Brain Pickings

Author Archive

26 JULY, 2011

Visualize This: How to Tell Stories with Data

By:

How to turn numbers into stories, or what pattern-recognition has to do with the evolution of journalism.

Data visualization is a frequent fixation around here and, just recently, we looked at 7 essential books that explore the discipline’s capacity for creative storytelling. Today, a highly anticipated new book joins their ranks — Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics, penned by Nathan Yau of the fantastic FlowingData blog. (Which also makes this a fine addition to our running list of blog-turned-book success stories.) Yu offers a practical guide to creating data graphics that mean something, that captivate and illuminate and tell stories of what matters — a pinnacle of the discipline’s sensemaking potential in a world of ever-increasing information overload.

And in a culture of equally increasing infographics overload, where we are constantly bombarded with mediocre graphics that lack context and provide little actionable insight, Yau makes a special point of separating the signal from the noise and equipping you with the tools to not only create better data graphics but also be a more educated consumer and critic of the discipline.

From asking the right questions to exploring data through the visual metaphors that make the most sense to seeing data in new ways and gleaning from it the stories that beg to be told, the book offers a brilliant blueprint to practical eloquence in this emerging visual language.

On the book’s companion site, you can find downloadable data files, interactive examples of how visualization works and, if you’re technically inclined, even code samples to use as the basis for your own visual experimentation.

Visually stimulating, intellectually illuminating and creatively compelling, Visualize This: The FlowingData Guide to Design, Visualization, and Statistics is equal parts practical vocabulary for an essential modern language and conceptual testament to the power of data visualization as a new form of journalism and a powerful storytelling medium.

For a historical perspective on infographics, be sure to see the story of Otto Neurath’s Isotype.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

25 JULY, 2011

Akule: Magnificent Black-and-White Underwater Photographs

By:

What underwater tornadoes have to do with marine sustainability and Captain Cook’s death.

For the past 30 years, photographer Wayne Levin has been capturing the magnificence of the underwater world in spellbinding black-and-white images with equal parts mystery and awe. One day, as he was swimming to photograph the spinner dolphins of Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay, infamous as the location of Captain Cook’s death, Levin came across what appeared to be a giant coral reef. But, as he approached it, the “reef” began to move and morph, turning out to be an enormous school of bigeyed scad fish. Levin snapped some photos and scurried to find the dolphins, but the experience stuck with him. Over time, he developed a fascination with the strange beauty and synchronicity of these fish schools and spent the next 10 years capturing them on hundreds of rolls of film.

His new book, Akule, offers a selection of his finest photographs, named after the Hawaiian word for bigeyed scads. Haunting and poetic, Levin’s work is particularly fascinating — if not melancholic — when examined in parallel with the Census of Marine Life and our efforts to reverse the damage we’ve inflicted on this whimsical microcosm.

Surrounded by Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Puffer fish with Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Two Amber Jacks Under Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

School of Akule by Mooring

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Most underwater photographers are divers first, then they get into photography to capture the beautiful scenes they see underwater. I was a photographer first. My first serious underwater photography was when I finished graduate school at Pratt in 1983. I returned to Hawaii to teach photography at University of Hawaii, and decided to photograph surfers from underwater. My first attempts were in color, but the results were very murky blue on blue. Then I switched to black and white, and everything came alive.” ~ Wayne Levin

Line of Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Akule Tornado

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Rainbow Runners with Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Great Barracuda Surrounded by Akule

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

Akule Pinwheel

Image courtesy of Wayne Levin

I feel a sense of freedom, and I can feel myself relax, and my bodily functions slow down as I leave the anxieties of the human world behind. But the ocean has its own dangers. … So there is a freedom in being underwater, but also a responsibility to always be aware of your surroundings, and yourself.” ~ Wayne Levin

Akule is the follow-up to Wayne’s 1997 debut book, Through a Liquid Mirror, a play on the title of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass to convey the magic and wonderment Wayne finds once he passes through the surface, just like Alice passes through the mirror into Wonderland. For more, NPR has an excellent interview with Levin.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

25 JULY, 2011

7 (More) Obscure Children’s Books by Famous “Adult” Lit Authors

By:

What a magical car engine has to do with social justice, a parrot named Arturo and the history of jazz.

After the first installment of 7 little-known children’s books by famous authors of “grown-up” literature, on the trails of some favorite children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, here come seven more, based on reader suggestions and belated findings from the rabbit hole of research surrounding the first installment.

ALDOUS HUXLEY

Aldous Huxley may be best known for his iconic 1932 novel Brave New World, one of the most important meditations on futurism and how technology is changing society ever published, but he was also deeply fascinated by children’s fiction. In 1967, three years after Huxley’s death, Random House released a posthumous volume of the only children’s book he ever wrote, some 23 years earlier. The Crows of Pearblossom tells the story of Mr. and Mrs. Crow, whose eggs never hatch because the Rattlesnake living at the base of their tree keeps eating them. After the 297th eaten egg, the hopeful parents set out to kill the snake and enlist the help of their friend, Mr. Owl, who bakes mud into two stone eggs and paints them to resemble the Crows’ eggs. Upon eating them, the Rattlesnake is in so much pain that he beings to thrash about, tying himself in knots around the branches. Mrs. Crow goes merrily on to hatch “four families of 17 children each,” using the snake “as a clothesline on which to hang the little crows’ diapers.”

The original volume was illustrated by the late Barbara Cooney, but a new edition published this spring features artwork by Sophie Blackall, one of my favorite artists, whose utterly lovely illustrations of Craigslist missed connections you might recall.

