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25 NOVEMBER, 2013

The 13 Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2013

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From Alan Turing to Susan Sontag, by way of a lost cat, a fierce Victorian lady-journalist, and some very odd creative habits.

It’s that time of year again, the time for those highly subjective, grossly non-exhaustive, yet inevitable and invariably fun best-of reading lists. To kick off the season, here are my thirteen favorite biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013. (Catch up on last year’s best history books.)

1. LOST CAT

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell asserted indignantly in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. Though hailed as memetic rulers of the internet, cats have also enjoyed a long history as artistic and literary muses, but never have they been at once more about cats and more about something else than in Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, she of many wonderful collaborations — a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. (You might recall a subtle teaser for this gem in Wendy’s wonderful recent illustration of Gay Talese’s taxonomy of cats.) Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love.

After Caroline crashes an experimental plane she was piloting, she finds herself severely injured and spiraling into the depths of depression. It both helps and doesn’t that Caroline and Wendy have just fallen in love, soaring in the butterfly heights of new romance, “the phase of love that didn’t obey any known rules of physics,” until the crash pulls them into a place that would challenge even the most seasoned and grounded of relationships. And yet they persevere as Wendy patiently and lovingly takes care of Caroline.

When Caroline returns from the hospital with a shattered ankle, her two thirteen-year-old tabbies — the shy, anxious Tibby (short for Tibia, affectionately — and, in these circumstances, ironically — named after the shinbone) and the sociable, amicable Fibby (short for Fibula, after the calf bone on the lateral side of the tibia) — are, short of Wendy, her only joy and comfort:

Tibia and Fibula meowed happily when I arrived. They were undaunted by my ensuing stupor. In fact they were delighted; suddenly I had become a human who didn’t shout into a small rectangle of lights and plastic in her hand, peer at a computer, or get up and disappear from the vicinity, only to reappear through the front door hours later. Instead, I was completely available to them at all times. Amazed by their good luck, they took full feline advantage. They asked for ear scratches and chin rubs. They rubbed their whiskers along my face. They purred in response to my slurred, affectionate baby talk. But mostly they just settled in and went to sleep. Fibby snored into my neck. Tibby snored on the rug nearby. Meanwhile I lay awake, circling the deep dark hole of depression.

Without my cats, I would have fallen right in.

And then, one day, Tibby disappears.

Wendy and Caroline proceed to flyer the neighborhood, visit every animal shelter in the vicinity, and even, in their desperation, enlist the help of a psychic who specializes in lost pets — but to no avail. Heartbroken, they begin to mourn Tibby’s loss.

And then, one day five weeks later, Tibby reappears. But once the initial elation of the recovery has worn off, Caroline begins to wonder where he’d been and why he’d left. He is now no longer eating at home and regularly leaves the house for extended periods of time — Tibby clearly has a secret place he now returns to. Even more worrisomely, he’s no longer the shy, anxious tabby he’d been for thirteen years — instead, he’s a half pound heavier, chirpy, with “a youthful spring in his step.” But why would a happy cat abandon his loving lifelong companion and find comfort — find himself, even — elsewhere?

When the relief that my cat was safe began to fade, and the joy of his prone, snoring form — sprawled like an athlete after a celebratory night of boozing — started to wear thin, I was left with darker emotions. Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this gilded place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats?

There only one obvious thing left to do: Track Tibby on his escapades. So Caroline, despite Wendy’s lovingly suppressed skepticism, heads to a spy store — yes, those exist — and purchases a real-time GPS tracker, complete with a camera that they program to take snapshots every few minutes, which they then attach to Tibby’s collar.

What follows is a wild, hilarious, and sweet tale of tinkering, tracking, and tenderness. Underpinning the obsessive quest is the subtle yet palpable subplot of Wendy and Caroline’s growing love for each other, the deepening of trust and affection that happens when two people share in a special kind of insanity.

“Evert quest is a journey, every journey a story. Every story, in turn, has a moral,” writes Caroline in the final chapter, then offers several “possible morals” for the story, the last of which embody everything that makes Lost Cat an absolute treat from cover to cover:

6. You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want.

7. But that’s okay, love is better.

Take a closer look here, then hear MacNaughton and Paul in conversation about combining creative collaboration with a romantic relationship.

2. SUSAN SONTAG: THE COMPLETE ROLLING STONE INTERVIEW

In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott interviewed Susan Sontag in twelve hours of conversation, beginning in Paris and continuing in New York, only a third of which was published in the magazine. More than three decades later and almost a decade after Sontag’s death, the full, wide-ranging magnificence of their tête-à-tête, spanning literature, philosophy, illness, mental health, music, art, and much more, is at last released in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — a rare glimpse of one of modern history’s greatest minds in her element.

Cott marvels at what made the dialogue especially extraordinary:

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed — the pianist Glenn Gould is the one other exception — Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning” — as she once described Henry James’s writing style—with which she framed and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings with parenthetical remarks and qualifying words (“sometimes,” “occasionally,” “usually,” “for the most part,” “in almost all cases”), the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours — an inebriation with the spoken word. “I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue,” she once remarked in her journals, and added: “For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.

In one segment of the conversation, Sontag discusses how the false divide between “high” and pop culture impoverishes our lives. In another, she makes a beautiful case for the value of history:

I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

In another meditation, she argues for the existential and creative value of presence:

What I want is to be fully present in my life — to be really where you are, contemporary with yourself in your life, giving full attention to the world, which includes you. You are not the world, the world is not identical to you, but you’re in it and paying attention to it. That’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world. Because I’m very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don’t, there really is a world that’s there whether you’re in it or not.

In another passage, she considers how taking responsibility empowers rather than disempowers us:

I want to feel as responsible as I possibly can. As I told you before, I hate feeling like a victim, which not only gives me no pleasure but also makes me feel very uncomfortable. Insofar as it’s possible, and not crazy, I want to enlarge to the furthest extent possible my sense of my own autonomy, so that in friendship and love relationships I’m eager to take responsibility for both the good and the bad things. I don’t want this attitude of “I was so wonderful and that person did me in.” Even when it’s sometimes true, I’ve managed to convince myself that I was at least co-responsible for bad things that have happened to me, because it actually makes me feel stronger and makes me feel that things could perhaps be different.

The conversation, in which Sontag reaches unprecedented depths of self-revelation, also debunks some misconceptions about her public image as an intellectual in the dry, scholarly sense of the term:

Most of what I do, contrary to what people think, is so intuitive and unpremeditated and not at all that kind of cerebral, calculating thing people imagine it to be. I’m just following my instincts and intuitions. […] An argument appears to me much more like the spokes of a wheel than the links of a chain.

Originally featured earlier this month — take a closer look here.

3. MAURICE SENDAK: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTIST AND HIS WORK

Maurice Sendak is celebrated by many, myself included, as the greatest and most influential children’s book artist of the past century. A year after Sendak’s death comes Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — the companion volume to the wonderful 2013 exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators. From rich essays by historians and artists who contextualize Sendak’s life and legacy to a selection of his best-loved and notable little-known illustrations, the book is a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.

Dive deeper with excerpts exploring Sendak’s lessons on art and storytelling and his lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

4. DIVINE FURY: A HISTORY OF GENIUS

“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly,” celebrated British novelist Amelia E. Barr wrote in her 9 rules for success in 1901. Indeed, the notion of what genius is and isn’t endures as one of our culture’s greatest fixations. We apply the label of “genius” to everyone from our greatest luminaries to exceptional children’s book editors to our dogs, and we even nickname prestigious cultural awards after it. But what, precisely, is genius? Why was the concept of it born in the first place, where did it begin, how did it evolve, and what does it mean today? That’s precisely what historian Darrin M. McMahon explores in Divine Fury: A History of Genius (public library) — a fascinating, first-of-its-kind chronicle of the evolution of genius as a cultural concept, its permutations across millennia of creative history, and its more recent role as a social equalizer and a double-edged sword of democratization.

