Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

19 DECEMBER, 2014

Take Away the A: An Unusual Illustrated Alphabet Book about How We Make Meaning

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A playful celebration of the magic of language.

As a lover of unusual alphabet books, I was gladdened by this year’s crop of particularly wonderful additions, including Maira Kalman’s imaginative design history primer, Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag and Oliver Jeffers’s magnificent short stories for the letters, Once Upon an Alphabet. Joining them is Take Away the A: An Alphabeast of a Book! (public library) by writer Michaël Escoffier and illustrator Kris Di Giacomo — an irreverent exploration not only of the letters and their alphabetic order, but also of how they come together to form words and convey ideas. Each letter of the alphabet is removed from one word to produce another as the two are depicted in a humorous semi-sensical vignette of confused meanings. A weary pig and chicken hitchhike on the side of the road because without its M, their farm has suddenly gotten too far; a family of snails find themselves bewildered at the dinner table as their aunt loses her U and becomes an ant; a terrified chicken realizes that without the X, the two foxes staring it down become foes. What emerges is a playful celebration of language not as a dry, mathematical exercise in letter-organization but as a living organism, in which letters make meaning through a vast mesh of metaphorical associations driven by the imagination — the very faculty that is the hallmark of children’s minds.

Throughout the story, there is also a subtle, wistful lament about our relationship to animals, its only protagonists. A monkey sits atop a cash register, collecting change, because without his K, he makes money selling bananas; but monkeys — as well as their primate relatives, chimps — have a long and heartbreaking history of being abused as money-makers in the hands of humans, from circuses to labs to the illegal pet trade. Having lost their O, a party of four — a duck, a zebra, an antelope, and a wolf — are fur-clad at tea time; the cruel price of fur garments, of course, is always animal lives.

In another vignette, the polar bears lose their E and find themselves at the zoo, behind bars, as a human father and child ogle them while enjoying their ice cream, sold to them by a displaced penguin.

But rather than embitter the story, these subtleties only enrich and elevate it by offering possible topics of education and conversation so understated as to offer parents the choice of whether or not to gently broach these darker issues with the child-reader. What remains at the forefront is the irreverent sweetness of the story, full of fable-like characters — there is the wolf, and the fox, and the ant, and the mouse — who behave in delightfully unfablelike ways.

A touch of continuity tickles the masterful pattern-recognition machine that is the human mind at any age. I was especially charmed by the ample and imaginative cameos of the orange octopus, always cheeky, and the little white mouse, a perennial cautious bystander and occasional bold partaker in the quirky alphabetic adventures.

Take Away the A, which is sheer delight in its totality, comes from Brooklyn-based independent publisher Enchanted Lion, maker of such timelessly rewarding treasures as The Lion and the Bird, The River, Little Boy Brown, Mister Horizontal & Miss Vertical, The Jacket, and Wednesday, and a strong presence among the year’s best children’s books.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion; photographs my own

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In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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19 DECEMBER, 2014

John Maeda on Creative Leadership, Talking vs. Making, and Why Human Relationships Are a Work of Craftsmanship

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“You make relationships. One at a time. With the same painstaking attention to craft that you knew as a maker.”

“A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him,” David Foster Wallace wrote in what remains the wisest meditation on leadership I’ve ever encountered, “and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.” But for many people in creative fields — artists, designers, filmmakers, writers — “leadership” remains an alienating notion that belongs in the business world or, worse, politics. And yet in an age of increasing creative collaboration and a world where any creative person putting a piece of herself out there is a “marketer,” whether willingly or not, the question of how a creative person can also be a great leader without sacrificing her art is an increasingly urgent one.

The delicate marriage of these two domains of mastery, often falsely framed as contradictory, is what design sage John Maeda explores in an interview found in Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact (public library) — the most recent installment in the series of entrepreneurship and self-enhancement field guides by 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei, which previously explored how to hone your creative routine and how to make your own luck.

Maeda — who headed research at the MIT Media Lab for thirteen years, spent the following six as president of the Rhode Island School of Design, and is one of the kindest, most thoughtful, and most generous human beings I know — considers the often uncomfortable shift from maker to leader that paralyzes many creative people:

When you make things with your hands, you force something into being. You sand it, you cut it, you fold it… You do everything to build it from end to end. Whereas leading requires a lot of talking, a lot of communicating — not using your hands. And when you’re a creative who makes things, you immediately build a distinction between the talkers and the makers. And makers tend to look down on talkers. And leaders are talkers. You don’t trust them, but now you’re one of them. [laughs] At first you think you can’t make anything with your hands anymore. But you can. You make relationships. One at a time. With the same painstaking attention to craft that you knew as a maker.

