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12 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Science Books of 2011

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From Infinity to Fibonacci, or what religious mythology has to do with the inner workings of field science.

After the year’s best illustrated books for (eternal) kids, art, design, and creativity books, and photography books, the 2011 best-of series continues with a look at the year’s most compelling science books, spanning everything from medicine to physics to quantum mechanics. (And before you raise an eyebrow at the absence of the social and “soft” sciences, know that an omnibus of the year’s best psychology and philosophy books is coming next week.)

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS

Rebecca Skloot is one of the finest science writers working today. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, one of five fantastic books about unsung heroes, she tells the story of a woman who unwittingly shaped contemporary science. (Though the book came out in 2010, the paperback was released in 2011 so, hey, it counts.)

When Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951), an African-American mother of five who migrated from the tobacco farms of Virginia to poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, died at the tragic age of 31 from cervical cancer, she didn’t realize she’d be the donor of cells that would create the HeLa immortal cell line — a line that didn’t die after a few cell divisions — making possible some of the most seminal discoveries in modern medicine. Though the tumor tissue was taken with neither her knowledge nor her consent, the HeLa cell was crucial in everything from the first polio vaccine to cancer and AIDS research. To date, scientists have grown more than 20 tons of HeLa cells.

Skloot weaves a fascinating and tender detective story about HeLa’s legacy through the discovery of Henrietta’s youngest daughter, Deborah, who didn’t know her mother but who always knew she wanted to be a scientist. As Skloot and Deborah, infinitely different yet united by the shared quest for answers, unravel one of the most absorbing mysteries of modern science, we also get a rich and sensitive tale about family, community, and the dark side of society’s capacity for exploiting its poorest and most vulnerable members. The book, one of the decade’s most excellent and ambitious science-and-so-much-more reads, is currently being made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball.

Good science is all about following the data as it shows up and letting yourself be proven wrong, and letting everything change while you’re working on it — and I think writing is the same way.” ~ Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta and David Lacks, circa 1945.

Deborah Lacks at about age four.

Margaret Gey and Minnie, a lab technician, in the Gey lab at Hopkins, circa 1951.

In an interview with Skloot, David Dobbs offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the book came to life — a must-read for anyone interested in the intricacies of intelligent inquiry and storytelling, in science and in general.

THE BEGINNING OF INFINITY

Since time immemorial, mankind’s greatest questions — what is reality, what does it mean to be human, what is time, is there God — have endured as a pervasive frontier of intellectual inquiry through which we try to explain and make sense of the world, the pursuit of these elusive answers having germinated disciplines as diverse as philosophy and physics. But what place does explanation itself have in the universe and our understanding of it? That’s exactly what iconic physicist and quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch explores in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World — an important and wildly illuminating new book on the nature and evolution of human knowledge. Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.

Must progress come to an end — either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion — or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field. Many seem, superficially, to be unconnected. But they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call the beginning of infinity.” ~David Deutsch

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Deutsch speak at TEDGlobal, where he delivered what was unequivocally the event’s most mind-bending talk, presenting a new way to explain explanation itself — a teaser for the book as he was in the heat of writing it. Stay on your toes and try to keep up:

Empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses.” ~ David Deutsch

The Beginning of Infinity comes as Deutsch’s highly anticipated follow-up, thirteen years later, to his excellent The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, in which Deutsch outlined the four fundamental strands of existing knowledge.

Bear in mind, this is no light beach book, nor is it an easy read, but it’s an incredibly lucid one, the kind of book that stays with you for your entire lifetime, insights from it finding their way, consciously or unconsciously, into every intellectual conversation you’ll ever have.

Originally reviewed in July.

RADIOACTIVE

In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science, a pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, and not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. Granted, the book was also atop my omnibus of the year’s best art and design books — but that’s because it’s truly extraordinary — a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Redniss tells a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.

THE PHYSICS BOOK

Einstein famously noted that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it’s comprehensible. In The Physics Book: From the Big Bang to Quantum Resurrection, 250 Milestones in the History of Physics, acclaimed science author Clifford Pickover offers a sweeping, lavishly illustrated chronology of comprehension by way of physics, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), through such watershed moments as Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and gravity (1687), the invention of fiber optics (1841), Einstein’s general theory of relativity (1915), the first speculation about parallel universes (1956), the discovery of buckyballs (1985), Stephen Hawking’s Star Trek cameo (1993), and the building of the Large Hadron Collider (2009).

The book, which could well be the best thing since Bill Bryson’s short illustrated history of nearly everything, begins with a beautiful quote about the poetry of science and curiosity:

As the island of knowledge grows, the surface that makes contact with mystery expands. When major theories are overturned, what we thought was certain knowledge gives way, and knowledge touches upon mystery differently. This newly uncovered mystery may be humbling and unsettling, but it is the cost of truth. Creative scientists, philosophers, and poets thrive at this shoreline.” ~ W. Mark Richardson, ‘A Skeptic’s Sense of Wonder,’ Science

Pickover takes a wide-angle view of what physics actually is, encompassing everything from relativity to quantum mechanics to dark matter and beyond, in a spirit that honors the American Physical Society’s founding mission statement of 1899, which holds physics as “the most basic and fundamental science.” As much as it is about the great ideas of physics, the book is also about the great minds behind them, including Brain Pickings darlings Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Stephen Hawking, and Erwin Schrödinger.

From the magnetic monopole to quasicrystals to dark matter, The Physics Book is an invaluable treasure trove of curated knowledge in an age when, as Andrew Zolli put it at the opening of PopTech 2011, “the scale of our knowledge is expanding faster than most of our ability to comprehend.” For once, it’s rather nice to make some of humanity’s greatest intellectual achievements feel contained and digestible.

Originally reviewed, with plenty more images, last month.

I HAVE LANDED

For 27 years, iconic evolutionary biologist and science historian Stephen Jay Gould contributed illuminating and absorbing essays on everything from Aristotle to zoology for the magazine Natural History, many collected in a series of anthologies, offering some of the most articulate science writing of our time and influencing public opinion on science in magnitude few other writers have achieved. This year marked the bittersweet reprint of I Have Landed: The End of a Beginning in Natural History — the tenth and final of these fantastic anthologies, featuring 31 of Gould’s essays and commemorating the centennial of his family’s arrival at Ellis Island. (The title comes from his grandfather’s diary entry on that day.) It was originally published in 2002, mere weeks after Gould passed away from cancer.

From a fascinating essay on Vladimir Nabokov’s lepidoptery poetically titled “No Science Without Fancy, No Art Without Facts” to a meditation on Freud’s evolutionary fantasy to a poignant scientific reflection on 9/11, the essays blend a head-spinning spectrum of serious scientific inquiry with the storytelling of fine fiction.

In fact, a big part of what makes Gould’s thinking so compelling and his writing so alluring is the eloquence with which he blends popular interest with deep scientific insight. (The very notion of a scientific essay faces a great deal of resistance among many scientists, who find the essay format to be inappropriate for science.) Of the balance, Gould writes:

I have come to believe, as the primary definition of these ‘popular’ essays, that the conceptual depth of technical and general writing should not differ, lest we disrespect the interest and intelligence of millions of potential readers who lack advanced technical training in science, but who remain just as fascinated as any professional, as just as well aware of the importance of science to our human and earthly existence.”

Gould closes his final essay for Natural History with this moving tribute to his grandfather, all the more profound in light of the author’s own passing shortly thereafter:

Dear Papa Joe, I have been faithful to your dream of persistence and attentive to a hope that the increments of each worthy generation may buttress the continuity of evolution. You could write those wondrous words right at the beginning of your journey, amidst all the joy and terror of inception. I dared not repeat them until I could fulfill my own childhood dream — something that once seemed so mysteriously beyond any hope of realization to an insecure little boy in a garden apartment in Queens — to
become a scientist and to make, by my own effort, even the tiniest addition to human knowledge of evolution and the history of life. But now, with my 300, so fortuitously coincident with the world’s new 1,000 and your own 100, perhaps I have finally won the right to restate your noble words and to tell you that their inspiration still lights my journey: I have landed. But I also can’t help wondering what comes next!”

