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21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin on Where Ideas Come From, the “Secret” of Great Writing, and the Trap of Marketing Your Work

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“All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.”

Since long before the question of where good ideas come from became the psychologists’ favorite sport, readers, fans, and audiences have been hurling it at authors and artists, much to their frustration. A few brave souls like Neil Gaiman, Albert Einstein, and David Lynch have attempted to answer it directly, or in Leonard Cohen’s case to delightfully non-answer it directly, but none have done so with greater vigor of mind and heart than Ursula K. Le Guin — a writer of extraordinary wisdom delivered with irresistible wit, and the eloquent recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

In 1987, Le Guin addressed the eternal question in an essay titled “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?,” found in the altogether fantastic 1989 collection of her speeches, essays, and reviews, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (public library | IndieBound).

Noting that audiences frequently ask her the canonical question after lectures and talks, she considers the two reasons that make it impossible to answer:

The reason why it is unanswerable is, I think, that it involves at least two false notions, myths, about how fiction is written.

First myth: There is a secret to being a writer. If you can just learn the secret, you will instantly be a writer; and the secret might be where the ideas come from.

Second myth: Stories start from ideas; the origin of a story is an idea.

Well before psychologists’ pioneering findings to that effect, Le Guin writes:

I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.

[…]

Some of the secretiveness of many artists about their techniques, recipes, etc., may be taken as a warning to the unskilled: What works for me isn’t going to work for you unless you’ve worked for it.

Seconding Jack Kerouac’s question of whether writers are born or made, Le Guin considers the role of what we call natural talent and what it lies beneath it:

My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.

She then turns to the second central fallacy of the origin-of-ideas question, namely the notion of the “idea” itself:

The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.

Echoing Einstein’s idea of “combinatory play” and artist Francis Bacon’s notion that original art is the product of finely “grinding up” one’s influences, Le Guin speaks to the combinatorial nature of the creative process:

I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.

Mystical as the process may be, Le Guin goes on to outline its “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing:

  1. The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
  2. The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
  3. The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
  4. The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
  5. The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.

Artwork from Stefanie Posavec's 'Writing Without Words,' visualizing the patterns of sentences, paragraphs, and words in a text. Click image for details.

Echoing T.S. Eliot’s notion of idea incubation, she adds:

All these kinds of patterning — sound, syntax, images, ideas, feelings — have to work together; and they all have to be there in some degree. The inception of the work, that mysterious stage, is perhaps their coming together: when in the author’s mind a feeling begins to connect itself to an image that will express it, and that image leads to an idea, until now half-formed, that begins to find words for itself, and the words lead to other words that make new images, perhaps of people, characters of a story, who are doing things that express the underlying feelings and ideas that are now resonating with each other.

Considering the lopsiding of that five-point balance, Le Guin speaks to the importance of failure in growth:

If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story. Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.

In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to second decades later in reflecting on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, Le Guin deploys one of her characteristically animated metaphors that can’t help but put a smile on the soul:

Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.

Illustration by Emily Hughes from 'Wild,' one of the best children's books of the year. Click image for details.

She returns to the vital balance of those five elements:

There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work. To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.

Le Guin considers the epicenter of that relationship — of the elements, of reader and writer:

Imagery takes place in “the imagination,” which I take to be the meeting place of the thinking mind with the sensing body… In the imagination we can share a capacity for experience and an understanding of truth far greater than our own. The great writers share their souls with us — “literally.”

[…]

The intellect cannot do the work of the imagination; the emotions cannot do the work of the imagination; and neither of them can do anything much in fiction without the imagination.

Where the writer and the reader collaborate to make the work of fiction is perhaps, above all, in the imagination. In the joint creation of the fictive world.

With a self-effacing wink at her profession and the odd creative rituals of her ilk, Le Guin considers the writer’s eternal tussle with his or her consciousness of, and often self-consciousness about, the audience — an audience that, today, is exponentially more able and willing to make its presence and opinion known via likes, tweets, and other innocuously named, spiritually toxic Pavlovian mechanisms:

Writers are egotists. All artists are. They can’t be altruists and get their work done. And writers love to whine about the Solitude of the Author’s Life, and lock themselves into cork-lined rooms or droop around in bars in order to whine better. But although most writing is done in solitude, I believe that it is done, like all the arts, for an audience. That is to say, with an audience. All the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

But her most piercing point — one she would come to echo three decades later in her National Book Award acceptance speech — is a monumental disclaimer:

I beg you please to attend carefully now to what I am not saying. I am not saying that you should think about your audience when you write. I am not saying that the writing writer should have in mind, “Who will read this? Who will buy it? Who am I aiming this at?” — as if it were a gun. No.

While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.

