Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

19 MARCH, 2013

Stress As Metaphor


“Stress signified hardship, and endurance was needed to deal with it. Now … we ‘work’ to overcome stress; we don’t suffer it.”

Modern neuroscience has strongly suggested that optimism might benefit physical health, and researchers are now confirming that psychoemotional stress might actually trigger physical inflammation in the body. Even back in 1934, they knew that the key to mastering life was the elimination of worries. F. Scott Fitzgerald set out to immunize his daughter Scottie against stress with an itemized list of the things in life to worry and not worry about. But what, exactly, is stress — and how did we come to think of it the way we do?

In One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea (public library), Dana Becker investigates the origins of our stress metaphors:

Stress has had many different meanings over the centuries, and because of this, the way we talk about ‘stress’ now bears only a shadow of a resemblance to the way people talked about stress long ago. At one time, stress was a name for ‘what was hard and had to be endured,’ as Robert Kugelmann has noted. Stress demanded strength and fortitude. The image that was often invoked was that of a ship tossed about by the stress of bad weather, and in that image Kugelmann sees the difference between the stress of then and the stress of now. The storm-tossed ship represented something that neither challenged the forces outside it nor was wholly separate from these forces. Stress was what ‘proved the strength, power, and virtue of the ship and crew.’ It was occasional, like wintery blasts that assailed that metaphorical ship; stress signified hardship, and endurance was needed to deal with it. Now, particularly in the middle class, we ‘work’ to overcome stress; we don’t suffer it. And stress is not considered a sometime thing in contemporary Western societies; it is believed to be constant.

Much like our early metaphors for memory, which likened the mind to the recording technologies of yore, Becker traces the metaphor for stress to yesteryear’s depictions of the body as a machine and an industrial apparatus:

Early engineering gave us the ideas of stress and strain, and from these followed the metaphor of the body as a machine with a finite store of energy and with parts that life could grind down. The 1949 edition of the Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary defined stress completely without reference to human beings, as the ‘action of external forces; especially to overstrain.'; Today, the definition reads like this: ‘a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tensions and may be a factor in disease causation’ and ‘a state from a stress; especially one of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium.’ Stress now derives from physics, where it refers to the force that can transform material in ways that cause it to change its form or to break. In our vernacular, stress can be both a cause (‘It was stress that caused his heart attack’) and effect (‘When the plane was late I was so stressed out’). But although we refer to stress as both a force outside the person and an inner state, recently it is the inner state that has been getting the primary emphasis.

This inward reorientation of the stress metaphor, Becker argues, is largely the result of the rising monoculture of liberal individualism, which places individual freedom and self-actualization at the heart of what it means to be human, all the while preserving and honoring the fluid self and negating the myth of fixed personality:

The ‘self’ has become something we can think and talk about — something we can even remake, if necessary. But individualism or no, the self is not separate from social expectations and norms; it can’t be considered apart from the way it is talked about and judged, as British psychologist Nikolas Rose has pointed out. Many of the events in our lives (marriage, unemployment, combat) are open to judgments about how we have coped with or adjusted to them, and these judgements are steeped in a psychological language that has slipped its middle-class moorings to become the currency of our time. … [At] other times in our history, when the stress concept didn’t exist, we couldn’t experience ourselves in the way that stress both describes and delimits.

In the rest of One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea, Becker, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr College, goes on to argue that the concept of stress has become inflated to a deleterious degree over the past 40 years, critiquing our cultural tendency to approach stress management and the preservation of sanity as a matter of perpetual bandaging of symptoms rather than a deeper concern with understanding and healing the underlying causes.

Donating = Loving

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:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

18 MARCH, 2013

A Design History of Childhood


“Children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real.”

