Brain Pickings

Not Your Mama’s Guidebook: The Zinester’s Guide to NYC


What Chinatown fishmarkets have to do with the astrology of Brooklyn.

The Zinester’s Guide to NYC is no ordinary book. In the age of crowdsourcing and digital everything, it’s a delightfully analog, painstakingly curated tour of all the things that make the city a cross-cultural icon — from its rich culinary landscape to Brooklyn’s bookstores to the midday madness of Midtown to the peculiar cultures of different neighborhoods, ZG2NYC is a remarkable achievement of urban curiosity, beautifully illustrated with original artwork. In the eloquently laconic words of Stephen Colbert’s review, “it kicks ass.” But besides being a quirky yet unbelievably useful guide to the city, the book is also a curious publishing experiment: Rather than doing the traditional book tour dance, with all its nauseating travel and potentially uncomfortable five-person signings, author Ayun Halliday has embarked upon a virtual tour, “visiting” some of her favorite blogs to chat about the book. And we think it’s brilliant.

It’s great! I don’t have to worry about whether there’s something stuck between my gigantic front teeth, or whether my lipstick makes me look like I’m insane.” ~ Ayun Halliday

So today, we sit down with the relentlessly fascinating and sharp-witted Ayun to shoot the breeze about ZG2NYC, civic engagement and “retrostalgia” — join us.


Hey Ayun. Tell us a bit about your background and your brand of creative curiosity.

There was always a lot of support for my artistic pursuits — they conferred a bit of honor on me, because I was good at them. I grew up totally uncoordinated in Indiana, the only child of a family that fell apart right as I entered my teen years. Shortly thereafter, the Preppy Handbook craze took hold. The school I’d attended since 2nd grade was about as preppy as one could get in Indiana, but I was drawn to the scenes I found backstage and in the Art Room because they met emotional needs under-served by a community gone mad for turtlenecks printed with tiny whales. “Cute” and “Darling” remain words of high praise in the milieu in which I grew up. I started gravitating toward “Weird”. By the standards of “Cute” and “Darling”, Lynda Barry, Maira Kalman, Jonathan Ames, Kurt Vonnegut, Spalding Gray, all the writers and artists I revere, are “weird” so it’s a label I’m proud to bear.

That said, if you had told the 17 year old me that I would one day write an autobiography where I talk about washing “my malodorous vagina” in a German train station’s public restroom — that people of both sexes would come to hear me read aloud from that book and I would utter that phrase in front of them — I would have swooned in abject horror. I was weird for Indiana in the early 1980s, but it’s nothing compared to now.

My brand of creative curiosity also owes something to my father, who was a great reader, and used to spend hours telling me the plots of movies he had seen as young man, acting out the most dramatic parts with a suspect lack of inhibition. Without ever actually saying so, he taught me that the story is the thing to be valued, the best part of any object, place, painting, memory… I think that’s why my writing is so littered with digressions and associations — my zine is a minefield of asterisks and footnotes. My handwriting dwindles to little specks of pepper in my effort to cram it all in.


New York is an interesting paradox – on the one hand, being a New Yorker is such a badge of identity and on the other, in a city as multicultural and diverse as this, is there really a singular definition of this identity? And yet you seem to have a blueprint to being a “New Yorker.” What’s your secret?

It’s that I’m a Hoos-Yorker. I’ve wanted to live here ever since I was a little twerp devouring the All of a Kind family series and the New Yorker, to which my grandparents mysteriously subscribed along with Reader’s Digest and Ladies Home Journal. Fifteen years in, I’m still agog. Every time I glimpse the Chrysler Building masquerading as just another unremarkable building in the distance, or bike across the Manhattan Bridge, or hear my fellow subway passengers conversing in a multitude of languages, or experience some previously untasted food cart treat, I’m reminded of how privileged I am to live here. Plenty of my fellow Americans would take one look at my family’s living quarters and conclude that I am not privileged at all, but only because they don’t share my pathology. I love it so much that I find the aroma of fallen gingko fruit enticing. Ditto the fishmarkets of Chinatown and the clamor of the car service drivers’ radios as they loiter outside my window at 3am. There’s very little about this city that irritates me. People who park in the bike lanes. Bus drivers who grunt in response to a friendly greeting. Bars catering to young, single conformists who make a lot more money that I do.

There’s one habit associated with ‘real’ New Yorkers that I don’t cotton to and that’s bitching about tourists like they’re some slow-moving, bovine scourge. I aspire to be hospitable.

My goal is to pry them away from Times Square, get them to try something “weird” like a no frills body scrub at Yi Pak Spa or a performance by the Bushwick Book Club.Edward Sorel had a great New Yorker cover of sightseeing farm animals gawking down from a red double decker bus at the sleekly dressed mythological beasts inhabiting the sidewalk. I have to say, I identify more with the ones up top than those down below…maybe that’s why I want them to have a good time and be unafraid.


