Brain Pickings

A Rare Look at Michelangelo’s Private Papers


The secret life of marginalia, or what private poetry has to do with humanity’s greatest public art.

Besides being one of humanity’s most beloved artists, Michelangelo is also a paragon of the kind of cross-disciplinary curiosity and creativity I try to foster with Brain Pickings. But the origin and process of his creative genius turns out to be much more layered and faceted than previously thought. In Michelangelo: A Life on Paper, Princeton scholar Leonard Barkan exposes a lesser-known side of Michelangelo, looking beyond the great artistic achievements like the Sistine ceiling, the David, the Piet, and the dome of St. Peter’s to reveal, with as much intimacy as history’s most coveted artifacts will allow, a rare glimpse of Michelangelo’s unconscious.

Both a journey into the serendipity and randomness of the great artist’s curiosity and a record of his practical creative process, the lavish tome features over 200 museum-quality reproductions of Michelangelo’s most private papers and sketches. The drawings and doodles are sprinkled with bits of poetry, personal budgets, contracts, memos to self and other ephemera of the life of the mind, presenting the first study of the remarkable interplay between words and images in Michelangelo’s work.

The book is really about [Michelangelo's] interior life. It’s an archive of the things that he put together when his mind was wandering and his hand was wandering and words popped into his head or drawings seeped out of his pen.” ~ Leonard Barkan

As a lover of language, I see as one of Barkan’s greatest feats the thoughtfulness with which he illuminates the role of the written word in Michelangelo’s creative process and the importance of marginalia in his — and anyone’s, really — artistic exploration.

Desire engenders desire and then leaves pain.” ~ Michelangelo

What makes Michelangelo: A Life on Paper all the more intriguing is that, by extending an invitation into Michelangelo’s private world of words written for his eyes alone, it raises the question of whom we create for — ourselves, as tender beings with a fundamental need for self-expression, or an audience, as social creatures with a fundamental desire to be liked, understood and acclaimed.

via @DesignObserver

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Arthur Conan Doyle, Psychic: Rare Footage from 1930


What the world’s most analytical detective has to do with exploring the fringes of spiritual life.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may be best-known as the creator of the iconic Sherlock Holmes stories, but in this rare newsreel from 1930, recorded mere weeks before the author passed away, he talks about something unexpected: After telling the story of how Sherlock came to life, Conan Doyle delves into his profound fixation on spiritualism and the psychic world. It’s particularly fascinating to see a man whose literary thought hinged on analytical insight and objectivity explore the nebulous, shape-shifting corners of the human mind.

People ask me, will I write any more Sherlock Holmes stories and I certainly don’t think it’s at all probable. But as I grow older, the psychic subject always grows in intensity and one becomes more earnest upon it, and I should think that my few remaining years will be probably devoted much more in that direction than in the direction of literature. My principal thoughts are that i should extend, if I can, that knowledge, which I have on psychic matters, and spread it as far as I can to those who have been less fortunate.

I don’t for one moment suppose that I’m taking it upon my self to say that I’m the inventor of spiritualism, or that I’m even the principal exponent of it. There are many great mediums, many great psychical researchers, investigators of all sorts — all that I can do is be a gramophone on the subject, to go about, to meet people face to face, to try to make them understand that this thing is not the foolish thing, which is so often represented, but that it really is a great philosophy and, as I think, the basis for all religious improvement in the future of the human race.” ~ Arthur Conan Doyle

via @matthiasrascher

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10 Beautiful Typographic Covers of Non-Typography Books


What 12 million human emotions have to do with iconic industrial design and the science of memes.

Last week, I came across this lovely post on beautifully designed typographic covers of books that aren’t about typography, and it made me realize that the covers of some of my own most beloved books are also minimalist and typographic. So, here are 10 of my favorites.


Clay Shirky‘s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age landed atop my list of the best books in business, life and mind for 2010 and one of 7 must-read books on the future of the Internet. It takes a fascinating look at how new media and technology are transforming us from consumers to collaborators, harnessing the vast amounts of free-floating human potential to build on humanity’s treasure trove of knowledge and bring about social change.


I was instantly taken with Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes, the most ambitious book project of 2010 — so ambitious, in fact, that nearly all bookbinders Foer approached deemed it unmakable — and a proud topper of my selection of the best art, design and photography books of 2010. It’s a visionary piece of literary remix, “analog interactive storytelling” created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, and rearranging the text to form an entirely different story.


You may recall Listen to This by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross as one of these 7 must-read books on music, emotion and the brain. Though some say it doesn’t measure up to Ross’s remarkable The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (also a typographic-cover gem), it remains an outstanding effort to explain and understand the world through its musical proclivities, from European opera to Chinese classical music to Bjork.


If you’ve been reading closely enough, you’re probably raising your eyebrow at how I can be framing Nicholas Carr‘s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. And you’d be right to. But while I wildly disagree with most of Carr’s quasi-scientific arguments, I do agree with his contention that implicit to every technology is an “intellectual ethic,” which shapes how we discover, acquire, and debate information, so I maintain that his is one of the 7 most important books on the future of the Internet. Besides, it does have a magnificent cover, and that’s what we’re looking at today.


Originally published in 1976 by legendary Welsh novelist and critic Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society — one of these 5 must-read books for language lovers — offers a fascinating and timeless lens on language from a cultural rather than etymological standpoint, examining the history of over 100 familiar yet misunderstood or ambiguous words, from ‘art’ to ‘nature’ to ‘welfare’ to ‘originality.’

The book begins with an essay on ‘culture’ itself, dissecting the historical development and social appropriation of this ubiquitous and far-reaching semantic construct. It paints a living portrait of the constant transformation of culture as reflected in natural language. So seminal was Williams’ work that in 2005, Blackwell attempted an ambitious update to his text in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, though the cover design falls completely flat.


In 2009, senior Harper’s editor Bill Wasik did what no other book had intelligently done before: He formalized a great deal of research and thinking about the age of memes and viral information in And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. Both the paperback…

…and hardcover are typograhic treats of the finest kind, though my vote is with the hardcover for the clever meta wink:


As Little Design As Possible: The Work of Dieter Rams is a fantastic new book about the greatest industrial designer of all time by British design historian Sophie Lovell, which I just reviewed in full last week. Its cover, clean, minimalist and to-the-point, pays proper homage to its subject and its title, illustrating in visceral terms that, indeed, “Good design is as little design as possible.”


Sure, I’ve reviewed it before, I’ve included it in these 10 essential primers on culture, and still I keep coming back to How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by New York Times columnist Stanley Fish — an inspired look at the beauty of language through its fundamental building block, the sentence. It doesn’t hurt that it sports an elegant typographic cover, either.


Negative space? Check. Typographic minimalism? Check. Black-white-red combo? Check. It hardly gets more designerly than the cover of Symbol by Steve Bateman and Angus Hyland — a visual morphology of 1300 classic and modern symbols, organized based on their visual characteristics and framed with contextual information on who the symbol was designed for, who designed it and when, and what it stands for.


We Feel Fine: An Almanac of Human Emotion by visionary artist-storyteller Jonathan Harris, based on the ongoing online experiment of the same name, visually explores 12 million human emotions recorded since 2005 through brilliantly curated words and images that make this massive repository of found sentiment incredibly personal yet incredibly relatable. From despair to exhilaration, from the public to the intimate, it captures the passions and dreams of which human existence is woven through candid vignettes, intelligent infographics and scientific observations.

Reviewed in full, with many images, here.

See more book cover candy on the relentlessly fascinating Book Cover Archive.

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