Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

06 DECEMBER, 2012

What’s a Dog For?

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“If you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience.”

It must be the season of the dog, from the recent treasure chest that is The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the the best art books of 2012) to the history of rabies to Fiona Apple’s stirring handwritten letter about her dying dog. But what is it about dogs, exactly, that has us so profoundly transfixed?

That’s exactly what former New York magazine executive editor John Homans explores in What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (public library) — a remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts tenderness and scientific rigor.

In a chapter on reconciling the inevitable pain we invite into our lives when we commit to love a being biologically destined to die before we do and the boundless joy of choosing to love anyway, Homans cites John Updike’s heartbreaking poem “Another Dog’s Death” about the last days of one of his beloved animals:

For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave

in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.

She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.

I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.

They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.

But rather than agonizing over the morbidity of it, Homans celebrates the remarkable Zen-ness of it all, somewhere between John Cage and the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi:

This state of being-in-the-moment is what’s so compelling about dogs. It’s hard for a human to get to it. Even in the most difficult times, dogs are cheerful and ready for experience. A dog can’t figure out that it’s being measured for its grave. The three-legged chow that walks on my street every day doesn’t know the number three or have any sense that anything is wrong with her at all (and as I write, the dog is sixteen and still fit). It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition ‘the Dog Wish,’ the ‘strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.’ This is a dog’s blessing, a dim-wittedness one can envy.

He considers the warm tackiness of loving a dog:

Loving a dog means, among other things, making peace with kitsch, if you haven’t already. You don’t have to make goo-goo eyes at every puppy picture you see in a magazine or bake your dog birthday cakes. But if you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience. … Dogs are a national religion with a catechism composed by Hallmark, so heresy is necessary. I suspect some people resist the dog culture with such passion precisely to avoid the kitsch, the appalling melodrama: if you give in to it, you’re trapped in a narrative you can’t control. You feel like a dope, buying into it. The emotions around the dog can be as neotenized as the animal itself.

Rather than an end, kitsch can be a starting point. … Much as I’d like to think that kitsch has no purchase in my world, it’s found its way in — and it’s sleeping on my rug.

Beautifully written and absolutely engrossing, What’s a Dog For? goes on to examine such fascinating fringes of canine culture as how dogs served as Darwin’s muse, why they were instrumental in the birth of empathy, and what they might reveal about the future of evolution.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

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06 DECEMBER, 2012

Moleskine Detour: Inside Beloved Creative Icons’ Notebooks

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Celebrating the iconic brand though the personal notebooks of creative icons.

The creative person’s notebook has been called “a memory warehouse,” “a means of detachment,” “the perfect place to document daydreams.” As a lover of the notebooks and sketchbooks of famous artists, designers, and other creators, I’m utterly delighted by Moleskine: The Detour Book (public library), based on legendary notebook’s global Detour Project — a traveling exhibition that began in 2006 and has since collected more than 250 notebooks, including ones by beloved artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and designers like Paula Scher, Dave Eggers, and Spike Jonze.

Paula Scher, graphic designer, USA

Dave Eggers, writer, USA

Christian Lacroix, fashion designer, France

Sigur Rós, music band, Iceland

Spike Jonze, film director, USA

Karim Rashid, designer, Egypt

Giovanni Sollima, cellist/composer, USA

Mary Ellen Mark, photographer, USA

Toyo Ito, architect, Japan

Complement Moleskine: The Detour Book with Drawn In, a private peek inside the notebooks of celebrated artists, illustrators, and designers, and one of the best art books of 2011.

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05 DECEMBER, 2012

An ABZ of Love: Kurt Vonnegut’s Favorite Vintage Danish Illustrated Guide to Sexuality

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From common sense to conjugal bliss, by way of corsets and chivalry.

“If you are as interested in sex as you say you are, there is a really lovely book about it in my study — on a top shelf. It’s red, and it’s called The ABZ of Love,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote to is wife Jane in a 1965 letter published in the fantastic new volume Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, and he signed, “Love from A to Z, — K”. Naturally, I went hunting for the obscure vintage tome, which turned out to be as kooky and wonderful as Vonnegut’s recommendation promises. An ABZ of Love (public library), a sort of dictionary of romance and sexual relationships covering everything from radical-for-the-era topics like birth control and homosexuality to mundanities like bidets and picnics to abstractions like disappointment and excess, was originally published in 1963 by Danish husband-and-wife duo Inge and Sten Hegeler, featuring gorgeous black-and-white sketches by artist Eiler Krag reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s Ulysses etchings.

