Brain Pickings

The Paradox of Active Surrender: Jeanette Winterson on Ignorance vs. Distaste and How Learning to Understand Art Transforms Us

By:

“True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are.”

I recently attended an event at which a celebrated public radio personality attempted to interview a celebrated artist. “Attempted,” because he clearly did not understand her work and the spirit from which it sprang. His attitude of not-getting-it wasn’t a storytelling device — the kind where an interviewer feigns amicable ignorance in order to include the audience in the finding out — but a petulant child’s fit. The fact that he is brilliant at his own work perhaps only confounded his frustration with not being able to understand her art, to connect with it. The event was painful to watch because the first task of a great interviewer is humility — sublimating his ego in the service of letting his subject shine; the second and more arduous task is understanding, which takes a deliberate investment of time, intention, and effort. It was painful to watch, but also shrouded in soft pity — endearing, because he was merely seeking to connect with her work and needed a sherpa in understanding it. His chief fault wasn’t so much doing it in public, without having first made those necessary investments, but in presuming that it was the artist’s duty to be that sherpa herself. (The artist, I should add, handled the situation with remarkable patience and poise.)

The task of the audience in witnessing such tragicomedy is not to judge but to seek to understand — not to add to the effrontery by flagellating the interviewer’s laziness of understanding with the audience’s own in turn, but to see what went awry and glean from that a larger insight about that delicate dance of giving and receiving, of mutual connection and comprehension, that is art.

That is why the incident reminded me of a beautiful essay by Jeanette Winterson titled “Art Objects,” found in her magnificent 1996 collection Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (public library), in which she illuminates with exquisite precision the many layers of misunderstanding that happened here, which also happen so frequently when someone issues a dismissive or critical denunciation of art from a deep place of I just don’t get it.

Chauvet Cave Drawings (c. 30,000 BC) from '100 Diagrams that Changed the World.' Click image for details.

Winterson begins by recounting her own awakening to art after years of feeling no interest in the visual arts. “My lack of interest was the result of the kind of ignorance I despair of in others,” she confesses with hindsight’s lucidity. As she finds herself in Amsterdam, she also finds herself a stranger in a strange land in another way. Suddenly beholding that dormant power of art, she writes:

I had fallen in love and I had no language. I was dog-dumb. The usual response of “This painting has nothing to say to me” had become “I have nothing to say to this painting.” And I desperately wanted to speak. Long looking at paintings is equivalent to being dropped into a foreign city, where gradually, out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence. Art, all art, not just painting, is a foreign city, and we deceive ourselves when we think it familiar. No-one is surprised to find that a foreign city follows its own customs and speaks its own language. Only a boor would ignore both and blame his defaulting on the place. Every day this happens to the artist and the art.

We have to recognize that the language of art, all art, is not our mother-tongue.

Winterson begins longing for a guide, “someone astute and erudite,” “a person dead or alive” with whom to “think things over,” and is gripped with the way in which understanding art doesn’t obey any of our familiar problem-solving methods. (Art, after all, is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be allowed.) She writes:

Art is odd, and the common method of trying to fit it into the scheme of things, either by taming it or baiting it, cannot succeed. Who at the zoo has any sense of the lion?

Artwork from 'The Lion and the Bird' by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for details.

With that, Winterson considers the heart of that active surrender that art requires of us:

I do not believe that art (all art) and beauty are ever separate, nor do I believe that either art or beauty are optional in a sane society. That puts me on the side of what Harold Bloom calls “the ecstasy of the privileged moment.” Art, all art, as insight, as rapture, as transformation, as joy. Unlike Harold Bloom, I really believe that human beings can be taught to love what they do not love already and that the privileged moment exists for all of us, if we let it. Letting art is the paradox of active surrender. I have to work for art if I want art to work on me.

She finds her sherpa in the celebrated art critic Roger Fry and his “life-delighting, art-delighting approach, unashamed of emotion, unashamed of beauty” — a mind so singular that he became the subject of Virginia Woolf’s only biography. Fry, Winterson felt, allowed her to approach a work of art “without unfelt reverence or unfit complacency.”

Slowly, subtly, as she educated herself in the language of art, Winterson began to feel her way of seeing evolve. She echoes Tolstoy’s notion that art thrives on “emotional infectiousness” and writes:

What has changed is my capacity of feeling. Art opens the heart.

