Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

20 APRIL, 2015

The Virtues of a Wandering Heart: How External Crushes Fortify Your Relationship

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“The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.”

Even as we arrive at an actual mathematical formula for lasting love, we remain tragicomically unskilled at anticipating — to say nothing of domesticating — the unpredictable, nonlinear dynamics of the human heart.

That’s what novelist and Believer magazine founding editor Heidi Julavits, who joins the ranks of history’s notable diarists, touches on with equal parts gentleness and precision in a couple of related meditations from the kaleidoscopically illuminating The Folded Clock: A Diary (public library).

In one entry, as she comforts a friend suspecting spousal infidelity, Julavits relays the curious findings of a study she had recently come across:

The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.

This, of course, makes sense — we know that love is a mode of “interbeing” and a “dynamic interaction” in which the opportunity to choose each other over and over is what sustains the longevity of a couple’s bond.

Illustration from 'An ABZ of Love,' a vintage Danish guide to romance, which Kurt Vonnegut sent to his wife. Click image for details.

In another entry a few months later, pondering the curious psychology of the TV show The Bachelorette, Julavits revisits this subject and corroborates the empirical with the anecdotal:

Crushes thrive in small spaces. Humans must be programmed to respond positively when faced with a small sampling of other humans in, say, caves.

[…]

This has happened to me many times. It happened to me on a canoe trip; the minute we returned to civilization, I recanted my crush on the guy I’d angled to sit next to at the nightly campfires. I have been so cognizant of this phenomenon, and its inevitability, that I got nervous in college while waiting to hear where in France I was to spend my semester abroad, because I knew that a guy my friend was dating, someone I’d always found abstractly cute, was also going to France. Fortunately we were sent to different cities. Had we been in the same city, I am certain we would have fallen in love, or the sort of love that occurs in those situations, call it what you will, probably a mistake. This is also why I get nervous about going to art colonies, especially now that I am happily married to a man I met at an art colony. I don’t want to fall for anyone else — I am pointedly not looking to fall for anyone — but these situations conspire against our best intentions. Art colonies, often located in remote woods or on beautiful estates, are communities in which all the residents sever ties to the real world within hours of arrival; they are like singles mixers for the married or otherwise spoken for. (I was married when I met my now-husband, who was otherwise spoken for.) When I arrive at a colony these days, I take a measure of the room, I identify the potential problems, I reinforce my weak spots, and then I relax.

Illustration from 'The Missing Piece Meets the Big O,' Shel Silverstein's minimalist allegory of true love. Click image for more.

This kind of considered candor in the service of a larger truth is what makes The Folded Clock an immensely pleasurable read in its entirety. Julavits — who is at times self-deprecating to the point of tears that, having no other recourse in order to continue reading this undeniably marvelous text, eventually transmogrify into tears of delight — captures the book’s sensibility perfectly in one of the entires:

I’ve felt okay occasionally describing my diary as a “contemporary take on Walden.” Like Thoreau, I am pretending that I wrote this diary over the course of a year, when in fact I wrote it over the course of two years, two months, and two days (give or take). Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deliberately” and was worried that if I did not I might, “when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Like Thoreau, I wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Unlike Thoreau, I have no fondness for sparse living. I do not covet hardship. I liked the idea of Walden, however, because it was written in a cabin in the woods. It’s a sort-of nature book that took place (at least the writing did) inside. Interiors are where I do my exploring. Interiors are my nature. I am an outdoorsman of the indoors… When I am there I am happiest. In my outbuilding I am sucking out optimum marrow.

Couple with some actual Thoreau, then fortify with the great Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love, Dan Savage on the unsettling secret of lasting love, Wendell Berry on freedom and marriage, and Kafka’s beautiful and heartbreaking love letters.

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20 APRIL, 2015

The Sea: A Sweet Wordless Story about Pursuit and Surrender, Dread and Desire, Disappointment and Triumph

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From the compound to the cosmos, a playful celebration of life’s complementary experiences disguised as counterpoints.

French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one of the most talented and thoughtful children’s book authors and artists of our time. Long before her masterwork The Lion and the Bird, one of the best children’s books of 2014 and among the very best I’ve ever encountered, Dubuc made her picture-book debut with another imaginative, insightful, bewitchingly illustrated wordless story: La Mer, “translated” and published in English as The Sea (public library) — a kindred tale that laid the foundation for The Lion and the Bird, and yet one that touches an entirely different part of the soul.

