Brain Pickings

What There Is Before There Is Anything There: Celebrated Cartoonist Liniers Confronts Childhood Nightmares

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An imaginative graphic novel about the quintessential childhood fear.

Children often wonder about why we dream, as do some dedicated researchers, but the question of why we have nightmares is as perplexing to scientists — some of humanity’s most intelligent grownups — as it is exasperating to kids. Indeed, nightmares, along with its sister fear of the dark, are among childhood’s most anguishing and common experiences, as exasperating to the child experiencing them as to his or her parents in their helplessness of assuaging them.

That’s precisely what award-winning Argentinian cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist Liniers (whose beloved Macanudo series was just released in English for the first time) explores in What There Is Before There Is Anything There: A Scary Story (public library) — a wonderful picture-book that brings dark humor to those familiar nighttime fears while taking them seriously, at once spooky and sweet in its solidarity of acknowledging that they are very much real, even if their objects are not true. One of the great injustices of childhood, after all, is the recurring experience of not being believed by grownups, not being validated in one’s fears and fancies and subjective truths simply because one is a child. Liniers refuses to negate the realness of those childhood fears and instead meets them with equal parts reassurance, imagination, and gentle wit, in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey yet distinctively his own.

What There Is Before There Is Anything There, a treat in its delightfully spooky yet assuring totality, is translated by Elisa Amado and comes from Canadian independent picture-book publisher Groundwood Books, who also gave us the enormously heartening Migrant, a kind of Alice in Wonderland for the modern immigrant experience. Complement it with a very different take on the same subject in Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, illustrated by Jon Klassen.

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The Psychology of Cryptomnesia: How We Unconsciously Plagiarize Existing Ideas

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The cognitive machinery of inadvertent copying and why it matters more than ever.

“Any experience the writer has ever suffered,” William Faulkner told a university audience in 1958, “is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.” This notion — that “our” ideas are the combinatorial product of all kinds of existing ideas we’ve absorbed in the course of being alive and awake to the world — is something many creators have articulated, perhaps none more succinctly than Paula Scher. This fusion of existing bits into new combinations is a largely unconscious process, and for all its miraculous machinery, one serious downside is that it often obliterates the traces of the original sources we unconsciously fold into our “new” ideas. Helen Keller experienced the repercussions of this phenomenon when she was accused of plagiarism, Henry Miller questioned it when he wrote “And your way, is it really your way?” and Coleridge often tripped over the fine line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft.

In 1989, decades before legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks explored why the mind is susceptible to this, psychologists Alan Brown and Dana Murphy coined a term for this phenomenon: cryptomnesia.

In the altogether illuminating 1994 volume The Psychology of Writing (public library) — which also gave us the conditions of the perfect daily routine and ideal creative environment — cognitive psychologist Ronald T. Kellogg defines cryptomnesia as “the belief that a thought is novel when in fact it is a memory” and examines how it arises.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord from 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for more.

Noting that writers frequently draw upon existing sources in a conscious way — “including verbatim quotations, expansions or summarizations, presentations of alternative points of view that differ from those of the writer, and mimicking the stylistic voice of another” — Kellogg turns to the unconscious mechanisms that drive cryptomnesia:

Much of what a writer knows, particularly discourse and sociocultural knowledge, exists only in tacit form. For example, sentence patterns as well as cultural beliefs are shared by members of the same discourse community and are drawn upon freely by all, without conscious awareness. The same sort of unconscious copying may also occur with specific sentences, facts, and arguments — forms of domain-specific knowledge. When it does, however, the author is subject to the charge of plagiarism… [Cryptomnesia] can lead to inadvertent plagiarism if a writer fails to acknowledge unwittingly an earlier source due to the failure to recognize his or her own thoughts and words as unoriginal.

In other cases, Kellogg notes, “the writer borrows unknowingly from his or her own published work” — the kind of inadvertent autoplagiarism to which today’s overly prolific writers are especially susceptible as they scramble to churn out large volumes of work with great regularity under the tyrannical industrialism of modern publishing, online and off. Indeed, the notion of cryptomnesia, in all of its permutations, seems even more uncomfortable two decades later: The expansion of the web, particularly of the social web, has resulted in far greater connectivity and faster flow of ideas between originator and recipient, followed by ever-speedier absorption of those ideas into the common pool — or what Vannevar Bush so poetically called “the common record” in 1945 — in which all of us are increasingly immersed. Under these conditions, cryptomnesia invariably becomes our collective creative pathology.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

Kellogg illustrates the cognitive mechanisms of this deeply human phenomenon with empirical evidence:

In a seminal laboratory analogue of cryptomnesia, Brown and Murphy (1989) had groups of four students take turns generating examples of categories (generate). Then each student in the group tried to recall the examples that he or she generated (recall old), under instructions to not name items generated by others. Finally, they generated additional examples (recall new), again with instructions to duplicate neither their own nor others’ earlier responses. On the recall old test, 75% of the participants produced at least one plagiarized item and, on the recall-new test, 70% did so. Self-plagiarized items … were rare in the laboratory task; nearly all items were lifted from other students.

