Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

18 OCTOBER, 2013

Jazz Legend Wynton Marsalis on the Magic of Music

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“That’s the soulful thing about playing: you offer something to somebody. You don’t know if they’ll like it, but you offer it.”

“Without music I should wish to die,” young Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote in a letter. Music, indeed, has shaped our evolution as a species, can profoundly affect our emotions, and even has a way of enthralling the brain on a neurological level. Learning to listen to music is itself a skill to be mastered, but learning to play it — and to play it stirringly, enchantingly, with equal parts conviction and imaginative freedom — is a rare kind of art.

In To a Young Jazz Musician: Letters from the Road (public library), Pulitzer-Prize-winning musician Wynton Marsalis — legendary trumpeter, composer, and educator, Artistic Director of New York’s iconic Jazz at Lincoln Center, and one of the greatest jazz musicians alive — riffs off Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and offers his hard-earned wisdom on what it takes to make good music and live a good life.

In one of the most powerful passages, he considers the pure joy of playing — the transcendent experience afforded after you’ve mastered the practicalities of the craft through deliberate practice:

The thing about jazz, through all the business involved in practicing and improvement, it’s always sweet: the improvement that you notice in the ability to express yourself, the feeling of playing, pushing yourself out into an open space through a sound, man. That’s an unbelievable feeling, an uplifting feeling of joy to be able to express the range of what you feel and see, have felt and have seen. A lot of this has nothing to do with you. It comes from another time, another space. To be able to channel those things and then project them though an instrument, that’s something that brings unbelievable joy.

His most beautiful observation, however, has to do with the opposite of what music gives the musician and extols, instead, what the musician gives to the world. He recounts a heartening anecdote from the road, while touring in Istanbul:

We were close to a housing project. A girl sat up on the balcony, she was maybe thirteen or fourteen. The people kept saying, “She speaks English, she’s studying English in school.” So she spoke a little broken English, talked to us. Then she disappeared. Dusk started to come on. After a moment, she reappeared, coming down to the street with some Turkish coffee for us in what had been her family’s best silverware. She poured it and stood there while we drank it. It was tender, man; had a sweetness to it. And that’s the soulful thing about playing: you offer something to somebody. You don’t know if they’ll like it, but you offer it.

To a Young Jazz Musician is magical in its entirety. Complement it with these 7 essential reads on music, emotion, and the brain.

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15 OCTOBER, 2013

E. B. White on Why He Wrote Charlotte’s Web, Plus His Rare Illustrated Manuscripts

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“A book is a sneeze.”

Legendary editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom, who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973, is celebrated as the single most influential champion of innovation in children’s book publishing in the past century. Her vision ushered in a new era of imagination of literature for young readers and brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. More than merely an editor, Nordstrom, who famously cultivated the insecure genius of young Maurice Sendak, wore the hats of friend, therapist, confidante, and tireless defender of her young authors. Among her most memorable creative feats, however, is Charlotte’s Web (public library) by E. B. White, published on October 15, 1952.

E. B. White's second draft for the beginning of Charlotte's Web, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

A few weeks before the book’s release, however, the Harper & Row publicity department expressed unease about White’s choice of protagonist. Worried that a spider might revolt readers and critics, they asked him to explain his choice. On September 29, White sent Nordstrom a short note in response to her concern that the book endpapers are too bright (but not without an endearing Whitean tease: “I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper’”), then proceeded to address the PR people’s unease in a lengthy explanation of why he wrote a book featuring a spider. The letter, unearthed by Letters of Note, is itself an absolute masterpiece of prose and testament to White’s character, bespeaking at once his elegant command of the written word and his equally famed love of animals. (White’s bemused dismay at the inquiry was sure to fall on an understanding ear, as Nordstrom had her own feisty grievances with publishers’ unimaginative shallowness.)

E. B. White's drawings of the vectors of the web-spinning process, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

I have been asked to tell how I came to write “Charlotte’s Web.” Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did.

A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven’t time for much else — the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skilful, amusing and useful, and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.

