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10 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best History Books of 2012

By:

From Mark Twain’s diary to the visual history of evolution, by way of Vonnegut, Sontag, and Klimt.

Following this year’s best science books, art books, design books, philosophy and psychology books, and children’s books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s ten-or-so most fascinating history books. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)

NEW YORK DIARIES

For the past four centuries, New York City has been courted, confabulated, and cursed, in public and in private, by the millions of citizens who have called it home. New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (UK; public library) is a remarkable feat of an anthology by Teresa Carpenter, culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections to reveal a dimensional mosaic portrait of the city through the journal entries of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in its grid over the past 400 years — easily the most dynamic and important depiction of the city since E. B. White’s timeless Here Is New York.

In an ingenious touch, Carpenter arranges the entries by day of the year, rather than chronologically, which brings to the foreground certain common patterns of daily life that appear to shape our experience of the city, be it in 1697 or 1976. At its heart, however, the collection exudes a certain unflinching quality of the city, unshakable solid ground that stands tenacious beneath the tempestuous weather patterns of great wars and great loves and great losses that swirl over.

Carpenter writes:

Every century produces a diarist who laments, ‘This is the worst catastrophe ever to befall New York!’ Surely it seems that way at the moment. The city takes the blow, catches its breath, then moves along to the insistent rhythm of the tides. New York, as it emerges from these pages, is by turns a wicked city, a compassionate city, a muscular city, a vulnerable city, an artistic wonder, an aesthetic disaster, but forever a resilient city — and one loved fiercely by its inhabitants.

From the voyeuristic glimpses of famous lives (Edison, Kerouac, Twain, Roosevelt, de Beauvoir) to the textured anonymous masses (businessmen, clergymen, Victorian teenagers) that constitute the intricate living fabric of the city, the diary entries are at once engrossingly intimate and strikingly prototypical of the human condition.

On May 20, 1948, Jack Kerouac reflects on a general sociocultural peculiarity of New York, folded into the particular peculiarity of the writer’s life as he considers his first novel, The Town and the City:

No word from Scribner’s. Their silence and businesslike judicious patience is driving me crazy with tension, worry, expectation, disappointment — everything. And the novel is yet unfinished, really, and the time has come to start typing it and straightening it out. What a job in this weary life of mine, this lazy life. But I’ll get down to it. The news that Jesse James is still alive is very thrilling news to me, and my mother too, but we’ve noticed that it doesn’t seem to impress the New York world at all — which does bear out, in its own way, what I say about New York, that it is a heaven for European culture and not American culture. I don’t get personally mad these things any more, because that is overdoing things in the name of culture and at the expense of general humanity, but still, I get personally mad at those who scoff at the significance of Jesse James, bandit or no, to the regular American with a sense of his nation’s past.

Just the previous year, on November 19, a wholly different, more private side of Kerouac emerges:

Dark Eyes came to my house tonight and we danced all night long, and into the morning. We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. My mother was charming when she got up and saw us there. I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.

On February 18, 1867, a 32-year-old Mark Twain paints a portrait in stark contrast with recent portrayals of the NYPD:

The police of Broadway seem to have been selected with special reference to size. They are nearly all large, fine-looking men, and their blue uniforms, well studded with brass buttons, their jack boots and their batons worn like a dagger, give them an imposing military aspect. They are gentlemanly in appearance and conduct… I hear them praised on every hand for their efficiency, integrity and watchful attention to business. It seems like an extravagant compliment to pay a policeman, don’t it? I am charmed with the novelty of it.”

On March 2, 1842, Charles Dickens writes:

Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder in the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel-window twenty times while we were sitting there. We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select part of half-a-dozen gentlemen-hogs have just now turned the corner…

And who knew Thomas Edison had such a penchant for the poetic? On July 12, 1885, he captures beautifully a morning experience all too familiar:

Awakened at 5:15 A.M. — My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams — turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion — succeeded — awakened at 7 A.M. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G — Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination à la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.

And on the following day, a deadpan blend of dark humor and entrepreneurship:

Went to New York via Desbrosses Street ferry. Took cars across town. Saw a woman get into car that was so tall and frightfully thin as well as dried up that my mechanical mind at once conceived the idea that it would be the proper thing to run a lancet into her arm and knee joints and insert automatic self-feeding oil cups to diminish the creaking when she walked.

Simone de Beauvoir, fashion critic? On February 4, 1947:

During the night, New York was covered with snow. Central Park is transformed. The children have cast aside their roller skates and taken up skis; they rush boldly down the tiny hillocks. Men remain barehanded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sticks to their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.

On October 29, 1985, a little over a year before his death, Andy Warhol meditates:

I broke something and realized I should break something once a week to remind me how fragile life is. It was a good plastic ring from the twenties.

It’s hard to imagine how many accounts Carpenter must have sifted through and oscillated between before settling on Mark Allen’s raw, harrowing record of 9/11. From it:

2:30 p.m. The first blast jolted me out of bed!!!! My apartment shook and I heard all these people on the street screaming. Dashed outside – Armageddon??? WTC on fire! Both towers! I watched them burning from the Williamsburg Bridge. Unsure why – no one around me spoke english! Run back inside my apartment no phone – all TV stations static – cell doesn’t work – modem does – weird – quickly listen to news on my little battery operated transistor alarm clock radio. Terrorists! Hear first tower COLLAPSED right outside my window – freak! On radio – radio news people are freaking out. – run outside with my bike and camera. Everyone I see on the street is saying shit like “Oh my fucking God!” – everyone is in weird shock. No one is not effected.

In a chaotic Chinatown. Looking at only ONE WTC tower – on fire – so surreal. Just one – superbizarre! Was on cell phone with Bryan – only person I could get through to – weird) , camera in hand, as 2nd tower COLLAPSED right in front of me!! You could feel the dull roar in the concrete. Will never forget it – EVER. It was like a blooming grey daffodil that bloomed big and then dissipated into dust. An unbelievable image I will never forget. People on street – totally edgy. Super razor blade vibe everywhere – no traffic. EVERYONE – MOBS walking AWAY from disaster. I can’t believe I am looking up and there are no twin towers – like a fever dream.

My favorite entry comes on November 29, 1941, from a 19-year-old Jack Kerouac — at once a living testament to the richness of life as a college-dropout-turned-lifelong-learner (cue in Kio Stark’s new project) and a poignant meditation on the most fundamental tension of the human condition:

I returned to college in the Fall, but my mind wasn’t at rest. My family was not any too well fixed; I felt out of place, the coaches were insulting, I was lonely; I left and went down to the South to think things over. Since then, on my own, I have been learning fast, writing a lot, reading good men, and have been slowly making up my mind, seriously & quietly. Either I am loathsome to others, I have decided, or else I shall be a beacon of rich warm light, spreading good and plenty, making things prosper, being a cosmic architect, conquering the world and being respected, myself grinning surreptitiously. Either that, Sirs, or I shall be the most loathsome, useless, and parasitical (on myself) creature in the world. I shall be a denizen of the Underground, or a successful man of the world. There shall be no compromise!!! I mean it.

My only lament? Susan Sontag, one of my greatest intellectual heroes and a formidable New York diarist, didn’t make it into the collection. Omission notwithstanding, New York Diaries is an absolute masterpiece blending a curator’s discernment, an archivist’s obsessive rigor, a writer’s love of writing, and a New Yorker’s love of New York — the ultimate celebration of the city’s tender complexity and beautiful chaos.

Originally featured, with more excerpts, in January.

