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05 DECEMBER, 2013

The 13 Best Art and Design Books of 2013

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Imaginative maps, illuminating infographics, literary cats, vintage Soviet propaganda, Gertrude Stein’s favorite objects, and other treats for eye and spirit.

After the year’s best psychology and philosophy books and best biographies, memoirs, and history books, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the finest art and design tomes published this year. (Catch up on last year’s best art books here and best design books here, then revisit the 2011 roundup here — one thing that truly great art and design books have in common is timeless mesmerism, independent of publication date.)

1. SELF-PORTRAIT AS YOUR TRAITOR

“Still this childish fascination with my handwriting,” young Susan Sontag wrote in her diary in 1949. “To think that I always have this sensuous potentiality glowing within my fingers.” This is the sort of sensuous potentiality that comes aglow in Self-Portrait as Your Traitor (public library) — the magnificent collection of hand-lettered poems and illustrated essays by friend-of-Brain-Pickings and frequent contributor Debbie Millman. In the introduction, design legend Paula Scher aptly describes this singular visual form as a “21st-century illuminated manuscript.” Personal bias aside, these moving, lovingly crafted poems and essays — some handwritten, some drawn with colored pencils, some typeset in felt on felt — vibrate at that fertile intersection of the deeply personal and the universally profound.

In “Fail Safe,” her widely read essay-turned-commencement-address on creative courage and embracing the unknown from the 2009 anthology Look Both Ways, Millman wrote:

John Maeda once explained, “The computer will do anything within its abilities, but it will do nothing unless commanded to do so.” I think people are the same — we like to operate within our abilities. But whereas the computer has a fixed code, our abilities are limited only by our perceptions. Two decades since determining my code, and after 15 years of working in the world of branding, I am now in the process of rewriting the possibilities of what comes next. I don’t know exactly what I will become; it is not something I can describe scientifically or artistically. Perhaps it is a “code in progress.”

Self-Portrait as Your Traitor, a glorious large-format tome full of textured colors to which the screen does absolutely no justice, is the result of this progress — a brave and heartening embodiment of what it truly means, as Rilke put it, to live the questions; the stunning record of one woman’s personal and artistic code-rewriting, brimming with wisdom on life and art for all.

Originally featured in November. See an exclusive excerpt here, then take a peek at Debbie’s creative process here.

2. ART AS THERAPY

The question of what art is has occupied humanity since the dawn of recorded history. For Tolstoy, the purpose of art was to provide a bridge of empathy between us and others, and for Anaïs Nin, a way to exorcise our emotional excess. But the highest achievement of art might be something that reconciles the two: a channel of empathy into our own psychology that lets us both exorcise and better understand our emotions — in other words, a form of therapy.

In Art as Therapy (public library), philosopher Alain de Botton — who has previously examined such diverse and provocative subjects as why work doesn’t work, what education and the arts can learn from religion, and how to think more about sex — teams up with art historian John Armstrong to examine art’s most intimate purpose: its ability to mediate our psychological shortcomings and assuage our anxieties about imperfection. Their basic proposition is that, far more than mere aesthetic indulgence, art is a tool — a tool that serves a rather complex yet straightforwardly important purpose in our existence:

Like other tools, art has the power to extend our capacities beyond those that nature has originally endowed us with. Art compensates us for certain inborn weaknesses, in this case of the mind rather than the body, weaknesses that we can refer to as psychological frailties. … Art holds out the promise of inner wholeness.

'What hope might look like.' Henry Matisse, 'Dance' (II), 1909.

De Botton and Armstrong go on to outline the seven core psychological functions of art — remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth, and appreciation — which you can read about at length in the original article, featured in October.

3. THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF CATS

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell proclaimed in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012 and among the finest pet-related books of all time. Cats, on the other hand — despite their long history as literary muses, poetic devices, creative catalysts, and targets of artful grievances — are largely about something else, about some facet or other of our human needs, desires, and conceits: our relationships, our cities, our grappling with mortality.

So bespeaks The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (public library), the highly anticipated feline sequel to last year’s canine edition — a shiny, well-fed tome that gathers the best cat-coddling articles, essays, short stories, poems, cartoons, covers, and other feats of literature and art from the New Yorker archives. Spanning nearly nine decades, the collection featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, James Thurber, Susan Orlean, and even the patron saint of “the other side,” famed dog-lover E. B. White.

In the foreword, the great New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane lays out the decrees of cat-connoisseurship:

The first rule of felinology: you need to learn to look at cats down to the last whisker, every bit as closely as they look at you. To them, remember, nothing is lost in the dark.

And another solemn dictum:

Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity. Believing is seeing.

Lane considers the singular allure of using the feline psyche as literary fodder:

This will never be anything but challenging, even if you wear motorcycle gauntlets and a knight’s visor, but it remains a quest to which many writers are lured. Perhaps they view it as a kind of scratching post — ready-made, abrasive chance to sharpen their natural skills.

Even Joyce, Lane tells us, was privy to it — in the fourth chapter of Ulysses, he tackled a “very specific quandary, the spelling of a cat’s ululation … and came up with the infinitesimal swell of ‘mkgnao’ into ‘mrkgnao.’” Lane illustrates the affectionate absurdity of it all with a tongue-in-cheek invitation: “Try both, out loud, but not after eating crackers, and see if you can tell them apart.”

More than anything, however, the anthology embodies the cat’s defining characteristic: its cluster of opposites, rolled together into a giant hairball of cultural attitudes — something, perhaps, at once uncomfortably and assuringly reflective of our own chronically conflicted selves. Lane writes:

So it is, as this well-fed book stretches out in languor, that the array of feline opposites starts to emerge. Cats must be destroyed; cats should be saved. Cats are like us; no, cats are not of this world. Cats can be savored for their fellowship, then eaten for their flesh. . . . Cats exist in these pages, as they do throughout our lives, both as obsessively singular … and as a barely controllable mass, doomed to proliferate forever, like poison ivy or biographies of Napoleon. Above all, for every cat who is liked, accepted or worshipped from afar, there is another who peers into our eyes — those hopeless orbs, superfluous at night — and spies only horror, indifference, and fear.

Indeed, despite the bountiful and often ardent cat-lovers among literary history’s famous pet-owners, Lane challenges the very notion that cats and literature go together:

Perhaps we need to rethink the assumption, deep-rooted but far from well grounded, that writers and cats are a good mix. Sure, Mark Twain had cats, such as Sour Mash and Blatherskite, and, up at the more louche and loping end of American literature, in the life and work of Poe, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Edward Gorey, and Stephen King, you are never that far from the patter of ominous paws; whether a cat has been reared on a diet of neat Burroughs would find a niche at The New Yorker, however, is open to debate. We aim at the scrutable, the translucent, the undrugged, and the verified; whether we even get close is not for us to say, but such aspirations find no echo in the bosom of the cat. The cat sneers at clarity and career plans, and even its major stratagems can be dropped upon a whim. . . .

One of the best pieces in the collection, both for the sheer joy of exquisite language and for its disarming insight into the baffling paradoxes of the human-feline psychic bond, is a long 2002 feature by Susan Orlean, titled “The Lady and the Tigers.” Beyond the undeniable freakshow mesmerism of a true story about a New Jersey woman who owns more than two dozen tigers for no other reason than her intense love for the species, the essay, much like good visual caricature, also reveals a whole lot about the psychology of our ordinary relationships with small domestic cats through this woman’s extraordinary relationship with her gigantic felines. Take, for instance, the evolution of the woman’s tiger menagerie:

After arriving in Jackson, Byron-Marasek got six more tigers — Bengal, Hassan, Madras, Marco, Royal, and Kizmet — from McMillan and from Ringling Brothers. The next batch — Kirin, Kopan, Bali, Brunei, Brahman, and Burma — were born in the back yard after Byron-Marasek allowed her male and female tigers to commingle. More cubs were born, and more tigers obtained, and the tiger population of Holmeson’s Corner steadily increased. Byron-Marasek called her operation the Tigers Only Preservation Society. Its stated mission was, among other things, to conserve all tiger species, to return captive tigers to the wild, and “to resolve the human/tiger conflict and create a resolution.”

And so we get the perfect Orleanean spear at the heart of the human condition in all its absurdity:

You know how it is — you start with one tiger, then you get another and another, then a few are born and a few die, and you start to lose track of details like exactly how many tigers you actually have.

Tucked between the essays and short stories are also a number of delightful poems, such as this 1960 gem by Ted Hughes:

TOMCATS

Daylong this tomcat lies stretched flat
As an old rough mat, no mouth and no eyes.
Continual wars and wives are what
Have tattered his ears and battered his head.

Like a bundle of old rope and iron
Sleeps till blue dusk. Then reappear
His eyes, green as ringstones: he yawns wide red,
Fangs fine as a lady’s needle and bright.

A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain’s there

On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom:
That was at Barnborough. The tomcat still
Grallochs odd dogs on the quiet,
Will take the head clean off your simple pullet.

Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point-blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings

Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon
Nightly over the round world of men
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.

(The poem was penned the year Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, was born — a child nursed on nursery rhymes — so one can’t help but find in Hughes’s playful verses the hint of an irreverent nursery rhyme.)

In his 1992 piece “Cat Man,” George Steiner tells the story of “the most illustrious, compelling cat in the history of literature” — a Montparnasse tabby named Bébert, who was abandoned by his Germany-bound owners at the onset of WWII and met his second owner, the novelist, physician and “manic crank” Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, better-known as Céline, in Paris. Bébert promptly proceeded to enthrall the man into describing him as “magic itself, tact by wavelength.” When the cat’s time came in his Sphinx-like years at the end of 1952, the obituary Destouches wrote — rivaled only by E. B. White’s remembrance of his beloved dog Daisy — was nothing short of a literary micro-masterpiece:

After many an adventure, jail, bivouac, ashes, all of Europe … he died agile and graceful, impeccably, he had jumped out the window that very morning. . . . We, who are born old, look ridiculous in comparison!

Perhaps the most recurring theme of all, however, is the concept of the cat not as an extension of the human self, as a dog might be, but rather as something otherworldly, mysterious, with a mind of its own onto which we may project our human intentions and interpretations, but one which we will ultimately never comprehend — a force of nature, often as uncontrollable as its elements, as in this 1960 poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

ELECTRICAL STORM

Dawn an unsympathetic yellow.
Cra-aack! — dry and light.
The house was really struck.
Crack! A tinny sound, like a dropped tumbler.
Tobias jumped in the window, got in bed —
silent, his eyes bleached white, his fur on end.
Personal and spiteful as a neighbor’s child,
thunder began to bang and bump the roof.
One pink flash;
then hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls.
Dead-white, wax-white, cold —
diplomats’ wives’ favors
from an old moon party —
they lay in melting windrows
on the red ground until well after sunrise.
We got up to find the wiring fused,
no lights, a smell of saltpetre,
and the telephone dead.

The cat stayed in the warm sheets.
The Lent trees had shed all their petals:
wet, stuck, purple, among the dead-eye pearls.

Originally featured in October, with lots more art and excerpts.

4. INTERACTION OF COLOR: 50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

“Hundreds of people can talk, for one who can think,” John Ruskin wrote, “but thousands of people can think, for one who can see.” “We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object,” Alexandra Horowitz lamented in her sublime meditation on looking. Hardly anyone has accomplished more in revolutionizing the art of seeing than German-born American artist, poet, printmaker, and educator Josef Albers, as celebrated for his iconic abstract paintings as he was for his vibrant wit and spellbinding presence as a classroom performer. In 1963, he launched into the world what would become the most influential exploration of the art, science, psychology, practical application, and magic of color — an experiment, radical and brave at the time, seeking to cultivate a new way of studying and understanding color through experience and trial-and-error rather than through didactic, theoretical dogma. Half a century later, Interaction of Color (public library), with its illuminating visual exercises and mind-bending optical illusions, remains an indispensable blueprint to the art of seeing.

Albers, who headed the legendary Black Mountain College that shaped such luminaries as Zen composer John Cage and reconstructionist Ruth Asawa, lays out the book’s beautifully fulfilled and timeless promise in the original introduction:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.

First, it should be learned that one and the same color evokes innumerable readings. Instead of mechanically applying or merely implying laws and rules of color harmony, distinct color effects are produced-through recognition of the interaction of color-by making, for instance, two very different colors look alike, or nearly alike.

THE RELATIVITY OF COLOR

A color has many faces, and one color can be made to appear as two different colors. Here it is almost unbelievable that the left small and the right small squares are part of the same paper strip and therefore are the same color. And no normal human eye is able to see both squares -- alike.

Albers defied the standard academic approach of “theory and practice,” focusing instead on “development of observation and articulation,” with an emphasis not only on seeing color, but also feeling the relationships between colors. He writes:

[Interaction of Color] reverses this order and places practice before theory, which after all, is the conclusion of practice. … Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical — neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side — so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color. This is parallel to the recognition that no theory of composition by itself leads to the production of music, or of art.

Practical exercises demonstrate through color deception (illusion) the relativity and instability of color. And experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. What counts here — first and last — is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision — seeing. Seeing here implies Schauen (as in Weltanschauung) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination.

AFTERIMAGE EFFECT

The 'afterimage effect' demonstrates the interaction of color caused by interdependence of color: On the left are yellow circles of equal diameter which touch each other and fill out a white square. There is a black dot in its center. On the right is an empty white square, also with a centered black dot. Each is on a black background. After staring for half a minute at the left square, shift the focus suddenly to the right square. Instead of the usual color-based afterimage that would complement the yellow circles with blue, their opposite, a shape-based afterimage is manifest as diamond shapes -- the 'leftover' of the circles -- are seen in yellow. This illusion double, reversed afterimage is sometimes called contrast reversal.

To mark the book’s fiftieth anniversary, here is an excerpt from a fantastic Design Matters conversation with Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and Philip Tiongson, who designed the magnificent iPad app accompanying the new edition of the book, who discuss Albers’s far-reaching legacy and his fundamental contributions to our everyday understanding of color:

Albers believed that in normal seeing, we use our eyes so much because the world is controlled by our vision, but we become so accustomed to it that we take things for granted. And when he talked about visual perception, he meant something much more profound than just the way we look at the world — he would stop and look at the world, look at the smallest object, smallest event, and see through it in a deep kind of way. … He would see magic, he would see something deeper. And he believed that the majority of people just missed the true reality — it was available for everyone to see, but nobody was looking. And that was where his notion of “to open eyes” really comes from.

Originally featured in August — read the full article here.

5. MAPPING MANHATTAN

“New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation … so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul,” E. B. White memorably wrote in his 1949 masterpiece Here Is New York. And indeed what a canvas of glorious shared eclecticism Gotham is — city of cats and city of dogs, city of beloved public spaces and beloved secret places, of meticulous order and sparkling chaos, but above all a city of private memories woven together into one shared tapestry of belonging.

Maps, meanwhile, have long held unparalleled storytelling power as tools of propaganda, imagination, obsession, and timekeeping. From Denis Wood’s narrative atlas to Paula Scher’s stunning typo-cartographic subjectivity maps impel us to overlay the static landscape with our dynamic lived experience, our impressions, our selves.

