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17 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best Graphic Novels and Graphic Nonfiction of 2012

By:

From music history to war trials by way of Hunter S. Thompson and Steve Jobs, with a side of Ancient China.

Following this year’s best science books, art books, design books, philosophy and psychology books, children’s books, and history books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s finest graphic novels and best additions to these 10 favorite masterworks of graphic nonfiction.

GRAPHIC CANON VOL. 2

Earlier this year, Russ Kick gave us the the first installment of his Graphic Canon trilogy, which culls illustrated adaptations of 190 classic literary works from more than 130 contemporary graphic artists. This season, he followed up with The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From “Kubla Khan” to the Brontë Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray (UK; public library), which covers a remarkable spectrum of literature since 1800 and spans everything from “the bad boys of Romanticism” — Keats, Byron, and Shelley — to cornerstones of science and philosophy like Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra to prior favorites like Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick illustrations. The tome is the best thing in literary comics since Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant and a fine complement to the best graphic nonfiction of the past few years.

Lord Byron's 'She Walks in Beauty,' adapted by David Lasky

Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, adapted by Matt Kish

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, adapted by Dave Morice

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, adapted by Tim Fish

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, adapted by Elizabeth Watasin

Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven,' adapted by Yien Yip

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, adapted by Huxley King & Terrence Boyce

Detail from the Incan play Apu Ollantay, adapted by Caroline Picard

Of particular fascination and delight to me, as a hopeless Lewis Carroll fan, are the gorgeous takes on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, “Jabberwocky,” and “The Hunting of the Snark.”

Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, adapted by Dame Darcy

Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark, adapted by Mahendra Singh

The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2, bound to enchant in innumerable ways, will be followed by volume 3 in March, which is now available for pre-order.

Originally featured in October.

BUILDING STORIES

Building Stories (UK; public library) is a remarkable storytelling artifact by cartoonist Chris Ware, more than a decade in the making — a giant box containing fourteen individual print ephemera (books, booklets, comic strips, magazines, and even a gold-rimmed hardcover and a board game), each telling the interlocking tales of different residents of the same three-story Chicago brownstone, from the couple caught in a loveless relationship on the second floor, to the elderly spinster grappling with her own aging, to the bee trapped in the basement. Somewhere between Paula Scher’s vintage children’s book The Brownstone, the Cold-War-era experimental Polish short film Blok, and artist Yasmine Chatila’s Stolen Moments series, the project — which I hesitate to call a “book,” since it’s a lavish deal more — is at once voyeuristic and deeply intimate, exploring the boundless complexities of inner worlds, relationships, and the hopeful hopelessness of being human.

Image via The Telegraph

Ware writes:

Who hasn’t tried when passing by a building, or a home, at night to peer past half-closed shades and blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse into the private lies of its inhabitants. Anything… the briefest blossom of a movement… maybe a head, bobbing up… a bit of hair… a mysterious shadow… or a flash of flesh… seems somehow more revealing than any generous greeting or calculated cordiality. … Even the disappointing diffusion of a sheer curtain can suggest the most colorful bouquet of unspeakable secrets.

The stories and stories-within-stories are all told through the perspective of one character, the female amputee on the third floor, deliberately left unnamed. In fact, part of what makes Ware’s feat so remarkable is that he manages to explore the intricacies of gender, and of women’s everyday psychoemotional turmoils, with a remarkable blend of rawness and sensitivity, without any of the cumbersome self-righteousness and forced political correctness typical of writing that is about gender.

On a recent episode of Design Matters, the inimitable Debbie Millman ( ) talks to Ware about being influenced by Charles Schulz and Art Spiegelman, about his ethos and sensibility, and about the fascinating, layered narratives and characters in Building Stories. Here are a few favorite excerpts from the interview:

On giving shape to the human experience:

When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, ‘Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes’… And that seems ridiculous to me — I mean, that’s what writing is about. It’s about trying to understand other people.

On the relationship between storytelling and empathy:

On the characters in Building Stories, the role of sadness, and what writing is really about:

On the building itself as a character:

On destiny, sexuality, the essence of literature, and the tragedy of our unlived lives — including one of the most beautiful phrases ever uttered, “veering towards happiness”:

When people’s paths cross, is there some higher plan to it all? Do all of these frozen moments just represent accidents, or genuine missed opportunities?

Do yourself a favor and listen to Design Matters in its entirety (or, better yet, subscribe in iTunes), then do yourself a second favor and grab your very own copy of Building Stories. You’ll never look at a city block, or a dimly lit window, or a bee the same way again.

Originally featured in October.

THE CARTER FAMILY

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (UK; public library) by writer Frank Young and illustrator David Lasky tells the colorful story of the first true country music superband, among whose hundreds of recordings were such classics as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower.” More than a mere chronicle of the family’s rise to success, this beautifully illustrated graphic and tenderly told story explores everything from the nature of creativity to civil rights to the frictions between poverty and wealth — and, above all, the boundless power of love, music, and the love of music. The book comes with a CD of original Carter Family music.

BONUS: Complement with this fantastic Carter Family tribute album, featuring such icons as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson.

GONZO

The past few years have given us some stellar graphic nonfiction, lending the comic book genre to “grown-up” storytelling ranging from photojournalism to media history to biography. Gonzo: A Graphic Biography of Hunter S. Thompson (UK; public library) offers exactly what it says on the tin, and does so brilliantly — an uncommon biography of legendary iconoclastic author (and garden fence expert) Hunter S. Thompson, revered as the father of Gonzo journalism and reviled as an addict, a bum, a liar, a thief, a sociopath, a hedonistic outlaw. In bold black-and-white graphics and a few well-chosen words, author Will Bingley and illustrator Anthony Hope-Smith tell the story of how a disillusioned troublemaker kid from Louisville became a global literary icon, exploring in the process the most uncomfortable nooks and crannies of social order, individual liberty, and American culture.

Hope-Smith tells The Wall Street Journal:

Visually, the trick was to not shy away from the ‘Fear and Loathing Hunter.’ Rather we could have fun playing with him but then be ready to dial it right back in order to show his humanity through subtlety of expression and body language. We tried to create a balance between the man and his performance.

Originally featured in May.

CITIZENS OF NO PLACE

In Citizens of No Place: An Architectural Graphic Novel (UK; public library), designer Jimenez Lai blends the ethos of urbanism with the sensibility of manga to deliver a stunning black-and-white manifesto for place, public space, and the function of the imaginary and the implausible in architectural theory and criticism.

John McMorrough writes in the introductory essay on architecture and utopias:

In tellings stories of twelve-kilometer-high towers, or rooms without gravity or orientation, or of taking the possibility of teleportation seriously and envisioning the instantaneous transfer of goods globally (an internet of things indeed), Lai sets his architectural imagination to just the other side of plausibility. The desirability of these proposals is yet to be determined, and that’s precisely the point: these cartoon architectures act as test cases for architecture’s capacity to organize existence.

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Half a century ago, Madeleine L’Engle introduced Meg and Charles Wallace Murry, Calvin O’Keefe, Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit — to the world. And what more fantastic way to celebrate the iconic fantasy novel’s 50th anniversary than with Hope Larson’s illustrated adaptation, A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel (UK; public library)? The expressive black-white-and-blue illustrations, reminiscent of Seth’s recent collaboration with Lemony Snicket on Who Could It Be At This Hour?, pay homage to the original cover and tell L’Engle’s timeless story with equal parts heart, intelligence, and sensitivity.

A SECRET HISTORY OF COFFEE, COCA & COLA

From Ricardo Cortés, the illustrator behind the irreverent modern classic Go The Fuck To Sleep, comes A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola (UK; public library) — a fascinating and beautifully illustrated piece of visual journalism, six years in the making, tracing the little-known interwoven histories of coffee, the coca leaf and kola nut, Coca-Cola, caffeine, and cocaine, with a lens towards the broader role of prohibition in contemporary culture.

Like most recreational drugs, cocaine got its start as a medical aid, and like many modern psychological fixations, it goes back to Freud. Cortés explores its cultural evolution and the eventual synthesis of coke into Coke:

At first, experiments with cocaine were confined to medical practice.

In 1884, Sigmund Freud began to use it as a treatment for depression. He was enthralled by the ‘magical substance’ and enthusiastically introduced it to colleagues and friends, including an oculist named Carl Koller. By then, cocaine’s numbing effect had been observed on the tongue. Koller tested cocaine as a regional anesthetic; first on the eyes of animals and then his own. His discovery was a medical revolution.

