Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

03 JANUARY, 2013

How To Be a Woman

By:

“Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change.”

We seem to have come a long way since the days of anti-Suffragette postcards and lists of don’ts for female cyclists. And yet, in How To Be a Woman (UK; public library), British media personality Caitlin Moran argues that “we still also need a bit of analysis-y, argument-y, ‘this needs to change-y’ stuff. You know. Feminism.” Her sort-of-memoir — witty, honest, feisty without trying too hard, opinionated without being preachy — begins at the beginning:

1) Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics. And, more pertinently:

2) I’m not a feminist academic, but, by God, feminism is so serious, momentous, and urgent that now is really the time for it to be championed by a lighthearted broadsheet columnist and part-time TV critic who has appalling spelling. If something’s thrilling and fun, I want to join in — not watch from the sidelines. I have stuff to say! Camille Paglia has Lady Gaga ALL WRONG! The feminist organization Object is nuts when it comes to pornography! Germaine Greer, my heroine, is crackers on the subject of transgender issues! And no one is tackling OK! Magazine, £600 handbags, Brazilians, stupid bachelorette parties, or Katie Price.

She turns to social science to draw a compelling analogy between the current occupation of feminism and broken windows theory:

[A]ll those littler, stupider, more obvious day-to-day problems with being a woman are, in many ways, just as deleterious to women’s peace of mind. It is the ‘Broken Windows’ philosophy, transferred to female inequality. In the Broken Windows theory, if a single broken window on an empty building is ignored and not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may break into the building and light fires, or become squatters.

Similarly, if we live in a climate where female pubic hair is considered distasteful, or famous and powerful women are constantly pilloried for being too fat or too thin, or badly dressed, then, eventually, people start breaking into women, and lighting fires in them. Women will get squatters. Clearly, this is not a welcome state of affairs.

But rather than sorting out the complexities of the issue in the halls of the academy, Moran argues pop’s inherent qualities make it a perfect arena:

Pop is the cultural bellwether of social change. Because of its immediacy, reach, and power — no two-year turnover, like movies; no three-year writing process, like the novel; no ten-year campaigning process, like politics — any thought or feeling that begins to foment in the collective unconscious can be number one in the charts two months later. And as soon as a pop idea gets out there, it immediately triggers action and reaction in other artists, whose responses are equally rapid — leading to an almost quantum overnight shift in the landscape.

And though touting Lady Gaga as a feminist icon might appear anything from misguided to hackneyed at first glance, Moran makes a well-argued and layered case, looking at how Gaga’s influence might reverberate through the generations:

While it’s always too early to call a career until it’s ten years in, the sheer scope, scale, impact, and intent of Gaga’s first two years as a pop star thrill me more than any female artist to emerge since Madonna. Indeed, much as I acknowledge, as a Western woman, my eternal indebtedness to Madonna — I would never have had the courage to paraglide with my muff hanging out or shag Vanilla Ice if it weren’t for the pioneering work Madonna did in Sex — it should also be noted that Gaga ascended to the world stage wearing an outfit made of raw meat and protesting against the U.S. Army’s homophobia, when she was just 24. At 24, Madonna was still working at a Dunkin’ Donuts in Brooklyn.

[…]

The end point of her songs is not to excite desire in potential lovers, but the thrill of examining her own feelings, then expressing them to her listeners, instead. … For women, finding a sympathetic, nonjudgmental arena is just as important as getting the right to vote. We needed not just the right legislation, but the right atmosphere, too, before we could finally start to found our canons — then, eventually, cities and empires. Ultimately, I think it’s going to be very difficult to oppress a generation of teenage girls who’ve grown up with a liberal, literate, bisexual pop star…

In the rest of How To Be a Woman, Moran goes on to explore everything from the politics of parenting to the bargaining chips of love, using the disarming honesty of her own experience as a broader lens on some of contemporary culture’s most deep-seated, widely resonating biases and frictions.

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31 DECEMBER, 2012

Creativity Is Like a Slot Machine

By:

“To invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience.”

In How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (UK; public library), Debbie Millman (previously) sits down with 20 of today’s most celebrated graphic designers to unravel the secrets of their creative process, work ethic, and general philosophy on life. The result is a kind of modern-day equivalent of the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, presenting a rare glimpse of the creative machinery behind some of today’s most talented and influential designers through conversations that reveal in equal measure their purposeful brilliance and tender humanity.

One of the most stimulating interviews is with the inimitable Paula Scher — identity and branding goddess, Pentagram partner, maker of magnificent hand-drawn maps, tireless champion of combinatorial creativity — who echoes Thoreau in this beautiful, poetic definition of success:

If I get up every day with the optimism that I have the capacity for growth, then that’s success for me.

