Brain Pickings

Hurry Up and Wait: Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman’s Whimsical Children’s Book for Grownups about Presence in the Age of Productivity

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“It feels so good to go someplace. Except when you want to stay right there where you are.”

“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” Alan Watts observed in his magnificent meditation on the art of timing half a century before our paradoxical modern mecca of ever-multiplying procrastination options amid a Productivity Rush in which we’re mining every last frontier of sanity and stillness for the tiniest nugget of precious efficiency. “Of all ridiculous things,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness nearly two centuries earlier, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” Somehow, even if we know that we habitually miss most of what is going on around us, we rarely break our busy gait on the hamster wheel of goal-chasing. And yet when we do pause — be it by will or, perhaps more commonly, by accident — the miraculous reveals itself in the mundane.

That’s what longtime collaborators Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler explore in the immensely wonderful children’s-book-for-grownups Hurry Up and Wait (public library) — the second installment in their collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, following their quirky Girls Standing on Lawns.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Paris, Avenue des Acacias, 1912 (printed 1962).

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2015 Association des Amis de Jacques Henri Lartigue

It feels so good to go someplace.

Except when you want to stay
right there where you are.

Once again, Kalman and Handler wade through MoMA’s impressive archive to curate a set of unusual, whimsical, and purely delightful photographs that capture the osmotic relationship between motion and stillness. The images come from the middle of the twentieth century, the heyday of the Mad Men era that set the hedonic treadmill of consumerism into motion and ripped the modern psyche asunder by the conflicting pulls of doing and being.

Garry Winogrand. New York City, 1961.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2015 The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This is the history of the entire world.

People are seen striding and strolling, racing and ruminating, dashing and daydreaming — living testaments to the counterpoints of disposition by which we orient ourselves to the same mundane daily actions and to the present moment itself. We are reminded that even something as simple as a walk can be, as Thoreau believed, “a sort of crusade” — but we get to choose whether to crusade for productivity or for presence.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

Jump right in, or wade in slowly.
Advantage to one, it’s over quickly.
Advantage to the other, it isn’t.

Handler’s meditative writing is a kind of aphoristic prose poetry, at once irreverent and wholehearted and profound, partway between Mark Twain and Rumi, with a touch of Virginia Woolf’s perfectly placed commas to punctuate attention into reflective pause of just the right duration.

The accompanying paintings by Kalman — herself a patron saint of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments” and an unparalleled noticer of the magic in the mundane — reimagine the historical photographs through the raw material of Kalman’s art: that delicious dialogue between representation and response.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

You’re supposed to stop and smell the roses
but truth be told it doesn’t take that long
to smell them. You hardly have to stop.
You can smell the roses and still have time to
run all those errands before the sun goes
down and it’s dinner time.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

What emerges is a contemporary counterpart to Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, a Walden for the modern metropolis reminding us what it really means to be awake, yet wholly original and scrumptiously singular in spirit.

Jens S. Jensen. Boy on the Wall, Hammarkullen, Gothenburg, 1973.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist

I’m just standing still, and then suddenly
I think I am waiting for something.
Once I’ve decided I’m waiting it’s like
I’m not standing still anymore.

Helen Levitt. New York, 1982

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Marvin Hoshino in memory of Ben Maddow © 2015 Estate of Helen Levitt

If you go too fast you might not notice
everything. On the other hand, you don’t want
to be late. So allow at least half an hour to do
everything. Minus sleeping and staring
out the window that’s maybe ten things you
can do today, and you already woke up.

Tod Papageorge. Fifth Avenue, 1970.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. John Parkinson III Fund. © 2015 Tod Papageorge, courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

Somewhere in the world, always,
somebody is twenty minutes late for something,
and I am annoyed at them.

Dorothea Lange. On the Road to Los Angeles, California, 1937

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the Farm Security Administration

Some people, surely,
die on the way to something.

Then we call them
the late so-and-so.

Michael Putnam. New York City, 1970

The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist

I was going to say something more about
hurrying, but why take up your time? You
have things to do. You can flip through this
and go on to what it is that’s waiting for you,
the next thing.

And by this I mean everything.

All childhood long they told me to
hurry up, and now all this
time
later I can’t imagine what the rush was.
But every morning my child never puts on
his shoes on time, and we have to go,
we have to go.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

When I was a kid my father would say,
if you get lost, don’t look for me.
Stay there. Stay there an I will find you.

He’s gone now.

Complement Hurry Up and Wait, to the magical totality of which neither screen nor script does any justice, with Pico Iyer on the art of stillness and this wonderful wordless celebration of the art of noticing.

