Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

31 OCTOBER, 2014

Butterflies and Iron Bolts: What Virginia Woolf Teaches Us About Great Design and the Value of the Ungoogleable

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Celebrating the significance of small things and the iron bolts that hold butterfly wings together.

In 2002, a small and confounding book titled Schott’s Original Miscellany (public library) was released to very little fanfare by British independent press Bloomsbury, publishers of such diverse and beloved offerings as Harry Potter and Lost Cat. The author of this unusual book was a young man named Ben Schott, whose level of public prominence was closer to that of a stray feline than of J.K. Rowling. And yet, within weeks, the book — a quirky and beautifully designed catalog of curiosities, partway between a Victorian encyclopedia a century after the golden age of Victorian encyclopedias and a meticulously curated Tumblr a decade before the golden age of Tumblr — became the publishing sensation of the year. Soon, it had sold a million copies and was translated into thirteen languages.

In this magnificent Design Matters conversation with Debbie Millman, Schott — who identifies neither with being a writer nor with being a designer but describes himself instead as “a writer who uses design and a designer who uses word” — shares the unlikely, remarkably heartening story of his success. Folded into it are Schott’s reflections on how his father’s obscure scientific papers on the history of the footnote shaped his miscellaneous mind, what Virginia Woolf can teach us about the secret of great design and craftsmanship, and why the art of finding the ungoogleable is of ever-increasing value today. Highlights below.

On choosing creative purpose over a profitable or prestigious occupation, something with which young William James also tussled, and dropping out of advertising:

If you look up and you don’t want to get to the top of the ladder you’re climbing, then why are you climbing the ladder?

On being self-taught as a photographer and learning the craft through apprenticeship, via absorption:

That’s how I learned — you find a standard and think, “This guy is really good, or this girl is really good, and if I can be that good, I’m getting there.”

On being inspired by Virginia Woolf — his first book opens with a quote from The Common Reader: “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.” — and what Woolf, who herself had strong opinions on craftsmanship, can teach us about the secret of excellence in design and any craft:

I’m a fan Virginia Woolf — I’m a real fan of Mrs. Dalloway more than anything else she’s written. But what, I think, seduces her work is that sense that small things are significant. There’s another great quote [from To the Lighthouse] which sums up one of my theories of design, to the extent that I’m entitled to have any theories, which is: “light and evanescent but held together by bolts of iron.”

[Design] must be, on the surface, like a butterfly’s wing — but underneath it must be clamped together with bolts of iron…

This is what I think is the secret of so much craft — to make it look effortless and evanescent, like a butterfly’s wing, but it needs to have structure, rigidity, purpose.

But perhaps Schott’s most pause-giving point — at least for me, as someone who spends a considerable amount of time dwelling in archives and literature of which there is no pervious trace online — has to do with how he found the curiosities and quotes for the book in a pre-Google age. I frequently say that books are the original internet — every footnote, every citation, every allusion is essentially a hyperlink to another text, to another idea — and Schott captures this notion beautifully by inviting us into a time-machine that exposes all we’ve come to take for granted in just a few years:

Information totally changed in the last fifteen years, since this book came out. You have to remember what the mindset was then. So a lot of it was [spending] time in libraries and stumbling across things. People said, “Oh, have you seen this?” It was a wonderful paper chase. And anyone who’s spent time in libraries knows: you follow the footnote; you get taken for a walk — one footnote leads to another footnote leads to another footnote. By the time you know it, you’re drowning in paper…

The point was not to get stuff that was out there — it was trying to find things that no one else had talked about. Which is increasingly hard, by the way — to find stuff that is ungoogleable.

Schott’s Original Miscellany, which Schott describes as a book about “everything on the back of your mind and the tip of your tongue [and] all the things that you think you know or would like to know but don’t really know,” was followed by Schott’s Food and Drink Miscellany in 2004, Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany in 2005, and Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany in 2011.