Previously, surgeries were performed with general anesthesia or none at all. Ether and chloroform allowed severe operations without pain, although with significant risks from inducing unconsciousness. As the first true local anesthetic, cocaine opened the practice of surgery to previously impossible procedures.

Cocaine’s popularity spread to other branches of therapy, and its use quickly grew beyond anesthesia and melancholia.

Cocaine eased toothaches and labor pains. It was said to cure fatigue, nervousness, impotence, even addiction to the opium poppy’s alkaloid morphine. ‘Coke’ could be purchased in asthma medicines, snuffs, and tonics like Coca-Cola — ‘The Brain Workers’ Panacea,’ touted to relieve mental and physical exhaustion, was first sold in
1886.

But as a lover of letters, I find the most fascinating part of the book to be the prolific correspondence between legendary Bureau of Prohibition anti-drug kingpin Harry J. Anslinger, who spent 42 years pioneering and enforcing anti-narcotic policies in America, and Coca-Cola executive Ralph Hayes, which Cortés uncovered in the course of his research. These documents, spanning several decades of friendly exchange, reveal Anslinger’s instrumental role in helping Coke not only to import coca leaves legally, an activity otherwise illegal in the US, but also to do so with exclusive rights.

The book is partly a response, but mostly a stubborn yet thoughtful retort to critical reactions to Cortés’s 2005 science picture-book It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story of Marijuana and sarcastic comments about whether teaching kids about cocaine would be next.

Cortés ends with a wonderful throw-back to an obscure Bach cantata about coffee, displaying the composer’s uncommon sense of humor:

The cat won’t stop catching mice,
and young ladies will hold to their coffee. Mother loves her coffee,
Grandmother drinks it, too.
Who, in the end, would scold the daughters?

“Although I caught a buzz last year as the illustrator of Go The Fuck To Sleep,” Cortés tells me, “my real interest is studying the evolution of legal and cultural taboos against inebriates (especially biota).” And, indeed, it shows — A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola is as thoroughly researched and absorbingly narrated as it is charmingly illustrated.

Originally featured earlier this month.

THE ART OF WAR

Some two thousand years ago, Chinese general Sun Tzu penned The Art of War — an ancient military treatise that went on to become one of the most timeless and revered strategy books of all time, its insights extending beyond the military and into just about every domain of tactical intelligence. In The Art of War: A Graphic Novel (UK; public library), writer Kelly Roman and illustrator Michael DeWeese adapt the classic to a futuristic world where wars are waged on a militarized Wall Street, China is the dominant global superpower, and Sun Tzu’s ancient teachings unfold in a dystopian interplay between corporate greed and the undying human capacity for empathy.

Though exceedingly gory and lacking the edutainment value of graphic novels as serious nonfiction, The Art of War: A Graphic Novel peels away the many layers of what heroism means, what it can be and should be, to paint a portrait of a world that might be around the corner if we don’t align our corporate strategies with our cultural and human values.

Originally featured in July.

JOURNALISM

A decade after his seminal masterpiece of journalism in comic form, Palestine, Maltese-American comics artist and journalist Joe Sacco, whom Christopher Hitchens once termed “our moral draughtsman,” brings us Journalism (UK; public library — a magnificent master-collection of Sacco’s finest graphic reporting, spanning more than a decade of work and covering politics and human rights across such pressing subjects as the fate of Saharan refugees, the Iraq war, the Hague trial of Bosnian tyrant Milan Kovacevic, the Abu Ghraib torture scandals, and more, all the while peeling away at the most resonant generalities of the human condition with his darkly humorous and wry visual reportage on specific situations and historical events.

THE BEATLES IN COMICS

The Beatles were only together for a decade, yet they remain the most massive and enduring phenomenon in music culture some four decades after their breakup. Shortly after the recent discovery of the Fab Four’s final photo shoot comes Beatles in Comic Strips (UK; public library), edited by journalist and music critic Enzo Gentile — a grown-up Beatle geek’s counterpart to the lovely vintage children’s book We Love You Beatles, collecting more than 200 rare cartoon strips dedicated to John, Paul, George, and Ringo to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their first single, “Love Me Do.”

'Beatles Story No. 4' (1974)

Image: Marvel Comics Group

'Beatles Story No. 26' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'Beatles Story No. 30' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'Girls' Romances' (1965)

Image: DC Comics

'Beatles Story No. 1' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'The Invisibles No. 1' (1994)

Image: DC Comics

'Beatles Story No. 36' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

Originally featured in August.

BONUS: THE ZEN OF STEVE JOBS

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs have been one of 2011’s best biographies, but it severely skirts a significant aspect of Jobs’ life. The Zen of Steve Jobs (UK; public library), produced by Forbes and data visualization studio JESS3, is a graphic novella that explores the period of Jobs’s life when he was fired from Apple in the mid-80s and how he dealt with it — by turning to Buddhism and reconnecting with a friend he had met nearly a decade earlier, Zen-Buddhist priest and designer Kobun Chino Otogawa (1938-2002), who not only taught Jobs the elements of Zen practice but also shared his passion for sophisticated design and aesthetic rigor. Though most of the book is speculative, reimagining a narrative based on sparse background facts from a relationship that took place mostly in private, it is unexpectedly rich in its graphic simplicity.

A lot of these ideas of simplicity, sophistication, beauty, control came out of this Zen period. The way that we thought about this period in Steve Jobs’s life is kind of like ‘the lost years’ — it is not only the moment when he is the hero, and goes away, and comes back, and does all these triumphant things, but it’s also a period of his life that we maybe haven’t seen.”

The Zen of Steve Jobs might just be the most refreshing thing since the graphic novel biography of Richard Feynman.

Originally featured in January.

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10 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best History Books of 2012

By:

From Mark Twain’s diary to the visual history of evolution, by way of Vonnegut, Sontag, and Klimt.

Following this year’s best science books, art books, design books, philosophy and psychology books, and children’s books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s ten-or-so most fascinating history books. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)

NEW YORK DIARIES

For the past four centuries, New York City has been courted, confabulated, and cursed, in public and in private, by the millions of citizens who have called it home. New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (UK; public library) is a remarkable feat of an anthology by Teresa Carpenter, culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections to reveal a dimensional mosaic portrait of the city through the journal entries of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in its grid over the past 400 years — easily the most dynamic and important depiction of the city since E. B. White’s timeless Here Is New York.

In an ingenious touch, Carpenter arranges the entries by day of the year, rather than chronologically, which brings to the foreground certain common patterns of daily life that appear to shape our experience of the city, be it in 1697 or 1976. At its heart, however, the collection exudes a certain unflinching quality of the city, unshakable solid ground that stands tenacious beneath the tempestuous weather patterns of great wars and great loves and great losses that swirl over.

Carpenter writes:

Every century produces a diarist who laments, ‘This is the worst catastrophe ever to befall New York!’ Surely it seems that way at the moment. The city takes the blow, catches its breath, then moves along to the insistent rhythm of the tides. New York, as it emerges from these pages, is by turns a wicked city, a compassionate city, a muscular city, a vulnerable city, an artistic wonder, an aesthetic disaster, but forever a resilient city — and one loved fiercely by its inhabitants.

From the voyeuristic glimpses of famous lives (Edison, Kerouac, Twain, Roosevelt, de Beauvoir) to the textured anonymous masses (businessmen, clergymen, Victorian teenagers) that constitute the intricate living fabric of the city, the diary entries are at once engrossingly intimate and strikingly prototypical of the human condition.

On May 20, 1948, Jack Kerouac reflects on a general sociocultural peculiarity of New York, folded into the particular peculiarity of the writer’s life as he considers his first novel, The Town and the City:

No word from Scribner’s. Their silence and businesslike judicious patience is driving me crazy with tension, worry, expectation, disappointment — everything. And the novel is yet unfinished, really, and the time has come to start typing it and straightening it out. What a job in this weary life of mine, this lazy life. But I’ll get down to it. The news that Jesse James is still alive is very thrilling news to me, and my mother too, but we’ve noticed that it doesn’t seem to impress the New York world at all — which does bear out, in its own way, what I say about New York, that it is a heaven for European culture and not American culture. I don’t get personally mad these things any more, because that is overdoing things in the name of culture and at the expense of general humanity, but still, I get personally mad at those who scoff at the significance of Jesse James, bandit or no, to the regular American with a sense of his nation’s past.

Just the previous year, on November 19, a wholly different, more private side of Kerouac emerges:

Dark Eyes came to my house tonight and we danced all night long, and into the morning. We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. My mother was charming when she got up and saw us there. I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.

