Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

06 APRIL, 2012

Waterlife: Exquisite Illustrations of Marine Creatures Based on Indian Folk Art

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From walls to paper, or what the eye of the octopus has to do with swans and women’s role in the arts.

I’ve been a longtime fan of independent Indian publisher Tara Books, who for the past 16 years has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books, including I Like Cats, Do!, and Tara’s crown jewel, The Night Life of Trees. But now comes what’s positively the most exquisite book I’ve ever held in my hands: Waterlife by artist Rambharos Jha, who explores the marine wonderland through vibrant Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

'The Lobster's Secret'

'Crocodile Smile'

'Snake Festival'

Jha writes:

I was born in the culture-rich district of Darbanga, in the Mithila region. But my father moved along with all of us to Madhubani, where he started work in a government-supported art and cultural project. This project sought to breathe new life into local art traditions and also to help artists earn a living. Since women had traditionally decorated walls and courtyards, they participated in this project in large numbers…

Living as we did in Madhubani, I had a chance to look at what they were painting. I would spend hours watching them work. I had not known of this art earlier and wondered why I was drawn to it, and what purpose there could be in my being attracted to these lines and shapes? Mixing colours and ideas, the women drew pictures that took hold of my mind.

Jha eventually learned to draw himself, initially drawing on stories from Hindu mythology and eventually moving on to more secular subjects, pursuing his own creative impulse but remaining deeply inspired by tradition.

Mithila art was originally painted on the walls of houses during festival season, but in the late 1970s, it migrated from walls to paper.

The book comes in a limited edition of 3,000 hand-numbered copies and, like all handmade Tara gems, is screen-printed by local artisans in Chennai using traditional Indian dyes, whose earthy scent you can smell as you leaf through the thick, textured pages.

Waterlife was among 10 books I curated for the TED 2012 Bookstore and is, without a shadow of exaggeration, the most beautiful book I’ve ever laid eyes on. The screen does it no justice whatsoever.

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05 APRIL, 2012

Hidden Treasure: 10 Centuries of Visualizing the Body in Rare Archival Images

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What vintage nurse uniforms have to do with Darwin’s studies of animal emotions and Chinese war propaganda.

For the past 175 years, the The National Library of Medicine in Bethesda has been building the world’s largest collection of biomedical images, artifacts, and ephemera. With more than 17 million items spanning ten centuries, it’s a treasure trove of rare, obscure, extravagant wonders, most of which remain unseen by the public and unknown even to historians, librarians, and curators. Until now.

Hidden Treasure, following on the heels of The Art of Medicine, is an exquisite large-format volume that culls some of the most fascinating, surprising, beautiful, gruesome, and idiosyncratic objects from the Library’s collection in 450 full-color illustrations. From rare “magic lantern slides” doctors used to entertain and cure inmates at the St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane to astonishing anatomical atlases to the mimeographed report of the Japanese medical team first to enter Hiroshima after the atomic blast, each of the curious ephemera is contextualized in a brief essay by a prominent scholar, journalist, artist, collector, or physician. What results is a remarkable journey not only into the evolution of mankind’s understanding of the physicality of being human, but also into the evolution of librarianship itself, amidst the age of the digital humanities.

The Artificial Teledioptric Eye, or Telescope (1685-86) by Johann Zahn

Zahn's baroque diagram of the anatomy of vision (left) needs to be viewed in relation to his creation of a mechanical eye (right), the scioptric ball designed to project the image of the sun in a camera obscura

Printed book, 3 volumes

International Nurse Uniform Photograph Collection (ca. 1950), helene Flud Health Foundation

Left to right, top to bottom: Philippines, Denmark, British Honduras; Hong Kong, Madeira, Kenya; Nepal, Dominican Republic, Colombia

Jersey City, New Jersey. 93 color photographs, glossy

Mayerle's Lithographed International Test Chart (1907)

Optometrist George Mayerle combined an array of eye tests on a single chart that, he boasted, was 'accurate, artistic, ornamental, practical and reliable.' Marketing the chart to fellow practitioners, he promised that it 'makes a good impression and convinces the patient of your professional expertness.'

