Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

30 AUGUST, 2013

Rare Book Feast: John Christopher Jones’s Seminal Vintage Vision for the Future of Design


Sowing the seeds of human futures, one pioneering worksheet at a time.

More than two years ago, Nate Burgos of Design Feast brought us the first installment of Rare Book Feast — an ongoing video series celebrating the timeless joy of books in the era of digital ephemera and spotlighting yesteryear’s out-of-print gems. Now, he’s back with the second installment: Design Methods: Seeds of Human Futures (public library) by John Christopher Jones, the very first professor of design at Open University, originally published in 1970 — a seminal treatise exploring the process of design and its impact on countless facets of society.

From practical strategies for generating ideas, complete with worksheets, to a bigger-picture vision for areas as wide-ranging as urbanism and the relationship between people and objects, the methods Jones examines were devised or borrowed from different disciplines in response to “a world-wide dissatisfaction with traditional procedures,” seeking to offer novel insight for all those “concerned with creative behavior and with technological change” and framing design as a powerful tool for public decision-making.

Three decades later, Jones followed up with The Internet and Everyone (public library) — an even rarer gem, featuring a remarkable series of letters from the dawn of electronic communication, in which Jones evolves his thinking on human-dependent technology as he explores the strange new immediacy of information networks.

Design Methods was reprinted in 1992 and is thus still available, but at $93 for a paperback and a whopping $85 for an ebook version, which instantly renders it the most expensive Kindle book I’ve ever encountered, one has to wonder whether we need a separate category for books that aren’t quite out-of-print, but rather out-of-reach such baffling reasons as publishers pricing the unlimited resource of bits the same way that limited atoms are priced.

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29 AUGUST, 2013

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg: Lovely Illustrated Children’s Adaptation of Thoreau’s Philosophy, Full of Universal Wisdom for All


An existential walk into what money can and can’t buy.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her sublime meditation on presence vs. productivity. There is hardly a more enduring embodiment of this spirit than Henry David Thoreau, for whom the very definition of success rested on the ability to greet one’s day with joy. Yet this philosophy of mindfulness and immersion in the richness of life is increasingly eroded by our culture’s cult of productivity, which eats away at our ability to truly see life as it unfolds before us.

That’s precisely what author and artist D. B. Johnson aims to counter with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (public library) — an absolutely wonderful children’s story told through Johnson’s vibrant, minimalist, infinitely expressive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations. Based on a famous passage from Walden, it contrasts two different approaches to life — one prioritizing productivity and one worshiping wonder. It tells the tale of Thoreau and his unnamed friend, both cast as lovable bears, who decide to meet in the town of Fitchburg one summer evening, thirty miles away. Henry’s friend insists that the train is the most efficient way to get there and resolves to work until he has enough money to buy the 90-cent ticket, doing chores for neighbors — including some of Thoreau’s equally esteemed contemporaries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But Henry decides that walking, while less “efficient,” is the better way to get to Fitchburg — more present, more transcendent, more full of wonder.

Johnson tells young readers:

Henry David Thoreau was a real person who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, more than 150 years ago. He loved to take long walks through the woods and fields and write about the plants and animals he saw there. In his pockets he carried a pencil and paper, a jackknife, some string, a spyglass, a magnifying glass, and a flute. He could easily walk thirty miles in a day with an old music book under his arm for pressing plants and a walking stick that was notched for measuring things. … Henry thought people could live happily without big houses, lots of furniture, and high-paying jobs. They could spend less time working to earn money and more time doing things that interested them. Henry tried out these ideas. He built a small cabin at Walden Pond and for two years lived there alone.

As the two friends part ways and go about their plans, we begin to see how these divergent approaches frame each bear’s experience of life.

While Henry’s friend sweeps the post office for 5 cents, Henry walks five miles and carves a walking stick.

While his friend earns 15 cents ridding Mr. Hawthorne’s garden of weeds, Henry collects ferns and flowers to press in his book.

While his friend climbs bookcases to arrange Mr. Emerson’s study for another 15 cents, Henry climbs a tree and enjoys the view.

While his friend cleans out Mrs. Thoreau’s chicken house for 10 cents, Henry takes delight in a bird’s nest he discovers in a swamp 12 miles from Fitchburg.

On they go, each about his strategy of choice, until Henry’s friend finally races to catch the packed train, having earned his fare, while Henry takes a refreshing dive into a pond 7 miles from Fitchburg.

In the final scene, in which the two friends finally meet in Fitchburg, Johnson’s gift for saying so much in so few words and such subtle pictures shines with the utmost brilliance:

His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived. “The train was faster,” he said.

