Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

30 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Self-Publishing, the Magic of Letterpress, and the Joy of Handcraft

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“You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable.”

Celebrated diarist Anaïs Nin has previously given us some keen insights on life, mass movements, Paris vs. New York, and what makes a great city. Besides artist and author, Nin was also a publishing entrepreneur. In January 1942, she sets up her own small press in a loft on Macdougal Street, and soon set out to print and self-publish a new edition of her third book, Winter of Artifice, teaching herself typesetting and doing most of the manual work herself.

From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) comes this beautiful passage on the joy of handcraft, written in January of 1942 — a particularly timely meditation in the age of today’s thriving letterpress generation and the Maker Movement. (Especially interesting is the parallel to what developer Ellen Ullman articulates in describing the mesmerism of programming software.)

Anaïs Nin operating her handpress in Macdougal Street studio

The relationship to handcraft is a beautiful one. You are related bodily to a solid block of metal letters, to the weight of the trays, to the adroitness of spacing, to the tempo and temper of the machine. You acquire some of the weight and solidity of the metal, the strength and power of the machine. Each triumph is a conquest by the body, fingers, muscles. You live with your hands, in acts of physical deftness.

You pit your faculties against concrete problems. The victories are concrete, definable, touchable. A page of perfect printing. You can touch the page you wrote. We exult in what we master and discover. Instead of using one’s energy in a void, against frustrations, in anger against publishers, I use it on the press, type, paper, a source of energy. Solving problems, technical, mechanical problems. Which can be solved.

If I pay no attention, then I do not lock the tray properly, and when I start printing the whole tray of letters falls into the machine. The words which first appeared in my head, out of the air, take body. Each letter has a weight. I can weigh each word again, to see if it is the right one.

I use soap boxes as shelves, to hold tools, paper, inks. I arrive loaded with old rags for the press, old towels for the hands, coffee, sugar.

[…]

The press mobilized our energies, and is a delight. At the end of the day you can see your work, weigh it. It is done. It exists.

Nin then offers a wonderfully vivid vignette, in which her partner in the venture, Gonzalo, engages in a wild wrestling match with the press — a near-primal struggle we’ve all experienced in the face of an unruly letterpress or even a plain old office printer jam:

Once there was something wrong with the press. It did not work. Gonzalo would not send for the workman, or the repairman. He literally battled with the press, as if it were a bronco, a bull, an animal to be tamed. His hair flew around his face, perspiration fell from his forehead, his centaur feet were kicking the pedals. The machine groaned.

It seemed almost like a physical battle which he intended to win by force. He towered over it. He seemed bigger than the machine. I never saw anything more primitive, more like a battle between an ancient race and a new type of monster. Both as stubborn, both strong, both violent. Gonzalo won. He was breathing heavily. The wheel suddenly began to spin again. He looked absolutely triumphant.

Ultimately, the practical handiwork is for Nin a disciplining agent for the creative process of the conceptual. In a diary entry from April of the same year, she writes:

Take the letter O out of the box, place it next to the T, then a comma, then a space, and so on.

Count page 1, 2, 3, and so on. Select the good ones while Gonzalo runs the machine. Day after day. We are nearing the end. I have difficulties with the separation of words. And it is a problem in setting type.

(My separation of the word lo-ve became years later the favorite of the faultfinders!)

The writing is often improved by the fact that I live so many hours with a page that I am able to scrutinize it, to question the essential words. In writing, my only discipline has been to cut out the unessential. Typesetting is like film cutting. The discipline of typesetting and printing is good for the writer.

Nin recounts the hard-earned triumph of her handcrafted masterpiece:

The book was finished May fifth. Gonzalo and I printed the cover. The bookbinder was objecting to the nonstandard measurements. The machines were set for standard measurements. We finally found a bookbinder willing to bind three hundred books of an odd size. It was delivered all bound May fifteenth. The Gotham Book Mart gave a party for it. The book created a sensation by its beauty. The typography by Gonzalo, the engravings by Ian Hugo were unique. The bookshop was crowded. Otto Fuhrman, teacher of graphic arts at New York University, praised the book. Art galleries asked to carry it. I received orders from collectors, a letter from James Laughlin, offering me a review in New Directions by anyone I chose.

