Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

18 MARCH, 2013

How Not To Worry: A 1934 Guide to Mastering Life

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“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.”

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15 MARCH, 2013

Sorted Books Revisited: Artist Nina Katchadourian’s Playfully Arranged Book Spine Sentences

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“Friendship: The silent places where speech ends.”

As a longtime fan of artist Nina Katchadourian’s long-running Sorted Books project, which even inspired some playful book spine poetry experiments of my own, I’m thrilled for the release of Sorted Books (public library) — a collection spanning nearly two decades of her witty and wise minimalist mediations on life by way of ingeniously arranged book spines, including some pieces never seen online.

A heart-warming bonus: Most of the books Katchadourian uses are library copies, presenting a subtle conceptual addition to other love letters to libraries.

Brian Dillon writes in the introduction:

‘Sorted Books’ is many things at the same time: a series of sculptures or photographs, or site-specific installations; a collection of short stories, or poems, or jokes; a work in which the ‘found object’ is subject alike to chance and the most painstaking choices; a delicate conceptual game with the horizontal and the vertical. But it is first of all an act of reading. We have to picture the artist at large between the bookshelves, scanning the spines for likely, or unlikely, meetings among their titles.

Katchadourian’s project began in 1993, somewhat serendipitously — as most great side-projects-turned-lifelong-passions tend to — while she was pursuing an MFA at University of California, San Diego. She recounts the origin story:

We studied — and were trying to put into practice — an engagement with the everyday, a stance toward art that located it in unlikely places, and ways of working collaboratively. In that spirit, an art major undergraduate, who was friendly with some of the graduate students, invited a group of us to move into her parents’ house for a week and make art with what we found. Her parents — who were not art collectors but simply welcoming and curious people — generously agreed to be invaded by the six of us.

The house where we stayed was in a small town called Half Moon Bay, about an hour south of San Francisco on the foggy California coast, so we decided to call the project ‘The Half Moon Bay Experiment.’ We spent about a week there, poking around and thinking about what to make. Eventually each of us found different zones in the house that interested us, and in the end we had a small show, which essentially meant running an announcement in the local paper, opening the font door for the afternoon, and having some friends, family, and locals come by.

Quite early in the week, I latched onto the library. Our hosts had married late in life — a second marriage for both — and they had merged their separate book collections when they moved in together. It seemed like they had decided to keep everything, and so they had a lot of books, organized in casually thematic manner on wooden shelves. I spent a long time looking at the books and getting acquainted with the wide variety of subjects in the library: Shakespeare, self-help, gambling, addiction, health care, history, and investment strategy guides. I suddenly recalled a moment in the university library when, looking for a book, I had turned my head sideways as I walked down the stacks and thought how spectacular it would be if all the titles formed an accidental sentence when read one after the other in a long chain. Standing amidst the bookshelves in Half Moon Bay, my next move was simply to make this imaginary accident real. I spent days shifting and arranging books, composing them so that their titles formed short sentences. The exercise was intimate, like a form of portraiture, and it felt important that the books I selected should function as a cross section of the larger collection.

The rest, as they say, is history — but Katchadourian remained true to the same methodology and ethos of curiosity over the years. In an era drowned in periodic death tolls for the future of the physical book, her project stands as a celebration of the spirit embedded in the magnificent materiality of the printed page. Katchadourian writes:

I am always paying attention to the physical qualities of the books, and I try to work with their particular attributes as much as possible. The size of a book carries temperament and tonality, as does the way the text sits on the spine. A heavy volume with large text on the spine, for example, might be exuberant, urgent, pushy; a small typeface might communicate a voice that’s exacting, shy, insecure, or furtive.

My favorite arrangement is this laconic addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

Above all, however, Sorted Books is a visceral reminder of that powerful interplay between context and subtext, which embodies — and emboldens — the wellspring of meaning.

Images courtesy Nina Katchadourian

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15 MARCH, 2013

Lessons in Design and Strategy from China’s First Emperor

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How to standardize, enforce accountability, and employ design thinking in coining your image and legacy.

The questions of what makes good design, what it should aspire to be, why it’s essential to culture, and how it harmonizes with human life have long occupied modern thinkers and pundits. That’s precisely what Herald Tribune design critic and writer extraordinaire Alice Rawsthorn sets out to answer in the newly released Hello World: Where Design Meets Life.

Rawsthorn begins with a necessary definition of the essence and cultural significance of design, so often misunderstood and diminished to mere decoration:

Design is a complex, often elusive phenomenon that has changed dramatically over time by adopting different guises, meanings and objectives in different contexts, but its elemental role is to act as an agent of change, which can help us to make sense of what is happening around us, and to turn it to our advantage. Every design exercise sets out to change something, whether its intention is to transform the lives of millions of people, or to make a marginal difference to one, and it does so systematically. At its best, design can ensure that changes of any type — whether they are scientific, technological, cultural, political, economic, social, environmental or behavioral — are introduced to the world in ways that are positive and empowering, rather than inhibiting or destructive.

