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Posts Tagged ‘books’

27 FEBRUARY, 2012

How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love

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Why prestige is the enemy of passion, or how to master the balance of setting boundaries and making friends.

“Find something more important than you are,” philosopher Dan Dennett once said in discussing the secret of happiness, “and dedicate your life to it.” But how, exactly, do we find that? Surely, it isn’t by luck. I myself am a firm believer in the power of curiosity and choice as the engine of fulfillment, but precisely how you arrive at your true calling is an intricate and highly individual dance of discovery. Still, there are certain factors — certain choices — that make it easier. Gathered here are insights from seven thinkers who have contemplated the art-science of making your life’s calling a living.

PAUL GRAHAM ON HOW TO DO WHAT YOU LOVE

Every few months, I rediscover and redevour Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham’s fantastic 2006 article, How to Do What You Love. It’s brilliant in its entirety, but the part I find of especial importance and urgency is his meditation on social validation and the false merit metric of “prestige”:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.

[…]

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

[…]

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

More of Graham’s wisdom on how to find meaning and make wealth can be found in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age.

ALAIN DE BOTTON ON SUCCESS

Alain de Botton, modern philosopher and creator of the “literary self-help genre”, is a keen observer of the paradoxes and delusions of our cultural conceits.

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he takes his singular lens of wit and wisdom to the modern workplace and the ideological fallacies of “success.”

His terrific 2009 TED talk offers a taste:

One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.

HUGH MACLEOD ON SETTING BOUNDARIES

Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod is as well-known for his irreverent doodles as he is for his opinionated musings on creativity, culture, and the meaning of life. In Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity, he gathers his most astute advice on the creative life. Particularly resonant with my own beliefs about the importance of choices is this insight about setting boundaries:

16. The most important thing a creative per­son can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it. The more you need the money, the more people will tell you what to do. The less control you will have. The more bullshit you will have to swallow. The less joy it will bring. Know this and plan accordingly.

Later, MacLeod echoes Graham’s point about prestige above:

28. The best way to get approval is not to need it.

This is equally true in art and business. And love. And sex. And just about everything else worth having.”

LEWIS HYDE ON WORK VS. LABOR

After last year’s omnibus of 5 timeless books on fear and the creative process, a number of readers rightfully suggested an addition: Lewis Hyde’s 1979 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, of which David Foster Wallace famously said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

In this excerpt, originally featured here in January, Hyde articulates the essential difference between work and creative labor, understanding which takes us a little closer to the holy grail of vocational fulfillment:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a term for the quality that sets labor apart from work: flow — a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for a pet project, or even spent 20 consecutive hours composing a love letter, you’ve experienced flow and you know creative labor.

STEVE JOBS ON NOT SETTLING

In his now-legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address, an absolute treasure in its entirety, Steve Jobs makes an eloquent case for not settling in the quest for finding your calling — a case that rests largely on his insistence upon the power of intuition:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

ROBERT KRULWICH ON FRIENDS

Robert Krulwich, co-producer of WNYC’s fantastic Radiolab, author of the ever-illuminating Krulwich Wonders and winner of a Peabody Award for broadcast excellence, is one of the finest journalists working today. In another great commencement address, he articulates the infinitely important social aspect of loving what you do — a kind of social connectedness far more meaningful and genuine than those notions of prestige and peer validation.

You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

If you can… fall in love, with the work, with people you work with, with your dreams and their dreams. Whatever it was that got you to this school, don’t let it go. Whatever kept you here, don’t let that go. Believe in your friends. Believe that what you and your friends have to say… that the way you’re saying it — is something new in the world.

THE HOLSTEE MANIFESTO

You might recall The Holstee Manifesto as one of our 5 favorite manifestos for the creative life, an eloquent and beautifully written love letter to the life of purpose. (So beloved is the manifesto around here that it has earned itself a permanent spot in the Brain Pickings sidebar, a daily reminder to both myself and you, dear reader, of what matters most.)

