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Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

14 AUGUST, 2015

Micromegas: Voltaire’s Trailblazing Sci-Fi Philosophical Homage to Newton and the Human Condition, in a Rare Vintage Children’s Book

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“Perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

When the great French Enlightenment philosopher and satirist Voltaire (November 21, 1694–May 30, 1778) was traveling in England as a young man, he met Catherine Barton, Isaac Newton’s niece, who enchanted him with the story of how the trailblazing scientist had discovered gravity. So began Voltaire’s lifelong love affair with Newton’s work.

A few years later, when he met the Marquise du Châtelet — the remarkable woman mathematician with whom he fell in love — he wrote of her: “That lady whom I look upon as a great man … understands Newton, she despises superstition and in short she makes me happy.” With help from his beloved, who had translated Newton’s Principia from Latin herself, Voltaire penned Elements of the Philosophy of Newton in 1738 — the first major work bringing Newton’s theories to a popular audience.

But his most unusual and wonderful celebration of Newton’s legacy came more than a decade later. In 1752, he penned Micromégas — a short story notable not only for being a seminal work of science fiction, but for addressing with astonishing prescience an equally astonishing array of issues enormously timely today: He envisions space exploration and the search for extraterrestrial life two centuries before the word “astronaut” was coined; he champions animal consciousness a quarter millennium before we came to acknowledge it and study its complexities; above all, he speaks to the redemptive power of humility and critical thinking.

Voltaire tells the story of Micromegas, a brilliant giant from a distant planet, modeled after Newton and quite possibly a play on the great scientist’s famous proclamation: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Micromegas voyages across the universe with his slightly less gigantic friend and eventually ends up on Earth, at first unable to see its tiny human inhabitants, then skeptical of their intelligence, and at last amused by their incongruous self-importance. At the heart of the story is a poignant reminder that greatness is always relative and arrogance always misplaced, for however great we are, there is always someone greater out there; and that however much we may wish to outsource the ultimate task of existence, we must discern the meaning of life for ourselves.

In 1967, more than two centuries after Voltaire penned his clever and imaginative allegory, writer Elizabeth Hall adapted it for young readers in Voltaire’s Micromegas (public library) — a marvelous vintage “children’s” book relaying Voltaire’s timeless message for all ages, with breathtaking illustrations by artist Don Freeman.

On one of those planets which revolve around the star named Sirius, there was a very clever young man. He was called Micromegas, a name which suits all big men, for, though they may be huge in their own land, there is always another land where they will find themselves small.

So huge is Micromegas that he stands eight leagues tall, his head twenty miles away from his feet and his intellect commensurate with his size. By the time he reaches adolescence at the age of about 500, he begins conducting scientific experiments that challenge the dogma of the land. Once he publishes his theories, the great ruler of Sirius is so displeased — much like Isaac Newton’s theories had displeased the religious leaders of his day — that he banishes Micromegas from the court for eight hundred years.

Micromegas was only slightly upset at being banished from court. Instead of grieving, he began to travel from planet to planet in order to develop his mind and heart.

On Saturn, he meets the local “dwarves” — only a mile tall — and becomes fast friends with the Secretary of the Academy of Saturn, who joins him on the cosmic voyage. Together, they visit the other planets in the Solar System until they come across an aurora borealis that carries them to Earth and drops them on the northern coast of the Baltic Sea.

After snacking on two snow-capped mountains for breakfast, they set about exploring this tiny world, which they traverse in a matter of hours, looking for signs of life.

They see “the puddle called the Mediterranean” and “that other little pond which is known as the Atlantic Ocean,” but their enormous eyes remain blind to the tiny creatures inhabiting the planet — and so the dwarf concludes that there must be no life on this jagged, irregular piece of rock with its strange rivers, none of which flow in a straight line, and its odd-shaped lakes, neither round nor square. But Micromegas is unconvinced.

“What makes me guess there is no life here is that it seems to me that sensible people would not want to live here,” [said the dwarf].

