Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

14 DECEMBER, 2012

How to Avoid Work: A 1949 Guide to Doing What You Love

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“Life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want.”

“There is an ugliness in being paid for work one does not like,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1941. Indeed, finding a sense of purpose and doing what makes the heart sing is one of the greatest human aspirations — and yet too many people remain caught in the hamster wheel of unfulfilling work. In 1949, career counselor William J. Reilly penned How To Avoid Work (public library) — a short guide to finding your purpose and doing what you love. Despite the occasional vintage self-helpism of the tone, the book is remarkable for many reasons — written at the dawn of the American corporate era and the golden age of the housewife, it not only encouraged people of all ages to pursue their passions over conventional, safe occupations, but it also spoke to both men and women with equal regard.

Reilly begins by exploring the mythologies of work and play, something Lewis Hyde has written of beautifully, with an uncomfortable but wonderfully apt metaphor:

Most [people] have the ridiculous notion that anything they do which produces an income is work — and that anything they do outside ‘working’ hours is play. There is no logic to that.

[…]

Your life is too short and too valuable to fritter away in work.

If you don’t get out now, you may end up like the frog that is placed in a pot of fresh water on the stove. As the temperature is gradually increased, the frog feels restless and uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough to jump out. Without being aware that a chance is taking place, he is gradually lulled into unconsciousness.

Much the same thing happens when you take a person and put him in a job which he does not like. He gets irritable in his groove. His duties soon become a monotonous routine that slowly dulls his senses. As I walk into offices, through factories and stores, I often find myself looking into the expressionless faces of people going through mechanical motions. They are people whose minds are stunned and slowly dying.

To illustrate the idea that “life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want,” Reilly quotes Amelia Earhart, a woman of strong and refreshing liberal for their time opinions:

I flew the Atlantic because I wanted to. If that be what they call ‘a woman’s reason,’ make the most of it. It isn’t, I think, a reason to be apologized for by man or woman. . . .

Whether you are flying the Atlantic or selling sausages or building a skyscraper or driving a truck, your greatest power comes from the fact that you want tremendously to do that very thing, and do it well.

He admonishes against the toxic “should”-culture we live in, arguably all the more pronounced today:

Actually, there is only one way in this world to achieve true happiness, and that is to express yourself with all your skill and enthusiasm in a career that appeals to you more than any other. In such a career, you feel a sense of purpose, a sense of achievement. You feel you are making a contribution. It is not work.

[…]

To my mind, the world would be a much pleasanter and more civilized place to live in, if everyone resolved to pursue whatever is closest to his heart’s desire. We would be more creative and our productivity would be vastly increased.

Altogether too much emphasis, I think, is being placed on what we ought to do, rather than what we want to do.

When a young art student recently asked author Neil Gaiman what to make of people advising her against doing what she loves, his brilliant answer paralleled what Reilly so passionately argued some sixty-three years ago:

The greatest satisfaction you can obtain from life is your pleasure in producing, in your own individual way, something of value to your fellowmen. That is creative living!

When we consider that each of us has only one life to live, isn’t it rather tragic to find men and women, with brains capable of comprehending the stars and the planets, talking about the weather; men and women, with hands capable of creating works of art, using those hands only for routine tasks; men and women, capable of independent thought, using their minds as a bowling-alley for popular ideas; men and women, capable of greatness, wallowing in mediocrity; men and women, capable of self-expression, slowly dying a mental death while they babble the confused monotone of the mob?

For you, life can be a succession of glorious adventures. Or it can be a monotonous bore.

Take your choice!

Echoing Alan Watts’s litmus test of what you would do if money were no object, Reilly suggests:

No matter what your age or condition or experience, the sooner you find out what you really want to do and do it the better, for that’s the only way anyone can avoid work.

[…]

Try this approach. Suppose you were financially independent and were perfectly free to do anything you wanted, what would you do, if anything?