This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often. If you don’t like something, change it. If you don’t like your job, quit. If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV. If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.

The Holstee Manifesto is now available as a beautiful letterpress print, a 5×7 greeting card printed on handmade paper derived from 50% elephant poo and 50% recycled paper, and even a baby bib — because it’s never too early to instill the values of living from passion.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2012

William Gibson on Cultivating a “Personal Micro-Culture”

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On the building blocks of creativity and acquiring a sense of what feels right.

I’ve been reading Distrust That Particular Flavor, the fantastic collection of nonfiction essays, including some never-before-printed ones, by the great novelist William Gibson. In the introduction, in discussing what makes great fiction, Gibson articulates one of the most fundamental principles of creativity — and, like all great insight on writing, at the heart of it is a truth that applies to the creative process in just about any domain, well beyond literature:

We [are] shaped as writers, I believe, not much by who our favorite writers are as by our general experience of fiction. Learning to write fiction, we learn to listen for our own acquired sense of what feels right, based on the totality of the pleasure (or its lack) that fiction has provided us. Not direct emulation, but rather a matter of a personal micro-culture.”

I love this concept of “a personal micro-culture” — what an eloquent way to capture the most important aspect of who we become, as creators in any medium and as human beings. Design legend Paula Scher knows that. (“[A design is] done in a second and every experience, and every movie, and every thing in my life that’s in my head,” she said.) Artist Austin Kleon knows that. (“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” he said.) The blossoming of our combinatorial creativity hinges on a cultivation of our personal micro-culture. How are you cultivating yours?

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24 FEBRUARY, 2012

A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling

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From cave paintings to Maurice Sendak, or what modern ebooks can learn from mid-century design icons.

Back in the fifteenth century, Leonardo da Vinci made the following remark about visual storytelling:

And you who wish to represent by words the form of man and all the aspects of his membrification, relinquish that idea. For the more minutely you describe the more you will confine the mind of the reader, and the more you will keep him from the knowledge of the thing described. And so it is necessary to draw and to describe.”

Finished artwork for Ajubel's Robinson Crusoe.

From very early on, we both intuit and learn the language of pictorial representation, and most modern adults, the picturebook was our first dictionary of this visual vocabulary. Yet the picturebook — defined by its narrative framework of sequential imagery and minimalist text to convey meaning or tell a story, and different from the illustrated book in which pictures play a secondary narrative part, enhancing and decorating the narrative — is a surprisingly nascent medium.

In Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, illustrator Martin Salisbury and children’s literature scholar Morag Styles trace the fascinating evolution of the picturebook as a storytelling medium and a cultural agent, and peer into the future to see where the medium might be going next, with case studies of seminal works, a survey of artistic techniques, and peeks inside the sketchbooks and creative process of prominent illustrators adding dimension to this thoughtful and visually engrossing journey.

Though pictorial storytelling dates back to the earliest cave wall paintings, the true picturebook harks back to a mere 130 years ago, when artist and illustrator Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886) first began to elevate the image into a storytelling vehicle rather than mere decoration for text. Maurice Sendak, widely regarded as the greatest author of visual literature (though he refuses to identify as a “children’s author”), once wrote of Caldecott’s “rhythmic syncopation” and its legacy:

Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counter point that never happened before. Words are left out — but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the words say it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

Even early on, tensions between the creative vision and marketability of picturebooks captured the same friction between artist-storyteller and publisher that continues to plague children’s — if not all — publishing. Walter Crane (1845–1915), another Victorian-era picturebook innovator, famously grumbled about printer-publisher Edmund Evans’ approach to publishing:

“…but it was not without protest from the publishers who thought the raw, coarse colours and vulgar designs usually current appealed to a larger public, and therefore paid better…”

(Evans, per Crane’s remark, seemed to have taken on the role of a “circulation manager” of books, and with that came the same perception of compromised editorial integrity we’ve previously seen in the context of newspapers.)

