Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

15 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Birth of Sound: Why the Big Bang Was Actually Silent


The science of why the wail of the baby Universe sounded like muffled highway traffic.

Questions of what sound is, why its digitization is a dangerous thing, and how it bleeds into other senses have long fascinated thinkers and listeners alike. In Discord: The Story of Noise (public library) from Oxford University Press, sound scholar Mike Goldsmith, former Head of the Acoustic Group at the UK National Physical Laboratory, explores the flipside of the cultural evolution of silence by tracing our relationship with noise, the history of sound, and where our auditory future might take us.

Among the many fascinating and counterintuitive facets of noise Goldsmith examines is the very dawn of sound, in a chapter titled A Silent Bang:

Despite a promising name, the Big Bang was silent — a sudden burst of energy in which time and space began, forming the Universe as it spread. With no space to expand into, there could be no medium around it into which sound waves could possibly propagate. But, in cosmic terms, the Universe was not silent for long — 380,000 years later (a mere 0.0003 per cent of its present age), it was filled with sound. And, this was not the random roar of white noise that one might perhaps expect — it was a sound with a pitch: it had a characteristic wavelength.

It would not, however, have been an audible sound to any eared creatures, could they have existed so far back in time, before even the stars were born: a vast objet like the Universe makes a very low sound indeed — about one trillionth of a hertz.

The reason that there was such a vast deep tone in the infancy of space and time is closely connected to one of the most mysterious and important aspects of the Universe’s history: structure, of which sound is a signpost. If the Universe had remained as it began, a completely homogenous, smoothed-out volume of energy, then galaxies, stars, and people could not exist today. But, for reasons that are still unclear, there was a clumpiness in the early Universe — some areas were a little denser than others, and it was these denser areas that would eventually become stars and galaxies. Density means gravity, and gravity attracted nearby matter (then in the form of plasma — a ‘gas’ of ions). he motion of that matter caused compression, heating the plasma, which in turn increased its output of radiation. The force of this radiation counteracted the gravitational force, and so the compression became an expansion — and it is this cycle of compression and expansion that formed the primordial sound waves.

But that early sound of was unlike what we typically think of as “sound,” not only because of its physical nature, but also because it fell on deaf — or, rather, non-existent — ears:

The wavelengths of the wail of the baby Universe — measured in hundreds of thousands of light years — were limited by the speed with which the pull of gravity travelled from one region to another, which is the speed of light. So, there was an ever-falling lowest possible pitch to the Universe, and consequently a gradually descending tone marked its growth.

The variation in pressure of the sound was around 1 per cent, or 11 dB, the kind of level that would be associated with motorway traffic a few metres away and over thirteen billion years later.

In the early Universe, as new generations of stars formed using the nuclear reaction products of the old, planets like ours formed with them — and sound waves surged and echoed through their structures and their atmospheres and, later, their hydrospheres too. But, as far as we know, for ten billion years there was nothing to hear them.

Though life on Earth began some four billion years ago in the ancient seas, it wasn’t until about 400 million years ago that the first amphibians crawled onto land, equipped with complex structures that could not only detect sound waves both underwater and in air, but could also estimate their strengths, pitches, and directions. So “sound” itself, or at least our conception and experience of it, is a property of evolution rather than of the physical environment.

The rest of Discord goes on to examine everything from the basic nature of sound to the war on noise pollution to scientific advances harnessing the power of sound in medicine.

Complement with Jad Abumrad’s fantastic talk on sound, science, and mystery.

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14 NOVEMBER, 2012

John Keats’s Porridge: The Favorite Recipes of Beloved Poets


What simple dishes reveal about the complexities of poetry as a creative act of constant transformation.

The relationship between food and literature seems to be an enduring one, from literary parodies of recipes to meals from famous fiction. In late April of 1973, poet and self-taught chef Victoria McCabe decided to formalize the relationship and mailed form letter requests to 250 of the era’s leading poets, asking them to share their favorite recipes. Some 150 replied, 117 of whom made it into John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets (public library) — a tiny yet enormously delightful little cookbook spanning everything from Edward Abbey’s Hardcase Survival Pinto Bean Sludge to Claire McAllister’s Baked Stuffed Sweet Oranges. Only about half a dozen of the recipes were written in verse, at least half “were chosen for their ability to keep a poor poet full for a long time without putting too large a dent in the pocketbook,” and all were tested by McCabe, her husband, and their friends.