Henry took a small pail from his pack. “I know,” he smiled. “I stopped for blackberries.”

More than a mere children’s primer on Thoreau’s philosophy, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg is both a stunning piece of art and an essential reminder for all of us about what money, no matter how much we worry about it, can and cannot buy, and that the art of living lies in how we choose to pay attention.

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29 AUGUST, 2013

The Art of NASA: Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Norman Rockwell, and Other Icons Celebrate 50 Years of Space Exploration


Celebrated artists translate NASA’s mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown” into stunning images.

Recently, while researching something only marginally related, I chanced upon a buried treasure of the finest variety — remnants of NASA’s Art Program, which began in 1962 and enlisted some of the era’s greatest visual artists across various disciplines and backgrounds in conveying to the public the Space Agency’s cutting-edge research in ways more vibrant and less sterile than research reports. Among the images, found in NASA’s Flickr Commons archive — which also gave us these gorgeous black-and-white photos of vintage space facilities — are artworks by such legends as Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell, and Annie Leibovitz. (Alas, much like in space exploration itself, in space art women remain a minority, only a fraction of the selected artists being female.) The art was featured in a Smithsonian traveling exhibition celebrating NASA’s 50th anniversary in 2008 and was subsequently collected in NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration (public library), featuring an afterword by none other than Ray Bradbury, tireless champion of space exploration.

To make the collaborations as powerful and authentic as possible, NASA gave the participating artists unprecedented access to the agency’s facilities and, in some cases, even lent them prized equipment to ensure true-to-life portrayal. NASA’s second administrator, James Webb, who directed the launch of the program, remarked:

Important events can be interpreted by artists to provide unique insight into significant aspects of our history-making advances into space. An artistic record of this nation’s program of space exploration will have great value for future generations and may make a significant contribution to the history of American art.

Indeed, the project is beautifully aligned with NASA’s mission “to reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so that what we do and learn will benefit all humankind,” yet it bears a bittersweet hue of lamentation as we remember to wonder how, in its present state of neglect, funding for space exploration will continue to support such inspired fringes. But at least we have these vintage gems to make our cosmic-kindled hearts glow. Enjoy.

'Moonwalk 1' by Andy Warhol, 1987 (silkscreen on paper)

The famous image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin standing on the Moon has become an icon of popular culture. The American hero with the U.S. flag became material for Warhol's silkscreen series of nationally known images printed on vibrant, retro, poster colors.

'Gemini Launch Pad' by James Wyeth, 1964 (watercolor on paper)

In the early days of manned spaceflight, technicians responsible for a launch worked in a domed, concrete-reinforced blockhouse, protected from accidental explosions. Although surrounded by cutting-edge technology, the technicians relied on a bicycle for check-up trips to the launch pad.

'Power' by Paul Calle, 1963 (oil on panel)

This painting depicts the first seconds of lift-off of the Saturn V moon rocket. Each of the 5 F-1 engines could encompass a full grown man standing up, and produced over 1.5 million pounds of thrust.

'Mike Collins' by Paul Calle, 1969 (felt tip pen on paper)

Paul Calle was the only artist with the Apollo 11 astronauts in the early morning hours of July 16, 1969, when they put on their spacesuits in preparation for the historic journey to land on the Moon.

'First Steps' by Mitchell Jamieson, 1963 (acrylic, gauze, and paper on canvas)

In a silver-colored spacesuit, astronaut Gordon Cooper steps away from his Mercury spacecraft and into the bright sunlight on the deck of the recovery ship after 22 orbits of Earth. Mitchell Jamieson documented Cooper's recovery and medical examination and accompanied him back to Cape Canaveral.

'Grissom and Young' by Norman Rockwell, 1965

Astronauts John Young and Gus Grissom are suited for the first flight of the Gemini program in March 1965. NASA loaned Norman Rockwell a Gemini spacesuit in order to make this painting as accurate as possible.

'Gemini Recovery' by Robert McCall, mid-1960s (watercolor)

The Gemini V crew, Gordon Cooper and Charles Conrad, bob in a life raft beside their spacecraft as a helicopter comes to the rescue after their Earth orbital mission, which took place in August 1965. It was the longest manned flight to date – 7 days, 22 hours, and 55 minutes. Artist Robert T. McCall documented the return of the crew from the recovery ship USS Lake Champion in the Atlantic Ocean.

