Brain Pickings

The Illustrated Life of Trailblazing Journalist Nellie Bly, Who Paved the Way for Women in Media

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A warm celebration of the fearless pioneer who championed journalists’ responsibility to “the whole wide world of mankind: good, bad and indifferent.”

As a lover of picture-book biographies of cultural icons and an ardent admirer of trailblazing journalist, proto-feminist, and daring media stuntwoman Nellie Bly (May 5, 1864–January 27, 1922), I was thrilled to come upon The Daring Nellie Bly: America’s Star Reporter (public library) by writer and artist Bonnie Christensen.

In elegant prose and beautiful illustrations that invoke the aesthetic of editorial art from Bly’s era, Christensen tells the story of one of the most remarkable humans our world has ever produced.

We meet young Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, long before she took the pen name Nelly Bly, in her native Pennsylvania, where her mother’s tumultuous second marriage instills in the young girl a longing for self-reliance. To render herself impervious to similar tumult, she decides to pursue an independent career.

We follow her as she impresses a newspaper editor into giving her a job after she writes her magnificent letter to a patronizing chauvinist at the age of only twenty.

As she rises up the ranks of journalism, she decides to move to the profession’s epicenter: New York City, a place as competitive then as it is now.

It is there that she writes her now-legendary exposé on asylum abuse for The World — one of the most courageous feats of investigative journalism ever performed, which nearly cost Bly her life, went viral by the era’s standards, resulted in a grand jury investigation, and forever changed how we treat the mentally ill.

Next, Bly plunges into an equally yet very differently daring assignment — her astonishing race around the world in under eighty days, with nothing more than a well-tailored dress and a duffle bag.

Christensen writes:

On January 25, 1890 — seventy-two days, six hours, and eleven minutes after the start of her journey — Nellie Bly set foot in the Jersey City train station. A huge, cheering throng greeted her. Cannons roared. “The American girl will no longer be misunderstood,” declared the mayor. “She will be recognized as pushing and determined, independent, able to take care of herself wherever she may go.” Nellie Bly had won much more than her race against the clock… The newspaper described her as “the best known and most widely talked of young woman on earth today.” It wasn’t an exaggeration. Her picture appeared on games, toys, cigars, soaps, and medicines. A racehorse, hotel, and train were named after her. The name Nellie Bly was heard and recognized everywhere.

To be sure, Bly’s was not the kind of vacant fame associated with the notion of popular celebrity — she was widely celebrated for the monumental work she did and the selfless spirit in which she did it. Until her last breath, Bly continued to champion the rights of women and the working class. When her industrialist husband died, she transformed his manufacturing empire into a pioneering model of socially conscious business, a mecca of fair wages and humane working conditions amid an era that habitually denied workers both. Half a century before Hedy Lamarr rose to fame as one of history’s most prominent women inventors, Bly invented the first steel barrel — one of twenty-six inventions for which she held patents by the end of her life.

Christensen writes:

During World War I, Nellie Bly, at fifty, was the first woman journalist to report from the Eastern Front. After the war she returned to New York City, where she wrote a column for the New York Journal and crusaded tirelessly to find permanent homes for orphans.

Although she was in and out of the hospital from exhaustion, Nellie Bly continued her work, writing that each individual has a moral responsibility to “the whole wide world of mankind: good, bad and indifferent.”

Complement Christensen’s intelligent and inspiring The Daring Nellie Bly with Bly’s groundbreaking Ten Days at the Mad-House and an illustrated field guide to packing like the pioneering journalist, then revisit the picture-book biographies of other exceptional humans: Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Frida Kahlo, e.e. cummings, Paul Gauguin, and more.

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The Paradox of Identical Twins and What It Reveals About the Psychology of Personal Identity and Celebrity Culture

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“The way we treat identical twins is strikingly similar to the way we treat celebrities.”

When I was a little girl growing up in Bulgaria, I was best friends with a pair of identical twins named Ema and Maia. If this alone didn’t already dangerously discombobulate the very notion of a “best” friend, the situation was rife with various other complexities of negotiating identity — theirs, as well as mine. I oscillated between being best-er friends with one, then with the other. I was furious with my mother for never having learned to tell them apart and often calling one by the other’s name. I found myself in frequent spirited arguments with other kids, determined to make them concede Ema and Maia’s vast differences of temperament and spirit. (The reality was somewhere partway between my insistent differentiation and the other kids’ insistent conflation.)

