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12 OCTOBER, 2011

The Anatomy of Influence: Mapping the Labyrinth of Literature

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What Leo Tolstoy can teach us about curation.

Understanding creative influence is essential to understanding remix culture and a centerpiece of combinatorial creativity. I recently collaborated with illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton and Michelle Legro of Lapham’s Quarterly of a subjective visualization of creative influence in literature and other arts, but this ecosystem of cross-pollination is far more layered and complex than a playful graphic could possibly convey. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life is Harold Bloom’s ambitious effort to peel away at these many layers. Bloom, who for the past half-century has been exploring that ecosystem as a Yale literature professor and contemporary culture’s most significant literary critic, offers insight on 30 of the world’s most iconic writers, from Shakespeare to Joyce to Emerson, and examines issues ranging from the role of “creative misreading” in the joy of literature to the supreme fiction of the romantic self to the influence of a mind on itself.

Literature for me is not merely the best part of life; it is itself the form of life, which has no other form.” ~ Harold Bloom

The book is a follow-up to Bloom’s 1973 classic, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, and was inspired by Robert Burton’s 1621 masterpiece, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Of that influence, Bloom writes:

Traces of Burton’s marvelous madness abound in this book, and yet it may be that all I share with Burton is an obsessiveness somewhat parallel to his own. Burton’s melancholy emanated from his fantastic learning: he wrote to cure his learnedness. My book isolates literary influence as the agon of influence, and perhaps I write to cure my own sense of having been overinfluenced since childhood by the great Western authors.”

But the part that captivated me the most was this quote from a Leo Tolstoy letter in the book’s epigraph, which articulates the essence of my own curatorial sense of purpose better than I ever could:

For art criticism we need people who would show the senselessness of looking for ideas in a work of art, and who instead would continually guide readers in that endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art, and bring them to the laws that serve as the foundation for those linkages.”

A true treat for literati and remixologists alike, The Anatomy of Influence is an exquisite paean to the love of literature, one that pulls you into its enthusiasm with equal parts mesmerism and cunning precision.

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11 OCTOBER, 2011

Every Page of Moby-Dick, Illustrated

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Illustrated insights on love, hate, God, capitalism, and the rest of life via Herman Melville and found paper.

Since 2009, former high school English teacher and self-taught artist Matt Kish has been drawing every page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Herman Melville’s iconic Moby-Dick, methodically producing one gorgeous, obsessive drawing per day for 552 days using pages from discarded books and a variety of drawing tools, from ballpoint pen to crayon to ink and watercolor. Now, thanks to Tin House Books, Kish’s ingenious project joins our running list of blogs so good they became books: Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page gathers his magnificent lo-fi drawings in a 600-page visual masterpiece of bold, breathtaking full-page illustrations that captivate eye, heart, and mind, inviting you to rediscover the Melville classic in entirely new ways.

I’ve read the book eight or nine times […] Each and every reading has revealed more and more to me and hinted tantalizingly at even greater truths and revelations that I have yet to reach. Friends often question my obsession with the novel, especially since I am not a scholar or even an educator any longer, and the best explanation I have been able to come up with is that, to me, Moby-Dick is a book about everything. God. Love. Hate. Identity. Race. Sex. Humor. Obsession. History. Work. Capitalism […] I see every aspect of life reflected in the bizarre mosaic of this book.” ~ Matt Kish

'...Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowel's wards.'

Ballpoint pen on paper, September 17, 2009

'Call me Ishmael'

Colored pencil and ink on found paper, August 5, 2009

'But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive.'

Colored pencil and ink on found paper, August 6, 2009

'Hearing the tremendous rush of the sea-crashing boat, the whale wheeled round to present his blank forehead at bay; but in that evolution, catching sight of the nearing black hull of the ship; seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethinking it - it may be - a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam'

Ink on watercolor paper, January 22, 2011

'...where that tempestuous wind Euroclydon kept up a worse howling than ever it did about poor Paul's tossed craft.'

Acrylic paint and ballpoint pen on found paper, August 13, 2009

'I don't know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping.'

Acrylic paint, colored pencil and ink on found paper, August 19, 2009

''Speak-e! tell-ee me who-ee be, or dam- me, I kill-e!' again growled the cannibal...'

Ink, colored pencil and marker on found paper, August 27, 2009

'Indeed, partly lying on it as the arm did when I first awoke, I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me.'

Acrylic paint on found paper, August 30, 2009

'...and when the ship was gliding by, like a flash he darted out; gained her side; with one backward dash of his foot capsized and sank his canoe; climbed up the chains...'

Acrylic paint, colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, September 30, 2009

'Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters.'

Ink and marker on found paper, October 5, 2009

'...hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling...'

Crayon, ink and marker on found paper, November 24, 2009

'…who has also by the stillness and seclusion of many long night-watches in the remotest waters, and beneath constellations never seen here at the north, been led to think untraditionally and independently…'

Colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, November 12, 2009

''I will have no man in my boat,' said Starbuck, 'who is not afraid of a whale.''

Colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, December 19, 2009

'But it was especially the aspect of the three chief officers of the ship, the mates, which was most forcibly calculated to allay these colorless misgivings, and induce confidence and cheerfulness in every presentment of the voyage.'

Ink on found paper, December 28, 2009

'Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.'

Ink on watercolor paper, January 11, 2011

''Thou Bildad!' roared Peleg, starting up and clattering about the cabin. 'Blast ye, Captain Bildad, if I had followed thy advice in these matters, I would afore now had a conscience to lug about that would be heavy enough to founder the largest ship that ever sailed round Cape Horn.''

Ballpoint pen and ink on found paper, November 16, 2009

Woven of equal parts visual mastery and creative bravery, Moby-Dick in Pictures is a treasure in and of itself, one that not only pays homage to Melville, but also reimagines what it means to embark on a modern-day epic voyage of creative restlessness.

Images courtesy of Matt Kish

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11 OCTOBER, 2011

What Translation Reveals about the Human Condition

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How to get a tarantula off your southwest leg, or what Astérix has to do with religion and the Manhattan grid.

Language is one of the most fascinating technologies, a human invention so central to our social function and very survival it’s practically indistinguishable from life itself. Yet languages are incredibly intricate, complicated, culture-specific organisms, and much of their delicate complexity can get lost in translation. In Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything, a fine new addition to our five favorite books on language, translator, biographer, and Princeton professor David Bellos explores the mystery of how we come to understand what someone else means, using translation as a lens on empathy in the human experience. Intelligent, entertaining, and brimming with delightful, surprising factoids, it’s a cross-disciplinary lens that spans from the evolution of written language to Astérix cartoons and a wealth in between, revealing how translation shaped everything from the propagation of religion to the literary legacy of famous authors.

The practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different: we speak different tongues, and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same—that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, information, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist. Nor could anything we would like to call social life. Translation is another name for the human condition.”

~ David Bellos

This charming kinetic typography trailer by Matt Young, full of fascinating trivia-worthy bites of knowledge, is the ultimate cherry on top, and an instant addition to our favorite book trailers:

From what Manhattanese has in common with the Kuuk Thaayorre language of South Australia to why we don’t have a word for all things with chrome handlebars, Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything dances across linguistic fascination, cultural history, and pure wit to deliver a unique meditation on mankind’s ever-evolving tango with global communication.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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