THE ORIGINS OF SEX

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (UK; public library) by Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala offers a masterfully researched, absorbing, eloquent account of how, contrary to the modern mythology of the 1960s, today’s permissive sexual behavior first developed, seemingly suddenly, some three hundred years earlier, in 17th-century Western Europe. What emerges is a new lens for understanding the Enlightenment as a cultural phenomenon, by connecting this critical sexual transformation to the intellectual, political, and social forces that shaped the period.

The history of sex is usually treated as part of the history of private life, or of bodily experience. Yet that is itself a consequence of the Enlightenment’s conception of it as an essentially personal matter. My concern, by contrast, is not primarily to enter into the bedrooms and between the sheets of the past. It is to recover the history of sex as a central public preoccupation, and to demonstrate that how people in the past thought about and dealt with it was shaped by the most profound intellectual and social currents of their time.

[…]

The sexual revolution demonstrates how far and how quickly enlightened ways of thinking spread, and what important effects they had on popular attitudes and behavior.

Rembrandt, The Bed (1646): a rare contemporary illustration of a couple making love, composed around the time that the artist began an illicit relationship with his maid, Hendrickje Stoffels.

These new norms of behavior, Dabhiowala is careful to point out, didn’t affect everyone equally — like other kinds of liberty, they “primarily benefited a minority of white, heterosexual, propertied men.” He goes on to explore how urbanization placed the enforcement of sexual discipline under increasing pressure, making London — the largest metropolis in the world at the time, a hub of political power, literature, culture, and innovation — the epicenter of these shifts. Regulating the newly sexually awakened masses, however, was another matter:

The principle that illicit sex was a public crime was asserted with increasing vigor form the early middle ages onwards.

Indeed, since the dawn of history every civilization had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality. The oldest surviving legal codes (c. 2100-1700 BCE), drawn up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, and, to some extent, the Romans. The main concern of such laws was usually to uphold the honour and property rights of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups.

[…]

The laws of Ethelbert (c. 602), the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, stipulate the different fines payable ‘if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him’; for lying with servants or slave women of different classes; and for adultery with the wife of another freeman — in which case, as well as a heavy fine, the offender was ‘to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other’s home’.

[…]

The code of Alfred the Great (c. 893) made it lawful for any man to kill another if he found him ‘with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother’. That of King Cnut (c. 1020-23) forbade married men even from fornicating with their own slaves, and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off.

If these sound barbaric, the ethos of the dominant Christian tradition was — and remains — hardly different:

‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was the seventh of [God's] Ten Commandments, and every adulterer and adulteress, he had ordered, ‘shall surely be put to death’. The same fate was to be imposed upon anyone guilty of incest or bestiality, as upon men who had sex with each other: all such people defiled themselves and the community. If the daughter of a priest were to fornicate, she should be burned alive. If a man lay with a menstruating woman, ‘both of them shall be cut off from among their people’. If any man should lie with a betrothed maid, God’s will was that ‘ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of the city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die’ — ‘so thou shalt put away evil from among you’.

The patriarchal philanthropist: Robert Dingley, merchant and founder of the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. On his knee, in the frontispiece to the charity's published Account (1761), rests one of the penitents.

The centuries that followed brought little change and instead further developed what Dabhoiwala calls “this essentially negative view of sex.” Among the most powerful proponents of this view was Saint Augustine (354-430), bishop of the town of Hippo on the north African coast, who Dabhiowala argues has had a more profound impact on Christian attitudes towards sexuality than any other person. He came to see lust as the most dangerous of all human drives and, in a letter to another bishop, summed up his philosophy thusly:

For it intrudes where it is not needed and tempts the hearts of faithful and holy people with its untimely and even wicked desire. Even if we do not give in to these restless impulses of it by any sign of consent but rather fight against them, we would nonetheless, out of a holier desire, want them not to exist in us at all, if that were possible.

The church took these moral matters into its own hands with the establishment of is permanent courts around 1100, catapulting sexual offenses from the realm of private confession into the increasingly powerful system of public inquisition. The rise of towns and cities imposed yet another layer of punishment, giving rise to new civic penalties against adultery, fornication, and prostitution. By the later 13th century, such sexual and marital legal cases accounted for anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of all litigation. But despite the development of a formal system, punishments a remained crude violation of modern human rights:

In London, Bristol, and Gloucester, they constructed a special public ‘cage’ in the main market-place, in which to imprison and display prostitutes, adulterers, and lecherous priests; elsewhere, cucking-stools were used to punish whores… There also became established elaborate rituals of civic punishment for convicted whores, bawds, and adulterers. Serious offenders were taken on a long public procession through the city, dressed in symbolically degrading clothes and accompanied by the raucous clanging of pans and basins. Sometimes they would also be whipped, put in the pillory, have their hair shaved off, or be banished from the city.

Edward Rigby striking an unrepentant pose in 1703. This print was produced just a few months after his release from prison for attempted sodomy.

But, by the 16th century, these punishments seemed insufficient to a moral-extremist cohort as the Protestant movement began to vocally condemn the Catholic Church — nicknamed the Whore of Babylon — for a lax attitude towards sexual morality, from its lecherous priests who took the ideal of clerical celibacy as a joke to the toleration of prostitution. And yet, the church was thriving in its hypocrisy:

[A]s the morals of the people were left to decay, the church itself grew rich on the proceeds of fines, indulgences, and other tricks it imposed on its hapless flock. In short, there was a direct connection between the spiritual and sexual corruption of the papacy and its followers.

James Gillray's lurid pun on the name and the role of Dorothy Jordan, longtime mistress to the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV

The Origins of Sex goes on to reverse-engineer how modern ideas about sexual freedom and gender equality coalesced out of the stormy sexual attitudes and behaviors of 17th, 18th, and 19th-century England, exposing a rich new layer of understanding humanity’s most intimate mechanism for relating to self and other.

Originally featured in June.

HONORABLE MENTION: Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.

TREES OF LIFE

Since the dawn of recorded history, humanity has been turning to the visual realm as a sensemaking tool for the world and our place in it, mapping and visualizing everything from the body to the brain to the universe to information itself. Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution (UK; public library) catalogs 230 tree-like branching diagrams, culled from 450 years of mankind’s visual curiosity about the living world and our quest to understand the complex ecosystem we share with other organisms, from bacteria to birds, microbes to mammals.

Though the use of a tree as a metaphor for understanding the relationships between organisms is often attributed to Darwin, who articulated it in his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, the concept, most recently appropriated in mapping systems and knowledge networks, is actually much older, predating the theory of evolution itself. The collection is thus at once a visual record of the evolution of science and of its opposite — the earliest examples, dating as far back as the sixteenth century, portray the mythic order in which God created Earth, and the diagrams’ development over the centuries is as much a progression of science as it is of culture, society, and paradigm.

Theodore W. Pietsch writes in the introduction:

The tree as an iconographic metaphor is perhaps the most universally widespread of all great cultural symbols. Trees appear and reappear throughout human history to illustrate nearly every aspect of life. The structural complexity of a tree — its roots, trunk, bifurcating branches, and leaves — has served as an ideal symbol throughout the ages to visualize and map hierarchies of knowledge and ideas.

The Ladder of Ascent and Descent of the Intellect, not tree-like at first glance, but certainly branching dichotomously, the steps labeled from bottom to top, with representative figures on the right and upper left: Lapis (stone), Flamma (fire), Planta (plant), Brutum (beast), Homo (human), Caelum (sky), Angelus (angel), and Deus (God), a scheme that shows how one might ascend from inferior to superior beings and vice versa. After Ramon Lull (1232–1315), Liber de ascensu et descensu intellectus, written about 1305 but not published until 1512.