McMahon begins:

Even today, more than 2,000 years after its first recorded use by the Roman author Plautus, [the word “genius”] continues to resonate with power and allure. The power to create. The power to divine the secrets of the universe. The power to destroy. With its hints of madness and eccentricity, sexual prowess and protean possibility, genius remains a mysterious force, bestowing on those who would assume it superhuman abilities and godlike powers. Genius, conferring privileged access to the hidden workings of the world. Genius, binding us still to the last vestiges of the divine.

Such lofty claims may seem excessive in an age when football coaches and rock stars are frequently described as “geniuses.” The luster of the word — once reserved for a pantheon of eminence, the truly highest of the high — has no doubt faded over time, the result of inflated claims and general overuse. The title of a BBC television documentary on the life of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman sums up the situation: No Ordinary Genius. There was a time when such a title would have been redundant. That time is no more.

History's 100 geniuses of literature and language, visualized. Click image for details.

McMahon argues that, in an age where we’re urged to explore the “genius” in all of us, we’ve grown increasingly obsessed with the word and the idea of genius, robbing it of substance in the process. Particularly in the last century, we’ve applied the label of “genius” frivolously and indiscriminately to everyone from rock stars to startup founders to, even, Adolf Hitler, whom TIME magazine crowned “man of the year” in 1938 for his evil genius. And yet the impulse to know — to be — genius is among our greatest, most profound human yearnings for union with divinity, something the legendary literary critic Harold Bloom has explored in his own meditation on genius. For the perfect embodiment of this desire, McMahon points to Albert Einstein, whom he considers “the quintessential modern genius”:

“I want to know how God created the world,” Einstein once observed. “I want to know his thoughts.” It was, to be sure, a manner of speaking, like the physicist’s celebrated line about the universe and dice. Still, the aspiration is telling. For genius, from its earliest origins, was a religious notion, and as such was bound up not only with the superhuman and transcendent, but also with the capacity for violence, destruction, and evil that all religions must confront.

McMahon sets out to unravel this lineage of unexpected associations by tracing the history of genius, both as a concept and as a figure, from antiquity to today, exploring a vibrant spectrum of individuals who both embodied and shaped the label — poets, philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, composers, military strategists, entrepreneurs, and even a horse. As much a history of ideas as a psychological history of our grasping after the divine, the journey he takes us on is above all one of introspection through the lens of history. Reminding us that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” McMahon argues for the social construction of genius:

If we wish to appreciate the role that genius has played in the modern world, we must recall the evil with the good, bearing in mind as we do so the uncomfortable thought that genius is ultimately the product of the hopes and longings of ordinary people. We are the ones who marvel and wonder, longing for the salvation genius might bring. We are the ones who pay homage and obeisance. In a very real sense, the creator of genius is us.

Which is not to deny that geniuses almost always possess something special, something real, however elusive that something may be. But it is to recognize the commonsense fact that genius is in part a social creation — what historians like to call a “construction” — and, as such, of service to those who build. That fact reminds us further that for all their originality (and originality is itself a defining feature of genius in its modern form), extraordinary human beings not only define their images but embody them, stepping into molds prepared by the social imaginary and the exemplars who came before. Even outliers as remarkable, as deviant, as Einstein and Hitler are no exceptions to this rule: however inimitable — however unique — their genius was partly prepared for them, worked out over the course of generations.

Originally featured in October — read the full article here.

5. MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG

Half a century ago this year, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world — took her own life, leaving behind her husband Ted Hughes and their two children. In the highly anticipated biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library) — titled after the exquisite Plath poemAndrew Wilson explores the poorly understood period of Plath’s life before her relationship with Hughes. Diving into the darkest corners of her diaries and letters, as well as previously unavailable archives and direct interviews with those who knew Plath, Wilson sets out to “trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors — the real disquieting muses — conspired against her.”

He writes in the introduction:

In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the ‘edge.’ She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below.

This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.

Wilson notes Plath’s chronic dissonance between repression and an insatiable hunger for life:

Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing. In the same letter she goes on to write of her deep envy of males, anger she describes as ‘insidious, malignant, latent.’

Sex — or rather the constraints and repressions surrounding it — played a central role in Plath’s creative and psychological development. She realized, as she wrote in her journal in the autumn of 1950, she was too well brought up to disregard tradition, yet she hated boys who could express themselves sexually while she had no choice but to ‘drag’ herself from one date to the next in ‘soggy desire.’ The system, she added, disgusted her.

But Wilson tends to jump to causality a little too eagerly. As Clay Shirky poignantly pointed out about the tragic loss of Aaron Swartz, “suicide is not only about proximate causes.” Wilson writes:

If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means. Her letters and journals are full of references to feeling inferior and self-conscious because of her low status. As a scholarship girl at Smith College — one of America’s top universities for women — she was surrounded by the daughters of the country’s great and the good. She peeled potatoes, chopped vegetables, and waited on tables as a way of reducing her course fees. In order to try and take the burden off her mother — who worked at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters to pay the shortfall between her daughter’s fees and her scholarship — Sylvia volunteered for extra jobs at the college and, in whatever spare time she had, she wrote poems and stories for money. If she took boys home to her family’s two-bedroom house in Wellesley, Massachusetts — where she was forced to share a room with her mother — she worried that they would see the marks and rips in the wallpaper; on occasions like these, the lights would have to be kept low so as to try and disguise the blemishes. In her first semester at Smith, in the fall of 1950, she wrote in her journal of the arduous transition period between childhood and young adulthood. To help her make sense of this new, troubling reality, she made a list of certain aspects of life that she found difficult, an inventory of notes addressed to herself that she could use to boost her confidence when it was low. One of the sections focuses on her economic position in society. She noted how she knew she would have to compete with other girls who had been born into wealthier families. The Plaths, she realized, were not only of modest means but they didn’t come from a line of well-connected intellectuals. She observed how boys from richer families would often remark, in a casual fashion, of her ‘side of town,’ and although they didn’t mean to be cruel, she felt the comments keenly.

Originally featured in February — read the full article here.

6. DARWIN: A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY

Joining other famous graphic biographies of cultural icons like Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, The Carter Family, and Steve Jobs, Darwin: A Graphic Biography (public library) offers a delightful visual take on the story of the father of evolution, decoder of human emotion, hopeless romantic, and occasional grump.

Written by journalist Eugene Byrne and illustrated by cartoonist Simon Gurr, the story takes us into the life and times of Darwin — from a curious child on a “beeting” expedition to a patient young man persevering through the ups and downs of battling creationist oppression to a worldwide legend — tracing his intellectual adventures amidst the fascinating scientific world of the 1800s.

The best part? This illustrated version of Darwin’s famous balance sheet on the pros and cons of marriage:

Originally featured in February — see more panels here.

7. EIGHTY DAYS

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” science fiction godfather Jules Verne famously proclaimed. He was right about the general sentiment but oh how very wrong about its gendered language: Sixteen years after Verne’s classic novel Eighty Days Around the World, his vision for speed-circumnavigation would be made real — but by a woman. On the morning of November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, an audacious newspaper reporter, set out to outpace Verne’s fictional itinerary by circumnavigating the globe in seventy-five days, thus setting the real-world record for the fastest trip around the world. In Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (public library), Matthew Goodman traces the groundbreaking adventure, beginning with a backdrop of Bly’s remarkable journalistic fortitude and contribution to defying our stubbornly enduring biases about women writers:

No female reporter before her had ever seemed quite so audacious, so willing to risk personal safety in pursuit of a story. In her first exposé for The World, Bly had gone undercover … feigning insanity so that she might report firsthand on the mistreatment of the female patients of the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. … Bly trained with the boxing champion John L. Sullivan; she performed, with cheerfulness but not much success, as a chorus girl at the Academy of Music (forgetting the cue to exit, she momentarily found herself all alone onstage). She visited with a remarkable deaf, dumb, and blind nine-year-old girl in Boston by the name of Helen Keller. Once, to expose the workings of New York’s white slave trade, she even bought a baby. Her articles were by turns lighthearted and scolding and indignant, some meant to edify and some merely to entertain, but all were shot through with Bly’s unmistakable passion for a good story and her uncanny ability to capture the public’s imagination, the sheer force of her personality demanding that attention be paid to the plight of the unfortunate, and, not incidentally, to herself.

