Brain Pickings

(Almost) Everything You Need to Know about Culture in 10 Books

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What the limits of the universe have to do with the history of jazz and the secret of happiness.

Last week, I was reorganizing my library and realized that some of my favorite books are ones that introduced me to subjects I either admired but knew little about or was unaware of altogether. The kinds of reads that profoundly enrich one’s lens on the world. So I thought I’d put together a modest reading list of essential primers for, well, everything. Okay, maybe not everything — I’m keenly aware of how laughable that proposition is — but a fair amount to offer a basis for the kind of cross-disciplinary understanding of culture that I believe is crucial to contributing to the world in a meaningful way. To begin, here are ten essential primers on everything from jazz to data visualization to money.

DATA VISUALIZATION

Long before there was The Visual Miscellaneum or Data Flow, there was Graphis diagrams: The graphic visualization of abstract data — a seminal vision for the convergence of aesthetics and information value, originally published in 1974, which codified the conventions of contemporary data visualization and information design. One of the 100 most influential design books of the past 100 years, it features work by icons like legendary designer and animator Saul Bass, Brain Pickings favorite Milton Glaser, TED founder Richard Saul Wurman and many more.

Images courtesy of insect54

JAZZ

As a lover of jazz, I was thrilled for this month’s release of The History of JazzTed Gioia‘s fascinating and ambitious cultural biography of the genre, though such classification is incredibly reductionist, that permeated just about every facet of creative culture, social dynamics and politics.

The idea of a ragtime ballet or opera must have seemed an oxymoron to those on both sides of the great racial divide that characterized turn-of-the-century American society. It required the development of a different aesthetic before such works could be appreciated on their own terms.

In our own day, we have embraced just such a new aesthetic, one that allows audience not only to accept, but often rush to praise, willy-nilly, various transformations of vernacular forms of culture into serious art. This tendency is evident not only — or even primarily — in jazz but in virtually every contemporary genre and style of creative human expression. But even in tolerant, liberal-mined times, the tension between these two streams of activity continues to seethe under the surface. This dynamic interaction, the clash and fusion — of African and European, composition and improvisation, spontaneity and deliberation, the popular and the serious, high and low — will follow us at virtually every turn as we unfold the complex history of jazz music.” ~ Ted Gioia

COSMOLOGY

In 1988, legendary theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking wrote what’s commonly held as the most important book in popular science ever published. A Brief History of Time attempted to answer one of humanity’s most fundamental questions — where did the universe come from? — and tackled the complex subject of cosmology through a multitude of angles, including the Big Bang theory, black holes, high mathematics, the nature of time, gravity and much more, yet did it in a way digestible enough to invite the non-expert reader to consider the universe in an entirely new way. (Eight years later, a fantastic illustrated edition offered a revised, updated and expanded version of the book.) With a foreword by none other than Carl Sagan, the book remains a fundamental sensemaking mechanism for understanding the cosmos, our place in it, how we got there and where we might be going.

Perhaps most powerful of all is the human hope and scientific vision of Hawking’s ending:

If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph — for then we would know the mind of God.”

INFORMATION THEORY

The future of information is something I’m deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. Running the risk of overbeating that drum — since I both reviewed it separately earlier this year and placed it atop my annual summer reading list for 2011 — I still maintain that James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is the most important and ambitious work in illuminating human communication and media theory since the days of Marshall McLuhan. Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book truly shine is that, unlike some of his more techno-dystopian contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair over our limitations.

MONEY

In The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson makes a compelling case for banking and the development of currency as a central force behind how civilization has evolved. As we begin to emerge from one of the biggest global recessions in recorded history, Ferguson offers a timely and timeless reminder of one of the greatest truths in financial history and, I would add, human psychology at large: Sooner or later, every bubble bursts. What makes the book even more interesting is that Ferguson completed his research for it prior to the actual economic recession in the U.S., yet many of his insights and conclusions presage what was about to happen with uncanny accuracy.

Behind each great historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret, and this book sets out to illuminate the most important of these. For example, the Renaissance created such a boom in the market for art and architecture because Italian bankers like the Medici made fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Habsburg Empire because having the world’s first modern stock market was financially preferable to having the world’s biggest silver mine. The problems of the French monarchy could not be resolved without a revolution because a convicted Scots murderer had wrecked the French financial system by unleashing the first stock market bubble and bust.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Above all, the book — one of 5 must-read books by this year’s TED Global speakers and a companion read to a BBC documentary of the same name, now free to watch online — is an admirable effort to break down what Ferguson calls “the dangerous barrier which has arisen between financial knowledge and other kinds of knowledge,” a hallmark of the holistic knowledge and cross-disciplinary curiosity I so firmly believe are the key to a richer, more creative, more intelligent life.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Rest Is NoiseClassical music is something most people recognize for its cultural importance, but admire from a safe distance. Yet its influence on contemporary culture, both musically and beyond, is wide and all-permeating. In The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross dances across the most essential 20th-century pieces in major and minor with so much grace and eloquence that you emerge with a newfound understanding for and appreciation of the beautiful language of classical music. From Strauss to Mahler to Coltrane to Glass, from politics to technological innovation to art history, Ross offers a biographical, historical and social context for the most elevated soundtrack of the past century and extends an invitation to listen to it with new ears and new heart.

