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Posts Tagged ‘books’

08 NOVEMBER, 2012

Anaïs Nin on Embracing the Unfamiliar


“It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

We’ve already seen that life is about living the questions, that the unknown is what drives science, and that the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. John Keats wrote of this art of remaining in doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” and famously termed it “negative capability.” But count on Anaïs Nin to articulate familiar truths in the most exquisitely poetic way possible, peeling away at the most profound and aspirational aspects of what it means to be human.

In a diary entry from the winter of 1949-1950, found in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-1955 (public library), which gave us Nin’s whimsical antidote to city life and her poignant meditation on character, parenting, and personal responsibility, she observes:

Educators do all in their power to prepare you to enjoy reading after college. It is right that you should read according to your temperament, occupations, hobbies, and vocations. But it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar, unwilling to explore the unfamiliar. In science, we respect the research worker. In literature, we should not always read the books blessed by the majority. This trend is reflected in such absurd announcements as “the death of the novel,” “the last of the romantics,” “the last of the Bohemians,” when we know that these are continuous trends which evolve and merely change form. The suppression of inner patterns in favor of patterns created by society is dangerous to us. Artistic revolt, innovation, experiment should not be met with hostility. They may disturb an established order or an artificial conventionality, but they may rescue us from death in life, from robot life, from boredom, from loss of the self, from enslavement.

When we totally accept a pattern not made by us, not truly our own, we wither and die. People’s conventional structure is often a façade. Under the most rigid conventionality there is often an individual, a human being with original thoughts or inventive fantasy, which he does not dare expose for fear of ridicule, and this is what the writer and artist are willing to do for us. They are guides and map makers to greater sincerity. They are useful, in fact indispensable, to the community. They keep before our eyes the variations which make human beings so interesting. The men who built America were the genuine physical adventurers in a physical world. This world once built, we need adventurers in the realm of art and science. If we suppress the adventure of the spirit, we will have the anarchist and the rebel, who will burst out from too narrow confines in the form of violence and crime.

Also from Nin’s diaries: why emotional excess is essential to creativity, Paris vs. New York, what makes a great city, and hand-lettered wisdom on life.

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08 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Science of “Intuition”


“There is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability.”

The power and fruitfulness of intuition has had innumerable and celebrated champions — from Einstein, Anne Lamott, and Steve Jobs to some of history’s greatest scientists and philosophers. But what, exactly, lies behind this amorphous phenomenon we call “intuition”? That’s precisely what CUNY philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci explores in a chapter of Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to A More Meaningful Life (public library).

First, Pigliucci offers a primer on what intuition is and isn’t, compared and contrasted with the history of understanding consciousness:

The word intuition comes from the Latin intuir, which appropriately means ‘knowledge from within.’ Until recently, intuition, like consciousness, was the sort of thing that self-respecting scientists stayed clear of, on penalty of being accused of engaging in New Age woo-woo rather than serious science. Heck, even most philosophers — who historically had been very happy to talk about consciousness, far ahead of the rise of neurobiology — found themselves with not much to say about intuition. However, these days cognitive scientists think of intuition as a set of nonconscious cognitive and affective processes; the outcome of these processes is often difficult to articulate and is not based on deliberate thinking, but it’s real and (sometimes) effective nonetheless. It was William James, the father of modern psychology, who first proposed the idea that cognition takes place in two different modes, and his insight anticipated modern so-called dual theories of cognition. Intuition works in an associative manner: it feels effortless (even though it does use a significant amount of brain power), and it’s fast. Rational thinking, on the contrary, is analytical, requires effort, and is slow. Why, then, would we ever want to use a system that makes us work hard and doesn’t deliver rapid results? Think of it this way: intuitions, contrary to much popular lore, are not infallible. Cognitive scientists treat them as quick first assessments of a given situation, as provisional hypotheses in need of further checking.

