Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

25 NOVEMBER, 2013

Jane, the Fox and Me: A Gorgeous Graphic Novel about the Travails of Youth Inspired by Charlotte Brönte

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A tender illustrated story about acceptance and belonging.

“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality,” Nora Ephron wrote. “If I can’t stand the world I just curl up with a book, and it’s like a little spaceship that takes me away from everything,” Susan Sontag told an interviewer, articulating an experience at once so common and so deeply personal to all of us who have ever taken refuge from the world in the pages of a book and the words of a beloved author. It’s precisely this experience that comes vibrantly alive in Jane, the Fox, and Me (public library) — a stunningly illustrated graphic novel about a young girl named Hélène, who, cruelly teased by the “mean girls” clique at school, finds refuge in Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane, she sees both a kindred spirit and aspirational substance of character, one straddling the boundary between vulnerability and strength with remarkable grace — just the quality of heart and mind she needs as she confronts the common and heartbreaking trials of teenage girls tormented by bullying, by concerns over their emerging womanly shape, and by the soul-shattering feeling of longing for acceptance yet receiving none.

Written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault — who also gave us the magnificent Virginia Wolf, one of the best children’s books of 2012 — this masterpiece of storytelling is as emotionally honest and psychologically insightful as it is graphically stunning. What makes the visual narrative especially enchanting is that Hélène’s black-and-white world of daily sorrow springs to life in full color whenever she escapes with Brönte.

When Hélène reluctantly goes on a class trip, she finds herself humiliated in front of everyone. As she resigns herself to the outcasts’ tent, her fictional friend no longer provides sufficient consolation and assurance that she’s worthy of friendship.

Just then, a small red fox appears before the tent — a tender creature whose gaze gives Hélène a momentary glimpse of that soul-to-soul connection she so desires.

But it only lasts a moment — one of the mean girls scares the fox away, claiming it is rabid and leaving Hélène to believe that there must be something diseased and defective about anyone who seeks to connect with her.

But as the class returns to school, a new girl joins the outcast group, unconcerned with the circle’s social standing. Géraldine is simply content to be surrounded by people she likes who like her back, people with whom she shares that simple yet profound being-to-being connection that Hélène had found in the fox’s eyes. And, just like that, Hélène comes to see that the only way to un-believe all the hurtful things others say about her is to simply stop worrying about it all — and to believe that the deep sense of acceptance and inner peace she found in Jane Eyre and the fox springs from her own soul.

Jane, the Fox, and Me is an absolute treasure that blends the realities of children’s capacity to be cruel, the possibilities of transcending our own psychological traps, and literature’s power to nourish, comfort, and transform.

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22 NOVEMBER, 2013

Anne Lamott on Writing and Why Perfectionism Kills Creativity

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“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) is among my 10 favorite books on writing — a treasure trove of insight both practical and profound, timelessly revisitable and yielding deeper resonance each time. Lamott adds to the collected wisdom of great writers with equal parts candor and conviction, teaching us as much about writing as she does about creativity at large and, even beyond that, about being human and living a full life — because, after all, as Lamott notes in the beginning, writing is nothing more nor less than a sensemaking mechanism for life:

One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches by and tramps around.

What makes Lamott so compelling is that all of her advice comes not from the ivory tower of the pantheon but from an honest place of exquisite vulnerability and hard-earned life-wisdom. She recounts her formative years and where she headed once she encountered that inevitable fork in the road where we can choose between being shut in and shut down by our traumatic experiences, or using them as fertile clay for character-building:

I started writing when I was seven or eight. I was very shy and strange-looking, loved reading above everything else, weighed about forty pounds at the time, and was so tense that I walked around with my shoulders up to my ears, like Richard Nixon. I saw a home movie once of a birthday party I went to in the first grade, with all these cute little boys and girls playing together like puppies, and all of a sudden I scuttled across the screen like Prufrock’s crab. I was very clearly the one who was going to grow up to be a serial killer, or keep dozens and dozens of cats. Instead, I got funny. I got funny because boys, older boys I didn’t even know, would ride by on their bicycles and taunt me about my weird looks. Each time felt like a drive-by shooting. I think this is why I walked like Nixon: I think I was trying to plug my ears with my shoulders, but they wouldn’t quite reach. So first I got funny and then I started to write, although I did not always write funny things.

[…]

All I ever wanted was to belong, to wear that hat of belonging.

In seventh and eighth grades I still weighed about forty pounds. I was twelve years old and had been getting teased about my strange looks for most of my life. This is a difficult country to look too different in — the United States of Advertising, as Paul Krassner puts it — and if you are too skinny or too tall or dark or weird or short or frizzy or homely or poor or nearsighted, you get crucified. I did.