A surviving hard-bound copy of the limited edition of Winter of Artifice, self-published by Anaïs Nin in 1942, with engravings by Ian Hugo.

The book was, indeed, stunning. (The artwork on cover of The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 is also by Ian Hugo, an engraving he created for another one of Nin’s books, Under a Glass Bell.)

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30 AUGUST, 2012

How To Run Right

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You’ve been doing it wrong — 5 do’s and don’ts.

Last month brought us the premiere of BOOKD, a new bi-weekly video series exploring “game-changing books.” After discussing the most important food politics book of the past half-century, they’ve turned their lens to Christopher McDougall’s 2011 bestseller Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (public library), which looks at the most popular athletic activity in the world and argues that we might have been doing it wrong all along.

Here, Harvard evolutionary biology professor Daniel Lieberman offers 5 do’s and don’ts for how to run right:

  1. DON’t overstride. Don’t land with your foot in front of your knee — it makes you decelerate and lose energy and sends a shockwave of impact up your body.
  2. DO land with a flat foot. Land — gently — on the ball of your foot or with a midfoot strike, not on your heel.
  3. DO run vertically. Don’t lean forward at the hips.
  4. DON’t “thump.” If you’re making a lot of noise, you’re running poorly.
  5. DO ease into it. Listen to pain. Don’t overdo it. If you transition to run properly too fast, you’re guaranteed to injure yourself — you need to adapt your body.

Catch the full episode below, and dive deeper with the book itself.

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30 AUGUST, 2012

How Consciousness Evolved and Why a Planetary “Übermind” Is Inevitable

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“There is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy.”

“These new media have made our world into a single unit,” Marshall McLuhan observed in 1960, when he made the case for the emergence of a “global village”. Meanwhile, in the half-century since McLuhan’s meditations, scientists and philosophers alike have become increasingly occupied with the study of consciousness — what it is, how it works, and how it shapes our sense of self.

In Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (public library), neuroscientist Christof Koch“reductionist, because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic, because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky about us and deep within us” — explores how subjective feelings, or consciousness, come into being. Among Koch’s most fascinating arguments is one that bridges philosophy, evolutionary biology and technofuturism to predict a global Übermind not unlike McLuhan’s “global village,” but one in which our technology melds with what Carl Jung has termed the “collective unconscious” to produce a kind of sentient global brain:

The ever-increasing complexity of organisms, evident in the fossil record, is a consequence of the unrelenting competition for survival that propels evolution.

It was accompanied by the emergence of nervous systems and the first inkling of sentience. The continuing complexification of brains, to use Teilhard de Chardin’s term, enhanced consciousness until self-consciousness emerged: awareness reflecting upon itself. This recursive process started millions of years ago in some of the more highly developed mammals. In Homo sapiens, it has achieved its temporary pinnacle.

But complexification does not stop with individual self-awareness. It is ongoing and, indeed, speeding up. In today’s technologically sophisticated and intertwined societies, complexification is taking on a supraindividual, continent-spanning character. With the instant, worldwide communication afforded by cell phones, e-mail, and social networking, I foresee a time when humanity’s teeming billions and their computers will be interconnected in a vast matrix — a planetary Übermind. Provided mankind avoids Nightfall — a thermonuclear Armageddon or a complete environmental meltdown — there is no reason why this web of hypertrophied consciousness cannot spread to the planets and, ultimately, beyond the stellar night to the galaxy at large.

The rest of Consciousness traces Koch’s groundbreaking work with physical chemist Francis Crick (who, along with james Watson, discovered the double-helix structure of DNA) and explores how science has attempted to reconcile the hard physicality of the brain, the most complex object in the known universe, with the intangible world of awareness, populated by our senses, our emotions, and our very experience of life.

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