Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

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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13 AUGUST, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Life, Hand-Lettered by Artist Lisa Congdon

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“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

UPDATE: After a flurry of requests, the quotes are now available as prints. Enjoy.

It’s no secret I’m an obsessive reader of famous diaries, most recently those of French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), one of the most dedicated diarists in modern literary history. Her sixteen tomes of published journals, spanning more than half a century between the time she began writing at the age of eleven and her death, are a treasure trove of insight on literature, culture, human nature, and the life of meaning.

Earlier this month, I asked the inimitable Wendy MacNaughton to illustrate Susan Sontag’s insights on love, as synthesized from the writer’s diaries. Now, I’ve turned to another extraordinary illustrator, Lisa Congdon ( ), and asked her to bring to life some of my favorite highlights from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939-1944 (public library) in the style of her lovely 365 Days of Hand Lettering project.

The results took my breath away — enjoy:

You can find Lisa’s stunning prints on 20×200 and Etsy, and follow her on Twitter.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3 is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.

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