Brain Pickings

A History of New York in 101 Objects: A Thoughtful Visual Encyclopedia of Collective Memory

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How artifacts abstract the city’s tragedies and triumphs and tell the story of its aliveness.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his spectacular 1949 love letter to New York. “The city is like poetry.” And compress it does — the city’s five boroughs are home to some 8.4 million people, more than the entire population of my native Bulgaria. To capture New York’s dimensional poetics seems like a Herculean task, yet many have attempted it — from Walt Whitman with his raunchy verses to Berenice Abbott with her era-defining photographs to the New Yorker with its high-brow feline history. But to capture it in just a few dozen objects seems near impossible, since of all that New York compresses in its small space, objects are practically innumerable and cacophonous. And yet that is precisely what New York Times urban affairs correspondent Sam Roberts accomplishes in A History of New York in 101 Objects (public library) — partly a living museum, partly a catalog of events, partly a luminous sidewise gleam at the essence of what makes a great city.

Selected with a lens for the “paradigmatic but quirky,” Roberts’s objects are a far cry from the clichés of tourism or the tired symbols of iconography. Instead, they serve as living records of the city’s triumphs, tragedies, and remarkable resilience in cycling through the two, ranging from the artichoke with its secret history of mafia crime, to the AIDS button, which elevated an anguished community from the ashes of the city’s deadliest epidemic, to the school doorknob, emblematic of New York’s commitment to public education, to the air conditioner, which made windowless workspaces possible for the first time. Tucked between the entries are delightful curiosities, such as the pear tree that became the final living connection to New York’s Dutch heritage, and as well as poignant glimpses of our shared humanity, such as the maelstrom of heartbreak and hope that swept the city after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.

Roberts explains the selection criteria for the project, which was inspired by the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects:

The objects themselves had to have played some transformative role in New York City’s history or they had to be emblematic of some historic transformation. They also had to be enduring, which meant they could not be disproportionately tailored to recent memory or contemporary nostalgia. Fifty, or even twenty-five years from now, would they seem as vital or archetypal as they do right now?

Objects, of course, are more than mere things — they are, especially in the context of this book, shorthand for events, stand-ins for people, vehicles for the sort of collective storytelling of which history is woven. Rob Walker captured this elegantly in his Significant Objects, where he wrote: “It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.” Such is the emotional energy that emanates from Roberts selections.

When I first moved to New York, I quickly developed a soft spot for the city’s countless and rather distinctive cylindrical water tanks (object #31) that stood as unsung sidekicks to the recognizable landmarks of its iconic skyline. There are a whopping fifteen thousand of them, Roberts explains, but most were built by two large family-owned companies — a wonderfully poetic reflection of New York’s peculiar play of scales and its fusion of private and public, or what E.B. White memorably termed the city’s blend of “the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation.”

Roberts writes of Gotham’s cityscape fixtures:

The cylindrical tanks, which typically measure about twelve feet high and twelve feet across and are topped by a conical enclosure, hold ten thousand gallons on average and cost about thirty thousand dollars. Tap water is siphoned off the top, while murkier bottom water, mixed with sediment, is reserved for firefighting. As in a toilet tank, a ballcock regulates the level. The tanks can be dismantled and replaced in as little as twenty-four hours and take about three hours to fill.

They are also a feat of natural engineering and ingenuity — typically made of wood, which is cheaper yet more resilient in changing temperatures than steel, they are held together not by paint or adhesives but by sheer physics: when the wood gets wet, it expands and thus seals itself, while galvanized steel hoops keep the tank from bursting. With proper maintenance, each tank lasts around three decades.

As a wholehearted lover of public libraries and regular supporter of the New York Public Library in particular, I was also enchanted by Roberts’s account of how Gotham’s library (object #29) began. Guarded by its two iconic lions, Patience and Fortitude, the main building on 42nd street was the largest marble structure in the United States at the time it was built. The library is now the second-largest in America, after the Library of Congress, and the third-largest in the world. We owe it to a successful lawyer, investor, abolitionist, and political reformer named Samuel J. Tilden, whose will included the bequest to build a free public library.

