Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

27 MARCH, 2013

The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit: Sylvia Plath’s Lovely, Little-Known Vintage Children’s Book

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A charming cautionary tale about the perils of self-consciousness.

Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer … and children’s book author? Given my soft spot for lesser-known vintage children’s books by famous literary icons, I was delighted to discover The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit (public library) — a charming children’s story Plath penned shortly before having her first child. Though her journals indicate it was written on or immediately before September 26, 1959, it wasn’t until March of 1996 that the tale saw light of day with its first — and only — publication, featuring wonderful illustrations by German graphic designer and artist Rotraut Susanne Berner.

It tells the story of seven-year-old Maximilian “Max” Nix, one of seven brothers, who sees people in various suits everywhere he looks and dreams of the perfect attire for any and all occasions — an “it-doesn’t-matter suit.”

One day, a mysterious package arrives at the Nix house and inside it is a “wonderful, woolly, whiskery, brand-new, mustard-yellow It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit.”

All the Nix brothers proceed to try the suit on, but each finds it ill-fitted, worrying about how the townspeople might judge this unusual mustard-yellow suit.

When Max tries it on, it fits him “as if it were made-to-order.” Once he puts the suit on, Max never takes it off — he goes to school in it, goes fishing, rides his bicycle, takes to the slopes, milks the cow, goes hunting and all along earns the admiration of his fellow citizens.

It’s inescapable to consider how the moral of the story — an admonition against the perilous preoccupation with other people’s opinions — reflects Plath’s own daily struggle with self-consciousness.

The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit is currently out of print, but used copies can still be tracked down.

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27 MARCH, 2013

History’s 100 Geniuses of Language and Literature, Visualized

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“Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom … the true use of literature for life.”

“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly,” Victorian novelist Amelia E. Barr reflected in her 9 rules for success. But what, exactly, is genius? In their latest project, Italian visualization wizard Giorgia Lupi and her team at Accurat — who have previously given us a timeline of the future based on famous fiction, a visual history of the Nobel Prize, and a visualization of global brain drain inspired by Mondrian — explore the anatomy of genius, based on Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (public library) by literary titan Harold Bloom.

Playing off Bloom’s use of the Sefirot image — the ten emanations of the Kabbalah — to organize the taxonomy of the one hundred geniuses of language he identifies, from Shakespeare to Stendhal to Lewis Carroll to Ralph Ellison, the visualization depicts the geographic origin, time period, and field of each “genius,” correlated with visits to the respective Wikipedia page and connection to related historical figures.

Bloom writes:

All genius, in my judgment, is idiosyncratic and grandly arbitrary, and ultimately stands alone. … My placement of the hundred geniuses is hardly one that fixes them in place, since all the Sefirot are images constantly in motion, and any creative spirit must move through all of them, in many labyrinths and transformations. … Since the ten Sefirot form a system in constant motion, all of my hundred persons could be illuminated almost equally well by the other nine Sefirot, beyond the one where I group them, and I intend this book to be a kind of mosaic-in-perpetual-movement.

Appearing here is an exclusive English-language version of a forthcoming spread in Italian literary supplement La Lettura.

{Click image to enlarge)

At the heart of Bloom’s ambitious taxonomy is a concern with the very nature of genius:

What is the relationship of fresh genius to a founding authority? At this time, starting the twenty-first century, I would say: ‘Why, none, none at all.’ Our confusions about canonical standards for genius are now institutionalized confusions, so that all judgments as to the distinction between talent and genius are at the mercy of the media, and obey cultural politics and its vagaries.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s counsel on the art of reading, Bloom argues for cultivating an individual sensibility of genius-appreciation:

Literary genius, difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its verification. The reader learns to identify with what she or he feels is a greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self’s integrity…. Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life.

More than a decade after Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, Bloom followed up with The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, further exploring the interwoven mesh of genius.

See more of Giorgia’s wonderful work on her site and pair it with some visualization lessons from the world’s top information designers and data artists.

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27 MARCH, 2013

Iconic Designer Henry Dreyfuss on Beauty, Serenity, and Shaping Public Taste

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“Man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty.”

The role of the singer, argued Lilli Lehmann in 1902, is to educate people about good music. The role of the writer, argued E. B. White in 1969, is to educate people about good writing. In his 1955 classic Designing for People (public library), legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (March 2, 1904–October 5, 1972), mastermind of such cultural staples as the very first answering machine and the once-ubiquitous Hoover vacuum cleaner, considers the role of the designer as a tastemaker, educating the public about what constitutes good design.

Dreyfuss writes:

It is my contention that well-designed, mass-produced goods constitute a new American art form and are responsible for the creation of a new American culture. These products of the applied arts are a part of everyday American living and working, not merely museum pieces to be seen on a Sunday afternoon.

I find no basic conflict between those who appreciate the fine arts and those who respond to classic examples of the applied arts. They are stirred by the same impulse, a desire for beauty.

[…]

Public taste, as used here, embraces a heterogeneous mass of people, not any particular income group or educational level. Some will be moved by a Van Gogh, others will feel elation at the sight of a sleek jet plane. Exposure to a fine piece of sculpture is likely to create in a person an awareness of the excellent lines of a thermos jug or a lamp, and vice versa. Thus, when a good design is mass-produced, its influence is tremendous. This impact will be translated into an improvement in people’s taste when they go shopping. Unconsciously, a person’s contact with beauty quickens and heightens his perception and taste for all forms of art.

Guided by a certain belief in human aspiration and the conviction that “the American people will listen to good music, if given the chance,” Dreyfuss observes the capacity for betterment that technology affords us — a prescient vision for what the internet, too, could empower if used wisely:

It may be recalled that, at the inception of radio, fear was expressed that people would stop going to concerts if they could hear the same symphonies in their homes without cost. Yet concert-hall box-office receipts are proof that radio has educated a huge audience to good music. There is reason to believe that television, particularly color television, will do the same for art, literature, education, history, and the crafts. Already, able critics and teachers are guiding the uninitiated into these provocative realms. A half-hour’s tour through a museum with a TV camera can bring to life a wealth of art and knowledge that could otherwise not be seen in months.

Furthering his faith in the common capacity for good taste, Dreyfuss champions the life-enriching power of beauty:

Most people have inherent good taste, but they can’t be expected to use it if they can’t find good things, Many persons are intimidated by what the stores and advertisements tell them is the proper thing. Many want what their neighbors have. But given an opportunity to have fine things, people generally choose them.

[…]

It would be fatuous to assume that every man is constantly aware of the details of his surroundings. I do not believe this to be true. But I am convinced that a well-set dinner table will aid the flow of gastric juices; that a well-lighted and planned classroom is conducive to study; that carefully selected colors chosen with an eye to psychological influence will develop better and more lucrative work habits for the man at the machine; that a quietly designed conference room at the United Nations headquarters might well help influence the representatives to make a calm and just decision. I believe that man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty. We find our most serene moments in great cathedrals, in the presence of fine pictures and sculpture, on a university campus, or listening to magnificent music. Industry, technology, and mass production have made it possible for the average man to surround himself with this serenity in his home and in his place of work. Perhaps it is this serenity which we need most in the world, today.

Pair Designing for People, which is indispensable in its entirety, with this spectacular 1957 meditation on scientific taste.

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