Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘omnibus’

02 MARCH, 2012

What Is Character? Debunking the Myth of Fixed Personality

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On the emotional scaffolding of the self, or how the dynamics of temperament fluctuate with social context.

We’ve previously explored what it means to be human and what defines a “person.” Much of our understanding of personhood hinges on what we call “character” — but what, exactly, is it? Here is an omnibus of definitions and insights from notable cross-disciplinary thinkers, from philosophy to neuroscience to literature, underpinning which is a shared sentiment that “character” is fluid and responsive to context, rather than a static and unflinching set of traits.

Philip K. Dick, from The Selected Letters of Philip K. Dick 1972-1973:

A person’s authentic nature is a series of shifting, variegated planes that establish themselves as he relates to different people; it is created by and appears within the framework of his interpersonal relationships.

(via Feltron)

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking:

Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of ‘character;’ and those of ‘temperament.’ Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family’s interests and values; how people in your community express love and hate; what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous; how those around you worship; what they sing; when they laugh; how they make a living and relax: innumerable cultural forces build your unique set of character traits. The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it, ‘I am, plus my circumstances.’ Temperament is the ‘I am,’ the foundation of who you are.

Psychologists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon in A General Theory of Love:

An infant’s emotional scaffold provides for temperament and for innate abilities like reading facial expressions. Limbic contact with his parents hones that pluripotential structure into the template of emotional life — the neural core of emotional identity. Once this quintessence is firm, we say that a person exists, and we can know the individuated attributes of his emotional self. Ongoing experience gradually transforms his neural configuration, changing him from who he was into who he is, one synapse at a time. Emotional identity drifts over a lifetime — if fast and far enough, one might encounter a stranger’s heart where a friend’s or a lover’s once dwelt.”

Julian Baggini in The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self:

The topic of personal identity is strictly speaking nonexistent. It’s important to recognize that we are not the kind of things that simply popped into existence at birth, continue to exist, the same thing, then die off the cliff edge or go into another realm. We are these very remarkably ordered collections of things. It is because we’re so ordered that we are able to think of ourselves as being singular persons. But there is no singular person there, that means we’re forever changing.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in A General Theory of Love:

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue… Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung.

William James, writing in The Principles of Psychology in 1890, sums it up perhaps best of all:

A man has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize him.

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29 FEBRUARY, 2012

Full Spectrum 2012: 10 Books on Sensemaking for the TED Bookstore

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A reading list for combinatorial creativity.

This week, I’m at TED, where I had the honor of curating a selection of books for the TED Bookstore around this year’s theme, Full Spectrum. Here are my picks, along with the original text that appears on the little cards in the bookstore, and my blurb about the selection:

I believe creativity is combinatorial — it’s our ability to take existing pieces of knowledge, information, insight, and ideas that we’ve gathered over the course of our lives, and recombine them into new ideas. Curation – the purposeful filtration of information – is what fills our mental pool of resources with the most meaningful building blocks of creativity possible. In a way, it’s a sensemaking mechanism for the world, allowing us to see not only why different pieces matter but also how they relate to one another and might fit together. Gathered here are 10 curated books on the loose theme of sensemaking, from a visual history of the timeline to a biography of information to a handmade exploration of Indian mythology.

THE INFORMATION

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick:

Flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes, science writer James Gleick delivers an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern ‘creatures of the information,’ to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges. Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency. But what makes the book most compelling to us is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Take a closer look here.

PEOPLE

People by Blexbolex:

Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread by beloved French illustrator Blexbolex features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness, and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.

Peek inside the beautiful spreads here.

CARTOGRAPHIES OF TIME

Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton:

This lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain. From literature to art history to technology, it offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.

Take a closer look here.

344 QUESTIONS

344 Questions by Stefan G. Bucher:

This delightful and light-hearted pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists illustrated in designer Stefan G. Bucher’s unmistakable style will help you figure out life’s big answers. Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved cross-disciplinary creators, including TEDsters Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, and Jakob Trollbäck.

Take closer look at these illustrated gems here.

THIS WILL MAKE YOU SMARTER

This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, edited by John Brockman:

Every year for more than a decade, intellectual conductor and Edge.org editor John Brockman has been asking the era’s greatest thinkers a single annual question, designed to illuminate some important aspect of how we understand the world. In 2011, with the help of psycholinguist Steven Pinker and legendary behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, he asked: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The answers, featuring a wealth of influential scientists, authors, and TEDsters, are gathered in this formidable anthology of short essays by 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the paradoxes of daydreaming, information flow, collective intelligence, and a dizzying, mind-expanding range in between. But what makes the book — and Brockman’s general approach – most exceptional is that it’s an invitation to cross-pollinate disciplines and intellectual comfort zones as we strive to better understand ourselves and the complex world we inhabit.