But art, Winterson observes, also takes time (that unfortunate interview increasingly gave the sense that time was the missing ingredient of understanding) and commitment. Among the essential obstacles that must be overcome before we can begin to appreciate art, she argues, is the experience of increasing discomfort. Noting that “ordinary life passes in a near blur” — which cognitive science has demonstrated convincingly — she asks:

When was the last time you looked at anything, solely, and concentratedly, and for its own sake? … We find we are not very good at looking.

Artwork by John Vernon Lord from 'Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.' Click image for details.

We are also bedeviled by increasing irritation, which Winterson captures with wonderful humor: “Why doesn’t the picture do something? Why is it hanging there staring at me? What is this picture for? Pictures should give pleasure but this picture is making me very cross. Why should I admire it? Quite clearly it doesn’t admire me.” This notion of admiration reflected back, in fact, is entwined with the way in which our ego — like, perhaps, the anecdotal interviewer’s ego — is often what stands between us and the active surrender to art. Winterson writes:

Admire me is the sub-text of so much of our looking; the demand put on art that it should reflect the reality of the viewer. The true painting, in its stubborn independence, cannot do this, except coincidentally. Its reality is imaginative not mundane.

When the thick curtain of protection is taken away; protection of prejudice, protection of authority, protection of trivia, even the most familiar of paintings can begin to work its power. There are very few people who could manage an hour alone with the Mona Lisa.

But our poor art-lover in his aesthetic laboratory has not succeeded in freeing himself from the protection of assumption. What he has found is that the painting objects to his lack of concentration; his failure to meet intensity with intensity. He still has not discovered anything about the painting but the painting has discovered a lot about him. He is inadequate and the painting has told him so.

It is often said that art — some art, or much of art, or much of some of art — is an “acquired taste.” But Winterson’s central point is that art — all of art — is an acquired ability:

If I can be persuaded to make the experiment again (and again and again), something very different might occur after the first shock of finding out that I do not know how to look at pictures, let alone how to like them.

[...]

Art has deep and difficult eyes and for many the gaze is too insistent. Better to pretend that art is dumb, or at least has nothing to say that makes sense to us. If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it… We avoid painful encounters with art by trivializing it, or by familiarizing it.

In one of her most potent asides, Winterson laments our cultural mythology of art and money — that toxic notion that “art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” that making money and making art are mutually exclusive — and returns to the wildness of art:

We are an odd people: We make it as difficult as possible for our artists to work honestly while they are alive; either we refuse them money or we ruin them with money; either we flatter them with unhelpful praise or wound them with unhelpful blame, and when they are too old, or too dead, or too beyond dispute to hinder any more, we canonize them, so that what was wild is tamed, what was objecting, becomes Authority. Canonizing pictures is one way of killing them. When the sense of familiarity becomes too great, history, popularity, association, all crowd in between the viewer and the picture and block it out. Not only pictures suffer like this, all the arts suffer like this.

Artwork by David Hockney from his illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Click image for details.

Echoing Pete Seeger’s assertion that all artists are “links in a chain,” Winterson considers the ongoing dialogue between past and present, those infinite circles of influence of which all art is woven:

The calling of the artist, in any medium, is to make it new. I do not mean that in new work the past is repudiated; quite the opposite, the past is reclaimed. It is not lost to authority, it is not absorbed at a level of familiarity. It is re-stated and re-instated in its original vigor. Leonardo is present in Cézanne, Michelangelo flows through Picasso and on into Hockney. This is not ancestor worship, it is the lineage of art. It is not so much influence as it is connection…

The true artist is connected. The true artist studies the past, not as a copyist or a pasticheur will study the past, those people are interested only in the final product, the art object, signed sealed and delivered to a public drugged on reproduction. The true artist is interested in the art object as an art process, the thing in being, the being of the thing, the struggle, the excitement, the energy, that have found expression in a particular way. The true artist is after the problem. The false artist wants it solved (by somebody else). If the true artist is connected, then he or she has much to give us because it is connection that we seek. Connection to the past, to one another, to the physical world… A picture, a book, a piece of music, can remind me of feelings, thinkings, I did not even know I had forgot.

Echoing Oscar Wilde’s memorable notion that art requires of us a “temperament of receptivity,” Winterson writes:

Whether art tunnels deep under consciousness or whether it causes out of its own invention, reciprocal inventions that we then call memory, I do not know. I do know that the process of art is a series of jolts, or perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order.

