Brain Pickings

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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John Lithgow Reads Mark Twain, Live-Illustrated

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What a chronically sleepy man has to do with litmus tests of literary success.

LIVE from NYPL is a fantastic live event series from the New York Public Library, featuring readings and discussions by, with and about cultural icons and luminaries ranging from Jennifer Egan to Lemony Snicket to Jay Z. (A Brain Pickings favorite from a few years ago: The excellent panel on remix culture with Lawrence Lessig, Shepard Fairey and Steven Johnson.) In the spring of 2009, NYPL put on an event titled How to Live Dada: Andrei Codrescu, Henry Alford & Mark Twain Interview Each Other!, as a teaser for Codrescu’s then-new book, The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess. Part of the program featured never-before-published works by Mark Twain, read by John Lithgow and live-illustrated by NYPL artist in residence Flash Rosenberg, in a style reminiscent of the RSA‘s.

This segment is based on Chapter 2 of Twain’s Who Is Mark Twain, titled Whenever I am about to publish a book…. In it, Twain outlines the fourteen types of people, who he believes are archetypes representative of the general public in sum — including an intensely practical person, a sentimental person, a hypercritical person, and a man who inevitably falls asleep — and concludes:

But the man whom I most depend upon is the man who always goes to sleep. If he drops off within 15 minutes, I burn the book. If he keeps awake three quarters of an hour, I publish, and I publish with the greatest confidence, too. For the intent of my books is to entertain and by making this man confortable on a sofa and timing him, I can tell, within a shade or two, what degrees of success I’m going to achieve.” ~ Mark Twain

Who Is Mark Twain features 24 priceless pieces by the iconic author, culled by by Robert Hirst, General Editor of The Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley.

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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.