Brain Pickings

The History of Forgotten Phenomena: RIP Cliff Doerksen

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What award-winning journalism has to do with the hallucinations and the history of mince pie.

Cliff Doerksen, who wrote for the Chicago Reader and contributed to This American Life, died last month at the age of 47. Doerksen covered all kinds of topics — film, fatherhood, the wonders of old newspaper clippings — but his epic reports on long-forgotten phenomena read unlike anything else you’ll encounter in a newspaper. Here’s Ira Glass on Doerksen’s storytelling style:

Hanging out with Cliff for an evening meant that now and then he’d ease his way into a long story. It could be the history of some movie, or some cultural trend. It could be something from the history of radio, about which I knew nothing and Cliff seemed to know everything—he even wrote a book on the subject. Often it was just a story from the office, all the characters rendered with a great eye for detail and a delightfully mean ear for dialogue. He was a far better storyteller than me. Sure, on the radio, with the benefit of editing and background music, I could hold my own. But in person, after dinner, it was no contest. He kicked my ass. He could kick yours too.” ~ Ira Glass

Each of Doerksen’s long features is worthwhile, but start with these two:

“When Zion Ruled the Airwaves” tells this history of WCBD, one of the most powerful stations in the country during the early days of radio. WCBD broadcast from Zion, Ill., a fundamentalist Christian enclave just north of Chicago, and built its audience with “programming that combined faith healing, classical music, sentimental Victorian parlor ballads, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preaching, and zealous advocacy of the notion that the earth is flat.”

“The Real American Pie” is an award-winning history of mince pie. Once considered more American than the apple variety, mince pie was a culinary staple despite the fact that nearly everyone who ate it agreed that the dish “reliably caused indigestion, provoked nightmares, and commonly afflicted the overindulgent with disordered thinking, hallucinations, and sometimes death.”

For more of Doerksen’s writing, check out his Chicago Reader archive.

Max Linsky is a journalist, the co-founder of Longform.org, and an enthusiastic supporter of Jewish professional athletes.

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Zentangle: Pattern-Drawing as Meditation

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If greater creativity and more mental balance are among your new year’s resolutions, look no further than Zentangle — a type of meditation achieved through pattern-making, created by artist duo Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts. Each pattern is built one line at a time, organically combining simple patterns into complex zentangles in unplanned, unexpected ways that grow, change and unfold on the page as you enter an immersive state of flow. Totally Tangled offers a fantastic introduction to the relaxing and beautiful practice through step-by-step instructions and over 100 original tangles.

We’re particularly taken with Zentagle because its basic principle — building on simple shapes and combining different patterns into complex creativity — is such a beautiful visual metaphor for our core philosophy of combinatorial creativity.

Whether you’re a complete beginner or a professional artist, Totally Tangled can transform your casual, fidgety backpage doodling into a powerful meditative creative outlet. That, or at the very least rekindle your relationship with ink and paper in the midst of our digital flurry.

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Tim Flach’s Extraordinary Dog Portraits

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From photographer Tim Flach and Creative Review editor Lewis Blackwell comes Dogs — a series of incredibly artful, soulful portraits of man’s best friend.

With a potent blend of playfulness and profound respect, Flach captures the remarkable diversity of dogs, both of appearance and of character, and our complex, 150-century-old relationship with them in a poetic and spellbinding visual narrative.

They can entertain us, protect us, teach us how to love, do what they are told, and tell us what is going to happen next. They can even extend our lives. We think we train them to do the work, but they have in turn found a way for us to provide for them. This great form that has forged so many different kinds of dog is the inspiration for this book. The result is an unprecedented insight and visualization of what dogs are and can be.”

From shelter dogs to show-winners to dogs who sniff out explosives, the book spans an incredible range of personalities, portrayed in beautiful images generously stretched across full-bleed double-page spreads and lined with insightful commentary on everything from dog racism (did you know that there are more black dogs in shelters than any other fur color?) to historical background on how different breeds came to be and curious facts about them.

Dogs is as much a visually ambitious feat of photography as it is a rich and tender chronicle of our intense connection with these much-loved creatures — a beautiful intersection of humanity and, well, caninity.

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Ralph Ginzburg’s fact:, Vintage Wikileaks?

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Inconvenient truths, or what groundbreaking typography has to do with the justice system.

Between January 1964 and August 1967 Ralph Ginzburg published a quarterly magazine entitled fact: — a provocative blend of satire and investigative journalism exploring controversial issues across American politics, consumer advocacy and public policy. Art directed by iconic graphic designer Herb Lubalin and printed entirely in black and white, the magazine set a new standard for ambitious and innovative typography as a bold visual statement complementing its anti-establishment editorial angle, bringing a new level of credibility to the role of the designer as an editorial, not just aesthetic, visionary.

Lubalin and I worked together like Siamese twins. It was a rare and remarkable relationship. I had no experience or training as a graphic designer. Herb brought a graphic impact. I never tried to overrule him and almost never disagreed with him.” ~ Ralph Ginzburg

In some ways, fact: was a lot like Wikileaks. Despite being separated by nearly half a century and living on vastly different media platforms, the two served a remarkably similar social function — to bring to light that which is uncomfortable, controversial but ultimately necessary to the reader’s informed citizenship — and triggered ire of similar magnitude among the political players whose reputation and credibility the publication’s content brought into question.

The parallel, however, becomes even more uncanny: In 1963, a drawn-out libel case was brought against Fact and Ginzburg himself. Two years after the case finally came to a close in 1972, Ginzburg was sent to jail — but not for libel. He was sentenced to three years in prison for distributing pornographic material through the mail — a striking similarity to Julian Assange’s rape charges in lieu of a solid Wikileaks case, bespeaking a systemic practice of not only keeping inconvenient journalists quiet by any means necessary, but by manufacturing charges for offenses as socially unacceptable as possible, with sexual transgressions being the pinnacle of social condemnation.

Rare issues of the magazine are available online, for surprisingly little. For more of Ginzburg’s keen cultural curtain-pulling, take a look at 100 Years of Lynchings — a compilation of newspaper clippings between 1886 and 1960 capturing vivid and unsettling accounts of lynching to offer insight into the history of racial violence.

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