“Every child is an artist,” Picasso famously proclaimed. “Every child is a scientist,” Neil deGrasse Tyson reformulated. But, as it turns out, every child is also a designer — so argues Century of the Child: Growing by Design 1900-2000 (public library), the impressive companion book to the MoMA exhibition of the same title, which explores “children as design activists in their own right, pushing against imaginative and physical limitations and constantly re-creating the world as they see it, using whatever equipment they happen to have at hand.” Remarkably researched and lavishly illustrated, the large-format tome is titled after Swedish design reformer and social theorist Ellen Key’s seminal 1900 publication presaging a new era of focus on the rights and well-being of children. Through 100 years of toys, playgrounds, classrooms, clothing, furniture, posters, animation, books, and other ephemera, it covers such expansive and interrelated subjects as genetic engineering, the role of play in cultivating creativity, the importance of children in expanding 20th-century economies, the rise of comic strips, and the cultural significance of nostalgia.

MoMA curator of Architecture and Design Juliet Kinchin writes in the introductory essay, titled “Hide and Seek: Remapping Modern Design and Childhood”:

[W]e have been periodically reminded how the forces of modernity shape design and childhood in ways that are extraordinary and exhilarating yet complex and contradictory. What has remained consistent, however, is the faith among designers in the power of aesthetic activity to shape everyday life. As an embodiment of what might be, children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real: they propel our thoughts forward. Their protean nature encourages us to think in terms of design that is flexible, inclusive, and imaginative.

Lorraine Schneider. 'War is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things.' 1966

Schneider, an artist and mother of four, created this poster for a print show at Pratt Institute in New York, out of concern that her eldest son would be drafted. The rough composition, with its simple sunflower and childlike scrawl, became the logo for Another Mother for Peace, an organization led in the present day by Lorraine’s daughter Carol, and went on to become one of the most ubiquitous protest images of the Vietnam War era. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Lewis Hine. Child in Carolina Cotton Mill. 1908

American photographer and sociologist Hine recorded children’s working lives on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee, an organization established in 1904 to alleviate the exploitation of children, with headquarters in New York. A source of cheap labor then as now, children in factories and sweatshops assisted in the process of churning out goods designed for markets that included their middle-class peers. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin examines children’s awkward placement in the historiography of modern design:

The stereotypical perception of children as sensual and intuitive sits uneasily with the critical discourse of intellectualism and rationality that surrounds heroic modernist architecture, but with the advent of postmodern and psychoanalytic approaches to academic studies, beginning in the 1970s, many innovations in children’s design have begun to attract the critical attention they deserve, particularly in relation to comics, animation, and video games.


Bringing children from the periphery to the forefront of our attention cuts across geographical, political, and stylistic demarcations in the mapping of modern design. … Children bring into focus how modern design has straddled high and low cultural practices, from comics to architecture and urban planning. They enable us to follow threads throughout the century that connect the most disparate and apparently contradictory tendencies.

Rudolf Steiner. 'In mir ist Gott – Ich bin in Gott (God is in me – I am in God).' 1924

This drawing indicates how Steiner, one of the most influential educational theorists of the twentieth-century, would illustrate school lessons and public lectures with rapid chalk sketches on a blackboard or sheets of black paper. By means of such instantaneous mark-making, he communicated his sense of thought as living, creative energy, and of the individual as part of larger metaphysical harmonies. Steiner established his first school in 1919 for children of employees at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Within a decade Steiner schools had been established not only in Germany and his native Switzerland, but in Austria, Britain, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States, where the first one opened in New York, on East 79th Street. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Lyonel Feininger. 'The Kin-der-Kids' from Chicago Sunday Tribune. April 29, 1906

The modern mass-circulation comic appeared in Europe and the United States in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that comics and animation – two art forms initially created for children – began to have a profound impact on modern visual culture. Feininger and Winsor McCay, the two great illustrators of American comics in the opening decades of the twentieth century, conceived of the comic strip as full-page layouts with radical and inventive experiments in scale, sequence, and format. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Like Steve Jobs, who famously proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things,” and Paula Scher, who likens creativity to a slot machine, and like other theorists of creative problem-solving, Kinchin emphasized this inherent pattern-recognition gift of the child mind, also manifested in the most impactful design for children:

Designers, like children, find patterns and make connections. The importance of pattern making and creative play with material things, for children and adults, as a route to understanding spatial relations and problem-solving, as well as creating a sense of the individual in relation to larger cosmic harmonies, comes up again and again in the twentieth century.

