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22 DECEMBER, 2014

The Definitive Reading List of the 14 Best Books of 2014 Overall

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From theoretical physics 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 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 with 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.

See more of this calming object here, then revisit Kalman’s young readers counterpart to the book, one of the best children’s books this year.

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….

Everybody.

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.

Chris Colin, writer

For writer Chris Colin, the tattoo serves as a sort of personal cartography of time, as well as a reminder of how transient our selves are:

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.

Yuri Allison, student

For student Yuri Allison, it’s a symbolic reminder of her own inability to remember, a meta-monument to memory, that vital yet enormously flawed human faculty:

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.

Roxane Gay, writer and professor

For writer, educator, and “bad feminist” Roxane Gay, it is a deliberate editing of what Paul Valéry called “the three-body problem”:

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.

Morgan English, research director

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.

WAKING UP

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.”

Sam Harris by Bara Vetenskap

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.”

Harris writes:

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.

WORN STORIES

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.

Read some of the stories here, then hear Spivack’s fascinating interview on Design Matters.

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.

Llareta

3,000 years | Atacama Desert, Chile

Baby llareta

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.

Pando (quick aspen)

80,000 years | Fish Lake, Utah, USA

Alerce (Patagonian cypress)

2,200 years | Patagonia, Chile

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?

Dead Huon pine

10,500 years | Mount Read, Tasmania; Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden, Hobart

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.

Bristlecone pine

5,068 years | White Mountains, California, US

Welwitschia Mirabilis

2,000 years| Namib-Naukluft Desert, Namibia

Stromatolites

2,000-3,000 years | Carbla Station, Western Australia

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.

Antarctic moss

5,500 years | Elephant Island, South Georgia

See more, including Sussman’s TED talk, here, then see my conversation with the artist about the deeper conceptual and philosophical ideas behind her project.

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 glowing there with inextinguishable light.

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15 DECEMBER, 2014

The Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2014

By:

Nabokov’s love letters, Shackleton’s courageous journey, the unsung heroes behind creative icons, Joni Mitchell unbound, and more.

After the year’s best reads in science, children’s books, psychology and philosophy, and art, design, and photography, here come the finest memoirs, biographies, and history books of the year — our most inviting bridge between past and present, personal and universal.

1. A LIFE WORTH LIVING

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his 119-page philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” One of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century captures one of humanity’s most enduring philosophical challenges — the impulse at the heart of Seneca’s meditations on life and Montaigne’s timeless essays and Maya Angelou’s reflections, and a wealth of human inquiry in between. But Camus, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Rudyard Kipling, addressed it with unparalleled courage of conviction and insight into the irreconcilable longings of the human spirit.

In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (public library | IndieBound), historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his “yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,” and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy:

If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.

[…]

Camus pursues the perennial prey of philosophy — the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world — less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.

Dive deeper with more on Camus’s crusade for happiness as our moral obligation.

2. CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library | IndieBound) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

See more here.

3. SUSAN SONTAG

In addition to being a great personal hero of mine, Susan Sontag endures as one of the most influential intellectuals of the past century. But her most enchanting quality was a singular blend of fierce, opinionated intellect and vast emotional capacity — a mind not only aware of the world, but also of itself and its own vulnerability, coupled with a heart that beat with uncommon intensity and inhabited its fallible human potentiality fully, unflinchingly — not only a “professional observer” of life, per her memorable definition of a writer, but also an active participant in life, both public and private. Sontag lived with more dimension than most people are capable of even imagining, let alone comprehending, which rendered her at times revered, at times reviled, but mostly artificially flattened into the very labels she so deplored.

To capture Sontag’s life and spirit by honoring her dimensionality, then, is a monumental task, but one which Berlin-based writer and art critic David Schreiber accomplishes with enormous elegance in the long-awaited Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library | IndieBound).

Perhaps the most interesting narrative thread in Schreiber’s story of Sontag explores how she claimed her place in culture and crafted her version of “the American dream,” beginning with her conquest of New York:

In March 1959, Susan and her son, David, moved to New York. With her typical flair for self-dramatization, Sontag told interviewers that she arrived in the metropolis with only two suitcases and thirty dollars. Later it was seventy dollars, a somewhat more realistic amount that would be about $450 in today’s dollars. Because of the low rents in New York at the time, it would have been enough to make a start.