Tilden’s broader intention, historian Michael Miscione tells Roberts, was “to solidify the city’s commitment to literacy, culture and a public-private partnership that enabled New York City to create so many world-class cultural institutions.” Even though New York had a number of libraries by the latter portion of the nineteenth century, they were privately funded and charged admission. Tilden’s unprecedented gift of $2.4 million — close to $100 million in today’s money — put the majority of his fortune toward the idealistic quest to “establish and maintain a free library and reading room in the city of New York.”

Private philanthropy of such scale for the public good was practically unheard of at the time, but New York would go on to become the unheralded philanthropy capital of the world.

Another prescient token of New York’s values and priorities is the early dictionary (object #7), which Roberts aptly calls “a Colonial Rosetta Stone” — an essential tool for cross-pollinating the cultures and communities in American’s early melting pot. He writes:

Language difficulties divided the population (about half of it Dutch at the time) and got in the way of the British laissez-faire approach to governing. Innovations like the jury system were particularly problematic. The problem was solved by an English–Low Dutch dictionary published by a New Jersey schoolmaster. Except for a brief Dutch restoration nine years later, the English would rule for over a century. Their language would, more or less, prevail. Among the enduring linguistic traditions of the Dutch is that we still call little chunks of dough “cookies,” instead of the British “biscuits”. Other words such as “coleslaw,” “waffle,” “doughnut,” “stoop,” and “Yankee” endured.

There is also the famous 25-foot-tall Civic Fame statue (object #42) by Adolph A. Weinman perched atop Manhattan’s municipal building — a structure of scandalous backstory:

Audrey Munson, the model after whom she was sculpted, once appeared naked in a porn film (she of the face that launched a thousand quips, she listed herself in a city directory first as an actress, then as an artist) and later was declared insane.

[...]

In her eighth decade and suffering from exposure, the statue was removed, restored, and regilded with hand-burnished 23.5-karat gold leaf, and hoisted back into position by helicopter in 1991. That was only four years before Audrey Munson died in an upstate asylum, just short of her 105th birthday.

A number of the objects aren’t static mementos from the past but dynamic projections of the future. The famous Bloomberg computer terminal (object #96) was invented by a laid-off investment banker who would go on to become the city’s most beloved Mayor — one whose merits, I should add, all the more appreciated in hindsight by those of us who made New York a home under Mayor Bloomberg’s reign and somewhat naively took for granted that his idealistic and magnanimous rule was a function of mayorship rather than a function of his exceptional personhood.

Roberts considers the broader implications of having a self-made, entrepreneurial man at the helm of the city:

That little beige box soon made him the richest and most powerful man in New York. By affirming his faith in scientific solutions, it also helped deliver the city into the twenty-first century, through devices ranging from the expansion of the CompStat tactical crime-fighting program to the 311 telephone complaint and service system, and encouraged the evolution of Silicon Alley.

Since the nineteenth century, doomsayers have predicted that one scientific breakthrough after another — from the Atlantic cable to the telephone, from television to jet travel — would topple New York as the nation’s financial and cultural capital. Instead, a resilient city that thrives on reinventing itself transformed a potential threat into an opportunity. Milliseconds are vital to global trading, but nothing beats face-to-face contact to foster innovation. A wired city provided both.

Aptly calling Mayor Bloomberg “a modern Medici,” Roberts captures his philosophy:

The perfect is the enemy of the good. In other words, just do it. “Our product,” he said, “would be the first in the investment business where normal people without specialized training could sit down, hit a key, and get an answer to financial questions, some of which they didn’t even know they should ask.” In the decades since, he said, two constants endured: “the need for information; and the users of data, with their bravery, jealousy, adventurousness and fear of the new.”

