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03 JULY, 2014

Isaac Asimov on Optimism vs. Cynicism about the Human Spirit

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Why cynicism is, above all, a disservice to our own happiness.

“As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman,” E.B. White wrote in a letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, “the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” A beautiful and soul-expanding counterpart to the power of optimism in the human spirit that White advocates comes from science-fiction icon Isaac Asimov, found in his posthumously published It’s Been a Good Life (public library) — a rich selection of the author’s letters, diary entries, and his three prior autobiographies, edited by his spouse, Janet Jeppson Asimov, which also gave us Asimov’s wisdom on humanism and science vs. spirituality.

The book itself is titled after some of Asimov’s last words to his wife, but the most magnificent embodiment of his faith in life’s goodness comes from a letter to one of his friends. Asimov writes:

To me it seems to be important to believe people to be good even if they tend to be bad, because your own joy and happiness in life is increased that way, and the pleasures of the belief outweigh the occasional disappointments. To be a cynic about people works just the other way around and makes you incapable about enjoying the good things.

Asimov later echoed this sentiment in his spectacular conversation with Bill Moyers in 1988, in discussing the ideas of heaven, hell, and all the artificial ways in which religion tries to keep human goodness in check:

It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being. Isn’t it conceivable a person wants to be a decent human being because that way he feels better?

It’s Been a Good Life, featuring selections from Asimov’s first three autobiographies, In Memory Yet Green (1979), In Joy Still Felt (1980), and the posthumously published I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), is a fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Asimov’s wonderful 1983 Muppet magazine interview on curiosity, risk-taking, and the value of space exploration.

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03 JULY, 2014

How to Write Fat Books: Walter Benjamin’s Principles of the Weighty Tome

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A seven-point blueprint to the dark arts of filling pages.

“The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper,” 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer admonished in contemplating the ethics of authorship. A century and a half later, Susan Sontag opined that true literature “is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form.” This is perhaps even more true today, when publishers churn out a barrage of books that could’ve been, should’ve been, or once were magazine articles — listicles, even — artificially fattened into book heft like a foie gras duck and no more pleasurable to the reader than the feeding is to the duck.

Thirty-four-year-old Walter Benjamin presaged and parodied this phenomenon in a short list under the heading “Principles of the Weighty Tome, or How to Write Fat Books” in his 1928 treatise One-Way Street — a collage of fragmentary observations of everyday life and records of his dreams — in a section titled “Teaching Aid.” Found in his indispensable Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (public library) — which also gave us his 13 commandments of writing — the fragment reads like irreverent meta-commentary on the fact that One-Way Street was far from a “weighty tome,” but also stands as a tragicomic blueprint to producing that prototypical artificially fattened article-turned-book, not to mention the padded, paginated, filler-content articles that plague the modern web.

  1. The whole composition must be permeated with a protracted and wordy exposition of the initial plan.
  2. Terms are to be included for conceptions that, except in this definition, appear nowhere in the whole book.
  3. Conceptual distinctions laboriously arrived at in the text are to be obliterated again in the relevant notes.
  4. For concepts treated only in their general significance, examples should be given; if, for example, machines are mentioned, all the different kinds of machines should be enumerated.
  5. Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.
  6. Relationships that could be represented graphically must be expounded in words. Instead of being represented in a genealogical tree, for example, all family relationships are to be enumerated and described.
  7. A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.

The typical work of modern scholarship is intended to be read like a catalogue. But when shall we actually write books like catalogues? If the deficient content were thus to determine the outward form, an excellent piece of writing would result, in which the value of opinions would be marked without their being thereby put on sale.

Benjamin’s Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings is a delight in its entirety. For some timeless wisdom on how to write books of substance rather than filler, see this evolving collection of advice from beloved authors, including Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller, F. Scott Fitzgerald on the secret of great writing, Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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02 JULY, 2014

The Last Hotel: Patti Smith Sets Jack Kerouac to Song

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Two great talents at the intersection of reality and dream.

Between 1954 and 1965, in the thick of his foray into Buddhism, Jack Kerouac turned his beliefs and techniques for writing prose to poetry and wrote several dozen poems, both playful and profound, spanning everything from irreverent comments on his friends to meditations on spirituality. They were published in the posthumous volume Pomes All Sizes (public library) and capture, as Allen Ginsberg notes in the introduction, Kerouac’s experience of life as “both real and dream.”

In this enchanting recording, punk-rock godmother Patti Smith — herself a poet, with a penchant for setting literature to song — reads Kerouac’s poem “The Last Hotel” to music by Thurston Moore and Lenny Kaye:

The last hotel
I can see the black wall
I can see the silhouette on the window
He’s talking, at a rhythm
He’s talking, at a rhythm
But, I don’t care
I’m not interested in what he’s saying
I’m only interested in the last hotel
I’m only interested in the fact that it’s the last hotel
Deep, discordant, dark, sweet
The last hotel
The last hotel
Ghosts in my bed
The goats I bled
The last hotel

Complement with Smith’s poetic homage to her soulmate, her advice on life, and Kerouac on kindness, the self illusion, and the “golden eternity.”

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