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01 DECEMBER, 2014

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

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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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24 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Best Science Books of 2014

By:

The math of soul mates, the psychology of nothing, the physics of faith, and more illuminating insights on the universe and our place in it.

On the heels of the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books come the most stimulating science books published this annum. (Step into the nonfictional time machine by revisiting the selections for 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

1. THE ACCIDENTAL UNIVERSE

“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless meditation on science and religion, “we will have failed.” It’s a sentiment that dismisses in one fell Saganesque swoop both the blind dogmatism of religion and the vain certitude of science — a sentiment articulated by some of history’s greatest minds, from Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, all the way back Galileo. Yet centuries after Galileo and decades after Sagan, humanity remains profoundly uneasy about reconciling these conflicting frameworks for understanding the universe and our place in it.

That unanswerable question of where we came from is precisely what physicist Alan Lightman — one of the finest essayists writing today and the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT — explores from various angles in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library | IndieBound).

At the intersection of science and philosophy, the essays in the book explore the possible existence of multiple universes, multiple space-time continuums, more than three dimensions. Lightman writes:

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

[…]

Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion.

In one of the most beautiful essays in the book, titled “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman explores that intersection of perspectives in making sense of life:

I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with [scientists who argue] that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.

[…]

There are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.

[…]

Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Dive deeper with Lightman on science and spirituality, our yearning for immortality in a universe of constant change, and how dark energy explains our accidental origins.

2. THE HUMAN AGE

In the most memorable scene from the cinematic adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, Jodi Foster’s character — modeled after real-life astronomer and alien hunter Jill Tarter — beholds the uncontainable wonder of the cosmos, which she has been tasked with conveying to humanity, and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”

To tell humanity its own story is a task no less herculean, and at last we have a poet — Sagan’s favorite poet, no less — to marry science and wonder. Science storyteller and historian Diane Ackerman, of course, isn’t only a poet — though Sagan did send her spectacular scientifically accurate verses for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison. For the past four decades, she has been bridging science and the humanities in extraordinary explorations of everything from the science of the senses to the natural history of love to the slender threads of hope. In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library | IndieBound), Ackerman traces how we got to where we are — a perpetually forward-leaning species living in a remarkable era full of technological wonders most of which didn’t exist a mere two centuries ago — when “only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna.”

With bewitchingly lyrical language, Ackerman paints the backdrop of our explosive evolution and its yin-yang of achievement and annihilation:

Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamt up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface — preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.

But Ackerman is a techno-utopian at heart. Noting that we’ve altered our relationship with the natural world “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad,” she adds:

Our relationship with nature is evolving, rapidly but incrementally, and at times so subtly that we don’t perceive the sonic booms, literally or metaphorically. As we’re redefining our perception of the world surrounding us, and the world inside of us, we’re revising our fundamental ideas about exactly what it means to be human, and also what we deem “natural.”

Dive deeper with Ackerman on what the future of artificial intelligence reveals about the human condition.

3. THE BOOK OF TREES

Why is it that when we behold the oldest living trees in the world, primeval awe runs down our spine? We are entwined with trees in an elemental embrace, both biological and symbolic, depending on them for the very air we breathe as well as for our deepest metaphors, millennia in the making. They permeate our mythology and our understanding of evolution. They enchant our greatest poets and rivet our greatest scientists. Even our language reflects that relationship — it’s an idea that has taken “root” in nearly every “branch” of knowledge.

How and why this came to be is what designer and information visualization scholar Manuel Lima explores in The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge (public library | IndieBound) — a magnificent 800-year history of the tree diagram, from Descartes to data visualization, medieval manuscripts to modern information design, and the follow-up to Lima’s excellent Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information.

'Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences' by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780)

A remarkable tree featured as a foldout frontispiece in a later 1780 edition of the French Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert, first published in 1751. The book was a bastion of the French Enlightenment and one of the largest encyclopedias produced at that time. This tree depicts the genealogical structure of knowledge, with its three prominent branches following the classification set forth by Francis Bacon in 'The Advancement of Learning' in 1605: memory and history (left), reason and philosophy (center), and imagination and poetry (right). The tree bears fruit in the form of roundels of varying sizes, representing the domains of science known to man and featured in the encyclopedia.

'Tree of virtues' by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250

Palm tree illustration from the 'Liber floridus (Book of flowers),' one of the oldest, most beautiful, and best-known encyclopedias of the Middle Ages. Compiled between the years 1090 and 1120 by Lambert, a canon of the Church of Our Lady in Saint-Omer, the work gathers extracts from 192 different texts and manuscripts to portray a universal history or chronological record of the most significant events up to the year 1119. This mystical palm tree, also known as the 'palm of the church,' depicts a set of virtues (fronds) sprouting from a central bulb. The palm tree was a popular early Christian motif, rich in moral and symbolic associations, often used to represent the heavens or paradise.

'Plan of Organization of New York and Erie Railroad' by Daniel Craig McCallum (1855)

Diagram viewed by economists as one of the first organizational charts. The plan represents the division of administrative duties and the number and class of employees engaged in each department of the New York and Erie Railroad. Developed by the railroad's manager, the engineer Daniel Craig McCallum, and his associates, the scheme features a total of 4,715 employees distributed among its five main branches (operating divisions) and remaining boughs (passenger and freight departments). At the roots of the imposing tree, in a circular layout, are the president and the board of directors.

Lima writes in the introduction:

In a time when more than half of the world’s population live in cities, surrounded on a daily basis by asphalt, cement, iron, and glass, it’s hard to conceive of a time when trees were of immense and tangible significance to our existence. But for thousands and thousands of years, trees have provided us with not only shelter, protection, and food, but also seemingly limitless resources for medicine, fire, energy, weaponry, tool building, and construction. It’s only normal that human beings, observing their intricate branching schemas and the seasonal withering and revival of their foliage, would see trees as powerful images of growth, decay, and resurrection. In fact, trees have had such an immense significance to humans that there’s hardly any culture that hasn’t invested them with lofty symbolism and, in many cases, with celestial and religious power. The veneration of trees, known as dendrolatry, is tied to ideas of fertility, immortality, and rebirth and often is expressed by the axis mundi (world axis), world tree, or arbor vitae (tree of life). These motifs, common in mythology and folklore from around the globe, have held cultural and religious significance for social groups throughout history — and indeed still do.

[…]

The omnipresence of these symbols reveals an inherently human connection and fascination with trees that traverse time and space and go well beyond religious devotion. This fascination has seized philosophers, scientists, and artists, who were drawn equally by the tree’s inscrutabilities and its raw, forthright, and resilient beauty. Trees have a remarkably evocative and expressive quality that makes them conducive to all types of depiction. They are easily drawn by children and beginning painters, but they also have been the main subjects of renowned artists throughout the ages.

Dive deeper here.

4. THE MEANING OF HUMAN EXISTENCE

Just as the fracturing of our inner wholeness ruptures the soul, a similar fissure rips society asunder and has been for centuries — that between science and the humanities. The former explores how we became human and the latter what it means to be human — a difference at once subtle and monumental, polarizing enough to hinder the answering of both questions. That’s what legendary naturalist, sociobiologist, and Pulitzer-winning writer E.O. Wilson explores with great eloquence and intellectual elegance in The Meaning of Human Existence (public library | IndieBound).

Three decades after Carl Sagan asserted that “if we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed,” Wilson — a longtime proponent of bridging the artificial divide between science and the humanities — counters that “we’ve learned enough about the Universe and ourselves to ask these questions in an answerable, testable form.”

And that elusive answer, he argues, has to do with precisely that notion of meaning:

In ordinary usage the word “meaning” implies intention, intention implies design, and design implies a designer. Any entity, any process, or definition of any word itself is put into play as a result of an intended consequence in the mind of the designer. This is the heart of the philosophical worldview of organized religions, and in particular their creation stories. Humanity, it assumes, exists for a purpose. Individuals have a purpose in being on Earth. Both humanity and individuals have meaning.

