From the origin of the universe to the unusual stories behind people’s tattoos, by way of secular spirituality, the hummingbird effect, and Werner Herzog.
I consider my annual best-of reading lists a kind of Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which lay out an aspirational list of priorities for the new year, these represent a look back at the books that proved themselves most worth prioritizing over the setting year. After such reverse-resolution reading lists for the best children’s books, art, design, and photography books, science books, philosophy and psychology books, best biographies, memoirs, and history books, here comes the annual wholly subjective selection of the fourteen most rewarding books of 2014 overall, in no particular order. (See last year’s selections here.)
THE ACCIDENTAL UNIVERSE
“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote in his timeless meditation on science and religion, “we will have failed.” It’s a sentiment that dismisses in one fell Saganesque swoop both the blind dogmatism of religion and the vain certitude of science — a sentiment articulated by some of history’s greatest minds, from Einstein to Ada Lovelace to Isaac Asimov, all the way back to Galileo. Yet centuries after Galileo and decades after Sagan, humanity remains profoundly uneasy about reconciling these conflicting frameworks for understanding the universe and our place in it.
That unanswerable question of where we came from is precisely what physicist Alan Lightman — one of the finest essayists writing today and the very first person to receive dual appointments in science and the humanities at MIT — explores from various angles in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew (public library | IndieBound).
At the intersection of science and philosophy, the essays in the book explore the possible existence of multiple universes, multiple space-time continuums, more than three dimensions. Lightman writes:
Science does not reveal the meaning of our existence, but it does draw back some of the veils.
Theoretical physics is the deepest and purest branch of science. It is the outpost of science closest to philosophy, and religion.
In one of the most beautiful essays in the book, titled “The Spiritual Universe,” Lightman explores that intersection of perspectives in making sense of life:
I completely endorse the central doctrine of science. And I do not believe in the existence of a Being who lives beyond matter and energy, even if that Being refrains from entering the fray of the physical world. However, I certainly agree with [scientists who argue] that science is not the only avenue for arriving at knowledge, that there are interesting and vital questions beyond the reach of test tubes and equations. Obviously, vast territories of the arts concern inner experiences that cannot be analyzed by science. The humanities, such as history and philosophy, raise questions that do not have definite or unanimously accepted answers.
There are things we take on faith, without physical proof and even sometimes without any methodology for proof. We cannot clearly show why the ending of a particular novel haunts us. We cannot prove under what conditions we would sacrifice our own life in order to save the life of our child. We cannot prove whether it is right or wrong to steal in order to feed our family, or even agree on a definition of “right” and “wrong.” We cannot prove the meaning of our life, or whether life has any meaning at all. For these questions, we can gather evidence and debate, but in the end we cannot arrive at any system of analysis akin to the way in which a physicist decides how many seconds it will take a one-foot-long pendulum to make a complete swing. The previous questions are questions of aesthetics, morality, philosophy. These are questions for the arts and the humanities. These are also questions aligned with some of the intangible concerns of traditional religion.
Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.
Dive deeper with Lightman on science and spirituality, our yearning for immortality in a universe of constant change, and how dark energy explains our accidental origins.
LETTERS OF NOTE
Virginia Woolf called letter-writing “the humane art” — an epithet only amplified today, in an age when we so frequently mistake reaction for response and succumb to expectations of immediacy that render impossible the beautiful, contemplative mutuality at the heart of the notion of co-respondence. This, perhaps, is why yesteryear’s greatest letters appeal to us more irrepressibly than ever.
For years, Shaun Usher has been unearthing and highlighting brilliant, funny, poignant, exquisitely human letters from luminaries and ordinary people alike on his magnificent website. This year, the best of them were released in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience (public library | IndieBound) — the aptly titled, superb collection featuring contributions from such cultural icons as Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Louis Armstrong, Kurt Vonnegut, Nick Cave, Richard Feynman, Jack Kerouac, and more.
Sample this treasure trove further with E.B. White’s beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity, young Hunter S. Thompson’s advice to a friend on how to find one’s purpose and live a full life, comedian Bill Hicks’s piercing missive to a censoring priest on what freedom of speech really means, and Eudora Welty’s disarming job application to the New Yorker.