All photographs courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art; all paintings courtesy of Maira Kalman

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Simone Weil on Temptation, the Key to Discipline, and How to Be a Complete Human Being

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“Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.”

“The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention,” Susan Sontag wrote in contemplating our moral responsibility as human beings. This relationship between morality and attention was a primary concern for French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — one of the most incisive thinkers of the past century, who dedicated her short life to the dual task of refining the truth of the human experience and alleviating its suffering, then pursued that task with the uncommon combination of transcendent idealism and piercing lucidity. Her ideas influenced such luminaries as Sontag, Iris Murdoch, Flannery O’Connor, and Cornel West. At the age of nineteen, she placed first in France’s competitive exam for certification in “General Philosophy and Logic”; Simone de Beauvoir placed second. Albert Camus — himself a man of strong opinions on our greatest moral obligation — referred to her as “the only great spirit of our times.” But what makes Weil’s mind so miraculous is that no matter the passage of time and the changing conditions of each era, hers remains one of the great and necessary spirits for all time.

Her death was a continuation of her life — that grand act of love and sympathy for the suffering of others: After joining the French Resistance in London and toiling tirelessly for the cause, she came down with tuberculosis; in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, despite the doctor’s orders to eat heartily, she consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation. Most scholars believe that this sympathetic starvation was the cause of Weil’s death. Although other theories have emerged, her first English biographer, Sir Richard Rees, puts it best in concluding: “As for her death, whatever explanation one may give of it will amount in the end to saying that she died of love.”

The deliberate architecture of Weil’s character comes alive in First and Last Notebooks (public library) — a rare, revelatory, and infectiously unselfconscious self-portrait of this extraordinary mind-spirit. As Rees writes in the introduction, she “is not so much making notes as meditating, coherently and lucidly, with a pen in her hand.”

In 1933, shortly before taking a yearlong leave of absence from her teaching position to labor incognito at a car factory in order to better understand the struggles of the working class, 24-year-old Weil penned a notebook entry reminiscent of young André Gide’s rules of conduct, capturing the incredible moral vigor and ethical ambition with which she set about becoming the person she aspired to be — the person she ultimately was.

Weil writes:

List of temptations (to be read every morning)

Temptation of idleness (by far the strongest)

Never surrender to the flow of time. Never put off what you have decided to do.

Temptation of the inner life

Deal only with those difficulties which actually confront you. Allow yourself only those feelings which are actually called upon for effective use or else are required by thought for the sake of inspiration. Cut away ruthlessly everything that is imaginary in your feelings.

Temptation of self-immolation

Subordinate to external affairs and people everything that is subjective, but never the subject itself — i.e. your judgement. Never promise and never give to another more than you would demand from yourself if you were he.

Temptation to dominate

Temptation of perversity

Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.

In an entry shortly thereafter, she adds:

Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie — don’t keep your eyes shut…

Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Some days later, Weil revisits this moral framework and considers the particularly problematic issue of time — that peculiar dual pull of hurrying and waiting, that elastic ongoingness:

Two internal obstacles to be overcome

—Cowardice before the flight of time (mania for putting things off — idleness…)

Illusion that time, of itself, will bring me courage and energy…. In fact, it is usually the contrary (sleepiness). Say to yourself: And suppose I should remain always what I am at this moment? … Never put something off indefinitely, but only to a definitely fixed time. Try to do this even when it is impossible (headaches…). Exercises: decide to do something, no matter what, and do it exactly at a certain time.

You live in a dream. You are waiting to begin to live….

This discipline, she goes on to reason, is best cultivated through the transformative power of habit. Echoing William James’s memorable wisdom, she writes:

One must develop a habit. Training.
Distinguish between the things I can put off, and those [I cannot].
Begin the training with small things, those for which inspiration is useless…

Every day, do 2 or 3 things of no interest at some definitely appointed time.

Reach the point where punctuality is automatic and effortless. — Lack of flexibility of imagination. An obstacle to be methodically overcome. The second screen between reality and yourself. Much more difficult. What is needed is something quite different from a methodical training… But precious.

She considers the trifecta of faculties necessary for attaining the optimal habit of mind:

Discipline of the attention for manual work — no distraction or dreaming. But no obsession either. One must continually watch what one is doing, without being carried away by it. Another kind of discipline is needed for using the mind with support from the imagination. And yet a third kind for reflection. You scarcely possess even the third kind. A complete being possesses all 3. You ought to be a complete being.