All of this I did in part on the twins’ behalf, for I believed it to be the chief duty of the twin-friend, and in part for my own benefit: Duality in any form is hard enough for adults to make sense of, but the constant scanning for sameness and difference, the reflexive dance with comparison and contrast, was too overwhelming for my eight-year-old psyche to comfortably sit with — to resolve the tension, I was bent on seeing them as categorically different; to resolve the tension, those outside the best-friends bubble were bent on seeing them as categorically the same. I — we — couldn’t understand, or perhaps couldn’t accept, that they were both tremendously similar and tremendously different, often at the same time.

Quite unexpectedly, Ema and Maia’s mother won a green card in the American lottery. The day the family moved from Bulgaria to Baltimore was among the saddest of my childhood. It was followed by many mostly friendless years, for no single person — no monad of identity — seemed a sufficient substitute for my dyad of best friends.

Of course, the identity ambivalences with which the twin-friend grapples are merely a microcosmic refraction of what the siblings themselves deal with daily. And yet to be in the mere presence of twins, let alone to negotiate one’s sameness and difference of feelings for each of the dyad, is to inevitably confront one’s own most unsettling and unsettled questions of identity.

These complex questions and a dimensional lot more are what writer Caroline Paul explores in Almost Her: The Strange Dilemma of Being Nearly Famous — a short and piercing memoir of her life as a twin. Amplifying the inherent complexities of twindom is the fact that her sister happens to be the Baywatch star Alexandra Paul.

In 1993, the Guinness book of world records declared the show the most watched television program in the history of humanity. With more than a billion viewers per week, it catapulted Alexandra — and, inadvertently, the almost-her version the world saw in Caroline — into a strange parallel universe of celebrity, raising whole new questions about the sisters’ separate and collective identity, in public and in private.

Beneath the personal story lurk larger inquiries about who we are as a culture, who we are as individuals, and how we come to construct and inhabit the “who” of who we are.

Caroline Paul

Reflecting on how early the constant tussle between the conflation and separation of their identities began, Paul writes:

Our twinning experience was strange right from the beginning. When my mother’s doctor heard one strong, steady heartbeat through his stethoscope back in 1963, he surmised she was cooking a vigorous, healthy baby, and not two girls whose hearts were in sync (ultrasounds were not yet in widespread use). Even when my mother went into labor six weeks early, no one suspected. It was not until Alexandra was in his hands that the doctor cried, “Hold on, Mrs. Paul, there’s another one coming!” and two minutes later I glissaded onto the table, already not wanting to be left behind. We were both well under five pounds. We were labeled Baby A and Baby B and rushed to separate incubators. We had inadvertently posed as one person for nine months, and it would be days until my parents would recover enough from the shock to name us.

[…]

We called each other by my name, Caroline, supposedly because I could not pronounce Alexandra… Early on, Alexandra was the more precocious one, I more shy. Baby photos are easily deciphered because her mouth was always open, mid-babble or laugh, while I stared at her or at the camera like a marmot caught in the beam of a flashlight, baffled and resigned. And so it was preordained: Alexandra had the makings of an actress, and I was already comfortable with the fleeting attention due a fake celebrity.

[…]

The world compared us constantly. It was easy; we had a measuring stick right next to us. Who was prettier, stronger, smarter, nicer, funnier? Naturally, I wanted to be — but not at the expense of my twin. Could I just be pretty, strong, smart, nice, funny? No. Unbidden, the first thing people did was enumerate our differences. We were seen in reference to each other, and never on our own terms.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

With an eye to what she elegantly calls “the porous relationship between reality and entertainment,” Paul draws a perceptive parallel between two very different yet very similar cultural domains of identity-muddling:

The way we treat identical twins is strikingly similar to the way we treat celebrities. Our stares are naked, open, unapologetic… We conflate twins with each other, and celebrities with the characters they play on TV.

Tucked into the story are also curious and reality-warping facts about the strange science of twindom that illuminate our assumptions about the givens of being human — the wellspring of so many of our beliefs about identity. Recounting one particularly comical anecdote from their twenties, when the sisters successfully used their twindom to prank Alexandra’s director on the film set, Paul writes:

“You’re so lucky!” singletons exclaim upon hearing stories like this one. “I wish I was a twin.”

“Well,” I tell them, “Perhaps you were.”

