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Posts Tagged ‘books’

10 JUNE, 2013

Conjuring Cohesion and Purpose: How Ursula Nordstrom Cultivated Maurice Sendak’s Genius

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“That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos.”

The great Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928 — May 8, 2012) endures as one of the most beloved authors of literature for children the world has ever known, and yet without the care and support of legendary mid-century children’s book editor and reconstructionist Ursula Nordstrom, who brought to life such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web (1952), and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (1964), he may have always remained the insecure young artist he once was. From Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (public library) — the same wonderful tome that gave us Nordstrom’s witty, wise, and prescient 1953 letter on the state of publishing — comes this remarkably heart-warming letter Nordstrom sent young Sendak, who had written her full of self-doubt as he was setting out to illustrate a children’s adaptation of Nikolenka’s Childhood by Tolstoy. Amidst the toxic mythology of the self-publishing era, the missive illustrates the life-changing role of an extraordinary editor who transcends her professional role to be part friend, part psychotherapist, part sage, and wholly the kind of extraordinary celebrator amplifying the author’s talent and lifting his spirit that made Nordstrom who she was and who any great editor ought to be.

She begins by reminding young Sendak that there are many kinds of genius and an artist could benefit from a more dimensional definition:

August 21, 1961

Dear Maurice,

[…]

Your cabin by the lake, and your own boat, sound fine. Please remember that the moon will be full on Friday, the 25th, and take a look at it. It should be beautiful over Lake Champlain.

I loved your long letter and hope it clarified some things for you to write it. Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their books and they also know a lot of facts (“where the mouth of a river is”) but that isn’t the only sort of genius, you know that. You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and “cohesion and purpose” in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that. You write and draw from the inside out — which is why I said poet.

Nikolenka's Childhood by Leo Tolstoy, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (1963)

In assuaging Sendak’s anxiety about self-absorption, Nordstrom adds to history’s most memorable meditations on art in a sentiment philosopher Martha Nussbaum would come to echo in her admonition against despising one’s inner world, and offers an amusingly accurate micro-critique of Moby-Dick:

I was absorbed when I read you had “the sense of having lived one’s life so narrowly — with eyes and senses turned inward. An actual sense of the breadth of life does not exist in me. I am narrowly concerned with me… All I will ever express will be the little I have gleaned of life for my own purposes.” But isn’t that what every fine artist-writer ever expressed? If your expression is now more an impressionist one that doesn’t make it any less important, or profound. That whole passage in your letter was intensely interesting to me. Yes, you did live “with eyes and senses turned inward” but you had to. Socrates said “Know thyself.” And now you do know yourself better than you did, and your work is getting richer and deeper, and it has such an exciting, emotional quality. I know you don’t need and didn’t ask for compliments from me. These remarks are not compliments — just facts.

The great Russians and Melville and Balzac etc. wrote in another time, in leisure, to be read in leisure. I know what you mean about those long detailed rich novels — my god the authors knew all about war, and agriculture, and politics. But that is one type of writing, for a more leisurely time than ours. You have your own note to sound, and you are sounding it with greater power and beauty all the time. Yes, Moby Dick is great, but honestly don’t you see great gobs of it that could come out? Does that offend you, coming from a presumptuous editor? I remember lines of the most piercing beauty (after he made a friend there was something beautiful about “no more would my splintered hand and shattered heart be turned against the wolfish world.”) But there are many passages which could have been cut. But I wander…

In a beautiful passage that eloquently captures what we already know about genius — that without discipline and work ethic, creativity is a hapless muse, but also that emotional excess is critical for creativity — Nordstrom assures Sendak that the best cure for his creative block is simply showing up, again and again:

You wrote “my world is furniture-less. It is all feeling.” Well feeling (emotion) combined with an artist’s discipline is the rarest thing in the world. You love and admire the work of some other contemporary artists and writers today but really, think how few of them have any vigorous emotional vitality? What you have is RARE. You also wrote “Knowledge is the driving force that puts creative passion to work” — a true statement, and also very well put. But it would include self knowledge for some as well as knowledge of facts for others. (Is this English I’m writing? I need an editor.)

You reminded me that you are 33. I always think 29, but OK. Anyhow, aren’t the thirties wonderful? And 33 is still young for an artist with your potentialities. I mean, you may not do your deepest, fullest, richest work until you are in your forties. You are growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote, and to think about your letter. I’m sorry you have writers cramp as you put it but glad that you’re putting down “pure Sendakian vaguery” (I think you invented that good word). The more you put down the better and I’ll be glad to see anything you want to show me. You referred to your “atoms worth of talent.” You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius.

Like beloved novelist Isabel Allende, who famously asserted that what moves her to write is the desire to bring a sense of order to the chaos of life, Nordstrom reminds Sendak that this longing is the greatest blessing — even when it feels like a curse — of the creative artist:

You wrote “It would be wonderful to want to believe in God. The aimlessness of living is too insane.” That is the creative artist — a penalty of the creative artist — wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky. Well, not making any sense but will send this anyhow.

After wishing young Maurice a wonderful vacation and signing, Nordstrom ends the letter with an infinitely heartening postscript:

You know one of these days you’ll go back to Old Potato*, or a version of that situation, and it will have “cohesion and purpose” and will have so many universal emotions within its relatively simple framework. Love, fear, acceptance, rejection, re-assurance, and growth. No more for now.

Two years later, Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, for which he remains best-known and which Nordstrom edited, was published.