There is a second, broader way the word “meaning” is used and a very different worldview implied. It is that the accidents of history, not the intentions of a designer, are the source of meaning. There is no advance design, but instead overlapping networks of physical cause and effect. The unfolding of history is obedient only to the general laws of the Universe. Each event is random yet alters the probability of later events. During organic evolution, for example, the origin of one adaptation by natural selection makes the origin of certain other adaptations more likely. This concept of meaning, insofar as it illuminates humanity and the rest of life, is the worldview of science.

Whether in the cosmos or in the human condition, the second, more inclusive meaning exists in the evolution of present-day reality amid countless other possible realities.

The idea that we are a cosmic accident is far from new and, to the unexamined existential reflex, far from comforting. And yet, Wilson suggests, there is something enormously gladdening about the notion that out of all possible scenarios, out of the myriad other combinations that would have resulted in not-us, we emerged and made life meaningful. He illustrates this sense of “meaning” with the particular evolutionary miracle of the human brain, the expansion of which was among the most rapid bursts of complex tissue evolution in the known history of the universe:

A spider spinning its web intends, whether conscious of the outcome or not, to catch a fly. That is the meaning of the web. The human brain evolved under the same regimen as the spider’s web. Every decision made by a human being has meaning in the first, intentional sense. But the capacity to decide, and how and why the capacity came into being, and the consequences that followed, are the broader, science-based meaning of human existence.

Premier among the consequences is the capacity to imagine possible futures, and to plan and choose among them. How wisely we use this uniquely human ability depends on the accuracy of our self-understanding. The question of greatest relevant interest is how and why we are the way we are and, from that, the meaning of our many competing visions of the future.

Perched on the precipice of an era when the very question of what it means to be human is continually challenged, we stand to gain that much more from the fruitful cross-pollination of science and the humanities in planting the seeds for the best such possible futures. Like an Emerson of our technoscientific era, Wilson champions the ennobling self-reliance embedded in this proposition:

Humanity … arose entirely on its own through an accumulated series of events during evolution. We are not predestined to reach any goal, nor are we answerable to any power but our own. Only wisdom based on self-understanding, not piety, will save us.

Dive deeper here.

5. THE EDGE OF THE SKY

“If one cannot state a matter clearly enough so that even an intelligent twelve-year-old can understand it,” pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in the 1979 volume Some Personal Views, “one should remain within the cloistered walls of the university and laboratory until one gets a better grasp of one’s subject matter.” Whether or not theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta read Mead, he embodies her unambiguous ethos with heartening elegance in The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is (public library | IndieBound) — an unusual “short story about what we think the All-There-Is is made of, and how it got to be the way it is,” told in the one thousand most common words in the English language. Under such admirable self-imposed restriction — the idea for which was given to Trotta by Randall Munroe, who knows a thing or two about illuminating complexity through simplicity — Trotta composes a poetic primer on the universe by replacing some of the densest terminology of astrophysics with invariably lyrical synonyms constructed from these common English words. The universe becomes the “All-There-Is,” Earth our “Home World,” the planets “Crazy Stars,” our galaxy a “Star-Crowd” — because, really, whoever needs supersymmetric particles when one could simply say “Mirror Drops”?

What emerges is a narrative that explains some of the most complex science in modern astrophysics, told in language that sounds like a translation of ancient storytelling, like the folkloric fables of African mythology, the kinds of tales written before we had the words for phenomena, before we had the understanding that demanded those words. Language, after all, always evolves as a mashup of our most commonly held ideas.

Trotta’s story, which spans from the Big Bang (“Big Flash”) to the invention of the telescope (“Big-Seer”) to the discoveries and unknowns that play out at the Large Hadron Collider (“Big Ring”), also features a thoughtfully equalizing play of gender pronouns, casting both women and men as “student-people” — the protagonist-scientists in the history of cosmology and astrophysics.

The story is peppered with appropriately lyrical illustrations by French artist Antoine Déprez.

DARK MATTER: 'In the time it takes you to blink, the number of dark matter drops that fly through your hand is two times the number of people living today in the city that never sleeps.'

In a particularly poetic chapter on space-time and the quest to grasp the scale of the universe, Trotta, who works at the astrophysics group of Imperial College London and has held research positions at Oxford and the University of Geneva, chronicles Einstein’s most enduring legacy:

Doctor Einstein was to become one of the most important student-people ever. He had a quick brain and he had been thinking carefully about the building blocks of the All-There-Is. To his surprise, he found that light was the key to understanding how far-away things in the sky — Crazy Stars, our Star-Crowd, and perhaps even the White Shadows — appear to us.

[…]

You could not explain this using the normal idea of space and time. Mr. Einstein then said that space and time had to be married and form a new thing that he called space-time. Thanks to space-time, he found that time slows down if you fly almost as fast as light and that your arm appears shorter in the direction you are going.

He then asked himself what would happen if you put some heavy stuff, as heavy as a star, in the middle of space-time. He was the first to understand that matter pulls in space-time and changes the way it looks. In turn, the form of space-time is what moves matter one way or another.

It followed that light from stars and the White Shadows in the sky would also be dragged around by the form of space-time. Understanding space-time meant understanding where exactly and how far away from us things are in the sky.

[…]

Mr. Einstein then began to wonder what would happen if he used his space-time idea for the entire All-There-Is.

LARGE HADRON COLLIDER: 'Near that city, student-people have built a large ring under the ground. It would take you over five hours to walk around that Big Ring.'

But Trotta’s greatest feat is the grace with which he addresses the greatest question of cosmology, the one at the heart of the ancient tension between science and religion — the idea that the universe we have seems like a miraculous accident since, despite an infinity of other possible combinations, it somehow cultivated the exact conditions that make life viable. Science rejects the idea of a grand “Creator” who orchestrated these conditions, and religious traditions are predicated on the terror of admitting to such purely accidental origin — a bind with which humanity still tussles vigorously to this day, yet one Trotta untangles with extraordinary intellectual elegance:

Imagine for a minute the following situation.

You enter a room where you find a table with a large number of small, gray, round pieces on it — of the type that you can use to buy a coffee, or a paper, or to pay for parking. The ones with one head on one side and some other picture on the flip side.

Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.

You would not believe for a second that they were all just thrown on the table and happened to land this way. Although this could happen, it would be a hard thing to accept.

It would be easier to imagine that someone had walked into the room before you and had put them all down like this, heads up, all four hundred of them.

The strange thing about the Dark Push is that it is a bit like the four hundred heads-up gray pieces in the room.

If the Dark Push were only a tiny bit larger than it is, then everything we see around us would be very different.

It is as if changing only one of the heads in the four hundred would make the entire world change.

Change the Dark Push by a little bit, and Star-Crowds could not form; none of the stars we see in the sky would be there; the Sun would not be there; our Home-World would not be there; and life, as we know it, could not be here.

We wouldn’t be here to talk about this in the first place.

So the question is: Who or what put down all four hundred heads exactly this way?

MULTIVERSE THEORY: 'Let’s say that there are four hundred of the gray pieces on the table. And they all show heads.'

Trotta offers an answer through a remarkably succinct explanation of the concept of the multiverse and the notion of parallel universes:

Some student-people came to believe that they could understand this by imagining more rooms. A very large number of rooms.

In each of them, the four hundred gray pieces are all thrown up in the air and flipped. And they land in some way, however they may.

In most of the rooms, some of pieces will land heads, and some won’t.

But if you have enough rooms, in the end you’ll find one room where all of the pieces have landed heads-up. Just like that.

There is no need to imagine anyone setting them up in this way.

It’s only a question of having enough rooms and trying them all.

And so the idea is that perhaps the All-There-Is is not all there is.

Dive deeper here.

6. THE SCIENCE OF SHAKESPEARE

William Shakespeare — to the extent that he existed at all — lived during a remarkable period in human history. Born the same year as Galileo, a founding father of the Scientific Revolution, and shortly before Montaigne, the Bard witnessed an unprecedented intersection of science and philosophy as humanity sought to make sense of its existence. One of the era’s most compelling sensemaking mechanisms was the burgeoning field of astronomy, which brought to the ancient quest to order the heavens a new spirit of scientific ambition.