As Sontag told it, it sounds like a version of the American dream: a twenty-three-year-old single mother without resources moves to a huge and hostile city intending to live there as an author, filmmaker, and intellectual. And on her own and against all odds, she realizes her dream. There could not have been a better place than New York for Sontag to convert her fantasy of the bohemian life into reality. In this city, everything seemed possible for a young, ambitious woman.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from 'Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.' Click image for details.

But it wasn’t merely a matter of ambition: Sontag possessed a rare talent to possess — people, places, social situations. Schreiber cites an account by one of Sontag’s lifelong friends, the American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard:

Howard remembers what a natural Sontag was at making new contacts, striking up friendships, and meeting influential people. “She could be very, very nice — even seductive — to people she wanted something from. She just could not talk to stupid people.”

[…]

Sontag’s natural and self-confident contact with this exclusive society is all the more remarkable when one recalls how difficult it was to gain admittance. The gathering of New York’s high society of writers, artists, and intellectuals was an almost hermetically sealed world with strict criteria for admission.

[…]

Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty, so that, as she herself once said, she had Jasper Johns, Bobby Kennedy, and Warren Beatty all at her feet.

Dive deeper here.

4. MEANWHILE IN SAN FRANCISCO

Although Meanwhile, in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words (public library | IndieBound) by illustrator extraordinaire and frequent Brain Pickings contributor Wendy MacNaughton may be “about” a city, in the sense that the raw inspiration was drawn from the streets of San Francisco, it is really about the city, any city — about community, about subcultures and belonging, about the complexities of gentrification, about what it means to have individual dignity and shared identity. In that sense, it is a collective memoir of community.

Like a modern-day Margaret Mead armed with ink and watercolor, not a critic or commentator but an observer and amplifier of voice, MacNaughton plunges into the living fabric of the city with equal parts curiosity and compassion, gentleness and generosity, wit and wisdom, and emerges with a dimensional portrait painted with honesty, humor, and humility.

Beneath the individual stories — of the bus driver, of the hipsters, of the old men in Chinatown, of the librarian, of the street preacher — lies a glimpse of our shared humanity, those most vulnerable and earnest parts of the human soul that we often overlook and dismiss as we reduce people to their demographic and psychographic variables, be those race or gender or socioeconomic status or subcultural identification. Embedded in these simple, moving stories is MacNaughton’s tender reminder that there is no greater gift we can give each other than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing, of peering beyond the persona and into the person with an awareness that however different our struggles and circumstances may be, we are inextricably bonded by the great human longing to be truly seen for who we are.

See more here.

5. EVER YOURS

Vincent van Gogh was woven of contradictions — an extraordinary artist who also illuminated the scientific mysteries of movement and light; a man of great hunger for love and light and a great capacity for anguish. Nowhere does the role of these polarizing pulls in the making of his genius shine more brilliantly than in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library | IndieBound) — a revelatory selection of 265 letters exploring Van Gogh’s creative restlessness, his struggle to find his path in life, his tentative first steps into painting, and his views on art, society, love, and life.

In one letter, Van Gogh writes to his brother, Theo:

I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.

'Self-Portrait with Straw Hat' by Vincent van Gogh

In another, he despairs:

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!

An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.

[…]

You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…

Dive deeper with Van Gogh’s heartfelt letters on his struggle to find his purpose.

6. THE UNSPEAKABLE

Meghan Daum is undoubtedly one of the finest essayists of our time. In The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (public library | IndieBound), she explores “the tension between primal reactions and public decorum” and aiming at “a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses,” driven by a valiant effort to unbridle those messy, complex experiences from the simplistic templates with which we address them, both privately and publicly.

