Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘art’

07 JANUARY, 2015

The Pleasure of Practicing: A Musician’s Assuring Account of Creative Homecoming and Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

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“When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth.”

In her sublime memoir of the writing life, Dani Shapiro wrote: “The job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.” But the sharpening-and-honing itself rarely feels like a joy when you are mid-leap into the unknown, with no guarantee of whether your daily act of showing up — of practice and perseverance — will ever amount to the development of greatness. After all, Oscar Wilde famously quipped that “only mediocrities develop.” And yet here we are a century later, heeding psychologists’ growing body of evidence that “grit” is far more important than “talent” and that practice with a feedback loop is the surest road to success. Even so, the cult of inborn talent endures — after all, it is hard-baked into our cultural mythology of genius — and continues to oppress aspiring artists. “In every musician’s mind lurks the fear that practicing is merely busywork, that you are either born to your instrument or you are an impostor,” writes Glenn Kurtz in Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (public library) — his spectacular memoir of creative homecoming, brimming with vital and poetically articulated wisdom on the artist’s life, deeply resonant for every field of creative endeavor.

Having grown up playing guitar and working to become a professional musician as a young adult, studying at a conservatory and winning some competitions along the way, Kurtz found himself disillusioned and exasperated with his progress, with the disheartening sense that “ambition and expectation are sometimes not enough.” So he gave up the dream of becoming an artist, borrowed a book from the New York Public Library to learn typing, and got himself a “real” job as an editorial assistant in New York, to which he walked twenty blocks to work every morning, “stunned and heartbroken, a sleepwalker.”

Illustration from 'About Time' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

Kurtz writes:

Every day felt like the waste of my entire life. For fifteen years I had practiced to become an artist. But I’d misunderstood what that meant… Most people give up their fantasies of art, exploration, and invention. I was furious at myself for having believed I was different, and even more furious that I wasn’t.

That anguishing personal emptiness was only compounded by New York’s merciless collective cult of self-actualization, which left Kurtz even more crestfallen about the trajectory of his life:

There was more movement, more intense ambition and envy in one block of New York City than in all of Vienna. But I had no part in it. There was nothing here that I wanted. I was walking home from a boring job, lost in a crowd of blue, gray, and brown business suits, skirting oncoming cars like a scuttling pigeon, because I had given up. My fingers were not to blame; nor were my parents, my teachers, music history, or my instrument. With every step I felt more harshly how I had failed, how fundamentally I had betrayed myself. Out of fear of being mediocre, I’d listened to the wrong voices. I’d been practicing all the wrong things.

[…]

Everyone who gives up a serious childhood dream — of becoming an artist, a doctor, an engineer, an athlete — lives the rest of their life with a sense of loss, with nagging what ifs.

[…]

Only a very few loves can disappoint you so fundamentally that you feel you’ve lost yourself when they’re gone. Quitting music wounded me as deeply as any relationship in my life. It was my first great loss, this innocent, awkward failure to live with what I heard and felt. For more than ten years I avoided music. It hurt too much. My anger went as deep as my love had gone. I suppose this is natural. In the aftermath of something so painful, we subsist on bitterness, which sustains us against even greater loss.

So he did something few have the courage to do — after a fifteen-year detour from his true calling, he decided to let his life speak and face that menacing what-if head on by returning to his great love. That homecoming to music was made possible by his deep commitment to practicing — “a process of continual reevaluation, an attempt to bring growth to repetition,” a delicate act that “teaches us the sweet, bittersweet joy of development, of growth, of change” — day in and day out.

Indeed, anyone who has ever experienced the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow can relate to Kurtz’s electrifying account of this transcendent process-state and easily substitute his or her instrument of choice — the pen, the camera, the keyboard — for his guitar:

Each note rubs the others just right, and the instrument shivers with delight. The feeling is unmistakable, intoxicating. When a guitar is perfectly in tune, its strings, its whole body will resonate in sympathetic vibration, the true concord of well-tuned sounds. It is an ancient, hopeful metaphor, an instrument in tune, speaking of pleasure on earth and order in the cosmos, the fragility of beauty, and the quiver in our longing for love.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

Kurtz captures beautifully the enchanting absorption and tactile immediacy of this creative flow:

I concentrate on the simplest task, to play all the notes at precisely the same moment, with one thought, one motion. It takes a few minutes; sometimes, on bad days, it takes all morning. I take my time. But I cannot proceed without this unity of thought, motion, and sound.