Originally featured in October.

THE MAGIC OF REALITY

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins — who in 1976 famously coined the term “meme” in his seminal, must-read book The Selfish Gene — is nowadays best-known as the world’s most celebrated atheist. This year, Dawkins released his first sort-of-children’s book, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True, also among the year’s best children’s books — a scientific primer for the world, its magic, and its origin, an antidote to the creationism mythology teaching young readers how to replace myth with science, and a fine addition to our favorite soft-of-children’s nonfiction.

With beautiful illustrations by graphic artist Dave McKean, Dawkins’ volume is as accessible as it is illuminating, covering a remarkable spectrum of subjects and natural phenomena — from who the very first person was to how earthquakes work to what dark matter is — in a way that infuses reality with the kind of fascination and whimsy we’re used to finding in myth and folklore. Each chapter begins with a famous myth from one of the world’s religions or folklore traditions, which Dawkins proceeds to myth-bust by examining the actual scientific processes and phenomena that these stories try to explain.

Here’s an introduction from Dawkins himself:

BBC has a great short segment, in which Dawkins explores the relationship between comfort and truth, and explains why evolution is the most magical, spellbinding story of all, more poetic than any fable or fairy tale:

When you think about it, here we are, we started off on this planet — this fragment of dust spinning around the sun — and in 4 billion years we gradually changed form bacteria into us. That is a spellbinding story.” ~ Richard Dawkins

The book comes with a companion immersive iPad app.

In an age when we’re still struggling to convince the powers that be of the value of public science and some public schools still perpetuate the mythology of creationism, Dawkins delivers a sober yet wildly absorbing and magical dose of reality in The Magic of Reality — one that brings to mind Jonah Lehrer’s reformulation of the famous Picasso quote: “Every child is a natural scientist. The problem is how to remain a scientist once we grow up.”

FIELD NOTES

Field Notes on Science and Nature, one of five fascinating peeks inside the notebooks of great creators, offers an unprecedented look at the inner workings of scientific inquiry and observation. It’s as much a scientific travelogue as it is a celebration of traditional methodologies for making sense of our natural environment, its beautiful reproductions of original journal pages taking us from Baja, California, with eminent ornithologist Kenn Kaufman to the Serengeti with renowned mammalogist George Schaller.

Michael Canfield, who edited the book and is himself a biologist at Harvard, invites us to “peer over the shoulders of outstanding field scientists and naturalists” through their brilliant annotations and illustrations.

'Meriwether Lewis's journal notes of the Eulachon fish (Thaleichthys pacificus), made on February 24, 1806, while Lewis was near Fort Clatsop, Oregon.'

Image courtesy of the American Philosophical Society

'A typical notebook page detailing the thoughts and events of a day doing fieldwork at Olorgesailie, Kenya, with a personal note near the end of the page about the joy of being alone with rocks.'

Anna K. Behrensmeyer, Paleontologist, in the essay 'Linking Researchers Across Generations'

'Page from a field notebook made in New Guinea on the food webs of aquatic animals known as phytotelmata that live in plant containers, such as tree hollows and bromeliad tanks.'

Roger Kitching, Ecologist, in 'A Reflection of the Truth'

The twelve essays in Field Notes were written by professional naturalists from such diverse disciplines as anthropology, botany, ecology, entomology, and paleontology, and their enthusiasm and experience are contagious. For the amateur naturalists among us, the compilation also contains essays on “Note-Taking for Pencilophobes” and basic instructions on color theory and sketching.

'Ink and watercolor drawing of a red sea fan (Swiftia sp.)'

Jenny Keller, in the essay 'Why Sketch?'

E.O. Wilson articulates the book’s voyeuristic magic in its introduction:

If there is a heaven, and I am allowed entrance, I will ask for no more than an endless living world to walk through and explore. I will carry with me an inexhaustible supply of notebooks, from which I can send back reports to the more sedentary spirits (mostly molecular and cell biologists). Along the way I would expect to meet kindred spirits among whom would be the authors of the essays in this book.”

Kirstin Butler’s original review here.

FEYNMAN

Legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman is a longtime favorite, his insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity pure gold. Feynman is a charming, affectionate, and inspiring graphic novel biography from librarian by day, comic nonfictionist by night Jim Ottoviani and illustrator Leland Myrick, and a fine addition to our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

From Feynman’s childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project to the infamous Challenger disaster, by way of quantum electrodynamics and bongo drums, the graphic narrative unfolds with equal parts humor and respect as it tells the story of one of the founding fathers of popular physics.

Colorful, vivid, and obsessive, the pages of Feynman exude the famous personality of the man himself, full of immense brilliance, genuine excitement for science, and a healthy dose of snark.

Originally featured, with more images, in October.

CULTURE

This year, Edge.org editor John Brockman launched a new series of anthologies curating 15 years’ worth of the most provocative thinking on major facets of science, culture, and intellectual life. First came The Mind, followed by Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology — a treasure chest of insight true to the promise of its title, featuring essays and interviews by and with (alas, all-male) icons such as Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Here’s a modest sampling of the lavish cerebral feast you’ll find between the book’s covers.

In his 1997 meditation “A Big Theory of Culture”, music icon and deep-thinker Brian Eno explores what constitutes cultural value and how it comes about:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.”

In “Art and Human Reality” (2009), the late and great Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton made an early case for provocative Darwinian theory of beauty:

[It] is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that it is supposed to replace a heavy post-structuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it.”

In “Social Networks Are Like the Eye” (2008), Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis examines why networks form and how they operate:

The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting — networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine — is that the nodes of a social network — the entities, the components — are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.”

In “Turing’s Cathedral” (2005), science historian George Dyson recalls his visit to the Google headquarters in the context of H. G. Wells’s 1938 prophecy:

I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built […] The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual […] Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain.”

Thoughtfully curated to stimulate your keenest critical thinking — like, for instance, the juxtaposition of Jaron Lanier’s digital dystopianism and Clay Shirky’s optimistic retort — Culture expands both the scope of science and your comfort zone of intellectual inquiry.

THE MAN OF NUMBERS

Imagine a day without numbers — how would you know when to wake up, how to call your mother, how the stock market is doing, or even how old you are? We live our lives by numbers. So fundamental are they to our understanding of the world that we’ve grown to take them for granted. And yet it wasn’t always so. Until the 13th century, even simple arithmetic was accessible almost exclusively to European scholars. Merchants kept track of quantifiables using Roman numerals, performing calculations either by an elaborate yet widespread fingers procedure or with a clumsy mechanical abacus. But in 1202, a young Italian man named Leonardo da Pisa — known today as Fibonacci — changed everything when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, the first arithmetic textbook of the West.

Keith Devlin tells his incredible and important story in The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, tracing how Fibonacci revolutionized everything from education to economics by making arithmetic available to the masses. If you think the personal computing revolution of the 1980s was a milestone of our civilization, consider the personal computation revolution. And yet, de Pisa’s cultural contribution is hardly common knowledge.

