Brain Pickings

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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Life of Pi: Croatian Illustrator Takes on a Modern Classic

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What perseverance in the face of rejection has to do with tigers and the quest for belonging.

It’s a familiar story — author faces series of rejection letters but perseveres to eventually reach wide critical acclaim. That’s exactly what happened to Yann Martel, whose fantasy adventure novel Life of Pi was rejected by at least five UK publishers before being published by a Canadian one in 2001 and awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction the following year for its UK edition. It tells the story of an Indian boy, Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel, stranded for 227 days after a shipwreck on a boat he shares with a Bengali tiger named Pi. It’s a story of faith, adventure, survival and belonging.

But what makes the book most noteworthy is that, in 2005, a worldwide competition set out to find an artist to illustrate a new, special edition of the book, settling on the wonderful Croatian illustrator and painter Tomislav Torjanac. Torjanac used his distinctive blend of oil paints and digital illustration to produce 40 stunning illustrations with a conceptual twist — the scenes he portrayed were viewed from Pi’s subjective perspective.

My vision of the illustrated edition of Life of Pi is based on paintings from a first person’s perspective — Pi’s perspective. The interpretation of what Pi sees is intermeshed with what he feels and it is shown through the use of colours, perspective, symbols, hand gestures, etc… Hence some of the scenes may look realistic and may correspond to ‘reality,’ while others may contain elements of sylization or even abstract elements (for example: the scene of blindness out of the sea).” ~ Tomislav Torjanac

Here is a fascinating glimpse of Torjanac’s creative process:

Island Study

Lifeboat Study

'I quite deliberately dressed wild animals in tame costumes of my imagination.'

'Only when they threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts...'

'And what a thump it was.'

'I threw the mako towards the stern.'

Breathtakingly beautiful, exhilarating and poetic, the artwork in Life of Pi is an absolute feast for the eyes and heart.

Some images via The Guardian

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