In the introduction, Daum echoes Zadie Smith’s piercing critique of our platitudes-paved road to self-actualization and laments the hijacking of our darker, more disquieting emotions by the happiness industrial complex:

For all the lip service we pay to “getting real,” we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told — and in turn tell others — that illness and suffering isn’t a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we’re supposed to find joy isn’t a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we’re apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American.

Dive deeper with Daum on aging, nostalgia, and how we become who we are.

7. WORN STORIES

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.

Read some of the stories here, then hear Spivack’s fascinating interview on Design Matters.

8. LETTERS TO VÉRA

Long before Vladimir Nabokov became a sage of literature, Russia’s most prominent literary émigré, and a man of widely revered strong opinions, the most important event of his life took place: 24-year-old Vladimir met 21-year-old Véra. She would come to be not only his great love and wife for the remaining half century of his life, but also his editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

So taken was Vladimir with Véra’s fierce intellect, her independence, her sense of humor, and her love of literature — she had been following his work and clipping his poems since she was nineteen and he twenty-two — that he wrote his first poem for her after having spent mere hours in her company. But nowhere did his all-consuming love and ebullient passion unfold with more mesmerism than in his letters to her, which he began writing the day after they met and continued until his final hours. They are now collected in the magnificent tome Letters to Véra (public library) — a lifetime of spectacular contributions to the canon of literary history’s greatest love letters, with intensity and beauty of language rivaled only, perhaps, by the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and those of Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

In July of 1923, a little more than two months after they met, Vladimir writes to Véra:

I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being — well, understood, perhaps, — so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about — you’ll rub off their marvelous pollen at the touch of a word… You are lovely…

[…]

Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought — and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.

[…]

See you soon my strange joy, my tender night.

By November, his love has only intensified:

How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours — with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? … I swear — and the inkblot has nothing to do with it — I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in — I swear that I have never loved before as I love you, — with such tenderness — to the point of tears — and with such a sense of radiance.

Devour more of Nabokov’s exquisite love letters here.

9. SHACKLETON’S JOURNEY

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library | IndieBound), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

See more here.

10. THE WHO, THE WHAT, AND THE WHEN

There is something quite wonderful about witnessing one human being selflessly bolster the creative achievement of another, especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator — from the man who helped Bukowski quit his soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer to the way Ursula Nordstrom nurtured young Maurice Sendak’s talent. But those who blow quiet, steadfast wind into the sails of genius clash with our narrow mythology of solitary brilliance — not to mention that as we so readily dismiss creative contribution on the accusatory grounds of “privilege” today, we weigh the material advantages but forget that the loving and staunch support of human capital is often the greatest privilege of all. And for many people we’ve come to celebrate as geniuses, such human capital was precisely what made their achievements possible — a vital aid rather than a detractor of their greatness.

That’s precisely what illustrator extraordinaire Julia Rothman and her collaborators Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe celebrate in The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History (public library | IndieBound) — an illuminating inventory of the little-known champions behind a wide range of cultural icons and an homage to the gift of what Robert Krulwich once so poetically termed “friends in low places.” Each story is told by a different writer and illustrated by a different artist, all of astounding range and talent.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Among these enabling unknowns are George Washington’s dentist, Andy Warhol’s mother, Alan Turing’s teenage crush, Emily Dickinson’s dog, Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, and Roald Dahl’s mother. Indeed, as immeasurably heartening as the project is, there is also a heartbreaking undertone reminding us how consistently women are sidelined in history — throughout the book, the most frequently recurring roles of these silent supporters are of wife and mother, who doubled and tripled and quadrupled as assistant, caretaker, editor, publicist, and a great many more utilitarian and creative duties.

Véra Nabokov, 1902–1991; art by Thomas Doyle

Rothman and team write in the introduction:

Behind every great person there is someone who enabled his or her ascension. These friends, relatives, partners, muses, colleagues, coaches, assistants, lovers, teachers, and caretakers deserve some credit… When you consider your own life, there are dozens of people who have guided you along your path — whether a teacher from fifth grade who finally got you to raise your hand in class, a family friend who gave you your first camera, or that whiskey-sipping neighbor who’d tell you stories of his childhood. These relationships shape our lives, some lightly and others with more impact.

