Brain Pickings

How to Learn: Lewis Carroll’s Four Rules for Digesting Information and Mastering the Art of Reading

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“Mental recreation is a thing that we all of us need for our mental health.”

Long before he met the real-life little girl who inspired him to write Alice in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a prominent mathematician and logician. In addition to his scientific bend and his love of language, Carroll also had strong convictions about what it takes to cultivate a healthy mind. He married all three of these passions in the introductory essay to one of his textbooks on Symbolic Logic, included in the fantastic 1973 volume A Random Walk in Science (public library) — the same compendium of scientists’ irreverent ideas and comments that gave us this wonderful 1969 essay on how laughter saves us from the despotism of automation and that goes on to explore such curiosities as the physics of holding up a strapless dress and the math of why any horse actually has an infinite number of legs.

Under the unambiguous title “How to Learn,” Carroll offers four pointers on cultivating critical thinking and digesting even the most challenging of passages while reading.

The Learner, who wishes to try the question fairly, whether this little book does, or does not, supply the materials for a most interesting mental recreation, is earnestly advised to adopt the following Rules:

  1. Begin at the beginning, and do not allow yourself to gratify a mere idle curiosity by dipping into the book, here and there. This would very likely lead to your throwing it aside, with the remark “This is much too hard for me!, and thus losing the chance of adding a very large item to your stock of mental delights. This Rule (of not dipping) is very desirable with other kinds of books—-such as novels, for instance, where you may easily spoil much of the enjoyment you would otherwise get from the story, by dipping into it further on, so that what the author meant to be a pleasant surprise comes to you as a matter of course. Some people, I know, make a practice of looking into Vol. III first, just to see how the story ends: and perhaps it is as well just to know that all ends happily—that the much-persecuted lovers do marry after all, that he is proved to be quite innocent of the murder, that the wicked cousin is completely foiled in his plot and gets the punishment he deserves, and that the rich uncle in India (Qu. Why in India? Ans. Because, somehow, uncles never can get rich anywhere else) dies at exactly the right moment—-before taking the trouble to read Vol. I.

    This, I say, is just permissible with a novel, where Vol. III has a meaning, even for those who have not read the earlier part of the story; but, with a scientific book, it is sheer insanity: you will find the latter part hopelessly unintelligible, if you read it before reaching it in regular course.

  2. Don’t begin any fresh Chapter, or Section, until you are certain that you thoroughly understand the whole book up to that point, and that you have worked, correctly, most if not all of the examples which have been set. So long as you are conscious that all the land you have passed through is absolutely conquered, and that you are leaving no unsolved difficulties behind you, which will be sure to turn up again later on, your triumphal progress will be easy and delightful. Otherwise, you will find your state of puzzlement get worse and worse as you proceed, till you give up the whole thing in utter disgust.
  3. When you come to any passage you don’t understand, read it again: if you still don’t understand it, read it again: if you fail, even after three readings, very likely your brain is getting a little tired. In that case, put the book away, and take to other occupations, and next day, when you come to it fresh, you will very likely find that it is quite easy.
  4. If possible, find some genial friend, who will read the book along with you, and will talk over the difficulties with you. Talking is a wonderful smoother-over of difficulties. When I come upon anything—in Logic or in any other hard subject—that entirely puzzles me, I find it a capital plan to talk it over, aloud, even when I am all alone. One can explain things so clearly to one’s self! And then, you know, one is so patient with one’s self: one never gets irritated at one’s own stupidity!

If, dear Reader, you will faithfully observe these Rules, and so give my little book a really fair trail, I promise you, most confidently, that you will find Symbolic Logic to be one of the most, if not the most, fascinating of mental recreations!

[…]

Mental recreation is a thing that we all of us need for our mental health; and you may get much healthy enjoyment, no doubt, from Games… But, after all, when you have made yourself a first-rate player at any one of these Games, you have nothing real to show for it, as a result! You enjoyed the Game, and the victory, no doubt, at the time: but you have no result that you can treasure up and get real good out of. And, all the while, you have been leaving unexplored a perfect mine of wealth. Once master the machinery of Symbolic Logic, and you have a mental occupation always at hand, of absorbing interest, and one that will be of real use to you in any subject you may take up. It will give you clearness of thought—the ability to see your way through a puzzle—the habit of arranging your ideas in an orderly and get-at-able form—and, more valuable than all, the power to detect fallacies, and to tear to pieces the flimsy illogical arguments, which you will so continually encounter in books, in newspapers, in speeches, and even in sermons, and which so easily delude those who have never taken the trouble to master this fascinating Art. Try it. That is all I ask of you!

