Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

14 AUGUST, 2014

C.S. Lewis’s Ideal Daily Routine

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“It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.”

I’ve had a longtime fascination with the daily routines of notable writers and their creative rituals. One of the most lyrical, opinionated, and altogether wonderful comes from C.S. Lewis — a man of great wisdom on writing and extraordinary capacity for nuance in existential matters. In his 1955 spiritual memoir, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (public library), Lewis outlines his ideal daily routine, modeled after his time studying privately at Great Bookham with his father’s old tutor at the age of fifteen:

[I] settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype, so that what I still mean when I speak of a “normal” day (and lament that normal days are so rare) is a day of the Bookham pattern. For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table…

Like artist Maira Kalman, who has long advocated for walking as a creative catalyst, Lewis was an avid walker — but with a key disclaimer:

By two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one … who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared.

(Of course, walking with the right kind of companion can only amplify our capacity to pay attention, rather than diminishing it.)

Lewis holds equally strong opinions about his tea. One can almost picture him demanding a strict adherence to George Orwell’s eleven golden rules for the perfect cup of tea as he describes the afternoon ritual:

The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude…

He goes on to outline the qualitative norms for permissible multitasking during mealtime, with some humbling criteria for what he considers light — “gossipy, formless” — reading:

Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. The ones I learned so to use at Bookham were Boswell, and a translation of Herodotus, and Lang’s History of English Literature. Tristram Shandy, Elia and The Anatomy of Melancholy are all good for the same purpose.

And then, it’s back to work until bedtime, the latter being a matter of strict discipline — because, lest we forget, the correlation between sleep and literary productivity is not to be dismissed:

At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven.

But Lewis’s most prescient money-quote — the one likely to elicit a bitter cackle from today’s inbox-weary writer — comes at the very end:

But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock.

Complement with Lewis on how to write with authenticity and what free will really means, then revisit the daily routines of Charles Darwin, William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Joy Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other literary titans.

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14 AUGUST, 2014

What Makes a Baby: An Inclusive and Imaginative Illustrated Guide to the Modern Family

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A playful illustrated primer for every kind of family and every kind of kid.

Benjamin Franklin’s oft-cited proclamation that nothing in the world is certain except death and taxes omits another existential inevitability, and arguably one no less pleasant — the question every parent dreads and no parent ever escapes: where do babies come from? After illustrator Sophie Blackall’s sweet and honest primer, here comes a very different but no less delightful answer from author Cory Silverberg and illustrator Fiona Smyth.

Imaginative and inclusive, What Makes a Baby (public library) is a modern-day, queer, colorful reimagining of Peter Mayle’s 1987 classic Where Did I Come From?. The playful illustrations and simple but intelligent text illuminate the basic biology of reproduction while honoring today’s diversity of families, of genders and gender identities, and of how kids can come into a family.

We learn, for instance, what a sperm is, but aren’t told that it always comes from the “father,” nor even from a “man” — simply what function in serves in creating a baby, unmooring the reproductive process from limiting definitions of gender and parental roles.

Inside the egg there are so many stories all about the body the egg came from.

Inside the sperm, just like the egg, there are so many stories all about the body the sperm came from.

When an egg and a sperm meet, they swirl together in a special kind of dance. As they dance, they talk to each other.

The egg tells the sperm all the stories it has to tell about the body it came from.

And the sperm tells the egg all the stories it has to tell about the body it came from.

Silverberg, a writer and sex-educator raised by a children’s librarian mother and sex therapist father, envisioned the book a few years ago, when all of a sudden many of his friends started having kids. There didn’t seem to be a book on baby-making that was lyrical and beautiful but biologically accurate, illuminating but not dreadfully pedagogical, a celebration of diversity but not a piece of self-righteous political propaganda. So he wrote one.

Who was waiting for you to be born?

Complement What Makes a Baby with little children’s deceptively simple, profound questions about how life works, then revisit kids’ amusing and poignant responses to gender politics during the second wave of feminism.

Images courtesy of Cory Silverberg / Triangle Square Books

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14 AUGUST, 2014

Barbara Walters on Gossip

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“You’re never just a spectator: unless you put a stop to it, you’re a participant.”

“It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table,” C.S. Lewis remarked in reflecting on the mealtime reading portion of his ideal daily routine. “What one wants is a gossipy, formless book.” And yet this is perhaps the only instance in which anything “gossipy” can have even a marginally fruitful function. Gossip, by and large, is as easy to go down as candy and just as bad for us in the long run — the kind of social malady that infects all parties involved with toxic poison under the guise of sugar-water.

From the out-of-print 1970 gem How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything (public library) — the same witty, perceptive guide that gave us Walters on the art of conversation and what Truman Capote teaches us about being interesting — comes a section on the perils of perpetuating gossip, which rings with tenfold the poignancy four decades later, in the age of constant social web chatter and clickbait entertainment “journalism.”

Walters admonishes:

Gossip can be fun when it’s gossip about famous people who’ll never hear of your discussion and couldn’t care less if they did. For me, gossip about Liz and Richard [Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton], or Jackie and Ari [Jacqueline Kennedy and Aristotle Onassis], is entirely fair, enormously interesting, and probably completely untrue. But gossip about people you know is not only morally wrong, it is also tactically wrong because it almost always gets back to the person involved.

And don’t kid yourself into false virtue because you kept silent when others were lacerating someone’s reputation. You’re never just a spectator: unless you put a stop to it, you’re a participant. Change the subject in a firm voice; say, “I like Jane very much and I’m sure none of us here is glad that she’s having problems. Let’s talk about something else…”

When all else fails, Walters suggests a clever counterstrategy of the reverse-psychology variety:

There’s always the classic line when someone is running down a mutual friend. You look amazed and say, “Funny, she always speaks so well of you.” I dare the gossip to go on after that, especially if you follow up your line with a compliment that the friend actually paid the gossip in your hearing.

Conversely, if you meet someone who you’ve heard has made a bitchy comment about you, try to be big about it. We all have said unkind things that we didn’t really mean, tricked by something nervous in the situation or in ourselves.

Her most heartbreaking observation on the culture — or, rather, culturelessness — of gossip comes as an almost throwaway remark:

Sometimes people gossip just because they feel they must in order to be interesting.

Noting that if the person who gossiped about you is someone you know and if there’s a grain of constructive criticism in the comment, you might be able to learn from it, Walters nonetheless makes room for our fallible humanity, which she illustrates with a disarming personal anecdote:

You’re only human though, and there are times when it’s a strain to be civilized. I had an experience with Joan Rivers before we ever met that made me doubt we could ever be polite, much less pals. She was being interviewed by The New York Times on the subject of femininity among female television performers. As examples of tough women, she quipped, “I’d love to put Barbara Walters and Jacqueline Susann in the same room and see which one came out alive.”

By a quirk of fate, I had just written Joan what amounted to a fan letter. She was about to do a brand-new interview show on NBC and I wanted to welcome her to the network. She received my note the day before her comment about me was to appear in the Times and although we’d never met, she telephoned me in agony to apologize.

I had written the note in all innocence, but I later thought that it was the perfect variation on the “funny-but-she-always-speaks-well-of-you” ploy. Anyway, Joan and I both felt so terrible about the incident that we’ve been friends ever since.

Joan Rivers and Barbara Walters, 2011 (Photograph: Rob Rich)

How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything, should you be able to track down a surviving copy, is well worth the read — rather than dated, most of Walters’s points of advice, aimed at helping you “get beyond the superficial forgettable small talk that most people use as a substitute for communication,” ring with all the more resonance in today’s vastly more public, many-voiced, conversation-based culture.

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