In The Science of Shakespeare: A New Look at the Playwright’s Universe (public library | IndieBound), science journalist Dan Falk explores the curious connection between the legendary playwright and the spirit of the Scientific Revolution, arguing that the Bard was significantly influenced by science, especially by observational astronomy.

Of particular interest is what Falk calls “one of the most intriguing plays (and one of the most overlooked works) in the entire canon” — the romantic tragedy Cymbeline. Pointing to a strange and highly symbolic scene in the play’s final act, where the hero sees in a dream the ghosts of his four dead family members circling around him as he sleeps, Falk writes:

Shakespeare’s plays cover a lot of ground, and employ many theatrical tricks — but as for gods descending from the heavens, this episode is unique; there is nothing else like it in the entire canon. Martin Butler calls the Jupiter scene the play’s “spectacular high point,” as it surely is. But the scene is also bizarre, unexpected, and extravagant — so much so that some have wondered if it represents Shakespeare’s own work.

[…]

If anything in Shakespeare’s late plays points to Galileo, this is it: Jupiter, so often invoked by characters in so many of the plays, never actually makes a personal appearance — until this point in Cymbeline. And of course Jupiter is not alone in the scene: Just below him, we see four ghosts moving in a circle. . . . Could the four ghosts represent the four moons of Jupiter, newly discovered by Galileo?

First atlas of the moon, 1647, from 'Ordering the Heavens.' Click image for more.

The timeline, Falk points out, is right — Cymbeline is believed to have been written in the summer or fall of 1610, mere months after the publication of Galileo’s short but seminal treatise on his initial telescopic observations, Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger). Examining a specific passage from the play for evidence, Falk writes:

The passage seems to allude, at least in part, to the sights one might see in the heavens; at the very least, it has something to do with distinguishing different kinds of objects (including, it would seem, stars) from one another. But the context is crucial: The first line is spoken to Imogen; the remaining lines are clearly an aside, spoken only to the audience. He seems to be saying, My story is unbelievable; why would Posthumus stoop so low, when his own wife is so beautiful? After all, he reasons, the eye gives one the power to tell the stars apart, and even to distinguish one stone on the beach from another; can’t Posthumus see the difference between his wife and a common whore? [Penn State University astronomer Peter] Usher passes over the sexual aspect of these lines, however, and focuses on the astronomical: The “vaulted arch” is surely the sky; the “fiery orbs above” must be the stars. Could the precious “spectacles” be a reference to a telescope-like device?

Dive deeper here.

7. A STING IN THE TALE

The great E.O. Wilson is credited with having once said, “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” But while the one million or so named species of insects make up about 70% of all known species on Earth, one type of insect is more vital to our planet’s survival — as well as our own — than any other: the humble, mighty bee. In A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees (public library | IndieBound), British biologist, lifelong wildlife enthusiast and Bumblebee Conservation Trust founder Dave Goulson explores how bees gave our cosmic home not only its beauty but also its bounty of nourishment, and what responsibility we have — as Jane Goodall once eloquently urged — in repaying that existential gesture.

Inviting us into his evolutionary time machine, Goulson takes us back to the Cretaceous period, between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago, when Earth was covered in lush forests of giant greenery. The dinosaurs had just taken to the air as newly evolved feathers produced the first birds. Our own ancestors at the time were small and unseemly rat-like creatures lurking under the ferns and feeding on insects and fallen fruit. Goulson writes:

If we could travel to this ancient land, we might be too concerned with the dangers posed by the larger wildlife to notice that there were no flowers; no orchids, buttercups or daisies, no cherry blossoms, no foxgloves in the wooded glades. And no matter how hard we listened, we would not hear the distinctive drone of bees. But all that was about to change.

So why did it change? It turns out that sex does indeed rule the world — two hundred million years after the first ejaculation in Earth’s recorded history, bees stepped in to perform a vital function in our planet’s blossoming into maturity:

Sex has always been difficult for plants, because they cannot move. If one cannot move, then finding a suitable partner and exchanging sex cells with them poses something of an obstacle. The plant equivalent of sperm is pollen, and the challenge facing a plant is how to get its pollen to the female reproductive parts of another plant; not easy if one is rooted to the ground. The early solution, and one still used by some plants to this day, is to use the wind. One hundred and thirty-five million years ago almost all plants scattered their pollen on the wind and hoped against hope that a tiny proportion of it would, by chance, land on a female flower. This is, as you might imagine, a very inefficient and wasteful system, with perhaps 99.99 per cent of the pollen going to waste – falling on the ground or blowing out to sea. As a result they had to produce an awful lot.

Nature abhors waste, and it was only a matter of time before the blind stumbling of evolution arrived at a better solution in the form of insects. Pollen is very nutritious. Some winged insects now began to feed upon it and before long some became specialists in eating pollen. Flying from plant to plant in search of their food, these insects accidentally carried pollen grains upon their bodies, trapped amongst hairs or in the joints between their segments. When the occasional pollen grain fell off the insect on to the female parts of a flower, that flower was pollinated, and so insects became the first pollinators, sex facilitators for plants. A mutualistic relationship had begun which was to change the appearance of the earth. Although much of the pollen was consumed by the insects, this was still a vast improvement for the plants compared to scattering their pollen to the wind.

But this system presented our proto-bees with a serious wayfinding problem: Because flowers were as drably brownish-green as the surrounding vegetation, spotting them was no small task. In order to attract insects, they had to get better at standing out over the competition and “advertising” their delicious pollen.

Dive deeper into how that happened here.

8. THE UNIVERSE

“The mystery of being is a permanent mystery,” John Updike once observed in pondering why the universe exists, and yet of equal permanence is the allure this mystery exerts upon the scientists, philosophers, and artists of any given era. The Universe: Leading Scientists Explore the Origin, Mysteries, and Future of the Cosmos (public library | IndieBound) collects twenty-one illuminating, mind-expanding meditations on various aspects of that mystery, from multiple dimensions to quantum monkeys to why the universe looks the way it does, by some of the greatest scientific thinkers of our time. It is the fourth installment in an ongoing series by Edge editor John Brockman, following Thinking (2013), Culture (2011), and The Mind (2011).

In one of the essays, theoretical physicist Leonard Suskind marvels at the unique precipice we’re fortunate to witness:

The beginning of the 21st century is a watershed in modern science, a time that will forever change our understanding of the universe. Something is happening which is far more than the discovery of new facts or new equations. This is one of those rare moments when our entire outlook, our framework for thinking, and the whole epistemology of physics and cosmology are suddenly undergoing real upheaval. The narrow 20th-century view of a unique universe, about 10 billion years old and 10 billion light years across with a unique set of physical laws, is giving way to something far bigger and pregnant with new possibilities.

Gradually physicists and cosmologists are coming to see our ten billion light years as an infinitesimal pocket of a stupendous megaverse.

Dive deeper with Harvard physicist Lisa Randall on “branes” and the science of multiple dimensions and some thoughts on gender in science publishing.

9. NEUROCOMIC

Scientists are only just beginning to understand how the brain works — from what transpires in it while we sleep to how to optimize its memory to what love does to it to how music affects it — and the rest of us fall somewhere on the spectrum between fascinated and confused when it comes to the intricate inner workings of our master-controller.

From British indie press Nobrow — who also brought us Freud’s graphic biography and Blexbolex’s magnificent No Man’s Land — comes Neurocomic (public library | IndieBound), a graphic novel about how the brain works. This remarkable collaboration between neuroscientist Dr. Hana Roš and neuroscience-PhD-turned-illustrator Dr. Matteo Farinella, with support from the Wellcome Trust, explains the inner workings of the brain in delightful and illuminating black-and-white illustrations, covering everything from perception and hallucinations to memory and emotional recall to consciousness and the difference between the mind and the brain.

