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20 MARCH, 2014

Neil Gaiman on Why Scary Stories Appeal to Us, the Art of Fear in Children’s Books, and the Most Terrifying Ghosts Haunting Society

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“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.”

Neil Gaiman — prolific author, champion of the creative life, disciplined writer, sage of literature — is one of the greatest storytellers of our time. At TED 2014 in Vancouver, he hosted a semi-secret late-night event where he read a ghost story and a brilliant short essay titled “Ghost in the Machine,” contemplating the psychology of why scary stories speak to us so powerfully, followed by a brief Q&A. With Gaiman’s permission, here is his beautiful reading of a beautiful thought-piece. Special thanks to two friends: WNYC producer extraordinaire Alex Goldmark, who kindly helped edit the audio I recorded, and Gaiman’s better half, the amazing Amanda Palmer (yes, her). Please enjoy — transcribed highlights below.

Why tell ghost stories? Why read them or listen to them? Why take such pleasure in tales that have no purpose but, comfortably, to scare?

I don’t know. Not really. It goes way back. We have ghost stories from ancient Egypt, after all, ghost stories in the Bible, classical ghost stories from Rome (along with werewolves, cases of demonic possession and, of course, over and over, witches). We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.

Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.

And this time of year is best for a haunting, as even the most prosaic things cast the most disquieting shadows.

The things that haunt us can be tiny things: a Web page; a voicemail message; an article in a newspaper, perhaps, by an English writer, remembering Halloweens long gone and skeletal trees and winding lanes and darkness. An article containing fragments of ghost stories, and which, nonsensical although the idea has to be, nobody ever remembers reading but you, and which simply isn’t there the next time you go and look for it.

One of the things that makes Gaiman’s sensibility so singular is that he is among the few contemporary writers unafraid to explore darker psychoemotional themes in “children’s books” — I put this in quotations with the intended caveat that Tolkien so memorably articulated in asserting that there is no such thing as writing “for children”, which Maurice Sendak also expressed and which Gaiman himself has echoed. After the reading, I asked Gaiman how he relates to that adult construct of “children-appropriate” literature, in culture and in his own work:

In order for stories to work — for kids and for adults — they should scare. And you should triumph. There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.

Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by the great Lorenzo Mattotti — the artist behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven — will be released in October and is now available for pre-order.

In responding to the final question, Gaiman considers the things that terrify him, today. His answer couldn’t have been any more poignant:

The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us. It’s like the feeling, sometimes, that you’d start talking to people and you’re going, “I don’t know if what you’re saying is true. It may have been true once, a long time ago. But it died. And you don’t know. And you’re walking around being haunted by dead ideas… Look around and see where you are today.” I think those are the ghosts that haunt me the most.

Complement with Gaiman on where ideas come from and his sage advice on the creative life.

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20 MARCH, 2014

Hello, New York: Julia Rothman’s Illustrated Love Letter to Gotham’s Five Boroughs

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From bodegas to bras, a visual serenade to Gotham’s emblems and eccentricities.

On the heels of Wendy MacNaughton’s magnificent Meanwhile in San Francisco (which is less about San Francisco than about the human soul) comes Hello, New York: An Illustrated Love Letter to the Five Boroughs (public library) from Brooklyn-based illustrator Julia Rothman, who has previously given us such charming treats as The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science, Drawn In, and Farm Anatomy.

Rothman takes us on a tour of New York’s hidden treasures and traces the little-known, fascinating stories and personalities behind the city’s most iconic landmarks and places, from the rare books curator at The New York Public Library to the Hasidic Jewish couple that runs New York’s go-to store for bras, from standbys like the ubiquitous bodega and the yellow taxi cab to curiosities like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, an extraordinary time-capsule of working-class immigrant life in the 19th century, to cultural icons like the ghostly beams illuminating the skies where the Twin Towers used to be.

Just like San Francisco’s Dolphin Club Swimmers, New York has its own brave souls who plunge into the East River — here they are, mere minutes from my own abode in Brooklyn:

Then there are the buildings, reminiscent in spirit of James Gulliver Hancock’s illustrated architectural tour of Gotham, but bent through the lens of Rothman’s distinctive style:

But my favorite section, perhaps predictably, is an homage to one of the city’s greatest cultural institutions, the New York Public Library, guarded by its famous lions, Patience and Fortitude:

Complement Hello, New York with two very different love letters to Gotham: a photographic one, honoring its humans and a literary one, celebrating Central Park.

Images courtesy of Julia Rothman / Chronicle Books

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20 MARCH, 2014

Schopenhauer on Style

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“Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes.”

What does it mean to write with style? For Kurt Vonnegut, it was about keeping it simple yet interesting. For Herbert Spencer, about harnessing the economy of attention. For E.B. White, about mastering brevity without sacrificing beauty. One of the most timeless meditations on style comes from 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In “On Style,” found in The Essays of Schopenhauer (free download; public library) — the same excellent volume that gave us Schopenhauer’s prescient admonition about the ethics of online publishing — he considers why style, far from the mere ornamentation of writing, is the essential conduit of thought.