If your inclinations are at all definite, the answer to this simple question provides at least a general definition of the field which you would enjoy most.

He outlines a general division of labor for any field:

In every business, art, trade or profession, there are four major jobs to be done:

  1. Creative — inventing, discovering, or developing new ideas
  2. Administrative — making plans and policies for the conduct and supervision of the entire business or project
  3. Executive — directing the work of others in actually carrying out plans and policies in one or more departments or sections
  4. Line — performing some individual routine task involving no responsibility for the work of others

If you have creative ability, you know it without anyone telling you. Your creative talents have demanded expression in your early youth. If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether you have the ability to invent or to discover or to develop new ideas, you probably do not have this ability.

[…]

If you are a thoughtful person, slow to act, who enjoys analyzing, interpreting, and patiently summarizing the results of the activities of others; if you’re the kind of person who likes to pry into every single phase of an operation and to view a business as a whole; if you get a big kick out of cautiously defining long-range plans and policies; if you’re strong on logic, you have the most important earmarks of an able administrator.

But if you like plenty of action, if you love to organize and direct other people as they carry out plans and policies, and if you’re perfectly content to confine your activities to one department of a business, you’d probably make a first-rate executive.

Reilly stresses the importance of the human factor:

Often, success or failure turns on this question of human relations. … Any time you do not enjoy the human relations involved in any job, sooner or later that job’s bound to be work, not fun.

In the third chapter, he turns to the three most common excuses preventing us from pursuing what we want to do:

Whenever a person is not doing what he says he wants to do, he always has what sounds like a good excuse. And it’s always one or more of three:

  1. ‘I haven’t the time.’
  2. ‘I haven’t the money.’
  3. ‘My folks don’t want me to.’

He then goes on to examine — and debunk — each of the three excuses, showing that “each of them melts away as an imaginary obstacle when we shine the light of intelligence upon it.” As an enormous believer in making time, rather than finding time, for what matters, I find his meditation on time, reminiscent of Montaigne’s on death and the art of living, particularly important:

Without Time nothing is possible. Everything requires Time. Time is the only permanent and absolute ruler in the universe. But she is a scrupulously fair ruler. She treats every living person exactly alike every day. No matter how much of the world’s goods you have managed to accumulate, you cannot successfully plead for a single moment more than the pauper receives without ever asking for it. Time is the one great leveler. Everyone has the same amount to spend every day.

The next time you feel that you ‘haven’t the time’ to do what you really want to do, it may be worth-while for you to remember that you have as much time as anyone else — twenty-four hours a day. How you spend that twenty-four hours is really up to you.

Indeed, to Reilly success is very much a product of deliberate time investment and discipline — something great writers can attest to. To illustrate “the remarkable achievements possible for anyone who will consistently devote even as little as one hour a day to one single purpose,” Reilly cites an anecdote in which a friend of Thomas Edison’s marveled at the great inventor’s extreme productivity and the stringency of his 18-hour-workdays dedication to success. Edison retorts:

You do something all day long, don’t you? Everyone does. If you get up at seven o’clock and go to bed at eleven, you have put in sixteen good hours, and it is certain that you have been doing something all that time. The only difference is that you do a great many things and I do one. If you took the time in question and applied it in one direction, you would succeed. Success is sure to follows such application. The trouble lies in the fact that people do not have one thing to stick to, letting all else go.

Reilly observes:

But a person cannot apply himself to anything incessantly without growing weary unless he loves it — unless it’s not work. And that’s the real explanation of Edison’s full use of his time.

If you were to spend an hour alone with the loud tick of a clock, or better yet, if you could spend an hour completely alone with an hour-glass, watching the sands of Time quickly slip through that vessel, and realize that 100 years from now you and I will both be gone, then you would begin to appreciate that TIME is the ONLY thing you really DO HAVE and that you alone can do anything you wish with the Time that is yours.