'Sky Garden' by Robert Rauschenberg, 1969 (lithograph on canvas)

In 1969 Rauschenberg was invited to witness one of the most significant social events of the decade: the launch of Apollo 11, the shuttle that would place man on the moon. NASA provided Rauschenberg with detailed scientific maps, charts and photographs of the launch, which formed the basis of the Stoned moon series – comprising thirty-three lithographs printed at Gemini GEL. The Stoned moon series is a celebration of man’s peaceful exploration of space as a 'responsive, responsible collaboration between man and technology.' The combination of art and science is something that Rauschenberg continued to investigate throughout the 1960s in what he calls his 'blowing fuses period.'

'Saturn Blockhouse' by Fred Freeman, 1968 (acrylic on canvas)

As a participant in NASA's art program, Fred Freeman gained unlimited access to space facilities during missions. Here, he shows us just how close he was, even depicting his coffee cup resting on the console.

'Suiting Up' by Paul Calle, 1969 (pencil sketch)

This sketch of the Apollo 11 crew 'Suiting Up' stands as a visual record of the activities that took place on the morning of July 16th, 1969.

'Big Dish Antenna' by Paul Arlt, 1968 (acrylic on polyester)

This large antenna was part of NASA's worldwide tracking network. In order to maintain contact with an Earth-orbiting spacecraft, it was necessary to establish communication stations around the world.

'Space Age Landscape' by William Thon, 1969 (watercolor on paper)

The subtropical climate of Florida soon reclaims an early launch tower. As the space program progressed to larger launch vehicles, smaller gantries were abandoned to seabirds, who found them to be ideal nesting places.

'Moon, Horizon & Flowers (Rocket Rollout)' by Jack Perlmutter, 1969 (oil on canvas)

The most advanced technology, along with the subtropical Florida landscape, provided a variety of interesting forms, shapes, and colors for visiting artists during the time of the Apollo Moon-landing program.

'Apollo 8 Coming Home' by Robert T. McCall, 1969

Human eyes directly observed the far side of the Moon for the first time on Christmas Eve 1968. Robert McCall imagines the sight of the rocket engine firing to propel the spacecraft out of lunar orbit for its return to Earth.

'Sky Lab' by Peter Hurd, 1973 (watercolor on paper)

Peter Hurd participated in the early days of the NASA Art Program, documenting the last Mercury flight. He returned ten years later to record the launch of Skylab, a rocket modified to allow astronauts to live and work in orbit. The three separate crews of Skylab astronauts arrived via Apollo command modules.

'When Thoughts Turn Inwards' by Henry Casselli, 1981 (watercolor)

Astronaut John Young reflects pensively as he suits up for launch on April 12, 1981. Casselli conveys a quiet, almost spiritual moment when the astronaut must mentally prepare for his mission. This was the first time that the newly inaugurated space shuttle would carry humans, in this case the two-person crew of John Young and Robert Crippen.

'Lift-Off at 15 Seconds' by Jack Perlmutter, 1982 (oil on canvas)

Martin Hoffman captures astronaut suit-up in a wholly original way -- through the television screens in the media area at the Kennedy Space Center. The launch pad can be seen in the distance beyond Banana River. It is one moment of calm before the frenzy of launch activity.

'Sunrise Suit Up' by Martin Hoffman, 1988 (mixed media)

'Chip and Batty Explore Space' by William Wegman, 2001

William Wegman's signature Weimaraners pose as astronauts. One peers out of a space station while the other conducts a spacewalk. NASA loaned Wegman a model of a spacesuit to use in his work.

'Fluid Dynamics' by Tina York, 1995 (mixed media)

Tina York graphically depicts the principles of fluid dynamics, the movement of gases as a solid body passes through them. York researched this concept at California's NASA Ames Research Center while participating in the NASA Art Program.

'Servicing Hubble' by John Solie, 1995 (oil on canvas)

The painting depicts the historic servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope in December 1992. Kathryn Thorton releases a defective solar panel into the heavens as another astronaut performs duties in the space shuttle Endeavour's cargo bay. The solar array and the wide-field planetary camera were some of the major units serviced during the STS-61 mission.

'A New Frontier' by Keith Duncan, 2001 (mixed media)

Duncan depicts the International Space Station in an allegorical context. Icarus and Daedalus are hovering angelically over the Earth's surface, which is dotted with suspended configurations of the International Space Station and astronauts. Rays of sun emanate and provide a canopy for the floating astronauts and spacecraft.

'Titan' by Daniel Zeller, 2006 (ink on paper)

The basis of Daniel Zeller’s drawing is the intricate surface of Saturn’s moon Titan, as recorded by the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini arrived at Saturn in July 2004 after a seven-year voyage, beginning a four-year mission.

