Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

08 APRIL, 2014

Gorgeous and Rare Illustrations for Alice in Wonderland by John Vernon Lord

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The intricate art of confounding expectations.

“Words mean more than we mean to express when we use them,” Lewis Carroll once wrote in a letter to a friend, “so a whole book ought to mean a great deal more than the writer means.”

Perhaps due to its timelessly whimsical nature, Alice in Wonderland — the umbrella title given to Lewis Carroll’s classic duo Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, inspired by a real-life little girl he once knew — has commanded a number of artful visual interpretations over the years, by some of history’s most celebrated artists — from John Tenniel’s original engravings to Leonard Weisgard’s gorgeous 1949 illustrations to Salvador Dalí’s little-known heliogravures to legendary cartoonist Ralph Steadman’s 1973 masterpiece to Yayoi Kusama’s unmistakable dotted fancy, and even some remarkable 3-D paper engineering. But among the most enchanting is the special ultra-limited edition Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (public library) illustrated by British artist John Vernon Lord — one of the most imaginative literary illustrators working today, who also gave us those spectacular recent illustrations for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. The Alice volume was originally printed in an edition of only 420 signed and numbered copies, of which 98 came with a special set of prints.

Lord writes in the afterword to his glorious edition:

There is hardly anything new to be said about Lewis Carroll’s two ‘Alice’ books. So much has been written about them. Their contents have been probed by the scalpels of psychoanalysts, literary theorists, annotators, enthusiasts and the journalists. Perhaps I should include illustrators among this group, for it is the illustrator’s duty to get to grips with the text and thus make a visual commentary upon it.

Readers of the text and viewers of the illustrations also make a book their own. Each one of us interprets stories and pictures in our own way and each one of us is unique. . . . [But] I think we have to be careful not to look for too many possible meanings that we might think may be lurking within the text of Carroll’s Alice books. It is very tempting to do so and many writers have done just that, sometimes disturbingly, often without evidence, and sometimes in a most delightfully illuminating way.

And yet Lord’s own illustrations invite a wealth of meaning — the most “delightfully illuminating” kind possible. He argues that illustrators of classics like Carroll’s have the special duty of “confounding people’s expectations,” as readers are already well familiar with the stories and long “to be given a different slant to a familiar narrative.” I was fortunate enough to hunt down one of these rare editions — here’s a taste of Lord’s unparalleled genius:

If you’re able to track one down, do treat yourself to a copy of Lord’s Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There — it’s absolutely gorgeous. Complement it with other visual takes on Alice by Leonard Weisgard (1949), Salvador Dalí (1969), Ralph Steadman (1973), and Yayoi Kusama (2012).

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08 APRIL, 2014

The Adulterous Society: How John Updike Made Suburban Sex Sexy

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“There is no such thing as static happiness. Happiness is a mixed thing, a thing compounded of sacrifices, and losses, and betrayals.”

John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wasn’t merely the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities medal, among a wealth of other awards. He had a mind that could ponder the origin of the universe, a heart that could eulogize a dog with such beautiful bittersweetness, and a spirit that could behold death without fear. He is also credited with making suburban sex sexy, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society” — something Adam Begley explores in the long-awaited biography Updike (public library).

Begley chronicles Updike’s escapades in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, just as he was breaking through with The New Yorker — the bastion of high culture to which he had dreamed of contributing since the age of twelve. His literary career was beginning to gain momentum with the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960 — the fictional story of a twenty-something suburban writer who, drowning in responsibilities to his young family, finds love outside of marriage. The fantasy would soon become a reality for 28-year-old Updike, a once-dorky kid who had gotten through Harvard by playing the class clown clad in his ill-fitted tweed jackets and unfashionably wide ties. Suddenly, he and his wife Mary landed in the middle of a network of Ipswich couples entwined by more than close friendships:

Updike wasn’t the first in his Ipswich crowd to commit adultery, and it’s possible that he wasn’t even the first in his marriage…