[…]

I play deliberately, building a triangle of sound — fingertip, ear, fingertip — until my hands become aware of each other.

In a sentiment that calls to mind young Virginia Woolf’s memorable meditation on the bodily ecstasy of music, he adds:

My attention warms and sharpens, and I shape the notes more carefully. I remember now that music is vibration, a disturbance in the air. I remember that music is a kind of breathing, an exchange of energy and excitement. I remember that music is physical, not just in the production of sounds, in the instrumentalist’s technique, but as an experience. Making music changes my body, eliciting shivers, sobs, or the desire to dance. I become aware of myself, of these sensations that lie dormant until music brings them out. And in an instant the pleasure, the effort, the ambition and intensity of playing grip me and shake me awake. I feel as if I’ve been wandering aimlessly until now, as if all the time I’m not practicing, I’m a sleepwalker.

[…]

Listening, drawing sound, motion, and thought together, I find my concentration. My imagination opens and reaches out. And in that reaching I begin to recognize myself.

Practicing in such a way, Kurtz points out, is an embodied experience rather than one that takes place in the mind’s maze of abstraction — it makes the “whole body alive with aspiration.” Indeed, these two modalities are often in conflict — in one of his many insightful asides, Kurtz issues an admonition that, like the book itself, applies with equal precision to all creative endeavors:

It’s dangerous for a musician to philosophize instead of practicing. The grandeur of music, to be heard, must be played.

And in the playing — as in the writing, or the painting, or the knitting — is where we find the gateway to mastery:

Each day … practicing is the same task, this essential human gesture — reaching out for an ideal, for the grandeur of what you desire, and feeling it slip through your fingers.

The daily showing up and reaching out is, indeed, where the crucial difference between success and mastery lies, as does Lewis Hyde’s essential dichotomy between work and creative labor. Kurtz captures this elegantly:

Together this pleasure in music and the discipline of practice engage in an endless tussle, a kind of romance. The sense of joy justifies the labor; the labor, I hope, leads to joy. This, at least, is the bargain I quietly make with myself each morning as I sit down. If I just do my work, then pleasure, mastery will follow. Even the greatest artists must make the same bargain.

[…]

Practicing is striving; practicing is a romance. But practicing is also a risk, a test of character, a threat of deeply personal failure… Every day I collide with my limits, the constraints of my hands, my instrument, and my imagination. Each morning when I sit down, I’m bewildered by a cacophony of voices, encouraging and dismissive, joyous and harsh, each one a little tyrant, each one insisting on its own direction. And I struggle to harmonize them, to find my way between them, uncertain whether this work is worth it or a waste of my time.

Illustration from 'The Fantastic Jungles of Henri Rousseau,' the heartening story of how the iconic painter attained creative success in his later years, after a lifetime of hard work and rejection. Click image for more.

Quoting harpsichordist Wanda Landowska — “If everyone knew how to work, everyone would be a genius!” — Kurtz writes:

Practicing is training; practicing is meditation and therapy. But before any of these, practicing is a story you tell yourself, a bildungsroman, a tale of education and self-realization. For the fingers as for the mind, practicing is an imaginative, imaginary arc, a journey, a voyage. You must feel you are moving forward. But it is the story that leads you on.

[…]

From the outside, practicing may not seem like much of a story… Yet practicing is the fundamental story. Whether as a musician, as an athlete, at your job, or in love, practice gives direction to your longing, gives substance to your labor.

Indeed, this fundamental story of practicing is what lies beneath our culture’s fascination with daily routines, which always harbor the question of what propels the impulse to show up day after day after day in the service of one’s private creative enterprise. Kurtz offers a compelling answer:

Every day you go to the gym or sit down at your desk. The work is not always interesting, not always fun. Sometimes it is tedious. Sometimes it is infuriating. Why do you continue? Why did you start in the first place? You must have an answer that helps you persevere… Without telling yourself some story of practicing, without imagining a path to your goal, the aggravation and effort seem pointless. And without faith in the story you create, the hours of doubt and struggle and the endless repetition feel like torture.