The cat casts a mischievous eye on the pet fish, which transmogrifies into a winged creature as it takes flight from the feisty feline. A playful pursuit unfolds — first in the house, then the neighborhood, then the forest, then the stars and the moon. Finally, the two emerge on the other end of town and the fish, no longer winged, plunges triumphantly into the sea as the cat peers wistfully into the sunset — perhaps disappointed to have lost, perhaps missing his unlikely playmate.

What emerges is a parable about complementary experiences disguised as counterpoints — pursuit and surrender, desire and dread, disappointment and triumph — and a reminder that there is a ground layer of existential kinship in even those relationships that appear most antagonistic on the surface.

Dubuc’s greatest point of genius is her mastery of rhythm. She is an artisan of silence as a storytelling device — punctuating the story are perfectly placed pauses and moments of stillness that only amplify the authority of the action.

Echoing Picasso’s incisive dictum that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Dubuc tells the wonderful Picturebook Makers:

When I’m searching for a new book idea, I usually write continuously in a notebook, as if I were talking to it. It’s a little bit like automatic writing, where you write everything that comes into your mind, without censoring yourself. That is how my brain feels free to create stories.

A master of wordless narrative, Dubuc sees her stories in pictures before she commits them to words in her notebook — in a way, language reverts to how it originally evolved and becomes a temporary translator between thought and image.

In the same interview, invoking what scientists know about why we think with animal metaphors, Dubuc reflects:

I don’t like to draw humans; I haven’t found a way to draw them that satisfies me yet. I think that when drawing animals, I give myself more freedom of interpretation than I do with humans.

The Sea is an absolute masterpiece from cover to cover. Complement it with Dubuc’s follow-up gem, The Lion and the Bird, then see this fascinating read on the psychology of why animal allegories enchant the human soul.

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17 APRIL, 2015

Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions

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“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude.”

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag lamented in her journal. “People who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger,” the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky admonished the young. And yet despite the vast creative and psychological benefits of boredom, we have grown so afraid of it that we have unlearned — or refused to learn altogether — the essential art of being alone, so very necessary for contemplation and creative work.

The great French artist and dedicated diarist Eugène Delacroix (April 26, 1798–August 13, 1863) examined this paradox with enormous elegance and prescience two centuries before our present epidemic of compulsive sociality and allergy to solitude.

As he approached his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix began to formulate what would become a defining concern of his youth and one of increasing urgency for us today, amid our age of exponentially swelling social demands and distractions — the challenge of mediating between the allure of social life and the “fertile solitude” necessary for creative work, which Hemingway grimly extolled in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Eugène Delacroix, self-portrait, 1837

Writing in The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (public library) in early January of 1824, the young artist addresses himself directly, as he often does in the diary:

Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.

By the end of March, he is fully consumed by the polarizing pull of these conflicting needs for sociality and solitude. (A century and a half later, the great Wendell Berry captured their yin-yang beautifully when he wrote that in solitude “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives.”) In his growing contempt for the vulgarity of the art world’s posturing and the charade of networking, Delacroix finds himself doubly tormented by this polarity:

I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace. I must go back to being alone. Moreover, I must try to live austerely, as Plato did. How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society? … The things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. However pleasant it may be to communicate one’s emotions to a friend there are too many fine shades of feeling to be explained, and although each probably perceives them, he does so in his own way an d thus the impression is weakened for both.

The first Sunday of April, shortly before his twenty-sixth birthday, he revisits the subject with greater resolve:

Everything tells me that I need to live a more solitary life. The loveliest and most precious moments of my life are slipping away in amusements which, in truth, bring me nothing but boredom. The possibility, or the constant expectation, of being interrupted is already beginning to weaken what little strength I have left after wasting my time for hours the night before. When my memory has nothing important to feed on, it pines and dies. My mind is continually occupied in useless scheming. Countless valuable ideas miscarry because there is no continuity in my thoughts. They burn me up and lay my mind to waste. The enemy is within my gates, in my very heart; I feel his hand everywhere.

Two decades before Kierkegaard’s memorable case for the value of being “idle” in one’s own company and a century before Bertrand Russell’s incisive insistence on the rewards of “fruitful monotony,” young Delacroix exhorts himself:

Think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction. Think of having peace of mind and a reliable memory, of the self-control that a well-ordained life will bring, of health not undermined by endless concessions to the passing excesses which other people’s society entails, of uninterrupted work, and plenty of it.