The 'Crust of the Earth as Related to Zoology,' presenting, at one glance, the 'distribution of the principle types of animals, and the order of their successive appearance in the layers of the earth’s crust,' published by Louis Agassiz and Augustus Addison Gould as the frontispiece of their 1848 Principles of Zoölogy. The diagram is like a wheel with numerous radiating spokes, each spoke representing a group of animals, superimposed over a series of concentric rings of time, from pre-Silurian to the 'modern age.' According to a divine plan, different groups of animals appear within the various 'spokes' of the wheel and then, in some cases, go extinct. Humans enter only in the outermost layer, at the very top of the diagram, shown as the crowning achievement of all Creation.

'Genealogy of the class of fishes' published by Louis Agassiz in his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Research on fossil fishes) of 1844.

The unique egg-shaped 'system of animals' published by German zoologist Georg August Goldfuss in his Über de Entwicklungsstufen des Thieres (On animal development) of 1817.

'Universal system of nature,' from Paul Horaninow’s Primae lineae systematis naturae (Primary system of nature) of 1834, an ingenious and seemingly indecipherable clockwise spiral that places animals in the center of the vortex, arranged in a series of concentric circles, surrounded in turn by additional nested circles that contain the plants, nonmetallic minerals, and finally metals within the outermost circle. Not surprisingly, everything is subjugated to humans (Homo) located in the center.

Ernst Haeckel’s famous 'great oak,' a family tree of animals, from the first edition of his 1874 Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des menschen (The evolution of man).

(More on Haeckel’s striking biological art here.)

Tree by John Henry Schaffner showing the relationships of the flowering plants. The early split at the base of the tree leads to the monocotyledonous plants on the left and the dicotyledons on the right.

Schaffner, 1934, Quarterly Review of Biology, 9(2):150, fig. 2; courtesy of Perry Cartwright and the University of Chicago Press.

A phylogeny of horses showing their geological distribution throughout the Tertiary, by Ruben Arthur Stirton.

Stirton, 1940, plate following page 198; courtesy of Rebecca Wells and the University of California Press.

William King Gregory’s 1946 tree of rodent relationships.

Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.

The frontispiece of William King Gregory’s two-volume Evolution Emerging.

Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Originally featured, with more images, in May.

AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH

It’s no secret Susan Sontag’s journals have been on heavy rotation here this year. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (UK; public library), the second published volume of her diaries and also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of the year, 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. The tome includes her insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.

Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.

FAKING IT

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” Susan Sontag famously asserted in On Photography. But in the quarter century since, the rise of digital photography and image manipulation software has increasingly transmogrified the photographer into a constructor of reality, a reality in which believing is seeing. Still, image manipulation dates much further back — in fact, to the dawn of photography itself. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (UK; public library), the companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of the same title, traces the evolution of image manipulation from the 1840s to the 1990s, when computer software first began to revolutionize the alteration of photographs.

Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dirigible Docked on Empire State Building, New York (Unidentified American artist, 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Powerful Collision (Unidentified German artist, 1914)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

These images — artful, subversive, unapologetic in their unreality — serve sometimes to amuse and entertain, sometimes to deliberately deceive, sometimes to comment on social and political issues, and always to give pause with how they tease and taunt our assumptions of optical reality and visual representation.

Met curator Mia Fineman writes in the introduction:

Over the past twenty years, photography has undergone a dramatic transformation. Mechanical cameras and silver-based film have been replaced by electronic image sensors and microchips; instead of shuffling through piles of glossy prints, we stare at the glowing screens of laptops, tablets, and mobile phones; negative enlargers and chemical darkrooms have given way to personal computers and image-processing software. Digital cameras and applications such as Photoshop have create, look at, and think about photographs. Among the most profound cultural effects of these new technologies has been a heightened awareness of the malleability of the photographic image and a corresponding loss of faith in photography as an accurate, trustworthy means of representing the visual world. As viewers, we have become increasingly savvy, even habitually skeptical, about photography’s claims to truth.

The Vision (Orpheus Scene) (F. Holland Day, 1907)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Aberdeen Portraits No. 1 (George Washington Wilson, 1857)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fading Away (Henry Peach Robinson, 1858)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922 (Unidentified Russian artist, 1949)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as Artist and Model (Maurice Guibert, ca. 1900)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Man Juggling His Own Head (Unidentified French artist, Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. ca. 1880)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two-Headed Man (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Room with Eye (Maurice Tabard, 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hearst Over the People (Barbara Morgan, 1939)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar / Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home (Grete Stern, 1948)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Originally featured in October.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

KURT VONNEGUT: LETTERS

Abidingly yet impatiently awaited by Vonnegut fans everywhere, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (UK; public library) finally arrived this year and is just as fantastic as expected. What makes the anthology particularly sublime is that strange, endearing way in which so much of what Vonnegut wrote about to his friends, family, editors, and critics appears at first glance mundane but somehow peels away at the very fabric of his character and reveals the most tender boundaries of his soul.

For a taste: In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut was offered a teaching position at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His role as long-distance father and husband was propelled by voluminous correspondence with his family, who remained in their Cape Cod residence. In a letter to his wife, Jane, dated September 28, 1965, he outlines his daily routine:

Dearest Jane,

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

Compare and contrast with Henry Miller’s daily routine, and also see this lovely short poem Vonnegut sent his friend Knox Burger in 1961.

Originally featured in November.

THE MEDICAL BOOK

Last year, Clifford Pickover brought us The Physics Book — a lavish chronology of physics milestones, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), and one of the 11 best science books of 2011. This year, he follows up with The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (UK; public library) — an equally impressive tome inviting us on “a vast journey into the history of medicine that includes eminently practical topics along with the odd and perplexing.” From practical inventions like eyeglasses (1284), condoms (1564), and cochlear implants (1977) and to era-defining innovations like hospitals (1784), the discovery of viruses (1892), and psychoanalysis (1899) to politicized subjects like abortion (70 A.D.), health insurance (1883), and the birth control pill (1955), the short entries, arranged chronologically from 10,000 B.C. (“witch doctor”) to 2008 (“human cloning”), offer a concise introduction and overview of each medical milestone, alongside a full-page image — ranging from an archeological artifact to a Renaissance painting to bleeding-edge photomicroscopy –that captures its essence and cultural significance.

Pickover writes in the introduction:

When colleagues ask me what I feel are the greatest milestones in medicine, I usually offer three events. the first involves the use of ligatures to stem the flow of blood during surgeries, for example, as performed by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590). he promoted ligature (e.g., tying off with twine) of blood vessels to prevent hemorrhage during amputations, instead of the traditional method of burning the stump with a hot iron to stop bleeding. The second key milestone includes methods for decreasing pain through general anesthetics such as ether, attributed to several American physicians. The third breakthrough concerns antiseptic surgery, which was promoted by British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912), whose use of carbolic acid (now called phenol) as a means of sterilizing wounds and surgical instruments dramatically reduced postoperative infections.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Hidden Treasure, which explored 10 centuries of visualizing the human body in medicine, and The Art of Medicine, a 2,000-year visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity.

Originally featured in September.

