Brain Pickings

Einstein on Fairy Tales and Education

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“How far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.”

Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” is credited with many things — from era-defining scientific discoveries to great wisdom on everything from creativity to kindness to war to the secret to learning anything. Among them is also a sentiment of admirable insight yet questionable attribution: In Christopher Frayling’s 2005 book Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema, Einstein is credited as having said:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

As an enormous lover of fairy tales and a believer in Tolkien’s proposition that they are not written “for children,” I was, of course, instantly gladdened by these words, but also peeved by the broken chain of proper attribution. After diligent digging through various archives, I found the earliest reference to this in an out-of-print volume published by the Montana State Library for Book Week in November of 1954. The entry, a second-hand account at best, reads:

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

While we might never know the full, accurate details for Einstein’s fairy-tale adage, embedded in it is something the celebrated physicist felt very strongly about: the importance of the liberal arts and humanities in education. The preface to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the same impossibly endearing volume that gave us his encouraging advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist and his answer to child who asked whether scientists pray — features the following autobiographical reflection by Einstein:

This school with its liberal spirit and teachers with a simple earnestness that did not rely on any external authority, made an unforgettable impression on me. In comparing it with six years schooling at an authoritarian German Gymnasium, I was made acutely aware how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.

Complement with Einstein on why we’re alive (in a letter to a Brain Pickings reader’s mother), his remarkable conversation with Indian philosopher Tagore, and his life-story, illustrated.

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33 Books on How to Live: My Reading List for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization

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Books that help us make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it.

In a recent piece about the Manual for Civilization — the Long Now Foundation’s effort to assemble 3,500 books most essential for sustaining or rebuilding humanity, as part of their collaboratively curated library of 3,500 books for long-term thinking — I lamented the fact that Stewart Brand’s 76-book contribution to the Manual contained only one and a half books authored by a woman. To their credit, the folks at the Long Now reached out immediately, inviting me to contribute my own list to the collaborative library they’re building.

In grappling with the challenge, I faced a disquieting and inevitable realization: The predicament of diversity is like a Russian nesting doll — once we crack one layer, there’s always another, a fractal-like subdivision that begins at the infinite and approaches the infinitesimal, getting exponentially granular with each layer, but can never be fully finished. If we take, for instance, the “women problem” — to paraphrase Margaret Atwood — then what about Black women? Black queer women? Non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women of Jewish descent? And on and on. Due to that infinite fractal progression, no attempt to “solve” diversity — especially no thirty-item list — could ever hope to be complete. The same goes for other variables like genre or subject: For every aficionado of fiction, there’s one of drama, then 17th-century drama, then 17th-century Italian drama, and so on.

But I had to start somewhere. So, with the discomfort of that inescapable disclaimer, I approached my private, subjective, wholly non-exhaustive selection of thirty-three books to sustain modern civilization and the human spirit — books at the intersection of introspection and outrospection, art and science, self and society.Above all, books that help us (or, at least, have helped me) learn how to live — how to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Please enjoy. (A parenthetical “more” link appears after books I’ve previously contemplated in greater detail on Brain Pickings.)

  1. The Principles of Uncertainty (public library) by Maira Kalman (more here)
  2. On Photography (public library) by Susan Sontag (more here and here)
  3. The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) by Alan Watts (more here and here)
  4. Varieties of Scientific Experience (public library) by Carl Sagan (more here)
  5. Ways of Seeing (public library) by John Berger (more here)
  6. Optimism (public library) by Helen Keller (more here)
  7. Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) by Viktor Frankl (more here)
  8. The Diaries of Maria Mitchell (public library) by Maria Mitchell (more here and here)
  9. I’ll Be You and You Be Me (public library) by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (more here)
  10. On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) by Alexandra Horowitz (more here and here)
  11. Letter to My Daughter (public library) by Maya Angelou (more here)
  12. The Accidental Universe (public library) by Alan Lightman (more here and here)
  13. Collected Poems (public library) by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  14. The Year of Magical Thinking (public library) by Joan Didion (more here)
  15. The Color Purple (public library) by Alice Walker
  16. Here Is New York (public library) by E.B. White (more here)
  17. The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) by Hans Christian Andersen (more here)
  18. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library) by Kay Larson (more here)
  19. Orlando: A Biography (public library) by Virginia Woolf (more here)
  20. A Short History of Nearly Everything (public library) by Bill Bryson
  21. The Collected Poems (public library) by Sylvia Plath
  22. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library) by Sarah Bakewell (more here)
  23. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (public library) by Lisa Randall
  24. The Politics (public library) by Aristotle
  25. Freedom from Fear (public library) by Aung San Suu Kyi (more here)
  26. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (public library) by James Gleick (more here)
  27. Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? edited by Gemma Elwyn Harris (more here)
  28. The Feminine Mystique (public library) by Betty Friedan (more here)
  29. The Collected Poems (public library) by Denise Levertov
  30. The Pillow Book (public library) by Sei Shonagon (more here)
  31. Bird by Bird (public library) by Anne Lamott (more here)
  32. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library) by Cheryl Strayed (more here)
  33. The Little Prince (public library) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (more here)

Keep an eye on the Manual for Civilization for more reading lists to complete the 3,500-book library, and consider joining me in supporting the project here.

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In Pieces: French Illustrator Marion Fayolle’s Wordless Narratives About Human Relationships

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Fragmentary glimpses of humanity at the intersection of the funny, the philosophical, and the confounding.

In Pieces (public library) is an uncommon piece of visual poetry by French illustrator and comic artist Marion Fayolle that calls to mind at once the surrealist whimsy of Codex Seraphinianus, the visual neatness of Gregory Blackstock’s illustrated lists, and the vignettes of Blexbolex — and yet Fayolle’s is a sensibility unlike anything that ever existed.

Sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, sometimes light, and sometimes deeply philosophical, Fayolle’s beautiful wordless narratives are anything but silent, speaking of love and loss, passion and betrayal, longing and lust. They are fragmentary yet meaningful, much like the brain fuses together disjointed pieces of the world into a cohesive image, an impression, a story. There are no panels, no speech bubbles, no backgrounds — just tenderly illustrated, meticulously textured, neatly arranged figures who explore the microcosm of human relations through subtle yet expressive body language that whispers to the back of the mind.

In Pieces comes from the wonderful British independent press Nobrow, which also gave us Freud’s life and legacy in a comic, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land, and some gorgeous illustrated chronicles of aviation and the Space Race.

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