Illustration by Carson Ellis from her book 'Home.' Click image for more.

The Journal of Eugène Delacroix is a magnificent read in its entirety — a treasure trove of insight on art and life from one of the most luminous and creatively restless minds in history. (A word of caution here: The 1995 Phaidon edition by Hubert Wellington, while affordable and more readily available, is printed on paper so woefully thin it is nearly translucent, making reading difficult and unpleasant — to say nothing of underlining, even the gentlest form of which practically tears the page. The 1995 Princeton University Press edition by Michele Hannosh, while out of print and prohibitively expensive, is far superior — pleasurably printed, intelligently edited, and a true masterwork of scholarship reconstructing missing documents. Perhaps a smart publisher invested in cultural preservation will consider bringing it back into print.)

For a complementary perspective, see Wendell Berry on despair and solitude, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why “productive solitude” is essential for the healthy psyche, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone in our age of inescapable togetherness, then revisit famous writers and artists — including Delacroix himself — on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

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17 APRIL, 2015

The Storm Whale: A Tender Illustrated Story of Loneliness, Loss, Single-Parenting, and the Redemptive Power of Love

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A sweet celebration of what it takes to feel at home in one’s own life.

Psychologists have found that presence is the key to great parenting and yet also maintain that growing a capacity for fertile solitude is a developmental achievement for the child.

London-based illustrator and animation director Benji Davies reconciles these two contradictory demands with enormous tenderness and thoughtfulness in The Storm Whale (public library) — a beautiful belated addition to the best children’s books of 2014. A quiet meditation on what happens when solitude becomes loneliness, the story welcomes the challenges and rewards of single-parenting, celebrating the redemptive power of attentive love.

Noi is a little boy who lives by the sea with his fisherman-father and their six cats. Like in the touching Davey McGravy and My Father’s Arms Are a Boat — two of the most unusual and wonderful books that help children grieve — there is no mother in the picture. With great subtlety, Davies invites the reader to sense the presence of loss in the salty air of this small and sensitive child’s life.

Every day at dawn, Noi’s father departs for a long day of work on his fishing boat and doesn’t come home until dark.

One morning, after a violent storm sweeps the island, Noi goes down to the beach and spots something curious in the distance.

As he got closer, Noi could not believe his eyes. It was a little whale washed up on the sand.

Knowing that the whale can’t live out of the water but unsure how he can help, Noi decides to cart the stranded creature to his house and make it feel at home — in the bathtub.

He told stories about life on the island. The whale was an excellent listener.

But Noi knows the secret companionship won’t last long and fears that his dad, upon coming home, would be furious about the whale in the bathroom.

The little boy manages tho keep the secret all through the evening, even sneaking a few fish from the dinner table to the tub, but the father eventually discovers his son’s betubbed friend — a moment dramatic not for its volatility but for the quiet wistfulness to which it awakens the fisherman.

Noi’s dad wasn’t angry.

He had been so busy, he hadn’t noticed that Noi was lonely.

But he said they must take the whale back to the sea, where it belonged.

Despite knowing it was the right thing to do, Noi has a hard time saying goodbye but is glad to have his loving father there.

As the two return to their daily lives, the little boy keeps thinking about his whale-friend, hoping to see him again.

In the final scene, Noi and his father head to a picnic atop the cliff and the little boy’s wish comes true — he spots the baby animal alongside a grown whale in the ocean, waving a friendly tail. But the joyful moment is underpinned by subtle solemnity — one can’t help the pensive awareness that the little boy watching the two tails on the horizon, the larger most likely the whale-mother’s, is about to return to his own motherless home.

The ending motif calls to mind two of the best children’s books of our century, Marianne Dubuc’s The Lion and the Bird and Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown: a bittersweet separation — bitter, for the protagonist says farewell to his unlikely new friend; sweet, for each world is restored to its natural order — followed by a redemptive partial reunion, allowing the two worlds that had intersected for a blink to continue moving along their autonomous orbits while bowing to each other’s gladdening gravity.

Complement the infinitely warm and wonderful The Storm Whale with a vintage counterpart — the 1949 treasure Little Boy Brown, perhaps the greatest ode to loneliness ever written. For a different kind of homage to single-parenting, see Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely Pecan Pie Baby, illustrated by Sophie Blackall.

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