And yet the reader, Le Guin argues, is an essential piece of the telling of the story. The writer’s work should extend an invitation for collaboration to the reader:

The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.

[…]

It comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in the effort to keep the whole story all going along in one piece in the right direction (which is my general notion of a good piece of fiction).

In this effort, writers need all the help they can get. Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.

Dancing at the Edge of the World is a glorious read in its entirety. Complement it with Le Guin on being a man and on aging and what beauty really means.

Complement for more timeless wisdom on writing from some of history’s greatest authors, see this ongoing omnibus of advice, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

* C.S. Lewis would beg to vehemently differ, as would Tolkien, and Maurice Sendak would practically leap in protestation.

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21 NOVEMBER, 2014

Artist Francis Bacon’s Conflicted and Creative Life, Illustrated

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“It’s all so meaningless, we may as well be extraordinary.”

David Lynch has called legendary British artist Francis Bacon (October 28, 1909–April 28, 1992) “the main guy, the number one kinda hero painter.” Like Lynch’s films, Bacon’s paintings compel the way a scene from a nightmare does — a scream piercing the psyche, at once terrifying in its beauty and beautiful in its terror. “An artist must learn to be nourished by his passions and by his despairs,” Bacon once told an interviewer — an ethos he himself very much embodied.

How his passions and despairs fed his art is what British writer Kitty Hauser and artist Christina Christoforou explore in This is Bacon (public library | IndieBound) — another fantastic installment in same series of illustrated artist biographies that gave us This is Dalí and This is Warhol, illuminating Bacon’s influences and infatuations to shed light on his darkly alluring art.

Hauser writes in the introduction:

By all accounts, Francis Bacon had an effect on those he met. He didn’t look like other people, didn’t talk or act like them. “It’s all so meaningless,” he liked to say, “we may as well be extraordinary.” His paintings continue to have an effect on those who see them. They have the capacity to move us, without it being possible to say why. They convey something of how it feels to be human — King Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal.”

[But] Bacon realized he walked a tightrope of success and failure with every brushstroke, and with every work. He destroyed a lot of paintings. He was aiming high, after all… “My work will either end up in the National Gallery or the dustbin,” he used to say.

The choice to tell the story of Bacon’s life in illustration is an interesting one: In his legendary conversations with David Sylvester — some of the greatest interviews in the history of creative culture — Bacon frequently asserted that his art shouldn’t be explained, because putting words to it would reduce it to illustration, a medium he saw as vastly inferior. But it is also an implicit homage to the contradictions of which Bacon’s character was woven — brilliant and broken, full of idealism disguised as nihilism, in constant oscillation between the public and the private, a man Allen Ginsberg once described in a letter to Jack Kerouac as having the appearance of an English schoolboy but the soul of a satyr.

Even his relationship to drawing and illustration was a contradictory one — all his life, Bacon vehemently denied that he drew sketches before painting and insisted that he only ever painted straight on the canvas, but a wealth of sketches surfaced after his death. Like the famous grandfather of the subject of his most prized painting — Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive piece of art ever auctioned, sold for $142,405,000 — Bacon was a master of engineering his own myth. An illustrated biography, then, makes many layers of sense.

Bacon never received a formal education in art, which lent him a kind of beginner’s mind that, as Hauser puts it, rendered him immune to “the usual kinds of distinctions between life and art, or between high culture and low.” Instead, he made an art of the art of looking as he amassed a vast bank of images from a wide range of sources — medical illustration, film, art, everyday life — and let them cross-pollinate in his unconscious as a living testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity:

I look at everything. And everything I see gets ground up very fine. In the end one never knows, certainly I myself never know, what the images in my paintings are made up of.

For Bacon, Hauser notes, painting was a struggle that relied in large part on chance — he believed successful paintings “open up the valves of sensation” and bypass the intellect to penetrate “the nervous system” directly, which requires an active surrender to the uncertainty of the painting process.

Bacon was born to a strict and often cruel ex-military father and a steel business heiress mother. As a child, he suffered from severe asthma — a much more serious affliction, Hauser points out, in an era prior to the mass-market availability of proper medication — and grew up in an atmosphere of violence, both at home and amid the cultural context of WWI. When he was sixteen, his father walked in on him dressed in his mother’s underwear and kicked him out — the fate of lamentably many LGBT youth even today. In an effort to straighten out the boy, his father placed him in the uncaring care of a cruel “uncle,” a rough horse-breeder unrelated by blood, who took young Francis to Berlin — a city that had emerged as Europe’s capital of wild abandon, once described by the novelist Stefan Zweig as the “Babylon of the modern world.” Hauser writes:

There were cross-dressing cabarets and transvestite shows whose flamboyance and inventiveness have never been matched.

