As long as we focus on the object we know, we will miss the new one we need to see. The process of unlearning in order to relearn demands a new concept of knowledge not as thing but as a process, not as a noun but as a verb.” ~ Cathy Davidson
In another famous experiment, Davidson, then provost at Duke, gave the entire 2003 freshman class iPods as part of their academic curriculum. Though the pilot project was at first widely derided, it quickly silenced the critics as students found intelligent and innovative ways to employ their iPods in the classroom and the lab in everything from collaborating on group project to podcasting a conference on Shakespeare around the world.
Davidson uses the insights from these experiments as a lens through which to examine the nature and evolution of attention, noting that the educational system is driven by very rigid expectations of what “attention” is and how it reflects “intelligence,” a system in which students who fail to meet these expectations and pay attention differently are pigeonholed somehow deficient of aberrant, square pegs in round holes. Yet neuroscience is increasingly indicating that our minds pay attention in a myriad different ways, often non-linear and simultaneous, which means that the academy and the workplace will have to evolve in parallel and transcend the 20th-century linear assembly-line model for eduction and work. (The assembly and the factory are in fact a familiar metaphor from Sir Ken Robinson’s insightful thoughts on changing educational paradigms.)
Refreshingly constructive and glimmering with much-needed optimism about the future of education in the digital age, Now You See It makes a fine new addition to these 7 essential books on education and offers a well-argued antidote to the media’s incessant clamor about the deadly erosion of our attention.
From Darwin’s marginalia to Voltaire’s correspondence, or what Dalí’s controversial World’s Fair pavilion has to do with digital myopia.
Despite our remarkable technological progress in the past century and the growth of digital culture in the past decade, a large portion of humanity’s richest cultural heritage remains buried in analog archives. Bridging the disconnect is a fledgling discipline known as the Digital Humanities, bringing online historical materials and using technologies like infrared scans, geolocation mapping, and optical character recognition to enrich these resources with related information or make entirely new discoveries about them. As Europe’s digital libraries open up their APIs, techno-dystopian pundits lament that these efforts diminish “the mystery of history,” but such views are myopic and plagued by unnecessary nostalgia for a time when knowledge was confined to the privileged cultural elite. Instead, here are seven fantastic digitization projects that democratize access to and understanding of some of our civilization’s most valuable cultural assets.
MAPPING THE REPUBLIC OF LETTERS
Long before there was Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history. Mapping the Republic of Letters, which we first looked at last year, is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time, bridging humanitarian scholarship and computer science.
The project pulls data from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence — something we’ve come to take for granted in the age of real-time GPS tracking, but an incredibly ambitious task for 300-year-old letters.
For more on the Republic of Letters, its cultural legacy and the networking model it provided, you won’t go wrong with Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment — a book controversial for its feminist undertones but nonetheless fascinating in its bold reframing of the Enlightenment not as a set of ideas that gave rise to “masculine self-governance” but as a rhetoric that borrowed heavily from female thought.
London Lives offers a fascinating record of crime, poverty and social policy in one of the world’s greatest cities between the years of 1690 and 1800 through 240,000 fully digitized manuscript and printed pages from 8 London archives, supplemented by 15 datasets. The nonprofit project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and implemented by the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield and the Higher Education Digitisation Service at the University of Hertfordshire, provides access to historical records containing over 3.35 million names, allowing you to link together records relating to the same individual and to even extract entire biographies of the best-documented individuals.
A wiki invites users to contribute to biographies of 18th-century Londoners, track corrections and monitor activity on pages to which they’ve contributed.
From the New York Public Library comes Biblion — an ambitious iPad app putting NYPL’s 1939-40 New York World’s Fair collection at your fingertips. Though the app is free, its documents, images, films, audio, and texts make it a priceless piece of historical fascination.
From essays by beloved writers like Karen Abbott, William Grimes and Henry Jenkins to the wild restaurant ideas that never made the cut at the Fair to the extravaganza’s designs, uniforms and buildings — including Salvador Dalí’s controversial Dream of Venus surrealist pavilion — the app takes you on an extraordinary journey of wonder and curiosity, not only making previously exclusive artifacts and knowledge available to the world at large, but also presenting them through the kind of rich, immersive storytelling never possible while strolling through the aisles of the physical library. How’s that for the mystery of history, Tristram Hunt?
