Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

13 JUNE, 2014

Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World

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A visual voyage there and back again.

Writing about the allure of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — that’s perhaps why his stories continue to enchant generations and attract admirers of all ages. Tolkien’s first major work, The Hobbit (public library) — the prequel to his epic novel The Lord of the Rings, which made its debut nearly 20 years later — was published in 1937 and in the years since has drawn remarkable international acclaim. Because the story is driven by visual whimsy, it has also produced a number of vibrant illustrated editions from all around the world, beginning with Tolkien’s own artwork for the original edition, which I wrote about some years ago. Here are a few favorites.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN (GREAT BRITAIN, 1937)

In October of 1936, Tolkien delivered to his publisher the manuscript of The Hobbit, in which he included more than 100 illustrations — Tolkien, unbeknownst to many, was a rather gifted and prolific artist. These manuscript drawings were recently released in The Art of the Hobbit (public library) — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors.

In creating the artwork for The Hobbit, Tolkien borrowed from a short story he had written for his son Michael, titled “Roverandom.”

Also included are conceptual sketches for the now-iconic dust jacket cover painting of the mountains Bilbo Baggins transverses in his adventures.

See more of Tolkien’s art here.

TOVE JANSSON (SWEDEN, 1962)

In 1962, shortly before she received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen award, beloved Swedish-speaking Finnish artist, writer, and Moomin creator Tove Jansson illustrated a Swedish edition of The Hobbit. Janssen was at the peak of her career and brought to the Tolkien classic her signature touch of subtly wistful whimsy.

Alas, this gem is now severely out of print, practically unfindable online, but available at some better-stocked public libraries.

RIYÛICHI TERASHIMA (JAPAN, 1965)

In 1965, artist Ryûichi Terashima illustrated a Japanese edition of The Hobbit, notable not only for its delicate line drawings but also for the exquisite production of the book itself, which mirrors the sensibility of Terashima’s art with lavish paper and luxury binding. It has been reprinted several times, as recently as 2008.

The book is currently out of print, but used copies can be found online; alas, not at the library.

MIKHAIL BELOMLINSKY (RUSSIA, 1976)

In 1976, Russian — then Soviet — artist Mikhail Belomlinsky took on the Tolkien classic shortly after graduating from an MFA program in painting, architecture, and sculpture. The opportunity kicked off Belomlinsky’s career as he turned to political cartooning and children’s books. He went on to illustrate more than 100 of the latter, both in Soviet Russia and in the United States after his move to New York City in 1989.

JIRI SALAMOUN (CZECH REPUBLIC, 1979)

In 1979, when he was forty-four — the same age Tolkien was when he published The Hobbit — the Czech artist, graphic designer, and illustrator Jiri Salamoun was commissioned to illustrate a Czech edition of the book. He brought his eclectic background in visual storytelling and the graphic arts — spanning film poster design, typography, book illustration, and silk-screen printing — to the project.

This vintage gem is also a rarity, but some libraries do have it.

BONUS: MAURICE SENDAK (UNITED STATES, 1967)

In 1967, six years after legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom had nurtured his creative direction and four years after his iconic Where the Wild Things Are, 39-year-old Maurice Sendak was commissioned to illustrate a 30th anniversary edition of The Hobbit. But the project fell through, leaving behind only a single surviving drawing, which Open Culture unearthed.

A realized edition would’ve been unimaginably wonderful, judging by Sendak’s artistic interpretations of literary classics like William Blake’s Song of Innocence, which he illustrated the same year as the failed Tolkien project, and Tolstoy’s Nikolenka’s Childhood, completed four years earlier.

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13 JUNE, 2014

Hipsters and Squares: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Myth, Identity, “Creative Wholeness” and How We Limit Our Happiness

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How our cult of creativity, which replaced religion, is becoming a source of anguish rather than happiness.

Today, we hang so much of our identity on our capacity to create, often confusing what we do for who we are. And while creativity, by and large, is a positive force in the external world, its blind pursuit can be damaging to the inner. So admonishes the influential Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), celebrated for his contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory in education, in his altogether fantastic 1962 anthology On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — the same wonderful collection of essays that gave us Bruner’s theory of “effective surprise” and the 6 essential conditions for creativity. One of the essays, titled “Myth and Identity,” explores precisely that relationship between our modern myths, which shape our beliefs about creativity and happiness, and our often conflicted sense of identity.

Bruner begins with some essential definitions:

Myth … is at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man.

But while he acknowledges that the central function of myth is “to effect some manner of harmony between the literalities of experience and the night impulses of life,” Bruner cautions against assuming an opposition of the two — of “the grammar of experience and the grammar of myth” — as they are complementary rather than clashing, something best manifested in the relationship between myth and personality. Bruner writes:

Consider first myth as projection, to use the conventional psychoanalytic term. I would prefer the term “externalization” better to make clear that we are dealing here with … the human preference to cope with events that are outside rather than inside. Myth, insofar as it is fitting, provides a ready-made means of externalizing human plight by embodying and representing them in storied plot and characters.

Externalizing our inner life in such a way, Bruner argues, provides a “basis for communion” among us:

By the subjectifying of our worlds through externalization, we are able, paradoxically enough, to share communally in the nature of internal experience.

Jerome Bruner (Photograph: B.F. Herzog)

It also enables us to work through our inner turmoils in a unique way, something Adam Phillips echoed more than half a century later in reflecting on the parallels between psychoanalysis and storytelling. Bruner puts it elegantly as he considers the defining psychic malady of our time:

If one is to contain the panicking spread of anxiety, one must be able to identify and put a comprehensible label upon one’s feelings better to treat them again, better to learn from experience… Myth, perhaps, serves in place of or as a filter for experiences.