Lewis Carroll's The Mouse's tale is an early example of text taking the visual form of that which it describes or alludes to.

But the picturebook didn’t fully blossom until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when new developments in printing technology, changing attitudes towards childhood, and a new class of exceptional artists catapulted it into a golden age. The first three decades of the twentieth century germinated such timeless classics as Curious George and the Babar stories. But as war consumed Europe, resources dwindled and the paper shortages of the post-war era placed new demands for keeping publishing costs low. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the austerity of the time, there was a profound longing for color as escapism, which reined in the neo-romantic movement.

Then, in the 1950s, a peculiar cultural shift began to take place — the line between artist and author started to blur, and a crop of famous graphic designers set out to write and illustrate picturebooks as a way of exploring visual thinking. (Just this week, one of the most celebrated such gems, the only children’s book by the great Saul Bass, resurfaced to everyone’s delight.) Among the highlights of this new frontier was a series of children’s picturebooks by legendary graphic designer — and, paradoxically, notorious curmudgeonPaul Rand.

He and his then-wife, Ann, produced Sparkle and Spin (1957), Little 1 (1962), and Listen! Listen! (1970), all an exercise in demonstrating “a playful but sophisticated understanding of the relationship between words and pictures, shapes, sounds, and thoughts.” (It was in the same period that Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco introduced young readers to semiotics, the study of signs and symbols.)

André François's Crocodile Tears (Universe Books NY, 1956) uses an extreme landscape format to reflect and emphasize the subject matter. It was François's first picturebook as author-artist.

In Um Dia Na Praia flat color without line is used with careful attention to the placement of every element in order to develop a wordless text. The very simple shapes need to carry the entire weight of a subtle pictorial narrative.

But many of these pioneering picturebook storytellers, just like Sendak does to this day, had an aversion to identifying as “children’s book” authors. Salisbury and Styles write:

Of course, many of the best picturebook artists would not describe themselves exclusively as such. André François was born in Hungary, in an area that became part of Romania after World War I. But it was as a French citizen that he spent his working life as a graphic artist, spanning visual satire, advertising and poster design, theater set design, sculpture, and book illustration. François’s work exhibited a childlike awkwardness that belied a highly sophisticated, biting eye.”

(Sound familiar?)

In the 1960s, as a generation of British artists emerged from art school, picturebooks entered a new era of vibrant paint and color, with many artists combining book illustration and painting to make a living. (Including, as we’ve seen, Andy Warhol.) It was in that era that some of the most influential picturebooks were born, including Maurice Sendak’s most beloved work and Miroslav Šašek’s timeless This Is… series.

Miroslav Sasek's 'This is…' series introduces children to countries and cities around the world. What distinguished them from many such books was the artist's eye for the anecdotal detail of different cultures. This is London was published by MacMillan in 1959.

(Don’t miss Šašek’s lesser-known 1961 gem, Stone Is Not Cold, in which he brings to life famous sculptures from London, Rome and the Vatican City in irreverent vignettes from everyday life.)

Maurice Sendak may be the greatest illustrator for children of all time and was certainly one of the earliest to make an impact on educators and scholars, as well as on children, parents, and the artistic community. Where The Wild Things Are (Harper & Row, 1963) was not Sendak’s first picturebook, but it was the first one to make a huge impression on children and adults alike. Interestingly, it caused a furor when it was published, with many critics anxious that it would be too terrifying for children.”

Vladimir Radunksy's swirling vortex of type and image perfectly complements Chris Raschka's rap text in Hip Hop Dog.

(You might recall Vladimir Radunsky, above, from his fantastic illustrations for Mark Twain’s Advice for Little Girls.)

But the book’s most fascinating feat is its discussion of the socially constructed and increasingly fluid criteria for what is suitable for children, with complex themes like violence, sex, death and grief, and human rights violations turning picturebooks into a powerful crossover storytelling medium for all ages. Even some of the most beloved storytelling of all time, like The Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Arabian Nights, was aimed at children but often featured dark, even savage, themes, and picturebooks have a documented history of radical politics.

