Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

15 AUGUST, 2012

Nick Hornby on Your Cultural Snobbery

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What Céline Dion has to do with Jonathan Franzen and the construction of intellectual identity.

“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider,” Francis Bacon advised in 1597. “One should read less and less, not more and more,” Henry Miller remarked as he reflected on a lifetime of reading in 1952.

Roughly half a millennium after Bacon and half a century after Miller, beloved critic and author Nick Hornby, whose Stuff I’ve Been Reading column in Believer never ceases to delight, captures our relationship with reading even more succinctly and unapologetically: “Read what you enjoy, not what bores you.” More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself (public library) collects Hornby’s Believer writings over the past two years, spanning everything from the devastating effects of the World Cup to Marshall McLuhan to the reading life as memento mori — a witty and illuminating blueprint to the habits and how-to’s of reading good books well.

In one particular essay, Hornby explores our distorted dichotomy of cultural taste by discussing Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste:

Why does everyone hate Céline Dion? Except, of course, it’s not everyone, is it? She’s sold more albums than just about anyone alive. Everyone loves Céline Dion, if you think about it. So actually, he asks the question: why do I and my friends and all rock critics and everyone likely to be reading this book and magazines like the Believer hate Céline Dion? And the answers he finds are profound, provocative, and leave you wondering who the hell you actually are — especially if, like many of us around these parts, you set great store by cultural consumption as an indicator of both character and, let’s face it, intelligence. We are cool people! We read Jonathan Franzen and we listen to Pavement, but we also love Mozart and Seinfeld! Hurrah for us!

Hornby cites Wilson’s swift summation of cultural snobbery:

It’s always other people following crowds, whereas my own taste reflects my specialness.

(Still, cue in William Gibson on taste as the building block of the “personal microculture” that defines us creatively and intellectually.)

More Baths Less Talking comes on the heels of three previous volumes of Hornby’s collected Believer columns, all excellent — The Polysyllabic Spree (2004), Housekeeping vs. the Dirt (2006), and Shakespeare Wrote for Money (2008).

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15 AUGUST, 2012

A List of “Rare Things” From 11th-Century Japanese Court Lady Sei Shonagon, World’s First Blogger

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“Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.”

Between the 990s and the early 11th century, Japanese court lady Sei Shonagon set out to record her observations of and musings on life, Japanese culture, the intricacies of the human condition. Her writings were eventually collected and published in The Pillow Book (public library) in 1002. An archive of pictures and illustrations, records of interesting events in court, and daily personal thoughts, many in list-form, this was arguably the world’s first “blog” by conceptual format and Sh?nagon the world’s first blogger*.

Among her lists was this lovely meditation on “rare things”:

71. Rare Things–

A son-in-law who’s praised by his wife’s father. Likewise, a wife who’s loved by her mother-in-law.

A pair of silver tweezers that can actually pull out hairs properly.

A retainer who doesn’t speak ill of his master.

A person who is without a single quirk. Someone who’s superior in both appearance and character, and who’s remained utterly blameless throughout his long dealings with the world.

You never find an instance of two people living together who continue to be overawed by each other’s excellence and always treat each other with scrupulous care and respect, so such a relationship is obviously a great rarity.

Copying out a tale or a volume of poems without smearing any ink on the book you’re copying from. If you’re copying it from some beautiful bound book, you try to take immense care, but somehow you always manage to get ink on it.

Two women, let alone a man and a woman, who vow themselves to each other forever, and actually manage to remain on good terms to the end.

For a related treat, see these 5 vintage versions of modern social media.

* Thanks to reader Paul Simon for the tip

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14 AUGUST, 2012

6 Rules for Creative Sanity from Radical Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich

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“Never yield to the expediencies of life except where it is basically harmless.”

A student of Freud’s and a radical pioneer of early psychoanalysis, Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) was a fascinating and often misunderstood mind who influenced a generation of public intellectuals, including William Burroughs, Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer. Where’s the Truth?: Letters and Journals, 1948-1957 (public library), following previous installments, is the fourth and final volume of Reich’s autobiographical writings, culled from his diaries (a favorite trope around here), letters, and laboratory notebooks. What emerges is an intimate portrait of the fringe scientist’s hopes and fears, aspirations and insecurities, doubts and convictions.

Reich with his dog, Troll, on the porch outside his study at the Orgone Energy Observatory (The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust via FSG)

But nothing bespeaks his inherent idealism more crisply than this journal entry dated June 7, 1948, in which Reich lists his six necessary conditions for creative sanity — an aspirational, if overly ambitious and pedantic, blueprint to the secret of happiness and the life of purpose.

To stay sane in an insane world as a creative man or woman he or she must:

  1. Keep one’s life financially independent.
  2. Continue unabated to exercise one’s power of creativity in concrete, strenuous tasks, always seeking perfection as near as possible.
  3. Carefully cherish LOVE of a partner with full gratification, of the total emotional being if possible, of the body in a clean way if necessary.
  4. Keep out of the trap of confusion by the average man and woman, helping others to keep out of the trap too as best they can.
  5. Keep one’s structure clean like brook water through knowing and correcting every mistake, making the corrected mistake the guiding lines to new truth.
  6. Never yield to the expediencies of life except where it is basically harmless or where the main line of development is not impeded for the duration of one’s life.

Where’s the Truth? is utterly absorbing and illuminating throughout — highly recommended.

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