Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

10 JUNE, 2015

Saul Bellow’s Spectacular Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on How Art and Literature Ennoble the Human Spirit


“Only art penetrates … the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive.”

In a 1966 interview, Saul Bellow (June 10, 1915–April 5, 2005) articulated the seed of what would blossom into a central concern of his life, and of our culture: “Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, in the eye of the storm… Art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” A quarter century later — already an elder with a Pulitzer Prize, a National Medal of Arts, and a Nobel Prize under his belt — Bellow would come to explore this duality more deliberately in his stirring essay on how artists and writers save us from the “moronic inferno” of distraction.

But nowhere does the celebrated author address his views on the artist’s task more directly than in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize awarded to him in 1976 “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work.” Eventually published in Nobel Lectures in Literature, 1968–1980 (public library), it remains one of the greatest public addresses of all time.

Reflecting on the death of the notion of “character” in literature, Bellow writes:

I am interested here in the question of the artist’s priorities. Is it necessary, or good, that he should begin with historical analysis, with ideas or systems?


I myself am tired of obsolete notions and of mummies of all kinds but I never tire of reading the master novelists. And what is one to do about the characters in their books? Is it necessary to discontinue the investigation of character? Can anything so vivid in them now be utterly dead? … Can we accept the account of those conditions we are so “authoritatively” given? I suggest that it is not in the intrinsic interest of human beings but in these ideas and accounts that the problem lies.

With an almost Buddhist attitude as applicable to literature as it is to life itself, Bellow adds:

To find the source of trouble we must look into our own heads.

He admonishes against taking on faith any death knell rung by our culture’s so-called experts — lest we forget, Frank Lloyd Wright put it best when he quipped that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows’” — and in a sentiment that renders just as laughable the modern death knell for the novel, he writes:

The fact that the death notice of character “has been signed by most serious essayists” means only that another group of mummies, the most respectable leaders of the intellectual community, has laid down the law. It amuses me that these serious essayists should be allowed to sign the death notices of literary forms. Should art follow culture? Something has gone wrong.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

Many decades before Tom Wolfe’s spectacular commencement address admonishing against the tyranny of the pseudo-intellectual, Bellow adds:

We must not make bosses of our intellectuals. And we do them no good by letting them run the arts. Should they, when they read novels, find nothing in them but the endorsement of their own opinions? Are we here on earth to play such games?

Once again, Bellow reminds us that the anxieties and paranoias which every generation sees as singular to its era are anything but — 1976 sounds an awful lot like today:

The condition of human beings has perhaps never been more difficult to define…

Every year we see scores of books and articles which tell [people] what a state they are in — which make intelligent or simpleminded or extravagant or lurid or demented statements. All reflect the crises we are in while telling us what we must do about them; these analysts are produced by the very disorder and confusion they prescribe for.


In private life, disorder or near-panic. In families — for husbands, wives, parents, children — confusion; in civic behavior, in personal loyalties, in sexual practices (I will not recite the whole list; we are tired of hearing it) — further confusion. And with this private disorder goes public bewilderment.


It is with these facts that knock us to the ground that we try to live… There is no simple choice between the children of light and the children of darkness… But I have made my point; we stand open to all anxieties. The decline and fall of everything is our daily dread, we are agitated in private life and tormented by public questions.

Let me interject here with a necessary caveat: Despite the Swedish Academy’s brief to celebrate the value of literature and the arts in ennobling the human spirit, a great many Nobel Prize acceptance speeches bear the distinct flavor of Grumpy Old Man. This is a natural, if hardly excusable, product of the fact that the Nobel Prize has a long history of being granted primarily to old white men, not to mention it was established by a particularly grumpy one — a fact increasingly glaring and uncomfortable even for those of us dedicated to preserving the wisdom of our cultural and civilizational elders. How exasperating that such extraordinary writers as Susan Sontag, Chinua Achebe, and Maya Angelou died without a Nobel Prize.

