Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

24 OCTOBER, 2014

How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself: A Timely Vintage Field Guide to Self-Reliant Play and Joyful Solitude

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A celebration of makers and hackers from half a century before they were called makers and hackers.

Legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written beautifully about why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life and Susan Sontag contemplated the creative purpose of boredom. Perhaps we understand this intellectually, but we — now more than ever, it seems — have a profound civilizational anxiety about being alone. And the seed for it is increasingly planted in childhood — in an age when play is increasingly equated with screens and interfaces, being alone with a screen is not quite being alone at all, so the art of taking joy in one’s own company slips further and further out of reach.

In 1958, a self-described 42-year-old kid named Robert Paul Smith penned a little book titled How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself (public library), which his wife Elinor, an accomplished author herself, illustrated — a delightful field guide to hacking household objects and making mischievous contraptions from nature’s gifts, long before the rise of hacker culture and the modern Maker Movement. Before working as a broadcaster in Manhattan in the 1930s, an era prior to the dawn of television and many decades before the web, Smith had grown up at a time when icemen filled ice-boxes by horse and wagon and every house had a hatstand and “all mothers sewed,” producing a steady supply of empty spools for kids to play with — and yet his book is timeless and remarkably timely in both spirit and hands-on ingenuity.

With a wink — perhaps inadvertent — to the existential value of philosophy, Smith writes:

I understand some people get worried about kids who spend a lot of time all alone, by themselves. I do a little worrying about that, but I worry about something else even more; about kids who don’t know how to spend any time all alone, by themselves. It’s something you’re going to be doing a whole lot of, no matter what, for the rest of your lives. And I think it’s a good thing to do; you get to know yourself, and I think that’s the most important thing in the whole world.

He offers how-to guidance on a wealth of simple yet imaginative playthings — indoor boomerangs, pin pianos, broken umbrella bow-and-arrows, pussy-willow bees, peach pit turtles, clamshell bracelets “for your sister, if you’ve got a sister, or your girl, if you’ve got a girl, or if not, just for the fun of making them,” a quirky prank-ready contraption made out of “a chicken or a turkey wishbone, some chewing gum, a burnt kitchen match and a rubber band.” Today, when even LEGO bricks come as kits of pre-imagined possibilities, these unstructured activities — “There are no kits to build these things,” Smith cautions — come as welcome assurance that there are enormous rewards in what Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”

Indoor boomerang: 'Get a piece of very thin cardboard. If your father uses business cards, that’s exactly the right kind of cardboard, and the right size. The top flap of a matchbook will do, too. Now just cut a boomerang shape out of it, just about the same size and shape as in the drawing. Now put it on a book, so that one arm sticks out just a little bit. Flick it with your fingernail and it’ll go sailing out just like an Australian boomerang, and after very little practice, you’ll find out how to make it whirl so that it will come back to you. A good way to do it is to hold the book in one hand, tipped up a little, so that the boomerang goes up in the air at an angle, and slides back at just about the same angle, like a ball going almost to the top of a hill, and then rolling down again.'

There is also subtle, charming humor:

These days, you see a kid lying on his back and looking blank and you begin to wonder what’s wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with him, except he’s thinking… He is trying to arrive at some conclusion about his thumb.

Pin piano: 'If you can get a piece of wood and ten pins you can make a piano. Oh, not a big piano like the one you have. You’d need a lot more wood and pins for that. This is a pin-piano, and it’s a musical instrument, and it plays very piano. The word piano means soft. The real name for a piano is pianoforte, and all it means is an instrument that can play loud or soft. Well, this is a pin-piano and it just plays soft. All you do is stick the pins into the piece of wood, each one a little further in than that first one. If you take a nail and hit the pin, you’ll hear a certain note. By pushing the next pin in a little further, you’ll hear a higher note. And so on. Tune as you go, do re mi fa sol la ti do. But that’s only eight pins. Why did I say ten? Because you’re going to bend at least two of the pins trying to get them in to the right depth. '

But tucked inside Smith’s practical manifesto for self-reliant play is also a love letter to public libraries, the merits of which he extolls throughout the book as he encourages the reader to find out more about obscure subjects and hobbies at the library. He writes:

If you don’t know what a willow tree looks like, go to the public library and get out a book about trees. You’ll notice that all through this book, I advise you to go to the library when you want to find out something. I think just plain going to the library and getting out a book is a swell thing to do. It’s something to do, when you’ve got nothing to do, all by yourself. It’s a thing I still do when I’ve got nothing special to do. I just wander around until I find a book that looks interesting; let’s say, a book about ship-building, or rockets, or a story by some author I’ve never heard of before. Now, chances are I’ll never build a ship, or ride in a rocket, and maybe I won’t like the way the author I never heard of writes. But it’s interesting to know how someone else builds a ship, or plans to fly in a rocket, or how the author feels about things.