The pattern of results in the three experiments reported by Brown and Murphy indicated that plagiarism occurred more frequently in written tasks than in oral tasks. Having heard material, one is more likely to plagiarize it when writing than when speaking. Whether the reverse pattern occurs after having read material remains to be seen. But based on their results alone, writers may be especially susceptible to borrowing unknowingly ideas they have gained through lectures, discussions, and other forms of aural input… Ideas that are expressed frequently — that are “in the air” — are especially open to borrowing.

As the web increasingly becomes “the air,” one can’t help but wonder — and worry — about how the growing threat of a cryptomnesia epidemic will impact the health of creative culture.

But then again, perhaps this is the fate of creativity and has always been a part of its essential nature — as Pete Seeger put it long before the social web existed and a year before Brown and Murphy’s study, “All of us, we’re links in a chain. And if we do our job right, there will be many, many links to come.”

The Psychology of Writing is, sadly, long out of print but well worth the hunt and is also available on Kindle. Complement it with the relationship between memory and creativity.

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Real Recipes from Roald Dahl’s Beloved Children’s Books

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From Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise to Bird Pie à la The Twits.

As a lover of both children’s books and unusual cookbooks — particularly those that bring literature and art to the kitchen, such as Salvador Dalí’s little-known erotic recipes, the vintage gem Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, young Andy Warhol’s, illustrated cookery, the treats from the Modern Art Cookbook, and especially Dinah Fried’s magnificent photographs of meals from famous fiction — I was instantly smitten with Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes (public library): a compendium of recipes for treats that appear in Dahl’s beloved children’s books, affectionately compiled and made cookable by Dahl’s widow, Felicity.

For double delight, the recipes — ranging from Willy Wonka’s Nutty Crunch Surprise to Lickable Wallpaper — are garnished with illustrations by the great Sir Quentin Blake, who had previously illustrated most of Dahl’s stories (as well as Sylvia Plath’s little-known children’s book and the first Dr. Seuss book not illustrated by Geisel himself).

The concept for the cookbook came to the Dahls shortly before Roald’s death in 1990, as they were writing a memoir of sorts about the foods they loved. Friends kept suggesting that they should consider writing a recipe book for children, based on the many fanciful edibles in Dahl’s books. But whenever the idea resurfaced, Roald would bury his face in his hands and gasp to his wife, “Oh no, Liccy, the work! The thought daunts me!”

A few weeks after his death, as Mrs. Dahl was making her way through the grief, she noticed a neat pile of papers in the corner of her desk. Listed on the sheets was every single food ever consumed in Roald’s books. Atop the pile was a note in her husband’s handwriting: “It’s a great idea, but God knows how you will do it.”

For Felicity, there was no choice but to do it.

In the introduction to this gem of a result, she lovingly remembers her husband’s relationship to treats as both a token of the quirky habits to which many writers are prone and a testament to his immeasurable, mischievous generosity of spirit:

Treats were an essential part of Roald’s life — never too many, never too few, and always perfectly timed. He made you feel like a king receiving the finest gift in the land.

A treat could be a wine gum lifted silently in the middle of the night out of a large sweet jar kept permanently by his bedside. It could be a lobster and oyster feast placed on the table after a secret visit to the fishmonger, his favorite shop. It could be the first new potato, broad bean, or lettuce from the garden, a basket of field mushrooms, or a superb conker. A different kind of treat would be an unannounced visit to a school, causing chaos to teachers and, I suspect, a great deal of fun for the children.

Here is but a sampler taste of the full spread of delights:

WILLY WONKA’S NUTTY CRUNCH SURPRISE
(From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

Serves 8

You will need:

Pyrex bowl
small saucepan
8×10 inch shallow pan
wax paper

7 ounces semisweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons light corn syrup
3 ounces slivered almonds
6 plain vanilla cookies (Rich Tea biscuits are good) or graham crackers, finely crushed
1 ounce Rice Krispies
a few drops of vanilla extract

For the nutty crunch:

2 tablespoons water
½ cup sugar
2 ounces slivered almonds, finely chopped

For the chocolate coating:

7 ounces milk chocolate, broken into small pieces.

  1. Put the semisweet chocolate, butter, and corn syrup in a Pyrex bowl and place in a saucepan of simmering water. Stir occasionally until melted. (Or place the bowl in a microwave oven and cook on high for about 1 ½ minutes)
  2. Add the almonds, crushed cookies, Rice Krispies, and vanilla extract and mix well.
  3. Spoon the mixture into a shallow pan lined with wax paper. Press the mixture down firmly with the back of a fork, creating a level surface.
  4. Refrigerate until cool, then cut into bars.
  5. Once the bars are ready, make the nutty crunch. Begin by placing the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Cook over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Do not stir, but occasionally swirl the pan around gently. Once the sugar has dissolved, increase the heat and stir constantly until the sugar caramelizes and turns golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  6. Remove from the heat. Working quickly, add the chopped almonds, stir thoroughly, and dip one end of each bar in the mixture. Place the bars on a sheet of buttered wax paper to set.
  7. Melt the milk chocolate in a Pyrex bowl set in a saucepan of simmering water, or microwave as above. Once it has melted, remove from the heat and dip the other end of each bar in the chocolate.
  8. Let the bars cool on a sheet of wax paper.