The change in society brought about by the teaching of modern arithmetic was so pervasive and all-powerful that within a few generations people simply took it for granted. There was no longer any recognition of the magnitude of the revolution that took the subject from an obscure object of scholarly interest to an everyday mental tool. Compared with Copernicus’s conclusions about the position of Earth in the solar system and Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum as a basis for telling time, Leonardo’s showing people how to multiply 193 by 27 simply lacks drama.” ~ Keith Devlin

The Latin phrase 'filius bonacci,' in the first line of the Liber Abbaci manuscript, gave rise to Leonardo da Pisa's modern nickname, Fibonacci

Image courtesy of The Library of Florence via NPR

Though “about” mathematics, Fibonacci’s story is really about a great number of remarkably timely topics: gamification for good (Liber abbaci brimmed with puzzles and riddles like the rabbit problem to alleviate the tedium of calculation and engage readers with learning); modern finance (Fibonacci was the first to develop an early form of present-value analysis, a method for calculating the time value of money perfected by iconic economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s); publishing entrepreneurship (the first edition of Liber Abbaci was too dense for the average person to grasp, so da Pisa released — bear in mind, before the invention of the printing press — a simplified version accessible to the ordinary traders of Pisa, which allowed the text to spread around the world); abstract symbolism (because numbers, as objective as we’ve come to perceive them as, are actually mere commonly agreed upon abstractions); and even remix culture (Liber Abbaci was assumed to be the initial source for a great deal of arithmetic bestsellers released after the invention of the printing press.)

Above all, however, Fibonacci’s feat was one of storytelling — much like TED, he took existing ideas that were far above the average person’s competence and grasp, and used his remarkable expository skills to make them accessible and attractive to the common man, allowing these ideas to spread far beyond the small and self-selected circles of the scholarly elite.

A page from the Liber abbaci manuscript. Leonardo da Pisa wrote symbolic calculations in the margin to illustrate the methods described in the text.

Image courtesy of Siena Public Library via NPR

A book about Leonardo must focus on his great contribution and his intellectual legacy. Having recognized that numbers, and in particular powerful and efficient ways to compute with them, could change the world, he set about making that happen at a time when Europe was poised for major advances in science, technology, and commercial practice. Through Liber Abbaci he showed that an abstract symbolism and a collection of seemingly obscure procedures for manipulating those symbols had huge practical applications.” ~ Keith Devlin

For an added layer of fascinating, there’s also a complementary ebook titled Leonardo and Steve, drawing a curious parallel between Fibonacci and Steve Jobs.

Originally featured, with a Kindle preview, in July.

FUTURE SCIENCE

What consumes the best and brightest minds working in science today? That’s exactly what literary agent Max Brockman explores in Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge — a fantastic anthology of short pieces by 19 first-rate researchers spanning everything from astronomy to virology to computer science, and a wealth in between. The provocative yet digestible essays are intended for the curious layperson, which Brockman reminds us in the introduction doesn’t come without risk: “If you’re an academic who writes about your work for a general audience, you’re thought by some of your colleagues to be wasting your time and perhaps endangering your academic career. For younger scientists (i.e., those without tenure), this is almost universally true.”

Given our optimism for the future and soft spot for intellectual anthologies, we’re certainly glad the contributors to Future Science took the chance. The result is a fascinating tour of academy’s advanced guard on, among other topics, why stress causes some people to crumble even as it spurs others on, what sense computer science can make of social media’s vast digital data, and how infinity has entered the realm of testable science. The breadth of subjects and their authors’ ability to make them accessible is thrilling — it’s like TED in book form.

Here’s just a small sampling from Future Science‘s contents:

For much of human history, we have been explorers of other continents — examiners of rocks and regions ripe for habitation, the culmination being the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the capstone being our flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon. But in the decades and centuries to come, exploration — both human and robotic — will increasingly focus on the ocean depths, of both our own ocean and the subsurface oceans believed to exist on at least five moons of the outer Solar System: Jupiter’s Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. The total volume of liquid water on those worlds is estimated to be more than a hundred times the volume of liquid water on Earth.” ~ Kevin P. Hand, “On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration”

If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.” ~ Jennifer Jacquet, “Is Shame Necessary”

This afternoon I received in the post a slim FedEx envelope containing four small vials of DNA. The DNA had been synthesized according to my instructions in under three weeks, at a cost of 39 U.S. cents per base pair (the rungs adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine in the DNA ladder). The 10 micrograms I ordered are dried, flaky, and barely visible to the naked eye, yet once I have restored them in water and made an RNA copy of this template, they will encode a virus I have designed.” ~ William McEwan, “Molecular Cut and Paste: The New Generation of Biological Tools”

As you might have guessed, Brockman is the son of John Brockman, who masterminded Culture above.

Kirstin Butler reviewed this in full in August.

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05 DECEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Photography Books of 2011

By:

What the world’s last living nomads have to do with Victorian strongwomen, tweed, and the unseen Beatles.

After the year’s best illustrated books for (eternal) kids and finest art, design, and creativity books, my best-of series continues with a look at the best photography books of 2011 — visual treasure troves that tell an important story, reveal a fascinating piece of history, or just deeply delight with a fresh perspective on a familiar subject.

PILGRIMAGE

Annie Leibovitz is one of today’s most prolific and celebrated photographers, her lens having captured generations of cultural icons with equal parts admiration and humanity. Unlike her other volumes, her latest book, out earlier this month, features no celebrities, no luminaries, no models — at least not directly. Instead, Pilgrimage is Leibovitz’s thoughtful meditation on how she can sustain her creativity in the face of adversity and make the most of her remaining time on Earth. The quest took her to such fascinating locales and pockets of cultural history as Charles Darwin’s cottage in the English countryside, Virginia Woolf’s writing table, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s home, Ansel Adams’s darkroom, Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress, and Freud’s final couch. It’s is as much a photographic feat of Leibovitz’s characteristically epic proportion as it is a timeless cultural treasure chest full of mementos and meta-iconography from the hotbed of 20th-century thought.

The kernel of the idea came before Leibovitz’s partner, the great Susan Sontag, died — the two of them had planned to do a book of places that were important to them, which they meticulously compiled in lists. Years after Sontag’s death, upon visiting Niagara Falls with her three young kids, Leibovitz decided to start her own list and do the book on her own.

From the beginning, when I was watching my children stand mesmerized over Niagara Falls, it was an exercise in renewal. It taught me to see again.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

The darkroom in Ansel Adams's home in Carmel, California, now owned by Adams’s son, Michael, and his wife, Jeanne, friends of Leibovitz

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

The Niagara Falls in Ontario

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Annie Oakley’s heart target from a private collection in Los Angeles, California

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Emily Dickinson's only surviving dress at the Amherst Historical Society in Amherst, Massachusetts

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A glass negative of a multiple-lens portrait of Lincoln made on Feb. 9, 1864, by Anthony Berger at the Brady Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Sigmund Freud's couch in his study at 20 Maresfield Gardens in London

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Virginia Woolf’s bedroom in her country home, which is a few miles from Charleston, England

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

A door in the adobe patio wall of Georgia O’Keefe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance warehouse in Yonkers, New York

Image courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

Dominique Browning paid Leibovitz a visit to chat about the book and has a lovely piece about it in the Times.

I needed to save myself. I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.” ~ Annie Leibovitz

Images courtesy of Annie Leibovitz via The New York Times

VENUS WITH BICEPS

Good thing this omnibus isn’t actually a ranked list, or else I might have been tempted to put Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women at the very top. This fascinating collection of rare archival images, 30 years in the making, chronicles nearly 200 years of sociocultural narrative about the strong female physique. It explores strongwomen’s legacy through rare posters, advertisements, comic books, flyers, and magazines, many never-before-published, for a total of 200 fantastic full-color and black-and-white illustrations and photographs, framed in their intriguing and far from frictionless cultural context. The women in them expanded and redefined femininity itself, reining in a new era of relating to the will and the body, but their plight was and remains far from easy, carried out most prominently in the battlefield of popular imagery.

Among the earliest strongwomen whose names have come down to us is the subject of this lithograph: Elise Serafin Luftmann. Apparently from a German-speaking region of Bohemia, she performed all over central Europe. Luftmann was famous for her ability to lift heavy weights and to juggle cannonballs. This illustration dates c. 1830.