BOREDOM: A LIVELY HISTORY

Boredom has never enjoyed an admirable reputation, and in the age of the internet’s incessant on-demand stimulation, it seems at once anachronistic and antithetical — a particularly pathetic condition to profess, a personal failure of sorts. But in Boredom: A Lively History (UK; public library), classics scholar Peter Toohey examines boredom as an adaptive mechanism. From Madame Bovary to fMRI, he explores the roots, symptoms, and symbolism of boredom across art history, psychology, and neurochemistry to examine what it reveals about us both as individuals and as a culture.

Boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish.

Toohey argues that boredom, unlike primary emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, takes a secondary role, alongside “social emotions” like sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, and contempt. He delineates between two main types of boredom — simple boredom, which occurs regularly and doesn’t require that you be able to name it, and existential boredom, a grab-bag condition that is “neither an emotion, nor a mood, nor a feeling” but, rather, “an impressive intellectual formulation” that has much in common with depression and is highly self-aware, something Toohey calls the most self-reflective of conditions.

Toohey examines the relationship between boredom and disgust, the former being a mild derivation of the latter — boredom is to disgust what annoyance is to anger. Boredom is also connected to surfeit — surfeit, coupled with monotony, predictability, and confinement, produces boredom.

Boredom is an emotion usually associated with a nourished body: like satiety, it is not normally for the starving.

But our reflexive means of alleviating boredom — novelty-seeking, drugs, extreme behaviors — are, as most of us are intellectually aware but have at some point been experientially blind to, remarkably ineffective. Toohey observes:

As fast as the new is experienced…it is liable to become boring. The new becomes a variant of the infinite. It recedes infinitely.

This touches on what’s perhaps the most transfixing aspect of boredom — its relationship with time:

Infinity is of course temporal as well as spatial. Time has a very interesting relationship with boredom and its representations. We have all experienced the sluggishness of time when we have been confined in boring situations. According to one of the late Clement Freud’s famous witticisms, ‘if you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving you don’t actually live longer, it just seems longer.’

In this way, boredom appears to be the polar opposite of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously termed flow — a state of intense focus you enter whilst absorbed in an enthralling task, when you lose track of time.

And yet, our tendency to seek a cure for boredom in the new and shiny appears to be a fundamental part of being human, a deep-seated cultural phenomenon:

Popular culture is littered with examples of this process of rule breaking as a way to escape the chronic boredom of modern life. The problem with this rule breaking is that it so quickly becomes predictable, prosaic and boring. Avant-garde art and rock’n'roll, to take two examples, both staged revolts against the status quo precisely by way of dazzling, intense novelty, but both quickly became as predictable as corn niblets.

[…]

Rule breaking, if it’s done regularly, quickly becomes just another element in the edifice of the middle-class boredom that it was designed to replace. Worse still, rule breaking becomes confused with fashion and being modern and that quickly becomes old-fashioned too. Remember what Oscar Wilde had to say? ‘Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.

Originally featured, with a boredom threshold self-test, in June.

LEONARDO DA VINCI: ANATOMIST

Though Leonardo da Vinci endures as the quintessential polymath, the epitome of the “Renaissance Man” dabbling in a wide array of disciplines — art, architecture, cartography, mathematics, literature, engineering, anatomy, geology, music, sculpture, botany — his interest in science was anything but cursory. In Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (UK; public library), Martin Clayton, senior curator of the Royal Collection, looks well beyond his iconic Vitruvian Man to explore Leonardo’s remarkably accurate anatomical illustrations that remained hidden from the world for nearly 400 years after Da Vinci’s death.

A study of a man standing facing the spectator, with legs apart and arms stretched down, drawn as an anatomical figure to show the heart, lungs and main arteries.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Three studies, one on a larger scale, of a man's right arm and shoulder, showing muscles; three studies of a right arm; a diagram to illustrate pronation and supination of the hand.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

An anatomical study of the principal organs and the arterial system of a female torso, pricked for transfer.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Springing from the “true to nature” ethos of his paintings, Leonardo’s fascination with the human body took him to the morgues and hospitals of Florence, where he performed dissections of corpses, often of executed criminals. His greatest feat was understanding the workings of the heart. After discovering a bulb-shaped swelling at the root of the aorta, he came strikingly close to uncovering the mechanisms of blood circulation more than a century before formal science arrived at it. In fact, he injected melted wax into the heart of an ox, then a glass model of the cast and pumped it with water with a suspension of grass seeds in order to observe the vortexes at work. He then concluded that the swelling made the aortic valve close after each heartbeat, a proposition which cardiologists didn’t arrive at until the early 20th century and didn’t fully confirm until the 1980s.

Large drawing of an embryo within a human uterus with a cow's placenta; smaller sketch of the same; notes on the subject; illustrative drawings in detail of the placenta and uterus; diagram demonstrating binocular vision; a note on relief in painting and on mechanics.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A study of a man's left leg, stretched forward; beside it, a man's legs seen from behind; below is a man standing, turned in profile to the left, with his left leg advanced; to the right are two studies of the bones of human left legs and thighs, and one of an animal; with many notes on the muscles.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A study of the dissection of the lower leg and foot of a bear, viewed in profile to the left. To the left there is also a slight drawing of the leg.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Perhaps his most famous anatomical drawing was of a 100-year-old man, who had reported being in excellent health mere hours before his death. When Leonardo dissected him to see “the cause of so sweet a death” and found cirrhosis of the liver and a blockage of an artery to the heart, producing the first-ever description of what is now known as coronary vascular occlusion.

As a great artist, Leonardo had two advantages over his contemporary anatomists. First of all, as a sculptor, engineer, architect, he had an intuitive understanding of form — when he dissected a body, he could understand in a very fluid way how the different parts of the body fit together, worked together. And then, having made that understanding, as a supreme draftsman, he was able to record his observations and discoveries in drawings of such lucidity, he’s able to get across the form, the structure to the viewer in a way which had never been done before and, in many cases, has never been surpassed since.

Drawing of external genitalia and vagina, with notes; notes on the anal sphincter and diagrams of suggested arrangement of its fibers and its mode of action.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Five studies of the bones of the leg and foot; a drawing of the knee joint and patella; two studies of the bones of a right leg with the knee flexed; the muscles of a right buttock, thigh and calf.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Tough Leonardo intended to publish his drawings as an illustrated treatise on human anatomy, but when he died in 1519, his anatomical papers were buried amongst his private possessions and vanished from public sight. In the early 1600s, around 600 of his surviving drawings were bound in a single collection and by the end of the century, they mysterious made their way to the Royal Collection. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist gathers 90 of these seminal drawings, contextualized in a discussion of their anatomical significance. Accompanying the books is an iPad app, presenting 268 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks in magnificent high resolution.

Originally featured in July.

THE AGE OF INSIGHT

Something unusual defined Vienna between 1890 and 1918, something that shaped more of Western culture than we dare suspect — artists, writers, thinkers and scientists across biology, medicine, and psychoanalysis came into regular contact and, in the process of these interactions, steered the course of modern art and science. In The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (UK; public library), Nobel laureate Eric Kandel traces the spark of this ongoing dialogue between art and science through three key elements: the exchange of insights between seminal modern artists and the members of the Vienna School of Medicine; the Vienna School of Art History’s exploration of the interaction between art and the cognitive psychology of art in the 1930s; and modern science’s relatively nascent preoccupation with an emotional neuroaesthetic, bridging cognitive psychology and biology to examine our perceptual, emotional, and emphatic responses to works of art.

