Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

01 SEPTEMBER, 2015

David Byrne’s Lending Library

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A colorful case of the mosaic of influences that is art.

“When a library is open, no matter its size or shape,” Bill Moyers wrote, “democracy is open, too.” A century and a half earlier, Thoreau extolled a different aspect of the library as a technology of thought, writing in his diary: “Those old books suggested a certain fertility … as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in.”

It was in a similar spirit that, in curating the 2015 Meltdown Festival at London’s Southbank Centre, beloved musician David Byrne decided to turn his personal book collection into a lending library. “I love a library. The idea of reading books for free didn’t kill the publishing business,” he writes in The Guardian, “on the contrary, it created nations of literate and passionate readers. Shared interests and the impulse to create.”

His impressively worldly library of more than 200 titles spans nearly every aspect of music — from technique to theory, mechanics to memoirs, instruments to interviews — as well as psychology, art, architecture, history, and copyright law.

A lifelong lover of reading, Byrne grew up in a small suburban town near Baltimore, where the library was his only access point to the wider world and books became his formative creative sandbox. I asked him about his earliest memory of a formative book he borrowed from that childhood library and he points to The Phantom Tollbooth. How apt that the 1961 classic contains the now-iconic map of The Kingdom of Wisdom, with its Mountains of Ignorance, Foothills of Confusion, and Sea of Knowledge — an perfect metaphor for how reading itself equips us with an invaluable compass for navigating the landscape of life.

In resonance with Umberto Eco’s concept of the “anti-library,” Byrne points out that he hasn’t read all the books in his library, but has bought each one with the intention of reading it one day — a practice the Japanese call tsudoku.

I’ve digitized the complete alphabetized list of books in Byrne’s lending library, sent to me in a photograph by Brain Pickings reader Ben Hart. What emerges is confirmation that great art is always a mosaic of vibrantly varied influences.