We take a stroll through a forest of neurons, then learn about neuroplasticity. (“This is the great power of the brain, it’s plastic!” they tell us in one of the most heartening and reassuring parts. “Once you learn something it is not set in stone, it’s continuously shaped by experience.”) We meet Pavlov and his famous studies of memory in 1897 Russia. We visit the haunting memory caves and the convoluted castles of deception.

This wonderful trailer for the film about the project, directed by Richard Wyllie, takes us behind the scenes of the duo’s marvelous collaboration and creative process:

See more here.

10. THE TALE OF THE DUELING NEUROSURGEONS

“In both writing and sleeping,” Stephen King wrote in his meditation on “creative sleep” and the art of wakeful dreaming, “we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.” But while he was exploring the creative process from a metaphorical angle, he was inadvertently describing one of the greatest neurological nightmares that could befall us. Due to the sheer enormity of what happens in the brain while we sleep, there is also a sizable possibility that things would go wrong; when they do, things can get scary. And few sleep-related brain glitches can be scarier than what is known as “sleep paralysis” — the evil twin of lucid dreaming.

Four years after The Disappearing Spoon, his wonderful chronicle of crazy tales from the periodic table, science writer Sam Kean returns with The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery (public library | IndieBound) — a mind-bending tour of the mind, which Kean opens with a fascinating example, at once very personal and powerfully illustrative of the brain’s humbling complexity:

I can’t fall asleep on my back — or rather, I don’t dare to. In that position I often slip into a fugue state where my mind wakes up from a dream, but my body remains immobile. In this limbo I can still sense things around me: sunlight trickling through the curtains, passersby on the street below, the blanket tented on my upturned feet. But when I tell my body to yawn and stretch and get on with the day, nothing happens. I’ll recite the command again — Move, you — and the message echoes back, unheeded. I fight, I struggle, I strain to twiddle a toe or flex a nostril, and it does no good. It’s what being reincarnated as a statue would feel like. It’s the opposite of sleepwalking — it’s sleep paralysis.

The worst part is the panic. Being awake, my mind expects my lungs to take full, hearty breaths — to feel my throat expanding and my sternum rising a good six inches. But my body — still asleep, physiologically — takes mere sips of air. I feel I’m suffocating, bit by bit, and panic begins to smolder in my chest.

Dive deeper with Kean’s explanation of how this Rube Goldberg machine of neurological disaster sheds light on how the healthy brain works.

11. WHAT IF?

For years, NASA-roboticist-turned-comic-creator Randall Munroe has been delighting the world with his popular xkcd webcomic, often answering readers’ questions about various aspects of how the world works with equal parts visual wit and scientific rigor. The best of these, as well as a number of never-before-answered ones, are now collected in What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions (public library | IndieBound) — questions like what would happen if a submarine was hit by lightning to what it would actually take to eradicate the common cold to the physics of trying to hit a baseball pitched at the speed of light.

Munroe writes in the introduction:

I’ve been using math to try to answer weird questions for as long as I can remember. When I was five years old, my mother had a conversation with me that she wrote down and saved in a photo album. When she heard I was writing this book, she found the transcript and sent it to me. Here it is, reproduced verbatim from her 25-year-old sheet of paper:

Randall: Are there more soft things or hard things in our house?

Julie: I don’t know.

Randall: How about in the world?

Julie: I don’t know.

Randall: Well, each house has three or four pillows, right?

Julie: Right.

Randall: And each house has about 15 magnets, right?

Julie: I guess.

Randall: So 15 plus 3 or 4, let’s say 4, is 19, right?

Julie: Right.

Randall: So there are probably about 3 billion soft things, and . . . 5 billion hard things. Well, which one wins?

Julie: I guess hard things.

To this day I have no idea where I got “3 billion” and “5 billion” from. Clearly, I didn’t really get how numbers worked.

My math has gotten a little better over the years, but my reason for doing math is the same as it was when I was five: I want to answer questions.

They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.

Dive deeper with Munroe exploration of the math of finding your soul mate.

12. NOTHING

In 2013, Neil deGrasse Tyson hosted a mind-bending debate on the nature of “nothing” — an inquiry that has occupied thinkers since the dawn of recorded thought and permeates everything from Hamlet’s iconic question to the boldest frontiers of quantum physics. That’s precisely what New Scientist editor-in-chief Jeremy Webb explores with a kaleidoscopic lens in Nothing: Surprising Insights Everywhere from Zero to Oblivion (public library | IndieBound) — a terrific collection of essays and articles exploring everything from vacuum to the birth and death of the universe to how the concept of zero gained wide acceptance in the 17th century after being shunned as a dangerous innovation for 400 years. Webb writes:

You might think a book about nothing sounds suspiciously like an oxymoron. But fortunately there’s plenty to explore, because nothing has been a topic of discussion for more than 2,000 years: indeed, the ancient Greeks had a lively disagreement about it. And such have been the changing fortunes of nothing that you can pretty much tell where you are in history just by finding out the prevailing views on nothing.

Take zero, for example, the symbol for the absence of things. Part of it came into being in Babylonia around 300 bc. The rest of it emerged 1,000 years later when the Indians fused that idea with an ancient symbol for nothingness. Another 400 years passed before it arrived in Europe where it was initially shunned as a dangerous innovation. By the 17th century it had gained acceptance, and today it is critical to the definition of every number you use.

[…]

Nothing becomes a lens through which we can explore the universe around us and even what it is to be human. It reveals past attitudes and present thinking.

[…]

Nothings can be difficult to attain: we haven’t reached absolute zero and most likely never will . Nothings can also be messy: what is described as the vacuum of space turns out to be not one, but many. And nothings can be powerful: sick people can get better after talking with a doctor even though nothing material passes between them.

Dive deeper with Jo Marchant’s mind-bending account of the latter power of nothingness — a look at the new science of the placebo effect and how our minds actually affect our bodies.

13. 30 DAYS

“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper,” the influential biologist E.O. Wilson said in his spectacular recent conversation with the former Poet Laureate Robert Hass, exploring the shared creative wellspring of poetry and science. A beautiful embodiment of it comes from 30 Days, an unusual and bewitching series of “quantum poetry” by xYz — the pseudonym of British biologist and poet Joanna Tilsley, who began writing poetry at the age of eight and continued, for her own pleasure, until she graduated college with a degree in biology. In April of 2013, while undergoing an emotional breakdown, Tilsley took a friend up on a dare and decided to participate in NaPoWriMo — an annual creative writing project inviting participants to write a poem a day for a month. Immersed in cosmology and quantum physics at the time, she found herself enchanted by the scientific poetics of nature as she strolled around her home in North London. Translating that enchantment in lyrical form, she produced a series of thirty poems on everything from DNA to the exoplanet Keppler-62F, a “super-Earth-sized planet orbiting a star smaller and cooler than the sun,” to holometabolism, the process by which the caterpillar metamorphoses into a butterfly, to the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to see Earth from space.

Tilsley’s choice of pseudonym is itself remarkably poetic — besides the scientific sensibility, XYZ was the pen name of her grandfather, the late British novelist and war correspondent Frank Tilsley.

Tilsley wrote and illustrated her quantum poems simultaneously, using her vast collection of scanned vintage paper ephemera, old typewriter fonts, and 19th-century artwork (I recognize Benjamin Betts’s “geometrical psychology” illustrations), which she manipulated digitally into beautiful backdrops for her verses. Not unlike the work of William Blake, text and image work together to channel a cohesive atmosphere.

It’s also interesting that Tilsley chose to capitalize nouns and pronouns in the style of religious texts — a poignant juxtaposition with the scientific sensibility of the poems, hinting, consciously or not, at the spiritual element of science.

14. DATACLYSM

In Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) (public library | IndieBound), writer, musician, and entrepreneur Christian Rudder takes a remarkable look at how person-to-person interaction from just about every major online data source of our time reveal human truths “deeper and more varied than anything held by any other private individual,” and how the tension “between the continuity of the human condition and the fracture of the database” actually sheds light on some of humanity’s most immutable mysteries.