With this, Winterson arrives at the crux of our difficulty with understanding art and our tendency to mistake our misunderstanding for a failure of the art, to presume that our problem with understanding it is the artist’s problem — the heart of what went awry in that unfortunate interview. Winterson writes:

There are no Commandments in art and no easy axioms for art appreciation. “Do I like this?” is the question anyone should ask themselves at the moment of confrontation with the picture. But if “yes,” why “yes”? and if “no,” why “no”? The obvious direct emotional response is never simple, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the “yes” or “no” has nothing at all to do with the picture in its own right.

“I don’t understand this poem”
“I never listen to classical music”
“I don’t like this picture”
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience. The audience, who have not done the work, who have not taken any risks, whose life and livelihood are not bound up at every moment with what they are making, who have given no thought to the medium or the method, will glance up, flick through, chatter over the opening chords, then snap their fingers and walk away like some monstrous Roman tyrant.

Artwork by Lisbeth Zwerger for 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.' Click image for details.

Winterson adds a reflection on the elements of subjectivity and our duty in factoring it in:

An examination of our own feelings will have to give way to an examination of the piece of work. This is fair to the work and it will help to clarify the nature of our own feelings; to reveal prejudice, opinion, anxiety, even the mood of the day. It is right to trust our feelings but right to test them too. If they are what we say they are, they will stand the test, if not, we will at least be less insincere.

What art does, Winterson suggests, is pierce our deepest sense of identity, that illusory solid self that keeps us separate from the universe:

When you say “This work has nothing to do with me.” When you say “This work is boring/pointless/silly/obscure/élitist etc.,” you might be right, because you are looking at a fad, or you might be wrong because the work falls so outside of the safety of your own experience that in order to keep your own world intact, you must deny the other world of the painting. This denial of imaginative experience happens at a deeper level than our affirmation of our daily world. Every day, in countless ways, you and I convince ourselves about ourselves. True art, when it happens to us, challenges the “I” that we are.

A love-parallel would be just; falling in love challenges the reality to which we lay claim, part of the pleasure of love and part of its terror, is the world turned upside down. We want and we don’t want, the cutting edge, the upset, the new views. Mostly we work hard at taming our emotional environment just as we work hard at taming our aesthetic environment. We already have tamed our physical environment. And are we happy with all this tameness? Are you?

[...]

The solid presence of art demands from us significant effort, an effort anathema to popular culture. Effort of time, effort of money, effort of study, effort of humility, effort of imagination have each been packed by the artist into the art.

And this, I suppose was the effrontery of the interviewer: his public admission of not having made the effort — of not having cared to make it. Winterson touches on what the deeper reason might be:

I worry that to ask for effort is to imply élitism, and the charge against art, that it is élitist, is too often the accuser’s defense against his or her own bafflement.

Artwork by Maira Kalman from 'My Favorite Things.' Click image for details.

In a remark particularly ironic in this context, she adds:

The only way to develop a palate is to develop a palate.

[...]

The fashion for dismissing a thing out of ignorance is vicious. In fact, it is not essential to like a thing in order to recognize its worth, but to reach that point of self-awareness and sophistication takes years of perseverance.

The problem, she points out, isn’t one of personal failure but of cultural bias:

I am sure that if as a society we took art seriously, not as mere decoration or entertainment, but as a living spirit, we should very soon learn what is art and what is not art.

[...]

If we sharpened our sensibilities, it is not that we would all agree on everything, or that we would suddenly feel the same things in front of the same pictures (or when reading the same book), but rather that our debates and deliberations would come out of genuine aesthetic considerations and not politics, prejudice and fashion… And our hearts? Art is aerobic.

Winterson turns to what happens in that magical moment when a work of art is beheld with understanding, with active surrender, and enveloped by receptivity:

There is a constant exchange of emotion between us, between the three of us; the artist I need never meet, the painting in its own right, and me, the one who loves it and can no longer live independent of it. The triangle of exchange alters, is fluid, is subtle, is profound and is one of those unverifiable facts that anyone who cares for painting soon discovers… The totality of the picture comments on the totality of what I am.

As she considers how art makes visible “those necessary invisibles of faith and optimism, humor and generosity,” “the sublimity of mankind,” she peers into the depths of its essence:

We know that the universe is infinite, expanding and strangely complete, that it lacks nothing we need, but in spite of that knowledge, the tragic paradigm of human life is lack, loss, finality, a primitive doomsaying that has not been repealed by technology or medical science. The arts stand in the way of this doomsaying. Art objects. The nouns become an active force not a collector’s item. Art objects.

