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15 DECEMBER, 2014

The Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2014

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Nabokov’s love letters, Shackleton’s courageous journey, the unsung heroes behind creative icons, Joni Mitchell unbound, and more.

After the year’s best reads in science, children’s books, psychology and philosophy, and art, design, and photography, here come the finest memoirs, biographies, and history books of the year — our most inviting bridge between past and present, personal and universal.

1. A LIFE WORTH LIVING

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his 119-page philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” One of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century captures one of humanity’s most enduring philosophical challenged — the impulse at the heart of Seneca’s meditations on life and Montaigne’s timeless essays and Maya Angelou’s reflections, and a wealth of human inquiry in between. But Camus, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Rudyard Kipling, addressed it with unparalleled courage of conviction and insight into the irreconcilable longings of the human spirit.

In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (public library | IndieBound), historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his “yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,” and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy:

If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.

[…]

Camus pursues the perennial prey of philosophy — the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world — less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.

Dive deeper with more on Camus’s crusade for happiness as our moral obligation.

2. CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library | IndieBound) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

See more here.

3. SUSAN SONTAG

In addition to being a great personal hero of mine, Susan Sontag endures as one of the most influential intellectuals of the past century. But her most enchanting quality was a singular blend of fierce, opinionated intellect and vast emotional capacity — a mind not only aware of the world, but also of itself and its own vulnerability, coupled with a heart that beat with uncommon intensity and inhabited its fallible human potentiality fully, unflinchingly — not only a “professional observer” of life, per her memorable definition of a writer, but also an active participant in life, both public and private. Sontag lived with more dimension than most people are capable of even imagining, let alone comprehending, which rendered her at times revered, at times reviled, but mostly artificially flattened into the very labels she so deplored.

To capture Sontag’s life and spirit by honoring her dimensionality, then, is a monumental task, but one which Berlin-based writer and art critic David Schreiber accomplishes with enormous elegance in the long-awaited Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library | IndieBound).

Perhaps the most interesting narrative thread in Schreiber’s story of Sontag explores how she claimed her place in culture and crafted her version of “the American dream,” beginning with her conquest of New York:

In March 1959, Susan and her son, David, moved to New York. With her typical flair for self-dramatization, Sontag told interviewers that she arrived in the metropolis with only two suitcases and thirty dollars. Later it was seventy dollars, a somewhat more realistic amount that would be about $450 in today’s dollars. Because of the low rents in New York at the time, it would have been enough to make a start.

As Sontag told it, it sounds like a version of the American dream: a twenty-three-year-old single mother without resources moves to a huge and hostile city intending to live there as an author, filmmaker, and intellectual. And on her own and against all odds, she realizes her dream. There could not have been a better place than New York for Sontag to convert her fantasy of the bohemian life into reality. In this city, everything seemed possible for a young, ambitious woman.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

But it wasn’t merely a matter of ambition: Sontag possessed a rare talent to possess — people, places, social situations. Schreiber cites an account by one of Sontag’s lifelong friends, the American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard:

Howard remembers what a natural Sontag was at making new contacts, striking up friendships, and meeting influential people. “She could be very, very nice — even seductive — to people she wanted something from. She just could not talk to stupid people.”

[…]

Sontag’s natural and self-confident contact with this exclusive society is all the more remarkable when one recalls how difficult it was to gain admittance. The gathering of New York’s high society of writers, artists, and intellectuals was an almost hermetically sealed world with strict criteria for admission.

[…]

Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty, so that, as she herself once said, she had Jasper Johns, Bobby Kennedy, and Warren Beatty all at her feet.

Dive deeper here.

4. MEANWHILE IN SAN FRANCISCO

Although Meanwhile, in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words (public library | IndieBound) by illustrator extraordinaire and frequent Brain Pickings contributor Wendy MacNaughton may be “about” a city, in the sense that the raw inspiration was drawn from the streets of San Francisco, it is really about the city, any city — about community, about subcultures and belonging, about the complexities of gentrification, about what it means to have individual dignity and shared identity. In that sense, it is a collective memoir of community.

Like a modern-day Margaret Mead armed with ink and watercolor, not a critic or commentator but an observer and amplifier of voice, MacNaughton plunges into the living fabric of the city with equal parts curiosity and compassion, gentleness and generosity, wit and wisdom, and emerges with a dimensional portrait painted with honesty, humor, and humility.

Beneath the individual stories — of the bus driver, of the hipsters, of the old men in Chinatown, of the librarian, of the street preacher — lies a glimpse of our shared humanity, those most vulnerable and earnest parts of the human soul that we often overlook and dismiss as we reduce people to their demographic and psychographic variables, be those race or gender or socioeconomic status or subcultural identification. Embedded in these simple, moving stories is MacNaughton’s tender reminder that there is no greater gift we can give each other than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing, of peering beyond the persona and into the person with an awareness that however different our struggles and circumstances may be, we are inextricably bonded by the great human longing to be truly seen for who we are.

See more here.

5. EVER YOURS

Vincent van Gogh was woven of contradictions — an extraordinary artist who also illuminated the scientific mysteries of movement and light; a man of great hunger for love and light and a great capacity for anguish. Nowhere does the role of these polarizing pulls in the making of his genius shine more brilliantly than in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library | IndieBound) — a revelatory selection of 265 letters exploring Van Gogh’s creative restlessness, his struggle to find his path in life, his tentative first steps into painting, and his views on art, society, love, and life.

In one letter, Van Gogh writes to his brother, Theo:

I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh

In another, he despairs:

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!

An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.

[…]

You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…

Dive deeper with Van Gogh’s heartfelt letters on his struggle to find his purpose.

6. THE UNSPEAKABLE

Meghan Daum is undoubtedly one of the finest essayists of our time. In The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (public library | IndieBound), she explores “the tension between primal reactions and public decorum” and aiming at “a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses,” driven by a valiant effort to unbridle those messy, complex experiences from the simplistic templates with which we address them, both privately and publicly.

In the introduction, Daum echoes Zadie Smith’s piercing critique of our platitudes-paved road to self-actualization and laments the hijacking of our darker, more disquieting emotions by the happiness industrial complex:

For all the lip service we pay to “getting real,” we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told — and in turn tell others — that illness and suffering isn’t a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we’re supposed to find joy isn’t a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we’re apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American.

Dive deeper with Daum on aging, nostalgia, and how we become who we are.

7. WORN STORIES

One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.

For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.

The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.

Read some of the stories here, then hear Spivack’s fascinating interview on Design Matters.

8. LETTERS TO VÉRA

Long before Vladimir Nabokov became a sage of literature, Russia’s most prominent literary émigré, and a man of widely revered strong opinions, the most important event of his life took place: 24-year-old Vladimir met 21-year-old Véra. She would come to be not only his great love and wife for the remaining half century of his life, but also his editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

So taken was Vladimir with Véra’s fierce intellect, her independence, her sense of humor, and her love of literature — she had been following his work and clipping his poems since she was nineteen and he twenty-two — that he wrote his first poem for her after having spent mere hours in her company. But nowhere did his all-consuming love and ebullient passion unfold with more mesmerism than in his letters to her, which he began writing the day after they met and continued until his final hours. They are now collected in the magnificent tome Letters to Véra (public library) — a lifetime of spectacular contributions to the canon of literary history’s greatest love letters, with intensity and beauty of language rivaled only, perhaps, by the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and those of Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

In July of 1923, a little more than two months after they met, Vladimir writes to Véra:

I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being — well, understood, perhaps, — so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about — you’ll rub off their marvelous pollen at the touch of a word… You are lovely…

[…]

Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought — and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.

[…]

See you soon my strange joy, my tender night.

By November, his love has only intensified:

How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours — with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? … I swear — and the inkblot has nothing to do with it — I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in — I swear that I have never loved before as I love you, — with such tenderness — to the point of tears — and with such a sense of radiance.

Devour more of Nabokov’s exquisite love letters here.

9. SHACKLETON’S JOURNEY

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library | IndieBound), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

See more here.

10. THE WHO, THE WHAT, AND THE WHEN

There is something quite wonderful about witnessing one human being selflessly bolster the creative achievement of another, especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator — from the man who helped Bukowski quit his soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer to the way Ursula Nordstrom nurtured young Maurice Sendak’s talent. But those who blow quiet, steadfast wind into the sails of genius clash with our narrow mythology of solitary brilliance — not to mention that as we so readily dismiss creative contribution on the accusatory grounds of “privilege” today, we weigh the material advantages but forget that the loving and staunch support of human capital is often the greatest privilege of all. And for many people we’ve come to celebrate as geniuses, such human capital was precisely what made their achievements possible — a vital aid rather than a detractor of their greatness.

That’s precisely what illustrator extraordinaire Julia Rothman and her collaborators Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe celebrate in The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History (public library | IndieBound) — an illuminating inventory of the little-known champions behind a wide range of cultural icons and an homage to the gift of what Robert Krulwich once so poetically termed “friends in low places.” Each story is told by a different writer and illustrated by a different artist, all of astounding range and talent.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Among these enabling unknowns are George Washington’s dentist, Andy Warhol’s mother, Alan Turing’s teenage crush, Emily Dickinson’s dog, Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, and Roald Dahl’s mother. Indeed, as immeasurably heartening as the project is, there is also a heartbreaking undertone reminding us how consistently women are sidelined in history — throughout the book, the most frequently recurring roles of these silent supporters are of wife and mother, who doubled and tripled and quadrupled as assistant, caretaker, editor, publicist, and a great many more utilitarian and creative duties.

Véra Nabokov, 1902–1991; art by Thomas Doyle

Rothman and team write in the introduction:

Behind every great person there is someone who enabled his or her ascension. These friends, relatives, partners, muses, colleagues, coaches, assistants, lovers, teachers, and caretakers deserve some credit… When you consider your own life, there are dozens of people who have guided you along your path — whether a teacher from fifth grade who finally got you to raise your hand in class, a family friend who gave you your first camera, or that whiskey-sipping neighbor who’d tell you stories of his childhood. These relationships shape our lives, some lightly and others with more impact.

Julia Warhola, 1891–1971; art by Leslie Herman

Read some of these heartening illustrated stories here.

11. E.E. CUMMINGS

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras memorably wrote. Half a century earlier, a young poet began teaching the world this art, and teaching us to question what is seen, then made another art of that questioning. In E. E. Cummings: A Life (public library | IndieBound), memoirist, biographer, and journalist Susan Cheever chronicles the celebrated poet’s “wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.”

Cheever considers the three ways in which modernists like Cummings and his coterie — which included such icons as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp — reshaped culture:

Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.

One can’t help but feel the particular timeliness, today, of the third — how often are we offered “a burst of delight and recognition” in our culture of monotonously shrill linkbait as we struggle to glean any semblance of wisdom in the age of information? Cummings knew that equally essential was the capacity to notice the invitation to experience that burst — a capacity ever-shrinking, ever-urgently longed for in our age of compulsive flight from stillness — and he made an art of that noticing. Cheever writes:

[The modernists] were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.

Read more, including a note on the faux-controversy over Cummings’s name capitalization, here.

12. THE LONDON JUNGLE BOOK

Something happened to us between Shackleton’s day in the Golden Age of Exploration and today — something that transformed us from wide-eyed wanderers who came to know distant lands with a sense of wonder and awe into the habitually crabby, short-tempered, entitled travelers we are today. We tap our feet impatiently at the airport security line, oblivious to the miracle we’re about to experience — a giant beast of our own creation is to take us high into the sky (where we can enjoy food and Academy-Award-winning cinema) and to a distant, often foreign land. A mere century ago, the vast majority of people never traveled more than fifty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime — and yet here we are today, jaded and irritable at the prospect of travel. How did we end up that way? And what if we arrogant moderns could, if only for a moment, strip ourselves of our cultural baggage and experience travel afresh, with eager new eyes and exuberant joy for the journey?

That’s precisely what award-winning artist Bhajju Shyam, working in the Gond tradition of Indian folk art, does in The London Jungle Book (public library | IndieBound) — an extraordinary and invigorating book from Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who continue to give international voice to marginalized art and literature through their commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on unusual, often handmade books. Titled as both an homage and a mirror-image counterpoint to Rudyard Kipling’s iconic The Jungle Book, this gem tells the story of young Bhajju’s reality-warping encounter with London, where he journeyed from his native India.

At once a highly symbolic, almost semiotic visual travelogue and a work of remarkable philosophical sensitivity, the book invites us to see our tiresomely familiar world through the eyes of a young man who has a creative intelligence few adults are endowed with and a childlike capacity for wonder and metaphorical imagery. The busy King’s Cross station of the London Tube becomes a serpentine King of the Underworld, Big Ben a giant omniscient rooster, and London’s female workforce — women who seem to Shyam to do most of the work “and happily” — multi-handed goddesses.

Dive deeper with more of Shyam’s gorgeous drawings and the story of his voyage from poverty in a small Indian village to international acclaim as a self-made artist.

13. CATALOGING THE WORLD

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web. (Even the visual bookshelf I use to manage the Brain Pickings book archive is named after him.)

In Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (public library | IndieBound), writer, educator, and design historian Alex Wright traces Otlet’s legacy not only in technology and information science, but also in politics, social reform, and peace activism, illustrating why not only Otlet’s ideas, but also his idealism matter as we contemplate the future of humanity.

The Mundaneum, with its enormous filing system designed by Otlet himself, allowed people to request information by mail-order. By 1912, Otlet and his team were fielding 1,500 such requests per year.

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

Read more here.

