Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

03 MAY, 2012

The Storytelling Animal: The Science of How We Came to Live and Breathe Stories

By:

Where a third of our entire life goes, or what professional wrestling has to do with War and Peace.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted, and Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson recently pointed to the similarity between innovators in art and science, both of whom he called “dreamers and storytellers.” Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualization to children’s illustration to cultural hegemony. In The Storytelling Animal, educator and science writer Jonathan Gottschall traces the roots, both evolutionary and sociocultural, of the transfixing grip storytelling has on our hearts and minds, individually and collectively. What emerges is a kind of “unified theory of storytelling,” revealing not only our gift for manufacturing truthiness in the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but also the remarkable capacity of stories — the right kinds of them — to change our shared experience for the better.

Gottschall articulates a familiar mesmerism:

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.

Joining these favorite book trailers is a wonderful short black-and-white teaser animation:

One particularly important aspect of storytelling Gottschall touches on is the osmotic balance between the writer’s intention and the reader’s interpretation, something Mortimer Adler argued for decades ago in his eloquent case for marginalia. Gottschall writes:

The writer is not … an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.

In discussing the extent to which we live in stories, Gottschall puts in concrete terms something most of us suspect — fear, perhaps — on an abstract, intuitive level: the astounding amount of time we spend daydreaming.

Clever scientific studies involving beepers and diaries suggest that an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and that we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours — one-third of our lives on earth — spinning fantasies. We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, storylike way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes — vain, aggressive, dirty — come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized.

From War and Peace to pro wrestling, from REM sleep to the “fictional screen media” of commercials, from our small serialized personal stories on Facebook and Twitter to the large cultural stories of religious traditions, The Storytelling Animal dives into what science knows — and what it’s still trying to find out — about our propensity for storytelling to reveal not only the science of story but also its seemingly mystical yet palpably present power.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

02 MAY, 2012

A Liberal Decalogue: Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments of Teaching

By:

“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell endures as one of the most intellectually diverse and influential thinkers in modern history, his philosophy of religion in particular having shaped the work of such modern atheism champions as Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. From the third volume of The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell: 1944-1969 comes this remarkable micro-manifesto, entitled A Liberal Decalogue — a vision for responsibilities of a teacher, in which Russell touches on a number of recurring themes from pickings past — the purpose of education, the value of uncertainty, the importance of critical thinking, the gift of intelligent criticism, and more.

It originally appeared in the December 16, 1951, issue of The New York Times Magazine, at the end of the article “The best answer to fanaticism: Liberalism.”

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell is a treasure trove of wisdom in its entirety — highly recommended.

Thanks, Will

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

02 MAY, 2012

Ounce, Dice, Trice: Exploring the Whimsy of Words in Extraordinary Names for Ordinary Things

By:

Cartography for the land of linguistic imagination.

As a lover of language and children’s books, I found myself head over heels with Ounce Dice Trice — poet Alastair Reid and beloved artist Ben Shahn’s marvelous exploration of the nooks and crannies of language, real and imagined, through obscure, esoteric, and invented words for familiar things that are as mind-bending as they are tongue-twisting. It’s part Lewis Carroll, part Shel Silverstein, part something entirely its own and entirely refreshing.

The title comes from the playful alternative words bored shepherds used when they grew tired of counting their sheep the usual way.

Reid, best-known for his translations of Jorge Luis Borges and Pablo Neruda, writes to his young readers — and, it feels, to the eternal child in each of us — in the introduction:

And if you grow to love words for their own sake, you will begin to collect words yourself, and you will be grateful, as I am, to all the people who collect odd words and edit odd dictionaries, out of sheer astonishment and affection.

Conceptually delightful and beautifully illustrated, Ounce Dice Trice will put your relationship with language through a kaleidoscope of whimsy, stirring you to rediscover the sound and feel of words as they tug mischievously at your tongue.

Thanks, Marylaine; images via NYRB

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.