So she found refuge in books, searching for “some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in [her] head.” To find that, she became a writer and began fantasizing about getting published, about “the thrill of seeing oneself in print,” as the highest form of existential validation. When she published her first book, she awaited the affirming grandeur of public approval and secretly thought that “trumpets would blare, major reviewers would proclaim that not since Moby Dick had an American novel so captured life in all of its dizzying complexity.” Of course, none of this happened — not with the first book, nor the second or third or fourth or fifth. Instead, what Lamott found was a deeper kind of reward — that sensation “unmerited grace” that Annie Dillard so eloquently captured in her timeless meditation on the writing life. Lamott echoes Ray Bradbury on rejection and reflects:

I still encourage anyone who feels at all compelled to write to do so. I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you had to force yourself to do — the actual act of writing — turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

[…]

I tell my students that the odds of their getting published and of it bringing them financial security, peace of mind, and even joy are probably not that great. Ruin, hysteria, bad skin, unsightly tics, ugly financial problems, maybe; but probably not peace of mind. I tell them that I think they ought to write anyway.

But, one might wonder, why? Lamott answers beautifully:

My writer friends, and they are legion, do not go around beaming with quiet feelings of contentment. Most of them go around with haunted, abused, surprised looks on their faces, like lab dogs on whom very personal deodorant sprays have been tested.

But I also tell [my students] that sometimes when my writer friends are working, they feel better and more alive than they do at any other time. And sometimes when they are writing well, they feel that they are living up to something. It is as if the right words, the true words, are already inside them, and they just want to help them get out. Writing this way is a little like milking a cow: the milk is so rich and delicious, and the cow is so glad you did it.

For her, the essence of writing is about something simple, something immutable about being human:

Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.

[…]

Hope, as Chesterton said, is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate. Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.

At the heart of writing, Lamott argues, lies a capacity for quiet grit and a willingness to decondition the all too human tendency to get so overwhelmed by the enormity of the journey that we’re too paralyzed to take the first step. She recounts this wonderful anecdote, after which the book is titled:

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

In this bird-by-bird approach to writing, there is no room for perfectionism. (Neil Gaiman famously advised, “Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.” and David Foster Wallace admonished, “If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”) Lamott cautions:

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.

[…]

Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.

Lamott echoes Susan Sontag (“That’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world.” and offers a beautiful definition of what it means to be a writer:

Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.

[…]

The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell” standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes. You’re outside, but you can see things up close through your binoculars. Your job is to present clearly your viewpoint, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognize others.

In a sentiment reminiscent of E. B. White’s timeless words on the responsibility of the writer, Lamott considers the core of being a writer:

To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.

That is, one needs to have a moral position. (I myself have long believed that the role of a great writer — or editor, or “curator,” or any other custodian of cultural values — is to frame for people what matters in the world and why.) George Eliot famously observed, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” — a notion Lamott considers in the context of that necessary moral position:

As we live, we begin to discover what helps in life and what hurts, and our characters act this out dramatically. This is moral material. … A moral position is a passionate caring inside you. We are all in danger now and have a new everything to face, and there is no point gathering an audience and demanding its attention unless you have something to say that is important and constructive. My friend Carpenter says we no longer need Chicken Little to tell us the sky is falling, because it already has. The issue now is how to take care of one another.

She finds in writing what Carl Sagan found in science — profound awe, deep reverence, a source of spiritual elevation:

In order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? … Think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of — please forgive me — wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds. When this happens, everything feels more spacious.

[…]

There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness. . .

Most of all, however, Lamott sees in writing not a selfish act of personal gratification but an act of warm generosity — which is, after all, what drives all of us who wake up in the morning to put something we love into the world and go to bed at night glad that we did:

If you give freely, there will always be more. … It is one of the greatest feelings known to humans, the feeling of being the host, of hosting people, of being the person to whom they come for food and drink and company. This is what the writer has to offer.

This mutual gratification is where the mesmerism of literature lies:

Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

Bird by Bird is an absolute must-read, and must-reread, in its entirety. Complement it with Annie Dillard on writing, which inspired Lamott, and Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, which was inspired by Lamott.

For more notable advice on writing, see Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

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22 NOVEMBER, 2013

Love and Math: Equations as an Equalizer for Humanity

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“Mathematics is the source of timeless profound knowledge, which goes to the heart of all matter and unites us across cultures, continents, and centuries.”

French polymath Henri Poincaré saw in mathematics a metaphor for how creativity works, while autistic savant Daniel Tammet believes that math expands our circle of empathy. So how can a field so diverse in its benefits and so rich in human value remain alienating to so many people who subscribe to the toxic cultural mythology that in order to appreciate its beauty, one needs a special kind of “mathematical mind”? That’s precisely what renowned mathematician Edward Frenkel sets out to debunk in Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality (public library) — a quest to unravel the secrets of the “hidden parallel universe of beauty and elegance, intricately intertwined with ours,” premised on the idea that math is just as valuable a part of our cultural heritage as art, music, literature, and the rest of the humanities we so treasure.

