Brain Pickings

Kafka on Books and What Reading Does for the Human Soul

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How to melt “the frozen sea within us.”

“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy,” E.B. White wrote while contemplating the future of reading in 1951. Indeed, the question of why books matter and what reading does for the human spirit has occupied minds great and little, from Carl Sagan’s beautiful meditation in Cosmos to the 9-year-old girl whose question about why we have books I once answered. But perhaps the best articulation of what books do for the soul comes from a mind often painted as dark and depressive, yet capable of extraordinary sensitivity to the beauty of life: Franz Kafka.

In a November 1903 letter, found in the altogether enchanting compendium Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (public library), 20-year-old Kafka writes to his childhood friend, the art historian Oskar Pollak:

Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.

A few months later, in January of 1904, he expounds on this sentiment in another letter to Pollak:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Complement Letters to Friends, Family and Editors with the illustrated gem Kafka for kids, then revisit Maurice Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters celebrating books and reading.

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Amusingly Cryptic Warning Signs from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Autotuned

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A serendipitous adventure in science communication.

When artist, designer, and educator David Delgado first arrived at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to work with the artist-in-residence there, he was immediately struck by the strange signs around the space, often cryptic and seemingly nonsensical. He found himself captivated by the disconnect between the dry, mundane language of these cautions and the immensely interesting processes, materials, and operations they were trying to describe. A solitary keyhole, almost alien in its arbitrary placement, bears the label “lazer bypass” — something partway between Alice in Wonderland and Alice in Quantumland, or the set of a science fiction movie.

When his friend Lee Overtree, Artistic Director of the wonderful arts education nonprofit Story Pirates, came to visit, he too took amused notice of the signs. Using Delgado’s photographs, he decided to compose a song using the app Songify to autotune his reading of the warning text from the various signs.

I recently bumped into Delgado at the World Science Festival, where he told me the story of their sign-turned-song, as an aside to an unrelated conversation about Ray Bradbury’s conversation with Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. I was instantly smitten with this geeky labor of love. So, with high permission all the way up from NASA’s Media Office, here is the end result for our shared delight:

More of Delgado’s original photographs of the signs below:

Complement with NASA’s formal Art Program, featuring Serious Art by such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, and Norman Rockwell, then take a tour of JPL’s predecessors with these gorgeous vintage photos of NASA facilities.

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Strange Fruit: Nine Unsung Heroes of Black History, in a Graphic Novel

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Equality on two wheels, and other tales from the everyday pioneers of civil rights.

Over the past decade, graphic nonfiction has become a powerful storytelling medium that blends the lightness and visual repertoire of comic books with the weightiness and substance of history books, tackling everything from science education to gender politics to the biographies of such cultural icons as Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. But arguably best suited for the genre are subjects with an inherent duality of darkness and optimism, to parallel graphic nonfiction’s blend of lightness-of-form and seriousness-of-content, which is what makes Strange Fruit, Volume I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History (public library) so appropriate.

Titled after the harrowing song made popular by Billie Holiday and written by a Jewish schoolteacher who witnessed a brutal racial lynching, this graphic anthology spotlights nine unsung heroes of civil rights. Among them are Henry “Box” Brown, who mailed himself to Philadelphia to escape slavery, Bass Reeves, who became the most successful lawman in the Old West, and Theophilus Thompson, a former slave who taught himself chess and became the first African American chess master. Alas, women only appear as secondary characters — let’s hope the next volume brings a more gender-balanced roster of pioneers.

One of the most interesting heroes in the book is Marshall “Major” Taylor (1878–1932), America’s first black champion in any sport — and in cycling, no less, which remains one of the least diverse athletic endeavors even today. Just as the bicycle was beginning to play an important role in the emancipation of women, Taylor, known as The Black Cyclone, attained another feat of equality on two wheels as he bulldozed through the walls put up by racism to break numerous world records and win the world one-mile track cycling championship in 1899.

Strange Fruit comes from comic artist and writer Joel Christian Gill, a dean at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. Complement it with this visionary vintage children’s book about space exploration, featuring a black female astronaut twenty years before that became a reality.

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