For all her extraordinary talent and work ethic, Bly’s appearance was decidedly unremarkable — a fact that shouldn’t matter, but one that would be repeatedly remarked upon by her critics and commentators, something we’ve made sad little progress on in discussing women’s professional, intellectual, and creative merit more than a century later. Goodman paints a portrait of Bly:

She was a young woman in a plaid coat and cap, neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, not quite pretty enough to turn a head: the sort of woman who could, if necessary, lose herself in a crowd.

[…]

Her voice rang with the lilt of the hill towns of western Pennsylvania; there was an unusual rising inflection at the ends of her sentences, the vestige of an Elizabethan dialect that had still been spoken in the hills when she was a girl. She had piercing gray eyes, though sometimes they were called green, or blue-green, or hazel. Her nose was broad at its base and delicately upturned at the end — the papers liked to refer to it as a “retroussé” nose — and it was the only feature about which she was at all self-conscious. She had brown hair that she wore in bangs across her forehead. Most of those who knew her considered her pretty, although this was a subject that in the coming months would be hotly debated in the press.

But, as if the ambitious adventure weren’t scintillating enough, the story takes an unexpected turn: That fateful November morning, as Bly was making her way to the journey’s outset at the Hoboken docks, a man named John Brisben Walker passed her on a ferry in the opposite direction, traveling from Jersey City to Lower Manhattan. He was the publisher of a high-brow magazine titled The Cosmopolitan, the same publication that decades later, under the new ownership of William Randolph Hearst, would take a dive for the commercially low-brow. On his ferry ride, Walker skimmed that morning’s edition of The World and paused over the front-page feature announcing Bly’s planned adventure around the world. A seasoned media manipulator of the public’s voracious appetite for drama, he instantly birthed an idea that would seize upon a unique publicity opportunity — The Cosmopolitan would send another circumnavigator to race against Bly. To keep things equal, it would have to be a woman. To keep them interesting, she’d travel in the opposite direction.

And so it went:

Elizabeth Bisland was twenty-eight years old, and after nearly a decade of freelance writing she had recently obtained a job as literary editor of The Cosmopolitan, for which she wrote a monthly review of recently published books entitled “In the Library.” Born into a Louisiana plantation family ruined by the Civil War and its aftermath, at the age of twenty she had moved to New Orleans and then, a few years later, to New York, where she contributed to a variety of magazines and was regularly referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Bisland was tall, with an elegant, almost imperious bearing that accentuated her height; she had large dark eyes and luminous pale skin and spoke in a low, gentle voice. She reveled in gracious hospitality and smart conversation, both of which were regularly on display in the literary salon that she hosted in the little apartment she shared with her sister on Fourth Avenue, where members of New York’s creative set, writers and painters and actors, gathered to discuss the artistic issues of the day. Bisland’s particular combination of beauty, charm, and erudition seems to have been nothing short of bewitching.

But Bisland was no literary bombshell. Wary of beauty’s fleeting and superficial nature — she once lamented, “After the period of sex-attraction has passed, women have no power in America” — she blended Edison’s circadian relentlessness and Tchaikovsky’s work ethic:

She took pride in the fact that she had arrived in New York with only fifty dollars in her pocket, and that the thousands of dollars now in her bank account had come by virtue of her own pen. Capable of working for eighteen hours at a stretch, she wrote book reviews, essays, feature articles, and poetry in the classical vein. She was a believer, more than anything else, in the joys of literature, which she had first experienced as a girl in ancient volumes of Shakespeare and Cervantes that she found in the library of her family’s plantation house. (She taught herself French while she churned butter, so that she might read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original — a book, as it turned out, that she hated.) She cared nothing for fame, and indeed found the prospect of it distasteful.

And yet, despite their competitive circumstances and seemingly divergent dispositions, something greater bound the two women together, some ineffable force of culture that quietly united them in a bold defiance of their era’s normative biases:

On the surface the two women … were about as different as could be: one woman a Northerner, the other from the South; one a scrappy, hard-driving crusader, the other priding herself on her gentility; one seeking out the most sensational of news stories, the other preferring novels and poetry and disdaining much newspaper writing as “a wild, crooked, shrieking hodge-podge,” a “caricature of life.” Elizabeth Bisland hosted tea parties; Nellie Bly was known to frequent O’Rourke’s saloon on the Bowery. But each of them was acutely conscious of the unequal position of women in America. Each had grown up without much money and had come to New York to make a place for herself in big-city journalism, achieving a hard-won success in what was still, unquestionably, a man’s world.

Originally featured in May — read the full article, including Bly’s entertaining illustrated packing list, here.

8. ODD TYPE WRITERS

Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library), Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.

Jack Kerouac's hand-drawn cross-country road trip map from 'On the Road'

Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:

To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.

James Joyce in his white coat

James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)

Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:

This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.

Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:

Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.

But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:

[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.

Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”

Charles Dickens's manuscript for 'Our Mutual Friend.' Image courtesy of The Morgan Library.

Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.

But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:

That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.

[…]

You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.

Originally featured in September — for more quirky habits, read the original article here. Runner up: Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

9. ITALO CALVINO: LETTERS, 1941–1985

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) offers more than four decades of wisdom in 600+ pages of personal correspondence by one of the 20th century’s most enchanting writers and most beautiful minds. In one letter, written on July 27, 1949, Calvino contributes one of his many insights on writing:

To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.

In another, he considers the secret of living well:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Sample the altogether fantastic volume with Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, and his thoughts on America.

10. DUKE: A LIFE OF DUKE ELLINGTON

Much like Freud engineered his own myth and Salinger crafted his personal legend, jazz legend Duke Ellington — whose funeral was witnessed by 10,000 people in the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, another 2,500 listening outside via loudspeakers, and thousands more tuned into the live radio broadcast, even prompting President Nixon to take a timeout from Watergate and praise “America’s foremost composer” — sculpted his public image with meticulous, obsessive, almost paranoid precision. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library), writer, playwright, librettist, and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout sets out to lift the veneer of Ellington’s polished public persona and uncover the mysterious complexity of Duke’s private person. Though Teachout — who also penned Pops, the excellent 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong — calls his biography “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” for its collaging of existing research, interviews, and materials, don’t let his humility deceive you: This is a masterwork of dimensional insight into an icon who sought to flatten and flatter himself as much as possible and to shroud his exceptional artistry in exceptional artifice, a man woven of paradoxes, who, despite his chronic failings of private self-control, exerted his every faculty on controlling his public image. And yet, somehow, Teachout manages to peel away these protective layers and expose the flawed human being beneath them by elevating rather than diminishing Ellington’s humanity, enriching rather than discrediting his legacy.

Despite surrounding himself with a formidable entourage of deft PR custodians, he was ultimately his own best publicist — a man who employed the same charisma that made him an incredible entertainer in making his off-stage image as credible as possible, despite its assiduous artifice and methodical manipulation. Teachout writes:

That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself. Even Ruth, his adoring younger sister, said that he “definitely wasn’t direct. He wasn’t direct with anybody about anything.” Yet he talked so fluently and impressively that nearly everyone believed him, save for those who had reason to know better.

Behind closed doors: Composing at the Dorchester, his favorite London hotel, in 1963. Unposed offstage photos of Ellington are comparatively rare. He went out of his way to shape his public image to his liking—and to keep his private life out of the papers

His publicists — who dubbed him “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” — took great care to echo and amplify the image Duke himself was projecting, pitching him not only as a mere jazzman but as a true artist bearing the seal of approval of the era’s glitterati. They issued actual publicity manuals that were sent out to the managers of theaters and ballrooms where Ellington performed. One read:

Sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. . . . Ellington’s genius as a composer, arranger and musician has won him the respect and admiration of such authorities as Percy Grainger, head of the department of music at the New York University; Basil Cameron, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, famed conductor of the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra; Paul Whiteman, whose name is synonymous with jazz, and many others.

Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective. To support this goal of his, another publicity pamphlet emphasized his presentability in addition to his talent:

He is as genial as he is intelligent, always creates a good impression upon newspaper people with whom he comes in contact and invariably supplies them with good copy for their stories.

Ellington’s lifelong desire to “act on behalf of the race,” as he himself put it, was an expression of his own life’s contradictions — the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, he carried himself with an air of regality; a high school dropout, he made a special effort to teach himself the etiquette and manners of high society. Teachout notes the effect of this deliberate application:

For all his polish, it was his artistry, not his personality, that was the source of his enduring appeal. But it was the personality that made white people who might not otherwise have done so give him a second glance, and in time it opened doors of opportunity through which few other blacks had been allowed to pass.

Arguably the most accurate, succinctly eloquent description of Ellington’s elusive personhood comes from Rex Stewart, cornetist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra:

Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known . . . a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.

Indeed, Ellington was a bundle of inner contradictions — the kind we all grapple with by virtue of being human, only his were far more numerous, more entangled, and more full of friction than average. Teachout writes:

He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He pretended to be a devoted family man for the benefit of the ever-vigilant press, he deserted Edna, his first and only wife, later settling into a long-term relationship with a Cotton Club showgirl whom he chose not to marry (he never divorced Edna) and on whom he cheated as often as he liked.

In fact, one of Ellington’s most pressing publicity concerns was keeping his affairs out of the papers — information he felt would greatly compromise the very presentability and wholesomeness he worked so hard to craft in order to feel like he belonged in high society. As Teachout observes, he went to great lengths to make sure “his fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more.” At one point, he even went as far as paying off gossip columnists and placing expensive ads in newspapers to prevent his relationship with Evie from being reported.

Teachout, however, takes great care not to dim the enormity of Ellington’s talent in light of his immutable imperfection, noting instead that he used the former as a vehicle for both exorcising and tucking away the latter:

He was, like Chopin, Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.

Originally featured in October — take a deeper dive here, then also see this fascinating excerpt on Duke’s diet.

Complement with Teachout’s Design Matters interview, where he talks to Debbie Millman about the book and Duke’s elusive “immortal longings”:

11. TURING: PIONEER OF THE INFORMATION AGE

It is to Alan Turinggodfather of the digital universe, voracious reader, tragic hero of his era’s inhumane bigotry — that we owe an enormous amount of today’s givens, including my writing this very sentence and your reading it. In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosophy professor and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland turns to conversations and correspondence with some of Turing’s closest friends and collaborators to explore the life and legacy of this man of uncommon genius with unprecedented depth and insight, from the invention of the Universal Turing Machine — the granddaddy of the modern stored program computer — to Turing’s codebreaking feats during WWII to the tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death.

The first personal computer (Image courtesy Harry Huskey)

Copeland succinctly captures the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to contemporary life:

To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and all the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer’s memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favorite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention — the stored-program universal computer — Turing changed the way we live.

Alan Turing

Indeed, it took an exceptional mind — one inhabiting the outermost fringes of the obvious, in every imaginable way — to conceive of such world-changing technology. Copeland goes on to paint a portrait of Turing more dimensional and moving than ever before:

He was a Spartan in all things, inner and outer, and had no time for pleasing decor, soft furnishings, superfluous embellishment, or unnecessary words. To him what mattered was the truth. Everything else was mere froth.

[…]

What would it have been like to meet him? Turing was tallish (5 feet 10 inches) and broadly built. He looked strong and fit. You might have mistaken his age, as he always seemed younger than he was. He was good-looking but strange. If you came across him at a party, you would certainly notice him. In fact, you might ask, ‘Who on earth is that?’ It wasn’t just his shabby clothes or dirty fingernails. It was the whole package. Part of it was the unusual noise he made. This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly.

If you crossed the room to talk to him, you would have probably found him gauche and rather reserved. He was decidedly lah-di-dah, but the reserve wasn’t standoffishness. He was shy, a man of few words. Polite small talk did not come easily to him. He might — if you were lucky — smile engagingly, his blue eyes twinkling, and come out with something quirky that would make you laugh. If conversation developed, you’d probably find him vivid and funny. He might ask you, in his rather high-pitched voice, whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.

[…]

Like everyone else, Turing craved affection and company, but he never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. He was bothered by his own social strangeness — although, like his hair, it was a force of nature he could do little about. Occasionally he could be very rude. If he thought that someone wasn’t listening to him with sufficient attention, he would simply walk away. Turing was the sort of man who, usually unintentionally, ruffled people’s feathers — especially pompous people, people in authority, and scientific poseurs. … Beneath the cranky, craggy, irreverent exterior there was an unworldly innocence, though, as well as sensitivity and modesty.

Originally featured in April — read the original article here.

12. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN, VOLUME 2

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — reveals previously unknown facets of the greatest American satirist, celebrated as “the Lincoln of literature.” A large part of what made Twain Twain was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received, but one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion — something that comes fully ablaze in this new volume.

In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:

The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:

“The noblest work of God?” Man.

“Who found it out?” Man.

I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.

Twain treated all forms of dogmatic authority, from religious to parental, with equal irreverence. Spread from his ‘Advice to Little Girls’ illustrated by Vladimir Rudinsky. Click image for more.

In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:

We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.

Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.

‘All gods are better than their reputation,’ inscription dated December 23, 1902 from a first edition of ‘A Double-Barrelled Detective Story’ (Kevin MacDonnell Collection)

An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:

There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.

[…]

According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.

Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:

Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.

(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)

Originally featured in October — full article here.

13. THE SECRET HISTORY OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions — endures as Russia’s most revered literary émigré export. While his journey to cultural acclaim in America was in many ways a story of hope, it was also one underpinned by profound sadness and loss that would come to permeate his work. After the Bolshevik Revolution, when Nabokov was only eighteen, his family was forced to flee their hometown of St. Petersburg. As refugees in nomadic exile, they finally settled in Berlin in 1920. Two years later, Nabokov’s father, who had become secretary of Russian Provisional Government, was killed by accident while trying to shield the real target of a political assassination. Shortly thereafter, Nabokov’s mother and sister moved to Prague, but he remained in Berlin and garnered considerable recognition as a poet. In 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim, the Jewish-Russian love of his life, with whom he’d remain for the rest of his days.

In The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (public library), Andrea Pitzer, founder of Harvard’s narrative nonfiction site Nieman Storyboard, shines an unprecedented, kaleidoscopic spotlight on the author’s largely enigmatic life and its complex political context. What few realize — and what Pitzer reveals through newly-declassified intelligence files and rigorously researched military records — is that Nabokov wove serious and unsettling political history into the fabric of his fiction, which had gone undetected for decades: until now.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Certificate of Naturalization

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Originally featured in April, with the fascinating story of Nabokov’s travails with homeland security.

* * *

Honorable mentions: An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins, Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, and The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.

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31 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best of Brain Pickings 2012

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Everything you missed and everything you’d want to revisit, in one place.

On this last day of the year, what better way to send 2012 off than with a look back at the its most stimulating reads? Gathered here are the most read and shared articles published on Brain Pickings this year, to complement the recent omnibus of the year’s best books. Enjoy, and may 2013 be inspired in every possible way.

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28 DECEMBER, 2012

10½ Favorite Albums of 2012

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By popular demand, here is a music equivalent to complement those favorite books of 2012 — a highly subjective and hopelessly non-exhaustive selection of the 10 or so albums on heaviest rotation this year, many of which you might recognize from past Literary Jukebox installments.