On February 18, 1867, a 32-year-old Mark Twain paints a portrait in stark contrast with recent portrayals of the NYPD:

The police of Broadway seem to have been selected with special reference to size. They are nearly all large, fine-looking men, and their blue uniforms, well studded with brass buttons, their jack boots and their batons worn like a dagger, give them an imposing military aspect. They are gentlemanly in appearance and conduct… I hear them praised on every hand for their efficiency, integrity and watchful attention to business. It seems like an extravagant compliment to pay a policeman, don’t it? I am charmed with the novelty of it.”

On March 2, 1842, Charles Dickens writes:

Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder in the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel-window twenty times while we were sitting there. We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select part of half-a-dozen gentlemen-hogs have just now turned the corner…

And who knew Thomas Edison had such a penchant for the poetic? On July 12, 1885, he captures beautifully a morning experience all too familiar:

Awakened at 5:15 A.M. — My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams — turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion — succeeded — awakened at 7 A.M. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G — Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination à la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.

And on the following day, a deadpan blend of dark humor and entrepreneurship:

Went to New York via Desbrosses Street ferry. Took cars across town. Saw a woman get into car that was so tall and frightfully thin as well as dried up that my mechanical mind at once conceived the idea that it would be the proper thing to run a lancet into her arm and knee joints and insert automatic self-feeding oil cups to diminish the creaking when she walked.

Simone de Beauvoir, fashion critic? On February 4, 1947:

During the night, New York was covered with snow. Central Park is transformed. The children have cast aside their roller skates and taken up skis; they rush boldly down the tiny hillocks. Men remain barehanded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sticks to their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.

On October 29, 1985, a little over a year before his death, Andy Warhol meditates:

I broke something and realized I should break something once a week to remind me how fragile life is. It was a good plastic ring from the twenties.

It’s hard to imagine how many accounts Carpenter must have sifted through and oscillated between before settling on Mark Allen’s raw, harrowing record of 9/11. From it:

2:30 p.m. The first blast jolted me out of bed!!!! My apartment shook and I heard all these people on the street screaming. Dashed outside – Armageddon??? WTC on fire! Both towers! I watched them burning from the Williamsburg Bridge. Unsure why – no one around me spoke english! Run back inside my apartment no phone – all TV stations static – cell doesn’t work – modem does – weird – quickly listen to news on my little battery operated transistor alarm clock radio. Terrorists! Hear first tower COLLAPSED right outside my window – freak! On radio – radio news people are freaking out. – run outside with my bike and camera. Everyone I see on the street is saying shit like “Oh my fucking God!” – everyone is in weird shock. No one is not effected.

In a chaotic Chinatown. Looking at only ONE WTC tower – on fire – so surreal. Just one – superbizarre! Was on cell phone with Bryan – only person I could get through to – weird) , camera in hand, as 2nd tower COLLAPSED right in front of me!! You could feel the dull roar in the concrete. Will never forget it – EVER. It was like a blooming grey daffodil that bloomed big and then dissipated into dust. An unbelievable image I will never forget. People on street – totally edgy. Super razor blade vibe everywhere – no traffic. EVERYONE – MOBS walking AWAY from disaster. I can’t believe I am looking up and there are no twin towers – like a fever dream.

My favorite entry comes on November 29, 1941, from a 19-year-old Jack Kerouac — at once a living testament to the richness of life as a college-dropout-turned-lifelong-learner (cue in Kio Stark’s new project) and a poignant meditation on the most fundamental tension of the human condition:

I returned to college in the Fall, but my mind wasn’t at rest. My family was not any too well fixed; I felt out of place, the coaches were insulting, I was lonely; I left and went down to the South to think things over. Since then, on my own, I have been learning fast, writing a lot, reading good men, and have been slowly making up my mind, seriously & quietly. Either I am loathsome to others, I have decided, or else I shall be a beacon of rich warm light, spreading good and plenty, making things prosper, being a cosmic architect, conquering the world and being respected, myself grinning surreptitiously. Either that, Sirs, or I shall be the most loathsome, useless, and parasitical (on myself) creature in the world. I shall be a denizen of the Underground, or a successful man of the world. There shall be no compromise!!! I mean it.

My only lament? Susan Sontag, one of my greatest intellectual heroes and a formidable New York diarist, didn’t make it into the collection. Omission notwithstanding, New York Diaries is an absolute masterpiece blending a curator’s discernment, an archivist’s obsessive rigor, a writer’s love of writing, and a New Yorker’s love of New York — the ultimate celebration of the city’s tender complexity and beautiful chaos.

Originally featured, with more excerpts, in January.

THE ORIGINS OF SEX

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (UK; public library) by Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala offers a masterfully researched, absorbing, eloquent account of how, contrary to the modern mythology of the 1960s, today’s permissive sexual behavior first developed, seemingly suddenly, some three hundred years earlier, in 17th-century Western Europe. What emerges is a new lens for understanding the Enlightenment as a cultural phenomenon, by connecting this critical sexual transformation to the intellectual, political, and social forces that shaped the period.

The history of sex is usually treated as part of the history of private life, or of bodily experience. Yet that is itself a consequence of the Enlightenment’s conception of it as an essentially personal matter. My concern, by contrast, is not primarily to enter into the bedrooms and between the sheets of the past. It is to recover the history of sex as a central public preoccupation, and to demonstrate that how people in the past thought about and dealt with it was shaped by the most profound intellectual and social currents of their time.

[…]

The sexual revolution demonstrates how far and how quickly enlightened ways of thinking spread, and what important effects they had on popular attitudes and behavior.

Rembrandt, The Bed (1646): a rare contemporary illustration of a couple making love, composed around the time that the artist began an illicit relationship with his maid, Hendrickje Stoffels.

These new norms of behavior, Dabhiowala is careful to point out, didn’t affect everyone equally — like other kinds of liberty, they “primarily benefited a minority of white, heterosexual, propertied men.” He goes on to explore how urbanization placed the enforcement of sexual discipline under increasing pressure, making London — the largest metropolis in the world at the time, a hub of political power, literature, culture, and innovation — the epicenter of these shifts. Regulating the newly sexually awakened masses, however, was another matter:

The principle that illicit sex was a public crime was asserted with increasing vigor form the early middle ages onwards.

Indeed, since the dawn of history every civilization had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality. The oldest surviving legal codes (c. 2100-1700 BCE), drawn up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, and, to some extent, the Romans. The main concern of such laws was usually to uphold the honour and property rights of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups.

[…]

The laws of Ethelbert (c. 602), the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, stipulate the different fines payable ‘if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him'; for lying with servants or slave women of different classes; and for adultery with the wife of another freeman — in which case, as well as a heavy fine, the offender was ‘to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other’s home’.

[…]

The code of Alfred the Great (c. 893) made it lawful for any man to kill another if he found him ‘with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother’. That of King Cnut (c. 1020-23) forbade married men even from fornicating with their own slaves, and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off.

If these sound barbaric, the ethos of the dominant Christian tradition was — and remains — hardly different:

‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was the seventh of [God’s] Ten Commandments, and every adulterer and adulteress, he had ordered, ‘shall surely be put to death’. The same fate was to be imposed upon anyone guilty of incest or bestiality, as upon men who had sex with each other: all such people defiled themselves and the community. If the daughter of a priest were to fornicate, she should be burned alive. If a man lay with a menstruating woman, ‘both of them shall be cut off from among their people’. If any man should lie with a betrothed maid, God’s will was that ‘ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of the city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die’ — ‘so thou shalt put away evil from among you’.

The patriarchal philanthropist: Robert Dingley, merchant and founder of the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. On his knee, in the frontispiece to the charity's published Account (1761), rests one of the penitents.

The centuries that followed brought little change and instead further developed what Dabhoiwala calls “this essentially negative view of sex.” Among the most powerful proponents of this view was Saint Augustine (354-430), bishop of the town of Hippo on the north African coast, who Dabhiowala argues has had a more profound impact on Christian attitudes towards sexuality than any other person. He came to see lust as the most dangerous of all human drives and, in a letter to another bishop, summed up his philosophy thusly:

For it intrudes where it is not needed and tempts the hearts of faithful and holy people with its untimely and even wicked desire. Even if we do not give in to these restless impulses of it by any sign of consent but rather fight against them, we would nonetheless, out of a holier desire, want them not to exist in us at all, if that were possible.