Read some of the answers here.

WATERLIFE

Waterlife* by Rambharos Jha:

For the past 16 years, independent Indian publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books. Screen-printed by local artisans with traditional Indian dyes, Waterlife explores the marine wonderland through Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

*Waterlife isn’t out until April, but we were able to arrange for a “world premiere” at TED — thanks, Jenn.

Peek inside Tara Books’ other remarkable handmade books here, here, and here.

NOTATIONS 21

Notations 21 by Theresa Sauer:

Inspired by John Cage’s iconic 1968 Notations and originally released for its 50th anniversary, this ambitious tome reveals how 165 composers and musicians around the world are experiencing, communicating and reconceiving music visually by reinventing notation. From acclaimed musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Halim El-Dabh, Joan La Barbara, and Yuji Takahashi to emerging global talent, this magnificent tome examines how both the technology and the expectations of this unique synesthetic language have changed over the past half-century.

Peek inside here.

YOU ARE HERE

You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine Harmon:

This beautiful and meditative compendium of maps and musings on maps explores, in the broadest possible terms, the human condition though 50 full-color and 50 black-and-white cartographic illustrations, ranging from a humorous diplomatic atlas of Europe and Asia to a canine view of the world to hand-drawn maps of shelters along the Appalachian Trail. A selection of diverse essays contextualize the maps within the larger conceptual narrative exploring humanity’s compulsion to map and chart its place in the universe.

Peek inside here.

THE ART OF MEDICINE

The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination by Julie Anderson, Emm Barnes, and Emma Shackleton:

This lavish volume offers a remarkable and unprecedented visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity with a selection of rare paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, manuals and digital art culled from London’s formidable Wellcome Collection. These magnificent ephemera span cultures and eras as diverse as Ancient Persia and Renaissance Europe to paint a powerful, visceral portrait of our civilization’s evolving ideas about health, illness, and the body.

Peek inside here.

SHAPES FOR SOUNDS

Shapes for sounds by Timothy Donaldson:

This beautiful tome explores one of the most important technologies ever invented – the alphabet – through a fascinating journey into “why alphabets look like they do, what has happened to them since printing was invented, why they won’t ever change, and how it might have been.” Though full of stunning illustrations and typography — like 26 gorgeous illustrated charts that trace the evolution of spoken languages into written alphabets —this is no mere eye candy. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, digs deep into the cultural anthropology of how letters were crystallized from sounds, scripts invented, words formed, and linguistic conventions indoctrinated.

Peek inside here.

For more TED-related literary stimulation, don’t forget this “Full Spectrum” reading list of 7 books by this year’s speakers.

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20 FEBRUARY, 2012

Full Spectrum Reading List: 7 Great Books by TED 2012 Speakers

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Anatomy of introversion, inside the brain’s optimism bias, and a blueprint for doomsday from PC Guy.

TED time is once again upon us, with this year’s conference, themed Full Spectrum, a mere week away. In preparation, and true to the Brain Pickings pre-TED tradition, here are seven exceptional books by some of this year’s TED speakers, spanning everything from psychology to children’s books to satire — a full spectrum, indeed. (Catch up on reading lists from years past: TEDGlobal 2010, TED 2011 Part 1 and Part 2, TEDGlobal 2011 Part 1 and Part 2.)

THE HAPPINESS HYPOTHESIS

The question of what makes us happy is likely as old as human cognition itself and has occupied the minds of philosophers, prophets, and scientists for millennia. In The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, one of seven essential books on happiness, psychology professor Jonathan Haidt unearths ten great theories of happiness discovered by the thinkers of the past, from Plato to Jesus to the Buddha, to reveal a surprising abundance of common tangents. (For example, from Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” From Buddha: “Our life is the creation of our mind.”)

Underpinning the narrative is a fascinating and dimensional lens on the constant interplay of reason and emotion, intuition and rationality.

Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brains work so well that our reasoning can work at all.”

Haidt takes this ambitious analysis of philosophical thought over the centuries and examines it through the prism of modern psychology research to extract a remarkably compelling blueprint for optimizing the human condition for happiness.

QUIET

Do you feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner party invitation in favor of a good book and a cup of tea? Or, worse yet, do you reluctantly accept the invitation even though you’d much rather curl up with the book? You are not alone. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain dissects the anatomy of this socially-induced guilt and delves deep into one of psychology’s most enduring tenets — that the single most important defining aspect of personality is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum — to break through the “long and storied tradition” of neatly mapping this binary division onto others, like submission and leadership, loneliness and happiness, settling and success.

