Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

11 DECEMBER, 2012

A Secret Illustrated History of Coffee, Coca, and Cola

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What America’s premier anti-drug autocrat has to do with Bach and helping Coke import illegal coca leaves.

On the heels of the year’s best picture-books and the question of what makes a great one comes A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola (UK; public library) by Ricardo Cortés, the illustrator behind the irreverent modern classic Go The Fuck To Sleep. This fascinating and beautifully illustrated piece of visual journalism, six years in the making, traces the little-known interwoven histories of coffee, the coca leaf and kola nut, Coca-Cola, caffeine, and cocaine, within a larger subtext of the role of prohibition in modern culture.

Like most recreational drugs, cocaine got its start as a medical aid, and like many modern psychological fixations, it goes back to Freud. Cortés explores its cultural evolution and the eventual synthesis of coke into Coke:

At first, experiments with cocaine were confined to medical practice.

In 1884, Sigmund Freud began to use it as a treatment for depression. He was enthralled by the ‘magical substance’ and enthusiastically introduced it to colleagues and friends, including an oculist named Carl Koller. By then, cocaine’s numbing effect had been observed on the tongue. Koller tested cocaine as a regional anesthetic; first on the eyes of animals and then his own. His discovery was a medical revolution.

Previously, surgeries were performed with general anesthesia or none at all. Ether and chloroform allowed severe operations without pain, although with significant risks from inducing unconsciousness. As the first true local anesthetic, cocaine opened the practice of surgery to previously impossible procedures.

Cocaine’s popularity spread to other branches of therapy, and its use quickly grew beyond anesthesia and melancholia.

Cocaine eased toothaches and labor pains. It was said to cure fatigue, nervousness, impotence, even addiction to the opium poppy’s alkaloid morphine. ‘Coke’ could be purchased in asthma medicines, snuffs, and tonics like Coca-Cola — ‘The Brain Workers’ Panacea,’ touted to relieve mental and physical exhaustion, was first sold in
1886.

But as a lover of letters, I find the most fascinating part of the book to be the prolific correspondence between legendary Bureau of Prohibition anti-drug kingpin Harry J. Anslinger, who spent 42 years pioneering and enforcing anti-narcotic policies in America, and Coca-Cola executive Ralph Hayes, which Cortés uncovered in the course of his research. These documents, spanning several decades of friendly exchange, reveal Anslinger’s instrumental role in helping Coke not only to import coca leaves legally, an activity otherwise illegal in the US, but also to do so with exclusive rights.

The book is partly a response, but mostly a stubborn yet thoughtful retort to critical reactions to Cortés’s 2005 science picture-book It’s Just a Plant: A Children’s Story of Marijuana and sarcastic comments about whether teaching kids about cocaine would be next.

Cortés ends with a wonderful throw-back to an obscure Bach cantata about coffee, displaying the composer’s uncommon sense of humor:

The cat won’t stop catching mice,
and young ladies will hold to their coffee. Mother loves her coffee,
Grandmother drinks it, too.
Who, in the end, would scold the daughters?

“Although I caught a buzz last year as the illustrator of Go The Fuck To Sleep,” Cortés tells me, “my real interest is studying the evolution of legal and cultural taboos against inebriates (especially biota).” And, indeed, it shows — A Secret History of Coffee, Coca & Cola is as thoroughly researched and absorbingly narrated as it is charmingly illustrated.

Images courtesy Ricardo Cortés / Akashic Books

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10 DECEMBER, 2012

Little Big Books: The Secrets of Great Children’s Book Illustration

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“The picture book serves as a personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again.”

Looking back on the best children’s books of the year raises the inevitable question, “What makes a great picture-book?” — a question all the more essential given the formative role picture-books play in our emotional, psychological, social, and aesthetic development. That’s precisely what the fine folks of Gestalten — who have previously brought us Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, one of the best art and design books of 2011 — explore in Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books (public library). The lavish large-format volume documents some of the best contemporary children’s book illustration, examining the trends, images, concepts, and materials that define the genre’s design and conceptual aesthetic today through the work of more than 100 artists and illustrators, including favorites like Rambharos Jha, Blexbolex, Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti, Oliver Jeffers, and Rilla Alexander.

'Semidisegnitelodico' by Philip Giordano

'Waterlife' by Rambharos Jha

'A Little Lost' by Chris Haughton

'Y recuerda…' (Brothers Grimm) by Juanjo G. Oller

Sonja Commentz writes in the introduction:

Attuned to these changing tastes, narratives, and market movements, open-eyed editors and perceptive publishing houses continue to play a vital role in the discovery and cultivation of budding artists — and the resulting creative process tends to be a two-way street. Often taking a welcome long-term approach and vie, outstanding editors — like Harper & Row’s legendary Ursula Nordstrom who cherished, nurtured, and defended beloved recalcitrant geniuses like Maurice Sendak and Tomi Ungerer, among others — serve as headstrong and softhearted yet pivotal enablers who can set the stage and direction for an entire generation of picture books. And yet there is trouble afoot: pandering to economic trends in the growing — and increasingly competitive — picture-book market, actual contents, creativity, and originality might lose out, right down to the point where bookstores dedicate entire pink-clad corners to a monoculture of princess books.