The church took these moral matters into its own hands with the establishment of is permanent courts around 1100, catapulting sexual offenses from the realm of private confession into the increasingly powerful system of public inquisition. The rise of towns and cities imposed yet another layer of punishment, giving rise to new civic penalties against adultery, fornication, and prostitution. By the later 13th century, such sexual and marital legal cases accounted for anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of all litigation. But despite the development of a formal system, punishments a remained crude violation of modern human rights:

In London, Bristol, and Gloucester, they constructed a special public ‘cage’ in the main market-place, in which to imprison and display prostitutes, adulterers, and lecherous priests; elsewhere, cucking-stools were used to punish whores… There also became established elaborate rituals of civic punishment for convicted whores, bawds, and adulterers. Serious offenders were taken on a long public procession through the city, dressed in symbolically degrading clothes and accompanied by the raucous clanging of pans and basins. Sometimes they would also be whipped, put in the pillory, have their hair shaved off, or be banished from the city.

Edward Rigby striking an unrepentant pose in 1703. This print was produced just a few months after his release from prison for attempted sodomy.

But, by the 16th century, these punishments seemed insufficient to a moral-extremist cohort as the Protestant movement began to vocally condemn the Catholic Church — nicknamed the Whore of Babylon — for a lax attitude towards sexual morality, from its lecherous priests who took the ideal of clerical celibacy as a joke to the toleration of prostitution. And yet, the church was thriving in its hypocrisy:

[A]s the morals of the people were left to decay, the church itself grew rich on the proceeds of fines, indulgences, and other tricks it imposed on its hapless flock. In short, there was a direct connection between the spiritual and sexual corruption of the papacy and its followers.

James Gillray's lurid pun on the name and the role of Dorothy Jordan, longtime mistress to the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV

The Origins of Sex goes on to reverse-engineer how modern ideas about sexual freedom and gender equality coalesced out of the stormy sexual attitudes and behaviors of 17th, 18th, and 19th-century England, exposing a rich new layer of understanding humanity’s most intimate mechanism for relating to self and other.

Originally featured in June.

HONORABLE MENTION: Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.

TREES OF LIFE

Since the dawn of recorded history, humanity has been turning to the visual realm as a sensemaking tool for the world and our place in it, mapping and visualizing everything from the body to the brain to the universe to information itself. Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution (UK; public library) catalogs 230 tree-like branching diagrams, culled from 450 years of mankind’s visual curiosity about the living world and our quest to understand the complex ecosystem we share with other organisms, from bacteria to birds, microbes to mammals.

Though the use of a tree as a metaphor for understanding the relationships between organisms is often attributed to Darwin, who articulated it in his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, the concept, most recently appropriated in mapping systems and knowledge networks, is actually much older, predating the theory of evolution itself. The collection is thus at once a visual record of the evolution of science and of its opposite — the earliest examples, dating as far back as the sixteenth century, portray the mythic order in which God created Earth, and the diagrams’ development over the centuries is as much a progression of science as it is of culture, society, and paradigm.

Theodore W. Pietsch writes in the introduction:

The tree as an iconographic metaphor is perhaps the most universally widespread of all great cultural symbols. Trees appear and reappear throughout human history to illustrate nearly every aspect of life. The structural complexity of a tree — its roots, trunk, bifurcating branches, and leaves — has served as an ideal symbol throughout the ages to visualize and map hierarchies of knowledge and ideas.

The Ladder of Ascent and Descent of the Intellect, not tree-like at first glance, but certainly branching dichotomously, the steps labeled from bottom to top, with representative figures on the right and upper left: Lapis (stone), Flamma (fire), Planta (plant), Brutum (beast), Homo (human), Caelum (sky), Angelus (angel), and Deus (God), a scheme that shows how one might ascend from inferior to superior beings and vice versa. After Ramon Lull (1232–1315), Liber de ascensu et descensu intellectus, written about 1305 but not published until 1512.

The 'Crust of the Earth as Related to Zoology,' presenting, at one glance, the 'distribution of the principle types of animals, and the order of their successive appearance in the layers of the earth’s crust,' published by Louis Agassiz and Augustus Addison Gould as the frontispiece of their 1848 Principles of Zoölogy. The diagram is like a wheel with numerous radiating spokes, each spoke representing a group of animals, superimposed over a series of concentric rings of time, from pre-Silurian to the 'modern age.' According to a divine plan, different groups of animals appear within the various 'spokes' of the wheel and then, in some cases, go extinct. Humans enter only in the outermost layer, at the very top of the diagram, shown as the crowning achievement of all Creation.

'Genealogy of the class of fishes' published by Louis Agassiz in his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Research on fossil fishes) of 1844.

The unique egg-shaped 'system of animals' published by German zoologist Georg August Goldfuss in his Über de Entwicklungsstufen des Thieres (On animal development) of 1817.

'Universal system of nature,' from Paul Horaninow’s Primae lineae systematis naturae (Primary system of nature) of 1834, an ingenious and seemingly indecipherable clockwise spiral that places animals in the center of the vortex, arranged in a series of concentric circles, surrounded in turn by additional nested circles that contain the plants, nonmetallic minerals, and finally metals within the outermost circle. Not surprisingly, everything is subjugated to humans (Homo) located in the center.

Ernst Haeckel’s famous 'great oak,' a family tree of animals, from the first edition of his 1874 Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des menschen (The evolution of man).

(More on Haeckel’s striking biological art here.)

Tree by John Henry Schaffner showing the relationships of the flowering plants. The early split at the base of the tree leads to the monocotyledonous plants on the left and the dicotyledons on the right.

Schaffner, 1934, Quarterly Review of Biology, 9(2):150, fig. 2; courtesy of Perry Cartwright and the University of Chicago Press.

A phylogeny of horses showing their geological distribution throughout the Tertiary, by Ruben Arthur Stirton.

Stirton, 1940, plate following page 198; courtesy of Rebecca Wells and the University of California Press.

William King Gregory’s 1946 tree of rodent relationships.

Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.

The frontispiece of William King Gregory’s two-volume Evolution Emerging.

Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Originally featured, with more images, in May.

AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH

It’s no secret Susan Sontag’s journals have been on heavy rotation here this year. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (UK; public library), the second published volume of her diaries and also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of the year, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. The tome includes her insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.

Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.

FAKING IT

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” Susan Sontag famously asserted in On Photography. But in the quarter century since, the rise of digital photography and image manipulation software has increasingly transmogrified the photographer into a constructor of reality, a reality in which believing is seeing. Still, image manipulation dates much further back — in fact, to the dawn of photography itself. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (UK; public library), the companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of the same title, traces the evolution of image manipulation from the 1840s to the 1990s, when computer software first began to revolutionize the alteration of photographs.

Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dirigible Docked on Empire State Building, New York (Unidentified American artist, 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Powerful Collision (Unidentified German artist, 1914)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

These images — artful, subversive, unapologetic in their unreality — serve sometimes to amuse and entertain, sometimes to deliberately deceive, sometimes to comment on social and political issues, and always to give pause with how they tease and taunt our assumptions of optical reality and visual representation.

Met curator Mia Fineman writes in the introduction:

Over the past twenty years, photography has undergone a dramatic transformation. Mechanical cameras and silver-based film have been replaced by electronic image sensors and microchips; instead of shuffling through piles of glossy prints, we stare at the glowing screens of laptops, tablets, and mobile phones; negative enlargers and chemical darkrooms have given way to personal computers and image-processing software. Digital cameras and applications such as Photoshop have create, look at, and think about photographs. Among the most profound cultural effects of these new technologies has been a heightened awareness of the malleability of the photographic image and a corresponding loss of faith in photography as an accurate, trustworthy means of representing the visual world. As viewers, we have become increasingly savvy, even habitually skeptical, about photography’s claims to truth.

The Vision (Orpheus Scene) (F. Holland Day, 1907)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Aberdeen Portraits No. 1 (George Washington Wilson, 1857)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Fading Away (Henry Peach Robinson, 1858)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922 (Unidentified Russian artist, 1949)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as Artist and Model (Maurice Guibert, ca. 1900)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Man Juggling His Own Head (Unidentified French artist, Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. ca. 1880)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two-Headed Man (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Room with Eye (Maurice Tabard, 1930)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hearst Over the People (Barbara Morgan, 1939)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar / Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home (Grete Stern, 1948)

Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Originally featured in October.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

KURT VONNEGUT: LETTERS

Abidingly yet impatiently awaited by Vonnegut fans everywhere, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (UK; public library) finally arrived this year and is just as fantastic as expected. What makes the anthology particularly sublime is that strange, endearing way in which so much of what Vonnegut wrote about to his friends, family, editors, and critics appears at first glance mundane but somehow peels away at the very fabric of his character and reveals the most tender boundaries of his soul.