Schopenhauer writes:

Style is the physiognomy of the mind. It is a more reliable key to character than the physiognomy of the body. To imitate another person’s style is like wearing a mask. However fine the mask, it soon becomes insipid and intolerable because it is without life; so that even the ugliest living face is better.

He issues an especially eloquent admonition against intellectual posturing in writing:

There is nothing an author should guard against more than the apparent endeavor to show more intellect than he has; because this rouses the suspicion in the reader that he has very little, since a man always affects something, be its nature what it may, that he does not really possess. And this is why it is praise to an author to call him naïve, for it signifies that he may show himself as he is. In general, naïveté attracts, while anything that is unnatural everywhere repels. We also find that every true thinker endeavors to express his thoughts as purely, clearly, definitely, and concisely as ever possible. This is why simplicity has always been looked upon as a token, not only of truth, but also of genius. Style receives its beauty from the thought expressed, while with those writers who only pretend to think it is their thoughts that are said to be fine because of their style. Style is merely the silhouette of thought; and to write in a vague or bad style means a stupid or confused mind.

He adds (with the era’s characteristic gender-pronoun bias):

If a man has something to say that is worth saying, he need not envelop it in affected expressions, involved phrases, and enigmatical innuendoes; but he may rest assured that by expressing himself in a simple, clear, and naïve manner he will not fail to produce the right effect. A man who makes use of such artifices as have been alluded to betrays his poverty of ideas, mind, and knowledge.

[…]

Obscurity and vagueness of expression are at all times and everywhere a very bad sign. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred they arise from vagueness of thought, which, in its turn, is almost always fundamentally discordant, inconsistent, and therefore wrong. When a right thought springs up in the mind it strives after clearness of expression, and it soon attains it, for clear thought easily finds its appropriate expression. A man who is capable of thinking can express himself at all times in clear, comprehensible, and unambiguous words. Those writers who construct difficult, obscure, involved, and ambiguous phrases most certainly do not rightly know what it is they wish to say: they have only a dull consciousness of it, which is still struggling to put itself into thought; they also often wish to conceal from themselves and other people that in reality they have nothing to say.

Affirming the notion that non-reading is as much a critical choice as reading, Schopenhauer urges authors to have compassion for the reader — a sort of self-interested compassion recognizing that a reader’s attention is a privilege, not a right:

All prolixity and all binding together of unmeaning observations that are not worth reading should be avoided. A writer must be sparing with the reader’s time, concentration, and patience; in this way he makes him believe that what he has before him is worth his careful reading, and will repay the trouble he has spent upon it. It is always better to leave out something that is good than to write down something that is not worth saying. . . .

Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes; this is partly because it gets unobstructed hold of the hearer’s mind without his being distracted by secondary thoughts, and partly because he feels that here he is not being corrupted or deceived by the arts of rhetoric, but that the whole effect is got from the thing itself.

[…]

Just as neglect of dress betrays contempt for the society in which a man moves, so does a hasty, careless, and bad style show shocking disrespect for the reader, who then rightly punishes it by not reading the book.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile.' Click image for details.

A century before Strunk and White, Schopenhauer advocates for “chastity of style,” while also admonishing, as E.B. White did, that brevity should never be accomplished at the expense of impoverished expression:

An author should guard against using all unnecessary rhetorical adornment, all useless amplification, and in general, just as in architecture he should guard against an excess of decoration, all superfluity of expression — in other words, he must aim at chastity of style. Everything that is redundant has a harmful effect. The law of simplicity and naïveté applies to all fine art, for it is compatible with what is most sublime.

[…]

True brevity of expression consists in a man only saying what is worth saying, while avoiding all diffuse explanations of things which every one can think out for himself; that is, it consists in his correctly distinguishing between what is necessary and what is superfluous. On the other hand, one should never sacrifice clearness, to say nothing of grammar, for the sake of being brief. To impoverish the expression of a thought, or to obscure or spoil the meaning of a period for the sake of using fewer words shows a lamentable want of judgment.

Above all, however, Schopenhauer argues that an author’s style should be a reflection of his or her mind and vehicle of the thought process itself, which is what sets “classics” apart from inferior writing:

A man who writes carelessly at once proves that he himself puts no great value on his own thoughts. For it is only by being convinced of the truth and importance of our thoughts that there arises in us the inspiration necessary for the inexhaustible patience to discover the clearest, finest, and most powerful expression for them; just as one puts holy relics or priceless works of art in silvern or golden receptacles. It was for this reason that the old writers — whose thoughts, expressed in their own words, have lasted for thousands of years and hence bear the honored title of classics — wrote with universal care.

The Essays of Schopenhauer is a treasure trove of wisdom. Complement it with this evolving reading list of history’s best advice on writing, including Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings, and Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips.

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