Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

06 AUGUST, 2012

Significant Objects: How Stories Confer Value Upon the Vacant

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“It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.”

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously remarked. Hardly anyone can back this bombastic proclamation with more empirical conviction than Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. In 2009, the duo embarked upon a curious experiment: They would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup. (The most highly valued pairing in the entire project, bought for $1.49 and sold for $197.50, was a globe paperweight with a moving handwritten story by the magnificent Debbie Millman, with proceeds benefiting 826 National.)

Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things (public library) tells the tale of this irreverent testament to the power of storytelling through a hundred of the best stories since the beginning of the project. The anthology features such celebrated authors as William Gibson (HAWK Ashtray, bought for $2.99, sold for $101), Jonathan Lethem (Missouri Shotglass, bought for $1, sold for $76), and Colson Whitehead (Mallet, bought for 33 cents, sold for $71).

And what better way to open than with some timeless wisdom from the inimitable Edward Gorey?

A reflection from the introduction:

Writers love a challenge like the one we posed them — i.e., making up a story inspired by an object they’ve never seen before. Our contributors met the challenge with wildly imaginative, deeply moving, and darkly ironic stories. They wrote letters, email solicitations, memoirs, operating instructions, public notices, diary entries, wine-tasting notes, and public ordinances. Some crafted rich character studies, others told tales through whipsaw dialogue or internal monologue. Some took bold experimental risks, while others opted for evocative minimalism or genre fiction.

It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.

Part Sentimental Value, part MacGuffinism, Significant Objects reminds us of the storiness of our lived materiality — of the artifacts we imbue with meaning, with loves and losses, with hopes and desperations. At its heart is something essential and essentially human, which Brian Eno once articulated beautifully:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable.”

Anaïs Nin put it even more dramatically when she wrote in her diary in 1943:

Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.

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06 AUGUST, 2012

The Wisdom of Crowds

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“Under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

“Men, it has been well said, think in herds, wrote Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, his satirical 1841 history of mass manias and popular folly. “It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

In this episode from PBS’s NOVA ScienceNOW video podcast series, Neil deGrasse Tyson tells the story of British polymath Francis Galton, who in 1906 set out to confirm Mackay’s contention but found, instead, the opposite: That crowds can have astonishing collective intelligence that far supersedes the cognitive capacity of individuals.

In The Wisdom of Crowds (public library), whose title plays on Mackay’s book, James Surowiecki examines Galton’s insight more closely to demonstrate how, under the right circumstances, groups — from game-show audiences to multibillion-dollar corporations — “are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” He recounts Galton’s experiment and its connotation for democracy. (Ironically, Surowiecki wrote this years before the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and Anonymous.)

One day in the fall of 1906, the British scientist Francis Galton headed for the country fair.

[…]

As he walked through the exhibition that day, Galton came across a weight-judging competition. A fat ox had been selected and members of a gathering crowd were lining up to place wagers on the (slaughtered and dressed) weight of the ox.

[…]

Eight hundred people tried their luck. They were a diverse lot. Many of them were butchers and farmers, but there were also quite a few who had no insider knowledge of cattle. ‘Many non-experts competed,’ Galton wrote later in the scientific journal Nature, ‘like those clerks and others who have no expert knowledge of horse, but who bet on races, guided by newspapers, friends, and their own fancies.’ The analogy to a democracy, in which people of radically different abilities and interests each get one vote, had suggested itself to Galton immediately. ‘The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes,’ he wrote.

Galton was interested in figuring out what the ‘average voter’ was capable of because he wanted to prove that the average voter was capable of very little. So he turned the competition into an impromptu experiment. When the contest was over and the prizes had been awarded, Galton borrowed the tickets from the organizers and ran a series of statistical tests on them, including the mean of the group’s guesses.

[…]

Galton undoubtedly thought that the average guess of the group would be way off the mark. After all, mix a few very smart people with some mediocre people and a lot of dumb people, and it seems like you’d end up with a dumb answer. But Galton was wrong — the crowd guessed 1,197 pounds; after it had been slaughtered and dressed the ox weighed 1,198 pounds. In other words, the crowd’s judgment was essentially perfect…. Galton wrote later: ‘The result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.’ That was, to say the least, an understatement.

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03 AUGUST, 2012

Susan Sontag on Love: Illustrated Diary Excerpts

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“Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.”

HAPPY UPDATE: We’ve released a sequel, Susan Sontag on art, with proceeds benefiting A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists.

The recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), is a treasure trove of insight — on writing, on censorship, on aphorisms — from the deepest corners of one of the greatest minds in modern history. But besides her extraordinary intellect, what made Sontag a force of nature was also her complex and ever-evolving emotional perception, brimming with extreme self-awareness and keen reflection on her relationships with others.

I sieved Sontag’s journals for her most poignant, most private meditations on love — candid, vulnerable, hopeful, hopeless — and asked artist extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton ( ) to hand-letter and illustrate them exclusively for Brain Pickings. Enjoy.

HAPPY UPDATE 2: By popular demand, since the original signed limited edition was gone so fast, a new unlimited edition of this print is now available. A portion of the proceeds benefit A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women artists and writers.

HAPPY UPDATE 1: After countless requests, we’ve made available a limited-edition 8″x26″ high-quality print of the artwork on heavy cotton rag paper with deckled edges, signed and numbered. Enjoy.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 is superb and revealing in its entirety — impossible to recommend enough.

Donating = Loving

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