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Posts Tagged ‘books’

17 DECEMBER, 2012

Rent Is Too Damn High, Vonnegut Edition: The Beloved Author’s Apartment Woes

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“You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords!”

Kurt Vonnegut may have known a thing or two about writing and censorship, but he wasn’t immune to the gritty afflictions of everyday living that befall the rest of us common people. In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library) — which gave us Vonnegut’s priceless daily routine and was among the year’s best history books — he shares a tragicomic series of housing woes during his time teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. Like much of the seemingly mundane topics of his correspondence, these snippets bespeak the depth and richness of his character in subtle, nuanced, yet unequivocal ways.

In a letter to his wife Jane, who had remained in Cape Cod with their kids and whom he addresses lovingly as “Dear Woofy,” Vonnegut writes on September 17, 1965:

But you should see the apartment I have. I don’t recommend that you see it. I opened the door for the first time, and I though, ‘My God, Otis Burger has been here before me!;’ It has a vileness, a George Price uninhabitability that no amateur could achieve. I must sleep in the very first hide-a-bed ever created, which was created from the rusty wreckage of the first Stutz Bearcat. Jesus, it is ever a cruel and ugly old bed! I have a bath with a stall shower, a full kitchen, less ice-cube trays, no curtains or windowshades, and this livingroom-bedroom with the hide-a-bed. You wonder what creates beatniks? Landlords! ‘Live like a pig for $80.00 a month,’ say my surroundings. Very well. Very well.

In another letter four days later, he includes a sketch of his abominable abode:

But, in a testament to our human adaptability and penchant for making a home, Vonnegut seems to warm up to the place, writing Jane:

I like the apartment better each day. It’s friendlier than I thought — a nice, soft old shoe. I work well in it.

Indeed, this workability grows with time, as he writes in yet another letter on September 24:

I am used to my vile pad now. I work pretty well here now, which is the main thing — and any minute now my telephone will be installed.

The following month, Vonnegut finally leaves the crummy pad and moves into a new apartment that occupies “the entire first floor of a Victorian mansion,” “with funny, elaborate furniture.” And still, his housing woes continue. On October 20, he sends Jane another letter, in which his private, gentle, warm inner glow peeks through that faux-curmudgeonly façade:

This place is full of the dumbest, sweetest mice. I haven’t the heart to harm them. … They keep me company and make me laugh.

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17 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best Graphic Novels and Graphic Nonfiction of 2012

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From music history to war trials by way of Hunter S. Thompson and Steve Jobs, with a side of Ancient China.

Following this year’s best science books, art books, design books, philosophy and psychology books, children’s books, and history books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s finest graphic novels and best additions to these 10 favorite masterworks of graphic nonfiction.

GRAPHIC CANON VOL. 2

Earlier this year, Russ Kick gave us the the first installment of his Graphic Canon trilogy, which culls illustrated adaptations of 190 classic literary works from more than 130 contemporary graphic artists. This season, he followed up with The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray (UK; public library), which covers a remarkable spectrum of literature since 1800 and spans everything from “the bad boys of Romanticism” — Keats, Byron, and Shelley — to cornerstones of science and philosophy like Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to prior favorites like Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick illustrations. The tome is the best thing in literary comics since Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and a fine complement to the best graphic nonfiction of the past few years.

Lord Byron's 'She Walks in Beauty,' adapted by David Lasky

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, adapted by Matt Kish

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, adapted by Dave Morice

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, adapted by Tim Fish

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, adapted by Elizabeth Watasin

Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven,' adapted by Yien Yip

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Huxley King & Terrence Boyce

Detail from the Incan play Apu Ollantay, adapted by Caroline Picard

Of particular fascination and delight to me, as a hopeless Lewis Carroll fan, are the gorgeous takes on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, “Jabberwocky,” and “The Hunting of the Snark.”

Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, adapted by Dame Darcy

Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, adapted by Mahendra Singh

The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2, bound to enchant in innumerable ways, will be followed by volume 3 in March, which is now available for pre-order.

Originally featured in October.

BUILDING STORIES

Building Stories (UK; public library) is a remarkable storytelling artifact by cartoonist Chris Ware, more than a decade in the making — a giant box containing fourteen individual print ephemera (books, booklets, comic strips, magazines, and even a gold-rimmed hardcover and a board game), each telling the interlocking tales of different residents of the same three-story Chicago brownstone, from the couple caught in a loveless relationship on the second floor, to the elderly spinster grappling with her own aging, to the bee trapped in the basement. Somewhere between Paula Scher’s vintage children’s book The Brownstone, the Cold-War-era experimental Polish short film Blok, and artist Yasmine Chatila’s Stolen Moments series, the project — which I hesitate to call a “book,” since it’s a lavish deal more — is at once voyeuristic and deeply intimate, exploring the boundless complexities of inner worlds, relationships, and the hopeful hopelessness of being human.

Image via The Telegraph

Ware writes:

Who hasn’t tried when passing by a building, or a home, at night to peer past half-closed shades and blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse into the private lies of its inhabitants. Anything… the briefest blossom of a movement… maybe a head, bobbing up… a bit of hair… a mysterious shadow… or a flash of flesh… seems somehow more revealing than any generous greeting or calculated cordiality. … Even the disappointing diffusion of a sheer curtain can suggest the most colorful bouquet of unspeakable secrets.

The stories and stories-within-stories are all told through the perspective of one character, the female amputee on the third floor, deliberately left unnamed. In fact, part of what makes Ware’s feat so remarkable is that he manages to explore the intricacies of gender, and of women’s everyday psychoemotional turmoils, with a remarkable blend of rawness and sensitivity, without any of the cumbersome self-righteousness and forced political correctness typical of writing that is about gender.

On a recent episode of Design Matters, the inimitable Debbie Millman ( ) talks to Ware about being influenced by Charles Schulz and Art Spiegelman, about his ethos and sensibility, and about the fascinating, layered narratives and characters in Building Stories. Here are a few favorite excerpts from the interview:

On giving shape to the human experience:

When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, ‘Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes’… And that seems ridiculous to me — I mean, that’s what writing is about. It’s about trying to understand other people.

On the relationship between storytelling and empathy:

On the characters in Building Stories, the role of sadness, and what writing is really about:

On the building itself as a character:

On destiny, sexuality, the essence of literature, and the tragedy of our unlived lives — including one of the most beautiful phrases ever uttered, “veering towards happiness”:

When people’s paths cross, is there some higher plan to it all? Do all of these frozen moments just represent accidents, or genuine missed opportunities?

Do yourself a favor and listen to Design Matters in its entirety (or, better yet, subscribe in iTunes), then do yourself a second favor and grab your very own copy of Building Stories. You’ll never look at a city block, or a dimly lit window, or a bee the same way again.

Originally featured in October.

THE CARTER FAMILY

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (UK; public library) by writer Frank Young and illustrator David Lasky tells the colorful story of the first true country music superband, among whose hundreds of recordings were such classics as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower.” More than a mere chronicle of the family’s rise to success, this beautifully illustrated graphic and tenderly told story explores everything from the nature of creativity to civil rights to the frictions between poverty and wealth — and, above all, the boundless power of love, music, and the love of music. The book comes with a CD of original Carter Family music.

BONUS: Complement with this fantastic Carter Family tribute album, featuring such icons as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson.

GONZO

The past few years have given us some stellar graphic nonfiction, lending the comic book genre to “grown-up” storytelling ranging from photojournalism to media history to biography. Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson (UK; public library) offers exactly what it says on the tin, and does so brilliantly — an uncommon biography of legendary iconoclastic author (and garden fence expert) Hunter S. Thompson, revered as the father of Gonzo journalism and reviled as an addict, a bum, a liar, a thief, a sociopath, a hedonistic outlaw. In bold black-and-white graphics and a few well-chosen words, author Will Bingley and illustrator Anthony Hope-Smith tell the story of how a disillusioned troublemaker kid from Louisville became a global literary icon, exploring in the process the most uncomfortable nooks and crannies of social order, individual liberty, and American culture.

