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19 DECEMBER, 2011

Writers and Their Books: Inside Famous Authors’ Personal Libraries

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Lessons in reading from an 18th-century lord, or why the allure of an unread book is like the dawn of romance.

As a hopeless bibliophile, an obsessive lover of bookcases, and a chronic pursuer of voyeuristic peeks inside the minds of creators, I’m utterly spellbound by Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books — a vicarious journey into the personal libraries of thirteen favorite authors, who share their collections of childhood favorites, dusty textbooks, prized first editions, and beloved hardcovers, along with some thoughts on books, reading, and the life of the mind. Alongside the formidable collections — featuring Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Díaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund Whit — are short interviews with the authors about the books most important to them (including their top 10), their style of organization, and their thoughts on what the future of books might hold. (Cue in writers on the future of books.) The interviews are prefaced by Leah Price’s fascinating brief history of bookshelves, from the rise of the vertical book on a horizontal shelf to how social bookmarking services are changing our relationship with tagging and indexing information.

A self without a shelf remains cryptic; a home without books naked.” ~ Leah Price

With a nod to both the Medieval florilegium and the productive messiness of marginalia, Price echoes Craig Mod’s vision for the future of post-artifact books:

Far from making reader response invisible, then, the digital age may be taking us back to the Renaissance tradition of readers commenting in the margins of their friends’ or employers’ books and contributing homemade indexes to the flyleaves. Only after the rise of the nineteenth- century public library did such acts come to be seen as defacing, rather than enriching, the book.”

Steven Pinker + Rebecca Goldstein

A common denominator in many of my nonfiction choices is their combination of clarity, rigor, accessibility, depth, and wit. The novels by Twain and Melville are gold mines for anyone interested in language and in human nature.” ~ Steven Pinker

Kant tells us that a person can never be used as a means to an end, but must be viewed as an end in itself. This is one of the formulations of his famous categorical imperative. Well, that pretty much summarizes my attitude toward books. I would never use a book as a coaster or to prop up something else, any more than I’d use a person toward that end.” ~ Rebecca Goldstein

Jonathan Lethem

People sometimes act as though owning books you haven’t read constitutes a charade or pretense, but for me, there’s a lovely mystery and pregnancy about a book that hasn’t given itself over to you yet — sometimes I’m the most inspired by imagining what the contents of an unread book might be.”

(Isn’t that strikingly like the beginning of a romance?)

Stephen Carter notes the importance of being pushed out of our intellectual and literary filter bubbles:

My life was changed. The books she gave me opened my mind to the simple realization that there is in the world such a thing as truly great literature; and that I would never discover it by mere hit-or-miss, or by reading only what interested me.”

Claire Messud + James Wood

Owning books has been only intermittently of importance to me. At one time, collecting books that were my own, feeling I had my own intellectual and literary trajectory visible before me, seemed necessary and meaningful. But now, in midlife, I feel that my tendency to acquire books is rather like someone smoking two packs a day: it’s a terrible vice that I wish I could shuck. I love my books, and with all their dog-ears and under- linings they are irreplaceable; but I sometimes wish they’d just vanish. To be weighed down by things — books, furniture — seems somehow terrible to me. It’s important to be ready to move on.” ~ Claire Messud

Gary Shteyngart

Some books are just crap and have to be thrown out. But some crappy books remind you of certain times in your life and have to be kept. In the closet.” ~ Gary Shteyngart

Philip Pullman

How does the reading feed into the writing, and vice versa? Continually, continuously, promiscuously, in a million ways.” ~ Philip Pullman

And in the vein of last week’s meditation on how to read a book, Price relays the following advice, bequeathed by the Earl of Chesterfield to his son in 1747:

I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments; and it will make any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind.”

(The same Lord Chesterfield two years later pronounced, “Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.”)

Equal parts voyeuristically indulgent and unapologetically stimulating, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books is the second installment in Yale University Press’s ongoing series, following 2009’s Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press

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19 DECEMBER, 2011

Occupy Scales of Wealth: Income Inequality Visualized as NYC Map

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From Red Hook to Prince Edward Island by way of the 99 percent.

Since 2004, literary and cultural magazine n+1 has been a flare of hope for intelligent print media. This fall, they embarked upon an effort to capture the dimensionality of the Occupy movement with equal parts awe and analysis (with a dash of healthy skepticism) in an Occupy!, an “OWS-inspired” print gazette, the third and final issue of which dropped last week. Gracing its cover is a wildly intelligent graphic by my wildly talented friend Kelli Anderson, visualizing wealth inequality in America through an unexpected, revealing lens that examines OWS as a physical occupation that unfolded in physical space.