Rudder is the co-founder of the dating site OKCupid and the data scientist behind its now-legendary trend analyses, but he is also — as it becomes immediately clear from his elegant writing and wildly cross-disciplinary references — a lover of literature, philosophy, anthropology, and all the other humanities that make us human and that, importantly in this case, enhance and ennoble the hard data with dimensional insight into the richness of the human experience. Rudder writes:

I don’t come here with more hype or reportage on the data phenomenon. I come with the thing itself: the data, phenomenon stripped away. I come with a large store of the actual information that’s being collected, which luck, work, wheedling, and more luck have put me in the unique position to possess and analyze.

For the reflexively skeptical, Rudder offers assurance by way of his own self-professed “luddite sympathies”:

I’ve never been on an online date in my life and neither have any of the other founders, and if it’s not for you, believe me, I get that. Tech evangelism is one of my least favorite things, and I’m not here to trade my blinking digital beads for anyone’s precious island. I still subscribe to magazines. I get the Times on the weekend. Tweeting embarrasses me. I can’t convince you to use, respect, or “believe in” the Internet or social media any more than you already do—or don’t. By all means, keep right on thinking what you’ve been thinking about the online universe. But if there’s one thing I sincerely hope this book might get you to reconsider, it’s what you think about yourself. Because that’s what this book is really about. OkCupid is just how I arrived at the story.

Dive deeper with the data on what it really means to be extraordinary.

15. EVOLUTION

We were once amoebae, and here we are today, singing opera and typing on iPhones with opposable thumbs. That alone is enough marvel to put the petty nuisances of everyday life in perspective and fill our human hearts with humility.

As a lover of unusual coloring books and of science-oriented children’s books, especially ones that replace myth with science, I was instantly smitten with Evolution: A Coloring Book (public library | IndieBound) by London-based Finnish illustrator Annu Kilpeläinen — the best thing since Darwin’s graphic biography, and also a fine addition to the best children’s books of the year.

This simple yet imaginative primer on science via art explores natural selection, continental drift, what killed the dinosaurs, how birds descended from them, and all the other processes and phenomena that took us to where we are today. Die-cut delights add an element of interactive playfulness to the classic coloring-book experience.

One particularly apt application of the die-cut technique is a series of pages which, through strategically placed cuts, invite an exploration of how human facial features evolved.

Supplement with Bill Nye’s grownup version, Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation.

For more stimulating science reads, keep an eye on this evolving virtual bookshelf.

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18 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Best Children’s Books of 2014

By:

Intelligent and imaginative tales of love, loneliness, loyalty, loss, friendship, and everything in between.

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

“It is an error,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien seven decades earlier in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing for children, “to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.” Indeed, books that bewitch young hearts and tickle young minds aren’t “children’s books” but simply great books — hearts that beat in the chest of another, even if that chest is slightly smaller.

This is certainly the case with the most intelligent and imaginative “children’s” and picture-books published this year. (Because the best children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, perennial delight, step into the time machine and revisit previous selections for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

1. THE LION AND THE BIRD

Once in a long while, a children’s book comes by that is so gorgeous in sight and spirit, so timelessly and agelessly enchanting, that it takes my breath away. The Lion and the Bird (public library | IndieBound) by French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one such rare gem — an ode to life’s moments between the words via the tender and melodic story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight. In the act of helping and being helped, the two deliver one another from the soul-wrenching pain of loneliness and build a beautiful friendship — the quiet and deeply rewarding kind.

Dubuc’s warm and generous illustrations are not only magical in that singular way that only someone who understands both childhood and loneliness can afford, but also lend a mesmerizing musical quality to the story. She plays with scale and negative space in a courageous and uncommon way — scenes fade into opacity as time passes, Lion shrinks as Bird flies away, and three blank pages punctuate the story as brilliantly placed pauses that capture the wistfulness of waiting and longing. What emerges is an entrancing sing-song rhythm of storytelling and of emotion.

As an endless winter descends upon Lion and Bird, they share a world of warmth and playful fellowship.

But a bittersweet awareness lurks in the shadow of their union — Lion knows that as soon as her broken wing heals, Bird will take to the spring skies with her flock, leaving him to his lonesome life.

Dubuc’s eloquent pictures advance the nearly wordless story, true to those moments in life that render words unnecessary. When spring arrives, we see Bird wave farewell to Lion.

“Yes,” says Lion. “I know.”

Nothing else is said, and yet we too instantly know — we know the universe of unspoken and ineffable emotion that envelops each and beams between them like silent starlight in that fateful moment.

The seasons roll by and Lion tends to his garden quietly, solemnly.

Summer passes slowly, softly.

Wistfully, he wonders where Bird might be. Until one autumn day…

…he hears a familiar sound.

It is Bird, returning for another winter of warmth and friendship.

The Lion and the Bird is ineffably wonderful, the kind of treasure to which the screen and the attempted explanation do no justice — a book that, as it was once said of The Little Prince, will shine upon your soul, whether child or grown-up, “with a sidewise gleam” and strike you “in some place that is not the mind” to glowing there with inextinguishable light.

Originally featured here.

2. HUG ME

A hug is such a simple act. But how anguishing when one is denied this basic exchange of human goodwill and kindness. Surely, one doesn’t even have to be human to feel the anguish of that denial. At first glance, this seems to be the premise behind Hug Me (public library | IndieBound) by animator-turned-children’s-book-author Simona Ciraolo — a sweet story about a young cactus named Felipe, who longs for such softness of contact in a family that sees emotional expression as a sign of weakness. Felipe runs away, looking for a new family to give him the affection he yearns for, but only finds heartbreak and rejection.

Felipe’s lonesomeness grows deeper when his first friend, a “bold, confident” giant yellow balloon who hovers over Felipe’s solitary patch of desert, succumbs to the inevitable outcome of the mismatched relationship. Even as he grieves his friend, Felipe is scolded for his emotional sensitivity rather than comforted with the very hug he needs.

Reaching his emotional tipping point, he finally departs to look for a new family, but quickly realizes that he is unwelcome everywhere and is left with nothing but his own company — not the self-elected art of solitude that can be so nourishing, but a forced lonesomeness that saddens the soul.

At last, Felipe finds a true friend in a little rock longing for affection amid a family as stiff and stern as his own, a kindred spirit whose cries for connection resonate in perfect unison with his own — a sweet finale reminding us that nothing dissolves loneliness like empathy and the awareness of shared experience.

There is, of course, a deeper allegorical undertone to the tale, beyond the surface interpretation of celebrating one’s inner softness in a culture that encourages hard individualism and a prickly exterior. A subtle undercurrent celebrates the spiritual homecoming of finding one’s tribe, the expansive embrace found in a kinship of souls. The story is also a celebration of free will, reminding us ever so gently that whatever our circumstances, we always have choices — and that our inability to see this is perhaps our gravest self-imposed limitation.

Originally featured here.

3. AH-HA TO ZIG-ZAG

As a lover of imaginative and intelligent alphabet books and of absolutely everything Maira Kalman does, I find the letters of the alphabet and the words they make insufficient to express the boundless wonderfulness of Kalman’s Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag (public library | IndieBound) — the children’s-book counterpart of her magnificent My Favorite Things, which began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In this ABC gem — which doubles as a design-history primer full not of snobbery and self-important art-speak but of a playful celebration of uncertainty and imperfection — Kalman culls thirty-one objects from the museum’s collection and strings them together into a tour of the alphabet, with her characteristic quirk, candor, and exuberant creative curiosity as the loving guide.

Her unusual selections, often of seemingly mundane artifacts, bespeak her extraordinary gift for finding magic in “the moments between the moments between the moments.” The accompanying words emanate from a beautiful wanderer’s mind and a spirit that is so clearly generous and kind.

There is the “itsy-bitsy nail” in I; the beautiful embroidered pocket in P, which offers the pause-giving factlet that “a long time ago, women didn’t have pockets in their clothes”; the clever play on continuity that offers “terrible news” in T as a painting of burnt toast accuses the antique toaster in Q (“Quite the toaster!) of malfunction.