“Well,” said Micromegas, “perhaps those who live here are not sensible people.”

Agitated over their argument, Micromegas accidentally breaks the string of his diamond necklace and discovers — another nod to Newton here — that because of how they are cut, the diamonds make excellent microscope lenses. With that makeshift microscope, the dwarf suddenly sees something moving under the water in the sea — a whale.

He lifted it up very skillfully with his little finger. He put it on his thumbnail. He showed it to the Sirian who began to laugh at the extreme smallness of the inhabitants of our globe.

The Saturnian, now certain that our world was inhabited, immediately imagined it was inhabited only by whales. Since he was a great reasoner, he wanted to guess from where so tiny a speck drew its movement and whether it had a mind and a will.

This upset Micromegas. He examined the animal very patiently. The result of the examination was that there were no reasons for believing that a soul inhabited the tiny whale. The two travelers therefore believed there was no intelligence on our earth.

But just as they’re drawing their conclusion, the two cosmic travelers spot something bigger than the whale floating on the Baltic Sea.

It is known that at this same time a flock of philosophers were returning from the Arctic Circle where they had been making observations. No one had noticed their expedition until that moment. The newspapers later said that their ship ran aground off the coast of Bothnia and that they had great difficulty in escaping.

Intrigued by this supposed new animal, Micromegas picks up the ship ever so gently, greatly alarming the ship’s still-invisible passengers. The commotion registers as a tickle — just enough for Micromegas to sense something moving. But his microscope, barely powerful enough to detect the whale, struggles to reveal these tiny human mites to his eye. Still, he stares intently until he begins to notice these tiny specks, not only moving but seemingly communicating with each other.

Inventive like Newton himself, Micromegas pulls out a pair of scissors — for who would travel the cosmos without one? — and clips off a piece of his nail, which he curls into a funnel to create a huge megaphone. Pointing it to his ear, he can suddenly hear the tiny creatures. Afraid that his great big voice would deafen them, he sticks a toothpick in his mouth to keep a safe distance from the ship, kneels, and lowers his voice to speak to the passengers softly.

After telling the earthlings how sorry he was that they were so tiny, he asked them if they had always been in such a wretched state, so near to not existing at all. The dwarf then asked them what they did on a world which belonged to whales, if they were happy, if they had souls, and a hundred other questions.

One reasoner in the crowd, more daring than the others, was shocked that the dwarf doubted he had a soul. Using his quadrant, he looked at the dwarf several times and said, “You believe, sir, because your head stretches a mile from your feet that you are a…”

The dwarf interrupts in astonishment. Impressed that the tiny human has been able to estimate his height, he concludes that they must surely have both a mind and a soul. Nearly two centuries before the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, in which some of Earth’s real-life leading scientists asserted that nonhuman animals have consciousness, Micromegas declares:

More than ever I see that we must not judge anything by size. If it is possible that there are being smaller than these tiny specks, it is also possible that they have minds superior to those splendid animals I have seen in the sky.

The more Micromegas comes to know Earth and its inhabitants, the more impressed he becomes with their merits — and yet he remains blind to their flaws:

Micromegas suggested that the tiny creatures on earth, having such fine minds and small bodies, must spend their lives in perfect happiness.

All the philosophers shook their heads.

One of them, more courageous than the rest, distills for the celestial visitor the absurdity of every war as Voltaire once again exerts his satirical genius of putting in perspective the grandiose pettiness of the human condition:

“For example,” he said, “do you know that as I am speaking to you, there are one hundred thousand fools wearing hats, who are killing one hundred thousand other animals wearing turbans, or in turn are being massacred by them? And that people have acted in this way for as long as man can remember?”

The Sirian shuddered. He asked what the reason could be for such horrible quarrels among such pitiful animals.

“They are fighting,” said the philosopher, “over a few piles of dirt as big as your heel. They slaughter one another, not for a single straw of the dirt piles, but to decide whether they will belong to a man called Sultan or to another called Caesar. Neither Sultan nor Caesar has ever seen the little bits of dirt.”