Hope-Smith tells The Wall Street Journal:

Visually, the trick was to not shy away from the ‘Fear and Loathing Hunter.’ Rather we could have fun playing with him but then be ready to dial it right back in order to show his humanity through subtlety of expression and body language. We tried to create a balance between the man and his performance.

Originally featured in May.

CITIZENS OF NO PLACE

In Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel (UK; public library), designer Jimenez Lai blends the ethos of urbanism with the sensibility of manga to deliver a stunning black-and-white manifesto for place, public space, and the function of the imaginary and the implausible in architectural theory and criticism.

John McMorrough writes in the introductory essay on architecture and utopias:

In tellings stories of twelve-kilometer-high towers, or rooms without gravity or orientation, or of taking the possibility of teleportation seriously and envisioning the instantaneous transfer of goods globally (an internet of things indeed), Lai sets his architectural imagination to just the other side of plausibility. The desirability of these proposals is yet to be determined, and that’s precisely the point: these cartoon architectures act as test cases for architecture’s capacity to organize existence.

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Half a century ago, Madeleine L’Engle introduced Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, Calvin O’Keefe, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit — to the world. And what more fantastic way to celebrate the iconic fantasy novel’s 50th anniversary than with Hope Larson’s illustrated adaptation, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel (UK; public library)? The expressive black-white-and-blue illustrations, reminiscent of Seth’s recent collaboration with Lemony Snicket on Who Could It Be At This Hour?, pay homage to the original cover and tell L’Engle’s timeless story with equal parts heart, intelligence, and sensitivity.

A SECRET HISTORY OF COFFEE, COCA & COLA

From Ricardo Cortés, the illustrator behind the irreverent modern classic Go The Fuck To Sleep, comes A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola (UK; public library) — a fascinating and beautifully illustrated piece of visual journalism, six years in the making, tracing the little-known interwoven histories of coffee, the coca leaf and kola nut, Coca-Cola, caffeine, and cocaine, with a lens towards the broader role of prohibition in contemporary culture.

Like most recreational drugs, cocaine got its start as a medical aid, and like many modern psychological fixations, it goes back to Freud. Cortés explores its cultural evolution and the eventual synthesis of coke into Coke:

At first, experiments with cocaine were confined to medical practice.

In 1884, Sigmund Freud began to use it as a treatment for depression. He was enthralled by the ‘magical substance’ and enthusiastically introduced it to colleagues and friends, including an oculist named Carl Koller. By then, cocaine’s numbing effect had been observed on the tongue. Koller tested cocaine as a regional anesthetic; first on the eyes of animals and then his own. His discovery was a medical revolution.

Previously, surgeries were performed with general anesthesia or none at all. Ether and chloroform allowed severe operations without pain, although with significant risks from inducing unconsciousness. As the first true local anesthetic, cocaine opened the practice of surgery to previously impossible procedures.

Cocaine’s popularity spread to other branches of therapy, and its use quickly grew beyond anesthesia and melancholia.

Cocaine eased toothaches and labor pains. It was said to cure fatigue, nervousness, impotence, even addiction to the opium poppy’s alkaloid morphine. ‘Coke’ could be purchased in asthma medicines, snuffs, and tonics like Coca-Cola — ‘The Brain Workers’ Panacea,’ touted to relieve mental and physical exhaustion, was first sold in
1886.

