Brain Pickings

The Ego Trick: Julian Baggini in Search of the Self

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Why “I” is a verb, or what the building blocks of identity have to do with developing compassion.

How “you” are you, really? Character is something we tend to think of as a static, enduring quality, and yet we glorify stories of personal transformation. In reality, our essence oscillates between a set of hard-wired patterns and a fluid spectrum of tendencies that shift over time and in reaction to circumstances. This is exactly what journalist Julian Baggini, co-founder of The Philosopher’s Magazine, tries to reconcile in The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self — a fascinating journey across philosophy, anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, religion and psychology, painting “I” as a dynamic verb rather than a static noun, a concept in conflict with much of common sense and, certainly, with the ideals of Romantic individualism we examined this morning. In his illuminating recent talk at The RSA, Baggini probes deeper into the theory of self-creation and the essence of our identity.

The topic of personal identity is strictly speaking nonexistent. It’s important to recognize that we are not the kind of things that simply popped into existence at birth, continue to exist, the same thing, then die off the cliff edge or go into another realm. We are these very remarkably ordered collections of things. It is because we’re so ordered that we are able to think of ourselves as being singular persons. But there is no singular person there, that means we’re forever changing.” ~ Julian Baggini

For an excellent companion read, you won’t go wrong with Antonio Damasio’s excellent Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

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7 Platforms Changing the Future of Publishing and Storytelling

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Cutting out the middleman, or what the Nobel Peace Prize has to do with harnessing the potential of tablets.

Depending on whom you ask, these are either the best or the worst of times for the written word. As with every other branch of traditional media, the Internet has pushed the publishing industry to a critical inflection point, something we’ve previously discussed. Disrupting the mainstream marketplaces for journalism, literature, and the fundamental conventions of reading and writing themselves, here are seven startups that promise to reshape the way we create and consume ideas.

BYLINER

Byliner, whose beautifully designed site officially launched last week, is easily the most ambitious of the initiatives featured here. The startup is both a publisher, via its Byliner Originals subsidiary, and a discovery platform for longform nonfiction, offering Pandora-like recommendation functionality. The site is already loaded with more than 30,000 pieces, is searchable by author, publication, or topic, and allows writers to create their own pages and interact with audiences.

The startup’s first original offering, Three Cups of Deceit, tells the story of the now-disgraced Nobel Peace Prize nominee and bestselling author Greg Mortenson. National Book Award winner William T. Vollman penned Into the Forbidden Zone, a gripping, Gonzo-style report that had the author venture into Fukushima, Japan with only rubber kitchen gloves, a face mask and a self-procured radiation detector. Other longform exclusives from marquee names like Mary Roach, Mark Bittman, and Buzz Bissinger are forthcoming.

THE ATAVIST

With the tagline, “longer than an article, shorter than a book,” The Atavist considers itself a “boutique publishing house” that turns out bespoke nonfiction and narrative journalism for digital devices. It launched at the end of January with Lifted, a piece by founder and editor (and regular Wired contributor) Evan Ratliff, about one of the most elaborate bank heists in history. The Atavist‘s angle is to present “a new genre of nonfiction, a digital form that lies in the space between long narrative magazine articles and traditional books and e-books.”

Offering original content from well-established journalists and reporters, The Atavist also adds supplementary audio, video, and other contextual info to its selections, which are specifically designed for iPad, iPhone, Kindle and Nook.

UNBOUND

Bringing a crowdfunded model to books, the U.K.-based Unbound has been called the Kickstarter for publishing. Launched at the beginning of June, its idea is straightforward: “Publishing without middlemen. No gatekeepers. Just authors and readers deciding between them what books get to see the light of day.”

Currently only offering a curated selection of both fiction and nonfiction projects, Unbound hopes eventually to open its platform for other authors looking to self-publish. Most exciting for us at Brain Pickings among Unbound‘s first six selections: a potential iPad version of a gem we featured just a month back, The Cloud Collectors Handbook. With only 22 days left to earn funding for production, you can give to author Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s project here.

RED LEMONADE

Bringing the social networking paradigm to publishing, Red Lemonade aims to create a community of writers and readers around fiction and narrative nonfiction. The site’s mission statement stakes out an editorial position, as well:

We avoid labeling what we do but it tends to be risky, socially charged, misbehaving stuff. Red Lemonade is for the writers other publishers are afraid of.

Although Red Lemonade features titles by established (and excellent) authors Lynne Tillman and Matthew Battles, anyone can create an author profile and then annotate existing work. While it remains to be seen whether the website will reach the kind of critical mass necessary for sustained critical input, we’re excited by the works on display so far.

40K BOOKS

So called because its e-titles take 40 minutes to just over an hour to read, 40K Books presents a series of original novellas and nonfiction essays in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The Milan, Italy-based startup impressed us early on both with its price points — 99 cents per purchase — and its strong selection of sci-fi and speculative fiction — including a few fantastic stories by Bruce Sterling — and practical pieces on publishing and the creative process.

Read our full feature on 40K Books here.

THE DOMINO PROJECT

Partnering with Amazon’s Kindle Singles initiative, marketing guru Seth Godin started The Domino Project in early 2011 as a series of manifestos on changemaking. The stand-out so far is author Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work, a powerful instruction manual on how to break through your creative blocks. We’re also totally revved for tomorrow’s release of Derek Sivers’s Anything You Want.

Read our full review of Do the Work here.

TED BOOKS

Of course Brain Pickings was first to the birthday party for TED Books, a nonfiction flash publishing imprint with an editorial vision matching TED’s world-class lecture series. All titles are under 20,000 words, and for $2.99 you can collect Cindy Gallop on sex, Nic Marks on happiness, and Gever Tulley on the dangers of dangerism.

Read our full feature on TED Books here.

Although these seven startups are thrilling, they barely touch on self-publishing, a phenomenon undergoing its own sea changes and seismic shifts. Regardless, for now we’re excited to follow the words, wherever we can find them.

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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BBC’s The Romantics: The Birth of the Individual in Modern Society

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What The French Revolution has to do with the love of nature and the birth of the modern individual.

The great philosopher and writer Jean-Jaques Rousseau (June 28, 1712–July 2, 1778) sparked a new dawn of hope for liberty and equality, ultimately fueling one of the greatest sociopolitical upheavals in the history of our civilization — The French Revolution — and, eventually, the American Revolution. These “Romantic” ideas permeated nearly every facet of culture, from art to politics, and the legacy of his seminal novel, Émile: or, On Education underpins many of the concepts in these 7 must-read books on education.

To celebrate Rousseau’s birthday, here is a fantastic 2005 BBC documentary titled The Romantics, exploring the birth of the individual in modern society. Each of the program’s three parts examines one key aspect of the Romanticism movement. Liberty looks at how Rousseau and his contemporaries, including Denis Diderot, William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, challenged the authority of Church and King to rein in a new era of self-empowerment.

Eternity explores the search for meaning in a world without God, following the revolutions of the 18th century, which forced people to make sense of their new reality outside the sanctions of the Church.

Nature examines how The Industrial Revolution tried to subvert and dominate nature on the path to profit, and how Romantic artists attempted to counter this tension by recasting nature in a context of relevance, approachability and understanding.

For more on Rousseau, the fascinating and honest The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau won’t disappoint.

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