A Random Walk in Science is a gem in its entirety. Complement this particular bit with Carroll on feeding the mind and his tips on dining etiquette, then revisit this 1936 guide to the 14 ways to acquire knowledge.

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Vintage Illustrations for Tolkien’s The Hobbit from Around the World

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A visual voyage there and back again.

Writing about the allure of fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” — that’s perhaps why his stories continue to enchant generations and attract admirers of all ages. Tolkien’s first major work, The Hobbit (public library) — the prequel to his epic novel The Lord of the Rings, which made its debut nearly 20 years later — was published in 1937 and in the years since has drawn remarkable international acclaim. Because the story is driven by visual whimsy, it has also produced a number of vibrant illustrated editions from all around the world, beginning with Tolkien’s own artwork for the original edition, which I wrote about some years ago. Here are a few favorites.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN (GREAT BRITAIN, 1937)

In October of 1936, Tolkien delivered to his publisher the manuscript of The Hobbit, in which he included more than 100 illustrations — Tolkien, unbeknownst to many, was a rather gifted and prolific artist. These manuscript drawings were recently released in The Art of the Hobbit (public library) — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors.

In creating the artwork for The Hobbit, Tolkien borrowed from a short story he had written for his son Michael, titled “Roverandom.”

Also included are conceptual sketches for the now-iconic dust jacket cover painting of the mountains Bilbo Baggins transverses in his adventures.

See more of Tolkien’s art here.

TOVE JANSSON (SWEDEN, 1962)

In 1962, shortly before she received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen award, beloved Swedish-speaking Finnish artist, writer, and Moomin creator Tove Jansson illustrated a Swedish edition of The Hobbit. Janssen was at the peak of her career and brought to the Tolkien classic her signature touch of subtly wistful whimsy.

Alas, this gem is now severely out of print, practically unfindable online, but available at some better-stocked public libraries.

RIYÛICHI TERASHIMA (JAPAN, 1965)

In 1965, artist Ryûichi Terashima illustrated a Japanese edition of The Hobbit, notable not only for its delicate line drawings but also for the exquisite production of the book itself, which mirrors the sensibility of Terashima’s art with lavish paper and luxury binding. It has been reprinted several times, as recently as 2008.

The book is currently out of print, but used copies can be found online; alas, not at the library.

MIKHAIL BELOMLINSKY (RUSSIA, 1976)

In 1976, Russian — then Soviet — artist Mikhail Belomlinsky took on the Tolkien classic shortly after graduating from an MFA program in painting, architecture, and sculpture. The opportunity kicked off Belomlinsky’s career as he turned to political cartooning and children’s books. He went on to illustrate more than 100 of the latter, both in Soviet Russia and in the United States after his move to New York City in 1989.

JIRI SALAMOUN (CZECH REPUBLIC, 1979)

In 1979, when he was forty-four — the same age Tolkien was when he published The Hobbit — the Czech artist, graphic designer, and illustrator Jiri Salamoun was commissioned to illustrate a Czech edition of the book. He brought his eclectic background in visual storytelling and the graphic arts — spanning film poster design, typography, book illustration, and silk-screen printing — to the project.

This vintage gem is also a rarity, but some libraries do have it.

BONUS: MAURICE SENDAK (UNITED STATES, 1967)

In 1967, six years after legendary editor Ursula Nordstrom had nurtured his creative direction and four years after his iconic Where the Wild Things Are, 39-year-old Maurice Sendak was commissioned to illustrate a 30th anniversary edition of The Hobbit. But the project fell through, leaving behind only a single surviving drawing, which Open Culture unearthed.

A realized edition would’ve been unimaginably wonderful, judging by Sendak’s artistic interpretations of literary classics like William Blake’s Song of Innocence, which he illustrated the same year as the failed Tolkien project, and Tolstoy’s Nikolenka’s Childhood, completed four years earlier.

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Hipsters and Squares: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Myth, Identity, “Creative Wholeness” and How We Limit Our Happiness

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How our cult of creativity, which replaced religion, is becoming a source of anguish rather than happiness.

Today, we hang so much of our identity on our capacity to create, often confusing what we do for who we are. And while creativity, by and large, is a positive force in the external world, its blind pursuit can be damaging to the inner. So admonishes the influential Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (b. October 1, 1915), celebrated for his contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory in education, in his altogether fantastic 1962 anthology On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — the same wonderful collection of essays that gave us Bruner’s theory of “effective surprise” and the 6 essential conditions for creativity. One of the essays, titled “Myth and Identity,” explores precisely that relationship between our modern myths, which shape our beliefs about creativity and happiness, and our often conflicted sense of identity.