The convergence of these two — New York’s extraordinary multiplicity and the emotive storytelling power of maps — is precisely what Becky Cooper set out to explore in an ongoing collaborative art project that began in an appropriately personal manner: The summer after her freshman year of college in 2008, Cooper became an accidental cartographer when she was hired to help map all of Manhattan’s public art. As she learned about mapping and obsessively color-coded the locations, she considered what it took to make “a map that told an honest story of a place” and was faced with the inevitable subjectivity of the endeavor, realizing that an assemblage of many little subjective portraits revealed more about a place than any attempt at a “complete” map.

And so the idea was born — to assemble a collaborative portrait of the city based on numerous individual experiences, memories, and subjective impressions. She painstakingly hand-printed a few hundred schematic maps of Manhattan on the letterpress in the basement of her college dorm, then walked all over the island, handing them to strangers and asking them to draw “their Manhattan,” then mail the maps back to her — which, in a heartening antidote to Gotham’s rumored curmudgeonly cynicism, they readily did. Dozens of intimate narratives soon filled her inbox — first loves, last goodbyes, childhood favorites, unexpected delights. In short, lives lived.

Off The Grid (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

The finest of them are now collected Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers (public library) — a tender cartographic love letter to this timeless city of multiple dimensions, parallel realities, and perpendicular views, featuring contributions from both strangers and famous New Yorkers alike, including Brain Pickings favorites like cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson, artist-philosopher Yoko Ono, wire-walked Philippe Petit, The Map as Art author Katharine Harmon and Paris vs. New York creator Vahram Muratyan, as well as prominent New Yorkers like writer Malcolm Gladwell and chef David Chang.

Malcolm Gladwell, writer (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Yoko Ono, visual artist, musician, and activist (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

Cooper writes of the project:

The maps were like passports into strangers’ worlds. … I talked to gas station workers, MTA employees, artists, tourists, and veterans; to Columbia med students, Mister Softee drivers, city planners, San Francisco quilters, bakery owners, street cart vendors, Central park portraitists, jazz musicians, Watchtower distributors, undergrads, can collectors, and mail carriers. … These are their maps. Their ghosts. Their past loves. Their secret spots. Their favorite restaurants. These are their accidental autobiographies: when people don’t realize they’re revealing themselves, they’re apt to lay themselves much more bare.

[…]

I hope to show Manhattan as a cabinet of curiosities, a container of portals to hundreds of worlds; if I’ve succeeded, this portrait of the city will be as true as any of the seventy-five others.

Vahram Muratyan, French graphic artist (©Becky Cooper courtesy Abrams Image)

The inimitable Adam Gopnik — a New Yorker’s New Yorker — writes in the foreword:

Maps and memories are bound together, a little as songs and love affairs are. The artifact envelops the emotion, and then the emotion stores away in the artifact: We hear ‘All the Things You Are’ or ‘Hey There Delilah’ just by chance while we’re in love, and then the love is forever after stored in the song. … This attachment requires no particular creative energy. It just happens. … Maps, especially schematic ones, are the places where memories go not to die, or be pinned, but to live forever.

Gopnik pads the metaphorical with the scientific, echoing Richard Dawkins, who famously speculated that drawing maps may have “boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross,” and turns to the brain:

Cognitive science now insists that our minds make maps before they take snapshots, storing in schematic form the information we need to navigate and make sense of the world. Maps are our first mental language, not our latest. The photographic sketch, with its optical hesitations, is a thing we force from history; the map, with its neat certainties and foggy edges, looks like the way we think.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E. B. White wrote. “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” It is this poetry of the internal engine — the emotional excess necessary for creativity, the compressed feeling bursting out of the poet’s soul like a rocket — that Gopnik, too, observes in reverence:

A remembered relation of spaces, a hole, a circle, a shaded area — and a whole life comes alive. The real appeal of the map, perhaps, is not so much that it stores our past as that it forces our emotions to be pressed into their most parsimonious essence — and, as every poet knows, it is emotion under the force of limits, emotion pressed down and held down to strict formal constraints, that makes for the purest expression. These maps are street haiku, whose emotions, whether made by the well known or the anonymous, are more moving for being so stylized.

[…]

Each map in this book diagrams the one thing we most want a map to show us, and that is a way home.

The final page of Mapping Manhattan contains a blank map, inviting you to draw your Manhattan and mail it to Cooper.

Originally featured in April, with more maps and video.

6. BEFORE I DIE

In early 2011, artist, designer, and TED Fellow Candy Chang, queen of thoughtful installations in public spaces that invite collaborative storytelling, covered an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighborhood in chalkboard paint and stenciled on it a grid of the deceptively simple unfinished sentence “Before I die I want to . . .,” which any passerby could complete with a piece of chalk and a personal aspiration. To Chang’s surprise, the wall was completely filled by the next day. Soon, the project took on a life of its own and was replicated in over 10 languages across more than thirty countries, giving voice to millions of such private yearnings.

Before I Die (public library) collects the best of these public yet anonymous walls, from Alaska to Australia, Brooklyn to Berlin, filled with answers ranging from the poignant (“see a year without war”) to the silly (“sleep with a harp player”) to the disarmingly honest (“repair my broken heart”). Alongside the photographs are the stories of some of the people who chalked in their anonymous answers

Chang shares the genesis of the project, her harrowing personal brush with the mortality paradox:

Joan died on a quiet August day. She was a mother to me for fifteen years. She was kind and thoughtful. She loved to garden and she taught me how to plant flowers. When I was a confused teenager, she told me to be true to myself. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were so many things she still wanted to do: learn to play the piano, live in Paris, and see the Pacific Ocean. I spent a long time filled with grief. Then I felt gratitude for the time we had together.

Death was always on my mind. It brought clarity to my life. It reminded me of the people I want to love well, the type of person I want to become, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to me. I wondered if other people felt the same way.

[…]

Death is something we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about. … Perhaps that is why it took me so long to explore these thoughts, but when I finally did, I found a comfort and clarity that I did not expect. Beyond the tragic truth of mortality lies a bright calm that reminds me of my place in the world. When I think about death, the mundane things that stress me out are reduced to their small and rightful place; the things that matter most to me become big and crisp again. … Thinking about death clarifies your life.

The book opens with the perfect amuse-bouche of wisdom by none other than Carl Sagan:

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.

But in a wonderfully paradoxical way, the project both embodies and counters this sentiment: The question at its heart isn’t particularly “courageous,” nor are the majority of the answers particularly “deep,” but the combination produces something profound and deeply human, and that’s precisely the point: What makes the world significant — more than that, what makes “the aggregate of our joy and suffering” significant — is perhaps the simplicity and sincerity of our answers to the simplest and most sincere of questions.

Indeed, the answers brim with seeming individual simplicity which somehow unravels the collective complexity of the human condition: World peace, curing cancer, and learning to love might not be the most original of answers, but something magical happens when anonymity strips us of the compulsion for originality and lays bare our deepest, most unoriginally human and heartfelt longings with crisp, urgent sincerity. In aggregate, they are a reminder of what truly matters — a moral lens on what should matter — as we face the immutable fact that one day, when we turn to look back on our lives, all the cleverness and pretentiousness and witticism will dissipate into dust over the burning coals of our innermost, simplest, most earnest desires for a meaningful life.

The project also inhabits — champions — another important dimension, the notion that public spaces anchor us to our physical reality and, at their best, awaken a richer relationship with our surroundings. Chang writes:

Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. They are our shared spaces and reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals. … At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. They can help us grieve together and celebrate together and console one another and be alone together. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Candy Chang (Photograph by Randal Ford)

Originally featured in October — see more here.

7. FRITZ KAHN

Around the time when Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath was building his ISOTYPE visual language, which laid the foundation for pictogram-based infographics, another infographic pioneer was doing something even more ambitious: The German polymath Fritz Kahn — amateur astronomer, medical scientist by training, gynecologist by early occupation, artist by inclination, writer, educator and humanist by calling — was developing innovative visual metaphors for understanding science and the human body, seeking to strip scientific ideas of their alienating complexity and engage a popular audience with those essential tenets of how life works. Best-known today for his iconic 1926 poster Man as Industrial Palace, Kahn inspired generations of scientific illustrators, including such legends as Irving Geis and such cultural treasures as the 1959 gem The Human Body: What It Is And How It Works. His influence reverberates through much of our present visual communication and today’s best infographics .

Fritz Kahn (1888–1968)

Now, visual culture powerhouse Taschen has captured the life’s work of this infographic pioneer in the magnificent monograph Fritz Kahn (public library) — a 6-pound tome in English, French and German that collects and contextualizes his most influential images and essays and, above all, celebrates a boundless mind that never settled for limiting itself to a single discipline, to any one area of curiosity, to the onus and hubris of specialization that our culture so vehemently and so toxically fetishizes.

In the introduction, the prolific design historian and writer Steven Heller calls Kahn and Neurath “two sides of the same pie chart,” despite the fact that they likely never met:

Each passionately sought to devise a distinct graphic design language to replace the jargon and lay waste to an ever-growing Tower of Babel.

Like Neurath, who didn’t actually create the symbols he became known for, Kahn was not an artist himself but compensated for it with the potent combination of his powers of logic and his ability to surround himself with top talent, who would execute his visions while also expanding his taste and visual literacy. Though his innovative methods were themselves a force to be reckoned with, the underlying impetus was as simple as it was profound: Kahn was just a brilliant science communicator who sought to engage the public’s imagination in popularizing science. He used his infographics as Carl Sagan did narrative and the moving image, subverting the medium — and subverting it masterfully — to the goals of the message. Heller writes:

His graphic design preferences were eclectic and included such methods as photo-collage, painting and drawing and styles like comic, surrealist, dada and more. The art of analogy was Kahn’s forte (sometimes to the extreme): he might compare an ear with a car or a bird’s feather with railroad tracks, all meant to explain ever more impenetrable phenomena by means which triggered the viewer’s imagination. Kahn employed whatever visual trick he could cobble together for the end result: popular comprehension.

[…]

The legacy of Kahn’s work has resonance now and will continue into the future.

'Man as Industrial Palace,' 1926

Kahn found his greatest power in enlisting the physical to explain the metaphorical. As a scientist, he understood the visual bias of our brains; as an artistically minded design-thinker, he knew how powerfully graphics could convey ideas and ideologies; as a man of medicine, he grasped the importance of visualizing the body to illuminate its inner workings.

What goes on in our heads when we see a car and say 'car' (1939)

'Daily hair growth: the human body produces 100 feet of hair substance every day. If all this growth were to converge into one single hair, that hair would grow by one inch every minute.' (1929)

Kahn was also keenly aware of the importance of pictures in education. He trawled textbooks and scientific journals for material to use in his famous “man book,” but he enlisted his artists and the design department of his publishing house in infusing the images with more life, more vibrancy, greater calls to the imagination. He developed a style based on architectural and industrial visual metaphors and began depicting the human body as a series of modern workplaces, with each organ and organ-system operated by different machines, control panels, and circuits, as in his famous Man as Industrial Palace, seeking “to depict the most important processes of life, which can never be observed directly, in the form of familiar technical processes.” (Bear in mind, he was working long before some of the most now-fundamental notions in modern science were known, decades before even the discovery of DNA.)

'The speed of thought — overtaken by technology!' (1939)

'The five points in common between muscle operation and an electric doorbell circuit: (1) volition — bell button, (2) motor center — battery, (3) nerve — wire, (4) motor end-plate — interpreter, (5) muscle — clapper.' (1924, 1927)

'The cycle of matter and energy' (1926)

Kahn could also be considered a pioneer of interactive storytelling long before the technologies of interaction existed. He transformed the pictorial image from a static object to passively behold to an active invitation to engage, reimagine, and connect:

Kahn’s conceptual illustrations inverted the text-image relationship that had prevailed until then. The picture took prominence and switched from observed object to active agent, opening up new imaginary spaces for the viewer. It challenged the viewer to explore these spaces independently, to find [his or her] place in them, and develop new perspectives from there — a life-saving ability in a crisis-torn age like that of [the world war].

[…]

Apart from instruction and entertainment, edification is another important function of the illustrated factual book. Meaning, comfort, fresh perspectives, and ideally a faith that can move mountains, often form in reaction to a strong aesthetic impulse — for example, in the borderland between science and art. Kahn knew the healing effect of the “imagination” from personal and medical experience, especially in relation to observing the macro- or microcosm. … Verbal and visual images can help man (re)connect with himself, his group, the world and the universe, to find his way or place.

'Travel experiences of a wandering cell: the villi currents of the intestinal tract.' (1924)

Above all, however, Kahn was a kind of scientific poet who enlisted the tenets of literature and the arts in making scientific ideas not only accessible but exciting. One of the most beautiful examples of this comes from his 1924 article for the journal Kosmos, titled “Fairy-tale Journey on the Bloodstream.” In it, he extols “the drama which, since its discovery 200 years ago, has repeatedly stirred the ecstasy of all who have seen it: the circulation of the blood” and writes — sings, almost:

“What a drama, but alas, only a drama!” The microscope’s field of vision is narrowly limited and we see the blood cells arriving on one side and disappearing again on the other… where from? where to? — we don’t know […]. The researcher stops at the rigid circle of his microscope’s field of vision, but we, we are poets, and who will forbid the imagination to travel to magical realms over lands and over seas like the child with the seven swans? […] Like the hero of the “last fairy-tale” we become smaller and smaller until at last we stand microscopically tiny, mini-Lilliputians on the bank of the vein-stream, and see the cells drifting past us, as big as the barques [large sailing ships] of men. We climb up one of the cliffs that loom into the stream, and wait. Cell after cell swims past, but quick and in the middle of the stream, unattainable to our desires. At last, however, a cell-boat drifts close to us on the beach, settles askew like a ship run aground, we leap across and into it, now it tilts from side to side, we push off and sail away. We are sailing! In our cell-boat on the red-gold stream of blood! Farewell, realm of man! We are in the land of fairy-tales, the fairy-tale land of truth, above which you rough giants gap blithely away on your great feet, and we sail towards miracles, true miracles!

Originally featured in November — read the full article here.

8. TENDER BUTTONS

Given my affinity for all things Gertrude Stein and my enduring admiration for the art of my frequent collaborator and talented friend Lisa Congdon, I was instantly enamored with Tender Buttons: Objects (public library) — Stein’s 1914 collection of avant-garde verses celebrating everyday objects in her signature style of semantic somersaults, brought to fresh life with Lisa’s vibrant illustrations of birds, boxes, cups, clocks, umbrellas, and other ordinary objects made extraordinary.

A FEATHER.

A feather is trimmed, it is trimmed by the light and the bug and the post, it is trimmed by little leaning and by all sorts of mounted reserves and loud volumes. It is surely cohesive.

I asked Lisa about the project’s particular mesmerism:

Every now and again an illustration project comes your way that feels like sheer kismet. I’ve had an infatuation with the life of Gertrude Stein since I was in my early 20s, and I’ve always been intrigued by her bizarre poetry.