Julia Warhola, 1891–1971; art by Leslie Herman

Read some of these heartening illustrated stories here.

11. E.E. CUMMINGS

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras memorably wrote. Half a century earlier, a young poet began teaching the world this art, and teaching us to question what is seen, then made another art of that questioning. In E. E. Cummings: A Life (public library | IndieBound), memoirist, biographer, and journalist Susan Cheever chronicles the celebrated poet’s “wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.”

Cheever considers the three ways in which modernists like Cummings and his coterie — which included such icons as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp — reshaped culture:

Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.

One can’t help but feel the particular timeliness, today, of the third — how often are we offered “a burst of delight and recognition” in our culture of monotonously shrill linkbait as we struggle to glean any semblance of wisdom in the age of information? Cummings knew that equally essential was the capacity to notice the invitation to experience that burst — a capacity ever-shrinking, ever-urgently longed for in our age of compulsive flight from stillness — and he made an art of that noticing. Cheever writes:

[The modernists] were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.

Read more, including a note on the faux-controversy over Cummings’s name capitalization, here.

12. THE LONDON JUNGLE BOOK

Something happened to us between Shackleton’s day in the Golden Age of Exploration and today — something that transformed us from wide-eyed wanderers who came to know distant lands with a sense of wonder and awe into the habitually crabby, short-tempered, entitled travelers we are today. We tap our feet impatiently at the airport security line, oblivious to the miracle we’re about to experience — a giant beast of our own creation is to take us high into the sky (where we can enjoy food and Academy-Award-winning cinema) and to a distant, often foreign land. A mere century ago, the vast majority of people never traveled more than fifty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime — and yet here we are today, jaded and irritable at the prospect of travel. How did we end up that way? And what if we arrogant moderns could, if only for a moment, strip ourselves of our cultural baggage and experience travel afresh, with eager new eyes and exuberant joy for the journey?

That’s precisely what award-winning artist Bhajju Shyam, working in the Gond tradition of Indian folk art, does in The London Jungle Book (public library | IndieBound) — an extraordinary and invigorating book from Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who continue to give international voice to marginalized art and literature through their commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on unusual, often handmade books. Titled as both an homage and a mirror-image counterpoint to Rudyard Kipling’s iconic The Jungle Book, this gem tells the story of young Bhajju’s reality-warping encounter with London, where he journeyed from his native India.

At once a highly symbolic, almost semiotic visual travelogue and a work of remarkable philosophical sensitivity, the book invites us to see our tiresomely familiar world through the eyes of a young man who has a creative intelligence few adults are endowed with and a childlike capacity for wonder and metaphorical imagery. The busy King’s Cross station of the London Tube becomes a serpentine King of the Underworld, Big Ben a giant omniscient rooster, and London’s female workforce — women who seem to Shyam to do most of the work “and happily” — multi-handed goddesses.

Dive deeper with more of Shyam’s gorgeous drawings and the story of his voyage from poverty in a small Indian village to international acclaim as a self-made artist.

13. CATALOGING THE WORLD

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web. (Even the visual bookshelf I use to manage the Brain Pickings book archive is named after him.)

In Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (public library | IndieBound), writer, educator, and design historian Alex Wright traces Otlet’s legacy not only in technology and information science, but also in politics, social reform, and peace activism, illustrating why not only Otlet’s ideas, but also his idealism matter as we contemplate the future of humanity.

The Mundaneum, with its enormous filing system designed by Otlet himself, allowed people to request information by mail-order. By 1912, Otlet and his team were fielding 1,500 such requests per year.

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

Read more here.

14. MOCHA DICK

In May of 1839, Herman Melville found himself riveted by an article in the New York monthly magazine The Knickerbocker about a “renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers” — a formidable albino whale named Mocha Dick, who had been terrorizing whaling ships with unprecedented ferocity for nearly half a century. Twelve years later, the beast was immortalized in Melville’s Moby-Dick, a commercial failure in the author’s lifetime that went on to be celebrated as one of the Great American Novels and is among the greatest books of all time.

