Brain Pickings

The Conscience of Television

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What Lucille Ball has to do with the dot-com bubble, or why 2001 was the beginning of the end for TV comedy.

I may have given away my TV set in 2004 and fully endorse Clay Shirky’s theory of cognitive surplus but, as a devoted Marshall McLuhan groupie, I’d be the last to renounce the medium as culturally inconsequential. Television, for all its ills and follies, still commands a remarkable portion of our collective conscience — and, it turns out, it has an implicit conscience of its own, as TV executive Lauren Zalaznick demonstrates in this eye-opening, stride-stopping TED talk, using GapMinder, the statistical visualization software made famous by TED rockstar Hans Rosling.

From the intricate balance of moral ambiguity and inspiration, humor and judgement, to the normative shifts scripted television can ignite, to the evolving ideals of motherhood, Zalaznick illustrates not only how history has shaped the medium, but also how the medium itself is shaping cultural history.

Moral ambiguity becomes the dominant meme in television from 1990 for the next twenty years.”

For a related treasure trove of fascination, you won’t go wrong with Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, the fantastic McLuhan almost-biography by beloved novelist and cultural critic Douglas Coupland.

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

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From Shakespeare to Einstein via Lucretius, or how a long-lost Roman poem gave rise to the Renaissance.

Poggio Bracciolini might just be the most important man you’ve never heard of.

One cold winter night in 1417, the clean-shaven, slender young man pulled a manuscript off a dusty library shelf and could barely believe his eyes. In his hands was a thousand-year-old text that changed the course of human thought — the last surviving manuscript of On the Nature of Things, a seminal poem by Roman philosopher Lucretius, full of radical ideas about a universe operating without gods and that matter made up of minuscule particles in perpetual motion, colliding and swerving in ever-changing directions. With Bracciolini’s discovery began the copying and translation of this powerful ancient text, which in turn fueled the Renaissance and inspired minds as diverse as Shakespeare, Galileo, Thomas Jefferson, Einstein and Freud.

In The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, acclaimed Renaissance scholar Stephen Greenblatt tells the story of Bracciolini’s landmark discovery and its impact on centuries of human intellectual life, laying the foundations for nearly everything we take as a cultural given today.

This is a story [of] how the world swerved in a new direction. The agent of change was not a revolution, an implacable army at the gates, or landfall of an unknown continent. [...] The epochal change with which this book is concerned — though it has affected all our lives — is not so easily associated with a dramatic image.

Central to the Lucretian worldview was the idea that beauty and pleasure were worthwhile pursuits, a notion that permeated every aspect of culture during the Renaissance and has since found its way to everything from design to literature to political strategy — a worldview in stark contrast with the culture of religious fear and superstitions pragmatism that braced pre-Renaissance Europe. And, as if to remind us of the serendipitous shift that underpins our present reality, Greenblatt writes in the book’s preface:

It is not surprising that the philosophical tradition from which Lucretius’ poem derived, so incompatible with the cult of the gods and the cult of the state, struck some, even in the tolerant culture of the Mediterranean, as scandalous [...] What is astonishing is that one magnificent articulation of the whole philosophy — the poem whose recovery is the subject of this book — should have survived. Apart from a few odds and ends and secondhand reports, all that was left of the whole rich tradition was contained in that single work. A random fire, an act of vandalism, a decision to snuff out the last trace of views judged to be heretical, and the course of modernity would have been different.

Illuminating and utterly absorbing, The Swerve is as much a precious piece of history as it is a timeless testament to the power of curiosity and rediscovery. In a world dominated by the newsification of culture where the great gets quickly buried beneath the latest, it’s a reminder that some of the most monumental ideas might lurk in a forgotten archive and today’s content curators might just be the Bracciolinis of our time, bridging the ever-widening gap between accessibility and access.

Hat tip My Mind on Books

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I Like Cats: A Picture-Book Showcase of Indian Folk Art

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Bad cats, sad cats, sunny cats, slow cats, hurried cats, cats with scowls and cats with jowls.

On Tuesday, we featured The Night Life of Trees — an incredible handmade book based on Indian mythology, crafted by a commune of artists, designers and writers in South Indian independent publisher Tara Books’ fair-trade workshop in Chennai. Among Tara’s many other treats is the exceptional I Like Cats — part lovely children’s picture book, part priceless showcase of work by some of the best-known tribal and folk artists from various Indian traditions. Each rich, textured page is screen-printed by hand and features a different cat. (In the vein of this week’s inadvertent running theme of cats — as a piece of Edison’s marketing genius, a key to the future of computing, and now an ambassador of Indian artisanal culture.)

The simple but clever verse of author Anushka Ravishankar are part Dr. Seuss, part Blexbolex, part wholly different kind of playful poetry.

As if the book itself wasn’t enough of a jewel, it comes with a frameable screenprint.

Like other Tara Books gems, I Like Cats comes in several limited-edition runs of 2000 copies, each hand-numbered on the back and featuring a different artwork on the front cover.

UPDATE: I Like Cats is now sold out in the U.S. — the fine folks at Tara have put together an offset version in its stead.

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