A GUIDE FOR THE PERPLEXED
Werner Herzog is celebrated as one of the most influential and innovative filmmakers of our time, but his ascent to acclaim was far from a straight trajectory from privilege to power. Abandoned by his father at an early age, Herzog survived a WWII bombing that demolished the house next door to his childhood home and was raised by a single mother in near-poverty. He found his calling in filmmaking after reading an encyclopedia entry on the subject as a teenager and took a job as a welder in a steel factory in his late teens to fund his first films. These building blocks of his character — tenacity, self-reliance, imaginative curiosity — shine with blinding brilliance in the richest and most revealing of Herzog’s interviews. Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (public library) — not to be confused with E.F. Schumacher’s excellent 1978 philosophy book of the same title — presents the director’s extensive, wide-ranging conversation with writer and filmmaker Paul Cronin. His answers are unfiltered and to-the-point, often poignant but always unsentimental, not rude but refusing to infest the garden of honest human communication with the Victorian-seeded, American-sprouted weed of pointless politeness.
Herzog’s insights coalesce into a kind of manifesto for following one’s particular calling, a form of intelligent, irreverent self-help for the modern creative spirit — indeed, even though Herzog is a humanist fully detached from religion, there is a strong spiritual undertone to his wisdom, rooted in what Cronin calls “unadulterated intuition” and spanning everything from what it really means to find your purpose and do what you love to the psychology and practicalities of worrying less about money to the art of living with presence in an age of productivity. As Cronin points out in the introduction, Herzog’s thoughts collected in the book are “a decades-long outpouring, a response to the clarion call, to the fervent requests for guidance.”
And yet in many ways, A Guide for the Perplexed could well have been titled A Guide to the Perplexed, for Herzog is as much a product of his “cumulative humiliations and defeats,” as he himself phrases it, as of his own “chronic perplexity,” to borrow E.B. White’s unforgettable term — Herzog possesses that rare, paradoxical combination of absolute clarity of conviction and wholehearted willingness to inhabit his own inner contradictions, to pursue life’s open-endedness with equal parts focus of vision and nimbleness of navigation.
A certain self-reliance that permeates his films and his mind, a refusal to let the fear of failure inhibit trying — a sensibility the voiceover in the final scene of Herzog’s The Unprecedented Defence of the Fortress Deutschkreuz captures perfectly: “Even a defeat is better than nothing at all.”
Sample this magnificent tome with Herzog on creativity, self-reliance, and making a living out of what you love and his no-bullshit advice to aspiring filmmakers, which applies just as brilliantly to any field of creative endeavor.
MY FAVORITE THINGS
Four decades after Barthes listed his favorite things, which prompted Susan Sontag to list hers, Maira Kalman — one of the most enchanting, influential, and unusual creative voices today, and a woman of piercing insight — does something very similar and very different in her magnificent book My Favorite Things (public library | IndieBound).
Kalman not only lives her one human life with remarkable open-heartedness, but also draws from its private humanity warm and witty wisdom on our shared human experience. There is a spartan sincerity to her work, an elegantly choreographed spontaneity — words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide. She looks at the same world we all look at but sees what no one else sees — that magical stuff of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments.” Here, her many-petaled mind blossoms in its full idiosyncratic whimsy as she catalogs the “personal micro-culture” of her inner life — her personal set of the objects and people and fragments of experience that constitute the ever-shifting assemblage we call a Self.
The book began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. But it is also a kind of visual catalog sandwiched between a memoir, reminding us that our experience of art is laced with the minute details and monumental moments of our personal histories and is invariably shaped by them. Between Kalman’s original paintings and photographs based on her selections from the museum’s sweeping collection — the buttons and bathtubs, dogs and dandies, first editions of Winnie the Pooh and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Proust’s letters — are also her childhood memories, her quirky personal collections, and her beautiful meditations on life.
Kalman writes in the introduction:
The pieces that I chose were based on one thing only — a gasp of DELIGHT.
Isn’t that the only way to curate a life? TO live among things that make you gasp with delight?
And gasp one does, over and over. As Kalman makes her way through the vast Cooper Hewitt collection, her immeasurably lyrical interweavings of private and public expose that special way in which museums not only serve as temples to collective memory but also invite us to reopen the Proustian jars of our own memories with interest and aliveness and a capacity to gasp.