There is something profoundly upsetting about a proud, confident, unrepentantly muscular woman. She risks being seen by her viewers as dangerous, alluring, odd, beautiful or, at worst, a sort of raree show. She is, in fact, a smorgasbord of mixed messages. This inability to come to grips with a strong, heavily muscled woman accounts for much of the confusion and downright hostility that often greets her.” ~ David L. Chapman

A way to diffuse male worries about women being too strong and threatening was to portray them in photos that emphasized their grace and beauty rather than their mass and musculature. Trapeze artists like this one had highly developed arms and upper bodies; it is significant that the photographer chose not to emphasize those parts of the subject's anatomy. Although her name and date are unknown, this gymnast is almost certainly a circus or music hall performer from the 1890s.

The ambivalence about women and muscularity has a long history, as it pushes at the limits of gender identity. Images of muscular women are disconcerting, even threatening. They disrupt the equation of men with strength and women with weakness that underpins gender roles and power relations.” ~ Patricia Vertinsky

The Belgian strongwoman had figured out that the one of the ways that she could amaze audiences was to lift a man on her shoulders. Eventually she was able to support half a dozen burly males as well as an oversized barbell.

In the early twentieth century, nothing conveyed the modern spirit of mobility, freedom, and independence better than the bicycle. When a pretty athletic girl was included, she added sexual desirability to the mix -- a sleek human machine joined to the manufactured machine. To many observers, this novel combination was exciting and perhaps a little frightening.

(On that note, see Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) below.)

Created between 1800 and 1980, the images trace society’s conflicted relationship with muscular women, met with everything from fascination to erotic objectification to derision, and even moral admonition. (A 1878 article for The American Christian Review, for instance, outlined a nine-step path to sin and humiliation, down which women participating in sports were headed — a simple croquet game could lead to picnics, which led to dances, which led to absence from church, which engendered moral degeneration…poverty…disconnect…disgrace…and, finally, ruin.) Coupled with this is the permeating fear that a sculpted musculature would effectively “unsex a woman.”

The strongest and most famous strongwoman of the Golden Age of the early twentieth century was Sandwina. Her birth name was Katie Brumbach. She stood over six feet tall and had enough bulk and muscle to amaze audiences with her prowess. Sandwina came from an athletic family, and in this poster c. 1900 she lifts three people (probably siblings) on a bicycle.

The Braselly Sisters were a pair of strongwomen who specialized in graceful and artistic strength stunts. They were also sisters of the even more famous female athlete, Sandwina. Here the two ladies do an adagio (acrobatic balancing) act. The photo found its way into The Police Gazette in 1909 where it was titled 'Muscles and Music.' The editors asked rhetorically, 'But don't you think the lady athletes are a stunning pair of statuesque beauties?'

When women first began to work out with weights, it was considered dangerous to have them lift anything heavy and so they were given only two- or four-pound wooden dumbbells. The fact that women lifted much heavier objects in the home seems to have escaped most of the men who designed the exercise. here two cheerful ladies work out in their street clothes in a photograph c. 1910 by Willis T. White.

Curiously, the period between 1900 and 1914 was a golden age for images of muscular women, but these images become mysteriously difficult to find in popular media, until about the 1970s. Chapman speculates the advent of cinema and other popular entertainment displaced fairs, circuses, and vaudevilles, a prime venue for strongwomen, causing these foremothers to gradually disappear.

Lydia Pinkham marketed a vegetable compound that was supposed to alleviate menstrual and menopausal pains. The company was successful because the remedy was sold by a woman to women at a a time when females were considered childish and emotional to have much medical knowledge. Pinkham's company produced this booklet (with the same title as Bernarr Mcfadden's well-known magazine), c. 1900. It featured a female athlete flexing her muscles, and was emblematic of the positive and respectful attitude toward their customers.

In the 1940s and '50s, there were few places where muscular women congregated; one of the most important was in the circus. Aerialists, trapeze artists, and acrobats all developed impressive musculature by practicing their arts. There was a cadre of men who pursued these women and captured their flexing biceps on film. The pictures do not show much creativity or talent, but they document female muscularity at a time when such images were very rare. There is a rustic charm to these photographs, taken in off-hours in fort of circus wagons or company busses. Unfortunately, few paying customers wanted to see girls posing like this.

From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, women had to appear as ladylike as possible, even when doing something as traditionally masculine as working out with weights. This girl is doing a seated press with respectably heavy weight, but her high heels and helmet0like hairdo are like fig leaves preserving her femininity.

Captioned images courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press © 2011

Visually stunning, rigorously researched, and thoughtfully written, Venus with Biceps is as much a treasure chest of rare vintage ephemera as it is a fascinating and important meditation on a contentious facet of gender identity and cultural politics.

Full review, with many more images, here.

THE LOST BEATLES PHOTOGRAPHS

On the heels of last year’s release of Nowhere Boy, the lovely documentary about John Lennon’s little-known early life, rock historian Larry Marion deepens our cultural obsession with knowing the unknown Beatles in The Lost Beatles Photographs: The Bob Bonis Archive, 1964-1966 — a rare and revealing look at the iconic band through a series of intimate, never-before-seen photographs taken during The Beatles’ three U.S. tours.

The photos were taken by The Fab Four’s tour manager, Bob Bonis, who carried his Leica M3 camera everywhere, capturing pockets of wonderfully candid private moments tucked beneath the band’s overscheduled, overexposed public selves.

Bonis, a man of honor and loyalty, felt wrong about capitalizing on his unprecedented access, so for 40 years his photos remained a rare treat for his friends and family only. He passed away in 1992, and almost two decades later, his son Alex decided it was time to share his father’s collection with the thousands of Beatles fans around the world in The Lost Beatles Photographs.

In 1964, The Beatles boarded their charter jet at Seattle-Tacoma airport, heading to Vancouver for their first-ever Canadian concert, and the fourth in their first American tour, at the Empire Stadium on August 22.

George Harrison and Ringo Starr get ready to go onstage in Detroit on August 13, 1966

George Harrison and John Lennon at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, August 21, 1966

Ringo plays with a toy gun -- allegedly a gift from Elvis Presley -- during The Beatles' stay at British actor Reginald Owen's Bel Air mansion in Los Angeles while on their 1964 U.S. tour

While on stage at Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium on August 12, 1965, George Harrison turns around to face Bonis and gives him a warm thumbs-up

The Beatles begin the last tour they'd ever go on in Detroit, August 13, 1966

John Lennon in Portland, Oregon, on August 22, 1965

After the Vancouver shows, The Beatles flew to Los Angeles, only to find their reservation cancelled when the Ambassador Hotel was overrun by Beatlemaniacs. British actor Reginald Owen stepped in, offering them his Bel Air mansion for $1,000

Images courtesy of NPR / 2269 Productions, Inc. / NotFadeAwayGallery.com

Another fantastic Beatles-related release this year, worthy of an honorable mention, is Linda McCartney: Life in Photographs — a remarkable retrospective volume of work by the late and great Linda McCartney, wife of Paul and formidable music photographer who captured cultural icons like Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Grateful Dead; she was also the first woman to land the coveted Rolling Stone magazine cover with her portrait of Eric Clapton in 1968.

Originally reviewed, with more images, in March.

SOUTH AFRICAN TOWNSHIP BARBERSHOPS

In his fantastic 2009 TED Talk, Steven Johnson explores how the English coffeehouse of the Enlightenment was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years. This tendency for physical places to transcend their mere utilitarian function and serve as hubs of (sub)cultural development is evident throughout history, from the cave fire pit that sparked the dawn of communal storytelling to today’s coworking spaces that offer fertile ground for collaborative betterment.

In South African Township Barbershops & Salons, photographer Simon Weller explores the peculiar cultural and social hubs of South African townships, salons and barbershop, which too transcend their mere function as places to get your hair cut and serve as pivotal places for the local community to gather, gossip and exchange ideas. Weller contextualizes the rich and vibrant photographs of the shops and portraits of their patrons with fascinating essays that expound on the aesthetics of these hubs and their signage though interviews with the owners, customers and sign designers.

