Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

05 MARCH, 2012

A Booklover’s Map of Literary Geography circa 1933

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On the Bostoncentricity of literature, or what “our first man of letters” has to do with Poe.

Two of my great loves — maps and books — converged on my friend Wendy‘s wall, where I spotted this stunning vintage map of “literary geography.” Titled The Booklovers Map of America Showing Certain Landmarks of Literary Geography and created by pictorial cartographer Paul M. Paine in 1933, the map zooms in on the biggest literary cities and places “The Birthplace of American Literature” squarely in the Boston/Cambridge area.

A few closeups:

With its charmingly unpunctuated, almost stream-of-literary-consciousness text, the map is as much a cartographic treasure as it is an almanac of early twentieth century literary celebrity.

For more unusual, creative, culturally sensitive maps, see these 7 fantastic books of and about maps.

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05 MARCH, 2012

The Power of Habit and How to Rewire Our “Habit Loops”

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What Iraqi kebob vendors have to do with your New Year’s resolutions.

As a young man, Benjamin Franklin set out to improve himself by devising a chart-based log for tracking his progress against the virtues he identified as essential to good personhood. Each week, he would pick a virtue to cultivate, then put a black pencil mark in his calendar chart on any day he failed to uphold the virtue. This visual feedback on his progress encouraged him, and allowed him to move to a different virtue the following week, hoping that each week would leave him with a “habitude” for that particular virtue.

We try to reverse-engineer willpower and flowchart our way to happiness, but in the end, it is habit that is at the heart of our successes and our failures. So argues New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, proposing that the root of adhering to our highest ideals — exercising regularly, becoming more productive, sleeping better, reading more, cultivating the discipline necessary for building successful ventures — is in understanding the science and psychology of how habits work.

Duhigg, whose chief premise echoes many of Timothy Wilson’s insights in Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, takes a deep dive into the bleeding edge of neuroscience and behavioral psychology to explore not only why habits exist in the first place, but also how they can be reprogrammed and optimized.

Duhigg first became fascinated by the power of habit eight years ago, while in Baghdad as a newspaper reporter. There, he met an army major who was conducting a curious experiment in the small town of Kufa: After analyzing taped footage of riots in the area, the major identified a common sequence — first a crowd of Iraqis would gather in the plaza, drawing in spectators and food vendors, then eventually someone would throw a rock and all hell would break loose.

So the major summoned Kufa’s mayor and made a strange request: Get the food vendors out of the plaza. The next time the sequence began to unfold and a crowd started to gather, something different transpired — the crowd snowballed and people started chanting angry slogans, but by dusk, people had gotten hungry and restless. They looked for the familiar kebobs, but they weren’t there. Eventually, the spectators left and the chanters lost steam. By 8PM, everyone was gone.

Upon asking the major how he figured out the clever strategy, Duhigg got the following response: “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army.”

The Power of Habit goes on to explore the same underlying mechanisms in contexts as diverse as behavioral marketing (see the excellent recent New York Times story on how Target used shopper habit data to find out a girl was pregnant before the father did) to sugar cravings, exposing the “habit loop” and eventually showing you how to re-engineer it to better serve your goals.

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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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