14. MOCHA DICK

In May of 1839, Herman Melville found himself riveted by an article in the New York monthly magazine The Knickerbocker about a “renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers” — a formidable albino whale named Mocha Dick, who had been terrorizing whaling ships with unprecedented ferocity for nearly half a century. Twelve years later, the beast was immortalized in Melville’s Moby-Dick, a commercial failure in the author’s lifetime that went on to be celebrated as one of the Great American Novels and is among the greatest books of all time.

Now, children’s book author Brian Heinz and artist Randall Enos tell the story of the original white whale behind Melville’s masterpiece in Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury (public library | IndieBound) — a captivating picture-book “biography” of the monster-turned-literary-legend, from how human aggression turned the “peaceful giant” into a ferocious beast to his first recorded attack near the South American island of Mocha off the coast of Chile to the final, fatal harpoon blow.

Suddenly, the whale burst through the waves, his jaws gnashing in the foam. One sweep of his flukes hurled the craft high into the air, spilling the crew into the sea. Twenty-six pairs of teeth as long as a man’s hand clamped down on the boat. The huge head shook savagely until only splinters remained. Then the whale disappeared in the twilight. The remaining boats plucked up their comrades and rowed briskly to their whaler. Some men sat stone-faced. Some shook.

Randall’s gorgeous linocut collage illustrations, to which the screen does no justice whatsoever, lend Heinz’s lyrical narrative dimension and magic that render the end result utterly enchanting.

See more here.

15. UPDIKE

John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wasn’t merely the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities medal, among a wealth of other awards. He had a mind that could ponder the origin of the universe, a heart that could eulogize a dog with such beautiful bittersweetness, and a spirit that could behold death without fear. He is also credited with making suburban sex sexy, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society” — something Adam Begley explores in the long-awaited biography Updike (public library | IndieBound).

Begley chronicles Updike’s escapades in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, just as he was breaking through with The New Yorker — the bastion of high culture to which he had dreamed of contributing since the age of twelve. His literary career was beginning to gain momentum with the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960 — the fictional story of a twenty-something suburban writer who, drowning in responsibilities to his young family, finds love outside of marriage. That fantasy would soon become a reality for 28-year-old Updike, a once-dorky kid who had gotten through Harvard by playing the class clown clad in his ill-fitted tweed jackets and unfashionably wide ties.

Dive deeper with the story of how Updike made suburban sex sexy.

16. JONI MITCHELL

At the age of eight, Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943) contracted polio during the last major North American epidemic of the disease before the invention of the polio vaccine. Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home. And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. The liner notes of her 2004 compilation album Dreamland capture with elegant precision her tenacious spirit and creative restlessness: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”

When musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom chanced into a dark hole of a coffeehouse one November night in 1966, it was this explorer’s soul that she felt emanating from 23-year-old Mitchell, who was quietly tuning and retuning her guitar onstage. Marom knew that she was in the presence of genius. Over the decades that followed, she would interview Mitchell on three separate occasions — in 1973, in 1979, and in 2012. These remarkably wide-ranging conversations are now collected in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library | IndieBound) — an effort “to crack something so mysterious … the creative process itself, in all its fullness,” over the course of which Mitchell, with equal parts conviction and vulnerability, tussles with those “big questions.”

Dive deeper with Mitchell on freedom, the source of creativity, and the dark side of success and therapy and the creative mind.

17. RADIO BENJAMIN

Walter Benjamin may be best known as a literary critic, philosopher, and essayist — with enduring insight on the written word that includes his thirteen rules of writing and his advice on how to write a fat tome — but he was also a pioneer of early German radio. Between 1927 and 1933, thirty-something Benjamin wrote and delivered nearly ninety broadcasts over the nascent medium. (The world’s first radio news program had aired in August of 1920 and commercial entertainment broadcasts followed in 1922.) Those pioneering pieces, at last translated into English and released as Radio Benjamin (public library | IndieBound), were notable for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for upholding the idealism and optimism of any young medium. (Early German radio, for instance, was based on subscriptions and had strict rules against commercially sponsored programming — something wholly heartening and wholly heartbreaking in our era of “native advertising” and other unending violations of the church-state relationship between public-interest journalism and private-interest greed.) Many of Benjamin’s broadcasts were also groundbreaking in being aimed at children, from educational programming to fairy-tale adaptations to original plays.

Dive deeper with Benjamin’s satirical take on the key qualities of the successful person.

18.THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his fourteen definitions of a classic, “but which always shakes the particles off.” And yet even if we agree that “a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” there is an infinite range of what different chests can — or want to — hold. The question of what makes a great book is thus notoriously elusive — so much so that even the most celebrated writers of our time can’t agree on the greatest books of all time. That question is what Andy Miller implicitly, and at times explicitly, asks in The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life (public library | IndieBound) — his wonderfully elevating and entertaining memoir of the twelve months he spent reading “some of the greatest and most famous books in the world, and two by Dan Brown.” (With this, at the very outset, comes a comforting character test that casts Miller as the kind of person who cherishes the written word but does so without an ounce of the self-important puffery with which most professional cherishers parade around literature.)

Miller’s project — which parallels Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life in some ways and intersects it at one point — began as an earnest effort to pay off his literary debt by reading many of the books he had “succeeded in dodging during an otherwise fairly literate thirty-seven years on Earth.” His intention was not to construct a definitive canon — he calls the project “a diary rather than a manifesto; a ledger, not an agenda,” a quest to “to integrate books — to reintegrate them — into an ordinary day-to-day existence, a life which was becoming progressively less engaging to the individual living it.”

Read more here.

19. MARX

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library | IndieBound) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

See more here.

20. THE PILOT AND THE LITTLE PRINCE

“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.

That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library | IndieBound) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.

Dive deeper here.

For more timelessly rewarding biographies, memoirs, and history books, see the selections for 2013, 2012, and 2011.

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08 DECEMBER, 2014

The Best Art, Design, and Photography Books of 2014

By:

The world’s oldest living things, how to overcome creative block, meals from beloved books, the unusual stories behind people’s tattoos, and more.

After the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books, best science books, and most stimulating reads on psychology and philosophy, here are my favorite art, design, and photography books, many of which traverse multiple of these disciplines. (And since the best art is timeless, revisit the selections 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

1. THE OLDEST LIVING THINGS IN THE WORLD

“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not,” philosopher Stephen Cave observed in his poignant meditation on our mortality paradox And yet we continue to long for the secrets of that ever-elusive eternity.

For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age. Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library | IndieBound) — beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

Baby llareta

With an artist’s gift for “aesthetic force” and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives, which seem like the blink of a cosmic eye against the timescales of these ancient organisms — organisms that have unflinchingly witnessed all of our own tragedies and triumphs, our wars and our revolutions, our holocausts and our renaissances, and have remained anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. And yet a great many of these species are on the verge of extinction, in no small part due to human activity, raising the question of how our seemingly ephemeral presence in the ecosystem can have such deep and long-term impact on organisms far older and far more naturally resilient than us.

Pando (quick aspen)

80,000 years | Fish Lake, Utah, USA

Alerce (Patagonian cypress)

2,200 years | Patagonia, Chile

Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren’t so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth’s biological crown jewel?

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

Sussman offers no answers but invites us, instead, to contemplate, consider, and explore on our own — not as creatures hopelessly different from and dwarfed by the organisms she profiles, but as fellow beings in an intricately entwined mesh of life. What emerges is a beautiful breakage of our illusion of separateness and a deep appreciation for the binds that pull us and these remarkable organisms in an eternal dance — our only real gateway to immortality.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

Stromatolites

2,000-3,000 years | Carbla Station, Western Australia

Interwoven with Sussman’s photographs and essays, brimming with equal parts passion and precision, are the stories of her adventures — and misadventures — as she trekked the world in search of her ancient subjects. From a broken arm in remote Sri Lanka to a heart-wrenching breakup to a well-timed sip of whisky at polar explorer Shackleton’s grave, her personal stories imbue the universality of the deeper issues she explores with an inviting dose of humanity — a gentle reminder that life, for us as much as for those ancient organisms, is often about withstanding the uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unwelcome curveballs the universe throws our way, and that resilience comes from the dignity and humility of that withstanding.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

See more, including Sussman’s TED talk, here, then see my conversation with the artist about the deeper conceptual and philosophical ideas behind her project.

2. MY FAVORITE THINGS

Four decades after Barthes listed his favorite things, which prompted Susan Sontag to list hers, Maira Kalman — one of the most enchanting, influential, and unusual creative voices today, and a woman of piercing insight — does something very similar and very different in her magnificent book My Favorite Things (public library | IndieBound).

Kalman not only lives her one human life with remarkable open-heartedness, but also draws from its private humanity warm and witty wisdom on our shared human experience. There is a spartan sincerity to her work, an elegantly choreographed spontaneity — words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide. She looks at the same world we all look at but sees what no one else sees — that magical stuff of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments.” Here, her many-petaled mind blossoms in its full idiosyncratic whimsy as she catalogs the “personal micro-culture” of her inner life — her personal set of the objects and people and fragments of experience that constitute the ever-shifting assemblage we call a Self.

The book began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. But it is also a kind of visual catalog sandwiched between a memoir, reminding us that our experience of art is laced with the minute details and monumental moments of our personal histories and is invariably shaped by them. Between Kalman’s original paintings and photographs based on her selections from the museum’s sweeping collection — the buttons and bathtubs, dogs and dandies, first editions of Winnie the Pooh and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Proust’s letters — are also her childhood memories, her quirky personal collections, and her beautiful meditations on life.

Kalman writes in the introduction:

The pieces that I chose were based on one thing only — a gasp of DELIGHT.

Isn’t that the only way to curate a life? TO live among things that make you gasp with delight?

And gasp one does, over and over. As Kalman makes her way through the vast Cooper Hewitt collection, her immeasurably lyrical interweavings of private and public expose that special way in which museums not only serve as temples to collective memory but also invite us to reopen the Proustian jars of our own memories with interest and aliveness and a capacity to gasp.

Emanating from the entire project is Kalman’s ability to witness life with equal parts humor and humility, and to always find the lyrical — as in her exquisite pairing of this early nineteenth-century European mount and a Lydia Davis poem:

The objects Kalman selects ultimately become a springboard for leaping into the things that move her most — like her great love of books, woven with such gentleness and subtlety into a French lamp shade from 1935:

The book. Calming object. Held in the hand.

See more of this calming object here, then revisit Kalman’s young readers counterpart to the book, one of the best children’s books this year.

3. COSMIGRAPHICS

Long before Galileo pioneered the telescope, antagonizing the church and unleashing a “hummingbird effect” of innovation, humanity had been busy cataloging the heavens through millennia of imaginative speculative maps of the cosmos. We have always sought to make visible the invisible forces we long to understand, the mercy and miracle of existence, and nothing beckons to us with more intense allure than the majesty and mystery of the universe.

Four millennia of that mesmerism-made-visible is what journalist, photographer, and astrovisualization scholar Michael Benson explores with great dedication and discernment in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time (public library | IndieBound) — a pictorial catalog of our quest to order the cosmos and grasp our place in it, a sensemaking process defined by what Benson aptly calls our “gradually dawning, forever incomplete situational awareness.” From glorious paintings of the creation myth predating William Blake’s work by centuries to the pioneering galaxy drawing that inspired Van Gogh’s Starry Night to NASA’s maps of the Apollo 11 landing site, the images remind us that the cosmos — like Whitman, like ourselves — is vast and contains multitudes. This masterwork of scholarship also attests, ever so gently, ever so powerfully, to the value of the “ungoogleable” — a considerable portion of Benson’s bewitching images comes from the vaults of the world’s great science libraries and archives, bringing to light a wealth of previously unseen treasures.

Illustration from Henry Russell’s 1892 treatise 'Observations of the Transit of Venus.'

Courtesy of The Royal Society

The book’s title is an allusion to Italo Calvino’s beloved Cosmicomics, a passage from which Benson deploys as the epigraph:

In the universe now there was no longer a container and a thing contained, but only a general thickness of signs, superimposed and coagulated, occupying the whole volume of space; it was constantly being dotted, minutely, a network of lines and scratches and reliefs and engravings; the universe was scrawled over on all sides, along all its dimensions. There was no longer any way to establish a point of reference; the Galaxy went on turning but I could no longer count the revolutions, any point could be the point of departure, any sign heaped up with the others could be mine, but discovering it would have served no purpose, because it was clear that, independent of signs, space didn’t exist and perhaps had never existed.

Long before the notion of vacuum existed in cosmology, English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd captured the concept of non-space in his 1617 creation series, which depicts multiple chaotic fires subsiding until a central starlike structure becomes visible amid concentric rings of smoke and debris. Even though Fludd believed in a geocentric cosmology, this image comes strikingly close to current theories of solar system formation.

Courtesy of U. of Oklahoma History of Science collections

Paintings of Saturn by German astronomer-artist Maria Clara Eimmart, a pioneering woman in science, from 1693–1698. Eimmart's depictions are based on a 1659 engraving by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, the first to confirm that Saturn’s mysterious appendages, which had confounded astronomers since Galileo, were in fact 'a thin flat ring, nowhere touching.' What makes Eimmart's painting unique is that it combines the observations of more than ten astronomers into a depiction of superior accuracy.

Dipartimento di Fisica e Astronomia, Universita di Bologna

In 1845, Anglo-Irish astronomer William Parsons, the 3rd Earl of Rosse, equipped his castle with a giant six-ton telescope, soon nicknamed the 'Leviathan,' which remained the largest telescope in the world until 1918. Despite the cloudy Irish skies, Lord Rosse managed to glimpse and draw the spellbinding spiral structures of what were thought to be nebulae within the Milky Way. This print, based on Lord Rosse’s drawing of one such nebula — M51, known today as the Whirlpool Galaxy — became a sensation throughout Europe and inspired Van Gogh's iconic 'The Starry Night.'

