Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

13 JULY, 2012

Francis Bacon on Studies: “Reading Maketh a Full Man; Conference a Ready Man; Writing an Exact Man”

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“Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”

Francis Bacon might be best-known as a pioneer of the scientific method, but he was also a prolific and thoughtful philosopher, writer, and scholar of the arts and humanities. His Complete Essays (public library; public domain) explore everything from love (“Nuptial love maketh mankind; friendly love perfecteth it; but wanton love corrupteth, and embaseth it.”) to envy (“A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others.”) to delays (“There is surely no greater wisdom, than well to time the beginnings, and onsets, of things.”) to death (“Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children, is increased with tales, so is the other.”), and just about everything in between. But among Bacon’s most timeless and prescient reflections is the essay Of Studies, which touches on a number of familiar and urgent contemporary issues — the brokenness of the education system, the osmosis of reading and non-reading, and the importance of finding your element.

Studies serve for delight, for ornament, and for ability. Their chief use for delight, is in privateness and retiring; for ornament, is in discourse; and for ability, is in the judgment, and disposition of business. For expert men can execute, and perhaps judge of particulars, one by one; but the general counsels, and the plots and marshalling of affairs, come best, from those that are learned. To spend too much time in studies is sloth; to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgment wholly by their rules, is the humor of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need proyning, by study; and studies themselves, do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience. Crafty men contemn studies, simple men admire them, and wise men use them; for they teach not their own use; but that is a wisdom without them, and above them, won by observation. Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. Some books also may be read by deputy, and extracts made of them by others; but that would be only in the less important arguments, and the meaner sort of books, else distilled books are like common distilled waters, flashy things. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit: and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know, that he doth not. Histories make men wise; poets witty; the mathematics subtile; natural philosophy deep; moral grave; logic and rhetoric able to contend. Abeunt studia in mores. [Studies permeate and shape manners.] Nay, there is no stond or impediment in the wit, but may be wrought out by fit studies; like as diseases of the body, may have appropriate exercises. Bowling is good for the stone and reins; shooting for the lungs and breast; gentle walking for the stomach; riding for the head; and the like. So if a man’s wit be wandering, let him study the mathematics; for in demonstrations, if his wit be called away never so little, he must begin again. If his wit be not apt to distinguish or find differences, let him study the Schoolmen; for they are cymini sectores. If he be not apt to beat over matters, and to call up one thing to prove and illustrate another, let him study 197 the lawyers’ cases. So every defect of the mind, may have a special receipt.

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12 JULY, 2012

The Naughty Nineties: A Victorian Pop-Up Book for Adults Only

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A pull-tab time machine of risqué rites.

Being a lover of unusual pop-up books and naughty Victoriana, imagine my delight at the discovery of The Naughty Nineties: A Saucy Pop-Up Book for Adults Only (public library) — a marvelous 1982 gem that transports you a century back, to the friskiest frontiers of Victorian society in the 1890s, illustrated in a black-and-white ink style reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s and outfitted with various pull-tabs and paper mechanics for your playful pleasure.

And, hey, look — I made some animated GIFs of it. (Though they are no substitute for the analog-interactive real deal.)

For a different treat in the same vein of Victorian raunchiness, see Edward Gorey’s The Curious Sofa and Scrap Irony.

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12 JULY, 2012

Henry David Thoreau on Defining Your Own Success

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“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.”

Legendary philosopher, poet, political pundit, abolitionist, and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau remains best-known for one of history’s most important texts on protest and for Walden (public library; public domain), his beautiful 1854 paean to solitude, simplicity, and self-sufficiency, which inspired much of John Cage’s philosophy and generations of intellectuals and creators. Nine years prior, Thoreau had moved into a cabin by Walden Pond in an effort to remove himself from social life, instead absorbing nature and letting himself be absorbed by it. The book synthesizes Thoreau’s insights derived over the two years he spent there, woven of exquisite language full of magnificent metaphors and whimsical descriptions, and spanning everything from the nature of the self to consumer culture.

My favorite part, however, deals with a familiar subject — how to define your own success, find your purpose and do what you love:

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

Then, in nearing the conclusion:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Remarkably profound in its entirety, Walden is a classic for a reason — the kind of spectacular read that stays with you for life.

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