ZG2NYC takes a very active approach to civic participation, from guerrilla interventions like PARK(ing) to quirky pastimes like bike polo. What would you say is the single most important quality or factor for engaging wholeheartedly in robust public life, in New York and in cities in general?

Not letting shyness or the fear of looking foolish trump one’s impulse to get involved. It may surprise those who’ve seen me riding the subway in my underpants to learn that I am actually pretty shy in situations where I don’t know anyone, but I always have a better time when I force myself to engage, or at least hold my ground.

The other day I got invited to the screening of a movie a friend had written, an unusually glitzy scene for me. The only person I knew was my friend, and it would have been wrong to cling to him when he needed to be able to network and promote his movie. I could’ve hidden out in the restroom or flipped open my cell phone and pretended to be having a very important conversation, but instead I decided that maybe it would be okay to just lean up against the wall, observing, not expending any energy on trying to mask the fact that I had no one to talk to and was not in my natural element. Interestingly, once I started doing that, the star of the movie came over and talked to me for a surprisingly long time. I think he may get off on showing that he prefers ‘real’ people to ‘Hollywood’ people. Whatever. For me, it was a good reminder that you don’t have to be the life of the party to actually be at the party, know what I mean?


What was the single biggest surprise you encountered in the process of writing the book?

The responsibility I felt toward both its eventual readers and the people associated with the establishments I was writing about. Heaven forbid I inadvertently send someone someplace where he or she winds up having a sucky experience.

On the other hand, with an average of just a few sentences per listing, any snarky, offhand comment, however true, begins to feel remarkably bratty and unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Like, okay, the bathroom’s a hellhole, but what if they clean it up between now and the moment when a reader decides to give that otherwise entirely worthy place a miss based on some flippant, outdated remark of mine? Towards the end of the editing process, I could barely sleep, I was so preoccupied with wanting to get everything right.

I learned that the silver dollar implanted in the floor of DeRobertis Pasticceria did not originally belong to Lucky Luciano, as one of the old man regulars had told me many years ago, but to the owner’s grandfather. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m a paragon of misinformation.’

But ultimately, I refer back to what I said about not being afraid to make a fool out of yourself. I’m willing to eat a couple of boo boos.


There seems to be a common thread of a certain retrostalgia about the places you curate, from old-timey dive bars to black box theaters. What do you think is lost and gained for cities in the digital age, and what place do — or should — analog attractions have in our civic lives??

Well, as far as the guidebook goes, it’s a reflection of what I, personally, like. Waiting tables and working as a massage therapist, I developed a distaste for luxury — unless we’re talking about goosedown pillows, it’s usually just a way to mark things up way more than they should cost. I can’t enjoy that unless someone other than myself is using an expense account to pay for it.

And I would rather see an amazing image created with a flashlight and a physioball in a black box theater than pay $100 to see some expensive, electronic set piece used for all of 30 seconds in a Broadway musical. It’s just a matter of taste.

As to the digital age, the internet is certainly a wonderful way to learn about what’s going on. I salute the people behind the skint, NonsenseNewYork and Brooklyn Based to name but a few of the online mouthpieces from which I learn about a great many things I end up participating in. (Even when I’m unable to participate, I enjoy knowing that I live in a place where these things are going on. Can’t do it all.) As someone who occasionally has events and products of her own to promote, I can’t knock social networking and the ease of having a website upon which people can find out all the pertinent information.

What I really object to is the way people get so tethered to their iPhones and droids.

For sure, use your device to double check addresses and hours, but then stash it, man! Your eyes and ears and nose remain excellent portals for receiving, interpreting, and storing information. I get that it could be fun to review your email on the subway, but if you’re always doing that, you are never going to sketch the person seated across from you. Ten years from now, which will prove the better key to this long forgotten day? A deleted digital message (received on a no doubt archaic device) or an inexpert but keenly observed rendering born of being wholly present in the exterior word?

It enrages me to see people engaging with their devices at the theater, or even during a movie. You have to allow for the possibility of being where you are! Even during the boring stretches. As to those who check their little screens in the middle of a conversation, I want to knock their bonnets off. I find that unspeakably, if casually rude.


The painfully inevitable question: What’s your favorite thing to do and place to be in NYC?

Inevitable, yes, but painful, never. My favorite thing to do is wander around Chinatown. I know the place pretty well, compared to other New Yorkers of my race, and yet, I don’t know it at all! My little routines — poking around the grocery, stocking up on Green Parrot soap and dried plum candy, getting my hair cut by Frankie at Tops Cuts, surveying the stationery selection at BJ99 — they’re all just a pretense for having my mind blown by the smallest thing.

Grab a copy of The Zinester’s Guide to NYC for every New Yorker, by heart or by ZIP code, on your holdiay list — it’s a treat.

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Rainn Wilson on Overcoming Creative Blocks


Most of us know actor Rainn Wilson as Dwight from The Office — the egomaniacal yet petty creep who has delivered many a palmface moments for cringing audiences. So it’s interesting — eerie, almost — to see Wilson step far outside his character and reveal what is indeed a rather thoughtful, introspective, profound persona. In this excellent Big Think interview, he talks about creativity, chess, meditation and how to overcome creative blocks — a worthwhile addition to our collection of insights on creativity from thinkers like Stefan Sagmeister, Paula Scher, Sir Ken Robinson, Ji Lee, Paola Antonelli and Steven Johnson.