The graphic is inspired by the familiar scales of the universe maps, plotting the relative distances between planetary bodies onto a local map that encourages an embodied understanding of celestial distances by walking local routes. Kelli transposed income inequalities using Wall Street Journal data onto the geography of New York City itself. Zuccotti Park, the center of the map, represents the income of the average wage-earner. Other percentiles’ average incomes — of the top 1%, the top 10%, the top 50% — appear longitudinally from there, with the bottom-earners (the bottom 0.01%) falling somewhere around Red Hook Battlefields and the highest earners (the top 0.01%) bleeding off the map, almost into the Arctic Circle, in Canada’s Prince Edward Island. Walking from Zuccotti park, or the average person’s income, to the bottom of the income scale will cost you a couple of hours, and trekking to the very top of the scale would take more than 18 days of continuous walking — a powerful manifestation of just how imbalanced and skewed our wealth scale is.

Kelli observes in an email:

The scale of the solar system (which is reigned-in by the gravity of the sun) is far less dispersed than the the scales of wealth in the US—which illuminates the propensity for wealth to skew wildly to the top when the financial system is not effectively regulated. Note that almost everyone in the top 1% works in banking or finance.

Also note that the income discrepancy within the levels of the top 1% are vastly greater than the gap between the top 1% and the bottom 1% of income earners. The proportions of wealth in the upper echelons of income are of a scale to which we have no comparable metaphors— the proportions are far beyond what we can see in the physical reality of our solar system.”

All three parts of the Occupy! gazette are available as free PDF downloads. Also highly recommended: n+1’s Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America — a fantastic collection of essays, featuring Astra Taylor, Slavoj Žižek, Angela Davis, Rebecca Solnit, and other cerebral acrobats well worth your time and dime.

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19 DECEMBER, 2011

The Best Food Books of 2011

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From farm life to molecular gastronomy, or what The Beatles have to do with the history of menu design.

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, science books, and history books, the 2011 best-of series continues with a taste of the year’s most delectable food books, a literary lobster course of the finest variety.

FOOD RULES / MAIRA KALMAN

It’s not every day that one of the greatest food books of our time gets a makeover by one of the greatest illustrators of our time. Such is the case of this new edition of Michael Pollan’s classic compendium, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, illustrated by the great Maira Kalman () — the timelessly sensible blueprint to a healthy relationship with food redone in Kalman’s characteristically colorful and child-like yet irreverent aesthetic. This new edition also features 19 additional food rules, including Place a bouquet of flowers on the table and everything will taste twice as good and the meta When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.

From the very first page, starting with Kalman’s introduction, the book is an absolute — and guilt-free — treat:

Everyone eats food. That is the universal connector. Life is fragile. Fleeting. What do we want? To be healthy. To celebrate and to Love and to live Life to the Fullest. So here comes Michael Pollan with this little (monumental) book. A humanistic and smart book that describes a Sane and Happy world of Eating. It asks us, gently, to hit the Reset button on manufactured food and go back in Time.” ~ Maira Kalman


Treat Meats as a Flavoring or Special Occasion Food

Cook

Don't Overlook the Oily Little Fishes

Shop the Peripheries of the Supermarket and Stay Out of the Middle

Eat When You Are Hungry, Not When You Are Bored

Kalman’s illustrations emanate the kind of thoughtful simplicity that underpins the message of Pollan’s classic, which is based on the premise that the wisdom of our grandparents might teach us more about eating well than the overly complicated nutritional scheming purveyed by the popular media.

Pollan has an excellent audio slideshow on his site.

Already a powerful classic in its original edition, the Kalman-illustrated Food Rules is, quite simply, irresistible.

Originally featured in November.

Images courtesy of Maira Kalman / Penguin Press

THE TABLE COMES FIRST

From Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite nonfiction writers working today, comes The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food — a fascinating journey into the roots of today’s obsession with food and culinary culture. From the dawn of our modern tastes in 18th-century France, where the first restaurant was born, to the kitchens of the White House to the Slow Food movement to Barcelona’s bleeding-edge molecular gastronomy scene, Gopnik tours the wild and wonderful world of cuisine, with all its concomitant sociocultural phenomena, to explore the delicate relationship between what goes on the table and what goes on around it as we come together over our food. It’s history, nutrition, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology all rolled up into one delectable streusel of insight and illumination, in Gopnik’s unapologetically intelligent yet charmingly witty style.

Having made food a more fashionable object, we have ended by making eating a smaller subject. When ‘gastronomy’ was on the margins of attention it seemed big because it was an unexpected way to get at everything — the nature of hunger; the meaning of appetite; the patterns and traces of desire; tradition, in the way that recipes are passed mother to son; and history, in the way that spices mix and, in mixing, mix peoples. You could envision through the modest lens of pleasure, as through a keyhole, a whole world; and the compression and odd shape of the keyhole made the picture more dramatic. Now the door is wide open, but somehow we see less, or notice less, anyway. Betrayed by its enlargement, food becomes less intimate the more intensely it is made to matter.” ~ Adam Gopnik

The book opens with Charles Darwin’s famous haikuesque meditation:

We have happy days, remember good dinners.”