For a taste: In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut was offered a teaching position at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His role as long-distance father and husband was propelled by voluminous correspondence with his family, who remained in their Cape Cod residence. In a letter to his wife, Jane, dated September 28, 1965, he outlines his daily routine:

Dearest Jane,

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

Compare and contrast with Henry Miller’s daily routine, and also see this lovely short poem Vonnegut sent his friend Knox Burger in 1961.

Originally featured in November.

THE MEDICAL BOOK

Last year, Clifford Pickover brought us The Physics Book — a lavish chronology of physics milestones, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), and one of the 11 best science books of 2011. This year, he follows up with The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (UK; public library) — an equally impressive tome inviting us on “a vast journey into the history of medicine that includes eminently practical topics along with the odd and perplexing.” From practical inventions like eyeglasses (1284), condoms (1564), and cochlear implants (1977) and to era-defining innovations like hospitals (1784), the discovery of viruses (1892), and psychoanalysis (1899) to politicized subjects like abortion (70 A.D.), health insurance (1883), and the birth control pill (1955), the short entries, arranged chronologically from 10,000 B.C. (“witch doctor”) to 2008 (“human cloning”), offer a concise introduction and overview of each medical milestone, alongside a full-page image — ranging from an archeological artifact to a Renaissance painting to bleeding-edge photomicroscopy –that captures its essence and cultural significance.

Pickover writes in the introduction:

When colleagues ask me what I feel are the greatest milestones in medicine, I usually offer three events. the first involves the use of ligatures to stem the flow of blood during surgeries, for example, as performed by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590). he promoted ligature (e.g., tying off with twine) of blood vessels to prevent hemorrhage during amputations, instead of the traditional method of burning the stump with a hot iron to stop bleeding. The second key milestone includes methods for decreasing pain through general anesthetics such as ether, attributed to several American physicians. The third breakthrough concerns antiseptic surgery, which was promoted by British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912), whose use of carbolic acid (now called phenol) as a means of sterilizing wounds and surgical instruments dramatically reduced postoperative infections.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Hidden Treasure, which explored 10 centuries of visualizing the human body in medicine, and The Art of Medicine, a 2,000-year visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity.

Originally featured in September.

BOREDOM: A LIVELY HISTORY

Boredom has never enjoyed an admirable reputation, and in the age of the internet’s incessant on-demand stimulation, it seems at once anachronistic and antithetical — a particularly pathetic condition to profess, a personal failure of sorts. But in Boredom: A Lively History (UK; public library), classics scholar Peter Toohey examines boredom as an adaptive mechanism. From Madame Bovary to fMRI, he explores the roots, symptoms, and symbolism of boredom across art history, psychology, and neurochemistry to examine what it reveals about us both as individuals and as a culture.

Boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish.

Toohey argues that boredom, unlike primary emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, takes a secondary role, alongside “social emotions” like sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, and contempt. He delineates between two main types of boredom — simple boredom, which occurs regularly and doesn’t require that you be able to name it, and existential boredom, a grab-bag condition that is “neither an emotion, nor a mood, nor a feeling” but, rather, “an impressive intellectual formulation” that has much in common with depression and is highly self-aware, something Toohey calls the most self-reflective of conditions.

Toohey examines the relationship between boredom and disgust, the former being a mild derivation of the latter — boredom is to disgust what annoyance is to anger. Boredom is also connected to surfeit — surfeit, coupled with monotony, predictability, and confinement, produces boredom.

Boredom is an emotion usually associated with a nourished body: like satiety, it is not normally for the starving.

But our reflexive means of alleviating boredom — novelty-seeking, drugs, extreme behaviors — are, as most of us are intellectually aware but have at some point been experientially blind to, remarkably ineffective. Toohey observes:

As fast as the new is experienced…it is liable to become boring. The new becomes a variant of the infinite. It recedes infinitely.

This touches on what’s perhaps the most transfixing aspect of boredom — its relationship with time:

Infinity is of course temporal as well as spatial. Time has a very interesting relationship with boredom and its representations. We have all experienced the sluggishness of time when we have been confined in boring situations. According to one of the late Clement Freud’s famous witticisms, ‘if you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving you don’t actually live longer, it just seems longer.’

In this way, boredom appears to be the polar opposite of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously termed flow — a state of intense focus you enter whilst absorbed in an enthralling task, when you lose track of time.

And yet, our tendency to seek a cure for boredom in the new and shiny appears to be a fundamental part of being human, a deep-seated cultural phenomenon:

Popular culture is littered with examples of this process of rule breaking as a way to escape the chronic boredom of modern life. The problem with this rule breaking is that it so quickly becomes predictable, prosaic and boring. Avant-garde art and rock’n’roll, to take two examples, both staged revolts against the status quo precisely by way of dazzling, intense novelty, but both quickly became as predictable as corn niblets.

[…]

Rule breaking, if it’s done regularly, quickly becomes just another element in the edifice of the middle-class boredom that it was designed to replace. Worse still, rule breaking becomes confused with fashion and being modern and that quickly becomes old-fashioned too. Remember what Oscar Wilde had to say? ‘Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.

Originally featured, with a boredom threshold self-test, in June.

LEONARDO DA VINCI: ANATOMIST

Though Leonardo da Vinci endures as the quintessential polymath, the epitome of the “Renaissance Man” dabbling in a wide array of disciplines — art, architecture, cartography, mathematics, literature, engineering, anatomy, geology, music, sculpture, botany — his interest in science was anything but cursory. In Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (UK; public library), Martin Clayton, senior curator of the Royal Collection, looks well beyond his iconic Vitruvian Man to explore Leonardo’s remarkably accurate anatomical illustrations that remained hidden from the world for nearly 400 years after Da Vinci’s death.

A study of a man standing facing the spectator, with legs apart and arms stretched down, drawn as an anatomical figure to show the heart, lungs and main arteries.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Three studies, one on a larger scale, of a man's right arm and shoulder, showing muscles; three studies of a right arm; a diagram to illustrate pronation and supination of the hand.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

An anatomical study of the principal organs and the arterial system of a female torso, pricked for transfer.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Springing from the “true to nature” ethos of his paintings, Leonardo’s fascination with the human body took him to the morgues and hospitals of Florence, where he performed dissections of corpses, often of executed criminals. His greatest feat was understanding the workings of the heart. After discovering a bulb-shaped swelling at the root of the aorta, he came strikingly close to uncovering the mechanisms of blood circulation more than a century before formal science arrived at it. In fact, he injected melted wax into the heart of an ox, then a glass model of the cast and pumped it with water with a suspension of grass seeds in order to observe the vortexes at work. He then concluded that the swelling made the aortic valve close after each heartbeat, a proposition which cardiologists didn’t arrive at until the early 20th century and didn’t fully confirm until the 1980s.

Large drawing of an embryo within a human uterus with a cow's placenta; smaller sketch of the same; notes on the subject; illustrative drawings in detail of the placenta and uterus; diagram demonstrating binocular vision; a note on relief in painting and on mechanics.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A study of a man's left leg, stretched forward; beside it, a man's legs seen from behind; below is a man standing, turned in profile to the left, with his left leg advanced; to the right are two studies of the bones of human left legs and thighs, and one of an animal; with many notes on the muscles.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A study of the dissection of the lower leg and foot of a bear, viewed in profile to the left. To the left there is also a slight drawing of the leg.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Perhaps his most famous anatomical drawing was of a 100-year-old man, who had reported being in excellent health mere hours before his death. When Leonardo dissected him to see “the cause of so sweet a death” and found cirrhosis of the liver and a blockage of an artery to the heart, producing the first-ever description of what is now known as coronary vascular occlusion.

As a great artist, Leonardo had two advantages over his contemporary anatomists. First of all, as a sculptor, engineer, architect, he had an intuitive understanding of form — when he dissected a body, he could understand in a very fluid way how the different parts of the body fit together, worked together. And then, having made that understanding, as a supreme draftsman, he was able to record his observations and discoveries in drawings of such lucidity, he’s able to get across the form, the structure to the viewer in a way which had never been done before and, in many cases, has never been surpassed since.

Drawing of external genitalia and vagina, with notes; notes on the anal sphincter and diagrams of suggested arrangement of its fibers and its mode of action.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Five studies of the bones of the leg and foot; a drawing of the knee joint and patella; two studies of the bones of a right leg with the knee flexed; the muscles of a right buttock, thigh and calf.

Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Tough Leonardo intended to publish his drawings as an illustrated treatise on human anatomy, but when he died in 1519, his anatomical papers were buried amongst his private possessions and vanished from public sight. In the early 1600s, around 600 of his surviving drawings were bound in a single collection and by the end of the century, they mysterious made their way to the Royal Collection. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist gathers 90 of these seminal drawings, contextualized in a discussion of their anatomical significance. Accompanying the books is an iPad app, presenting 268 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks in magnificent high resolution.

Originally featured in July.

THE AGE OF INSIGHT

Something unusual defined Vienna between 1890 and 1918, something that shaped more of Western culture than we dare suspect — artists, writers, thinkers and scientists across biology, medicine, and psychoanalysis came into regular contact and, in the process of these interactions, steered the course of modern art and science. In The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (UK; public library), Nobel laureate Eric Kandel traces the spark of this ongoing dialogue between art and science through three key elements: the exchange of insights between seminal modern artists and the members of the Vienna School of Medicine; the Vienna School of Art History’s exploration of the interaction between art and the cognitive psychology of art in the 1930s; and modern science’s relatively nascent preoccupation with an emotional neuroaesthetic, bridging cognitive psychology and biology to examine our perceptual, emotional, and emphatic responses to works of art.

Kandel argues — much like physicist Lawrence Krauss has suggested — that science and art share the same fundamental questions, but go about answering them in different ways. While brain science is concerned with the mental life that arises from the activity of the brain, including how perception and memory work, and what defines consciousness, art offers insight into the more experiential qualities of mind, like the subjective measures of what certain experiences feel like. Kandel observes:

A brain scan may reveal the neural signs of depression, but a Beethoven symphony reveals what that depression feels like. Both perspectives are necessary if we are to fully grasp the nature of mind, yet they are rarely brought together.

(Cue in Jonah Lehrer’s articulate case for “a fourth culture of knowledge” that brings together the sciences and the humanities for a necessary dialogue that enriches both.)

But among Kandel’s greatest feats is the eloquent, rigorous debunking of the popular myth that bringing the lens of science to art would somehow detract from our enjoyment of the latter. (In the process, he slips in a fine addition to this recent omnibus of definitions of science.)

Science seeks to understand complex processes by reducing them to their essential actions and studying the interplay of those actions — and this reductionist approach extends to art as well. Indeed, my focus on one school of art, consisting of only three major representatives, is an example of this. Some people are concerned that a reductionist analysis will diminish our fascination with art, that it will trivialize art and deprive it of its special force, thereby reducing the beholder’s share to an ordinary brain function. I argue to the contrary, that by encouraging a dialogue between science and art and by encouraging a focus on one mental process at a time, reductionism can expand our vision and give us new insights into the nature and creation of art. These new insights will enable us to perceive unexpected aspects of art that derive from the relationship between biological and psychological phenomena.

He goes on to argue that, rather than reducing the complexity and richness of the art experience, the scientific understanding of the brain and its responses might help us better understand the very impulses and aims of creativity and would “contribute to a broader cultural framework for art history, aesthetics, and cognitive psychology.”

To keep this dialogue between the arts and sciences coherent and maximally meaningful, Kandel focuses his lens on one particular form of art. Portraiture lands itself to scientific exploration uniquely, thanks to a long legacy of studies of human facial emotional expression, shaped by Darwin’s photographic experiments, and a sufficient scientific understanding of how we respond to the facial expressions and body language of others, perceptually, emotionally, and empathically.

Kandel further focuses the discussion on three specific modernist artists — Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele — who “emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.”

Gustav Klimt, Adele Block-Bauer, 1907. Oil, silver, gold on canvas.

Klimt, for instance, read Darwin and became fascinated by the structures of the cell, which permeated his work. In his iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the small iconographic images on Adele’s dress aren’t mere decoration — they symbolize male and female cells, with rectangles representing sperm and ovals eggs. Kandel writes:

These biologically inspired fertility symbols are designed to match the sitter’s seductive face to her full-blown reproductive capabilities.

(In heartening evidence for the cultural potency of such cross-pollination of disciplines, Adele’s portrait fetched Klimt $135 million — the most ever paid for an individual painting by that point in history, and in stark contrast with Klimt’s otherwise unremarkable career prior.)

Meanwhile, a chain of influential scientists on the Vienna scene, stretching from Second Vienna School of Medicine founder Carl von Rokitansky to Freud, built a new dynamic framework of the human psyche, which radically changed the understanding of the human mind. Through conversations with artists that took place in museums, opera houses, theaters, and coffee houses — the same Enlightenment epicenters Steven Johnson points to as crucial for innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From — these ideas entered the scope of artistic concern and were soon translated onto canvases.

Kandel brings it all together for the modern reader by outlining our current understanding of the science of perception, memory, emotion, empathy, and creativity — in short, what makes us human — and how it shapes our experience of art, making The Age of Insight not just fascinating but necessary.

Originally featured in April.

BONUS: A GLORIOUS ENTERPRISE

The institution is conceived for the purposes of rational, free, literary and scientific conversation… We meet also to compare the advances of the sciences in the rest of the world with our own… We are lovers of science.

So began the story of a small group of amateur scientists, who gathered in an equally small apartment on the corner of Second and Market streets in Philadelphia one chilly Saturday evening on January 25, 1812, several blocks away from a rival group — the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin some seventy years prior. Our heroes had been excluded from APS for “social reasons” — immigrants and self-made men, they had been shunned by the APS, a place for the socially prominent American gentry. But, passionate in their love for science and natural history, they remained undeterred and on March 21 of the same year they named their gathering the “Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” which stands today as the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Academy, University of Pennsylvania Press at my alma mater has published A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (UK; public library) — a magnificent, epic tome that tells in 464 lavishly illustrated pages, weighing in at nearly 10 pounds and over a foot tall, the story of the Academy and its quest to acquire and disseminate knowledge of the natural world.

And what a story it is — from how Ernest Hemingway shaped the field of ichthyology to what Edgar Allan Poe was doing in the oldest-known photograph taken inside a museum, it’s a story brimming with rare glimpses of strange specimens and obscure images, laced with tales of scientific rivalry, boundless inspiration, ruthless pursuits of scientific immortality, and perseverance in the face of terrible odds, with cameos by Thomas Jefferson and James Bond, among other unlikely heroes.

Edgar Allan Poe (right), who spent time at the Academy doing research on mollusks; Joseph Leidy, a young medical student (center); and Samuel George Morton (left in top hat) were photographed in the Academy's new building at Board and Sansom Streets during the winter of 1842-43. This daguerrotype, possibly by Paul Beck Goddard, is the oldest-known photograph of an American museum interior.

'Leaf insects' (a lineage of tropical walking sticks). These remarkable Phasmida are found in rainforest canopes of tropical Asia. Included in this group are many newly described specimens from the Philippines. The others are from New Guinea and the Seychelles.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) admires a catch aboard the Pilar, 1934. His understanding of the game fishes of the Atlantic, communicated through the Academy, made significant contributions to the field of ichthyology.

American Flamingo by John James Audubon, hand-colored engraving by Robert Havell Jr. for The Birds of America (1827-38)

Skulls of the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) presented to the Academy by Thomas B. Wilson in 1846

Kirtland's owl (Saw-whet owl), hand-colored lithograph by George White for John Cassin's Illustrations of the Birds of California, Teas, Oregon, British and Russian America (1856)

Members of the American Entomological Society on a collecting trip circa 1900

Coconut crabs (Birgus latro) collected on Flint Island (an uninhabited coral atoll four hundred nautical miles northwest of Tahiti in the Central Pacific) by C. D. Voy in 1875

Shed snake skins collected by George M. Feirer in 1942

The skull of 'Pierce', the cannibalistic Englishman from Australia

Agricultural seed samples collected by Charles F. Kuenne, 1948

Joseph Leidy's original drawings of rhizopods (protozoans). Leidy was 22 years old when he became a member of the Academy in 1845.

Magnificent in both its scope and its ambitious physicality, A Glorious Enterprise is a fascinating miniature museum in and of itself, exploring the cultural history of natural history with equal parts rigor and romanticism — the hallmark of great science.

Originally featured, with more images, in April.

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07 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best Illustrated Children’s Books and Picturebooks of 2012

By:

From Indian folk art to neuroscience, by way of Saul Bass, James Joyce, and die-cut Cold War allegories.

On the heels of this year’s best science books, art books, design books, and philosophy and psychology books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s ten-or-so most delightful children’s and picturebooks. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. This year, exactly half a century later, Rizzoli reprinted Henri’s Walk to Paris — an absolute gem like only Bass can deliver, at once boldly minimalist and incredibly rich, telling the sweet, aspirational, colorful story of a boy who lives in rural France and dreams of going to Paris.