But as a lover of letters, I find the most fascinating part of the book to be the prolific correspondence between legendary Bureau of Prohibition anti-drug kingpin Harry J. Anslinger, who spent 42 years pioneering and enforcing anti-narcotic policies in America, and Coca-Cola executive Ralph Hayes, which Cortés uncovered in the course of his research. These documents, spanning several decades of friendly exchange, reveal Anslinger’s instrumental role in helping Coke not only to import coca leaves legally, an activity otherwise illegal in the US, but also to do so with exclusive rights.

The book is partly a response, but mostly a stubborn yet thoughtful retort to critical reactions to Cortés’s 2005 science picture-book It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story of Marijuana and sarcastic comments about whether teaching kids about cocaine would be next.

Cortés ends with a wonderful throw-back to an obscure Bach cantata about coffee, displaying the composer’s uncommon sense of humor:

The cat won’t stop catching mice,
and young ladies will hold to their coffee. Mother loves her coffee,
Grandmother drinks it, too.
Who, in the end, would scold the daughters?

“Although I caught a buzz last year as the illustrator of Go The Fuck To Sleep,” Cortés tells me, “my real interest is studying the evolution of legal and cultural taboos against inebriates (especially biota).” And, indeed, it shows — A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola is as thoroughly researched and absorbingly narrated as it is charmingly illustrated.

Originally featured earlier this month.

THE ART OF WAR

Some two thousand years ago, Chinese general Sun Tzu penned The Art of War — an ancient military treatise that went on to become one of the most timeless and revered strategy books of all time, its insights extending beyond the military and into just about every domain of tactical intelligence. In The Art of War: A Graphic Novel (UK; public library), writer Kelly Roman and illustrator Michael DeWeese adapt the classic to a futuristic world where wars are waged on a militarized Wall Street, China is the dominant global superpower, and Sun Tzu’s ancient teachings unfold in a dystopian interplay between corporate greed and the undying human capacity for empathy.

Though exceedingly gory and lacking the edutainment value of graphic novels as serious nonfiction, The Art of War: A Graphic Novel peels away the many layers of what heroism means, what it can be and should be, to paint a portrait of a world that might be around the corner if we don’t align our corporate strategies with our cultural and human values.

Originally featured in July.

JOURNALISM

A decade after his seminal masterpiece of journalism in comic form, Palestine, Maltese-American comics artist and journalist Joe Sacco, whom Christopher Hitchens once termed “our moral draughtsman,” brings us Journalism (UK; public library — a magnificent master-collection of Sacco’s finest graphic reporting, spanning more than a decade of work and covering politics and human rights across such pressing subjects as the fate of Saharan refugees, the Iraq war, the Hague trial of Bosnian tyrant Milan Kovacevic, the Abu Ghraib torture scandals, and more, all the while peeling away at the most resonant generalities of the human condition with his darkly humorous and wry visual reportage on specific situations and historical events.

THE BEATLES IN COMICS

The Beatles were only together for a decade, yet they remain the most massive and enduring phenomenon in music culture some four decades after their breakup. Shortly after the recent discovery of the Fab Four’s final photo shoot comes Beatles in Comic Strips (UK; public library), edited by journalist and music critic Enzo Gentile — a grown-up Beatle geek’s counterpart to the lovely vintage children’s book We Love You Beatles, collecting more than 200 rare cartoon strips dedicated to John, Paul, George, and Ringo to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their first single, “Love Me Do.”

'Beatles Story No. 4' (1974)

Image: Marvel Comics Group

'Beatles Story No. 26' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'Beatles Story No. 30' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'Girls' Romances' (1965)

Image: DC Comics

'Beatles Story No. 1' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'The Invisibles No. 1' (1994)

Image: DC Comics

'Beatles Story No. 36' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

Originally featured in August.

