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26 FEBRUARY, 2013

10½ Favorite Reads from TED Bookstore 2013

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A full-brain reading list of cross-disciplinary stimulation.

Once again this year, like last, I had the honor of curating a selection of books for the TED Bookstore at TED 2013, themed The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered. Below are this year’s picks, along with the original text that appears on the bookstore cards and the introductory blurb about the selection:

‘I feel … as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger and larger, throbbing quicker and quicker with new blood — and there is no more delicious sensation than this,’ Virginia Woolf wrote on the mesmerism of books. Gathered here are books to make both hemispheres throb with boundless delight, stimulation, and deliciousness.

I SAW A PEACOCK WITH A FIERY TAIL

A die-cut masterpiece, two years in the making, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail (public library), one of the best art books of 2012, is based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti. It comes from Indian independent publisher Tara Books (), who for the nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a community of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books.

Originally featured, with more images and a trailer, last May.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. Collected in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, is her no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — published under Sugar’s long-awaited real name.

Turn to page 352 for a sublime taste.

BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE

The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — including TEDsters like Alain de Botton, Mary Roach, and Richard Dawkins — to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library), among both the best children’s books of 2012 and the year’s overall reader favorites. A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Save the Children.

Originally featured, with several excerpts from the heart-warming, brain-tickling questions and answers, last November.

INTERNAL TIME

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. But despite the laughably sexist hierarchy, his rule of thumb turns out to be grossly unsupported by science. In Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), one of the best science books of 2012, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg demonstrates through a wealth of research that our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

Originally featured at length last May.

WHERE THE HEART BEATS

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library), also one of the best philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs an exceptional intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of John Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, this superbly researched, exquisitely written tome weaves together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

Originally featured, with bountiful excerpts and photographs, last July.

AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), one of the best history books of 2012, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. Especially enchanting is the evolution of her relationship with love over that decade and a half, as Sontag settles into her own skin not only as a dimensional writer but also as a dimensional human being.

Sample this treasure with Sontag’s wisdom on love, art, education, writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms.

THE WHERE, THE WHY, AND THE HOW

In The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (UK; public library), one of the best science books of 2012, some of today’s most celebrated artists create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language. Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves.

Originally featured, with artwork and answers, in October.

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS

Saul Bass is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. Exactly half a century later, Henri’s Walk to Paris (public library), one of 2012’s best children’s books, was brought back to life.

Originally featured, with more images, last February.

A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS

Originally published by an ad man named James Webb Young in 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas (public library) is a forgotten gem that lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

Try Young’s 5-step technique here.

THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF DOGS

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) is a remarkable collection of canine-themed treats — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — by a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, this lavish tome embodies what Malcolm Gladwell eloquently observes in the introduction: “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

Cover by Maira Kalman, February 1, 1999

See it in its full glory here.


BONUS: ADVICE TO LITTLE GIRLS

In 1865, legendary satirist Mark Twain did something unexpected — he penned a children’s story, in which he challenged kids to digest the intelligent humor he was, and still is, known for among his adult audiences. Nearly a century and a half later, beloved Russian children’s illustrator Vladimir Radunsky and Brooklyn independent publisher Enchanted Lion () are bringing Advice to Little Girls (public library) to life, envisioned in the style of the scrapbooks and small albums that children of Twain’s era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera.

This little gem was a TED Bookstore exclusive — it isn’t publicly available until April, but it’s now out for pre-order.

Complement with other littleknown children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, then catch up on last year’s TED Bookstore selections.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2013

Inside Kurt Cobain’s Letters and Journals

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“No amount of effort can save you from oblivion.”

On February 20, 1967, legendary Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain took his first breath. Twenty-seven years later, after a debilitating struggle with addiction and depression, he took his own life with a shotgun to the head and became the tragic patron-saint of the grunge generation. The posthumously released Kurt Cobain: Journals (public library) offers an unprecedented glimpse of the modern icon’s inner life, from an anatomy of his eclectic influences — John Lennon, the Stooges, the Sex Pistols, PJ Harvey, Public Enemy, David Bowie — to a chronicle of his tumultuous psychoemotional landscape to sketches and drawings that would later grace Nirvana album covers and that, like those of Sylvia Plath, Queen Victoria, and Richard Feynman, have been acclaimed for their artistic acumen.