Hope in gates, hope in spoons, hope in doors, hope in tables, no hope in daintiness and determination. Hope in dates.

In the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling.

Originally featured in March.

9. BEST AMERICAN INFOGRAPHICS

As an appreciator of the art of visual storytelling by way of good information graphics — an art especially endangered in this golden age of bad infographics served as linkbait — I was thrilled and honored to be on the advisory “Brain Trust” for a project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who has set out to highlight the very best infographics produced each year, online and off. (Disclaimer for the naturally cynical: No money changed hands.) The Best American Infographics 2013 (public library) is now out, featuring the finest examples from the past year — spanning everything from happiness to sports to space to gender politics, and including a contribution by friend-of-Brain Pickings Wendy MacNaughton — with an introduction by none other than David Byrne. Accompanying each image is an artist statement that explores the data, the choice of visual representation, and why it works.

Byrne, who knows a thing or two about creativity and has himself produced some delightfully existential infographics, writes:

The very best [infographics] engender and facilitate an insight by visual means — allow us to grasp some relationship quickly and easily that otherwise would take many pages and illustrations and tables to convey. Insight seems to happen most often when data sets are crossed in the design of the piece — when we can quickly see the effects on something over time, for example, or view how factors like income, race, geography, or diet might affect other data. When that happens, there’s an instant “Aha!”…

Byrne addresses the healthy skepticism many of us harbor towards the universal potency of infographics, reminding us that the medium is not the message — the message is the message:

A good infographic … is — again — elegant, efficient, and accurate. But do they matter? Are infographics just things to liven up a dull page of type or the front page of USA Today? Well, yes, they do matter. We know that charts and figures can be used to support almost any argument. . . . Bad infographics are deadly!

One would hope that we could educate ourselves to be able to spot the evil infographics that are being used to manipulate us, or that are being used to hide important patterns and information. Ideally, an educated consumer of infographics might develop some sort of infographic bullshit detector that would beep when told how the trickle-down economic effect justifies fracking, for example. It’s not easy, as one can be seduced relatively easily by colors, diagrams and funny writing.

And, indeed, at the heart of the aspiration to cultivate a kind of visual literacy so critical for modern communication. Here are a few favorite pieces from the book that embody that ideal of intelligent elegance and beautiful revelation of truth:

America's Most Popular Birthdays

The days of the year, ranked by the number of babies born on each day in the United States (Matt Stiles, NPR data journalist)

Byrne — who believes the best use of infographics allows us to “experience a kind of geeky rapture as our senses are amplified and expanded through charts and illustrations” — is especially fond of one sub-genre:

Flowcharts [are] a form of poetry. And poetry is its own reward.

Indeed, flowcharts have a singular way of living at the intersection of the pragmatic and the existential:

Email: Help for Addicts

A handy flowchart to help you decide if you should check your email. (Wendy MacNaughton, independent illustrator, for Forbes)

How to Be Happy

Just ask yourself one question. (Gustavo Vieira Dias, creative director of DDB Tribal Vienna)

Some appear more visually abstract yet derive from precise and concrete data sets:

Planets Everywhere

All of the planets discovered outside the Solar System. (Jan Willem Tulp, freelance information designer, for Scientific American)

Then there’s the mandatory love of pie charts and its derivatives:

Ten Artists, Ten Years

A revolution in color over ten extraordinary years in art history. Each pie chart represents an individual painting, with the five most prominent colors shown proportionally. (Arthur Buxton)

Seasonal Produce Calendars

The availability of produce in the northern hemisphere by month and season. (Russell van Kraayenburg)

The greatest power of infographics, however, lies in two things: Their ability to weave visual metaphors that enhance our understanding, something particularly potent given how essential metaphorical thinking is to the way we communicate and learn, and their role in igniting the very pattern recognition that fuels our creative comprehension. Byrne writes:

We have an inbuilt ability to manipulate visual metaphors in ways we cannot do with the things and concepts they stand for — to use them as malleable, conceptual Tetris blocks or modeling clay that we can more easily squeeze, stack, and reorder. And then — whammo! — a pattern emerges, and we’ve arrived someplace we would never have gotten by any other means.

Originally featured in September — see more here.

10. MAURICE SENDAK

Maurice Sendak is celebrated by many, myself included, as the greatest and most influential children’s book artist of the past century. A year after Sendak’s death comes Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — the companion volume to the wonderful 2013 exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators, and also among the year’s best biographies, memoirs, and history books. From rich essays by historians and artists who contextualize Sendak’s life and legacy to a selection of his best-loved and notable little-known illustrations, the book is a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.

Dive deeper with excerpts exploring Sendak’s lessons on art and storytelling and his lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

11. LOLITA: THE STORY OF A COVER GIRL

“I am a slave of images,” Vladimir Nabokov declared through his character John Krug, the brilliant philosopher in Bend Sinister. In fact, the author himself — a man of notoriously strong opinions — was both a slave of images himself and an exacting master seeking to enslave them. He famously instructed publishers on how to — and how not to — cover his 1955 masterpiece Lolita, one of literary history’s most controversial classics:

I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls. … Who would be capable of creating a romantic, delicately drawn, non-Freudian and non-juvenile, picture for LOLITA (a dissolving remoteness, a soft American landscape, a nostalgic highway—that sort of thing)? There is one subject which I am emphatically opposed to: any kind of representation of a little girl.

He eventually rescinded his dictum, but it endures as emblematic of Lolita’s demanding complexity and the strain it places on any attempt to synthesize that conflicting intricacy in a static image. That’s precisely what Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl (public library) addresses through a magnificent collection of concept covers for the Nabokov classic, which editors John Bertram and Yuri Leving describe as planted “firmly in the public consciousness, but more often for its misunderstood subject than for its masterful and dazzling prose,” by eighty of the world’s most celebrated graphic designers and illustrators, including such favorites as Paula Scher, Jessica Hische, and Debbie Millman. Featuring a number of essays on the novel’s cover history, its evolving pop culture interpretations, and the challenging art of cover design, the book presents the most exhaustive and dimensional topography of Lolita’s cultural landscape examined through the lens of design and visual communication.

Jamie Keenan

Paula Scher

In the preface, celebrated author and Guggenheim Fellow Mary Gaitskill reflects on the appalling blurb Vintage printed on what’s considered the most successful Lolita cover of all time — “The only convincing love story of the century,” taken from a review by Vanity Fair’s Gregor von Rezzori — and reflects on the chronically misunderstood dualities at the heart of the Nabokov classic:

Lolita is not about love, because love is always mutual; Lolita is about obsession, which is never, ever love, and Nabokov himself was so disappointed that people did not understand this and take away the right message… For how could anyone call this feeding frenzy of selfishness, devouring, and destruction “love”?

How vigorously Henry Miller would nod in agreement. But Gaitskill goes on to demonstrate that no one-dimensional interpretation is better than any other, for Lolita is above all about our contradictory multiplicity of selves:

Lolita is about obsession and narcissistic appetite, misogyny and contemptuous rejection, not only of women, but of humanity itself. And yet. It is also about love; if it were not, the book would not be so heart-stoppingly beautiful.

[…]

Purity of feeling must live and breathe in the impure gardens of our confused, compromised, corrupt, and broken hearts. Love itself is not selfish, devouring or cruel, but in human beings it suffers a terrible coexistence with those qualities. . . . In most people, this contradiction will never take the florid form it takes in Humbert Humbert. But such impossible, infernal combinations are there in all of us, and we know it. That Lolita renders this human condition at such an extreme, so truthfully, and yes, as von Rezorri says, convincingly, is the book’s most shocking quality. It is why it will never be forgotten. It is also why no one will ever succeed in describing it fully on a book jacket. But how wonderful that so many have tried.

And try they did. Given no conceptual constraints and liberated from the marketing burden of using the cover as an actual sales tool, the eighty designers — ranging from in-house talent from major publishing houses to notable freelancers — brought to the subject uncommon freedom of thought and bravery of interpretation, with graphics spanning from the unabashedly provocative to the brilliantly subtle. Some intentionally violated Nabokov’s “no girls” injunction, others winked at it irreverently and assaulted it obliquely, while others still paid full heed and went with the expressly metaphorical. (Though, as John Gall thoughtfully admonishes in one of the chapters, “the land of metaphor is filled with furrows and ruts and roads going off into the distance.”)

Michael Bierut

Ellen Lupton

The Heads of State

Jessica Hische

Debbie Millman

Henry Sene Yee

Originally featured in August — read and see more here.

12. INSIDE THE RAINBOW

Since the golden age of children’s literature in mid-century America and Europe, we’ve seen children’s books used for purveying everything from philosophy to propaganda to science. But two decades before this Western surge of design innovation and conceptual experimentation in children’s books, a thriving scene of literature and art for young readers was taking root on the other side of the soon-to-be Iron Curtain. Inside the Rainbow: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times (public library), edited by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, collects the most vibrant masterpieces of Russian children’s literature from the short but pivotal period between 1920 and 1935 — a time-capsule of the ambitious aesthetic and imaginative ideology that burned bright for a few brief moments before the onset of communism cast down its uniform grayness.

Philip Pullman, who knows a thing or two about the permeating power of children’s storytelling, writes in the foreword:

The world of Russian children’s illustrated books in the first twenty years or so of Soviet rule is almost incomparably rich. What were they doing, these commissars and party secretaries, to allow this wonderland of modern art to grow under their very noses? I expect the rule that applies to children’s books was just as deeply interiorized in the Soviet Union as it has been in the rest of the world: they don’t matter. They can be ignored. They’re not serious.

(Coincidentally, Neil Gaiman recently lamented that “there is [no] such a thing as a bad book for children. … Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading.”)

Pullman contrasts the distinctive, indigenous style of this Russian book art with its Western counterparts from the same era:

The kind of modern art that lives so vigorously and joyously in these pages is, of course, one with a Russian ancestry. There is no Cubism here … no Post-Impressionism … no Dada. What there is is Constructivism, and plenty of it, and of its metaphysical parent, Suprematism. Basic geometrical shapes, the square, the circle, the rectangle, are everywhere; flat primary colors dominate.

And yet, conceptually, many of these illustrations find — and often presage — certain Western counterparts. Take, for instance, these spreads from Boris Ermolenko’s 1930 visual taxonomy of occupations, Special Clothing, which call to mind beloved French illustrator Blebolex’s book People, one of the best children’s books of 2011:

Some of the most charming pieces explore the burgeoning world of transportation:

Then there are the sheer, unmediated delights, such as Kornei Chukovsky’s playful 1927 poetry book The Telephone.

It begins:

Ting-a-ling-a-ling… A telephone ring! “Hallo! Hallo!”
“Who are you?” “Jumbo Joe,
“I live at the zoo!” “What can I do?” “Send me some jam For my little Sam.” “Do you want a lot?” “A five-ton pot,
And send me some cake — The poor little boy
Has swallowed a toy
And his tummy will ache If he gets no cake.”
“How many tons of cake will you take?” “Only a score.
He won’t be able to eat any more —
My little Sam is only four!”
And after a while
A crocodile rang from the Nile:
“I will be ever so jolly
If you send us a pile
Of rubber galoshes —
The kind that one washes —
For me and my wife and for Molly!”
“You’re talking too fast! Why, the week before last I posted ten pair
Of galoshes by air.”
“Now, doctor, be steady!
We’ve eaten already
The pile that you posted!
We ate them all roasted,
And the dish it was simply delicious, So everyone wishes
You would send to the Nile
A still bigger pile
That would do for a dozen more dishes.”

What’s most striking about these vibrant, colorful, exuberant images and verses, however, is their stark contrast to the cultural context in which they were born — alongside them we find grim photographs of desolate little faces in shabby schoolrooms, the faces of a generation that would be soon engulfed by communism’s dark descend. And yet these children’s books, Pullman marvels, emanate “a lovely primary-colored geometrical wonderland-light sparkling with every conceivable kind of wit and brilliance and fantasy and fun” — a light at once heartening as a glimmer of generational hope and bittersweet against the historical backdrop of the oppressive regime that would eventually extinguish it as communism sought to purge the collective conscience of whimsy and imaginative sentimentality.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

13. A MAP OF THE WORLD ACCORDING TO ILLUSTRATORS AND STORYTELLERS

“Could it have been the drawing of maps that boosted our ancestors beyond the critical threshold which the other apes just failed to cross?,” Richard Dawkins famously speculated. Maps have undoubtedly changed the world as both objects of art and tools of political power. They help us understand time and make sense of the universe. At their most beautiful, they reflect a level of stunning subjectivity.

In A Map of the World According to Illustrators and Storytellers (public library), the fine folks of Gestalten — who have a knack for pictorial magic and visual storytelling — collect more than 500 maps by artists, illustrators, and designers representing the creative zeitgeist of modern cartography around the world, ranging from the astoundingly accurate and detailed to the marvelously abstract and utopian.

Antonis Antoniou writes in the preface:

Only few graphic representation devices have been such a fountainhead of wonderment, controversy, and utility as maps have. What seems to have begun on a more intuitive level has evolved over time into a sophisticated visual instrument. Maps have proven to be a versatile medium through which to express our inquisitive nature and make sense of our physical world. Within a singular visual, we are able to impose order by appropriating reality and its complex layers. It is an endeavor that emanates an intoxicating sense of power in harnessing knowledge.

[…]

Maps make compelling promises. … They grasp greater concepts, detect patterns, prognosticate, and reveal new layers of meaning. … Cartography can be an incredible form of escapism, as maps act as proxies for experiences, real or fabricated. Whatever their purpose or subject matter, even the most rudimentary of maps have an inherent beauty, an attraction in their way of ordering things.

Vesa Sammalisto

Mallorca

João Lauro Fonte

Boots Adventures in London (Converse)

Martin Haake

Cruising Around Africa

Vic Lee

London

Harriet Lyall

3.2 Miles / 9 Bridges

Famille Summerbelle

London cut-paper map

Vesa Sammalisto

Island of Manhattan

Dorothy

LA Film Map

Originally featured in March — see more here.

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02 DECEMBER, 2013

The 13 Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2013

By:

How to think like Sherlock Holmes, make better mistakes, master the pace of productivity, find fulfilling work, stay sane, and more.

After the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the most stimulating psychology and philosophy books published this year. (Catch up on the 2012 roundup here and 2011’s here.)

1. ON LOOKING: ELEVEN WALKS WITH EXPERT EYES

“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timelessly beautiful meditation on presence over productivity, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And nowhere do we fail at the art of presence most miserably and most tragically than in urban life — in the city, high on the cult of productivity, where we float past each other, past the buildings and trees and the little boy in the purple pants, past life itself, cut off from the breathing of the world by iPhone earbuds and solipsism. And yet: “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates — and it can be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages. In a way, it’s the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City — a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity — blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.

Horowitz begins by pointing our attention to the incompleteness of our experience of what we conveniently call “reality”:

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.