This adds another layer of timeliness and wistful urgency to Smith’s book — today, as the web continues to grow better at giving us more of what we’re looking for, it also grows exponentially worse at helping us discover what we don’t yet know we ought to know, those invaluable unknown-unknowns. The internet is a magnificent and vitalizing medium in so many ways, but also an unforgiving one in others — amid this echo chamber of our existing convictions and interests, we are nursed on the belief that what isn’t online either doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist at all. And yet the vast majority of human knowledge, what Vannevar Bush memorably called “the common record” as he envisioned the web in 1945, lives in out-of-print books and archives and other materials of which the web makes no mark and thus takes no notice. The public library is the closest thing we have to a time machine of human wisdom, to say nothing of its essential role in democracy.

The Globe Chandelier at the Los Angeles Public Library, from Robert Dawson's book 'The Public Library.' Click image for more.

Smith later adds:

I’m really serious about the library: that’s the best place to learn more. We did lots of other things when we were kids, like collecting bugs, and wild flowers, and frogs, and snakes, and stones—and in the library I promise you there will be a really expert book on each of these, and on many other subjects, written by people who’ve made a life study of those special things. There will be books about trees and radio sets and telescopes and badminton and Indian crafts and metal work, about how to make bows and arrows, how to swim, how to — oh, there’s no end. There’s even a book on how to find a how-to book.

Some silly grownup has even written a book on how to read a book.

The most memorable such silly grownup, of course, was Virginia Woolf, whose meditation on how to read a book is an infinitely rewarding classic.

Some of Smith’s ideas might raise a few cautious eyebrows, but they spring from a place of sincere trust in children’s innate goodness and intelligence. In one such controversial section, he counsels, “You should learn how to sharpen a knife,” adding: “Something else that you’re just going to have to argue out with your mother; I did with my mother, my kids did with their mother. A sharp knife is safer than a dull knife.” Knives, in fact, play a prominent role in many of the activities — from carving patterns into pencils to various versions of flipping an actual pocket knife.

'Take one of the hexagonal pencils (hexagonal means six-sided, as a square is four-sided). These are usually painted yellow. Now, cut a very thin sliver, like this, so you’ve lifted off a little square of paint. Now on the side of the pencil right next to the side you’ve cut, cut another little square of paint that you can sliver off. Now the next side, and so on all around the pencil, making a checkerboard effect.'

In addition to the knives, there are also guns — but the type that would disarm even those of us most uneasy about the notion of kids play-pretending with lethal weapons. Smith’s make-shift “guns” aren’t today’s chillingly realistic plastic replicas, but ones made of wood and rubber bands. They wink at Freud’s assertion that “the opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real” — somehow, it’s hard to imagine such contraptions correlating with fantasies of actual deathly violence.

Wood and rubber band gun: 'The simplest way to make one is just to cut a piece of wood, somewhere between a quarter of an inch and half an inch thick, into a pistol shape. On the top, just jam the point of your knife in so that it makes a flat hole. Then cut a piece of cardboard into little half-inch squares. Put a rubber band on the gun, a rubber band big enough so that when you pull it back over the top of the handle, it’s good and stretched. You can put a thumbtack through the rubber band where it comes over the front end of the pistol. Now jam one of the little cardboard squares into the flat hole, like this. Now if you’ll hold the gun, you’ll find that by rubbing your thumb up, you’ll push the rubber band up over the end of the handle and it will spring forward and flick the card.'

While much of the book’s charm comes from its encouragement of an active, joyful engagement with the natural world — horse chestnuts, for instance, are quite simply “fun to get and fun to open the burrs and fun to look at and fun to shine” — there is also a great deal of fun to be had by the city child. New Yorkers, for instance, might find particular delight in Smith’s bow-and-arrow transformation of broken umbrellas, a common seasonal feature of our urban wilderness.

Alongside the playful projects are also illuminating asides on the imperceptible innovations that underpin modern life. Noting that busted umbrellas are harder to find they they used to be, Smith writes:

In those days, the olden days, umbrellas were made of cotton, or, if you were rich, silk. And people used to walk a lot more then, because there weren’t so many cars, and the umbrellas got used more, and cotton and silk, after a while, rot. Nowadays, umbrellas aren’t used so much, and I imagine they’re made out of nylon, and that doesn’t rot.

Indeed, playful as Smith’s premise is, he also makes a handful of rather poignant asides that often apply to life well beyond childhood play — like this perceptive remark on the perils of public opinion:

If some of the things sound a little childish, figure it out: do you think they’re too childish, or do you think that if someone else saw you doing it, he would think it was childish?

