Brain Pickings

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18 MAY, 2015

Nine Podcasts for a Fuller Life

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A short playlist of intellectual, creative, and spiritual invigoration.

We are storytelling animals and the actual telling of stories — that ancient aural mesmerism of the human voice — continues to bewitch us somehow more thoroughly than any other medium of tale-transmission. This, perhaps, is why podcasts have emerged as a storytelling modality capable of particular enchantment — a marriage of the primeval and the present.

Here are nine favorite exemplars of the medium, each showcased via one particularly spectacular episode and a sampler-playlist of three more treats from the show’s archives.

On Being with Krista Tippett (iTunes): Mary Oliver // Listening to the World

The Pulitzer-winning poet and shaman of paying attention, beloved and oft-quoted but rarely interviewed, cracks her inner world open at the age of 79 — and what gushes forth is nothing short of magic.

Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.

How many roads did St. Augustine follow before he became St. Augustine?

Other episodes of note: Margaret Wertheim // The Grandeur and the Limits of Science :: Joanna Macy // A Wild Love for the World :: Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin // The Inner Life of Rebellion



Radiolab with Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich (iTunes): Translation

From poetry to 911 calls, WNYC’s Jad and Robert embark upon a characteristically mind-bending exploration of how close words can get us “to the truth and feel and force of life” and how far they can lead us stray from the actual meaning of things.

Any person is kind of a universe — they’re too big to comprehend in their entirety, and so any translation [of a person’s work] is only going to get you a tiny piece of that person, a tiny fraction.

Other episodes of note: Super Cool :: Things :: Speedy Beet



Design Matters with Debbie Millman (iTunes): Dani Shapiro

The celebrated novelist, memoirist, and author of the superb Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life discusses the experience of growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family, her ongoing quest to master the art of presence, and the interplay of courage and vulnerability necessary for being an artist.

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

Other episodes of note: Chris Ware :: Morley :: Seth Godin



The Tim Ferriss Show (iTunes): Amanda Palmer on How to Fight, Meditate, and Make Good Art

In a wide-ranging and wildly inspiring conversation, Amanda Palmer expands on her ideas from the indispensable The Art of Asking as she contemplates creativity, sanity, integrity, and what it means to be an artist.

Part of the struggle of actually finding happiness as an artist is the daily fight to not define success the way the rest of the world defines success — which is hard, because you have to fight the same battles every day.

[…]

Success has this very two-faced essence… As an artist playing the game in the industry… you kind of have to play that game a little bit and ride the balance, trying to get your book on the New York Times bestselling list and knowing what to do to do that, but also, simultaneously, not drinking the Kool-aid — swishing it around your mouth and spitting it out.

Other episodes of note: Matt Mullenweg on Polyphasic Sleep, Tequila, and Building Billion-Dollar Companies :: Tony Robbins on Morning Routines, Peak Performance, and Mastering Money :: Rolf Potts on Travel Tactics, Creating Time Wealth, and Lateral Thinking



Invisibilia with Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel (iTunes): The Secret History of Thoughts

From psychologists’ multiple theories about why a young man found his mind suddenly flooded with horribly violent images to how someone trapped in his body for thirteen years found true love, co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller ask the seemingly simple yet life-shaping question: “Are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, do they reveal who I really am?”

The world of therapists and how they think about thoughts … is in the middle of a huge revolution. And it’s one I don’t know if most people know about.

Other episodes of note: The Power of Categories :: Entanglement :: Fearless



TED Radio Hour with Guy Raz (iTunes): The Source of Creativity

In another stimulating installment of this ongoing collaboration between TED and NPR, writer Elizabeth Gilbert, musician Sting, brain researcher Charles Limb, and education reform champion Sir Ken Robinson explore the origin of creativity from multiple perspectives.

I had a great story recently — I love telling it — of a little girl who was in a drawing lesson. She was 6, and she was in the back, drawing. The teacher said this little girl hardly ever paid attention. In this drawing lesson, she did. And the teacher was fascinated.

She went over to her, and she said, what are you drawing?

And the girl said, I’m drawing a picture of God.

And the teacher said that nobody knows what God looks like, and the girl said, “They will in a minute.”

Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go… They’re not frightened of being wrong… If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original… And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost the capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.

Other episodes of note: Success :: Framing the Story :: The Money Paradox



The One You Feed with Eric Zimmer (iTunes): Edward Slingerland

The eminent scholar of Chinese thought, author of the excellent Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity, discusses the paradoxical nature of conscious intention.

There are a lot of goals that we cannot pursue directly: relaxation, happiness, attractiveness [and] creativity — when you pursue them directly, they flee from you… If you think about the two-system nature of the human mind, when you’re trying to relax, or you’re trying to be happy and not think about things, the part of the brain you’re trying to shut down is the part you’re using to do the shutting down. It’s like trying to dissemble a bicycle while you’re riding on it — it’s directly paradoxical.