By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

This adaptive ignorance, she argues, is there for a reason — we celebrate it as “concentration” and welcome its way of easing our cognitive overload by allowing us to conserve our precious mental resources only for the stimuli of immediate and vital importance, and to dismiss or entirely miss all else. (“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator,” Horowitz tells us. “It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”) But while this might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also makes us inhabit a largely unlived — and unremembered — life, day in and day out.

For Horowitz, the awakening to this incredible, invisible backdrop of life came thanks to Pumpernickel, her “curly haired, sage mixed breed” (who also inspired Horowitz’s first book, the excellent Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), as she found herself taking countless walks around the block, becoming more and more aware of the dramatically different experiences she and her canine companion were having along the exact same route:

Minor clashes between my dog’s preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.

The book was her answer to the disconnect, an effort to “attend to that inattention.” It is not, she warns us, “about how to bring more focus to your reading of Tolstoy or how to listen more carefully to your spouse.” Rather, it is an invitation to the art of observation:

Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block — the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.

In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.

Her approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception — or what we call “expertise,” acquired by passion or training or both — in bringing attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker’s “special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street,” and her diverse companions take to the city.

First, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language. (“The walkers trod silently; the dogs said nothing. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners,” she beholds her own block; passing a pile of trash bags graced by a stray Q-tip, she ponders parenthetically, “how does a Q-tip escape?”; turning her final corner, she gazes at the entrance of a mansion and “its pair of stone lions waiting patiently for royalty that never arrives.” Stunning.)

But as soon as she joins her experts, Horowitz is faced with the grimacing awareness that despite her best, most Sherlockian efforts, she was “missing pretty much everything.” She arrives at a newfound, profound understanding of what William James meant when he wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”:

I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.

Originally featured in August, with a closer look at the expert insights. For another peek at this gem, which is easily among my top three favorite books of the past decade, learn how to do the step-and-slide.

2. TIME WARPED

Given my soft spot for famous diaries, it should come as no surprise that I keep one myself. Perhaps the greatest gift of the practice has been the daily habit of reading what I had written on that day a year earlier; not only is it a remarkable tool of introspection and self-awareness, but it also illustrates that our memory “is never a precise duplicate of the original [but] a continuing act of creation” and how flawed our perception of time is — almost everything that occurred a year ago appears as having taken place either significantly further in the past (“a different lifetime,” I’d often marvel at this time-illusion) or significantly more recently (“this feels like just last month!”). Rather than a personal deficiency of those of us befallen by this tendency, however, it turns out to be a defining feature of how the human mind works, the science of which is at first unsettling, then strangely comforting, and altogether intensely interesting.

That’s precisely what acclaimed BBC broadcaster and psychology writer Claudia Hammond explores in Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (public library) — a fascinating foray into the idea that our experience of time is actively created by our own minds and how these sensations of what neuroscientists and psychologists call “mind time” are created. As disorienting as the concept might seem — after all, we’ve been nursed on the belief that time is one of those few utterly reliable and objective things in life — it is also strangely empowering to think that the very phenomenon depicted as the unforgiving dictator of life is something we might be able to shape and benefit from. Hammond writes:

We construct the experience of time in our minds, so it follows that we are able to change the elements we find troubling — whether it’s trying to stop the years racing past, or speeding up time when we’re stuck in a queue, trying to live more in the present, or working out how long ago we last saw our old friends. Time can be a friend, but it can also be an enemy. The trick is to harness it, whether at home, at work, or even in social policy, and to work in line with our conception of time. Time perception matters because it is the experience of time that roots us in our mental reality. Time is not only at the heart of the way we organize life, but the way we experience it.

Discus chronologicus, a depiction of time by German engraver Christoph Weigel, published in the early 1720s; from Cartographies of Time. (Click for details)

Among the most intriguing illustrations of “mind time” is the incredible elasticity of how we experience time. (“Where is it, this present?,” William James famously wondered. “It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”) For instance, Hammond points out, we slow time down when gripped by mortal fear — the cliche about the slow-motion car crash is, in fact, a cognitive reality. This plays out even in situations that aren’t life-or-death per se but are still associated with strong feelings of fear. Hammond points to a study in which people with arachnophobia were asked to look at spiders — the very object of their intense fear — for 45 seconds and they overestimated the elapsed time. The same pattern was observed in novice skydivers, who estimated the duration of their peers’ falls as short, whereas their own, from the same altitude, were deemed longer.

Inversely, time seems to speed up as we get older — a phenomenon of which competing theories have attempted to make light. One, known as the “proportionality theory,” uses pure mathematics, holding that a year feels faster when you’re 40 than when you’re 8 because it only constitutes one fortieth of your life rather than a whole eighth. Among its famous proponents are Vladimir Nabokov and William James. But Hammond remains unconvinced:

The problem with the proportionality theory is that it fails to account for the way we experience time at any one moment. We don’t judge one day in the context of our whole lives. If we did, then for a 40-year-old every single day should flash by because it is less than one fourteen-thousandth of the life they’ve had so far. It should be fleeting and inconsequential, yet if you have nothing to do or an enforced wait at an airport for example, a day at 40 can still feel long and boring and surely longer than a fun day at the seaside packed with adventure for a child. … It ignores attention and emotion, which … can have a considerable impact on time perception.

Another theory suggests that perhaps it is the tempo of life in general that has accelerated, making things from the past appear as slower, including the passage of time itself.

But one definite change does take place with age: As we grow older, we tend to feel like the previous decade elapsed more rapidly, while the earlier decades of our lives seem to have lasted longer. Similarly, we tend to think of events that took place in the past 10 years as having happened more recently than they actually did. (Quick: What year did the devastating Japanese tsunami hit? When did we lose Maurice Sendak?) Conversely, we perceive events that took place more than a decade ago as having happened even longer ago. (When did Princess Diana die? What year was the Chernobyl disaster?) This, Hammond points out, is known as “forward telescoping”:

It is as though time has been compressed and — as if looking through a telescope — things seem closer than they really are. The opposite is called backward or reverse telescoping, also known as time expansion. This is when you guess that events happened longer ago than they really did. This is rare for distant events, but not uncommon for recent weeks.

[…]

The most straightforward explanation for it is called the clarity of memory hypothesis, proposed by the psychologist Norman Bradburn in 1987. This is the simple idea that because we know that memories fade over time, we use the clarity of a memory as a guide to its recency. So if a memory seems unclear we assume it happened longer ago.

Originally featured in July, with a deeper dive into the psychology of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped when we’re on vacation.

3. HOW TO FIND FULFILLING WORK

“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment,” wrote Dostoevsky, “all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” Indeed, the quest to avoid work and make a living of doing what you love is a constant conundrum of modern life. In How to Find Fulfilling Work (public library) — the latest installment in The School of Life’s wonderful series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living, which previously gave us Philippa Perry’s How to Stay Sane and Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex — philosopher Roman Krznaric (remember him?) explores the roots of this contemporary quandary and guides us to its fruitful resolution:

The desire for fulfilling work — a job that provides a deep sense of purpose, and reflects our values, passions and personality — is a modern invention. … For centuries, most inhabitants of the Western world were too busy struggling to meet their subsistence needs to worry about whether they had an exciting career that used their talents and nurtured their wellbeing. But today, the spread of material prosperity has freed our minds to expect much more from the adventure of life.

We have entered a new age of fulfillment, in which the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning.

Krznaric goes on to outline two key afflictions of the modern workplace — “a plague of job dissatisfaction” and “uncertainty about how to choose the right career” — and frames the problem:

Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it. Most surveys in the West reveal that at least half the workforce are unhappy in their jobs. One cross-European study showed that 60 per cent of workers would choose a different career if they could start again. In the United States, job satisfaction is at its lowest level — 45 per cent — since record-keeping began over two decades ago.

Of course, Krznaric points out, there’s plenty of cynicism and skepticism to go around, with people questioning whether it’s even possible to find a job in which we thrive and feel complete. He offers an antidote to the default thinking:

There are two broad ways of thinking about these questions. The first is the ‘grin and bear it’ approach. This is the view that we should get our expectations under control and recognize that work, for the vast majority of humanity — including ourselves — is mostly drudgery and always will be. Forget the heady dream of fulfillment and remember Mark Twain’s maxim. “Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.” … The history is captured in the word itself. The Latin labor means drudgery or toil, while the French travail derives from the tripalium, an ancient Roman instrument of torture made of three sticks. … The message of the ‘grin and bear it’ school of thought is that we need to accept the inevitable and put up with whatever job we can get, as long as it meets our financial needs and leaves us enough time to pursue our ‘real life’ outside office hours. The best way to protect ourselves from all the optimistic pundits pedaling fulfillment is to develop a hardy philosophy of acceptance, even resignation, and not set our hearts on finding a meaningful career.

I am more hopeful than this, and subscribe to a different approach, which is that it is possible to find work that is life-enhancing, that broadens our horizons and makes us feel more human.

[…]

This is a book for those who are looking for a job that is big enough for their spirit, something more than a ‘day job’ whose main function is to pay the bills.

'Never have so many people felt so unfulfilled in their career roles, and been so unsure what to do about it.'

Krznaric considers the five keys to making a career meaningful — earning money, achieving status, making a difference, following our passions, and using our talents — but goes on to demonstrate that they aren’t all created equal. In particular, he echoes 1970s Zen pioneer Alan Watts and modern science in arguing that money alone is a poor motivator:

Schopenhauer may have been right that the desire for money is widespread, but he was wrong on the issue of equating money with happiness. Overwhelming evidence has emerged in the last two decades that the pursuit of wealth is an unlikely path to achieving personal wellbeing — the ancient Greek ideal of eudaimonia or ‘the good life.’ The lack of any clear positive relationship between rising income and rising happiness has become one of the most powerful findings in the modern social sciences. Once our income reaches an amount that covers our basic needs, further increases add little, if anything, to our levels of life satisfaction.

The second false prophet of fulfillment, as Y-Combinator Paul Graham has poignantly cautioned and Debbie Millman has poetically articulated, is prestige. Krznaric admonishes:

We can easily find ourselves pursuing a career that society considers prestigious, but which we are not intrinsically devoted to ourselves — one that does not fulfill us on a day-to-day basis.

Krznaric pits respect, which he defines as “being appreciated for what we personally bring to a job, and being valued for our individual contribution,” as the positive counterpart to prestige and status, arguing that “in our quest for fulfilling work, we should seek a job that offers not just good status prospects, but good respect prospects.”

Rather than hoping to create a harmonious union between the pursuit of money and values, we might have better luck trying to combine values with talents. This idea comes courtesy of Aristotle, who is attributed with saying, ‘Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation.’

Originally featured in April — read the full article here.

4. INTUITION PUMPS

“If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks,” Debbie Millman counseled. “Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gaiman advised young creators. In Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (public library), the inimitable Daniel Dennett, one of our greatest living philosophers, offers a set of thinking tools — “handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus holders” — that allow us to “think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions” — to enhance your cognitive toolkit. He calls these tools “intuition pumps” — thought experiments designed to stir “a heartfelt, table-thumping intuition” (which we know is a pillar of even the most “rational” of science) about the question at hand, a kind of persuasion tool the reverse-engineering of which enables us to think better about thinking itself. Intuition, of course, is a domain-specific ability that relies on honed critical thinking rather than a mystical quality bestowed by the gods — but that’s precisely Dennett’s point, and his task is to help us hone it.

Though most of his 77 “intuition pumps” address concrete questions, a dozen are “general-purpose” tools that apply deeply and widely, across just about any domain of thinking. The first of them is also arguably the most useful yet most uncomfortable: making mistakes.

Echoing Dorion Sagan’s case for why science and philosophy need each other, Dennett begins with an astute contribution to the best definitions of philosophy, wrapped in a necessary admonition about the value of history:

The history of philosophy is in large measure the history of very smart people making very tempting mistakes, and if you don’t know the history, you are doomed to making the same darn mistakes all over again. … There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science that has been conducted without any consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.

He speaks for the generative potential of mistakes and their usefulness as an empirical tool:

Sometimes you don’t just want to risk making mistakes; you actually want to make them — if only to give you something clear and detailed to fix.

Therein lies the power of mistakes as a vehicle for, as Rilke famously put it, “living the questions” and thus advancing knowledge in a way that certainty cannot — for, as Richard Feynman memorably noted, the scientist’s job is to remain unsure, and so seems the philosopher’s. Dennett writes:

We philosophers are mistake specialists. … While other disciplines specialize in getting the right answers to their defining questions, we philosophers specialize in all the ways there are of getting things so mixed up, so deeply wrong, that nobody is even sure what the right questions are, let alone the answers. Asking the wrong questions risks setting any inquiry off on the wrong foot. Whenever that happens, this is a job for philosophers! Philosophy — in every field of inquiry — is what you have to do until you figure out what questions you should have been asking in the first place.

[…]

Mistakes are not just opportunities for learning; they are, in an important sense, the only opportunity for learning or making something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. There are only two non-miraculous ways for learners to come into existence: they must either evolve or be designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error — and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything.

Dennett offers a caveat that at once highlights the importance of acquiring knowledge and reminds us of the power of “chance-opportunism”:

Trials can be either blind or foresighted. You, who know a lot, but not the answer to the question at hand, can take leaps — foresighted leaps. You can look before you leap, and hence be somewhat guided from the outset by what you already know. You need not be guessing at random, but don’t look down your nose at random guesses; among its wonderful products is … you!

And since evolution is the highest epitome of how the process of trial and error drives progress, Dennett makes a case for understanding evolution as a key to understanding everything else we humans value:

Evolution … is the central, enabling process not only of life but also of knowledge and learning and understanding. If you attempt to make sense of the world of ideas and meanings, free will and morality, art and science and even philosophy itself without a sound and quite detailed knowledge of evolution, you have one hand tied behind your back. … For evolution, which knows nothing, the steps into novelty are blindly taken by mutations, which are random copying “errors” in DNA.

Dennett echoes Dostoyevsky (“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.”) and offers the key to making productive mistakes:

The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them — especially not from yourself. Instead of turning away in denial when you make a mistake, you should become a connoisseur of your own mistakes, turning them over in your mind as if they were works of art, which in a way they are. … The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it and not just another blind stab in the dark.

We have all heard the forlorn refrain “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” This phrase has come to stand for the rueful reflection of an idiot, a sign of stupidity, but in fact we should appreciate it as a pillar of wisdom. Any being, any agent, who can truly say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!” is standing on the threshold of brilliance.

Originally featured in May — read the full article here.

5. MASTERMIND: HOW TO THINK LIKE SHERLOCK HOLMES

“The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts,” wrote James Webb Young in his famous 1939 5-step technique for creative problem-solving, “becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.” But just how does one acquire those vital cognitive customs? That’s precisely what science writer Maria Konnikova explores in Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (UK; public library) — an effort to reverse-engineer Holmes’s methodology into actionable insights that help develop “habits of thought that will allow you to engage mindfully with yourself and your world as a matter of course.”