Because composers have infiltrated every aspect of modern existence, their work can be depicted only on the largest possible canvas. The Rest Is Noise chronicles not only the artists themselves but also the politicians, dictators, millionaire patrons, and CEOs who tried to control what music was written; the intellectuals who attempted to adjudicate style; the writers, painters, dancers, and filmmakers who provided companionship on lonely roads of exploration; the audiences who variously reveled in, reviled, or ignored what composers were doing; the technologies that changed how music was made and heard; and the revolutions, hot and cold wars, waves of emigration, and deeper social transformations that reshape the landscape in which composers worked.” ~ Alex Ross

Ross’s sequel, Listen to This, is one of 7 must-read books on music, emotion and the brain.

WRITING

When it was published earlier this year, it didn’t take long to recognize How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by New York Times columnist Stanley Fish as the most important and ambitious work on the art and craft of language since Strunk and White’s iconic 1918 classic, The Elements of Style. In fact, Fish offers an intelligent rebuttal to some of the cultish mandates of Strunk and White’s bible, most notably the blind insistence on brevity and sentence minimalism. To make his case, he picks apart some of history’s most powerful sentences, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Lewis Carroll, using a kind of literary forensics to excavate the essence of beautiful language through its fundamental building block, the sentence.

The pleasure I take in the sentence has nothing to do with the case or with the merits of either the majority’s or the dissent’s arguments. It is the pleasure of appreciating a technical achievement — here the athletic analogy might be to target shooting. […] I carry the sentence around with me as others might carry a precious gem or a fine Swiss watch. I pull it out and look at it. I pull it out and invite others (who are sometimes reluctant) to look at it. I put it under a microscope and examine its innermost workings.” ~ Stanley Fish

FILM

Howard Suber is considered America’s most distinguished film scholar, having founded the UCLA Film Archive and dramatically reformed the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and The Power of Film is nothing short of a remarkable reflection of his reputation and his lifetime of teaching film. In fact, screenwriter David Koepp might not be exaggerating when he says that what Aristotle did for drama, Suber has done for film. The book is essentially a laboratory exploring the patterns, principles and elements of cinematic storytelling that make a film successful, memorable and culturally impactful. And, as Francis Ford Coppola points out about the book, “[m]uch of it is surprisingly contrary to what ‘everyone knows.'”

Popular films are a special kind of drama. While much that is in them can be traced back to the ancient dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose works were performed in a kind of popular theater for Athenians, only some of what was true for dramatists and their audiences then continues to be true twenty-five centuries later.

Popular films have their own principles, patterns and structures. These deal not so much with style and technique as with the psychology of storytelling, which ultimately is the psychology of contemporary human beings.” ~ Howard Suber

SCIENCE FICTION

Science fiction is a relatively nascent literary genre, and yet it has become intricately intertwined with much of contemporary culture, from entertainment to design to scientific inquiry to technological innovation. As Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously noted in a 1980 letter, “[t]he links between science fiction and science are well-established.” In The Secret History of Science Fiction anthologists James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel offer a fascinating parallel history of the genre born out of an active rebellion against the very term “genre” and a frustration with the multitude of definitions of “science fiction.”

We understand why some might say that, after the mid-1970s, sf went back to the playroom, never to be taken seriously again. But they do a vast disservice to the writers and readers of the next thirty years. What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the early 1970s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered. We offer evidence that the developments of the 1960s and early ’70s have been carried forth, if mostly outside of the public eye. For years they have been overshadowed by popular media sf and best-selling books that cater to the media audience. And at the same time that, on one side of the genre divide, sf was being written at the highest levels of ambition, on the other side, writers came to use the materials of sf for their own purposes, writing fiction that is clearly science fiction, but not identified by that name.”

The book features 19 stories from iconic authors, many not classically considered science fiction writers, including Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Lethem and George Saunders. (It’s also incredibly refreshing to see such a gender-balanced anthology.)

HAPPINESS

Earlier this year, I did an extensive reading list of what I consider to be the 7 most essential books on the art and science of happiness. Topping it was Jonathan Haidt‘s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, which examines millennia of philosophical thought on the grand question of what makes us happy to unearth ten great theories of happiness discovered by the thinkers of the past. From Plato to Jesus to Buddha, they reveal a surprising abundance of common tangents. (For example, from Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” From Buddha: “Our life is the creation of our mind.”)

Haidt takes this ambitious analysis of philosophical thought over the centuries and examines it through the prism of modern psychology research to paint a profound portrait of our civilization’s understanding of happiness and extract a remarkably compelling blueprint for optimizing the human condition for well-being.

The story begins with an account of how the human mind works. Not a full account, of course, just two ancient truths that must be understood before you can take advantage of modern psychology to improve your life. The first truth is the foundational idea of this book: The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does. Nowadays, we know the causes of these divisions, and a few ways to help the rider and the elephant work better as a team.” ~ Jonathan Haidt

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What are the books that gave you new understanding of something or opened your eyes to a facet of culture that had been previously foreign to you?

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