Emanating from the entire project is Kalman’s ability to witness life with equal parts humor and humility, and to always find the lyrical — as in her exquisite pairing of this early nineteenth-century European mount and a Lydia Davis poem:
The objects Kalman selects ultimately become a springboard for leaping into the things that move her most — like her great love of books, woven with such gentleness and subtlety into a French lamp shade from 1935:
The book. Calming object. Held in the hand.
THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF TROUBLE AND SPACIOUSNESS
Rebecca Solnit is one of the finest essayists of our time, tireless craftswoman of insightful meditations on such subjects as what books do for the human soul, how we find ourselves by getting lost, and the relationship between distance and desire. In The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness (public library | IndieBound), she explores place as “the intersection of many changing forces passing through, whirling around, mixing, dissolving, and exploding in a fixed location,” forces like culture, justice, ecology, democracy, art, and storytelling, which reveal things like “what environmentalists got wrong about country music and nearly everyone got wrong about Henry David Thoreau’s laundry.”
In one of the most layered and wonderful essays in the collection, Solnit considers the relationship between our interior lives and our home interiors amid our culture’s “rising obsession with home ownership and home improvement”:
There are times when it’s clear to me that by getting and spending, we lay waste our powers, and times when, say, the apricot velvet headboard against the lavender wall of a room in an old hotel fills me with a mysterious satisfied pleasure in harmonies of color, texture, atmospheres of comfort, domesticity and a desire to go on living among such color and texture and space and general real estate. There are times when I believe in spiritual detachment, though there was a recent occasion when I bothered to go take a picture of my old reading armchair to the upholsterer’s around the corner to see if it can be made beautiful again and worry about whether charcoal velveteen would go with my next decor. There are times when I enjoy the weightlessness of traveling and wish to own nothing and afternoons when I want to claim every farmhouse I drive by as my own, especially those with porches and dormers, those spaces so elegantly negotiating inside and out, as though building itself could direct and support an ideal life, the life we dream of when we look at houses.
Admiring houses from the outside is often about imagining entering them, living in them, having a calmer, more harmonious, deeper life. Buildings become theaters and fortresses for private life and inward thought, and buying and decorating is so much easier than living or thinking according to those ideals. Thus the dream of a house can be the eternally postponed preliminary step to taking up the lives we wish we were living. Houses are cluttered with wishes, the invisible furniture on which we keep bruising our shins. Until they become an end in themselves, as a new mansion did for the wealthy woman I watched fret over the right color of the infinity edge tiles of her new pool on the edge of the sea, as though this shade of blue could provide the serenity that would be dashed by that slightly more turquoise version, as though it could all come from the ceramic tile suppliers, as though it all lay in the colors and the getting.
Dive deeper here.
THE ART OF ASKING
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it,” Lucinda Williams sang from my headphones into my heart one rainy October morning on the train to Hudson. “What seems cynicism is always a sign, always a sign…” I was headed to Hudson for a conversation with a very different but no less brilliant musician, and a longtime kindred spirit — the talented and kind Amanda Palmer. In an abandoned schoolhouse across the street from her host’s home, we sat down to talk about her magnificent and culturally necessary new book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help (public library | IndieBound) — a beautifully written inquiry into why we have such a hard time accepting compassion in all of its permutations, from love to what it takes to make a living, what lies behind our cynicism in refusing it, and how learning to accept it makes possible the greatest gifts of our shared humanity.
I am partial, perhaps, because my own sustenance depends on accepting help. But I also deeply believe and actively partake in both the yin and the yang of that vitalizing osmosis of giving and receiving that keeps today’s creative economy alive, binding artists and audiences, writers and readers, musicians and fans, into the shared cause of creative culture. “It’s only when we demand that we are hurt,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the circles of giving and receiving in 1942, but we still seem woefully caught in the paradoxical trap of too much entitlement to what we feel we want and too little capacity to accept what we truly need. The unhinging of that trap is what Amanda explores with equal parts deep personal vulnerability, profound insight into the private and public lives of art, and courageous conviction about the future of creative culture.