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

The project, which does for space what Cartographies of Time did for the invisible dimension, also celebrates the natural marriage of art and science. These early astronomers were often spectacular draughtsmen as well — take, for instance, Johannes Hevelius and his groundbreaking catalog of stars. As Benson points out, art and science were “essentially fused” until about the 17th century and many of the creators of the images in the book were also well-versed in optics, anatomy, and the natural sciences.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, envisions the creation of the Ptolemaic universe by an omnipotent creator.

Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

De Holanda was fascinated by the geometry of the cosmos, particularly the triangular form and its interplay with the circle.

Courtesy of Biblioteca Nacional de España

This cryptic and unsettling 'Fool’s Cap Map of the World' (1580–1590), made by an unknown artist, appropriates French mathematician and cartographer Oronce Finé’s cordiform, or heart-shaped, projection of the Earth; the world in this iconic image is dressed in a jester’s belled cap, beneath which a Latin inscription from Ecclesiastes reads: 'The number of fools is infinite.'

Public domain via Wikimedia

The book is, above all, a kind of conceptual fossil record of how our understanding of the universe evolved, visualizing through breathtaking art the “fits and starts of ignorance” by which science progresses — many of the astronomers behind these enchanting images weren’t “scientists” in the modern sense but instead dabbled in alchemy, astrology, and various rites driven by religion and superstition. (For instance, Isaac Newton, often celebrated as the greatest scientist of all time, spent a considerable amount of his youth self-flagellating over his sins, and trying to discover “The Philosopher’s Stone,” a mythic substance believed to transmute ordinary metals into gold.

One of the phases of the moon from Selenographia, world's first lunar atlas completed by German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1647 after years of obsessive observations. Hevelius also created history's first true moon map.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

Beginning in 1870, French-born artist and astronomer Étienne Trouvelot spent a decade producing a series of spectacular illustrations of celestial bodies and cosmic phenomena. In 1872, he joined the Harvard College Observatory and began using its powerful telescopes in perfecting his drawings. His pastel illustrations, including this chromolithograph of Mare Humorum, a vast impact basin on the southwest side of the Earth-facing hemisphere of the moon, were among the first serious attempts to enlist art in popularizing the results of observations using technology developed for scientific research.

Courtesy of the U. of Michigan Library

Étienne Trouvelot's 1872 engravings of solar phenomena, produced during his first year at the Harvard College Observatory for the institution's journal. The legend at the bottom reveals that the distance between the two prominences in the lower part of the engraving is one hundred thousand miles, more than 12 times the diameter of Earth. Despite the journal's modest circulation, such engravings were soon co-opted by more mainstream publications and became trailblazing tools of science communication that greatly influenced public understanding of the universe's scale.

Courtesy of the Wolbach Library, Harvard

What makes Benson’s project especially enchanting is the strange duality it straddles: On the one hand, the longing to make tangible and visible the complex forces that rule our existence is a deeply human one; on the other, the notion of simplifying such expansive complexities into static images seems paradoxical to a dangerous degree — something best captured by pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell when she marveled: “The world of learning is so broad, and the human soul is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us.”

See more here.

4. THE RIVER

“Love the earth and sun and the animals….read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,” Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to Leaves of Grass. In The River (public library | IndieBound) from Enchanted Lion — a dominant presence among the best children’s books each year — Italian illustrator Alessandro Sanna exposes with remarkable sensitivity that gossamer connection between the physicality of the land and our transcendent experience of the passage of time, the inner seasonality of being human. Through his soft watercolors shines the immutable light of existence.

In each of the four chapters, a new season unfolds, beginning with autumn and ending with summer, and out of it spring to life vignettes of different experiences along the banks of a shared river, waves of permanence and impermanence washing together. A subtle recurring motif of opposing forces — subjugation and release, celebration and solitude, fear and freedom — reverberates throughout the nearly wordless visual narrative, at once stretching it sideways and pulling it together into a vortex of coherent emotion.

For Sanna, who lives on the banks of the Po River in Northern Italy, this deeply personal project, years in the making, is in many ways a meta-meditation on the passage of time and the unfolding of life, in constant flux even at a seemingly static locale.

Glowing with quiet optimism, Sanna’s vibrant, expressive illustrations whisper to us that, despite its occasional cruelties, life is mostly joyful, radiant, and, above all, ever-flowing. As his river flows, one can almost see adrift in it the words of Henry Miller:

It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

See more here.

5. PEN & INK

We wear the stories of our lives — sometimes through our clothes, sometimes even more deeply, through the innermost physical membrane that separates self from world. More than mere acts of creative self-mutilation, tattoos have long served a number of unusual purposes, from celebrating science to asserting the power structures of Russia’s prison system to offering a lens on the psychology of regret.

In Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them (public library | IndieBound), based on their popular Tumblr of the same title, illustrator and visual storyteller Wendy MacNaughton — she of extraordinary sensitivity to the human experience — and editor Isaac Fitzgerald catalog the wild, wicked, wonderfully human stories behind people’s tattoos.

From a librarian’s Sendak-like depiction of a Norwegian folktale her grandfather used to tell her, to a writer who gets a tattoo for each novel he writes, to a journalist who immortalized the first tenet of the Karen revolution for Burma’s independence, the stories — sometimes poetic, sometimes political, always deeply personal — brim with the uncontainable, layered humanity that is MacNaughton’s true medium.

The people’s titles are as interesting as the stories themselves — amalgamations of the many selves we each contain and spend our lives trying to reconcile, the stuff of Whitman’s multitudes — from a “pedicab operator and journalist” to an “actress / director / BDSM educator” to “cartoonist and bouncer.”

The inimitable Cheryl Strayed — who knows a great deal about the tiny beautiful things of which life is made and whose own inked piece of personal history is among the stories — writes in the introduction:

As long as I live I’ll never tire of people-watching. On city buses and park benches. In small-town cafes and crowded elevators. At concerts and swimming pools. To people-watch is to glimpse the mysterious and the banal, the public face and the private gesture, the strangest other and the most familiar self. It’s to wonder how and why and what and who and hardly ever find out.

This book is the answer to those questions. It’s an intimate collection of portraits and stories behind the images we carry on our flesh in the form of tattoos.

[…]

Each of the stories is like being let in on sixty-three secrets by sixty-three strangers who passed you on the street or sat across from you on the train. They’re raw and real and funny and sweet. They speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely. Together, they do the work of great literature — gathering a force so true they ultimately tell a story that includes all.

Chris Colin, writer

For writer Chris Colin, the tattoo serves as a sort of personal cartography of time, as well as a reminder of how transient our selves are:

I got this tattoo because I suspected one day I would think it would be stupid. I wanted to mark time, or mark the me that thought it was a good idea. Seventeen years later. I hardly remember it’s there. But when I do, it reminds me that whatever I think now I probably won’t think later.

Yuri Allison, student

For student Yuri Allison, it’s a symbolic reminder of her own inability to remember, a meta-monument to memory, that vital yet enormously flawed human faculty:

I have an episodic memory disorder. I don’t have any long-term memory. My childhood is completely blank, as is my schooling until high school. Technically I can’t recall anything that’s beyond three years in the past. I find it very difficult to talk about, simply because I still can’t wrap my head around the idea myself, so when someone talks to me about a memory we are supposed to share I simply smile and say that I don’t remember. Just like my memories, lip tattoos are known to fade with time.

Roxane Gay, writer and professor

For writer, educator, and “bad feminist” Roxane Gay, it is a deliberate editing of what Paul Valéry called “the three-body problem”:

I hardly remember not hating my body. I got most of my seven arm tattoos when I was nineteen. I wanted to be able to look at my body and see something I didn’t loathe, that was part of my body by choosing entirely. Really, that’s all I ever wanted.

Morgan English, research director

For research director Morgan English, the tattoo is a depiction of “a series of childhood moments” strung together to capture her grandmother’s singular spirit in an abstract way:

My grandma died in a freak accident in May of last year. She was healthy as an ox — traveling the world with her boyfriend well into her 80s — then she broke her foot, which created a blood clot that traveled to her brain. Three days later, she was gone.

The respect and admiration I have for her is difficult to articulate. here was a woman who endured two depressions (post-WWI Weimar Germany, from which she escaped to the U.S. in 1929, just before our stock market crashed) followed by a series of traumatic events (incestuous rape, a violent husband, the suicide of her only son). You’d think these things would break a person, or at least harden them, but she only grew more focused. She once told me, “Fix your eyes on the solution, it’s the only way things get solved! Just keep moving and you’ll become the woman you’ve always wanted to be.”

See more here.

6. FICTITIOUS DISHES

Food and literature have a long and arduous relationship, from the Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook to Jane Austen reimagined in recipes to Alice B. Toklas’s literary memoir disguised as a cookbook to those delicious dishes inspired by Alice in Wonderland. But nowhere does that relationship come alive more vividly and enchantingly than in Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals (public library | IndieBound) — an ingenious project by designer and writer Dinah Fried, who cooks, art-directs, and photographs meals from nearly two centuries of famous fiction. Each photograph is accompanied by the particular passage in which the recipe appeared, as well as a few quick and curious factlets about the respective author, novel, or food.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, 1851

'Our appetites being sharpened by the frosty voyage, and in particular, Queequeg seeing his favorite fishing food before him, and the chowder being surpassingly excellent, we despatched it with great expedition…'

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, 1963

'Then I tackled the avocado and crabmeat salad...Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comic.'

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, 1951

'When I’m out somewhere, I generally just eat a Swiss cheese sandwich and a malted milk. It isn’t much, but you get quite a lot of vitamins in the malted milk. H. V. Caulfield. Holden Vitamin Caulfield.'

The project began as a modest design exercise while Fried was attending the Rhode Island School of Design a couple of years ago, but the concept quickly gripped her with greater allure that transcended her original short-term deadline. As she continued to read and cook, a different sort of self-transcendence took place (after all, isn’t that the greatest gift of literature?): A near-vegetarian, she found herself wrestling with pig kidney for Ulysses and cooking bananas eleven ways for Gravity’s Rainbow.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865

'Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone. Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea.'

On the Road by Jack Kerouac, 1957

'But I had to get going and stop moaning, so I picked up my bag, said so long to the old hotelkeeper sitting by his spittoon, and went to eat. I ate apple pie and ice cream — it was getting better as I got deeper into Iowa, the pie bigger, the ice cream richer.'

The book begins with a beautiful quote from Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451:

I ate them like salad, books were my sandwich for lunch, my tiffin and dinner and midnight munch. I tore out the pages, ate them with salt, doused them with relish, gnawed on the bindings, turned the chapters with my tongue! Books by the dozen, the score and the billion. I carried so many home I was hunchbacked for years. Philosophy, art history, politics, social science, the poem, the essay, the grandiose play, you name ’em, I ate ’em.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

'On buffet tables, garnished with glistening hors-d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark gold.'

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, 1915

'There were old, half-rotten vegetables; bones from the evening meal, covered in white sauce that had gone hard; a few raisins and almonds; some cheese that Gregor had declared inedible two days before; a dry roll and some bread spread with butter and salt….'

See more here.

7. DRAWING AUTISM

Autism and its related conditions remain among the least understood mental health issues of our time. But one significant change that has taken place over the past few years has been a shift from perceiving the autistic mind not as disabled but as differently abled — and often impressive in its difference, as in extraordinary individuals like mathematical mastermind Daniel Tammet or architectural savant Gilles Trehin. And yet despite the stereotype of the autistic mind as a methodical computational machine, much of its magic — the kind most misunderstood — lies in its capacity for creative expression.

Three years after the original publication, New-York-based behavior analyst Jill Mullin returns with an expanded edition of Drawing Autism (public library | IndieBound) — a beautiful and thoughtful celebration of the vibrantly creative underbelly of autism, featuring contributions from more than 50 international graphic artists and children who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, with a foreword by none other than Temple Grandin.

Kay Aitch: Lost in Thought

For artist Kay Aitch, who was diagnosed with Autism at the age of fifty-one, the creative process is a form of pattern-recognition — one of the typically recognized fortes of the autistic mind. She tells Mullin:

Everything around me inspires me to create art. What inspires me about creating art is the process of making marks, the feel of things, the seeing shapes and patterns in things.

Eleni Michael: Dancing with the Dog

Artist Eleni Michael celebrates the soul-expanding power of dogs amid trauma:

This was painted in 1995, not long after I had moved into a housing project for people with special needs. I was euphoric about my new home—a self-contained flat surrounded by a huge garden in a rural setting. (This idyll did not last long.) I brought my dog Jasper with me. He was the only lively animal there and brought great pleasure to me and all of the residents in the project. They loved him too and enjoyed playing with him and petting him. Jasper was a healthy presence and completely indiscriminate with his friendships.

As a longtime admirer of Gregory Blackstock’s obsessive visual lists, I was especially delighted to see his artwork included in the book:

Gregory Blackstock: The Balls

See more here.

8. THE INVISIBLES

Any form of excess can usually be traced to the seed of a basic human longing. Before photography turned into excessive “aesthetic consumerism,” long prior to the narcissistic golden age of the selfie, it was a miraculous medium that granted one simple, fundamental human wish — the desire to be seen and, in the act of seeing, to be understood. Perhaps that is why photography, in its dawning decades, had a particularly poignant role for individuals and groups who were largely invisible to society. It was the role photography played for the LGBT community between the time of the medium’s invention and the first-ever Pride parades as it came to document, and validate by making visible, the love of queer couples — love reserved not only for such famous lovers as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Oscar Wilde and Sir Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but also experienced by a great many ordinary men and women alike.