Now, children’s book author Brian Heinz and artist Randall Enos tell the story of the original white whale behind Melville’s masterpiece in Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury (public library | IndieBound) — a captivating picture-book “biography” of the monster-turned-literary-legend, from how human aggression turned the “peaceful giant” into a ferocious beast to his first recorded attack near the South American island of Mocha off the coast of Chile to the final, fatal harpoon blow.

Suddenly, the whale burst through the waves, his jaws gnashing in the foam. One sweep of his flukes hurled the craft high into the air, spilling the crew into the sea. Twenty-six pairs of teeth as long as a man’s hand clamped down on the boat. The huge head shook savagely until only splinters remained. Then the whale disappeared in the twilight. The remaining boats plucked up their comrades and rowed briskly to their whaler. Some men sat stone-faced. Some shook.

Randall’s gorgeous linocut collage illustrations, to which the screen does no justice whatsoever, lend Heinz’s lyrical narrative dimension and magic that render the end result utterly enchanting.

See more here.

15. UPDIKE

John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wasn’t merely the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities medal, among a wealth of other awards. He had a mind that could ponder the origin of the universe, a heart that could eulogize a dog with such beautiful bittersweetness, and a spirit that could behold death without fear. He is also credited with making suburban sex sexy, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society” — something Adam Begley explores in the long-awaited biography Updike (public library | IndieBound).

Begley chronicles Updike’s escapades in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, just as he was breaking through with The New Yorker — the bastion of high culture to which he had dreamed of contributing since the age of twelve. His literary career was beginning to gain momentum with the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960 — the fictional story of a twenty-something suburban writer who, drowning in responsibilities to his young family, finds love outside of marriage. That fantasy would soon become a reality for 28-year-old Updike, a once-dorky kid who had gotten through Harvard by playing the class clown clad in his ill-fitted tweed jackets and unfashionably wide ties.

Dive deeper with the story of how Updike made suburban sex sexy.

16. JONI MITCHELL

At the age of eight, Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943) contracted polio during the last major North American epidemic of the disease before the invention of the polio vaccine. Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home. And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. The liner notes of her 2004 compilation album Dreamland capture with elegant precision her tenacious spirit and creative restlessness: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”

When musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom chanced into a dark hole of a coffeehouse one November night in 1966, it was this explorer’s soul that she felt emanating from 23-year-old Mitchell, who was quietly tuning and retuning her guitar onstage. Marom knew that she was in the presence of genius. Over the decades that followed, she would interview Mitchell on three separate occasions — in 1973, in 1979, and in 2012. These remarkably wide-ranging conversations are now collected in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library | IndieBound) — an effort “to crack something so mysterious … the creative process itself, in all its fullness,” over the course of which Mitchell, with equal parts conviction and vulnerability, tussles with those “big questions.”

Dive deeper with Mitchell on freedom, the source of creativity, and the dark side of success and therapy and the creative mind.

17. RADIO BENJAMIN

Walter Benjamin may be best known as a literary critic, philosopher, and essayist — with enduring insight on the written word that includes his thirteen rules of writing and his advice on how to write a fat tome — but he was also a pioneer of early German radio. Between 1927 and 1933, thirty-something Benjamin wrote and delivered nearly ninety broadcasts over the nascent medium. (The world’s first radio news program had aired in August of 1920 and commercial entertainment broadcasts followed in 1922.) Those pioneering pieces, at last translated into English and released as Radio Benjamin (public library | IndieBound), were notable for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for upholding the idealism and optimism of any young medium. (Early German radio, for instance, was based on subscriptions and had strict rules against commercially sponsored programming — something wholly heartening and wholly heartbreaking in our era of “native advertising” and other unending violations of the church-state relationship between public-interest journalism and private-interest greed.) Many of Benjamin’s broadcasts were also groundbreaking in being aimed at children, from educational programming to fairy-tale adaptations to original plays.

Dive deeper with Benjamin’s satirical take on the key qualities of the successful person.