The book begins with a meandering letter Cobain wrote to Melvins drummer Dale Crover in 1988, discussing the first glimmers of fame, the mediocrity of late-night television, the superficiality of publicity, and the decision to name the band Nirvana:

Hello, this is me saying ‘everything is basically raining, dull, and OK.’

In another piece, Cobain offers a mediation on culture underpinned by deep self-awareness with undertones of self-loathing:

I like to complain and do nothing to make things better. I like to blame my parents generation for coming so close to social change then giving up after a few successful efforts by the media & government to deface the movement by using the Mansons and other Hippie representatives as propaganda examples on how they were nothing but unpatriotic, communist, satanic, inhuman diseases, and in turn the baby boomers became the ultimate, conforming, yuppie hypocrites a generation has ever produced.

What might at first appear as an inability to embody the ideals of Bertrand Russell, Galileo, and Eleanor Roosevelt regarding conformity, opinion, and conviction is in fact Cobain’s subversive strategy for changing the status quo from the inside:

I like to calmly and rationally discuss my views in a conformist manor even though I consider myself to the extreme left.

I like to infiltrate the mechanics of a system by posing as one of them, then slowly start the rot from the inside of the empire.

In what reads like the more hopeless counterpart to David Foster Wallace’s meditation on popular taste, Cobain bemoans the American propensity for fads:

The conspiracy toward success in America is immediacy. … Here today, gone tomorrow because yesterday’s following was nothing more than a tool in every individuals need for self-importance, entertainment, and social rituals. Art that has long lasting value cannot be appreciated by the majorities. Only the same, small percent will value arts patience as they always have. This is good. The ones who are unaware do not deserve false suggestions in their purchasing duties.

Cobain notes the warped mythologies of fame, which disguise for the mainstream the enormous role of “minorities” — who were really creative majorities in many regards — in shaping the history of modern culture:

I like the comfort in knowing that women are generally superior and naturally less violent than men.

I like the comfort in knowing that women are the only future in rock and roll.

I like the comfort in knowing that the Afro American invented rock and roll yet has only been rewarded or awarded for their accomplishments when conforming to the white mans standards.

I like the comfort in knowing that the Afro American has once again been the only race that has brought a new form of original music to this decade.

(For an inspired and timeless testament to all of the above, look no further than reconstructionist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “grandmother of rock and roll.”)

A grim, angry, fragmented note laments the cult of commercialism:

The late 1980’s

This is a subliminal example of a society that has sucked & fucked itself into a rehashing value of greed.

[…]

You get the overall feeling that you paid way too much for literally nothing stimulating.

[…]

The jokes on you so kill yourself

No amount of effort can save you from oblivion. …

No Address
No Editor
No Ad rates

On page 204 of Journals, which writers were reportedly forbidden from reproducing due to the controversial nature of a self-portrait it contains, Cobain cites six cut-and-pasted lines from Alicia Ostriker’s stirring poem “A Young Woman, A Tree”:

Passing that fiery tree — if only she could

Be making love,
Be making a painting,
Be exploding, be speeding through the universe

Like a photon, like a shower
Of yellow blazes —

But perhaps most moving of all is Cobain’s strikingly earnest and aspirational, if also strikingly misspelled, list of life advice — reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s 1942 New Year’s Resolution list — followed by a disclaimer that applies to just about every aspect of living with personal integrity:

  1. Dont rape
  2. Dont be prejudice
  3. Dont be sexist
  4. Love your children
  5. Love your neighbor
  6. Love yourself

Dont let your opinions obstruct the aforementioned list.

The brilliance and tragedy of Cobain’s inner life unfolds further across the remainder of Kurt Cobain: Journals.