That’s precisely what French screenwriter and director Sébastien Lifshitz explores in The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride (public library | IndieBound), a remarkable collection of archival photographs — sometimes poignant, sometimes playful, invariably tender — of gay and lesbian couples privately celebrating their love in the early twentieth century. Each couple, Diane Ackerman wrote in her sublime natural history of love, gets to redefine love, and these are some humble and humbling, beautifully human, immeasurably yet quietly courageous redefinitions

For Lifshitz, the project began somewhat serendipitously: As a longtime collector of vintage amateur photos, he chanced upon a photo album that belonged to two elderly women, “very bourgeois, very ‘old France.’” It didn’t take him long to realize that they were in a lifelong lesbian relationship. He found himself fascinated by such family albums by openly gay couples and was surprised by the freedom and happiness they exhibited in those photos, despite living in eras of extreme social intolerance toward LGBT people. Looking back over the first half of the twentieth century, Lifshitz set out to interview gay women and men born between the two World Wars, seeking to understand what life was like for them — people like the great Edith Windsor, who belongs to that generation and has done for marriage equality more than any other individual in history.

See more, including the trailer for the film to which the book is a companion, here.

9 SHOW YOUR WORK

In 2012, artist Austin Kleon gave us Steal Like an Artist, a modern manifesto for combinatorial creativity that went on to become one of the best art books that year. He now returns with Show Your Work! (public library | IndieBound) — “a book for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion,” in which Kleon addresses with equal parts humility, honesty, and humor one of the quintessential questions of the creative life: How do you get “discovered”? In some ways, the book is the mirror-image of Kleon’s debut — rather than encouraging you to “steal” from others, meaning be influenced by them, it offers a blueprint to making your work influential enough to be theft-worthy. Complementing the advice is Kleon’s own artwork — his signature “newspaper blackout” poems — as a sort of meta-case for sharing as a modern art that requires courage, commitment, and creative integrity.

Kleon begins by framing the importance of sharing as social currency:

Almost all of the people I look up to and try to steal from today, regardless of their profession, have built sharing into their routine. These people aren’t schmoozing at cocktail parties; they’re too busy for that. They’re cranking away in their studios, their laboratories, or their cubicles, but instead of maintaining absolute secrecy and hoarding their work, they’re open about what they’re working on, and they’re consistently posting bits and pieces of their work, their ideas, and what they’re learning online. Instead of wasting their time “networking,” they’re taking advantage of the network. By generously sharing their ideas and their knowledge, they often gain an audience that they can then leverage when they need it — for fellowship, feedback, or patronage.

He later considers the seemingly obvious but underappreciated heart of sharing — something most obviously and gruesomely assailed by trolls and haters, but also routinely forgotten amidst our more subtle everyday negligence — and writes:

The act of sharing is one of generosity — you’re putting something out there because you think it might be helpful or entertaining to someone on the other side of the screen.

Kleon goes on to explore why Brian Eno’s notion of “scenius” is a healthier alternative to the Lone Genius myth of creativity, the value of being an amateur, and what reading obituaries can teach you about finding your voice — read more here.

10. SYLLABUS

“It gives me such a sense of peace to draw; more than prayer, walks, anything,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary when she first began working on her little-known drawings. “The great benefit of drawing … is that when you look at something, you see it for the first time,” the great Milton Glaser observed in sharing his wisdom on life. “And you can spend your life without ever seeing anything.”

Hardly anyone has explored this delicate relationship between drawing and looking, drawing and experiencing, drawing and thinking with more rigor, wit, and insight than Lynda Barry, one of the greatest visual artists of our time. In 2011, Barry joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin to teach a class titled “The Unthinkable Mind” — a wonderfully unusual interdisciplinary course exploring the biological function of the arts and the psychological mechanisms of the creative impulse by blending cognitive science, visual art, and writing. Barry’s magnificently illustrated syllabus notes and class assignments, many of which she had released on her Tumblr throughout each semester, are now collected in Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (public library | IndieBound) — a slim but infinitely invigorating compendium of illustrated exercises, instructions, and meditations on everything from how to keep a diary (because, as we know, the creative benefits of doing so are vast) to memorizing things effectively to navigating the psychological phases of the creative process to why art exists in the first place.

Echoing Joan Didion’s unforgettable reflections on keeping a notebook, Barry traces her own journey and what is to be gained by those endeavoring to master this simple, powerful practice:

I began keeping a notebook in a serious way when I met my teacher Marilyn Frasca in 1975 at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.

She showed me ways of using these simple things — our hands, a pen, and some paper — as both a navigation and expedition device, one that could reliably carry me into my past, deeper into my present, or farther into a place I have come to call “the image world” — a place we all know, even if we don’t notice this knowing until someone reminds us of its ever-present existence.

I wasn’t quite 20 years old when I started my first notebook. I had no idea that nearly 40 years later, I would not only still be using it as the most reliable route to the thing I’ve come to call my work, but I’d also be showing others how to use it too, as a place to practice a physical activity — in this case writing and drawing by hand — with a certain state of mind.

This practice can result in … a wonderful side effect: a visual or written image we can call “a work of art”; although a work of art is not what I’m after when I’m practicing this activity.

What am I after? I’m after what Marilyn Frasca called “being present and seeing what’s there.”

See more here.

11. BEST AMERICAN INFOGRAPHICS

Once again this year, I was delighted to serve on the “Brain Trust” for an annual project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who culls the best, most thoughtful and illuminating infographics published each year, online and off, and invites the bearer of a sharp mind to contextualize both the individual selections and the premise of the project. Alongside the inaugural crop of infographic exemplars was David Byrne’s excellent essay on cultivating the ability to experience the “geeky rapture” of metaphorical thinking and pattern recognition. Now comes the second installment, The Best American Infographics 2014 (public library | IndieBound), with an introduction by master-statistician Nate Silver and fifty-eight examples of stellar information design shedding light on such diverse topics as the history of space exploration, the sleep habits of famous writers, the geography of where gay people stay in the closet, the comparative shapes and sizes of major baseball parks, and the social network of jazz musicians in the 1920s. (“American” is somewhat a misnomer, as many of the contributions come from artists, designers, and writers — myself included — who are not U.S. citizens and/or reside outside the country.)

The opening visualization, reminiscent of designer Toby Ng’s World of 100 project from several years ago, makes Silver’s point perfectly:

Who We Are

'When I was a boy in the '90s, my mother had a printout of a chain email pinned to the wall in our kitchen. It was called 'The World as 100 People,' and it was just a simple list. I never forgot it because it was a simple but clever idea—a child could understand it without knowing the concept of percentages. One day, I didn't have any other work to do and I was sitting in my studio. The idea and the method came to me very quickly. I knew that I wanted to make it round, like the world. I wanted to use colors that might remind people of flags. I made the first draft in the morning and it was on the Internet by the afternoon.' (Jack Hagley, graphic designer, London)

The storytelling aspect of the genre, meanwhile, shines brilliantly in this example from Wendy MacNaughton and Caroline Paul’s immeasurably soul-stretching Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, one of the best books of 2013:

Lost Cat

'Our cat Tibby disappeared suddenly, and we were devastated. Then, five weeks later he returned, fat and happy. We were overjoyed he was back, but where had he gone? We decided to strap a GPS unit to his collar and find out where he spent his days.' (Caroline Paul, writer, and Wendy MacNaughton, illustrator)

To my great delight, included in the volume as a large fold-out spread is also my homegrown collaboration with Italian information design team Accurat and San Francisco-based artist extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, visualizing the relationship between famous writers’ sleep habits and their literary productivity — a labor of love project years in the brewing and months in the making:

Writers, Sleep, and Productivity

An exploration of whether authors' sleep habits might affect their creative output, based on my highlights from a decade's worth of reading the diaries, letters, and autobiographies of celebrated writers. (Concept and direction by Maria Popova. Design by Accurat: Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, and Gabriele Rossi with Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno. Illustrations by Wendy MacNaughton.)

In fact, Accurat is the only team with multiple entries in the volume — deservingly so. Also included is their visualization of the 100 “geniuses” of language and literature, based on Harold Bloom’s book Genius and originally published in English right here on Brain Pickings:

The Varieties of Genius

Great minds from Harold Bloom's 'Genius,' visualized according to Jewish esoteric thought. (Davide Ciufi, Federica Fragapane, and Francesco Majno, Giorgia Lupi, Simone Quadri, Gabriele Rossi)

See more, including Silver on the three keys to effective information design, here.

12. THE PUBLIC LIBRARY

“A library is many things,” E.B. White once wrote in a letter to the children of a little town to inspire them to fall in love with their new library. “But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had.”

As the daughter of a formally trained librarian and an enormous lover of, collaborator with, and supporter of public libraries (you may have noticed I always include a public library link for books I write about; I also re-donate a portion of Brain Pickings donations to the New York Public Library each year) I was instantly enamored with The Public Library: A Photographic Essay (public library | IndieBound) by photographer Robert Dawson — at once a love letter and a lament eighteen years in the making, a wistful yet hopeful reminder of just what’s at stake if we let the greatest bastion of public knowledge humanity has ever known slip into the neglected corner of cultural priorities. Alongside Dawson’s beautiful photographs are short reflections on the subject by such celebrated minds as Isaac Asimov, Anne Lamott, and E.B. White. From architectural marvels to humble feats of human ingenuity, from the august reading room of the New York Public Library to the trailer-library at Death Valley National Park, braving the glaring sun at one of the hottest places on earth, from the extraordinary vaulted ceilings of LA’s Children’s Library to the small shack turned into a book memorial in the country’s only one-person town, the remarkable range reveals our elemental need for libraries — as sanctuaries of learning, as epicenters of community, as living records of civic identity, and above all as a timelier-than-ever testament that information and human knowledge belong to everybody; not to corporate monopolies or government agencies or ideological despots, but to the people.

Reading room, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library, 2008

More than twelve hundred languages and dialects, ancient and modern, are represented in the collections, emblematic of the rich diversity of the city that built it.

The Globe Chandelier near Children's Library, Central Library, Los Angeles, California, 2008

The chandelier is a model of the solar system. Signs of the zodiac ring the globe, along with forty-eight lights around the rim, which represent the forty-eight United States in 1926, when the building opened. It was designed by Goodhue Associates and modeled by Lee Lawrie. The mural beneath the chandelier by John Fisher is titled 'Sesquicentennial.'

Dale Chihuly sculpture, titled 'Fiesta Tower,' in Main Library, San Antonio, Texas, 2011

In the foreword, the great Bill Moyers — who has long championed the power of reading and self-initiated education — echoes Ray Bradbury’s assertion that libraries are essential for democracy and writes:

The library is being reinvented in response to the explosion of information and knowledge, promiscuous budget cuts in the name of austerity, new technology, and changing needs. Who knows where the emerging new commons will take us? But Robert Dawson shows us in this collection what is at stake: when a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open, too.

Rudy's Library, Monowi, Nebraska, 2012

The entire population of this town consists of one woman, Elsie Eller. It is the only incorporated municipality in the United States with such a demographic. She acts as mayor and runs the only business in town, a local roadhouse. Over the years she watched all the other town residents move or pass away. When her husband, Rudy Eller, died in 2004, she became the town's last resident. Because Rudy had collected so many books, she decided to open Rudy's Library in a small shed next to her home. This memorial to Rudy is free and open to all. Patrons can check out books by signing a notebook. A wooden sign in the corner simply states 'Rudy's Dream.'

Richard F. Boi Memorial Library, First Little Free Library, Hudson, Wisconsin, 2012

Little Free Library is a community movement in the United States and worldwide started by Todd Boi and now co-directed by Rick Brooks. Boi started the idea as a tribute to his mother, who was a book lover and schoolteacher. He mounted a wooden container designed to look like a schoolhouse on a post on his lawn. The Little Free Libraries operate under a mantra often inscribed on the book-boxes: 'Take a Book. Leave a Book.'

See more, including beautiful essays by Anne Lamott and Ann Patchett, here.

13. WHITMAN ILLUMINATED

Visual artists have long been drawn to the literary classics, producing such masterful homages as William Blake’s paintings for Milton’s Paradise Lost and for Dante’s Divine Comedy, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, Matisse’s etchings for Ulysses, John Vernon Lord’s illustrations for Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, The Divine Comedy in 1957, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo and Juliet in 1975.

In Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself (public library | IndieBound), artist Allen Crawford brings Whitman’s undying text to new life in gorgeous hand-lettering and illustrations, transforming the 60-page poem originally published in 1855 as the centerpiece of Leaves of Grass into a breathtaking 256-page piece of art. His elegant, lyrical play of text size and orientation layers over Whitman’s poem a kind of visual rhythm that not only harmonizes with the original verses but enriches them and gives them uncommon dimension.

Crawford, who lives in the outskirts of Philadelphia where Whitman settled at the end of his life, writes in the foreword:

Whitman wanted to create a new form of verse, one that was indigenous to America. He wanted to break free not only in form but also in content: He sought complete candor, not allegory or symbolism. His sensibility was American: exuberant, rough, and wild. He reveled in the vitality and sublimity of the physical. He exalted the nature around and within us. His work is an expression of primal joy: He celebrated our animal senses, and the pleasures of being alive.

