Brain Pickings

Visions of the Jinn: A Visual History of Arabian Nights


From Aladdin to Lewis Carroll, or what Buddhist deities have to do with understanding the Middle East.

Among 2011’s best sort-of-children’s books was a magnificent volume culling the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales — a visual history of some of the most memorable storytelling ever published. Visions of the Jinn: Illustrators of the Arabian Nights is a remarkable tome that applies a similar lens to another infinitely influential piece of timeless storytelling, whose impact spans from the poetry of Goethe and Rilke to the contemporary fiction of Borges and Proust to the visuals and narratives of video games.

Though the first edition of Arabian Nights contained no pictures, the late 18th century saw a flourishing of illustrated editions, the first of which were almost comically amiss in their visual depictions of Arab culture, most notably a widely pirated 1714 edition with engravings by Dutch artist David Coster, who had no grasp of the cultural differences between medieval European and Islamic cultures, so he portrayed the characters in European dress, on European furniture, amidst European architecture.

Shahrazad tells her story to Shahryar, while her sister Dunyazad is listening. Other stories occupy the smaller frames, including 'The fisherman and the jinn.' Illustration by Dutch artist David Coster, 1714.

In the subsequent decades, other artists took a similarly hazy approach to exoticism. It wasn’t until the 1839-1841 publication of The Thousand and One Nights, translated by ethnographer Edward William Lane, who had spent several years in Egypt himself, that the stories began to reflect the Arab world with respectable accuracy. Lane, who aspired to make the text an educational introduction to everyday life in the Middle East, hired acclaimed British engraver William Harvey to do the artwork and saw to its accuracy by giving Harvey historical engravings of Egyptian and Moorish architecture to copy, approaching the project as an educational primer rather than a visual journey of the imagination.

Illustration by William Harvey, 1841.

The first unabashedly imaginative edition of the Victorian age came in 1865. Titled Dalziel’s Illustrated Arabian Nights Entertainments, it featured engravings by a number of notable artists from the era, including perhaps most notably Sir John Tenniel, famous for his whimsical and brilliantly comical illustrations for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published that same year.

Sidi Nouman's vengeance on his wife. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865.

The sleeping genie and the lady. Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, 1865.

The first color take on the tales came Walter Crane in his 1876 Aladdin’s Picture Book. Crane was also among the first to consider the visual tastes of children, reining in a new era of designing storytelling for young readers.

Children, like ancient Egyptians, appear to see things in profile, and like definite statements in design. They prefer well-designed forms and bright frank colour. They don’t want to bother with three dimensions. They can accept symbolic representations. They themselves employ drawing… as a kind of picture writing and eagerly follow a pictured story.” ~ Walter Crane

Aladdin’s Picture Book Arabian Nights. Illustration by Walter Crane, 1878.

Even though the editions since Lane’s scholarly translation had progressed in the realm of visual imagination, the content had remained rather sterilized and prudish. It wasn’t until the 1885-1888 publication of Richard Burton’s sixteen-volume translation that themes of sexuality emerged, complete with extensive notes on topics like homosexuality, bestiality, and castration. Though Burton’s original edition featured no pictures in order to avoid prosecution for obscenity, shortly after his death in 1890 a young friend and admirer of his by the name of Albert Letchford, who had trained in Paris as an orientalist painter, created 70 paintings, which eventually became the basis for the next edition of Burton’s translation. With a keen sensibility for fantasy and a shared interest in the erotic to complement Burton’s own, Letchford’s artwork featured many nudes and were infused with sensuality. Ironically, Letchford contracted an exotic disease in Egypt and died at a young age.

Illustration for Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Albert Letchford, 1897.

Illustration for Richard Burton's The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night by Albert Letchford, 1897.

In the early 1900s, Anglophile Edmund Dulac illustrated the highly successful gift books Stories from the Arabian Nights (1907), Princess Badoura (1913), and Sindbad the Sailor & Other Tales from the Arabian Nights (1914), blending the British tradition of book illustration with the vibrant colors of Persian miniatures and motifs from Chinese and Japanese art. His artwork endures as arguably the most memorable and widely recognized visual footprint of Arabian Nights.

The Story of the Wicket Half-Brothers. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Fisherman and the Genie. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Princess Deryabar. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

The Story of the Magic Horse. Illustration by Edmund Dulac, 1907.

In the early twentieth century, artists abandoned the obligation to historical and ethnographic accuracy, experimenting instead with the explosion of color and the cross-pollination of world mythologies. Illustrators like Danish artist Kay Nielsen looked to the fantastical monsters and whimsical landscapes of Asian folklore, weaving Buddhist deity iconography, Chinese cloud bands, and near-surrealist elements into the familiar stories.

Sheherezade. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

Arabian Nights. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

Arabian Nights. Illustration by Kay Nielsen, 1917.

The latter part of the twentieth century saw an even greater explosion of color, among which were the arresting illustrations of British artist Errol le Cain.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Aladdin. Illustration by Errol le Cain, 1981.

