Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘collaboration’

03 FEBRUARY, 2012

A Brief History of The Elements of Style and What Makes It Great

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On depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness.

“I hate the guts of English grammar,” E. B White once famously proclaimed. Yet Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is among the most important and timeless books on writing. With its enduring legacy and cultish following, it has inspired countless derivatives and homages, from a magnificent edition illustrated by Maira Kalman to a rap. The book has become a legend in its own right, its story part of our modern creative mythology — but, like a good fairy tale, it brims with more curious, unlikely, even whimsical details than a mere plot summary might suggest. Those are exactly what Mark Garvey, a 20-year publishing veteran and self-professed extreme Elements of Style enthusiast, explores in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

From how White, a former student of Strunk’s, resurrected the original text after Strunk’s death, to White’s thoughtful, stubborn, heartfelt, and often snarky correspondence with his editors and readers, including many never-before-published letters, to original interviews with some of today’s most beloved writers, including Adam Gopnik, Nicholas Baker, and Elmore Leonard, the slim but fascinating and wholehearted volume offers a rare peek inside the creative process behind one of the most iconic meta-meditations on the English language.

A large part of what made the Strunk and White collaboration so potent, it turns out, is the stark contrast between the two authors’ attitude towards the rules of language. Garvey writes:

E. B. White described Strunk’s voice on the page as being ‘in the form of sharp commands, Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon,’ and it’s true, the professor seems to spend much of this time in an imperative mood: ‘Do not break sentences in two,’ ‘Use the active voice,’ ‘Omit needless words.’ It’s a natural enough idiom, considering his day job; Strunk sounds teacherly, though he’s not without humor.

White’s voice, on the other hand, is that of the writer, the practitioner of long experience whose sympathies favor the artistic side of the enterprise.

But, above all, Garvey captures the intangible essence of what makes The Elements of Style as much a subject of workshops as it is an object of worship:

True believers have always felt something more, an extra dimension that has likely been a fundamental source of the book’s success all along: As practical as it is for helping writers over common hurdles, The Elements of Style also embodies a worldview, a philosophy that, for some, is as appealing as anything either author ever managed to get down on paper. Elements of Style is a credo. And it is a book of promises — the promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.

Rigorously researched and infectiously narrated, Stylized is an exquisite labor of love, a love that honors one of the most quintessential paragons of creative labor in modern literary history.

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05 JANUARY, 2012

Three Classic Fairy Tales Examined Through the Lens of Architecture

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What Rapunzel’s braid-to-tree connection has to do with the rotational circumference of Baba Yaga’s house.

As a lover of classic fairy tales and longtime fan of Kate Bernheimer’s modernist ones, I was delighted to come across Design Observer’s threepart series, in which Kate and Andrew Bernheimer reimagine the magical homes from three beloved fairy tales — Baba Yaga, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel — through the lens of architecture. In each installment, a different architecture firm selects a favorite fairy tale and examines its pivotal structure through a new kind of imaginative architectural storytelling.

Houses in fairy tales are never just houses; they always contain secrets and dreams. This project presents a new path of inquiry, a new line of flight into architecture as a fantastic, literary realm of becoming. We welcome you to these fairy-tale places.” ~ Kate Bernheimer & Andrew Bernheimer

As a child of Eastern European folklore, I’m partial to the first installment, in which Bernheimer Architecture examine Baba Yaga through its most important structure — the chicken legs, of course — and consider “how one might make a structure or an architecture ‘chicken-like,’ both externally and internally.”

In part two, Leven Betts Studio take a curious paradox of Jack and the Beanstalk — that the vehicle for the story’s magic, adventure and triumph is the beanstalk, yet it’s rarely described — and use it as the focal point of their architectural explorations.

Fairy tales are exemplified by spare and abstract detail, leaving enormous space — big as the sky — for the reader to wonder.”

In the third and final installment, Guy Nordenson and Associates bring their masterful structural engineering to Rapunzel’s tower, blending the original vision of the Brothers Grimm with their own pre-existing design for The Seven Stems Broadcast and Telecommunications Tower .

Rapunzel’s tower has come to symbolize both an enchanted, magical home and a dreadful prison from which to escape. Inside, one’s heart is full of desire and longing; and one must always also get out. The complicated emotional valence of this space is part of its longstanding appeal.”

For more modernist fairy tale magic, don’t miss Kate Bernheimer’s My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales — a wonderful anthology of stories by some of today’s greatest fiction writers, including Neil Gaiman, Michael Cunningham, Aimee Bender and Lydia Millet. And for a classical take, look no further than the best illustrations from 130 years of the Brothers Grimm.

via It’s Okay To Be Smart

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15 DECEMBER, 2011

Maira Kalman + Daniel Handler Illustrate a Breakup Through Significant Objects

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What sugar and a pinhole camera have to do with the ephemeral ephemera of impossible love.

Few things can steer me towards fiction these days, but a collaboration between Daniel Handler (better-known to the world as Lemony Snicket) and the great Maira Kalman is positively among them. Such is the case of Why We Broke Up, which tells the poignant, bittersweet story of a teenage romance gone awry through objects of special significance, which make cameos in a letter Min is writing to break up with her boyfriend, Ed. These emotional ephemera, each imbued with a specific memory of their ephemeral but monumental love, are captured in Kalman’s signature childlike artwork, and bespeak a kind of truth at once more fluid and more infallible than fact.

And if you’ve ever found yourself in love, in impossible love, you’ll relate to the heroine’s objectified lament.

I stand entwined in fire on the inextinguishable bonfire of inconceivable love.”

The book’s companion Tumblr lets you voyeuristically read other people’s break-up stories and share your own. Stories are divided into amusingly titled categories, ranging from the petty (“I can’t believe how disgusting you were”) to the outraged (“I just can’t believe it”) to the vulnerable (“I’d take you back in a minute”).

The story, of course, exudes Handler’s unmistakable wit and intelligent humor, underpinned by a kind of self-consciously self-conscious humanity.

Why We Broke Up comes a little over a year after Lemony Snicket and Maira Kalman’s first collaboration, the lovely children’s book 13 Words.

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13 DECEMBER, 2011

The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Visual Micro-Tales of Our Shared Humanity

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Reclaiming the poetics of short-form in the age of the empty soundbite.

“The universe is not made of atoms; it’s made of tiny stories,” as Muriel Rukeyser is often paraphrased. To give this timeless truth modern wings, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, better-known as RegularJOE in the hitRECord universe he created, asked thousands of contributors to submit tiny stories through words and images. The result is The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 — a whimsical collaboration between artists and writers from around the world, featuring 67 of these micro-tales hand-curated by Gordon-Levitt himself from over 8,500 submissions. It’s part Three Line Novels, part Six-Word Memoir, part something entirely its own and entirely lovely, full of poetics and humanity in a culture of vacant soundbites, exuding a kind of richness and latitude that defies its short form.

Sometimes witty, sometimes poignant, and always profoundly human, the gems in The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories: Volume 1 are a reminder that we’re all just a few words and images apart from one another, and all we need to do is reach out into the universe of our shared humanity.

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