Bridging ample anecdotes from the adventures of Conan Doyle’s beloved detective with psychology studies both classic and cutting-edge, Konnikova builds a compelling case at the intersection of science and secular spiritualism, stressing the power of rigorous observation alongside a Buddhist-like, Cageian emphasis on mindfulness. She writes:

The idea of mindfulness itself is by no means a new one. As early as the end of the nineteenth century, William James, the father of modern psychology, wrote that, ‘The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.’ That faculty, at its core, is the very essence of mindfulness. And the education that James proposes, an education in a mindful approach to life and to thought.

[…]

In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the center of mindfulness), for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive and more approach-oriented emotional states, and that looking at scenes of nature, for even a short while, can help us become more insightful, more creative, and more productive. We also know, more definitively than we ever have, that our brains are not built for multitasking — something that precludes mindfulness altogether. When we are forced to do multiple things at once, not only do we perform worse on all of them but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers a palpable hit.

But for Sherlock Holmes, mindful presence is just a first step. It’s a means to a far larger, far more practical and practically gratifying goal. Holmes provides precisely what William James had prescribed: an education in improving our faculty of mindful thought and in using it in order to accomplish more, think better, and decide more optimally. In its broadest application, it is a means for improving overall decision making and judgment ability, starting from the most basic building block of your own mind.

But mindfulness, and the related mental powers it bestows upon its master, is a skill acquired with grit and practice, rather than an in-born talent or an easy feat attained with a few half-hearted tries:

It is most difficult to apply Holmes’s logic in those moments that matter the most. And so, all we can do is practice, until our habits are such that even the most severe stressors will bring out the very thought patterns that we’ve worked so hard to master.

Echoing Carl Sagan, Konnikova examines the role of intuition — a grab-bag concept embraced by some of history’s greatest scientific minds, cultural icons, and philosophers — as both a helpful directional signpost of intellectual inquiry and a dangerous blind spot:

Our intuition is shaped by context, and that context is deeply informed by the world we live in. It can thus serve as a blinder — or blind spot — of sorts. … With mindfulness, however, we can strive to find a balance between fact-checking our intuitions and remaining open-minded. We can then make our best judgments, with the information we have and no more, but with, as well, the understanding that time may change the shape and color of that information.

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose,” Holmes famously remarked. Indeed, much like the inventor’s mind, the problem-solver’s mind is the product of that very choice: The details and observations we select to include in our “brain attic” shape and filter our perception of reality. Konnikova writes:

Observation with a capital O — the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance — does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you do choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw any old detail up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics — and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly, looking with real thought. It means looking with the full knowledge that what you note — and how you note it — will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought.

Originally featured in January — read the full article for more, including Konnikova’s four rules for Sherlockian thinking.

6. MAKE GOOD ART

Commencement season is upon us and, after Greil Marcus’s soul-stirring speech on the essence of art at the 2013 School of Visual Arts graduation ceremony, here comes an exceptional adaptation of one of the best commencement addresses ever delivered: In May of 2012, beloved author Neil Gaiman stood up in front of the graduating class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and dispensed some timeless advice on the creative life; now, his talk comes to life as a slim but potent book titled Make Good Art (public library).

Best of all, it’s designed by none other than the inimitable Chip Kidd, who has spent the past fifteen years shaping the voice of contemporary cover design with his prolific and consistently stellar output, ranging from bestsellers like cartoonist Chris Ware’s sublime Building Stories and neurologist Oliver Sacks’s The Mind’s Eye to lesser-known gems like The Paris Review‘s Women Writers at Work and The Letter Q, that wonderful anthology of queer writers’ letters to their younger selves. (Fittingly, Kidd also designed the book adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2006 commencement address.)

When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.

A wise woman once said, “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” Gaiman articulates the same sentiment with his own brand of exquisite eloquence:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Originally featured in May — read the full article here, along with a video of Gaiman’s original commencement address.

7. HOW CHILDREN SUCCEED

In How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character (public library) — a necessary addition to these fantastic reads on educationPaul Tough, whose writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Slate, Esquire, The New York Times, sets out to investigate the essential building blocks of character through the findings and practical insight of exceptional educators and bleeding-edge researchers. One of his core arguments is based on the work of pioneering psychologist and 2013 MacArthur “genius” grantee Angela Duckworth, who studied under positive psychology godfather Martin Seligman at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and has done more than anyone for advancing our understanding of how self-control and grit — the relentless work ethic of sustaining your commitments toward a long-term goal — impact success.

Duckworth had come to Penn in 2002, at the age of thirty-two, later in life than a typical graduate student. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she had been a classic multitasking overachiever in her teens and twenties. After completing her undergraduate degree at Harvard (and starting a summer school for low-income kids in Cambridge in her spare time), she had bounced from one station of the mid-nineties meritocracy to the next: intern in the White House speechwriting office, Marshall scholar at Oxford (where she studied neuroscience), management consultant for McKinsey and Company, charter-school adviser.

Duckworth spent a number of years toying with the idea of starting her own charter school, but eventually concluded that the model didn’t hold much promise for changing the circumstances of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, those whom the education system was failing most tragically. Instead, she decided to pursue a PhD program at Penn. In her application essay, she shared how profoundly the experience of working in schools had changed her view of school reform and wrote:

The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.

Duckworth began her graduate work by studying self-discipline. But when she completed her first-year thesis, based on a group of 164 eighth-graders from a Philadelphia middle school, she arrived at a startling discovery that would shape the course of her career: She found that the students’ self-discipline scores were far better predictors of their academic performance than their IQ scores. So she became intensely interested in what strategies and tricks we might develop to maximize our self-control, and whether those strategies can be taught. But self-control, it turned out, was only a good predictor when it came to immediate, concrete goals — like, say, resisting a cookie. Tough writes:

Duckworth finds it useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. Each one, she says, is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone. Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition — the willpower, the self-control — to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If a child is highly motivated, the self-control techniques and exercises Duckworth tried to teach [the students in her study] might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help.

This is where grit comes in — the X-factor that helps us attain more long-term, abstract goals. To address this, Duckworth and her colleague Chris Peterson developed the Grit Scale — a deceptively simple test, on which you evaluate how much twelve statements apply to you, from “I am a hard worker” to “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.” The results are profoundly predictive of success at such wide-ranging domains of achievement as the National Spelling Bee and the West Point military academy. Tough describes the surprising power of this seemingly mundane questionnaire:

For each statement, respondents score themselves on a five-point scale, ranging from 5, “very much like me,” to 1, “not like me at all.” The test takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth and Peterson took it out into the field, they found it was remarkably predictive of success. Grit, Duckworth discovered, is only faintly related to IQ — there are smart gritty people and dumb gritty people — but at Penn, high grit scores allowed students who had entered college with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high GPAs. At the National Spelling Bee, Duckworth found that children with high grit scores were more likely to survive to the later rounds. Most remarkable, Duckworth and Peterson gave their grit test to more than twelve hundred freshman cadets as they entered the military academy at West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the whole candidate score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness, and a leadership potential score. But the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted in Beast Barracks and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s simple little twelve-item grit questionnaire.

You can take the Grit Scale here (registration is free).

8. THINKING: THE NEW SCIENCE OF DECISION-MAKING, PROBLEM-SOLVING AND PREDICTION

Every year, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman summons some of our era’s greatest thinkers and unleashes them on one provocative question, whether it’s the single most elegant theory of how the world works or the best way to enhance our cognitive toolkit. This year, he sets out on the most ambitious quest yet, a meta-exploration of thought itself: Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (public library) collects short essays and lecture adaptations from such celebrated and wide-ranging (though not in gender) minds as Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Haidt, Dan Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson, covering subjects as diverse as morality, essentialism, and the adolescent brain.

One of the most provocative contributions comes from Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman — author of the indispensable Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of the best psychology books of 2012 — who examines “the marvels and the flaws of intuitive thinking.”

In the 1970s, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky, self-crowned “prophets of irrationality,” began studying what they called “heuristics and biases” — mental shortcuts we take, which frequently result in cognitive errors. Those errors, however, reveal a great deal about how our minds work:

If you want to characterize how something is done, then one of the most powerful ways of characterizing how the mind does anything is by looking at the errors that the mind produces while it’s doing it because the errors tell you what it is doing. Correct performance tells you much less about the procedure than the errors do.

One of the most fascinating examples of heuristics and biases is what we call intuition — a complex cluster of cognitive processes, sometimes helpful but often misleading. Kahneman notes that thoughts come to mind in one of two ways: Either by “orderly computation,” which involves a series of stages of remembering rules and then applying them, or by perception, an evolutionary function that allows us to predict outcomes based on what we’re perceiving. (For instance, seeing a woman’s angry face helps us predict the general sentiment and disposition of what she’s about to say.) It is the latter mode that precipitates intuition. Kahneman explains the interplay:

There is no sharp line between intuition and perception. … Perception is predictive. . . . If you want to understand intuition, it is very useful to understand perception, because so many of the rules that apply to perception apply as well to intuitive thinking. Intuitive thinking is quite different from perception. Intuitive thinking has language. Intuitive thinking has a lot of word knowledge organized in different ways more than mere perception. But some very basic characteristics [of] perception are extended almost directly to intuitive thinking.

He then considers how the two types of mental operations established by modern cognitive science illuminate intuition:

Type 1 is automatic, effortless, often unconscious, and associatively coherent. . . . Type 2 is controlled, effortful, usually conscious, tends to be logically coherent, rule-governed. Perception and intuition are Type 1. … Type 2 is more controlled, slower, is more deliberate. . . . Type 2 is who we think we are. [And yet] if one made a film on this, Type 2 would be a secondary character who thinks that he is the hero because that’s who we think we are, but in fact, it’s Type 1 that does most of the work, and it’s most of the work that is completely hidden from us.

Type 1 also encompasses all of our practiced skills — for instance, driving, speaking, and understanding a language — which after a certain threshold of mastery enter autopilot mode. (Though this presents its own set of problems.) Underpinning that mode of thinking is our associative memory, which Kahneman unpacks:

You have to think of [your associative memory] as a huge repository of ideas, linked to each other in many ways, including causal links and other links, and activation spreading from ideas to other ideas until a small subset of that enormous network is illuminated, and the subset is what’s happening in the mind at the moment. You’re not conscious of it, you’re conscious of very little of it.

The Type 1 modality of thought gives rise to a System 1 of interpretation, which is at the heart of what we call “intuition” — but which is far less accurate and reliable than we like to believe:

System 1 infers and invents causes and intentions. [This] happens automatically. Infants have it. . . . We’re equipped … for the perception of causality.

It neglects ambiguity and suppresses doubt and … exaggerates coherence. Associative coherence [is] in large part where the marvels turn into flaws. We see a world that is vastly more coherent than the world actually is. That’s because of this coherence-creating mechanism that we have. We have a sense-making organ in our heads, and we tend to see things that are emotionally coherent, and that are associatively coherent.

Most treacherous of all is our tendency to use our very confidence — and overconfidence — as evidence itself:

What’s interesting is that many a time people have intuitions that they’re equally confident about except they’re wrong. That happens through the mechanism I call “the mechanism of substitution.” You have been asked a question, and instead you answer another question, but that answer comes by itself with complete confidence, and you’re not aware that you’re doing something that you’re not an expert on because you have one answer. Subjectively, whether it’s right or wrong, it feels exactly the same. Whether it’s based on a lot of information, or a little information, this is something that you may step back and have a look at. But the subjective sense of confidence can be the same for intuition that arrives from expertise, and for intuitions that arise from heuristics. . . .

In other words, intuition, like attention, is “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator [that] asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that” — a humbling antidote to our culture’s propensity for self-righteousness, and above all a reminder to allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.

Originally featured in October — read the full article here.

9. MANAGE YOUR DAY-TO-DAY

We seem to have a strange but all too human cultural fixation on the daily routines and daily rituals of famous creators, from Vonnegut to Burroughs to Darwin — as if a glimpse of their day-to-day would somehow magically infuse ours with equal potency, or replicating it would allow us to replicate their genius in turn. And though much of this is mere cultural voyeurism, there is something to be said for the value of a well-engineered daily routine to anchor the creative process. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (public library), edited by Behance’s 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei, delves into the secrets of this holy grail of creativity. Twenty of today’s most celebrated thinkers and doers explore such facets of the creative life as optimizing your idea-generation, defying the demons of perfectionism, managing procrastination, and breaking through your creative blocks, with insights from magnificent minds ranging from behavioral economist Dan Ariely to beloved graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister.

In the foreword to the book, Behance founder Scott Belsky, author of the indispensable Making Ideas Happen, points to “reactionary workflow” — our tendency to respond to requests and other stimuli rather than create meaningful work — as today’s biggest problem and propounds a call to arms:

It’s time to stop blaming our surroundings and start taking responsibility. While no workplace is perfect, it turns out that our gravest challenges are a lot more primal and personal. Our individual practices ultimately determine what we do and how well we do it. Specifically, it’s our routine (or lack thereof), our capacity to work proactively rather than reactively, and our ability to systematically optimize our work habits over time that determine our ability to make ideas happen.

[…]

Only by taking charge of your day-to-day can you truly make an impact in what matters most to you. I urge you to build a better routine by stepping outside of it, find your focus by rising above the constant cacophony, and sharpen your creative prowess by analyzing what really matters most when it comes to making your ideas happen.

One of the book’s strongest insights comes from Gretchen Rubin — author of The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, one of these 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness, titled after her fantastic blog of the same name — who points to frequency as the key to creative accomplishment:

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.

Frequency, she argues, helps facilitate what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the crucial ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which is the defining characteristic of the creative mind. Rubin writes:

You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.

[…]

Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.

Echoing Alexander Graham Bell, who memorably wrote that “it is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” and Virginia Woolf, who extolled the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Rubin writes:

Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring; panic and then despair set in when you find yourself getting nothing done day after day. One of the painful ironies of work life is that the anxiety of procrastination often makes people even less likely to buckle down in the future.

Riffing on wisdom from her latest book, Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life, Rubin offers:

I have a long list of “Secrets of Adulthood,” the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve grown up, such as: “It’s the task that’s never started that’s more tiresome,” “The days are long, but the years are short,” and “Always leave plenty of room in the suitcase.” One of my most helpful Secrets is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

With a sentiment reminiscent of William James’s timeless words on habit, she concludes:

Day by day, we build our lives, and day by day, we can take steps toward making real the magnificent creations of our imaginations.

Entrepreneurship guru and culture-sage Seth Godin seconds Rubin and admonishes against confusing vacant ritualization with creative rituals that actually spur productivity:

Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.

The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.

There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place — in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.

He echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Tchaikovsky (“a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”) E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), observing:

The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.

Originally featured in May — read the full article here. Also of note: 99U’s sequel, Maximize Your Potential, which collects practical wisdom from 21 celebrated creative entrepreneurs.

10. GIVE AND TAKE

“The principle of give and take; that is diplomacy— give one and take ten,” Mark Twain famously smirked. But for every such cynicism, there’s a heartening meditation on the art of asking and the beautiful osmosis of altruism. “The world is just,” Amelia Barr admonished in her rules for success, “it may, it does, patronize quacks; but it never puts them on a level with true men.” After all, it pays to be nice because, as Austin Kleon put it, “the world is a small town,” right?

