Brain Pickings

Missed Connections Illustrated: Visual Paeans to Modern Love

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Reverse-engineering serendipity, or what ice skating collisions have to do with fish market romance.

You might recall Sophie Blackall, known for her distinctive children’s book illustration, as one of the brains and brushes behind these brilliant design makeovers of the mundane. Since 2009, she has been capturing Craigslist missed connections in her delightful illustrations and unmistakable style of Chinese ink and watercolor, brimming with charm, romanticism and soft whimsy. Now, Blackall joins our running list of blogs so good they became books: Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found collects the best of these poetic visual what-if love stories, each told in a shorthand “missed connection” ranging from the lyrical (I Gave You My Umbrella but the Wrong Directions) to the warm-and-fuzzy (We Shared a Bear Suit) to the shared love of the tragicomic (Ice Skating in Central Park We Collided).

Every day hundreds of strangers reach out to other strangers on the strength of a glance, a smile or a blue hat. Their messages have the lifespan of a butterfly. I’m trying to pin a few of them down.” – Sophie Blackall

Both playful and profound, Blackall’s delicate drawings — many of which are available on Etsy as prints — immortalize the ephemeral with a wink and a wand, breathing into these mundane encounters a kind of magic that transforms them into open-ended modern-day fairy tales.

In the book’s fascinating introduction, Blackall explores the history of missed connections, both her personal fascination with them and our larger collective memory across time:

For centuries the lovelorn have carved messages in tree trunks and rolled letters into bottles and cast them out to sea. On the 19th of January, 1862, the following appeared in The New York Times:

‘If the young lady wearing the pink dress, spotted fur cape and muff, had light hair, light complexion and blue eyes, who was in company with a lady dressed in black, that I passed about 5 o’clock on Friday evening in South Seventh Street, between First and Second, Williamsburg, L.I., will address a line to Waldo, Williamsburg Post Office, she will make the acquaintance of a fine young man.’

Some of the illustrated messages were written by their smitten authors moments after the encounter took place, and others decades later. Some are written to an impossible love interest, a person famous or dead or forbidden for one reason or another, and some lament the loss of a familiar lover. Hopeful, pensive, lonely, drunken, optimistic — they span the entire spectrum of human emotion.

Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found weaves some much-needed romance and magic into the fabric of the daily grind, reverse-engineering serendipity with equal parts imagination and humor to deliver a chorus of rare and wonderful paeans to modern love.

Images via Sophie Blackall

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The Communist Threat: A Trip Through America’s Ideological Wayback Machine

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From Walt Disney to Stalin, or how 1952 America interpreted the Soviet regime.

During World War II, some of the West’s greatest filmmakers — including Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock — put their Hollywood films on hiatus and started producing propaganda films on behalf of the U.S. government. Even Walt Disney did his part. Eventually, when the war drew to a close, these iconic filmmakers went back to making commercial films. But propaganda films kept right on going. The Cold War was getting underway, and because the danger was more potential than actual, the U.S. government felt an extra need to paint a picture for its citizens.

Just what was the existential threat coming out of the Soviet Union? A series of films made it clear. Some , like Communism (1952), offered a brief overview of the historical and ideological foundations of Communism and its point men — Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and the rest. Others, like the famous Duck and Cover educational video, gave young Americans and their parents every reason to fear the atomic bomb. And others still talked about the superiority of capitalism and the American way of life.

The fact that the Soviet regime (which produced its own Cold War propaganda) was repressive, no one doubts. But whether the regime truly posed an existential threat to the U.S. has remained somewhat open to debate. Just watch Noam Chomsky speaking on the matter in 1985.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

The Story of the Millennium Seed Bank Project + Gorgeous Vintage Seed Catalog Cover Artwork

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What 30 double-decker buses have to do with biodiversity and our dinner parties of the future.

All human life — all life — depends on plants. The genetic information for future plants is held in their seeds, so the biodiversity of our planet, as well as the sustenance of our species and others’, depends entirely on the seeds that survive from generation to generation. Since 2000, the Millennium Seed Bank Project by the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens has been working with hundreds of partners in 50 countries to provide an “insurance policy” against the extinction of plants in the wild by storing seeds for future use. In 2007, it banked its billionth seed. By 2010, they had collected seeds from 24,000 different species of plants, representing 10% of the world’s dryland wild plants. By 2020, the project will have collected 25%. The underground seed vault, if filled wall-to-wall, could hold 100,000,000,000 rice grains or 30 tightly packed double-decker buses.

The Last Great Plant Hunt: The Story of the Millennium Seed Bank Project offers an unprecedented look at one of the most important and ambitious international conservation efforts of our time. From how seeds are collected and cared for to what role they play in conservation research, the book blends equal parts practicality and perspective to reinstill in you a profound appreciation for our planet’s remarkable biosphere.

If you still doubt the vital significance of plants, this short but compelling 2009 TED talk by Kew’s Jonathan Drori will convince you otherwise:

For an even more breathtaking, visceral reminder of the magnificence of plants — one unaffiliated with the Millennium Seed Bank Project but in a way a manifesto for it — get lost in this stunning vintage cover artwork from the Smithsonian’s collection Seed Nursery Catalogs.

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