The cave wall paintings at Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the huge truth of a Picasso, the quieter truth of Vanessa Bell, are part of the art that objects to the lie against life, against the spirit, that it is pointless and mean. The message colored through time is not lack, but abundance. Not silence but many voices. Art, all art, is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster. Against the daily death it does not die.

[...]

Art is not a little bit of evolution that late-twentieth-century city dwellers can safely do without. Strictly, art does not belong to our evolutionary pattern at all. It has no biological necessity. Time taken up with it was time lost to hunting, gathering, mating, exploring, building, surviving, thriving. Odd then, that when routine physical threats to ourselves and our kind are no longer a reality, we say we have no time for art. If we say that art, all art is no longer relevant to our lives, then we might at least risk the question “What has happened to our lives?” The usual question, “What has happened to art?” is too easy an escape route.

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery is a transcendent read in its totality — Winterson goes on to examine such subjects as imagination and reality, the ecstasy of words, and the semiotics of sex. Complement it with her provocative reflections on adoption and belonging and time, language, and how art sanctifies the human spirit.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Sylvia Plath on Poetry and a Rare Recording of Her Reading the Poem “The Disquieting Muses”

By:

“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things.”

In 1957, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) — beloved poet, secret artist, dedicated diarist, passionate lover, little-known children’s book author, youthful beholder of the transcendence of nature, repressed “addict of experience” — submitted a few of her poems for consideration for broadcast in the BBC’s celebrated series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. But she kept trying. In the summer of 1960, she finally broke through — two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast, and soon she had an ongoing gig. Between November 20, 1960 and January 10, 1963 — just four weeks before she took her own life — Plath produced at least 17 known broadcasts for the BBC. Those that survive are preserved in The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the same magnificent archival gem that gave us Plath’s readings of “The Birthday Present” and “Tulips,” as well as that rare interview on literature and love.

One of the most powerful poems in these recordings is “The Disquieting Muses,” later published in Plath’s Collected Poems (public library). It is after the famous Giorgio de Chirico painting of the same name and inspired by the enigmatic figures in it — “three terrible, faceless dressmakers’ dummies in classical gowns, seated and standing in a weird, clear light,” per Plath’s own description, who suggest a twentieth-century version of “other sinister trios of women,” such as the Three Fates and the Witches in Macbeth. Emanating from Plath’s verses is a haunting lament about maternal neglect.

'The Disquieting Muses' by Giorgio de Chirico, 1916–1918

But perhaps even more notable than Plath’s enchanting reading of the poem is her short preface to it, into which she condenses her views on poetry in general with extraordinary precision and eloquence:

A poem can’t take the place of a plum, or an apple. But just as a painting can recreate, by illusion, the dimension it loses by being confined to canvas, so a poem, by its own system of illusions, can set up a rich and apparently living world within its particular limits. Most of the poems I will introduce in the next few minutes attempt to recreate, in their own way, definite situations and landscapes. They are, quite emphatically, about the things of this world.

When I say “this world” I include, of course, such feelings as fear and despair and barrenness, as well as domestic love and delight in nature. These darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things, such as ghosts or trolls or antique gods.

She proceeds to read the poem itself:

THE DISQUIETING MUSES

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

Despite its antiquated audio format, The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath is well worth the effort. Complement it with Plath’s unseen drawings, edited by her daughter, her bittersweet-in-hindsight diary entry on the appetite for living at age 18, and wonderful children’s verses illustrated by Quentin Blake.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself: A Timely Vintage Field Guide to Self-Reliant Play and Joyful Solitude

By:

A celebration of makers and hackers from half a century before they were called makers and hackers.

Legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written beautifully about why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life and Susan Sontag contemplated the creative purpose of boredom. Perhaps we understand this intellectually, but we — now more than ever, it seems — have a profound civilizational anxiety about being alone. And the seed for it is increasingly planted in childhood — in an age when play is increasingly equated with screens and interfaces, being alone with a screen is not quite being alone at all, so the art of taking joy in one’s own company slips further and further out of reach.