Like many of history’s greatest scientists, Scher speaks to the power of intuition and additive knowledge in sparking those creative Eureka! moments, stressing the importance of what novelist William Gibson has termed “personal micro-culture.” She illustrates the point with an exquisite metaphor:

There’s a certain amount of intuitive thinking that goes into everything. It’s so hard to describe how things happen intuitively. I can describe it as a computer and a slot machine. I have a pile of stuff in my brain, a pile of stuff from all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. Every piece of artwork I’ve ever looked at. Every conversation that’s inspired me, every piece of street art I’ve seen along the way. Anything I’ve purchased, rejected, loved, hated. It’s all in there. It’s all on one side of the brain.

And on the other side of the brain is a specific brief that comes from my understanding of the project and says, okay, this solution is made up of A, B, C, and D. And if you pull the handle on the slot machine, they sort of run around in a circle, and what you hope is that those three cherries line up, and the cash comes out.

But rather than willing the cherries into alignment, the essence of creative alchemy, says Scher, is in allowing for unconscious processing — that intuitive incubation period, to use T.S. Eliot’s term, that allows for all the combinatorial pieces gathered over years of being alive and awake to the world to click into place, to congeal into what we call “invention”:

I am conscious of resolving the brief, but I don’t think about it too hard. I allow the subconscious part of my brain to work. That’s the accumulation of my whole life. That is what’s going on in the other side of my brain, trying to align with this very logical brief.

And I’m allowing that to flow freely, so that the cherries can line up in the slot machine. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I’ve had periods of time when the cherries never line up, and that’s scary, because then you have to rely on tricks you already have up your sleeve — the tricks in your knowledge from other jobs. And very often you rely on this.

But mostly what you want to do is invent. And to invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience on one side of the brain, and on the other side, the necessity for the brief to make sense. And you’re drawing from that knowledge to make an analogy and to find a way to solve a problem, to find a means of moving forward — in a new way — things you’ve already done.

When you succeed, it’s fantastic. It doesn’t always happen. But every so often, you take a bunch of stuff from one side of your head, and a very logical list of stuff from the other side, and through that osmosis you’re finding a new way to look at a problem and resolve a situation.

Perhaps George Lois was right, after all, when he stated that creativity is discovering ideas rather than “creating” them and John Cleese correctly defined it as “a way of operating” rather than a mystical talent.

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is fantastic in its entirety — highly recommended.

Photograph via AIGA

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28 DECEMBER, 2012

The Strange Story of William Faulkner’s Only Children’s Book

By:

A rare vintage treasure, with stunning black-and-white illustrations and a side of controversy.

As a lover of obscure children’s books by famous authors of grown-up literature, I was delighted to discover The Wishing Tree (UK; public library) by none other than William Faulkner — a sort of grimly whimsical morality tale, somewhere between Alice In Wonderland, Don Quixote, and To Kill a Mockingbird, about a girl who embarks upon a strange adventure on her birthday only to realize the importance of choosing one’s wishes with consideration and kindness.

But far more intriguing than the mere existence of the book is the bizarre story of how it came to be: In 1927, Faulkner gave the story to Victoria “Cho-Cho” Franklin, the daughter of his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, with whom he was still in love. He hoped Estelle would leave her unhappy marriage and marry him instead — which she did two years later.

The tiny book was typed and bound on colored paper by Faulkner himself. (It wasn’t uncommon in those days for authors to hand-craft and publish their own books.) The first page of the book read:

For his dear friend
Victoria
on her eight birthday
Bill he made
this Book

Faulkner included this beautiful dedication verse:

To Victoria

‘. . . . . . . I have seen music, heard
Grave and windless bells; mine air
Hath verities of vernal leaf and bird.

Ah, let this fade: it doth and must; nor grieve,
Dream ever, though; she ever young and fair.’

On the left-hand page facing the dedication verse, the following text appeared:

single mss. impression
oxford-mississippi-
5-february-i927

The catch? Faulkner turned out to be an unapologetic, serial regifter: He made another copy of the book for his friend’s daughter, a little girl dying of cancer, and then two more for two other children — his godson and to the daughter of his friend, the actress Ruth Ford — years later. Each child believed the book had been made exclusively for him or her. But apart from the ethical question, a more practical one presented itself when Victoria tried to publish the book nearly four decades later, only to find out she wasn’t the only rights-holder.

Copyright was eventually worked out and in 1964, Faulkner’s granddaughter Victoria, Cho-Cho’s daughter, got Random House New York — who just five years later commissioned Salvador Dalí’s exquisite Alice In Wonderland illustrations — to publish a limited edition of 500 numbered copies, featuring stunning black-and-white illustrations by artist Don Bolognese. I was lucky enough to hunt down one of the surviving copies, number 121.

…if you are kind to helpless things, you don’t need a Wishing Tree to make things come true.

The Wishing Tree, sadly long out of print, remains Faulkner’s only known children’s book. On April 8, 1967, a version of the story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Three days later, Random House released a regular edition, now also out of print but findable used with some persistence.

Thanks, Anique

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