In his wonderful essay on Bass’s talent, Martin Scorsese observed, as if thinking of this book in particular:

Saul’s designs…speak so eloquently that they address all of us, no matter when, or where, you were born.”

For a related treat, don’t miss the excellent recent Saul Bass monograph, one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011.

Originally featured in February.

BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,” Carl Sagan famously observed in Cosmos, “you must first invent the universe.” The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library) — a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, featuring such modern-day icons as Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, and many more, with a good chunk of the proceeds being donated to Save the Children, and also one of the best science books of 2012.

Alain de Botton explores why we have dreams:

Most of the time, you feel in charge of your own mind. You want to play with some Lego? Your brain is there to make it happen. You fancy reading a book? You can put the letters together and watch characters emerge in your imagination.

But at night, strange stuff happens. While you’re in bed, your mind puts on the weirdest, most amazing and sometimes scariest shows.

[…]

In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future. Nowadays, we tend to think that dreams are a way for the mind to rearrange and tidy itself up after the activities of the day.

Why are dreams sometimes scary? During the day, things may happen that frighten us, but we are so busy we don’t have time to think properly about them. At night, while we are sleeping safely, we can give those fears a run around. Or maybe something you did during the day was lovely but you were in a hurry and didn’t give it time. It may pop up in a dream. In dreams, you go back over things you missed, repair what got damaged, make up stories about what you’d love, and explore the fears you normally put to the back of your mind.

Dreams are both more exciting and more frightening than daily life. They’re a sign that our brains are marvellous machines — and that they have powers we don’t often give them credit for, when we’re just using them to do our homework or play a computer game. Dreams show us that we’re not quite the bosses of our own selves.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins breaks down the math of evolution and cousin marriages to demonstrate that we are all related:

Yes, we are all related. You are a (probably distant) cousin of the Queen, and of the president of the United States, and of me. You and I are cousins of each other. You can prove it to yourself.

Everybody has two parents. That means, since each parent had two parents of their own, that we all have four grandparents. Then, since each grandparent had to have two parents, everyone has eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great- great-grandparents and thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents and so on.

You can go back any number of generations and work out the number of ancestors you must have had that same number of generations ago. All you have to do is multiply two by itself that number of times.

Suppose we go back ten centuries, that is to Anglo-Saxon times in England, just before the Norman Conquest, and work out how many ancestors you must have had alive at that time.

If we allow four generations per century, that’s about forty generations ago.

Two multiplied by itself forty times comes to more than a thousand trillion. Yet the total population of the world at that time was only around three hundred million. Even today the population is seven billion, yet we have just worked out that a thousand years ago your ancestors alone were more than 150 times as numerous.

[…]

The real population of the world at the time of Julius Caesar was only a few million, and all of us, all seven billion of us, are descended from them. We are indeed all related. Every marriage is between more or less distant cousins, who already share lots and lots of ancestors before they have children of their own.
By the same kind of argument, we are distant cousins not only of all human beings but of all animals and plants. You are a cousin of my dog and of the lettuce you had for lunch, and of the next bird that you see fly past the window. You and I share ancestors with all of them. But that is another story.

Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains why we can’t tickle ourselves:

To understand why, you need to know more about how your brain works. One of its main tasks is to try to make good guesses about what’s going to happen next. While you’re busy getting on with your life, walking downstairs or eating your breakfast, parts of your brain are always trying to predict the future.

Remember when you first learned how to ride a bicycle? At first, it took a lot of concentration to keep the handlebars steady and push the pedals. But after a while, cycling became easy. Now you’re not aware of the movements you make to keep the bike going. From experience, your brain knows exactly what to expect so your body rides the bike automatically. Your brain is predicting all the movements you need to make.

You only have to think consciously about cycling if something changes — like if there’s a strong wind or you get a flat tyre. When something unexpected happens like this, your brain is forced to change its predictions about what will happen next. If it does its job well, you’ll adjust to the strong wind, leaning your body so you don’t fall.

Why is it so important for our brains to predict what will happen next? It helps us make fewer mistakes and can even save our lives.

[…]

Because your brain is always predicting your own actions, and how your body will feel as a result, you cannot tickle yourself. Other people can tickle you because they can surprise you. You can’t predict what their tickling actions will be.

And this knowledge leads to an interesting truth: if you build a machine that allows you to move a feather, but the feather moves only after a delay of a second, then you can tickle your- self. The results of your own actions will now surprise you.

Particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss explains why we’re all made of stardust:

Everything in your body, and everything you can see around you, is made up of tiny objects called atoms. Atoms come in different types called elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are three of the most important elements in your body.

[…]

How did those elements get into our bodies? The only way they could have got there, to make up all the material on our Earth, is if some of those stars exploded a long time ago, spew- ing all the elements from their cores into space. Then, about four and a half billion years ago, in our part of our galaxy, the material in space began to collapse. This is how the Sun was formed, and the solar system around it, as well as the material that forms all life on earth.

So, most of the atoms that now make up your body were created inside stars! The atoms in your left hand might have come from a different star from those in your right hand. You are really a child of the stars.

But my favorite answers are to the all-engulfing question, How do we fall in love?. Author Jeanette Winterson offers this breathlessly poetic response:

You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)

And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.

PS You have to be brave.

Evolutionary psychologist and sociologist Robin Dunbar balances out the poetics with a scientific look at what goes on inside the brain when we love:

What happens when we fall in love is probably one of the most difficult things in the whole universe to explain. It’s something we do without thinking. In fact, if we think about it too much, we usually end up doing it all wrong and get in a terrible muddle. That’s because when you fall in love, the right side of your brain gets very busy. The right side is the bit that seems to be especially important for our emotions. Language, on the other hand, gets done almost completely in the left side of the brain. And this is one reason why we find it so difficult to talk about our feelings and emotions: the language areas on the left side can’t send messages to the emotional areas on the right side very well. So we get stuck for words, unable to describe our feelings.

But science does allow us to say a little bit about what happens when we fall in love. First of all, we know that love sets off really big changes in how we feel. We feel all light-headed and emotional. We can be happy and cry with happiness at the same time. Suddenly, some things don’t matter any more and the only thing we are interested in is being close to the person we have fallen in love with.

These days we have scanner machines that let us watch a person’s brain at work. Different parts of the brain light up on the screen, depending on what the brain is doing. When people are in love, the emotional bits of their brains are very active, lighting up. But other bits of the brain that are in charge of more sensible thinking are much less active than normal. So the bits that normally say ‘Don’t do that because it would be crazy!’ are switched off, and the bits that say ‘Oh, that would be lovely!’ are switched on.

Why does this happen? One reason is that love releases certain chemicals in our brains. One is called dopamine, and this gives us a feeling of excitement. Another is called oxytocin and seems to be responsible for the light-headedness and cosiness we feel when we are with the person we love. When these are released in large quantities, they go to parts of the brain that are especially responsive to them.

But all this doesn’t explain why you fall in love with a particular person. And that is a bit of a mystery, since there seems to be no good reason for our choices. In fact, it seems to be just as easy to fall in love with someone after you’ve married them as before, which seems the wrong way round. And here’s another odd thing. When we are in love, we can trick ourselves into thinking the other person is perfect. Of course, no one is really perfect. But the more perfect we find each other, the longer our love will last.

Big Questions from Little People is a wonderful complement to The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and is certain to give you pause about much of what you thought you knew, or at the very least rekindle that childlike curiosity about and awe at the basic fabric of the world we live in.

Originally featured in November.

WATERLIFE

I’ve been a longtime fan of independent Indian publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books, including I Like Cats, Do!, and Tara’s crown jewel, The Night Life of Trees. But now comes what’s positively the most exquisite book I’ve ever held in my hands: Waterlife by artist Rambharos Jha, who explores the marine wonderland through vibrant Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

'The Lobster's Secret'

'Crocodile Smile'

'Snake Festival'

Jha writes:

I was born in the culture-rich district of Darbanga, in the Mithila region. But my father moved along with all of us to Madhubani, where he started work in a government-supported art and cultural project. This project sought to breathe new life into local art traditions and also to help artists earn a living. Since women had traditionally decorated walls and courtyards, they participated in this project in large numbers…

Living as we did in Madhubani, I had a chance to look at what they were painting. I would spend hours watching them work. I had not known of this art earlier and wondered why I was drawn to it, and what purpose there could be in my being attracted to these lines and shapes? Mixing colours and ideas, the women drew pictures that took hold of my mind.