Originally featured in May, with more images.

BELIEVING IS SEEING

Besides being an Academy-Award-winning filmmaker and a MacArthur “Genius,” Errol Morris is also one of the keenest observers of contemporary culture and human nature. Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) brings together his great gifts in an extraordinary effort to untangle the mysteries behind some of the world’s most iconic documentary photographs, inviting you on “an excursion into the labyrinth of the past and into the fabric of reality.”

The title of the book comes from Morris’s 2008 New York Times story, in which he first took a close look at the history and future of doctored photographs in the digital age.

From the Civil War to Abu Ghraib to WPA-era propaganda, Morris approached each photograph like a mystery story and went to remarkable lengths to get to its bottom. More than a mere curiosity-tickler for history buffs, his findings and insights are both timeless and timelier than ever when the same issues — manipulation, censorship, authenticity, journalistic ethics — ebb to the forefront of our collective conscience in an age when photojournalism is both more accessible and messier than ever before.

Susan Sontag famously accused Roger Fenton of staging the cannonballs in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, his iconic photograph of the Crimean War. In the age of Photoshop, even staging is too big a bother — all it takes are a few clicks of the mouse, or maybe just a misleading tweet. (Case in point, the thousands of people duped by faux Irene shark photo in August.)

Kathryn Schulz has a fantastic, thoughtful review in The New York Times — highly recommended.

Originally featured here in September.

WHEELS OF CHANGE

Even as a die-hard bike lover, the full scope of the bicycle as an agent of cultural change eluded me until the release of Wheels of Change: How Women Rode the Bicycle to Freedom (With a Few Flat Tires Along the Way) — a remarkable National Geographic tome that tells the riveting story of how the two-wheel wonder pedaled forward the emancipation of women in late-nineteenth-century America and radically redefined the normative conventions of femininity.

To men, the bicycle in the beginning was merely a new toy, another machine added to the long list of devices they knew in their work and play. To women, it was a steed upon which they rode into a new world.” ~ Munsey’s Magazine, 1896

Image: Colorado Historical Society (Cycling West, Vol. 6 April 15, 1897, Scan #30000557) | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

A follow-up to Sue Macy’s excellent Winning Ways: A Photohistory of American Women in Sports, published nearly 15 years ago, the book weaves together fascinating research, rare archival images, and historical quotes that bespeak the era’s near-comic fear of the cycling revolution. (“The bicycle is the devil’s advance agent morally and physically in thousands of instances.”)

Image: History Colorado (Lillybridge Collection, Scan #20000294 | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.

Image: © Beth Emery Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

“Success in life depends as much upon a vigorous and healthy body as upon a clear and active mind.” ~ Elsa von Blumen, American racer, 1881

Image: © Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel.” ~ Susan B. Anthony, 1896

Image: © Norman Batho Collection | via Sarah Goodyear / Grist.org

via Sarah Goodyear / Grist

Many [female cyclists on cigar box labels] were shown as decidedly masculine, with hair cut short or pulled back, and smoking cigars, then an almost exclusively male pursuit. This portrayal reflected the old fears that women in pants would somehow supplement men as breadwinners and decision-makers.” ~ Sue Macy

Originally featured here in March.

On a similar note, another photographic treat for bike-lovers released this year is Cyclepedia: A Century of Iconic Bicycle Design — part heartfelt homage to the beauty of the bicycle, part museum of notable bike innovations, channeled by Vienna-based designer, bike aficionado and collector Michael Embacher through 100 remarkable bicycles.

AN EMERGENCY IN SLOW MOTION

Iconic photographer Diane Arbus is as known for her stunning, stark black-and-white square photographs of fringe characters — dwarfs, giants, nudists, nuns, transvestites — as she is for her troubled life and its untimely end with suicide at the age of 48. Barely a year after her death, Arbus became the first American photographer represented at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In the highly anticipated biography An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, psychologist Todd Schultz offers an ambitious “psychobiography” of the misunderstood photographer, probing the darkness of the artist’s mind in an effort to shed new light on her art. Shultz not only got unprecedented access to Arbus’s therapist, but also closely examined some recently released, previously unpublished work and writings by Arbus and, in the process, fought an uphill battle with her estate who, as he puts it, “seem to have this idea that any attempt to interpret the art diminishes the art.”

Schultz explores the mystery of Arbus’s unsettled existence through five key areas of inquiry — her childhood, her penchant for the marginalized, her sexuality, her time in therapy, and her suicide — in a thoughtful larger narrative about secrets and sex, in the process raising timeless and universal questions about otherness, the human condition, and the quest for making peace with the self. Ultimately, Schultz’s feat is in exposing the two-sided mirror of Arbus’s lens to reveal how the discomfort her photographs of “freaks” elicited in the viewer was a reflection of her own unease and self-perception as a hopeless outcast.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967

Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962

Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970

Featured here in August.

SEA

You might recall photographer Mark Laita and his superb Created Equal series, with its beautiful and stark “parallel portraits” of contrasting subcultures. In October, Laita took his masterful eye for visual poetry to another fascinating, even more mysterious and alluring world in Sea — an otherworldly look at the creatures of the deep captured with equal parts cutting-edge photographic technique and imaginative whimsy to explore the extraordinary wonderland that lives beneath the surface of the world’s water. From iridescent jellyfish to prepossessing but deadly puffer fish to playful sea horses, the 104 images in the collection reveal the astounding grace, colors, and personalities of these marine characters with unprecedented artistry and passion.

North Pacific Giant Octopus

Blue Blubber Jellyfish

Golden Butterfly

Green Chromis

Humpback Anglerfish

Red Feather Starfish

Blue Spot Stingray

Miniatus Grouper

Images courtesy of Abrams Books / Mark Laita

HARRIS TWEED

Harris Tweed is a unique fabric hand-woven by the islanders on Scotland’s Isles of Harris, Lewis, Uist, and Barra, using local wool and vegetable dyes. Despite its rustic roots, this unusual cloth has risen to international fame, appearing as anything from a premium finish on limited-edition Nike shoes to the attire of choice for celebrated fictional characters like Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code, the Doctor from Doctor Who, and Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. Known for its distinctive flecks of color and peculiar scent, produced by the lichen dyes known as “crottle,” Harris Tweed is as much a material as it is a fascinating story about tradition, community, collaboration, and heritage.

In 2010, British photographer and Royal Society of the Arts fellow Lara Platman spent seven months on the islands of Scotland, documenting the intricate human machinery of Harris Tweed production, from the backs of the Blackface and Cheviot sheep to the artisanal looms to the high-end tailors of Savile Row. The result is Harris Tweed: From Land to Street — a stunning large-format tome that captures a group portrait of the men and women who spend their lives and make their living crafting the legendary textile.

'The box room contains all the colours of yarn required for the recipes created by the mill's designer from the colour palette of the mill.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

On a farm in Berwickshire in the Scottish Borders, Will and Ruth Dickenson set up maternity wards next to the farmhouse during lambing season. The children play with the newly born lambs and give them names. Along with their extended family, they help look after the lambs.

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Patrick Grant captures the cloth’s magical tradition and heartfelt humanity in the book’s foreword:

I love the island and I love the people who live there and make the tweed. Harris Tweed is made by enthusiasts, craftsmen and women who understand its history, have had its methods passed on by hand and mouth through generations of their families and their neighbours’ families. This cloth, painstakingly woven, from yarn locally spun, from wool of the local clip, is imbued with something personal and humane that no other textile comes close to possessing. And the wearer, in his or her turn, adds something more to it by the wearing. He softens it and scuffs it and shapes it, cherishes and repairs it, and all in good time he passes it on so that a new owner may enjoy it anew. All of this makes Harris Tweed the greatest cloth of all.”