Well, maybe — maybe not. Just as the world may be, how givers and takers fare in matters of success proves to be more complicated. So argues organizational psychology wunderkind Adam Grant (remember him?), the youngest-tenured and highest-rated Wharton professor at my alma mater, in Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success (public library).

Grant’s extensive research has shed light on a crucial element of success, debunking some enduring tenets of cultural mythology:

According to conventional wisdom, highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity. If we want to succeed, we need a combination of hard work, talent, and luck. [But there is] a fourth ingredient, one that’s critical but often neglected: success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people. Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?

At the heart of his insight is a dichotomy of behavioral styles people adopt in pursuing success:

Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. Garden-variety takers aren’t cruel or cutthroat; they’re just cautious and self-protective. “If I don’t look out for myself first,” takers think, “no one will.”

Grant contrasts takers with givers:

In the workplace, givers are a relatively rare breed. They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get. Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them. These preferences aren’t about money: givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people. If you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs. If you’re a giver, you might use a different cost-benefit analysis: you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs. Alternatively, you might not think about the personal costs at all, helping others without expecting anything in return. If you’re a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them.

Outside the workplace, Grant argues by citing Yale psychologist Margaret Clark’s research, most of us are givers in close relationships like marriages and friendships, contributing without preoccupation with keeping score. In the workplace, however, few of us are purely givers or takers — rather, what dominates is a third style:

We become matchers, striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting. Matchers operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity. If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.

True to psychologists’ repeated insistence that personality is fluid rather than fixed, Grant notes:

Giving, taking, and matching are three fundamental styles of social interaction, but the lines between them aren’t hard and fast. You might find that you shift from one reciprocity style to another as you travel across different work roles and relationships. It wouldn’t be surprising if you act like a taker when negotiating your salary, a giver when mentoring someone with less experience than you, and a matcher when sharing expertise with a colleague. But evidence shows that at work, the vast majority of people develop a primary reciprocity style, which captures how they approach most of the people most of the time. And this primary style can play as much of a role in our success as hard work, talent, and luck.

Originally featured in April — for a closer look at Grant’s findings on the science of success, read the full article here.

11. THE EXAMINED LIFE

Despite ample evidence and countless testaments to the opposite, there persists a toxic cultural mythology that creative and intellectual excellence comes from a passive gift bestowed upon the fortunate few by the gods of genius, rather than being the product of the active application and consistent cultivation of skill. So what might the root of that stubborn fallacy be? Childhood and upbringing, it turns out, might have a lot to do.

In The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves (public library), psychoanalyst and University College London professor Stephen Grosz builds on more than 50,000 hours of conversation from his quarter-century experience as a practicing psychoanalyst to explore the machinery of our inner life, with insights that are invariably profound and often provocative — for instance, a section titled “How praise can cause a loss of confidence,” in which Grosz writes:

Nowadays, we lavish praise on our children. Praise, self-confidence and academic performance, it is commonly believed, rise and fall together. But current research suggests otherwise — over the past decade, a number of studies on self-esteem have come to the conclusion that praising a child as ‘clever’ may not help her at school. In fact, it might cause her to under-perform. Often a child will react to praise by quitting — why make a new drawing if you have already made ‘the best’? Or a child may simply repeat the same work — why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way always gets applause?

Grosz cites psychologists Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller’s famous 1998 study, which divided 128 children ages 10 and 11 into two groups. All were asked to solve mathematical problems, but one group were praised for their intellect (“You did really well, you’re so clever.”) while the other for their effort (“You did really well, you must have tried really hard.”) The kids were then given more complex problems, which those previously praised for their hard work approached with dramatically greater resilience and willingness to try different approaches whenever they reached a dead end. By contrast, those who had been praised for their cleverness were much more anxious about failure, stuck with tasks they had already mastered, and dwindled in tenacity in the face of new problems. Grosz summarizes the now-legendary findings:

Ultimately, the thrill created by being told ‘You’re so clever’ gave way to an increase in anxiety and a drop in self-esteem, motivation and performance. When asked by the researchers to write to children in another school, recounting their experience, some of the ‘clever’ children lied, inflating their scores. In short, all it took to knock these youngsters’ confidence, to make them so unhappy that they lied, was one sentence of praise.

He goes on to admonish against today’s culture of excessive parental praise, which he argues does more for lifting the self-esteem of the parents than for cultivating a healthy one in their children:

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signaling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have — but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing — doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism. If we do it to avoid thinking about our child and her world, and about what our child feels, then praise, just like criticism, is ultimately expressing our indifference.

To explore what the healthier substitute for praise might be, he recounts observing an eighty-year-old remedial reading teacher named Charlotte Stiglitz, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who told Grosz of her teaching methodology:

I don’t praise a small child for doing what they ought to be able to do,’ she told me. ‘I praise them when they do something really difficult — like sharing a toy or showing patience. I also think it is important to say “thank you”. When I’m slow in getting a snack for a child, or slow to help them and they have been patient, I thank them. But I wouldn’t praise a child who is playing or reading.

Rather than utilizing the familiar mechanisms of reward and punishment, Grosz observed, Charlotte’s method relied on keen attentiveness to “what a child did and how that child did it.” Presence, he argues, helps build the child’s confidence by way of indicating he is worthy of the observer’s thoughts and attention — its absence, on the other hand, divorces in the child the journey from the destination by instilling a sense that the activity itself is worthless unless it’s a means to obtaining praise. Grosz reminds us how this plays out for all of us, and why it matters throughout life:

Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness — the feeling that someone is trying to think about us — something we want more than praise?

Originally featured in May — read the full article here.

12. TO SELL IS HUMAN

Whether it’s “selling” your ideas, your writing, or yourself to a potential mate, the art of the sell is crucial to your fulfillment in life, both personal and professional. So argues Dan Pink in To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others (public library; UK) — a provocative anatomy of the art-science of “selling” in the broadest possible sense of the word, substantiated by ample research spanning psychology, behavioral economics, and the social sciences.

Pink, wary of the disagreeable twinges accompanying the claim that everyone should self-identify as a salesperson, preemptively counters in the introduction:

I’m convinced we’ve gotten it wrong.

This is a book about sales. But it is unlike any book about sales you have read (or ignored) before. That’s because selling in all its dimensions — whether pushing Buicks on a lot or pitching ideas in a meeting — has changed more in the last ten years than it did over the previous hundred. Most of what we think we understand about selling is constructed atop a foundation of assumptions that have crumbled.

[…]

Selling, I’ve grown to understand, is more urgent, more important, and, in its own sweet way, more beautiful than we realize. The ability to move others to exchange what they have for what we have is crucial to our survival and our happiness. It has helped our species evolve, lifted our living standards, and enhanced our daily lives. The capacity to sell isn’t some unnatural adaptation to the merciless world of commerce. It is part of who we are.

One of Pink’s most fascinating arguments echoes artist Chuck Close, who famously noted that “our whole society is much too problem-solving oriented. It is far more interesting to [participate in] ‘problem creation.’” Pink cites the research of celebrated social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who in the 1960s recruited three dozen fourth-year art students for an experiment. They brought the young artists into a studio with two large tables. The first table displayed 27 eclectic objects that the school used in its drawing classes. The students were instructed to select one or more objects, then arrange a still life on the second table and draw it. What happened next reveals an essential pattern about how creativity works:

The young artists approached their task in two distinct ways. Some examined relatively few objects, outlined their idea swiftly, and moved quickly to draw their still life. Others took their time. They handled more objects, turned them this way and that, rearranged them several times, and needed much longer to complete the drawing. As Csikszentmihalyi saw it, the first group was trying to solve a problem: How can I produce a good drawing? The second was trying to find a problem: What good drawing can I produce?

As Csikszentmihalyi then assembled a group of art experts to evaluate the resulting works, he found that the problem-finders’ drawings had been ranked much higher in creativity than the problem-solvers’. Ten years later, the researchers tracked down these art students, who at that point were working for a living, and found that about half had left the art world, while the other half had gone on to become professional artists. That latter group was composed almost entirely of problem-finders. Another decade later, the researchers checked in again and discovered that the problem-finders were “significantly more successful — by the standards of the artistic community — than their peers.” Getzels concluded:

It is in fact the discovery and creation of problems rather than any superior knowledge, technical skill, or craftsmanship that often sets the creative person apart from others in his field.

Pink summarizes:

The more compelling view of the nature of problems has enormous implications for the new world of selling. Today, both sales and non-sales selling depend more on the creative, heuristic, problem-finding skills of artists than on the reductive, algorithmic, problem-solving skills of technicians.

Another fascinating chapter reveals counterintuitive insights about the competitive advantages of introversion vs. extraversion. While new theories might extol the power of introverts over traditional exaltations of extraversion, the truth turns out to be quite different: Pink turns to the research of social psychologist Adam Grant, management professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater).

Grant measured where a sample of call center sales representatives fell on the introversion-extraversion spectrum, then correlated that with their actual sales figures. Unsurprisingly, Grant found that extraverts averaged $125 per hour in revenue, exceeding introverts’ $120. His most surprising finding, however, was that “ambiverts” — those who fell in the middle of the spectrum, “not too hot, not too cold” — performed best of all, with an hourly average of $155. The outliers who brought in an astounding $208 per hour scored a solid 4 on the 1-7 introversion-extraversion scale.

Pink synthesizes the findings into an everyday insight for the rest of us:

The best approach is for the people on the ends to emulate those in the center. As some have noted, introverts are ‘geared to inspect,’ while extraverts are ‘geared to respond.’ Selling of any sort — whether traditional sales or non-sales selling — requires a delicate balance of inspecting and responding. Ambiverts can find that balance. They know when to speak and when to shut up. Their wider repertoires allow them to achieve harmony with a broader range of people and a more varied set of circumstances. Ambiverts are the best movers because they’re the most skilled attuners.

Pink goes on to outline “the new ABCs of moving others” — attunement (“the ability to bring one’s actions and outlook into harmony with other people an with the context you’re [sic] in”), buoyancy (a trifecta of “interrogative self-talk” that moves from making statements to asking questions, contagious “positivity,” and an optimistic “explanatory style” of explaining negative events to yourself), and clarity (“the capacity to help others see their situations in fresh and more revealing ways and to identify problems they didn’t realize they had”).

Originally featured in February — read the full article here, where you can watch the charming companion video.

13. HOW TO STAY SANE

“I pray to Jesus to preserve my sanity,” Jack Kerouac professed in discussing his writing routine. But those of us who fall on the more secular end of the spectrum might need a slightly more potent sanity-preservation tool than prayer. That’s precisely what writer and psychotherapist Philippa Perry offers in How To Stay Sane (public library; UK), part of The School of Life’s wonderful series reclaiming the traditional self-help genre as intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living.

At the heart of Perry’s argument — in line with neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recent meditation on memory and how “narrative truth,” rather than “historical truth,” shapes our impression of the world — is the recognition that stories make us human and learning to reframe our interpretations of reality is key to our experience of life:

Our stories give shape to our inchoate, disparate, fleeting impressions of everyday life. They bring together the past and the future into the present to provide us with structures for working towards our goals. They give us a sense of identity and, most importantly, serve to integrate the feelings of our right brain with the language of our left.

[…]

We are primed to use stories. Part of our survival as a species depended upon listening to the stories of our tribal elders as they shared parables and passed down their experience and the wisdom of those who went before. As we get older it is our short-term memory that fades rather than our long-term memory. Perhaps we have evolved like this so that we are able to tell the younger generation about the stories and experiences that have formed us which may be important to subsequent generations if they are to thrive.

I worry, though, about what might happen to our minds if most of the stories we hear are about greed, war and atrocity.

Perry goes on to cite research indicating that people who watch television for more than four hours a day see themselves as far more likely to fall victim in a violent incident in the forthcoming week than their peers who watch less than two hours a day. Just like E. B. White advocated for the responsibility of the writer to “to lift people up, not lower them down,” so too is our responsibility as the writers of our own life-stories to avoid the well-documented negativity bias of modern media — because, as artist Austin Kleon wisely put it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” Perry writes:

Be careful which stories you expose yourself to.

[…]

The meanings you find, and the stories you hear, will have an impact on how optimistic you are: it’s how we evolved. … If you do not know how to draw positive meaning from what happens in life, the neural pathways you need to appreciate good news will never fire up.

[…]

The trouble is, if we do not have a mind that is used to hearing good news, we do not have the neural pathways to process such news.

Yet despite the adaptive optimism bias of the human brain, Perry argues a positive outlook is a practice — and one that requires mastering the art of vulnerability and increasing our essential tolerance for uncertainty:

You may find that you have been telling yourself that practicing optimism is a risk, as though, somehow, a positive attitude will invite disaster and so if you practice optimism it may increase your feelings of vulnerability. The trick is to increase your tolerance for vulnerable feelings, rather than avoid them altogether.

[…]

Optimism does not mean continual happiness, glazed eyes and a fixed grin. When I talk about the desirability of optimism I do not mean that we should delude ourselves about reality. But practicing optimism does mean focusing more on the positive fall-out of an event than on the negative. … I am not advocating the kind of optimism that means you blow all your savings on a horse running at a hundred to one; I am talking about being optimistic enough to sow some seeds in the hope that some of them will germinate and grow into flowers.

Another key obstruction to our sanity is our chronic aversion to being wrong, entwined with our damaging fear of the unfamiliar. Perry cautions:

We all like to think we keep an open mind and can change our opinions in the light of new evidence, but most of us seem to be geared to making up our minds very quickly. Then we process further evidence not with an open mind but with a filter, only acknowledging the evidence that backs up our original impression. It is too easy for us to fall into the rap of believing that being right is more important than being open to what might be.

If we practice detachment from our thoughts we learn to observe them as though we are taking a bird’s eye view of our own thinking. When we do this, we might find that our thinking belongs to an older, and different, story to the one we are now living.

Perry concludes:

We need to look at the repetitions in the stories we tell ourselves [and] at the process of the stories rather than merely their surface content. Then we can begin to experiment with changing the filter through which we look at the world, start to edit the story and thus regain flexibility where we have been getting stuck.

Originally featured in February — read the full article here.

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25 NOVEMBER, 2013

The 13 Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2013

By:

From Alan Turing to Susan Sontag, by way of a lost cat, a fierce Victorian lady-journalist, and some very odd creative habits.

It’s that time of year again, the time for those highly subjective, grossly non-exhaustive, yet inevitable and invariably fun best-of reading lists. To kick off the season, here are my thirteen favorite biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013. (Catch up on last year’s best history books.)

1. LOST CAT

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell asserted indignantly in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. Though hailed as memetic rulers of the internet, cats have also enjoyed a long history as artistic and literary muses, but never have they been at once more about cats and more about something else than in Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, she of many wonderful collaborations — a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. (You might recall a subtle teaser for this gem in Wendy’s wonderful recent illustration of Gay Talese’s taxonomy of cats.) Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love.