Appalled, Micromegas inquires how the philosophers, being among the few wise men who don’t kill others for a living, spend their time:

“We dissect flies,” answered the philosopher. “We measure lines. We study numbers. We agree on two or three points which we understand, and we disagree on two or three thousand which we don’t understand.”

But then, as Micromegas begins inquiring about the things on which the earthlings do agree, Voltaire throws his most piercing spear of cultural critique, satirizing the ludicrous religious dogma which Newton had to combat in his day:

Then, unfortunately, one of the puny earthlings said he knew the secret of the universe. He regarded the two celestial inhabitants from head to toe. Throwing back his head, the better to shout and make himself heard, he said that the visitors’ very selves, their worlds, their suns, their stars, all were made solely for man.

At this speech the two travelers fell on each other, choking with laughter. Their shoulders shook. Their bellies shook. In these convulsions, the ship that the Sirian was balancing on his nail tumbled into the pocket of the dwarf’s trousers.

Micromegas and the dwarf, being kindly and conscientious even in the face of such absurd arrogance, recover the ship from the pocket and gently place it back onto the sea. As a parting gift, before leaping onto another aurora borealis to return home, Micromegas offers the earthlings “a fine book of philosophy” to take to the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

But when the Secretary of the Academy — a Voltaire lookalike — opens the tome, he discovers a book of empty pages. Micromegas has delivered his message: Earthlings must learn philosophy — that is, the art of understanding how to live and how to die — for themselves.

How lamentable that a “children’s” book as imaginative and insightful and full of timeless, ageless wisdom as Voltaire’s Micromegas should go out of print — perhaps a publisher with a good heart and a good head on her shoulders would consider bringing it back for today’s young readers, who need Voltaire’s message of humility and critical thinking perhaps more than ever. In the meantime, used copies do exist and are very much worth the used-book hunt or the trip to the library.

Complement it with David the Dreamer, another unusual vintage children’s book illustrated by Freud’s eccentric niece, and The Hole, a contemporary Scandinavian counterpart that enchants young readers with existential questions, then revisit Voltaire on how to write well and stay true to your creative vision and the story of how he fell in love with the brilliant Marquise.

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10 AUGUST, 2015

The Little Gardener: A Tender Illustrated Parable of Purpose and the Power of Working with Love

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A sweet celebration of all that is alive and wonderful, inside us and in the outside world we shape together.

When I was a child in Bulgaria, my mother came up with a fictional character named Nokkut — Bulgarian for “thumbnail,” for he was a tiny, thumb-sized boy. Every night before bed, she told me fanciful tales of his adventures.

As young working parents struggling to make ends meet, my parents benefited from the great luxury of Europe’s highly efficient system of free childcare: grandparents. Every spring, I was handed off to my grandparents in the countryside. They had an orchard and a large garden full of flowers and strawberries and all kinds of vegetables. I loved the garden with all my heart — I loved digging into the moist dirt with my bare hands, I loved biting into an heirloom tomato fresh off the vine, I loved helping my grandmother plant the pumpkins, I loved waking up early to tend to the gerber daisies with my elephant-shaped watering jug.

Although I did not yet have the words to name the awareness, those were my first brushes with gardening as a spiritual experience — a sacred communion with the earth, a meditative activity with a special kind of prayerfulness to it.

Back in the city during the school year, and especially during the cold winter months, I missed my grandmother’s garden terribly. To alleviate my wistfulness, my mother would tell me stories of Nokkut and his garden. Eventually, she even sewed a miniature rag-doll version of him, clad in a brown corduroy jumpsuit — made of my father’s old trousers — and a tiny gardener’s hat.

Imagine my delight when, many years later, I came upon The Little Gardener (public library) by Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes. On the heels and in the spirit of her wondrous Wild, one of the best children’s books of 2014, Hughes tells the story of a tiny boy, no larger than a thumb, and his garden.