And perhaps the sample pool is too small to draw scientifically valid conclusions, but there is palpable anecdotal evidence that when a writer like Albert Camus, the youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, or Pearl S. Buck, the second youngest laureate and the youngest woman to receive the coveted accolade, takes the stage at the Swedish Academy, there is a decidedly different ratio of grumpiness to gladness in their speech, of embitterment to emboldening faith in the human spirit. (cf. Hemingway’s.)

The history of the Nobel Prize, visualized. Click image for details.

And now back to Grumpy Old Man Bellow, who is beneath grumpiness — or else, after all, he wouldn’t be here — a staunch champion of the power of art to elevate and enlarge the human spirit. Against this backdrop of dread and ruin, amid our growing spiritual hunger for quietude, he asks:

Art and literature — what of them? … We are still able to think, to discriminate, and to feel. The purer, subtler, higher activities have not succumbed to fury or to nonsense. Not yet. Books continue to be written and read. It may be more difficult to reach the whirling mind of a modern reader but it is possible to cut through the noise and reach the quiet zone. In the quiet zone we may find that he is devoutly waiting for us. When complications increase, the desire for essentials increases too. The unending cycle of crises that began with the First World War has formed a kind of person, one who has livd through terrible, strange things, and in whom there is an observable shrinkage of prejudices, a casting off of disappointing ideologies, an ability to live with many kinds of madness, an immense desire for certain durable human goods — truth, for instance, or freedom, or wisdom.

With an eye to Time Regained, the penultimate volume of Proust’s universally beloved seven-part novel In Search of Lost Time, Bellow considers the singular role of art in the human experience:

Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence and habit erect on all sides — the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive. Proust calls these hints our “true impressions.” The true impressions, our persistent intuitions, will, without art, be hidden from us and we will be left with nothing but a “terminology for practical ends which we falsely call life.”

Returning to the role of intellectuals in perpetuating such a quasi-reality of practical ends, Bellow considers the task of the writer and artist to reawaken our “true impressions”:

There is in the intellectual community a sizable inventory of attitudes that have become respectable — notions about society, human nature, class, politics, sex, about mind, about the physical universe, the evolution of life. Few writers, even among the best, have taken the trouble to re-examine these attitudes and orthodoxies… Literature has for nearly a century used the same stock of ideas, myths, strategies … maintaining all the usual things about mass society, dehumanization and the rest. How weary we are of them. How poorly the represent us. The pictures they offer no more resemble us than we resemble the reconstructed reptiles and other monsters in a museum of paleontology. We are much more limber, versatile, bette articulated, there is much more to us, we all feel it.

Bellow peers into the future of humanity, in the shaping of which we are all implicated — perhaps even more so today, when we are tenfold more interconnected and our fates more intertwined, than at the time of his speech:

Mankind [is] determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. The whole species — everybody — has gotten into the act. At such a time it is essential to lighten ourselves, to dump encumbrances, including the encumbrances of education and all organized platitudes, to make judgments of our own, to perform acts of our own… We must hunt for that under the wreckage of many systems. The failure of those systems may bring a blessed and necessary release from formulations, from an over-defined and misleading consciousness. With increasing frequency I dismiss as merely respectable opinions I have long held — or thought I held — and try to discern what I have really lived by, and what others live by.

In a sentiment that calls to mind psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s magnificent meditation on the necessary excesses of our inner lives, Bellow adds:

Our very vices, our mutilations, show how rich we are in thought and culture. How much we know. How much we even feel. The struggle that convulses us makes us want to simplify, to reconsider, to eliminate the tragic weakness which prevented writers — and readers — from being at once simple and true.

Writers, Bellow argues, are in a singular positions to cut through the veneer of respectable opinions and remind us the truth of who we are and who we can be:

The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with [writers], continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.