MY HEAD IS AN ANIMAL

My Head Is An Animal (iTunes; UK) by Of Monsters and Men

Release date: April 3, 2012

LOVE THIS GIANT

Love This Giant (iTunes; UK) by David Byrne and St. Vincent

Release date: September 10, 2012

SUGARING SEASON

Sugaring Season (iTunes; UK) by Beth Orton

Release date: September 28, 2012

BREAK IT YOURSELF

Break It Yourself (iTunes; UK) by Andrew Bird

Release date: March 6, 2012

COME HOME TO MAMA

Come Home To Mama (iTunes; UK) by Martha Wainwright

Release date: October 16, 2012

THE IDLER WHEEL…

The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (iTunes; UK) by Fiona Apple

Release date: June 15, 2012

BLUNDERBUSS

Blunderbuss (iTunes; UK) by Jack White

Release date: April 23, 2012

TRAMP

Tramp (iTunes; UK) by Sharon Van Etten

Release date: February 7, 2012

BABEL

Babel (iTunes; UK) by Mumford & Sons

Release date: September 21, 2012

WHAT WE SAW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS

What We Saw From The Cheap Seats (iTunes; UK) by Regina Spektor

Release date: May 25, 2012

BONUS: JUST TELL ME THAT YOU WANT ME

Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute To Fleetwood Mac (iTunes; UK), featuring Lykke Li, Washed Out, Best Coast, The New Pornographers, MGMT, and more

Release date: August 13, 2012

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26 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best Books of 2012: Your 10 Overall Favorites

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From children’s existential questions to 100 ideas that changed graphic design, by way of Yayoi Kusama and illustrated scientific mysteries.

The final addition to this year’s best-of reading lists — spanning art, design, philosophy and psychology, picturebooks, history, graphic novels and graphic nonfiction, food, and music — is a look at your favorite reads featured on Brain Pickings in 2012, based on an alchemy of various readership statistics and other data voodoo.

BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,” Carl Sagan famously observed in Cosmos, “you must first invent the universe.” The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library), one of the best children’s books of 2012 — a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, featuring such modern-day icons as Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, and many more, with a good chunk of the proceeds being donated to Save the Children, and also one of the best science books of 2012.

Alain de Botton explores why we have dreams:

Most of the time, you feel in charge of your own mind. You want to play with some Lego? Your brain is there to make it happen. You fancy reading a book? You can put the letters together and watch characters emerge in your imagination.

But at night, strange stuff happens. While you’re in bed, your mind puts on the weirdest, most amazing and sometimes scariest shows.

[…]

In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future. Nowadays, we tend to think that dreams are a way for the mind to rearrange and tidy itself up after the activities of the day.

Why are dreams sometimes scary? During the day, things may happen that frighten us, but we are so busy we don’t have time to think properly about them. At night, while we are sleeping safely, we can give those fears a run around. Or maybe something you did during the day was lovely but you were in a hurry and didn’t give it time. It may pop up in a dream. In dreams, you go back over things you missed, repair what got damaged, make up stories about what you’d love, and explore the fears you normally put to the back of your mind.

Dreams are both more exciting and more frightening than daily life. They’re a sign that our brains are marvellous machines — and that they have powers we don’t often give them credit for, when we’re just using them to do our homework or play a computer game. Dreams show us that we’re not quite the bosses of our own selves.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins breaks down the math of evolution and cousin marriages to demonstrate that we are all related:

Yes, we are all related. You are a (probably distant) cousin of the Queen, and of the president of the United States, and of me. You and I are cousins of each other. You can prove it to yourself.

Everybody has two parents. That means, since each parent had two parents of their own, that we all have four grandparents. Then, since each grandparent had to have two parents, everyone has eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great- great-grandparents and thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents and so on.

You can go back any number of generations and work out the number of ancestors you must have had that same number of generations ago. All you have to do is multiply two by itself that number of times.

Suppose we go back ten centuries, that is to Anglo-Saxon times in England, just before the Norman Conquest, and work out how many ancestors you must have had alive at that time.

If we allow four generations per century, that’s about forty generations ago.

Two multiplied by itself forty times comes to more than a thousand trillion. Yet the total population of the world at that time was only around three hundred million. Even today the population is seven billion, yet we have just worked out that a thousand years ago your ancestors alone were more than 150 times as numerous.

[…]

The real population of the world at the time of Julius Caesar was only a few million, and all of us, all seven billion of us, are descended from them. We are indeed all related. Every marriage is between more or less distant cousins, who already share lots and lots of ancestors before they have children of their own.
By the same kind of argument, we are distant cousins not only of all human beings but of all animals and plants. You are a cousin of my dog and of the lettuce you had for lunch, and of the next bird that you see fly past the window. You and I share ancestors with all of them. But that is another story.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains why we can’t tickle ourselves:

To understand why, you need to know more about how your brain works. One of its main tasks is to try to make good guesses about what’s going to happen next. While you’re busy getting on with your life, walking downstairs or eating your breakfast, parts of your brain are always trying to predict the future.

Remember when you first learned how to ride a bicycle? At first, it took a lot of concentration to keep the handlebars steady and push the pedals. But after a while, cycling became easy. Now you’re not aware of the movements you make to keep the bike going. From experience, your brain knows exactly what to expect so your body rides the bike automatically. Your brain is predicting all the movements you need to make.

You only have to think consciously about cycling if something changes — like if there’s a strong wind or you get a flat tyre. When something unexpected happens like this, your brain is forced to change its predictions about what will happen next. If it does its job well, you’ll adjust to the strong wind, leaning your body so you don’t fall.

Why is it so important for our brains to predict what will happen next? It helps us make fewer mistakes and can even save our lives.

[…]

Because your brain is always predicting your own actions, and how your body will feel as a result, you cannot tickle yourself. Other people can tickle you because they can surprise you. You can’t predict what their tickling actions will be.

And this knowledge leads to an interesting truth: if you build a machine that allows you to move a feather, but the feather moves only after a delay of a second, then you can tickle your- self. The results of your own actions will now surprise you.

Particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss explains why we’re all made of stardust:

Everything in your body, and everything you can see around you, is made up of tiny objects called atoms. Atoms come in different types called elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are three of the most important elements in your body.

[…]

How did those elements get into our bodies? The only way they could have got there, to make up all the material on our Earth, is if some of those stars exploded a long time ago, spew- ing all the elements from their cores into space. Then, about four and a half billion years ago, in our part of our galaxy, the material in space began to collapse. This is how the Sun was formed, and the solar system around it, as well as the material that forms all life on earth.

So, most of the atoms that now make up your body were created inside stars! The atoms in your left hand might have come from a different star from those in your right hand. You are really a child of the stars.

But my favorite answers are to the all-engulfing question, How do we fall in love?. Author Jeanette Winterson offers this breathlessly poetic response:

You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)

And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.

PS You have to be brave.

Evolutionary psychologist and sociologist Robin Dunbar balances out the poetics with a scientific look at what goes on inside the brain when we love:

What happens when we fall in love is probably one of the most difficult things in the whole universe to explain. It’s something we do without thinking. In fact, if we think about it too much, we usually end up doing it all wrong and get in a terrible muddle. That’s because when you fall in love, the right side of your brain gets very busy. The right side is the bit that seems to be especially important for our emotions. Language, on the other hand, gets done almost completely in the left side of the brain. And this is one reason why we find it so difficult to talk about our feelings and emotions: the language areas on the left side can’t send messages to the emotional areas on the right side very well. So we get stuck for words, unable to describe our feelings.

But science does allow us to say a little bit about what happens when we fall in love. First of all, we know that love sets off really big changes in how we feel. We feel all light-headed and emotional. We can be happy and cry with happiness at the same time. Suddenly, some things don’t matter any more and the only thing we are interested in is being close to the person we have fallen in love with.

These days we have scanner machines that let us watch a person’s brain at work. Different parts of the brain light up on the screen, depending on what the brain is doing. When people are in love, the emotional bits of their brains are very active, lighting up. But other bits of the brain that are in charge of more sensible thinking are much less active than normal. So the bits that normally say ‘Don’t do that because it would be crazy!’ are switched off, and the bits that say ‘Oh, that would be lovely!’ are switched on.

Why does this happen? One reason is that love releases certain chemicals in our brains. One is called dopamine, and this gives us a feeling of excitement. Another is called oxytocin and seems to be responsible for the light-headedness and cosiness we feel when we are with the person we love. When these are released in large quantities, they go to parts of the brain that are especially responsive to them.

