Brain Pickings

The Best Books on Writing, NYC, Animals, and More: A Collaboration with the New York Public Library

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A celebration of timelessly wonderful reads in an elaborate diorama of papercraft book sculptures.

As an enormous lover and patron of public libraries, I was beyond delighted when the fine folks at the New York Public Library asked me to curate a selection of books for their bookstore and gave me free range to do whatever I wished. My original thought was to do a single reading list around a specific theme, much like I had been doing for the TED bookstore. But my chronic maximalism soon kicked in — the single reading list swelled into four reading lists (wisdom on writing, great reads about New York City, heart- and brain-stirring books on pets and animals, and timeless treats for young readers) and the simple tabletop display became an elaborate installation in the bookstore’s main window. That’s when I reached out to the impossibly talented Kelli Anderson, with whom I’d previously collaborated on the Curator’s Code and The Reconstructionists projects, and invited her to bestow her singular gift for disruptive wonder upon the library as we both donated our time and resources to the project.

Kelli, with her own brand of idealistic maximalism, decided to turn the reading lists into a magnificent papercraft wonderland featuring oversized three-dimensional sculptures of each of the books amidst an intricate paper cityscape of the Manhattan skyline.

Yes, it is just as incredibly time-consuming as it sounds — Kelli and her team spent countless hours cutting and hand-gluing each of the letters onto the books, engineering the physics of the suspension, and masterminding the minutest detail of this enormous labor of love. The ever-talented Debbie Millman provided the hand-lettering and Jacob Krupnick of Wild Combination (the team behind Girl Walk // All Day) photographed the process and filmed this beautiful timelapse of the assembly:

And the end result, up close and personal:

Here are the four reading lists, along with my original text that appears in the library bookshop window, followed by some production photos to give you an idea of the incredible love and energy Kelli and her team poured into bringing this to life.

Why I Write (public library) by George Orwell: Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and 1984, but he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest nonfiction feats is this 1946 masterpiece, in which Orwell traces how the painful experiences of his childhood steered him towards writing and lays out what he believes to be the four universal motives for writing, most of which resonate with just about any domain of creative work. Sample it with the fantastic title essay on the four universal motives for writing.

The Elements of Style (public library) illustrated by Maira Kalman: For anyone who thinks grammar can’t be fun, here comes beloved artist Maira Kalman, whose colorful whimsy breathes new life into Strunk and White’s indispensable 1959 style guide to create an instant classic in its own right. More here.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) by Anne Lamott: This 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer’s life as it is a profound treasure-trove of wisdom on the life of the heart and mind, brimming with insight on everything from overcoming self-doubt to navigating the osmotic balance of intuition and analytical thought. More here.

The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) by Henry Miller: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Miller writes in the title essay of the anthology, and indeed his singular orientation to life permeates this sublime collection of his short stories, profiles, and literary criticism. Sample it with his meditation on the art of living.

Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (public library) by Walter Benjamin: “The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself,” legendary German literary critic, philosopher, and essayist Walter Benjamin advises in his indispensable dictum “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” one of the many gems in this compendium of his essays, aphorisms and autobiographical writings.

Zen in the Art of Writing (public library): Here, our beloved Bradbury shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft. Blending practical how-to’s on everything from negotiating with editors to finding your voice with snippets and glimpses of the author’s own career, the book is at once a manual and a manifesto, imbued with equal parts edification and enthusiasm. More here.

Writers On Writing (public library): This remarkable collection of 46 timeless essays from The New York Times features contributions from such literary icons as Saul Bellow, Ann Patchett, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, spanning the entire spectrum from the playful to the profound, the practical to the philosophical. Sample it with Mary Gordon on the joy of notebooks and writing by hand as creative catalyst.

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews (public library) by Samuel Delany: “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t,” argues celebrated author and literary critic Samuel Delany — who, for a fascinating factlet, penned the controversial 1972 “women’s liberation” issue of Wonder Woman — in this synthesis of his most valuable insights from thirty-five years of teaching creative writing. Sample this volume with Delany’s wisdom on talented writing vs. good writing.

Why We Write (public library) edited by Meredith Maran: Twenty acclaimed authors — including Jennifer Egan, James Fray, and Michael Lewis — pop the hood of the literary machine to probe the internal engine of writing. Sample this volume with some fantastic contributions by Susan Orlean, Mary Karr, and Isabel Allende.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff: An intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices, revealing in the process her immeasurable insight on writing. It has given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, her illustrated wisdom on art, and her bulletpointed bodily self-portrait.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by Caroline Paul, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton: From firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton comes a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love. Devour a taste of this impossibly lovely treasure here, and hear an interview with Wendy and Caroline on the delicate balance of combining a creative collaboration with a romantic relationship here.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library): “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in the introduction to this magnificent compendium of canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — culled from the New Yorker magazine archives, also one of the best art books of 2012. What unites the contributing titans — among them E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl — is a trifecta of love for dogs, for literature, and for this dog-loving literary city. Sample it with ample visuals and excerpts here.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (public library) by T. S. Eliot, illustrated by Edward Gorey: In the 1930s, legendary poet T. S. Eliot penned a handful of marvelous verses about feline psychology and social order in a series of letters to his godchildren. The poems, first collected and published in 1939, eventually became the basis for the famed Broadway musical Cats. But nowhere do they shine with more whimsical charisma than in this special 1982 edition illustrated by the great Edward Gorey. Peek inside a rare signed original edition here.