If you aren’t yet subscribed to Design Matters — the world’s first podcast about design, which celebrates its 10th birthday in just a few months — remedy the situation immediately and gladden yourself on iTunes.

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30 OCTOBER, 2014

The Hand Through the Fence: Pablo Neruda on What a Childhood Encounter Taught Him About Writing and Why We Make Art

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“To feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know … widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.”

Since our cave-dwelling days, the question of why we make art and why we enjoy it has haunted us as a perennial specter of the human experience. For Leo Tolstoy, it was about the transference of “emotional infectiousness”; for Jeanette Winterson, about “active surrender”; for Oscar Wilde, about cultivating a “temperament of receptivity.”

That question is what beloved Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda answers with unparalleled elegance in a short essay from the early 1950s titled “Childhood and Poetry,” found in the altogether enchanting collection Neruda and Vallejo (public library).

Neruda relays an anecdote from his childhood that profoundly influenced not only his poetry but also his understanding of art and of life itself:

One time, investigating in the backyard of our house in Temuco the tiny objects and minuscule beings of my world, I came upon a hole in one of the boards of the fence. I looked through the hole and saw a landscape like that behind our house, uncared for, and wild. I moved back a few steps, because I sensed vaguely that something was about to happen. All of a sudden a hand appeared — a tiny hand of a boy about my own age. By the time I came close again, the hand was gone, and in its place there was a marvelous white sheep.

The sheep’s wool was faded. Its wheels had escaped. All of this only made it more authentic. I had never seen such a wonderful sheep. I looked back through the hole, but the boy had disappeared. I went into the house and brought out a treasure of my own: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which I adored. I set it down in the same spot and went off with the sheep.

He never saw the hand nor the boy it belonged to again. The lamb toy perished in a fire years later. But that boyhood encounter, with the simplicity of its symbolism, impressed upon him a lifelong learning — the second he grasped that faded-wool lamb he grasped a deep truth about the longing for mutuality that impels us to make art:

To feel the intimacy of brothers is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses — that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.

That exchange brought home to me for the first time a precious idea: that all of humanity is somehow together…

It won’t surprise you then that I attempted to give something resiny, earthlike, and fragrant in exchange for human brotherhood. Just as I once left the pinecone by the fence, I have since left my words on the door of so many people who were unknown to me, people in prison, or hunted, or alone.

Also included in the volume is a 1966 interview by Bly under the title “The Lamb and the Pine Cone,” in which Neruda revisits the formative incident and how it shaped his understanding of the creative experience:

This exchange of gifts — mysterious — settled deep inside me like a sedimentary deposit.

Neruda and Vallejo is a joy in its entirety. Complement it with Tom O’Bedlam’s beautiful reading of Neruda’s “Ode to the Book” and Robert Henri on how art binds us together.

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29 OCTOBER, 2014

Evolution: A Coloring Book

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A die-cut history of how the dinosaurs became birds and humans rose from the sea.

We were once amoebae, and here we are today, singing opera and typing on iPhones with opposable thumbs. That alone is enough marvel to put the petty nuisances of everyday life in perspective and fill our human hearts with humility.

As a lover of unusual coloring books and of science-oriented children’s books, especially ones that replace myth with science, I was instantly smitten with Evolution: A Coloring Book (public library | IndieBound) by London-based Finnish illustrator Annu Kilpeläinen — the best thing since Darwin’s graphic biography.

This simple yet imaginative primer on science via art explores natural selection, continental drift, what killed the dinosaurs, how birds descended from them, and all the other processes and phenomena that took us to where we are today. Die-cut delights add an element of interactive playfulness to the classic coloring-book experience.

One particularly apt application of the die-cut technique is a series of pages which, through strategically placed cuts, invite an exploration of how human facial features evolved.

Complement Evolution: A Coloring Book with Richard Dawkins’s The Magic of Reality, then revisit the wonderful science primers You Are Stardust and Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space.

For a fascinating grownup take on evolution, see the science of how bees gave Earth its colors.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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