  1. 40 Watts from Nowhere: A Journey into Pirate Radio (public library) by Sue Carpenter
  2. A divina comedia dos Mutantes (public library) by Carlos Calado
  3. A Photographic Record: 1969–1980 (public library) by Mick Rock
  4. A Thelonious Monk: Study Album (public library) by Lionel Grigson
  5. A Whole Room for Music: A Short Guide to the Balfour Building Music Makers’ Gallery (public library) by Helene La Rue
  6. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life (public library) by Brandon Labelle
  7. Acoustics for Radio and Television Studios (public library) by Christopher Gilford
  8. Africa Dances (public library) by Geoffrey Gorer
  9. African Music: A People’s Art (public library) by Francis Bebey
  10. African Rhythm and African Sensibility (public library) by John Miller Chernoff
  11. Afro-American Folk Songs (public library) by H.E. Krehbiel
  12. AfroPop! An Illustrated Guide to Contemporary African Music (public library) by Sean Barlow & Banning Eyre
  13. All You Need to Know About the Music Business (public library) by Donald S. Passman
  14. Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café (public library) by Miguel Algarin & Bob Holman
  15. An Illustrated Treasury of Songs (public library) by National Gallery of Art
  16. And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey (public library) by Studs Terkel
  17. Arranged Marriage (public library) by Wallace Berman & Robert Watts
  18. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music (public library) by Cristoph Cox & Daniel Warner
  19. Austin City Limits: 35 Years in Photographs (public library) by Scott Newton & Terry Lickona
  20. Bachata: A Social History of a Dominican Popular Music (public library) by Deborah Pacini Hernandez
  21. Bandalism: The Rock Group Survival Guide (public library) by Julian Ridgway
  22. Beats of the Heart: Popular Music of the World (public library) by Jeremy Marre & Hannah Charlton
  23. Best Music Writing 2001 (public library) by Nick Hornby & Ben Schafer
  24. Best Music Writing 2002 (public library) by Jonathan Lethem & Paul Bresnick
  25. Best Music Writing 2003 (public library) by Matt Groening & Paul Bresnick
  26. Best Music Writing 2006 (public library) by Mary Gaitskill & Daphne Carr
  27. Best Music Writing 2007 (public library) by Robert Christgau & Daphne Carr
  28. Bicycle Diaries (public library) by David Byrne
  29. Black Music of Two Worlds (public library) by John Storm Roberts
  30. Black Rhythms of Peru: Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific (public library) by Heidi Carolyn Feidman
  31. Blues Guitar: The Men Who Made the Music (public library) by Jas Obrecht
  32. Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World (public library) by Ruy Castro
  33. Botsford Collection of Folk Songs Volume 1 (public library) by Florence Hudson Botsford
  34. Botsford Collection of Folk Songs Volume 2 (public library) by Florence Hudson Botsford
  35. Bound for Glory (public library) by Woody Guthrie
  36. Bourbon Street Black: The New Orleans Black Jazzman (public library) by Jack V Buerkle & Danny Barker
  37. Brazilian Popular Music and Citizenship (public library) by Idelber Avelar & Christopher Dunn
  38. Brutality Garden: Tropicalla and the Emergence of a Brazilian Counterculture (public library) by Christopher Dunn
  39. Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise (public library) by David Rothenberg
  40. But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz (public library) by Geoff Dyer
  41. Cancioneiro Vinicius De Moraes (public library) by Orfeu
  42. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (public library) by Mark Katz
  43. Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley (public library) by Timothy White
  44. Chambers (public library) by Alvin Lucier & Douglas Simon
  45. Chinaberry Sidewalks: A Memoir (public library) by Rodney Crowell
  46. Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk (public library) by Deborah Harry, Glenn O’Brien & Shepard Fairey
  47. Clandestino: In Search of Manu Chao (public library) by Peter Culshaw
  48. Clothes Music Boys (public library) by Viv Albertine
  49. Cocinando! Fifty Years of Latin Cover Art (public library) by Pablo Yglesias
  50. Conjunto (public library) by John Dyer
  51. Conversations with Glenn Gould (public library) by Jonathan Cott
  52. Conversing with Cage (public library) by Richard Kostelanetz
  53. Copyrights & Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How it Threatens Creativity (public library) by Siva Vaidhyanathan
  54. Dancing in Your Head: Jazz, Blues, Rock and Beyond (public library) by Gene Santoro
  55. Desert Plants: Conversations with Twenty-Three American Musicians by Walter Zimmerman
  56. Diccionario de Jazz Latino (public library) by Nat Chediak
  57. Diccionario del Rock Latino (public library) by Nat Chediak
  58. Driving Through Cuba: Rare Encounters in the Land of Sugar Cane and Revolution (public library) by Carlo Gebler