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by Jon Mooallem: “Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything,” writes Jim Mooallem as he treks across mountains and wildlife reserves to trace the fates of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird. This isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing characteristic of environmental writing but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for, as T. S. Eliot famously put it, “negative capability.” Dive inside here.

What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (public library) by John Homans: “If you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience,” writes John Homans in his remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts warmth and scientific rigor. Sample the soul-stirring goodness here.

Creature (public library) by Andrew Zuckerman: With his signature style of crisp yet tender portraits, Zuckerman captures the spirit of Earth’s diverse creatures, from panthers to fruit bats to bald eagles, making them appear familiar and fresh at the same time, and altogether breathtaking. Peek inside here.

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library) by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods: This absorbing survey of radical research on canine cognition explores such fascinating questions as how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence and what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. What emerges, in fact, is a necessary revision of our narrow definition of what genius itself means, not just canine but human as well. Get a taste here.

The Animal Fair (public library) by Alice and Martin Provensen: Alice and Martin Provensen began their collaboration when they got married in 1944 and went on to produce a wealth of vibrantly illustrated stories of curiosity and kindness. This is one of their most delightful gems, originally published in 1952 — a collection of 22 original stories and poems by the Provensens, from a lively journey to the farmyard, zoo, and forest to humorous advice on “how to sleep through the winter” and “how to recognize a wolf in the forest.” Peek inside this vintage gem here.

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (public library) by Virginia Morell: Most people who have observed animals even briefly wouldn’t question their emotional lives and their thriving inner worlds. While anthropomorphic animal tales have populated storytelling for as long as humanity has existed, science writer Virginia Morell takes us on an unprecedented tour of laboratories around the world and explores the work of pioneering animal cognition researchers to reveal the scientific basis for our basic intuition about what goes on in the hearts and minds of our fellow beings, from the laughter of rats to the intellectual curiosity of dolphins.

What Pete Ate from A to Z (public library) by Maira Kalman: In this heart-warming and utterly refreshing take on the traditional alphabet book, the inimitable Maira Kalman — one of New York’s living creative treasures — unleashes her signature wordplay and expressive visual whimsy on the story of the charmingly shaggy, omnivorous, and hopelessly lovable Pete, based on Kalman’s own beloved pup.

Here Is New York (public library) by E. B. White: In the sweltering summer of 1948, E. B. White sat down in a hotel room and penned what endures as the most heartening love letter to New York — a roaming essay full of wit, wisdom, and immutable affection for the city as an icon, a friend, an intricate ecosystem of triumphs and tragedies, a canvas for the vibrancy of life. “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” he writes. “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” Sample this gem with Literary Jukebox.

New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library): This dimensional mosaic portrait of the city, one of the best history books of 2012, draws on the private journals of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in Gotham’s grid over the past four hundred years. Culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections, these engrossing entries invite us into the private worlds of such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Jack Kerouac, Simone de Beauvoir, and Mark Twain, leaving us with an ever-deeper appreciation of our shared existence in this glorious city. Sample some of the entries here.

Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers (public library) edited by Becky Cooper: A tender cartographic love letter to this timeless city of multiple dimensions, parallel realities, and perpendicular views, featuring 75 hand-drawn memory maps from both strangers and famous New Yorkers alike, including cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson, artist-philosopher Yoko Ono, wire-walked Philippe Petit, author Malcolm Gladwell, and chef David Chang. See some of the hand-drawn cartographic goodness, including my own addition, here.

This Is New York (public library) by Miroslav Šašek: Though this lovely 1960 gem, the first American city in Sašek’s legendary This Is series, was originally designed with a child-reader in mind, the vibrant vintage illustrations leap off the pages to enchant children and grown-ups in equal measure, New Yorkers and visitors, admirers of big bustling streets and lovers of quiet little corners.

Changing New York (public library) by Berenice Abbott: Between 1935 and 1939, pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott made 307 black-and-white prints of New York City that endure as some of the most iconic images of Gotham’s changing face. In advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, 200 of them were gathered in this collection, along with a selection of variant images, line drawings, period maps, and background essays — a lavish time-capsule of urban design organized in eight geographical sections, documenting the social, architectural, and cultural history of the city. See some of her extraordinary photographs here.

All the Buildings in New York (That I’ve Drawn So Far) (public library) by James Gulliver Hancock: When Australian illustrator James Gulliver Hancock moved to New York City, he set out to “own” his new home in a unique way: by drawing every single building in town. Collected here are the best of these drawings — a charmingly illustrated tour of Gotham’s cityscape and architecture, from icons to oddities, spanning the entire urban spectrum in between. Peek inside here.