The most urgent clarion call echoing throughout the book, which builds on Amanda’s terrific TED talk, is for loosening our harsh and narrow criteria for what it means to be an artist, and, most of all, for undoing our punishing ideas about what renders one a not-artist, or — worse yet — a not-artist-enough. Amanda writes of the anguishing Impostor Syndrome epidemic such limiting notions spawn:
People working in the arts engage in street combat with The Fraud Police on a daily basis, because much of our work is new and not readily or conventionally categorized. When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.
There’s no “correct path” to becoming a real artist. You might think you’ll gain legitimacy by going to university, getting published, getting signed to a record label. But it’s all bullshit, and it’s all in your head. You’re an artist when you say you are. And you’re a good artist when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.
But in the history of creative genius, this pathology appears to be a rather recent development — the struggle to be an artist, of course, is nothing new, but the struggle to believe being one seems to be a uniquely modern malady. In one of the most revelatory passages in the book, Amanda points out a little-known biographical detail about the life of Henry David Thoreau — he who decided to live the self-reliant life by Walden pond and memorably proclaimed: “If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success.” It is a detail that, today, would undoubtedly render Thoreau the target of that automatic privilege narrative as we point a finger and call him a “poser”:
Thoreau wrote in painstaking detail about how he chose to remove himself from society to live “by his own means” in a little 10-foot x 15-foot hand-hewn cabin on the side of a pond. What he left out of Walden, though, was the fact that the land he built on was borrowed from his wealthy neighbor, that his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson had him over for dinner all the time, and that every Sunday, Thoreau’s mother and sister brought over a basket of freshly-baked goods for him, including donuts.
The idea of Thoreau gazing thoughtfully over the expanse of transcendental Walden Pond, a bluebird alighting onto his threadbare shoe, all the while eating donuts that his mom brought him just doesn’t jibe with most people’s picture of him of a self-reliant, noble, marrow-sucking back-to-the-woods folk-hero.
If Thoreau lived today, steeped in a culture that tells him taking the donuts chips away at his credibility, would he have taken them? And why don’t we? Amanda writes:
Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.
It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.
Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.
Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.
To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,
Please, take the donuts.
To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band,
Take the donuts.
To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $700 a month who went on to marry a best-selling author who she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please….
Just take the fucking donuts.
But Thoreau, it turns out, got one thing right in his definition of success, which emanates from Amanda’s words a century and a half later:
The happiest artists I know are generally the ones who can manage to make a reasonable living from their art without having to worry too much about the next paycheck. Not to say that every artist who sits around the campfire, or plays in tiny bars, is “happier” than those singing in stadiums — but more isn’t always better. If feeling the connection between yourself and others is the ultimate goal it can be harder when you are separated from the crowd by a 30-foot barrier. And it can be easier to do — though riskier — when they’re sitting right beside you. The ideal sweet spot is the one in which the artist can freely share their talents and directly feel the reverberations of their artistic gifts to their community. In other words, it works best when everybody feels seen.
As artists, and as humans: If your fear is scarcity, the solution isn’t necessarily abundance.
Read more and watch my conversation with Palmer here.
THE HUMAN AGE
In the most memorable scene from the cinematic adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, Jodi Foster’s character — modeled after real-life astronomer and alien hunter Jill Tarter — beholds the uncontainable wonder of the cosmos, which she has been tasked with conveying to humanity, and gasps: “They should’ve sent a poet!”
To tell humanity its own story is a task no less herculean, and at last we have a poet — Sagan’s favorite poet, no less — to marry science and wonder. Science storyteller and historian Diane Ackerman, of course, isn’t only a poet — though Sagan did send her spectacular scientifically accurate verses for the planets to Timothy Leary in prison. For the past four decades, she has been bridging science and the humanities in extraordinary explorations of everything from the science of the senses to the natural history of love to the slender threads of hope. In The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us (public library | IndieBound), Ackerman traces how we got to where we are — a perpetually forward-leaning species living in a remarkable era full of technological wonders most of which didn’t exist a mere two centuries ago — when “only moments before, in geological time, we were speechless shadows on the savanna.”