Cain exposes the much more complicated interplay between these character traits and society’s metrics for fulfillment, exploring how “closeted introverts” — a self-reported one third to one half of people, including cultural icons and legendary entrepreneurs like Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Craig Newmark — are expending enormous energy on trying to pass as extroverts in a culture that rewards extroversion and conflates it with boldness, happiness, sociability, and success.

Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women living in a man’s world, discounted because it goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality trait, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

In this no-frills talk from Leaders@Google, Cain gives a sneak peek of the book, which she spent the past seven years researching and writing:

At its heart, Quiet is not only about how and why we internalize society’s extroversion bias very early on, but also about how to reconnect with the valuable qualities implicit to introversion and rethink our hard-wired strengths in a culture that categorizes them as weaknesses.

I had always imagined Rosa Parks as a stately woman with a bold temperament. But when she died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two, the flood of obituaries recalled her as soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature. They said she was ‘timid and shy’ but had ‘the courage of a lion.’ They were full of phrases like ‘radical humility’ and ‘quiet fortitude.’ What does it mean to be quiet and have fortitude? these descriptions asked implicitly. How could you be shy and courageous?”

THE WAYFINDERS

Since time immemorial, mankind has grappled with the question of what it means to be human. Different cultures have given different answers throughout history and across geography — answers composed of each culture’s myth and folklore, intellectual and spiritual tradition, artistic lens, and social context. In The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, anthropologist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis sets out to answer this grandest of questions through the wisdom of the world’s indigenous cultures. From the descendants of a true Lost Civilization in the Amazon to a Nepalese Buddhist who spent 45 years in solitude to the last nomads of Borneo’s rainforest, Davis weaves a rich tapestry of human knowledge and imagination, a kind of Noah’s Ark of cultural diversity to preserve as we frame the future of the human legacy.

One of the intense pleasures of travel is the opportunity to live among people who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel their past in the wind, touch it in stones polished by rain, recognize its taste in the bitter leaves of plants. Just to know that, in the Amazon, Jaguar shaman still journey beyond the Milky Way, that the myths of the Inuit elders still resonate with meaning, that the Buddhists in Tibet still pursue the breath of the Dharma is to remember the central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular cultural lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”

OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW

Over and Under the Snow by Kate Messer takes you on a journey into the white wilderness, where foxes and owls and bullfrogs play amidst the winter wonderland.

With wonderfully textured artwork by graphic artist Christopher Silas Neal, known for his album covers, posters, and spot illustrations, the book is an absolute treat and a fine belated addition to the best children’s books of 2011.

Messer and Neal have a fascinating image-annotated chat about the creative process behind the art.

THE PSYCHOPATH TEST

For years, scientists all over the world had been receiving mysterious packages containing a lavish book full of seemingly impossible puzzles. Using the only clue in common — a postage stamp from Gothenburg, Sweden — journalist and documentary filmmakerJon Ronson resolved to find the enigmatic sender, who turned out to be a bona fide psychopath. But what, exactly, is a psychopath? That’s what Ronson set out to investigate. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry, a potent blend of investigative journalism and captivating storytelling with a point of view, traces his quest to understand the fabric of psychopathy, from becoming a kind of qualified psychopath-spotter by learning the 20-point “psychopath checklist” to examining why psychopaths make excellent leaders in business and politics to brushing up against society’s worrisome propensity for pathologizing behavior.

In this teaser, Ronson offers a handful of behavioral cues to look for in a psychopath, while admonishing against the slippery slope of seeing “symptoms” in nearly everyone — a reminder that sanity is a continuum, not a binary divide.

THAT IS ALL

For the past seven years, John Hodgman — actor, humorist, McSweeney’s contributor, “PC Guy” — has been showering the world with his singular brand of keen social observation disguised as offbeat satire in a series title Complete World Knowledge. In 2005, he released The Areas of My Expertise, a collection of absurdist historical anecdotes best described as nonfactual rather than fictional, followed by More Information Than You Require in 2008. That Is All is the third and final part of the series, humorously exploring the impending end of the world.

“Explaining humor,” Mark Twain famously said, “is a lot like dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.” So let’s let Hodgman do the talking:

Bonus points: All three book covers were designed by the wonderful Sam Potts, a longtime favorite.

THE OPTIMISM BIAS

The reason pessimism is easily escapable, as Martin Seligman posits, might just be that its opposite is our natural pre-wired inclination. At least that’s the argument British neuroscientist Tali Sharot makes in The Optimism Bias: A Tour of the Irrationally Positive Brain — a fascinating yet accessible exploration of how and why our brains construct a positive outlook on life even in the direst of circumstances, and one of 7 essential books on optimism.