[…]

Practicing is a story, but not one in “square time,” not a simple path to perfection. Instead, it is a myth you weave to draw up the many strands of your doubt and desire… The story you tell yourself … must embrace everything you experience when you sit down in the presence of your ideal.

[…]

When you sit down to practice, however casually, you cast yourself as the hero and victim of your own myth. You will encounter obstacles; you will struggle, succeed, and struggle some more. The story of your practice weaves all this together, absorbing what is within you and making it productive. Because when you truly believe your story of practicing, it has the power to turn routine into a route, to resolve your discordant voices, and to transform the harshest, most intense disappointment into the very reason you continue.

Unflinching belief in that master-story is also what allows us to transcend the daily rebellions of our bodies and minds, and to go on practicing:

Artistry may seem divine, but practicing is always mundane. Practice immerses you in your daily self — this body, these moods… You struggle with mistakes and flaws. The work is physical, intellectual, psychological. It can be exhilarating and aggravating, fulfilling and terribly lonesome. But it is always just you, the instrument, and the music, here, now. Practicing is the truth of who you are, today, as you strive to change, to make yourself better, to become someone new. The goal is always to bring old notes to life. Even so, while you sit down to work every day, it may take years before you know what you’ve practiced.

And therein lies Kurtz’s most assuring wisdom:

Limitation is the condition of our lives. What matters — what allows us to reach beyond ourselves, as we are, and push at the boundaries of our ability — is that we continue. But then everything depends on how we practice, what we practice.

[…]

I sit down to practice the fullness of my doubts and desire, my fantasies and flaws. Each day I follow them as far as I can bear it, for now. This is what teaches me my limits; this is what enables me to improve. I think it is the same with anything you seriously practice, anything you deeply love.

Practicing is an infinitely rewarding and ennobling read in its totality. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life and Debbie Millman on the courage to choose the uncertain what-if.

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07 JANUARY, 2015

The Seven Most Important Things I Learned in Seven Years of Reading, Writing, and Living: A Cinematic Adaptation

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Reflections on how to keep the center solid as we continue to evolve.

In the fall of 2013, when Brain Pickings turned seven, I looked back on this digital lifetime in a short essay, reflecting on the seven most important things I had learned in those seven years of reading, writing, and living — notes to myself, shared in the hope that they might help others on their own creative journeys in some small way or simply offer some assurance against the lonesomeness of the path. And yet I was completely surprised — surprised and delighted — by how many kindred spirits from all walks of life reached out, both privately and publicly, to share how deeply these simple life-learnings resonated. Among them were the fine folks of Holstee, who adapted the piece into a gorgeous letterpress poster inspired by vintage children’s book illustration.

Now, the creative team of Dissolve offers a new take in a gorgeous cinematic adaptation, blending unstocky “stock” footage with gentle line-drawing animation and a sensitive music score. Please enjoy:

For more on the full scope of these thoughts, revisit the original essay, then see this related animated essay on wisdom in the age of exploration.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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30 DECEMBER, 2014

The Best Brain Pickings Articles of the Year

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The psychology of the perfect daily routine, how to criticize with kindness, the creative purpose of boredom, Kafka on what books do for the soul, and more.

After the annual reading list of the year’s best books overall, it’s time for the annual summation of the best Brain Pickings articles of the year — “best” meaning those most read and shared by you, as well as those I took the most pleasure in writing. Please (re)enjoy and have an inspired, stimulating, infinitely rewarding new year.

1. An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence

Read the article here.

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2. Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives

Read the article here.

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3. How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

Read the article here.

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4. Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man

Read the article here.

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5. How to Be Alone: An Antidote to One of the Central Anxieties and Greatest Paradoxes of Our Time

Read the article here.

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6. The Hidden Brain: How Ocean Currents Explain Our Unconscious Social Biases

Read the article here.

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7. 7 Life-Learnings from 7 Years of Brain Pickings, Illustrated

Read the article here.

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8. Kafka on Books and What Reading Does for the Human Soul

Read the article here.

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9. The Benjamin Franklin Effect: The Surprising Psychology of How to Handle Haters

Read the article here.

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10. The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long

Read the article here.

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11. E.B. White’s Beautiful Letter to a Man Who Had Lost Faith in Humanity

Read the article here.