Citing recent research, Pigliucci presents an important debunking of the grab-bag term “intuition”:

One of the first things that modern research on intuition has clearly shown is that there is no such thing as an intuitive person tout court. Intuition is a domain-specific ability, so that people can be very intuitive about one thing (say, medical practice, or chess playing) and just as clueless as the average person about pretty much everything else. Moreover, intuitions get better with practice — especially with a lot of practice — because at bottom intuition is about the brain’s ability to pick up on certain recurring patterns; the more we are exposed to a particular domain of activity the more familiar we become with the relevant patterns (medical charts, positions of chess pieces), and the more and faster our brains generate heuristic solutions to the problem we happen to be facing within that domain.

Indeed, this notion of additive progress in developing intuition is the same concept known as “deliberate practice” in the development of any skill or “talent”. Pigliucci writes:

There is another aspect to the question of intuition versus conscious thinking that affects our quality of life, and that has to do with research showing how people get better at what they do or get stuck in it.


An ‘expert’ is someone who performs at a very high level in a given field, be it medicine, law, science, chess, tennis, or soccer. As it turns out, people become experts (or simply, much much better) at what they do when they use their intuition and conscious thinking in particular ways. Research on acquiring skills shows that, roughly speaking, and pretty much independently of whether we are talking about a physical activity or an intellectual one, people tend to go through three phases while they improve their performance. During the first phase, the beginner focuses her attention simply on understanding what it is that the task requires and on not making mistakes. In phase two, such conscious attention to the basics of the task is no longer needed, and the individual performs quasi-automatically and with reasonable proficiency. Then comes the difficult part. Most people get stuck in phase two: they can do whatever it is they set out to do decently, but stop short of the level of accomplishment that provides the self-gratification that makes one’s outlook significantly more positive or purchases the external validation that results in raises and promotions. Phase three often remains elusive because while the initial improvement was aided by switching control from conscious thought to intuition—as the task became automatic and faster—further improvement requires mindful attention to the areas where mistakes are still being made and intense focus to correct them. Referred to as ‘deliberate practice,’ this phase is quite distinct from mindless or playful practice.

Given the importance of networked knowledge and “associative indexing” in making sense of information, it is unsurprising that “structured knowledge” is what sets the expert apart from the amateur:

There are a variety of reasons, but two are especially important: one needs to develop the ability to anticipate problems, and this in turn is often the result not just of knowledge of a given field but of structured knowledge. … Not only is there a difference between naive and expert knowledge, but there is more than one way to acquire expert knowledge, guided not just by the intrinsic properties of the system but also by the particular kinds of interest that different individuals have in that system.

The rest of Answers for Aristotle explores diverse yet uniformly fascinating and essential subjects we’ve previously explored and will continue to explore for the foreseeable lifetime — love, morality, what it means to be human, the meaning of life, the limits of science, and much more. Complement this particular excerpt with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman on how our intuition misleads us.

Public domain photograph by Nickolas Muray via George Eastman House / Flickr Commons

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07 NOVEMBER, 2012

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs


“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

Dogs have enjoyed a long track record as fiction heroes, photography models, and subjects of scientific curiosity. But they’ve also had an admirable history of inhabiting the spectrum between trope and muse for some of literary history’s greatest talent. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) collects such canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — from a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including Brain Pickings regulars E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, the lavishly illustrated 400-page tome is an absolute treat from cover to cover.

Cover by Maira Kalman, February 1, 1999

Malcolm Gladwell writes in the foreword:

A few words about you. You bought this book: several hundred pages on dogs. You are, in other words, as unhealthily involved in the emotional life of dogs as the rest of us. Have you wondered why you bought it? One possible answer is that you see the subject of man’s affection for dogs as a way of examining all sorts of broader issues. Is it the case of a simple thing revealing a great many complex truths? We do a lot of this at The New Yorker. To be honest: I do a lot of this at The New Yorker — always going on and on about how A is just a metaphor for B, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s be clear. You didn’t really buy this boo because of some grand metaphor. Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.