Kandel argues — much like physicist Lawrence Krauss has suggested — that science and art share the same fundamental questions, but go about answering them in different ways. While brain science is concerned with the mental life that arises from the activity of the brain, including how perception and memory work, and what defines consciousness, art offers insight into the more experiential qualities of mind, like the subjective measures of what certain experiences feel like. Kandel observes:

A brain scan may reveal the neural signs of depression, but a Beethoven symphony reveals what that depression feels like. Both perspectives are necessary if we are to fully grasp the nature of mind, yet they are rarely brought together.

(Cue in Jonah Lehrer’s articulate case for “a fourth culture of knowledge” that brings together the sciences and the humanities for a necessary dialogue that enriches both.)

But among Kandel’s greatest feats is the eloquent, rigorous debunking of the popular myth that bringing the lens of science to art would somehow detract from our enjoyment of the latter. (In the process, he slips in a fine addition to this recent omnibus of definitions of science.)

Science seeks to understand complex processes by reducing them to their essential actions and studying the interplay of those actions — and this reductionist approach extends to art as well. Indeed, my focus on one school of art, consisting of only three major representatives, is an example of this. Some people are concerned that a reductionist analysis will diminish our fascination with art, that it will trivialize art and deprive it of its special force, thereby reducing the beholder’s share to an ordinary brain function. I argue to the contrary, that by encouraging a dialogue between science and art and by encouraging a focus on one mental process at a time, reductionism can expand our vision and give us new insights into the nature and creation of art. These new insights will enable us to perceive unexpected aspects of art that derive from the relationship between biological and psychological phenomena.

He goes on to argue that, rather than reducing the complexity and richness of the art experience, the scientific understanding of the brain and its responses might help us better understand the very impulses and aims of creativity and would “contribute to a broader cultural framework for art history, aesthetics, and cognitive psychology.”

To keep this dialogue between the arts and sciences coherent and maximally meaningful, Kandel focuses his lens on one particular form of art. Portraiture lands itself to scientific exploration uniquely, thanks to a long legacy of studies of human facial emotional expression, shaped by Darwin’s photographic experiments, and a sufficient scientific understanding of how we respond to the facial expressions and body language of others, perceptually, emotionally, and empathically.

Kandel further focuses the discussion on three specific modernist artists — Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele — who “emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.”

Gustav Klimt, Adele Block-Bauer, 1907. Oil, silver, gold on canvas.

Klimt, for instance, read Darwin and became fascinated by the structures of the cell, which permeated his work. In his iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the small iconographic images on Adele’s dress aren’t mere decoration — they symbolize male and female cells, with rectangles representing sperm and ovals eggs. Kandel writes:

These biologically inspired fertility symbols are designed to match the sitter’s seductive face to her full-blown reproductive capabilities.

(In heartening evidence for the cultural potency of such cross-pollination of disciplines, Adele’s portrait fetched Klimt $135 million — the most ever paid for an individual painting by that point in history, and in stark contrast with Klimt’s otherwise unremarkable career prior.)

Meanwhile, a chain of influential scientists on the Vienna scene, stretching from Second Vienna School of Medicine founder Carl von Rokitansky to Freud, built a new dynamic framework of the human psyche, which radically changed the understanding of the human mind. Through conversations with artists that took place in museums, opera houses, theaters, and coffee houses — the same Enlightenment epicenters Steven Johnson points to as crucial for innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From — these ideas entered the scope of artistic concern and were soon translated onto canvases.

Kandel brings it all together for the modern reader by outlining our current understanding of the science of perception, memory, emotion, empathy, and creativity — in short, what makes us human — and how it shapes our experience of art, making The Age of Insight not just fascinating but necessary.

Originally featured in April.

BONUS: A GLORIOUS ENTERPRISE

The institution is conceived for the purposes of rational, free, literary and scientific conversation… We meet also to compare the advances of the sciences in the rest of the world with our own… We are lovers of science.

So began the story of a small group of amateur scientists, who gathered in an equally small apartment on the corner of Second and Market streets in Philadelphia one chilly Saturday evening on January 25, 1812, several blocks away from a rival group — the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin some seventy years prior. Our heroes had been excluded from APS for “social reasons” — immigrants and self-made men, they had been shunned by the APS, a place for the socially prominent American gentry. But, passionate in their love for science and natural history, they remained undeterred and on March 21 of the same year they named their gathering the “Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” which stands today as the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Academy, University of Pennsylvania Press at my alma mater has published A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (UK; public library) — a magnificent, epic tome that tells in 464 lavishly illustrated pages, weighing in at nearly 10 pounds and over a foot tall, the story of the Academy and its quest to acquire and disseminate knowledge of the natural world.

And what a story it is — from how Ernest Hemingway shaped the field of ichthyology to what Edgar Allan Poe was doing in the oldest-known photograph taken inside a museum, it’s a story brimming with rare glimpses of strange specimens and obscure images, laced with tales of scientific rivalry, boundless inspiration, ruthless pursuits of scientific immortality, and perseverance in the face of terrible odds, with cameos by Thomas Jefferson and James Bond, among other unlikely heroes.

Edgar Allan Poe (right), who spent time at the Academy doing research on mollusks; Joseph Leidy, a young medical student (center); and Samuel George Morton (left in top hat) were photographed in the Academy's new building at Board and Sansom Streets during the winter of 1842-43. This daguerrotype, possibly by Paul Beck Goddard, is the oldest-known photograph of an American museum interior.

'Leaf insects' (a lineage of tropical walking sticks). These remarkable Phasmida are found in rainforest canopes of tropical Asia. Included in this group are many newly described specimens from the Philippines. The others are from New Guinea and the Seychelles.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) admires a catch aboard the Pilar, 1934. His understanding of the game fishes of the Atlantic, communicated through the Academy, made significant contributions to the field of ichthyology.

American Flamingo by John James Audubon, hand-colored engraving by Robert Havell Jr. for The Birds of America (1827-38)

Skulls of the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) presented to the Academy by Thomas B. Wilson in 1846

Kirtland's owl (Saw-whet owl), hand-colored lithograph by George White for John Cassin's Illustrations of the Birds of California, Teas, Oregon, British and Russian America (1856)

Members of the American Entomological Society on a collecting trip circa 1900

Coconut crabs (Birgus latro) collected on Flint Island (an uninhabited coral atoll four hundred nautical miles northwest of Tahiti in the Central Pacific) by C. D. Voy in 1875

Shed snake skins collected by George M. Feirer in 1942

The skull of 'Pierce', the cannibalistic Englishman from Australia

Agricultural seed samples collected by Charles F. Kuenne, 1948

Joseph Leidy's original drawings of rhizopods (protozoans). Leidy was 22 years old when he became a member of the Academy in 1845.

Magnificent in both its scope and its ambitious physicality, A Glorious Enterprise is a fascinating miniature museum in and of itself, exploring the cultural history of natural history with equal parts rigor and romanticism — the hallmark of great science.

Originally featured, with more images, in April.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

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“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

UPDATE: These daily routines have now been adapted into a labor-of-love visualization of writers’ sleep habits vs. literary productivity.

Kurt Vonnegut’s recently published daily routine made we wonder how other beloved writers organized their days. So I pored through various old diaries and interviews — many from the fantastic Paris Review archives — and culled a handful of writing routines from some of my favorite authors. Enjoy.

Ray Bradbury, a lifelong proponent of working with joy and an avid champion of public libraries, playfully defies the question of routines in this 2010 interview:

My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.