But all this doesn’t explain why you fall in love with a particular person. And that is a bit of a mystery, since there seems to be no good reason for our choices. In fact, it seems to be just as easy to fall in love with someone after you’ve married them as before, which seems the wrong way round. And here’s another odd thing. When we are in love, we can trick ourselves into thinking the other person is perfect. Of course, no one is really perfect. But the more perfect we find each other, the longer our love will last.

Big Questions from Little People is a wonderful complement to The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and is certain to give you pause about much of what you thought you knew, or at the very least rekindle that childlike curiosity about and awe at the basic fabric of the world we live in.

Originally featured in November.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. This year, all of Sugar’s no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — was released in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (UK; public library), along with several never-before-published columns, under Sugar’s real name: Cheryl Strayed.

The book, one of the year’s finest reads in psychology and philosophy, is titled after Dear Sugar #64, which remains my own favorite by a long stretch. It’s exquisite in its entirety, but this particular bit makes the heart tremble with raw heartness:

Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.

When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t ‘mean anything’ because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.

Say thank you.

In the introduction, Steve Almond, who once attempted to be Sugar before there was Sugar, captures precisely what makes Sugar Sugar:

The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:

Dear WTF,

My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.

It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.

But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

Originally featured in July.

HOW TO BE AN EXPLORER OF THE WORLD

As a longtime fan of guerrilla artist and illustrator Keri Smith’s Wreck This Box set of interactive journals, part of these 7 favorite activity books for grown-ups, I was delighted to discover her How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum (UK; public library) — a wonderful compendium of 59 ideas for how to get creatively unstuck by engaging with everyday objects and your surroundings in novel ways. From mapping found sounds to learning the language of trees to turning time observation into art, these playful and poetic micro-projects aren’t just a simple creativity booster — they’re potent training for what Buddhism would call “living from presence” and inhabiting your life more fully.

It all began with this simple list, which Smith scribbled on a piece of paper in the middle a sleepless night in 2007:

Eventually, it became the book.

Smith says of the book’s curious choice of subtitle:

I am interested in the idea of taking art (or museum shows/collections) out of the realm of ‘institution’ and into the hands of the individual, one does not need a formal space to put things in, in order for it to be valid. A museum is what YOU make it. You decide what goes in it, what is interesting, why it is interesting, how it could be displayed. It gives the reader permission to create their own portable (or not portable) show. It doesn’t have to be a public show either, it could just be your own private collections of whatever YOU find interesting. Think of it as a kind of “Sim Museum”, except in the real world. The book begins with ideas about what and how to collect things you find in the world (found objects, thoughts, ideas, stories, things from nature, etc.), a section on various ways of displaying the things you collect, and how to set up a showing.

Especially delightful — and not only because of the Anaïs Nin reference — is this author’s note in the preface, a nod to Mark Twain’s conviction that “all ideas are second-hand” and Henry Miller’s contention that most of what we create is composed of “hand-me-down ideas”:

Alongside the micro-projects are hand-written quotes by great creative minds of yore, including Brain Pickings favorites Italo Calvino, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Corita Kent:

Both daring and meditative, How to Be an Explorer of the World is part Maira Kalman, part Wendy MacNaughton, part its very own kind of whimsy, delivering — beautifully — exactly what it says on the tin, with an invitation to be just a little bit more alive each day.

Originally featured in August.

STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST

Much has been said about how creativity works, what its secrets are, and where good ideas come from, but most of that wisdom can be lost on young minds just dipping their toes in the vast and tumultuous ocean of self-initiated creation. Some time ago, artist and writer Austin Kleon — one of my favorite thinkers, a keen observer of and participant in the creative economy of the digital age — was invited to give a talk to students, the backbone for which was a list of 10 things he wished he’d heard as a young creator:

So widely did the talk resonate that Kleon decided to deepen and enrich its message in Steal Like an Artist (UK; public library), one of the best art books of 2012 — an intelligent and articulate manifesto for the era of combinatorial creativity and remix culture that’s part 344 Questions, part Everything is a Remix, part The Gift, at once borrowed and entirely original.

The book opens with a timeless T.S. Eliot endorsement of remix culture:

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

Kleon goes on to delineate the qualities you’ll need to cultivate for the creative life — things like kindness, curiosity, “productive procrastination,” “a willingness to look stupid” — demonstrating that “creativity” isn’t some abstract phenomenon bestowed upon the fortunate few but, rather, a deliberate mindset and pragmatic ethos we can architect for ourselves. As he puts it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”

He writes in the introduction:

It’s one of my theories that when people give advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.

This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.

These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.

These ideas are for everyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)

On doing what you love, Kleon urges:

Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.

Originally featured at length in March.

A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS

Literature is the original “inter-net,” woven of a web of allusions, references, and citations that link different works together into an endless rabbit hole of discovery. Case in point: Last week’s wonderful field guide to creativity, Dancing About Architecture, mentioned in passing an intriguing old book originally published by James Webb Young in 1939 — A Technique for Producing Ideas (UK; public library), which I promptly hunted down and which will be the best $5 you spend this year, or the most justified trip to your public library.

Young — an ad man by trade but, as we’ll see, a voraciously curious and cross-disciplinary thinker at heart — lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

Right from the introduction, original Mad Man and DDB founder Bill Bernbach captures the essence of Young’s ideas, with which Steve Jobs would have no doubt agreed when he proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things”:

Mr. Young is in the tradition of some of our greatest thinkers when he describes the workings of the creative process. It is a tribute to him that such scientific giants as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein have written similarly on this subject. They agree that knowledge is basic to good creative thinking but that it is not enough, that this knowledge must be digested and eventually emerge in the form of fresh, new combinations and relationships. Einstein refers to this as intuition, which he considers the only path to new insights.

To be sure, however, Young marries the intuitive with the practical in his formulation:

[T]he production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.

In a chapter on training the mind, Young offers:

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up [of] so called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

[…]

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

But the most compelling part of Young’s treatise, in a true embodiment of combinatorial creativity, builds upon the work of legendary Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (of Pareto principle fame) and his The Mind and Society. Young proposes two key principles for creating — that an idea is a new combination and that the ability to generate new combinations depends on the ability to see relationships between different elements.

The first [principle is] that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

[…]

The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.

[…]

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

STEP 1: GATHERING RAW MATERIAL

Young talks about the importance of building a rich pool of “raw material” — mental resources from which to build new combinations — in a way that resonates deeply with the Brain Pickings founding philosophy, and also articulates the increasing importance of quality information filters in our modern information diet. This notion of gathering raw material is the first step in his outline of the creative process:

Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

Even seven decades into the past, Young knew that the future belongs to the curious. His insistence on the importance of curiosity would make Richard Feynman nod in agreement:

Every really good creative person…whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested — from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.

[…]

The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.

(I once used a similar analogy with LEGO.)

STEP 2: DIGESTING THE MATERIAL

In his second stage of the creative process, digesting the material, Young affirms Paola Antonelli’s brilliant metaphor of the curious octopus:

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

STEP 3: UNCONSCIOUS PROCESSING

In his third stage of the creative process, Young stresses the importance of making absolutely “no effort of a direct nature”:

It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.

[…]

[W]hen you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

STEP 4: THE A-HA MOMENT

Then and only then, Young promises, everything will click in the fourth stage of the seemingly serendipitous a-ha! moment:

Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

STEP 5: IDEA MEETS REALITY

Young calls the last stage “the cold, gray dawn of the morning after,” when your newborn idea has to face reality:

It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

* * *

Years later, upon reissuing A Technique for Producing Ideas, Young recounted the many letters he had gotten from “poets, painters, engineers, scientists, and even one writer of legal briefs” who had found his technique empowering and helpful. But what’s perhaps most interesting is the following note he made to the postscript of a reprint:

From my own further experience in advertising, government, and public affairs I find no essential points which I would modify in the idea-producing process. There is one, however, on which I would put greater emphasis. This is as to the store of general materials in the idea-producer’s reservoir.

[…]

I am convinced, however, that you gather this vicarious experience best, not when you are boning up on it for an immediate purpose, but when you are pursuing it as an end in itself.

