From Ben Franklin to Qadafi, or what the Egyptian Revolution has to do with Harry Potter.
Christopher Hitchens — legendary self-described “antitheist”, tea master extraordinaire, one of the most opinionated and controversial journalists of our time and despite that, or precisely because of it, also one of the greatest. Last year, his prolific career — which spanned such iconic titles as Vanity Fair, The Nation and Slate — was derailed by a grim cancer diagnosis. (His Vanity Fair essay on losing his “writer’s voice” as cancer attacked his vocal chords is a must-read.)
…About a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last.”
The anthology collects some of Hitchens’ best recent work — including “America the Banana Republic,” “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” “Iran’s Waiting Game,” and “God of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment” — imbued with his signature style of lucid nonfiction written with the passion and narrative enchantment of really, really good fiction. Unapologetically candid, wryly humorous and keenly insightful, the essays examines such cultural icons as Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Thomas Jefferson, Ezra Pound, Abraham Lincoln, George Orwell, and even Harry Potter in the context of contemporary events, weaving history and present together in Hitchens’ web of timelessness and timeliness as he reflects on the most pressing political and social issues of our time.
From the book’s dedication and introduction:
To the memory of Mohemed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu
The three names on the dedication page belonged to a Tunisian street vendor, and Egyptian restaurateur, and a Libyan husband and father. In the spring of 2011, the first of them set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at just one too many humiliations at the hands of petty officialdom. The second also took his own life as Egyptians began to rebel en masse at the stagnation and meaninglessness of Mubarak’s Egypt. The third, it might be said, gave his life as well as took it: loading up his modest car with petrol and explosives and blasting open the gate of the Katiba barracks in Benghazi — symbolic Bastille of the detested and demented Qadafi regime in Libya.”
Crisp and cunning, Arguably is bound to live on as material for the journalism curricula of the future and a priceless piece of the legacy of one of our era’s sharpest minds.
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What Japan’s manhole covers have to do with Brazil’s favelas and the timeless tradition of Arabic calligraphy.
Street art is a frequent fascination around here. Today, we turn to seven stunning, intelligent books that examine street art from a variety of angles, from the artistic to the sociocultural to the political and beyond, to glean holistic understanding of the ubiquitous, important but often misunderstood medium for public dialogue and civic self-expression.
WoosterCollective is among the most authoritative blogs on street art. Last fall, its founders, Marc and Sara Schiller, poured years’ worth of expertise and insight into Trespass: A History Of Uncommissioned Urban Art — a gorgeous and thoughtful anthology that covers everything from Guatemalan guerrilla gardeners to icons like Banksy and Barry McGee that’s as much an exhaustive compendium of compelling artwork as it is a modern manifesto for activism, democracy and freedom of speech. And since the lavish 320-page volume comes from Taschen, easily the most visually ambitious publisher today, it’s an absolute treat for the eye.
What makes Trespass different from other street art books is that it’s not a street art book. It’s a book that certainly includes street art and graffiti but goes beyond that to also address performance, protest, sculpture, and the whole goal of the book was to really look at the context of street art in a much larger historical perspective.” ~ Marc Schiller
It’s no secret that the the majority of street art coverage in the media, from blogs to books to films, has a severe geographic bias, with a tendency to focus on Western lettering and imagery. Arabic Graffiti is a breath of fresh Eastern air in the global dialogue on street art. The ambitious anthology by Berlin street culture tastemaker Don Karl and Lebanese typographer Pascal Zoghbi explores the use of Arabic script in urban context, curating graffiti artists and typographers from the Middle East and around the world who incorporate Arabic calligraphy styles in their artwork — a beautiful intersection of tradition and contemporary creativity.
Part cultural anthropology, part study in creative ingenuity, Arabic Graffiti is also a timely and needed cross-cultural bridge of visual communication in the context of today’s global political climate. (For more on the subject, see the fantastic Cultural Connectives.)
What makes street art so fascinating is that it isn’t an isolated discipline — rather, it’s the confluence of a myriad cultural phenomena, offers commentary on countless social issues, and borrows inspiration from a multitude of other creative domains. In Street World: Urban Art and Culture from Five Continents (which you might recall from this old piece on Beautiful Losers, the excellent documentary about contemporary street art culture), Roger Gastman, Caleb Neelon and Anthony Smyrski examine street art culture from a holistic standpoint, as it relates to other forms of urban expression — skateboarding, bike messengering, DJing, fashion, gang politics, music, design, photography — and explore how the advent of the Internet has fostered a new global street culture in less than a generation. From New York’s back-alleys to Brazil’s mega-cities to South Africa’s townships, the hefty tome is divided into more than 50 topics, each illustrated with dozens of photographs.