'Bill Walton is one of the best-known faces in the British wool industry, having worked in the business for the past forty years. He has been responsible for grading wool and helped adapt the new wools going into the Harris Tweed industry, working on the production of carding machines in the new double-width looms.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Donald John Mackenzie, one of the younger weavers, tried a number of careers before he thought he would have a go at this one. He likes the fact that weaving is a regular commitment and you know what salary you will achieve if you work a full week. He has a small croft and has written for the local community about the weaving process.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'Donald Murray started weaving in 1987. His shed is very spacious and has great light. There is a top bar on his loom and although his tweed will be checked when it goes back to the mill, he checks it on the bar under the light before it goes.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

'When the weavers have completed their work, the mills' lorries collect the lengths of tweed and bring them back to the mills to be finished. The tweed arrives in bales, which here Donald John Mackenzie is unloading at the Shawbost mill. First the tweed is sent off to be darned. Then it is washed: the process is similar to any domestic wash, and takes place in a big washing tub. Finally it is pressed.'

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Harris Tweed: From Land to Street. © 2011 Frances Lincoln Ltd. and Lara Platman

Ultimately Harris Tweed has transcended fashion in terms of transient trends and been prompted to timeless style. As the tailors of Saville Row will tell you, no wardrobe is complete without an item in Harris Tweed, and this will always be the case.” ~ Guy Hills, Dashing Tweeds

Originally featured, with more images, in November.

HURRICANE STORY

When Hurricane Katrina swept across New Orleans six years ago next month, killing 1,836 people, damaging and destroying over 76,000 houses, and leaving many homeless, photographer Jennifer Shaw found solace in capturing the turmoil with a plastic Holga camera. Hers is a story both incredible and true — from the dramatic birth of her first child on the very day of Katrina’s first strike, to her struggle with depression and her husband’s rage episodes, to their eventual return to New Orleans in time for their son’s first Mardi Gras. Hurricane Story is part memoir, part fairy tale, part poetic story of exile and homecoming, told through 46 beautiful, dream-like images and simple but powerful prose. The Holga’s rudimentary functionality, with its limited control over exposure, focus and lighting, further intensifies the story’s haunting, cinematic feel, drawing you into a seemingly surreal world that sprang from an extraordinary and brave reality.

For an ultimate cherry on top, the book comes with a poignant foreword by New York Times “Consumed” columnist and fellow Design Observer writer Rob Walker.

Any city worth living in strikes a balance between order and chaos. I guess any life worth living strikes that balance too. In late August 2005, Jennifer Shaw’s city, and I can only assume her life, tilted too far in one direction. The remarkable series of forty-six images collected in Hurricane Story tells the tale, and in doing so sets the balance right again.” ~ Rob Walker

'We left in the dark of night.'

'My water broke at one-thirty that morning.'

'The next morning we turned on the TV.'

'It was impossible not to watch.'

'We took our hurricane sideshow on the road.'

'It was nice to have a distraction.'

'FEMA hauled off our downed trees.'

'It was months til the phone was restored.'

'We got a new roof before Christmas.'

'Anointed in glitter, we reclaimed the streets.'

Images courtesy of Jennifer Shaw / Chin Music Press

Originally featured here in July.

NOMAD

What is it about Dutch photographers that makes them so visually eloquent at capturing the human condition? From Jeroen Toirkens comes Nomad — a fascinating and strikingly beautiful visual anthropology of the Northern Hemisphere’s last living nomadic peoples, from Greenland to Turkey. A decade in the making, this multi-continent journey unfolds in 150 black-and-white and full-color photos that reveal what feels like an alternate reality of a life often harsh, sometimes poetic, devoid of many of our modern luxuries and basic givens, from shiny digital gadgets to a permanent roof over one’s head. A stunning exercise in perspective-shifting, it invites you to see the world — our world, and yet a world that feels eerily other — with new eyes, embracing it with equal parts fascination and profound human empathy.

Since the beginning of time, nomadic people have roamed the earth. Looking for food, feeding their cattle. Looking for an existence, freedom. Living in the wild, mountains, deserts, on tundra and ice. With only a thin layer of tent between them and nature. Earth in the 21st century is a crowded place, roads and cities are everywhere. Yet somehow, these people hold on to traditions that go back to the very beginning of human civilization.” ~ Jelle Brandt Corstius

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Tiniteqilaaq, Greenland, 2009

Altai Mountains, Russia, 2006

Nuuk, Greenland, 2009

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Zuun Taiga, Mongolia, 2007

Arghangai Aimag, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Gobi Desert, Mongolia, 2007

Kola Sami, Russia, 2006

Nenets, Russia, 2005

Baruun Taiga, Mongolia, 2004

Kazakh, Altai Mountains, Russia, 2004

Berbers, High Atlas Mountains, Morocco, 2002

Kirgiz, Kyrgystan, 2000

Yörük, Bolkar Mountains, Turkey, 1999

Sami, Karesuvanto, Finland, 2001

Kola Sami, Russia, 2006

Images courtesy of Jeroen Toirkens

Originally featured here, with more images and video, in October.

* * *

A big part of what makes great photography books great is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s finest?

In 2011, bringing you Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider a modest donation.





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28 NOVEMBER, 2011

The 11 Best Art and Design Books of 2011

By:

From the Periodic Table to Craigslist, or what the greatest graphic designer of all time has to do with Moby-Dick.

After last week’s look at the 11 best illustrated books for (eternal) kids of 2011, this year’s best-of series continues with a look at the finest art, design, and creativity books of 2011 — tomes that capture your imagination and encapsulate the richest spectrum of what it means to be a thoughtful, eloquent visual creator.

RADIOACTIVE

Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science. A pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, she was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics. In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: Radioactivity and love. It’s a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

It’s also a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.

SAUL BASS

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is one of the most iconic and influential visual communicators of the 20th century — possibly the most famous graphic designer of all time — having broken out of the conformity of the 1950s to shape the aesthetic of generations of designers and animators with his bold and lively film title sequences and graphic design. (His insights on creativity and advice on doing quality work are also a timeless treat for any creator.) Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design is the first and highly anticipated definitive monograph on the creative visionary. Designed by Bass’s daughter, Jennifer, and written by renowned design historian Pat Kirkham, the formidable 428-page volume features more than 1,400 of Bass’s illustrations, many never before published, that offer an unprecedented look at his legacy and the creative process behind his most celebrated posters, title sequences, and logo designs.

I want everything we do to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that that’s worth anything, or that the client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” ~ Saul Bass

Publisher Laurence King put together this epic video of the making of the book, to give you a sense of the scale and ambition of the project:

From his iconic title sequences…

… to his unforgettable posters…

…to his legendary logos for mega-brands like AT&T, Quaker Oats, and United Airlines, the monograph contextualizes his most significant works and analyzes each film project individually to dissect its graphic elements and motifs.

Had Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design been released before the publication of this selection of the 100 best graphic design books of the past 100 years, it would most certainly have been included, and quite possibly would have topped the list — it is, truly, one of the most beautiful, inspirational, important design books you’ll ever lay eyes and hands on.

Full review here.

MISSED CONNECTIONS

You might recall Sophie Blackall, known for her distinctive children’s book illustration, as one of the brains and brushes behind these brilliant design makeovers of the mundane. Since 2009, she has been capturing Craigslist missed connections in her delightful illustrations and unmistakable style of Chinese ink and watercolor, brimming with charm, romanticism and soft whimsy. Now, Blackall joins our running list of blogs so good they became books: Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found collects the best of these poetic visual what-if love stories, each told in a shorthand “missed connection” ranging from the lyrical (I Gave You My Umbrella but the Wrong Directions) to the warm-and-fuzzy (We Shared a Bear Suit) to the shared love of the tragicomic (Ice Skating in Central Park We Collided).

