Brain Pickings

Joan Didion on Driving as Secular Worship and Self-Transcendence

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“Participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway.”

Many years ago, an imaginative campaign for Mini Cooper reframed driving, something drudgerous, as motoring, something joyful. It became an instant success and received every major industry award, including a Cannes Lion. The young creative director who dreamed it up — Steve O’Connell, an old friend with whose encouragement Brain Pickings was born back in the day, and a brilliant creative mind always looking for the deeper longings beneath human behavior — was hailed as a rising star and went on to start a new kind of creative agency. The genius of his idea was that it tapped into a fundamental yearning to bring more mindfulness and presence to the ordinary activities of our daily lives — the same impulse that Thoreau tickled when he reframed the ordinary activity of walking as the art of sauntering.

But the original champion of driving as more-than-driving, as an experience more transcendent than simply propelling a vehicle over pavement and more present than mindlessly getting from point A to point B, is none other than Joan Didion — she of world-reorienting wisdom on self-respect, grief, and the value of keeping a notebook.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

In an essay about California’s freeway system in her altogether sublime 1979 collection The White Album (public library), Didion writes:

The freeway system … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over. A distortion of time occurs, the same distortion that characterizes the instant before an accident.

Drawing from 'Mr. Bliss,' the little-known children's book J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated for his own kids. Click image for more.

Illustrating the idea that kindred minds often arrive at the same conclusions about certain aspects of the human experience, Didion quotes from the 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham, a work of enduring genius:

The freeways become a special way of being alive … the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.

The White Album remains one of the best essay collections ever published. Complement it with Didion’s all-time favorite books, then revisit Vanessa Redgrave’s beautiful reading from Didion’s memoir of mourning.

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The Art of Tough Love: Samuel Beckett Shows You How to Give Constructive Feedback on Your Friends’ Creative Work

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“If I were less concerned with you I should simply say it is very good.”

If it is the duty of friends to hold up a mirror to one another, as Aristotle believed, and if true friendship is the dual gift of truth and tenderness, as Emerson eloquently argued, then it is a chief task of friendship to hold up a truthful but tender mirror to those things which the friend holds most dear — including the labors of love that are one’s creative work.

By this definition, the great Irish novelist, playwright, poet, and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett revealed himself as a true friend to Aidan Higgins — a young Irish writer living in South Africa, for whom Beckett has remained a lifelong influence. (Beckett was also deeply invested in the fate of civil rights in South Africa and, in protesting the country’s apartheid, placed an embargo on his plays being performed before segregated audiences.)

In the spring of 1958, 31-year-old Higgins — then a rising star described as “a Rimbaud in search of an Africa” — sent 52-year-old Beckett one of his short stories, hoping that it might be a fit for the literary journal Botteghe Oscure, with which Beckett had significant editorial pull. Alas, Beckett deemed the story unsuitable, but sent Higgins an exquisite letter of constructive feedback on how it might be improved, found in the altogether revelatory tome The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 3, 1957–1965 (public library).

Samuel Beckett by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Beckett opens with a cushion of assurance, indicating his affectionate intent and respect for Higgins by noting his initial reluctance to criticize, but then puts into action Emerson’s conviction that a friend is a person with whom one may be sincere“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage,” Emerson wrote. “When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.” — and instead argues that constructive criticism is part of the creative communion between kindred spirits:

My reluctance to comment has become overpowering. I hate the thought of the damage I may do from such unwillingness and such incapacity. If I were less concerned with you I should simply say it is very good, I like it very much, but don’t see where to send it, and leave it at that. But I don’t want to do that with you. And at the same time I know I can’t go into it in a way profitable for you. This is not how writers help one another.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton courtesy of the artist

Taking care to note that offering criticism is a “terrible effort” for him, Beckett goes on to offer a detailed deconstruction of Higgins’s weaker points of style, from small typos — remember, this was decades before spellcheck and a writer this young was probably unable to afford a copy-editor — to a particularly meticulous itemization of overindulgent similes:

“menacing as banners” … “cumbersome as manacles” … “ponderous as Juggernaut” … “colossal as a ship’s hull” … “reckless as the sibyl of Cumae” … “Indelicate as chinaware” … “incorrigible as murder” … You want to be careful about that.

Beckett also reveals himself as a master of the compliment-criticism-compliment sandwich, remarking on a passage that begins on the fourth page of the manuscript:

Up to there I had read with only very trifling reserves and with admiration for the firmness and precision and rapidity of the writing. This quietly is present throughout and I do not mean that those passages are devoid of it… I simply feel a floundering and a laboring here and above all a falsening of position… I suppose it is too sweeping to say that expression of the within can only be from the within. There is in any case nothing more difficult and delicate than this discursive [explaining] of a word which is not to be revealed as object of speech or as source of speech… The vision is so sensitive and the writing so effective when you stop blazing away at the microcosmic moon that results are likely to be considerable when you get to feel what is possible prey and within the reach of words (yours) and what is not.

Folded into the particularities of his critique is a spectacular general point on writing — Beckett frequently seeds those throughout his letters — making an apt admonition, especially timely today, against the rush to publish:

Work, work, writing for nothing and yourself, don’t make the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon.

Five weeks later, Higgins wrote to a friend: “He wrote an extensive criticism of [the story] which was probably more helpful than publication.” The following year, shortly before the release of Higgins’s first book, Beckett wrote to another friend: “I think he is very promising and should be encouraged.”

The Letters of Samuel Beckett is an infinitely absorbing read in its entirety, full of Beckett’s insights on literature, life, love, and more. Complement it with this compendium of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love.

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A Vintage Illustrated Love Letter to Books: What They Are, How They’re Made, and Why They Matter to Us

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“There is a reason for nearly everything.”

Zen monks in 12th-century China bemoaned books as a perilous distraction to be avoided at all costs, and yet we’ve come to embrace that singular medium of immersive contemplation as one of life’s greatest joys. “A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote nine centuries later in one of the most beautiful reflections on reading ever penned. For Kafka, great books were “the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” For C.S. Lewis, they both change us and make us more ourselves. But what is a book, really? Where does it come from and what does it do?

The celebrated mid-century graphic designer John Alcorn remains best known for the opening title sequences he designed for a number of Fellini films, but he was also a prolific book jacket designer and children’s book author — a love affair with the written word that began early and lasted a lifetime. He was only twenty-seven when he illustrated the 1962 treasure BOOKS! (public library) by Murray McCain — part love letter to books, part PSA on how they’re made, part timeless manifesto for why they matter, at once a masterwork of typography and an illuminating primer on the practical production and cultural purpose of books. Irreverent yet full of deep reverence for the written word, aimed at both kids and grownup bibliophiles, this witty and wonderful gem promised to “turn children into book-lovers and parents into BOOKS! lovers.”

Half a century later, it has been reissued in a beautiful new edition that does justice to the vision and integrity of the original — a pleasure to both hold and behold, and a timeless, ever-timely celebration of books as bastions of the human spirit.

Complement BOOKS! with the four psychological functions of literature and the greatest books of all time, as voted by 125 celebrated contemporary authors, then revisit The Jacket — a sweet illustrated meta-story about how we fall in love with books.

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.





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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.