With bewitchingly lyrical language, Ackerman paints the backdrop of our explosive evolution and its yin-yang of achievement and annihilation:
Humans have always been hopped-up, restless, busy bodies. During the past 11,700 years, a mere blink of time since the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, we invented the pearls of Agriculture, Writing, and Science. We traveled in all directions, followed the long hands of rivers, crossed snow kingdoms, scaled dizzying clefts and gorges, trekked to remote islands and the poles, plunged to ocean depths haunted by fish lit like luminarias and jellies with golden eyes. Under a worship of stars, we trimmed fires and strung lanterns all across the darkness. We framed Oz-like cities, voyaged off our home planet, and golfed on the moon. We dreamt up a wizardry of industrial and medical marvels. We may not have shuffled the continents, but we’ve erased and redrawn their outlines with cities, agriculture, and climate change. We’ve blocked and rerouted rivers, depositing thick sediments of new land. We’ve leveled forests, scraped and paved the earth. We’ve subdued 75 percent of the land surface — preserving some pockets as “wilderness,” denaturing vast tracts for our businesses and homes, and homogenizing a third of the world’s ice-free land through farming. We’ve lopped off the tops of mountains to dig craters and quarries for mining. It’s as if aliens appeared with megamallets and laser chisels and started resculpting every continent to better suit them. We’ve turned the landscape into another form of architecture; we’ve made the planet our sandbox.
But Ackerman is a techno-utopian at heart. Noting that we’ve altered our relationship with the natural world “radically, irreversibly, but by no means all for the bad,” she adds:
Our relationship with nature is evolving, rapidly but incrementally, and at times so subtly that we don’t perceive the sonic booms, literally or metaphorically. As we’re redefining our perception of the world surrounding us, and the world inside of us, we’re revising our fundamental ideas about exactly what it means to be human, and also what we deem “natural.”
Dive deeper with Ackerman on what the future of artificial intelligence reveals about the human condition.
THE SENSE OF STYLE
“Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children,” Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.” While baking and brewing undoubtedly have their place in culture, it is writing that has emerged as the defining record of our civilization — our most enduring and expansive catalog of thought, of discourse, of human imagination. And yet our insatiable hunger for advice on writing suggests that it remains an unnatural act — even legendary Mad Man David Ogilvy knew this when he penned his ten commandments of writing a century after Darwin, prefacing them with this simple statement: “Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.”
But even as we master this rather unnatural human application, the difference between good writing and great writing is vast, bridged only by the miraculous mastery of style. “Style is the physiognomy of the mind,” wrote Schopenhauer. “It is a more reliable key to character than the physiognomy of the body.”
Nearly a century after Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style — a book of such legendary status that it has even germinated a rap — Harvard’s Steven Pinker steps in to alleviate Darwin’s lament with The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century (public library).
Pinker writes in the prologue:
I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind? It’s all the more captivating to someone who seeks to explain these fields to a wide readership. I think about how language works so that I can best explain how language works.
Indeed, Pinker — arguably today’s most prominent and prolific psycholinguist — approaches the question of style not only as an aesthete who cherishes the written word, but also as a scientist, applying the findings of his field to debunking a number of longstanding, blindly followed dogmas about writing:
We now know that telling writers to avoid the passive is bad advice. Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader’s attention and memory. A skilled writer should know what those functions are and push back against copy editors who, under the influence of grammatically naïve style guides, blue-pencil every passive construction they spot into an active one.
Dive deeper here.
HOW WE GOT TO NOW
While we appreciate it in the abstract, few of us pause to grasp the miracles of modern life, from artificial light to air conditioning, as Steven Johnson puts it in the excellent How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World (public library), “how amazing it is that we drink water from a tap and never once worry about dying forty-eight hours later from cholera.” Understanding how these everyday marvels first came to be, then came to be taken for granted, not only allows us to see our familiar world with new eyes — something we are wired not to do — but also lets us appreciate the remarkable creative lineage behind even the most mundane of technologies underpinning modern life. Johnson writes in the introduction:
Our lives are surrounded and supported by a whole class of objects that are enchanted with the ideas and creativity of thousands of people who came before us: inventors and hobbyists and reformers who steadily hacked away at the problem of making artificial light or clean drinking water so that we can enjoy those luxuries today without a second thought, without even thinking of them as luxuries in the first place… We are indebted to those people every bit as much as, if not more than, we are to the kings and conquerors and magnates of traditional history.