San Francisco. Lithograph with hand-colored swatches on cardboard.

Michael North, Jeffrey Reznick, and Michael Sappol remind us in the introduction:

It’s no secret that nowadays we look for libraries on the Internet — without moving from our desks or laptops or mobile phones… We’re in a new and miraculous age. But there are still great libraries, in cities and on campuses, made of brick, sandstone, marble, and glass, containing physical objects, and especially enshrining the book: the Library of Congress, Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Wellcome Library, the great university libraries at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. And among them is the National LIbrary of Medicine in Bethesda, the world’s largest medical library, with its collection of over 17 million books, journals, manuscripts, prints, photographs, posters, motion pictures, sound recordings, and “ephemera” (pamphlets, matchbook covers, stereograph cards, etc.).

The Epitome (1953) by Andreas Vesalious

The fourth and fifth 'figure of muscles' conclude the illustrated/typographical dissection, showing more bone than muscle. They also present the anatomy of the head and brain.

Bound printed book, illustrated with woodcuts

Complete Notes on the Dissection of Cadavers (1772)

Muscles and attachments

Kaishi Hen. Kyoto, Japan. Printed woodblock book, color illustrations

Darwin Collection (1859-1903)

The expression of emotions in cats and dogs, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals (London, 1872)

London, New York, and other locations

(Also see how Darwin’s photographic studies of human emotions changed visual culture forever.)

Mechanics of the Human Walking Apparatus (1836)

Two figures provide a model of how the motions of running and springing can be accurately drawn.

Mechanik der menschlichen Gehwerkzeuge. Germany. Printed book with atlas containing lithographs.

Chinese Anti-Tuberculosis Flyers (1940s)

Flyers from a larger series of anti-tuberculosis flyers (Shanghai, 1940s and 1950s), Chinese Public Health Collection, National Library of Medicine

Civil War Surgical Card Collection (1860s)

The Army Medical Museum's staff mined incoming reports for 'interesting' cases -- such as a gunshot would to the 'left side of scalp, denuding skull' or 'gunshot would, right elbow with gangrene supervening' -- and cases that demonstrated the use of difficult surgical techniques, such as an amputation by circular incision or resection of the 'head of humerus and three inches of the left clavicle.'

Washington, DC. 146 numbered cards, with tipped-in photographs and case histories

Studies in Anatomy of the Nervous System and Connective Tissue (1875-76) by Axel Key and Gustaf Retzius

Arachnoid villi, or pacchionian bodies, of the human brain.

Studien in der Anatomie des Nervensystems und des Bindegewebes. Stockholm. Printed book, with color and black-and-white lithographs, 2 volumes.

Anti-Germ Warfare Campaign Posters (ca. 1952), Second People's Cultural Institute

Hand-drawn Korean War propaganda posters, from two incomplete sequence in the collection of Chinese medical and health materials acquired by the National Library of Medicine

Fuping County, Shaanxi Province, China. Hand-inked and painted posters on paper.

Medical Trade Card Collection (ca. 1920-1940s)

The front of a Dr. Miles' Laxative Tablets movable, die-cut advertising novelty card, lowered and raised (Elkhart, Indiana, ca. 1910)

France, Great Britain, Mexico, United States, and other counties. Donor: William Helfand

Thoughtfully curated, beautifully produced, and utterly transfixing, Hidden Treasure unravels our civilization’s relationship with that most human of humannesses. Because try as we might to order the heavens, map the mind, and chart time in our quest to know the abstract, we will have failed at being human if we neglect this most fascinating frontier of concrete existence, the mysterious and ever-alluring physical body.

Images courtesy of Blast Books / National Library of Medicine

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05 APRIL, 2012

Dating Advice from Dickens: A Collection of Victorian Vignettes

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A “Manly Young Lady” and a “Poetical Young Gentleman” walk into a bar.

1837 was a good year for Charles Dickens. Sketches by Boz, his collected essays on London life, and the first volumes of The Pickwick Papers were both in circulation, and his publishers were eager to cash in on this rising star with the satiric voice.

