Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘lists’

30 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Tolstoy’s Reading List: Essential Books for Each Stage of Life

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Even if one could never “finish” great literature, one has to begin somewhere.

Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, Leo Tolstoy succumbed to a deep spiritual crisis and decided to pull himself out by finding the meaning of life. He did so largely by reading voraciously across the world’s major philosophical and religious traditions, discovering great similarities in how they dealt with the truth of the human spirit. He was also, as any great writer, an insatiable reader of literature, which he wove together into A Calendar of Wisdom — the proto-Tumblr he spent the final decades of his life assembling.

But despite his wide and prolific reading, Tolstoy did consider specific books especially important and influential in his development. At the age of sixty-three, in a letter to a friend, he compiled such a list of the books that had most impressed him over the course of his life. Dated October 25, 1891, and found in Tolstoy’s Letters (public library), the missive is prefaced by the author’s disclaimer: “I am sending the list I began, but didn’t finish, for your consideration, but not for publication, since it is still far from complete.” (Reading, of course, is inherently incompletable — one can never hope to “finish” the body of literature, nor should one wish to.)

Under the heading “WORKS WHICH MADE AN IMPRESSION,” Tolstoy divides his reading list into five distinct life-stages — beginning with childhood and ending with his age at the time — and ranks each title by excellence, from “great” to “v. great” to “enormous.” Curiously, Tolstoy seems to consider the teenage years one’s most formative, prescribing for them books greater in both quality and quantity, whereas the twenties and early thirties are most meager in both and mostly occupied by poetry — perhaps because few people at the time had the luxury of leisure for reading during their most vital wage-earning years, or maybe because Tolstoy simply believed that one should be busier living than reading during that life-stage.

That only two known women figure in Tolstoy’s list is, one would imagine, less a function of his bias than of his era’s and his culture’s — though the latter certainly shape the former.

CHILDHOOD TO AGE 14 OR SO

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 14 TO 20

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 20 TO 35

“Great”:

“V. great”:

AGE 35 TO 50

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

AGE 50 TO 63

“Great”:

“V. great”:

“Enormous”:

Complement with Tolstoy’s timeless meditation on art, his chronicle of spiritual awakening, and his compendium of humanity’s greatest wisdom.

For more notable reading lists, see those of Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, David Bowie, and Brian Eno.

* Tolstoy’s original letter recommended reading Homer and the gospels in translation during one’s teens and in the Greek after age 35, reflecting a true classical education

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14 MARCH, 2014

33 Books on How to Live: My Reading List for the Long Now Foundation’s Manual for Civilization

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Books that help us make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it.

In a recent piece about the Manual for Civilization — the Long Now Foundation’s effort to assemble 3,500 books most essential for sustaining or rebuilding humanity, as part of their collaboratively curated library of 3,500 books for long-term thinking — I lamented the fact that Stewart Brand’s 76-book contribution to the Manual contained only one and a half books authored by a woman. To their credit, the folks at the Long Now reached out immediately, inviting me to contribute my own list to the collaborative library they’re building.

In grappling with the challenge, I faced a disquieting and inevitable realization: The predicament of diversity is like a Russian nesting doll — once we crack one layer, there’s always another, a fractal-like subdivision that begins at the infinite and approaches the infinitesimal, getting exponentially granular with each layer, but can never be fully finished. If we take, for instance, the “women problem” — to paraphrase Margaret Atwood — then what about Black women? Black queer women? Non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women? Non-English-speaking non-Western Black queer women of Jewish descent? And on and on. Due to that infinite fractal progression, no attempt to “solve” diversity — especially no thirty-item list — could ever hope to be complete. The same goes for other variables like genre or subject: For every aficionado of fiction, there’s one of drama, then 17th-century drama, then 17th-century Italian drama, and so on.

But I had to start somewhere. So, with the discomfort of that inescapable disclaimer, I approached my private, subjective, wholly non-exhaustive selection of thirty-three books to sustain modern civilization and the human spirit — books at the intersection of introspection and outrospection, art and science, self and society.Above all, books that help us (or, at least, have helped me) learn how to live — how to make sense of ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Please enjoy. (A parenthetical “more” link appears after books I’ve previously contemplated in greater detail on Brain Pickings.)