The book is presented with the disclaimer that rather than an ABC textbook for beginners, it is a “personal and subjective supplement to the many other outstanding scientific books on sexual enlightenment already in existence,” setting out to describe “in lexical form a few aspects of sexual relationships seen from a slightly different standpoint.” Indeed, the book was in many ways ahead of its time and of the era’s mainstream, pushing hard against bigotry and advocating for racial, gender, and LGBT equality with equal parts earnestness and wry wit.

The Hegelers, who “have tried to be straightforward and frank,” write poetically in the introduction:

If we look through a piece of glass, irregularities and impurities may distort and discolor the impression of what we see. If we regard something through a convex lens, it appears to be upside down. But if we place a concave lens in front of the convex lens, we correct the distortion in the convex lens and things no longer appear topsy-turvy. Each one of us regards the world through his own lens, his own glasses. The effect of those glasses is that, even though we may be looking at the same thing, not all of us actually see the same thing. The lenses are ground by each individual’s upbringing, disposition and other factors.

[…]

This book is neither art nor science — even though it borrows ingredients from both. It is more by way of being an extra piece of glass through which we can regard a part of life. One can slip it in between one’s own glasses and the window.

It is a piece of glass we have found and polished up a bit. We have looked through it and thought the world looked a bit more human. Perhaps some will think the same as we do.

Many of the entries focus on debunking stereotypes and condemning bigotry, accompanied by apt illustrations.

Some are even outright snarky:

A delightful entry under Sense, common echoes Anaïs Nin’s timeless insight on emotional excess and reads:

Everybody talks about using common sense. Many believe that we are all basically imbued with common sense. It is said that women are creatures of emotion, but that men use their common sense. Nonsense. We are all extremely prone to be guided by our emotions in our choices, actions, judgements, etc.

[…]

We are none of us so full of common sense as we would like to think ourselves.

So there are two paths we can take: one is try to deny and suppress our emotions and force ourselves to think sensibly. In this way we run the risk of fooling ourselves.

The other way is to admit to our emotions, accept our feelings and let them come out into the daylight. By being suspicious of all the judgements we pass on the basis of what we feel (and not until then) we shall taken a step towards becoming practitioners of common sense.

The Hegelers don’t shy away from the philosophical and the prescriptive:

Under Development, there’s a somewhat humorous infographic look at the stages of erotic development. We would like it to be follow a course in which “we very rapidly and regularly become cleverer and cleverer”:

We imagine it goes something like this:

In reality, however, it’s more something like this:

…after swinging around a certain point for a time, very small swings to and from in either direction, a sudden drop with the resultant feeling of hopelessness [and then] once more pendulation around one point for a time, then a drop, then that hopeless feeling, improvement again, etc., etc., without ever reaching the absolute ideal. Disappointments and depressions are necessary features of any process of learning, every development.

Among the more interesting entries is one under Personality, explaining the Freudian model of the self through a visual analogy of a Native American totem pole, with the disclaimer that personality is still an open question:

A person’s personality is the sum of all the things in a person that go to determine the said person’s relationship to other people.

Many theories have been expounded concerning human personality. Many models have been made in an attempt to show what actually happens. Some of these theories are more practical than others, but none of them is correct. We still know too little — perhaps we shall never find the right one. The one which will be described here is of course not the right one either. It is the one used in psychoanalysis.

This model — like so many other theories — is a picture, an attempt to explain something unknown with the help of something known. If we think of personality as the Indian totem pole with three faces corresponding to three persons it will give us an idea of the model.

The three persons have names and are very different in character:

1) The top face is rather strict and censorious. A bit of a light-snuffer. We call this person the super ego, and it represents everything we have learnt concerning what is right and wrong. The super ego reminds us how to drive through traffic, how to hold a knife and fork and generally speaking how ‘one’ behaves. It is also the voice of conscience.

2) The bottom face on the totem pole is a person we call the id. This person takes care of our wishes and urges and needs — the very honest, primitive, but likewise somewhat ruthless powers with in us. The face of the id is therefore a somewhat primitive, uninhibited, wild and brutal mug.

3) The middle face is our own. It is called the ego and is a little squashed between the other two faces. While the upper face possibly resembles our parents, and the bottom face appears a little strange to us, we find it easiest to accept the middle face — a compromise between what we want to do and what we are allowed to.

We are a little perplexed because if we are very good and reserved — then the bottom person thrashes his tail and rebels while the top person nods approvingly. And if we are too abandoned and let the bottom person have his own way –well, we find ourselves landed with a bad conscience, because the upper person grumbles.

So we have to strike a balance. We have to stick to certain moral code — stick to certain rules of the road in order to mingle with the traffic. But we must also pay attention to our ‘nature’ — our id — who likewise demands his rights.

Both beautifully illustrated and boldly defiant of its era’s biases, An ABZ of Love is, just as Vonnegut assured his wife, absolutely wonderful.

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In 2012, bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings took more than 5,000 hours. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner:





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