The last letter winks at Kalman’s wonderful Principles of Uncertainty:

The final spread in the story offers a sweet message of embracing imperfection — a gentle reminder for all ages that, as Anne Lamott memorably put it, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”:

But the end is not really the end — perhaps the most touching and empowering part of the book is its postscript of sorts. In the closing pages, Kalman tells the heartening story of Nellie and Sally Hewitt — the two young women who founded the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

They loved to sing and dance. They were just a little bit wild. A little bit.

They had sharp eyes. The kind of eyes that really LOOK at things.

One day they decided to collect the things they loved, and create a museum. And they really did it. Which is a lesson to be learned. If you have a good idea — DO IT.

Originally featured here.

4. WEDNESDAY

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library | IndieBound), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Originally featured here.

5. WILD

“All good things are wild and free,” Thoreau wrote in his terrific treatise on walking. More than 150 years later, Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes makes an imaginative 21st-century case for this in Wild (public library | IndieBound) — an irreverent, charming, and oh-so-delightfully illustrated story, partway between Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and one of the most endearing things to come by in decades.

The story opens with a joyful and carefree little girl native to the woods, raised by the creatures of the whole forest. She is boundlessly, ebulliently wild, and wholly unashamed of her wildness.

Bird taught her to speak.
Bear taught her how to eat.
Fox taught her how to play.
And she understood, and was happy.

One day, two creatures who look an awful lot like her, only bigger, appear out of nowhere, put her in the belly of their metal beast, and hurl her into a wholly different new life — a civilized one.

Off in the big city, a somewhat well-meaning but rather dictatorial elderly couple sets out to de-wild her. “FAMED PSYCHIATRIST TAKES IN FERAL CHILD,” a newspaper headline proclaims.

The little girl is frightened, but mostly perplexed.

They spoke wrong.
They ate wrong.
They played wrong.
And she did not understand, and she was not happy.

One day, she has had enough.

Because you cannot tame something so happily wild…

Emanating from the playful and poetic story is a clarion call to shake off the external should’s that shackle us and stop keeping ourselves small by trying to please others, to celebrate what John Steinbeck called “the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected”. It is an invitation, at once tender and mischievous, to pause and ask, as Mary Oliver memorably did: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Originally featured here.

6. HANSEL & GRETEL

J.R.R. Tolkien memorably asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Maurice Sendak similarly scoffed that we shouldn’t shield young minds from the dark. It’s a sentiment that Neil Gaiman — one of the most enchanting and prolific writers of our time, a champion of the creative life, underappreciated artist, disciplined writer, and sage of literature — not only shares, in contemplating but also enacts beautifully in his work. More than a decade after his bewitching and widely beloved Coraline, Gaiman returns with another terrific embodiment of this ethos — his adaptation of the Brothers Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have attracted a wealth of reimaginings over their long history, including interpretations as wide-ranging as those by David Hockney in 1970, Edward Gorey in 1973, and Philip Pullman in 2012. But Gaiman’s is decidedly singular — a mesmerizing rolling cadence of language propelling a story that speaks to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, that listens for the peculiar crescendo where the song of the dream becomes indistinguishable from the scream of the nightmare.

With stark subtlety, Mattotti’s haunting visual interpretation amplifies the atmosphere that Gaiman so elegantly evokes.

In this wonderful short video, Gaiman — who has previously explored why scary stories appeal to us — discusses what makes fairy tales endure with legendary graphic storyteller Art Spiegelman and longtime New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly:

I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.

The book is also available as a deluxe edition — a lavish large-format volume with a die-cut cover, and dog knows die-cut treats are impossible to resist.

Originally featured here.

7. ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library | IndieBound) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Originally featured here.

8. THE FLAT RABBIT

Neil Gaiman, in discussing his gorgeous new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, asserted that we shouldn’t protect ourselves and children from the dark. But when the thickest darkness comes, in childhood as much as in adulthood, it brings with it not the monsters and witches of fairy tales but the tragedies of life itself — nowhere more acutely than in confronting death and its ghouls of grief. And when it does come, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection as the shaky comfort of understanding — a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.

That’s precisely what Faroese children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library | IndieBound) — a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.

The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children’s books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects — from Tove Jansson’s vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde’s Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter’s existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.

The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.

“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.

“Do you know her?”

“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”

The two agree that “lying there can’t be any fun” and decide to move her, but don’t know where to take her and head to the park to think.

The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.

Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don’t come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we’ve unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him — a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.

Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.

In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.

With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife — there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven “above.” It suggests — to my mind, at least — that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.

Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don’t have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”

Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.

“Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.

The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.

“I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”

For a grownup counterpart, revisit Joan Didion on grief and Meghan O’Rourke’s magnificent memoir of navigating mourning.

Originally featured here.

10. THE BABY TREE

Children’s questions have way of being so simple that they spill into the philosophical. And yet one particular question kids ask stumps grown-ups more than any other, hurling us into a cesspool of self-doubt as we struggle for an answer that is neither too age-inappropriate nor so obviously fanciful that it fails to get the young inquisitor off our back: “Where do babies come from?” Thankfully, Australian-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall, who has given us such treasures as her visual love stories based on Craigslist missed connections and her illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, addresses that dreaded question with equal parts warmth, wisdom, and wit in The Baby Tree (public library | IndieBound) — an elegantly age-appropriate explanation of how reproduction works that neither talks down to children’s inherent intelligence nor boggles them with overly clinical dry science.

Instead, Blackall tells the imaginative tale of a little boy whose parents inform him one day that a new baby is coming.

I have a hundred questions in my head, but the only one that comes out is Are there any more cocopops? And because Mom and Dad are all happy about the baby coming, they let me have a second helping of cocopops and I make sure it’s a big one.

But once the little boy is able to get his real question out — Where do babies come from? — his parents are already out the door, running late for work. So he sets out to pose it to all the other grownup and growner-than-himself people in his life.

Right before dropping him off at school, his teenage babysitter (named after Blackall’s own daughter, Olive) tells him that babies come from the baby tree, which grows from a seed you plant.

At school, his teacher says they come from the hospital, then anxiously hurries to occupy the class with washing the paintbrushes.

His grandfather says a stork carries the baby in a bundle at night and drops it off for the parents to find on their doorstep in the morning.

Roberto the mailman says babies come from eggs, but “he doesn’t know where to get the eggs.”

Finally, confused by the wildly different explanations, the little boy asks his parents for a clear answer, and they give him a simple, sensitive, biologically accurate yet warmly conscientious answer about how reproduction works:

From inside their mom, says Mom.
They start off really tiny, says Dad.

Almost too small to see, says Mom.
They begin with a seed from their dad…
Which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…

The baby grows in there for nine months…

Until it runs out of room…
And it’s ready to be born. Sometimes at home…
But usually in the hospital.

The little boy is delighted to realize that everyone was right after all — Olive was right about the seed, Roberto about the egg, and his teacher about the hospital — except his grandpa:

I’m going to have to tell Grandpa where babies really come from.

At the end of the story, Blackall offers equally simple, succinct, and affectionately accurate answers to other questions about babies that little kids might be pondering, from how the seed gets from the dad into the mom to how adopted babies come about to what happens in families with two moms or two dads.

All in all, The Baby Tree is perfect in every imaginable way, so evidently the loving work of someone who understands both the curiosities of childhood and the perplexities of parenting. With her tender illustrations and thoughtful blend of fiction and nonfiction, Blackall — who understands complexity — offers a gentle and honest answer to a question that has continued to stump grownups but no longer has to.

Originally featured here.

11. 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 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.

From the funding and recruitment of the famed expedition, to the pioneering engineering of the Endurance ship, to the taxonomy of crew members, dogs, and supplies, Grill traces Shackleton’s tumultuous journey from the moment the crew set sail to their misfortune-induced change of plans and soul-wrenching isolation “500 miles away from the nearest civilization” to their eventual escape from their icy prison and salvation ashore Elephant Island.

