Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘cities’

16 DECEMBER, 2013

Why New York City Is Known as “The Big Apple”

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A brief history of brilliant branding.

How come New York City is nicknamed “The Big Apple”? That’s precisely what ten-year-old Ellen wonders in Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library) — that magnificent compendium of big thinkers’ answers to little kids’ questions about how life works, also among the best children’s books and the best science books of 2013. Author Philip Gooden, masterful writer about language and history, explains:

There’s an old American expression “to bet a big apple” and it means to be very certain of what you’re talking about. Then about a hundred years ago the “big apple” started to be applied to horse racing in New York, perhaps because it was the most important center for horse races or because of the value of the prizes. From there the expression grew even wider until it came to describe the city itself, especially during an age when it was one of the most exciting, fast-moving and glamorous places on Earth.

After a time, advertisers started using the words and even the image of a large, glossy, unblemished apple because they realized it was a good way to encourage people to visit the city. It’s true too: New York is like the biggest apple in the world, the shiny object that everybody wants a slice of.

Take a virtual slice of this shiny apple with a look at the city’s people, cats, dogs, buildings, diaries, love letters, and farewells.

Photograph from Berenice Abbott's 'Changing New York' series, 1935-1939. Click image for more.

Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? is absolutely wonderful in its entirety. Sample its goodness with some of the questions and answers here, including my response to a nine-year-old girl, who wanted to know why we have books.

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14 NOVEMBER, 2013

An Illustrated Field Guide to Biking in 8 Major European Cities

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Across the Old World on two wheels.

The invention of the bicycle is easily one of the greatest human achievements, one credited with everything from the spread of urbanism to the emancipation of women. City Cycling: Europe (public library) is a beautiful new boxed set by Thames & Hudson — who previously gave us the visually stunning Cyclepedia — in partnership with high-end cycling brand Rapha Racing, presenting a series of field guides to happiness on two wheels in eight of Europe’s biggest cities: London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Milan, and Antwerp/ Ghent. From adventurous itineraries to neighborhood curiosities to complete cycling maps to training tips, these backpack-friendly paperback treats feature 400 color illustrations reminiscent of mid-century travel pamphlets and children’s books:

Complement City Cycling: Europe with this charming vintage bike safety manual, handy as ever.

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05 NOVEMBER, 2013

Before I Die: A Global Ethnography of Anonymous Aspirations in Chalk and Public Space

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“Thinking about death clarifies your life.”

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Chang, queen of thoughtful installations in public spaces that invite collaborative storytelling, covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence “Before I die I want to . . .,” which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. To Chang’s surprise, the wall was completely filled by the next day. Soon, the project took on a life of its own and was replicated in over 10 languages across more than thirty countries, giving voice to millions of such private yearnings.

Before I Die (public library) collects the best of these public yet anonymous walls, from Alaska to Australia, Brooklyn to Berlin, filled with answers ranging from the poignant (“see a year without war”) to the silly (“sleep with a harp player”) to the disarmingly honest (“repair my broken heart”). Alongside the photographs are the stories of some of the people who chalked in their anonymous answers

Chang shares the genesis of the project, her harrowing personal brush with the mortality paradox:

Joan died on a quiet August day. She was a mother to me for fifteen years. She was kind and thoughtful. She loved to garden and she taught me how to plant flowers. When I was a confused teenager, she told me to be true to myself. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were so many things she still wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in Paris, and see the Pacific Ocean. I spent a long time filled with grief. Then I felt gratitude for the time we had together.

Death was always on my mind. It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.

[…]

Death is something we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about. … Perhaps that is why it took me so long to explore these thoughts, but when I finally did, I found a comfort and clarity that I did not expect. Beyond the tragic truth of mortality lies a bright calm that reminds me of my place in the world. When I think about death, the mundane things that stress me out are reduced to their small and rightful place; the things that matter most to me become big and crisp again. … Thinking about death clarifies your life.

The book opens with the perfect amuse-bouche of wisdom by none other than Carl Sagan:

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.

But in a wonderfully paradoxical way, the project both embodies and counters this sentiment: The question at its heart isn’t particularly “courageous,” nor are the majority of the answers particularly “deep,” but the combination produces something profound and deeply human, and that’s precisely the point: What makes the world significant — more than that, what makes “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” significant — is perhaps the simplicity and sincerity of our answers to the simplest and most sincere of questions.

Indeed, the answers brim with seeming individual simplicity which somehow unravels the collective complexity of the human condition: World peace, curing cancer, and learning to love might not be the most original of answers, but something magical happens when anonymity strips us of the compulsion for originality and lays bare our deepest, most unoriginally human and heartfelt longings with crisp, urgent sincerity. In aggregate, they are a reminder of what truly matters — a moral lens on what should matter — as we face the immutable fact that one day, when we turn to look back on our lives, all the cleverness and pretentiousness and witticism will dissipate into dust over the burning coals of our innermost, simplest, most earnest desires for a meaningful life.

The project also inhabits — champions — another important dimension, the notion that public spaces anchor us to our physical reality and, at their best, awaken a richer relationship with our surroundings. Chang writes:

Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. … At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and celebrate together and console one another and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Candy Chang (Photograph by Randal Ford)

And just for good measure, here is a wall on which I wrote myself hours after it was installed in Austin in March of 2013:

A beautiful and moving ethnography of aspiration, Before I Die is an enchanting reminder that we’re ephemeral and yet we matter, that we’re singular and yet united in our deepest hopes, that the simplest building blocks of our inner lives are also the most profound and eternal.

Images courtesy of Candy Chang

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