But the book’s most poignant object is its final one, #101 — the Madonna that remained unscathed through the devastating sweep of Hurricane Sandy, the largest Atlantic storm ever recorded and the second costliest in history, with a total tally of $68 billion and 40 lives in New York city alone. By far the most ravaged by the storm was the beach community of New York’s Rockaway Peninsula, home to the families of many of the city’s police officers, firemen, and other civil servants. Roberts writes of the Madonna’s significance as a vitalizing symbol of hope amid such unfathomable heartbreak:

Fittingly, the most visible survivor of the fire was a three-foot-high masonry Madonna, “a triumph of faith in the midst of the ashes,” as Monsignor Michael J. Curran explained it. The Madonna had belonged to Charlie Shannon, who had bought the bungalow at 2 Gotham Walk on the corner of Oceanside Avenue in 1929 for his wife and seven children. Only one of the seven had children of his own, and in 2006 his granddaughter Regina Bodnar inherited a version of the house that her aunt and uncle rebuilt. Her aunt Mary placed the Madonna just outside, Bodnar recalled, “and each morning Breezy neighbors stopped to say a prayer by the statue, and the young children and grandchildren of our neighbors waved and said, ‘Hi Mary!’ as they raced by.”

The statue was neither consumed by the fire nor toppled by the storm surge (it was not cemented in place but stood precariously on its own in the sea grass). Does Bodnar believe in miracles? She’s not sure, but said that somehow her neighbors and rescue workers “were miraculously protected from serious injury and loss of life.” Monsignor Curran, the pastor of St. Thomas More Church, took custody of the Madonna after the storm subsided. “It will be a symbol of the suffering but also of our rise from the ashes,” he said. “It will be a symbol of what we’ve been through, but also of our resurrection.”

A History of New York in 101 Objects is a rich and thoughtfully curated encyclopedia of milestones and values. Complement it with Julia Rothman’s illustrated love letter to the five boroughs, then zoom out with 100 diagrams that changed the world.

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Tolstoy’s Reading List: Essential Books for Each Stage of Life

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Even if one could never “finish” great literature, one has to begin somewhere.

Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, Leo Tolstoy succumbed to a deep spiritual crisis and decided to pull himself out by finding the meaning of life. He did so largely by reading voraciously across the world’s major philosophical and religious traditions, discovering great similarities in how they dealt with the truth of the human spirit. He was also, as any great writer, an insatiable reader of literature, which he wove together into A Calendar of Wisdom — the proto-Tumblr he spent the final decades of his life assembling.

But despite his wide and prolific reading, Tolstoy did consider specific books especially important and influential in his development. At the age of sixty-three, in a letter to a friend, he compiled such a list of the books that had most impressed him over the course of his life. Dated October 25, 1891, and found in Tolstoy’s Letters (public library), the missive is prefaced by the author’s disclaimer: “I am sending the list I began, but didn’t finish, for your consideration, but not for publication, since it is still far from complete.” (Reading, of course, is inherently incompletable — one can never hope to “finish” the body of literature, nor should one wish to.)

Under the heading “WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION,” Tolstoy divides his reading list into five distinct life-stages — beginning with childhood and ending with his age at the time — and ranks each title by excellence, from “great” to “v. great” to “enormous.” Curiously, Tolstoy seems to consider the teenage years one’s most formative, prescribing for them books greater in both quality and quantity, whereas the twenties and early thirties are most meager in both and mostly occupied by poetry — perhaps because few people at the time had the luxury of leisure for reading during their most vital wage-earning years, or maybe because Tolstoy simply believed that one should be busier living than reading during that life-stage.

That only two known women figure in Tolstoy’s list is, one would imagine, less a function of his bias than of his era’s and his culture’s — though the latter certainly shape the former.

CHILDHOOD TO AGE 14 OR SO

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 14 TO 20

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 20 TO 35

“Great”:

“V. great”:

AGE 35 TO 50

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 50 TO 63

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

Complement with Tolstoy’s timeless meditation on art, his chronicle of spiritual awakening, and his compendium of humanity’s greatest wisdom.

For more notable reading lists, see those of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, David Bowie, and Brian Eno.

* Tolstoy’s original letter recommended reading Homer and the gospels in translation during one’s teens and in the Greek after age 35, reflecting a true classical education

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Hopeful Dispatches on Love, Sex, Work, Friendship, Death, and Life’s In-Betweenery from Lena Dunham

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“It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.”