Other episodes of note: Carol Dweck :: Andrew Solomon :: Oliver Burkeman



The Longform Podcast by Max Linsky, Evan Ratliff, and Aaron Lammer (iTunes): George Saunders

The celebrated author and New Yorker contributor discusses, among myriad other insightful and fascinating things, how evolving as a writer is about bridging the gap between one’s values as a person and the values one’s writing espouses.

Maybe you would understand your artistry to be: Put me anywhere, I’ll find human beings; I’ll find human interest; I’ll find literature. And I guess you could argue the weirder — or maybe the less explored — the place, the better.

Other episodes of note: Cheryl Strayed :: Ta-Nehisi Coates :: Tavi Gevinson



The New York Public Library Podcast (iTunes): Mark Strand on Artistic Imagination

The Pulitzer-winning poet, MacArthur genius, and sage of creativity on the artistic imagination, shortly before his death. That Strand’s final interview should be a conversation with his daughter, the New York Public Library’s own Jessica Strand, only adds to the beauty and poignancy of that conversation.

I can’t imagine a life without books — without reading. I don’t know how people get through a day without reading!

Other episodes of note: Cheryl Strayed on Wild Success :: Ru Paul on Fantasy and Identity :: Sarah Lewis and Anna Deavere Smith on Inspiring Failures

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01 MAY, 2015

JFK on Poetry, Power, and the Artist’s Role in Society: His Eulogy for Robert Frost, One of the Greatest Speeches of All Time

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“If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.”

In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested that the poet Robert Frost participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. Eighty-six-year-old Frost telegrammed Kennedy with his signature elegance of wit: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration.” He proceeded to deliver a beautiful ode to the dream of including the arts in government, which touched Kennedy deeply.

Frost died exactly two years later, in January of 1963. That fall, Amherst College invited the President to speak at an event honoring the beloved poet. On October 26, Kennedy took the podium at Amherst and delivered a spectacular speech mirroring back to Frost that deep dedication to the arts and celebrating the role of the artist in society. Perhaps more than any other public address, it affirmed JFK as that rare species of politician who is equally a poet and prophet of the human spirit.

The speech was eventually included in the altogether superb Farewell, Godspeed: The Greatest Eulogies of Our Time (public library) — a compendium of breathtaking adieus to cultural icons like Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emily Dickinson, Keith Haring, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Schulz, and Virginia Woolf, delivered by those who knew them best.

This original recording of the speech, while short in length, is endlessly ennobling in substance. Highlights below — please enjoy:

Strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the Nation’s greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they determine whether we use power or power uses us.

[…]

Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.

The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state… In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role…

If sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth… In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society — in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man, the fate of having “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”

Typed draft of the speech, edited in Kennedy's own hand (Courtesy of John F. Kennedy Library)

But as notable as the speech itself — for reasons both poetical and political — are the parts Kennedy edited out in his own hand, including this heartbreaking-in-hindsight passage from the second page:

We take great comfort in our nuclear stockpiles, our gross national product, our scientific and technological achievement, our industrial might — and, up to a point, we are right to do so. But physical power by itself solves no problems and secures no victories. What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation. “It is excellent,” Shakespeare said, “to have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

Three weeks later, one of history’s ugliest and most arrogant misuses of brute power took place as JFK was assassinated, prompting Leonard Bernstein to pen his timelessly moving address on the only true antidote to violence. But the message at the heart of Kennedy’s speech continued to resonate even as his voice was silenced by brutality. Less than two years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts — the very dream that Frost had dreamt up at JFK’s inauguration.

Complement with two more titans of poetry on the role of the artist in culture: E.E. Cummings on the agony and salvation of the artist and James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society.

The JFK speech appears as the opening track on composer Mohammed Fairouz’s spectacular album Follow Poet — titled after a line from W.H. Auden’s beautiful elegy for W.B. Yeats — and can be heard in Fairouz’s wholly fantastic On Being conversation with Krista Tippett:

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27 APRIL, 2015

Einstein on the Common Language of Science in a Rare 1941 Recording

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“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem — in my opinion — to characterize our age.”

What makes Albert Einstein endure as “the quintessential modern genius” isn’t merely his monumental contribution to science but also his unflinching faith in the human spirit and in our civilizational capacity for good even in the face of undeniable evil. At the peak of WWII — exactly a decade after his little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on racial justice and exactly a decade before his letter to a disheartened young woman (incidentally, a Brain Pickings reader’s mother) affirming why we are alive — Einstein penned a piece titled “The Common Language of Science,” which aired as a radio broadcast for London’s Science Conference in September of 1941 and was soon published in the journal Advancement of Science. It was eventually included in the altogether indispensable anthology Ideas and Opinions (public library), which also gave us Einstein’s views on the value of kindness and the combinatory nature of creativity.