  59. Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion (public library) by Mickey Hart & Jay Stevens
  60. Essays on Music (public library) by Theodor W. Adorno
  61. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (public library) by Michael Nyman
  62. Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (public library) by Negativland
  63. Fela Fela: This Bitch of a Life (public library) by Carlos Moore
  64. Fetish & Fame: The 1997 MTV Video Music Awards by David Felton
  65. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954–1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes (public library) by Stephen Sondheim
  66. Folk and Traditional Music of the Western Continents (public library) by Bruno Nettl
  67. Folk Song Style and Culture (public library) by Alan Lomax
  68. Folk: The Essential Album Guide (public library) by Neal Walers & Brian Mansfield
  69. Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition (public library) by Iannis Xenakis
  70. Fotografie in Musica (public library) by Guido Harari
  71. Genesis of a Music (public library) by Harry Partch
  72. Give my Regards to Eighth Street: Collected Writings of Morton Feldman (public library) by B.H. Friedman
  73. Gravikords, Whirlies, & Pyrophones: Experimental Musical Instruments (public library) by Bart Hopkin
  74. Guia Esencial De La Salsa (public library) by Jose Manuel Gomez
  75. Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning (public library) by Gary Marcus
  76. (public library) by
  77. Hearing Cultures: Essays on Sound, Listening, and Modernity (public library) by Veit Erlmann
  78. Here Come the Regulars: How to Run a Record Label on a Shoestring Budget (public library) by Ian Anderson
  79. He Stopped Loving Her Today: George Jones, Billy Sherrill and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Making of the Greatest Country Record of All Time (public library) by Jack Isenhour
  80. Hip Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti (public library) by Steven Hager
  81. Hit Men (public library) by Frederic Dannen
  82. Hitsville: The 100 Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazines 1954–1968 (public library) by Alan Betrock
  83. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why (public library) by Ellen Dissanayake
  84. Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (public library) by Alice Echols
  85. How Music Works: The Science and Psychology of Beautiful Sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and Beyond (public library) by John Powell
  86. Hungry for Heaven: Rock and Roll and the Search for Redemption (public library) by Steve Turner
  87. I Have Seen the End of the World and it Looks Like This (public library) by Bob Schneider
  88. I’ll Take You There Mavis Staples: The Staple Songers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway (public library) by Greg Kot
  89. In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (public library) by George Prochnik
  90. Indian Music (public library) by B. Chaitanya Deva
  91. It Ain’t Easy: Long John Baldry and the Birth of the British Blues (public library) by Paul Myers
  92. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (public library) by William P. Malm
  93. Javanese Gamelan (public library) by Jennifer Lindsay
  94. Jazz (public library) by William Claxton
  95. Knitting Music (public library) by Michael Dorf
  96. La Traviata: In Full Score (public library) by Giuseppe Verdi
  97. Laurie Anderson (public library) by John Howell
  98. Leon Geico: Cronica de un Sueno by Oscar Finkelstein
  99. Lexicon of Musical Invective (public library) by Nicolas Slonimsky
  100. (public library) by
  101. Light Strings: Impressions of the Guitar (public library) by Ralph Gibson & Andy Summers
  102. Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music (public library) by Eric Weisbard
  103. Listening Through the Noise: the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (public library) by Joanna Demers
  104. Listen to This (public library) by Alex Ross
  105. Look, I Made a Hat: Collected Lyrics (1981–2011) with Attendant Comments, Amplifications, Dogmas, Harangues, Digressions, Anecdotes and Miscellany (public library) by Stephen Sondheim
  106. Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Music Made New in New York City in the ’70s (public library) by Will Hermes
  107. Love in Vain: The Life and Legend of Robert Johnson (public library) by Allen Greenberg
  108. Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture (public library) by Tim Lawrence
  109. Low (public library) by Hugo Wilcken
  110. Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-dirty in Seventies New York (public library) by James Wolcott
  111. Macumba: The Teachings of Maria-Jose, Mother of the Gods (public library) by Serge Bramly
  112. Mango Mambo (public library) by Adal
  113. Masters of Contemporary Brazilian Song: MPB 1965–1985 (public library) by Charles Perrone
