Brain Pickings

Obsessive Consumption: Life in a Material World, Illustrated

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How a visual record of consumerism is paving the way for mindful consumption.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Kate Bingaman-Burt‘s Obsessive Consumption project — a wonderfully illustrated visual record of personal consumption running since February 5, 2006. So I was delighted when last year Princeton Architectural Press (of The Map as Art fame) added the project to this running list of blog-turned-book success stories and published Obsessive Consumption: What Did You Buy Today? — a charming illustrated chronicle of Bingham-Burt’s adventures in a material world, spanning 200 pages and three years’ worth of selected ink drawings from the project.

The project is particularly interesting examined in parallel and contrast to Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff, which also uses black-and-white line illustration but explores the flipside of personal consumption by exposing the dark underbelly of the seemingly innocuous products we buy.

Images courtesy of Kate Bingham-Burt

And while Obsessive Consumption may at first seem in stark contrast with my advocacy of collaborative consumption and having more by owning less, its underlying message is one of introspection and insight, of paying closer attention to how we make sense of the world and our place in it through “stuff” and, in the process, becoming more mindful consumers.

You can snag an original drawing by Kate over on Etsy.

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The Vowels: A Ken Burns Parody

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What the secret quasi-history of vowels has to do with the Founding Fathers’ prankstership.

Ken Burns. Prolific documentarian. Potent distiller of history and culture. As fascinating as his films may be, however, they tend to take themselves a bit too seriously. At least that’s what Sam Cherington, Andrew Flanagan, Daniel Inkeles, William Morey and Benjamin Smith wink at with the excellent The Vowels: A Film by Ken Burns — a short film that isn’t, of course, by Ken Burns but is instead a wildly entertaining parody.

And to add to the comedic value of this find, spotted on Meta Filter, here’s a gem from the discussion thread on the post, a real why-we-love-MeFi treat:

I once rode in an elevator with Ken Burns. He got off after four floors. Good thing, too, otherwise we would have all turned sepia.” ~ jonmc

And the fitting response:

And your elevator panel choices were Up, Down, Pan Left, Pan Right…” ~ hal9k

Ah, MeFi.

For some of the real Ken Burns stuff, you won’t go wrong with The Civil War or, my personal favorite, Jazz. And for some real stuff for language-lovers, look no further than these 5 essential books.

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Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon in Retrospect

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Unspoken speeches, the root of Beethoven’s misanthropy, and why we need a secretary of the future.

Last month, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional interviews with luminaries were the most-shared piece on Brain Pickings. Revisiting the book reminded me of two things: One, the world lost one of its greatest observers of and commentators on culture the day Vonnegut died; two, how fantastic the 2009 anthology Armageddon in Retrospect is — the first posthumous collection of 12 never-before-published stories by Vonnegut, including fiction, nonfiction and, perhaps most notably, his last speech, which he wrote in 2007 and was meant to deliver in April of that year, but passed away shortly prior, so his son Mark delivered it in his stead. (Segue to reminder about last week’s selection of 5 timeless graduation speeches.)

If you can’t write clearly, you probably don’t think nearly as well as you think you do.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Mark Vonnegut also penned the beautiful introduction to the book, in which he offers a priceless slice-of-life perspective on his father’s writing process, worries, and joys.

He taught how stories were told and taught readers how to read. His writings will continue to do that for a long time. He was and is subversive, but not the way people thought he was. He was the least wild-and-crazy guy I ever knew. No drugs. No fast cars.” ~ Mark Vonnegut

Amidst the stories of war, peace, and the human predilection for violence hides a a rare selection of Vonnegut’s artwork that articulates the iconic author’s frustrations with humanity in a simple and even more poignant way.

As usual, Vonnegut’s contemplative dismay at the state of mankind permeates the narrative:

Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him. It was music. I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out. It was disgust with civilization.”

But, also as usual, it’s underpinned by an honest hope for humanity’s future, for our capacity to change and better ourselves, which makes Armageddon in Retrospect — and his work in general — as sticky and powerful as it is.

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