Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage books’

14 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Dot and the Line: A Quirky Vintage Love Story in Lower Mathematics by Norton Juster, Animated by Chuck Jones

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“Moral: The vector belongs to the spoils.”

In 1963, two years after he penned his timeless classic The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster wrote and illustrated The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics (public library) — the quirky and infinitely wonderful love story that unfolds in a one-dimensional universe called Lineland where women are dots and men are lines; a hopeful straight line falls hopelessly in love with a dot out of his league, who only has eyes for a sleazy squiggle, and sets about wooing her. Inspired by the Victorian novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, it’s an endearing and witty fable of persistence and passion, and a creative masterwork at the intersection of mathematics, philosophy, and graphic design.

To woo the dot, the line decides to master the myriad shapes capable of expressing his full potential.

For months he practiced in secret. Soon he was making squares and triangles, hexagons, parallelograms, rhomboids, polyhedrons, trapezoids, parallelepipeds, decagons, tetragrams and an infinite number of other shapes so complex that he had to letter his sides and angles to keep his place.

Before long he had learned to carefully control ellipses, circles and complex curves and to express himself in any shape he wished — “You name it, I’ll play it.”

So he takes the dot out one evening and metamorphoses into a dizzying array of shapes to charm her with his refined versatility.

Juster brings the story to a modern fairy-tale ending, where the dot and the line live “if not happily ever after, at least reasonably so,” and ends with a charming pun for the mathematically tickled:

MORAL: The vector belongs to the spoils.

Juster’s jacket-copy bio is fittingly delightful:

Norton Juster is a dedicated mathematician whose efforts have been focused primarily on the verification of supermarket register receipts and the calculation of restaurant gratuities in a number of foreign currencies. He has also done pioneering work on the psychological effects of mathematical melancholia.

In 1965, the book was adapted into an equally charming, Oscar-winning short film by Chuck Jones, featured here previously and shared again below for our repeated pleasure:

Thankfully, The Dot and the Line didn’t suffer the fate of so many vintage gems that now rest in the out-of-print cemetery — it was salvaged in 2001 with a shiny new edition.

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22 JANUARY, 2014

Lord Byron’s Epic Poem “Don Juan,” Annotated by Isaac Asimov and Illustrated by Milton Glaser

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Three of history’s greatest geniuses converge around some of the finest satire ever written.

Despite having fathered Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, Lord Byron (January 22, 1788–April 19, 1824) is best remembered for his poetry, countless collections of which have been published in the centuries since he put ink to paper. But arguably the best such volume is a rare vintage gem published by Doubleday — which also commissioned Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne and Edward Gorey’s paperback covers for literary classics — in 1972. The lavish thousand-page tome Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan (public library) presents Byron’s Don Juan — one of the great epic poems in the English language, launching an audacious and timeless attack on greed, complacency, and hypocrisy — with annotations by beloved writer Isaac Asimov, a man of strong opinions and a large heart, and breathlessly gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations by none other than Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and celebrated as the greatest graphic designer of our time.

What makes the pairing especially poetic is that, besides their match of cultural stature, Asimov and Glaser have in common a certain sensibility, a shared faith in the human spirit — Asimov with his religion of humanism and Glaser with his belief in the kindness of the universe.

To be sure, Asimov takes no prisoners with his annotations — or, rather, plays along with Byron — beginning with the opening verse, which reads:

FRAGMENT

I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling—
Because at least the past were passed away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!

Beneath it, Asimov winks:

This isolated stanza has nothing to do with the poem, but it epitomizes Byron’s utter lack of reverence for anything—even himself—and therefore sets the tone of what follows, even if it is divorced from the content.

After Byron’s third stanza, which begins with “You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know” and ends “… because you soar too high, Bob, / And fall, for lack of moisture quite a dry, Bob!,” Asimov, who wears the many hats of historian, etymologist, lexicographer, literary critic, and cultural commentator, adds an entertaining and educational clarifier:

“A dry Bob” seems to have been then-current slang for intercourse without ejaculation (“lack of moisture”). The use of the phrase shocked and (of course) titillated the public and was a particularly effective way of indicating that Southey went through the motions of writing poetry without producing anything poetic.

Though most of Asimov’s annotations offer biographical and historical context, they are by no means dry or bland. He imbues his commentary with his characteristic snark: After another Byron verse that reads “And recollect a poet nothing loses / in giving to his brethren their full meed / of merits, and complaint of present days / Is not the certain path to future praise,” Asimov snidely remarks:

It is obvious that Byron emphatically does not follow his own advice, but then few people do.

Indeed, Asimov seems entranced by Byron’s contradictions. In another note, he writes:

There was a great deal of cousin-marriage in Byron’s family. But that was not all. Perhaps the most scandalous item in the Byronic array of scandal was the fact that Byron seems to have made his half-sister, Augusta, his mistress, and to have had a daughter by her. He was fascinated by his own action in this respect and dealt with incest over and over in his writing.

Asimov’s own witty and spirited irreverence comes through once again in a comment on Byron’s usage of “wh—” and “G—d” in the fourth canto, wherein Asimov adds to literary history’s finest meditations on censorship:

Like “damn,” “whore” could not be spelled out, though what sense of purity is served by a missing “o” is known only to the Devil and to censors.

[…]

“God,” like “whore,” sometimes requires a missing “o” to be acceptable to the censor. Surely only a censor’s mind could find such neatly equal embarrassment in these two words.