The charming, immeasurably sweet tale calls to mind what Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!” It is at heart a parable of purpose — tender assurance for anyone who has ever undertaken a labor of love against seemingly insurmountable odds and persevered through hardship, continuing to nourishing that labor until the love emanates out, becomes contagious, and draws in kindred spirits as a centripetal force of shared purpose and enthusiasm.

Hughes’s illustrations, vibrant and deeply alive, capture that strange tapestry of tenderness and wilderness of which the human soul is woven.

This was the garden.
It didn’t look like much, but it meant everything to its gardener.
It was his home. It was his supper.
It was his joy.

But the little gardener, joyful and hardworking as he is, isn’t “much good at gardening,” for he is “just too little” — a beautiful metaphor for that feeling familiar to any artist and entrepreneur at the outset of a creative project, that sense of smallness in the face of a seemingly enormous endeavor, that moment where humility and faith must converge in order for one to surmount the mental barrier and march forward.

Mismatch of task and capability notwithstanding, the little gardener’s hard work pays off and one thing does blossom.

It was a flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the gardener hope and made him want to work even harder.

And so he does — he toils day and night, tirelessly tending to his jungle of a garden.

Even so, it begins to perish, his home, his supper, and his joy all at stake.

One particularly hopeless night, the little gardener peers out the window of his tiny straw hut and sends a single wish into the night sky — he wished that he could have some help, so his beloved garden would be saved.

No one heard his little voice, but someone saw his flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the someone hope.

It made the someone want to work harder.

As he blows his wish into the cosmos with a heavy heart, the little gardner drifts into sleep just as heavy — he sleeps a whole day, a whole week, a whole month. But, meanwhile, the Gulliveresque girl enchanted by that single flower — the little gardener’s sole labor of love — begins tending to the whole garden.

By the time the little gardener awakens, the garden is transformed into a blooming wonderland, nurtured by the largeness of a contagious love the seed for which he had planted in the heart of another.

This is the garden now.

And this is its gardener.

He doesn’t look like much,
but he means everything to his garden.

The Little Gardener, a heartwarming delight in its entirety, comes from independent British picture-book powerhouse Flying Eye Books, makers of such treats as Hug Me, Monsters & Legends, Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, and the illustrated biography of Shackleton. Complement it with Hughes’s debut, Wild, then revisit one medieval gardener’s beautiful meditation on the spiritual uses of fruit trees.

Illustrations courtesy of Emily Hughes / Flying Eye Books

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07 AUGUST, 2015

Oliver Button Is a Sissy: A Sweet Vintage Celebration of Difference and the Courage to Withstand Stereotypes

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An illustrated homage to those who brave the violence of our narrow cultural norms.

Childhood, as a cultural construct, is a fairly recent invention — it wasn’t until John Locke that we stopped seeing children as simpler, lesser versions of adults and granted them the dignity of a singular experience in a life-stage marked by enormous emotional complexity. Today, we recognize children’s reality as decidedly different from but not lesser than adults’ — an idea passionately defended by the great enchanters of children’s imagination. And from their singular vantage point of absolute sincerity, kids are able to call out the faults in our grownup reality — like the little boy who confronted Disney about their racial and gender stereotypes.

But childhood can also be a gruesome microcosm of our human capacity for cruelty — perhaps nowhere more so than in precisely that tyranny of stereotypes and the bullying it engenders.

In the 1979 gem Oliver Button Is a Sissy (public library) — a fine addition to the best LGBT children’s books — beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola (b. September 15, 1934) tells the story of a little boy who doesn’t enjoy doing all the boy-things expected of him and finds himself, like many kids have, bullied for preferring more creative and “feminine” pastimes.

The marvelous illustrations are reminiscent of early Maurice Sendak — incidentally, another gay man who was bullied for being an artsy “sissy” as a child — yet dePaola’s sensibility is unmistakably his own.