Sharot has been studying “flashbulb memories” — recollections with sharp-edged, picture-like qualities, usually about unexpected arousing or traumatic events — since the 9/11 attacks, investigating why the brain tends to “Photoshop” these images, adding contrast, enhancing resolution, inserting and deleting details. This phenomenon led her to probe deeper into the neural system responsible for recollecting these episodes from our past — a system that, contrary to previous belief, hadn’t evolved just for memory but to also imagine the future. These shared neural networks gleaned insight into how the brain generates hope, why we’re able to move forward after trauma, and what makes the brains of optimists different from those of pessimists.

The optimism bias protects us from accurately perceiving the pain and difficulties the future undoubtedly holds, and it may defend us from viewing our options in life as somewhat limited. As a result, stress and anxiety are reduced, physical and mental health are improved, and the motivation to act and be productive is enhanced. In order to progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — not just any old realities, but better ones, and we need to believe them to be possible.”

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09 JANUARY, 2012

9 Books on Reading and Writing

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Dancing with the absurdity of life, or what symbolism has to do with the osmosis of trash and treasure.

Hardly anything does one’s mental, spiritual, and creative health more good than resolving to read more and write better. Today’s reading list addresses these parallel aspirations. And since the number of books written about reading and writing likely far exceeds the reading capacity of a single human lifetime, this omnibus couldn’t be — shouldn’t be — an exhaustive list. It is, instead, a collection of timeless texts bound to radically improve your relationship with the written word, from whichever side of the equation you approach it.

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

If anyone can make grammar fun, it’s Maira KalmanThe Elements of Style Illustrated marries Kalman’s signature whimsy with Strunk and White’s indispensable style guide to create an instant classic.

The original Elements of Style was published in 1919 in-house at Cornell University for teaching use and reprinted in 1959 to become cultural canon, and Kalman’s inimitable version is one of our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

On a related unmissable note, let the Elements of Style Rap make your day.

BIRD BY BIRD

Anne Lamott might be best known as a nonfiction writer, but Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life affirms her as a formidable modern philosopher as well. The 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer’s life as it is a profound wisdom-trove on the life of the heart and mind, with insight on everything from overcoming self-doubt to navigating the osmotic balance of intuition and rationality.

On the itch of writing, Lamott banters:

We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little. But we do. We have so much we want to say and figure out.”

And on the grit that commits mind to paper, she counsels:

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well just go ahead and get started.”

On why we read and write:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

ON WRITING

Hailed as one of the most successful writers alive, Stephen King has hundreds of books under his belt, most of which bestsellers. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is part master-blueprint, part memoir, part meditation on the writer’s life, filtered through the lens of his near-fatal car crash and the newfound understanding of living it precipitated.

Though some have voiced skepticism regarding the capacity of a “popular writer” to be taken seriously as an oracle of “good writing,” Roger Ebert put it best: “After finding that his book On Writing had more useful and observant things to say about the craft than any book since Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I have gotten over my own snobbery.”

A few favorites from the book follow.

On open-endedness:

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”

On feedback:

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”

On the lifeblood of writing:

It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”

On the relationship between reading and writing, which I wholeheartedly second:

Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING

In Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You, Ray Bradbury — acclaimed author, dystopian novelist, hater of symbolism — shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft. Blending practical how-to’s on everything from finding your voice to negotiating with editors with snippets and glimpses of the author’s own career, the book is at once a manual and a manifesto, imbued with equal parts insight and enthusiasm.

On the key to creativity (cue in Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk):

That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.”

On what to read:

In your reading, find books to improve your color sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.”

On art and truth:

We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth.”

On signal and noise, with an embedded message that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life”:

Ours is a culture and a time immensely rich in trash as it is in treasures.”

THE WAR OF ART

Steven Pressfield is a prolific champion of the creative process, with all its trials and tribulations, best-known for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles — a personal defense system of sorts against our greatest forms of resistance. “Resistance” with a capital R, that is.

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.”

Also of note: Pressfield’s recent companion guide to the text, Do The Work, one of our 5 favorite manifestos for the creative life.

ADVICE TO WRITERS

Advice to Writers is “a compendium of quotes, anecdotes, and writerly wisdom from a dazzling array of literary lights,” originally published in 1999. From how to find a good agent to what makes characters compelling, it spans the entire spectrum of the aspirational and the utilitarian, covering grammar, genres, material, money, plot, plagiarism, and, of course, encouragement.