Johnson points out that, much like the evolution of bees gave flowers their colors and the evolution of pollen altered the design of the hummingbird’s wings, the most remarkable thing about innovations is the way they precipitate unanticipated changes that reverberate far and wide beyond the field or discipline or problem at the epicenter of the particular innovation. Pointing to the Gutenberg press — itself already an example of the combinatorial nature of creative breakthroughs — Johnson writes:
Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens.
Johnson terms these complex chains of influences the “hummingbird effect,” named after the famous “butterfly effect” concept from chaos theory — Edward Lorenz’s famous metaphor for the idea that a change as imperceptible as the flap of a butterfly’s wings can result in an effect as grand as a hurricane far away several weeks later — but different in a fundamental way:
The extraordinary (and unsettling) property of the butterfly effect is that it involves a virtually unknowable chain of causality; you can’t map the link between the air molecules bouncing around the butterfly and the storm system brewing in the Atlantic. They may be connected, because everything is connected on some level, but it is beyond our capacity to parse those connections or, even harder, to predict them in advance. But something very different is at work with the flower and the hummingbird: while they are very different organisms, with very different needs and aptitudes, not to mention basic biological systems, the flower clearly influences the hummingbird’s physiognomy in direct, intelligible ways.
Under the “hummingbird effect,” an innovation in one field can trigger unexpected breakthroughs in wholly different domains, but the traces of those original influences often remain obscured. Illuminating them allows us to grasp the many dimensions of change, its complex and often unintended consequences, the multiple scales of experience that have always defined human history and, perhaps above all, to lend much-needed dimension to the flat myth of genius.
Dive deeper with Johnson on how Galileo invented the modern experience of time and his 600-year history of the selfie.
PEN & INK
We wear the stories of our lives — sometimes through our clothes, sometimes even more deeply, through the innermost physical membrane that separates self from world. More than mere acts of creative self-mutilation, tattoos have long served a number of unusual purposes, from celebrating science to asserting the power structures of Russia’s prison system to offering a lens on the psychology of regret.
In Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them (public library | IndieBound), based on their popular Tumblr of the same title, illustrator and visual storyteller Wendy MacNaughton — she of extraordinary sensitivity to the human experience — and editor Isaac Fitzgerald catalog the wild, wicked, wonderfully human stories behind people’s tattoos.
From a librarian’s Sendak-like depiction of a Norwegian folktale her grandfather used to tell her, to a writer who gets a tattoo for each novel he writes, to a journalist who immortalized the first tenet of the Karen revolution for Burma’s independence, the stories — sometimes poetic, sometimes political, always deeply personal — brim with the uncontainable, layered humanity that is MacNaughton’s true medium.
The people’s titles are as interesting as the stories themselves — amalgamations of the many selves we each contain and spend our lives trying to reconcile, the stuff of Whitman’s multitudes — from a “pedicab operator and journalist” to an “actress / director / BDSM educator” to “cartoonist and bouncer.”
Cheryl Strayed — who knows a great deal about the tiny beautiful things of which life is made and whose own inked piece of personal history is among the stories — writes in the introduction:
As long as I live I’ll never tire of people-watching. On city buses and park benches. In small-town cafes and crowded elevators. At concerts and swimming pools. To people-watch is to glimpse the mysterious and the banal, the public face and the private gesture, the strangest other and the most familiar self. It’s to wonder how and why and what and who and hardly ever find out.
This book is the answer to those questions. It’s an intimate collection of portraits and stories behind the images we carry on our flesh in the form of tattoos.
Each of the stories is like being let in on sixty-three secrets by sixty-three strangers who passed you on the street or sat across from you on the train. They’re raw and real and funny and sweet. They speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely. Together, they do the work of great literature — gathering a force so true they ultimately tell a story that includes all.
I got this tattoo because I suspected one day I would think it would be stupid. I wanted to mark time, or mark the me that thought it was a good idea. Seventeen years later. I hardly remember it’s there. But when I do, it reminds me that whatever I think now I probably won’t think later.
I have an episodic memory disorder. I don’t have any long-term memory. My childhood is completely blank, as is my schooling until high school. Technically I can’t recall anything that’s beyond three years in the past. I find it very difficult to talk about, simply because I still can’t wrap my head around the idea myself, so when someone talks to me about a memory we are supposed to share I simply smile and say that I don’t remember. Just like my memories, lip tattoos are known to fade with time.