We meet little Oliver, who prefers drawing and reading and picking flowers to playing sports. And when he has to do the latter, he is decidedly bad at it — so bad that the team captain always bemoans being stuck with klutzy Oliver Button.

Oliver likes to play dress-up in the attic, so he can sing and dance and dream of being a star. Most of all, he likes to tap-dance.

But even his parents aren’t comfortable with Oliver’s difference, so when they finally agree to send him to Ms. Leah’s Dancing School, his father mumbles the self-conscious justification that it’s “for the exercise.”

At the dance school and at home, Oliver practices with joy. At school, he endures the boys’ constant teasing about his tap shoes — and when the girls leap to his defense, he is teased all the more for having to get help from the girls.

To make matters even more unambiguous and publicly humiliating, the bullies graffiti the school wall.

But Oliver isn’t discouraged. Instead, he does as Neil Gaiman counseled in his spectacular commencement address — when face with criticism and rejection, the only sensible response is to keep making art. He continues to practice, determined to dazzle at the upcoming school talent show.

When the big day comes, Oliver gives it his very best, tap-dancing up a storm. His final bow is followed by exuberant applause.

But when the winner is announced — baton-twirler Roxie Valentine — Oliver can barely hold back his tears.

The next day, he can’t bear the thought of going to class — but go he must. Crestfallen, he makes his way to school and is the last to go in when the bell rings. But then something miraculous happens — one of those small mercies that can change a life, an act that calls to mind George Saunders on the power of kindness. Having seen Oliver for who he really is, through the art he so loves, the boys have revised their graffiti.

Oliver’s story is closely based on dePaola’s own childhood experience — a gay man, he grew up in an era where he didn’t even know what “gay” meant and only felt a profound, aching sense of difference. He recounts:

I could spend hours drawing, and nobody ever asked me to play on their ball teams because I was so bad at it. But, like Oliver, I was a great tap dancer!

Fortunately for dePaola, and even more fortunately for us, he did what Oliver did — he just kept making art and went on to delight generations with his warm, wonderful, deeply assuring children’s books.

Complement the wholly wonderful Oliver Button Is a Sissy with children’s heartwarming responses to gender politics from the same era, then revisit Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a tender story about gender identity and acceptance.

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29 JULY, 2015

What Pet Should I Get? Dr. Seuss’s Previously Unseen Illustrated Wink at the Paradox of Choice and the Fear of Missing Out

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“Oh boy! It is something to make a mind up.”

Theodor Geisel (March 2, 1904–September 24, 1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most beloved children’s book authors of all time. Maurice Sendak called him “a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work.” Geisel was also a creature besotted with animals, in his art and his life. One of literary history’s greatest pet-lovers, he had more pets throughout his life than he did accolades, and accolades he had many — including a Pulitzer Prize, three Caldecott Honors, and eight honorary degrees. Animals populated his many children’s books, his secret art, and even his wartime propaganda cartoons.

In the spring of 1957, almost two decades after his little-known “adult” book of nudes, it was an animal book — The Cat in the Hat — that led critics to declare Dr. Seuss an overnight success, despite the fact that he had been writing for twenty years and this was his thirteenth book. That fall, How the Grinch Stole Christmas sealed his status as a celebrity of creative culture and he joined Random House as the editor of a new imprint for young readers.

But the book into which Dr. Seuss poured his most exuberant love of animals, created sometime between 1958 and 1962, was never made public in his lifetime.

In 1991, shortly after his death, Geisel’s widow Audrey and his longtime secretary and friend Claudia Prescott discovered among his papers the manuscript and finished line art for what is now finally published as What Pet Should I Get? (public library).

Although the story, on the surface, is about a classic practical dilemma of childhood, it has — like all Dr. Seuss books, and like all great children’s books, for there is no such thing as writing “for children” — a deeper philosophical undercurrent. At its heart is a meditation on two all too common maladies afflicting modern grownups — the paradox of choice, which Geisel witnessed closely as the Mad Men era ushered in consumerist society and which continues to fascinate psychologists today, and the fear of missing out, so pervasive in contemporary culture that we’ve shorthanded it into the buzzwordy acronym FOMO.

