Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘documentary’

22 AUGUST, 2013

Ray Bradbury on Writing, Emotion vs. Intelligence, and the Core of Creativity

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“You can only go with loves in this life.”

Between 1973 and 1974, journalist James Day hosted the short-lived but wonderful public television interview series Day at Night. Among his guests was the inimitable Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920–June 5, 2012) — beloved writer, man of routine, tireless champion of space exploration, patron saint of public libraries, passionate proponent of doing what you love and writing with joy. Highlights from the interview, which has been kindly digitized by CUNY TV, are transcribed below.

On the misunderstood, and often dismissed, value of the fantasy genre:

The ability to fantasize is the ability to survive, and the ability to fantasize is the ability to grow.

On the scope-expanding quality of science fiction, something Isaac Asimov has attested to as well:

The great thing about growing up with science fiction is that you have an interest in everything.

On the formative influence of fairy tales and Greek myths

My aunt and my mother read to me when I was three from all the old Grimm fairy tales, Andersen fairy tales, and then all the Oz books as I was growing up… So by the time when I was ten or eleven, I was just full to the brim with these, and the Greek myths, and the Roman myths. And then, of course, I went to Sunday school, and then you take in the Christian myths, which are all fascinating in their own way… I guess I always tended to be a visual person, and myths are very visual, and I began to draw, and then I felt the urge to carry on these myths.

If I’m anything at all, I’m not really a science-fiction writer — I’m a writer of fairy tales and modern myths about technology.

Recounting how he got his foot in the door of a local radio station through the sheer force of persistence, Bradbury reflects on the broader role of doggedness in success:

I discovered very early on that if you wanted a thing, you went for it — and you got it. Most people never go anywhere, or want anything — so they never get anything.

On the supremacy of intuition over rationalization and the intellect’s propensity for immorality:

I never went to college — I don’t believe in college for writers. The thing is very dangerous. I believe too many professors are too opinionated and too snobbish and too intellectual, and the intellect is a great danger to creativity … because you begin to rationalize and make up reasons for things, instead of staying with your own basic truth — who you are, what you are, what you want to be. I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now, which reads “Don’t think!” You must never think at the typewriter — you must feel. Your intellect is always buried in that feeling anyway.

On how the warping of that dynamic exposes the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, and why emotional excess is essential to creative work:

The worst thing you do when you think is lie — you can make up reasons that are not true for the things that you did, and what you’re trying to do as a creative person is surprise yourself — find out who you really are, and try not to lie, try to tell the truth all the time. And the only way to do this is by being very active and very emotional, and get it out of yourself — making things that you hate and things that you love, you write about these then, intensely. When it’s over, then you can think about it; then you can look, it works or it doesn’t work, something is missing here. And, if something is missing, then you go back and reemotionalize that part, so it’s all of a piece.

But thinking is to be a corrective in our life — it’s not supposed to be a center of our life. Living is supposed to be the center of our life, being is supposed to be the center — with correctives around, which hold us like the skin holds our blood and our flesh in. But our skin is not a way of life — the way of living is the blood pumping through our veins, the ability to sense and to feel and to know. And the intellect doesn’t help you very much there — you should get on with the business of living.

On how intuition and love, not intellectual understanding and rationalization, shape his poetry and prose, adding to history’s most beautiful definitions of art:

If there is no feeling, there cannot be great art.

On the tremendous value of libraries in discovering ideas to fall in love with, embedded in which is a bittersweet reminder that in today’s search-driven culture, we’ve lost that magic of serendipitous discovery:

I use a library the same way I’ve been describing the creative process as a writer — I don’t go in with lists of things to read, I go in blindly and reach up on shelves and take down books and open them and fall in love immediately. And if I don’t fall in love that quickly, shut the book, back on the shelf, find another book, and fall in love with it. You can only go with loves in this life.

On why he turns to children’s books — something we share in common — for creative inspiration in his “serious” literary work:

I try to keep up with what’s being done in every field, and most children’s books are ten times more enjoyable than the average American novel right now.