Every day hundreds of strangers reach out to other strangers on the strength of a glance, a smile or a blue hat. Their messages have the lifespan of a butterfly. I’m trying to pin a few of them down.” – Sophie Blackall

Both playful and profound, Blackall’s delicate drawings — many of which are available on Etsy as prints — immortalize the ephemeral with a wink and a wand, breathing into these mundane encounters a kind of magic that transforms them into open-ended modern-day fairy tales.

In the book’s fascinating introduction, Blackall explores the history of missed connections, both her personal fascination with them and our larger collective memory across time:

For centuries the lovelorn have carved messages in tree trunks and rolled letters into bottles and cast them out to sea. On the 19th of January, 1862, the following appeared in The New York Times:

‘If the young lady wearing the pink dress, spotted fur cape and muff, had light hair, light complexion and blue eyes, who was in company with a lady dressed in black, that I passed about 5 o’clock on Friday evening in South Seventh Street, between First and Second, Williamsburg, L.I., will address a line to Waldo, Williamsburg Post Office, she will make the acquaintance of a fine young man.’

Some of the illustrated messages were written by their smitten authors moments after the encounter took place, and others decades later. Some are written to an impossible love interest, a person famous or dead or forbidden for one reason or another, and some lament the loss of a familiar lover. Hopeful, pensive, lonely, drunken, optimistic — they span the entire spectrum of human emotion.

Original review, with more images, here.

CULTURAL CONNECTIVES

These days, news of the Middle East is a frequent staple of our daily media diet, but these media portrayals tend to be limited, one-dimensional, and reductionist. We know precious little about Arab culture, with all its rich and layered multiplicity, and even less about its language. Cultural Connectives, a fine addition to my favorite books about language from my friends at Mark Batty, aims to bridge this gap though a cultural cross-pollinator in the form of a typeface family designed by author Rana Abou Rjeily that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture.

Both minimalist and illuminating, the book’s stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint.

The book jacket unfolds into a beautiful poster of a timeless quote by Gibran Khalil Gibran, rendered in Arabic:

We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.” ~ Gibran Khalil Gibran

Full review, with more images, here.

344 QUESTIONS

344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment was the most popular book amongst Brain Pickings readers this year — a delightful pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists to help you figure out life’s big answers by ever-inventive designer Stefan G. Bucher, he of You Deserve a Medal and Daily Monster fame.

Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved creators across various disciplines, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Doyald Young, and Jakob Trollbäck.

Let’s be clear: I want this book to be useful to you. There are many great how-to books and biographies out there, and even more gorgeous collections of current and classic work to awe and inspire. But looking at catalogs of artistic success won’t make you a better artist any more than looking at photos of healthy people will cure your cold. You’ve got to take action!” ~ Stefan G. Bucher

(Sure, this may be somewhat remiss in overlooking the basic mechanism of combinatorial creativity, but it’s it’s hard to argue with the need to make ideas happen rather than just contemplating them.)

This gem is also one of my favorite creativity-catalyzing activity books for grown-ups.

Page images copyright © 2012. Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders

Though Bucher designed the book as a sequence, it also works choose-you-own-adventure-style and, as Bucher is quick to encourage, asks for hands-on interaction — dog-earing, marginalia, doodles. “If you keep this book in mint condition, I’ve failed,” he says.

We are all different people, but we face a lot of the same questions. The point of this book is to give you lots of questions you can use to look at your life — in a new way, with a different perspective, or maybe just in more detail than you have before — so you can find out how you work, what you want to do, and how you can get it done in a way that works for you. Specifically.” ~ Stefan G. Bucher

Originally featured here.

VISUAL COMPLEXITY

Data visualization is a running theme of visual literacy here, and Manuel Lima has been one of its biggest champions since 2005 when, shortly after graduating from the Parson School of Design, he launched VisualComplexity — an ambitious portal for the visualization of complex networks across a multitude of disciplines, from biology to history to the social web. This year, Lima released the highly anticipated Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information — a rigorously researched, beautifully designed, thoughtfully curated anthology of the world’s most compelling work at the intersection of these two relatively nascent yet increasingly powerful techno-cultural phenomena, network science and information visualization. It’s a winsome addition to these essential books on data visualization and a powerful tool in your visual literacy arsenal for navigating the Information Age.

Philipp Steinweber and Andreas Koller

Similar Diversity, 2007

A visualization of the similarities and difference between the holy books of five world religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.

Marco Quaggiotto

Knowledge Cartography, 2008

Screenshots taken from ATLAS, an application developed to explore the possibilities of applying cartographic techniques to mapping knowledge. ATLAS allows users to list their biobibliographic references and to map them according to four main rendering modes: semantic, socio-relational, geographic, and temporal.

From the sacred meaning of trees and their age-old use as classification systems to the science behind network thinking to the stunning and visually expressive products of cutting-edge digital visualization, Lima — author, designer, and deep thinker — not only explores the multiplicitous allure of networks, but also crafts an important analog artifact to contain these rapidly vanishing digital ephemera. (You know, in case you were wondering why computational creativity should belong in a book.)

As the book gained shape, it quickly became clear that it was not just about making the pool of knowledge more accessible, but also saving it for posterity. As I reviewed projects to feature in the book, I was astounded by how many dead links and error messages I encountered. Some of these projects became completely untraceable, possibly gone forever. This disappearance is certainly not unique to network visualization — it is a widespread quandary of modern technology. Commonly referred to as the Digital Dark Age, the possibility of many present-day digital artifacts vanishing within a few decades is a considerably worrying prospect.” ~ Manuel Lima

From the Bible to Wikipedia edits to the human genome, the gorgeous and thought-provoking visualizations in the book will make you look at the world in a whole new way, and the insightful essays accompanying them will vastly expand your understanding of the trends and technologies shaping our ever-evolving relationship with information.

Brain and Body

Alesha Sivartha, The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man, 1912

Density Design: Mario Porpora

The Poverty Red Thread, 2008

A map of the poverty line in Italy organized according to family typologies (number of family members), and further categorized by location (the north, center, or south of Italy).

Stefanie Posavec

Writing Without Words, 2008

A chart of the structure of part one of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). Each splitting of the branch into progressively smaller sections parallels the organization of the content from chapters to paragraphs, sentences, and words. Each color relates to one of eleven thematic categories created by Posavec for the book (e.g., travel, work and survival, sketches of regional life).

(More on Posavec’s brilliant project here.)

Christoper Paul Baker

Email Map, 2007

A rendering of the relationships between Baker and individuals in his address book generated by examining the to, from, and cc fields of every email in his in-box archive.

Chris Harrison

Visualizing the Bible, 2007

A map of the 63,779 cross-references found in the Bible. The bar graph on the bottom represents all of the books in the Bible, alternating between white and light gray for easy differentiation. The length of each bar, representative of a book's chapter and dropping below the datum, corresponds to the number of verses in that chapter. Each arc represents a textual cross-reference (e.g., place, person), and the color denotes the distance between the two chapters where the reference appears -- ultimately creating a rainbowlike effect.

Reviewed in full, with more images, here.

MAPS

Iconic designer Paula Scher is one of my big creative heroes, her thoughts on combinatorial creativity a perfect articulation of my own beliefs about how we create. Since the early 1990s, Scher has been creating remarkable, obsessive, giant hand-painted typographic maps of the world as she sees it, covering everything from specific countries and continents to cultural phenomena. This month, Princeton Architectural Press is releasing Paula Scher: MAPS — a lavish, formidable large-format volume collecting 39 of her swirling, colorful cartographic points of view, a beeline addition to my favorite books on maps.

I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about the world from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. These are paintings of distortions.” ~ Paula Scher

(Cue in cartograms.)

A foreword by Simon Winchester contextualizes Scher’s maps as cultural objects, and an introduction by Scher herself offers a peek inside the mind and personal history that sprouted her cartographic creativity.

