Brain Pickings

Past Objects: Excavated Curiosities from New York’s Forgotten Past

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What landfills have to do with ivory craftsmanship and existential questions of impermanence.

Since 1969, Scott Jordan has been digging around New York City for buried treasures. More than four decades later, Jordan has turned the childhood hobby into a curious career as a self-trained historian and restorer at the intersection of history, archeology and urban scavenger hunting. In Past Objects, Jordan offers a fascinating look at the most interesting objects from his massive collection, which he has excavated using shovels, mesh sieves, canvas rucksacks, and sheer ingenuity from across New York’s five boroughs.

Jordan’s passion for strange and wonderful collectible remnants dates back to his childhood, when he and his brother used to roam the woods of Connecticut in search of fossils. When he was five, his family moved to NYC, which made him adamant not to become a “city kid.” So he simply repurposed his unusual hobby to his new urban surrounding and began his forty-year search for New York City’s past.

I daydream about what our present time will seem like to people in the future. How our landfills will be a great source of well-preserved materials forty, fifty, sixty feet down in the bread-loaf shaped mounds that we create. Its’ a strange thing to think that everything we know and see will come to pass, that our lives and everything we do and use every day will one day be old-fashioned and outdated.” ~ Scott Jordan

At once haunting and relentlessly fascinating, Past Objects is as much a journey into the past as it is an invitation to consider the footprint of the present, both for us as individuals and our culture as a civilization.

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How Ralph Waldo Emerson Shaped the American Ideal

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Philosophy, entrepreneurship, and what classic spiritual movements have to do with modern geeks.

Today marks the birthday of poet, essayist, lecturer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, father of Transcendentalism — a belief system in which spirituality transcends the physical and the doctrines of organized religion, and is instead based on the individual’s intuition, advocating for “a poetry and philosophy of insight and not tradition.” His iconic 1837 speech, The American Scholar, is commonly considered the American “Intellectual Declaration of Independence” and, to put it in modern layman terms, is easily the original geek manifesto. His seminal essay, Self-Reliance, remains one of history’s most important works on individuality and anti-conformity.

Emerson: The Ideal in America is the first documentary about the life and work of the great thinker, whose belief in “the infinitude of the private man” is embedded in contemporary concepts ranging from spirituality to spirit of entrepreneurship to ideals of individualism and personal agency. The film is available both online in its entirety and on DVD, and is very much a must-see.

Here is the real secret to Emerson’s work: He stands still, he listens to his heart, and he writes as he listens.”

To commemorate Emerson’s birth today, Seth Godin’s Domino Project is releasing a fantastic new edition of Self-Reliance, featuring self-reflections from both historical and contemporary luminaries, as well as quotes from icons like Henry Ford, Helen Keller, Steve Pressfield, and Milton Glaser. In classic Domino Project fashion, it’s a multiplatform release including a hardcover, audio CD, mp3, Kindle ebook, Audible audiobook, limited deluxe edition (with cover design eerily similar to the Holstee Manifesto), and shareable multi-packs.

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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.

My Visual Diary: A Month-in-the-Life in Stop-Motion

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What people-watching and the love of cereal have to do with fostering visual literacy.

Short and sweet, from Brooklyn-based designer and filmmaker Joe Hollier and in line with today’s medium/message theme, My Visual Diary — a lovely stop-motion film that captures a month in Joe’s life. The beautiful visual narrative is both intimately personal and sprinkled with simple yet profound human truth.

The film was made for an assignment in Richard Wilde’s Visual Literacy SVA class.

See more of Joe’s wonderful work on his site.

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.