[…]

I can work anywhere. I wrote in bedrooms and living rooms when I was growing up with my parents and my brother in a small house in Los Angeles. I worked on my typewriter in the living room, with the radio and my mother and dad and brother all talking at the same time. Later on, when I wanted to write Fahrenheit 451, I went up to UCLA and found a basement typing room where, if you inserted ten cents into the typewriter, you could buy thirty minutes of typing time.

Joan Didion creates for herself a kind of incubation period for ideas, articulated in this 1968 interview:

I need an hour alone before dinner, with a drink, to go over what I’ve done that day. I can’t do it late in the afternoon because I’m too close to it. Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages. So I spend this hour taking things out and putting other things in. Then I start the next day by redoing all of what I did the day before, following these evening notes. When I’m really working I don’t like to go out or have anybody to dinner, because then I lose the hour. If I don’t have the hour, and start the next day with just some bad pages and nowhere to go, I’m in low spirits. Another thing I need to do, when I’m near the end of the book, is sleep in the same room with it. That’s one reason I go home to Sacramento to finish things. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep right next to it. In Sacramento nobody cares if I appear or not. I can just get up and start typing.

E. B. White, in the same fantastic interview that gave us his timeless insight on the role and responsibility of the writer, notes his relationship with sound and ends on a note echoing Tchaikovsky on work ethic:

I never listen to music when I’m working. I haven’t that kind of attentiveness, and I wouldn’t like it at all. On the other hand, I’m able to work fairly well among ordinary distractions. My house has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on: it is a passageway to the cellar, to the kitchen, to the closet where the phone lives. There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me. A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. My wife, thank God, has never been protective of me, as, I am told, the wives of some writers are. In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

Photograph by Tom Palumbo, 1956

Jack Kerouac describes his rituals and superstitions in 1968:

I had a ritual once of lighting a candle and writing by its light and blowing it out when I was done for the night … also kneeling and praying before starting (I got that from a French movie about George Frideric Handel) … but now I simply hate to write. My superstition? I’m beginning to suspect the full moon. Also I’m hung up on the number nine though I’m told a Piscean like myself should stick to number seven; but I try to do nine touchdowns a day, that is, I stand on my head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with my toe tips, while balanced. This is incidentally more than yoga, it’s an athletic feat, I mean imagine calling me ‘unbalanced’ after that. Frankly I do feel that my mind is going. So another ‘ritual’ as you call it, is to pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity and my energy so I can help my family: that being my paralyzed mother, and my wife, and the ever-present kitties. Okay?

He then adds a few thought on the best time and place for writing:

The desk in the room, near the bed, with a good light, midnight till dawn, a drink when you get tired, preferably at home, but if you have no home, make a home out of your hotel room or motel room or pad: peace.

Susan Sontag resolves in her diary in 1977, adding to her collected wisdom on writing:

Starting tomorrow — if not today:

I will get up every morning no later than eight. (Can break this rule once a week.)

I will have lunch only with Roger [Straus]. (‘No, I don’t go out for lunch.’ Can break this rule once every two weeks.)

I will write in the Notebook every day. (Model: Lichtenberg’s Waste Books.)

I will tell people not to call in the morning, or not answer the phone.

I will try to confine my reading to the evening. (I read too much — as an escape from writing.)

I will answer letters once a week. (Friday? — I have to go to the hospital anyway.)

Then, in a Paris Review interview nearly two decades later, she details her routine:

I write with a felt-tip pen, or sometimes a pencil, on yellow or white legal pads, that fetish of American writers. I like the slowness of writing by hand. Then I type it up and scrawl all over that. And keep on retyping it, each time making corrections both by hand and directly on the typewriter, until I don’t see how to make it any better. Up to five years ago, that was it. Since then there is a computer in my life. After the second or third draft it goes into the computer, so I don’t retype the whole manuscript anymore, but continue to revise by hand on a succession of hard-copy drafts from the computer.

[…]

I write in spurts. I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down. But once something is really under way, I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t go out, much of the time I forget to eat, I sleep very little. It’s a very undisciplined way of working and makes me not very prolific. But I’m too interested in many other things.

In 1932, under a section titled Daily Routine, Henry Miller footnotes his 11 commandments of writing with this wonderful blueprint for productivity, inspiration, and mental health:

MORNINGS:
If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.

AFTERNOONS:

Work of section in hand, following plan of section scrupulously. No intrusions, no diversions. Write to finish one section at a time, for good and all.

EVENINGS:

See friends. Read in cafés.

Explore unfamiliar sections — on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.

Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.

Paint if empty or tired.

Make Notes. Make Charts, Plans. Make corrections of MS.

Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride. Sketch in cafés and trains and streets. Cut the movies! Library for references once a week.

In this 1965 interview, Simone de Beauvoir contributes to dispelling the “tortured-genius” myth of writing:

I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.

[…]

If the work is going well, I spend a quarter or half an hour reading what I wrote the day before, and I make a few corrections. Then I continue from there. In order to pick up the thread I have to read what I’ve done.

Ernest Hemingway, who famously wrote standing (“Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”), approaches his craft with equal parts poeticism and pragmatism:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Don DeLillo tells The Paris Review in 1993:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. Looking out the window, reading random entries in the dictionary. To break the spell I look at a photograph of Borges, a great picture sent to me by the Irish writer Colm Tóín. The face of Borges against a dark background — Borges fierce, blind, his nostrils gaping, his skin stretched taut, his mouth amazingly vivid; his mouth looks painted; he’s like a shaman painted for visions, and the whole face has a kind of steely rapture. I’ve read Borges of course, although not nearly all of it, and I don’t know anything about the way he worked — but the photograph shows us a writer who did not waste time at the window or anywhere else. So I’ve tried to make him my guide out of lethargy and drift, into the otherworld of magic, art, and divination.

Productivity maniac Benjamin Franklin had a formidably rigorous daily routine:

Image by Nick Bilton

Haruki Murakami shares the mind-body connection noted by some of history’s famous creators:

When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.

William Gibson tells the Paris Review in 2011:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

[…]

As I move through the book it becomes more demanding. At the beginning, I have a five-day workweek, and each day is roughly ten to five, with a break for lunch and a nap. At the very end, it’s a seven-day week, and it could be a twelve-hour day.

Toward the end of a book, the state of composition feels like a complex, chemically altered state that will go away if I don’t continue to give it what it needs. What it needs is simply to write all the time. Downtime other than simply sleeping becomes problematic. I’m always glad to see the back of that.

Maya Angelou shares her day with Paris Review in 1990:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work. And to blue pencil it. When I finish maybe fifty pages and read them — fifty acceptable pages — it’s not too bad. I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. About two years ago I was visiting him and his wife in the Hamptons. I was at the end of a dining room table with a sit-down dinner of about fourteen people. Way at the end I said to someone, I sent him telegrams over the years. From the other end of the table he said, And I’ve kept every one! Brute! But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.

Anaïs Nin simply notes, in a 1941 parenthetical comment, in the third volume of her diaries:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

She then adds in the fifth volume, in 1948.

I write every day. … I do my best work in the morning.

Lastly, the Kurt Vonnegut routine that inspired this omnibus, recorded in a letter to his wife in 1965:

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

For more wisdom from beloved authors, complement with Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, Joy Williams on why writers write, 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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11 JUNE, 2012

Summer Reading List 2012: 10 Essential Books for Cognitive Sunshine

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The science of creativity, the creativity of science, and what your internal clock has to do with Saudi Arabia.