BONUS: THE ZEN OF STEVE JOBS

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs have been one of 2011′s best biographies, but it severely skirts a significant aspect of Jobs’ life. The Zen of Steve Jobs (UK; public library), produced by Forbes and data visualization studio JESS3, is a graphic novella that explores the period of Jobs’s life when he was fired from Apple in the mid-80s and how he dealt with it — by turning to Buddhism and reconnecting with a friend he had met nearly a decade earlier, Zen-Buddhist priest and designer Kobun Chino Otogawa (1938-2002), who not only taught Jobs the elements of Zen practice but also shared his passion for sophisticated design and aesthetic rigor. Though most of the book is speculative, reimagining a narrative based on sparse background facts from a relationship that took place mostly in private, it is unexpectedly rich in its graphic simplicity.

A lot of these ideas of simplicity, sophistication, beauty, control came out of this Zen period. The way that we thought about this period in Steve Jobs’s life is kind of like ‘the lost years’ — it is not only the moment when he is the hero, and goes away, and comes back, and does all these triumphant things, but it’s also a period of his life that we maybe haven’t seen.”

The Zen of Steve Jobs might just be the most refreshing thing since the graphic novel biography of Richard Feynman.

Originally featured in January.

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14 DECEMBER, 2012

How to Avoid Work: A 1949 Guide to Doing What You Love

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“Life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want.”

“There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. Indeed, finding a sense of purpose and doing what makes the heart sing is one of the greatest human aspirations — and yet too many people remain caught in the hamster wheel of unfulfilling work. In 1949, career counselor William J. Reilly penned How To Avoid Work (UK; public library) — a short guide to finding your purpose and doing what you love. Despite the occasional vintage self-helpism of the tone, the book is remarkable for many reasons — written at the dawn of the American corporate era and the golden age of the housewife, it not only encouraged people of all ages to pursue their passions over conventional, safe occupations, but it also spoke to both men and women with equal regard.

Reilly begins by exploring the mythologies of work and play, something Lewis Hyde has written of beautifully, with an uncomfortable but wonderfully apt metaphor:

Most [people] have the ridiculous notion that anything they do which produces an income is work — and that anything they do outside ‘working’ hours is play. There is no logic to that.

[…]

Your life is too short and too valuable to fritter away in work.

If you don’t get out now, you may end up like the frog that is placed in a pot of fresh water on the stove. As the temperature is gradually increased, the frog feels restless and uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough to jump out. Without being aware that a chance is taking place, he is gradually lulled into unconsciousness.

Much the same thing happens when you take a person and put him in a job which he does not like. He gets irritable in his groove. His duties soon become a monotonous routine that slowly dulls his senses. As I walk into offices, through factories and stores, I often find myself looking into the expressionless faces of people going through mechanical motions. They are people whose minds are stunned and slowly dying.

To illustrate the idea that “life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want,” Reilly quotes Amelia Earhart, a woman of strong and refreshing liberal for their time opinions:

I flew the Atlantic because I wanted to. If that be what they call ‘a woman’s reason,’ make the most of it. It isn’t, I think, a reason to be apologized for by man or woman. . . .

Whether you are flying the Atlantic or selling sausages or building a skyscraper or driving a truck, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing, and do it well.

He admonishes against the toxic “should”-culture we live in, arguably all the more pronounced today:

Actually, there is only one way in this world to achieve true happiness, and that is to express yourself with all your skill and enthusiasm in a career that appeals to you more than any other. In such a career, you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement. You feel you are making a contribution. It is not work.

[…]

To my mind, the world would be a much pleasanter and more civilized place to live in, if everyone resolved to pursue whatever is closest to his heart’s desire. We would be more creative and our productivity would be vastly increased.

Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do.

When a young art student recently asked author Neil Gaiman what to make of people advising her against doing what she loves, his brilliant answer paralleled what Reilly so passionately argued some sixty-three years ago:

The greatest satisfaction you can obtain from life is your pleasure in producing, in your own individual way, something of value to your fellowmen. That is creative living!