Eventually, young Bacon made his way to Paris, where he first became exposed to the art of the Old Masters and other cultural influences, ranging from surrealist cinema to postmodernist literary magazines. But it was in the work of Picasso — who famously championed the courage of the creative life — that he first felt the assuring possibility of becoming a professional painter himself.

After a brief bill-paying stint in interior design, Bacon finally got his big break as an artist when his painting Crucifixion — owned today by Damien Hirst, who cites Bacon as a great influence — was included in Herbert Read’s momentous 1933 book Art Now.

'Crucifixion,' 1933

Heartened by the recognition, Bacon mounted a one-man show the following year, but it became his first painful lesson in the fickleness of the art world — a dismissive review in The Times so upset him that he destroyed all the work in the exhibition and abandoned painting for nearly a decade.

Among the perplexities of Bacon’s character is one particularly curious biographical detail: He moved around a great deal, but his old nanny, Jessie Lightfoot, continued to live with him until her death in 1951; she would vet the many replies to Bacon’s gay personals, which he published on the front page of The Times, and when times got especially rough, she’d go shoplifting for the duo’s dinner.

When Bacon returned to painting, one image from his voraciously amassed visual bank held exceptional mesmerism for him — Diego Velásquez’s 1650 portrait of Pope Innocent X, which Bacon said triggered “all sorts of feelings” for him. Mashing it up with a visual from another influence that had impacted him greatly — the screaming face from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin — Bacon embarked upon his haunting series of screaming pope paintings.

'Pope Innocent X' by Diego Velásquez, 1650 (left) and 'Study After Velásquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X' by Francis Bacon, 1953 (right)

Despite Bacon’s resistance to any interpretation of his paintings as cultural commentary, it’s hard not to observe the resonance of this particular depiction. Bacon had come of age in an era when homosexuality was not only considered a sin by the Catholic Church but was also illegal in Britain — so illegal that computing pioneer Alan Turing paid for it with is life, as did Oscar Wilde, whose imprisonment for being gay contributed to his untimely death. Bacon was in his late fifties when the right to love a person of one’s own sex was finally “made legal.”

For Bacon, however, the law was not the greatest source of his misfortune in love — his own self-destructive tendencies were. In 1952, he embarked on a long and toxic love affair with a former war pilot named Peter Lacy — an explosive, often sadistic man, and an alcoholic with no intention of recovery. Even though Lacy had only contempt for Bacon’s paintings and destroyed many of them during their turbulent fights, Bacon later stated that Lacy was the love of his life.

In the late 1950s, when Bacon followed Lacy to the debaucherous city of Tangiers in North Africa — a city frequented by the era’s gay mafia of creative culture, including Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac — their relationship continued its cycles of violence and escalated into heavy drinking. The British consul-general in Tangier grew so concerned about the frequency with which Bacon was found beaten up on the city’s streets in the wee hours of the morning that he increased the number of patrolling police officers.

It is unsurprising, then, that the man who so believed in the creative value of suffering and readily subjected himself to it would make his idol the man who articulated that suffering more powerfully than anyone and succumbed to it more tragically than any other major artist. In the late 1950s, Bacon became obsessed with Vincent van Gogh, the quintessential tortured-artist testament to the link between creativity and mental illness. Bacon studied Van Gogh’s paintings fanatically and devoured his letters to his brother.

'Study for a Portrait of Van Gogh VI,' 1957

Once Bacon made his way to London in 1961, where he would live until the end of his life, his self-destructive pathology manifested a silver lining — he became what is possibly the world’s first professional drinker: he was paid £10 a week to drink at The Colony Room, Muriel Belcher’s private drinking club, in a campaign to drive business. Among his drinking buddies there was Lucian Freud, from whom Bacon was inseparable for years.

It was around that time that Bacon met George Dyer — a petty criminal from London’s East End, who would become Bacon’s lover and the subject of his best-known paintings. Like Bacon himself, Dyer was a man woven of contradictions — as Hauser puts it, a weak character with a fit physique, combining “vulnerability with a gangsterish demeanor.” Bacon had a number of photographs taken of Dyer, which he used as springboards for his sexually charged paintings. Hauser quotes the artist himself:

Even if you’re in love with somebody, everything escapes you. You want to be nearer to that person, but how can you cut your flesh open and join with the other person? … So it is with art.

