Brain Pickings

Summer Reading: 5 Curated Recommendations

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19th-century adventures, secret societies, and what not watching TV has to do with Wikipedia.

With the turn of the Summer Solstice this week, the season for beachside reading is officially here. But we don’t settle for your average slew of popcorn chicklit and droning business books that leave little behind besides fluff and buzzwords. Instead, we’ve curated a list of five fantastic reads bound to compel, engage and leave a permanent tan line on your cerebral cortex.

COGNITIVE SURPLUS

Nearly two years ago, media theorist extraordinaire Clay Shirky gave a fantastic keynote talk at Web 2.0 Expo on what he terms “cognitive surplus” — the surfeit of intellect, energy and time freed up by our shift away from passive media like television. This month, Shirky’s remarkably keen and timely insight on the subject arrived in the form of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age — a brilliant look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential.

To illustrate his points, Shirky calls on some rather stride-stopping examples — for instance, the 100 million hours of human thought used in building Wikipedia, with all its now-unquestionable reserves of human knowledge, are merely 1 percent of the man-hours Americans spend watching TV each year. Gives you pause.

THE LOST CYCLIST

In May of 1892, accomplished 19th-century “wheelman” Frank Lanz quit his job and set out to make a name for himself by circumventing the globe on a bicycle — a feat already accomplished on a tandem but thought near-impossible for a lone rider. After covering three continents in two years, having dodged countless dangers and survived many a near-disaster, he approached Europe for the final leg of his journey. And then he mysteriously disappeared somewhere in Eastern Turkey. A celebrity by then, his disappearance sparked an international outcry, which sent another cyclist all-star, William Sachtleben, in search for Lanz.

The Lost Cyclist: The Epic Tale of an American Adventurer and His Mysterious Disappearance tells the story of stubborn pride and tragic foolishness, captivatingly narrated and meticulously researched. It oscillates between an impressive arsenal of genres, from adventure to mystery to biography to political history, accompanied by remarkable and rare vintage photographs of the dawn of cycling culture.

BIG MACHINE

We don’t normally do fiction here, but summer is the perfect excuse to dabble in the genre and Victor LaValle’s Big Machine is the perfect way to do it.

Centered around a secret society of “Unlikely Scholars” — an eclectic crew of curious minds and tender souls with shady pasts — the novel is part The Da Vinci Code, part Lost, part The X Files, using conspiracy theory and the paranormal as a subtle vehicle for commentary on much more grounded social dialogues like race and religion.

FIFTH AVENUE, 5 A.M.

Blake Edwards’ Breakfast at Tiffany’s, based on the Truman Capote novel, is without a doubt one of cinema’s most timeless and culturally beloved masterpieces. Sam Wasson’s Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman dissects the iconic film and its legacy from every sociocultural angle imaginable — from on-set feuds and conflicts to sexual politics to the era’s moral paradigm shift to Hepburn’s impact on beauty culture and the world of fashion.

STORIES: ALL-NEW TALES

Neil Gaiman is a storytelling legend. His ethos that the four most important words of storytelling are “…and then what happened?” comes to life in his fascinating new anthology, Stories: All-New Tales — a collection of 27 never-before-published stories from an all-star literary cast, including Fight Club mastermind Chuck Palahniuk and Very Short List co-founder Kurt Anderson, among other greats.

The genre-defying tome treks across sci-fi, mystery and fantasy, peeling away at profound human truth along the way.

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