Today, street art is so ubiquitous it’s easy to forget it’s a fairly nascent form of urban dialogue. But where did it begin and how did it make its way around the world? That’s exactly what King Adz explores in Street Knowledge — a fascinating encyclopedia and insider’s guide to street art culture around the world, tracing the evolution of the movement from its groundbreaking days in 1980’s New York to the bleeding-edge work of modern-day Middle Eastern artists. From old-school graffiti legends to modern street art icons, including film-makers, designers, DJ’s, writers and poets, the book reveals the deep and lateral propagation of street art across just about every aspect of contemporary culture.
From interviews with some of world’s most influential street art talent, including Banksy, Quik, Shepard Fairey and the Obey crew, Martha Cooper, David LaChapelle and Tony Kaye, to profiles of up-and-comers from across the globe, Street Knowledge also places the featured street art in the context of the cities where it appears, doubling as an underground guide to the hottest art, culture, music, fashion, dining and film spots in some of the world’s most exciting cities.
In 2008, our friends at Mark Batty released the excellent Urban Iran — a gripping, visually stunning anthology by photographers Karan Rashid and Sina Araghi exploring the rich spectrum of street art across Iran’s cities and countryside.
Alongside the lavish visual spreads are illuminating essays that examine the artwork in a sociopolitical context, bridging this faceted visual landscape with the cultural undercurrents that power it.
What makes the project particularly intriguing is that it came mere months before the 2009 Iranian uprisings, but the content and context of the street art themes featured in the book — censorship, rebellion, political disillusionment, a yearning for justice and democracy — presage what was to come.
Street art is considered a subculture in and of itself, but the fact remains that it’s divisible into a great diversity of subgenres itself. Among the most fascinating is Japan’s unusual style of manhole cover graffiti, cataloged in Drainspotting — a stunning photographic anthology of the remarkable street art gems found across nearly 95% of the country’s 1780 municipalities. With their bold colors and dramatic motifs, from doves to dragons, the book’s 100 photographs capture the best and most visually compelling of Japan’s 6000 distinct manhole cover designs, part of a 20-year beautification program, orchestrated by what’s essentially Japan’s version of the WPA, aiming to make manholes reflect the uniqueness of each city — its mythology, its aesthetic sensibility, its legacy and essence.
The cherry on top? There’s also a Drainspotting iPad app, a beautiful homage to the classic Japanese intersection of art and technology. The app uses geolocation, inviting users to drainspot Japan, scavenger-hunt-style, and discover more examples of this unique visual subculture that didn’t make the book.
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A vintage signpost for how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.
In 1967, CBS aired an episode of the network’s CBS Reports series exploring homosexuality, a topic so taboo and controversial at the time that it took three years in the making, several revisions and a change of two producers to finally air the program. Titled The Homosexuals, the hour-long broadcast was anchored by Mike Wallace, whom you may recall from his provocative conversation with Ayn Rand on morality and love as a business deal, and was the first American network documentary to ever explore the topic of homosexuality on national television. It featured interviews with a number of gay men from San Francisco, Philadelphia, Charlotte and New York, legal experts, cultural critics, priests and psychiatrists, as well as footage of young men interacting in a gay bar and a teenager being arrested during a police sting operation, complete with psychoanalysis that pegged it all on the inevitable domineering mother.
Particularly poignant is this short interview with a young man identified as “Warren Adkins,” who is in fact the prominent gay rights activist Jack Jichols, founder of the Mattachine Society:
The innermost aspects of a person’s personality is his sexual orientation, and I can’t imagine myself giving this up, and I don’t think most other people who are sure of their sexuality, whether they’re homosexuals or heterosexuals, can imagine giving that up either.”
When asked about the “cause” of his homosexuality and whether he dwells on it, Nichols responds with a kind of quiet bravery certainly far ahead of its time and in many ways still more evolved than the opinions of many on the subject even today:
I have thought about it, but it really doesn’t concern me very much. I never would imagine if I had blond hair that I would worry about what genes and what chromosomes caused my blond hair, or if I had brown eyes… My homosexuality to me is very much in the same category. I feel no more guilt about my homosexuality or about my sexual orientation than a person with blond hair or with dark skin or with light skin would feel about what they had.”
As part of the research for the broadcast, CBS conducted a survey that found 90% of Americans saw homosexuality as an illness and the vast majority favored legal punishment even for homosexual acts done in private between two consenting adults. But what’s most fascinating is that the segment portrays gay men — and, mind you, completely neglects gay women as part of the homosexual community — as inherently promiscuous, incapable of sustaining long-term monogamous relationships. And yet, even as we cringe at the general trauma and civil rights failures around the issue in 1967, here we are nearly half a century later, still debating gay marriage and questioning the rights of those men and women who do want to legally enact these loving long-term monogamous relationships. One has to wonder whether a documentary on today’s gay rights opponents would sound just as foreign and antiquated half a century from now.
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