This notion that human relationships are an act of creativity and craftsmanship, a supreme art, is something Van Gogh captured a century and a half earlier, and yet it remains a counterintuitive idea in a culture that continues to subscribe to the lone genius myth, in art and in business, despite towering counterevidence and beautifully argued cases against it. Maeda speaks to this dangerous fallacy:

As a leader, you are alone — and accountable for the needs of the whole. The whole is the product. And you’re making it. You own it. And you succeed and fail by it… True creative leaders recognize that they live and die by their team.

Essentially, Maeda exposes the vital but overlooked parallels between making great artifacts and making great movements or communities — both are acts of creativity and require great craftsmanship. The difference, he points out, is in the delay of the payoff from the fruits of the creator’s labor:

The timeline is longer. A lot longer. You don’t get the immediate gratification that you might as a designer when the timelines are shorter. But artists are used to delayed gratification… and manage ambiguity better than anyone else.

Maeda is the author of Redesigning Leadership, in which he explores the many dimensions of the subject in greater depth and detail.

Complement Make Your Mark — which includes wisdom on entrepreneurship and the creative life from Seth Godin, Tim O’Reilly, Scott Belsky, and more — with the first two installments in the series, then revisit Lisa Congdon’s field guide to the psychology and practicalities of becoming a successful artist and Pixar cofounder Ed Catmull on the key to creative leadership.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

18 DECEMBER, 2014

Madeleine L’Engle on Creativity, Hope, Getting Unstuck, and How Studying Science Enriches Art

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“Terrible things happen. And those are the things that we learn from… The amazing thing is that despite all… the human spirit still manages to survive, to stay strong.”

In addition to being one of the most foundational texts on creativity ever published, pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1996 book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — which sheds light on why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius — is also a precious time-capsule of insights by some of the twentieth century’s most visionary artists, writers, and scientists, many of whom no longer alive. In both developing and illustrating his theories of creativity, Csikszentmihalyi interviewed 91 luminaries, including astronomer Vera Rubin, poet Denise Levertov, sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, social scientist John Gardner, and science writer Stephen Jay Gould.

Among them was writer Madeleine L’Engle (November 29, 1918–September 6, 2007) — a woman who started writing at the age of five and spent the remainder of her life daring to disturb the universe with her beloved children’s books, brimming with characters who emerge from hardship not embittered but emboldened to live with grace, compassion, and forgiveness.

Madeleine L'Engle (Photograph: Sigrid Estrada)

Like Susan Sontag, who spiritedly denounced the false divide between intuition and the intellect, and Anaïs Nin, who wrote in her legendary diary that “intellect by itself is the seat of trouble,” L’Engle attributes her work’s most enchanting qualities to the communion between these two faculties:

Your intuition and your intellect should be working together… making love. That’s how it works best.

Like Einstein, whose mythology holds that he came up with his greatest physics breakthroughs during his violin breaks, L’Engle turns to music to overcome creative block in her writing, tickling the timid intuitive self into reengaging with the intellectual when the latter is on overdrive:

Playing the piano is for me a way of getting unstuck. If I’m stuck in life or in what I’m writing, if I can I sit down and play the piano. What it does is break the barrier that comes between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The conscious mind wants to take over and refuses to let the subconscious mind work, the intuition. So if I can play the piano, that will break the block, and my intuition will be free to give things up to my mind, my intellect. So it’s not just a hobby. It’s a joy.

Indeed, this cross-pollination of different faculties is central to what makes L’Engle’s writing so bewitching. She applied it not only to different aspects of the self, but also to different domains of knowledge. To write her most beloved book, A Wrinkle in Time, she drew on quantum mechanics and particle physics; she infused A Wind in the Door with cellular biology; in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, she fused ancient Celtic religions with relativity theory.

Einstein himself called this the “combinatory play” of the mind and considered it a cornerstone of genius. Csikszentmihalyi points out that L’Engle’s gift for bringing together “domains that appear to have nothing in common” is common to most creative individuals in his study:

Most breakthroughs are based on linking information that usually is not thought of as related. Integration, synthesis both across and within domains, is the norm rather than the exception.

This idea, most famously put forth by pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner in his seminal work from the 1960s, is also something Stephen Jay Gould memorably articulated and Kandinsky captured beautifully in asserting that “to harmonize the whole is the task of art.” But in L’Engle’s work, Csikszentmihalyi notes, these cross-pollinations transcend the practical and stretch into the conceptual, bridging “events at the cosmic and the microscopic levels” and producing “a sort of a karmic web [that] pervades her narrative.”

In commenting on this creative composting, L’Engle speaks to the larger theme of interconnectedness:

A lot of ideas come subconsciously. You don’t even realize where they’re coming from. I try to read as widely as possible, and I read fairly widely in the areas of particle physics and quantum mechanics, because to me these are very exciting. They’re dealing with the nature of being and what it’s all about. One of the things that we have learned, having opened the heart of the atom, is that nothing happens in isolation, that everything in the universe is interrelated… And another thing [scientists have] discovered is that nothing can be studied objectively, because to look at something is to change it and to be changed by it. Those are pretty potent ideas.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird,' one of the best children's books of 2014. Click image to see more.