How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself is a treat in its totality. Complement it with The Little Red Schoolbook, a controversial instigator of independent thinking in teens from the same era, then revisit this fantastic grown-up field guide to the art of solitude.

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24 OCTOBER, 2014

Mark Twain on Slavery, How Religion Is Used to Justify Injustice, and What His Mother Taught Him About Compassion

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“She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work.”

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is celebrated as America’s greatest humorist — from his irreverent advice to little girls to his snarky stance on creativity to his masterwork on masturbation. But underpinning his winsome wit was piercing insight into the human spirit and all its perplexities. From The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1 (public library) — which also gave us Twain on how morality and intelligence hinder each other — comes a moving anecdote about how his mother taught him the essence of empathy.

Half a century before “African American” came into popular use as a politically dignified term, Twain recounts his childhood friendships with black slaves:

All the negroes were friends of ours, and with those of our own age we were in effect comrades. I say in effect, using the phrase as a modification. We were comrades, and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible. We had a faithful and affectionate good friend, ally and adviser in ‘Uncle Dan’l,’ a middle-aged slave whose head was the best one in the negro-quarter, whose sympathies were wide and warm, and whose heart was honest and simple and knew no guile. He has served me well, these many, many years. I have not seen him for more than half a century, and yet spiritually I have had his welcome company a good part of that time, and have staged him in books under his own name and as ‘Jim,’ and carted him all around — to Hannibal, down the Mississippi on a raft, and even across the Desert of Sahara in a balloon — and he has endured it all with the patience and friendliness and loyalty which were his birthright. It was on the farm that I got my strong liking for his race and my appreciation of certain of its fine qualities. This feeling and this estimate have stood the test of sixty years and more and have suffered no impairment. The black face is as welcome to me now as it was then.

Twain with his longtime friend John T. Lewis, of whom the author remarked: 'I have not known an honester man nor a more respect-worthy one.' Lewis is said to have inspired the character of Jim in 'Huckleberry Finn.'

Twain’s account of these complex dynamics is both sweet and heartbreaking in bespeaking the innocent, impressionable ways in which children absorb the beliefs and norms of their culture — as well as the manipulation tactics that the dominant institutions of culture employ in instilling and maintaining those beliefs. A lifelong critic of religion’s capacity to corrupt the human spirit, Twain writes:

In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.

Portrait of Clemens's mother, Jane Lampton Clemens, by Edwin Brady (Vassar College Library)

Even though Twain recalls seeing no abuse of slaves in his hometown of Hannibal in pro-slavery Missouri, he recounts the story of one particular boy and how a simple, pause-giving remark from Twain’s mother — a testament to how such figures quietly but monumentally shape creative geniuses — suddenly opened his eyes to the culturally condoned atrocity of slavery and taught him a lifelong lesson about compassion:

There was, however, one small incident of my boyhood days which touched this matter, and it must have meant a good deal to me or it would not have stayed in my memory, clear and sharp, vivid and shadowless, all these slow-drifting years. We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from some one, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends, half way across the American continent, and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing — it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper, and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for an hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it, and wouldn’tshe please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes, and her lip trembled, and she said something like this—

“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”

It was a simple speech, and made up of small words, but it went home, and Sandy’s noise was not a trouble to me any more. She never used large words, but she had a natural gift for making small ones do effective work. She lived to reach the neighborhood of ninety years, and was capable with her tongue to the last — especially when a meanness or an injustice roused her spirit.

Clemens on a river journey of 'wonder and delight' with his mother; illustration from St. Nicholas, 1916, color-tinted by Kent Rasmussen, 2004

Twain’s mother went on to inspire a number of characters in his beloved novels, including Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer, where Sandy also made a cameo under a different name. Her penchant for small words may have been what prompted Twain to advise in his list of literary offenses: “Use the right word, not its second cousin… Eschew surplusage… Employ a simple and straightforward style.”

If you haven’t yet read The Autobiography of Mark Twain, do yourself a favor — Twain spent several decades writing it, but never finished in his lifetime and forbade his heirs from publishing the manuscript for 100 years after his death. The century-long wait was well worth it.

Also see Brené Brown the difference between empathy and sympathy.

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23 OCTOBER, 2014

Once Upon an Alphabet: Oliver Jeffers’s Imaginative Illustrated Stories for the Letters

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A warm and wonderful celebration of the paradoxes and perplexities that make us human.

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

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

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

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

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

Once Upon an Alphabet is immeasurably wonderful in its totality, both sensitive and irreverent, kind and quirky. Complement it with Jeffers’s Stuck, then revisit a few other marvelous alphabet books by Gertrude Stein, Quentin Blake, and Maurice Sendak.

Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs my own

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