He then moves on to the second excuse, money, noting — as I myself can gratefully attest to — that purpose should come before making a living financially, but can be followed by it:

Money never comes first in self-expression of any kind. Study the biographies of those who have built great fortunes, and you will learn that money came to them after they had produced or discovered something.

[…]

In a world marked by constant change, where the rich of today are often the poor of tomorrow, due to circumstances beyond their control, the only security is your ability to produce something of value for your fellow man, and your only guarantee of happiness is your joy in producing it.

True happiness lies in the pursuit of your goal, achievement in your chosen field. This must always remain primary. Whenever money becomes primary, you are on treacherous ground.

Lastly, he zooms in on the third excuse, what your parents — or, in a broader sense, the cohort of “others” — think you should be doing, articulating something Paul Graham captured beautifully decades later in talking about the dangers of prestige and adding an admonition about knowing when to and when not to take advice. Reilly writes:

‘What our friends and associates think’ influences us more than we realize. We like to live the life and stay in the role which others expect of us.

[…]

Each of us is somewhat like an electric light bulb, deriving its power from some central force. Just as the bulb accumulates dust and soot from the air around it until it is darkened, then blackened, so our individuality becomes dulled at first and then entirely blotted out from the accumulation of advice and interference which is superimposed upon us by family and friends. If you examine their advice, you will find that they are continually offering counsel based on their own experience in connection with a situation that is quite different from the one you are facing.

[…]

You will neither venture anything nor achieve anything if you permit yourself to be unduly influenced by others. . . . Remember this. Only one sound mind is needed to create an idea.

[…]

There is no one more colorless than the self-conscious, vacillating person who is neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry, because he is always wondering what others will think of him and is always trying to please everybody.

In a chapter titled “If You’re Under 35,” Reilly makes a case for cultivating creativity as a “way of operating,” to borrow John Cleese’s phrase:

If you’re under 35 years of age, your primary and immediate objective in your chosen field is to build a salable background. How much money you make during this period is not nearly so important as whether you are gaining salable education and experience.

[…]

You can’t build a salable background in any field by just taking on a job and following directions and being punctual and faithful and a hard-working employee.

That’s a lot of horsefeathers.

You’ve got to do something unusual to get favorable attention. And one of the simplest ways for anyone to gain recognition and advancement in any job is to develop a reputation for being a person who has ‘good ideas.’

He then turns to the notion of creativity as problem-solving and the question of how to produce ideas:

Whether you get ideas or not, depends entirely on your attitude towards problems.

No matter where you go, you find that men and women divide themselves into two main groups:

  1. Those who, when confronted with a problem, immediately run to the boss with it.
  2. Those who look upon a problem as something to be solved and who go ahead and solve it.

Those in the second group get a lot of good ideas; those in the first group do not.

[…]

No matter where you work, you’ll get a lot of good ideas if you’ll:

  1. Start with the little everyday problems. When something goes wrong on the job, see if you can figure out what to do about it.
  2. Get into the habit of going to the boss with your suggested solution to a problem, instead of just dumping the problem into his lap.
  3. If your solution is no good, find out what’s wrong with it, so you can do better the next time.

He ends the section with a note on what I call combinatorial creativity, the notion that groundbreaking ideas are simply powerful new combinations of existing ideas. Reilly writes:

Anyone who gets enough practice solving the little problems, will, sooner, or later, be able to solve the big ones. Big ideas are usually a lot of little ideas rolled into one.

Though cultural shifts in the six decades since its publication have rendered How To Avoid Work somewhat less relevant as a practical guide to career success, it remains a timeless and ever-timely reminder of the broader essence of creative satisfaction and the life of purpose, a vocational counterpart to the wonderful The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here.

Complement it with Joseph Campbell’s classic secular scripture about finding your bliss, David Whyte on how to break the tyranny of work/life balance, Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work in the modern world, and Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak.