A 17th-century conception of the universe, found in 'Cosmigraphics.' Click image for more

Echoing the Dante-esque notion of “a love that moves the sun and the other stars,” Bellow closes with a breathtaking contemplation of our deeper search for meaning undergirding all great art and literature — those fragmentary glimpses of luminous lucidity through which we are reminded, although we soon forget again, of our eternal communion with the universe:

The essence of our real condition, the complexity, the confusion, the pain of it is shown to us in glimpses, in [Proust’s] “true impressions.” This essence reveals and then conceals itself. When it goes away it leaves us again in doubt. But we never seem to lose our connection with the depths from which these glimpses come. The sense of our real powers, powers we seem to derive from the universe itself, also comes and goes. We are reluctant to talk about this because there is nothing we can prove, because our language is inadequate and because few people are willing to risk talking about it. They would have to say, “There is a spirit” and that is taboo. So almost everyone keeps quiet about it, although almost everyone is aware of it.

The value of literature lies in these intermittent “true impressions.” A novel moves us back and forth between the world of objects, of actions, of appearances, and that other world from which these “true impressions” come and which moves us to believe that the good we hang onto so tenaciously — in the face of evil, so obstinately — is no illusion.


Art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential.

Complement with Dani Shapiro on the “animating presence” of secular spirituality and William Faulkner’s elevating Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the role of the writer as a booster of the human heart, then revisit Bellow on our dance with distraction.

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08 JUNE, 2015

Love, Forgiveness, the Pride of the Protest, and What Makes a Compelling Heroine: Dostoyevsky’s Beautiful Eulogy for George Sand


A warm celebration of the art of crafting “characters of the most sincere forgiveness and love.”

On June 8, 1876, the great French novelist, memoirist, and playwright Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, took her last breath five weeks before her seventy-second birthday. Over the course of her long and prolific career, she had touched millions of readers and influenced generations of writers. Among them was beloved Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky — a young man at the time of Sand’s literary debut, which had profoundly shaped his sensibility as a writer.

When he read about Sand’s death in the newspaper, Dostoyevsky was moved to write one of the warmest eulogies in literary history, on par with Susan Sontag’s remembrance of Borges and JFK’s of Robert Frost. It was eventually included in A Writer’s Diary (public library) — the same superb collection that gave us Dostoyevsky on why there are no bad people and his arrival at the meaning of life in a dream. Despite a certain patina of datedness — this was an era when a woman writer was always a “poetess” — the eulogy emanates a tenacious timelessness, not only in celebrating Sand but also in serving as a genial testament to the circles of influence ripping through creative culture.

With the intention “merely to say a few farewell words to the deceased at her fresh grave,” Dostoyevsky laments that the most recent issue of his periodical had gone to press just before the announcement of Sand’s death:

I had no time to say even a word about this death. And yet, only having read about it, I understood what that name has meant in my life; how many delights, how much veneration this poetess has evoked in me at the time, and how many joys, how much happiness she has given me! I am putting down every one of these words unhesitatingly because this was literally the case.

With an eye to Sand’s idealism as a “service rendered to mankind as a whole,” Dostoyevsky considers how many others were as touched by her work and spirit as he was:

I imagine that much as I, then a young lad, everybody in those days was impressed with the chaste, sublime purity of the characters and of the ideals, and the modest charm of the austere, reserved tone of the narrative — and such a woman wears trousers and engages in debauch!

Pointing out that Sand become more popular with the Russian public than even Dickens, Dostoyevsky — who had served eight years in a Siberian prison camp for reading banned books — considers her singular allure to the national spirit at a time of severe ideological despotism in Russia:

The reader managed to extract even from novels everything against which he was being guarded… George Sand was one of the most brilliant, stern and just representatives of that category of the contemporaneous Western new men who, when they appeared, started with a direct negation of those “positive” acquisitions which brought to a close the activities of the bloody French — more correctly, European — revolution of the end of the past century.