A Paula Scher map is both detached from reality and yet at the same time becomes an entirely new reality, one that manages to be useless and essential all at once. What follows here is cartography as living art — fun and whimsical, obsessively made, and knowingly offered, lovingly, to be read… Maps such as these are never ever to be replaced by the cold blinking eyes of the GPS. Use them, enjoy them, glory in their madness.” ~ Simon Manchester

Cherry on top: The cover jacket folds out into her legendary colorful map of the world.

The World, 1998

NYT Transit, 2007 (left); Manhattan at Night, 2007 (right)

China, 2006

Africa, 2003

Shock and Awe, 2005

International Air Routes, 2008

The Dark World, 2007

Tsunami, 2006

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Artful and opinionated, MAPS is a beautiful antidote to the sterile objectivity of location-aware apps and devices, reminiscent of Ward Shelley’s analog data visualization and the poetic subjectivity of You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, but presaging both and shining with Scher’s own distinct, quirky, visionary voice.

Originally featured, alongside Scher’s fantastic 2008 Serious Play talk, here.

VISUAL STORYTELLING

“We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives.”

These words of wisdom come from legendary inventor and futurist George Dyson, who in a recent interview contemplated the growing disconnect between information and meaning in the age of data overload. Over the past several years, our quest to extract meaning from information has taken us more and more towards the realm of visual storytelling — we’ve used data visualization to reveal hidden patterns about the world, employed animation in engaging kids with important issues, and let infographics distill human emotion. In fact, our very brains are wired for the visual over the textual by way of the pictorial superiority effect.

It would be ridiculous to try to express by curved lines moral ideals, the prosperity of peoples, or the decadence of their literature. But anything that has to do with extent or quantity can be presented geometrically. Statistical projections which speak to the senses without fatiguing the mind, possess the advantage of fixing the attention on a great number of important facts.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of Spain, 1811

Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, from the fine folks at Gestalten, gathers the most compelling work by a new generation of designers, illustrators, graphic editors, and data journalists tackling the grand sensemaking challenge of our time by pushing forward the evolving visual vocabulary of storytelling.

Vahram Muratyan: Paris vs. New York: L’obsession

Peter Ørntoft: Information Graphics in Context, a project illustrating a ranked list of social concerns in Denmark

Gregory Ferembach: The Movies Flowcharts

Carl Kleiner's 'Homemade Is Best' IKEA cookbook

Road Map of the Eye, part of Katja Günther's Cartographic project visualizing information by mapping relevant elements

From hand-drawn diagrams to sophisticated data visualization, by way of graphic design, illustration, photography, and information architecture, this magnificent volume of contemporary and experimental visual storytelling explores what it means to convey information with equal parts clarity and creativity, speaking with remarkable aesthetic eloquence about the things that matter in the world today.

Every field has some central tension it is trying to resolve. Visualization deals with the inhuman scale of the information and the need to present it at the very human scale of what the eye can see.” ~ Martin Wattenberg in The Economist, 2010

Wataro Yoshida: Composition of Mammals, a fictional exhibition using fictional places to study the anatomy of mammals with displays of taxidermy and skulls and accompanying informational posters about the complex structure of each mammal's body

Lucas Van Vuuren: Lunch, a thorough decision tree

David Garcia Studio: MAP 001 Antarctica, part of MAP (Manual of architectural Possibilities), a publication that aims to merge science and research with architectural design

Originally featured, with plenty more images and excerpts, here.

THE MAD FOLD-IN COLLECTION

Al Jaffee’s magnificent anti-authoritarian fold-ins, gracing the inside covers of every MAD magazine since 1964, have been a longtime favorite around here. For the past half-century, Jaffeee, just as brilliant today at 90, has been poking fun at the established political order with his clever satirical cartoons that made no topic, ideology, regime, politician or pop star safe from skewering as the reader simply folds the page to align arrow A with arrow B and reveal the hidden gag image. Now, from Chronicle Books comes The MAD Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010 — the definitive treasure trove of Jaffee’s genius, a formidable four-volume set featuring 410 fold-ins reproduced at original size, each thoughtfully accompanied by a digital representation of the folded image so you wouldn’t have to actually fold your lavish book.

Sudoku (July 2007)

Second place (October 1969)

The first Super Bowl was in 1967, and it gave football a new visibility, threatening baseball's pre-eminence.

Covering up Whitewater (September 1994)

The Whitewater scandal haunted the Clinton White House for years.

On the campaign trail! (December 1968)

A nasty campaign, with Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon, in the midst of a nasty war.

The smell of dead meat (July 1995)

Another election looming another bunch of hopefuls.

Stop Art - Empty frame is big improvement (September 1965)

The art world was full of new ideas in the mid-1960s, not all of them resonating with everyone.

Essays by Pixar animator Pete Docter, New York Times cultural critic Neil Genzlinger and Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer contextualize Jaffee’s work and the tremendous influence it has had on generations of artists, comedians and ordinary people.

Here’s Jaffee on how his iconic fold-ins began — and confirmation that creativity is combinatorial:

In 1953, TIME magazine referred to MAD as a ‘short-lived fad.’ And now, fifty-umpteenth years later, MAD is still around, and I don’t think TIME magazine is doing too well.” ~ Al Jaffeee

Explore some of Jaffee’s gems in this excellent New York Times interactive feature from 2008 — a fine teaser for the full glory you’ll find in The MAD Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010.

Originally featured here.

MOBY-DICK IN PICTURES

Since 2009, former high school English teacher and self-taught artist Matt Kish has been drawing every page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Herman Melville’s iconic Moby-Dick, methodically producing one gorgeous, obsessive drawing per day for 552 days using pages from discarded books and a variety of drawing tools, from ballpoint pen to crayon to ink and watercolor. Kish’s ingenious project joins our running list of blogs so good they became books with Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, collecting his magnificent lo-fi drawings in a 600-page visual masterpiece of bold, breathtaking full-page illustrations that captivate eye, heart, and mind, inviting you to rediscover the Melville classic in entirely new ways.

I’ve read the book eight or nine times […] Each and every reading has revealed more and more to me and hinted tantalizingly at even greater truths and revelations that I have yet to reach. Friends often question my obsession with the novel, especially since I am not a scholar or even an educator any longer, and the best explanation I have been able to come up with is that, to me, Moby-Dick is a book about everything. God. Love. Hate. Identity. Race. Sex. Humor. Obsession. History. Work. Capitalism […] I see every aspect of life reflected in the bizarre mosaic of this book.” ~ Matt Kish

'…Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowel's wards.'

Ballpoint pen on paper, September 17, 2009

'But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive.'

Colored pencil and ink on found paper, August 6, 2009

'Hearing the tremendous rush of the sea-crashing boat, the whale wheeled round to present his blank forehead at bay; but in that evolution, catching sight of the nearing black hull of the ship; seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethinking it - it may be - a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam'

Ink on watercolor paper, January 22, 2011

'…and when the ship was gliding by, like a flash he darted out; gained her side; with one backward dash of his foot capsized and sank his canoe; climbed up the chains…'

Acrylic paint, colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, September 30, 2009

'Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters.'

Ink and marker on found paper, October 5, 2009

'…hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling…'

Crayon, ink and marker on found paper, November 24, 2009

''I will have no man in my boat,' said Starbuck, 'who is not afraid of a whale.''

Colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, December 19, 2009

'Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.'

Ink on watercolor paper, January 11, 2011

Originally featured, with many more images, here.

FLOATING WORLDS

It’s hard not to love Edward Gorey, mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Between September 1968 and October 1969, Gorey set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer and, over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.

This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art.

In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer

Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.

There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

From the intellectual banter to the magnificent illustrations, Floating Worlds, is quite possibly the most heart-warming art-and-so-much-more book this year, and certainly among the all-time favorites of my personal library.

Originally reviewed here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

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A big part of what makes great art and design books great is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s finest?

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