Brain Pickings

If Librarians Were Honest

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“If librarians were honest, they would say, No one spends time here without being changed…”

My mother was trained in library science, but went on to have a career in software systems. Perhaps it was this epigenetic guilt that planted the unconscious seed for Brain Pickings — my personal digital archive of reading — which was born, twenty-one years after my mother completed the degree she would never use, in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the world’s first subscription library. As library-lover Steve Jobs memorably remarked, “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards,” and these formative dots have since been connected to paint a clear picture of my deep love of libraries — those most democratic cultural temples of wisdom where we come to commune with humanity’s most luminous minds; where the rewards are innumerable and destiny-changing, and the only price of admission is willingness. Between the walls of the library are the building blocks of the most powerful technology of thought there is.

That’s what Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer, cofounders of the The Library as Incubator project, celebrate in The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide (public library) — an imaginative and practical collection of artists’ stories and ideas for how to use the library as a sandbox for creativity, a productivity-booster for your work, and a source of immense nourishment for the life of the mind. What emerges is an invaluable tool for any artist, by the wonderfully loose definition of “a person who learns and uses creative tools and techniques to make new things.”

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile in San Francisco.' Click image for more.

The practical tips and exercises are interspersed with various meditations by artists, the most delightful of which is a poem by Joseph Mills — a nomadic poet who gets a library card every time he moves in order to root himself in each new city.

Befittingly, in the context of free libraries, the poem begins with Benjamin Franklin’s colorful complaint as an epigraph of sorts:

IF LIBRARIANS WERE HONEST

“…a book indeed sometimes debauched me from my work…”
–Benjamin Franklin

If librarians were honest,
they wouldn’t smile, or act
welcoming. They would say,
You need to be careful. Here
be monsters. They would say,
These rooms house heathens
and heretics, murderers and
maniacs, the deluded, desperate,
and dissolute.
They would say,
These books contain knowledge
of death, desire, and decay,
betrayal, blood, and more blood;
each is a Pandora’s box, so why
would you want to open one.

They would post danger
signs warning that contact
might result in mood swings,
severe changes in vision,
and mind-altering effects.
If librarians were honest
they would admit the stacks
can be more seductive and
shocking than porn. After all,
once you’ve seen a few
breasts, vaginas, and penises,
more is simply more,
a comforting banality,
but the shelves of a library
contain sensational novelties,
a scandalous, permissive mingling
of Malcolm X, Marx, Melville,
Merwin, Millay, Milton, Morrison,
and anyone can check them out,
taking them home or to some corner
where they can be debauched
and impregnated with ideas.
If librarians were honest,
they would say, No one
spends time here without being
changed. Maybe you should
go home. While you still can.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton from 'Meanwhile in San Francisco.' Click image for more.

Mills tells Batykeffer and Damon-Moore:

Lending libraries are beautiful in their basic ideals. In enabling people to educate themselves they are the most empowering and humanistic of institutions.

Forty years after getting my own first card (at the Shawnee Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana), I still feel a sense of amazement at having access to so many materials. In a very real way, libraries have shaped who I am.

The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide is an immeasurable delight in its entirety. Complement it with a photographic love letter to public libraries, Thoreau on his ideal sanctuary for books, and these marvelous vintage ads for libraries.

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Oliver Button Is a Sissy: A Sweet Vintage Celebration of Difference and the Courage to Withstand Stereotypes

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An illustrated homage to those who brave the violence of our narrow cultural norms.

Childhood, as a cultural construct, is a fairly recent invention — it wasn’t until John Locke that we stopped seeing children as simpler, lesser versions of adults and granted them the dignity of a singular experience in a life-stage marked by enormous emotional complexity. Today, we recognize children’s reality as decidedly different from but not lesser than adults’ — an idea passionately defended by the great enchanters of children’s imagination. And from their singular vantage point of absolute sincerity, kids are able to call out the faults in our grownup reality — like the little boy who confronted Disney about their racial and gender stereotypes.

But childhood can also be a gruesome microcosm of our human capacity for cruelty — perhaps nowhere more so than in precisely that tyranny of stereotypes and the bullying it engenders.

In the 1979 gem Oliver Button Is a Sissy (public library) — a fine addition to the best LGBT children’s books — beloved children’s book author and illustrator Tomie dePaola (b. September 15, 1934) tells the story of a little boy who doesn’t enjoy doing all the boy-things expected of him and finds himself, like many kids have, bullied for preferring more creative and “feminine” pastimes.

The marvelous illustrations are reminiscent of early Maurice Sendak — incidentally, another gay man who was bullied for being an artsy “sissy” as a child — yet dePaola’s sensibility is unmistakably his own.

We meet little Oliver, who prefers drawing and reading and picking flowers to playing sports. And when he has to do the latter, he is decidedly bad at it — so bad that the team captain always bemoans being stuck with klutzy Oliver Button.

Oliver likes to play dress-up in the attic, so he can sing and dance and dream of being a star. Most of all, he likes to tap-dance.

But even his parents aren’t comfortable with Oliver’s difference, so when they finally agree to send him to Ms. Leah’s Dancing School, his father mumbles the self-conscious justification that it’s “for the exercise.”

At the dance school and at home, Oliver practices with joy. At school, he endures the boys’ constant teasing about his tap shoes — and when the girls leap to his defense, he is teased all the more for having to get help from the girls.