She cites the legendary Hungarian-born Bauhaus architect and designer Breuer:

When children play with building blocks, they discover that they fit together, because they are square. . . . Then, the child discovers that the blocks are empty, that the sides turn into walls, and that there is a roof and a structure . . . . That is when the child will indeed become an architect. Manager of voids and spaces, priest of geometry.

Vladimir Lebedev. Cover of 'Vchera i segodnia (Yesterday and today)' by Samuil Marshak. 1925

Lebedev’s philosophy toward children’s books was clear: they should be, in his words, 'colorful, specific, concrete,' and find a balance between sophistication and accessibility, high and low. Though he drew on the avant-garde languages of Cubism and Suprematism, he never fully abandoned figuration, offering a familiar anchor to children while introducing them to new visual modes. Likewise, the goal of his collaborator, writer Samuil Marshak, was to create a new children’s literature, one that nourished the mind in both content and form. Lebedev and Marshak, who began working together in 1924, created dozens of books, many so popular that they were issued in massive editions of 10,000 with reprints not far behind. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Advertisement for Gymbo School & Gym Shoes. 1930

This brochure advertising Gymbo shoes emphasizes the 'absolute freedom' given to every part of the foot by the rubber-soled canvas shoes that were required for pupils in most British schools in the 1930s. With medical experts and educators endorsing the beneficial effects of physical activity on academic performance as well as general health, schools began to pay greater attention to nurturing children’s bodies through movement and exercise. Innovations in children’s clothing soon followed, with designs for activewear to accommodate this new emphasis on freedom of movement. Girls in particular benefited from the increased mobility and encouragement to participate in sport or dance that challenged conventional constructions of femininity. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin points to the unburdened optimism of the child as a beacon of modernist thought:

Children, with their perception uncluttered by the baggage of social and cultural conventions, have long symbolized the visionary modernist focus of the future. In this respect they belong at the heart of utopian thought, and they inspire us to demand a different, better, brighter future.

Frankie Faruzza. Cover of the book 'Children and the City,' by Olga Adams. 1952

Adams, one of the best-known kindergarten teachers in the United States in the 1950s, initiated a classroom project called 'Our City' at the Laboratory School in Chicago to stimulate children’s appreciation of how cities worked. Following extensive discussion about how they interacted with and understood the city, the pupils imagined a model town, and then went on to develop their ideas into a cardboard community that they governed themselves. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Times Wide World Photos. 'A Famous School of Dance Has a Birthday,' class at an Isadora Duncan dance school. 1929

A quasimystical belief in the psychological and therapeutic power of expressive movement inspired pioneers of modern dance education in Europe and the United States, among them Isadora Duncan and Margaret Morris, each of whom established private schools for children. Classes were frequently conducted outdoors, and emphasized a natural athleticism. Touring troupes of scantily clad girls trained by Duncan performed with bare feet and loose hair, causing a public sensation before and after World War I. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

“The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable,” science educator Ainissa Ramirez argued in her manifesto for saving science education, and Kinchin sees an equally pressing urgency in how the intersection of design and education evolves in the future:

It now seems as urgent to drastically shift our conception of education and modern design as it did in 1900. What is necessary for this to happen … is a new generation equipped with new ways of thinking. … The need to foster the young child’s innate capacity for divergent thinking — the ability to come up with lots of different answers — brings us back to the early-twentieth-century pioneers of the kindergarten movement and the concept of open-ended play as a strategy for learning and design innovation … If there is one lesson that adults should learn from children, it is that at a time of environmental and economic crisis, play is a crucial point of connection to the physical and imaginative world. We need to give ourselves time and space for play, space in which the unpredictable can happen.