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12. Debunking the Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What It Actually Takes to Reach Genius-Level Excellence

Read the article here.

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13. Why We Hurt Each Other: Tolstoy’s Letters to Gandhi on Love, Violence, and the Truth of the Human Spirit

Read the article here.

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14. What It Takes to Design a Good Life

Read the article here.

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15. Fictitious Dishes: Elegant and Imaginative Photographs of Meals from Famous Literature

Read the article here.

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16. March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media

Read the article here.

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17. Legendary Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Why the Capacity for Boredom Is Essential for a Full Life

Read the article here.

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18. The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine

Read the article here.

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19. Why Haters Hate: Kierkegaard Explains the Psychology of Bullying and Online Trolling in 1847

Read the article here.

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20. Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

Read the article here.

Donating = Loving

In 2014, I poured thousands of hours and tons of love into bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings. But it also took some hefty practical expenses to keep things going. If you found any joy and stimulation here over the year, please consider helping me fuel the former and offset the latter by becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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29 DECEMBER, 2014

Pioneering Children’s Book Author, Artist, and Early Twentieth-Century Female Entrepreneur Wanda Gág Reimagines the Brothers Grimm

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A visionary take on classic stories that continue to give us “a tingling, anything-may-happen feeling… the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear.”

Although the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have a long history of creative reimaginings — from quirky vintage interpretations by David Hockney in 1970 and Edward Gorey in 1973 to recent gems like Andrea Dezsö’s enchanting black-and-white illustrations and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful retelling of Hansel and Gretel — few have been as pivotal in the creative history as those by pioneering artist, author, printmaker, and translator Wanda Gág (March 11, 1893–June 27, 1946).

By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm in 1936, Gág — who would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak — was already an icon in her own right. By her early twenties, she was one of only twelve young artists in the entire United States to receive a scholarship to New York’s legendary Art Students League, at the time the country’s most important art school. She was soon making a living as a successful commercial artist, supporting herself by illustrating fashion magazines and painting lampshades, and even became a partner in a toy company.

But if being a financially independent young woman and female entrepreneur in the early 20th century wasn’t already daring enough, in 1923 Gág — who had just been given a one-woman exhibition by the New York Public Library, more than twenty years before Georgia O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective prompted the press to hail her as America’s first female artist — decided to give up commercial illustration and try making a living solely by her art. She moved to an abandoned farm in Connecticut and began to paint for her own pleasure, eventually turning to children’s storytelling. Her 1928 book Millions of Cats, which predated the internet’s favorite meme by many decades and earned Gág the prestigious Newbery Honor and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, is the oldest American picture-book still in print and has been translated into multiple languages, including Braille.

But it was her visionary 1935 picture-book Gone Is Gone: or the Story of a Man Who Wanted to Do Housework — Gág’s retelling of a proto-feminist folktale she learned from her Austro-Hungarian grandmother — that first sparked her interest in translating and reimagining folktales for children. The following year, she set out to translate and illustrate Tales from Grimm (public library) — a remarkable fusion of Gág’s own peasant heritage and her masterful skills as a fine artist.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel: 'A little bird sat in a tree.'

Hansel and Gretel: 'Hansel and Gretel followed gladly enough, and all at once they found themselves in a fair flowery clearing, at the edge of which stood a tiny cottage. The children stood hand in hand and gazed at it in wonder. 'It’s the loveliest house I ever saw,' gasped Gretel, 'and it looks good enough to eat.''

In the introduction, Gág writes of her approach to these familiar stories, or Märchen, which she tells as her grandmother had told them to her over and over:

The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions — tale, fable, legend — are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear…

Spindle, Shuttle and Needle

Spindle, Shuttle and Needle: 'It was just as though fairy fingers were at work.'

Gág began by reading the Grimm tales in their original German, “in order to be influenced as directly as possible by the real spirit of these stories,” and although she at first had no intention of writing her own adaptation, she felt compelled to do so once she realized a literal translation rendered only a few “practically as fresh and lively as they were in the original,” but most “thin, lifeless and clumsy.” She considers her intent to preserve the peculiar magnetism of these stories, many of which are not exclusively German and are “composed by such widely different people as peasants and scholars.” (The story of Cinderella, she points out, “exists in one form or another in the folklore of many countries, such as the English, French, Italian, Greek, Scandinavian, Serbian and Egyptian.”) Gág writes:

I hoped it might be possible — and thought it worth trying — to carry over into the English some of their intimate me-to-you quality, and that comforting solidity which makes their magic more, rather than less, believable.