Frenkel makes the same case for math that philosopher Judith Butler made for reading and the humanities, arguing for it as a powerful equalizer of humanity:

Mathematical knowledge is unlike any other knowledge. While our perception of the physical world can always be distorted, our perception of mathematical truths can’t be. They are objective, persistent, necessary truths. A mathematical formula or theorem means the same thing to anyone anywhere — no matter what gender, religion, or skin color; it will mean the same thing to anyone a thousand years from now. And what’s also amazing is that we own all of them. No one can patent a mathematical formula, it’s ours to share. There is nothing in this world that is so deep and exquisite and yet so readily available to all. That such a reservoir of knowledge really exists is nearly unbelievable. It’s too precious to be given away to the “initiated few.” It belongs to all of us.

Math also helps lift our blinders and break the shackles of our own prejudices:

Mathematics is a way to break the barriers of the conventional, an expression of unbounded imagination in the search for truth. Georg Cantor, creator of the theory of infinity, wrote: “The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom.” Mathematics teaches us to rigorously analyze reality, study the facts, follow them wherever they lead. It liberates us from dogmas and prejudice, nurtures the capacity for innovation.

BEAUTY OF MATHEMATICS by Yann Pineill & Nicolas Lefaucheux

To illustrate why our aversion to math is a product of our culture’s bias rather than of math’s intrinsic whimsy, Frenkel offers an analogy:

What if at school you had to take an “art class” in which you were only taught how to paint a fence? What if you were never shown the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci and Picasso? Would that make you appreciate art? Would you want to learn more about it? I doubt it. You would probably say something like this: “Learning art at school was a waste of my time. If I ever need to have my fence painted, I’ll just hire people to do this for me.” Of course, this sounds ridiculous, but this is how math is taught, and so in the eyes of most of us it becomes the equivalent of watching paint dry. While the paintings of the great masters are readily available, the math of the great masters is locked away.

Countering these conventional attitudes toward math, Frenkel argues that it isn’t necessary to immerse yourself in the field for years of rigorous study in order to appreciate its far-reaching power and beauty:

Mathematics directs the flow of the universe, lurks behind its shapes and curves, holds the reins of everything from tiny atoms to the biggest stars.

[…]

There is a common fallacy that one has to study mathematics for years to appreciate it. Some even think that most people have an innate learning disability when it comes to math. I disagree: most of us have heard of and have at least a rudimentary understanding of such concepts as the solar system, atoms and elementary particles, the double helix of DNA, and much more, without taking courses in physics and biology. And nobody is surprised that these sophisticated ideas are part of our culture, our collective consciousness. Likewise, everybody can grasp key mathematical concepts and ideas, if they are explained in the right way. . . .

The problem is: while the world at large is always talking about planets, atoms, and DNA, chances are no one has ever talked to you about the fascinating ideas of modern math, such as symmetry groups, novel numerical systems in which 2 and 2 isn’t always 4, and beautiful geometric shapes like Riemann surfaces. It’s like they keep showing you a little cat and telling you that this is what a tiger looks like. But actually the tiger is an entirely different animal. I’ll show it to you in all of its splendor, and you’ll be able to appreciate its “fearful symmetry,” as William Blake eloquently said.

Drawing from Soviet artist and mathematician Anatolii Fomenko’s 'Mathematical Impressions.' Click image for more.

And as if a mathematician quoting Blake weren’t already an embodiment that boldly counters our cultural stereotypes, Frenkel adds even more compelling evidence from his own journey: Born in Soviet Russia where mathematics had become “an outpost of freedom in the face of an oppressive regime,” discriminatory policies denied him entrance into Moscow State University. But already enamored with math, he secretly snuck into lectures and seminars, read books well into the night, and gave himself the education the system had attempted to bar him from. A young self-taught mathematician, he began publishing provocative papers, one of which was smuggled abroad and gained international acclaim. Soon, he was invited as a visiting professor at Harvard. He was only twenty-one.

The point of this biographical anecdote, of course, isn’t that Frenkel is brilliant, though he certainly is — it’s that the love math ignites in those willing to surrender to its siren call can stir hearts, move minds, and change lives. Frenkel puts it beautifully, returning to math’s equalizing quality:

Mathematics is the source of timeless profound knowledge, which goes to the heart of all matter and unites us across cultures, continents, and centuries. My dream is that all of us will be able to see, appreciate, and marvel at the magic beauty and exquisite harmony of these ideas, formulas, and equations, for this will give so much more meaning to our love for this world and for each other.

Love and Math goes on to explore the alchemy of that magic through its various facets, including one of the biggest ideas that ever came from mathematics — the Langlands Program, launched in the 1960s by Robert Langlands, the mathematician who currently occupies Einstein’s office at Princeton, and considered by many the Grand Unified Theory of mathematics. Complement it with Paul Lockhart’s exploration of the whimsy of math and Daniel Tammet on the poetry of numbers.

Thanks, Kirstin

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