets. One day while I was visiting, I saw An Invisible Flower sticking out from the mouth of some old books like a tongue; it immediately caught my attention. It seemed like the story had been written about my dad, but it was dated ten years before they had even met. I felt like I was in a time warp. Was Smelty John supposed to be Dad? Or had he snuck in there while she wasn’t looking and changed the name? I read the story, and realizing the book had never been published, I thought it might be a good beginning for Chimera Library.

I compiled the book myself, every page. It seemed it had to be done that way. As I was doing it, I couldn’t help wondering what Dad would have thought.

Turns out, the same year Mom made An Invisible Flower, Dad drew a sketch of himself seated alongside a mysterious woman with black hair on the back of a horse. Could these casual artistic coincidences actually have been psychic spells summoning each other? In hindsight, my mother did seem like an invisible flower that only Smelty John could truly see…

Ono writes of the inspiration for the book and its seemingly prophetic nature:

When I was evacuated to the countryside during the Second World War, I was only eight years old. The landscape was like a Van Gogh painting: shining golden wheat fields stretching out to the horizon. It was beautiful, but I missed the colorful flowers from my mother’s rose garden in Tokyo.

A young farm boy told me we were too far north for any roses to survive. Yet one day I saw a rose like the ones I’d been dreaming of. It was perfectly white, sitting snugly between the bushes on a distant hill.

I was so happy that I ran to it, but when I arrived it wasn’t there anymore. In fact, it wasn’t anywhere. I was sure I’d seen it; I knew I had! Maybe the flower dropped because it was too heavy. It was getting dark and a bit chilly as well. I went round and round, fixing my eyes to the ground.

The next day, upon my request, the young boy went to the same spot with me. I told him that the sweet smell was still there. He made a gesture as he smelt something in air. ‘You see, there’s no rose. I told you it’s too cold around here,’ he said looking rather serious.

In my dream that night I saw the white rose. She was prim and proper, looking at me as if to say, ‘You should have searched harder.’ When the war was over I went back to my mother’s manor. The roses I missed so much were all there blossoming as I had remembered. But none was that white rose… the one I saw in the north.

I wrote this story almost a decade before I met my Smelty John. He made a gesture indicating that he smelt me in the air. And I knew immediately that he was the only one in the world I was not invisible to. He didn’t sneeze, either. And we got together for life.

Exquisite in its delicate poetics, An Invisible Flower is the kind of book you revisit again and again, the one you sit with on a bad day to remind you that life, even at its most difficult, is a scavenger hunt for beauty.

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