Dear Genius, which brims with Nordstrom’s legendary heart and wit, features much more of her correspondence with Sendak — who, fittingly, drew Nordstrom’s portrait on the cover of the book. Complement it with Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world, his unreleased drawings and intaglio prints, this illustrated adaptation of Terry Gross’s moving conversation with the author, and the very last interview with him — by Colbert, no less.

* Sendak’s uncompleted manuscript for a novel set in Brooklyn about the friendship between a little boy nicknamed “Old Potato” and a gentle solitary man who lived in the neighborhood.

Painting by Lisa Congdon for The Reconstructionists project

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07 JUNE, 2013

How We Spend Our Days Is How We Spend Our Lives: Annie Dillard on Presence Over Productivity

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“The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less.”

The meaning of life has been pondered by such literary icons as Leo Tolstoy (1904), Henry Miller (1918), Anaïs Nin (1946), Viktor Frankl (1946), Italo Calvino (1975), and David Foster Wallace (2005). And though some have argued that today’s age is one where “the great dream is to trade up from money to meaning,” there’s an unshakable and discomfiting sense that, in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

From The Writing Life (public library) by Annie Dillard — a wonderful addition to the collected wisdom of beloved writers — comes this beautiful and poignant meditation on the life well lived, reminding us of the tradeoffs between presence and productivity that we’re constantly choosing to make, or not:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.

She goes on to illustrate this existential tension between presence and productivity with a fine addition to history’s great daily routines and daily rituals:

The most appealing daily schedule I know is that of a turn-of-the-century Danish aristocrat. He got up at four and set out on foot to hunt black grouse, wood grouse, woodcock, and snipe. At eleven he met his friends, who had also been out hunting alone all morning. They converged “at one of these babbling brooks,” he wrote. He outlined the rest of his schedule. “Take a quick dip, relax with a schnapps and a sandwich, stretch out, have a smoke, take a nap or just rest, and then sit around and chat until three. Then I hunt some more until sundown, bathe again, put on white tie and tails to keep up appearances, eat a huge dinner, smoke a cigar and sleep like a log until the sun comes up again to redden the eastern sky. This is living…. Could it be more perfect?”

Dillard juxtaposes the Danish aristocrat’s revelry in everyday life with the grueling routine of a couple of literary history’s most notorious self-disciplinarians:

Wallace Stevens in his forties, living in Hartford, Connecticut, hewed to a productive routine. He rose at six, read for two hours, and walked another hour—three miles—to work. He dictated poems to his secretary. He ate no lunch; at noon he walked for another hour, often to an art gallery. He walked home from work—another hour. After dinner he retired to his study; he went to bed at nine. On Sundays, he walked in the park. I don’t know what he did on Saturdays. Perhaps he exchanged a few words with his wife, who posed for the Liberty dime. (One would rather read these people, or lead their lives, than be their wives. When the Danish aristocrat Wilhelm Dinesen shot birds all day, drank schnapps, napped, and dressed for dinner, he and his wife had three children under three. The middle one was Karen.)

[…]

Jack London claimed to write twenty hours a day. Before he undertook to write, he obtained the University of California course list and all the syllabi; he spent a year reading the textbooks in philosophy and literature. In subsequent years, once he had a book of his own under way, he set his alarm to wake him after four hours’ sleep. Often he slept through the alarm, so, by his own account, he rigged it to drop a weight on his head. I cannot say I believe this, though a novel like The Sea-Wolf is strong evidence that some sort of weight fell on his head with some sort of frequency — but you wouldn’t think a man would claim credit for it. London maintained that every writer needed a technique, experience, and a philosophical position.

At the heart of these anecdotes of living is a dynamic contemplation of life itself:

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. A day that closely resembles every other day of the past ten or twenty years does not suggest itself as a good one. But who would not call Pasteur’s life a good one, or Thomas Mann’s?

The Writing Life is sublime in its entirety, the kind of book that stays with you for lifetimes.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

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06 JUNE, 2013

Taschen’s Jazz: An Illustrated Portrait of New York in the Roaring Twenties

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Band battles, brass classics, Cotton Club etiquette, and how to do the “double roll” like a pro.

“Jazz is the music of the body,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary, “…and the mystery of the withheld theme, known to jazz musicians alone, is like the mystery of our secret life.” From the fine folks of Taschen () — who have given us such visual gems as the world’s best infographics, the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm, Harry Benson’s luminous photos of The Beatles, and the history of menu design — comes Jazz. New York in the Roaring Twenties (public library), a remarkable time-capsule of Gotham’s swinging golden age by music journalist Hans-Jürgen Schaal, edited and gloriously illustrated by German graphic designer, illustrator, and book artist Robert Nippoldt. The lavish large-format volume, which comes with a CD compilation of the era’s most celebrated songs, covers iconic venues like the Cotton Club and the Roseland Ballroom, legendary recording sessions, and the epic “band battles” that dominated the club scene, among other curious and lesser-known facets of the Roaring Twenties.

Also included are illustrated micro-biographies of twenty-four of the era’s greatest icons, alongside little-known and often amusing anecdotes.

But perhaps most delightful of all are the infographic-inspired maps and morphologies of the jazz scene and its geography, technology, and human topography:

Complement Jazz. New York in the Roaring Twenties with Herman Leonard’s rare portraits of jazz icons, W. Eugene Smith’s ambitious Jazz Loft Project, and William Gottlieb’s magnificent photos of jazz greats.

Images courtesy Taschen

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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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