Visions of the Jinn explores these and many other treasures, as well as the fascinating historical and sociocultural context in which they were created, to paint a rich and vivid mosaic of the visual legacy of Arabian Nights.

HT The Times Literary Supplement, The Guardian

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The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption


Why “information overload” is the wrong lens on the issue, or what sugar and fat have to do with Hollywood.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” artist Austin Kleon recently proclaimed. This encapsulates the founding philosophy behind Brain Pickings — a filtration mechanism that lets into your life things that are interesting, meaningful, creatively and intellectually stimulating, memorable. Naturally, I was thrilled for the release of Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption — an intelligent manifesto for optimizing the 11 hours we spend consuming information on any given day (a number that, for some of us, might be frighteningly higher) in a way that serves our intellectual, creative, and psychological well-being.

Johnson — best known for managing Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, then directing Sunlight Labs at government transparency operation Sunlight Foundation — draws a parallel between the industrialization of food, which at once allowed for ever-greater efficiency and ushered in an obesity epidemic, and the industrialization of information, arguing that blaming the abundance of information itself is as absurd as blaming the abundance of food for obesity. Instead, he proposes a solution that lies in engineering a healthy relationship with information by adopting smarter habits and becoming as selective about the information we consume as we are about the food we eat. In the process, he covers the history of information, the science of attention, the healthy economics of media, and a wealth in between.

In any democratic nation with the freedom of speech, information can never be as strongly regulated by the public as our food, water, and air. Yet information is just as vital to our survival as the other three things we consume. That’s why personal responsibility in an age of mostly free information is vital to individual and social health. If we want our communities and our democracies to thrive, we need a healthier information diet.”

(For a piece of timely irony, consider the fact that the book came out at a time when the U.S. government is considering a policy that not only attempts to regulate access to information, but does so for the purpose of force-feeding the public Hollywood’s entertainment lard.)

Johnson begins with a familiar quote from Steve Jobs:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”

He builds on the analogy between food and information by arguing that just like we know we’re products of the food we eat, we must understand just how much we’re products of the information we consume — and consume accordingly. Yet the sheer amount of information available to us — 800,000 petabytes (a million gigabytes per petabyte) in the storage universe and 3.6 zettabytes (a million petabytes per zettabyte) consumed by American homes per day, expected to increase 44-fold by 2020 — is mind-boggling.

Using Google’s n-gram viewer, which searches the occurrences of a particular phrase in a corpus of English books from the past 150 years, Johnson points out that the term “information overload” became popular in the 1960s, surging 50% by 1980 and then again by 2000.

But, Johnson is careful to point out, the term itself is semantically broken:

The concept of information overload doesn’t work, however, because as much as we’d like to equate our brains with iPods or hard drives, human beings are biological creatures, not mechanical ones. Our brains are as finite in capacity as our waistlines. While people may eat themselves into a heart attack, they don’t actually die of overconsumption: we don’t see many people taking their last bite at a fried chicken restaurant, overstepping their maximum capacity, and exploding. Nobody has a maximum amount of storage for fat, and it’s unlikely that we have a maximum capacity for knowledge.

Yet we seem to want to solve the problem mechanically. Turn it the other way around and you see how absurd it is. Trying to deal with our relationship with information as though we are somehow digital machines is like trying to upgrade our computers by sitting them in fertilizer. We’re looking at the problem through the wrong lens.”

Johnson argues that instead of the lens of productivity and efficiency, which have become a false holy grail for our inbox-zero-obsessed culture, we should consider this through the lens with which we assess what we consume biologically: health. Because the problem is now larger than a mere matter of getting things done:

It’s a matter of health and survival. Information and power are inherently related. Our ability to process and communicate information is as much an evolutionary advantage as our opposable thumbs.”

Still, Johnson cautions that we’re wired to love certain kinds of information, most notably affirmation, so we seek out information that confirms, rather than challenges, our existing beliefs. (Cue in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar — the stuff that people crave — media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?”

Ultimately, at the heart of The Information Diet lies an urgency to not only recognize, but also act upon, something we all intuit but have a hard time enacting:

Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.

To aid in that, Johnson has provided a toolkit of helpful (mostly) free software for a healthy information diet on the book’s site, ranging from productivity apps to ad blockers to various setting hacks to make your favorite services and social web platforms more conducive to info-wellness.

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Pedaling Progress: The Dutch Queen Juliana Riding a Bike, 1967


The pursuit of national happiness on two wheels.

In researching last week’s piece on how the Dutch got their bike paths, I came across this fantastic archival photograph from The Netherlands’ Nationaal Archief, depicting the Dutch queen Juliana riding a bicycle during her 1967 visit to the island Terschelling.

Not only is she most certainly not cultivating bicycle face, she is in fact cultivating a national culture of cycling by bestowing upon it the highest degree of institutional approval — something that remains a pipe dream in America half a century later.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, if a computer is like a bicycle for the mind, a bicycle is like a computer for society — a force of empowerment, a canvas for creativity, a sandbox for design innovation, an agent of cultural change. If only our present-day political leaders would see it that way.

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 what to expect. Like? Sign up.