18.THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his fourteen definitions of a classic, “but which always shakes the particles off.” And yet even if we agree that “a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” there is an infinite range of what different chests can — or want to — hold. The question of what makes a great book is thus notoriously elusive — so much so that even the most celebrated writers of our time can’t agree on the greatest books of all time. That question is what Andy Miller implicitly, and at times explicitly, asks in The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life (public library | IndieBound) — his wonderfully elevating and entertaining memoir of the twelve months he spent reading “some of the greatest and most famous books in the world, and two by Dan Brown.” (With this, at the very outset, comes a comforting character test that casts Miller as the kind of person who cherishes the written word but does so without an ounce of the self-important puffery with which most professional cherishers parade around literature.)

Miller’s project — which parallels Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life in some ways and intersects it at one point — began as an earnest effort to pay off his literary debt by reading many of the books he had “succeeded in dodging during an otherwise fairly literate thirty-seven years on Earth.” His intention was not to construct a definitive canon — he calls the project “a diary rather than a manifesto; a ledger, not an agenda,” a quest to “to integrate books — to reintegrate them — into an ordinary day-to-day existence, a life which was becoming progressively less engaging to the individual living it.”

Read more here.

19. MARX

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library | IndieBound) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

See more here.

20. THE PILOT AND THE LITTLE PRINCE

“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.

That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library | IndieBound) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.

Dive deeper here.

For more timelessly rewarding biographies, memoirs, and history books, see the selections for 2013, 2012, and 2011.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





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10 DECEMBER, 2014

How Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s Daughter, Became the World’s First Computer Programmer

By:

How a young woman with the uncommon talent of applying poetic imagination to science envisioned the Symbolic Medea that would become the modern computer, sparking the birth of the digital age.

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, born Augusta Ada Byron on December 10, 1815, later came to be known simply as Ada Lovelace. Today, she is celebrated as the world’s first computer programmer — the first person to marry the mathematical capabilities of computational machines with the poetic possibilities of symbolic logic applied with imagination. This peculiar combination was the product of Ada’s equally peculiar — and in many ways trying — parenting.

Eleven months before her birth, her father, the great Romantic poet and scandalous playboy Lord Byron, had reluctantly married her mother, Annabella Milbanke, a reserved and mathematically gifted young woman from a wealthy family — reluctantly, because Byron saw in Annabella less a romantic prospect than a hedge against his own dangerous passions, which had carried him along a conveyer belt of indiscriminate affairs with both men and women.

Lord Byron in Albanian dress (Portrait by Thomas Phillips, 1835)

But shortly after Ada was conceived, Lady Byron began suspecting her husband’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta. Five weeks after Ada’s birth, Annabella decided to seek a separation. Her attorneys sent Lord Byron a letter stating that “Lady B. positively affirms that she has not at any time spread reports injurious to Lord Byrons [sic] character” — with the subtle but clear implication that unless Lord Byron complies, she might. The poet now came to see his wife, whom he had once called “Princess of Parallelograms” in affectionate reverence for her mathematical talents, as a calculating antagonist, a “Mathematical Medea,” and later came to mock her in his famous epic poem Don Juan: “Her favourite science was the mathematical… She was a walking calculation.”

Augusta Ada Byron as a child

Ada was never to meet her father, who died in Greece the age of thirty-six. Ada was eight. On his deathbed, he implored his valet: “Oh, my poor dear child! — my dear Ada! My God, could I have seen her! Give her my blessing.” The girl was raised by her mother, who was bent on eradicating any trace of her father’s influence by immersing her in science and math from the time she was four. At twelve, Ada became fascinated by mechanical engineering and wrote a book called Flyology, in which she illustrated with her own plates her plan for constructing a flying apparatus. And yet she felt that part of her — the poetic part — was being repressed. In a bout of teenage defiance, she wrote to her mother:

You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?

Indeed, the very friction that had caused her parents to separate created the fusion that made Ada a pioneer of “poetical science.”

