Brain Pickings

George Saunders on the Power of Kindness, Animated

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“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”

In May of 2013, celebrated author and MacArthur “genius” George Saunders took the podium at Syracuse University and delivered a masterpiece of that singular modern package of bequeathable wisdom, the commencement address. A year later, his speech was adapted in Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness (public library), delicately designed and hand-lettered by Chelsea Cardinal. It follows in the footsteps of other commencement-addresses-turned-books, such as Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, and the recent compendium of Kurt Vonnegut’s magnificent commencement addresses.

With his gentle wisdom and disarming warmth, Saunders manages to dissolve some of our most deeply engrained culturally conditioned cynicism into a soft and expansive awareness of the greatest gift one human being can give another — those sacred exchanges that take place in a moment of time, often mundane and fleeting, but echo across a lifetime with inextinguishable luminosity.

In this immeasurably wonderful animated teaser for the book, narrated by Saunders himself, illustrator Tim Bierbaum brings to life the author’s words:

I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

But kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Jack Kerouac on kindness, then revisit more of the greatest commencement addresses ever given: Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, and more gems from , and Kurt Vonnegut.

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George Orwell’s Animal Farm Illustrated by Ralph Steadman

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“I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure.”

In 1995, more than twenty years after his irreverent illustrations for Alice in Wonderland, the beloved British cartoonist Ralph Steadman put his singular twist on a very different kind of literary beast, one of the most controversial books ever published. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American publication of George Orwell’s masterpiece, which by that point had sold millions of copies around the world in more than seventy languages, Steadman illustrated a special edition titled Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (public library), featuring 100 of his unmistakable full-color and halftone illustrations.

Accompanying Steadman’s illustrations is Orwell’s proposed but unpublished preface to the original edition, titled “The Freedom of the Press” — a critique of how the media’s fear of public opinion ends up drowning out the central responsibility of journalism. Though aimed at European publishers’ self-censorship regarding Animal Farm at the time, Orwell’s words ring with astounding prescience and timeliness in our present era of people-pleasing “content” that passes for journalism:

The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of … any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.

Portrait of George Orwell by Ralph Steadman

Alas, this exquisite edition is no longer in print, but I was able to track down a surviving copy and offer a taste of Steadman’s genius for our shared delight.

Also included is Orwell’s preface to the 1947 Ukrainian edition, equally timely today for obvious geopolitical reasons. In it, he writes:

I understood, more clearly than ever, the negative influence of the Soviet myth upon the western Socialist movement.

And here I must pause to describe my attitude to the Soviet régime.

I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.

But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in Western Europe should see the Soviet régime for what it really was…

I have been convinced that the destruction of the Soviet myth was essential if we wanted a revival of the Socialist movement.

Orwell concludes with a note on his often misconstrued intent with the book’s ultimate message:

I do not wish to comment on the work; if it does not speak for itself, it is a failure. But I should like to emphasize two points: first, that although the various episodes are taken from the actual history of the Russian Revolution, they are dealt with schematically and their chronological order is changed; this was necessary for the symmetry of the story. The second point has been missed by most critics, possibly because I did not emphasize it sufficiently. A number of readers may finish the book with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs and the humans. That was not my intention; on the contrary I meant it to end on a loud note of discord, for I wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference which everybody thought had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. I personally did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.

Steadman’s Animal Farm: A Fairy Story is spectacular in its entirety, should you be so fortunate to snag a used copy. Complement it with his illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland and his inkblot dog drawings, then be sure to take a closer look at Orwell’s “The Freedom of the Press.”

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John Lennon and Yoko Ono on Love, Animated

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“You’ve got to work on it. It is a precious gift, and it’s a plant, and you’ve got to look after it and water it.”

“A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality,” Yoko Ono wrote in her 1964 compendium of illustrated instructions for life. Two years later, and nearly a decade after she had presaged their fateful romance, she met John Lennon and the two became inseparable as they dreamt together one of the most beautiful and tragic love stories of all time. In 1969, the same year that 14-year-old Jerry Levitan taped his now-legendary conversation with Lennon, Village Voice writer Howard Smith sat down with the couple to extract from them the secret of love in a heart-swelling, soul-expanding conversation found in the altogether fantastic The Smith Tapes Box Set — an archive of Smith’s restored interviews with such icons as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jane Fonda, James Taylor, Jerry Garcia, and other greats whose names don’t begin with J.

Now, the fine folks of multimedia nonprofit Blank on Blank — who also gave us Janis Joplin on creativity and rejection, David Foster Wallace on ambition, and Maurice Sendak on being a kid — have brought Smith’s conversation with John and Yoko to life in their signature style of audiovisual storytelling. Highlights below.

On the secret of love:

You’ve got to work on it. It is a precious gift, and it’s a plant, and you’ve got to look after it and water it. You can’t just sit on your backside and think, “Oh, well, we’re in love, so that’s alright.”

On being together without stifling one another:

We’re both mind people, you know. So to be apart, we don’t have to physically be apart.

On the myth that there can be too much togetherness:

If you love somebody, you can’t be with them enough — there’s no such thing.

For more insight on the dignity of love and sharing a life, see Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths and these essential reads on the psychology of love. For more Lennon gold, revisit Jerry Levitan’s illustrated interview and Lennon’s own illustrated poetry and prose.

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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.





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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.