[…]

With this book, I’ve tried to make the vigor of “Song of Myself” tangible. I’ve attempted to liberate the words from their blocks of verse, and allow the lines to flow freely about the page, like a stream or a bustling city crowd. The text and imagery in this book are intended to be in keeping with Whitman’s unfurnished sensibility.

[…]

I found that in order to add anything at all to Whitman’s panorama of people and places, I had to add a dimension of my own. Events in my daily life affected my approach to each spread, and the Philadelphia of today seeped into the Philadelphia of Whitman’s day. Thus, you’ll find a variety of contemporary or near-contemporary images in this book. Not doing so would have been a disservice to Whitman’s work, which attempts to create a new form of verse for The Here and The Now.

Crawford, who lists among his inspirations artist Matt Kish’s illustrations for Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, labored over Whitman’s magnum opus in his basement for a year, working well into the night and spending 8–10 hours on each illustrated spread for a total of 2,560 hours by his own rough estimate. On particularly cold winter days, he logged his hours clad in multiple layers of house robes and a Russian fur hat.

See more here.

14. THE BOOK OF MIRACLES

In 1552, a curious and lavishly illustrated manuscript titled Augsburg Book of Miraculous Signs appeared in the Swabian Imperial Free City of Augsburg, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, located in present-day Germany. It exorcised, in remarkable detail and wildly imaginative artwork, Medieval Europe’s growing obsession with signs sent from “God” — a testament to the basic human propensity for magical thinking, with which we often explain feelings and phenomena beyond the grasp of our logic. This unusual Roman manuscript was recently discovered and published for the first time as The Book of Miracles (public library | IndieBound) — a sumptuous box-sized trilingual tome in English, French, and German, produced in Taschen‘s typical fashion of pleasurable aesthetic bombast. Somewhere between Salvador Dalí’s illustrations of Montaigne, the weird and wonderful Codex Seraphinianus, and the visual history of Gotham’s imaginary apocalypse, the book is a singular shrine to some of the most eternal of human hopes and fears, and, above all, our immutable longing for grace, for mercy, for the miraculous.

The vibrant artwork, while strikingly beautiful, also illustrates religion’s heavy reliance on magical thinking. The word “religion” itself originates in the Latin for “binding together,” suggesting a sense not only of creating community but also of bridging complex things we don’t understand with simple ideas we do, via storytelling — something Carl Sagan famously explored.

See more here.

15. MAPPING IT OUT

Just when it might seem like the world doesn’t need another book about maps, Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies (public library | IndieBound) — a magnificent compendium envisioned and culled by legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist — proves otherwise. With more than 130 maps by a wide-ranging roster of luminaries spanning art, science, technology, literature, architecture, film, and more — including John Baldessari, Tim Berners-Lee, Louise Bourgeois, Yoko Ono, Kevin Kelly, Damien Hirst, Ed Ruscha, John Maeda, Sean Carroll, Douglas Rushkoff, and Marcus du Sautoy — the book offers a living reminder that rather than objective representations of reality, maps are invariably projections in both the literal and the metaphorical sense, projecting onto the world the mapmaker’s subjective, abstract, psychoemotionally charged ideas about what is real and meaningful.

The volume’s greatest gift and highest point of differentiation is, in fact, precisely the sensibility for which Obrist is known and celebrated — the bold cross-pollination of disciplines, which invites the various fields to enrich one another, a beacon whose aggregate beam illuminates the landscape of the unknown. Obrist remarks on this approach in a companion essay titled “You Are Here”:

Dialogue, conversation and exchange between different fields is the only way we can chart a course through the increasingly complex terrain of contemporary life… Maps produce new realities much as they seek to document current ones. Maps are always a going-beyond the space-time of the present.

Carved atlas by artist Étienne Chambaud

(Image courtesy of Étienne Chambaud)

In 2009, Wired magazine founding editor and digital culture sage Kevin Kelly asked people to draw a map of the internet as they pictured it, illustrating what he had in mind by drawing his own map.

(Image courtesy of Kevin Kelly)

'Map of the Future' by designer John Maeda

(Image courtesy of John Maeda)

'Wen Out for Cigrets' (1985) by artist Ed Ruscha

(Image courtesy of Ed Ruscha)

Computer scientist and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's 'mapping analogy for explaining to people the mingling and evolution of influences in the World Wide Web technology' (2007)

(Image courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee)

Obrist touches on the element of psychological wanderlust in the opening chapter:

Maps are often an abstraction of the physical or conceptual world — a symbolic depiction of a space or idea that allows one to understand and navigate an unfamiliar topography or complex topology. But while most conventional charts, plans and diagrams claim to offer an accurate, even objective picture of the world, each one is bound by the specific agendas of its creators and users… Cartographies can be altered endlessly to reflect different priorities, hierarchies, experiences, points of view, and destinations.

See more here.

16. CREATIVE BLOCK

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work,” Chuck Close scoffed. “A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood,” Tchaikovsky admonished. “Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Isabel Allende urged. But true as this general sentiment may be, it isn’t always an easy or a livable truth — most creative people do get stuck every once in a while, or at the very least hit the OK plateau. What then?

Not too long ago, Alex Cornell rallied some of our time’s most celebrated artists, writers, and designers, and asked them to share their strategies for overcoming creative block. Now comes Creative Block: Advice and Projects from 50 Successful Artists (public library | IndieBound) — a lavishly illustrated compendium at once very similar in spirit and sufficiently different in execution, in which Danielle Krysa, better-known as The Jealous Curator, asks artists from around the world working in various media to crack open the vault of their unconscious and explore the darkest elements of the creative process, from overcoming idea-stagnation to dealing with both self-criticism and external naysayers. In addition to sharing their broader thoughts on the demons and rewards of creativity, each artist also offers one specific block-busting exercise — a “Creative Unblock Project” — to try the next time you feel stuck.

Sydney Pink

But what makes the project particularly noteworthy is that while it features reflections from visual artists, most of their insights apply just as usefully to other creative endeavors, from writing and to entrepreneurship to, even, science. Dive in here.

17. THOUGHTS ON DESIGN

Paul’s a gem [who] works on perfecting the exterior of a curmudgeon,” Steve Jobs reminisced about working with legendary art director and graphic designer Paul Rand (1914–1996), adding, “He’s perfected it to new heights, actually.” Indeed, Rand is remembered as much for being one of the most significant visual communicators and commercial artists in history as he is for his famous grouchiness — a fact that renders his little-known vintage children’s books a doubly intriguing paradoxical curiosity. And yet they bespeak what Jobs said of Rand in the same 1993 interview: “He’s a very deep, thoughtful person who’s tried to express in every part of his life what his principles are. And you don’t meet so many people like that today.”

At the age of only thirty-three, Rand collected these uncompromising principles and his rare brand of idealism in the influential 1947 volume Thoughts on Design (public library | IndieBound), which has been newly resurrected after decades in the morgue of out-of-print gems.

Rand on a poster for Apple's 'Think Different' campaign in 1998

In the preface to the new edition, Pentagram’s Michael Bierut calls the celebrated volume “a manifesto, a call to arms and a ringing definition of what makes good design good.” Bierut describes it in terms that call to mind precisely those paradoxical children’s books — “almost as simple as a child’s storybook: short, clear sentences; vivid, playful illustrations” — suggesting the complete integration of Rand’s sensibility across all of his work and his unflinching clarity of vision. Rand himself once wrote of the book that its original intention was to “demonstrate the validity of those principles which, by and large, have guided artists (designers) since the time of Polycletus. And, indeed, there is remarkable timelessness to his convictions:

Visual communications of any kind … should be seen as the embodiment of form and function: the integration of the beautiful and the useful.

[…]

Ideally, beauty and utility are mutually generative.

And yet, Rand maintains, the integration of the two is at its highest, most potent form when it springs from the creator’s singular, unadulterated sensibility. Decades before crowdsourcing reached buzzword status, he admonished against the basic ethos behind it:

The system that regards esthetics as irrelevant, which separates the artist from his product, which fragments the work of the individual, which creates by committee, and which makes mincemeat of the creative process will, in the long run, diminish not only the product but the maker as well.

Magazine cover by Paul Rand, 1954

Rand’s most timeless wisdom, however, has to do not with the techniques and tropes of visual communication but with his higher-order idealism — the deeper moral motives and responsibilities of the creator. What E.B. White famously proclaimed of the writer’s responsibility, Rand asserts of the designer’s:

Even if it is true that the average man seems most comfortable with the commonplace and familiar, it is equally true that catering to bad taste, which we so readily attribute to the average reader, merely perpetuates that mediocrity and denies the reader one of the most easily accessible means for esthetic development and eventual enjoyment.

See more here.

18. WHATEVER YOU ARE BE A GOOD ONE

In March of 1884, Leo Tolstoy resolved in his diary to create a “circle of reading” for himself, probing “the great philosophers of all time and all people” for wisdom on how to live well. This was the birth of his famous Calendar of Wisdom, which he spent the remaining seventeen years of his life piecing together.

Now comes a wonderful modern-day counterpart that falls partway between Tolstoy and Tumblr: Whatever You Are, Be a Good One (public library | IndieBound) — an impossibly charming compendium of 100 wise and timeless thoughts from some of history’s greatest minds, hand-lettered by illustrator and Brain Pickings collaborator Lisa Congdon. The common thread underpinning these quotes — which include such beloved luminaries as Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Henry James, Anne Lamott, Søren Kierkegaard, and Leo Tolstoy himself — is Congdon’s own sensibility about what it means to live with kindness and integrity, to cherish beauty and the creative spirit, and ultimately to be a good human being.

Here are a few favorites:

See more here.

19. PHILOGRAPHICS

Rodin believed that his art was about removing the stone not part of the sculpture to reveal the essence of his artistic vision. Perhaps this is what Catalan-born, London-based graphic designer Genis Carreras implicitly intended in chiseling away the proverbial philosopher’s stone to sculpt its minimalist essence. Many moons ago, I discovered with great delight Carreras’s series of geometric graphics explaining major movements in philosophy and now, with the help of Kickstarter, the project has come to new life in book form. Philographics: Big Ideas in Simple Shapes (public library | IndieBound) is a vibrant visual dictionary of philosophy, enlisting the telegraphic powers of design in distilling the essential principles of 95 schools of thought into visual metaphors and symbolic representation.

Skepticism

True knowledge or certainty in a particular area is impossible. Skeptics have an attitude of doubt or a disposition of incredulity either in general or toward a particular object.

The skeptics (in the colloquial sense of the word, although its roots are, fittingly, philosophical) should remember that rather than an exercise in reckless reductionism seeking to dumb down some of humanity’s most complex ideas, the project is instead a playful and thoughtful celebration of symbolic and metaphorical thinking — that distinctly human faculty that is the hallmark of our imagination. Perhaps most importantly, these minimalist graphics are designed to tickle our curiosity and spark deeper interest in influential theories of human nature and human purpose that those of us not formally trained in philosophy may not have previously been inspired to explore.

Carreras writes:

The visuals [are] open to different interpretations, allowing the reader to draw their path to connect the idea behind each theory with its form. This plurality reflects all the different theories to see and understand the world that are compiled [in] this book.

The book aims to be the starting point of deeper discussion about these theories; it’s a trigger of conversation to bring philosophy back to our daily lives.

Relativism

Points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. Principles and ethics are regarded as applicable in only limited context.

Absolutism

An absolute truth is always correct under any condition. An entity's ability to discern these things is irrelevant to that state of truth. Universal facts can be discovered. It is opposed to relativism, which claims that there is not an unique truth.

Stoicism

The principle that emotional and physical self-control leads to inner peace and strength, allowing one to live a happier life.

Positivism

The only authentic knowledge is that which is based on sense, experience and positive verification. Scientific method is the best process for uncovering the processes by which both physical and human events occur.

Determinism

Events within a given paradigm are bound by causality in such a way that any state of an object or event is determined by prior states. Every type of event, including human cognition (behavior, decision, and action) is causally determined by previous events.

See more here.

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01 DECEMBER, 2014

2014’s Best Books on Psychology, Philosophy, and How to Live Meaningfully

By:

How to be alone, wake up from illusion, master the art of asking, fathom your place in the universe, and more.

After the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books and best science books, here are my favorite books on psychology and philosophy published this year, along with the occasional letter and personal essay — genres that, at their most excellent, offer hearty helpings of both disciplines. Perhaps more precisely, these are the year’s finest books on how to live sane, creative, meaningful lives. (And since the subject is of the most timeless kind, revisit the selections 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

1. A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED

Werner Herzog is celebrated as one of the most influential and innovative filmmakers of our time, but his ascent to acclaim was far from a straight trajectory from privilege to power. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Herzog survived a WWII bombing that demolished the house next door to his childhood home and was raised by a single mother in near-poverty. He found his calling in filmmaking after reading an encyclopedia entry on the subject as a teenager and took a job as a welder in a steel factory in his late teens to fund his first films. These building blocks of his character — tenacity, self-reliance, imaginative curiosity — shine with blinding brilliance in the richest and most revealing of Herzog’s interviews. Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s excellent 1978 philosophy book of the same title — presents the director’s extensive, wide-ranging conversation with writer and filmmaker Paul Cronin. His answers are unfiltered and to-the-point, often poignant but always unsentimental, not rude but refusing to infest the garden of honest human communication with the Victorian-seeded, American-sprouted weed of pointless politeness.

Herzog’s insights coalesce into a kind of manifesto for following one’s particular calling, a form of intelligent, irreverent self-help for the modern creative spirit — indeed, even though Herzog is a humanist fully detached from religion, there is a strong spiritual undertone to his wisdom, rooted in what Cronin calls “unadulterated intuition” and spanning everything from what it really means to find your purpose and do what you love to the psychology and practicalities of worrying less about money to the art of living with presence with an age of productivity. As Cronin points out in the introduction, Herzog’s thoughts collected in the book are “a decades-long outpouring, a response to the clarion call, to the fervent requests for guidance.”