Charles Darwin is easily one of the most influential scientists who ever lived — so much so that entire collaborative albums have been written about him — and now, thanks to The Biodiversity Heritage Library, the intellectual fuel for his work is accessible to the rest of us. Charles Darwin’s Library is a digital reconstruction of the surviving books Darwin owned, complete with full transcriptions of his annotations and marks — the kind of marginalia essential to fleshing out our thoughts as we ingest ideas. (More voyeurism of great thinkers’ notebooks here.)
The initial release, launched earlier this year, features 330 of the 1480 titles in his library, focusing on the most heavily annotated books, with an ongoing effort aiming to further digitize his book collection.
SALEM WITCH TRIALS PROJECT
Though decidedly unsexy and anything but sleek, the Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project from the University of Virginia offers a rich online archive of materials relating to the Salem witch trials of 1692 — court records, books, notable people, and images of the original court documents, indexed according to various archival collections.
Thanks to The Newton Project, 4.2 million published and unpublished words by Isaac Newton are now online as interactive diplomatic transcriptions that show every addition, change or revision the great scholar made to his texts, browsable by subject.
From Newton as a historian to his character and personal habits, the database spans materials as diverse as Newton’s gum water recipe and a list he made of 47 sins he could remember having committed in his lifetime. (More on the love of famous creators’ lists here.)
From the National Library of Spain comes Quijote Interactivo, a project we first examined last fall — an impressive interactive digitization of the original edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ cult 1605-1615 novel, Don Quixote. Though the site is entirely in Spanish, the sleek interface, rich multimedia galleries and thoughtful sound design make it a joy to explore whatever your linguistic heritage.
A social widget even makes each of the 668 pages from the book shareable via email or on Facebook, and a transcription overlay makes the original 17th-century manuscript legible in Times New Roman.
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Seeing the world in six-panel strips, or what Allen Ginsberg has to do with the wonders of zygotes.
Who doesn’t love comic books? While infographics may be trendy today (and photography perennially sexy), there’s just something special about the work of the human hand. Good old-fashioned manual labor, literally, brings a unique richness to storytelling where words alone sometimes fall flat. We’ve put together a list of some of our favorite graphic non-fiction, excluding Maus-style memoirs — perhaps another time — since narrowing down to ten picks was tough enough. These hybrid works combine the best elements of art, journalism, and scholarship to command our attention and gratify our curiosity.
The Beats invokes the immediacy of 1940s and 50s art, music, and writing; even better, it provides political context and introduced us to an entire panoply of artists whose contributions to the era are lesser known. From painting sessions in Jay DeFeo’s flat to strains of mental illness throughout the movement, The Beats is an invaluable addition to our picture of a charged moment in creative history.
How do you make 500,000 declassified documents yield up their stories? Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified U.S. History pulls it off with a combination of stellar journalism and informative, witty illustration. Scholar Mia Partlow, graphic designer Michael Hoerger, and illustrator Nate Powell collaborated to create what started out as a serialized zine on the relationship between food and politics in America, and the highly confidential government coverups of these strange bedfellows’ intersection.
Upton Sinclair-style muckraking for our modern era, Edible Secrets covers the CIA’s milkshake assassination plot of Fidel Castro, popcorn mind-control schemes, and how a box of Jello led to two death sentences during the 1950s Communist red scare. Like a graphic interpretation of Wikileaks, the slim but delectable volume investigates the down-and-dirty ways in which the U.S. government altered history using the most common of comestibles.
Whether you’re an activist, foodie, or history buff, Edible Secrets is a fascinating and fun creation about acts of agriculture — something each one of us, consciously or not, commits every day.
A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE
Cartoonist Josh Neufeld accomplishes the nearly impossible in his award-winning A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, namely, taking a subject as tragic and media-saturated as 2005′s Hurricane Katrina and making a page-turner out of its retelling and aftermath. Neufeld shows the story through five (real-life) New Orleans residents to whom we became completely attached, which is precisely the point. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge demonstrates what the comic medium does best — namely, completely immerse the reader-viewer in another world by engaging multiple cognitive functions — and offers a fascinating parallel to last week’s Hurricane Story.