“I always say what’s in my head,” proclaims six-year-old Eloise in the movie adaptation of Kay Thompson’s iconic 1955 children’s books, which came at the precipice of monumental cultural change and envisioned a precocious proto-feminist with an ancient soul and an impressive vocabulary. Eloise’s freedom of expression was more than a storytelling trope — her bold willingness to externalize her inner life, in its full spectrum of darkness and light, was emblematic of the changes to which Thompson (1909–1998) was bearing witness and the directions in which she herself sought to ever so gently, ever so subtly shift the cultural current with her Eloise books. (Like Tolkien famously asserted and Sendak subsequently echoed, Thompson didn’t believe that there is such a thing as writing “for children” and thus never considered her iconic series to be “children’s books.”)

It is no coincidence that Thompson’s beloved protagonist appears as one of several classic picture-book illustrations tattooed on Lena Dunham’s body. Dunham is in many ways a modern-day Eloise of her own making, always saying what’s in her head — stuff of extraordinary insight, emotional intelligence, and unflinching vulnerability — as another generation of women and the men who seek to understand and love them leaps across another precipice. The substance of that abyss — love, work, sex, friendship, body, therapy, and all the messy in-betweenery of life — is what Dunham explores with equal parts wit, warmth, and wisdom in Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” (public library).

Lena Dunham (photograph via Instagram / @lenadunham)

In one particularly neo-Eloisian passage in the introduction, Dunham recalls buying a used copy of Helen Gurley Brown’s 1982 book Having It All and argues that despite how questionable much of Gurley Brown’s advice might be, there is something to be said — something ought to be said — for the sheer courage of saying what’s in one’s head, especially when one happens to be a woman in a culture where, despite our best intentions, the expectation is otherwise:

There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman. As hard as we have worked and as far as we have come, there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that our concerns are petty, our opinions aren’t needed, that we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter. That personal writing by women is no more than an exercise in vanity and that we should appreciate this new world for women, sit down, and shut up.

Dunham parlays this into her own motives for writing the book:

I want to tell my stories and, more than that, I have to in order to stay sane… And if I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile… No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a dietitian. I am not a mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.

Dunham pens these dispatches with ebbing honesty, both inner and outward, of which few of us are capable, always delivered with a yin-yang of imperfection and idealism, both her own and our culture’s. She explores, for instance, the particularly pervasive epidemic of people-pleasing from an angle we rarely dare consider:

I’m not jealous in traditional ways — of boyfriends or babies or bank accounts — but I do covet other women’s styles of being.

[…]

I have been envious of male characteristics, if not the men themselves. I’m jealous of the ease with which they seem to inhabit their professional pursuits: the lack of apologizing, of bending over backward to make sure the people around them are comfortable with what they’re trying to do. The fact that they are so often free of the people-pleasing instincts I have considered to be a curse of my female existence. I have watched men order at dinner, ask for shitty wine and extra bread with a confidence I could never muster, and thought, What a treat that must be. But I also consider being female such a unique gift, such a sacred joy, in ways that run so deep I can’t articulate them. It’s a special kind of privilege to be born into the body you wanted, to embrace the essence of your gender even as you recognize what you are up against. Even as you seek to redefine it.

I know that when I am dying, looking back, it will be women that I regret having argued with, women I sought to impress, to understand, was tortured by. Women I wish to see again, to see them smile and laugh and say, It was all as it should have been.

She addresses this particular question of jealousy with great eloquence and generosity in her Ask Lena series of video teasers for the book:

If I weren’t so wary of how consistently the word “sensitive” has been used to describe women’s writing and politely tuck it away from the world of Real Writing, I’d speak to Dunham’s extraordinary sensitivity — for it abounds throughout the book, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the chapter where she recalls her little sister Grace’s coming out:

Twenty-three and sponging mightily, I forked some noodles into my mouth as Grace described a terrible date with a “dorky” boy from an uptown school.

“He’s too tall,” she moaned. “And nice. And he was trying too hard to be witty. He put a napkin on his hand and said, ‘Look, I have a hand cape.’ ” She paused. “And he draws cartoons. And he has diabetes.”

“He sounds awesome!” I said. And then, before I considered it: “What are you, gay?”

“Actually, yes,” she said, with a laugh, maintaining the composure that has been her trademark since birth.

I began to sob. Not because I didn’t want her to be gay… No, I was crying because I was suddenly flooded with an understanding of how little I really knew: about her pains, her secrets, the fantasies that played in her head when she lay in bed at night. Her inner life.