Originally featured in May.

100 IDEAS THAT CHANGED GRAPHIC DESIGN

Design history books abound, but they tend to be organized by chronology and focused on concrete -isms. From publisher Laurence King, who brought us the epic Saul Bass monograph, and the prolific design writer Steven Heller with design critic Veronique Vienne comes 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design (UK; public library) — a thoughtfully curated inventory of abstract concepts that defined and shaped the art and craft of graphic design, each illustrated with exemplary images and historical context, and one of the year’s best design books.

From concepts like manifestos (#25), pictograms (#45), propaganda (#22), found typography (#38), and the Dieter-Rams-coined philosophy that “less is more” (#73) to favorite creators like Alex Steinweiss, Noma Bar, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, and Stefan Sagmeister, the sum of these carefully constructed parts amounts to an astute lens not only on what design is and does, but also on what it should be and do.

Idea # 16: METAPHORIC LETTERING

Trying to Look Good Limits My Life (2004), part of Stefan Sagmeister’s typographic project '20 Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far.' Words are formed from natural and industrial materials and composed in situ.

Idea # 83: PSYCHEDELIA

Gebrauchsgraphik (1968). The youth style influenced by drugs and rock and roll quickly became a commercial visual vocabulary. Founded in San Francisco, this German version smoothed out some of the rough edges.

Idea # 31: RED WITH BLACK

A Season in Hell (1944), a black-and-red assemblage of stark and wobbly forms characteristic of Alvin Lustig’s highly abstract visual vocabulary, is a graphic equivalent of the tormented prose of poet Arthur Rimbaud.

Heller and Vienne write in the introduction:

[Big ideas] are notions, conceptions, inventions, and inspirations — formal, pragmatic, and conceptual — that have been employed by graphic designers to enhance all genres of visual communication. These ideas have become, through synthesis and continual application, the ambient language(s) of graphic design. They constitute the technological, philosophical, forma, and aesthetic constructs of graphic design.

Idea # 19: VISUAL PUNS

Gun Crime (2010), illustrated by Noma Bar, is a commentary on the tragic toll of gun-related violence in the UK. The trigger serves as the mechanism and outcome of gun attacks.

Idea # 35: EXPRESSION OF SPEED

Rainboeing the Skies (1971), an ad introducing the new Boeing 747 to El Al Israeli Airlines by graphic designer Dan Reisinger. This iconic image is at the center of an Internet controversy, with some claiming that it was in fact an Air Canada poster.

Idea # 25: MANIFESTOS

First Things First (1964), published by British designer Ken Garland, who intended to radicalize the design practice that was fast becoming a subset of advertising. In 2000 an updated version was printed in cutting-edge magazines including Adbusters, Emigré, Items, and Eye.

Idea # 38: FOUND TYPOGRAPHY

Alphabet with Tools (1977), by Mervyn Kurlansky, takes everyday objects found in homes and workshops and transforms them into the letters of the Western alphabet.

From how rub-on lettering democratized design by fueling the DIY movement and engaging people who knew nothing about typography to how the concept of the “teenager” was invented after World War II as a new market for advertisers, many of the ideas are mother-of-invention parables. Together, they converge into a cohesive meditation on the fundamental mechanism of graphic design — to draw a narrative with a point of view, and then construct that narrative through the design process and experience.

Idea # 15: ENTREPRENEURSHIP

A Catalog of Roycroft Books (1905?), designed at the Roycroft workshop in East Aurora, New York. Influenced by William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement, Elbert Hubbard established a crafts colony that sold books, textiles, and other products.

Idea # 48: TRIANGULATION

The Best of Jazz (1979), a typographical masterpiece by Paula Scher, was done when she was discovering Aleksander Rodchenko and El Lissitsky. She recalls her work being acclaimed as 'new wave' and 'postmodern' when in fact it was a private homage to the pioneers of the Russian avant garde.

Idea # 37: DUST JACKETS

Ulysses (1934), hand-lettered and designed by Ernst Reichl, was said to be influenced by the paintings of Piet Mondrian.

Idea # 66: PUBLIC SERVICE CAMPAIGNS

Give a Hand to Wild Life (2008), by Saatchi & Saatchi Simko agency in Geneva, is a series of clever and beautiful photographs of human hands camouflaged as wild animals by bodypainter Guido Daniele.

On a recent episode of Debbie Millman’s invariably excellent Design Matters podcast, Heller talks about the process and rationale behind 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design:

History, as we all know, is written by the survivors. And there are certain historical facts that never get covered. And, in graphic design, it’s fascinating how many things don’t get covered until somebody uncovers them.

Also from the series: 100 Ideas That Changed Art, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture, and 100 Ideas That Changed Photography.

Originally featured, with more examples and images, in May.

THE WHERE, THE WHY, AND THE HOW

At the intersection of art and science, The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (UK; public library), one of the year’s best science books, invites some of today’s most celebrated artists to create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language.

The images, which come from a mix of well-known titans and promising up-and-comers, including favorites like Lisa Congdon, Gemma Correll, and Jon Klassen, borrow inspiration from antique medical illustrations, vintage science diagrams, and other historical ephemera from periods of explosive scientific curiosity.

Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves. The trio urge in the introduction:

With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information. … Remember that before you do a quick online search for the purpose of the horned owl’s horns, you should give yourself some time to wonder.

The motion graphics book trailer is an absolute masterpiece itself:

Pondering the age-old question of why the universe exists, Brian Yanny asks:

Was there an era before our own, out of which our current universe was born? Do the laws of physics, the dimensions of space-time, the strengths and types and asymmetries of nature’s forces and particles, and the potential for life have to be as we observe them, or is there a branching multi-verse of earlier and later epochs filled with unimaginably exotic realms? We do not know.

What existed before the big bang?

Illustrated by Josh Cochran

Exploring how gravity works, Terry Matilsky notes:

[T]he story is not finished. We know that general relativity is not the final answer, because we have not been able to synthesize gravity with the other known laws of physics in a comprehensive “theory of everything.”

How does gravity work?

Illustrated by The Heads of State

Zooming in on the microcosm of our own bodies and their curious behaviors, Jill Conte considers why we blush:

The ruddy or darkened hue of a blush occurs when muscles in the walls of blood vessels within the skin relax and allow more blood to flow. Interestingly, the skin of the blush region contains more blood vessels than do other parts of the body. These vessels are also larger and closer to the surface, which indicates a possible relationship among physiology, emotion, and social communication. While it is known that blood flow to the skin, which serves to feed cells and regulate surface body temperature, is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the exact mechanism by which this process is activated specifically to produce a blush remains unknown.

What is dark matter?

Illustrated by Betsy Walton

Originally featured in October.

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. This year, exactly half a century later, Rizzoli reprinted Henri’s Walk to Paris, one of this year’s best children’s books — an absolute gem like only Bass can deliver, at once boldly minimalist and incredibly rich, telling the sweet, aspirational, colorful story of a boy who lives in rural France and dreams of going to Paris.

In his wonderful essay on Bass’s talent, Martin Scorsese observed, as if thinking of this book in particular:

Saul’s designs…speak so eloquently that they address all of us, no matter when, or where, you were born.”

For a related treat, don’t miss the excellent recent Saul Bass monograph, one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011.

Originally featured in February.

YAYOI KUSAMA’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass endure as some of history’s most beloved children’s storytelling, full of timeless philosophy for grown-ups and inspiration for computing pioneers. The illustrations that have accompanied Lewis Carroll’s classics over the ages have become iconic in their own right, from Leonard Weisgard’s stunning artwork for the first color edition of the book to Salvador Dali’s little-known but breathtaking version. Now, from Penguin UK and Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, comes a striking contender for the most visually captivating take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yet — and one of the year’s best art books.

Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.

Originally featured, with more photos and a trailer, in April.

WHAT’S A DOG FOR

It must be the season of the dog, from the recent treasure chest that is The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the the best art books of 2012) to the history of rabies to Fiona Apple’s stirring handwritten letter about her dying dog. But what is it about dogs, exactly, that has us so profoundly transfixed?

