Brain Pickings

What Makes a Classic? Lessons from the Chinese Book of Changes

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What an ancient Chinese divination manual reveals about the design and anthropology of great literature.

What makes a classic?

First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

This definition comes from historian Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography (public library) — an ambitious and unprecedented history of the iconic ancient spiritual manual that originated in China some 3,000 years ago, and a fine addition to these essential meditations on spirituality. Smith argues that the I Ching, or Yijing, or Book of Changes, belongs with the world’s greatest works of literature, despite its unorthodox form in comparison to other fundamental literature:

And yet [the I Ching] seems so different from other ‘classics’ that instantly come to mind, whether literary works such as the Odyssey, the Republic, the Divine Comedy, and The Pilgrim’s Progress or sacred scriptures like the Jewish and Christian Bibles, the Qur’an, the Hindu vVedas and the Buddhist sutras. Structurally it lacks any sort of systematic or sustained narrative, and from the standpoint of spirituality, it offers no vision of religious salvation, much less the promise of an afterlife or even the idea of rebirth.

[…]

Yet despite its brevity, cryptic text, paucity of colorful stories, virtual absence of deities, and lack of a sustained narrative, the Yijing exerted enormous influence in all realms of Chinese culture for well over two thousand years — an influence comparable to the Bible in Judeo-Christian culture, the Qur’an in Islamic culture, the Vedas in Hindu culture, and the sutras in Buddhist culture.

A page from a Song Dynasty (960-1279) printed book of the I Ching

The eight trigrams of the I Ching

Smith goes on to explore what was so appealing and timeless about the document, from the histories and myths woven into its non-narrative to its use as a divinatory instrument of political and imperial power to its interpretations over the ages. Despite the spiritual nature of the text itself, however, The “I Ching”: A Biography is a study of form and function, of resonance across space and time in “different and dissimilar lands” — an uncommon lens on the symbolism, design, and anthropology of what makes a literary classic.

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6 Rules for a Great Story from Barnaby Conrad and Snoopy

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“And remember: Always aim for the heart!”

You might recall Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life (public library), which gave us Ray Bradbury’s wise words on rejection. To recap: Barnaby Conrad and Monte Schulz, son of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, asked 30 famous authors and entertainers to each respond to a favorite Snoopy comic strip with a 500-word essay on the triumphs and tribulations of the writing life. The all-star roster includes William F. Buckley, Jr., Julia Child, Ed McBain, and Elizabeth George. Among them is also one by Barnaby Conrad himself, offering the following six tips to writing a great story, in response to this 1997 comic strip:

  1. Try to pick the most intriguing place in your piece to begin.
  2. Try to create attention-grabbing images of a setting if that’s where you want to begin.
  3. Raise the reader’s curiosity about what is happening or is going to happen in an action scene.
  4. Describe a character so compellingly that we want to learn more about what happens to him or her.
  5. Present a situation so vital to our protagonist that we must read on.
  6. And most important, no matter what method you choose, start with something happening! (And not with ruminations. A character sitting in a cave or in jail or in a kitchen or in a car ruminating about the meaning of life and how he got to this point does not constitute something happening.)

Hone your opening words, for just as stories aren’t written but rewritten, so should beginnings be written and rewritten. Look at your opening and ask yourself, ‘If I were reading this, would I be intrigued enough to go on?’

And remember: Always aim for the heart!

Conrad is the author of The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction.

For more advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 tips on how to make a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and various invaluable insight from other great writers.

And, above all, let’s not forget these famous disclaimers on taking writing advice.

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Christoph Niemann: Insecurity Is Essential to Great Design

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Inside the mind of one of today’s finest visual communicators.

Christoph NiemannLEGO-lover, dispenser of irreverent wisdom on creativity, author of the excellent Abstract City and That’s How! — is one of my favorite illustrators. In this short video from Gestalten, Niemann discusses his philosophy on design, the state of visual language today, his creative process, his adorable non-neuroses, and more.

A certain amount of insecurity is a very helpful trait for any kind of designer.

Of particular note is Niemann’s point about insecurity, a point we’ve already seen made in other disciplines, from science to cinema.

The video is a teaser for Gestalten’s Data Flow 2, a fine complement to their fantastic Visual Storytelling.

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