One of Rawsthorn’s most illustrative examples comes from Ying Zheng, who took the throne as king of the Chinese State of Qin in his early teens in 246 BC and went on to become the first emperor of unified China in 221 BC. Today, he endures as one of the most formidable figures in world history, equally known for his military might and his uncompromising despotism, which included book-burning and burying scholars alive. Design, as it turns out, was his major ally, which he employed on various levels, from the practical to the tactical to the political.

One of his major feats, Rawsthorn tells us, was standardization:

The design of all weaponry was improved under Ying Zheng’s command. The optimum size, shape, choice of material and method of production for each piece was determined, and every effort made to ensure that weapons of the same type adhered to the chosen formula. The Qin army had used bronze spears for over a thousand years, but the blades were rendered shorter and broader. The dagger-axes were redesigned too. Putting six holes in the blades, rather than four, ensured that their bronze heads could be attached more securely and were less likely to shake loose in the frenzy of battle.

Even more important were the changes to Qin’s bows and arrows. Archers were critical in determining the outcome of every stage of combat in Ying Zheng’s era, but their weapons were made by hand, often to different specifications. If an archer ran out of arrows during a battle, it was generally impossible for him to fire another warrior’s arrows from his bow. Similarly, if he was killed or injured, his remaining ammunition would be useless to his comrades. And if a bow broke, that archer’s arrows risked being wasted. The same problems applied to more complex weapons like crossbows. The result was that an army’s progress was often impeded by weapons failure because its archers were unable to fight at full efficiency, if at all.

With standardization also came a new level of production accountability:

Ying Zheng’s forces resolved these problems by standardizing the design of their bows and arrows. The shaft of each arrow had to be a precise length, and the head to be formed in a triangular prism, always of the same size and shape. The components of longbows and crossbows were made identical too, and these design formulas were rigidly enforced. Each piece of government equipment was branded with a distinctive mark to identify who had made it and in which workshop. If a particular weapon was deemed substandard, the offending artisans would be fined, and punished more severely if the problem recurred.

But Ying Zheng didn’t stop at weaponry. Next, he rebranded his very persona, renaming himself Qin Shihuangdi, or “First Emperor of China,” and employed design in shaping various aspects of culture and commerce, from literacy to currency, even enforcing his own reputation by way of early propaganda design:

A unified system of coinage was introduced, as were standardized weights and measures, a universal legal code and common method of writing. These changes made daily life more orderly, and boosted the economy by making it easier for people from different regions to trade. They also had a symbolic importance in helping to persuade the new emperor’s subjects, many of whom had fought against his army in battle, or had family or friends who had died doing so, that they had a personal stake in his immense domain. Take the new coins. Every time a farmer or a carpenter used them, they saw a tangible reminder that they themselves were part of a dynamic new empire, and had good reason to feel grateful to its visionary founder and ruler.

[…]

He also made sure that the inhabitants of even the most remote regions knew of his power and achievements by ordering descriptions of his feats to be carved into mountains across China.

This use of design strategy, in fact, was a primitive example of the buzzworthy concept currently known as “design thinking”:

Qin Shihuangdi [identified] what he needed to do to secure the future of his regime, and to communicate the results to his subjects. There are parallels between his strategic use of design and its role in successful corporate identity programs, such as Nike’s, and communication exercises like Barack Obama’s presidential election campaigns.

But Qin Shihuangdi’s greatest design feat was the application of design as a medium of self-expression, specifically in the preservation of his legacy. He commanded the construction of a monumental burial chamber — a massive underground palace spanning over twenty square miles on Mount Li, discovered there accidentally by farmers in 1974. Its construction was so demanding and grueling that many of the workers died in the process of it and were buried on the site. Rawsthorn explains:

Just as Qin Shihuangdi had deployed design with extreme efficiency to amass wealth and power during his life, he used it to secure what he believed would be an equally resplendent death, by creating the afterlife of his fantasies, which served a practical purpose too. Building such an outlandishly extravagant burial site was so eloquent a testimony of his might that it reinforced it as effectively as his celestially planned palaces, mountain inscriptions and the new imperial currency. But it was also a physical manifestation of the inner world of his imagination, a material expression of how China’s first emperor saw himself, and wished to define his place in history, which presaged contemporary design spectacles such as Olympic Games opening ceremonies, the Arirang Festivals in North Korea and the elaborate sets of Chanel’s haute couture shows at the Grand Palais in Paris.

[…]

Yet unlike latter-day design tacticians such as Apple, Chanel, Nike, Barack Obama’s campaign advisors and the despotic Kim dynasty, Qin Shihuangdi conceived and executed his design feats entirely instinctively.

Hello World is compelling in its entirety, spanning such varied yet interrelated illustrations of design as the London Underground and the breeding of dogs.

Coin photograph courtesy The British Museum

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