Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

02 JULY, 2013

A Visual History of Magic

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What the art of levitation has to do with creative debt and the legacy of vintage graphic design.

Whether in the rites of religion, the science of reality, or the folklore of love, or the transcendence of art, or even the allure of early image manipulation, the hunger for magic has always underpinned the human experience.

Originally published in 2009 as one of Taschen’s notoriously expensive hardcover masterpieces, Magic. 1400s-1950s (public library) is now released as a drastically more affordable and no less magnificent tome of 544 pages exploring the mesmerizing visual culture of history’s greatest magicians from the Middle Ages to the 1950s. With 1,000 rare vintage posters, photographs, handbills, and engravings, it’s at once a fascinating journey into the history of performative sorcery and a priceless time-capsule of vintage graphic design and visual culture.

Accompanying the treasure trove of visual ephemera are fascinating micro-essays and historical notes contextualizing their role in the craft by magic historian Jim Steinmeyer and author, collector, and professional magician Mike Caveney.

Among the curious patterns that emerge is a chronicle of creative debt, a kind of circles of influence within the canon as we begin to see how different magicians influenced each other.

Pair Magic. 1400s-1950s with Taschen’s previous gems: the world’s best infographics, the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm, Harry Benson’s luminous photos of The Beatles, the history of menu design, and New York’s illustrated jazz scene in the roaring twenties.

Images courtesy Taschen

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02 JULY, 2013

How Relationships Refine Our Truths: Adrienne Rich on the Dignity of Love

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“We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.”

From her soul-stirring poetry to her timeless wisdom on love, loss, and creativity, beloved reconstructionist Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) endures as one of the most celebrated poets of the twentieth century, a remarkable woman of equal parts literary flair and political conviction. In a monumental manifestation of both, when Rich was awarded prestigious National Medal of Arts in 1997, the highest honor bestowed upon an individual artist on behalf of the people of the United States, she famously became the first and only person yet to decline the honor in a protest against the monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.

But Rich was also a masterful writer of prose at the intersection of the philosophical, the political, and the deeply personal. In her essay titled “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” originally read at the Hartwick Women Writers’ Workshop in June of 1975 and eventually included in the altogether fantastic anthology On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (public library), Rich adds to history’s finest definitions of love with eloquence that resonates with particularly poignant beauty in these days of historic change for the freedom and dignity of love:

An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.

It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.

It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.

It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.

How beautifully this lends itself to paraphrasing Rich’s memorable words from two decades later — “I don’t think we can separate art from overall human dignity and hope.” — to “I don’t think we can separate love from overall human dignity and hope.”

On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 is indispensable in its entirety.

Illustration by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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02 JULY, 2013

The True Science of Spinach: What the Popeye Mythology Teaches Us about How Error Spreads

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How a misplaced decimal point created a beloved pop-culture hero.

During my teenage years, given my athleticism, my insatiable appetite for spinach, and my last name, friends were quick to latch onto the stuff of pop-culture legend and nickname me Popeye. But it turns out that besides perpetrating the crime of the too-obvious-for-its-own-good pun, they were also perpetuating one of history’s strangest and most egregious scientific errors.

In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library) — the same fascinating volume that explored how Gutenberg’s press embodied combinatorial creativity and the predictable patterns of how knowledge growsSamuel Arbesman illustrates how error spreads by debunking the Popeye mythology through the curious story of the scientific error that precipitated the misconception.

Popeye, with his odd accent and improbable forearms, used spinach to great effect, a sort of anti-Kryptonite. It gave him his strength, and perhaps his distinctive speaking style. But why did Popeye eat so much spinach? What was the reason for his obsession with such a strange food?

The truth begins more than fifty years earlier. Back in 1870, Erich von Wolf, a German chemist, examined the amount of iron within spinach, among many other green vegetables. In recording his findings, von Wolf accidentally misplaced a decimal point when transcribing data from his notebook, changing the iron content in spinach by an order of magnitude. While there are actually only 3.5 milligrams of iron in a 100-gram serving of spinach, the accepted fact became 35 milligrams. To put this in perspective, if the calculation were correct each 100-gram serving would be like eating a small piece of a paper clip.

Once this incorrect number was printed, spinach’s nutritional value became legendary. So when Popeye was created, studio executives recommended he eat spinach for his strength, due to its vaunted health properties. Apparently Popeye helped increase American consumption of spinach by a third!

This error was eventually corrected in 1937, when someone rechecked the numbers. But the damage had been done. It spread and spread, and only recently has gone by the wayside, no doubt helped by Popeye’s relative obscurity today. But the error was so widespread that the British Medical Journal published an article discussing this spinach incident in 1981, trying its best to finally debunk the issue.

Arbesman uses the Popeye story as an allegory of admonition against the all-too-human ego and our chronic propensity for shortcuts, the combination of which makes us too lazy to look closer and too afraid to admit we’ve been blind and wrong:

Ultimately, the reason these errors spread is because it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.

But perhaps the most fitting reflection on what the Popeye story teaches us can be found in Dorion Sagan’s fantastic meditation on why science and philosophy need each other, in which he observes:

It is the spirit of questioning, of curiosity, of critical inquiry combined with fact-checking. It is the spirit of being able to admit you’re wrong, of appealing to data, not authority, which does not like to admit it is wrong.

Public domain photograph via State Library of New South Wales

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