Public domain images courtesy of Library of Congress

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13 DECEMBER, 2012

The Fine Art of Italian Hand Gestures: A Vintage Visual Dictionary by Bruno Munari

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A pocket guide to Neapolitan nonverbal communication.

Somewhere between his seminal manifestos on design as art and his timelessly delightful children’s books, legendary Italian artist and graphic designer Bruno Munari made time for a number of idiosyncratic side projects. Among them is Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture (UK; public library) — a charming, quirky, minimalist guide to Italians’ expressive nonverbal communication originally published in 1958 as a supplement to the Italian dictionary, inspired by The Ancients’ Mimic Through the Neapolitan Gestures, the first collection of gestures made by Canon Andrea de Jorio in 1832. Unlike the hefty and sparsely illustrated 380-page original tome, however, Munari’s pocket-sized version features frugally descriptive text and ample, elegant black-and-white photographs of hand-gestures for everything from mundane activities like reading and writing to emotive expressions of praise and criticism.

In the short preface, Munari notes the globalization of nonverbal vernacular, as Neapolitan gestures begin being recognized worldwide and American imports like “OK” permeate Italian culture, then promises:

We have collected a good many gestures, leaving aside vulgar ones, in order to give an idea of their meaning to foreigners visiting Italy and as a supplement to an Italian dictionary.

Old Neapolitan gestures, from left to right: money, past times, affirmation, stupid, good, wait a moment, to walk backward, to steal, horns, to ask for.

Another illustrated page of the book of Canon Andrea de Jorio. Meaning of the gestures: silence, no, beauty, hunger, to mock, weariness, stupid, squint, to deceive, cunning.

Gestures of drinking and eating (from an old Neapolitan print)

'You make a mockery of the 'madam'!' (from an old Neapolitan print)

For a naughty twist, complement Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture with the surrealist chart of erotic hand signaling.

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11 DECEMBER, 2012

Song Reader: Beck Revives the Romance of Sheet Music with 26 Illustrated Songs

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“Each era finds something new to return to; things that seemed out of date have a way of coming back in new forms, and revealing aspects of themselves we might not have noticed before.”

In the 1930s, as recorded sound was beginning to replace live musicians who played sheet music in movie theaters to score films, the American Federation of Musicians formed an organization called the Music Defense League and proceeded to take out a series of newspaper ads admonishing against “making musical mince meat” and the “menace” of recorded sound. But in the eight decades since, besides the loss of sound quality with digitization and the demise of music notation as art, could we have lost something else, some part of the romance of music? That’s arguably what Beck has set out to capture, on the heels of reimagining Philip Glass’s lifetime of music, in Song Reader (UK; public library) — a remarkable sort-of-album containing 26 never-before-released or recorded songs that only exist as pieces of sheet music. The songs come with original full-color illustrations by celebrated contemporary artists, illustrators and designers like Jessica Hische and The Rumpus’s Ian Huebert, inspired by the aesthetic of the golden age of home-play.

Beck writes in the preface:

After releasing an album in the mid-1990s, I was sent a copy of the sheet-music version by a publisher who had commissioned piano transcriptions and guitar-chord charts of everything on the original recording. Seeing the record’s sonic ideas distilled down to notation made it obvious that most of the songs weren’t intended to work that way. Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural — it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.

A few years later, I came across a story about a song called ‘Sweet Leilani,’ which Bing Crosby had released in 1937. Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold fifty-four million copies. Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past.

'Do We? We Do' illustrated by Sergio Membrillas

So when Beck met with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers in 2004 to discuss a songbook project based on music notation, they quickly became obsessed with the broader world of old songs and began collecting vintage sheet music, artwork, ads, and other ephemera that went along with the art of sound. Beck writes:

I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.