But L’Engle’s most defining ethos is that of hope and mercy — something Csikszentmihalyi notes was cultivated by her own experience. She recalls having “terrible teachers” as a young child, who assumed that her physical disability — a faulty knee that rendered her clumsy at any athletic activity — also meant that she “wasn’t very bright.” And yet the disheartening experience was essential to L’Engle’s creative development. Csikszentmihalyi recounts his conversation with the author:

Shunned by peers and teachers, Madeleine spent much of her childhood reading and thinking alone. Now she feels that she couldn’t have written her books if she had been happy and successful with her peers. Like most individuals in our sample, she showed her creativity first of all by being able to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.

This notion, of course, is hardly novel — Nietzsche famously asserted that enduring difficulty is essential to a full life, and even Van Gogh articulated it passionately in his letters. But while most of us understand it in the abstract, L’Engle was willing to live it in the concrete and to translate it into the essential theme of her work: the need for hope.

And yet L’Engle’s celebration of hope — which shares a kinship of spirit with writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (with whom, curiously enough, L’Engle shares a birthday) — isn’t a matter of blind, sheepish optimism. Instead, Csikszentmihalyi notes, she aims to remind the reader of the world’s “grim realities” but to frame them in a way that makes the possibility of overcoming them feel equally real, using storytelling as a “way to keep people from falling away from one another” — especially, Csikszentmihalyi adds in a remark all the more poignant today, “when the media are unable to present a meaningful picture of how things work.” L’Engle tells him:

Television commercials give such a strange view of what life is supposed to be. And a lot of people buy it. Life is not easy and comfortable, with nothing ever going wrong as long as you buy the right product. It’s not true that if you have the right insurance everything is going to be fine. That’s not what it’s really like. Terrible things happen. And those are the things that we learn from. People are incredibly complex. I read a book last winter called Owning Your Own Shadow, by Robert Johnson. And one of his theories is that the brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Which is often true.

L’Engle approaches her work with a great sense of responsibility — something she shares with such beloved writers as John Steinbeck (“My whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other.”), E.B. White (“A writer… should tend to lift people up, not lower them down.”), William Faulkner (“The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is … to help man endure by lifting his heart.”). She tells Csikszentmihalyi:

I don’t like hopeless books. Books that make you think, ‘Ah, life’s not worth living.’ I want to leave them thinking yeah, this endeavor is difficult, but it is worth it, and it is ultimately joyful.

In a remark that makes one simultaneously wonder what L’Engle might think of our present time and long for her all the more sorely needed optimism today, she adds:

Oh, I’m a little less idealistic about the world than I might have been thirty years ago. This whole century has been difficult, but the last thirty years have been pretty awful in many, many ways. I mean, if thirty years ago I had listened to the six o’clock news, I wouldn’t have believed it. War is all over this planet. On the other hand, there’s a black president in South Africa! Wonderful things happened even while there [are] terrible things. We wouldn’t have believed thirty years ago that the Soviet Union would be dissolved. It’s like weather, it’s unpredictable. The amazing thing is that despite all the things that happen, the human spirit still manages to survive, to stay strong.

Indeed, her greatest gift is the assurance that strength — creative strength, moral strength — is gained not despite the presence of adversity but because of it. Compared to the greatest failures of humanity, the personal failures and rejections and fractures of the spirit we encounter on a much more microscopic level in our daily lives may be less dramatic and consequential, but they often feel no less disheartening. L’Engle’s own creative journey was paved with them — A Wrinkle in Time was so unlike anything else that it was rejected by every major publisher for more than two years, until one finally took a chance on what would become one of the greatest children’s books of all time.

Artwork from 'Fail Safe,' Debbie Millman's illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address on courage and the creative life. Click image to read/listen.

L’Engle reflects on the experience and her broader beliefs about failure:

Sticking my neck out has been something I have learned to do. And I think it’s a good thing.

[…]

Human beings are the only creatures who are allowed to fail. If an ant fails, it’s dead. But we’re allowed to learn from our mistakes and from our failures. And that’s how I learn, by falling flat on my face and picking myself up and starting all over again. If I’m not free to fail, I will never start another book, I’ll never start a new thing.

Complement Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention with L’Engle’s spectacular lost lecture on creativity, censorship, and the duty of children’s books, then revisit art historian Sarah Lewis on the gift of failure in creative enterprise and legendary social scientist John Gardner — one of the luminaries in Csikszentmihalyi’s study — on what children can teach us about risk and failure.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.