GERTRUDE STEIN

Writer, poet and art collector Gertrude Stein is one of the most beloved — and quoted — luminaries of the early 20th century. In 1938, author Margaret Wise Brown of the freshly founded Young Scott Books became obsessed with convincing leading adult authors to try their hands at a children’s book. She sent letters to Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway and Steinbeck expressed no interest, but Stein surprised Brown by saying she already had a near-complete children’s manuscript titled The World Is Round, and would be happy to have Young Scott bring it to life. Which they did, though not without drama. Stein demanded that the pages be pink, the ink blue, and the artwork by illustrator Francis Rose. Young Scott were able to meet the first two demands despite the technical difficulties, but they didn’t want Rose to illustrate the book and asked Stein to instead choose from several Young Scott illustrators. Reluctantly, she settle don Clement Hurd, whose first illustrated book had appeared just that year. The World Is Round was eventually published, featuring a mix of unpunctuated prose and poetry, with a single illustration for each chapter. The original release included a special edition of 350 slipcase copies autographed by Stein and Hurd.

The wonderful We Too Were Children has the backstory.

JAMES THURBER

In the 1940s and 1950s, celebrated American author and cartoonist James Thurber, best-known for his contributions to The New Yorker, penned a number of book-length fairy tales, some illustrated by acclaimed French-American artist and political cartoonist Marc Simont. The most famous of them was The 13 Clocks — a fantasy tale Thurber wrote in Bermuda in 1950, telling the story of a mysterious prince who must complete a seemingly impossible challenge to free a maiden, Princess Saralinda, from the grip of the evil Duke of Coffin Castle. The eccentric book is riddled with Thurber’s famous wordplay and written in a unique cadenced style, making it a fascinating object of linguistic appreciation and a structural treat for language-lovers of all ages.

For a cherry on top, the current edition features an introduction by none other than Neil Gaiman.

Thanks, stormagnet

CARL SANDBURG

In 1922, nearly two decades before the first of his three Pulitzer Prizes, poet Carl Sandburg wrote a children’s book titled Rootabaga Stories for his three daughters, Margaret, Janet and Helga, nicknamed “Spink”, “Skabootch” and “Swipes,” respectively. Their nicknames occur repeatedly in some of the volume’s whimsical interrelated short stories.

The book arose from Sandburg’s desire to create the then-nonexistent “American fairy tales,” which he saw as integral to American childhood, so he set out to replace the incongruous imagery of European fairy tales with the fictionalized world of the American Midwest, which he called “the Rootabaga country,” substituting farms, trains, and corn fairies for castles, knights and royatly. Equal parts fantastical and thoughtful, the stories captured Sandburg’s romantic, hopeful vision of childhood.

In 1923, Sandburg followed up with a sequel, Rootabaga Pigeons, telling tales of “Big People Now” and “Little People Long Ago.”

Thanks, Rachel

SALMAN RUSHDIE

Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie has had his share of acclaim and controversy, but one thing that has remained constant over his prolific career is his penchant for the written word. In 1990, he turned his talents to children’s literature with the release of Haroun and the Sea of Stories — a phantasmagorical allegory for a handful of timely social and social justice problems, particularly in India, explored through the young protagonist, Haroun, and his father’s storytelling. The book received a Writer’s Guild Award for Best Children’s Book that year.

One of the book’s unexpected treats is breakdown of the meanings and symbolism of the ample cast of characters’ names, an intriguing linguistic and semantic bridge to Indian culture.

Twenty years later, just last winter, Rushdie followed up with his highly anticipated second children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life: A Novel.

Thanks, SaVen

IAN FLEMING

Ian Fleming is best-known as the creator of one of the best-selling literary works of all time: the James Bond series. A few years after the birth of his son Caspar in 1952, Fleming decided to write a children’s book for him, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang didn’t see light of day until 1964, the year Fleming died. It tells the story of the Potts family and the father figure, Caractacus, who uses money from the invention of a special candy to buy and repair a unique, magical former race car, which the family affectionately names Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Fleming’s inspiration came from a series of aero engines built by racing driver and engineer Count Louis Zborowski in the early 1920s, whose first six-cylinder Maybach aero engine was called Chitty Bang Bang.

The original book was beautifully illustrated in black-and-white by John Burningham and was soon adapted into the 1968 classic film of the same name starring Dick Van Dyke.

LANGSTON HUGHES

Prolific poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes is considered one of the fathers of jazz poetry, a literary art form that emerged in the 1920s and eventually became the foundation for modern hip-hop. In 1954, the 42-year-old Hughes decided to channel his love of jazz into a sort-of-children’s book that educated young readers about the culture he so loved. The First Book of Jazz was born, taking on the ambitious task of being the first-ever children’s book to review American music, and to this day arguably the best. Hughes covered every notable aspect of jazz, from the evolution of its eras to its most celebrated icons to its geography and sub-genres, and made a special point of highlighting the essential role of African-American musicians in the genre’s coming of age. Hughes even covered the technicalities of jazz — rhythm, percussion, improvisation, syncopation,blue notes, harmony — with remarkable eloquence that, rather than overwhelming the young reader, exudes the genuine joy of playing.

Alongside the book, Hughes released a companion record, The Story of Jazz, featuring Hughes’ lively, vivid narration of jazz history in three tracks, each focusing on a distinct element of the genre. You can hear them here.

For more on rare and out-of-print children’s books by famous 20th-century “adult” authors, I really can’t recommend Ariel S. Winter’s beautifully written, rigorously researched We Too Were Children enough.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.