Gopnik goes on to explore the two pillars of modern eating — the restaurant and the recipe book — both of which are modern developments, mere blips in evolutionary time, and reflects on their cultural history with his characteristically brilliant blend of keen analysis and ever-so-subtle smirk.

The restaurant was once a place for men, a place where men ate, held court, cooked, boasted and swaggered, and wooed women. The recipe book was traditionally ‘feminine': the kitchen was the place where women cooked, supervised, gave orders, made brownies, to steady and domesticate men. In the myth-world of the nineteenth century, the restaurant existed to coax women into having sex; the recipe book to coax men into staying home.” ~ Adam Gopnik

MODERNIST CUISINE

Nathan Myhrvold may be better-known as Microsoft’s former Chief Technology Officer, who studied quantum science alongside legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, but his true passion lies at the intersection of science and food. Myhrvold trained as a chef at LaVarenne in Burgundy, France, and has spent the past three years in a laboratory in Bellevue, Washington, perfecting — with his seven full-time chefs — the elaborate cooking techniques of gastronomy’s recent mega-obsession: molecular cuisine.

Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, originally featured as one of these 5½ fantastic cross-disciplinary cookbooks, is the pinnacle of his experimentation, a 2,400-page, six-volume behemoth with over 1,000 recipes that transform the kitchen into a lab. Needless to say, expectations for the ambitious undertaking have been gargantuan, which made gastronomers all the more unsettled by the recent announcement that due to packaging concerns, the book — which weighs over 48 pounds — won’t be available until March, nearly four months past the publication date originally promised.

Modernist Cuisine isn’t for everyone — besides the hardcore foray into ingredients like methylcellulose and agar approached with cooking techniques that involve liquid nitrogen and rotary evaporators, the book comes with a hefty $625 price tag. (Amazon has it at 28% off, which clocks in at the non-negligible sum of $175 in savings — but still runs your a good $450.)

Images courtesy of Credit: Ryan Matthew Smith/The Cooking Lab LLC via The New York Times

FARM ANATOMY

From the ever-talented Julia Rothman — she of Drawn In and The Exquisite Book fame, and one of the most original illustrators working today — comes Farm Anatomy: The Curious Parts and Pieces of Country Life, a charming illustrated guide to the intricate microcosm that underpins your dinner plate. From how to properly milk a cow to a taxonomy of squash varieties and faming tools to a morphology of barn cupolas, Rothman’s warm drawings are bound to entertain, educate (did you know that a one-year-old goat is called a ‘yearling’ and you can use cornflower to dye wool blue?), and instill in you newfound awe and fascination with rural life.

And as if the striking illustrations weren’t enough of a feat, most of the type in the book was handwritten, with the exception of the introduction and metadata font, which Rothman created from her handwriting.

The book was inspired by Rothman’s first visit to the farm on which her husband, Matt, grew up, which left the born-and-bred New Yorker artist wide-eyed and wonderstruck.

Working on this book has given me a chance to learn more about what it’s like to live off the land and to better understand Matt’s roots. In small ways I hope to bring the ideals and traditions he grew up on back into our daily lives.” ~ Julia Rothman

The last pages of the book feature Rothman’s meticulous biography, which not only pleases the attribution crusader in me but also tickles my Rube Goldberg curiosity as a fascinating rabbit hole of a reading list, featuring such esoteric treats as Storey’s Illustrated Breed Guide to Sheep, Goats, Cattle, and Pigs, Amish Quilt Patterns, 500 Treasured Country Recipes, and Country Wisdom & Know-How .

Utterly charming and thoroughly researched, Farm Anatomy is one of those rare treats that speak to your eyes and your heart, and in the process manage to expand your mind.

Originally featured here, with more images, last month.

ART OF THE MENU

Menu Design in America: 1850-1985 by design writer extraordinaire Steven Heller (previously), Esquire food columnist John Mariani, cultural anthropologist and graphic design historian Jim Heimann, and high-end publisher Taschen (previously) is a delicious history of menu creativity, featuring nearly 800 vibrant illustrated examples of menu ephemera, alongside photographs of restaurants, that together tell the rich and fascinating story of eating out in America. Besides the fascinating design history, the book doubles as a curious tracker of American inflation, both economic (who’s in for a $1.50 fine-dining lunch?) and of culinary claims (how did we go from simple and to-the-point food descriptions to foofy foodie-speak?).

Originally featured, with more images, in August.

