Brain Pickings

A Witty and Wise 1953 Letter from Legendary Children’s Book Editor Ursula Nordstrom


On imagination, comfort zones, and how to stand up to mediocre ladies in influential positions.

As a lover of children’s books, I adore legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom (1910-1988), who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973. Credited with such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), she is often considered the single most influential champion of innovation in children’s book publishing in the past century, whose vision ushered in a new era of imagination of literature for little ones.

Recently, my friends from Enchanted Lion Books, the lovely indie children’s publishing house up the street from me, resurfaced a wonderful gem from Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, one of my 5 favorite collections of famous correspondence. Dated March 4, 1953, this fascinating, heartfelt, and amusing letter to Dutch author and Maurice Sendak collaborator Meindert Dejong captures both the remarkable conviction with which Nordstrom approached children’s literature and the dangers that plagued, and continue to plague, truly visionary publishing.

(In fact, it’s sad to see such “mediocre ladies in influential positions” still dictate what gets published and ultimately invited into kids’ imagination today, and the dangerous combination of “influential and unimaginative” bedevils so much of contemporary media well beyond children’s publishing.)

I get absolutely wild some days, thinking of you keeping that darn job in that church, so you can write your wonderful books. But you are praising the Lord in your own fashion, Mick, as even I am doing in my own modest, harassed, untalented fashion. And I can assure you that you are a happier and more successful human being than most of the authors who hack out those machine-made, tailored to order, bloodless Landmark Books. But why am I telling you all this, Gustave, when you know it already? I’m giving myself a pep talk, I guess, because even an editor gets discouraged sometimes. You wrote me ‘I do know that if you depart from the usual run the librarians and teachers who control the juvenile field are scared’ and I guess that is true some of the time but not all of the time. I haven’t any author like Meindert DeJong on this list but some of the other books we’ve been publishing are sort of unusual, and off-beat, and I KNOW the children would love and recognize them, but they come up against some influential and unimaginative and thoroughly grown-up and finished and rigid adults. Some mediocre ladies in influential positions are actually embarrassed by an unusual book and so prefer the old familiar stuff which doesn’t embarrass them and also doesn’t give the child one slight inkling of beauty and reality. This is most discouraging to a creative writer, like you, and also to a hardworking and devoted editor like me.


Did I ever tell you that several years ago, after the Harper management saw that I could publish children’s books successfully, I was taken out to luncheon and offered, with great ceremony, the opportunity to be an editor in the adult department? The implication, of course, was that since I had learned to publish books for children with considerable success perhaps I was now ready to move along (or up) to the adult field. I almost pushed the luncheon table into the lap of the pompous gentleman opposite me and then explained kindly that publishing children’s books was what I did, that I couldn’t possibly be interested in books for dead dull finished adults, and thank you very much but I had to get back to my desk to publish some more good books for bad children.”

Dear Genius — whose cover features a portrait of Nordstrom by Maurice Sendak — is an absolute treat in its entirety, brimming with insights on and epitomes of integrity, intuition, and creative vision that far transcend the world of children’s publishing.

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All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace: Adam Curtis on How Technology Limits Us


What Ayn Rand has to do with the Occupy movement.

Documentarian Adam Curtis is among our era’s most influential cultural storytellers, with a penchant for debunking the established order of beliefs and ideologies. In The Century of the Self (2002), he traces the origin of consumerism and how Freud’s theories shaped twentieth-century manipulations of public opinion, from politics to marketing; in The Power of Nightmares (2004), he explores the rise of the politics of fear; in The Trap (2007), he examines the concept and evolution of freedom and the simplistic models of human nature on which it is based. His latest BBC documentary, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, premiered last May, mere months before the global Occupy movement erupted, and paints an infinitely intriguing, though in my view wrong on many counts, portrait of technology as a limiting, rather than liberating, cultural and political force. The title of the series comes from a 1967 poem by Richard Brautigan, in which he envisions a world of cybernetics so advanced that the balance of nature is restored and there is no need for human labor.