He didn’t have to look far to find a lover. Several of the couples had already had affairs before moving to Ipswich, and once they were all settled and best friends, romantic intrigue was very much in the air. It’s safe to say that the group’s unusual closeness (and a large part of the pain that followed) had something to do with the collective willingness to indulge in extramarital sex. This “weave of promiscuous friendship” wasn’t a purely local phenomenon. “Welcome to the post-pill paradise” is perhaps the most famous line from [Updike's 1968 novel] Couples, which Updike set in 1963, three years after he claimed to have first fallen “in love, away from marriage” — and three years after the first birth-control pill was approved for use in the United States. Did the advent of oral contraception unleash a frenzy of adulterous coupling in suburban communities all over the country? That theory seems a little pat, yet there’s a measure of truth to it. There’s no doubt that by the time of JFK’s assassination, the junior set of Ipswich were already hopping in and out of one another’s beds with impressive frequency. Whatever moral qualms Updike might have had were long since banished, and any lingering shyness had dissipated. He threw himself with reckless enthusiasm into the tangle of Ipswich infidelities. It’s worth stressing, however, that it wasn’t his idea; he wasn’t the instigator. He made suburban sex famous, but he didn’t invent it.

(Curiously, it was in the thick of that period that Updike penned his first children’s book.)

To give a sense of just how normalized the extramarital escapades were in the Ipswich community, Begley offers a telling example — the only two affairs of real significance in Updike’s life, one with Joyce Harrington, who was a “core member” of the love-swapping crowd along with her husband Herbert, and the other with Martha Bernhard, who had joined the circle later on with her husband Alex. Begley writes:

The first affair came within a whisker of ending the Updikes’ marriage in the fall of 1962; the second did end the marriage: John separated from Mary in 1974, and they were divorced two years later. John and Martha married soon afterward. And then, as if to demonstrate what a snarled web it was, Alex Bernhard, Martha’s ex-husband, married Joyce Harrington, John’s ex-mistress.

John and Martha Updike in East Hampton, July 14, 1978 (photograph by Jill Krementz)

John and Martha remained together for the rest of the author’s life, and yet Updike’s words to a Time magazine reporter in March of 1968 poignantly captured the essence of those thunderous emotional upheavals:

There is no such thing as static happiness. Happiness is a mixed thing, a thing compounded of sacrifices, and losses, and betrayals.

Though later, in his 1996 memoir Self-Consciousness — which is an altogether excellent read — Updike would speak of that youthful promiscuity with great disdain, proclaiming those behaviors to be “malicious, greedy … obnoxious … rapacious and sneaky … remorseless,” he did draw on them as raw material in his writing for decades to come.

That, indeed, was the most fervent and most faithful love affair of his life — his eternal marriage to literature. For all the rewards of carnal pleasure and cultural prestige, Updike remained most enchanted and gratified by the joy of writing itself. In 2006, upon receiving the coveted Rea Award for the Short Story after twenty years of wistfully watching it be awarded to other writers, Updike marveled:

It doesn’t do to think overmuch about prizes, does it? Being a writer at all is the prize.

Updike is an irresistibly rich read in its entirety, a rare dimensional glimpse of one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, housed in the interior of an infinitely interesting man. Complement it with Updike on writing and death, why the world exists, and the most important thing aspiring writers should know.

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08 APRIL, 2014

The Science of How Memory Works

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What the four “slave” systems of the mind have to do with riding a bicycle.

“Whatever becomes of [old memories], in the long intervals of consciousness?” Henry James wistfully pondered upon turning fifty. “They are like the lines of a letter written in sympathetic ink; hold the letter to the fire for a while and the grateful warmth brings out the invisible words.” James was not alone in seeking to understand the seemingly mysterious workings of human memory — something all the more urgently fascinating in our age of information overload, where we’re evolving a new kind of “transactive memory.” But like other scientific mysteries of how the brain works — including what actually happens while we sleep and why some people are left-handed — memory continues to give scientists more questions than answers.

In The Guardian of All Things: The Epic Story of Human Memory (public library) technology writer Michael S. Malone takes a 10,000-year journey into humanity’s understanding of our great cognitive record-keeper, exploring both its power and its ongoing perplexity.