  1. The Principles of Uncertainty (public library) by Maira Kalman (more here)
  2. On Photography (public library) by Susan Sontag (more here and here)
  3. The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety (public library) by Alan Watts (more here and here)
  4. Varieties of Scientific Experience (public library) by Carl Sagan (more here)
  5. Ways of Seeing (public library) by John Berger (more here)
  6. Optimism (public library) by Helen Keller (more here)
  7. Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) by Viktor Frankl (more here)
  8. The Diaries of Maria Mitchell (public library) by Maria Mitchell (more here and here)
  9. I’ll Be You and You Be Me (public library) by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (more here)
  10. On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) by Alexandra Horowitz (more here and here)
  11. Letter to My Daughter (public library) by Maya Angelou (more here)
  12. The Accidental Universe (public library) by Alan Lightman (more here and here)
  13. Collected Poems (public library) by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  14. The Year of Magical Thinking (public library) by Joan Didion (more here)
  15. The Color Purple (public library) by Alice Walker
  16. Here Is New York (public library) by E.B. White (more here)
  17. The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) by Hans Christian Andersen (more here)
  18. Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library) by Kay Larson (more here)
  19. Orlando: A Biography (public library) by Virginia Woolf (more here)
  20. A Short History of Nearly Everything (public library) by Bill Bryson
  21. The Collected Poems (public library) by Sylvia Plath
  22. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library) by Sarah Bakewell (more here)
  23. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (public library) by Lisa Randall
  24. The Politics (public library) by Aristotle
  25. Freedom from Fear (public library) by Aung San Suu Kyi (more here)
  26. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (public library) by James Gleick (more here)
  27. Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? edited by Gemma Elwyn Harris (more here)
  28. The Feminine Mystique (public library) by Betty Friedan (more here)
  29. The Collected Poems (public library) by Denise Levertov
  30. The Pillow Book (public library) by Sei Shonagon (more here)
  31. Bird by Bird (public library) by Anne Lamott (more here)
  32. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library) by Cheryl Strayed (more here)
  33. The Little Prince (public library) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (more here)

Keep an eye on the Manual for Civilization for more reading lists to complete the 3,500-book library, and consider joining me in supporting the project here.

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18 OCTOBER, 2013

Ray Bradbury on How List-Making Can Boost Your Creativity

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How to feel your way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of your skull.

Susan Sontag argued that lists confer value and guarantee our existence. Umberto Eco saw in them “the origin of culture.” But lists, it turns out, might be a remarkably potent tool for jostling the muse into manifesting — a powerful trigger for that stage of unconscious processing so central to the creative process, where our mind-wandering makes magic happen.

In Zen in the Art of Writing (public library), one of these ten essential books on writing, Ray Bradbury describes an unusual creative prompt he employed in his early twenties: He began making long lists of nouns as triggers for ideas and potential titles for stories:

These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.

The lists ran something like this:

THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.

Bradbury would later come to articulate his conviction that the intuitive mind is what drives great writing, but it was through these lists that he intuited the vital pattern-recognition machinery that fuels creativity. Echoing Einstein’s notion of “combinatory play,” Bradbury considers the true value of his list-making:

I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

So he went on making lists, hoping they’d spark these fruitful associations that the rational mind tucks away in the cabinets of “useless knowledge”:

THE MEADOW. THE TOY CHEST. THE MONSTER. TYRANNOSAURUS REX. THE TOWN CLOCK. THE OLD MAN. THE OLD WOMAN. THE TELEPHONE. THE SIDEWALKS. THE COFFIN. THE ELECTRIC CHAIR. THE MAGICIAN.

Out on the margin of these nouns, I blundered into a science fiction story that was not a science-fiction story. My title was “R is for Rocket.” The published title was “King of the Grey Spaces,” the story of two boys, great friends, one elected to go off to the Space Academy, the other staying home.

Bradbury, who has since shared timeless wisdom on withstanding the storm of rejection, recalls:

The tale was rejected by every science-fiction magazine because, after all, it was only a story about friendship being tested by circumstance, even though the circumstance was space travel. Mary Gnaedinger, at Famous Fantastic Mysteries, took one look at my story and published it. But, again, I was too young to see that “R is For Rocket” would be the kind of story that would make me as a science-fiction writer, admired by some, and criticized by many who observed that I was no writer of science fictions, I was a “people” writer, and to hell with that!

I went on making lists, having to do not only with night, nightmares, darkness, and objects in attics, but the toys that men play with in space, and the ideas I found in detective magazines.

Susan Sontag's list of her favorite things, illustrated. Click image for details.

But more than merely sharing the amusing story of his youth’s quirky habit, Bradbury believes this practice can be enormously beneficial for any writer, both practicing and aspiring, as a critical tool of self-discovery:

If you are a writer, or hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me.

He offers himself as a testament:

I began to run through those lists, pick a noun, and then sit down to write a long prose-poem-essay on it.

Somewhere along about the middle of the page, or perhaps on the second page, the prose poem would turn into a story. Which is to say that a character suddenly appeared and said, “That’s me”; or, “That’s an idea I like!” And the character would then finish the tale for me.

It began to be obvious that I was learning from my lists of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads, which is to say, their fantasies, their frights.

He urges the aspiring writer:

Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness … speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…

Shortly before his death, Bradbury speaks to his official biographer, Sam Weller — who also conducted Bradbury’s lost Comic Con interview — and revisits the subject of list-making in a Paris Review interview:

Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.

(That’s exactly what Roland Barthes did in 1977, to a delightful effect.)

Zen in the Art of Writing remains a must-read in its entirety, and a fine addition to the collected advice of great writers. Complement it with Bradbury on writing with joy and this fantastic 1974 documentary on his fantastical mind.

For more wisdom on writing, see Stephen King on the art of “creative sleep,” Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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