Sand’s work, he argues, attested to the idea that “the renovation of humanity must be radical and social” and was a centerpiece not only of women’s emancipation but of the broader socialist movement toward freedom:

Her sermons were by no means confined to woman alone… George Sand belonged to the whole movement, and not to the mere sermons of women’s rights. True, being a woman herself, she naturally preferred to portray heroines rather than heroes, and, of course, women of the whole world should now don mourning garb in her memory, because one of their loftiest and most beautiful representatives has passed away, and, in addition, an almost unprecedented woman by reason of the power of her mind and talent — a name which has become historical and which is destined not to be forgotten…

George Sand by Nadar, 1864

In a sentiment triply poignant against the contemporary fact that books featuring female protagonists rarely receive literary acclaim, Dostoyevsky considers the compassionate idealism that made Sand’s heroines so widely resonant and bewitching:

Her heroines represented a type of such elevated moral purity that it could not have been conceived without an immense ethical quest in the soul of the poetess herself; without the confession of the most complete duty; without the comprehension and admission of most sublime beauty and mercy, patience and justice. True, side by side with mercy, patience and the acknowledgement of the obligations of duty, there was the extraordinary pride of the quest and of the protest; yet it was precisely that pride which was so precious because it sprang from the most sublime truth, without which mankind could never have retained its place on so lofty a moral height. This pride is not rancor quad même, based upon the idea that I am better than you, and you are worse than me; nay, this is merely a feeling of the most chaste impossibility of compromise with untruth and vice, although — I repeat — this feeling precludes neither all-forgiveness nor mercy.


In a contemporary peasant girl she suddenly resurrects before the reader the image of the historical Joan of Arc, and graphically justifies the actual possibility of that majestic and miraculous event. This is typically Georgesandesque task, since no one but she among contemporary poets bore in the soul so pure an ideal… A straightforward, honest, but inexperienced, character of a young feminine creature is pictured, one possessing that proud chastity which is neither afraid of, nor can even be contaminated by, contact with vice — even if that creature should accidentally find herself in the very den of vice. The want of magnanimous sacrifice (supposedly specifically expected from her) startles the youthful girl’s heart, and unhesitatingly, without sparing herself, disinterestedly, self-sacrificingly and fearlessly, she suddenly takes the most perilous and fatal step. That which she sees and encounters does not in the least confuse or intimidate her; on the contrary, it forthwith increases courage in the youthful heart which, at this juncture, for the first time, realizes the full measure of its strength — the strength of innocence, honesty and purity; it doubles the energy, reveals new paths and new horizons to a mind which up to that time had not known itself, a vigorous and fresh mind not yet soiled with the compromise of life.

To be sure, Dostoyevsky points out, Sand’s archetype of the courageous and independent woman-protagonist was not met without resistance by those who admonished against “the future poison of woman’s protest, of woman’s emancipation.” But her very devotion to unsettling the era’s limiting norms and envisioning a more expansive version of humanity is also what rendered Sand immortal:

George Sand … was one of the most clairvoyant foreseers (if this flourishing term be permitted) of a happy future awaiting mankind, in the realization of whose ideals she had confidently and magnanimously believed all her life — this because she herself was able to conceive this ideal in her soul. The preservation of this faith to the end is usually the lot of the lofty souls, of all genuine friends of humanity… She based her socialism, her convictions, her hopes and her ideals upon the moral feeling of man, upon the spiritual thirst of mankind and its longing for perfection and purity, and not upon “ant-necessity.” All her life she believed absolutely in human personality … elevating and broadening this concept in each one of her works.


As to the pride of her quests and of her protest — I repeat — this pride never precluded mercy, forgiveness of offense, or even boundless patience based upon compassion for the offender himself. On the contrary, time and again, in her works George Sand has been captivated by the beauty of these truths and on more than one occasion she has portrayed characters of the most sincere forgiveness and love.

A Writer’s Diary contains much more of Dostoyevsky’s warmth, idealism, and compassionate genius. Complement this particular piece with John F. Kennedy’s eulogy to Robert Frost and Susan Sontag’s breathtaking remembrance of Borges.

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03 JUNE, 2015

I, Pencil: An Ingenious Vintage Allegory for the Invisible Hand and How Everything Is Connected


“If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.”