The fairy world in these stories, though properly weird and strange, has a convincing, three-dimensional character. There is magic, wonder, sorcery, but no vague airy-fairyness about it. The German witches are not wispy wraiths flying in the air — they usually live in neat cottages and wear starched bonnets and spotless aprons.

Cinderella

Cinderella: 'Shake yourself, my little tree, shower shiny clothes on me.'

Cinderella

Doctor Know-It-All

The Musicians of Bremen

The Musicians of Bremen

She makes a special point of setting her adaptation apart from the then-popular simplified and sanitized versions of the originally gory Grimm tales. In a sentiment that J.R.R. Tolkien would come to second decades later in arguing that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Neil Gaiman would echo in asserting that it is inadvisable to protect children from the dark, Gág writes:

True, the careless use of large words is confusing to children; but long, even unfamiliar, words are relished and easily absorbed by them, provided they have enough color and sound-value… A certain amount of “goriness,” if presented with a playful and not too realistic touch, is accepted calmly by the average child. In this way sanguinary passages can be rendered harmless, without depriving them of their salt and vigor.

Six Servants

Six Servants

Six Servants

Six Servants: 'His way took him over a wide heath, and as he was riding along, he saw something in the distance which puzzled him. Was it a haystack? Was it a hill? He could not tell, but coming closer, he saw it was neither a hill nor a haystack. It was the big fat paunch of a big fat man who lay there on his back and gazed lazily at the sky.'

Six Servants: 'By and by they saw a pair of big feet stretched out on the ground. There were legs on the feet too, but they extended so far into the distance that it was impossible to see the full length of them. The Prince and The Fat One walked on, and now the calves, next the knees, then the thighs of those legs came into view. After a while they came to the man’s body and at last they reached his head.'

The Three Brothers

The Three Brothers: 'Then, just as the rabbit ran past them at top speed, he lathered the little animal’s chin and shaved it, leaving enough fur for a stylish pointed beard. All this time the rabbit had been running as fast as he could, and yet he wasn’t cut or hurt in any way.'

The Dragon and His Grandmother

The Dragon and His Grandmother

For all her prescience and genius, Gág makes one remark that renders itself misguided in history’s hindsight:

At fourteen I was still avidly reading fairy tales and hopefully trying out incantations; but in this sophisticated age of the movies, radio, tabloids, and mystery stories, one cannot set the fairy tale age limit over eleven or twelve.

In our era of renewed interest in fairy tales as a literary genre for grownups, it’s hard not to appreciate Gág’s advantageous imprudence — it is, after all, to the benefit of her own book that she was wrong about the age appeal if we modern grownups cherish it today. It makes one wonder, too, whether it is precisely this explosion of media — with so many more new forms since Gág’s heyday — that sparked a counterrevolutionary return to such older storytelling traditions. And it’s a comforting thought: So much is said today about the alleged death of books in the merciless hands of digital media — and yet here is one of the greatest storytellers of her era, making similar predictions about the dismal fate of her medium’s displacement by movies and radio, and being wonderfully wrong.

Clever Elsie

Clever Elsie

The Fisherman and His Wife

The Fisherman and His Wife

The Fisherman and His Wife: 'So the man stood and said, 'Wife, are you now Emperor?''

The Fisherman and His Wife: ''Wife,' said the man, and looked at her right well, 'are you now Pope?''

The Fisherman and His Wife: 'The man slept right well and soundly—he had done much running that day—but the wife could not sleep and tossed herself from one side to the other all through the night and wondered what else she could become, but could think of nothing higher. With that the sun began to rise, and as she saw the rosy dawn she leaned over one end of the bed and looked out of the window. And when she saw the sun coming up: 'Ha!' she thought, 'couldn’t I, too, make the sun and moon go up?''

Gág’s Tales from Grimm is irreplaceably and timelessly wonderful in its entirety. Complement it with the little-known first edition of the Grimm tales, then revisit Gág’s terrific Gone Is Gone and this year’s best children’s books.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.