After Caroline crashes an experimental plane she was piloting, she finds herself severely injured and spiraling into the depths of depression. It both helps and doesn’t that Caroline and Wendy have just fallen in love, soaring in the butterfly heights of new romance, “the phase of love that didn’t obey any known rules of physics,” until the crash pulls them into a place that would challenge even the most seasoned and grounded of relationships. And yet they persevere as Wendy patiently and lovingly takes care of Caroline.

When Caroline returns from the hospital with a shattered ankle, her two thirteen-year-old tabbies — the shy, anxious Tibby (short for Tibia, affectionately — and, in these circumstances, ironically — named after the shinbone) and the sociable, amicable Fibby (short for Fibula, after the calf bone on the lateral side of the tibia) — are, short of Wendy, her only joy and comfort:

Tibia and Fibula meowed happily when I arrived. They were undaunted by my ensuing stupor. In fact they were delighted; suddenly I had become a human who didn’t shout into a small rectangle of lights and plastic in her hand, peer at a computer, or get up and disappear from the vicinity, only to reappear through the front door hours later. Instead, I was completely available to them at all times. Amazed by their good luck, they took full feline advantage. They asked for ear scratches and chin rubs. They rubbed their whiskers along my face. They purred in response to my slurred, affectionate baby talk. But mostly they just settled in and went to sleep. Fibby snored into my neck. Tibby snored on the rug nearby. Meanwhile I lay awake, circling the deep dark hole of depression.

Without my cats, I would have fallen right in.

And then, one day, Tibby disappears.

Wendy and Caroline proceed to flyer the neighborhood, visit every animal shelter in the vicinity, and even, in their desperation, enlist the help of a psychic who specializes in lost pets — but to no avail. Heartbroken, they begin to mourn Tibby’s loss.

And then, one day five weeks later, Tibby reappears. But once the initial elation of the recovery has worn off, Caroline begins to wonder where he’d been and why he’d left. He is now no longer eating at home and regularly leaves the house for extended periods of time — Tibby clearly has a secret place he now returns to. Even more worrisomely, he’s no longer the shy, anxious tabby he’d been for thirteen years — instead, he’s a half pound heavier, chirpy, with “a youthful spring in his step.” But why would a happy cat abandon his loving lifelong companion and find comfort — find himself, even — elsewhere?

When the relief that my cat was safe began to fade, and the joy of his prone, snoring form — sprawled like an athlete after a celebratory night of boozing — started to wear thin, I was left with darker emotions. Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this gilded place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats?

There only one obvious thing left to do: Track Tibby on his escapades. So Caroline, despite Wendy’s lovingly suppressed skepticism, heads to a spy store — yes, those exist — and purchases a real-time GPS tracker, complete with a camera that they program to take snapshots every few minutes, which they then attach to Tibby’s collar.

What follows is a wild, hilarious, and sweet tale of tinkering, tracking, and tenderness. Underpinning the obsessive quest is the subtle yet palpable subplot of Wendy and Caroline’s growing love for each other, the deepening of trust and affection that happens when two people share in a special kind of insanity.

“Evert quest is a journey, every journey a story. Every story, in turn, has a moral,” writes Caroline in the final chapter, then offers several “possible morals” for the story, the last of which embody everything that makes Lost Cat an absolute treat from cover to cover:

6. You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want.

7. But that’s okay, love is better.

Take a closer look here, then hear MacNaughton and Paul in conversation about combining creative collaboration with a romantic relationship.

2. SUSAN SONTAG: THE COMPLETE ROLLING STONE INTERVIEW

In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott interviewed Susan Sontag in twelve hours of conversation, beginning in Paris and continuing in New York, only a third of which was published in the magazine. More than three decades later and almost a decade after Sontag’s death, the full, wide-ranging magnificence of their tête-à-tête, spanning literature, philosophy, illness, mental health, music, art, and much more, is at last released in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — a rare glimpse of one of modern history’s greatest minds in her element.

Cott marvels at what made the dialogue especially extraordinary:

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed — the pianist Glenn Gould is the one other exception — Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning” — as she once described Henry James’s writing style—with which she framed and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings with parenthetical remarks and qualifying words (“sometimes,” “occasionally,” “usually,” “for the most part,” “in almost all cases”), the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours — an inebriation with the spoken word. “I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue,” she once remarked in her journals, and added: “For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.

In one segment of the conversation, Sontag discusses how the false divide between “high” and pop culture impoverishes our lives. In another, she makes a beautiful case for the value of history:

I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.

In another meditation, she argues for the existential and creative value of presence:

What I want is to be fully present in my life — to be really where you are, contemporary with yourself in your life, giving full attention to the world, which includes you. You are not the world, the world is not identical to you, but you’re in it and paying attention to it. That’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world. Because I’m very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don’t, there really is a world that’s there whether you’re in it or not.

In another passage, she considers how taking responsibility empowers rather than disempowers us:

I want to feel as responsible as I possibly can. As I told you before, I hate feeling like a victim, which not only gives me no pleasure but also makes me feel very uncomfortable. Insofar as it’s possible, and not crazy, I want to enlarge to the furthest extent possible my sense of my own autonomy, so that in friendship and love relationships I’m eager to take responsibility for both the good and the bad things. I don’t want this attitude of “I was so wonderful and that person did me in.” Even when it’s sometimes true, I’ve managed to convince myself that I was at least co-responsible for bad things that have happened to me, because it actually makes me feel stronger and makes me feel that things could perhaps be different.

The conversation, in which Sontag reaches unprecedented depths of self-revelation, also debunks some misconceptions about her public image as an intellectual in the dry, scholarly sense of the term:

Most of what I do, contrary to what people think, is so intuitive and unpremeditated and not at all that kind of cerebral, calculating thing people imagine it to be. I’m just following my instincts and intuitions. […] An argument appears to me much more like the spokes of a wheel than the links of a chain.

Originally featured earlier this month — take a closer look here.

3. MAURICE SENDAK: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTIST AND HIS WORK

Maurice Sendak is celebrated by many, myself included, as the greatest and most influential children’s book artist of the past century. A year after Sendak’s death comes Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — the companion volume to the wonderful 2013 exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators. From rich essays by historians and artists who contextualize Sendak’s life and legacy to a selection of his best-loved and notable little-known illustrations, the book is a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.

Dive deeper with excerpts exploring Sendak’s lessons on art and storytelling and his lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.

4. DIVINE FURY: A HISTORY OF GENIUS

“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly,” celebrated British novelist Amelia E. Barr wrote in her 9 rules for success in 1901. Indeed, the notion of what genius is and isn’t endures as one of our culture’s greatest fixations. We apply the label of “genius” to everyone from our greatest luminaries to exceptional children’s book editors to our dogs, and we even nickname prestigious cultural awards after it. But what, precisely, is genius? Why was the concept of it born in the first place, where did it begin, how did it evolve, and what does it mean today? That’s precisely what historian Darrin M. McMahon explores in Divine Fury: A History of Genius (public library) — a fascinating, first-of-its-kind chronicle of the evolution of genius as a cultural concept, its permutations across millennia of creative history, and its more recent role as a social equalizer and a double-edged sword of democratization.

McMahon begins:

Even today, more than 2,000 years after its first recorded use by the Roman author Plautus, [the word “genius”] continues to resonate with power and allure. The power to create. The power to divine the secrets of the universe. The power to destroy. With its hints of madness and eccentricity, sexual prowess and protean possibility, genius remains a mysterious force, bestowing on those who would assume it superhuman abilities and godlike powers. Genius, conferring privileged access to the hidden workings of the world. Genius, binding us still to the last vestiges of the divine.

Such lofty claims may seem excessive in an age when football coaches and rock stars are frequently described as “geniuses.” The luster of the word — once reserved for a pantheon of eminence, the truly highest of the high — has no doubt faded over time, the result of inflated claims and general overuse. The title of a BBC television documentary on the life of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman sums up the situation: No Ordinary Genius. There was a time when such a title would have been redundant. That time is no more.

History's 100 geniuses of literature and language, visualized. Click image for details.

McMahon argues that, in an age where we’re urged to explore the “genius” in all of us, we’ve grown increasingly obsessed with the word and the idea of genius, robbing it of substance in the process. Particularly in the last century, we’ve applied the label of “genius” frivolously and indiscriminately to everyone from rock stars to startup founders to, even, Adolf Hitler, whom TIME magazine crowned “man of the year” in 1938 for his evil genius. And yet the impulse to know — to be — genius is among our greatest, most profound human yearnings for union with divinity, something the legendary literary critic Harold Bloom has explored in his own meditation on genius. For the perfect embodiment of this desire, McMahon points to Albert Einstein, whom he considers “the quintessential modern genius”:

“I want to know how God created the world,” Einstein once observed. “I want to know his thoughts.” It was, to be sure, a manner of speaking, like the physicist’s celebrated line about the universe and dice. Still, the aspiration is telling. For genius, from its earliest origins, was a religious notion, and as such was bound up not only with the superhuman and transcendent, but also with the capacity for violence, destruction, and evil that all religions must confront.

McMahon sets out to unravel this lineage of unexpected associations by tracing the history of genius, both as a concept and as a figure, from antiquity to today, exploring a vibrant spectrum of individuals who both embodied and shaped the label — poets, philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, composers, military strategists, entrepreneurs, and even a horse. As much a history of ideas as a psychological history of our grasping after the divine, the journey he takes us on is above all one of introspection through the lens of history. Reminding us that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” McMahon argues for the social construction of genius:

If we wish to appreciate the role that genius has played in the modern world, we must recall the evil with the good, bearing in mind as we do so the uncomfortable thought that genius is ultimately the product of the hopes and longings of ordinary people. We are the ones who marvel and wonder, longing for the salvation genius might bring. We are the ones who pay homage and obeisance. In a very real sense, the creator of genius is us.

Which is not to deny that geniuses almost always possess something special, something real, however elusive that something may be. But it is to recognize the commonsense fact that genius is in part a social creation — what historians like to call a “construction” — and, as such, of service to those who build. That fact reminds us further that for all their originality (and originality is itself a defining feature of genius in its modern form), extraordinary human beings not only define their images but embody them, stepping into molds prepared by the social imaginary and the exemplars who came before. Even outliers as remarkable, as deviant, as Einstein and Hitler are no exceptions to this rule: however inimitable — however unique — their genius was partly prepared for them, worked out over the course of generations.

Originally featured in October — read the full article here.

5. MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG

Half a century ago this year, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world — took her own life, leaving behind her husband Ted Hughes and their two children. In the highly anticipated biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library) — titled after the exquisite Plath poemAndrew Wilson explores the poorly understood period of Plath’s life before her relationship with Hughes. Diving into the darkest corners of her diaries and letters, as well as previously unavailable archives and direct interviews with those who knew Plath, Wilson sets out to “trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors — the real disquieting muses — conspired against her.”

He writes in the introduction:

In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the ‘edge.’ She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below.

This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.

Wilson notes Plath’s chronic dissonance between repression and an insatiable hunger for life:

Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing. In the same letter she goes on to write of her deep envy of males, anger she describes as ‘insidious, malignant, latent.’

Sex — or rather the constraints and repressions surrounding it — played a central role in Plath’s creative and psychological development. She realized, as she wrote in her journal in the autumn of 1950, she was too well brought up to disregard tradition, yet she hated boys who could express themselves sexually while she had no choice but to ‘drag’ herself from one date to the next in ‘soggy desire.’ The system, she added, disgusted her.

But Wilson tends to jump to causality a little too eagerly. As Clay Shirky poignantly pointed out about the tragic loss of Aaron Swartz, “suicide is not only about proximate causes.” Wilson writes:

If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means. Her letters and journals are full of references to feeling inferior and self-conscious because of her low status. As a scholarship girl at Smith College — one of America’s top universities for women — she was surrounded by the daughters of the country’s great and the good. She peeled potatoes, chopped vegetables, and waited on tables as a way of reducing her course fees. In order to try and take the burden off her mother — who worked at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters to pay the shortfall between her daughter’s fees and her scholarship — Sylvia volunteered for extra jobs at the college and, in whatever spare time she had, she wrote poems and stories for money. If she took boys home to her family’s two-bedroom house in Wellesley, Massachusetts — where she was forced to share a room with her mother — she worried that they would see the marks and rips in the wallpaper; on occasions like these, the lights would have to be kept low so as to try and disguise the blemishes. In her first semester at Smith, in the fall of 1950, she wrote in her journal of the arduous transition period between childhood and young adulthood. To help her make sense of this new, troubling reality, she made a list of certain aspects of life that she found difficult, an inventory of notes addressed to herself that she could use to boost her confidence when it was low. One of the sections focuses on her economic position in society. She noted how she knew she would have to compete with other girls who had been born into wealthier families. The Plaths, she realized, were not only of modest means but they didn’t come from a line of well-connected intellectuals. She observed how boys from richer families would often remark, in a casual fashion, of her ‘side of town,’ and although they didn’t mean to be cruel, she felt the comments keenly.

Originally featured in February — read the full article here.

6. DARWIN: A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY

Joining other famous graphic biographies of cultural icons like Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, The Carter Family, and Steve Jobs, Darwin: A Graphic Biography (public library) offers a delightful visual take on the story of the father of evolution, decoder of human emotion, hopeless romantic, and occasional grump.

Written by journalist Eugene Byrne and illustrated by cartoonist Simon Gurr, the story takes us into the life and times of Darwin — from a curious child on a “beeting” expedition to a patient young man persevering through the ups and downs of battling creationist oppression to a worldwide legend — tracing his intellectual adventures amidst the fascinating scientific world of the 1800s.

The best part? This illustrated version of Darwin’s famous balance sheet on the pros and cons of marriage:

Originally featured in February — see more panels here.

7. EIGHTY DAYS

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” science fiction godfather Jules Verne famously proclaimed. He was right about the general sentiment but oh how very wrong about its gendered language: Sixteen years after Verne’s classic novel Eighty Days Around the World, his vision for speed-circumnavigation would be made real — but by a woman. On the morning of November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, an audacious newspaper reporter, set out to outpace Verne’s fictional itinerary by circumnavigating the globe in seventy-five days, thus setting the real-world record for the fastest trip around the world. In Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (public library), Matthew Goodman traces the groundbreaking adventure, beginning with a backdrop of Bly’s remarkable journalistic fortitude and contribution to defying our stubbornly enduring biases about women writers:

No female reporter before her had ever seemed quite so audacious, so willing to risk personal safety in pursuit of a story. In her first exposé for The World, Bly had gone undercover … feigning insanity so that she might report firsthand on the mistreatment of the female patients of the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. … Bly trained with the boxing champion John L. Sullivan; she performed, with cheerfulness but not much success, as a chorus girl at the Academy of Music (forgetting the cue to exit, she momentarily found herself all alone onstage). She visited with a remarkable deaf, dumb, and blind nine-year-old girl in Boston by the name of Helen Keller. Once, to expose the workings of New York’s white slave trade, she even bought a baby. Her articles were by turns lighthearted and scolding and indignant, some meant to edify and some merely to entertain, but all were shot through with Bly’s unmistakable passion for a good story and her uncanny ability to capture the public’s imagination, the sheer force of her personality demanding that attention be paid to the plight of the unfortunate, and, not incidentally, to herself.