Asimov weaves his own reservations about religion into the annotations, remarking in one about Byron’s line “‘But heaven,’ as Cassio says, ‘is above all—’” in canto nine:

The phrase “heaven is above all” is a kind of last resort of puzzled mankind. If problems are insoluble, leave them then to God, to whom nothing (by definition) is insoluble. THus, in Shakespeare’s Othello, when Cassio is tempted into drinking by the villainous Iago, the former quickly finds himself befuddled by alcohol and must find refuge in “Well; God’s above all…”

Above all, however, Asimov seems to peer straight into Byron’s soul, discerning his motives and intentions with equal parts clarity and compassion. In the twelfth canto, where Byron writes “I thought, at setting off, about two dozen / Cantos would do; but at Apollo’s pleading, / If that my Pegasus should not be founder’d, / I think to canter gently through a hundred,” Asimov remarks:

Byron may well have intended to keep writing Don Juan all his life as a perfect vehicle for satirizing the age. But, alas, he was approaching the end.

In his final footnote, Asimov revisits the subject of Don Juan’s intended fate:

Byron always maintained he had no plan for Don Juan, but simply improvised as he went along, taking all the world as his target. And, indeed, as we go from canto to canto, the plot grows thinner, the digressions longer, the satire deeper, so that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that no matter how long he had lived and how long written, Byron would never have finished Don Juan nor progressed enormously with the plot, even though the number of cantos had reached the century mark. At one time he said he would send Juan to every nation in turn, satirizing each in its own fashion, and have him end an extreme radical like Cloots in the Reign of Terror, or else to end by sending him either to Hell or to an unhappy marriage, whichever was worse.

And yet — I wonder if Byron might not have relented. Might he not have had Don Juan visit Hell, but have had him saved from damnation by the intercession of the shade of Haidée, surely to be found in Heaven? Might he not, then, in the end, have married Leila, the little girl he had saved at Izmail, and settled down to the blameless life of husband, father, and country squire?

Though Asimov’s Annotated Don Juan is, sadly, long out of print, I was fortunate enough to find a surviving copy of this out-of-print treasure at Heather O’Donnell’s wonderful Honey & Wax, which is a gift to bibliophiles everywhere and a heartening game-changer for the world of rare books. Copies can also be found elsewhere online as well as at some better-stocked public libraries, and are well worth the splurge or the trip.

Complement this treat with other rare artistic editions of literary classics, including Matisse’s 1935 etchings for Ulysses, Picasso’s drawings for a naughty ancient Greek comedy, William Blake’s paintings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Salvador Dalí’s prolific illustrations for Don Quixote in 1946, the essays of Montaigne in 1947, Alice in Wonderland in 1969, and Romeo & Juliet in 1975.

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24 DECEMBER, 2013

T. S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees”: A Rare Vintage Gem, Illustrated by Enrico Arno

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“There are several attitudes towards Christmas, some of which we may disregard: The social, the torpid, the patently commercial…”

In 1927, an enterprising and creatively minded British man by the name of Richard de la Mare, production director at London’s Faber & Gwyer, which would become the legendary publishing house Faber and Faber two years later, came up with an unusual idea: He would ask famous writers and illustrators to contribute holiday-themed verses and drawings for a poetry pamphlet series to be sent to clients instead of Christmas cards and sold to the general public for a shilling each, or about five pennies. Thanks to the company’s relationships and stable of authors, he was able to secure work from such literary greats as Edith Sitwell, W. B. Yeats, and Vita Sackville-West (yes, as in Virginia Woolf’s lover). Among the most notable contributors to the series — titled Ariel, after Shakespeare’s spirit from “The Tempest” — was celebrated poet and notorious cat-lover T. S. Eliot, who wrote six poems for the project, beginning at its inception in 1927 and ending in 1954, when he was in his late sixties.

I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving first American edition of Eliot’s final poem-pamphlet for the Ariel series, The Cultivation of Christmas Trees (public library) — a long-out-of-print gem, typeset, bound, and illustrated by Enrico Arno, who had fled Nazi Germany due to his Jewish descent, spent some time in Italy, and eventually settled in the United States to become an acclaimed book designer and album cover artist.

What makes Eliot’s verses especially memorable is that while they deal with a religious holiday, they speak to a very secular concern: our struggle to hold on to our inborn capacity for wonder, that same essential faculty that fuels both science and spirituality. Please enjoy.

There are several attitudes towards Christmas,
Some of which we may disregard:
The social, the torpid, the patently commercial,
The rowdy (the pubs being open till midnight),
And the childish — which is not that of the child
For whom the candle is a star, and the gilded angel
Spreading its wings at the summit of the tree
Is not only a decoration, but an angel.

The child wonders at the Christmas Tree:
Let him continue in the spirit of wonder
At the Feast as an event not accepted as a pretext;
So that the glittering rapture, the amazement
Of the first-remembered Christmas Tree,
So that the surprises, delight in new possessions
(Each one with its peculiar and exciting smell),
The expectation of the goose or turkey
And the expected awe on its appearance,

So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure,
Or in the piety of the convert
Which may be tainted with a self-conceit
Displeasing to God and disrespectful to children
(And here I remember also with gratitude
St. Lucy, her carol, and her crown of fire):

So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas
(By “eightieth” meaning whichever is last)
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

Used copies of The Cultivation of Christmas Trees can still be found and are very much worth the hunt — or the trip to the library.

HT Casey N. Cep / The Paris Review

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