For an object this seemingly simple, the pencil is not only an artifact with a remarkably fascinating history but also an enduring staple of creative culture — from John Steinbeck, who kept exactly twelve sharpened pencils on his desk at all times, to David Byrne, who captured the human condition in pencil diagrams. But although it is one of humanity’s humble masterpieces of design and ingenuity, we continue to underappreciate the pencil’s genius.

In 1958, libertarian writer and Foundation for Economic Education founder Leonard Read (September 26, 1898–May 14, 1983) set out to remedy this civilizational injustice in a marvelous essay titled “I, Pencil,” published in Essays on Liberty (public library). In a clever allegory, Read delivers his enduring point about the power of free market economy. Casting the pencil as a first-person narrator, he illustrates its astounding complexity to reveal the web of dependencies and vital interconnectedness upon which humanity’s needs and knowledge are based, concluding with a clarion call for protecting the creative freedom making this possible.

Drawing by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

Read begins:

I am a lead pencil — the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.

Writing is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do.

You may wonder why I should write a genealogy. Well, to begin with, my story is interesting. And, next, I am a mystery—more so than a tree or a sunset or even a flash of lightning. But, sadly, I am taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril. For, as a wise man observed, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”

Half a century before Thomas Thwaites set out to illustrate the complex interdependencies of what we call civilization by making a toaster from scratch, Read writes:

I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me — no, that’s too much to ask of anyone — if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because — well, because I am seemingly so simple.

Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.

Tracing the pencil’s journey from raw material — “a cedar of straight grain that grows in Northern California and Oregon” — to the hands of “all the persons and the numberless skills” involved in its fabrication, Read considers the rich cultural and practical substrata of all these skills and production mechanisms:

Consider the millwork in San Leandro. The cedar logs are cut into small, pencil-length slats less than one-fourth of an inch in thickness. These are kiln dried and then tinted for the same reason women put rouge on their faces. People prefer that I look pretty, not a pallid white. The slats are waxed and kiln dried again. How many skills went into the making of the tint and the kilns, into supplying the heat, the light and power, the belts, motors, and all the other things a mill requires? Sweepers in the mill among my ancestors? Yes, and included are the men who poured the concrete for the dam of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company hydroplant which supplies the mill’s power!

Don’t overlook the ancestors present and distant who have a hand in transporting sixty carloads of slats across the nation from California to Wilkes-Barre!

He goes on to delineate the global reaches of the production process — from the pencil’s lead derived from graphite mined in Ceylon to Mexican candelilla wax used used to increase its strength and smoothness to the rapeseed oil Dutch East Indies involved in the creation of its “crowning glory,” the eraser — ultimately pointing to the pencil as a supreme example of Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand” at work:

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others… There isn’t a single person in all these millions, including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how. From the standpoint of know-how the only difference between the miner of graphite in Ceylon and the logger in Oregon is in the type of know-how. Neither the miner nor the logger can be dispensed with, any more than can the chemist at the factory or the worker in the oil field — paraffin being a by-product of petroleum.

Here is an astounding fact: Neither the worker in the oil field nor the chemist nor the digger of graphite or clay nor any who mans or makes the ships or trains or trucks nor the one who runs the machine that does the knurling on my bit of metal nor the president of the company performs his singular task because he wants me. Each one wants me less, perhaps, than does a child in the first grade. Indeed, there are some among this vast multitude who never saw a pencil nor would they know how to use one. Their motivation is other than me. Perhaps it is something like this: Each of these millions sees that he can thus exchange his tiny know-how for the goods and services he needs or wants. I may or may not be among these items.

Above all, Read suggests, the pencil attests to the godliness of the human capacity for connected imagination. In a sardonic dual jab at religious creationism and excessive government control, Read summons the last line from Joyce Kilmer’s 1918 poem “Trees” and writes:

It has been said that “only God can make a tree.” Why do we agree with this? Isn’t it because we realize that we ourselves could not make one? Indeed, can we even describe a tree? We cannot, except in superficial terms. We can say, for instance, that a certain molecular configuration manifests itself as a tree. But what mind is there among men that could even record, let alone direct, the constant changes in molecules that transpire in the life span of a tree? Such a feat is utterly unthinkable!

