Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

02 MARCH, 2012

The Seven Lady Godivas: Dr. Seuss’s Little-Known “Adult” Book of Nudes

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What Peeping Toms have to do with failure and the expectations of genius.

One hundred and eight years ago today, the world welcomed Theodor Seuss Geisel, better-known as Dr. Seuss — legendary children’s book author, radical ideologist, lover of reading. Among his many creative feats is a fairly unknown, fairly scandalous one: In 1939, when Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, he had one condition for his new publisher, Bennett Cerf — that he would let Geisel do an “adult” book first. The result was The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family, which tells the story of nudist sisters who, after their father’s death, pledge not to wed until each of them has “brought to the light of the world some new and worthy Horse Truth, of benefit to man.”

Geisel wrote in the foreword:

A beautiful story of love, honor and scientific achievement has too long been gathering dust in the archives.”

The humorous story is based on the Lady Godiva legend, according to which in 1037 the Earl of Coventry’s wife rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry, protesting against her husband’s unfair taxes. The citizens of Coventry were ordered to remain indoors, shuttered, as she rode. But one man, Peeping Tom, peered out and was then struck blind.

The book, however, was a complete flop. Ten thousand copies were printed on the first run, and only about 2,500 were sold. The Seven Lady Godivas eventually went out of print, causing Geisel to later say:

I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd.

Absurd as they might be, and oddly unerotic despite the nudity, the illustrations are a treat, perhaps in that so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, or perhaps because they offer endearing reassurance that even genius can falter.

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02 MARCH, 2012

David Foster Wallace on Art vs. TV and the Motivation to be Smart

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“…what we need…is seriously engaged art that can teach us again that we’re smart.”

In early 1996, journalist David Lipsky accompanied 34-year-old David Foster Wallace on the last leg of his tour for his breakout novel, Infinite Jest for an ambitious Rolling Stone interview. The feature was never published, but in 2010, some 14 years after the road trip and two years after Wallace’s suicide, Lipsky released the transcript in Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Among the many thoughtful, revealing conversations is this remarkably sharp insight by Wallace on the TV vs. the arts, the capacity for intellectual stimulation, and the challenge of creating the motivation for it in the first place:

You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need… is seriously engaged art that can teach again that we’re smart. And that’s the stuff that TV and movies — although they’re great at certain things — cannot give us. But that have to create the motivations for us to want to do the extra work, to get those other kinds of art… Which is tricky, because you want to seduce the reader, but you don’t want to pander or manipulate them. I mean, a good book teaches the reader how to read it.”

Clay Shirky, of course, has written a great deal about the enormous intellectual and creative resources that are being opened up as we shift away from TV in Cognitive Surplus. But Wallace’s point about motivations resonates particularly deeply with me as I consider my role — and Brain Pickings’ highest aspiration — to motivate people to be interested in things they didn’t know they were interested in until they are.

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01 MARCH, 2012

“In March, Read the Books You’ve Always Meant to Read”: Gorgeous Vintage PSA Posters, 1939-1941

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Dickens, Dumas, Austen, Tolstoy, Eliot, Clemens, Hawthorne, Thackeray, Scott.

In 1935, in an effort to elevate the nation from the grip of The Great Depression, President Roosevelt launched the Works Progress Administration — a New Deal agency enlisting millions of ordinary citizens and unskilled workers in carrying out public space and service projects as diverse as art murals, road work, and building construction. With a government investment of nearly $7 billion, the WPA provided some 8 million jobs and soon became the largest employer in the country, in the process producing a wealth of public service announcement posters — a treasure trove of mid-century design.

Among the WPA’s design output were a number of gorgeous vintage posters for various literacy projects:

'In March read the books you've always meant to read'

March 25, 1941, WPA Art Project Chicago

'The vacation reading club - join now at your public library'

March 25, 1939, WPA Iowa Project

'A book mark would be better!'

Dated between 1936 and 1940, WPA Art Project Chicago

So, in March, what are you reading? A good place to start:

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