That’s exactly what former New York magazine executive editor John Homans explores in What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (public library) — a remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts tenderness and scientific rigor.

In a chapter on reconciling the inevitable pain we invite into our lives when we commit to love a being biologically destined to die before we do and the boundless joy of choosing to love anyway, Homans cites John Updike’s heartbreaking poem “Another Dog’s Death” about the last days of one of his beloved animals:

For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.

But rather than agonizing over the morbidity of it, Homans celebrates the remarkable Zen-ness of it all, somewhere between John Cage and the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi:

This state of being-in-the-moment is what’s so compelling about dogs. It’s hard for a human to get to it. Even in the most difficult times, dogs are cheerful and ready for experience. A dog can’t figure out that it’s being measured for its grave. The three-legged chow that walks on my street every day doesn’t know the number three or have any sense that anything is wrong with her at all (and as I write, the dog is sixteen and still fit). It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition ‘the Dog Wish,’ the ‘strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.’ This is a dog’s blessing, a dim-wittedness one can envy.

He considers the warm tackiness of loving a dog:

Loving a dog means, among other things, making peace with kitsch, if you haven’t already. You don’t have to make goo-goo eyes at every puppy picture you see in a magazine or bake your dog birthday cakes. But if you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience. … Dogs are a national religion with a catechism composed by Hallmark, so heresy is necessary. I suspect some people resist the dog culture with such passion precisely to avoid the kitsch, the appalling melodrama: if you give in to it, you’re trapped in a narrative you can’t control. You feel like a dope, buying into it. The emotions around the dog can be as neotenized as the animal itself.

Rather than an end, kitsch can be a starting point. … Much as I’d like to think that kitsch has no purchase in my world, it’s found its way in — and it’s sleeping on my rug.

Beautifully written and absolutely engrossing, What’s a Dog For? goes on to examine such fascinating fringes of canine culture as how dogs served as Darwin’s muse, why they were instrumental in the birth of empathy, and what they might reveal about the future of evolution.

Originally featured earlier this month.

BONUS: WRITING THAT WORKS

“Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times,” David Ogilvy famously commanded in the first of his 10 uncompromising tips on writing. Indeed, more than thirty years after its original publication in 1981, Writing That Works: How to Communicate Effectively In Business (UK; public library) by former Ogilvy & Mather CEO Kenneth Roman and legendary adman Joel Raphaelson offers some timelessly practical tips on the art, science, and psychology of successful communication, in business and beyond. Because even if you’ve happily bid the corporate world adieu and figured out a way to avoid work by doing what you love, there are certain skills and techniques you’ll find yourself resorting to again and again in order to communicate your ideas with impact, whatever your discipline.

Take, for instance, the art of a great presentation. Roman and Raphaelson offer a concise, precise plan:

How to Organize a Presentation

Organizing a presentation is a combination of clear thinking (the pyramid principle, for example) and clear communications (points that follow here).

The setting is most likely a conference room. It’s a business environment. Everything you say, everything you show, every device you use, must move you toward your objectives in a businesslike fashion.

  1. Keep things simple — keep them on target

    Start with specific, written objectives — and a strategy. You need a theme to give your presentation unity and direction, and to fix your purpose in your audience’s mind. Make it a simple theme, easy to remember, and open with it, using a headline to state it.

    Tie every element in your presentation to the theme. If you’re using charts, put your theme all by itself on one chart and place it where it will be visible throughout the presentation. This keeps the people in your audience — sometimes sleepy, often distracted, always with lots on their minds — focused on your theme (and message).

  2. Tell your audience where you’re going

    Show an agenda that lists the points you are going to cover. Describe the structure of your presentation, and say how long it will take. Estimate time conservatively — err on the long side rather than the short side. A presentation that is promised for twenty minutes and goes twenty-five seems like an eternity. The same thing promised for thirty minutes seems short in twenty-five, crisp and businesslike.

    Throughout the meeting, refer to the agenda to keep your audience on track. Prepare a presentation book the audience can keep, and tell them at the start that you’ll give them copies after the meeting. This will relieve them from taking voluminous notes (instead of listening), so you’ll get their full attention. Do everything that’s been asked — and a little more. Be precise and complete in covering what was requested. If you cannot cover some point or other, say so and say why.

  3. Think headlines, not labels

    Presenters often have impressive data on their charts, but fail to extract what the data shows, so the audience doesn’t understand what the numbers prove. What does your data say? Headings on charts should tell the audience how to think about the numbers. … Use headings to establish your main points. Guide the audience by numbering them on charts or slides, telling people how many you have.

  4. Involve the audience

    Look for interesting visual devices to present dry, routine materials. A little creativity goes a long way. New computer programs make it easy to do colorful things with pie charts and bar charts. Newsmagazines hire top artists to make their charts interesting and clear. USA Today is particularly adept at charts, and runs at least one every day in the lower left-hand corner of the front page. Study the techniques of these publications — and borrow from them.

    Think of ways to involve your audience. Play games with them. Invite people to guess the answers to questions, or to predict the results of research — before you reveal them.

    Try to add something extra, something unexpected. It demonstrates more than routine interest. You might play tape recordings of customers describing your audience’s product, or quote a relevant passage from a speech your audience’s chief executive made years ago, or show an excerpt from yesterday’s TV news that illuminates or reinforces an important point.

  5. Finish strong

    ‘Oh, give me something to remember you by’ goes the song. As soon as you’ve gone, your audience is likely to turn its attention to other things — perhaps to presentations competitive to yours. Leave something to remember you by.

    Don’t let a meeting drift off into trivia. Close with a summary and a strong restatement of your proposition or recommendation. For major presentations, look for a memorable, dramatic close — something visual, perhaps a small gift that symbolizes your main point.

    Keep your promise about how much time you’ll take. Running longer than you said you would at the outset shows a lack of discipline.

    Presenters often sprout wings and fly when confronted with an audience. They expand, tell anecdotes — and hate to sit down. If what you’ve written is exactly on time in rehearsal, you’ll probably run over in performance. If you’ve been allotted twenty minutes, write for fifteen.

An additional section explores “speeches that make a point” with several tips:

  1. Frame the subject with a point of view

    Some cynics maintain that the subliminal title of every speech is ‘How to Be More Like Me.’ While your audience might not look forward to a speech that actually had such a title, good speeches nearly always express a strongly held personal point of view.

    […]

    Ideas that you believe in make good speeches. Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, advises not to accept any topic that you don’t feel strongly about: ‘Stick to topics you care deeply about, and don’t keep your passion buttoned inside your vest. An audience’s biggest turn-on is the speaker’s obvious enthusiasm.’

  2. Start fast

    It may be ‘an honor and a privilege’ to have been invited to speak, but that is not what people came to hear. Plunge into what you want to say. The occasion may require some pro forma opening courtesies, but keep them as short as possible.

    […]

    Start with that single point you want your audience to take away, then conclude with a memorable way for them to do so. Don’t just repeat it (‘As I said at the beginning of this talk …’) but find a vivid image to register the point.

  3. Write your speech to be spoken

    Don’t think of it as an oration. Think of it as a conversation with a friend.

    […]

    Read aloud the draft of your speech, and edit it until it sounds like you talking naturally. Ghostwriters can help, but your speech must ultimately reflect you. Never deliver a speech drafted by someone else before you have revised it to sound like you.

  4. Leave them thinking

    A great speech is one that inspires the audience to think about a subject from a fresh perspective. It helps a lot if you have the credibility, if the audience perceives that you are speaking from personal knowledge.

  5. No speech was ever too short

    On your way out after a speech, do you remember ever thinking it was good — but a little too short? Most good talks take less than twenty minutes. Consider what you have so often had to sit through, and how much better it could have been said in few words.

One final piece of advice addresses how to make it sound easy:

The most effective speeches and presentations sound as if they have been spoken, ad-lib, and not written down at all. Great presenters and speakers make it all sound so easy and so natural that one assumes it just pours out of them. It almost never does.

Complement Writing That Works with these 5 things every presenter should know about people, animated.

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