I, Pencil, am a complex combination of miracles: a tree, zinc, copper, graphite, and so on. But to these miracles which manifest themselves in Nature an even more extraordinary miracle has been added: the configuration of creative human energies — millions of tiny know-hows configurating naturally and spontaneously in response to human necessity and desire and in the absence of any human master-minding! Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

The above is what I meant when writing, “If you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing.” For, if one is aware that these know-hows will naturally, yes, automatically, arrange themselves into creative and productive patterns in response to human necessity and demand — that is, in the absence of governmental or any other coercive master-minding — then one will possess an absolutely essential ingredient for freedom: a faith in free men. Freedom is impossible without this faith.

Just a few years earlier, pencil-lover Steinbeck had written in East of Eden: “The free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.” Whether Read read Steinbeck and succumbed to cryptomnesia or arrived at this strikingly similar sentiment independently is only cause for speculation, but his larger point — one as pertinent to public policy as it is to the private creative endeavor — is what endures with its own timeless miraculousness:

If I, Pencil, were the only item that could offer testimony on what men can accomplish when free to try, then those with little faith would have a fair case. However, there is testimony galore; it’s all about us and on every hand. Mail delivery is exceedingly simple when compared, for instance, to the making of an automobile or a calculating machine or a grain combine or a milling machine or to tens of thousands of other things. Delivery? Why, in this area where men have been left free to try, they deliver the human voice around the world in less than one second; they deliver an event visually and in motion to any person’s home when it is happening; they deliver 150 passengers from Seattle to Baltimore in less than four hours; they deliver gas from Texas to one’s range or furnace in New York at unbelievably low rates and without subsidy; they deliver each four pounds of oil from the Persian Gulf to our Eastern Seaboard — half-way around the world — for less money than the government charges for delivering a one-ounce letter across the street!

The lesson I have to teach is this: Leave all creative energies uninhibited. Merely organize society to act in harmony with this lesson. Let society’s legal apparatus remove all obstacles the best it can. Permit these creative know-hows freely to flow. Have faith that free men will respond to the Invisible Hand. This faith will be confirmed. I, Pencil, seemingly simple though I am, offer the miracle of my creation as testimony that this is a practical faith, as practical as the sun, the rain, a cedar tree, the good earth.

Half a century after Read penned his brilliant essay, it was adapted into an animated film illustrating how the same “complex combination of miracles” plays out on various scales in our modern lives:

For an equally pause-giving contemporary counterpart, see The Toaster Project.

Perhaps Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer — and what, if not computing, is the height of Read’s miraculous web of know-hows? — put it best when she wrote that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.”

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02 JUNE, 2015

The Boy Who Loved Math: The Illustrated Story of Eccentric Genius and Lovable Oddball Paul Erdos


How a prodigy of primes became the Magician from Budapest before he learned how to butter his own bread.

The great Hannah Arendt called mathematics the “science par excellence, wherein the mind appears to play only with itself.” Few minds have engaged in this glorious self-play more fruitfully than the protagonist of The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdős (public library) by writer Deborah Heiligman and illustrator LeUyen Pham — a wonderful addition to the most intelligent and imaginative picture-book biographies of great artists and scientists, telling the story of the eccentric Hungarian genius who went on to become one of the most prolific and influential mathematicians of the twentieth century.

Tucked into Pham’s illustrations are a number of mathematical Easter eggs, such as the palindromic primes, dihedral primes, Leyland primes, and other prime varieties — a particular obsession for Erdős — she built into her Budapest cityscape.

Erdős was born in Budapest to Jewish parents who were both math teachers. His two sisters, ages three and five, died of scarlet fever the day of his birth and his father spent the first six years of little Paul’s life as a prisoner of war in Russia. It was his mother, Anna, who nurtured the young boy’s early love of math.