'Remembering Columbia' by Chakaia Booker, 2006 (rubber)

Chakaia Booker used rubber, her signature medium, to commemorate the Columbia crew. Pieces of a space shuttle tire that NASA donated to Booker are incorporated into the work. The resulting sculpture resembles a black star, reflecting mournfully upon February 1, 2003, when Columbia suffered an aerodynamic break-up during reentry.

Portrait of Eileen Collins by Annie Leibovitz, 1999

Annie Leibovitz photographed Eileen Collins at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, during training. Collins was the first female pilot (Discovery in 1995) and first female commander (Columbia, 1999) of a space shuttle program.

NASA/ART: 50 Years of Exploration was co-authored by James Dean, who founded the NASA Art Program and directed it from 1962 to 1974, and NASA curatorial and multimedia manager Bertram Ulrich. Complement it with this pictorial history of space in 250 milestones.

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29 AUGUST, 2013

John Locke on Knowledge and the Folly of Our Borrowed Opinions


“The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires an art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own object.”

English philosopher and physician John Locke (August 29, 1632–October 28, 1704), endures as one of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment, whose work shaped the course of modern thought, permeated the American Declaration of Independence, and laid the foundation for today’s understanding of the self and human identity. One of his most central tenets was the idea, radical at the time, that we are born without innate ideas and that knowledge instead is acquired through direct experience and sense perception. That’s precisely what Locke explores in his seminal 1690 masterwork An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding (public library; free download), often considered the catalyst for contemporary Western conceptions of the self — a dimensional inquiry into “the [origin], certainty, and extent of human knowledge, together with the grounds and degrees of belief, opinion, and assent.”

Locke writes:

Every step the mind takes in its progress towards Knowledge makes some discovery, which is not only new, but the best too, for the time at least.

For the understanding, like the eye, judging of objects only by its own sight, cannot but be pleased with what it discovers, having less regret for what has escaped it, because it is unknown. Thus he who has raised himself above the alms-basket, and, not content to live lazily on scraps of begged opinions, sets his own thoughts on work, to find and follow truth, will (whatever he lights on) not miss the hunter’s satisfaction; every moment of his pursuit will reward his pains with some delight; and he will have reason to think his time not ill spent, even when he cannot much boast of any great acquisition.

Like Thoreau, who nearly two centuries later similarly admonished against adopting the thoughts of others without critical thinking, Locke is especially dismissive of such borrowed opinions:

It is not worth while to be concerned what he says or thinks, who says or thinks only as he is directed by another.

He argues that since our capacity for understanding is what makes us human, it is our duty to explore how our understanding works — but these processes, not unlike attention, operate beneath the threshold of our awareness and thus require deliberate effort:

The understanding, like the eye, whilst it makes us see and perceive all other things, takes no notice of itself; and it requires an art and pains to set it at a distance and make it its own object. But whatever be the difficulties that lie in the way of this inquiry; whatever it be that keeps us so much in the dark to ourselves; sure I am that all the light we can let in upon our minds, all the acquaintance we can make with our own understandings, will not only be very pleasant, but bring us great advantage, in directing our thoughts in the search of other things.

Equally, Locke argues, we need to direct our awareness to how our “knowledge” — what we’ve come to believe and embraced as conviction — comes to be:

I can give any account of the ways whereby our understandings come to attain those notions of things we have; and can set down any measures of the certainty of our knowledge; or the grounds of those persuasions which are to be found amongst men, so various, different, and wholly contradictory; and yet asserted somewhere or other with such assurance and confidence, that he that shall take a view of the opinions of mankind, observe their opposition, and at the same time consider the fondness and devotion wherewith they are embraced, the resolution and eagerness wherewith they are maintained, may perhaps have reason to suspect, that either there is no such thing as truth at all, or that mankind hath no sufficient means to attain a certain knowledge of it. … It is therefore worth while to search out the bounds between opinion and knowledge; and examine by what measures, in things whereof we have no certain knowledge, we ought to regulate our assent and moderate our persuasion.

Ultimately, Locke maintains that all ideas coalesce from the confluence of sensation and deliberate thought — an early conception of later models for how creativity works:

All Ideas come from Sensation or Reflection. Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas: — How comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in one word, from experience. In that all our knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our observation employed either, about external sensible objects, or about the internal operations of our minds perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that which supplies our understandings with all the materials of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring.


External objects furnish the mind with the ideas of sensible qualities, which are all those different perceptions they produce in us; and the mind furnishes the understanding with ideas of its own operations.

An Essay Concerning Humane Understanding, very much worth a read in its entirety, is in the public domain and is thus available as a free download.

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