Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

02 MAY, 2012

John Updike on the Ethics and Poetics of Criticism

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“Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.”

As Sir Ken Robinson thoughtfully observed, we live in a kind of “opinion culture” where not having an opinion is a cultural abomination. At the same time, the barrier of entry for making one’s opinions public is lower than ever. The tragedy of our time might well be that so many choose to set those opinions apart by making them as contrarian and abrasive as possible. But what E. B. White once wisely pointed to as the role and social responsibility of the writer — “to lift people up, not lower them down” — I believe to be true of the role and social responsibility of the critic as well, for thoughtful criticism is itself an art and a creative act.

We need to relearn the skills of making criticism constructive rather than destructive, and we need look no further than the introduction to John Updike’s 1977 anthology of prose, Picked-Up Pieces, where the beloved author and critic codifies the ethics and poetics of criticism by offering the following six rules to reviewing graciously and fairly. Though they were written with literature in mind, at their heart is an ethos that applies to critique and criticism in any discipline.

My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give him enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author ‘in his place,’ making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

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01 MAY, 2012

The Conference of Birds: Beautifully Illustrated Story of Belonging Based on an Ancient Sufi Poem

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What a hopeful hoopoe bird has to do with the deepest truths of the human condition.

As a lover of children’s books with timeless philosophy for grown-ups and of obscure children’s books by famous authors of adult literature, I find it a rare delight to stumble upon an inversion of sorts — poetic books for grown-ups by beloved authors of children’s literature. Such is the case of The Conference of the Birds (public library) by the celebrated and prolific Czech-born children’s writer and illustrator Peter Sís — a lyrical, heartwarming adaptation of the classic 12th-century Sufi epic poem of the same title. The story unfolds in a landscape reminiscent of the sentimental cartography world: Thirty birds, led by the hoopoe, set out on a journey across the seven valleys of Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death in a quest to find their true king, Simorgh.

At its heart, it’s a story about belonging and homecoming to the deepest of inner certitude as the avian heroes, drawn from all species, perish and persevere on their momentous quest, only to find at the end that Simorgh is, in fact, each of them and all of them — a beautiful allegory of a beautiful human truth to which Sís’s soft yet evocative illustrations add delicate dimension.

Birds!
Look at the troubles happening in our world!
Anarchy — discontent — upheaval!
Desperate fights over territory, water, and food!
Poisoned air! Unhappiness!
I fear we are lost. We must do something!
I’wve seen the world. I know many secrets.
Listen to me: I know of a king who has all the answers.
We must go and find him.

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01 MAY, 2012

Lessons in Conveying Complex Ideas with Simple Graphics from the World’s Best Information Designers

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What Frank Zappa’s life has to do with e-waste, whale songs, and the black market for body parts.

Much has been said about visual storytelling and how to tell stories of data in the information age, and there is no shortage of great books on data visualization. But count on Taschen to tackle a big conceptual challenge with a big, beautifully designed book: Information Graphics by art historian Sandra Rendgen explores the four key aspects of visualizing data — Location, Time, Category, and Hierarchy — through exemplary work from more than 200 projects, alongside essays by information architect and TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, Guardian Datablog editor Simon Rogers, Density Design’s Paolo Ciuccarelli, and Rendgen herself.

'Geek Love,' The New York Times, newspaper article, 2008

Exposed to Dungeons & Dragons Early in Life. Design: Sam Potts. Art Direction: Brian Rea

'Medallandssandur,' a blend of the sound specters form sonar and whale song. From a series of drawings, 2010

Design: Torgeir Husevaag. Article: Adam Rogers

'The Very Many Varieties of Beer,' poster, 2010

Design: Ben Gibson, Patrick Mulligan (Pop Chart Lab)

'Two Mindsets,' Stanford, magazine article, 2007

Data Source: Carol Dweck: 'Mindset: The New Psychology of Success', 2006. Design: Nigel Holmes

'Body Parts,' Esquire, magazine article, 2006

Design: Peter Grundy (Grundini). Art Direction: Alex Breuer

'Frank Zappa Chart,' painting, 2008

Artist: Ward Shelley (represented by Pierogi Gallery)

'The Growing E-Waste Situation,' GOOD, website, 2010

Data Source: CBS News; ABI Research; US EPA; Basel Action Network; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Research: Brian Wolford. Design: Andrew Effendy (Column Five Media). Art Direction: Ross Crooks

'Mission(s) to Mars,' IEEE Spectrum, magazine article, 2009

Data Source: Cornell University; European Space Agency; NASA; RussianSpaceWeb.com. Design: Bryan Christie, Joe Lertola. Art Direction: Mark Montgomery, Michael Solita

Information Graphics features work by a number of Brain Pickings favorites, including Stefanie Posavec, Nicholas Felton, Ward Shelley, Hans Rosling, Nathalie Miebach, David McCandless, Toby Ng, Michael Paukner, Christoph Niemann, Sam Potts, and Jonathan Harris. The cover image is, of course, the unmistakable Web Trend Map by Information Architects.

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