'Why'

'Old Shanghai' illustrated by Kelsey Dake

In a meditation on the humanity of sheet music and why the project is more than a gimmick, Beck reflects my own concerns about the presentism bias of the digital age and observes poignantly:

I thought a lot about the risks of the inherent old-timeyness of a songbook. I know I have friends who will dismiss it as a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick. There’s a way of miniaturizing and neutralizing the past, encasing it in a quaint, retro irrelevancy and designating it as something only fit for curiosity-seekers or revivalists. But although the present moment can exclude the past from relevance, it can’t erase its influence entirely. Each era finds something new to return to; things that seemed out of date have a way of coming back in new forms, and revealing aspects of themselves we might not have noticed before.

'We All Wear Cloaks' illustrated by Kyle Pellet

In the introduction, Jody Rosen calls the project “a trip back to pop’s primordial past” and offers a primer on the visual legacy of sheet music, tracing how — just like the evolution of natural history — the aesthetic of sheet music was shaped by the concurrent evolution of imaging technology:

Song sheets are strange, seductive art objects. In the first half of the nineteenth century, sheet music art was mostly text-based: titles splashed across covers in ornate fonts. After the Civil War, advances in lithography brought alluring black-and-white illustrations to sheet music. By the turn of the century, new photographic printing techniques and the development of offset presses made color illustration ubiquitous. Songs arrived on store shelves in a riot of colors and graphics — graceful art nouveau design motifs, proto-Deco typefaces, illustrations that ranged from cartoonish to classicist to sleekly moderne.

'Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard' illustrated by Josh Cochran

Beck concludes:

Fifty-four million homes singing ‘Sweet Leilani’ in 1937 would have felt like some weird convergence. That time is long gone, but the idea of it makes one wonder where that impulse went. As for these songs, they’re here to be brought to life—or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone. Anyone. Even you.

Here are just a few of the wonderful performances based on the sheet music in Song Reader already out there, by both “professional” musicians like Steve Mason and Leila Moss, and “amateurs” (where’s the line anymore?):

Thanks, Debbie

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05 DECEMBER, 2012

An ABZ of Love: Kurt Vonnegut’s Favorite Vintage Danish Illustrated Guide to Sexuality

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From common sense to conjugal bliss, by way of corsets and chivalry.

“If you are as interested in sex as you say you are, there is a really lovely book about it in my study — on a top shelf. It’s red, and it’s called The ABZ of Love,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote to is wife Jane in a 1965 letter published in the fantastic new volume Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, and he signed, “Love from A to Z, — K”. Naturally, I went hunting for the obscure vintage tome, which turned out to be as kooky and wonderful as Vonnegut’s recommendation promises. An ABZ of Love (public library), a sort of dictionary of romance and sexual relationships covering everything from radical-for-the-era topics like birth control and homosexuality to mundanities like bidets and picnics to abstractions like disappointment and excess, was originally published in 1963 by Danish husband-and-wife duo Inge and Sten Hegeler, featuring gorgeous black-and-white sketches by artist Eiler Krag reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s Ulysses etchings.

The book is presented with the disclaimer that rather than an ABC textbook for beginners, it is a “personal and subjective supplement to the many other outstanding scientific books on sexual enlightenment already in existence,” setting out to describe “in lexical form a few aspects of sexual relationships seen from a slightly different standpoint.” Indeed, the book was in many ways ahead of its time and of the era’s mainstream, pushing hard against bigotry and advocating for racial, gender, and LGBT equality with equal parts earnestness and wry wit.

The Hegelers, who “have tried to be straightforward and frank,” write poetically in the introduction:

If we look through a piece of glass, irregularities and impurities may distort and discolor the impression of what we see. If we regard something through a convex lens, it appears to be upside down. But if we place a concave lens in front of the convex lens, we correct the distortion in the convex lens and things no longer appear topsy-turvy. Each one of us regards the world through his own lens, his own glasses. The effect of those glasses is that, even though we may be looking at the same thing, not all of us actually see the same thing. The lenses are ground by each individual’s upbringing, disposition and other factors.