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11 FEBRUARY, 2013

Mathemusician Vi Hart Explains Space-Time with a Music Box and a Möbius Strip

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The fabric of the universe via backwards Bach.

If mathemusician Vi Hart — who for the past three years has been bringing whimsy to math with her mind-bending, playful, and illuminating stop-motion musical doodles — isn’t already your hero, she should be, and likely will be. (Cue in the GRAMMYs newly announced search for great music teachers.) In her latest gem, Hart uses music notation, a Möbius strip, and backwards Bach to explain space-time:

Music has two recognizable dimensions — one is time, and the other is pitch-space. … There [are] a few things to notice about written music: Firstly, that it is not music — you can’t listen to this. … It’s not music — it’s music notation, and you can only interpret it into the beautiful music it represents.

Also see Hart on the science of sound, frequency and pitch, and her blend of Victorian literature and higher mathematics to explain multiple dimensions.

For a decidedly less whimsical but enormously illuminating deeper dive, see these 7 essential books on time and watch Michio Kaku’s BBC documentary on the subject, then learn how to listen to music.

Donating = Loving

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18 JANUARY, 2013

David Byrne’s Hand-Drawn Pencil Diagrams of the Human Condition

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“Science’s job is to map our ignorance.”

David Byrne may have authored both one of last year’s best albums and best music books, but he is also one of the sharpest thinkers of our time and a kind of visual philosopher. About a decade ago, Byrne began making “mental maps of imaginary territory” in a little notebook based on self-directed instructions to draw anything from a Venn diagram about relationships to an evolutionary tree of pleasure — part Wendy MacNaughton, part Julian Hibbard, yet wholly unlike anything else. In 2006, Byrne released Arboretum (UK; public library), a collection of these thoughtful, funny, cynical, poetic, and altogether brilliant pencil sketches — some very abstract, some very concrete — drawn in the style of evolutionary diagrams and mapping everything from the roots of philosophy to the tangles of romantic destiny to the ecosystem of the performing arts.

Möbius Structure of Relationships

Writing in the introductory essay simply titled “Why?,” Byrne considers our remarkable capacity for rationalization and the role of the non-rational in science:

Maybe it was a sort of self-therapy that worked by allowing the hand to ‘say’ what the voice could not.

Irrational logic — I’ve heard it called that. The application of logical scientific rigor and form to basically irrational premises. To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense with a a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense.

But how can nonsense ever emerge as sense? No matter how convoluted or folded, it will still always be nonsense, won’t it?

I happen to believe that a lot of scientific and rational premises are irrational to begin with — that the work of much science and academic inquiry is, deep down, merely the elaborate justification of desire, bias, whim, and glory. I sense that to some extent the rational ‘thinking’ areas of our brains are superrationalization engines. They provide us with means and justifications for our more animal impulses. They allow us to justify them both to ourselves and then, when that has been accomplished, to others.

Social Information Flow

Human Content

Hidden Roots

More than half a century after Vannevar Bush’s timeless meditation on the value of connections in the knowledge economy, Byrne echoes Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky and contributes a beautiful addition to history’s finest definitions of science:

If you can draw a relationship, it can exist. The world keeps opening up, unfolding, and just when we expect it to be closed — to be a sealed sensible box — it shows us something completely surprising. In fact, the result and possibly unacknowledged aim of science may be to know how much it is that we don’t know, rather than what we do think we know. What we think we know we probably aren’t really sure of anyway. At least if can get a sense of what we don’t know, we don’t be guilty of the hubris of thinking we know any of it. Science’s job is to map our ignorance.

The Legacy of Good Habits

Morally Repugnant

Gustatory Rainbow

Imaginary Social Relationships

Christian Subcultures

Yes Means No

Psychological History

One of the diagrams from Arboretum, Roots of War in Popular Song (forest of no return), appears in the Art Pickings pop-up gallery and is available from 20×200. (In fact, it graces the wall I wake up to every morning.)

Thanks, Wendy

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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