Summer, with its steady supply of barbecues, picnics, parties, and other heavy doses of sociality, makes the need for a well-timed antidote of solitude more urgent than any other season, and what better solitary escape than a good book? It’s time for the annual Brain Pickings summer reading list for cognitive sunshine. Gathered here, in no particular order, are 10 recent and forthcoming books to infuse your season’s well-measured you-moments with a wealth of cross-disciplinary stimulation.

MAGIC HOURS

From McSweeney’s and Tom Bissell, one of today’s finest essayists, comes Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation (public library) — a collection of fourteen essays originally published in arbiters of literary culture such as The New Yorker, Believer, and Harper’s Magazine, spanning a decade of Bissell’s best writing and dissecting the creative process through such diverse subjects as Werner Herzog’s films, video game voiceovers, Iraq war documentaries, sitcoms, and David Foster Wallace. Underpinning them is a somewhat uncomfortable reality to which just about any creator can attest — that no matter how meticulously we trace creativity’s history, dissect its neuroscience, flowcharting our way to it, and itemize it into a 5-point plan, the essence of creation remains subject to a great deal of uncontrollable chance and serendipity.

To create anything — whether a short story or a magazine profile or a film or a sitcom — is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic. These essays are about that magic — which is sometimes perilous, sometimes infectious, sometimes fragile, sometimes failed, sometimes infuriating, sometimes triumphant, and sometimes tragic. I went up there. I wrote. I tried to see.

A closer look, along with excerpts from some of the essays, here.

INTERNAL TIME

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. (He would have scoffed at Einstein, then, who was known to require ten hours of sleep for optimal performance.) This perceived superiority of those who can get by on less sleep isn’t just something Napoleon shared with dictators like Hitler and Stalin, it’s an enduring attitude woven into our social norms and expectations, from proverbs about early birds to the basic scheduling structure of education and the workplace. But in Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), a fine addition to these 7 essential books on time, 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.

In fact, each of us possesses a different chronotype — an internal timing type best defined by your midpoint of sleep, or midsleep, which you can calculate by dividing your average sleep duration by two and adding the resulting number to your average bedtime on free days, meaning days when your sleep and waking times are not dictated by the demands of your work or school schedule. For instance, if you go to bed at 11 P.M. and wake up at 7 A.M., add four hours to 11pm and you get 3 A.M. as your midsleep.

Sleep duration shows a bell-shaped distribution within a population, but there are more short sleepers (on the left) than long sleepers (on the right).

This myth that early risers are good people and that late risers are lazy has its reasons and merits in rural societies but becomes questionable in a modern 24/7 society. The old moral is so prevalent, however, that it still dominates our beliefs, even in modern times. The postman doesn’t think for a second that the young man might have worked until the early morning hours because he is a night-shift worker or for other reasons. He labels healthy young people who sleep into the day as lazy — as long sleepers. This attitude is reflected in the frequent use of the word-pair early birds and long sleepers [in the media]. Yet this pair is nothing but apples and oranges, because the opposite of early is late and the opposite of long is short.

Roenneberg goes on to explore how the disconnect between our internal, biological time and social time — defined by our work schedules and social engagements — leads to what he calls social jet lag, a kind of chronic exhaustion resembling the symptoms of jet lag and comparable to having to work for a company a few time zones to the east of your home. From unreasonably early school and work start times to shift work to the invention of Daylight Savings Time, he examines a number of sociocultural structures that impede, rather than harness, our biological clocks, and offers strategies for countering social jet lag.

An in-depth look, with infographics and video, here.

100 IDEAS THAT CHANGED GRAPHIC DESIGN

Design history books abound, but they tend to be organized by chronology and focused on concrete -isms. From publisher Laurence King, who brought us the epic Saul Bass monograph, and the prolific design writer Steven Heller with design critic Veronique Vienne comes 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design (public library) — a thoughtfully curated inventory of abstract concepts that defined and shaped the art and craft of graphic design, each illustrated with exemplary images and historical context.

From concepts like manifestos (#25), pictograms (#45), propaganda (#22), found typography (#38), and the Dieter-Rams-coined philosophy that “less is more” (#73) to favorite creators like Alex Steinweiss, Noma Bar, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, and Stefan Sagmeister, the sum of these carefully constructed parts amounts to an astute lens not only on what design is and does, but also on what it should be and do.

Idea # 16: METAPHORIC LETTERING

Trying to Look Good Limits My Life (2004), part of Stefan Sagmeister’s typographic project '20 Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far.' Words are formed from natural and industrial materials and composed in situ.

Idea # 19: VISUAL PUNS

Gun Crime (2010), illustrated by Noma Bar, is a commentary on the tragic toll of gun-related violence in the UK. The trigger serves as the mechanism and outcome of gun attacks.

Idea # 48: TRIANGULATION

The Best of Jazz (1979), a typographical masterpiece by Paula Scher, was done when she was discovering Aleksander Rodchenko and El Lissitsky. She recalls her work being acclaimed as 'new wave' and 'postmodern' when in fact it was a private homage to the pioneers of the Russian avant garde.

Idea # 83: PSYCHEDELIA

Gebrauchsgraphik (1968). The youth style influenced by drugs and rock and roll quickly became a commercial visual vocabulary. Founded in San Francisco, this German version smoothed out some of the rough edges.

A recent closer look, with many more visual examples, here.

TRUE BELIEVERS

Having spent far longer than acceptable in a self-inflicted moratorium on fiction, I thought there was hardly anything more apt to get me back on the bandwagon than a galley from Studio360‘s Kurt Andersen. True Believers: A Novel (July 10) tells the story of 65-year-old Karen Hollander, an enormously successful attorney who has just recused herself from consideration for a U.S. Supreme Court position because of a secret she has kept for the past 40 years, since an unsettling event that took place in 1968, when Hollander was only 18. As she readies her memoir, in which she plans to reveal all, she sets out to tie some loose ends and find the answers to some vital last questions. Andersen takes us back to the 1960s to weave a timely story about counterculture and intellectual rebellion. But, as absorbing as the story is, what makes the novel spellbinding is Hollander’s fascinating, layered character — at once brilliant and irreverent, brimming with equal parts intelligence and humor.

And don’t be fooled by the eyeroll-inducing publisher synopsis (which features the phrase “kaleidoscopic tour de force of cultural observation and seductive storytelling”) — Andersen’s style is anything but self-important or clichéd; a master of simple yet tremendously evocative narrative, he moves swiftly between well-timed wit, without a hint of smugness, and (I’ll give Random House that) keen cultural observation.

See for yourself — you can read the first chapter here.

SEX AND PUNISHMENT

In Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire (public library), writer and lawyer Eric Berkowitz explores the millennia-long quest to regulate and mandate one of the strongest drivers of human behavior, and the tragic deformities that result from the dictatorship of external authority over the most intimate of inner realities. (A subject all the timelier as we’re finally beginning to extinguish one of the most regrettable institutionally endorsed violations of basic human rights.) Tracing how we went from the male bonding ceremonies commonly performed in medieval Mediterranean churches to the lesbian executions in 18th-century Germany, along the entire spectrum of cultural attitudes towards mistresses, goat-lovers, prostitutes, medieval transvestites, adulterers, and other sexual-norm nonconformists, Berkowitz brings an eye-opening lens to one of the most mercilessly judged yet universal aspects of being human.

In the period up to roughly the thirteenth century, male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean. These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage. The ceremonies stressed love and personal commitment over procreation, but surely not everyone was fooled. Couples who joined themselves in such rituals most likely had sex as much (or as little) as their heterosexual counterparts. In any event, the close association of male-marriage ceremonies with forbidden sex eventually became too much to overlook as even more severe sodomy laws were put into place.