Froebel Gift 2. 1890

Intent on fostering the curiosity and creativity of young minds, Froebel devised a series of twenty playthings, which he called 'Gifts.' These objects formed the core of his pioneering model of early childhood education, anchoring sessions of play that were either directed by teachers or instigated by the children themselves. Gifts one through ten included crocheted balls in different colors, wooden building blocks, geometric shapes, and steel rings that could be arranged in numerous temporary configurations. Gifts eleven through twenty provided the materials for focused activities, such as multicolored sheets of paper for cutting, weaving, and folding. By the early twentieth century, this system was so popular that Froebel Gifts were being manufactured on a large scale in both Europe and the United States. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack. 'Optical Color-Mixer.' 1924

Experience with toy design, often as a result of idealistic attempts to bring up their own children in a new and creative manner, was common among staff and students of the progressive Bauhaus school. These spinning disks, also known as the Optische Farbmischer (Optical color mixer), adhered to the emerging Bauhaus aesthetic of simple geometric forms and unmodulated primary colors, which was due in part to a method of teaching inspired by the kindergarten movement. Toys like the spinning disks and Alma Siedhoff-Buscher’s construction blocks sold well, providing an important source of income for the new institution. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

The introduction opens with a beautiful quote from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (free ebook):

The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred ‘Yes.’ For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred ‘Yes’ is needed: the spirit now wills his own will.

Nigel Henderson. Untitled, from Chisenhale Road Series. 1951

In 1953 architects Peter and Alison Smithson collaborated with photographer Nigel Henderson on this influential visual statement of their new approach to urban planning. As seen in this mapping of urban experience – from house to street, and district to city – it is children at play who embody the Smithsons’ guiding principle of social connectivity that underpins the concept of a 'cluster city.' The Smithsons were critical of the prevailing modernist orthodoxy of the rational, zoned city; instead they searched for new architectural equivalents to the more intuitive unfolding of spatial relationships that they observed in children’s play. Their approach brought them together with Aldo van Eyck and other dissenting architects within CIAM. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Werner John. 'Kinder Verkehrs Garten (Children’s traffic garden),' poster advertising a children’s traffic school. 1959

The graphic simplicity of John’s poster design succinctly references both the abstract forms of children’s construction toys and modern styles of road signage being introduced internationally. In the 1950s and ’60s, the proliferation of motorized vehicles was creating concern about children’s public safety and liberty. One response was to merge traffic and play in the form of children’s traffic schools. For play advocates, however, the lack of public space allocated to children and the overbearing presence of cars were indications of adults’ lack of respect for children’s freedom and basic human rights. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Walt Disney with original aerial-view painting of Disneyland, produced for ABC Television. October 1954

Walt Disney introduced Disneyland to the public with this bird’s-eye rendering by Ellenshaw, an artist and designer. The park, which opened in 1955, was a physical extension of Disney’s cinematic and television projects; it was originally intended as a kiddieland adjacent to the Burbank television studios but grew to become one of the most iconic statements of twentieth-century American popular culture. Disney planned the park as a miniature city that followed the layout of the world’s fairs of the 1930s, with a nostalgic Main Street based on his boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri, linking four distinct areas of what he called his 'magic kingdom' – Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Tomorrowland. Together these elements contrasted a sentimental image of nineteenth-century America with the modern, exotic, and futuristic. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Boys in a Glasgow back court show off their Christmas presents, which include astronaut suits and Space Hoppers. 1970

Outer space, a new frontier, was sufficiently vast and mysterious to allow designers and toy manufacturers near-complete freedom of imagination and creation. One rather enigmatic but popular product was Mettoy’s Space Hopper. These bright orange vinyl bouncing balls, two feet in diameter, with kangaroolike faces and handles that resembled horns, are said to have been inspired by children bouncing on fishing buoys in Norway. (Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Kinchin concludes with a conception of the child as a sort of antidote to the pretense of the present:

For designers seeking to reconcile in their work the tensions and ambiguities of modern life, children seemed an inexhaustible source of renewal, evoking both a paradise lost in the remote past and the future possibility of an ideal city or state. … In directing their attention to children, many educators and designers sought to recover an authenticity of expression that they felt had been lost with the innovations of modern life.

Century of the Child goes on to explore the paradoxical role of children as both targets of consumer culture and cogs in its machinery by providing cheap industrial labor, tracing how the New Art movement catalyzed a new culture of relating to childhood alongside an evolving conception of pedagogy, covering such cultural revolutions as the rise of kindergarten, the golden age of the playground, playtime in the avant-garde era, and the body politics of the child. Complement it with Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects, another fantastic and mind-expanding companion to an eponymous MoMA exhibition by Paola Antonelli.

