Brain Pickings

40K Books: 99-Cent Essays by Million-Dollar Authors

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Trying out the Italian cyberpunk job, or how to buy brilliance for under a dollar.

Over the last few months we’ve taken a few trips to the frontier of electronic publishing to see how various digital developers are building out the landscape. One such new settler is 40K Books, so named because its 99-cent essays and novellas take 40 minutes to just over an hour to read. The Milan, Italy-based startup has put out a series of original works in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish, both from new writers and established authors and thinkers like Bruce Sterling and Paul Di Filippo. Its non-fiction selections focus on the consequences of and ways in which our “culture is going digital,” while the short fiction skews toward futurist, sci-fi topics. We were sold by 40K’s bold graphic style but stuck around for the imaginative content of the work itself. Here are three favorites from the first run of releases.

FROM WORDS TO BRAIN

MIT graduate student and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne penned the fantastic essay From Words to Brain (Can neuroscience teach you to be a better writer?), which uses the children’s classic “Little Red Riding Hood” to investigate the complex neural connections that take place while we read. Like the TEDBooks series, Blackburne’s piece contains big ideas in a compact, engaging, and accessible package.

For most of human history, written language didn’t even exist. Reading as a cultural invention has only been around for a few thousand years, a snap of a finger in evolutionary terms. We have not, and will not, within any of our lifetimes, evolve a genetic program for reading. Yet our brains are so adept at this skill that it become as reflexive as seeing itself.”

SELLING STORIES SUCCESSFULLY

British marketing professor Stephen Brown authored the highly entertaining piece Selling Stories Successfully, at once a manifesto for “self-promotion and shameless authorpreneurship” and an exploration of what makes for good contemporary fiction. We took assiduous notes – or rather annotated our digital text – while reading this guide for writers who want to see their work get onto shelves and screens.

You have to persuade people to buy it, both literally and metaphorically. You’ve woken up to the fact that storytelling and storyselling are two completely different things. As J.G. Ballard once ruefully observed: ‘any fool can write a novel but it takes real genius to sell it.’”

BLACK SWAN

Master of cyberlit Bruce Sterling spins this enthralling tale about an Italian technology blogger, his unexpected hacker ally, and their discovery – something that threatens to revise history as we know it. We started reading Black Swan and couldn’t put down our Kindle until the last word.

I could explain now, in grueling detail, exactly what memristors are, and how different they are from any standard electronic component. Suffice to understand that, in electronic engineering, memristors did not exist. Not at all. They were technically possible – we’d known that for thirty years, since the 1980s – but nobody had ever manufactured one. A chip with memristors was like a racetrack where the jockeys rode unicorns.”

After these action- and insight-packed reads, we’re very much looking forward to seeing what stakes 40K Books pitches next.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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East Meets West: From Mao to Mozart

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What Chairman Mao has to do with The Academy Awards and extracting passion from the cello.

It’s been a big week for music here at Brain Pickings. We started with 7 must-read books about music, emotion and the brain, then bowed before the deeply inspiring YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which brought together 101 of the world’s most talented amateur classical musicians in one remarkable performance, followed by a fascinating look at how musicians experience emotion. Today, we turn to a powerful testament to the cross-cultural power of music and a bridge-builder and heart-opener.

In 1979, shortly after the death of Chairman Mao, China reopened its doors to the West and the Chinese government invited iconic American violin virtuoso Isaac Stern to visit for a recital. But his visit soon turned into a full-blown goodwill tour, as Stern ended up playing a formal concert, touring two cities and, driven by his overwhelming love of music, teaching a number of classes to Chinese musicians, many of whom children. From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China tells the amazing story of Stern’s journey with beauty and tenderness as these two cultures collide and caress, from the inspirational encounter with a gifted adolescent cellist to the heartbreaking portrait of violinmaker imprisoned for over a year for the crime of crafting Western instruments. Interwoven with the musical story is a fascinating parallel narrative and rare glimpse of the Chinese countryside, culture and people at a pivotal moment in history after the final dismantling of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Stern’s style — passionate, empathic, lived to the bone — comes in stark contrast with the meticulously technical approach of the Chinese, but the warmth of their transformative exchange and the way in which the music brings them together bespeak a universal human language that transcends geography, politics and credo.

Their approach to Western classical music was somewhat limited. They were not accustomed to playing with passion and variety of color. They had an old-fashioned technical approach towards the manner in which they played their instruments, but with an almost instant understanding and reaction to a given musical stimulus, once they were shown what might be done.” ~ Isaac Stern

The film, which won the 1981 Academy Award for best documentary, is now available online in its entirety and we couldn’t recommend it more as your weekend viewing.

The DVD also features a wonderful postcript, Musical Encounters, chronicling Stern’s return to Beijing two decades later as he catches up with Wang, the young cellist, who by that point had made a name for himself as a successful international recording artist.

For a related cross-cultural bridge via classical music, don’t miss Herbie Hancock and Lang Lang’s incredible collaborative performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, which took place exactly two decades after Stern’s visit to China.

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Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini

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137 years ago today, the great Harry Houdini was born. Hovering between magic and stuntsmanship, history’s greatest escape artist captivated hearts and minds by making humans believe that superhuman feats were possible. He made a living out of mystery and his life ended with even more mystery. The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero is one of the best books on modern mythology you’ll ever read — a meticulously researched and rivetingly narrated biography of the great magician, equal parts comprehensive and controversial.

Today, we celebrate his birthday with Dead Men’s Tales: Harry Houdini — a fascinating Discovery documentary that investigates the life and contentious death of the iconic escapologist, drawing a striking parallel between Houdini’s tale and the story of early 20th-century America — the modernity, the sleekness, the optimism that made everything seem possible and humanity feel indestructible. From how he hacked the body’s neurochemistry to tolerate incredible pain levels to why he changed his name and forged his birth certificate to what the popular Hollywood myth about his demise got wrong, the film is an absolute gem of modern myth-making. Enjoy:

He made a career out of mystery, and mystery still surrounds his death.”

For a closer look at Houdini’s life and legacy, we really couldn’t recommend The Secret Life of Houdini more strongly — more than a mere historical biography, it tells a timeless story of self-invention, creative entrepreneurship and relentless perseverance, deeply relevant to everyone from the startup founder to the professional athlete to the everyday aspiration-chaser.

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