  114. Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll (public library) by Steven Kasher
  115. Me, the Mob, and the Music: One Helluva Ride with Tommy James and the Shondells (public library) by Tommy James
  116. Miles: The Autobiography (public library) by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe
  117. Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an imaginary Soul Superstar (public library) by Dori Hadar
  118. Mister Jelly Roll: The Fortunes of Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans Creole and “Inventor of Jazz” (public library) by Alan Lomax
  119. Mix Tape: The Art of Cassette Culture (public library) by Thurston Moore
  120. Music (public library) by Paul Bowles
  121. Music and Communication (public library) by Terence McLaughlin
  122. Music and Globalization: Critical Encounters (public library) by Bob W. White
  123. Music and the Brain: Studies in the Neurology of Music (public library) by MacDonald Critchley & R. A. Henson
  124. Music and the Mind (public library) by Anthony Storr
  125. Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession (public library) by Gilbert Rouget
  126. Music Cultures of the Pacific, The Near East, and Asia (public library) by William P. Malm
  127. (public library) by
  128. Music in Cuba (public library) by Alejo Carpentier
  129. Music, Language and the Brain (public library) by Aniruddh D. Patel
  130. Musica Cubana Del Areyto a la Nueva Trova (public library) by Dr. Cristobal Diaz Ayala
  131. Musical Instruments of the World: An Illustrated Encyclopedia with More than 4,000 Original Drawings (public library) by Ruth Midgely
  132. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library) by Oliver Sacks
  133. My Music (public library) by Susan D Crafts, Daniel Cavicchi & Charles Keil
  134. New York Noise: Art and Music from the New York Underground 1978-88 (public library) by Stuart Baker
  135. Noise: A Human History of Sound & Listening (public library) by David Hendy
  136. Noise: The Political Economy of Music (public library) by Jacques Attali
  137. Notations (public library) by John Cage
  138. Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds (public library) by David Toop
  139. On Sonic Art (public library) by Trevor Wishart
  140. Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving the Opera (public library) by Fred Plotkin
  141. Patronizing The Arts (public library) by Marjorie Garber
  142. Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music (public library) by Greg Milner
  143. Pet Shop Boys: Literally (public library) by Chris Heath
  144. Popular Musics of the Non-Western World: An Introductory Survey (public library) by Peter Manuel
  145. The Power of Music: Pioneering Discoveries in the Science of Song (public library) by Elena Mannes
  146. Presenting Celia Cruz (public library) by Alexis Rodriguez-Duarte
  147. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung (public library) by Lester Bangs
  148. Queens of Havana: The Amazing Adventures of the Legendary Anacaona, Cuba’s First All-Girl Dance Band (public library) by Alicia Castro
  149. Recordando a Tito Puente: El Rey del Timbal (public library) by Steven Loza
  150. Reflections on Macedonian Music: Past and Future (public library) by Dimitrije Buzarovski
  151. Remembering the Future (public library) by Luciano Berio
  152. Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording Music and Its Effect on Music (public library) by Michael Chanan
  153. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties (public library) by Ian Macdonald
  154. Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans (public library) by John Broven
  155. Rock ‘n’ Roll is Here to Pay: The History of Politics in the Music Industry (public library) by Steve Shapple & Reebee Garofalo
  156. Rock Archives (public library) by Michael Ochs
  157. Rock Images: 1970–1990 (public library) by Claude Gassian
  158. Rock Lives: Profiles and Interviews (public library) by Timothy White
  159. Salsa Guidebook for Piano & Ensemble (public library) by Rebeca Mauleon
  160. Salsa: The Rhythm of Latin Music (public library) by Gerard Sheller
  161. Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City (public library) by Vernon W. Boggs
  162. Samba (public library) by Alma Guillermoprieto
  163. Sonic Transports:New Frontiers in Our Music (public library) by Cole Gagne
  164. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (public library) by Steve Goodman
  165. Souled American: How Black Music Transformed White Culture (public library) by Kevin Phinney
  166. Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (public library) by Frances Dyson
  167. Soundings (public library) by Neuberger Museum
  168. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous (public library) by John Broven
  169. Spaces Speak, Are You Listening: Experiencing Aural Architecture (public library) by Barry Blesser & Linda-Ruth Salter