That fruitful friction is what Walter Isaacson explores as he profiles Ada in the opening chapter of The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (public library | IndieBound), alongside such trailblazers as Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, and Stewart Brand. Isaacson writes:

Ada had inherited her father’s romantic spirit, a trait that her mother tried to temper by having her tutored in mathematics. The combination produced in Ada a love for what she took to calling “poetical science,” which linked her rebellious imagination to her enchantment with numbers. For many, including her father, the rarefied sensibilities of the Romantic era clashed with the techno-excitement of the Industrial Revolution. But Ada was comfortable at the intersection of both eras.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (Portrait by Alfred Edward Chalon, 1840)

When she was only seventeen, Ada attended one of legendary English polymath Charles Babbage’s equally legendary salons. There, amid the dancing, readings, and intellectual games, Babbage performed a dramatic demonstration of his Difference Engine, a beast of a calculating machine he was building. Ada was instantly captivated by its poetical possibilities, far beyond what the machine’s own inventor had envisioned. Later, one of her friends would remark: “Miss Byron, young as she was, understood its working, and saw the great beauty of the invention.”

Isaacson outlines the significance of that moment, in both Ada’s life and the trajectory of our culture:

Ada’s love of both poetry and math primed her to see beauty in a computing machine. She was an exemplar of the era of Romantic science, which was characterized by a lyrical enthusiasm for invention and discovery.

[…]

It was a time not unlike our own. The advances of the Industrial Revolution, including the steam engine, mechanical loom, and telegraph, transformed the nineteenth century in much the same way that the advances of the Digital Revolution — the computer, microchip, and Internet — have transformed our own. At the heart of both eras were innovators who combined imagination and passion with wondrous technology, a mix that produced Ada’s poetical science and what the twentieth-century poet Richard Brautigan would call “machines of loving grace.”

Enchanted by the prospect of the “poetical science” she imagined possible, Ada set out to convince Charles Babbage to be her mentor. She pitched him in a letter:

I have a peculiar way of learning, and I think it must be a peculiar man to teach me successfully… Do not reckon me conceited, … but I believe I have the power of going just as far as I like in such pursuits, and where there is so decided a taste, I should almost say a passion, as I have for them, I question if there is not always some portion of natural genius even.

Here, Isaacson makes a peculiar remark: “Whether due to her opiates or her breeding or both,” he writes in quoting that letter, “she developed a somewhat outsize opinion of her own talents and began to describe herself as a genius.” The irony, of course, is that she was a genius — Isaacson himself acknowledges that by the very act of choosing to open his biography of innovation with her. But would a man of such ability and such unflinching confidence in that ability be called out for his “outsize opinion,” for being someone with an “exalted view of [his] talents,” as Isaacson later writes of Ada? If a woman of her indisputable brilliance can’t be proud of her own talent without being dubbed delusional, then, surely, there is little hope for the rest of us mere female mortals to make any claim to confidence without being accused of hubris.

To be sure, if Isaacson didn’t see the immense value of Ada’s cultural contribution, he would not have included her in the book — a book that opens and closes with her, no less. These remarks, then, are perhaps less a matter of lamentable personal opinion than a reflection of limiting cultural conventions and our ambivalence about the admissible level of confidence a woman can have in her own talents.

Isaacson, indeed — despite disputing whether Ada deserves anointment as “the world’s first computer programmer” commonly attributed to her — makes the appropriateness of celebrating her contribution clear:

Ada’s ability to appreciate the beauty of mathematics is a gift that eludes many people, including some who think of themselves as intellectual. She realized that math was a lovely language, one that describes the harmonies of the universe and can be poetic at times. Despite her mother’s efforts, she remained her father’s daughter, with a poetic sensibility that allowed her to view an equation as a brushstroke that painted an aspect of nature’s physical splendor, just as she could visualize the “wine-dark sea” or a woman who “walks in beauty, like the night.” But math’s appeal went even deeper; it was spiritual. Math “constitutes the language through which alone we can adequately express the great facts of the natural world,” she said, and it allows us to portray the “changes of mutual relationship” that unfold in creation. It is “the instrument through which the weak mind of man can most effectually read his Creator’s works.”

This ability to apply imagination to science characterized the Industrial Revolution as well as the computer revolution, for which Ada was to become a patron saint. She was able, as she told Babbage, to understand the connection between poetry and analysis in ways that transcended her father’s talents. “I do not believe that my father was (or ever could have been) such a Poet as I shall be an Analyst; for with me the two go together indissolubly,” she wrote.

