What a Chilean YouTube disaster and a busy Manhattan restaurant have to do with the limits of the human brain.
Nineteenth-century Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a legend in his day, was said to speak 72 languages. Hungarian hyperpolyglot Lomb Kató, who taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels, insisted that “one learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.” Legendary MIT linguist Ken Hale, who passed away in 2001, had an arsenal of 50 languages and was rumored to have once learned the notoriously difficult Finnish while on a flight to Helsinki. Just like extraordinary feats of memory, extraordinary feats of language serve as a natural experiment probing the limits of the human brain — Mezzofanti maintained that “god” had given him this particular power, but did these linguistic superlearners really possess some significant structural advantage over the rest of us in how their brains were wired? That’s precisely what journalist and self-described “metaphor designer” Michael Erard explores in Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners — the first serious investigation into the phenomenon of seemingly superhuman multilingual dexterity and those who have, or claim to have, mastered it, and a fine addition to our favorite books about language.
To understand the cognitive machinery of such feats, Erard set out to find modern-day Mezzofantis, from an eccentric Berkeley-based language learning guru and hyperpolyglot — hyperglottery, Erard notes, begins at 11 languages — to the Lebanese-born, Brazil-based one-time Guinness record holder for 58 languages, who proceeded to embarrass himself on Chilean national television by not understanding a simple question by a native speaker. In the process, Erard scrutinizes the very nature of language, its cultural role, and where it resides in the brain, weaving a fascinating story about our most fundamental storytelling currency.
To grasp the power of language learning as a social facilitator, one need only stroll into a busy Manhattan restaurant, where mapping the native origin of the staff and patrons might produce a near-complete world atlas. Erard marvels:
It’s amazing that the world runs so well, given that people use languages that they didn’t grow up using, haven’t studied in schools, and in which they’ve never been tested or certified. Yet it does.”
(For some related fascination, see David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which delves into what translation reveals about the human condition.)
And in an age where geography and nationality have been shuffled the forces of globalization, ubiquitous connectivity, cheap travel, and the Internet, understanding how language lubricates our social interactions is crucial to making sense of our place in a global world. Erard observes:
Ideas, information, goods, and people are flowing more easily through space, and this is creating a sensibility about language learning that’s rooted more in the trajectories of an individual’s life than in one’s citizenship or nationality. It’s embedded in economic demands, not the standards of schools or governments. That means that our brains also have to flow, to remain plastic and open to new skills and information. One of these skills is learning new ways to communicate.”
(The Daily Beast has an excerpt to give you a taste of Erard’s signature blend of absorbing storytelling and rigorous research.)
Captivating and illuminating, Babel No More is as much an absorbing piece of investigative voyeurism into superhuman feats as it is an intelligent invitation to visit the outer limits of our own cerebral potential.
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Lessons in love via post, or what Hemingway’s soft side has to do with Maurice Sendak’s early genius.
What is it about letters that speaks to us so powerfully, intrigues us so seductively? Letters in general have a way of revealing as much about the subject matter as they do about the author and the recipient, but when they offer slivers of the lives, loves, and longings of those we hold in high regard, they hold a whole different kind of appeal. Today, we turn to five chronicles of famous correspondence that shed new light on the hearts and minds of cultural icons.
As a hopeless lover of children’s books, I have tremendous respect and infinite gratitude for Ursula Nordstrom (1910-1988), who headed Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973 and who is often considered the single most influential and visionary champion of innovation in children’s book publishing in the past century, reining in a new era of children’s literature free from the approval shackles of morality tales and, instead, full of room for children’s emotions and imaginations to roam. Known for trusting her intuition above all else, she edited — and, some would say, co-envisioned — such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1951), Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), among many others.
In Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, Leonard Marcus opens up the HarperCollins archives to reveal Nordstrom’s remarkable character, with its rare blend of razor-sharp intellect and boundless creativity, through her correspondence. These letters — witty, thought-provoking, hopelessly entertaining, unapologetically brilliant — not only offer a priceless time-capsule of the collaborative work behind such iconic books, but they also bespeak Nordstrom’s incredible work ethic that appears at once superhuman and underpinned by profound humanity.
Nordstrom belongs to the last generation of devoted letter writers. She took immense pleasure in the act, often writing to authors when there was no obvious necessity of doing so, except for the all-important necessity of keeping a ‘channel open’ to them. Although she naturally did much of her editorial work with local authors in person or by phone, she also sent long, funny, perceptive letters to those with whom she had just spoken by telephone or just that day met for lunch. Time and again, she simply could not resist the temptation to write.”
The portrait on the cover comes from none other than Maurice Sendak himself, whose own correspondence with Nordstrom makes several cameos throughout the book. From a letter to a 27-year-old Sendak dated February 21, 1955, which captures in equal measure Nordstrom’s grit, gut, and exceptional graciousness:
I’ve wanted to write you a note and tell you over the ‘phone that your new ideas for the ending of Kenny’s Window seem wonderful to me, and I’m sure it’s going to be a beautiful book. Keep working on it and when you have all the chapters together, you and I can go over it word for word, and get down to brass tacks, you should forgive the originality of my prose style. But the main thing is: thanks for everything I am sure you are doing to the book. The pages you showed me the other day in the Vanderbilt made me very very very happy.