  170. Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music (public library) by Angelique Kidjo
  171. Starmaking Machinery: The Odyssey of an Album (public library) by Geoffrey Stokes
  172. Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer (public library) by Jonathan Cott
  173. Stolen Moments: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians (public library) by Tom Schnabel
  174. Stomping the Blues (public library) by Albert Murray
  175. Tango: The Art History of Love (public library) by Robert Farris Thompson
  176. Text-Sound Texts (public library) by Richard Kostelanetz
  177. The ABCs of Rock (public library) by Melissa Duke Mooney
  178. The Agony of Modern Music (public library) by Henry Pleasants
  179. The Anthropology of Music (public library) by Alan P. Merriam
  180. The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library) by Amanda Palmer
  181. The Beatles: Recording Sessions (public library) by Mark Lewisohn
  182. The Book of Drugs: A Memoir (public library) by Mike Dougherty
  183. The Brazilian Sounds: Samba, Bossa Nova, and the Popular Music of Brazil (public library) by Chris McGowan & Ricardo Pessanha
  184. The Faber Book of Pop (public library) by Hanif Kureishi & Jon Savage
  185. The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (public library) by Bernie Krause
  186. The Human Voice (public library) by Jean Cocteau
  187. The Kachamba Brothers’ Band: A Study of Neo-Traditional Music in Malawi (public library) by Gerhard Kubik
  188. The Last Holiday: A Memoir (public library) by Gil Scott-Heron
  189. The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States (public library) by John Storm Roberts
  190. The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock (public library) by Charles White
  191. The Merge Records Companion: A Visual Discography of the First Twenty Years (public library) by Merge Records
  192. The Music Instinct (public library) by Philip Ball
  193. The Music of Brazil (public library) by David P. Appleby
  194. The Mystery of Samba: Popular Music and the National Identity in Brazil (public library) by Hermano Vianna
  195. The New Woman Poems: A Tribute to Mercedes Sosa (public library) by Ne?stor Rodri?guez Lacore?n
  196. The Performer Prepares (public library) by Robert Caldwell
  197. The Rational and Social Foundations of Music (public library) by Max Weber
  198. The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl (public library) by Trevor Schoonmake
  199. The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa (public library) by Evan Eisenberg
  200. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (public library) by Alex Ross
  201. The Rolling Stone Interviews: The 1980s (public library) by Various
  202. The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice (public library) by Greil Marcus
  203. The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World (public library) by Trevor Cox
  204. The Sun and the Drum: African Roots in Jamaican Folk Tradition (public library) by Leonard Barrett
  205. The Thinking Ear (public library) by R. Murray Schafer
  206. The Traditional Music of Japan (public library) by Kishibe Shigeo
  207. The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art (public library) by Tim Blanning
  208. The Veil of Silence (public library) by Djura
  209. The Wilco Book (public library) by Dan Nadel
  210. This Business of Music: The Definitive Guide to the Music Industry (public library) by M. William Krasilovsky & Sidney Shemel
  211. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession (public library) by Daniel J. Levitin
  212. Through Music to Self (public library) by Peter Michael Hamel
  213. West African Rhythms for Drumset (public library) by Royal Hartigan
  214. What Good are the Arts? (public library) by John Carey
  215. White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960’s (public library) by Joe Boyd
  216. Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955–Present (public library) by Gail Buckland
  217. (public library) by
  218. Whose Music? A Sociology of Musical Languages (public library) by John Shepard, Phil Virden, Graham Vulliamy, Trevor Wishart
  219. Why is This Country Dancing: A One-Man Samba to the Beat of Brazil (public library) by John Krich
  220. Woody Guthrie: A Life (public library) by Joe Klein
  221. The Rough Guide to World Music: Latin and North America, Caribbean, India, Asia, and Pacific: An A-Z of the Music, Musicians and Discs (public library) by Simon Broughton & Mark Ellingham
  222. The Rough Guide to World Music: Salsa to Soukous, Cajun to Calypso (public library) by Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman & Richard Trillo
  223. World: The Essential Album Guide (public library) by Adam McGovern
  224. Yakety Yak: The Midnight Confessions and Revelations of Thirty-Seven Rock Stars and Legends (public library) by Scott Cohen

