Brain Pickings

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23 DECEMBER, 2013

Neil Gaiman Reads Charles Dickens’s Original Performance Script for “A Christmas Carol”

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“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

Though Charles Dickens figures among literary history’s most notable pet-lovers with his raven Grip, he also had several cats, which he held dear — so much so, that he famously exclaimed, “What greater gift than the love of a cat?,” a line so popular that it even made it into a New Yorker cartoon. When one of Dickens’s most beloved cats, Bob, died in 1862, the author’s sister-in-law, Georgina Hogarth, had Bob’s paw taxidermied and turned into a letter-opener. She engraved it “C. D. In Memory of Bob. 1862″ and presented it to the author as a gift intended to forever remind him of his feline friend. This odd object, which sat by Dickens’s side in the library at Gad’s Hill where he wrote, is one of the artifacts featured in Molly Oldfield’s wonderful The Secret Museum (public library) — that magnificent inventory of sixty never-before-seen “treasures too precious to display,” culled from the archives and secret storage locations of some of the world’s greatest libraries and museums, including such gems as Van Gogh’s never-before-seen sketchbooks, Anne Frank’s friendship book, and the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was born.

Charles Dickens's letter opener. The handle is made out of his cat Bob's paw.

Today, Dickens’s bizarre literary instrument survives as a prized possession in the collection of the New York Public Library, where it shares space with the writing desk and chair the author used while traveling, as well as thirteen of the “prompt copies” that Dickens, the first famous writer to perform his own works, had made for his public readings — special performance scripts created by taking apart an existing novel, cutting and pasting select sections into a blank-leaf book, then filleting the text by highlighting the most dramatic scenes and annotating them with reading cues and stage directions. NYPL curator Isaac Gewirtz tells Oldfield:

Dickens wasn’t only a great writer, he was a fantastic actor: he loved to perform his work, rather than simply read extracts from it.

Among NYPL’s most treasured Dickensian prompt copies is that of A Christmas Carol (free download) — the classic 1843 novella, which blends elements of science fiction, philosophy, mysticism, satire, and cultural critique to tell a timeless story about the benevolence of the human spirit and our heartening capacity for transformation and self-transcendence.

Neil Gaiman, dressed as Charles Dickens, with Molly Oldfield. (Photograph: NYPL)

At a recent NYPL event hosted by Oldfield, one of the greatest writers of our time, Neil Gaimanchampion of the creative life, man of discipline, adviser of aspiring writers, contemplator of genius — reads one of the greatest writers of all time, in exactly the way Dickens intended for his classic work to be read, based on the annotations and directions in that precious NYPL prompt copy of A Christmas Carol. Here is Oldfield, introducing Gaiman, who proceeds to give an enchanting and entertaining reading of the Dickens classic:

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.

The Secret Museum is absolutely fantastic in its entirety, and A Christmas Carol is available as a free download, as is the entire NYPL readings series — how’s that for a priceless gift?

For more Gaiman goodness, see his 8 rules of writing, his charming children’s book, and the lovely story of his bachelor party.

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13 DECEMBER, 2013

Kenneth Patchen Reads His Love Poem “Creation”

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“Any person who loves another person, wherever in the world, is with us in this room…”

“Wayne Harris and Seon Gibben [of Gotham Book Mart] are dreamers. Whatever money they had was sunk in a book of poems by Patchen which is not selling,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in December of 1941. And yet Kenneth Patchen (December 13, 1911–January 8, 1972) went on to become one of the most revered and beloved mid-century experimental poets, whose writing came to influence the genesis and aesthetic of the Beat Generation.

From the altogether enchanting volume Kenneth Patchen Reads His Love Poems comes this exquisite delivery of the poem “Creation,” included in the magnificent collection Awash with Roses: The Collected Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen (public library) — enjoy, and savor every perfectly measured word:

Wherever the dead are there they are and
Nothing more. But you and I can expect
To see angels in the meadowgrass that look
Like cows —
And wherever we are in paradise
in furnished room without bath and
six flights up
Is all God! We read
To one another, loving the sound of the s’s
Slipping up on the f’s and much is good
Enough to raise the hair on our heads, like Rilke and Wilfred Owen

Any person who loves another person,
Wherever in the world, is with us in this room —
Even though there are battlefields.

Given the lyrical, almost musical mesmerism of this poem, and practically all of Patchen’s poetry, it comes as little surprise that he had a strong inclination for music. In 1942, he collaborated with none other than legendary composer John Cage on the radio play The City Wears A Slouch Hat, which is absolutely fantastic, and about a decade later, Patchen read his poetry with the band of jazz icon Charles Mingus, though no recording of the collaboration is known to survive.

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06 DECEMBER, 2013

RIP, Nelson Mandela: Madiba’s Moving Inauguration Speech and Timeless Wisdom from His Autobiography

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“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

We have lost Nelson Mandela, unequaled patron saint of equality, peace, and human rights. But while the body might be gone, the spirit remains forever with us — a spirit that not only changed political history, but also tirelessly elevated humanity into a higher version of itself.

In his inauguration speech, delivered on May 10, 1994, and available below in its entirety, Madiba addresses the end of apartheid in words at once timeless and timely, ringing with soul-stirring resonance today in the wake of the end of DOMA and the dawn of marriage equality, which has been called “the civil rights issue of our day.”

Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.

[…]

The time for the healing of the wounds has come.
The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come.
The time to build is upon us.

In his 1995 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (public library), Mandela speaks to the conditioning that produces both love and hate:

No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

He echoes Bertrand Russell’s timeless philosophy of education as the foundation of the good life and writes:

Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farmworkers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.

Mandela, like many of history’s greatest luminaries, sees mistakes and failure as an iterative tool of success rather than an indignity to be avoided:

The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

But perhaps most poignant of all is Mandela’s remark on the never-ending journey of freedom and human rights:

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.

Though Madiba’s own bodily walk may have ended, the path paved by his spectacular spirit and enduring legacy reaches further and further into the horizon as we turn the page on yet another victory of freedom and equality.

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