In another chapter, Dunham exercises her remarkable gift for taking the memes of our era — in this case, the listicle — and using them, irreverently but somehow without the self-defeating burden of irony, to demonstrate that it is not the medium that defines the message but the substance and the substance need not be humorless to be serious. Under the heading 17 Things I Learned from My Father, she offers:

  1. Death is coming for us all.
  2. There are no bad thoughts, only bad actions.
  3. “Men, watch out: the ladies are coming for your toys.”
  4. Confidence lets you pull anything off, even Tevas with socks.
  5. All children are amazing artists. It’s the grown-ups you have to worry about.
  6. Unhappy at a party? Say you’re going to check on your car, then exit swiftly. Make eye contact with no one.
  7. Drunk emotions aren’t real emotions.
  8. A sweet potato prepared in the microwave, then slathered with flaxseed oil, makes for an exceptional snack.
  9. It’s never too late to learn.
  10. “The Volvo is bad enough. I’m not putting a coat on the fucking dog.”
  11. A rising tide lifts all boats.
  12. That being said, it’s horrible when people you hate get things you want.
  13. Hitting a creative wall? Take a break from work to watch a procedural. They always solve the case, and so will you.
  14. You don’t need to be flamboyant in your life to be flamboyant in your work.
  15. Wear a suit to the DMV to speed things along a bit.
  16. Do not make jokes about concealing drugs, weapons, or currency in front of police officers or TSA workers. There is nothing funny about being detained.
  17. It’s all about tailoring.

Dunham dedicates an entire chapter to the first of these fatherly lessons — our complex relationship with mortality and the immutable human unease with our own impermanence:

I think a fair amount about the fact that we’re all going to die. It occurs to me at incredibly inopportune moments — I’ll be standing in a bar, having managed to get an attractive guy to laugh, and I’ll be laughing, too, and maybe dancing a little bit, and then everything goes slo-mo for a second and I’ll think: Are these people aware that we’re all going to the same place in the end? I can slip back into conversation and tell myself that the flash of mortality awareness has enriched my experience, reminded me to just go for it in the giggling and hair-flipping and speaking-my-mind departments because . . . why the hell not? But occasionally the feeling stays with me, and it reminds me of being a child — feeling full of fear but lacking the language to calm yourself down. I guess, when it comes to death, none of us really has the words.

I wish I could be one of those young people who seems totally unaware of the fact that her gleaming nubile body is, in fact, fallible. (Maybe you have to have a gleaming nubile body to feel that way.) Beautiful self-delusion: Isn’t that what being young is all about? You think you’re immortal until one day when you’re around sixty, it hits you: you see an Ingmar Bergman-y specter of death and you do some soul searching and possibly adopt a kid in need. You resolve to live the rest of your life in a way you can be proud of.

But I am not one of those young people. I’ve been obsessed with death since I was born.

[...]

The fact is I had been circling the topic of death, subconsciously, for some time. Growing up in Soho in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was aware of AIDS and the toll it was taking on the creative community. Illness, loss, who would handle the art and the real estate and the medical bills — these topics hovered over every dinner party. As many of my parents’ friends became sick, I learned to recognize the look of someone suffering — sunken cheeks, odd facial spotting, a sweater that no longer fit. And I knew what it meant: that person would soon become a memorial, the name on a prize given to visiting students, a distant memory.

In another short video, Dunham addresses a reader’s question on the subject, echoing the notion that “thinking about death clarifies your life”:

Not That Kind of Girl is wonderful in its entirety, doubly so because it gleams an elegant sidewise beam of destruction at the various forms of lazy criticism Dunham has faced over the years, mostly for, well, being too damned good — particularly the kind of laziness that dismisses her intelligent introspection, with all the inevitable acknowledgement of imperfection it engenders, as mere self-abasement. Most of us live our lives desperately trying to conceal the anguishing gap between our polished, aspirational, representational selves and our real, human, deeply flawed selves. Dunham lives hers in that gap, welcomes the rest of the world into it with boundless openheartedness, and writes about it with the kind of profound self-awareness and self-compassion that invite us to inhabit our own gaps and maybe even embrace them a little bit more, anguish over them a little bit less.

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