He returns to the role of the emotional in anchoring all true art:

This is the emotional thing, you see — you must galvanize people, so they want to be completely alive and live forever, or the next thing to it. And out of that comes art, then, and survival through emotion.

On finding no conflict between religion and science because the mysterious is at the root of both and “ignorance” drives them — something Bradbury had previously explored in his unpublished poetry:

The processes we’re going through are two sides of the same coin, because everything ends in mystery — the scientists have theories, and the theologians have myths, and they are both the same thing, because we end up in ignorance. … We have to think about the unthinkable, which is what religion does and science does, too.

On finding your purpose and avoiding “work” by doing what you love:

[I love my work] intensely — I wouldn’t be in it if I ever stopped loving it, I would shift it and go over into something else. … I don’t think life is worth living unless you’re doing something you love completely, so that you get out of bed in the morning and want to rush to do it. If you’re doing something mediocre, if you’re doing something to fill in time, life really isn’t worth living. … I can’t understand people not living at the top of their emotions constantly, living with their enthusiasms, living with some sense of joy, some sense of creativity — I don’t care how small a level it is. … I don’t care what field it is though, and there’s gotta be a field for everyone, doesn’t there?

A resounding secular “Amen!” to that, Mr. Bradbury, and thank you for everything.

For more of Bradbury’s inimitable mind in conversation, see Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews by his official biographer, Sam Weller. Complement with the wonderful 1963 documentary Ray Bradbury: Story of a Writer and the beloved author on space exploration, libraries, and the meaning of life in his lost Comic Con interview, then revisit the collected wisdom of great writers.

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22 AUGUST, 2013

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

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“The way people use a place mirrors expectations.”

“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power,” Anaïs Nin wrote about the poetics of New York in 1939. But what, exactly, are those contents, and how does a city keep its sparkle?

In 1970, legendary urbanist and professional people-watcher William “Holly” Whyte formed a small, revolutionary research group called The Street Life project and began investigating the curious dynamics of urban spaces. At the time, such anthropological observation had been applied to the study of indigenous cultures in far-off exotic locales, but not to our most immediate, most immersive environment: the city, which hides extraordinary miracles of ordinary life, if only we know how to look for them. So Whyte and his team began by looking at New York City’s parks, plazas, and various informal recreational areas like city blocks — a total of 16 plazas, 3 small parks, and “a number of odds and ends” — trying to figure out why some city spaces work for people while others don’t, and what the practical implications might be about living better, more joyful lives in our urban environment. Their findings were eventually collected in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (public library) in 1980 and synthesized in a 55-minute companion film, which you can watch below for some remarkably counterintuitive insights on the living fabric of the city.

Far more intriguing than the static characteristics of the architectural landscape, however, are the dynamic human interactions that inhabit them, and the often surprising ways in which they unfold. Whyte writes in the preface:

What has fascinated us most is the behavior of ordinary people on city streets — their rituals in street encounters, for example, the regularity of chance meetings, the tendency to reciprocal gestures in street conferences, the rhythms of the three-phase goodbye.

Whyte’s team went on to investigate everything from the ideal percentage of sitting space on a plaza (between 6% and 10% of the total open space, or one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza) to the intricate interplay of sun, wind, trees, and water (it’s advantageous to “hoard” the sun and amplify its light in some cases, and to obscure it in others). These factors and many more go into what makes a perfect plaza:

A good plaza starts at the street corner. If it’s a busy corner, it has a brisk social life of its own. People will not just be waiting there for the light to change. Some will be fixed in conversation; others in some phase of a prolonged goodbye. If there’s a vendor at the corner, people will cluster around him, and there will be considerable two-way traffic back and forth between plaza and corner.