I hardly remember not hating my body. I got most of my seven arm tattoos when I was nineteen. I wanted to be able to look at my body and see something I didn’t loathe, that was part of my body by choosing entirely. Really, that’s all I ever wanted.
For research director Morgan English, the tattoo is a depiction of “a series of childhood moments” strung together to capture her grandmother’s singular spirit in an abstract way:
My grandma died in a freak accident in May of last year. She was healthy as an ox — traveling the world with her boyfriend well into her 80s — then she broke her foot, which created a blood clot that traveled to her brain. Three days later, she was gone.
The respect and admiration I have for her is difficult to articulate. here was a woman who endured two depressions (post-WWI Weimar Germany, from which she escaped to the U.S. in 1929, just before our stock market crashed) followed by a series of traumatic events (incestuous rape, a violent husband, the suicide of her only son). You’d think these things would break a person, or at least harden them, but she only grew more focused. She once told me, “Fix your eyes on the solution, it’s the only way things get solved! Just keep moving and you’ll become the woman you’ve always wanted to be.”
See more here.
Nietzsche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” is among modern history’s most oft-cited aphorisms, and yet as is often the case with its ilk, such quotations often miss the broader context in a way that bespeaks the lazy reductionism with which we tend to approach questions of spirituality today. Nietzsche himself clarified the full dimension of his statement six years later, in a passage from The Twilight of Idols, where he explained that “God” simply signified the supersensory realm, or “true world,” and wrote: “We have abolished the true world. What has remained? The apparent one perhaps? Oh no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.”
Indeed, this struggle to integrate the sensory and the supersensory, the physical and the metaphysical, has been addressed with varying degrees of sensitivity by some of history’s greatest minds — reflections like Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Albert Einstein on whether scientists pray, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Alan Watts on the difference between belief and faith, C.S. Lewis on the paradox of free will, and Jane Goodall on science and spirit.
In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (public library | IndieBound), philosopher, neuroscientist, and mindful skeptic Sam Harris offers a contemporary addition to this lineage of human inquiry — an extraordinary and ambitious masterwork of such integration between science and spirituality, which Harris himself describes as “by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives.” Or, perhaps most aptly, an effort “to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.”
Harris begins by recounting an experience he had at age sixteen — a three-day wilderness retreat designed to spur spiritual awakening of some sort, which instead left young Harris feeling like the contemplation of the existential mystery in the presence of his own company was “a source of perfect misery.” This frustrating experience became “a sufficient provocation” that launched him into a lifelong pursuit of the kinds of transcendent experiences that gave rise to the world’s major spiritual traditions, examining them instead with a scientist’s vital blend of skepticism and openness and a philosopher’s aspiration to be “scrupulously truthful.”
Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others… Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved.
Noting that the entirety of our experience, as well as our satisfaction with that experience, is filtered through our minds — “If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life — you won’t enjoy any of it.” — Harris sets out to reconcile the quest to achieve one’s goals with a deeper longing, a recognition, perhaps, that presence is far more rewarding than productivity. He writes:
Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.
Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.
This message, of course, is nothing new — half a century ago, Alan Watts made a spectacular case for it, building on millennia of Eastern philosophy. But what makes our era singular and this discourse particularly timely, Harris points out, is that there is now a growing body of scientific research substantiating these ancient intuitions, which he goes on to examine in fascinating detail.
Sample the book further with Harris on the paradox of meditation.
One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.
For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.
The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.
THE OLDEST LIVING THINGS IN THE WORLD
“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not,” philosopher Stephen Cave observed in his poignant meditation on our mortality paradox And yet we continue to long for the secrets of that ever-elusive eternity.
For nearly a decade, Brooklyn-based artist, photographer, and Guggenheim Fellow Rachel Sussman has been traveling the globe to discover and document its oldest organisms — living things over 2,000 years of age. Her breathtaking photographs and illuminating essays are now collected in The Oldest Living Things in the World (public library | IndieBound) — beautiful and powerful work at the intersection of fine art, science, and philosophy, spanning seven continents and exploring issues of deep time, permanence and impermanence, and the interconnectedness of life.
