Brain Pickings

Max Fleischer’s Original 1947 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Animation

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How Santa’s ninth reindeer made his on-screen debut.

In 1939, Robert L. May conceived of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a poem, published in a booklet by iconic department store Montgomery Ward. But “Santa’s 9th Reindeer” didn’t become etched into the nation’s collective imagination until May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, adapted Rudolph into a song in 1949. (What makes the story all the more curious and poetic is that Marks was Jewish, yet he created some of the most popular Christmas songs we know today.)

But Rudolph made his first screen appearance two years earlier, in 1947, in a cartoon short produced by animation pioneer Max Fleischer. The film was later reissued by the Handy (Jam) Organization — who also brought us such gems as a manifesto for makers (1960), cinematic homage to mid-century design (1958), and an animated explanation of how radio broadcasting works (1937) — with the song added in. The 8-minute animation, now in the public domain, is a vintage treat of the most delicious variety:

Fleischer’s film was eventually adapted into a lovely children’s storybook in 1951, illustrated by Richard Scarry.

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Umberto Eco on Lists and Making Infinity Comprehensible

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What Don Giovanni’s lovers have to do with the poetics of catalogues.

As a lover and maker of lists, this made my heart sing: In 2009, the great Umberto Eco became a resident at the Louvre, where he chose to focus his studies on “the vertigo of lists,” bringing his poetic observational style to the phenomenon of cataloguing, culling, and collecting. He captured his experience and insights in The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay, where he charts the Western mind’s obsessive impulse for list-making across music, literature and art, an impulse he calls a “giddiness of lists” but demonstrates that, in the right hands, it can be a “poetics of catalogues.”

Der Spiegel interviewed Eco about his project at the Louvre, yielding the following perl:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.” ~ Umberto Eco

The interview is fantastic in its entirety, as is The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay.

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Christopher Hitchens: “One should try to write as if posthumously.”

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Hitch on death, public opinion, and freedom from inhibition.

Exactly a week ago today, the world lost Christopher Hitchens and cried a chorus of mourning. On June 4, 2010, three days before he became gravely ill, Hitchens took the stage at The New York Public Library’s excellent LIVE series (one of the many reasons I support NYPL monthly) to discuss his newly published memoir, Hitch 22. In this excerpt from his conversation with NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber, hair-raising in retrospect, Hitchens discussed the duality of his relationship with death, both a fiend of fear and a frontier of freedom.

Holdengräber: In the first 4-5 pages of your memoir, one thing that strikes me is a real fear of death, and in some way I think that the memoir is written to hold it at bay.

Hitchens: Of course. I’ve always known that I’m born into a losing struggle… don’t know anyone who’s come out of that a winner. One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer. You don’t really care about public opinion now, you don’t mind about sales, you don’t care what the critics say. You don’t even care what your friends, your peers, your beloved think. You’re free. Death is a very liberating thought.

Watch the full program here and don’t miss Hitchens’ final collection of essays, Arguably.

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