One in 90 live births result in twins (fraternal and identical), but one in eight begin as twins. This phenomenon of “the vanishing twin” still puzzles scientists; they aren’t sure why one disappears and one remains. The “how” is only a little clearer. The best guess is that the fetus is absorbed into the mother’s body; sometimes it may be assimilated into the surviving twin. Often it happens so early that no one is the wiser. But advances in technology mean that fetuses can be tracked earlier and earlier, and it’s now clear that many humans born alone may once have had a sibling in the womb.

While the numbers are new and surprising, the vanishing twin phenomenon has been recognized for centuries. Hair and teeth were found in singletons, often much later in life. Five tiny fetuses were once discovered in the brain of a child. A six-pound fetus was removed from an elderly man. Sometimes two fraternal embryos can merge to become one body — detected when blood tests show two different blood types…

All of this is to say that 15 percent of singletons — and this is a conservative number — had a twin who disappeared sometime during pregnancy. What does this mean for the survivor? Is there a subconscious understanding that a twin was lost? Could this account for some singletons’ fascination with twins, or others’ inexplicable certainty that something is missing?

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

In complete contrast to the innermost identity that defines twins — one woven into the very strands of their DNA — is the identity conferred by celebrity, a judgment of personhood granted from the outside on the basis of outermost characteristics. Paul writes:

Celebrity is not an inner condition, like happiness or desperation; it is instead bestowed by the rest of us. Celebrity is not even dependent on something you consciously do; it is just, according to Merriam-Webster, the “state of being famous, celebrated.” A celebrity may be a talented soccer player/opera singer/banker. But a talented soccer player/opera star/banker is not necessarily a celebrity. The mantle is placed after an unspoken agreement between a certain number of other people.

But perhaps the greatest and most uncomfortable question of identity in the story is the subtlest, most unspoken one. Make no mistake — for all her self-effacing geniality and the generosity with which she paints her sister’s virtues of character, Caroline herself is an exceptional person: a former firefighter who spent many years as one of only fifteen women on San Francisco’s 1,500-person Fire Department, a fearless pilot who flies experimental planes, and a terrifically talented writer, author of the memoir Fighting Fire, the historical novel East Wind, Rain, and the funny and poignant micro-memoir Lost Cat, illustrated by her partner and frequent Brain Pickings collaborator Wendy MacNaughton.

Yet under the tyranny of celebrity culture, we idolize not the writer, pilot, and firefighter but the Hollywood actor; we lionize the fictional lifeguard on television while her real-life twin spends her days saving real lives from burning buildings and writing excellent books about it. Amplifying this gobsmacking inversion is the question of gender — twenty years after the heyday of Baywatch, ours remains a culture still more likely to celebrate women for being beautiful and half-naked than for being strong, selfless, and intellectually zealous.

The most paradoxical part is that although Caroline’s loving depiction renders Alexandra a kind and altogether wonderful person, these actual character qualities are utterly irrelevant in the currency of her celebrity, sold by Hollywood and bought by fans on the basis of a complete fictional projection, celebrated for the make-belief attributes of the character she portrays on TV, or even for her mere scale of her presence in millions of homes via the permeable membrane of the TV screen.

Celebrity, indeed, is a curious condition — it rarely afflicts Nobel laureates but is automatically conferred upon television stars watched by a billion viewers. This says something quite unsettling about our culture’s values and our civilizational priorities. It also asks us to examine not only the object of our stares — be it a celebrity or a pair of twins — but also the deepest values of the self behind the eyes that do the staring.

In the remainder of the thoroughly pause-giving Almost Her, many such grand questions about cultural and individual identity arise from the minute scale of Paul’s experience both as a twin and as the twin of a celebrity, from the moral and emotional ambivalences of being constantly mistaken for her famous sister to our collective contract about privacy and its culturally permissible invasions to the strangely supple pillars of personhood.

Complement it with Meghan Daum on how we become who we are, young Leo Tolstoy’s diaries of the search for a solid self, and Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity over time.

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Umberto Eco’s Advice to Writers

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“If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.”

In 1977, Umberto Eco (b. January 5, 1932) — beloved novelist, author of vintage semiotic children’s books, proponent of the “antilibrary”, intellectual champion of lists, lover of legendary lands — published a slim book for his students, titled How to Write a Thesis (public library). Although it was intended as an academic aid for graduate students of literature, it endures as a lively, friendly, and immensely potent packet of advice for all writers. Partway between, in both time and ethos, the Strunk and White classic The Elements of Style and the contemporary counterpart A Sense of Style by Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, this tiny treasure makes a fine addition to celebrated writers’ collected advice on the craft.