As a lover of dogs and visual lists, especially illustrated lists and dog-themed illustrations, I was especially taken with Grill’s visual inventories of equipment and dogs:

Despite the gargantuan challenges and life-threatening curveballs, Shackleton’s expedition drew to a heroic close without the loss of a single life. It is a story of unrelenting ambition to change the course of history, unflinching courage in the face of formidable setbacks, and above all optimism against all odds — the same optimism that emanates with incredible warmth from Grill’s tender illustrations.

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.

Originally featured here.

12. THE MEMORY OF AN ELEPHANT

Psychologists believe that our capacity for creative work hinges on our memory and the ability to draw on our mental catalog of remembered experiences and ideas. More than that, memory is our lifeline to our own selves. Indeed, can there be anything more central to identity than memory?

The Memory of an Elephant: An Unforgettable Journey (public library | IndieBound) is a most unusual picture-book by writer Sophie Strady and illustrator Jean-François Martin. Unusual not because it measures an impressive 15 inches in height — though that alone makes it a kind of enchanting narrative poster — but because it blends the fascination of encyclopedic curiosity with deep questions about memory, identity, and what makes a life worthwhile.

Marcel is a soulful old elephant who sets out to write an encyclopedia as his legacy. Having seen the Eiffel Tower built in 1889 and the first iMac introduced in 1998, and having filled the century between with a long lifetime of adventures and successes of his own, he undertakes “the enormous task of listing — in an enormous, illustrated encyclopedia — everything he’s learned throughout his long and exceptional life.”

But just as he is about to begin looking back on his many years and drawing on his vast memory-bank of knowledge, he finds his living room — his dedicated environment essential for writing, charmingly populated by iconic mid-century modern furniture and some unmistakable Eames designs — flooded with “a mountain of parcels wrapped in bright and patterned paper,” surprise birthday presents from his friends.

As he opens each package and plays with the present inside, the double meaning of the word “present” reveals itself. Marcel is transported to his past and the many lives compressed into his long and accomplished existence — his days as a world-famous musician, his stint as a sailor, his sabbatical in Vietnam, his time tending to the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, his accidental participation in France’s historic Mai 1968 worker strikes and civil unrest.

Marcel comes upon the last unopened package, a large cardboard tube. Inside, he finds a poster that reads: “In May, we’ll have our way.” As he begins to ponder the strange time-travel quality of what sounds like a political slogan from the 1968 riots, he suddenly realizes it is actually May 1, the date of his birthday. Just then, his friends emerge from behind his elegant furniture for a proper birthday surprise.

Everyone has been waiting for the old elephant to open not only his presents, but the doors of his memory.

The main story is peppered with curious encyclopedic asides both about elements of Marcel’s memories, from music to technology, and about elephants themselves — we learn that an elephant sleeps very little at night, “usually standing, always on alert,” and takes standing naps throughout the day; that an adult elephant needs to drink 30 gallons of water a day and eat between 220 and 440 pounds of food depending on the season; that an elephant can’t jump and must have one foot on the ground at all times; that despite an enormous weight of about five tons, an elephant makes no noise while walking.

Originally featured here.

13. 29 MYTHS ON THE SWINSTER PHARMACY

Few children’s book writers today could compare in humor, sensitivity, and sheer creative irreverence to Lemony Snicket, the young-readers pen name of grown-up author Daniel Handler, under which he has penned such magnificent creative collaborations as 13 Words, illustrated by the great Maira Kalman, “Who Could That Be at This Hour?,” illustrated by celebrated cartoonist Seth, and The Dark, one of the best picture books of 2013, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Now comes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by the inimitable Lisa Brown — a project all the more charming for the heartening fact that Handler and Brown are married and a living echelon of a romantic relationship that’s also a creative collaboration.

It tells the story of a little girl, a little boy, and their little dog, who grow intensely fascinated with the mysterious Swinster Pharmacy of the neighboring town and begin pondering what it might sell. Beneath it is a lovely allegory about the capacity of children’s imaginations to see enigmatic wonder in even the simplest things and find multiple meanings in the most mundane.

First, the small party journeys to the next town to investigate in person, surreptitiously observing the white-coated employees and even following one of them home one night, to his house right across the pharmacy.

Rumors around town say there are four secrets about the Swinster Pharmacy, but no one knows what any of them are.

Everything is cause for suspicion: The fruit bowl on the Pharmacy counter contains grapes that aren’t cut in half; strangers walk by casually, “just snacking or whispering or something,” and stop when they pass the Pharmacy; a news story about arson in the town pans the street on which the Pharmacy resides; they measure the building and it turns out to be a perfect square; “something about the door is electric.” All very, very suspicious.

The threesome decide to sneak behind the trees across the street from the Swinster Pharmacy and quietly scope out the comings and goings of the pharmacy’s customers. Again, very suspicious activity ensues:

A woman went in once and came out fifteen minutes later wearing the exact same outfit.

The pharmacy begins to haunt the children’s dreams:

In all of our dreams, the Pharmacy squats in the middle of the block like something blue and hungry. In the morning it is on the corner.

And still the mystery of what the Pharmacy sells endures.

What makes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy most enchanting is that, whether intentionally or not, it serves as a cautionary parable for the subjective ways in which we decide what is true and what is real — a reminder that without the essential tools of critical thinking, we warp the art of observation into a subjective filter that colors our perception of the world to paint it as what we want it to be rather than what it is.

Originally featured here.

14. MY TEACHER IS A MONSTER

“Love,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his poignant letters to Gandhi on why we hurt one another, “represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children)…” Tolstoy believed that if only we managed to see through our superficial differences and our fear of the other’s otherness, we’d recognize instantly the universe’s basic “law of love” — something to which we are born attuned, only to forget as we enter adulthood. Kids, of course, can often be especially cruel in their inability to accept otherness — but that’s why it’s especially enchanting to witness, let alone spark, the precise moment in which a child lets go of some learned bias and sees in another person his or her intrinsic goodness, a return to innocence and Tolstoy’s “law of love.”

From children’s book author and illustrator Peter Brown comes My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) (public library | IndieBound) — a sweet contemporary fable about one such moment of seeing through the mask of terrifying otherness the soft heart of our shared humanity.

In vibrant, textured illustrations and simple words, Brown tells the story of little Bobby, who sees his stern teacher, Ms. Kirby, as a scary green ogre — until, one weekend, the two unexpectedly bump into each other at the park.

Suddenly, the leisurely environment strips them of their weekday roles. After the inevitable awkwardness and disorientation — in one particularly sweet exchange, Bobby, who resists his initial instinct to just run away, raises his hand while sitting next to Ms. Kirby on the bench; she gently reminds him that, outside the classroom, he can just ask his question — they have no choice but to first reluctantly, then tacitly, then gladly get to know each other.

Just as Bobby makes the first move with a compliment on Ms. Kirby’s enormous hat, the wind takes over.

The hat, it turns out, is Ms. Kirby’s favorite, so she runs after it distraught as the wind sweeps it toward peril. Right before it drops into the duck pond, Bobby leaps and saves the day. Ms. Kirby, ecstatic, proclaims him her hero and the two set out to feed the ducks side by side. Meanwhile, strangely, some of Ms. Kirby’s greenness seems to have faded and her boar-like nostrils have shrunk ever so slightly.

Bobby decides to show Ms. Kirby his favorite spot in the park and they climb up some big boulders, atop which Ms. Kirby — now with an almost neutral complexion and a hint of rosiness — gets an idea.

She hands Bobby a sheet of paper, which he gleefully folds into a paper plane and releases into the sky — the very act for which the monstrous teacher had scolded the kids in the classroom.

“I think that was the single greatest paper airplane flight in history!” Bobby exclaims. “I think you’re right,” Ms. Kirby — now having lost almost all of her monster teeth — agrees.

By the time they return to the bench at lunchtime, both are glad they had run into each other.