The next year, a slim book of short vignettes appeared with the title Sketches of Young Ladies. It had a certain Dickensian flair, each lady named and tagged and organized in an encyclopedia of of feminine characters. Immediately popular, its author was, like Boz, anonymous.

Six months later, another similar book appeared, Sketches of Young Gentlemen, and then another, Sketches of Young Couples, specially timed to Queen Victoria’s 1839 engagement to the future Prince Albert. Also hugely popular, the three sketches were bound up and sold together over the second half of the nineteenth century before disappearing in the twentieth.

But who was the author? There was always “gold to be got out of Dickens,” as one newspaper put it in 1884, but the truth was not revealed until the turn of the century: the first book, Sketches of Ladies, had been written by the young humorist Edward Caswall; the others, Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Sketches of Young Couples, were written, as everyone had expected, by Charles Dickens himself.

All three books were recently resurrected by Oxford University Press as Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies by Edward Caswall, revealing a taxonomy of archetypes that is at once amusingly outdated and surprisingly timely.

The “Extremely Natural Young Lady” might be a cousin to today’s manic pixie dream girl:

[She] is always doing some out-of-the-way-thing, that she might appear simple and girlish… She enjoys nothing so much as getting her gown torn and arranging her hair out of doors.

Indeed, Dickens had been inspired by a Dickens stylist — because everything was, and still is, a remix.

'The Mysterious Young Lady never utters a syllable to anyone.' Illustration by Phiz.

The “Petting Young Lady” would no doubt be delighted with today’s cat videos:

Her favorite term for expressing intense admiration is ‘little.’ Thus if she sees a hose which pleases her, she instantly cries out ‘What a dear little horse!’ although the horse be as big as a hay-stack.

The “Manly Young Lady” would surely put you in your place:

In conversation, she is most spectacularly positive, and should you sit next to her at dinner, ten to one but she puts you down half a dozen times at least.

'The Manly Young Lady has been known to travel alone, outside of the coach, all the way from Manchester to London.' Illustration by Phiz.

The “Out-and-Out Young Gentleman” had time only for parties:

[He] is employed in a city counting house or solicitor’s office, in which he does as little as he possibly can; his chief places of resort are, the streets, the taverns, and the theaters.

And the “Poetical Young Gentleman” was as you would expect:

He has a great deal to say about the world, and is given much to opining, especially if he has taken anything strong to drink, that there is nothing in it worth living for.

'The favorite attitude of the Poetical Young Gentleman is staring with very round eyes at the opposite wall.' Illustration by Phiz.

This new collection of Dickens’ Sketches of Young Gentlemen and Young Couples: With Sketches of Young Ladies gives Caswall his due both as a satirist and as an inspiration for one of the nineteenth century’s greatest caricaturists. And though its blend of humor and astute cultural observation captures a bygone era beautifully, its tease-points could easily apply to today’s crop of hipsters, techies, and other social performative roles we all don.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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04 APRIL, 2012

Edward Gorey’s Donald Illustrations

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A boy, a monster, and a loving mid-century collaboration.

In September of 1968, author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer embarked upon a thirteen-month collaboration with the inimitable Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator extraordinaire, grim alphabetician, irony connoisseur, tongue-in-cheek pornographer. Their remarkable illustrated correspondence tackled topics as diverse ad metaphysics and pancake recipes, but focused primarily on the three books at the heart of their collaboration. The third book, Why We Have Day and Night, was released last year and was among the year’s best children’s books. The first two are now out as a boxed set for the first time in The Donald Boxed Set: Donald and the . . . & Donald Has a Difficulty — a lovely duo of smyth-sewn casebound books in a beautiful slip-case, brimming with Gorey’s signature black-and-white illustrations of eccentric characters and strange creatures.

The Donald series was supposed to go on forever. Neumeyer reminisces:

Gorey writing me at one point, ‘I have just purchased lots of pristine new file folders. They await such things as… revised Donalds, new Donalds, new Lionels [another series], what else?’ Another time, he wrote that ‘[M]y mind’s eye sees a shelf of Neumeyer/Gorey works. Will Harvard have a room devoted to our memorabilia? It had better.’