For all her extraordinary talent and work ethic, Bly’s appearance was decidedly unremarkable — a fact that shouldn’t matter, but one that would be repeatedly remarked upon by her critics and commentators, something we’ve made sad little progress on in discussing women’s professional, intellectual, and creative merit more than a century later. Goodman paints a portrait of Bly:

She was a young woman in a plaid coat and cap, neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, not quite pretty enough to turn a head: the sort of woman who could, if necessary, lose herself in a crowd.

[…]

Her voice rang with the lilt of the hill towns of western Pennsylvania; there was an unusual rising inflection at the ends of her sentences, the vestige of an Elizabethan dialect that had still been spoken in the hills when she was a girl. She had piercing gray eyes, though sometimes they were called green, or blue-green, or hazel. Her nose was broad at its base and delicately upturned at the end — the papers liked to refer to it as a “retroussé” nose — and it was the only feature about which she was at all self-conscious. She had brown hair that she wore in bangs across her forehead. Most of those who knew her considered her pretty, although this was a subject that in the coming months would be hotly debated in the press.

But, as if the ambitious adventure weren’t scintillating enough, the story takes an unexpected turn: That fateful November morning, as Bly was making her way to the journey’s outset at the Hoboken docks, a man named John Brisben Walker passed her on a ferry in the opposite direction, traveling from Jersey City to Lower Manhattan. He was the publisher of a high-brow magazine titled The Cosmopolitan, the same publication that decades later, under the new ownership of William Randolph Hearst, would take a dive for the commercially low-brow. On his ferry ride, Walker skimmed that morning’s edition of The World and paused over the front-page feature announcing Bly’s planned adventure around the world. A seasoned media manipulator of the public’s voracious appetite for drama, he instantly birthed an idea that would seize upon a unique publicity opportunity — The Cosmopolitan would send another circumnavigator to race against Bly. To keep things equal, it would have to be a woman. To keep them interesting, she’d travel in the opposite direction.

And so it went:

Elizabeth Bisland was twenty-eight years old, and after nearly a decade of freelance writing she had recently obtained a job as literary editor of The Cosmopolitan, for which she wrote a monthly review of recently published books entitled “In the Library.” Born into a Louisiana plantation family ruined by the Civil War and its aftermath, at the age of twenty she had moved to New Orleans and then, a few years later, to New York, where she contributed to a variety of magazines and was regularly referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Bisland was tall, with an elegant, almost imperious bearing that accentuated her height; she had large dark eyes and luminous pale skin and spoke in a low, gentle voice. She reveled in gracious hospitality and smart conversation, both of which were regularly on display in the literary salon that she hosted in the little apartment she shared with her sister on Fourth Avenue, where members of New York’s creative set, writers and painters and actors, gathered to discuss the artistic issues of the day. Bisland’s particular combination of beauty, charm, and erudition seems to have been nothing short of bewitching.

But Bisland was no literary bombshell. Wary of beauty’s fleeting and superficial nature — she once lamented, “After the period of sex-attraction has passed, women have no power in America” — she blended Edison’s circadian relentlessness and Tchaikovsky’s work ethic:

She took pride in the fact that she had arrived in New York with only fifty dollars in her pocket, and that the thousands of dollars now in her bank account had come by virtue of her own pen. Capable of working for eighteen hours at a stretch, she wrote book reviews, essays, feature articles, and poetry in the classical vein. She was a believer, more than anything else, in the joys of literature, which she had first experienced as a girl in ancient volumes of Shakespeare and Cervantes that she found in the library of her family’s plantation house. (She taught herself French while she churned butter, so that she might read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original — a book, as it turned out, that she hated.) She cared nothing for fame, and indeed found the prospect of it distasteful.

And yet, despite their competitive circumstances and seemingly divergent dispositions, something greater bound the two women together, some ineffable force of culture that quietly united them in a bold defiance of their era’s normative biases:

On the surface the two women … were about as different as could be: one woman a Northerner, the other from the South; one a scrappy, hard-driving crusader, the other priding herself on her gentility; one seeking out the most sensational of news stories, the other preferring novels and poetry and disdaining much newspaper writing as “a wild, crooked, shrieking hodge-podge,” a “caricature of life.” Elizabeth Bisland hosted tea parties; Nellie Bly was known to frequent O’Rourke’s saloon on the Bowery. But each of them was acutely conscious of the unequal position of women in America. Each had grown up without much money and had come to New York to make a place for herself in big-city journalism, achieving a hard-won success in what was still, unquestionably, a man’s world.

Originally featured in May — read the full article, including Bly’s entertaining illustrated packing list, here.

8. ODD TYPE WRITERS

Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library), Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.

As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:

One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.

Jack Kerouac's hand-drawn cross-country road trip map from 'On the Road'

Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:

To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.

James Joyce in his white coat

James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)

Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:

This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.

Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks

We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:

Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.

But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:

[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.

Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”

Charles Dickens's manuscript for 'Our Mutual Friend.' Image courtesy of The Morgan Library.

Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.

But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:

That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.

[…]

You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.

Originally featured in September — for more quirky habits, read the original article here. Runner up: Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.

9. ITALO CALVINO: LETTERS, 1941–1985

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) offers more than four decades of wisdom in 600+ pages of personal correspondence by one of the 20th century’s most enchanting writers and most beautiful minds. In one letter, written on July 27, 1949, Calvino contributes one of his many insights on writing:

To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.

In another, he considers the secret of living well:

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.

Sample the altogether fantastic volume with Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, and his thoughts on America.

10. DUKE: A LIFE OF DUKE ELLINGTON

Much like Freud engineered his own myth and Salinger crafted his personal legend, jazz legend Duke Ellington — whose funeral was witnessed by 10,000 people in the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, another 2,500 listening outside via loudspeakers, and thousands more tuned into the live radio broadcast, even prompting President Nixon to take a timeout from Watergate and praise “America’s foremost composer” — sculpted his public image with meticulous, obsessive, almost paranoid precision. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library), writer, playwright, librettist, and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout sets out to lift the veneer of Ellington’s polished public persona and uncover the mysterious complexity of Duke’s private person. Though Teachout — who also penned Pops, the excellent 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong — calls his biography “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” for its collaging of existing research, interviews, and materials, don’t let his humility deceive you: This is a masterwork of dimensional insight into an icon who sought to flatten and flatter himself as much as possible and to shroud his exceptional artistry in exceptional artifice, a man woven of paradoxes, who, despite his chronic failings of private self-control, exerted his every faculty on controlling his public image. And yet, somehow, Teachout manages to peel away these protective layers and expose the flawed human being beneath them by elevating rather than diminishing Ellington’s humanity, enriching rather than discrediting his legacy.

Despite surrounding himself with a formidable entourage of deft PR custodians, he was ultimately his own best publicist — a man who employed the same charisma that made him an incredible entertainer in making his off-stage image as credible as possible, despite its assiduous artifice and methodical manipulation. Teachout writes:

That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself. Even Ruth, his adoring younger sister, said that he “definitely wasn’t direct. He wasn’t direct with anybody about anything.” Yet he talked so fluently and impressively that nearly everyone believed him, save for those who had reason to know better.

Behind closed doors: Composing at the Dorchester, his favorite London hotel, in 1963. Unposed offstage photos of Ellington are comparatively rare. He went out of his way to shape his public image to his liking—and to keep his private life out of the papers

His publicists — who dubbed him “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” — took great care to echo and amplify the image Duke himself was projecting, pitching him not only as a mere jazzman but as a true artist bearing the seal of approval of the era’s glitterati. They issued actual publicity manuals that were sent out to the managers of theaters and ballrooms where Ellington performed. One read:

Sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. . . . Ellington’s genius as a composer, arranger and musician has won him the respect and admiration of such authorities as Percy Grainger, head of the department of music at the New York University; Basil Cameron, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, famed conductor of the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra; Paul Whiteman, whose name is synonymous with jazz, and many others.

Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective. To support this goal of his, another publicity pamphlet emphasized his presentability in addition to his talent:

He is as genial as he is intelligent, always creates a good impression upon newspaper people with whom he comes in contact and invariably supplies them with good copy for their stories.

Ellington’s lifelong desire to “act on behalf of the race,” as he himself put it, was an expression of his own life’s contradictions — the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, he carried himself with an air of regality; a high school dropout, he made a special effort to teach himself the etiquette and manners of high society. Teachout notes the effect of this deliberate application:

For all his polish, it was his artistry, not his personality, that was the source of his enduring appeal. But it was the personality that made white people who might not otherwise have done so give him a second glance, and in time it opened doors of opportunity through which few other blacks had been allowed to pass.

Arguably the most accurate, succinctly eloquent description of Ellington’s elusive personhood comes from Rex Stewart, cornetist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra:

Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known . . . a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.

Indeed, Ellington was a bundle of inner contradictions — the kind we all grapple with by virtue of being human, only his were far more numerous, more entangled, and more full of friction than average. Teachout writes:

He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He pretended to be a devoted family man for the benefit of the ever-vigilant press, he deserted Edna, his first and only wife, later settling into a long-term relationship with a Cotton Club showgirl whom he chose not to marry (he never divorced Edna) and on whom he cheated as often as he liked.

In fact, one of Ellington’s most pressing publicity concerns was keeping his affairs out of the papers — information he felt would greatly compromise the very presentability and wholesomeness he worked so hard to craft in order to feel like he belonged in high society. As Teachout observes, he went to great lengths to make sure “his fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more.” At one point, he even went as far as paying off gossip columnists and placing expensive ads in newspapers to prevent his relationship with Evie from being reported.

Teachout, however, takes great care not to dim the enormity of Ellington’s talent in light of his immutable imperfection, noting instead that he used the former as a vehicle for both exorcising and tucking away the latter:

He was, like Chopin, Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.

Originally featured in October — take a deeper dive here, then also see this fascinating excerpt on Duke’s diet.

Complement with Teachout’s Design Matters interview, where he talks to Debbie Millman about the book and Duke’s elusive “immortal longings”:

11. TURING: PIONEER OF THE INFORMATION AGE

It is to Alan Turinggodfather of the digital universe, voracious reader, tragic hero of his era’s inhumane bigotry — that we owe an enormous amount of today’s givens, including my writing this very sentence and your reading it. In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosophy professor and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland turns to conversations and correspondence with some of Turing’s closest friends and collaborators to explore the life and legacy of this man of uncommon genius with unprecedented depth and insight, from the invention of the Universal Turing Machine — the granddaddy of the modern stored program computer — to Turing’s codebreaking feats during WWII to the tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death.

The first personal computer (Image courtesy Harry Huskey)

Copeland succinctly captures the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to contemporary life:

To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and all the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer’s memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favorite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention — the stored-program universal computer — Turing changed the way we live.

Alan Turing

Indeed, it took an exceptional mind — one inhabiting the outermost fringes of the obvious, in every imaginable way — to conceive of such world-changing technology. Copeland goes on to paint a portrait of Turing more dimensional and moving than ever before:

He was a Spartan in all things, inner and outer, and had no time for pleasing decor, soft furnishings, superfluous embellishment, or unnecessary words. To him what mattered was the truth. Everything else was mere froth.

[…]

What would it have been like to meet him? Turing was tallish (5 feet 10 inches) and broadly built. He looked strong and fit. You might have mistaken his age, as he always seemed younger than he was. He was good-looking but strange. If you came across him at a party, you would certainly notice him. In fact, you might ask, ‘Who on earth is that?’ It wasn’t just his shabby clothes or dirty fingernails. It was the whole package. Part of it was the unusual noise he made. This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly.

If you crossed the room to talk to him, you would have probably found him gauche and rather reserved. He was decidedly lah-di-dah, but the reserve wasn’t standoffishness. He was shy, a man of few words. Polite small talk did not come easily to him. He might — if you were lucky — smile engagingly, his blue eyes twinkling, and come out with something quirky that would make you laugh. If conversation developed, you’d probably find him vivid and funny. He might ask you, in his rather high-pitched voice, whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.

[…]

Like everyone else, Turing craved affection and company, but he never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. He was bothered by his own social strangeness — although, like his hair, it was a force of nature he could do little about. Occasionally he could be very rude. If he thought that someone wasn’t listening to him with sufficient attention, he would simply walk away. Turing was the sort of man who, usually unintentionally, ruffled people’s feathers — especially pompous people, people in authority, and scientific poseurs. … Beneath the cranky, craggy, irreverent exterior there was an unworldly innocence, though, as well as sensitivity and modesty.

Originally featured in April — read the original article here.

12. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN, VOLUME 2

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — reveals previously unknown facets of the greatest American satirist, celebrated as “the Lincoln of literature.” A large part of what made Twain Twain was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received, but one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion — something that comes fully ablaze in this new volume.

In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:

The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:

“The noblest work of God?” Man.

“Who found it out?” Man.

I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.

Twain treated all forms of dogmatic authority, from religious to parental, with equal irreverence. Spread from his ‘Advice to Little Girls’ illustrated by Vladimir Rudinsky. Click image for more.

In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:

We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.

Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.

‘All gods are better than their reputation,’ inscription dated December 23, 1902 from a first edition of ‘A Double-Barrelled Detective Story’ (Kevin MacDonnell Collection)

An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:

There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.

[…]

According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.

Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:

Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.

(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)

Originally featured in October — full article here.

13. THE SECRET HISTORY OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions — endures as Russia’s most revered literary émigré export. While his journey to cultural acclaim in America was in many ways a story of hope, it was also one underpinned by profound sadness and loss that would come to permeate his work. After the Bolshevik Revolution, when Nabokov was only eighteen, his family was forced to flee their hometown of St. Petersburg. As refugees in nomadic exile, they finally settled in Berlin in 1920. Two years later, Nabokov’s father, who had become secretary of Russian Provisional Government, was killed by accident while trying to shield the real target of a political assassination. Shortly thereafter, Nabokov’s mother and sister moved to Prague, but he remained in Berlin and garnered considerable recognition as a poet. In 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim, the Jewish-Russian love of his life, with whom he’d remain for the rest of his days.

In The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (public library), Andrea Pitzer, founder of Harvard’s narrative nonfiction site Nieman Storyboard, shines an unprecedented, kaleidoscopic spotlight on the author’s largely enigmatic life and its complex political context. What few realize — and what Pitzer reveals through newly-declassified intelligence files and rigorously researched military records — is that Nabokov wove serious and unsettling political history into the fabric of his fiction, which had gone undetected for decades: until now.

Vladimir Nabokov's United States Certificate of Naturalization

(Image courtesy Andrea Pitzer)

Originally featured in April, with the fascinating story of Nabokov’s travails with homeland security.

* * *

Honorable mentions: An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins, Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, and The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.

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