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11 JULY, 2012

Carl Sagan’s Reading List

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Reverse-engineering one of the greatest minds of all time by his information diet.

“Success,” concluded this 1942 anatomy of inspiration, “depends on sufficient knowledge of the special subject, and a variety of extraneous knowledge to produce new and original combinations of ideas.” Few are the heroes of modern history more “successful” and inspired than the great Carl Sagan, and his 1954 reading list, part of his papers recently acquired by the Library of Congress, speaks to precisely this blend of wide-angle, cross-disciplinary curiosity and focused, in-field expertise — and is balanced with a healthy approach to reading and “non-reading”, with some books read “in whole” and others “in part.” (Sagan, as we know, was an avid advocate of books.)

Besides books immediately relevant to Sagan’s work as a scientist and educator in cosmology and astrophysics, he took great care to also touch on history, philosophy, religion, the arts, social science, and psychology. A small but revealing sample, fodder for your own cognitive bookshelf:

Wash down with Alan Turing’s reading list.

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10 JULY, 2012

Vita Sackville-West’s Love Letter to Virginia Woolf

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“I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia.”

“Throw over your man….and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads,” wrote Virginia Woolf to her lover, the English poet Vita Sackville-West, in her exquisite 1927 love letter. But that missive was preceded by one from Vita herself, sent from Milan on January 21 the same year. Disarmingly honest, heartfelt, and unguarded, it stands in beautiful contrast with Virginia’s passionate prose:

…I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

Both letters come from the altogether excellent The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time, which features missives from icons like Hemingway, Kerouac, Kafka, and Mozart.

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10 JULY, 2012

Book Spine Poetry vol. 6: A Working Theory of Love

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It’s been a while since the last installment of book spine poetry, so here’s another snippet of life-truth, rendered in literary titles:

Bursts,
music,
big questions:
A working theory of love

The books:

Catch up on all previous book spine poems: The Future, Get Smarter, This Is New York, Music, and The Meaning of Life.

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