Brain Pickings

Books: A Living History

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From book-burning to the iPad, or what Pompeii has to do with Gutenberg and the future of reading.

Books are a tremendous presence and inspiration around here — we’ve previously explored how they’ve been made from the Middle Ages to today, what the future might have in store for them, and why analog books still enchant us. In Books: A Living History, Australian historian Martyn Lyons (of A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World fame) explores how books became one of the most efficient and enduring information technologies ever invented — something we seem to forget in an era plagued by techno-dystopian alarmism about the death of books.

It is difficult now to imagine how some of the great turning points in Western history could have been achieved without [the book]. The Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Enlightenment all relied on the printed word for their spread and permanent influence. For two and a half millennia, humanity used the book, in its manuscript or printed form, to record, to administer, to worship and to educate.” ~ Martyn Lyon

Illustration from 1889 showing three women reading the three successive volumes of a novel, possibly borrowed from a circulating library

Illustrated London News Ltd / Mary Evans Picture

Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Yves Gellie / Corbis

Defining the book itself is a risky operation. I prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and so I offer a very loose definition. The book, for example, does not simply exist as a bound text of sheets of printed paper — the traditional codex with which we are most familiar today. Such a definition forgets two millennia of books before print, and the various forms that textual communication took before the codex was invented.

A traditional definition based only on the codex would also exclude hypertext and the virtual book, which have done away with the book’s conventional material support. I prefer to embrace all these forms, from cuneiform script to the printed codex to the digitized electronic book, and to trace the history of the book as far back as the invention of writing systems themselves. The term ‘book’, then, is a kind of shorthand that stands for many forms of written textual communication adopted in past societies, using a wide variety of materials.” ~ Martyn Lyons

A 5th-century mosaic from the mausoleum of Empress Galla Placidia in Ravenna

akg-images / Cameraphoto

A fresco at Pompeii depicting a woman browsing through a scroll

From the first papyrus scrolls to the painstakingly made illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages to today’s ebooks and the iPad, Lyons distills the history and evolution of books in the context of a parallel cultural evolution and, as in the case of Gutenberg’s printing press, revolution.

The library at Haeinsa Temple in Korea houses the Tripitaka Koreana

Leonard de Selva / Corbis

Amman woodcuts showing a compositor with his composing stick and two-page forme, and printers and bookbinders at work

Navigating through 2,000 gloriously illustrated years of literary milestones, genres, and groundswells, from serial and dime novels to paperbacks to manga, Lyons ends with a bittersweet contemplation of the fate of the book and the bibliophile after the turn of the digital century.

A reading scene by George Morland (1763-1804) entitled Domestic Happiness

Christi’s Images / Bridgeman Art Library

In this hand-colored engraving by British humorist Thomas Rowlandson, a writer has some difficulty in persuading a bookseller to accept his manuscript

British Museum, London

The frontispiece to a 1786 edition of the Index of Prohibited Books, showing books being burned

Bridgeman Art Library

Calmann-Lèvy’s bookshop on the fashionable Boulevard des Italiens in Paris

Stefano Blanchetti / Corbis

Both a cultural time-capsule and an encyclopedia of bibliophilia, Books: A Living History is an invaluable record of our collective intellectual and informational journey across two millennia of written language and a profound peer into its future.

Images courtesy of Getty Publications // HT my mind on books

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National Geographic: Inside the Milky Way

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From super-massive black holes to Carl Sagan, or how to center yourself in the universe the CGI way.

Since time immemorial, humanity has been transfixed by the celeste, trying to order the heavens, read the sky, and understand our place in the universe — a place nested within the Milky Way galaxy, which contains our Solar System. But what exactly is the Milky Way, how did it come to be, and where is it going? That’s exactly what the fascinating National Geographic documentary Inside the Milky Way explores, using bleeding-edge technology to construct a 3D CGI model of our galaxy and simulate everything from the formation of super-massive black holes to how stars are born and die. The documentary is now available on YouTube in seven parts, gathered here conveniently for your edutainment.

Astronomers believe that the massive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way has been there from the very start.”

For more celestial glory, don’t forget Michael Benson’s breathtaking Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle and, of course, Carl Sagan’s timeless, tireless Cosmos.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow: A New Way to Think About Thinking

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Beneath the biases of intuition, or how your experiencing self and your remembering self shape your life.

Legendary Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman is one of the most influential thinkers of our time. A Nobel laureate and founding father of modern behavioral economics, his work has shaped how we think about human error, risk, judgement, decision-making, happiness, and more. For the past half-century, he has profoundly impacted the academy and the C-suite, but it wasn’t until this month’s highly anticipated release of his “intellectual memoir,” Thinking, Fast and Slow, that Kahneman’s extraordinary contribution to humanity’s cerebral growth reached the mainstream — in the best way possible.

Absorbingly articulate and infinitely intelligent, Kahneman examines what he calls the machinery of the mind — the dual processor of the brain, divided into two distinct systems that dictate how we think and make decisions. One is fast, intuitive, reactive, and emotional. (If you’ve read Jonathan Haidt’s excellent The Happiness Hypothesis, as you should have, this system maps roughly to the metaphor of the elephant.) The other is slow, deliberate, methodical, and rational. (That’s Haidt’s rider.)

The mind functions thanks to a delicate, intricate, sometimes difficult osmotic balance between the two systems, a push and pull responsible for both our most remarkable capabilities and our enduring flaws. From the role of optimism in entrepreneurship to the heuristics of happiness to our propensity for error, Kahneman covers an extraordinary scope of cognitive phenomena to reveal a complex and fallible yet, somehow comfortingly so, understandable machine we call consciousness.

Much of the discussion in this book is about biases of intuition. However, the focus on error does not denigrate human intelligence, any more than the attention to diseases in medical texts denies good health… [My aim is to] improve the ability to identify and understand errors of judgment and choice, in others and eventually in ourselves, by providing a richer and more precise language to discuss them.” ~ Daniel Kahneman

Among the book’s most fascinating facets are the notions of the experiencing self and the remembering self, underpinning the fundamental duality of the human condition — one voiceless and immersed in the moment, the other occupied with keeping score and learning from experience.

I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.” ~ Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman spoke of these two selves and the cognitive traps around them in his fantastic 2010 TED talk:

The word happiness is just not a useful word anymore because we apply it to too many different things.”

What’s most enjoyable and compelling about Thinking, Fast and Slow is that it’s so utterly, refreshingly anti-Gladwellian. There is nothing pop about Kahneman’s psychology, no formulaic story arc, no beating you over the head with an artificial, buzzword-encrusted Big Idea. It’s just the wisdom that comes from five decades of honest, rigorous scientific work, delivered humbly yet brilliantly, in a way that will forever change the way you think about thinking.

Thanks, Sean

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