Manhattan ’45 (public library) by Jan Morris: Jan Morris paints a remarkably dynamic portrait of the city as it was on June 25, 1945 — the day 14,000 American servicemen and women, the first contingent returning from the victory over Nazi Germany, sailed into New York aboard the British liner Queen Mary — reconstructed in 1987, when the book was originally published. From the novelty of stockings to the technological marvel of high-rise elevators to the class-equalizing power of a heat wave, she blends the mesmerism of time-travel with the absorbing voyeurism of travel writing, transporting us to a city at once curiously foreign and comfortably familiar. Sample it with this lovely abstract depicting Gotham’s heat wave as the ultimate class equalizer (plus a curious biographical detail about Morris, who was born James and became Jan).

Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities (public library) by Vahram Muratyan: Graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” chronicles the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits — vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses, from beverages to beards, hands to houses, that capture the intricacies of cultural difference with equal parts humor and affection. This gem was one of the best art books of 2012 — peek inside it and chuckle here.

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (public library) by Eric Sanderson: Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson spent more than a decade trying to reconstruct what Henry Hudson saw on that fateful day of September 12, 1609, when he first set foot on the island that would become Manhattan. His is a masterful feat of a kind of analog augmented reality — using an 18th-century map geographically overlaid upon the layout of modern-day Manhattan and troves of historic documents and scientific data, Sanderson takes us on a lavishly illustrated tour of the wild forests of Times Square, the sunny meadows of Harlem, and the soggy swamps of Soho.

Central Park: An Anthology (public library) edited by Andrew Blauner: Twenty of the New York’s most celebrated authors — including Adam Gopnik, Mark Helprin, Colson Whitehead, and Francine Prose — pay homage to one particular, and particularly beloved, part of the city, inviting us on a literary walk through the park with some of the most intensely interesting companions imaginable. Sample the absorbing tales here.

People (public library) by Blexbolex: Celebrated French illustrator Blexbolex captures the human condition in its diversity, richness and paradoxes — from mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies. His signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing. One of the best children’s and picture books of 2011 — see for yourself with a peek inside.

Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain (public library) by Mark Twain, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky: In 1865, when he was only 30, Mark Twain penned a little-known and lovely children’s story, in which he challenged kids to digest the intelligent humor that had captivated his adult audiences and mischievously encouraged girls to think independently rather than blindly obey social mores. Nearly a century and a half later, beloved Russian children’s illustrator Vladimir Radunsky brings Twain’s irreverent gem to life, envisioned in the style of the Victorian scrapbooks that children of that era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera. Sample this treasure, a pet project of mine two years in the making, here.

You Are Stardust (public library) by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Soyeon Kim: With its whimsical 3D paper dioramas and enchanting verses, this exquisite picture-book sets out to inspire in kids the kind of cosmic awe that would spark in them a profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today. Peek inside here.

Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library) edited by Gemma Elwin Harris: The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, Alain de Botton, and many more — to answer them. The result is a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, from what we’re made of to why we fall in love to how dreams work, and was among the best children’s books of 2012 as well as among readers’ overall favorites. Read some of the wonderful questions and answers here.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (public library) by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat: In this infinitely inspired intersection of greatness, Angelou’s simple, strong words are paired with drawings by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose signature style of child-like fancy and colorful emotional intensity offers a perfect match for Angelou’s courageous verses. Peek inside, and hear Angelou herself reading from the book, here.

Drawing from the City (public library) by Tejubehan: For nearly two decades, Indian independent publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Here, self-taught artist Tejubehan weaves a partly autobiographical, partly escapist, whimsically illustrated tale of a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society. Also one of the best children’s books of 2012 — see for yourself with a peek inside.

And Tango Makes Three (public library) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole: This is the heartening, tenderly illustrated true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo, who fell in love in 1998 and started a family, raising little Tango — the zoo’s first and only baby-girl with two daddies. Peek inside here.

My Brother’s Book (public library) by Maurice Sendak: Half a century after Where The Wild Things Are comes this bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years prior to the book’s publication, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. One of the loveliest books of all time — see for yourself.

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (public library) by Gertrude Stein, illustrated by Giselle Potter: In 1940, the grand dame of experimental literature penned a manuscript for an alphabet book that was rejected by publisher after publisher as being too complex for children. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version. In 2011, more than half a century later, came this first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter. Peek inside here.

Why We Have Day and Night. (public library) by Edward Gorey: Edward Gorey, mid-century illustrator of the macabre and fanciful, has influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Long after his death, Gorey still manages to charm us with his signature style of darkly delightful illustrations that illuminate young readers on the mystery of why we have night and light in one of the best children’s and picture books of 2011. Take a peek here.

Read more about the nitty-gritty of it on Kelli’s blog. Meanwhile, here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the magic:

If you’re in New York, stop by the NYPL bookstore sometime to see the installation in its analog glory, and join me in supporting the library here. (You’re also always welcome to support Brain Pickings here.)

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