But the perpetual Donald never quite manifested. Neumeyer writes wistfully:

The unending series never came to be, though shortly before his death, Ted once again returned to Donald. How far he got, only perusal of his vast legacy of papers would show.

Ted slipped away, a good, kind man of very specific genius. As I roam my bookshelves today, I can reconstruct some of the enthusiasms of that most generous of friends — a few of the many books he insisted on sending me so we could talk about them: Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave and The Rock Pool; four volumes of Haiku, translated b R. H. Blyth; L. H. Myers’s The Near and the Far; Raymond Queneau’s The Blue Flowers and Exercises in Style; Flann O’Brien’s The Best of Myles; Rayner Heppenstall’s The Greater Infortune; The Journal of Jules Renard (edited and translated by Louise Bogan and Elizabeth Roget); and a beautiful giant Abrams book on Pisanello — and many, many more.

Heaven would be to resume those conversations.

More than a treat for young readers, The Donald Boxed Set is an exquisite piece of Gorey memorabilia and a delightful embodiment a warm, inspired collaboration, the whimsical layers of which unfold in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — one of the 11 best art and design books of 2011.

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

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04 APRIL, 2012

The Origin and Cultural Evolution of Silence

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“Sound imposes a narrative on you, and it’s always someone else’s narrative.”

A recent New York Times Magazine piece on the extinction of silence prompted me to revisit George Prochnik’s excellent In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. As a lover of marginalia, I went straight for my notes on the book, which included this highlighted passage on the origin and cultural appropriation of silence:

The roots of our English term ‘silence’ sink down through the language in multiple directions. Among the word’s antecedents is the Gothic verb anasilan, a word that denotes the wind dying down, and the Latin desinere, a word meaning ‘stop.’ Both of these etymologies suggest the way that silence is bound up with the idea of interrupted action. The pursuit of silence, likewise, is dissimilar from most other pursuits in that it generally begins with a surrender of the chase, the abandonment of efforts to impose our will and vision on the world. Not only is it about standing still; with rare exceptions, the pursuit of silence seems initially to involve a step backward from the tussle of life… [I]t’s as though, as a culture, we’ve learned to ‘mind the gaps’ so well that they’ve all but disappeared. We live in an age of incessancy, under the banner of the already heard and forgotten.

But rather than exploring silence solely as subtraction, Prochnik captures its additive potential with a beautiful anecdote:

A painter friend of mine once told me that he thought of sound as an usher for the here and now. When he was a small child, Adam suffered an illness that left him profoundly deaf for several months. His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative. Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known. The experience was powerful enough that it helped steer him toward his lifelong immersion in the visual arts. ‘Sound imposes a narrative on you,’ he said, ‘and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.’

This idea — the notion of finding creative expression in negative space — resonates with many artists, literally or metaphorically. Rodin famously claimed that his sculpting process was all about removing the stone that wasn’t part of the sculpture, and Louis Armstrong maintained that the important notes were the ones he didn’t play.

But no one captures the profound and paradoxical nature of silence better than silent Buddhist retreat leader Gene Lushtak. Prochnik recounts a story Lushtak told him about Ajahn Chah, the most prominent leader of 20th-century Buddhism:

A young monk came to live in the monastery where Ajahn Chah was practicing. The people who lived in the town outside the monastery were holding a series of festivals in which they sang and danced all night long. When the monks would rise at three thirty in the morning to begin their meditation, the parties from the night before would still be going strong. At last, one morning the young monk cried out to Ajahn Chah, ‘Venerable One, the noise is interrupting my practice — I can’t meditate with all this noise!; ‘The noise isn’t bothering you, ‘ Ajahn responded. ‘You are bothering the noise.’ As Lushtak put it to me, ‘Silence is not a function of what we think of as silence. It’s when my reaction is quiet. What’s silent is my protest against the way things are.’

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