Brain Pickings

A Picture-Book Like No Other

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The gloriously illustrated story of an errand turned adventure turned existential parable.

The Moomin series by Swedish-Finn artist, writer, comic strip creator, and children’s book author Tove Jansson (1914–2001), recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, is among the most imaginative storytelling of the past century. Partway between children’s books and comics, her lovable family of roundish white hippopotamus-like creatures have captivated generations since their birth in 1945. The crown jewel of the series is arguably the 1952 picture-book The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My (public library) — a playful and philosophical tale that falls somewhere between Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole (which was possibly inspired by Jansson) and Dr. Seuss, with a touch of Edward Goreyesque creaturely magic and Alice in Quantumland mind-bending. Parallels notwithstanding, Jansson’s singular sensibility makes this vintage treasure one of the greatest children’s books of all time, so unlike anything else that ever existed before or since that it inhabits a wholly different yet timelessly welcoming universe.

The story is driven by a clever what-comes-next guessing game as we follow little Moomintroll on an errand that turns into an adventure that turns into an existential parable. Moomintroll, brimming with the boundless optimism typical of Jansson’s Moomin family, sets out to help the distraught Mymble find her sister, Little My — an irreverent, independent-minded, sharp- and even acerbic-witted heroine who stands as the naughty but necessary anchor to the Moomin buoyancy. That dynamic — the eternal tussle between skepticism and openness that keeps life in balance — is one of the story’s powerful underlying themes, and yet it only amplifies rather than detracting from the joyful hopefulness of the overall message.

Beautifully illustrated and hand-lettered in rhythmic verse, the book features gorgeous and brilliantly placed die-cut holes, reminiscent of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, which lend the story an enchanting quality that plays into our human restlessness for knowing what’s around the corner, cleverly reminding us that what we think we see is often a distortion of what actually is.

And while the book was Jansson’s first to be adapted for iPad, what screen could possibly replace the immeasurable tactile magic of this beautifully, thoughtfully designed paper masterpiece?

Tove Jansson with her Moomins in 1956. Photograph by Reino Loppinen.

The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My, translated into English by Sophie Hannah, is impossibly wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with a contemporary counterpart of Scandinavian storytelling sensibility, Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole, one of the best “children’s” books of 2013 (with scare-quotes for the reasons Tolkien so memorably outlined).

Thanks, Jad

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Viktor Frankl on the Art of Presence as a Lifeboat in Turbulent Times and What Suffering Teaches Us About the Meaning of Life

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“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer… his unique opportunity lies in the way he bears his burden.”

The life-story of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, born on March 26, 1905, is one of history’s greatest testaments to the tenacity of the human spirit. In his remarkable 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library), previously discussed at length here, Frankl reflects on what his devastating time at Auschwitz taught him about the most essential driver of life — the inextinguishable human hunger for meaning, which separated those who survived from those who perished.

In one particularly poignant passage of the book, Frankl reminds us that the art of presence — an art so central to our everyday well-being — isn’t merely about savoring the pleasant moments of everyday blessedness. Rather, its canvas stretches all the more exquisitely in precisely the opposite circumstances — those most trying and turbulent moments, when the ability to inhabit the present makes all the difference between life and death, both figuratively in matters of the soul and, in Frankl’s Auschwitz experience, literally and bodily:

A man who let himself decline because he could not see any future goal found himself occupied with retrospective thoughts. In a different connection, we have already spoken of the tendency there was to look into the past, to help make the present, with all its horrors, less real. But in robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist. Regarding our “provisional existence” as unreal was in itself an important factor in causing the prisoners to lose their hold on life; everything in a way became pointless. Such people forgot that often it is just such an exceptionally difficult external situation which gives man the opportunity to grow spiritually beyond himself. Instead of taking the camp’s difficulties as a test of their inner strength, they did not take their life seriously and despised it as something of no consequence. They preferred to close their eyes and to live in the past. Life for such people became meaningless.

To be sure, Frankl is far from advocating for filtering the present through rose-colored glasses in order to soften its intolerable pain. Quite the opposite — much like John Cage came to believe when he discovered Buddhism, Frankl argues that presence comes from leaning into suffering, not from tensing against it:

When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

Frankl points to commitment, be it to human relationships — “the soft bonds of love [which] are indifferent to life and death,” to use Isaac Asimov’s poetic language — or to purposeful work and cultural contribution, as the essential anchor of presence, the umbilical cord that links those in the most trying of circumstances to their own lives:

This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love… A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a remarkable read, life-changing in the most earnest sense of the phrase. See more of it here, though no annotated excerpt could possibly do justice to the expansive richness of its entirety.

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Annie Dillard on the Art of the Essay and Narrative Nonfiction vs. Poetry and Short Stories

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“Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.”