Einstein traces how language developed as a tool of transmuting thought into acoustic expression and evolved into “an instrument of reasoning,” then argues that science is the most international language there is — humanity’s sole shared instrument of reasoning — but the scientific method alone, without moral direction, is insufficient in assuring our civilizational welfare.

But there is another, subtler aspect of the recording that makes it profoundly pause-giving — perhaps one more discernible to those of us who live and think in a language not our native: Here is one of humanity’s most extraordinary minds, struggling to articulate its brilliant contents in a foreign language — slowly, imperfectly, with painfully measured words. There is no more jarring a reminder of our chronic tendency to mistake the presence of an accent for the absence of acumen — how often do people, even well-meaning and educated people, hear such verbal delivery by a stranger and immediately judge her intelligence as inferior to their own?

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [or else] you are in trouble,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their superb conversation on identity and the immigrant experience. And yet a central source of trouble in the immigrant experience is precisely the world’s inability to unbridle what you are saying from how you are saying it. It is wholly reasonable to surmise that even Einstein — who was once a little boy reticent to use even his native language — felt the weight of the unconscious social biases to which we are all susceptible.

This original recording of the piece, in Einstein’s own wonderfully accented voice, is nothing short of a cultural treasure. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.

The mental development of the individual and his way of forming concepts depend to a high degree upon language. This makes us realize to what extent the same language means the same mentality. In this sense thinking and language are linked together.

What distinguishes the language of science from language as we ordinarily understand the word? How is it that scientific language is international? What science strives for is an utmost acuteness and clarity of concepts as regards their mutual relation and their correspondence to sensory data.

[…]

The supernational character of scientific concepts and scientific language is due to the fact that they have been set up by the best brains of all countries and all times. In solitude, and yet in cooperative effort as regards the final effect, they created the spiritual tools for the technical revolutions which have transformed the life of mankind in the last centuries. Their system of concepts has served as a guide in the bewildering chaos of perceptions so that we learned to grasp general truths from particular observations.

What hopes and fears does the scientific method imply for mankind? I do not think that this is the right way to put the question. Whatever this tool in the hand of man will produce depends entirely on the nature of the goals alive in this mankind. Once these goals exist, the scientific method furnishes means to realize them. Yet it cannot furnish the very goals. The scientific method itself would not have led anywhere, it would not even have been born without a passionate striving for clear understanding.

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem — in my opinion — to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately the safety, the welfare, and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.

Complement with the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice and this rare 1929 recording of A.A. Milne reading from Winnie the Pooh, then revisit Einstein’s answer to a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray and his correspondence with Freud on war, peace, and human nature.

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24 APRIL, 2015

What Power Really Means: Cheryl Strayed Reads Adrienne Rich’s Homage to Marie Curie

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A poetic and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist, a great woman, and a great human being.

“Stories are a meal,” one wise father told his eight-year-old daughter a long time ago. “But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life.” That’s precisely what poetry became for Cheryl Strayed as she hiked a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail to put herself in the way of truth and beauty in a thoroughly transformative experience that became the magnificent memoir Wild that then became a major motion picture.

In her New York Public Library conversation with Paul Holdengräber, which also gave us her no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Strayed recounts her brush with this life-saving power of poetry and reads the first poem from Adrienne Rich’s 1977 masterwork The Dream of a Common Language (public library), titled “Power.” Folded into this nuanced homage to Marie Curie — a woman who died a “martyr to science” after a lifetime of crusading for curiosity and — is an exquisite meditation on what power really means:

POWER

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power

What Strayed observes of Rich is perhaps the single most beautiful and precise formulation of what it means to be a great artist:

Adrienne Rich … did not die a woman who denied that her wounds came from the same source as her power. In fact, she spent her life making power from those wounds [but] Marie Curie… didn’t have that luxury — she had to deny that in order to be who she was in her time. But we don’t. And I think so much of the work I’ve done … and the work I hope I continue to do, is about writing into those wounds.

Complement The Dream of a Common Language, which remains a culturally vital and personally vitalizing masterpiece, with Rich on how love refines our truths, what “truth” really means, and her spectacular commencement address on claiming an education delivered months before this extraordinary book was published, then treat yourself to Rich’s own reading of another piercing poem from the same volume.

Subscribe to the New York Public Library’s always-excellent podcast here and join me in supporting the library in making such fantastic free public programming possible — you know Thoreau and Neil Gaiman would approve.

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