With an artist’s gift for “aesthetic force” and a scientist’s rigorous respect for truth, Sussman straddles a multitude of worlds as she travels across space and time to unearth Earth’s greatest stories of resilience, stories of tragedy and triumph, past and future, but above all stories that humble our human lives, which seem like the blink of a cosmic eye against the timescales of these ancient organisms — organisms that have unflinchingly witnessed all of our own tragedies and triumphs, our wars and our revolutions, our holocausts and our renaissances, and have remained anchored to existence more firmly than we can ever hope to be. And yet a great many of these species are on the verge of extinction, in no small part due to human activity, raising the question of how our seemingly ephemeral presence in the ecosystem can have such deep and long-term impact on organisms far older and far more naturally resilient than us.
Above all, however, the project raises questions that aren’t so much scientific or artistic as profoundly human: What is the meaning of human life if it comes and goes before a patch of moss has reached the end of infancy? How do our petty daily stresses measure up against a struggle for survival stretching back millennia? Who would we be if we relinquished our arrogant conviction that we are Earth’s biological crown jewel?
Sussman offers no answers but invites us, instead, to contemplate, consider, and explore on our own — not as creatures hopelessly different from and dwarfed by the organisms she profiles, but as fellow beings in an intricately entwined mesh of life. What emerges is a beautiful breakage of our illusion of separateness and a deep appreciation for the binds that pull us and these remarkable organisms in an eternal dance — our only real gateway to immortality.
Interwoven with Sussman’s photographs and essays, brimming with equal parts passion and precision, are the stories of her adventures — and misadventures — as she trekked the world in search of her ancient subjects. From a broken arm in remote Sri Lanka to a heart-wrenching breakup to a well-timed sip of whisky at polar explorer Shackleton’s grave, her personal stories imbue the universality of the deeper issues she explores with an inviting dose of humanity — a gentle reminder that life, for us as much as for those ancient organisms, is often about withstanding the uncontrollable, unpredictable, and unwelcome curveballs the universe throws our way, and that resilience comes from the dignity and humility of that withstanding.
THE LION AND THE BIRD
Once in a long while, a children’s book comes by that is so gorgeous in sight and spirit, so timelessly and agelessly enchanting, that it takes my breath away. The Lion and the Bird (public library | IndieBound) by French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one such rare gem — an ode to life’s moments between the words via the tender and melodic story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight. In the act of helping and being helped, the two deliver one another from the soul-wrenching pain of loneliness and build a beautiful friendship — the quiet and deeply rewarding kind.
Dubuc’s warm and generous illustrations are not only magical in that singular way that only someone who understands both childhood and loneliness can afford, but also lend a mesmerizing musical quality to the story. She plays with scale and negative space in a courageous and uncommon way — scenes fade into opacity as time passes, Lion shrinks as Bird flies away, and three blank pages punctuate the story as brilliantly placed pauses that capture the wistfulness of waiting and longing. What emerges is an entrancing sing-song rhythm of storytelling and of emotion.
As an endless winter descends upon Lion and Bird, they share a world of warmth and playful fellowship.
But a bittersweet awareness lurks in the shadow of their union — Lion knows that as soon as her broken wing heals, Bird will take to the spring skies with her flock, leaving him to his lonesome life.
Dubuc’s eloquent pictures advance the nearly wordless story, true to those moments in life that render words unnecessary. When spring arrives, we see Bird wave farewell to Lion.
“Yes,” says Lion. “I know.”
Nothing else is said, and yet we too instantly know — we know the universe of unspoken and ineffable emotion that envelops each and beams between them like silent starlight in that fateful moment.
The seasons roll by and Lion tends to his garden quietly, solemnly.
Summer passes slowly, softly.
Wistfully, he wonders where Bird might be. Until one autumn day…
…he hears a familiar sound.
It is Bird, returning for another winter of warmth and friendship.
The Lion and the Bird is ineffably wonderful, the kind of treasure to which the screen and the attempted explanation do no justice — a book that, as it was once said of The Little Prince, will shine upon your soul, whether child or grown-up, “with a sidewise gleam” and strike you “in some place that is not the mind” to glow there with inextinguishable light.