When we consider that each of us has only one life to live, isn’t it rather tragic to find men and women, with brains capable of comprehending the stars and the planets, talking about the weather; men and women, with hands capable of creating works of art, using those hands only for routine tasks; men and women, capable of independent thought, using their minds as a bowling-alley for popular ideas; men and women, capable of greatness, wallowing in mediocrity; men and women, capable of self-expression, slowly dying a mental death while they babble the confused monotone of the mob?

For you, life can be a succession of glorious adventures. Or it can be a monotonous bore.

Take your choice!

Echoing Alan Watts’s litmus test of what you would do if money were no object, Reilly suggests:

No matter what your age or condition or experience, the sooner you find out what you really want to do and do it the better, for that’s the only way anyone can avoid work.

[…]

Try this approach. Suppose you were financially independent and were perfectly free to do anything you wanted, what would you do, if anything?

If your inclinations are at all definite, the answer to this simple question provides at least a general definition of the field which you would enjoy most.

He outlines a general division of labor for any field:

In every business, art, trade or profession, there are four major jobs to be done:

  1. Creative — inventing, discovering, or developing new ideas
  2. Administrative — making plans and policies for the conduct and supervision of the entire business or project
  3. Executive — directing the work of others in actually carrying out plans and policies in one or more departments or sections
  4. Line — performing some individual routine task involving no responsibility for the work of others

If you have creative ability, you know it without anyone telling you. Your creative talents have demanded expression in your early youth. If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether you have the ability to invent or to discover or to develop new ideas, you probably do not have this ability.

[…]

If you are a thoughtful person, slow to act, who enjoys analyzing, interpreting, and patiently summarizing the results of the activities of others; if you’re the kind of person who likes to pry into every single phase of an operation and to vie a business as a whole; if you get a big kick out of cautiously defining long-range plans and policies; if you’re strong on logic, you have the most important earmarks of an able administrator.

But if you like plenty of action, if you love to organize and direct other people as they carry out plans and policies, and if you’re perfectly content to confine your activities to one department of a business, you’d probably make a first-rate executive.

Reilly stresses the importance of the human factor:

Often, success or failure turns on this question of human relations. … Any time you do not enjoy the human relations involved in any job, sooner or later that job’s bound to be work, not fun.

In the third chapter, he turns to the three most common excuses preventing us from pursuing what we want to do:

Whenever a person is not doing what he says he wants to do, he always has what sounds like a good excuse. And it’s always one or more of three:

  1. ‘I haven’t the time.’
  2. ‘I haven’t the money.’
  3. ‘My folks don’t want me to.’

He then goes on to examine — and debunk — each of the three excuses, showing that “each of them melts away as an imaginary obstacle when we shine the light of intelligence upon it.” As an enormous believer in making time, rather than finding time, for what matters, I find his meditation on time, reminiscent of Montaigne’s on death and the art of living, particularly important:

Without Time nothing is possible. Everything requires Time. Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats every living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world’s goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you ‘haven’t the time’ to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else — twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

Indeed, to Reilly success is very much a product of deliberate time investment and discipline — something great writers can attest to. To illustrate “the remarkable achievements possible for anyone who will consistently devote even as little as one hour a day to one single purpose,” Reilly cites an anecdote in which a friend of Thomas Edison’s marveled at the great inventor’s extreme productivity and the stringency of his 18-hour-workdays dedication to success. Edison retorts:

You do something all day long, don’t you? Everyone does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain that you have been doing something all that time. The only difference is that you do a great many things and I do one. If you took the time in question and applied it in one direction, you would succeed. Success is sure to follows such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have one thing to stick to, letting all else go.

Reilly observes:

But a person cannot apply himself to anything incessantly without growing weary unless he loves it — unless it’s not work. And that’s the real explanation of Edison’s full use of his time.

If you were to spend an hour alone with the loud tick of a clock, or better yet, if you could spend an hour completely alone with an hour-glass, watching the sands of Time quickly slip through that vessel, and realize that 100 years from now you and I will both be gone, then you would begin to appreciate that TIME is the ONLY thing you really DO HAVE and that you alone can do anything you wish with the Time that is yours.