A closer look here.

LITTLE BIRD

Children’s picture books — the best of them, at least — have this magical quality of speaking to young hearts with expressive simplicity, but also engaging grown-up minds with subtle reflections on the human condition. Such is the case of Little Bird (public library) by Swiss author-illustrator duo Germano Zullo and Albertine, published by the wonderful Enchanted Lion Books. Illustrated in Albertine’s signature style of soft, colorful minimalism, this little gem is like a beautiful silent film, only in vibrant hues and on paper — and if you’re reading to or with a little one this summer, it’s promised to induce many little oohs and ahhs.

It tells the tender story of a big-hearted man who halts his truck at a cliff’s edge. Unable to go any further, he opens the back door of his truck and a flock of birds spills out into the air, leaving behind a tiny, timid black bird. Surprised and delighted by the little loyalist, the man befriends the bird.

The two have lunch together and, eventually, the man tries to encourage the bird to fly off and join the others by attempting a comic demonstration of flight himself.

The humorous situation deepens the tenderness between the two creatures and soon the bird departs, the man drives away, and the story seems to end — but! — just as the truck trails off into the distance, we see the little black bird come back after it, followed by his colorful friends in a lyrical moment of belonging lost and found. “The small things are treasures,” writes Zullo. “True treasures.”

Take a closer look, with more beautiful artwork from the book, here.

THE HOUSEHOLD TIPS OF THE GREAT WRITERS

Household chores. We dread them, we put them off indefinitely, we think of them as anything but entertainment. But here comes The Household Tips of the Great Writers (public library) — an imaginative and impossibly humorous omnibus of literary impersonation by parodist extraordinaire Mark Crick, who guides us through the art and craft of cooking, gardening, and fixing up the house with the help of some of modern history’s most celebrated literary icons. The real joy of the book, of course, isn’t so much the specific recipes and tips — though who could resist a quick miso soup à la Kafka? — as the comedic precision with which Crick caricatures, lovingly, each writer’s voice.

From boarding the attic with Edgar Allan Poe (“Working from the corner furthest from the feeble light source, which scarce illuminated my labours, I began to lay the boards. Those dark recesses, unlooked upon since the cloak of slate first enveloped them in eternal night, resisted my intrusion like the densest thicket.”) to putting up a garden fence with Hunter S. Thompson (“He lifted a size-eleven foot onto the spade, his leg peeking coquettishly through the slit trouser leg, and the blade sank into the ground. There was a lot to do.”) to burying bulbs in autumn with Sylvia Plath (“I swallowed trying again to clear the bitter taste from my mouth then I tipped the bulbs from the bag and watched as their fat little bodies rolled around on the garden path.”), Crick has all your household and gardening needs and emergencies covered.

Sample some of the recipes and all too delightful instructions here.

THE (HONEST) TRUTH ABOUT DISHONESTY

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely belongs to the rare breed of scientists who are both actively engaged in empirical research, running all kinds of fascinating experiments in the lab, and keenly skilled in synthesizing those findings into equally fascinating insights into human nature, then communicating those articulately and engagingly to a non-scientist reader. That’s precisely what he has previously done in Predictably Irrational, in which he demonstrates through clever experiments that even our most “rational” decisions are driven by our hopelessly emotional selves, and The Upside of Irrationality, where he explores the unexpected benefits of defying logic. Now comes The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves (public library), in which Ariely asks himself a seemingly simple question — “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem?” — and goes on to reveal the surprising, illuminating, often unsettling truths that underpin the uncomfortable answer. Like cruelty, dishonesty turns out to be a remarkably prevalent phenomenon better explained by circumstances and cognitive processes than by concepts like character.

We may not always know exactly why we do what we do, choose what we choose, or feel what we feel. But the obscurity of our real motivations doesn’t stop us from creating perfectly logical-sounding reasons for our actions, decisions, and feelings.

[…]

We all want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We’re storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better.

A closer look, with a focus on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, here.

IGNORANCE: HOW IT FUELS SCIENCE

“Science is always wrong,” George Bernard Shaw famously proclaimed in a toast to Albert Einstein. “It never solves a problem without creating 10 more.”

In the fifth century BC, long before science as we know it existed, Socrates, the very first philosopher, famously observed, “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” Some 21 centuries later, while inventing calculus in 1687, Sir Isaac Newton likely knew all there was to know in science at the time — a time when it was possible for a single human brain to hold all of mankind’s scientific knowledge. Fast-forward 40 generations to today, and the average high school student has more scientific knowledge than Newton did at the end of his life. But somewhere along that superhighway of progress, we seem to have developed a kind of fact-fetishism that shackles us to the allure of the known and makes us indifferent to the unknown knowable. Yet it’s the latter — the unanswered questions — that makes science, and life, interesting. That’s the eloquently argued case at the heart of Ignorance: How It Drives Science (public library), in which Stuart Firestein sets out to debunk the popular idea that knowledge follows ignorance, demonstrating instead that it’s the other way around and, in the process, laying out a powerful manifesto for getting the public engaged with science — a public to whom, as Neil deGrasse Tyson recently reminded Senate, the government is accountable in making the very decisions that shape the course of science.

The tools and currencies of our information economy, Firestein points out, are doing little in the way of fostering the kind of question-literacy essential to cultivating curiosity:

Are we too enthralled with the answers these days? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long? We seem to have come to a phase in civilization marked by a voracious appetite for knowledge, in which the growth of information is exponential and, perhaps more important, its availability easier and faster than ever.

What emerges is an elegant definition of science:

Real science is a revision in progress, always. It proceeds in fits and starts of ignorance.

In highlighting this commonality science holds with other domains of creative and intellectual labor, Firestein turns to the poet John Keats, who described the ideal state of the literary psyche as Negative Capability — “that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Firestein translates this to science:

Being a scientist requires having faith in uncertainty, finding pleasure in mystery, and learning to cultivate doubt. There is no surer way to screw up an experiment than to be certain of its outcome.

An in-depth look, with a number of insightful quotes, here.

A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING

Already on the slippery slope to fiction (see above), I slid right into A Hologram for the King (June 19) by Dave Eggers — the story of a struggling middle-aged American salesman named Alan Clay, who makes one last attempt to extinguish his deep debt and save his family by setting out to entice the king of Saudi Arabia into buying bleeding-edge telecommunication technology. He goes from selling very tangible things like Schwinn bicycles to selling very ephemeral, virtual things like holograms, caught between the urgency of his situation and the discomfort of not really knowing what he’s doing. Like all great fiction, the novel becomes about all-too-real modern maladies — fraud syndrome, the friction of analog and digital, the painful disconnect between ambition and purpose.

In an altogether excellent interview on The Rumpus, Eggers ties the plot back to a particularly pressing aspect of socioeconomic reality:

Alan is like a lot of people who rightly or wrongly feel the current system is suffocating a lot of non-digital business ideas. A guy like Alan has knowledge and experience and maybe even a good idea, but can’t get a loan to save his life. He proposes making bikes in the U.S. again, but he gets laughed out of every bank, every venture capital firm. That’s a reality for a lot of guys like him, especially if they’re trying to do small-to-midscale manufacturing in the U.S. — meanwhile, some very dubious digital ideas have money thrown at them without hesitation.

As a lover of the exquisite physicality of print books, I also couldn’t help but gasp at the thick, stunning foil-stamped typographic cover with a blind-deboss in gold ink, designed by none other than Jessica Hische:

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