[…]

What is the art form of myth? Principally it is drama; yet for all its concern with preternatural forces and characters, it is realistic drama that … tells of “origins and destinies”… Knowing through art has the function of connecting through metaphor what before had no apparent kinship [and] the art form of the myth connects the daemonic world of impulse with the world of reason by a verisimilitude that conforms to each.

Considering the early myths — those of Ancient Greece and the Christian tradition — Bruner points to two key mythic plots that emerge in the struggle to give shape to our experiences: “the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness.” But modernity, he argues, has thrown into tumult both ideals, resulting in an “internal clamor of identities” that ends up threatening our happiness and our capacity for creative fulfillment.

Illustration from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In one particularly prescient passage, Bruner writes:

In our own time, in the American culture, there is a deep problem generated by the confusion that has befallen the myth of the happy [person]… We are no longer a “mythologically instructed community.” And so one finds a new generation struggling to find or to create a satisfactory and challenging mythic image.

Two such images seem to be emerging in the new generation. One is that of the hipsters and the squares; the other is the idealization of creative wholeness. The first is the myth of the uncommitted wandering hero, capable of the hour’s subjectivity — its “kicks” — participating in a new inwardness. It is the theme of reduction to the essential persona, the hero able to filter out the clamors of an outside world, an almost masturbatory ideal.

Bruner points to the original “hipsters” and notes the similarity between the mythmaking of real-life identity and that of character in fiction:

It is not easy to create a myth and to emulate it at the same time. James Dean and Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, the Teddy Boys and the hipsters: they do not make a mythological community. They represent mythmaking in process as surely as Hemingway’s characters or Scott Fitzgerald’s.

Bruner considers one especially toxic and limiting myth — that of “the full creative [person],” a notion all the more zealously pursued in our present age of endless creativity conferences, spiritual retreats for corporate executives, and workplaces that seek to disguise a cubicle farm as a hybrid of playground and university. Bruner describes the ancestry of our modern condition:

It is … the middle-aged executive sent back to the university by the company for a year, wanting humanities and not sales engineering; it is this man telling you that he would rather take life classes Saturday morning at the museum school than be president of the company; it is the adjectival extravaganza of the word “creative,” as in “creative advertising.” It is as if, given the demise of the myths of creation and their replacement by a scientific cosmogony that for all its formal beauty lacks metaphoric force, the theme of creating becomes internalized, creating anguish rather than, as in the externalized myths, providing a basis for psychic relief and sharing. Yet this self-contained image of creativity becomes, I think, the basis for a myth of happiness. But perhaps between the death of one myth and the birth of its replacement there must be a reinternalization, even to the point of [a cult of the ego]. That we cannot yet know. All that is certain is that we live in a period of mythic confusion that may provide the occasion for a new growth of myth, myth more suitable for our times.

One is left wondering whether our present time is one of reconciliation or of even greater “mythic confusion.”

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is a magnificent read in its entirety, further exploring questions of creativity, identity, metaphor, and the role of art in the human experience. Complement with Maya Angelou on the internalization of identity.

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12 JUNE, 2014

19-Year-Old Sylvia Plath on the Transcendent Simplicity and Reverence of Nature

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“No matter what the ideas or conduct of others, there is a unique rightness and beauty to life which can be shared in openness, in wind and sunlight, with a fellow human being who believes in the same basic principles.”

Carl Sagan believed that nature itself is a source of spiritual awe. Alan Lightman captured this beautifully in his account of a secular transcendent experience. And yet it’s not the scientists but the poets and writers who are best able to capture that sense of earthly reverence, from Virginia Woolf’s intoxicating account of visiting Stonehenge to Hans Christian Andersen’s chronicle of climbing Vesuvius.

From The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — the same volume that gave us the young poet’s exuberant celebration of curiosity and life and her thoughts on life, death, hope and happiness — comes an achingly beautiful meditation on the transcendent simplicity of nature, spurred by the feeling awakened in Plath by “an anonymous part of the Massachusetts coastline.”

In July of 1951, a few months before her 19th birthday, she writes in her diary:

On a relatively unfrequented, stony beach there is a great rock which juts out over the sea. After a climb, an ascent from one jagged foothold to another, a natural shelf is reached where one person can stretch at length, and stare down into the tide rising and falling below, or beyond to the bay, where sails catch light, then shadow, then light, as they tack far out near the horizon. The sun has burned these rocks, and the great continuous ebb and flow of the tide has crumbled the boulders, battered them, worn them down to the smooth sun-scalded stones on the beach which rattle and shift underfoot as one walks over them. A serene sense of the slow inevitability of the gradual changes in the earth’s crust comes over me; a consuming love, not of a god, but of the clean unbroken sense that the rocks, which are nameless, the waves which are nameless, the ragged grass, which is nameless, are all defined momentarily through the consciousness of the being who observes them. With the sun burning into rock and flesh, and the wind ruffling grass and hair, there is an awareness that the blind immense unconscious impersonal and neutral forces will endure, and that the fragile, miraculously knit organism which interprets them, endows them with meaning, will move about for a little, then falter, fail, and decompose at last into the anonomous [sic] soil, voiceless, faceless, without identity.

From this experience I emerged whole and clean, bitten to the bone by sun, washed pure by the icy sharpness of salt water, dried and bleached to the smooth tranquillity that comes from dwelling among primal things.

From this experience also, a faith arises to carry back to a human world of small lusts and deceitful pettiness. A faith, naïve and child like perhaps, born as it is from the infinite simplicity of nature. It is a feeling that no matter what the ideas or conduct of others, there is a unique rightness and beauty to life which can be shared in openness, in wind and sunlight, with a fellow human being who believes in the same basic principles.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with Plath’s little-known drawings, her verses for kids illustrated by Quentin Blake, and her moving reading of “A Birthday Present.”

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