Allen Ginsberg offers his uncompromising borsch recipe:

Boil 2 big bunches of chopped beets and beet greens for one hour in two quarts of water with a little salt and a bay leaf, an one cup of sugar as for lemonade. When cooked, add enough lemon to balance the sugar, as for lemonade (4 or 5 lemons or more).

Icy chill; serve with hot boiled potatoes on side and a dollop of sour cream in the middle of red cold beet soup. On side also: spring salad (tomatoes, onions, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers).

Joyce Carol Oates cooks up some disciplined Easter Anise Bread:

1 dozen eggs
1 tablespoon sugar for every egg (¾ cup)
2 cakes yeast
½ cup oil
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon orange juice
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon anise seed
1 pinch salt
9 cups flour
Warm milk, enough to dissolve yeast

Beat eggs; add juices, yeast, and milk and beat slightly. Mix flour, sugar, salt, and anise. Now add to liquid mixture and mix until well blended. Let rise in bowl until nearly double in size. Punch down. Let rise again. Shape into four loaves. Place in greased pans. Let rise and bake for 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Muriel Rukeyser makes an irreverent Omelette Philleo:

On the side of variousness in life, this is my omelette. It is made with all the combining of egg yolks and milk (or, for weight watchers, water) beaten, and egg whites and salt, beaten; the folding, slashing, and then the variation: fill with slices of cranberry sauce for a tart and various omelette. It is named for Philleo Nash, friend, former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Cranberry Prince.

I do not mention my pickled watermelon rind with scotch. Nor others.

Ultimately, what John Keats’s Porridge offers, besides the promise of some filling dishes, is an apt metaphor for poetry itself — even creativity at large — as an endless cycle of borrowing, remix, and transformation. As William Cole eloquently puts it in the introduction,

It’s interesting to note that nearly ninety per cent of all the recipes submitted are either the poet’s original recipe or his variation on a standard recipe. Few poets, it would seem, are willing to claim as favorite any old run of the mill standard recipe. This is not surprising when we consider the nature of the Beast: the poet as creator, inventor, who makes out of a few necessary ingredients a magic potion.

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13 NOVEMBER, 2012

My Ideal Bookshelf: Famous Artists and Writers Select Their All-Time Favorite Books


Reverse-engineering identity through the love of books.

In 2007, artist and illustrator Jane Mount began painting “portraits of people through the spines of their books” — those aspirational bookshelves we all hold in our heads (and, ideally, on our walls), full of all the books that helped us discover and rediscover who we are, what we stand for, and what we’d like to become. A kind of book spine poetry of identity. In 2010, she paired with Paris Review writer Thessaly La Force and the two asked more than a hundred of today’s most exciting creators — writers, artists, designers, critics, filmmakers, chefs, architects — what those favorite, timeless books were for them. Thus, My Ideal Bookshelf * (public library) was born — a magnificent collection of Mount’s illustrated “portraits” of these modern-day icons, alongside short essays by each contributor explaining why the books included are meaningful to him or her. Besides the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of peeking inside the personal libraries of great minds, the project is at once a celebration of bibliophilia and a testament to the fact that the most interesting people are woven of incredibly eclectic influences.

La Force offers a necessary disclaimer in the introduction:

So much depends on where you, the reader, are — physically and metaphorically — when you decide to pick up a book and give it a chance. Which explains why there’s no such thing as one ideal bookshelf; there is no ur-bookshelf. It would be a mistake to try to read this book with that goal in mind. In the end., the one element that links all the ideal bookshelves in these pages is the never-ending search. e’re all still hunting, still hoping to discover one more book that we’ll love and treasure for the rest of our lives.

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon speaks to the influence ecosystem that William Gibson once so eloquently termed “personal microculture” and captures the essence of combinatorial creativity:

Your style is still going to be constructed out of the material that you have inherited, but it’s going to be put together in some way that has, hopefully, never quite been heard before.

Maira Kalman

The ever-wise, ever-delightful Maira Kalman channels her love of libraries:

I love the architecture of public libraries, the very large windows. Inside it’s polished, it’s quiet; during the day, the sun is usually streaming through one room or another. And all the people are sitting there together, but they’re all going to completely different places through the books they’re reading.

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan contemplates the substance of life:

My goal as a writer is to do as much as possible at one time. Life itself is so cacophonous and complex. It’s not that I want to create a cacophony, but I want to do justice to the complexity around us. I don’t want to oversimplify it. I want to take one thing and build from that, and then keep building, until I begin to approximate the complexity of the world and our perceptions of it.