We meet a brother and sister who arrive at the pet store, enraptured by their father’s permission to choose one — and only one — pet to take home. But as soon as they enter, a growing chorus of lovable animals make their irresistible appeals. The common binary choice of cat or dog soon expands into an overwhelming array of increasingly fantastical creatures, beginning with other less common real-life pet options and eventually tipping over into Dr. Seuss’s famous imaginary beings.

Recurring throughout the story and interjecting the otherwise first-person narrative is an omniscient voice urging the kids, “Make up your mind” — the quintessential refrain of the mind paralyzed by the paradox of choice and tortured by FOMO.

The cat?
Or the dog?
The kitten?
The pup?

Oh boy!
It is something
to make a mind up.

Then I looked at Kay.
I said, “What will we do?
I like all the pets that I see.
So do you.

We have to pick ONE pet
and pick it out soon.
You know Mother told us
to be back by noon.”

The ending is both playful and profound: Under the use-it-or-lose-it proposition of the time they were given to choose a pet, the kids do as the refrain urges, make up their minds, and choose — except we never find out which creature they chose.

Undergirding this open-endedness is a poetic reminder that in the face of life’s dilemmas, there is often no right or wrong choice — what matters is only that we do choose, that we make up our minds and march forward, for nothing dulls the little time we have more surely than the paralysis of indecision. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who tells the Cheshire Cat: “I don’t much care where … so long as I get somewhere.

“I will do it right now.
I will do it!” I said.
“I will make up the mind
that is up in my head.”

The dog…? Or the rabbit…?
The fish…? Or the cat…?
I picked one out fast,
and that that was that.

The story’s protagonists are the same kids that had appeared in Dr. Seuss’s 1960 book One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. (Geisel, like Maurice Sendak and other children’s book authors, sometimes recycled his characters.) Like most of the books Dr. Seuss created before 1963, One Fish was colored using basic CMYK — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — without mixing the inks to create other colors, such as green and purple, which would only appear in his later books.

Geisel was ordinarily meticulous about indicating what colors should go where in his line art, but he had left no such markings on this manuscript. To address the practical challenge while honoring Dr. Seuss’s aesthetic, Cathy Goldsmith — the Random House art director tasked with bringing the manuscript to posthumous life — turned to the fish book as a color guide but bridged it with Dr. Seuss’s later work to create a hybrid palette composed primarily of CMYK, enriched by a few additional colors. This would no doubt have pleased Geisel, a notorious perfectionist who belabored every detail and once professed:

I know my stuff looks like it was rattled off in twenty-eight seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.

A spread from 'What Pet Should I Get?' as it was originally found. Geisel estimated that he produced more than a thousand pages of text and images for a typical 64-page book, revising over and over. He always taped the text into position on the original line art, as seen here.

In the afterword, the editors at Random House add a thoughtful addendum to the otherwise timeless Dr. Seuss story, pointing out a critical aspect of how times have changed:

Pets are life-changing. They greet us like heroes when we walk in the door, comfort us when we are sad, and love us unconditionally. Dogs and cats are the most popular pets in the United States, but these wonderful, vulnerable animals can easily live for over a decade and are dependent on us for their needs. So committing to caring for a pet as a cherished, not captive, companion is a big decision.

Choosing where to get your pet is also very important. When Dr. Seuss wrote What Pet Should I Get? over fifty years ago, it was common for people to simply buy dogs, cats, and other animals at pet stores. Today animal advocates encourage us to adopt them from a shelter or rescue organization and warn us never to purchase pets from places that are supplied by puppy mills. We wholeheartedly agree and completely support this recommendation.

Hear, hear.

Complement the wholly delightful What Pet Should I Get? with the secret art of Dr. Seuss, then revisit this fascinating cultural history of thinking with animals.

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