Brain Pickings

Leonardo da Vinci’s Life and Legacy, in a Vintage Pop-Up Book

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The legacy of the great artist, inventor, and scientist in illustrated “interactive” paper engineering that would’ve made Leonardo himself nod with delight.

As a lover of pop-up books, a celebrator of the intersection of art and science, and a great admirer of the vintage children’s book illustration of wife-and-husband duo Alice and Martin Provensen, I was instantly smitten with Leonardo da Vinci (public library) — a glorious 1984 pop-up book that traces the life and legacy of the legendary artist, inventor and scientist in gorgeous illustrations by the Provensens and “interactive” three-dimensional paper engineering that would’ve made Leonardo himself nod with delight.

In the spirit of previous efforts to convey the analog magic of vintage paper engineering in animated GIFs — including Bruno Munari’s “interactive” picture-books and this naughty Victorian pop-up book for adults — I’ve animated a couple of the visuals, which is of course no substitute for the hands-on whimsy but at the very least a whetting of the appetite.

Leonardo da Vinci is, sadly, long out of print, but surviving copies can still be found. Complement it with the Provensens’ timelessly wonderful illustrations for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, some classic fairy tales, young James Beards’s cookbook, and a poetic homage to William Blake.

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Willa Cather on Writing Through Troubled Times: A Moving Letter to Her Younger Brother

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“The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”

How does one keep going when the going gets really, really tough? From The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — which also gave us Cather’s only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — comes a magnificent letter 43-year-old Cather wrote to her younger brother on July 8, 1916. It was a trying time in Cather’s personal life — the heartbreaking end of an era: The great love of her life, the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, had left her for a man she married, extinguishing the possibility of their companionship and romantic involvement that Cather so longed for. Judge McClung, Isabelle’s father, had just died, which only contributed to Cather’s anguishing sense of having lost a home. Meanwhile, she had grown increasingly disappointed with her own family’s crusade “to get mixed up with kings and move in the highest society,” while facing the force of their disapproval of her life as a writer and a queer woman.

In this single short missive, Cather condenses so many common struggles — for acceptance by our family, for acceptance of our family, for acceptance by others, for not letting sadness squeeze the creative impulse out of us, for overcoming self-doubt and dancing with the fear, and perhaps most of all for plowing ahead even when the internal engine loses steam.

Portrait of Willa Cather by Edward Steichen, 1926

Cather writes:

My Dear Douglass…

I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer, because I seemed to get in wrong at every turn. It seems not to be anything that I do, in particular, but my personality in general, what I am and think and like and dislike, that you all find exasperating after a little while. I’m not so well pleased with myself, my dear boy, as you sometimes seem to think. Only in my business one has to advertise a little or drop out—I surely do not advertise or talk about myself as much as most people who write for a living—or one has to drop out. I can’t see how it would help any of my family any if I lay down on my oars and quit that rough-and-tumble game. It would be easy enough to do that. I’ve had a very hard winter and have got no work done except two short stories — one very poor. Judge McClung’s death and Isabelle’s marriage have made a tremendous difference in my life. The loss of a home like that leaves one pretty lonely and miserable. I can fight it out, but I’ve not as much heart for anything as I had a year ago. I suppose the test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please. I suppose it’s playing the game after that, that counts.

However, the truth is usually gloomy, and one doesn’t have to talk about it all the time, thank goodness… I know I’m “trying”. Most women who have been able to make over a hundred dollars a month in office work, have been spoiled by it in one way or another. It is bad for all of them and it was bad for me… I won’t sit around and weep. I can’t be hurt again as badly as I was last summer. After this I’ll be more philosophical; I won’t expect too much, and I mean to enjoy any goodwill or friendship I get from any of my family. I enjoy every single member of my family when they are half-way friendly toward me. I enjoy them a great deal more now than I did in my younger days when I kept trying to make everybody over. My first impulse, of course, is to think that my own way of seeing things is the right way. But my second thought is always to admit that this is wrong and that I have been often mistaken. I even think I’ve grown a good deal milder in the last year — I’ve had trouble enough and losses enough. Three friends died during the winter whom it seemed to me I could not get on without. And perhaps the disapproval I got at home last summer has been good for me. I am quite a meek proposition now, I can tell you. I think I’ve had my belting, and it has taken the fizz out of me all right — and I’ll tell you this, it’s positively shipwreck for work. I doubt whether I’ll ever write anything worth while again. To write well you have to be all wrapped up in your game and think it awfully worth while. I only hope I’m not so spiritless I won’t be able to make a living. I had two stories turned down this winter because they had no “pep” in them. The editors said they hadn’t and I knew they hadn’t…

Time is good for violent people.

Yours with much love

Willie

She did write something “worthwhile” again, of course — worthwhile enough to earn her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours.

Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with a dive into the Brain Pickings letters archive.

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The Theology of Rest: A Modern Sermon About Living with Presence in the Age of Productivity

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“Rest, instead of being something passive, is actually an act of resistance.”

“Busy is a decision,” a wise woman once once reminded us. I often think about how our modern obsession with productivity is blinding us to the fact that being productive can be the surest way of lulling ourselves into a trance of passivity, where we coast through our lives day after day after day, showing up but being absent. I’ve previously written about our culturally conditioned tendency to wear our ability to labor endless hours as a badge of honor that validates our work ethic, but what it really bespeaks is profound failure of priorities and self-respect. We treat rest like a sin, not like the sanity-elixir and ambrosia of creativity that is.

Even as a nonreligious person who sides with Sagan and has great reservations about the church, I was taken with this sermon titled “The Theology of Rest” from New York’s Forefront Church. In addition to being delivered by a young, female pastor — pause-giving in and of itself — the sermon explores a predicament so essential and so common to us all that it transcends faith and falls closer to a kind of philosophical self-help for the modern age. Sure, there’s something disorienting about a religious service that takes on the performance-production of a TED talk and the aphorism-speak of a business writer, but all cultural material is a product of its time. (I’ve previously wondered whether the commencement address is the secular sermon of our day.)

At its core, however, the sermon touches on questions of choosing presence over productivity, defining success, and defining ourselves. And perhaps that is the value of modern spirituality — taking away from traditional religion the philosophies and belief systems that help us live better, nobler, more peaceful lives, and doing away with the G-word and that which doesn’t hold up to basic baloney detection. After all, that’s precisely what Tolstoy did in searching for the meaning of life. So watch and take away what you will.

We’re picking up cues from our culture about the way we live our lives and the pace at which we live our lives. Rest isn’t a priority, because so often rest is confused with laziness… Sometimes, rest isn’t a priority because we’ve incorrectly measured success.

[…]

Rest, instead of being something passive, is actually an act of resistance. We live in The City That Never Sleeps — so resting may be the most countercultural and spiritual thing we do with our lives.

Complement with Alan Watts on how to live with presence and a sobering look at the science of how sleep shapes our every working moment.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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