Paola Antonelli

MoMA’s Paola Antonelli considers a book’s content in contrast to its thing-ness:

Hello World is a new book by Alice Rawsthorn, the one and only, the best design critic in the entire world. She keeps the banner of design flying high. Irma Boom designed it, and Irma is very simply the best book designer alive. I personally love reading books electronically. I proudly have a big wall of books in my apartment, but I’m continually getting rid of books that get on my nerves because I don’t think they’re good enough to deserve to take up space in my life. You can walk into a bookstore and find that 95 percent of the books on display might as well have been directly electronic. Mind you, they might be great texts, fabulous additions to human knowledge, but they did not need to have their own paper body. I want physical books to have a concept. Irma designs objects. her books are breathtaking as things.

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem winks at the cumulative usefulness of useless knowledge:

The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passes the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it — it’s just an excellent way to waste your life.

Jakob Trollbäck

Designer Jakob Trollbäck explores books as a generative force:

These books are about transformation. I think that, ultimately, evolution is about transformation, and creativity is a necessary force of evolution.

Christoph Niemann

Illustrator extraordinaire Christoph Niemann speaks to the indispensable value of influence and considers David Foster Wallace as a creative echelon:

I think the most successful illustrations are those that build on some other reference. You can’t completely reinvent something.


For me, David Foster Wallace is almost painful to read. It’s like he’s mumbling. You think he’s just writing down every single idea that comes into his head, but then when you reach the end, you realize that every sentence has been perfectly composed. I wish I could find something in his work that I could put to use in my own.

Patti Smith

The one and only Patti Smith touches on that quality of literature that makes it the original “Internet” of hyperlinked discovery:

I longed to read everything I possibly could, and the things I read in turn produced new yearnings.

David Sedaris

David Sedaris channels Henry Miller:

I really think you can’t progress as a writer unless you read, and the ideal time to read is when you can read generously. It didn’t even occur to me that I could have a book of my own in the library someday. That’s how you should read.

Stefan Sagmeister

Design and typography maestro Stefan Sagmeister draws a parallel between his design process and his book selection:

As a designer, I often use a process described by the Maltese philosopher Edward de Bono. He suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random objet as a point of departure. So, let’s say I have to design a pen. Instead of looking at other pens, and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is, and so on and so forth, I’ll consider, say — I’m in a hotel room right now — beadspreads.

Alex Ross

Wrier and critic Alex Ross — whose recent New Yorker piece on the history of the LGBT movement is a must-read — worries about the future of criticism:

All criticism is in danger right now. … Whether in the future there will be any magazines or newspapers with critics on staff is an open question. But as long as writers remain true to their passions and identify a language that’s faithful to those passions, they will find an audience for their writing.

Mary Karr

Mary Karr, calculatedly wicked yet disarmingly wise as ever, quips:

If you want to write, don’t err by setting the bar too low. Maybe you want to write like Emily Dickinson. Maybe you want to write like Nabokov. Just be willing, at the end of the day, to look at your work and say, ‘That’s not as good as Nabokov, but boy, it’s as good as I could make it today.’ Fall in love with books and with modes of being. I just spent a pile of money I can’t afford on opera tickets to see Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Think of all the cocaine I could have bought with that eight hundred dollars! Yet here I am blowing it to go sit in a room with a bunch of stiffs next Tuesday night. I’m in love, I can’t help it.

Jen Bekman

20×200 founder Jen Bekman reflects on her formative reading in a comment rather ironic in the context of this footnote regarding the book:

I read Ways of Seeing in media studies when I was in college, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Berger writes about how reproductions of the Mona Lisa have only strengthened the iconic value of the original painting. I’m very much on board with that idea. Scarcity continues to be one of the primary drivers of value in the art world, but I’m a firm believer in access and the power of building an audience. I’m a huge champion of prints and multiples: I always say that the artist’s editions we’re selling at 20×200 enhance the value of the limited-edition works, rather than diminishing it. It’s been satisfying to see that assertion powered true as the business has matured.

The inimitable book cover designer Coralie Bickford Smith considers the private allure of her work, as well as its public aspiration:

I love the fact that I get to repackage amazing literature that has stood the test of time. I really couldn’t be designing anything more important. The written word means so much to me. If I design a cover that gets people to pick up a book, then I’ve done my job. I want the younger generation to fall in love with books like Jane Eyre again. That’s why I do what I do.

Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler, better-known as Lemony Snicket, confesses:

I started writing for children because someone asked me to. I thought it was a different skill set, even though it’s really not. I asked the editor to send me a bunch of children’s books that the publishing house had published. And they were all terrible. Every single one of them. Which inspired me.

