Brain Pickings

Lessons for the Living from the Brink of Death

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How to take life one ephemeral dinner party at a time, or why hope is a gift of the hopeless.

Lessons for the Living is a poignant documentary by Lily Henderson exploring the unique subculture of hospice volunteers as they contemplate their own philosophies of life and death. This grounding excerpt from the film follows Kathleen, who is both a hospice volunteer and a hospice patient. She has been preparing for her own death for over a decade, but has managed to master that art of living from sheer presence — a powerful lesson, indeed, for the rest of us.

I’ve talked to people who say they feel sorry for me for not having any hope. I say, hope is a thief. I am living today as fully as I am able.”

Kathleen has since passed away.

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The Toaster Project: A DIY Quest for the Origins of Stuff

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A nine-month journey to find what we lost between fifteenth-century smelting and China’s factories.

Futurist and Wired founder Kevin Kelly has famously observed that with the current structure of humanity’s practical knowledge, there isn’t a single person on Earth who can make, say, a computer truly from scratch — from the mining of the metals for its motherboard to printing its circuit boards to designing its interface to programming the complex software that runs on it. But RCA design graduate Thomas Thwaites has orchestrated a commanding counterexample, while at the same time illustrating Kelly’s point in a visceral way.

The Toaster Project chronicles his nine-month mission to build an electric toaster from scratch — no small feat, given the £3.94 toaster Thwaites dismantled was made of 404 separate parts and given also that plastic is almost impossible to make from scratch. But Thwaites persevered, from mining the iron, copper, mica, nickel and crude oil to learning how to smelt metal in a fifteenth-century treatise to creating a crude foundry in his mother’s backyard.

The quixotic quest and its end result — an oddly beautiful and artful object, with a net cost 250 times that of a store-bought toaster — offer poignant commentary on commodification and the disposability of consumer culture. Thwaites’ charismatic tone and self-deprecating wit pull off another near-impossible feat — that of making the same obnoxiously preachy message we’ve heard a thousand times elsewhere for once completely devoid of moralizing self-righteousness and instead full of the kind of honest spark that might actually make us take heed.

I poked through the furnace with a stick and pulled out a blobby black mass of something heavy [...] Using a blowtorch, I heated it up until it turned bright red and hit it gently with a hammer. My iron shattered on impact along with my dream of making a toaster.”

Sample the project’s genius with Thwaites’ excellent talk from London’s 2010 TED Salon:

At once a charming manifesto for the maker movement and a poetic reflection on consumerism’s downfall, The Toaster Project is a story of reaquainting ourselves with the origins of our stuff, part Moby-Duck, part The Story of Stuff, part something else made entirely from sratch.

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The Bippolo Seed: Seven Rare Dr. Seuss Stories Brought to Light

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How eBay uncovered a buried literary treasure, or what a Massachusetts dentist has to do with vintage magazines.

It must be the season for posthumous anthologies of treats by beloved children’s authors. After Shel Silverstein’s Every Thing Thing On It comes The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories — a fantastic new collection of seven rarely seen stories written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss, published in magazines between 1948 and 1959. But what’s even more remarkable than the book itself is the story of how it came to be.

In 2001, “dentist by profession and Seussologist by obsession” Charles Cohen, discovered the first of these lost stories in vintage magazines on eBay and set out to find the rest, eventually acquiring multiple copies of some. He then started listing these extra copies on eBay, noting the lost Seuss stories they contained. The listings caught the eye of Random House art director Cathy Goldsmith, who had worked on books with Seuss himself. The rest was history.

In the 50s, and in the 40s before that, this was the place where Fitzgerald and Hemingway tried out stuff in short stories in magazines. And Ted was among them. This is the point at which Dr. Seuss is becoming Dr. Seuss.”

More than just a literary gem, which it certainly is, The Bippolo Seed is also a wonderful embodiment of two of today’s most beautiful phenomena: the notion that anyone with a passion and an vision can leave an imprint on culture, as Cohen did in discovering these buried treasures, and the power of a great, curious curator in bringing that vision to the forefront of culture, as Goldsmith did in discovering Cohen.

Images courtesy of Random House

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