But Ada’s most important contribution came from her role as both a vocal champion of Babbage’s ideas, at a time when society questioned them as ludicrous, and as an amplifier of their potential beyond what Babbage himself had imagined. Isaacson writes:

Ada Lovelace fully appreciated the concept of a general-purpose machine. More important, she envisioned an attribute that might make it truly amazing: it could potentially process not only numbers but any symbolic notations, including musical and artistic ones. She saw the poetry in such an idea, and she set out to encourage others to see it as well.

Trial model of Babbage's Analytical Engine, completed after his death (Science Museum)

In her 1843 supplement to Babbage’s Analytical Engine, simply titled Notes, she outlined four essential concepts that would shape the birth of modern computing a century later. First, she envisioned a general-purpose machine capable not only of performing preprogrammed tasks but also of being reprogrammed to execute a practically unlimited range of operations — in other words, as Isaacson points out, she envisioned the modern computer.

Her second concept would become a cornerstone of the digital age — the idea that such a machine could handle far more than mathematical calculations; that it could be a Symbolic Medea capable of processing musical and artistic notations. Isaacson writes:

This insight would become the core concept of the digital age: any piece of content, data, or information — music, text, pictures, numbers, symbols, sounds, video — could be expressed in digital form and manipulated by machines. Even Babbage failed to see this fully; he focused on numbers. But Ada realized that the digits on the cogs could represent things other than mathematical quantities. Thus did she make the conceptual leap from machines that were mere calculators to ones that we now call computers.

Her third innovation was a step-by-step outline of “the workings of what we now call a computer program or algorithm.” But it was her fourth one, Isaacson notes, that was and still remains most momentous — the question of whether machines can think independently, which we still struggle to answer in the age of Siri-inspired fantasies like the movie Her. Ada wrote in her Notes:

The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths.

In the closing chapter, titled “Ada Forever,” Isaacson considers the enduring implications of this question:

Ada might also be justified in boasting that she was correct, at least thus far, in her more controversial contention: that no computer, no matter how powerful, would ever truly be a “thinking” machine. A century after she died, Alan Turing dubbed this “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” and tried to dismiss it by providing an operational definition of a thinking machine — that a person submitting questions could not distinguish the machine from a human — and predicting that a computer would pass this test within a few decades. But it’s now been more than sixty years, and the machines that attempt to fool people on the test are at best engaging in lame conversation tricks rather than actual thinking. Certainly none has cleared Ada’s higher bar of being able to “originate” any thoughts of its own.

In encapsulating Ada’s ultimate legacy, Isaacson once again touches on our ambivalence about the mythologies of genius — perhaps even more so of women’s genius — and finds wisdom in her own words:

As she herself wrote in those “Notes,” referring to the Analytical Engine but in words that also describe her fluctuating reputation, “In considering any new subject, there is frequently a tendency, first, to overrate what we find to be already interesting or remarkable; and, secondly, by a sort of natural reaction, to undervalue the true state of the case.”

The reality is that Ada’s contribution was both profound and inspirational. More than Babbage or any other person of her era, she was able to glimpse a future in which machines would become partners of the human imagination, together weaving tapestries as beautiful as those from Jacquard’s loom. Her appreciation for poetical science led her to celebrate a proposed calculating machine that was dismissed by the scientific establishment of her day, and she perceived how the processing power of such a device could be used on any form of information. Thus did Ada, Countess of Lovelace, help sow the seeds for a digital age that would blossom a hundred years later.

Ada died of progressively debilitating uterine cancer in 1852, when she was thirty-six — the same age as Lord Byron. She requested that she be buried in a country grave, alongside the father whom she never knew but whose poetical sensibility profoundly shaped her own genius of “poetical science.”

The Innovators goes on to trace Ada’s influence as it reverberates through the seminal work of a stable of technological pioneers over the century and a half since her death. Complement it with Ada’s spirited letter on science and religion.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.