Cover by Constantin Alajalov, February 12, 1938

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, June 10, 2002

Cover by Peter Arno, July 22, 1967

From E. B. White comes a playful, heart-warming poem circa 1930:

Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, least at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Meeting enemies,
Loving old acquaintances, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.

Cover by Peter Arno, March 23, 1935

Cover by Anatol Kovarsky, February 12, 1966

In a piece bearing the deceptively unassuming title “Dog Story,” Adam Gopnik deploys his formidable dual storytelling torpedo of disarming personal anecdote and uncompromising scientific rigor to explore post-Darwinian views on dog domestication:

[C]ountering [Darwin’s] view comes a new view of dog history, more in keeping with our own ostentatiously less man-centered world view. Dogs, we are now told, by a sequence of scientific speculators … domesticated themselves. They chose us. A marginally calmer canid came close to the circle of human warmth — and, more important, human refuse — and was tolerated by the humans inside: let him eat the garbage. Then this scavenging wolf mated with another calm wolf, and soon a family of calmer wolves proliferated just outside the firelight. It wasn’t cub-snatching on the part of humans, but breaking and entering on the part of wolves, that gave us dogs. ‘Hey, you be ferocious and eat them when you can catch them,’ the protodogs said, in evolutionary effect, to their wolf siblings. ‘We’ll just do what they like and have them feed us. Dignity? It’s a small price to pay for free food. Check with you in ten thousand years and we’ll see who’s had more kids.’ (Estimated planetary dog population: one billion. Estimated planetary wild wolf population: three hundred thousand.)

A few pages later, Gopnik’s gentle arrow to the heart of our relationship with dogs:

Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle.

Cover by Ana Juan, February 8, 2010

Cover by James Thurber, February 29, 1936

In another essay on Thurber, the magazine’s quintessential dog-lover, whose artwork graces the book cover, Gopnik does away with Gladwell’s disclaimer and offers an insightful A-is-a-metaphor-for-B analysis of Thurber’s meta-symbolism:

So why dogs? The answer is simple: for Thurber, the dog chimed with, represented, the American man in his natural state—a state that, as Thurber saw it, was largely scared out of him by the American woman. When Thurber was writing about dogs, he was writing about men. The virtues that seemed inherent in dogs—peacefulness, courage, and stoical indifference to circumstance—were ones that he felt had been lost by their owners. The American man had the permanent jumps, and the American dog did not. The dog was man set free from family obligations, Monastic Man. Dogs ‘would in all probability have averted the Depression, for they can go through lots tougher things than we and still think it’s boom time. They demand very little of their heyday; a kind word is more to them than fame, a soup bone than gold; they are perfectly contented with a warm fire and a good book to chew (preferably an autographed first edition lent by a friend); wine and song they can completely forgo; and they can almost completely forgo women.’ For Thurber, the dog is not man’s best friend so much as man’s sole dodgy ally in his struggle with man’s strangest necessity, woman.

Cover by John Cuneo, June 27, 2011

Cover by Peter de Sevé, April 30, 2012

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, April 11, 2005

Indeed, it is also Gopnik who, in the same essay, captures in just a few short sentences the entire ethos of the book — and the very heart of man’s relationship with dog:

Integrity, even grouchy growling integrity, in a world that doesn’t value it; nobility in a time that doesn’t want it—what Thurber’s dogs do is absurd or even pernicious (they bite people, or drag junk furniture for miles) but demonstrates the necessary triumph of the superfluous. Which is what dogs are all about; it is the canine way. Nothing is less necessary than a pet dog, or more needed. Thurber’s theme is that a dog’s life is spent, as a man’s life should be, doing pointless things that have the solemnity of inner purpose.