Jha eventually learned to draw himself, initially drawing on stories from Hindu mythology and eventually moving on to more secular subjects, pursuing his own creative impulse but remaining deeply inspired by tradition.

Mithila art was originally painted on the walls of houses during festival season, but in the late 1970s, it migrated from walls to paper.

The book comes in a limited edition of 3,000 hand-numbered copies and, like all handmade Tara gems, is screen-printed by local artisans in Chennai using traditional Indian dyes, whose earthy scent you can smell as you leaf through the thick, textured pages.

Originally featured in April and part of my 2012 TED Bookstore selections.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Two more gems from Tara Books, The Great Race and Drawing from the City, also among the best art books of the year.

BEAR DESPAIR

From my friends at Enchanted Lion Books, who previously brought us such gems as Blexbolex’s People and Albertine’s Little Bird, comes Bear Despair (public library) by French illustrator Gaëtan Dorémus — an utterly lovely wordless story about what happens when you take a bear’s teddy bear.

Beneath the exquisite cross-hatched line drawings for young readers lies a familiar twinge of the all-consuming obsession we’ve all experienced, at one time or another, while grasping after a fixation.

Bear Despair is the final installment in ELB’s wonderful Stories Without Words series, which also includes Ice and The Giant Seed by Arthur Geisert and The Chicken Thief, Rooster’s Revenge and Fox and Hen Together by Béatrice Rodriguez.

Originally featured in August.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

VIRGINIA WOLF

Virginia Wolf (public library) by creative duo Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault is loosely based on the relationship between beloved author Virginia Woolf and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. The tenderly illustrated and hand-lettered little gem tells the story of Virginia, who finds herself in a “wolfish” mood, restlessly growling and howling around the house. Vanessa industriously tries to cheer her up, but to no avail, until Virginia mentions an imaginary utopia called Bloomsberry. Inspired, Vanessa sets out to paint Bloomsberry on the bedroom walls, transforming the house into a whimsical garden. Soon, Virginia finds herself wrapped up in the drawing and a curious metamorphosis fills her world.

WATERLOO & TRAFALGAR

Waterloo & Trafalgar (public library) by French illustrator extraordinaire Olivier Tallec, also from my ceaselessly wonderful neighbor Enchanted Lion Books, is a thoughtful, minimalist Cold War allegory that tells the story of two characters who watch each other observantly through the seasons across the narrow walls that separate them. As they move between day and night, glued to their binoculars and brimming with suspicion over even the most mundane of activities, they stubbornly refuse to bridge the gap between them — until, one day, a snail shows up, followed by a bird and then, suddenly, they find themselves face to face, realizing that having differences doesn’t mean they have to be foes.

Tallec’s stunning, expressive duotone illustrations capture the intricate frictions of passive-aggressive conflict with equal parts wit, poignancy, and contained eloquence. A thick, beautiful die-cut cover and cleverly placed interior die-cuts add Waterloo & Trafalgar to the kinds of books that make ebooks pale in comparison.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books

THOUGHTFUL ALPHABETS

Having a soft spot for all things Edward Gorey and unusual alphabet books, I was thrilled by Pomegranate’s new edition of Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert and The Deadly Blotter (public library) — a collection of two cryptic 26-word stories, in which the word begin with the letters of the alphabet in order and the story progresses as the alphabet does in parallel.

The stories belong to a mid-90s “Thoughtful Alphabets” series, the first six volumes of which were released as hand-lettered posters illustrated with clip-art. Then, several years ago, stories numbers XI and XVII emerged as signed limited-edition books featuring Gorey’s original drawings — but the books quickly went out of print. In this beautiful resurrection, Gorey’s signature blend of wit and dark whimsy shines in each of the micro-vignettes — a fine complement to his beloved alphabet classic, The Gashlycrumb Tinies.

HONORABLE MENTION: Also from Pomegranate, Gorey’s fantastic Donald box set.

Originally featured in September.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, courtesy Pomegranate. All rights reserved.

HIPPOPPOSITES

In Hippopposites (public library), her children’s book debut, French graphic designer Janik Coat teaches the progeny of the design-inclined about opposites and basic spatial, dimensional, and aesthetic vocabulary through a minimalist red hippo-hero, who remains charmingly catatonic throughout the book. Blending Blexbolex’s unexpected parallels and contrasts with Paul Rand’s simple semiotic sensibility, Coat explores fundamental concepts in simple yet refreshing ways.

For a touch of tactile whimsy, Coat adds a delightful show-rather-than-just-tell element:

Originally featured, with more images, in May.

LITTLE BIRD

The finest picturebooks have this magical quality of speaking to young hearts with expressive simplicity, but also engaging grown-up minds with subtle reflections on what it means to be human. Such is the case of Little Bird (public library) by Swiss author-illustrator duo Germano Zullo and Albertine, published by the wonderful Enchanted Lion Books. Illustrated in Albertine’s signature style of soft, colorful minimalism, this little gem is like a beautiful silent film, only in vibrant hues and on paper.

It tells the tender story of a big-hearted man who halts his truck at a cliff’s edge. Unable to go any further, he opens the back door of his truck and a flock of birds spills out into the air, leaving behind a tiny, timid black bird. Surprised and delighted by the little loyalist, the man befriends the bird.

The two have lunch together and, eventually, the man tries to encourage the bird to fly off and join the others by attempting a comic demonstration of flight himself.

The humorous situation deepens the tenderness between the two creatures and soon the bird departs, the man drives away, and the story seems to end — but! — just as the truck trails off into the distance, we see the little black bird come back after it, followed by his colorful friends in a lyrical moment of belonging lost and found. “The small things are treasures,” writes Zullo. “True treasures.”

There are no greater treasures than the little things.

The entire story unfolds with few words and primary colors, but mesmerizes with its evocative honesty and gentle sophistication, inviting readers of all ages to look again and again as we rediscover our inner child’s gift for finding infinite beauty and curiosity in the little things.

A lovely quote from an e. e. cummings poem graces the first page:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living

Korean designer Young-jun Kim created this charming animation based on the book:

UPDATE: Sadly, the Swiss publisher of the book (not Enchanted Lion Books, the U.S. publisher) has had the video removed. Remix culture still fares poorly in the old world…

Little Bird was originally written in French and translated by my brilliant friend Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion Books.

Originally featured in May.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books / Albertine

THE CATS OF COPENHAGEN

As a connoisseur of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, I already knew that James Joyce had penned the charming 1965 picture-book The Cat and the Devil, based on a 1936 letter to his most beloved audience, his grandson Stephen. So imagine my delight at the news of a posthumous Joyce children’s release, The Cats of Copenhagen (public library) — a never-before-published short story also based on a letter to Stephen.

In August 1936, Joyce mailed his grandson “a little cat filled with sweets” — a sort of candy mule designed to outwit Stephen’s parents. “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen,” Joyce wrote Stephen from Denmark a month later in a wonderfully playful, mischievous letter that unfolded into a whimsical tale. The short story, illustrated by Casey Sorrow in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey and beautifully typeset by book artist Michael Caine, was only recently rediscovered and makes an offbeat but characteristically masterful addition to Joyce’s well-known body of work.

The preface speaks to Joyce’s love of cats, a kind of bonding agent for him and his grandson — because, after all, what great writer doesn’t know the creative power of a cat:

Exquisite, minuscule, and with strong, almost anarchic subtext, The Cats of Copenhagen is a slightly younger twin sister to The Cat and the Devil, the only other known example of James Joyce’s writing a story for young children. Both works, written within a few weeks of each other, are in letters posted to stephen James Joyce, his only grandchild. Clearly, cats were a common currency between them: cats, and their common need to have somebody around to help them cross the road.

[…]

Like many otherwise sensible people, James Joyce detested, even loathed, dogs; but he thought the world of cats. In the first chapter of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom appears, the very first conversation is between a hungry feline and a kind-hearted Bloom.

Originally featured in November.

BONUS: KUSAMA’S ALICE

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass endure as some of history’s most beloved children’s storytelling, full of timeless philosophy for grown-ups and inspiration for computing pioneers. The illustrations that have accompanied Lewis Carroll’s classics over the ages have become iconic in their own right, from Leonard Weisgard’s stunning artwork for the first color edition of the book to Salvador Dali’s little-known but breathtaking version. Now, from Penguin UK and Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, comes a striking contender for the most visually captivating take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yet — and one of the year’s best art books.

Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.

Originally featured, with more photos and a trailer, in April.

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