Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

13 JUNE, 2012

What Makes a Classic? Lessons from the Chinese Book of Changes


What an ancient Chinese divination manual reveals about the design and anthropology of great literature.

What makes a classic?

First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

This definition comes from historian Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography (public library) — an ambitious and unprecedented history of the iconic ancient spiritual manual that originated in China some 3,000 years ago, and a fine addition to these essential meditations on spirituality. Smith argues that the I Ching, or Yijing, or Book of Changes, belongs with the world’s greatest works of literature, despite its unorthodox form in comparison to other fundamental literature:

And yet [the I Ching] seems so different from other ‘classics’ that instantly come to mind, whether literary works such as the Odyssey, the Republic, the Divine Comedy, and The Pilgrim’s Progress or sacred scriptures like the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Qur’an, the Hindu vVedas and the Buddhist sutras. Structurally it lacks any sort of systematic or sustained narrative, and from the standpoint of spirituality, it offers no vision of religious salvation, much less the promise of an afterlife or even the idea of rebirth.


Yet despite its brevity, cryptic text, paucity of colorful stories, virtual absence of deities, and lack of a sustained narrative, the Yijing exerted enormous influence in all realms of Chinese culture for well over two thousand years — an influence comparable to the Bible in Judeo-Christian culture, the Qur’an in Islamic culture, the Vedas in Hindu culture, and the sutras in Buddhist culture.

A page from a Song Dynasty (960-1279) printed book of the I Ching

The eight trigrams of the I Ching

Smith goes on to explore what was so appealing and timeless about the document, from the histories and myths woven into its non-narrative to its use as a divinatory instrument of political and imperial power to its interpretations over the ages. Despite the spiritual nature of the text itself, however, The “I Ching”: A Biography is a study of form and function, of resonance across space and time in “different and dissimilar lands” — an uncommon lens on the symbolism, design, and anthropology of what makes a literary classic.

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12 JUNE, 2012

6 Rules for a Great Story from Barnaby Conrad and Snoopy


“And remember: Always aim for the heart!”

You might recall Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life (public library), which gave us Ray Bradbury’s wise words on rejection. To recap: Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, asked 30 famous authors and entertainers to each respond to a favorite Snoopy comic strip with a 500-word essay on the triumphs and tribulations of the writing life. The all-star roster includes William F. Buckley, Jr., Julia Child, Ed McBain, and Elizabeth George. Among them is also one by Barnaby Conrad himself, offering the following six tips to writing a great story, in response to this 1997 comic strip:

  1. Try to pick the most intriguing place in your piece to begin.
  2. Try to create attention-grabbing images of a setting if that’s where you want to begin.
  3. Raise the reader’s curiosity about what is happening or is going to happen in an action scene.
  4. Describe a character so compellingly that we want to learn more about what happens to him or her.
  5. Present a situation so vital to our protagonist that we must read on.
  6. And most important, no matter what method you choose, start with something happening! (And not with ruminations. A character sitting in a cave or in jail or in a kitchen or in a car ruminating about the meaning of life and how he got to this point does not constitute something happening.)

Hone your opening words, for just as stories aren’t written but rewritten, so should beginnings be written and rewritten. Look at your opening and ask yourself, ‘If I were reading this, would I be intrigued enough to go on?’

And remember: Always aim for the heart!

Conrad is the author of The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction.

For more advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips on how to make a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.

And, above all, let’s not forget these famous disclaimers on taking writing advice.

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11 JUNE, 2012

French Polymath Henri Poincaré on How the Inventor’s Mind Works, 1908


Why to create is to choose the right combinations.

Great books are always Rube Goldberg machines of discovery for other great books, with their intricately woven mesh of allusions, references, and citations. One such particularly prolific treasure trove of pointer to related works is the 1957 gem The Art of Scientific Investigation, which you might recall from recent looks at its insights on serendipity and chance-opportunism and the role of intuition in discovery and creation. Among the countless fascinating books it references is The Foundations of Science (public library), originally published in 1908 by the legendary French mathematician, philosopher of science, and polymath Henri Poincaré (1854-1912), who offers the following account of ideation and the creative process, emphasizing both the combinatorial nature of creativity and the importance of editing and subtraction:

To invent, I have said, is to choose; but the word is perhaps not wholly exact. It makes one think of a purchaser before whom are displayed a large number of samples, and who examines them, one after the other, to make a choice. Here the samples would be so numerous that a whole lifetime would not suffice to examine them. This is not the actual state of things. The sterile combinations do not even present themselves to the mind of the inventor. Never in the field of his consciousness do combinations appear that are not really useful, except some that he rejects but which have to some extent the characteristics of useful combinations. All goes on as if the inventor were an examiner for the second degree who would only have to question the candidates who had passed a previous examination.

The Foundations of Science is now in the public domain and is thus available for free in multiple formats, though with many errors due to the imperfections of optical character recognition technology, from The Internet Archive.

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