And yet in many ways, A Guide for the Perplexed could well have been titled A Guide to the Perplexed, for Herzog is as much a product of his “cumulative humiliations and defeats,” as he himself phrases it, as of his own “chronic perplexity,” to borrow E.B. White’s unforgettable term — Herzog possesses that rare, paradoxical combination of absolute clarity of conviction and wholehearted willingness to inhabit his own inner contradictions, to pursue life’s open-endedness with equal parts focus of vision and nimbleness of navigation.

A certain self-reliance that permeates his films and his mind, a refusal to let the fear of failure inhibit trying — a sensibility the voiceover in the final scene of Herzog’s The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz captures perfectly: “Even a defeat is better than nothing at all.”

Sample this magnificent tome with Herzog on creativity, self-reliance, and making a living out of what you love and his no-bullshit advice to aspiring filmmakers, which applies just as brilliantly to any field of creative endeavor.

2. HOW TO BE ALONE

If the odds of finding one’s soul mate are so dreadfully dismal and the secret of lasting love is largely a matter of concession, is it any wonder that a growing number of people choose to go solo? The choice of solitude, of active aloneness, has relevance not only to romance but to all human bonds — even Emerson, perhaps the most eloquent champion of friendship in the English language, lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude, the very state that enabled him to produce his enduring essays and journals. And yet that choice is one our culture treats with equal parts apprehension and contempt, particularly in our age of fetishistic connectivity. Hemingway’s famous assertion that solitude is essential for creative work is perhaps so oft-cited precisely because it is so radical and unnerving in its proposition.

Solitude, the kind we elect ourselves, is met with judgment and enslaved by stigma. It is also a capacity absolutely essential for a full life.

That paradox is what British author Sara Maitland explores in How to Be Alone (public library | IndieBound) — the latest installment in The School of Life’s thoughtful crusade to reclaim the traditional self-help genre in a series of intelligent, non-self-helpy yet immeasurably helpful guides to such aspects of modern living as finding fulfilling work, cultivating a healthier relationship with sex, worrying less about money, and staying sane.

While Maitland lives in a region of Scotland with one of the lowest population densities in Europe, where the nearest supermarket is more than twenty miles away and there is no cell service (pause on that for a moment), she wasn’t always a loner — she grew up in a big, close-knit family as one of six children. It was only when she became transfixed by the notion of silence, the subject of her previous book, that she arrived, obliquely, at solitude. She writes:

I got fascinated by silence; by what happens to the human spirit, to identity and personality when the talking stops, when you press the off button, when you venture out into that enormous emptiness. I was interested in silence as a lost cultural phenomenon, as a thing of beauty and as a space that had been explored and used over and over again by different individuals, for different reasons and with wildly differing results. I began to use my own life as a sort of laboratory to test some ideas and to find out what it felt like. Almost to my surprise, I found I loved silence. It suited me. I got greedy for more. In my hunt for more silence, I found this valley and built a house here, on the ruins of an old shepherd’s cottage.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird,' one of the best children's books of the year. Click image for more.

Maitland’s interest in solitude, however, is somewhat different from that in silence — while private in its origin, it springs from a public-facing concern about the need to address “a serious social and psychological problem around solitude,” a desire to “allay people’s fears and then help them actively enjoy time spent in solitude.” And so she does, posing the central, “slippery” question of this predicament:

Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being.

[…]

How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?

[…]

We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.

We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.

We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity — solitude.

We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.

[…]

We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.

Today, more than ever, the charge carries both moral judgement and weak logic.

Maitland goes on to explore the underlying psychology of our unease from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the “male spinster” and how to cultivate the five deepest rewards of solitude. Read more here.

3. WAKING UP

Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” is among modern history’s most oft-cited aphorisms, and yet as is often the case with its ilk, such quotations often miss the broader context in a way that bespeaks the lazy reductionism with which we tend to approach questions of spirituality today. Nietzsche himself clarified the full dimension of his statement six years later, in a passage from The Twilight of Idols, where he explained that “God” simply signified the supersensory realm, or “true world,” and wrote: “We have abolished the true world. What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”

Indeed, this struggle to integrate the sensory and the supersensory, the physical and the metaphysical, has been addressed with varying degrees of sensitivity by some of history’s greatest minds — reflections like Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit.

In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library | IndieBound), philosopher, neuroscientist, and mindful skeptic Sam Harris offers a contemporary addition to this lineage of human inquiry — an extraordinary and ambitious masterwork of such integration between science and spirituality, which Harris himself describes as “by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives.” Or, perhaps most aptly, an effort “to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.”

Sam Harris by Bara Vetenskap

Harris begins by recounting an experience he had at age sixteen — a three-day wilderness retreat designed to spur spiritual awakening of some sort, which instead left young Harris feeling like the contemplation of the existential mystery in the presence of his own company was “a source of perfect misery.” This frustrating experience became “a sufficient provocation” that launched him into a lifelong pursuit of the kinds of transcendent experiences that gave rise to the world’s major spiritual traditions, examining them instead with a scientist’s vital blend of skepticism and openness and a philosopher’s aspiration to be “scrupulously truthful.”

Harris writes:

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others… Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.

Noting that the entirety of our experience, as well as our satisfaction with that experience, is filtered through our minds — “If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life — you won’t enjoy any of it.” — Harris sets out to reconcile the quest to achieve one’s goals with a deeper longing, a recognition, perhaps, that presence is far more rewarding than productivity. He writes:

Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.

Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.

This message, of course, is nothing new — half a century ago, Alan Watts made a spectacular case for it, building on millennia of Eastern philosophy. But what makes our era singular and this discourse particularly timely, Harris points out, is that there is now a growing body of scientific research substantiating these ancient intuitions, which he goes on to examine in fascinating detail.

Sample the book further with Harris on the paradox of meditation.

4. LETTERS OF NOTE

Virginia Woolf called letter-writing “the humane art” — an epithet only amplified today, in an age when we so frequently mistake reaction for response and succumb to expectations of immediacy that render impossible the beautiful, contemplative mutuality at the heart of the notion of co-respondence. This, perhaps, is why yesteryear’s greatest letters appeal to us more irrepressibly than ever.

For years, Shaun Usher has been unearthing and highlighting brilliant, funny, poignant, exquisitely human letters from luminaries and ordinary people alike on his magnificent website. This year, the best of them were released in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library | IndieBound) — the aptly titled, superb collection featuring contributions from such cultural icons as Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Louis Armstrong, Kurt Vonnegut, Nick Cave, Richard Feynman, Jack Kerouac, and more.

Sample this treasure trove further with E.B. White’s beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, young Hunter S. Thompson’s advice to a friend on how to find one’s purpose and live a full life, comedian Bill Hicks’s piercing missive to a censoring priest on what freedom of speech really means, and Eudora Welty’s disarming job application to the New Yorker.

5. THE RISE

“You gotta be willing to fail… if you’re afraid of failing, you won’t get very far,” Steve Jobs cautioned. “There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction,” Oprah counseled new Harvard graduates. In his wonderfully heartening letter of fatherly advice, F. Scott Fitzgerald gave his young daughter Scottie a list of things to worry and not worry about in life; among the unworriables, he listed failure, “unless it comes through your own fault.” And yet, as Debbie Millman observed in Fail Safe, her magnificent illustrated-essay-turned-commencement-address, most of us “like to operate within our abilities” — stepping outside of them risks failure, and we do worry about it, very much. How, then, can we transcend that mental block, that existential worry, that keeps us from the very capacity for creative crash that keeps us growing and innovating?

That’s precisely what curator and art historian Sarah Lewis, who has under her belt degrees from Harvard and Oxford, curatorial positions at the Tate Modern and the MoMA, and an appointment on President Obama’s Arts Policy Committee, examines in The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery (public library | IndieBound) — an exploration of how “discoveries, innovations, and creative endeavors often, perhaps even only, come from uncommon ground” and why this “improbable ground of creative endeavor” is an enormous source of advantages on the path to self-actualization and fulfillment, brought to life through a tapestry of tribulations turned triumphs by such diverse modern heroes as legendary polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Lewis, driven by her lifelong “magpie curiosity about how we become,” crafts her argument slowly, meticulously, stepping away from it like a sculptor gaining perspective on her sculpture and examining it through other eyes, other experiences, other particularities, which she weaves together into an intricate tapestry of “magpielike borrowings” filtered through the sieve of her own point of view.

Female archers, lantern slide, c. 1920. (Public domain via Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives.)

Lewis begins with a visit with the women of Columbia University’s varsity archery team, who spend countless hours practicing a sport that requires equal parts impeccable precision of one’s aim and a level of comfort with the uncontrollable — all the environmental interferences, everything that could happen between the time the arrow leaves the bow and the time it lands on the target, having followed its inevitably curved line. From this unusual sport Lewis draws a metaphor for the core of human achievement:

There is little that is vocational about [contemporary] culture anymore, so it is rare to see what doggedness looks like with this level of exactitude… To spend so many hours with a bow and arrow is a kind of marginality combined with a seriousness of purpose rarely seen.

In the archers’ doggedness Lewis finds the central distinction that serves as a backbone of her book — far more important than success (hitting the bull’s-eye) is the attainment of mastery (“knowing it means nothing if you can’t do it again and again”), and in bridging the former with the latter lives the substance of true achievement. (The distinction isn’t unlike what psychologist Carol Dweck found in her pioneering work on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.) Lewis writes:

Mastery requires endurance. Mastery, a word we don’t use often, is not the equivalent of what we might consider its cognate — perfectionism — an inhuman aim motivated by a concern with how others view us. Mastery is also not the same as success — an event-based victory based on a peak point, a punctuated moment in time. Mastery is not merely a commitment to a goal, but to a curved-line, constant pursuit.

This is why, Lewis argues, a centerpiece of mastery is the notion of failure. She cites Edison, who famously said of his countless fruitless attempts to create a feasible lightbulb: “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” In fact, Lewis points out that embedded in the very word “failure” — a word originally synonymous with bankruptcy, devised to assess creditworthiness in the 19th century, “a seeming dead end forced to fit human worth” — is the bias of our limited understanding of its value:

The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else — a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention — no longer the static concept of failure.

In its stead, Lewis offers another 19th-century alternative: “blankness,” which beautifully captures the wide-open field of possibility for renewal, for starting from scratch, after an unsuccessful attempt. Still, she considers the challenge of pinning down into plain language a concept so complex and fluid — even fashionable concepts like grit fail failure:

Trying to find a precise word to describe the dynamic is fleeting, like attempting to locate francium, an alkali metal measured but never isolated in any weighted quantity or seen in a way that the eye can detect — one of the most unstable, enigmatic elements on the Earth. No one knows what it looks like in an appreciable form, but there it is, scattered throughout ores in the Earth’s crust. Many of us have a similar sense that these implausible rises must be possible, but the stories tend to stay strewn throughout our lives, never coalescing into a single dynamic concept… The phenomenon remains hidden, and little discussed. Partial ideas do exist — resilience, reinvention, and grit — but there’s no one word to describe the passing yet vital, constant truth that just when it looks like winter, it is spring.

[…]

When we don’t have a word for an inherently fleeting idea, we speak about it differently, if at all. There are all sorts of generative circumstances — flops, folds, wipeouts, and hiccups — yet the dynamism it inspires is internal, personal, and often invisible… It is a cliché to say simply that we learn the most from failure. It is also not exactly true. Transformation comes from how we choose to speak about it in the context of story, whether self-stated or aloud.

One essential element of understanding the value of failure is the notion of the “deliberate incomplete.” (Cue in Marie Curie, who famously noted in a letter to her brother: “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.”) Lewis writes:

We thrive, in part, when we have purpose, when we still have more to do. The deliberate incomplete has long been a central part of creation myths themselves. In Navajo culture, some craftsmen and women sought imperfection, giving their textiles and ceramics an intended flaw called a “spirit line” so that there is a forward thrust, a reason to continue making work. Nearly a quarter of twentieth century Navajo rugs have these contrasting-color threads that run out from the inner pattern to just beyond the border that contains it; Navajo baskets and often pottery have an equivalent line called a “heart line” or a “spirit break.” The undone pattern is meant to give the weaver’s spirit a way out, to prevent it from getting trapped and reaching what we sense is an unnatural end.

There is an inevitable incompletion that comes with mastery. It occurs because the greater our proficiency, the more smooth our current path, the more clearly we may spot the mountain that hovers in our gaze. “What would you say increases with knowledge?” Jordan Elgrably once asked James Baldwin. “You learn how little you know,” Baldwin said.

A related concept is that of the “near win” — those moments when we come so close to our aim, yet miss it by a hair:

At the point of mastery, when there seems nothing left to move beyond, we find a way to move beyond ourselves. Success motivates. Yet the near win — the constant auto-correct of a curved-line path — can propel us in an ongoing quest. We see it whenever we aim, climb, or create with mastery as our aim, when the outcome is determined by what happens at the margins.

Lewis goes on to illustrate these concepts with living examples from the stories of such pioneering figures as the great polar explorer Captain Scott, dance icon Paul Taylor, and pioneering social reformer Frederick Douglass. Read more here.

