Brain Pickings

Merchants of Culture: A Meditation on the Future of Publishing


What Gogol, Seth Godin and TED have to do with the fate of the written word.

The year has barely begun and already it’s been a tremendously disruptive month for the publishing industry, with a number of noteworthy developments that bespeak a collective blend of optimism, fear and utter confusion about what the future holds for the written word as its purveyors try to make sense — and use — of digital platforms. Here are just a handful of important, potentially game-changing, events in the publishing world that took place in the past month alone:

  • Amazon finally unveiled the highly rumored and anticipated Kindle Singles, a new format for non-fiction works between 10,000 and 30,000 words — that’s longer than a magazine article and shorter than a novel — that authors can self-publish and sell for $1-$5, an effort hailed as the last saving grace of long-form journalism.
  • TED, always the beacon, immediately jumped on the format with the landmark launch of TEDBooks — short titles by TED speakers that adapt important ideas worth spreading from the screen to the digital page.
  • Seth Godin officially kicked off his Domino Project in partnership with — you guessed it — Amazon, an effort to reinvent what it means to be a publisher through a hybrid publishing house and distribution channel for a highly curated stable of authors. Poke the Box, the first book from the project, was just released for pre-sale today in a limited edition of 400, available as a hardcover ($9.99), Kindle download ($7.99) and ultra-limited-edition signed copy with a letterpress cover and companion poster ($75).
  • Former Brain Pickings contributor Kirstin Butler released the first excerpt of Dead SULs, her modernization of Gogol’s iconic Dead Souls, exploring identity in the age of Facebook — an experiment in digital self-publishing powered by an open-source writing process.
  • Startup The Atavist unveiled a revolutionary platform for long-form journalism and novella-length fiction, available on a number of e-reader devices, including the Kindle.
  • Renouned libertarian economist Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution fame, announced that he’ll be publishing his highly anticipated new book, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Bette, on Kindle only — a strategic stance against the slow turnaround of the traditional book industry, which makes timely topics dated by the time they hit bookstores.
  • Noted design thinking advocate Frank Chimero opted to fund his new book, The Shape of Design, on Kickstarter. (Please support him.)
  • Amazon’s ebooks sales eclipsed paperbacks for the first time, a landmark moment in publishing history.

So what is all of this momentum building up to? That’s exactly what John B. Thompson explores in Merchants of Culture — a compelling and necessary new book about, well, books. Thompson contextualizes the current turbulence of the publishing world in an ambitious analysis of five decades of publishing and bookselling, laced with rigorously researched historical background and invaluable interviews with veterans across the entire industry spectrum. (So excellent is the book, in fact, that we’re willing to overlook the irony of its print-only availability.)

Hovering between a serious academic text and an Entourage for the publishing business, full of high-rolling agents and drama-ridden deals, Merchants of Culture is as much a how-to for the everyman author as it is a what-now for the digitally paralyzed publisher, as well as an all-around treat for anyone interested in the future of the written word.

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Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers: “Playing” Your Abode


Last year, we looked at some fantastic experimental music projects sampling sound from the environment. This week, Sampled Room has been making the rounds. So we’ve decided to spotlight what’s easily the most ambitious, elaborate and creative manifestation of this environmental percussion genre: Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers — a brilliant Swedish short film about a group of six crazy percussionists, who invade an apartment and make astounding music with simple household objects.

The film originally premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and has won over 30 international awards.

So seminal was the short film and so brilliant the concept that it inspired a feature-length film based on the sextet, 2010’s French-Swedish comedy-crime Sound of Noise, written and directed by Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson.

The title of the film is based on Italian futurist Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto, The Art of Noises — a work of tremendous historical significance which, while we’re at it, we couldn’t recommend more.

Thanks, Marine

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The Belief Instinct: Exploring the Science of Spirituality


We’re deeply fascinated by how the human mind makes sense of the world, and religion is one of the primary sensemaking mechanisms humanity has created to explain reality. On the heels of our recent explorations of the relationship between science and religion, the neuroscience of being human and the nature of reality comes The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life — an ambitious new investigation by evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering, exploring one of the most important questions of human existence:

If humans are really natural rather than supernatural beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral ‘eye in the sky’ that judges us, and so forth?”

A leading scholar of religious cognition, Bering — who heads Oxford’s Explaining Religion Project — proposes a powerful new hypothesis for the nature, origin and cognitive function of spirituality. Far from merely regurgitating existing thinking on the subject, he connects dots across different disciplines, ideologies and materials, from neuroscience to Buddhist scriptures to The Wizard of Oz. Blending empirical evidence from seminal research with literary allusions and cultural critique, Bering examines the central tenets of spirituality, from life’s purpose to the notion of afterlife, in a sociotheological context underlines by the rigor of a serious scientists.

Eloquently argued and engagingly written, The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life provides a compelling missing link between theory of mind and the need for God.

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Designers & Books: What Iconic Designers Are Reading


How to hack into the minds of the world’s leading design practitioners and critics.

We love design. We love books. And we’ve always found designers to be among the most intellectually curious, disciplinarily promiscuous, creatively voracious minds. So we’re thrilled for the launch of Designers & Books — a fantastic new portal for peering into the private libraries of the world’s most prominent design thinkers and doers.

Launching with 50 designers — including icons like, Milton Glaser, John Maeda, Elizabeth Diller, Norman Foster and Tim Brown, and Brain Pickings favorites like Paula Scher, Stefan Sagmeister and George Lois — the project spans a wide spectrum of design disciplines, from architecture to fashion to urban design to cultural interpretation, and kicks off with 678 books.

In addition to designers’ picks, reading lists are available from leading design writers, curators, educators and critics — or, as the site calls them, commentators.

So if you’ve ever wondered what graces the bookshelf of TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, the original information architect, wonder no more. (A handful of information design standbys, a few obscure yet indispensable vintage treats like Paul Kee’s The Thinking Eye, and Stewart Brand’s culturally cultish Whole Earth Catalog.)

Similar to the way that ‘good design can make your life better’ — we also believe that ‘good books can make your life better.'” ~ Steve Kroeter, Founder

Despite the clear gender bias and some glaring omissions (Hey, Tina! And what about MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, arguably the quintessential design advocate of our time?), Designers & Books is a fascinating and rare glimpse of the creative and intellectual fuel that powers some of today’s most influential design thinking, and very much worth your digital minute.

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