To make matters even more unambiguous and publicly humiliating, the bullies graffiti the school wall.

But Oliver isn’t discouraged. Instead, he does as Neil Gaiman counseled in his spectacular commencement address — when face with criticism and rejection, the only sensible response is to keep making art. He continues to practice, determined to dazzle at the upcoming school talent show.

When the big day comes, Oliver gives it his very best, tap-dancing up a storm. His final bow is followed by exuberant applause.

But when the winner is announced — baton-twirler Roxie Valentine — Oliver can barely hold back his tears.

The next day, he can’t bear the thought of going to class — but go he must. Crestfallen, he makes his way to school and is the last to go in when the bell rings. But then something miraculous happens — one of those small mercies that can change a life, an act that calls to mind George Saunders on the power of kindness. Having seen Oliver for who he really is, through the art he so loves, the boys have revised their graffiti.

Oliver’s story is closely based on dePaola’s own childhood experience — a gay man, he grew up in an era where he didn’t even know what “gay” meant and only felt a profound, aching sense of difference. He recounts:

I could spend hours drawing, and nobody ever asked me to play on their ball teams because I was so bad at it. But, like Oliver, I was a great tap dancer!

Fortunately for dePaola, and even more fortunately for us, he did what Oliver did — he just kept making art and went on to delight generations with his warm, wonderful, deeply assuring children’s books.

Complement the wholly wonderful Oliver Button Is a Sissy with children’s heartwarming responses to gender politics from the same era, then revisit Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, a tender story about gender identity and acceptance.

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Diane Ackerman on the Secret Life of the Senses and the Measure of Our Aliveness

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“The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop…”

“How do you know but that every bird that cleaves the aerial way is not an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?” So marveled William Blake two centuries before we had the tools to confirm that, at the very least, every dog is a world of delight closed to our limited powers of sensorial perception. Out of such seemingly simple discoveries across the animal kingdom sprang the rattling realization that our notion of “reality” is really a plurality of radically divergent impressions, shaped by the singular biases of perception that each of us brings to our experience of the world. The same sliver of “reality” — a table, a flower, a city block — is experienced in a wholly different way by a bird, a dog, Blake, and you.

That plurality is what science historian and poet Diane Ackerman explores with unparalleled elegance in A Natural History of the Senses (public library) — her 1990 masterwork of science and poetics, which gave us the fascinating inner workings of smell.

Ackerman writes:

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses… Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality.

Art by William Blake for John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.' Click image for more.

Ackerman goes on to explore the biological machinery behind each of our senses as a function of consciousness and although the book is strewn with shimmering prose from cover to cover, it is in the closing pages that her sensibility rises toward Blake’s, folding the physical into the poetic in order to transcend it and enter the realm of the spiritual. Ackerman writes:

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.

[…]

Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth. In REM sleep, our brain waves range between eight and thirteen hertz, a frequency at which flickering light can trigger epileptic seizures. The tremulous earth quivers gently at around ten hertz. So, in our deepest sleep, we enter synchrony with the trembling of the earth. Dreaming, we become the Earth’s dream.

How wonderfully befitting that Ackerman, a Thoreau of science, should call to mind Thoreau himself and his defiant defense of “useful ignorance” in her closing lines:

It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery. However many of life’s large, captivating principles and small, captivating details we may explore, unpuzzle, and learn by heart, there will still be vast unknown realms to lure us. If uncertainty is the essence of romance, there will always be enough uncertainty to make life sizzle and renew our sense of wonder. It bothers some people that no matter how passionately they may delve, the universe remains inscrutable. “For my part,” Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

A Natural History of the Senses, equal parts illuminating and elevating in its entirety, was followed by Ackerman’s equally magnificent A Natural History of Love. Complement this particular segment with Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is central to morality, Annie Dillard on how to live with mystery, and Wendell Berry on the essential role of ignorance in human progress.

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Tolkien Reads from The Hobbit in Rare Archival Audio from His First Encounter with a Tape Recorder

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“He was Gollum — as dark as darkness, except for two big round pale eyes.”

J.R.R. Tolkien (January 3, 1892–September 2, 1973) firmly believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and that creative fantasy serves to set the ageless human imagination free. Nowhere was Tolkien’s ethos more perfectly enacted than in his 1937 fantasy novel The Hobbit (public library), a book so beloved that Tolkien’s own little-known illustrations for the original edition have been reimagined by great artists around the world in the decades since its publication.

In August of 1952, having just finished the manuscript of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took a vacation in Worcestershire, where he stayed with his friend George Sayer, an English Master at the local college. To entertain his guest one evening, Sayer pulled out an early portable tape recorder. Although the technology had been around for some time, it was only just becoming commercially available and Tolkien hadn’t seen one before. Intrigued by how it worked, he joked that he “ought to cast out any devil that might be in it” by recording himself reading the Lord’s Prayer in his beloved ancient Gothic language. The result delighted him, and he went on to read from his own work.

In this rare archival recording from that serendipitous summer evening, sixty-year-old Tolkien reads from The Hobbit, doing a magnificent impression of Gollum in the ancient accent he so loved — please enjoy:

Complement with Mary Oliver reading from Blue Horses, Frank O’Hara reading his “Metaphysical Poem,” Susan Sontag reading her short story “Debriefing,” Dorothy Parker reading her poem “Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom,” and Chinua Achebe reading his little-known poetry, then revisit the forgotten children’s book Tolkien wrote and illustrated for his own kids.

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