Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

17 APRIL, 2012

E. B. White on the Role and Responsibility of the Writer

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“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

Today, I’m headed to Columbia to take part in a symposium on the future of journalism — a subject that feels at once on some great cusp and under the weight of a myriad conflicting pressures. It prompted me to revisit one of my all-time favorite Paris Review interviews, a 1969 conversation, in which the great George Plimpton and sidekick Frank H. Crowther interview E. B. White. White has previously voiced strong opinions on the free press and, of course, the architecture of language, but here he shares some timeless yet strikingly timely insights on the role and the responsibility of the writer:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

One important reflection is that in 1969, implicit to the very nature of print was a kind of accountability, a truth standard that engendered in White this sense of “responsibility to society.” As news and opinion have shifted online, a medium much more fluid and dynamic, this notion of baked-in accountability no longer holds true and, one might observe, has allowed journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. What standards and expectations we adopt and instill in writers and publishers today will “inform and shape life.”

When asked how he sees the role of the writer in an era “increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology” — bear in mind, this is 1969 — White answers:

The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.’

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.

I love this notion of a custodian, or secretary, or interpreter, of culture. Though the word “curator” is tragically flawed, the ideals at its heart — to shine a light on the meaningful, to frame for the reader or viewer what matters in the world and why — remain an important piece of the evolution of authorship. What White describes as the role of the writer is very much the role of the cultural custodian today, in the broadest, most platform-agnostic sense of the role possible.

But perhaps most brilliantly, in one swift sentence White captures everything that’s wrong with the sensationalism that permeates media today, from the HuffPostification of headlines to the general linkbait alarmism of language designed to squeeze out another barely-monetized pageview:

Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.

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17 APRIL, 2012

Magnificent Maps: Cartography as Power, Propaganda, and Art

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What the feats of Marco Polo have to do with medieval political propaganda and the history of tea.

Three of my great fascinations — cartography as art, propaganda design, and antique maps — converge in Magnificent Maps: Power, Propaganda and Art. The lavish tome collects cartographic curiosities from the golden age of display maps — the period between 1450 and 1800, when maps were as much a practical tool for navigation as they were works of art and affirmations of cultural hegemony or social status — culled from the formidable collection of the British Library.

Peter Barber, who heads the map collections at the British Library, and Tom Harper, BL’s Curator of Antiquarian Mapping, contextualize the maps with detailed descriptions of how and where they were used, from schoolrooms to bedchambers, and explore their parallel role as art and propaganda.

Fra Mauro World Map, 1450

This is an 1804 copy of perhaps the first ‘modern’ world map, made by the Venetian monk Fra Mauro in about 1450. It points south because 15th-century compasses were south-pointing. It shows the Portuguese discoveries in Africa and questioned the authority of medieval and classical sources. Intended for display in Venice, it emphasizes the feats of Marco Polo. The British East India Company commissioned this copy, thus implying that Britain was heir to the Portuguese empire.

The Americas by Diego Gutiérrez, 1562

This is a powerful celebration of Spain's New World Empire, beginning in the late 15th century. In the upper left-hand corner is the arms of King Philip II (reigned 1554-1598). In the sea, Philip appears on a chariot, riding through a turbulent Atlantic. The map aimed to strengthen Spain's political image in Europe and its claim to the Americas.

Psalter World Map (mappa mundi), 1265

Despite its small size, this is one of the ‘great’ medieval world maps. It is probably a copy of the lost map which adorned King Henry III's bedchamber in Westminster Palace from the mid-1230s. The original colors are intact. Showing east at the top, it is a visual encyclopedia, embracing ancient history, politics, scripture and ethnography as well as geography.

'The Island' by Stephen Walter, 2008

The Island satirizes the London-centric view of the English capital and its commuter towns as independent from the rest of the country. The artist, a Londoner with a love of his native city, offers up a huge range of local and personal information in words and symbols. Walter speaks in the dialect of today, focusing on what he deems interesting or mundane.

'Tea Revives the World' by MacDonald Gill, 1940

Commissioned by the International Tea Market Expansion Board, this map aimed to promote wartime strength, Allied resolve, and international trade during WWII through a celebration of Britain’s adopted national beverage and its pictorial history of tea.

Complementing Magnificent Maps is an interactive site from the British Library that lets you explore some of the maps with curatorial context.

For a related treat, see BBC’s fantastic The Beauty of Maps, which visits the British Library to explore five of the world’s most beautiful maps and their sociocultural context.

Images and captions courtesy of the British Library; thanks, Sonja

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17 APRIL, 2012

Sir Ken Robinson on How Finding Your Element Changes Everything

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What knowing the limits of knowledge has to do with finding the frontiers of creativity.

Sir Ken Robinson has previously challenged and delighted us with his vision for changing educational paradigms to better optimize a broken system for creativity.

In this wonderful talk from The School of Life, Robinson articulates the ethos at the heart of The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything — one of 7 essential books on education — and echoes, with his signature blend of wit and wisdom, many of the insights in this indispensable collection of advice on how to find your purpose and do what you love.

Robinson seconds Stuart Firestein’s insight on the importance of ignorance in exploration and growth:

In our culture, not to know is to be at fault socially… People pretend to know lots of things they don’t know. Because the worst thing to do is appear to be uninformed about something, to not have an opinion… We should know the limits of our knowledge and understand what we don’t know, and be willing to explore things we don’t know without feeling embarrassed of not knowing about them.

Among Robinson’s many astute observations is also one about our socially distorted metrics of achievement, in line with Alain de Botton’s admonition about “success”:

It’s not enough to be good at something to be in your element… We’re being brought up with this idea that life is linear. This is an idea that’s perpetuated when you come to write your CV — that you set out your life in a series of dates and achievements, in a linear way, as if your whole existence has progressed in an ordered, structured way, to bring you to this current interview.

If you haven’t yet read The Element, do — it might just change how you relate to everything you do.

Thanks, Neil

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