Complement with Byrne on how music and creativity work, then revisit the reading lists of Gabriel García Márquez, Leo Tolstoy, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, and longtime Byrne collaborator Brian Eno.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2015

Lucille Clifton Reads “Won’t You Celebrate With Me”

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A glorious ode to claiming one’s belonging in that space between starshine and clay.

“One should wish to celebrate more than one wishes to be celebrated,” poet Lucille Clifton (June 27, 1936–February 13, 2010) told Poets & Writers Magazine in 1992. And celebrate she did — for more than half a century, Clifton was an unparalleled and unflinching celebrator of the African American experience, the female body, and the human spirit. A government clerk who became a self-taught poet, then the poet laureate of Maryland, she has influenced generations of writers and artists. Her work continues to envelop in radiance the hard edges of life.

In this recording from the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival, Clifton reads one of her most piercing poems, “won’t you celebrate with me,” found in the altogether magnificent Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965–2010 (public library)

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

Complement the wholly elevating Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton with a beautiful ode to what poetry does for the human spirit by Elizabeth Alexander, for whom Clifton has been a formative influence.

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31 AUGUST, 2015

The Silent Music of the Mind: Remembering Oliver Sacks

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“I had no room now for this fear, or for any other fear, because I was filled to the brim with music.”

I was a relative latecomer to the work of Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015), that great enchanter of storytelling who spent his life bridging science and the human spirit — partly because I was not yet born when he first bewitched the reading public with his writing, and partly because those early books never made it past the Iron Curtain and into the Bulgaria of my childhood. It was only in my twenties, having made my way to America, that I fell in love with Dr. Sacks’s writing and the mind from which it sprang — a mind absolutely magnificent, buoyed by a full heart and a radiant spirit.

His intellectual elegance bowled me over, and I felt a strange kinship with many of his peculiarities, from the youthful affair with iron — although the 300-pound squats of my bodybuilding days paled before his 600 pounds, which set a state record and earned him the moniker Dr. Squat — to our shared love of Beethoven and Mendelssohn.

Indeed, it was his uncommon insight into the role of music in the human experience that first drew me to Dr. Sacks’s writing. I landed into Musicophilia and soon devoured his older writings. Both his science and his life were undergirded by a profound reverence for music — music seemed to be this intellectual giant’s greatest form of spirituality. He knew that the life of the mind and the life of the body were one, and understood that music married the two — an understanding he carried in his synapses and his sinews.

Nowhere did this embodied awareness, nor his luminous soul, come more vibrantly alive than in the remarkable story of how he once saved his own life by song and literature while running from a raging bull in a Norwegian fjord, told in his 1974 memoir A Leg to Stand On (public library) — the story by which I shall always remember him.

To commemorate this irreplaceable man, I asked artist Debbie Millman to create a piece of art illustrating the passage that captures not only the heart of that heartening story, but the spirit in which Dr. Sacks inhabited and exited our world.

The artwork is available as a print and I am donating all proceeds to the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

As the broken instrument of his body is buried motionless and mute into the earth, may the symphony of his spirit live on in his writing with the same eternally resounding vigor as what Dr. Sacks called “one of the world’s great musical treasures” in his final communication with the world:

What a privilege for this world to have been graced with this extraordinary human animal and his fully embodied mind. The only thing left to say is what Dr. Sacks himself wrote to his beloved aunt Lennie, who shaped his life, as she lay dying: “Thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living — for being you.”

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28 AUGUST, 2015

Goethe on Beginner’s Mind and the Discipline of Discernment in Your Media Diet

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“One must be something in order to do something.”

By the turn of the 19th century, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832) was not only the world’s most celebrated poet, “the Olympian” of literature, but also a polymath of varied interests, from his fascination with the science of clouds to his psychological theory of color and emotion.

In 1822, the German writer Johann Peter Eckermann met and befriended 73-year-old Goethe, who became his mentor and even let the young man, barely thirty at the time, live at his house for a while. For the remaining nine years later of his life, Goethe met regularly with Eckermann, who recorded their wide-ranging conversations and published them in three volumes between 1836 and 1848. They were eventually released in the single, spectacular tome Conversations of Goethe (public library) — the most direct glimpse into the beloved poet’s mind, spanning his views on art, science, poetry, philosophy, and the practicalities of life.