He then moves on to the second excuse, money, noting — as I myself can gratefully attest to — that purpose should come before making a living financially, but can be followed by it:

Money never comes first in self-expression of any kind. Study the biographies of those who have built great fortunes, and you will learn that money came to them after they had produced or discovered something.

[…]

In a world marked by constant change, where the rich of today are often the poor of tomorrow, due to circumstances beyond their control, the only security is your ability to produce something of value for your fellow man, and your only guarantee of happiness is your joy in producing it.

True happiness lies in the pursuit of your goal, achievement in your chosen field. This must always remain primary. Whenever money becomes primary, you are on treacherous ground.

Lastly, he zooms in on the third excuse, what your parents — or, in a broader sense, the cohort of “others” — think you should be doing, articulating something Paul Graham captured beautifully decades later in talking about the dangers of prestige and adding an admonition about knowing when to and when not to take advice. Reilly writes:

‘What our friends and associates think’ influences us more than we realize. We like to live the life and stay in the role which others expect of us.

[…]

Each of us is somewhat like an electric light bulb, deriving its power from some central force. Just as the bulb accumulates dust and soot from the air around it until it is darkened, then blackened, so our individuality becomes dulled at first and then entirely blotted out from the accumulation of advice and interference which is superimposed upon us by family and friends. If you examine their advice, you will find that they are continually offering counsel based on their own experience in connection with a situation that is quite different from the one you are facing.

[…]

You will neither venture anything nor achieve anything if you permit yourself to be unduly influenced by others. . . . Remember this. Only one sound mind is needed to create an idea.

[…]

There is no one more colorless than the self-conscious, vacillating person who is neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry, because he is always wondering what others will think of him and is always trying to please everybody.

In a chapter titled “If You’re Under 35,” Reilly makes a case for cultivating creativity as a “way of operating,” to borrow John Cleese’s phrase:

If you’re under 35 years of age, your primary and immediate objective in your chosen field is to build a salable background. How much money you make during this period is not nearly so important as whether you are gaining salable education and experience.

[…]

You can’t build a salable background in any field by just taking on a job and following directions and being punctual and faithful and a hard-working employee.

That’s a lot of horsefeathers.

You’ve got to do something unusual to get favorable attention. And one of the simplest ways for anyone to gain recognition and advancement in any job is to develop a reputation for being a person who has ‘good ideas.’

He then turns to the notion of creativity as problem-solving and the question of how to produce ideas:

Whether you get ideas or not, depends entirely on your attitude towards problems.

No matter where you go, you find that men and women divide themselves into two main groups:

  1. Those who, when confronted with a problem, immediately run to the boss with it.
  2. Those who look upon a problem as something to be solved and who go ahead and solve it.

Those in the second group get a lot of good ideas; those in the first group do not.

[…]

No matter where you work, you’ll get a lot of good ideas if you’ll:

  1. Start with the little everyday problems. When something goes wrong on the job, see if you can figure out what to do about it.
  2. Get into the habit of going to the boss with your suggested solution to a problem, instead of just dumping the problem into his lap.
  3. If your solution is no good, find out what’s wrong with it, so you can do better the next time.

He ends the section with a note on what I call combinatorial creativity, the notion that groundbreaking ideas are simply powerful new combinations of existing ideas. Reilly writes:

Anyone who gets enough practice solving the little problems, will, sooner, or later, be able to solve the big ones. Big ideas are usually a lot of little ideas rolled into one.

Though cultural shifts in the six decades since its publication have rendered How To Avoid Work somewhat less relevant as a practical guide to career success, it remains a timeless and ever-timely reminder of the broader essence of creative satisfaction and the life of purpose, a vocational counterpart to the wonderful The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here.

Public domain images courtesy of Library of Congress

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