Pico Iyer

But perhaps most poignant of all, or at least most resonant with my own relationship with books, is writer Pico Iyer:

What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart. The books on my shelf never asked to come together, and they would not trust or want to listen to one another; but each is a piece of a stained-glass whole without which I couldn’t make sense to myself, or to the world outside.

For the ultimate book-lover’s treat, Jane will paint your ideal bookshelf.

* * *

And now for the not-so-footnotey footnote: In case you’re wondering why you can’t see any of Jane’s gorgeous bookshelf paintings properly reproduced here for a taste — what you do see are photographs of the book I took and edited myself in lieu of proper artwork — it is because the publisher of the book, Little, Brown and Company, informed me I could only use “three images (plus the author photos and jacket images) for free.” If I wanted more (“wanted,” of course, meaning “wanted to speak highly of their book in front of a few million of my readers for free“), their publicist kindly offered to “get [their] subsidiary rights department involved, and have them create a contract and some kind of fee.”

It would’ve been easy to indulge the instinct to roll my eyes at this laughable anachronism, shrug off the publisher’s voluntary self-deportation from relevance, and refuse to feature the book in righteous indignation. But given how much I want to support Thessaly and Jane’s wonderful work, how much I respect the remarkable roster of contributors, many of whom I know personally, and how much the project sings to my own bibliophile heart, that wouldn’t have been the answer. Instead, I choose to write about the book, but also refuse to perpetuate this hideous underbelly of the old-world publishing pantheon by virtue of tacit silence.

Certainly, publishers are for-profit entities that need to make money in order to exist — as an enormous lover of books, I know this is essential for allowing the printed page to survive and flourish. But it is a sign of great insecurity in the value proposition of your product when you have to place artificial barriers between it and its core user. As I pointed out to the Little Brown publicist, in seven years of doing what I do, one thing has become blatantly apparent to me: For the readers who savor the joy of a beautiful book, seeing a few images from it on a computer or mobile screen, be they three or three hundred, detracts absolutely nothing from the desire to hold that book in their hands, to own it, to call it theirs — if anything, it amplifies that desire by virtue of the tease; and those for whom the few web images suffice would not have bought the book anyway.

Yes, this is an immeasurably wonderful project and a beautiful book. And, yes, it lives in an antiquated paradigm that serves neither authors nor their readers but is instead unapologetic about serving solely the publishers’ commercial interests. But, no, these don’t have to remain a tradeoff. Therein lies the challenge — and, likely, the death sentence — of the old-school publishing industry: As long as serving the corporate bottom line and serving the real stakeholders in literature — writers and readers — continue to be a binary choice, the business of books will remain segregated from the joy of books. And that truly serves no one in the long run.

To the authors and artists caught in this toxic paradigm and its false choice between going with a big publisher and never reaching an audience, I say: Take heart — there are people who will gladly support you and help you find your readers, not at the cost of your integrity or your soul, and there are publishers — not many, but some — who get this intricate ecosystem and believe wholeheartedly in the intrinsic value of what they create, without those insecure artificial mechanisms of feigning said value.

To the readers, the people like you and me who love books and buy books and want to see books survive, I say: Remember that every purchase is a vote for the future you’d like to see, not just creatively and culturally, by virtue of the authors you support, but also in terms of the underlying models that make it all possible.

To the Little, Browns of the world, I say: Good night, and good luck.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

13 NOVEMBER, 2012

Britain vs. America in Minimalist Vintage Infographics


A time-capsule of mid-century cultural contrasts.

ISOTYPE, the vintage visual language pioneered by Austrian sociologist, philosopher and curator Otto Neurath and his wife Marie in the 1930s, shaped modern information graphics and visual storytelling. America and Britain: Three Volumes in One, also known as Only an Ocean Between, is a wonderful 1946 out-of-print book by P. Sargant Florence and Lella Secor Florence from the golden age of ISOTYPE, kindly digitized by Michael Stoll, presenting a series of minimalist infographics that compare and contrast various aspects of life in Britain and the United States, a-la Paris vs. New York.

As a time-capsule of cultural change and technological progress, the infographics put present-day numbers in perspective, especially in the domains of telecommunication, media, and resource usage.

Though this particular triad edition is regrettably long out of print, you can find it at your local public library and, with some rummaging through Amazon, you might be able to secure some remaining used copies of the individual volumes.

For more on the history and legacy of ISOTYPE, see the excellent The Transformer: Principles of Making Isotype Charts.

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