[…]

The area where the street and plaza or open space meet is key to success or failure. Ideally, the transition should be such that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. New York’s Paley Park is one of the best examples. The sidewalk in front is an integral part of the park. An arborlike foliage of trees extends over the sidewalk. There are urns of flowers and the curb and, on either side of the steps, curved sitting ledges. In this foyer you can usually find somebody waiting for someone else — it is a convenient rendezvous point — people sitting on the ledges, and, in the middle of the entrance, several people in conversation.

Urban parks, Whyte discovered, were an integral mechanism for stimulating our interaction with the city — perhaps one reason they are so enduringly beloved:

The park stimulates impulse use. Many people will do a double take as they pass by, pause, move a few steps, then, with a slight acceleration, go on up the steps. Children do it more vigorously, the very young ones usually pointing at the park and tugging at their mothers to go in, many of the older ones breaking into a run just as they approach the steps, then skipping a step or two.

And so we get to the surprisingly intricate science of yet another seemingly mundane element of the urban experience: steps.

Watch these flows and you will appreciate how very important steps can be. The steps at Paley are so low and easy that one is almost pulled to them. They add a nice ambiguity to your movement. You can stand and watch, move up a foot, another, and, then, without having made a conscious decision, find yourself in the park.

Other factors that spur a lively and robust social interaction include public art and performance:

Sculpture can have strong social effects. Before and after studies of the Chase Manhattan plaza showed that the installation of Dubuffet’s “Four Trees” has had a beneficent impact on pedestrian activity. People are drawn to the sculpture, and drawn through it: they stand under it, beside it; they touch it; they talk about it. At the Federal Plaza in Chicago, Alexander Calder’s huge stabile has had similar effects.

Then there’s music, known to enchant the brain and influence our emotions in profound ways:

Musicians and entertainers draw people together [but] it is not the excellence of the act that is important. It is the fact that it is there that bonds people, and sometimes a really bad act will work even better than a good one.

In another chapter, Whyte considers the problem of urban “undesirables” — drunks, drug dealers, and other uncomfortable reminders of how our own lives might turn out “but for the grace of events.” Here, too, Whyte’s findings debunk conventional wisdom with an invaluable, counterintuitive insight: rather than fencing places off and flooding them with surveillance cameras (which he finds are of little use in outdoor spaces — something that would delight artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei), we should aim to make them as welcoming as possible

The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else. … The way people use a place mirrors expectations.

This, in fact, reflects the most fundamental and timeless insight of the entire project, echoing the famous Penguin Books maxim that “good design is no more expensive than bad”:

It is far easier, simpler to create spaces that work for people than those that do not — and a tremendous difference it can make to the life of a city.

Slim but fantastically insightful, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a foundational piece of today’s thinking on what makes a great city and a fine addition to these essential reads on urbanism.

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05 JULY, 2013

BBC’s The Beauty of Books: Penguin, Orwell, and the Paperback Cover Design Revolution

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“The book is still the most intelligent and interactive data retrieval system which has been devised.”

It’s been argued that a new golden age of book design is upon us. But, as iconic graphic designer Massimo Vignelli famously declared, “a designer without a sense of history is worth nothing.” How the history of book design fertilizes its present is precisely what the BBC series The Beauty of Books explores. The fourth episode, Paperback Writer, traces the fascinating story of the paperback revolution, which promised to “turn us all into librarians of our own private collections,” but also transformed books into more of a commodity and elevated the art of the cover into a critical tool for success.

The book is still the most intelligent and interactive data retrieval system which has been devised — and you can take it into the bath. (Author and design critic Stephen Bayley)

The film points to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, with its plethora of cover designs and over 25 million copies sold, as “the embodiment of how the paperback book changed civilization.” Here are my favorite covers from the history of the iconic novel:

Swedish edition, 1959; design by Olle Eksell

Penguin UK, 2008; design by Shepard Fairey

But perhaps most brilliant of all is David Person‘s cover for the most recent Penguin edition, playing off the cover of Orwell’s Why I Write:

Complement with how Marshall McLuhan, Jerome Agel, and Quentin Fiore created a new visual vernacular for the golden age of the paperback.

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