Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

05 NOVEMBER, 2012

Building Stories: Cartoonist Chris Ware Explores the Architecture of Being Human

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What the inner life of a brownstone reveals about empathy, gender, and the human condition.

Building Stories (public library) is a remarkable storytelling artifact by cartoonist Chris Ware, more than a decade in the making — a giant box containing fourteen individual print ephemera (books, booklets, comic strips, magazines, and even a gold-rimmed hardcover and a board game), each telling the interlocking tales of different residents of the same three-story Chicago brownstone, from the couple caught in a loveless relationship on the second floor, to the elderly spinster grappling with her own aging, to the bee trapped in the basement. Somewhere between Paula Scher’s vintage children’s book The Brownstone, the Cold-War-era experimental Polish short film Blok, and artist Yasmine Chatila’s Stolen Moments series, the project — which I hesitate to call a “book,” since it’s a lavish deal more — is at once voyeuristic and deeply intimate, exploring the boundless complexities of inner worlds, relationships, and the hopeful hopelessness of being human.

Image via The Telegraph

Ware writes:

Who hasn’t tried when passing by a building, or a home, at night to peer past half-closed shades and blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse into the private lies of its inhabitants. Anything… the briefest blossom of a movement… maybe a head, bobbing up… a bit of hair… a mysterious shadow… or a flash of flesh… seems somehow more revealing than any generous greeting or calculated cordiality. … Even the disappointing diffusion of a sheer curtain can suggest the most colorful bouquet of unspeakable secrets.

The stories and stories-within-stories are all told through the perspective of one character, the female amputee on the third floor, deliberately left unnamed. In fact, part of what makes Ware’s feat so remarkable is that he manages to explore the intricacies of gender, and of women’s everyday psychoemotional turmoils, with a remarkable blend of rawness and sensitivity, without any of the cumbersome self-righteousness and forced political correctness typical of writing that is about gender.

On a recent episode of Design Matters, the inimitable Debbie Millman ( ) talks to Ware about being influenced by Charles Schulz and Art Spiegelman, about his ethos and sensibility, and about the fascinating, layered narratives and characters in Building Stories. Here are a few favorite excerpts from the interview:

On giving shape to the human experience:

When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, ‘Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes’… And that seems ridiculous to me — I mean, that’s what writing is about. It’s about trying to understand other people.

On the relationship between storytelling and empathy:

On the characters in Building Stories, the role of sadness, and what writing is really about:

On the building itself as a character:

On destiny, sexuality, the essence of literature, and the tragedy of our unlived lives — including one of the most beautiful phrases ever uttered, “veering towards happiness”:

When people’s paths cross, is there some higher plan to it all? Do all of these frozen moments just represent accidents, or genuine missed opportunities?

Do yourself a favor and listen to Design Matters in its entirety (or, better yet, subscribe in iTunes), then do yourself a second favor and grab your very own copy of Building Stories. You’ll never look at a city block, or a dimly lit window, or a bee the same way again.

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05 NOVEMBER, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut’s Daily Routine

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“In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.”

As a lover of letters and of all things Kurt Vonnegut, I spent months eagerly awaiting Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library), which has finally arrived and is just as fantastic as I’d come to expect. What makes the anthology particularly sublime is that strange, endearing way in which so much of what Vonnegut wrote about to his friends, family, editors, and critics appears at first glance mundane but somehow peels away at the very fabric of his character and reveals the most tender boundaries of his soul.

Here’s a taste:

In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut was offered a teaching position at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His role as long-distance father and husband was propelled by voluminous correspondence with his family, who remained in their Cape Cod residence. In a letter to his wife, Jane, dated September 28, 1965, he outlines his daily routine:

Dearest Jane,

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

Compare and contrast with Henry Miller’s daily routine.

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02 NOVEMBER, 2012

How the Gutenberg Press Embodies Combinatorial Creativity

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From metallurgy to the division of labor, or why Gutenberg was a typesetting despot.

Brain Pickings celebrated its seventh birthday last week. Since day one, it has been my belief that we create by amalgamating different pieces of knowledge from various fields, with various sensibilities, and from various time periods — knowledge that may seem useless but ultimately isn’t — into new combinations that we call our own ideas; by cultivating a certain way of operating that allows for the remixing of our existing ideas; by creating a rich personal micro-culture that lends itself to such alchemy. Creativity is, in other words, combinatorial and it’s reliant upon a vast, eclectic pool of such intellectual resources. Brain Pickings has always been a sort of library for these diverse building blocks of combinatorial creativity.

In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library), applied mathematician and network scientist Samuel Arbesman explores how Gutenberg’s printing press embodied the power of combinatorial creativity, and did so to a degree that far exceeds what the popular mythology around it would have us believe:

It turns out that the printing press is far from simple. The technological innovations that Gutenberg developed were much more than the modification of a wine press and the addition of the idea of movable type. Gutenberg combined and extended a whole host of technologies and innovations from an astonishing number of areas, and that is what made his work so powerful. He used metallurgical developments to create metal type that not only had a consistent look (Gutenberg insisted on this), but type that could be easily cast, allowing whole pages to be printed simply at once. He used chemical innovations to create a better ink than had ever been used before in printing. Gutenberg even exploited the concept of the division of labor by employing a large team of workers, many of whom were illiterate, to churn out books at a rate never before seen in history. And he even employed elegant error-checking mechanisms to ensure that the type was always set properly: There was a straight line on one side of each piece of type so that the workers could see at a glance whether any letters had been set upside down.

Only by having the combined knowledge of all of these technologies does the printing press become possible and cost-effective.

Early wooden printing press,1568, capable of producing up to 240 impressions per hour; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Though Steve Jobs may have been right in asserting that “creativity is just connecting things,” it’s more than that — it’s connecting the right kinds of things. And, above all, it’s equipping oneself with the very things to connect in the first place — it’s building a mental catalog of knowledge, then cultivating the right “associative trails” running through that catalog.

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