Brain Pickings

Inside The Kelly Writers House Audio Archives


The muses of happiness and misery, or what closet hedonism has to do with the arts.

For the past fifteen years, Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, our alma mater, has been hosting over 150 public programs each semester — poetry readings, lectures, film screenings, seminars, workshops, radio broadcasts, salon-style gatherings and other multimedia happenings. One of KWH’s most invaluable assets is the Fellows Program, connecting young writers with seasoned and accomplished ones. Since 1999, KWH Fellows have included cultural luminaries like Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, David Sedaris, E. L. Doctorow and many more. Archival recordings of readings by and discussions with many of the fellows are available on the program website and, today, we’ve curated a few of our favorites.

Ian Frazier on imitation and writing (2:18)

Susan Sontag on the physical spaces of writing: her library and New York City (5:29)

I’m very drawn to the ways in which the arts transform us, or have the potentiality of transforming us and deepening us. You can say that lots of other experiences could do that too, but then what instrument of consciousness do we bring to that experience?” ~ Susan Sontag

David Sedaris on the importance of anger (6:35)

Art Spiegelman on disaster as a muse (05:29)

I don’t work when I’m feeling good. I know artists who do, they work out of exuberance, and I work more out of trying to retain enough equilibrium so I can say ‘good morning’ to people in an elevator and just function in a day.” ~ Art Spiegelman

The question always is there: What kind of a privilege is it just to be able to feel purely and simply happy? But we can, and in spite of so much knowledge.” ~ Adrienne Rich

Adrienne Rich on happiness as the opposite of guilt (5:19)

Susan Sontag on conversion that sticks: the need for narration & promoting the inner life (10:02)

I’m such an up-front, out-in-the-open moralist. I am a closet hedonist. I do respect the search for pleasure because I don’t believe it is to be taken for granted. And just the sheer pleasure that the arts give, the pleasure of color, for instance, and the education of the eye, actually to see, the education of the ear — those things, I don’t really know how to factor them in. But I think of the arts as being something that really keeps you alive, keeps you going, keeps you growing.” ~ Susan Sontag

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BBC’s 60-Second Ideas to Improve the World


From BBC World Service comes 60 Second Idea to Improve the World — a wonderful podcast inviting global thought leaders to propose simple, radical ideas for the betterment of humanity, followed by a short discussion in a forum of equally esteemed guests.

Part microincubator for innovation, part peek inside the minds of mavericks, the series is a lovely reminder that big ideas can indeed come in small packages.

From Clay Shirky‘s call for nudity as an environmental measure to philosopher Roman Frigg‘s push for a national Break The Routine day, the 60-second ideas burst onto your mental space as cheeky pranksters, only to peel away the layers and reveal the thoughtfulness of post-modern pragmatist-philosophers.

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PICKED: Sintel, a Global Collaborative Animated Film


Last year, we spotlighted Big Buck Bunny, a wonderful collaborative animated feature film orchestrated by the Blender Foundation, provider of free open-source 3D animation software, who brought together seven of the world’s best 3D animators to spend seven months in Amsterdam, collaborating on the film. Now, Blender is back with an even more ambitious project — Sintel, an independent short film produced by an international team of artists and developers, designed to demonstrate the power of free, open-source creation tools and global collaboration.

Sintel was subsidized through thousands of donations from supporters across the web — powerful validation for both open-source software as a driver of creative collaboration and the importance of community support for enabling self-publishing and free content, something we can certainly appreciate given Brain Pickings is made possible solely by the generous donations of readers.

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