6. THE ACCIDENTAL UNIVERSE

It says something about physicist and writer Alan Lightman — the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT — that a book of his is not only among the best science books of the year, but also a masterwork of philosophy. But that is precisely what The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library | IndieBound) is — a spectacular journey to the frontiers of theoretical physics, exploring how the possibility of multiple universes illuminates the heart of the human experience and our quest for Beauty, Truth, and Meaning. Lightman’s enchanting writing reveals him not only as a scientist of towering expertise, but also as an insightful philosopher and poet of the cosmos, partway between Seneca and Carl Sagan.

In the foreword, Lightman recounts attending a lecture by the Dalai Lama at MIT, “one of the world’s spiritual leaders sitting cross-legged in a modern temple of science,” and hearing about the Buddhist concept of sunyata, translated as “emptiness” — the notion that objects in the physical universe are vacant of inherent meaning and that we imbue them with meaning and value with the thoughts of our own minds. From this, Lightman argues while adding to history’s finest definitions of science, arises a central challenge of the human condition:

As a scientist, I firmly believe that atoms and molecules are real (even if mostly empty space) and exist independently of our minds. On the other hand, I have witnessed firsthand how distressed I become when I experience anger or jealousy or insult, all emotional states manufactured by my own mind. The mind is certainly its own cosmos. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “[The mind] can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven.” In our constant search for meaning in this baffling and temporary existence, trapped as we are within our three pounds of neurons, it is sometimes hard to tell what is real. We often invent what isn’t there. Or ignore what is. We try to impose order, both in our minds and in our conceptions of external reality. We try to connect. We try to find truth. We dream and we hope. And underneath all of these strivings, we are haunted by the suspicion that what we see and understand of the world is only a tiny piece of the whole.

[…]

Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.

Lightman goes on to explore the relationship between science and spirituality, how dark energy explains why we exist, and what our yearning for immortality tells us about the universe.

7. SMALL VICTORIES

Beyond having written one of the finest books on writing ever published, Anne Lamott embraces language and life with equal zest, squeezing from the intersection wisdom of the most soul-stretching kind. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (public library | IndieBound) shines a sidewise gleam at Lamott’s much-loved meditations on why perfectionism kills creativity and how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing to explore the boundless blessings of our ample imperfections, from which our most expansive and transcendent humanity springs.

Amid her moving reflections on grief, grace, and gratitude is one especially enchanting essay titled “The Book of Welcome,” in which Lamott considers the uncomfortable art of letting yourself be seen:

Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you. They see your upper arms are beautiful, soft and clean and warm, and then they will see this about their own, some of the time. It’s called having friends, choosing each other, getting found, being fished out of the rubble. It blows you away, how this wonderful event ever happened — me in your life, you in mine.

Two parts fit together. This hadn’t occurred all that often, but now that it does, it’s the wildest experience. It could almost make a believer out of you. Of course, life will randomly go to hell every so often, too. Cold winds arrive and prick you: the rain falls down your neck: darkness comes. But now there are two of you: Holy Moly.

Read more here and here.

8. THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUST

“When you trust people to help you, they often do,” Amanda Palmer asserted in her beautiful meditation on the art of asking without shame. But what does it really mean to “trust,” and perhaps more importantly, how can we live with the potential heartbreak that lurks in the gap between “often” and “always”? That’s precisely what psychologist David DeSteno, director of Northeastern University’s Social Emotions Lab, explores in The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More (public library | IndieBound).

DeSteno, who has previously studied the osmosis of good and evil in all of us and the psychology of compassion and resilience, argues that matters of trust occupy an enormous amount of our mental energies and influence, directly or indirectly, practically every aspect of our everyday lives. But trust is a wholly different animal from the majority of our mental concerns. DeSteno writes:

Unlike many other puzzles we confront, questions of trust don’t just involve attempting to grasp and analyze a perplexing concept. They all share another characteristic: risk. So while it’s true that we turn our attention to many complex problems throughout our lives, finding the answers to most doesn’t usually involve navigating the treacherous landscape of our own and others’ competing desires.

[…]

Trust implies a seeming unknowable — a bet of sorts, if you will. At its base is a delicate problem centered on the balance between two dynamic and often opposing desires — a desire for someone else to meet your needs and his desire to meet his own.

But despite what pop culture may tell us, decades’ worth of attempts to decode the signals of trustworthiness — sought in everything from facial expression to voice to handwriting — have proven virtually useless, and the last five years of research have rendered previous assertions about certain nonverbal cues wrong. (No, a sideways glance doesn’t automatically indicate that the person is lying to you.) As DeSteno wryly observes, “If polygraphs were foolproof, we wouldn’t need juries.” He explains what makes measures of trust especially complicated:

Unlike many forms of communication, issues of trust are often characterized by a competition or battle…. It’s not always an adaptive strategy to be an open book to others, or even to ourselves. Consequently, trying to discern if someone can be trusted is fundamentally different from trying to assess characteristics like mathematical ability. … Deciding to be trustworthy depends on the momentary balance between competing mental forces pushing us in opposite directions, and being able to predict which of those forces is going to prevail in any one instance is a complicated business.

[…]

Contrary to long-held doctrine, isolated gestures and expressions aren’t reliable indicators of what a person feels or intends to do. Two types of context — what I call configural and situational — are essential for correct interpretation. And they’ve been missing in most attempts to discover what trustworthiness and its opposite look like.

To figure out this multifaceted puzzle, DeSteno, whose lab studies how emotional states shape our social and moral behavior, took a cross-disciplinary approach, turning to the work of economists, computer scientists, security officers, physiologists and other psychologists, and enlisting the direct help of social psychologist David Pizarro and economist Robert Frank. With combined expertise spanning behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, nonverbal behavior, and emotional biases in decision making, they built, with equal parts rigor and humility, the richest framework for understanding trust that science has ever accomplished. Specifically, they focused on the two main components of trust — how it works and whether we’re able to predict who deserves it. DeSteno writes:

In the end, what emerged are not only new insights into how to detect the trustworthiness of others, but also an entirely new way to think about how trust influences our lives, our success, and our interactions with those around us.

Read more here.

9. THE ART OF ASKING

“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it,” Lucinda Williams sang from my headphones into my heart one rainy October morning on the train to Hudson. “What seems cynicism is always a sign, always a sign…” I was headed to Hudson for a conversation with a very different but no less brilliant musician, and a longtime kindred spirit — the talented and kind Amanda Palmer. In an abandoned schoolhouse across the street from her host’s home, we sat down to talk about her magnificent and culturally necessary new book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully written inquiry into why we have such a hard time accepting compassion in all of its permutations, from love to what it takes to make a living, what lies behind our cynicism in refusing it, and how learning to accept it makes possible the greatest gifts of our shared humanity.

I am partial, perhaps, because my own sustenance depends on accepting help. But I also deeply believe and actively partake in both the yin and the yang of that vitalizing osmosis of giving and receiving that keeps today’s creative economy alive, binding artists and audiences, writers and readers, musicians and fans, into the shared cause of creative culture. “It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the circles of giving and receiving in 1942, but we still seem woefully caught in the paradoxical trap of too much entitlement to what we feel we want and too little capacity to accept what we truly need. The unhinging of that trap is what Amanda explores with equal parts deep personal vulnerability, profound insight into the private and public lives of art, and courageous conviction about the future of creative culture.

The most urgent clarion call echoing throughout the book, which builds on Amanda’s terrific TED talk, is for loosening our harsh and narrow criteria for what it means to be an artist, and, most of all, for undoing our punishing ideas about what renders one a not-artist, or — worse yet — a not-artist-enough. Amanda writes of the anguishing Impostor Syndrome epidemic such limiting notions spawn:

People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis, because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized. When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.

There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.

But in the history of creative genius, this pathology appears to be a rather recent development — the struggle to be an artist, of course, is nothing new, but the struggle to believe being one seems to be a uniquely modern malady. In one of the most revelatory passages in the book, Amanda points out a little-known biographical detail about the life of Henry David Thoreau — he who decided to live the self-reliant life by Walden pond and memorably proclaimed: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.” It is a detail that, today, would undoubtedly render Thoreau the target of that automatic privilege narrative as we point a finger and call him a “poser”:

Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live “by his own means” in a little 10-foot x 15-foot hand-hewn cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.

The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.

If Thoreau lived today, steeped in a culture that tells him taking the donuts chips away at his credibility, would he have taken them? And why don’t we? Amanda writes:

Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.

It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.

Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.

Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.

To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,

Please, take the donuts.

To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band,

Take the donuts.

To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $700 a month who went on to marry a best-selling author who she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please….

Everybody.

Please.

Just take the fucking donuts.

But Thoreau, it turns out, got one thing right in his definition of success, which emanates from Amanda’s words a century and a half later:

The happiest artists I know are generally the ones who can manage to make a reasonable living from their art without having to worry too much about the next paycheck. Not to say that every artist who sits around the campfire, or plays in tiny bars, is “happier” than those singing in stadiums — but more isn’t always better. If feeling the connection between yourself and others is the ultimate goal it can be harder when you are separated from the crowd by a 30-foot barrier. And it can be easier to do — though riskier — when they’re sitting right beside you. The ideal sweet spot is the one in which the artist can freely share their talents and directly feel the reverberations of their artistic gifts to their community. In other words, it works best when everybody feels seen.

As artists, and as humans: If your fear is scarcity, the solution isn’t necessarily abundance.

Read more and watch my conversation with Palmer here.

10. LEONARDO’S BRAIN

One September day in 2008, Leonard Shlain found himself having trouble buttoning his shirt with his right hand. He was admitted into the emergency room, diagnosed with Stage 4 brain cancer, and given nine months to live. Shlain — a surgeon by training and a self-described “synthesizer by nature” with an intense interest in the ennobling intersection of art and science, author of the now-legendary Art & Physics — had spent the previous seven years working on what he considered his magnum opus: a sort of postmortem brain scan of Leonardo da Vinci, performed six centuries after his death and fused with a detective story about his life, exploring what the unique neuroanatomy of the man commonly considered humanity’s greatest creative genius might reveal about the essence of creativity itself.

Shlain finished the book on May 3, 2009. He died a week later. His three children — Kimberly, Jordan, and filmmaker Tiffany Shlain — spent the next five years bringing their father’s final legacy to life. The result is Leonardo’s Brain: Understanding Da Vinci’s Creative Genius (public library | IndieBound) — an astonishing intellectual, and at times spiritual, journey into the center of human creativity via the particular brain of one undereducated, left-handed, nearly ambidextrous, vegetarian, pacifist, gay, singularly creative Renaissance male, who Shlain proposes was able to attain a different state of consciousness than “practically all other humans.”

Illustration by Ralph Steadman from 'I, Leonardo.' Click image for more.

Noting that “a writer is always refining his ideas,” Shlain points out that the book is a synthesis of his three previous books, and an effort to live up to Kafka’s famous proclamation that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” It is also a beautiful celebration of the idea that art and science belong together and enrich one another whenever they converge.

Shlain argues that Leonardo — who painted the eternally mysterious Mona Lisa, created visionary anatomical drawings long before medical anatomy existed, made observations of bird flight in greater detailed than any previous scientist, mastered engineering, architecture, mathematics, botany, and cartography, might be considered history’s first true scientist long before Mary Somerville coined the word, presaged Newton’s Third Law, Bernoulli’s law, and elements of chaos theory, and was a deft composer who sang “divinely,” among countless other domains of mastery — is the individual most worthy of the title “genius” in both science and art:

The divergent flow of art and science in the historical record provides evidence of a distinct compartmentalization of genius. The river of art rarely intersected with the meander of science.

[…]

Although both art and science require a high degree of creativity, the difference between them is stark. For visionaries to change the domain of art, they must make a breakthrough that can only be judged through the lens of posterity. Great science, on the other hand, must be able to predict the future. If a scientist’s hypotheses cannot be turned into a law that can be verified by future investigators, it is not scientifically sound. Another contrast: Art and science represent the difference between “being” and “doing.” Art’s raison d’être is to evoke an emotion. Science seeks to solve problems by advancing knowledge.

[…]

Leonardo’s story continues to compel because he represents the highest excellence all of us lesser mortals strive to achieve — to be intellectually, creatively, and emotionally well-rounded. No other individual in the known history of the human species attained such distinction both in science and art as the hyper-curious, undereducated, illegitimate country boy from Vinci.

Using a wealth of available information from Leonardo’s notebooks, various biographical resources, and some well-reasoned speculation, Shlain goes on to perform a “posthumous brain scan” seeking to illuminate the unique wiring of Da Vinci’s brain and how it explains his unparalleled creativity.

Peek inside his findings here.

11. THE ART OF STILLNESS

“Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments,” Alan Lightman wrote in his sublime meditation on science and spirituality, “and at others to ride the passion and exuberance.” In his conversation with E.O. Wilson, the poet Robert Hass described beauty as a “paradox of stillness and motion.” But in our Productivity Age of perpetual motion, it’s increasingly hard — yet increasingly imperative — to honor stillness, to build pockets of it into our lives, so that our faith in beauty doesn’t become half-hearted, lopsided, crippled. The delicate bridling of that paradox is what novelist and essayist Pico Iyer explores in The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully argued case for the unexpected pleasures of “sitting still as a way of falling in love with the world and everything in it,” revealed through one man’s sincere record of learning to “take care of his loved ones, do his job, and hold on to some direction in a madly accelerating world.”

