Brain Pickings

Seasons: A Meditation on Change by French Illustrator Blexbolex

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What spring fever has to do with stillness, surprise and the charisma of a passion project.

French artist Blexbolex has charmed the world with his playful cartoons and illustrations, to which he brings his wonderfully eclectic creative background — classically trained as a screen-printer in 1980s France, inspired by the whodunits of the 1950s and 60s, and having directed a German art studio in the 1990s, he blends elements of cartoons, graphic novels and soft watercolor painting into simple yet endlessly whimsical artwork.

In Seasons, he contemplates the fluctuations of seasonality with his signature retro-inspired minimalism. Four spreads depict the same landscape during each season, with a single word or phrase in bold block-letters on each page. But don’t breeze by the seeming simplicity of the concept — many of the thoughtful pairings on the beautiful double-page spreads give you pause and make you wonder why and how the two words go together, gently nudging you towards a philosophical meditation on the seasons, change and impermanence.

From the rich, textured colors to the creamy matte paper to the tactile fabric on the book’s spine, Seasons is a trifecta treat for the eyes, fingers and soul.

Image courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

Image courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

Image courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

Image courtesy of Enchanted Lion Press

Image courtesy of Enchanted Lion Press

Image courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

Image courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

Image courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

Seasons comes from Enchanted Lion Books — an utterly charming, as-indie-as-they-come, family-owned independent publisher of (mostly) children’s books, located right up the street from my studio in Brooklyn. It’s such heart-warming joy to see good people doing wonderful work, driven by nothing more than genuine passion for what they do — if every neighborhood could have more of that, the world would be a better place.

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Happy Birthday, Louis Armstrong: What a Wonderful World

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Celebrating a timeless voice with a timely message.

Just last month, we commemorated 40 years since the world lost the great Louis Armstrong with Satchmo, the fascinating documentary about his life and legacy. But there’s no reason not to also celebrate his birth, which happens to have taken place exactly 110 years ago today. And there’s hardly a better way to do that than by taking delight in one of his most iconic performances, his remarkable rendition of “What a Wonderful World” — with the added joy of serving up a simple reminder of optimism, amidst a particularly difficult year framed by news of every kind of global tragedy, from environmental disaster to large-scale violence to financial and political disillusionment. Sing it, Lou.

For more on the life and work of the iconic musician, look no further than Terry Teachout’s excellent Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

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Driving with Plato: Life Lessons from History’s Greatest Minds

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“Life is hard,” the actress Katherine Hepburn once quipped, adding, “after all, it kills you.” Given the unavoidable end to the enterprise, then, it’s a good thing we can draw courage from the intelligence of the ages.

We’ve long been interested in the hard-won wisdom of our elders. Earlier this year, in fact, we put together a list of life advice from luminaries, which contained a great read called Breakfast with Socrates. Now its author, Robert Rowland Smith, has returned with a sequel of sorts. Bearing its own catchy title, Driving with Plato: The Meaning of Life’s Milestones, Smith’s latest provides an equally entertaining and insightful consideration of what the greats might have to say about such passages of life as going to school.

Where Breakfast with Socrates took as its structural unit a typical (Western) day, Driving with Plato considers the benchmarks of an entire life — both biological and culturally constructed — from birth onward. One chapter, for example, examines the challenge of first learning to ride a bike:

You have to embrace what in Kierkegaardian philosophy is the madness of decision, the vertiginous split second when reason must, in the name of action, go into suspense. In this critical instant of changeover, success arises only if you go at a considerable speed, if you seize the challenge of creating your own forward momentum… As Einstein (whom we’ll come to later) put it, when comparing riding a bicycle with life, “To keep your balance you have to keep moving!”

A cynic might say that Smith and his publishers were looking to exploit a clever conceit, but the book’s research and writing belie this charge. In fact, it’s altogether to the author’s credit that he creates a coherent narrative out of such disparate cultural, literary, and philosophical material.

Driving with Plato selects an appealingly wide range of sources, from Noam Chomsky to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Smith’s prose smoothly carries the reader over the road he’s delineated. On the bain of human experience — moving — he offers this:

Probably the worst accidents at home must be those involving fire, but they’re not always such a bad thing. Rumi, the great thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, has a poem in which his house burning down makes him grateful. Why? It affords a better view of the rising moon.”

From losing one’s virginity to the ultimate loss of life itself, Driving with Plato is delightful proof of how wisdom provides ballast amidst the chaos we all have no choice but to confront.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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