In 1971, the day before Bacon’s landmark exhibit at the Grand Palais was about to open — “To be taken seriously by the French was a rare thing for a British artist,” Hauser writes, “and Bacon was elated.” — Dyer was found dead from an overdose in their hotel room in Paris. In a supreme twist of fate that would become the grandest of Bacon’s contradictions, the show would become his greatest success, but Dyer’s death would come to haunt him for the remainder of his life. Hauser writes:

There’s an ancient story about the origins of painting in which a young woman traces around the outline of the shadow of her beloved’s profile as it is cast on the wall. The image will be there when he has gone; it will still exist after his death. It’s hard not to think of the story when considering the use Bacon made of [the] photograph of Dyer’s head in profile, of which he had a number of copies. At one point he made a cut-out of his head and used it as a template, apparently pinning it to his canvas and painting around it.

But in his grief and his obsession with mortality, Bacon found the subject of his final and most memorable paintings, perhaps living up to his famous proclamation.

Complement This is Bacon with the painter on the role of suffering and self-knowledge in creative expression, then revisit the illustrated biographies of Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, and Steve Jobs.

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20 NOVEMBER, 2014

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: Comic Artists Reimagine Beloved Childhood Classics, from Tolstoy’s Fairy Tales to Harry Potter

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“One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.”

“Tales are powerful instruments and should be wielded skillfully,” artist Andrea Dezsö told me in our conversation about her striking black-and-white illustrations for the little-known original edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Some of history’s most skillful wielding of tales has refused to bend to the false divide between “children’s” and “adult” storytelling — there are the Grimms themselves, of course, but also Tolkien, who vehemently believed that there is no such thing as writing “for children”; Maurice Sendak, who in his final interview scoffed that he has never written for children; Neil Gaiman, who opposes the idea of protecting children from the dark; Madeleine L’Engle, who believed that the best children’s books ask questions that “disturb someone’s universe”; and most of all C.S. Lewis, who elegantly eviscerated the notion that literature should treat children as a special species.

On the heels of the year’s best children’s books comes a magnificent embodiment of that ethos in The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature: The World’s Greatest Kids’ Lit as Comics and Visuals (public library | IndieBound) — the latest installment in an ongoing series of comic adaptations of beloved works of literature.

In this volume, fifty contemporary graphic artists reimagine such classics as The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Aesop’s fables, Russian fairy tales, Harry Potter, and even The Diary of Anne Frank.

Series editor Russ Kick writes in the introduction:

Part of the appeal is my belief that “children’s literature” can be great literature, period. Works meant primarily for children or teens are usually ghettoized, considered unworthy of serious treatment and study. But the best of it achieves a greatness through heightened use of language, through examination of universal themes and human dilemmas, and through nuance and layers of meaning. One sign of a great work of literature or art is that it can be interpreted multiple ways, that it remains ambiguous, refusing to provide clear-cut answers.

[…]

Children’s literature is wild. It’s often bizarre, grotesque, dark, and violent. It seems odd that many of these works are considered children’s literature… Danger everywhere! Wolves, dogs, tigers, condors, thieves, wicked stepmothers, witches, giants, pirates, disease, Nazis… There’s something about seeing a children’s work fully illustrated sequentially to make the terror and weirdness that much more visceral, that undeniable.

[…]

We ended up with over forty adaptations and over sixty stand-alone illustrations that treat children’s literature with the respect, daring, and verve it deserves. In a strange twist, we created a book that many people may think isn’t suitable for children… They might be right. The book has obvious appeal for teens and adults, and maybe they’re the only audience for a work that shows so many bizarre, upsetting, and nightmarish images. Or perhaps we should keep in mind something Sendak said in one of his final interviews: “I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.”

Here are a few of my favorites, beginning with British illustrator and Penguin book-cover designer Lesley Barnes’s breathtaking illustrations for the Russian fairy tale “Ivan Tsarevich, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf,” which my grandmother used to read to me when I was little and which graces the book’s cover:

American comic artist Lucy Knisley, who read Harry Potter when she was fourteen, reimagines the famed J.K. Rowling series:

Artist Dasha Tolstikova — the illustrator behind the heartwarming bibliophile tale The Jacket — takes on At the Back of the North Wind by Victorian preacher and unsung fantasy pioneer George MacDonald, who influenced such storytelling icons as J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and more:

Children’s book author and illustrator Karen Katz does a lyrical adaptation of Tolstoy’s little-known tales for young readers:

Comic artist and illustrator Isabel Greenberg presents an appropriately gory take on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinderbox:

Chicago-based artist and writer Caroline Picard adapts the tales from Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book in an unusual visual sequence, where each story moves forward from left to right along a single arrow-line across multiple pages:

Illustrator Matthew Houston applies his singular style of visual psychedelia to H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine:

Swedish cartoonist Emelie Östergren presents a wonderfully twisted take on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstockings:

The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature contains many more treasures at the intersection of literature and graphic art. Complement it with the previous volumes of the series, then treat yourself to the year’s most intelligent and imaginative children’s books.

Images courtesy of Russ Kick

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