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, March 10, 2003

Cover by Mark Ulriksen, July 20, 2001

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, which comes on the heels of The New Yorker’s wonderful Blown Covers, offers a delightfully dimensional portrait of the human-canine relationship — and, inevitably, a heartfelt homage to an essential piece of what it means to live as a New Yorker.

Images courtesy of Random House / The New Yorker

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07 NOVEMBER, 2012

Henry Miller on Art, War, and the Future of Humanity


“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.”

In the heat of World War II, Henry Miller (1891–1980) — voracious reader, masterful letter-writer, champion of combinatorial creativity, one disciplined writer — was living in Beverly Glen, California, and wrestling with the soul-stirring questions that war inevitably brings to the surface. It was then he penned “Of Art and the Future,” a wide-ranging essay on war, art, technology, the role of women in society, and mankind’s future, eventually published in Sunday After the War (public library) in 1944. In 1959, the it was included in The Henry Miller Reader — also featuring Miller’s wonderful “The Wisdom of the Heart” — where he contextualizes it with a caveat: “The war was still on, my royalties from Europe were cut off, and I was in the doldrums.” Still, the essay offers a timeless and immeasurably timely lens on the triumphs and tyrannies of the human spirit.

Miller begins by considering the continuum of time:

To most men the past is never yesterday, or five minutes ago, but distant, misty epochs some of which are glorious and others abominable, Each one reconstructs the past according to his temperament and experience. We read history to corroborate our own views, not to learn what scholars think to be true. About the future there is as little agreement as bout the past, I’ve noticed. We stand in relation to the past very much like the cow in the meadow — endlessly chewing the cud. It is not something finished and done with, as we sometimes fondly imagine, but something alive, constantly changing, and perpetually with us. But the future too is with us perpetually, and alive and constantly changing. The difference between the two, a thoroughly fictive one, incidentally, is that the future we create whereas the past can only be recreated. As for that constantly vanishing point called the present, that fulcrum which melts simultaneously into past and future, only those who deal with the eternal know and live in it, acknowledging it to be all.

He articulates the era’s familiar fear of technology:

The cultural era of Europe, and that includes America, is finished. The next era belongs to the technician; the day of the mind machine is dawning. God pity us!

Vintage illustration for Homer's 'The Iliad and the Odyssey' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

In a prescient contemplation, all the more true and urgent today, Miller considers the state of war and peace:

In the future we shall have only “world wars” — that much is already clear.

With total wars a new element creeps into the picture. From now on, every one is involved, without exception. What Napoleon began with the sword, and Balzac boasted he would finish with the pen, is actually going to be carried through by the collaboration of the whole wide world, including the primitive races whom we study and exploit shamelessly and ruthlessly. As war spread wider and wider so will peace sink deeper and deeper into the hearts of men. If we must fight more whole-heartedly we shall also be obliged to live more whole-heartedly.

He then goes on to echo his then-lover Anaïs Nin‘s poignant meditation on individuals and mass movements:

This war will bring about the realization that the nations of the earth are made up of individuals, not masses. The common man will be the new factor in the world-wide collective mania which will sweep the earth.

Miller considers the role and responsibility of inventors and “geniuses” in moving society forward — something astrophysicists Neil deGrasse Tyson recently discussed on Colbert — with equal parts optimism for human nature and caution of power-warped human intentions:

The problem of power, what to do with it, how to use it, who shall wield it or not wield it, will assume proportions heretofore unthinkable. We are moving into the realm of incalculables and imponderables in our everyday life just as for the last few generations we have been accustoming ourselves to this realm through the play of thought. Everything is coming to fruition, and the harvest will be brilliant and terrifying. To those who look upon such predictions as fantastic I have merely to point out, ask them to imagine, what would happen should we ever unlock the secret patents now hidden in the vaults of our unscrupulous exploiters. Once the present crazy system of exploitation crumbles, and it is crumbling hourly, the powers of the imagination, heretofore stifled and fettered, will run riot. The face of the earth can be changed utterly overnight once we have the courage to concretize the dreams of our inventive geniuses. Never was there such a plentitude of inventors as in this age of destruction. And there is one thing to bear in mind about the man of genius — even the inventor — usually he is on the side of humanity, not the devil. It has been the crowning shame of this age to have exploited the man of genius for sinister ends. But such a procedure always acts as a boomerang: ultimately the man of genius always has his revenge.