While the book deals with the entire ecosystem of the writing process — from choosing a topic to conducting research to planning and revision — in one particularly potent section, Eco offers his most direct advice on the writing itself. After making a general case for the value of rewriting, he offers a number of specific pointers:

You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences. If they come into your head, write them, but then break them down. Do not be afraid to repeat the subject twice, and stay away from too many pronouns and subordinate clauses.

[…]

You are not e. e. cummings. Cummings was an American avant-garde poet who is known for having signed his name with lower-case initials. Naturally he used commas and periods with great thriftiness, he broke his lines into small pieces, and in short he did all the things that an avant-garde poet can and should do. But you are not an avant-garde poet. Not even if your thesis is on avant-garde poetry.

[…]

The pseudo-poet who writes his thesis in poetry is a pitiful writer (and probably a bad poet). From Dante to Eliot and from Eliot to Sanguineti, when avant-garde poets wanted to talk about their poetry, they wrote in clear prose.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from 'Enormous Smallness' by Mathhew Burgess, a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

With his signature blunt wisdom — a hard-earned bluntness — he adds:

Are you a poet? Then do not pursue a university degree.

(The great prose writer William Styron believed higher education is a waste of time for all writers.)

Despite admonishing against breaking up lines in the style of the avant-garde poets, Eco does urge writers to break their prose into digestible segments:

Begin new paragraphs often. Do so when logically necessary, and when the pace of the text requires it, but the more you do it, the better.

In another point of advice, he could have easily titled “You are not Hemingway,” Eco encourages students to seek feedback from their mentors and cautions:

Do not play the solitary genius.

Eco continues:

Do not use ellipsis and exclamation points, and do not explain ironies. It is possible to use language that is referential or language that is figurative. By referential language, I mean a language that is recognized by all, in which all things are called by their most common name, and that does not lend itself to misunderstandings.

[…]

We either use rhetorical figures effectively, or we do not use them at all. If we use them it is because we presume our reader is capable of catching them, and because we believe that we will appear more incisive and convincing. In this case, we should not be ashamed of them, and we should not explain them. If we think that our reader is an idiot, we should not use rhetorical figures, but if we use them and feel the need to explain them, we are essentially calling the reader an idiot. In turn, he will take revenge by calling the author an idiot.

Given my distaste for writers who use italics and exclamation points for emphasis — a way of falling back on font styling and punctuation as the lazy substitute for prose that makes a point — I was particularly delighted by Eco’s admonition against one of the key “bad habits of the amateur writer”:

[Avoid] the exclamation point to emphasize a statement. This is not appropriate in a critical essay… It is allowed once or twice, if the purpose is to make the reader jump in his seat and call his attention to a vehement statement like, “Pay attention, never make this mistake!” But it is a good rule to speak softly. The effect will be stronger if you simply say important things.

In this short video from the same Louisiana Museum of Modern Art series that gave us Patti Smith’s advice to the young, Eco offers a higher-order — and perhaps the most important — piece of wisdom to aspiring writers:

How to Write a Thesis brims with more of Eco’s practical, pleasurably stern yet sympathetic advice on the craft. Complement it with Eco on why unread books are more valuable to our lives than read ones and his captivating narrative maps to imaginary places, then revisit other excellent advice to writers from Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, Ann Patchett, Susan Orlean, and Neil Gaiman.

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The Science of How the Universe Will End, in a Poetic Animation

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The lyrical symmetry of how the cosmos was born, how it will die, and what to make of the mystery in between.

“Death,” wrote Rilke in a beautiful 1923 letter, “is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.” The beloved poet may well have been a secret astrophysicist, for his immortal words contain the poetics of the universe’s birth, its eventual death, and the enchanting mystery of the cosmic blink between the two.

That poetic and enthralling science is what South African cosmologist and TED Fellow Renée Hložek explores in this fascinating animated short from TED-Ed:

Lest we forget, “thinking about death clarifies your life” — what is true on the scale of the personal seems at least as true on the scale of the cosmic.

Complement with Carl Sagan on how stars are born, live, and die, then see more excellent TED Ed animated primers on what makes a hero, how you know you exist, why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, how melancholy enhances creativity, why bees build perfect hexagons, and Plato’s parable for the nature of reality.

Donating = Loving

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