Of special interest to Weil is the subject of the will, which she sees as the great mediator between body and mind, between the conditions of the present and the aspirations of the future. A few days later, in a related meditation, she examines its role in the carrying out of those moral resolutions:

The will. It is not difficult to do anything when one is inspired by the clear perception of a duty. But what is hard is that when one is suffering this clear perception vanishes, and all that remains is awareness of a suffering which it is impossible to bear.

But the converse is also true: at the moment of taking the decision, the duty is present and the suffering is still far away. The will could not triumph if it had not fight against forces stronger than itself. The whole art of willing consists in taking advantage of the moment before the struggle begins to contrive in advance that one’s objective situation at the moment when one is weak shall be as one desires it to be…

The will’s only weapon is that it is able, in so far as it consists of thought, to embrace the different moments of time, whereas the body is limited to the present. Therefore, in short, it is simply a matter of withholding the assistance of thought from the passions.

It is not a question of “making resolutions” but of trying one’s hands in advance.

Complement First and Last Notebooks, which is deeply out of print but well worth the hunt, with young Leo Tolstoy’s search for moral direction, André Gide’s rules of conduct, and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

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Gabriel García Márquez’s Formative Reading List: 24 Books That Shaped One of Humanity’s Greatest Writers

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“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

The most reliable portal into another’s psyche is the mental library of that person’s favorite books — those foundational idea-bricks of which we build the home for our interior lives, the integral support beams of our personhood and values. And who doesn’t long for such a portal into humanity’s most robust yet spacious minds? Joining history’s notable reading lists — including those of Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — is Gabriel García Márquez.

Woven into Living to Tell the Tale (public library) — the autobiography that gave us the emboldening story of García Márquez’s unlikely beginnings as a writer — is the reading that shaped his mind and creative destiny. “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it,” García Márquez writes, and kindred-spirited readers instantly know that memorable books are the existential markers of life’s lived and remembered chapters.

Here are the books that most influenced García Márquez — beginning with his teenage years at boarding school, of which he recalls: “The best thing at the liceo were the books read aloud before we went to sleep.” — along with some of the endearing anecdotes he tells about them.

  1. The Magic Mountain (public library) by Thomas Mann
  2. The thundering success of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain … required the intervention of the rector to keep us from spending the whole night awake, waiting for Hans Castorp and Clavdia Chauchat to kiss. Or the rare tension of all of us sitting up on our beds in order not to miss a word of the disordered philosophical duels between Naptha and his friend Settembrini. The reading that night lasted for more than an hour and was celebrated in the dormitory with a round of applause.

  3. The Man in the Iron Mask (free ebook | public library) by Alexandre Dumas
  4. Ulysses (free ebook | public library) by James Joyce
  5. One day Jorge Álvaro Espinosa, a law student who had taught me to navigate the Bible and made me learn by heart the complete names of Job’s companions, placed an awesome tome on the table in front of me and declared with his bishop’s authority:

    “This is the other Bible.”

    It was, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I read in bits and pieces and fits and starts until I lost all patience. It was premature brashness. Years later, as a docile adult, I set myself the task of reading it again in a serious way, and it not only was the discovery of a genuine world that I never suspected inside me, but it also provided invaluable technical help to me in freeing language and in handling time and structures in my books.

  6. The Sound and the Fury (public library) by William Faulkner
  7. I became aware that my adventure in reading Ulysses at the age of twenty, and later The Sound and the Fury, were premature audacities without a future, and I decided to reread them with a less biased eye. In effect, much of what had seemed pedantic or hermetic in Joyce and Faulkner was revealed to me then with a terrifying beauty and simplicity.

  8. As I Lay Dying (public library) by William Faulkner
  9. The Wild Palms (public library) by William Faulkner
  10. Oedipus Rex (free ebook | public library) by Sophocles
  11. [The writer] Gustavo [Ibarra Merlano] brought me the systematic rigor that my improvised and scattered ideas, and the frivolity of my heart, were in real need of. And all that with great tenderness and an iron character.

    […]

    His readings were long and varied but sustained by a thorough knowledge of the Catholic intellectuals of the day, whom I had never heard of. He knew everything that one should know about poetry, in particular the Greek and Latin classics, which he read in their original versions… I found it remarkable that in addition to having so many intellectual and civic virtues, he swam like an Olympic champion and had a body trained to be one. What concerned him most about me was my dangerous contempt for the Greek and Latin classics, which seemed boring and useless to me, except for the Odyssey, which I had read and reread in bits and pieces several times at the liceo. And so before we said goodbye, he chose a leather-bound book from the library and handed it to me with a certain solemnity. “You may become a good writer,” he said, “but you’ll never become very good if you don’t have a good knowledge of the Greek classics.” The book was the complete works of Sophocles. From that moment on Gustavo was one of the decisive beings in my life, for Oedipus Rex revealed itself to me on first reading as the perfect work.