Even as a toddler — or an epsilon, a very small amount in math, as he would later come to call children — he was already doing complex calculations in his head.

One day, when he was 4, Paul asked a visitor when her birthday was. She told him.

What year were you born? he asked.
She told him.

What time?
She told him.

Paul thought for a moment.
Then he told her how many seconds she had been alive.

Paul liked that trick. He did it often.

But despite — or, rather, because of — his extreme intelligence, Paul didn’t do so well in school. His intellectual vigor paralleled his bodily restlessness — he simply couldn’t sit still in the classroom.

Paul told Mama he didn’t want to go to school anymore. Not for 1 more day, for 0 days. He wished he could take days away — negative school days! He pleaded with Mama to stay home.

Luckily, mama was a worrier. She worried about germs a lot. She worried Paul could catch dangerous germs from the children at school.

Anna finally relented and Paul was entrusted in the care of the stern Fraülein. She and his mother did everything for him — they cut his meat, buttered his bread, and dressed him. But while such attentive care gave the boy room to grow his genius — we do know, after all, that parental presence rather than praise is the key to a child’s achievement — it made for substantial social awkwardness later in life.

By the time time he was twenty, he was already a world-famous mathematician, known as The Magician from Budapest — but he still lived with his mom, who still did his laundry and cooked for him and buttered his bread.

Heiligman illustrates the magnitude of his everyday incapacity with an amusing anecdote:

When Paul was 21, some mathematicians invited him to go to England to work on his math.


They all went to dinner.

Everyone else talked and ate, but Paul stared at his bread. He stared at his butter. He didn’t know how to butter his bread.

Finally he took his knife, put some butter on it, and spread it on his bread. Phew. He did it! “It wasn’t so hard,” he said.

But the buttering of the bread was merely the trigger for a larger realization — young Paul saw that the traditional path of settling down in one place, with a wife and children, working at a nine-to-five job, wasn’t the right path for him, he who longed to do math for nineteen hours a day. Heiligman writes:

Here is what he did:

Paul would get on an airplane with two small suitcases filled with everything he owned — a few clothes and some math notebooks. He might have $20 in his pocket. Or less.

He flew from New York to Indiana and to Los Angeles. He flew across the world, from Toronto to Australia.

“I have no home,” he declared. “The world is my home.”

More than half a century before Airbnb, he began staying with mathematicians all over the world, who would take him into their homes and take care of him just like his mother had. He wasn’t the easiest of house guests — he would wake up at 4 in the morning to do math, and one time he caused a colorful kitchen explosion by stabbing a carton of tomato juice with a knife, having grown impatient with figuring out how to open it properly — but his friends around the world loved him dearly for his brilliant mind and generous collaborative spirit.

Indeed, for all his eccentricity — TIME famously called him “The Oddball’s Oddball” — Erdős was no lone genius. If Voltaire was the epicenter of the famous Republic of Letters, Erdős was the epicenter of a Republic of Numbers — over the course of his long life, he collaborated with more than 500 other mathematicians and greatly enjoyed his role as what Heiligman aptly terms a “math matchmaker,” introducing peers around the world to one another so they could cooperate in moving mathematics forward. These collaborations advanced the progress of computing and paved the way for modern search engines.

He became affectionately known as Uncle Paul and mathematicians came to talk of “Erdős numbers” to measure their collaborative distance from the beloved genius in degrees of separation — those who worked with him directly earned the number 1, those who worked with someone who had worked with him directly got 2, and so forth.

Paul said he never wanted to stop doing math. And he didn’t. To stop doing math, Paul said, was to die.

So Paul left this world while he was at a math meeting.

(His famous peer John Nash — who inspired the film A Beautiful Mind, was awarded the Nobel Prize, and bore the Erdős number 3 — wasn’t so lucky.)

Complement the warm and wonderful The Boy Who Loved Math with the illustrated life-stories of other celebrated minds, including Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, Ibn Sina, and Maria Merian. For a grownup biography of Erdős, see the excellent The Man Who Loved Only Numbers.

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