Brain Pickings

Albertus Seba’s Amazing Cabinet of Natural Curiosities

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Getting a private viewing of the King Bird of Paradise, or how to set the exchange rate for flying squid.

Lying at the intersection of art and science, the practice of natural illustration has long been the recipient of Brain Pickings adoration. So we swooned over the recent release of Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, a reproduction of the unequalled collection of Amsterdam apothecary Albertus Seba. Born in the mid-17th century, Seba spent decades gathering a wunderkammer of birds, insects, reptiles, and exotic plants for use in his drug preparations.

One hundred years before the eminent German naturalist Ernst Haeckel was even born, Seba had published two volumes of engravings of his compendia; the last two wouldn’t be finished until after his death in 1736. Seba’s internationally famous cabinet of animals, insects, and plants was coveted by prominent collectors, but eventually purchased by Czar Peter the Great for display in Russia.

Seba’s fantastic assortment no longer exists as a whole — its parts scattered throughout the globe, and some of its individual specimens extinct — but, happily, the images do. The professional pharmacist and amateur zoologist commissioned illustrations of every single item in his collection. In gorgeous reproductions of the original color plates, we get to see detailed drawings of Phasmatodea (or Walking Stick, as the insect is colloquially known), three-banded armadillo, and snakes from Suriname. And while a complete edition of Seba’s visual thesaurus was sold at auction for nearly half a million dollars, we can happily enjoy it for far less.

A spectacular exhibition of 18th-century natural history, Cabinet of Natural Curiosities will enchant the curious cross-disciplinarian and bring a bygone era of scientific study back to life.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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Of Lamb: A Children’s Classic Retold for Contrarians

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What baseball player Manny Ramirez has to do with the fourth-best-selling poetry book in America.

If you combined a game of Exquisite Corpse, textual erasure, and the fantastic coloration of outsider art, you might come somewhat close to the gorgeous new book Of Lamb. Out this month from McSweeney’s, Of Lamb is a collaboration between poet Matthea Harvey and artist/illustrator Amy Jean Porter, and the sum of its parts is unlike anything we’ve seen before.

The project’s original text was a biography of the 19th-century British essayist Charles Lamb, which Harvey proceeded to white-out until only fragments and phrases remained. She then turned the much-reduced manuscript over to artist Porter, who created 106 gouache-and-ink images to illustrate Harvey’s melancholy, dreamlike poem.

Of Lamb is a work of such subtle, haunting, spellbinding beauty it is virtually impossible to describe it. Fantastical and yet, so strangely, achingly ‘real’ in its tracking of love, loss, grief, and again love” ~ Joyce Carol Oates

The titular lamb travels from Mary’s yard to a mental facility and beyond, coming into contact with former Red-Soxer Manny Ramirez, newscaster Brian Williams, and Oprah. Like the bizarre but beautiful outcome of a genetic mutation, he turns shades of bright orange, neon green, and deep blue, all the while going through a range of totally familiar human emotions.

A totally tweaked retelling of the classic nursery rhyme, Of Lamb is a singular experience that will entrance any age. And if you hunger for more children’s books for grown-ups, don’t miss our all-time favorites, in two installments.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

Space Shuttle’s Legacy: A Carl Sagan Remix

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What Koyaanisqatsi has to do with William Shatner and the future of space exploration.

We’ve seen — and loved — our share of Carl Sagan remixes over the years. This month, as NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle took its final launch, Reid Gower has commemorated the program’s momentous legacy with another fantastic Carl Sagan mashup, remixing voiceover from Sagan’s iconic Pale Blue Dot with classic footage from sources as varied as Baraka, Stephen Hawkins’ Into The Universe, BBC’s The Cell and Sagan’s own Cosmos, among many more.

We had an expansive run in the ’60s and the ’70s. You might have thought, as I did then, that our species would be on Mars before the century was over. But, instead, we’ve pulled inward. Robots aside, we’ve backed off from the planets and the stars. I keep asking myself: is it a failure of nerve, or a sign of maturity?” ~ Carl Sagan

The remix is part of Gower’s excellent ongoing Sagan Series. For more fan-made NASA love, don’t miss these two remarkable tributes, as well as this beautiful NASA-produced documentary about Space Shuttle’s legacy narrated by none other than William Shatner.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.