Illustration from 'Neurocomic,' a graphic novel about how the brain works. Click image for more.

One of the most astounding facts Malone points out is that memory — that is, the creation of memories — is the result of a biochemical reaction that takes place inside neurons, one particularly common among neurons responsible for our senses. Scientists have recently discovered that our short-term memory — also known as “working memory,” the kind responsible for the “chunking” mechanism that powers our pattern-recognition and creativity — is localized to a few specific areas of the brain. The left hemisphere, for instance, is mostly in charge of verbal and object-oriented tasks. Even so, however, scientists remain mystified by the specific distribution, retrieval, and management of memory. Malone writes:

One popular theory holds that short-term memory consists of four “slave” systems. The first is phonological, for sound and language that (when its contents begin to fade) buys extra time through a second slave system. This second operation is a continuous rehearsal system — as you repeat a phone number you’ve just heard as you run to the other room for your phone. The third system is a visuo-spatial sketch pad that, as the name suggests, stores visual information and mental maps. Finally, the fourth (and most recently discovered) slave is an episodic buffer that gathers all of the diverse information in from the other slaves, and maybe other information from elsewhere, and integrates them together into what might be described as a multimedia memory.

It’s worth noting that memory and creativity have a great deal in common — the combinatorial process of memory-making that Malone describes is remarkably similar to how creativity works: we gather ideas and information just by being alive and awake to the world, record some of those impressions in our mental sketch pad, then integrate the various bits into new combinations that we call our “own” ideas, a kind of “multimedia” assemblage of existing bits.

Malone goes on to explore the inner workings of long-term memory — a substantially different beast, designed to keep our permanent mental record:

Chemically, we have a pretty good idea how memories are encoded and retained in brain neurons. As with short-term memory, the storage of information is made possible by the synthesis of certain proteins in the cell. What differentiates long-term memory in neurons is that frequent repetition of signals causes magnesium to be released — which opens the door for the attachment of calcium, which in turn makes the record stable and permanent. But as we all know from experience, memory can still fade over time. For that, the brain has a chemical process called long-term potentiation that regularly enhances the strength of the connections (synapses) between the neurons and creates an enzyme protein that also strengthens the signal — in other words, the memory — inside the neuron.

From the functional, Malone moves on to the structural organization of memory, where another dichotomy emerges:

Architecturally, the organization of memory in the brain is a lot more slippery to get one’s hands around (so to speak); different perspectives all seem to deliver useful insights. For example, one popular way to look at brain memory is to see it as taking two forms: explicit and implicit. Explicit, or “declarative,” memory is all the information in our brains that we can consciously bring to the surface. Curiously, despite its huge importance in making us human, we don’t really know where this memory is located. Scientists have, however, divided explicit memory into two forms: episodic, or memories that occurred at a specific point in time; and semantic, or understandings (via science, technology, experience, and so on) of how the world works.

Implicit, or “procedural” memory, on the other hand, stores skills and memories of how to physically function in the natural world. Holding a fork, driving a car, getting dressed — and, most famously, riding a bicycle — are all nuanced activities that modern humans do without really giving them much thought; and they are skills, in all their complexity, that we can call up and perform decades after last using them.

One of the most confounding pieces of the cognitive puzzle, however, is a form of memory known as emotional memory — a specialized system for cataloging our memories based on the emotions they evoke. It’s unclear whether it belongs to the explicit or implicit domain, or to both, and scientists are still seeking to understand whether it serves as a special “search function” for the brain. (What we do now know, however, is that sharpening “emotional recall” might be the secret to better memory.)

From all this perplexity emerges Malone’s bigger point, a somewhat assuring testament to the idea that science, at its best, is always driven by “thoroughly conscious ignorance”:

What we do know is that — a quarter-million years after mankind inherited this remarkable organ called the brain — even with all of the tools available to modern science, human memory remains a stunning enigma.

The Guardian of All Things is a fascinating read in its entirety. Complement it with Joshua Foer’s quest to hack memory to superhuman levels and Henry James on aging and memory.

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