Brain Pickings

The Snark Handbook, Insult Edition: Verbal Sparring Lessons from Literary Greats

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A year ago, The Snark Handbook: A Reference Guide to Verbal Sparring became an instant favorite with its enlightening and entertaining compendium of history’s greatest masterpieces in the art of mockery, contextualizing today’s era of snark-humor and equipping us with the shiniest verbal armor to thrive as victor knights in it. This month, author Lawrence Dorfman is back with a necessary sequel, this time providing the sword: The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition: Comebacks, Taunts, and Effronteries, complete with 50 delightful black-and-white illustrations.

Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” ~ Mark Twain on Jane Austen

It’s a new low for actresses when you have to wonder what’s between her ears instead of her legs.” ~ Katherine Hepburn on Sharon Stone

From strategic instructions on how and when to throw your peers the jabs of well-timed snark to a well-curated collection of history’s most skilled literary insult-maestros, the book is the yellow brick road to what, deep down, you know you always knew you were: Better than everybody else.

I am reading Henry James… and feel myself as one entombed in a block of smooth amber.” ~ Virginia Woolf on Henry James

He was a great friend of mine. Well, as much as you could be a friend of his, unless you were a fourteen-year-old nymphet.” ~ Capote on Faulkner

Sure, The Snark Handbook is the anti-Zen approach to life’s confrontations. Still, it walks the fine line between potent wit and tongue-in-cheek lightheartedness in a way that makes it not just a toolkit but a treat as well. That, or at least a handy 200-pager with which to smack the next fool that crosses you.

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Polaroid Inventor Edwin Land on the 5,000 Steps to Success

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In the fall of 1943, a little girl asked her father why she couldn’t see a photograph immediately after it was taken — a blasphemous proposition in the era’s photographic paradigm. Fortunately, her father happened to be Edwin Land, the iconic inventor and founder of Polaroid Corporation. So rather than dismissing the question as an impossibility, he took it as a challenge, then made history — in February of 1947, the world’s first Polaroid camera hit stores and unleashed one of the most creative movements in the history of the static image.

Upon visiting the MIT Museum this past weekend, which recently acquired the world’s largest collection of Polaroid images and ephemera, we were struck with this quote from Land, displayed alongside some of his sketches:

MIT Museum, Boston

To please the copy-pasters and the SEO algorithms, it reads:

If you dream of something worth doing and then simply go to work on it and don’t think anything of personalities, or emotional conflicts, or of money, or of family distractions; if you just think of, detail by detail, what you have to do next, it is a wonderful dream even if the end is a long way off, for there are about five thousand steps to be taken before we realize it; and start making the first ten, and stay making twenty after, it is amazing how quickly you get through those five thousand steps.” ~ Edwin Land to Polaroid employees, December 23, 1942

Nowhere are Land’s rags-to-riches story and his remarkable entrepreneurial spirit captured better than in Insisting On the Impossible: The Life of Edwin Land, a book by former New York Times columnist Victor McElheny which, although more than a decade old, remains a timeless Polaroid of the thrilling and turbulent world of innovation and entrepreneurship.

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The First Forty Years of NPR: The Making of a Cultural Icon

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Since its inception in 1970, NPR has “always put the listener first” — a mission not always friction-free at times of political turmoil, government overregulation and divided public opinion. This year, the iconic public broadcaster celebrates its 40th anniversary with This Is NPR: The First Forty Years, a beautifully designed anthology of behind-the-scenes photos, essays and original reporting, and NPR: The First Forty Years, a companion 4-CD compilation featuring some of the most memorable moments from 40 years of news, culture, conversation and commentary. (A thematic continuation of the wonderful All Facts Considered compendium by NPR’s lovable librarian, which we featured earlier this week.)

We were ambitious from the beginning. We started literally almost on shoestrings, tin cans and strings. A handful of five reporters, almost no resources and this tiny number of stations. But we knew we were into something that was going to be very important.”

The book covers historical milestones of all kinds, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11 to Obama’s election, and the audio compilation features exclusive commentaries and reflections by some of NPR’s greatest icons, Susan Stamberg, Robert Siegel, Scott Simon, Daniel Schorr, Noah Adams, Cokie Roberts and David Sedaris.

Together, the anniversary duo is a priceless timecapsule of seminal journalism and cultural curation at its finest — we couldn’t recommend it more.

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Hans Rosling for BBC: 200 Countries Over 200 Years in 4 Minutes

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Statistical stuntsman Hans Rosling, mastermind of revolutionary visualization platform Gapminder, is a longtime Brain Pickings darling. From his blockbuster TED talks, better described as performances than mere talks, to his projection of the future of humanity in LEGO, Rosling is easily the most vocal and engaging advocate for data visualization as a sensemaking mechanism for culture and the world.

Now, The Hans strikes again with an absolutely brilliant 4-minute distillation of 200 countries over 200 years, part of BBC’s The Joy of Stats. (An excellent companion to The Beauty of Maps.) With his signature sports commentator style, Rosling narrates two centuries worth of income and life expectancy data in a way he never has before: Using augmented reality animation. To see the impact of historical and political milestones, from colonization to the Industrial Revolution to WWII, in such a visceral way contextualizes these events and their aftermath in a way no history book or verbal storytelling ever could — a living manifesto for the power and importance of data visualization as a storytelling device.

For more on the storytelling and sensemaking art and science of data visualization, the journalistic importance of which we’ve previously examined, we highly recommend Data Flow 2 and Beautiful Data: The Stories Behind Elegant Data Solutions, both of which reference Rosling’s work, among countless other masters of the discipline.

HT @TEDchris

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right and helps pay the bills.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.