Bruner begins with some essential definitions:

Myth … is at once an external reality and the resonance of the internal vicissitudes of man.

But while he acknowledges that the central function of myth is “to effect some manner of harmony between the literalities of experience and the night impulses of life,” Bruner cautions against assuming an opposition of the two — of “the grammar of experience and the grammar of myth” — as they are complementary rather than clashing, something best manifested in the relationship between myth and personality. Bruner writes:

Consider first myth as projection, to use the conventional psychoanalytic term. I would prefer the term “externalization” better to make clear that we are dealing here with … the human preference to cope with events that are outside rather than inside. Myth, insofar as it is fitting, provides a ready-made means of externalizing human plight by embodying and representing them in storied plot and characters.

Externalizing our inner life in such a way, Bruner argues, provides a “basis for communion” among us:

By the subjectifying of our worlds through externalization, we are able, paradoxically enough, to share communally in the nature of internal experience.

Jerome Bruner (Photograph: B.F. Herzog)

It also enables us to work through our inner turmoils in a unique way, something Adam Phillips echoed more than half a century later in reflecting on the parallels between psychoanalysis and storytelling. Bruner puts it elegantly as he considers the defining psychic malady of our time:

If one is to contain the panicking spread of anxiety, one must be able to identify and put a comprehensible label upon one’s feelings better to treat them again, better to learn from experience… Myth, perhaps, serves in place of or as a filter for experiences.

[…]

What is the art form of myth? Principally it is drama; yet for all its concern with preternatural forces and characters, it is realistic drama that … tells of “origins and destinies”… Knowing through art has the function of connecting through metaphor what before had no apparent kinship [and] the art form of the myth connects the daemonic world of impulse with the world of reason by a verisimilitude that conforms to each.

Considering the early myths — those of Ancient Greece and the Christian tradition — Bruner points to two key mythic plots that emerge in the struggle to give shape to our experiences: “the plot of innocence and the plot of cleverness.” But modernity, he argues, has thrown into tumult both ideals, resulting in an “internal clamor of identities” that ends up threatening our happiness and our capacity for creative fulfillment.

Illustration from 'The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In one particularly prescient passage, Bruner writes:

In our own time, in the American culture, there is a deep problem generated by the confusion that has befallen the myth of the happy [person]… We are no longer a “mythologically instructed community.” And so one finds a new generation struggling to find or to create a satisfactory and challenging mythic image.

Two such images seem to be emerging in the new generation. One is that of the hipsters and the squares; the other is the idealization of creative wholeness. The first is the myth of the uncommitted wandering hero, capable of the hour’s subjectivity — its “kicks” — participating in a new inwardness. It is the theme of reduction to the essential persona, the hero able to filter out the clamors of an outside world, an almost masturbatory ideal.

Bruner points to the original “hipsters” and notes the similarity between the mythmaking of real-life identity and that of character in fiction:

It is not easy to create a myth and to emulate it at the same time. James Dean and Jack Kerouac, Kingsley Amis and John Osborne, the Teddy Boys and the hipsters: they do not make a mythological community. They represent mythmaking in process as surely as Hemingway’s characters or Scott Fitzgerald’s.

Bruner considers one especially toxic and limiting myth — that of “the full creative [person],” a notion all the more zealously pursued in our present age of endless creativity conferences, spiritual retreats for corporate executives, and workplaces that seek to disguise a cubicle farm as a hybrid of playground and university. Bruner describes the ancestry of our modern condition:

It is … the middle-aged executive sent back to the university by the company for a year, wanting humanities and not sales engineering; it is this man telling you that he would rather take life classes Saturday morning at the museum school than be president of the company; it is the adjectival extravaganza of the word “creative,” as in “creative advertising.” It is as if, given the demise of the myths of creation and their replacement by a scientific cosmogony that for all its formal beauty lacks metaphoric force, the theme of creating becomes internalized, creating anguish rather than, as in the externalized myths, providing a basis for psychic relief and sharing. Yet this self-contained image of creativity becomes, I think, the basis for a myth of happiness. But perhaps between the death of one myth and the birth of its replacement there must be a reinternalization, even to the point of [a cult of the ego]. That we cannot yet know. All that is certain is that we live in a period of mythic confusion that may provide the occasion for a new growth of myth, myth more suitable for our times.

One is left wondering whether our present time is one of reconciliation or of even greater “mythic confusion.”

On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is a magnificent read in its entirety, further exploring questions of creativity, identity, metaphor, and the role of art in the human experience. Complement with Maya Angelou on the internalization of identity.

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