In 1958, a self-described 42-year-old kid named Robert Paul Smith penned a little book titled How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself (public library), which his wife Elinor, an accomplished author herself, illustrated — a delightful field guide to hacking household objects and making mischievous contraptions from nature’s gifts, long before the rise of hacker culture and the modern Maker Movement. Before working as a broadcaster in Manhattan in the 1930s, an era prior to the dawn of television and many decades before the web, Smith had grown up at a time when icemen filled ice-boxes by horse and wagon and every house had a hatstand and “all mothers sewed,” producing a steady supply of empty spools for kids to play with — and yet his book is timeless and remarkably timely in both spirit and hands-on ingenuity.

With a wink — perhaps inadvertent — to the existential value of philosophy, Smith writes:

I understand some people get worried about kids who spend a lot of time all alone, by themselves. I do a little worrying about that, but I worry about something else even more; about kids who don’t know how to spend any time all alone, by themselves. It’s something you’re going to be doing a whole lot of, no matter what, for the rest of your lives. And I think it’s a good thing to do; you get to know yourself, and I think that’s the most important thing in the whole world.

He offers how-to guidance on a wealth of simple yet imaginative playthings — indoor boomerangs, pin pianos, broken umbrella bow-and-arrows, pussy-willow bees, peach pit turtles, clamshell bracelets “for your sister, if you’ve got a sister, or your girl, if you’ve got a girl, or if not, just for the fun of making them,” a quirky prank-ready contraption made out of “a chicken or a turkey wishbone, some chewing gum, a burnt kitchen match and a rubber band.” Today, when even LEGO bricks come as kits of pre-imagined possibilities, these unstructured activities — “There are no kits to build these things,” Smith cautions — come as welcome assurance that there are enormous rewards in what Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”

Indoor boomerang: 'Get a piece of very thin cardboard. If your father uses business cards, that’s exactly the right kind of cardboard, and the right size. The top flap of a matchbook will do, too. Now just cut a boomerang shape out of it, just about the same size and shape as in the drawing. Now put it on a book, so that one arm sticks out just a little bit. Flick it with your fingernail and it’ll go sailing out just like an Australian boomerang, and after very little practice, you’ll find out how to make it whirl so that it will come back to you. A good way to do it is to hold the book in one hand, tipped up a little, so that the boomerang goes up in the air at an angle, and slides back at just about the same angle, like a ball going almost to the top of a hill, and then rolling down again.'

There is also subtle, charming humor:

These days, you see a kid lying on his back and looking blank and you begin to wonder what’s wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with him, except he’s thinking… He is trying to arrive at some conclusion about his thumb.

Pin piano: 'If you can get a piece of wood and ten pins you can make a piano. Oh, not a big piano like the one you have. You’d need a lot more wood and pins for that. This is a pin-piano, and it’s a musical instrument, and it plays very piano. The word piano means soft. The real name for a piano is pianoforte, and all it means is an instrument that can play loud or soft. Well, this is a pin-piano and it just plays soft. All you do is stick the pins into the piece of wood, each one a little further in than that first one. If you take a nail and hit the pin, you’ll hear a certain note. By pushing the next pin in a little further, you’ll hear a higher note. And so on. Tune as you go, do re mi fa sol la ti do. But that’s only eight pins. Why did I say ten? Because you’re going to bend at least two of the pins trying to get them in to the right depth. '

But tucked inside Smith’s practical manifesto for self-reliant play is also a love letter to public libraries, the merits of which he extolls throughout the book as he encourages the reader to find out more about obscure subjects and hobbies at the library. He writes:

If you don’t know what a willow tree looks like, go to the public library and get out a book about trees. You’ll notice that all through this book, I advise you to go to the library when you want to find out something. I think just plain going to the library and getting out a book is a swell thing to do. It’s something to do, when you’ve got nothing to do, all by yourself. It’s a thing I still do when I’ve got nothing special to do. I just wander around until I find a book that looks interesting; let’s say, a book about ship-building, or rockets, or a story by some author I’ve never heard of before. Now, chances are I’ll never build a ship, or ride in a rocket, and maybe I won’t like the way the author I never heard of writes. But it’s interesting to know how someone else builds a ship, or plans to fly in a rocket, or how the author feels about things.

This adds another layer of timeliness and wistful urgency to Smith’s book — today, as the web continues to grow better at giving us more of what we’re looking for, it also grows exponentially worse at helping us discover what we don’t yet know we ought to know, those invaluable unknown-unknowns. The internet is a magnificent and vitalizing medium in so many ways, but also an unforgiving one in others — amid this echo chamber of our existing convictions and interests, we are nursed on the belief that what isn’t online either doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist at all. And yet the vast majority of human knowledge, what Vannevar Bush memorably called “the common record” as he envisioned the web in 1945, lives in out-of-print books and archives and other materials of which the web makes no mark and thus takes no notice. The public library is the closest thing we have to a time machine of human wisdom, to say nothing of its essential role in democracy.