Through the parallax narratives of Neufeld’s five characters, we came away with a fittingly complex perspective of the human experience of this news story.
THE 14TH DALAI LAMA
The history of modern Tibet gets told via one man’s life in The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography. Llhamo Döndrub was the two-year-old child of a peasant family in northeast Tibet when he was named the new spiritual leader of a people; traditional Japanese manga style and first-person perspective bring intimacy to the sweeping story that unfolds from that watershed moment. It’s easy to see why the Dalai Lama authorized this life story, an imminently human treatment of large-scale historical narrative. We live vicariously through Tibet’s takeover by communist China under Mao Zedong, and the Dalai Lama’s decision to live exiled in India in an effort to save his people’s culture.
If only all biology textbooks were as cool as The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA. The great news is that it’s never too late for continuing education, and The Stuff of Life‘s pictorial approach is much more fun — and conceptually sticky — than we remember science being in school. The book starts with the mind-boggling story of how an inchoate mass of chemical elements formed into life over five billion years ago, and then drills down to the cellular level before getting into applied genetics (even Dolly the Sheep makes an appearance). With the help of friendly black-and-white cartoon panels, A,T,C, and G molecules cohere into a narrative beyond alphabet soup and the double helix, and we’re proud to be able to explain the difference between phenotypes and polypeptides again.
SMARTERCOMICS BUSINESS BOOKS
A new series of books by SmarterComics is harnessing the human tendency toward what’s known as the pictorial superiority effect, and adapting popular business and strategy books by iconic thought-leaders into visually-driven narratives. Among the series so far: Wired editor Chris Anderson‘s The Long Tail, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, and the Sun Tzu classic The Art of War. Great graphics illustrate Anderson’s argument around the death of “common culture,” Hill’s endorsement of the practical power of positive thinking, and entrepreneur Robert Renteria‘s rise from gang violence to civic leadership.
Read our full review of the SmarterComics series here.
Lefèvre documented the group’s harrowing covert tour from Pakistan into a nation gripped by violence in the aftermath of the 1979 Soviet invasion. While a few of his 4,000-plus images were published upon his return to France, years passed before Lefèvre was approached by his friend, graphic novelist Emmanuel Guibert, about collaborating on a book that would finally tell his remarkable story. The resulting effort, assembled by graphic designer Frédéric Lemercier, is a seamless tour de force of reportage.
The lovely Burma Chronicles is another fortuitous creative byproduct of Doctors Without Borders. Comic book artist Guy Delisle travels around the world with his wife Nadège, an MSF doctor, tours which previously resulted in two other gorgeous works of graphic nonfiction — Shenzen: A Travelogue from China, and Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Delisle lives the atypical life of an NGO house husband-cum-cartoonist, alternating between inking panels and daily perambulations near Nobel Prize winner’s Aung Sang Suu Kyi‘s home, where the opposition figure was still under house arrest at the time he was in the country.
What makes Burma Chronicles so charming is its balance of quotidian domestic life and international affairs. Delisle’s growing knowledge of the country’s culture plays off the constant development of his infant son, lending the whole work (and the world) refreshing perspective.
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED
If anyone could make grammar fun, it’s Maira Kalman. An update of William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White‘s definitive reference text on composition and form, The Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman’s signature whimsy with the indispensable styleguide to create an instant classic. The original Elements of Style was first published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use, and became canon after a 1959 reprint. We’re all for achieving “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English,” as White — who had studied under Strunk in college — described their collaboration; and the goal is made appropriately joyful in this new edition. In other words, we’d much rather be schooled in the basics of language usage by Kalman’s vibrant work than the old black-and-white Strunk & White.
A must-have for art lovers and the editorially exact alike, essays by White and fellow New Yorker contributor (and his stepson) Roger Angell put The Elements of Style Illustrated into historical context.
* * *
We hope you had as much fun as we did with this short survey of masterworks in a medium that doesn’t often get its due. Graphic nonfiction provides a clever solution to a perpetual problem — how to make audiences care about new or challenging material. These 10 books bring a childlike sense of wonder to their subjects, something that comes in part from the cross-disciplinary collaborations between artists, designers and writers that yielded the work in the first place. And they’re proof that you’re never too old to pick up a comic book.
Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.
Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.
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