Donating = Loving

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:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

18 MARCH, 2013

How Not To Worry: A 1934 Guide to Mastering Life


“We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them.”

As far as vintage finds go, they hardly get more fortuitous than You Can Master Life (public library) — a marvelous 1934 compendium of sort-of-philosophical, sort-of-self-helpy, at times charmingly dated, other times refreshingly timeless advice on cultivating “the power to think, to create, to influence and be influenced by others, and to love,” in the spirit of the 1949 gem How To Avoid Work.

Though written by a Christian pastor named James Gordon Gilkey and thus a little too God-heavy for these corners of the internet, the slim volume shares a good amount in common with Alain de Botton’s modern-day advocacy of the secular sermon. Take, for instance, Gilkey’s advice in a chapter titled “Breaking the Grip of Worry.” He cites a “Worry Table” created by one of the era’s humorists — most likely Mark Twain, who is often quoted, though never with a specific source, as having said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” The table was designed to distinguish between justified and unjustified worries:

On studying his chronic fears this man found they fell into five fairly distinct classifications:

  1. Worries about disasters which, as later events proved, never happened. About 40% of my anxieties.
  2. Worries about decisions I had made in the past, decisions about which I could now of course do nothing. About 30% of my anxieties.
  3. Worries about possible sickness and a possible nervous breakdown, neither of which materialized. About 12% of my worries.
  4. Worries about my children and my friends, worries arising from the fact I forgot these people have an ordinary amount of common sense. About 10% of my worries.
  5. Worries that have a real foundation. Possibly 8% of the total.

Gilkey then prescribes:

What, of this man, is the first step in the conquest of anxiety? It is to limit his worrying to the few perils in his fifth group. This simple act will eliminate 92% of his fears. Or, to figure the matter differently, it will leave him free from worry 92% of the time.

The concept of the worry table is strikingly reminiscent — and, one has to wonder, might have inspired — artist Andrew Kuo’s elaborate 2008 graphic My Wheel of Worry:

(Of course, F. Scott Fitzgerald intuited the basic premise of the table when he sent his daughter Scottie an itemized list of the things in life to worry and not worry about.)

In a later chapter, titled “Doing One’s Work Under Difficulties,” Gilkey offers some related advice which, on the one hand, bears that wise Buddhist-like mindset of living with sheer awareness but, on the other, makes a questionable case against introspection and the enormous enrichment of “living the questions”:

We should make ourselves stop trying to explain our own difficulties. Our first impulse is to try to account for them, figure out why what has happened did happen. Sometimes such an effort is beneficial: more often it is distinctly harmful. It leads to introspection, self-pity, and vain regret; and almost invariably it creates within us a dangerous mood of confusion and despair. Many of life’s hard situations cannot be explained. They can only be endured, mastered, and gradually forgotten. Once we learn this truth, once we resolve to use all our energies managing life rather than trying to explain life, we take the first and most obvious step toward significant accomplishment.

In the following chapter, “Learning to Adjust,” Gilkey revisits the subject through the lens of aging:

Only as we yield to the inexorable, only as we accept the situations which we find ourselves powerless to change, can we free ourselves from fatal inward tensions, and acquire that inward quietness amid which we can seek — and usually find — ways by which our limitations can be made at least partially endurable.


Why is [this] so difficult for most people? because most of us were told in childhood that the way to conquer a difficulty is to fight it and demolish it. That theory is, of course, the one that should be taught to young people. Many of the difficulties we encounter in youth are not permanent; and the combination of a heroic courage, a resolute will, and a tireless persistence will often — probably usually — break them down. But in later years the essential elements in the situation change. We find in our little world prison-walls which no amount of battering will demolish. Within those walls we must spend our day — spend them happily, or resentfully. Under these new circumstances we must deliberately reverse our youthful technique. We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them. Only when this surrender is made can we assure ourselves of inward quietness, and locate the net step on the road to ultimate victory.

Complement You Can Master Life with a contemporary counterpart of sorts, the wonderful and wonderfully useful How To Stay Sane, then wash down with a verse-by-verse neuropsychology reading of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Donating = Loving

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:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.