Iyer begins by recounting a snaking drive up the San Gabriel Mountains outside Los Angeles to visit his boyhood hero — legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. In 1994, shortly after the most revealing interview he ever gave, Cohen had moved to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center to embark on five years of seclusion, serving as personal assistant to the great Japanese Zen teacher Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, then in his late eighties. Midway through his time at the Zen Center, Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and given the Dharma name Jikan — Pali for “silence.” Iyer writes:

I’d come up here in order to write about my host’s near-silent, anonymous life on the mountain, but for the moment I lost all sense of where I was. I could hardly believe that this rabbinical-seeming gentleman in wire-rimmed glasses and wool cap was in truth the singer and poet who’d been renowned for thirty years as an international heartthrob, a constant traveler, and an Armani-clad man of the world.

Cohen, who once described the hubbub of his ordinary state of mind as “very much like the waiting room at the DMV,” had sought in the sequestered Zen community a more extreme, more committed version of a respite most of us long for in the midst of modern life — at least at times, at least on some level, and often wholeheartedly, achingly. Iyer reflects on Cohen’s particular impulse and what it reveals about our shared yearning:

Leonard Cohen had come to this Old World redoubt to make a life — an art — out of stillness. And he was working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection. The week I was visiting, he was essentially spending seven days and nights in a bare meditation hall, sitting stock-still. His name in the monastery, Jikan, referred to the silence between two thoughts.

[…]

One evening — four in the morning, the end of December — Cohen took time out from his meditations to walk down to my cabin and try to explain what he was doing here.

Sitting still, he said with unexpected passion, was “the real deep entertainment” he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. “Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. The real feast that is available within this activity.”

Was he kidding? Cohen is famous for his mischief and ironies.

He wasn’t, I realized as he went on. “What else would I be doing?” he asked. “Would I be starting a new marriage with a young woman and raising another family? Finding new drugs, buying more expensive wine? I don’t know. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.”

Typically lofty and pitiless words; living on such close terms with silence clearly hadn’t diminished his gift for golden sentences. But the words carried weight when coming from one who seemed to have tasted all the pleasures that the world has to offer.

Iyer beholds his encounter with Cohen with the same incredulous amazement that most of us modern cynics experience, at first reluctantly, when confronted with something or someone incomprehensibly earnest, for nothing dissolves snark like unflinching sincerity. For Cohen, Iyer observes, the Zen practice was not a matter of “piety or purity” but of practical salvation and refuge from “the confusion and terror that had long been his bedfellows.” Iyer writes:

Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions.

“Nothing touches it,” Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still… Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

A century after Bertrand Russell admonished that the conquest of leisure and health would be of no use if no one remembers how to use them, Iyer paints an empirical caricature of the paradoxical time argument against stillness. Citing a sociological study of time diaries that found Americans were working fewer hours than they were 30 years earlier but felt as if they were working more, he writes:

We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.

As most of us would begrudgingly admit, not without some necessary tussle with denial and rationalization, the challenge of staying present in the era of productivity is in no small part a product of our age itself. Iyer captures this elegantly:

Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources — it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources. Going nowhere, as Cohen had shown me, is not about austerity so much as about coming closer to one’s senses.

Much like we find ourselves by getting lost, Iyer suggests, we inhabit the world more fully by mindfully vacating its mayhem:

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

Read more about how to do that here.

12. ANIMAL MADNESS

If the notion of mental illness in animals seems like far-fetched anthropocentrism, a field of science that has been gathering momentum for more than 150 years strongly suggests otherwise. That’s precisely what Senior TED Fellow Laurel Braitman explores in Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves (public library | IndieBound). Braitman, who holds a Ph.D. in history and anthropology of science from MIT, argues that we humans are far from unique in our capacity for “emotional thunderstorms that make our lives more difficult” and that nonhuman animals are bedeviled by varieties of mental illness strikingly similar to our own. With equal parts rigor and compassion, she examines evidence from veterinary science, psychology and pharmacology research, first-hand accounts by neuroscientists, zoologists, animal trainers, and other experts, the work of legendary scientists and philosophers like Charles Darwin and Rene Descartes, and her own experience with dozens of animals spanning a multitude of species and mental health issues, from depressed dogs to self-harming dolphins to canine Alzheimer’s and PTSD.

Braitman’s journey begins with one particularly troubled nonhuman animal — Oliver, the Bernese Mountain Dog she adopted, whose “extreme fear, anxiety, and compulsions” prompted her, in the way that a concerned parent on the verge of despair grasps for answers, to explore whether and how other animals could be mentally ill. Considering the tapestry of evidence threads she uncovered during her research, she writes:

Humans and other animals are more similar than many of us might think when it comes to mental states and behaviors gone awry — experiencing churning fear, for example, in situations that don’t call for it, feeling unable to shake a paralyzing sadness, or being haunted by a ceaseless compulsion to wash our hands or paws. Abnormal behaviors like these tip into the territory of mental illness when they keep creatures — human or not — from engaging in what is normal for them. This is true for a dog single-mindedly focused on licking his tail until it’s bare and oozy, a sea lion fixated on swimming in endless circles, a gorilla too sad and withdrawn to play with her troop members, or a human so petrified of escalators he avoids department stores.

Every animal with a mind has the capacity to lose hold of it from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is abuse or mistreatment, but not always. I’ve come across depressed and anxious gorillas, compulsive horses, rats, donkeys, and seals, obsessive parrots, self-harming dolphins, and dogs with dementia, many of whom share their exhibits, homes, or habitats with other creatures who don’t suffer from the same problems. I’ve also gotten to know curious whales, confident bonobos, thrilled elephants, contented tigers, and grateful orangutans. There is plenty of abnormal behavior in the animal world, captive, domestic, and wild, and plenty of evidence of recovery; you simply need to know where and how to find it.

Braitman is careful to acknowledge that such a notion is likely to unnerve our notions of human exceptionalism and offers a wise caveat:

Acknowledging parallels between human and other animal mental health is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use, and culture in other creatures. That is, it’s a blow to the idea that humans are the only animals to feel or express emotion in complex and surprising ways. It is also anthropomorphic, the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things. We can choose, though, to anthropomorphize well and, by doing so, make more accurate interpretations of animals’ behavior and emotional lives. Instead of self-centered projection, anthropomorphism can be a recognition of bits and pieces of our human selves in other animals and vice versa.

Braitman goes on to trace how our evolving understanding of animal psychology, from Charles Darwin to Jane Goodall, sheds invaluable light on things of deep concern to us humans — notions like anxiety, altruism, depression, and happiness. Read more here.

13. TRYING NOT TO TRY

“The best way to get approval is not to need it,” Hugh MacLeod memorably counseled. We now know that perfectionism kills creativity and excessive goal-setting limits our success rather than begetting it — all different manifestations of the same deeper paradox of the human condition, at once disconcerting and comforting, which Edward Slingerland, professor of Asian Studies and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia and a renowned scholar of Chinese thought, explores in Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (public library | IndieBound).

Slingerland frames the paradoxical premise at the heart of his book with an illustrative example: a game called Mindball at his local science museum in Vancouver, in which two players sit opposite one another, each wearing an electrode-equipped headband that registers general activity in the brain, and try to mentally push a metal ball from the center of the table to the other player; whoever does this first wins. There is, of course, a rub:

The motive force — measured by each player’s electrodes, and conveyed to the ball by a magnet hidden underneath the table—is the combination of alpha and theta waves produced by the brain when it’s relaxed: the more alpha and theta waves you produce, the more force you mentally exert on the ball. Essentially, Mindball is a contest of who can be the most calm. It’s fun to watch. The players visibly struggle to relax, closing their eyes, breathing deeply, adopting vaguely yogic postures. The panic they begin to feel as the ball approaches their end of the table is usually balanced out by the overeagerness of their opponent, both players alternately losing their cool as the big metal ball rolls back and forth. You couldn’t wish for a better, more condensed illustration of how difficult it is to try not to try.

Our lives, Slingerland argues, are often like “a massive game of Mindball,” when we find ourselves continually caught in this loop of trying so hard that we stymie our own efforts. Like in Mindball, where victory only comes when the player relaxes and stops trying to win, we spend our lives “preoccupied with effort, the importance of working, striving, and trying,” only to find that the more we try to will things into manifesting, the more elusive they become. Slingerland writes:

Our excessive focus in the modern world on the power of conscious thought and the benefits of willpower and self-control causes us to overlook the pervasive importance of what might be called “body thinking”: tacit, fast, and semiautomatic behavior that flows from the unconscious with little or no conscious interference. The result is that we too often devote ourselves to pushing harder or moving faster in areas of our life where effort and striving are, in fact, profoundly counterproductive.

Art by Austin Kleon from 'Show Your Work.' Click image for more.

Some of the most elusive objects of our incessant pursuits are happiness and spontaneity, both of which are strikingly resistant to conscious pursuit. Two ancient Chinese concepts might be our most powerful tools for resolving this paradox — wu-wei (pronounced oooo-way) and de (pronounced duh). Slingerland explains:

Wu-wei literally translates as “no trying” or “no doing,” but it’s not at all about dull inaction. In fact, it refers to the dynamic, effortless, and unselfconscious state of mind of a person who is optimally active and effective. People in wu-wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation, or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order. For a person in wu-wei, proper and effective conduct follows as automatically as the body gives in to the seductive rhythm of a song. This state of harmony is both complex and holistic, involving as it does the integration of the body, the emotions, and the mind. If we have to translate it, wu-wei is probably best rendered as something like “effortless action” or “spontaneous action.” Being in wu-wei is relaxing and enjoyable, but in a deeply rewarding way that distinguishes it from cruder or more mundane pleasures.

Read more here.

14. MY AGE OF ANXIETY

“Anxiety … makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you,” Anaïs Nin wrote. “Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy,” Kierkegaard observed. “There is no question that the problem of anxiety is a nodal point at which the most various and important questions converge, a riddle whose solution would be bound to throw a flood of light on our whole mental existence,” Freud proclaimed in his classic introductory lectures on psychoanalysis. And yet the riddle of anxiety is far from solved — rather, it has swelled into a social malady pulling countless numbers of us underwater daily. Among those most mercilessly fettered by anxiety’s grip is Scott Stossel, familiar to most as the editor of The Atlantic. In his superb mental health memoir, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind (public library | IndieBound), Stossel follows in the tradition of Montaigne to use the lens of his own experience as a prism for illuminating insight on the quintessence of our shared struggles with anxiety. From his personal memoir he weaves a cultural one, painting a portrait of anxiety though history, philosophy, religion, popular culture, literature, and a wealth of groundbreaking research in psychology and neuroscience.

Why? Because anxiety and its related psychoemotional disorders turn out to be the most common, prevalent, and undertreated form of clinically classified mental illness today, even more common than depression. Stossel contextualizes the issue with some striking statistics that reveal the cost — both financial and social — of anxiety:

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some forty million Americans, nearly one in seven of us, are suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder at any given time, accounting for 31 percent of the expenditures on mental health care in the United States. According to recent epidemiological data, the “lifetime incidence” of anxiety disorder is more than 25 percent — which, if true, means that one in four of us can expect to be stricken by debilitating anxiety at some point in our lifetimes. And it is debilitating: Recent academic papers have argued that the psychic and physical impairment tied to living with an anxiety disorder is equivalent to living with diabetes — usually manageable, sometimes fatal, and always a pain to deal with. A study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2006 found that Americans lose a collective 321 million days of work because of anxiety and depression each year, costing the economy $50 billion annually; a 2001 paper published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics once estimated that the median number of days missed each year by American workers who suffer from anxiety or stress disorders is twenty-five. In 2005 — three years before the recent economic crisis hit — Americans filled fifty-three million prescriptions for just two antianxiety drugs: Ativan and Xanax. (In the weeks after 9/11, Xanax prescriptions jumped 9 percent nationally — and by 22 percent in New York City.) In September 2008, the economic crash caused prescriptions in New York City to spike: as banks went belly up and the stock market went into free fall, prescriptions for anti-depressant and antianxiety medications increased 9 percent over the year before, while prescriptions for sleeping pills increased 11 percent.

[…]

Few people today would dispute that chronic stress is a hallmark of our times or that anxiety has become a kind of cultural condition of modernity. We live, as has been said many times since the dawn of the atomic era, in an age of anxiety — and that, cliché though it may be, seems only to have become more true in recent years as America has been assaulted in short order by terrorism, economic calamity and disruption, and widespread social transformation.

Fittingly, Alan Watts’s The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, written in the very atomic era that sparked the dawn of our present predicament, remains one of the best meditations on the subject. But, as Stossel points out, the notion of anxiety as a clinical category only appeared as recently as thirty years ago. He traces anxiety’s rise to cultural fame through the annals of academic history, pointing out that there were only three academic papers published on the subject in 1927, only fourteen in 1941, and thirty-seven in 1950. It wasn’t until psychologist Rollo May published his influential treatise on anxiety in 1950 that academia paid heed. Today, a simple Google Scholar search returns nearly three million results, and entire academic journals are dedicated to anxiety.

But despite anxiety’s catapulting into cultural concern, our understanding of it — especially as far as mental health stereotypes are concerned — remains developmentally stunted, having evolved very little since the time of seventeenth-century Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who asserted that anxiety was a mere problem of logic and could thus be resolved with tools of reason. Stossel counters such oversimplification with a case for layered, complex causality of the disorder:

The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture. Even as anxiety is experienced at a spiritual and psychological level, it is scientifically measurable at the molecular level and the physiological level. It is produced by nature and it is produced by nurture. It’s a psychological phenomenon and a sociological phenomenon. In computer terms, it’s both a hardware problem (I’m wired badly) and a software problem (I run faulty logic programs that make me think anxious thoughts). The origins of a temperament are many faceted; emotional dispositions that may seem to have a simple, single source — a bad gene, say, or a childhood trauma — may not.

Read more here, then sample further with Stossel on Darwin’s battle with anxiety.

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