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays,” E.B. White remarked in his reflection on the art of the essay. And yet there must be a reason why the essay is what we turn to when we set out to assess human potential, as in college applications, and discuss matters of cultural charge, as in op-eds. For Annie Dillardmodern mystic, sage of writing, champion of the creative spirit — the essay is not only an immensely valuable genre of literature, but also a pinnacle of thought and a hallmark of the writer’s aspiration for significance. In the introduction to the altogether excellent anthology The Best American Essays 1988 (public library), which she edited, Dillard explores the misunderstood merits of the essay, a form she considers to be the short form of nonfiction, much as the short story is the short form of fiction. She places particular focus on the narrative essay — a genre that “demonstrates the modern writer’s self-conscious interest in writing” — especially narrative essays that “mix plain facts and symbolic facts, or that transform plain facts into symbolic facts.”

A great many narrative essays appear in the guise of short stories… My guess is that the writers (quite reasonably) want to be understood as artists, and they aren’t sure that the essay form invites the sort of critical analysis the works deserve.

Her aspiration in editing the volume, Dillard notes, was to coax essay writers “out of the closet.”

Comparing the extinction of the essay with the shrinking of other literary forms — including a particularly ungenerous but, perhaps, tragically accurate account of poetry’s role in the literary ecosystem — Dillard presages the rise of the narrative essay:

Poetry seems to have priced itself out of a job; sadly, it often handles few materials of significance and addresses a tiny audience. Literary fiction is scarcely published; it’s getting to be like conceptual art — all the unknown writer can do is tell people about his work, and all they can say is, “good idea.” The short story is to some extent going the way of poetry, willfully limiting its subject matter to such narrow surfaces that it cannot address the things that most engage our hearts and minds. So the narrative essay may become the genre of choice for writers devoted to significant literature.

She goes on to explore just what makes the narrative essay such a winsome genre over short fiction and poetry:

In some ways the essay can deal in both events and ideas better than the short story can, because the essayist — unlike the poet — may introduce the plain, unadorned thought without the contrived entrances of long-winded characters who mouth discourses… The essayist may reason; he may treat of historical, cultural, or natural events, as well as personal events, for their interest and meaning alone, without resort to fabricated dramatic occasions. So the essay’s materials are larger than the story’s.

The essay may deal in metaphor better than the poem can, in some ways, because prose may expand what the lyric poem must compress. Instead of confining a metaphor to half a line, the essayist can devote to it a narrative, descriptive, or reflective couple of pages, and bring forth vividly its meanings… The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than that of poetry. And it can handle discursive idea, and plain fact, as well as character and story.

The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do — everything but fake it. The elements in any nonfiction should be true not only artistically — the connections must hold at base and must be veracious, for that is the convention and the covenant between the nonfiction writer and his reader. Veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the writer; there’s a lot of truth out there to work with. And veracity isn’t much of a drawback to the reader. The real world arguably exerts a greater fascination on people than any fictional one; many people, at least, spend their whole lives there, apparently by choice. The essayist does what we do with our lives; the essayist thinks about actual things. He can make sense of them analytically or artistically. In either case he renders the real world coherent and meaningful, even if only bits of it, and even if that coherence and meaning reside only inside small texts.

Annie Dillard, 1988. Portrait by Richard Howard.

Dillard argues that American literature “derives from the essay and hinges on the essay,” for it stems from Emerson, who was an essayist. She lists among the notable godfathers of the genre Thoreau, Twain, and Poe, then turns to Melville and what his underappreciated essays reveal about the general cultural conceits toward the genre:

There is no reason why anyone should read, touch, or publish this brilliant stuff (“The Encantadas” [Melville's essay about his ephemeral experience of the Galapagos Islands]) as fiction — except that the world is curiously blind to the essay, and to the essay’s imaginative and narrative possibility, as if it didn’t exist, or as if a work by its very excellence should have mysteriously tiptoed out of its proper (but dull-sounding) genre and crept into a more fashionable (but incorrect) one.

Noting that understanding history is a recurrent theme in her selection of essays, as well as in literary nonfiction in general, Dillard captures the cultural role of the writer beautifully:

Writers serve as the memory of a people. They chew over our public past.

And yet that is an act that requires mastering the art of uncertainty, of “the unknowingness that is the nub of any intimacy”:

We try to see in the dark; we toss up our questions and they catch in the trees.

(It is rather ironic, given Dillard’s dismissal of poetry as a lesser form, that it was John Keats — a poet — who best articulated this notion in his famous concept of “negative capability.”)

Dillard returns to the cultural journey of the essay:

The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them. The material is the world itself, which, so far, keeps on keeping on. The thinking mind will analyze, and the creative imagination will link instances, and time itself will churn out scenes — scenes unnoticed and lost, or scenes remembered, written, and saved.

Complement The Best American Essays 1988 with this meditation on what makes a great essay by Robert Atwan, editor of the Best American Essays series, from the 2012 edition of the anthology, then revisit E.B. White on egoism and the art of the essay and Annie Dillard’s collected wisdom on writing.

HT Alexander Chee

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