Miraculously, Ms. Kirby has transmogrified from a monster into an ordinary woman. With each shared moment and each small kindness exchanged, her monsterness had dissolved into her simple humanity — a sweet reminder that however much people may be the product of their culture and surrounding context, when one learns to see with “the eye of the heart,” their basic goodness will eventually emanate.

In a way, the story shines a compassionate light on a different facet of the same broader issue Brown explored in his previous book, the equally wonderful Mr. Tiger Goes Wild — a tender tale about authenticity and acceptance. The challenge of understanding others despite their differences and that of feeling accepted ourselves despite our quirks are two sides of the same coin — a coin that is undoubtedly our most valuable currency for human bonds.

Originally featured here, alongside my interview with Brown.

15. 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.

Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, a golden age of discovery, just as airplanes had been invented in France and the dawn of aviation was emanating an exhilarating spirit of exploration and invention. Young Antoine quickly became enchanted with that exhilaration and at the age of twelve, he built a makeshift flying machine.

Sís writes:

It did not take off, but this didn’t discourage him.

That summer, he rode his bike to a nearby airfield every day to watch the pilots test planes. He told them he had permission from his mother to fly, so one pilot took him up in the air. His mother was not happy. Antoine couldn’t wait to go up again.

The obsession had permanently lodged itself into his psyche. When the war came and he was summoned to military duty, young Saint-Exupéry requested the air force but was assigned to the ground crew. Again, he remained unperturbed. Two years later, when he heard about a new airline operated by the postal service to deliver the mail, he got himself hired — first as a mechanic, and soon as a test pilot, eventually learning to fly by accompanying other pilots on mail routes. Sís writes:

One day, he heard the news he had been waiting for: he would fly the mail from France to Spain by himself. Henri Guillaumet, another pilot and later Antoine’s good friend, told him not just to depend on the map but to follow the face of the landscape.

Saint-Exupéry was living his dream, flying in Europe and West Africa. Eventually, the airline assigned him to an airfield in Cape Juby in southern Morocco, and the two years he spent in the desert were among the happiest in his life, a period he would go on to cherish with beautiful and bittersweet wistfulness for the rest of his days. Sís captures the romantic poetics of the experience:

He lived in a wooden shack and had few belongings and fewer visitors. With an ocean on one side and desert everywhere else, it seemed like one of the loneliest places in the world. But he loved the solitude and being under millions of stars.

The locals came to call him Captain of the Birds as he rescued stranded pilots and appeased hostile nomads who had shot down planes and kidnapped flyers. His time in the desert became powerful fuel for his writing and the raw inspiration for The Little Prince. But the skies remained his greatest love. Sís traces the trajectory of Saint-Exupéry’s travels and passions:

Eager to explore other skies, Antoine joined his fellow aviators in creating new mail routes in South America. Nothing could stop them as they crossed glaciers, rain forests, and mountain peaks, battling fierce winds and wild storms.

Antoine spent more time in the air here than anywhere else because the pilots now also flew at night. With stars above and lights below, his world felt both immense and small.

Upon returning to France, Saint-Exupéry fell in love, got married, and reached significant fame as both a pilot and an author. But driven by his chronic adventurer’s restlessness, he continued to dream up expeditions that came to border on stunts. In one, he competed for a prize for the fastest flight between Paris and Saigon, but he and his copilot crashed in North Africa, surviving by a hair and wandering the desert for days before being rescued. In another, he set out to become the first French pilot to fly from New York to the tip of South America. The plane crashed near Guatemala City but, miraculously, he survived once more.

As World War II engulfed Europe, Saint-Exupéry was called for military duty once more, this time as a pilot, observing from high in the skies the atrocities the Germans inflicted all over. Once his war service ended, he decided he couldn’t continue to live in France under German occupation and fled to Portugal on a ship — a trip that would stir the very foundations of his soul and inspire his magnificent Letter to a Hostage — eventually ending up in New York, where he found himself lonesome and alienated.

After writing Flight to Arras and sending a copy to President Roosevelt with the inscription “For President Franklin Roosevelt, whose country is taking on the heavy burden of saving the world,”Saint-Exupéry bought a set of watercolor paints and began working on the illustrations for the story that would become The Little Prince. Sís captures the layered message of the book, informed both by Saint-Exupéry’s passions and his forlorn homesickness, with beautiful simplicity:

He described a planet more innocent than his own, with a boy who ventured far from home, questioned how things worked, and searched for answers.

But the author grew increasingly restless once more. Longing to fly again and to see his family, who had remained in France, he rejoined his old squadron in North Africa, requesting flights that would take him back to France. Sís captures the tragic bluntness of how Saint-Exupéry’s story ended, at once almost sterile in its abruptness and richly poetic in the context of his lifelong obsession:

On July 31, 1944, at 8:45am, he took off from Borgo, Corsica, to photograph enemy positions east of Lyon. It was a beautiful day. He was due back at 12:30.

But he never returned. Some say he forgot his oxygen mask and vanished at sea.

Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.

The Pilot and the Little Prince is a thing of beauty for both eye and spirit, and a fine addition to other delightful graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. Complement it with Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince and his soul-stretching meditations on solitude and the meaning of life and our shared humanity.

Originally featured here.

16. LARRY AND FRIENDS

Much has been said about the lack of diversity in children’s books. But these discussions — as most conversations about diversity — have been largely co-opted by questions of race, overlooking other elements of diversity, such as nationality and native language. This is particularly perplexing in America which, for a nation of immigrants that prides itself on being a “melting pot” of global cultures, has one of the world’s most hostile immigration policies. (I can attest to this myself as a “resident alien” — the tellingly unfriendly term for a U.S.-based foreign citizen — whose entire adult life has been plagued by immigration-related bureaucratic nightmares.) National policies being the seedbed of national attitudes, it’s hard not to wonder and worry about the toxic effect such legal practices might have on fostering xenophobia and intolerance. This concern, coupled with my enormous soft spot for children’s books, is why I was instantly smitten with Larry and Friends (publisher) — a heartening story about immigration, diversity, friendship, and acceptance, envisioned by Ecuadorian-born, New-York-based illustrator Carla Torres, who partnered with Belgian-born, Venezuelan-raised, New-York-based writer Nat Jaspar to bring the project, funded on Kickstarter, to life.

Torres’s gorgeous illustrations tell the tale of Larry the American dog, who decides to have a birthday celebration and invites all his friends, each from a different part of the world and an immigrant in New York, where the story is set — a fitting backdrop, given Gotham’s Ellis Island was the original entry point for immigrants in the United States and New York is the most linguistically diverse city in the world today, home to more than three million foreign-born residents who speak over 800 languages.

The bell begins to ring and each of Larry’s friends arrives, along with a piece of cultural, linguistic, and geopolitical history. We meet such endearing characters as Magda, the little pig from Poland who was sent to New York by her serious parents to “become a competent secretary” but instead pursued her passion and became a tightrope artist; Cogui, the tiny Puerto Rican frog, a violinist living in the Bronx; Gugu, the African zebra who moved to New York with only his Djembe drum and went on to become the lead percussionist at the Apollo Theater.

Then there is Laila, the sinewy cat from Iran who works as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History; Edgar, the Colombian alligator who moved to New York as a street musician playing the accordion and now has a steady gig at a French restaurant in Manhattan; Bernard, the French gargoyle who spent years observing people from atop the Notre Dame Cathedral and was drawn to New York as the world’s best people-watching locale; and Rimshi, the Tibetan yak who moved to New York after the Chinese invasion and whom Larry met while volunteering at the refugee center where she works.

What’s perhaps most enchanting about the story, however, is that a number of the characters are drawn from the real stories of real people Torres met in New York. Pedro, the Ecuadorian guinea pig, is based on Pedro Erazo, one of the members of the beloved indie band Gogol Bordello. Jin, the Korean fox, is inspired by Mariola Paen, a self-taught Korean artist. Ashki, the Native American buffalo, is based on Melvin, a shaman from the Navajo people who performed a spiritual ceremony Torres attended some years ago.

See more here.

For more timelessly delightful and ennobling children’s books, keep an eye on this evolving bookshelf.

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