[…]

This book is neither art nor science — even though it borrows ingredients from both. It is more by way of being an extra piece of glass through which we can regard a part of life. One can slip it in between one’s own glasses and the window.

It is a piece of glass we have found and polished up a bit. We have looked through it and thought the world looked a bit more human. Perhaps some will think the same as we do.

Many of the entries focus on debunking stereotypes and condemning bigotry, accompanied by apt illustrations.

Some are even outright snarky:

A delightful entry under Sense, common echoes Anaïs Nin’s timeless insight on emotional excess and reads:

Everybody talks about using common sense. Many believe that we are all basically imbued with common sense. It is said that women are creatures of emotion, but that men use their common sense. Nonsense. We are all extremely prone to be guided by our emotions in our choices, actions, judgements, etc.

[…]

We are none of us so full of common sense as we would like to think ourselves.

So there are two paths we can take: one is try to deny and suppress our emotions and force ourselves to think sensibly. In this way we run the risk of fooling ourselves.

The other way is to admit to our emotions, accept our feelings and let them come out into the daylight. By being suspicious of all the judgements we pass on the basis of what we feel (and not until then) we shall taken a step towards becoming practitioners of common sense.

The Hegelers don’t shy away from the philosophical and the prescriptive:

Under Development, there’s a somewhat humorous infographic look at the stages of erotic development. We would like it to be follow a course in which “we very rapidly and regularly become cleverer and cleverer”:

We imagine it goes something like this:

In reality, however, it’s more something like this:

…after swinging around a certain point for a time, very small swings to and from in either direction, a sudden drop with the resultant feeling of hopelessness [and then] once more pendulation around one point for a time, then a drop, then that hopeless feeling, improvement again, etc., etc., without ever reaching the absolute ideal. Disappointments and depressions are necessary features of any process of learning, every development.

Among the more interesting entries is one under Personality, explaining the Freudian model of the self through a visual analogy of a Native American totem pole, with the disclaimer that personality is still an open question:

A person’s personality is the sum of all the things in a person that go to determine the said person’s relationship to other people.

Many theories have been expounded concerning human personality. Many models have been made in an attempt to show what actually happens. Some of these theories are more practical than others, but none of them is correct. We still know too little — perhaps we shall never find the right one. The one which will be described here is of course not the right one either. It is the one used in psychoanalysis.

This model — like so many other theories — is a picture, an attempt to explain something unknown with the help of something known. If we think of personality as the Indian totem pole with three faces corresponding to three persons it will give us an idea of the model.

The three persons have names and are very different in character:

1) The top face is rather strict and censorious. A bit of a light-snuffer. We call this person the super ego, and it represents everything we have learnt concerning what is right and wrong. The super ego reminds us how to drive through traffic, how to hold a knife and fork and generally speaking how ‘one’ behaves. It is also the voice of conscience.

2) The bottom face on the totem pole is a person we call the id. This person takes care of our wishes and urges and needs — the very honest, primitive, but likewise somewhat ruthless powers with in us. The face of the id is therefore a somewhat primitive, uninhibited, wild and brutal mug.

3) The middle face is our own. It is called the ego and is a little squashed between the other two faces. While the upper face possibly resembles our parents, and the bottom face appears a little strange to us, we find it easiest to accept the middle face — a compromise between what we want to do and what we are allowed to.

We are a little perplexed because if we are very good and reserved — then the bottom person thrashes his tail and rebels while the top person nods approvingly. And if we are too abandoned and let the bottom person have his own way –well, we find ourselves landed with a bad conscience, because the upper person grumbles.

So we have to strike a balance. We have to stick to certain moral code — stick to certain rules of the road in order to mingle with the traffic. But we must also pay attention to our ‘nature’ — our id — who likewise demands his rights.

Both beautifully illustrated and boldly defiant of its era’s biases, An ABZ of Love is, just as Vonnegut assured his wife, absolutely wonderful.

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