Goethe at age 79 (Oil painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1828)

Eckermann writes in the introduction

That which we call the True, even in relation to a single object, is by no means something small, narrow, limited; rather is it, even if something simple, at the same time something comprehensive, which like the various manifestations of a deep and widely reaching natural law, cannot easily be expressed. It cannot be disposed of by a sentence, or by sentence upon sentence, or by sentence opposed to sentence, but, through all these, one attains just an approximation, not the goal itself… Goethe’s [remarks are] indeed often of manifest contradiction.

But all these contradictions are single sides of the True, and, taken together, denote the essence of truth itself, and lead to an approximation to it.

Among the many seeming contradictions by which Goethe so elegantly approximates the True — the same elusive art that Cheryl Strayed would capture two centuries later in extolling the value of holding two opposing truths in two hands and walking forward — is his simultaneous insistence on the fruitfulness of “beginner’s mind” on the one hand and the importance of a rich mental reservoir of carefully selected influences on the other.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

Over a cheerful dinner conversation with his young friend in early January of 1824, Goethe considers the creative paralysis that comes from comparing oneself to the great masters of one’s craft. He argues instead for the advantages of being an amateur, or what Orson Wells would come to call “the gift of ignorance” nearly a century and a half later. What Goethe tells Eckermann comes remarkably close to the Buddhist notion of “beginner’s mind”:

A dramatic talent of any importance … could not forbear to notice Shakespeare’s works, nay, could not forbear to study them. Having studied them, he must be aware that Shakespeare has already exhausted the whole of human nature in all its tendencies, in all its heights and depths, and that, in fact, there remains for him, the aftercomer, nothing more to do. And how could one get courage only to put pen to paper, if one were conscious in an earnest appreciating spirit, that such unfathomable and unattainable excellences were already in existence!

Legendary artist Louise Bourgeois experienced something quite similar after visiting a major retrospective of Picasso, whom she considered the “greatest master.” Indeed, Goethe suggests that having come of age in Germany, without exposure to the foundational classics of English literature, was to the advantage of his developing craft:

On and on I went in my own natural development… But had I been born an Englishman, and had all those numerous masterpieces been brought before me in all their power, at my first dawn of youthful consciousness, they would have overpowered me, and I should not have known what to do. I could not have gone on with such fresh light-heartedness, but should have had to bethink myself, and look about for a long time, to find some new outlet.

Art by Delacroix for a rare edition of Goethe's Faust. Click image for more.

In another conversation with Eckermann at the end of the same year, Goethe revisits the subject from a different angle. Long before the age of information overload, he stresses the importance of being incredibly selective of the material with which the creative person fills her or his mental catalog of influences:

Generally, beware of dissipating your powers, and strive to concentrate them.

But — and here is the seemingly contradictory yet, upon closer inspection, deeply complementary point to his “beginner’s mind” assertion — concentrating one’s powers is not achieved by avoiding all cultural influence wholesale; rather, it’s about being thoughtful and discerning in choosing what to allow into one’s mental catalog:

The great point is to make a capital that will not be exhausted. This you will acquire by the study of the English language and literature… Concentrate your powers for something good, and give up everything which can produce no result of consequence to you, and is not suited to you.

Four years later, in a conversation from October of 1828, Goethe circles back to the subject of seeing oneself as, to borrow Pete Seeger’s term, a link in the chain of creative culture. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing that everything builds on what came before and fortifying one’s creative toolkit with the most elevated works of the past upon which to build one’s own contribution:

One must be something in order to do something. Dante seems to us great; but he had the culture of centuries behind him. The house of Rothschild is rich; but it has taken more than one generation to accumulate such treasures… Whoever will produce anything great, must so improve his culture that, like the Greeks, he will be able to elevate the mere trivial actualities of nature to the level of his own mind, and really carry out that which … either from internal weakness or external obstacles, remains a mere intention.

Complement Conversations of Goethe with Goethe’s beautiful cloud poems and André Gide on the great poet’s paradoxical model of creativity, then revisit other noteworthy conversations with creative geniuses: Jorge Luis Borges, Susan Sontag, Pablo Picasso, Robert Graves, and Agnes Martin.

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