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Posts Tagged ‘history’

12 JANUARY, 2012

John Steinbeck on Falling in Love: A 1958 Letter

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“If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968) might be best-known as the author of East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, but he was also a prolific letter-writer. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters constructs an alternative biography of the iconic author through some 850 of his most thoughtful, witty, honest, opinionated, vulnerable, and revealing letters to family, friends, his editor, and a circle of equally well-known and influential public figures.

Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck’s words of wisdom — tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious — should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.

New York
November 10, 1958

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.

Love,

Fa

Complement with six tips on writing from Steinbeck.

via Letters of Note

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12 JANUARY, 2012

The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story of Humanity’s Oldest Analog Computer, circa 150 B.C.

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30 gear wheels of anachronism, or what a 2,000-year-old shipwreck reveals about the evolution of technology.

On their way back to Greece from Africa in October 1900, Captain Dimitrios Kontos and his crew of sponge divers encountered a severe storm, so they decided to wait it out on the small island of Antikythera. To pass the time, they set out to dive for sponges off the island’s coast. The first of them, Elias Stadiatos, had barely submerged 60 meters when he laid eyes on a striking sight — a heap of human and horse corpses lying on the sea bed. He rushed frantically to the surface and reported what he had seen. Kontos, suspecting carbon dioxide may have caused his fellow to hallucinate, dove into the water himself and soon resurfaced with the bronze arm of a statue. Over the two years that followed, Greek sponge divers and archaeologists recovered multiple artifacts from the shipwreck, estimated to have sunk some 2,000 years prior.

In 1902, however, archaeologist Valerious Stais made the most momentous discovery of all, and he did so from the dry safety of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens — embedded in one of the pieces of rock, he noticed a discernible gear wheel. Nicknamed the Antikythera mechanism, this object became known as humanity’s oldest analog computer — an ancient mechanical device designed to calculate astronomical positions. Some scholars have even prized its historic value higher than the Mona Lisa’s.

In Decoding the Heavens: A 2,000-Year-Old Computer–and the Century-Long Search to Discover Its Secrets, Jo Marchant tells for the first time the fascinating story of an obsessive quest to unravel the mystery of this ancient clue that could rewrite the history of technology. It’s a story about unsung heroes, raging egomaniacs, and death-defying treasure hunts, told with a scholar’s scientific rigor and a storyteller’s penchant for intrigue.

The Antikythera mechanism’s fragments are now known to contain some 30 gear wheels, with instructional inscriptions scribbled on every surface. But what makes the discovery most extraordinary is its seeming anachronism — a curious fold in the space-time continuum of technological history. Marchant observes:

According to everything we know about the technology of the time, it shouldn’t exist. Nothing close to its sophistication appears again for well over a millennium, with the development of elaborate astronomical clocks in Renaissance Europe.”

More than an archaeological curiosity, its mystery — which took more than a century to decode — fundamentally challenges our knowledge not only about what the Ancient Greeks were and what they were capable of, but also about the timescale on which technology evolved as humanity grappled with ordering the heavens and understanding time.

Thanks, Mark

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10 JANUARY, 2012

Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses: 18 Rants by Mark Twain

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How to commit 114 out of 115 possible violations of literary art in less than a single page.

On the heels of yesterday’s New Year’s resolution to read more and write better channeled through a reading list of 9 essential books on reading and writing comes Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences — an epic, exquisite rant by Mark Twain, listing eighteen rules of fiction violated in popular writer James Fenimore Cooper’s final tale, The Deerslayer. So peeved was Twain by critics’ acclaim of the story that he unpacked it with meticulous, delightfully spiteful attention to distasteful detail, his fury culminating in one passage where “in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115.”

It was written in 1895, the same year as this amusingly appalling list of don’ts for female cyclists.

Take it away, Mark:

There are nineteen rules governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction — some say twenty-two. In “Deerslayer,” Cooper violated eighteen of them. These eighteen require:

1. That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the “Deerslayer” tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the “Deerslayer” tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the “Deerslayer” tale.

5. They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the “Deerslayer” tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the “Deerslayer” tale, as Natty Bumppo’s case will amply prove.

7. They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven- dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in the “Deerslayer” tale.

8. They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the “Deerslayer” tale.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the “Deerslayer” tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the “Deerslayer” tale, this rule is vacated.

In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall:

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

15. Not omit necessary details.

16. Avoid slovenliness of form.

17. Use good grammar.

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

Twain concludes:

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are — oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.”

The entire essay is very much worth a read, a curious Frankensteining of Twain’s signature wit and his earnest annoyance. It’s available as a free Kindle book (that’s $0.00) from Amazon and downloadable in several formats from Project Gutenberg.

To avoid these offences, and many more, pay heed to Mark Twain’s and other literary icons’ words of wisdom in Advice to Writers.

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