One cold October evening I was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs. (I did not know her name at the time, but I admired her, and later Mr. Willis J. Gertsch of the American Museum of Natural History told me her name.) When I saw that she was fixing to become a mother, I got a stepladder and an extension light and had an excellent view of the whole business. A few days later, when it was time to return to New York, not wishing to part with my spider, I took a razor blade, cut the sac adrift from the underside of the shed roof, put spider and sac in a candy box, and carried them to town. I tossed the box on my dresser. Some weeks later I was surprised and pleased to find that Charlotte’s daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box. They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show.

At the present time, three of Charlotte’s granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.

I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.

E. B. White's notes on web weaving, found in The Annotated Charlotte's Web, 1994.

White, in fact, had little patience for the objections some critics, librarians, teachers, and parents had to the book’s protagonist and his choice to tackle the subject of death in a children’s book, which he saw as an infringement on his creative vision and integrity as a writer. In an unpublished letter to Nordstrom, cited in The Annotated Charlotte’s Web (public library), White dismisses these concerns with his characteristically concise, sharp-witted satire:

I am working on a new book about a boa constrictor and a litter of hyenas. The boa constrictor swallows the babies one by one, and the mother hyena dies laughing.

Complement with the altogether fantastic Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library), which also gave us Nordstrom’s infinitely heartening correspondence with young Sendak.

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07 OCTOBER, 2013

Ernest Hemingway on How New York Can Drive You to Suicide

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“I have understood for the first time how men can commit suicide simply because of too many things in business piling up ahead of them that they can’t get through.”

From Jack Kerouac’s nightlife tour to Gay Talese’s obsessive observations to Frank O’Hara’s ode to its dirty streets, New York City has always had a way of mesmerizing famous writers into recording their unfiltered impressions of Gotham — especially so in their diaries and letters. Now comes a new addition from none other than Ernest Hemingway, who had spent the previous five years living in Paris: In The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 (public library) — the impressive sequel to the first volume, offering an unprecedented glimpse of Papa’s peak of self-discovery as a writer and a human being — Hemingway writes to his Parisian friends Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas The letter, dated October 11, 1923, appears to be his way of sorting out his own thoughts in deciding, once and for all, that he was no longer interested in living in North America’s urban epicenters.

Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn at the Stork Club, New York City. (JFK Presidential Library & Museum)

Hemingway begins with a quick, excited, and irreverent report on his new baby boy born the day before (“I am informed he is very good looking but personally detect an extraordinary resemblance to the King of Spain.”), makes a playful riff on Stein’s famous 1922 poem “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” (“Got a Little Review with your Valentine for Sherwood. It is very fine and very mine couldn’t help writing that mean very fine and very Sherwood.”), and proceeds to deliver his verdict on New York — from a meditation on its cuisine to a critique of its architecture to a prescient remark on suicide four decades before his own.

Contrary to my remembrance the cuisine here is good. They are very fine with a young or fairly young Chicken. I have also found some good Chinese places. We have both been very homesick for Paris. I have understood for the first time how men can commit suicide simply because of too many things in business piling up ahead of them that they can’t get through. It is of only doubtful value to have discovered. In New York four days I could not locate Sherwood or anybody I wanted to see because of being too busy. Tried telephoning etc. New York looked very beautiful on the lower part around Broad and Wall streets where there is never any light gets down except streaks and the damnedest looking people. All the time I was there I never saw anybody even grin. There was a man drawing on the street in front of the stock exchange with yellow and red chalk and shouting “He sent his only begotten son to do this. He sent his only begotten son to die on the tree. He sent his only begotten son to hang there and die.” A big crowd standing around listening. Business men you know. Clerks, messenger boys. “Pretty tough on de boy.” Said a messenger boy absolutely seriously to another kid. Very fine. There are really some fine buildings. New ones. Not any with names that we’ve ever heard of. Funny shapes. Three hundred years from now people will come over from Europe and tour it in rubber neck wagons*. Dead and deserted like Egypt. It’ll be Cooks most popular tour.

Wouldn’t live in it for anything.

* Tourist buses — from “rubberneck,” slang for tourist or gawking onlooker

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with other famous writers on New York, then revisit Hemingway on writing and the dangers of ego, his Nobel acceptance speech, and his irreverent letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald on heaven and hell.

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