The bleak, uncompromising visual and verbal text of Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip.

No Hay Tiempo Para Jugar / No Time to Play (text Sandra Arenal, illustrations Mariana Chiesa; Media Vaca, 2004). Produced in typical Media Vaca hardback format, the book gives voice to the child laborers of Mexico in words and pictures

Paradoxically — and disappointingly to those of us who celebrate the cross-pollination of genres, ideas, and narratives — traditional booksellers and the marketing departments of major publishers have remained oddly stringent about how picturebooks are labeled and sold, confining them strictly to children’s literature. (For an example of just how short that sells them, see Blexbolex’s fantastic, layered, remarkably thoughtful People, as delightful to kids as it is thought-provoking to adults — yet it remains shelved in the children’s section at the Big Corporate Bookstore.)

Color woodcuts by Isabelle Vandenabeele from Geert De Kockere's Vorspel Van Eeen Gebroken Liefde (De Eeenhoom, 2007)

The CJ Picture Book Festival in South Korea seems to get this crossover evolution, stating in its manifesto:

Picture books, in the present era, enjoy a status as a culture form to be enjoyed by people of all ages. It is a precious and versatile art that has already left the confines of paper behind, shattering the boundaries of its own genre and fusing with various other forms of art and imagery.”

The unique developmental capacities of children, Salisbury and Styles point out, also shape the stylistic suitability of visual texts, presenting their own set of paradoxes and challenges:

Many publishers and commentators express views about the suitability or otherwise of artworks for children, yet there is no definitive research that can tell us what kind of imagery is most appealing or communicative to the young eye. The perceived wisdom is that bright, primary colors are most effective for the very young. The difficulty is that children of traditional picturebook age tend not to have the language skills to express in words what they are receiving from an image. They can also be suggestible and prone to saying what they imagine adults want to hear. So, even with the best designed research projects, the world that children are experiencing will inevitably remain something of a mystery to us.”

In her Chain of Happiness illustration, Marta Altes screen-prints with three colors.

So where is this ever-evolving medium headed? Salisbury and Styles cite gaming developer turned children’s book illustrator Jon Skuse, who articulates both the tragedy and infinite potential of today’s children’s ebooks beautifully:

The eBook isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about an ‘exploration,’ and experience, rather like a pop-up book. What many publishers are doing wrong at the moment is just copying printed picturebooks on to this format, which does both media a disservice. It’s just like looking at a PDF. Children will simply flick through. A printed picturebook is a particular kind of physical experience that can be savored and revisited. The eBook needs to exploit its own particular characteristics and strengths to evolve as similarly special but distinct experience.”

The authors conclude with a metaphor for the future of picturebooks borrowed from Lane Smith’s fantastic It’s a Book:

Perhaps the last word (or, rather, the last word and picture) should go to that modern master of the idiom, Lane Smith. In his new picturebook, It’s a Book (Roaring Book Press, 2010), Smith’s ape tries to explain to Jackass that the thing he is holding is called a book. Among the stream of questions asked by Jackass are: ‘How do you scroll down?’, ‘Does it need a password?’, ‘Can you tweet?’ and ‘Can you make the characters fight?’. When Jackass eventually gets the hang of this strange object, ape is forced to enquire ‘Are you going to give my book back?’. ‘No,’ replies Jackass.”

As fascinating and rich as Children’s Picturebooks is, it suffers one conspicuous contradiction — with its concern with the format and future of the book, and its multitude of references to other books and historical materials, a kind of baked-in framework for truly networked knowledge, it would have, and should have, easily lent itself to the digital medium, where each of the dozens of books mentioned would be linked and explorable in rich media. Still, it remains a rigorously researched and compellingly curated survey of a tremendously important storytelling medium, one that equips young minds with a fundamental understanding not only of the world but also of its visual language.

Captioned images courtesy of Lawrence King Publishers

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