As for your color pictures for the Krauss book — words are no good whatsoever. There are a few peaks in an editor’s life, and seeing those pictures of yours has been a peak of mine. They are indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and — well, pure in the best sense.”
This exceptional volume gathers 650 meticulously selected and annotated letters exchanged between one of the most prominent couples in art history, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and legendary artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986), who over the course of their 30-year romance exchanged more than 5,000 letters — roughly 25,000 pages — on everything from the rich detail of their daily lives to the breathless angels and demons of their passion.
Culled by editor Sarah Greenough, these missives — sometimes sweet (“Dearest Duck”), sometimes steamy (“the sensuousness of you touching the sensuousness of me”), always profoundly heartfelt (“I love you, Dearest One, if I am capable of love”) — reveal a rare glimpse of the tender humanity behind the cultural icons and, along the way, offer a richer understanding of their creative process as artists.
Photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz kissing at Lake George, 1929
Letter from Georgia O'Keeffe to Alfred Stieglitz on letterhead 'Los Gallos, Taos New Mexico,' May 14, 1929
From one of O’Keefe’s spicy letters, which seem to somehow mirror the fluid, light urgency of her floral paintings:
Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle.”
And from Stieglitz, as O’Keeffe became his photographic muse:
– How I wanted to photograph you — the hands — the mouth — & eyes — & the enveloped in black body — the touch of white — & the throat — “
(As a compulsive dasher myself — sometimes to a painful degree — I found their excessive use of dashes both comforting and charming.)
Letters from Stieglitz to O'Keeffe, November 2-4, 1916
Letters from Stieglitz to O'Keeffe, November 8-10, 1916
How much we have in common. — Traits. — Both turn everything we touch into something really living — & amusing — for ourselves. — Both can laugh — really laugh — even at our heartaches… 300 years you want to live!! — I wish I could give you that as a gift — “
Perhaps most poetic of all is that the couple’s romance, captured in the 600 stirring pages of My Faraway One, embodies those highest ideals of being not merely lovers but also each other’s finest muses, greatest fans and most constructive critics — which makes it as much an invaluable piece of art history as it is a personal yet universal fragment of human aspiration.
After spending a decade sifting through Ernest Hemingway’s correspondence, Penn State professor Sandra Spanier collaborated with Kent State University’s Robert W. Trogdon to curate this first in what will be a series of at least 16 volumes. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922, one of the 11 best biographies and memoirs of 2011, exposes a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works. Though Hemingway had articulated to his wife in the 1950s that he didn’t want his correspondence published, his son, Patrick Hemingway, says these letters could dispel the myth of the writer as a tortured figure and distorted soul, a pop-culture image of his father he feels doesn’t tell a complete and honest story.
My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date […] [My father] was not a tragic figure. He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.” ~ Patrick Hemingway
The letters — lively, quirky, full of doodles and delightfully unusual spellings — cover everything from Hemingway’s childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, to his adventures as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in WWI to the heartbreak of his romance with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky and his eventual marriage to Hadley Richardson.
From lovers to rivals to his mother, the recipients of the letters each seem to get a different piece of Hemingway, custom-tailored for them not in the hypocritical way of an inauthentic social chameleon but in the way great writers know the heart, mind, and language of their reader. The letters thus become not only a tender homage to this unknown Hemingway, revealing new insights into his creative process along the way, but also a bow before the lost art of letter-writing itself.
Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968) might be best-known as the author of East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, but he was also a prolific letter-writer. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters constructs an alternative biography of the iconic author through some 850 of his most thoughtful, witty, honest, opinionated, vulnerable, and revealing letters to family, friends, his editor, and a circle of equally well-known and influential public figures.
Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck’s words of wisdom — tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious — should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.
November 10, 1958
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
Between September 1968 and October 1969, Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton — set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer. Over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.
This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art. Though neither a biography of Gorey nor a memoir by Neumeyer, it’s a delightful and revealing blend of both, full of intellectual banter and magnificent illustrations, and is also both among 2011’s best art and design books and best biographies and memoirs.
In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer
Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.
There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:
This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”
Manuel Lima, founder of data visualization portal Visual Complexity, author of the indispensable information visualization bible of the same name, and one of the most intelligent people I know, recently gave an excellent talk on the power of networks at the RSA. Using examples that span from the Dewey Decimal System to Wikipedia, Manuel explores the evolving organization of knowledge and information, and the shift from hierarchical structures to distributed lateral networks.
Networks are really becoming a cultural meme in their own right. We could even argue, is this the birth of a new movement, is this the birth of ‘networkism’?” ~ Manuel Lima
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