Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

21 SEPTEMBER, 2012

Hermann Hesse on What Trees Teach Us About Belonging and Life


“When we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.”

I woke up this morning to discover a tiny birch tree rising amidst my city quasi-garden, having overcome unthinkable odds to float its seed over heaps of concrete and glass, and begin a life in a meager oasis of soil. And I thought, my god*, what a miracle. What magic. What a reminder that life does not await permission to be lived.

This little wonder reminded me of a beautiful passage, perhaps one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read, from Hermann Hesse’s Bäume: Betrachtungen und Gedichte [Trees: Reflections and Poems] (public library), originally published in 1984, that touches on some of life’s most essential livingness — home and belonging, truth and beauty, happiness.

For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.

A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.

Artwork by Bryan Nash Gill from his book 'Woodcut.' Click image for more.

* As Anaïs Nin wrote in her correspondence with Henry Miller, “I spell ‘god’ with a small ‘g’ because I do not believe in him, but I love to swear by him.”

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21 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook: A Delicious Time Machine to Post-Edwardian England


More than 150 recipes from upstairs and downstairs.

With a documented soft spot for cross-disciplinary cookbooks and the intersection of food and fiction, I was instantly adrool over The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook: From Lady Mary’s Crab Canapes to Mrs. Patmore’s Christmas Pudding (public library) by baker and writer Emily Ansara Baines, who brings us “more than 150 recipes from upstairs and downstairs.” Whether you’re in the mood for Mr. Bates’ chicken and mushroom pie or Sybil’s ginger nut biscuits, each delicious bite of these surprisingly approachable dishes is a tiny time machine that transports you right back to the post-Edwardian era.

And for the hopeless tea-lovers among us, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to tea time. (Mrs. Isobel Crawley’s smoked salmon tea sandwiches — enough said.)

For a warm-up, watch the Dowager Countess make a proper cup of tea in between essential gossip:

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Frank Show: An Illustrated Homage to Grandparents and the Art of Looking Twice


Because the most interesting stories sometimes come disguised in the least intriguing of packages.

As a lover of vintage and vintage-inspired children’s books, I was instantly enamored with The Frank Show (public library) by British illustrator and designer David Mackintosh — a charming homage to grandparents and the art of seeing beneath the grumpy exterior. Illustrated in a style that’s part Miroslav Šašek, part Paul Rand, it tells the story of a little boy forced to bring his Grandpa Frank — who’s always around and complains tirelessly about how things were better in the olden days — to school for show-and-tell. But, just as the young narrator is dreading total mortification at grandpa’s boringness, Frank rolls up his sleeve to reveal a curious tattoo and tells the wild story of how he got it, a tale of danger and heroism and, above all, a reminder that interestingness lurks beneath the surface of even the most insipid-seeming. Because, as artist Keri Smith wisely put it, “Aways be looking… Everything is interesting. Look closer.”.

Page illustrations courtesy Abrams Books

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20 SEPTEMBER, 2012

The Best Science Writing Online 2012, In a Print Book


A far more brilliant and necessary idea than it first appears.

At first, the idea of publishing some of the web’s finest journalism in a print book might seem counterintuitive, if not downright absurd — after all, half the beauty of online journalism is the magical Rube Goldberg machine of references, strung together via hyperlinks that offer riffs and context without the cumbersome expository bulk of text. So what happens when you strip the writing of its linked context, of the dynamism of hypertext, and confine it to the static printed page?

In The Best Science Writing Online 2012 (public library), editors Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette demonstrate precisely what happens — and it’s something rather curious and whimsical.

Once you’re able to get past seemingly anachronistic footnotes awkwardly compensating for the linklessness, you find yourself immersed in the writing in a way that the web’s blinking, demanding, ad-infested pages never quite allow. But, most importantly, you begin to see connections between critical issues, to understand how things fit together and why, as Charles Eames once observed, “the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” And therein lies the magic of the anthology’s thoughtful curation — a potent mix of critical analyses, witty personal reflections, absorbing feature profiles, illuminating commentary on the intersection of science and social policy, and even long-form investigative journalism, covering everything from the last space shuttle launch to fluid dynamics to gender politics.

In “The Renaissance Man,” the inimitable Ed Yong shows us that rigorous science journalism and exquisite long-form feature profiles can coexist, and when they do, it’s a thing of beauty:

Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field — say, neuroscience or genetics — Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s ‘culturomics’ study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. ‘I guess I just view myself as a scientist,’ he says.

His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact.

‘I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,’ he says.


Aiden naturally gravitates to problems that he knows little about. ‘The reason is that most projects fail,’ he says. ‘If the project you know a lot about fails, you haven’t gained anything. If a project you know relatively little about fails, you potentially have a bunch of new and better ideas.’ And Aiden has a habit of using his failures as springboards for success.

In “On Beards, Biology, and Being a Real American,” molecular biologist Joe Hanson, everyone’s favorite Feynman of the Tumblr era, brings his signature blend of the personal and the universally insightful to explore the bacterial ecosystems that inhabit the token signifier of hipster street cred, painting, as he always does, science as as anything but boring. Amidst the fascinating microbiology, you also find such priceless sentences as:

Unsurprisingly, when a live chicken is rubbed across an unwashed beard containing a lethal titer of avian viral particles, then ground up in a blender and injected into fertilized eggs, the rates of survival are not good. Beard-wearing scientists must take care to ensure that they do not repeat this extremely precise and odd sequence of events, lest they ruin dozens of perfectly good eggs.

Vintage ad accompanying Christie Wilcox's original Scientific American article 'Why do women cry? Obviously, it’s so they don’t get laid'

But the anthology’s greatest curatorial feat is the purposefulness with which it debunks the myth that science is dry, passionless, objective, and devoid of emotional investment. Take, for instance, Scientific American’s Christie Wilcox, who in “Why do women cry? Obviously, it’s so they don’t get laid” takes MSNBC’s Brian Alexander’s appallingly sexist pseudoscience reportage head-on and brings to it with equal force the dual lenses of hard science and eloquent, unabashedly opinionated analysis:

Alexander’s reporting of the actual science was quick and simplistic, and couched in sexist commentary (like how powerful women’s tears are as manipulative devices). And to finish things off, he clearly states what he found to be the most important find of the study:

‘Bottom line, ladies? If you’re looking for arousal, don’t turn on the waterworks.’

It’s no wonder that the general public sometimes questions whether science is important. If that was truly the aim of this paper, I’d be concerned, too!


Of course, Brian Alexander missed the point. This paper wasn’t published as a part of a women’s how-to guide for getting laid. Instead, the authors sought to determine if the chemicals present in human tears might serve as chemosignals like they do for other animals — and they got some pretty interesting results.

She goes on to cite a number of studies that suggest alternative, more complex evolutionary explanations, then concludes:

Why do I care so much? It’s not just that they got it wrong. It’s that their interpretation of research isn’t labeled as opinion. It’s that the vast majority of people who have any interest in science news are going to read inaccurate (if not downright insulting) news articles and think studies like this one are either misogynistic or frivolous. It’s that journalists like Brian Alexander undermine good science for the sake of attention grabbing headlines. And as a scientist and a writer, I am doubly insulted.

The rest of The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is just as stirring and stimulating — do yourself a favor.

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