The Globe Chandelier at the Los Angeles Public Library, from Robert Dawson's book 'The Public Library.' Click image for more.

Smith later adds:

I’m really serious about the library: that’s the best place to learn more. We did lots of other things when we were kids, like collecting bugs, and wild flowers, and frogs, and snakes, and stones—and in the library I promise you there will be a really expert book on each of these, and on many other subjects, written by people who’ve made a life study of those special things. There will be books about trees and radio sets and telescopes and badminton and Indian crafts and metal work, about how to make bows and arrows, how to swim, how to — oh, there’s no end. There’s even a book on how to find a how-to book.

Some silly grownup has even written a book on how to read a book.

The most memorable such silly grownup, of course, was Virginia Woolf, whose meditation on how to read a book is an infinitely rewarding classic.

Some of Smith’s ideas might raise a few cautious eyebrows, but they spring from a place of sincere trust in children’s innate goodness and intelligence. In one such controversial section, he counsels, “You should learn how to sharpen a knife,” adding: “Something else that you’re just going to have to argue out with your mother; I did with my mother, my kids did with their mother. A sharp knife is safer than a dull knife.” Knives, in fact, play a prominent role in many of the activities — from carving patterns into pencils to various versions of flipping an actual pocket knife.

'Take one of the hexagonal pencils (hexagonal means six-sided, as a square is four-sided). These are usually painted yellow. Now, cut a very thin sliver, like this, so you’ve lifted off a little square of paint. Now on the side of the pencil right next to the side you’ve cut, cut another little square of paint that you can sliver off. Now the next side, and so on all around the pencil, making a checkerboard effect.'

In addition to the knives, there are also guns — but the type that would disarm even those of us most uneasy about the notion of kids play-pretending with lethal weapons. Smith’s make-shift “guns” aren’t today’s chillingly realistic plastic replicas, but ones made of wood and rubber bands. They wink at Freud’s assertion that “the opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real” — somehow, it’s hard to imagine such contraptions correlating with fantasies of actual deathly violence.

Wood and rubber band gun: 'The simplest way to make one is just to cut a piece of wood, somewhere between a quarter of an inch and half an inch thick, into a pistol shape. On the top, just jam the point of your knife in so that it makes a flat hole. Then cut a piece of cardboard into little half-inch squares. Put a rubber band on the gun, a rubber band big enough so that when you pull it back over the top of the handle, it’s good and stretched. You can put a thumbtack through the rubber band where it comes over the front end of the pistol. Now jam one of the little cardboard squares into the flat hole, like this. Now if you’ll hold the gun, you’ll find that by rubbing your thumb up, you’ll push the rubber band up over the end of the handle and it will spring forward and flick the card.'

While much of the book’s charm comes from its encouragement of an active, joyful engagement with the natural world — horse chestnuts, for instance, are quite simply “fun to get and fun to open the burrs and fun to look at and fun to shine” — there is also a great deal of fun to be had by the city child. New Yorkers, for instance, might find particular delight in Smith’s bow-and-arrow transformation of broken umbrellas, a common seasonal feature of our urban wilderness.

Alongside the playful projects are also illuminating asides on the imperceptible innovations that underpin modern life. Noting that busted umbrellas are harder to find they they used to be, Smith writes:

In those days, the olden days, umbrellas were made of cotton, or, if you were rich, silk. And people used to walk a lot more then, because there weren’t so many cars, and the umbrellas got used more, and cotton and silk, after a while, rot. Nowadays, umbrellas aren’t used so much, and I imagine they’re made out of nylon, and that doesn’t rot.

Indeed, playful as Smith’s premise is, he also makes a handful of rather poignant asides that often apply to life well beyond childhood play — like this perceptive remark on the perils of public opinion:

If some of the things sound a little childish, figure it out: do you think they’re too childish, or do you think that if someone else saw you doing it, he would think it was childish?

How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself is a treat in its totality. Complement it with The Little Red Schoolbook, a controversial instigator of independent thinking in teens from the same era, then revisit this fantastic grown-up field guide to the art of solitude.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.