  12. The House of the Seven Gables (free ebook | public library) by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  13. [Gustavo Ibarra] lent me Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, which marked me for life. Together we attempted a theory of the fatality of nostalgia in the wanderings of Ulysses Odysseus, where we became lost and never found our way out. Half a century later I discovered it resolved in a masterful text by Milan Kundera.

  14. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (free ebook | public library) by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  15. Moby-Dick (free ebook | public library) by Herman Melville
  16. Sons and Lovers (free ebook | public library) by D.H. Lawrence
  17. The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (free ebook | public library)
  18. I even dared to think that the marvels recounted by Scheherazade really happened in the daily life of her time, and stopped happening because of the incredulity and realistic cowardice of subsequent generations. By the same token, it seemed impossible that anyone from our time would ever believe again that you could fly over cities and mountains on a carpet, or that a slave from Cartagena de Indias would live for two hundred years in a bottle as a punishment, unless the author of the story could make his readers believe it.

  19. The Metamorphosis (public library) by Franz Kafka
  20. I never again slept with my former serenity. [The book] determined a new direction for my life from its first line, which today is one of the great devices in world literature: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” [I realized that] it was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice. It was Scheherazade all over again, not in her millenary world where everything was possible but in another irreparable world where everything had already been lost. When I finished reading The Metamorphosis I felt an irresistible longing to live in that alien paradise.

  21. The Aleph and Other Stories (public library) by Jorge Luis Borges
  22. The Collected Stories (public library) by Ernest Hemingway
  23. Point Counter Point (public library) by Aldous Huxley
  24. Of Mice and Men (public library) by John Steinbeck
  25. The Grapes of Wrath (public library) by John Steinbeck
  26. Tobacco Road (public library) by Erskine Caldwell
  27. Stories (public library) by Katherine Mansfield
  28. Manhattan Transfer (public library) by John Dos Passos
  29. Portrait of Jennie (public library) by Robert Nathan
  30. Orlando (public library) by Virginia Woolf
  31. Mrs. Dalloway (public library) by Virginia Woolf
  32. It was the first time I heard the name of Virginia Woolf, whom he [Gustavo Ibarra] called Old Lady Woolf, like Old Man Faulkner. My amazement inspired him to the point of delirium. He seized the pile of books he had shown me as his favorites and placed them in my hands.

    “Don’t be an asshole,” he said, “take them all, and when you finish reading them we’ll come get them no matter where you are.”

    For me they were an inconceivable treasure that I did not dare put at risk when I did not have even a miserable hole where I could keep them. At last he resigned himself to giving me the Spanish version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, with the unappealable prediction that I would learn it by heart.

    […]

    I went [home] with the air of someone who had discovered the world.

Living to Tell the Tale is a glorious read in its entirety — the humbling and infinitely heartening life-story of one of the greatest writers humanity ever produced. Couple it with Old Lady Woolf on how one should read a book.

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Richard Feynman on How His Father Taught Him about What Is Most Important

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How to plant the seed for the lifelong pleasure of finding things out.

Theoretical physicist and legendary science communicator Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) remains known as “The Great Explainer” — a moniker at least as deserved as his Nobel Prize, merited by his enchanting explanations of such seemingly ordinary things as the magic of a flower, how rubber bands work, and why everything is connected to everything else.

In this wonderful short film — the second installment in Blank on Blank’s mini-series celebrating visionary innovators in science, which also gave us Jane Goodall on life — animator Paul Ruttledge brings to life a forgotten 1966 interview, in which The Great Explainer shares the story of how his father planted in him the seed for what would blossom into his life’s work: the art of extracting what is most important in science and translating it into a language at once widely understandable and universally captivating, an art rewarded not by honors and accolades but by “the pleasure of finding things out.”

The thing that was very important about my father was not the facts but the process. How we find out.

How exquisitely Feynman’s father embodies what the great Simone Weil wrote in her notebook in 1933: “The most important part of teaching = to teach what is to know (in the scientific sense).”

Complement with Feynman on the key to science in 63 seconds, his little-known drawings collected by his daughter, the role of scientific culture in modern society, his magnificent 1974 Caltech commencement address on integrity, and his mischievous Nobel Prize wager, then revisit this irresistible graphic-novel biography of The Great Explainer.

Donating = Loving

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