Here are a few favorites:

Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Don’t ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out.” ~ Charles Bukowski

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.” ~ Muriel Rukeyser

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created — nothing.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” ~ Saul Bellow

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” ~ T. S. Eliot

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.” ~ Stephen King

Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by.” ~ Ralph Ellison

Listen, then make up your own mind.” ~ Gay Talese

Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.” ~ Mark Twain

Originally featured, with more quotes, last December.

HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE

Humbly titled yet incredibly ambitious, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish isn’t merely a prescriptive guide to the craft of writing — it’s also a rich and layered exploration of language as an evolving cultural organism. It belongs not on the shelf of your home library but in your brain’s most deep-seated amphibian sensemaking underbelly — an insightful, rigorous manual on the art of language that may just be one of the best such tools since The Elements of Style.

In fact, Fish offers an intelligent rebuttal of some of the cultish mandates of Strunk and White’s bible, most notably the blind insistence on brevity and sentence minimalism. To argue his case, he picks apart some of history’s most powerful sentences, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Lewis Carroll, using a kind of literary forensics to excavate the essence of beautiful language. As Adam Haslett eloquently observes in his excellent FT review:

[Pared-down prose] is a real loss, not because we necessarily need more Jamesian novels but because too often the instruction to ‘omit needless words’ (Rule 17) leads young writers to be cautious and dull; minimalist style becomes minimalist thought, and that is a problem.”

To dissect the Tetris-like quality of words, Fish examines the following Anthony Burgess sentence from his 1968 novel Enderby Outside:

‘And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax, and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.’

Before the words slide into their slots, they are just discrete items, pointing everywhere and nowhere. Once the words are nested in the places ‘ordained’ for them — ‘ordained’ is a wonderful word that points to the inexorable logic of syntactic structures — they are tied by ligatures of relationships to one another. They are subjects or objects or actions or descriptives or indications of manner, and as such they combine into a statement about the world, that is, into a meaning that one can contemplate, admire, reject, or refine.”

Originally featured here last January.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY ON WRITING

Ernest Hemingway famously maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing. Yet, over the course of his career, he frequently wrote about writing in his novels and short stories, his letters to editors, friends, critics, and lovers, in interviews, and even in articles specifically commissioned on the subject. In Ernest Hemingway on Writing, editor Larry W. Phillips culls the finest, wittiest, most profound of Hemingway’s reflections on writing, the nature of the writer, and the elements of the writer’s life. The slender volume packs insights on everything from work habits to mood management to discipline to knowing what to leave out, delivered with Hemingway’s unmistakable personality and his signature zeal for integrity.

On what makes a great book:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”

On symbolism:

There isn’t any symbolysm [sic]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

(Cue in other famous writers on symbolism, from Jack Kerouac to Ray Bradbury to Ayn Rand.)

On the qualities of a writer:

All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”

First, there must be talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline. The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in Paris, to prevent faking. Then the writer must be intelligent and disinterested and above all he must survive. Try to get all these things in one person and have him come through all the influences that press on a writer. The hardest thing, because time is so short, is for him to survive and get his work done.”

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”

HOW TO READ A BOOK

How to Read a Book, originally written by Mortimer Adler in 1940 and revised with Charles van Doren in 1972, is the kind of book often described as a “living classic” — “classic” because it deals with the fundamental and unchanging mesmerism of the written word, and “living” because it does so in a way that divorces this mesmerism from its hard medium, allowing the essence to evolve as our culture has evolved over the decades. From basic reading to systematic skimming and inspectional reading to speed reading, Adler’s how-to’s apply as efficiently to practical textbooks and science books as they do to poetry and fiction.

One of the book’s finest points deals with the fundamental yin-yang of how ideas travel and permeate minds — the intertwined acts of reading and writing. Marginalia — those fragments of thought and seeds of insight we scribble in the margins of a book — have a social life all their own: just ask The New York Times’ Sam Anderson, who recently shared his year’s worth of marginalia in a wonderful interactive feature. Hardly anything captures both the utilitarian necessity and creative allure of marginalia better than this excerpt from Adler’s classic:

When you buy a book, you establish a property right in it, just as you do in clothes or furniture when you buy and pay for them. But the act of purchase is actually only the prelude to possession in the case of a book. Full ownership of a book only comes when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it — which comes to the same thing — is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it? First, it keeps you awake — not merely conscious, but wide awake. Second, reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks. Third, writing your reactions down helps you to remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author. Presumably he knows more about the subject than you do; if not, you probably should not be bothering with his book. But understanding is a two-way operation; the learner has to question himself and question the teacher, once he understands what the teacher is saying. Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.”

First featured here, along with a meditation on modern marginalia, in December.

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