FRESH MUDBURGERS
(From James and the Giant Peach)

Makes 10 mudburgers

You will need:

mixing bowl
grill or nonstick skillet

1 ½ pounds ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 tablespoons capers, drained
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten
relish (optional)

  1. In a mixing bowl, break up the ground beef.
  2. Add all the ingredients except the egg and gently mix together.
  3. Add the egg, mix thoroughly, and pat into mudburgers.
  4. Preheat the grill and grill for 4–5 minutes on each side, or fry in a nonstick skillet.
    Serve in a bun with a “revolting” garnish. Relish is ideal!

BUNCE’S DOUGHNUTS
(From Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Makes 12 to 14

You will need:

food processor (optional)
plastic wrap
rolling pin
two round cookie cutters, 1 ¼ inches and 2 ½ inches
large bowl

½ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 pound all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon baking powder
½ tablespoon cinnamon
a large pinch of salt
2 tablespoons hot water
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup milk
vegetable oil for deep frying
sugar for coating

These are best eaten warm. The dough needs to be made and refrigerated for at least two hours before cooking, and will keep overnight in the refrigerator.

  1. Cream the brown sugar and butter until pale and creamy — this can be done using a food processor.
  2. Gradually add the egg until blended.
  3. Add the remaining ingredients. The dough should be fairly stiff but smooth.
  4. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 hours
  5. Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator.
  6. On a floured surface roll out the other half of the dough to a quarter-inch thick. With the cutters cut out as many doughnuts as possible, using the large one to cut the doughnut shape and the smaller one to make the hole.
  7. Gather up the scraps and roll and cut out as many additional doughnuts as possible. Repeat the rolling and cutting with the remaining half of the dough.
  8. Heat the vegetable oil to 375ºF.
  9. Fry the doughnuts in small batches, turning once, until deep golden brown.
  10. Drain on paper towels.
  11. Put the sugar in a bowl and add a few doughnuts at a time, shaking them in the sugar until coated. Serve immediately.

BIRD PIE
(From The Twits)

Serves 4 to 6

You will need:

large saucepan
blackbird (a black pastry funnel found in specialty cooks’ shops and mail order catalogs)
9-inch pie dish
rolling pin

¼ cup pearl barley
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 onion, finely chopped
1 pound turkey breast, cut into thin strips
12 ounces pork sausage meat
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage (optional)
5 ounces sour cream
5 ounces plain yogurt
1 level teaspoon cornstarch, mixed with 1 teaspoon cold water
½ cup chicken stock
2 eggs, one beaten, one hard-boiled and chopped
salt and pepper
2 ounces ham, chopped
9 ounces ready-made puff pastry or instant biscuit dough
1 egg yolk
8 parsley sprigs with the leaves pinched off or colored pipe cleaners

  1. Simmer the pearl barley in water for about 20 minutes, or until soft.
  2. In a large saucepan melt the butter and gently fry the onion until soft. Add the turkey strips and fry quickly until golden.
  3. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the sausage meat. Mix well.
  4. Add the sage (if using), sour cream, yogurt, cornstarch mixture, chicken stock, and beaten egg. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix thoroughly.
  5. Place the blackbird in the middle of the pie dish. Surround with the turkey mixture. Sprinkle on the chopped ham, followed by the chopped egg.
  6. Preheat oven to 400ºF
  7. Roll out the pastry to a circle 1/8 inch thick. Make sure it is at least one inch wider than the pie dish all the way around.
  8. Cut the extra one inch from the pastry in one long circular strip (it should be slightly larger than the rim of the pie dish). Brush the pie dish rim with egg yolk, press the pastry strip down onto the rim, and brush the strip with egg yolk.
  9. Lift the remaining pastry carefully (you can drape it over the rolling pin) and lay it over the turkey mixture. Cut a slit in the center and ease the blackbird’s beak through the pastry, taking care not to stretch it. Press the pastry down firmly along the rim and cut away any excess. Use a fork to crimp the edge.
  10. Glaze the pastry with egg yolk and scatter the pearl barely on top. Form a “worm” out of a strip of pastry, glaze it with egg yolk, and place it inside the bird’s beak.
  11. Refrigerate the pie for ten minutes.
  12. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the pastry is well risen and golden brown.
  13. Stick the stripped parsley stalks, or folded pipe cleaners, in pairs into the pastry crust to look like birds’ legs. If you like, singe the ends to look like toes.

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes is deeply delectable in its entirety. Complement it with 11 rules for a perfect meal from the Futurist Cookbook, George Orwell’s dessert recipes, and the endlessly delightful Alice in Wonderland Cookbook.

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.