I think if you’re the driest accountant with the plastic pocket pen protector it’s in how you interact with the world. There is artistry in everything that we do and there is expression in everything that we do.” ~ Rainn Wilson

‘Creative blocks’ come from people’s life journeys. If you don’t know who you are or what you’re about or what you believe in it’s really pretty impossible to be creative. So I think a lot of times when people have “creative blocks” and I know my share of friends do as well if they’re at just some stuck point. They’re not sure what to do with their lives or their writing or their photography or their filmmaking or whatever it is that they’re doing. I think the best advice is you have to change your life up completely; to go on a trip, to go spend a year being of service. Be willing to take some major drastic action to get you out of your comfort zone and go inside, not outside.” ~ Rainn Wilson

UPDATE: Wilson’s SoulPancake: Chew on Life’s Big Questions came out in February and is excellent — a highly visual anthology of musings exploring the human condition from a rich and fascinating array of angles, spanning life and death, art and creativity, sex and relationships, the brain and the soul, science and technology, and just about everything in between.

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All in a Word: A Compendium of Linguistic Curiosities


We have a certain obsession with words. But no matter the degree of your linguistic geekery, it’s hard not to find question of words’ origin, life and death fascinating. In All In A Word: 100 Delightful Excursions into the Uses and Abuses of Words, linguist Vivian Cook takes us on a riveting journey into the most curious nooks and corners of language, from how we learn words as a child to how words are born and why they die to made-up words we’ve come to take for granted. (‘Google,’ ‘television’ or ‘robot,’ anyone?)

This book is all about the different aspects of words, ranging from their forms to their meanings, from their roles in organizing our societies to their roles in helping us to think. It consists of a variety of pieces, some short, some long, some serious, some frivolous, some based on scientific research, some on opinion. As each piece is separate from the others, they can either be dipped into or read consecutively” ~ Vivian Cook

Each chapter features a deluge of games, puzzles, lists and quotes for your edutainment. You can test how many words you know with the Basic Words Test, psychoanalyze The Beatles and The Rolling Stones based on their lyrics, and see who invented more words, Shakespeare or Chaucer. (If you’re itching for a sneak peek: Chaucer has linguistic staples like ‘box,’ ‘femininity’ and ‘Martian’ to his credit, while Shakespeare has staked his claim on ‘addiction,’ ‘fashionable’ and ‘priceless’.)

As with any scientific subject, the study of words tries to explain the facts; the behaviour of words is no more a matter of opinion than the behaviour of electrons. Needless to say, many aspects of words are still little studied, many are controversial, while some of the most important await better techniques for analyzing the brain.” ~ Vivian Cook

Like all innovation, Cook’s obsession with spelling was born out of frustration, after one too many people overlooked the crucial gender difference between the British spellings Vivian and Vivien, assuming from his first name that he is a woman. (It’s okay, we did a double take, too.)

via Flavorwire

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3 Ways to Visualize the David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest


What dotted lines have to do with telenovelas, pop culture reverence and analog GPS.

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a favorite book of many, is the kind of genre-bender that will thwart your mind with its convoluted narrative, plethora of allusions and cultural references, and multilateral connections between the characters. Navigating its maze of relationships and 400 footnotes could drive even the most seasoned literary disentanglers up the reading room wall.

So today, we look at three visual efforts to deconstruct the iconic novel.


To illuminate the essential points of the novel’s plot, German designer Jonny set out to flowchart the novel’s most essential characters, revealing an amusingly complex ecosystem that’s part Shakespearean play, part Mexican telenovela.


If the characters aren’t enough of a brilliant mess for you, David Foster Wallace adds another layer of confusion with a slew of locations that would send any GPS spinning. One brave Infinite Jest reader decided to take a tour of Boston, photographing all the locations mentioned in the book, then plotting them on a map.


From designer Sam Potts comes another visualization of the relationships between the characters, this time in the form of a diagram.

It’s really, really hard to know where exactly to delimit the Great Concavity. Where the novel is vague, a map must be specific, even when it is being demapped. I did the best that makes sense to me.” ~ Sam Potts

Since family is an important theme in the novel, a dotted line represents additional metadata showing a family connection.

The reverence in the designer’s tone as he explicitly points out that the diagram is no substitute for actually reading the novel bespeaks the height of the pedestal Infinite Jest has erected for itself in pop culture:

The best I can hope for in terms of this diagram’s relationship to Infinite Jest is that it’s a) as accurate as I could make it and b) a reminder of the seemingly endless details and pleasures to be found in Wallace’s masterpiece.” ~ Sam Potts

The poster is available as a free downloadable PDF and sold as a 36″ x 24″ print on 80# Lynx Opaque paper for a well-justified $20.

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