Images via Taschen

THE RECIPE PROJECT

This year marked the launch of quirky indie publisher Black Balloon, whose launch email included the word “amazeballs” and whose inaugural release, The Recipe Project: A Delectable Extravaganza of Food and Music, presented a delightful and nerdy treat for the foodie-musicologist, transforming delicious recipes into singable, danceable songs. (We’ve previously seen science, history, tennis, color, civic complaints, and the weather set to music.)

The beautifully illustrated recipes come from a roster of famous chefs — including Mario Batali, John Besh, David Chang, Tom Colicchio, and Andrea Reusing — contextualized amidst chef interviews and essays by acclaimed food writers like Melissa Clark and J. Dixon, pondering such complexities as the culinary connotations of The Beatles’ White Album and what moussaka has to do with Metallica.

Masterminding the project is Brooklyn-based band One Ring Zero, who for the past couple of years have been working their favorite rock-star chefs to each choose the musical genre for his or her song, all included on the CD that comes with the book. One Ring Zero’s Michael Hearst got the kernel of this genre-bender in college, when he composed a choral piece around a recitation of grocery store names.

The book also comes with a delightful free iPhone app that lets you enter up to 5 ingredients you have on hand and dishes out a delicious, speedy singable recipe to make with them.

Originally featured in October.

BLOOD, BONES & BUTTER

Gabrielle Hamilton has spent the past decade as the chef-owner of the beloved Prune restaurant in New York City’s East Village, but hear path to the kitchen was neither straight nor smooth. In Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, Hamilton — whose formidable talent as a writer is on par with her culinary mastery — recounts twenty years of seeking purpose in her life, from the idyllic kitchen of her childhood on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, raised by a French mother and an artist-set-designer father, to the difficult and protracted dissolution of her family, to the grit of her grueling and uncompromising work that took her to the peak of New York’s food scene. Anthony Bourdain calls it “absolutely the best food-related memoir, ever.” And, as Bourdain tends to, he might be absolutely right. But Hamilton’s powerful blend of culinary conviction and raw honesty make the book as much a “food-related memoir” as it is a lyrical meditation on being human.

I had no clue that my parents were unhappy with each other until I was sweeping up cornichons and hard salami and radishes off the kitchen floor.”

COOK’S ILLUSTRATED COOKBOOK

Since 1992, America’s Test Kitchen, a 2,500 square foot kitchen outside of Boston, has been publishing its meticulously tested and instructionally detailed recipes in Cook’s Illustrated Magazine. This year, they culled the 2,000 most timeless, essential, delicious recipes from the magazine’s two-decade archive and presented them in The Cook’s Illustrated Cookbook: 2,000 Recipes from 20 Years of America’s Most Trusted Cooking Magazine — an epic nearly thousand-page tome full of “test kitchen wisdom,” strategies, and tricks from the culinary trenches.

Founder and editor Christopher Kimball writes in the introduction:

This reminds me…of a story about the old-timer from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, who sat down one night to fill out his taxes. Now, like any thrifty farmer, he hardly found this a pleasant task, and staring him in the face at the head of a box in the top right-hand corner of the printed form where these words in bold type: DO NOT WRITE HERE.

Before going any further, the old gentleman took a firm grip on his pen and wrote in the box, in equally bold letters: I WRITE WHERE I GODDAMN PLEASE.

I guess that pretty much sums up how we go about recipe testing.”

THEY DRAW & COOK

For nearly two years, brother-and-sister duo Nate Padavick and Salli Swindell have been delighting us with their beautifully illustrated visual recipes from around the world. They Draw and Cook: 107 Recipes Illustrated by Artists from Around the World collects the best 107 of these lovely and delicious treats, joining the ranks of our favorite quirky cookbooks with an absolute gem of visual and culinary allure. From the playful and facetious to the elegant and sleek, these illustrated treasures offer everything from Chocolate Haystacks to Starving Artist Goo-lash and, of course, Cooooooookies for good measure.

We hope this book inspires you to cook up something new or maybe even pick up a pencil and doodle out your own favorite recipe and play along by visiting our website.” ~ Nate Padavick & Salli Swindell

Marmalade Flapjacks by Matt Dawson

Beetrooty-Yogurty-Thingummyjig by Corrina Rothwell

Chicken in Love by Irena Inumaru

Toad-in-the-Hole by Admira Pustika

Turn That Frown Upside Down Cake by Claire Murray

COOOOOOOOKIES! by Pietro Duchi

A feast for eyes and mouth, They Draw and Cook is bound to make you smile and drool — quite likely at the same time. And if the muse strikes, you can even submit your own illustrated recipe to the online project, adding your pin to this impressive world map of contributions.

Originally featured here in October.

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In 2011, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider a modest donation.





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