Though the film has strong techno-dystopian undertones akin to the Orson-Welles-narrated Future Shock series of the 1970s and neglects how technology enables such powerful phenomena like networked knowledge and crowd-accelerated learning, it offers a dimensional context for many of our present political, economic, and technological givens. Coupled with Curtis’s signature immersive storytelling and exquisite use of historical materials, rare footage, and revealing soundbites, the series is an invaluable primer for much of today’s most pressing sociocultural issues.

The first part, titled Love and Power, deals with how Ayn Rand and her philosophy of objectivism shaped the ethos of Silicon Valley in the 1990s and, eventually, the global economy as Alan Greenspan and Bill Clinton set out to create the New Economy, based on the premise of a dramatic rise in productivity thanks to emerging information technology. Curtis, however, goes on to argue that instead of creating market stability, these Randian ideals constricted people into a rigid system with little hope of escape.

We are now living through a very strange moment. We know that the idea of market stability has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. The original promise of the Californian ideology was that the computers would liberate us of all the old forms of political control, and we would become Randian heroes in control of our own destiny. Instead, today, we feel the opposite — that we are helpless components in a global system, a system that is controlled by a rigid logic that we are powerless to challenge or to change.”

Part two, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts, explores how technology cornerstones like cybernetics and systems theory were, Curtis argues, falsely applied to natural ecosystems and used to develop unrealistic models for human beings and societies. The episode has particularly timely resonance, in light of the recent global Occupy movement, as Curtis argues that such self-organizing network models without central control might be good at organizing change, but are less effective in what comes after.

The failure of the commune movement and the fate of the revolutions showed the limitations of the self-organizing model. It cannot deal with the central dynamic forces of human society: politics and power. The hippies took up the idea of the network society because they were disillusioned with politics. They believed that this alternative way of organizing the world was good because it was based on the underlying order of nature. But this was a fantasy. In reality, what they adopted was an idea taken from the cold and logical world of the machines. Now, in our age, we are all disillusioned with politics, and this machine-organizing principle has risen up to become the ideology of our age. And what we are discovering is that if we see ourselves as components in a system, it is very difficult to change the world. It is a very good way of organizing things, even rebellions, but it offers no ideas as to what comes next. And, just like in the communes, it leaves us helpless in the face of those already in power in the world.”

The final part, The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, examines the selfish gene theory of evolution, developed by William Hamilton in the 1960s and made famous by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Curtis traces how this applied to everything from the civil war in Congo and the Rwandan genocide to George Price’s quest for the origin of altruism to Dawkins’ atheist reformulation of the religious idea of the “immortal soul” as a computer code in the form of genetic patterns. Curtis concludes by asking whether, in accepting these views of humans as machines, we as a culture have disempowered the human spirit.

Hamilton’s ideas remain powerfully influential in our society — above all, the idea that human beings are helpless chunks of hardware controlled by software programs written in their genetic codes. But, the question is, have we embraced that idea because it is a comfort in a world where everything we do, either good or bad, seems to have terrible unforeseen consequences?… We have embraced a fatalistic philosophy of us as helpless computing machines to both excuse and explain our political failure to change the world.”

Curiously, Brautigan’s original collection of poems, which inspired the film title, was intentionally distributed for free. The Curtis documentary, on the other hand, remains largely (legally) unavailable online and nearly impossible to legally see outside the U.K., as if a stubborn and enforced metaphor for the very thing it argues.

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Francesco Franchi on Visual Storytelling and Representation vs. Interpretation


On the design as journalism and how to navigate the spectrum between art and information.

The shape of journalism in the age of data continues to evolve and shift as we hone new ways of framing what matters in the world. In this wonderful teaser for Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011, Italian art director and information designer Francesco Franchi discusses the role of the designer as a translator of journalism. Franchi cites 1930s pictogram pioneer Otto Neurath and modern-day life-visualizer Nicholas Felton as his inspiration, and zooms in on the relationship between form and content on the spectrum between art and information.

Visual journalism means a combination between graphic and narrative. So, it is at the same time representation but also an interpretation of reality to develop an idea.”

Visual Storytelling features a fantastic full interview with Franchi.

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