One could easily see him as a champion of today’s 99%:

What is now at the bottom will come to the top, and vice versa. The world has literally been standing on its head for thousands of years.

Vintage illustration for Homer's 'The Iliad and the Odyssey' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for details.

Two years before Races of Mankind, Miller makes an eloquent case for abolishing racist sensibilities:

We have talked breathlessly about equality and democracy without ever facing the reality of it. We shall have to take these despised and neglected ones to our bosom, melt into them, absorb their anguish and misery. We cannot have a real brotherhood so long as we cherish the illusion of racial superiority, so long as we fear the touch of yellow, brown, black or red skins.

He then presents a vision for the future of the city, strikingly aligned with today’s notion of global citizenship:

The city, which was the birth-place of civilization, such as we know it to be, will exist no more. There will be nuclei of course, but they will be mobile and fluid. The peoples of the earth will no longer be shut off from one another within states but will flow freely over the surface of the earth and intermingle. There will be no fixed constellations of human aggregates.

Miller’s addition to history’s famous definitions of art mirrors Joan Didion’s conception of writing as power. He writes:

At the root of the art instinct is this desire for power — vicarious power. The artist is situated hierarchically between the hero and the saint.


To put it quite simply, art is only a stepping stone to reality; it is the vestibule in which we undergo the rites of initiation. Man’s task is to make of himself a work of art. The creations which man makes manifest have no validity in themselves; they serve to awaken, that is all.

Despite his own profound passion for books, Miller envisions a future where the bound page no longer is:

In a few hundred years or less books will be a thing of the past. There was a time when poets communicated with the world without the medium of print; the time will come when they will communicate silently, not as poets merely, but as seers. What we have overlooked, in our frenzy to invent more dazzling ways and means of communication, is to communicate.

Nearly two decades before Marshall McLuhan’s seminal treatise on how new communication media shape our desires and cultural norms, Miller makes a similar observation:

No, the advance will not come through the use of subtler mechanical devices, nor will it come through the spread of education. The advance will come in the form of a breakthrough. New forms of communication will be established. New forms presuppose new desires. The great desire of the world today is to break the bounds which lock us in. It is not yet a conscious desire. Men do not yet realize what they are fighting for. This is the beginning of a long fight, a fight from within outwards.

In contemplating the era’s political landscape — an observation at once timeless and timelier than ever, with the urgency of this season’s election — he laments:

Often, when I listen to the radio, to a speech by one of our politicians, to a sermon by one of our religious maniacs, to a discourse by one of our eminent scholars, to an appeal by one of our men of good will, to the propaganda dined into us night and day by the advertising fiends, I wonder what the men of the coming century would think were they to listen in for just one evening.

Ultimately, however, Miller’s characteristic faith in the human spirit remains unabated:

Myself I cannot see the persistence of the artist type. I see no need for the individual man of genius in such an order. I see no need for martyrs. I see no need for vicarious atonement. I see no need for the fierce preservation of beauty on the part of a few. Beauty and Truth do not need defenders, nor even expounders. No one will ever have a lien on Beauty and Truth; they are creations in which all participate. They need only to be apprehended; they exist externally. Certainly, when we think of the conflicts and schisms which occur in the realm of art, we know that they do not proceed out of love of Beauty or Truth. Ego worship is the one and only cause of dissension, in art as in other realms. The artist is never defending art, but simply his own petty conception of art. Art is as deep and high and wide as the universe. There is nothing but art, if you look at it properly. It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis.

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