(Indeed, Nordstrom herself lamented half a century ago that too many decisions in children’s publishing were being made by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” Sadly, little seems to have changed in the mainstream publishing world.)

'The Night Life of Trees' by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai and Ram Singh Urveti

'Lady René' by Laura Varsky

'Her Idea' by Rilla Alexander

In the postscript to the introduction, Commentz offers a delightful disclaimer:

It order to really appreciate the depth of a story, its accord of image and text, narrative and spell-binding atmosphere, and to grasp just how some of the more radical an abstract samples truly work, there is no quick fix or detour. Just get the book, grab a willing child, find a seat, and read the entire story together: turning the pages, cover to cover. And then start again at the beginning!

'No Man's Land' by Blexbolex

'Along a Long Road' by Frank Viva

In one of the interviews included in the volume, celebrated English illustrator Martin Salisbury — who co-authored the wonderful Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling — offers some practical guidelines to the art of the picture book and addresses the most pervasive pitfalls of the creative process:

There are many common mistakes made by those setting out to create a picture book for the first time. The first is the belief that it is easy. More than most areas, picture-book creation suffers from the ‘I could do that’ perception. There are many obvious mistakes, e.g., trying to write a narrative or sequence in words and then illustrating it in a way that means the words and pictures are saying the same thing. usually, the process of ‘writing’ or making a picture book has to be one that involves thinking about words AND pictures right from the start. A very common mistake is to make perfect pictorial double-page compositions and then ask yourself, ‘Right , now where shall I put the words?’ Right from the start, the words need to be an integral part of the shape of the layout — a visual element that is as important as anything else that appears on the page. The spread’s composition should seem ‘wrong’ before the text is added.

[…]

The process of ‘reading’ pictorial narrative from left to right (in the West at least) means that the rhythm, pace, and ebb and flow of the picture book need to be plotted carefully around this format and the act of page-turning within it — a form of stage direction if you will. In a way, the picture book becomes a theater where the maker is the director, stage manager, actor… and in total artistic control!

'La fata Però nel bosco dei pini Perché' by Simona Mulazzani

'La Reina Mab, el hada de las pesadillas' by Cristian Turdera

'Plein soleil' by Antoine Guilloppé

Salisbury stresses the formative role picture books play in cultivating aesthetic literacy:

After all, this is often a child’s first introduction to the visual arts: the picture book serves as a personal, private art gallery, held in the hand, to be revisited over and over again.

'Stuck' by Oliver Jeffers

'Mac & Mamma' by Gerry Turley

On the psychology of children’s response to picture books, Salisbury makes an important distinction between picture books and digital media and echoes Maurice Sendak in turning an eye towards censorship:

One of the problems of trying to research young children’s responses to imagery is the fact that they don’t have the language to express what they are experiencing. And of course they are just like us, individuals — with equally individual tastes and responses. But it seems clear that they develop the ability to process pictorial sequences very early on. In fact, this seems to be an ability that we — quite often — have to relearn as adults! My guess is that, even if everything in the images is unfamiliar, children are making their own sense of things. on a basic but important level, a picture book will allow time for the eye to travel around the page and explore shape, color and form. The key thing is that the speed is not dictated externally, as with many screen-based media.

[…]

Children seem to have a limitless capacity to absorb and handle all manner of thins that we might worry about. In recent generations, we have become much more protective and censorious. While we would not wish to return to the days when children’s books promoted the chopping off of thumbs if they were being sucked, I think a lot depends on the done with which such cruelty is portrayed. Roald Dahl’s enormous popularity reflects his complete absence of patronizing language and joy in the ‘incorrectness’ that children adore. I think we could afford, certainly in the West, to be a little less protective.

'Een griezelmeisje' by Isabelle Vandenabeele

'Rikki-tikki-tavi' by Isidro Ferrer

Salisbury offers a thoughtful meditation on the future of picture books in the digital age, emphasizing the increasing allure of children’s books as exquisite artifacts:

Of course, one of the main preoccupations right now is the role of downloadable apps and e-books in the picture-book market. At the moment, no one seems to know quite what their impact will be, but everyone is running around saying, ‘We should be doing something.’ One thing, however, is clear: printed picture books are becoming increasingly beautiful in their production with ever greater attention to the physical, tactile, ‘holding’ quality of the books as artifacts, in gloriously varied sizes and shapes. This process is carving out the territory of the book as a beautiful thing; a thing distinct from the screen that provides us with information but doesn’t allow us to own, feel, or interact with tit in the same way. Until very recently, most picture book apps were rather banal in their conception, concentrating on trying to shoehorn commercially proven books into an alien format with minor digital bells and whistles. It reminds me of the period immediately after the arrival of Photoshop when everything looked the same as designers decided they were no illustrators. Once the people who were most resistant to it (i.e., the ones who weren’t seduced by technology ) began to learn to use the program, however, things started to get interesting.

Complement Little Big Books: Illustrations for Children’s Picture Books with Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling, which examines the present as well as the past of the genre, including the legacy of such icons as Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, and Bruno Munari.

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10 DECEMBER, 2012

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, Animated in Motion Graphics

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“That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”

Over the years, I’ve enjoyed my share of animated adaptations of Carl Sagan’s iconic Pale Blue Dot monologue, based on the seminal photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990. Now comes a lovely motion graphics adaptation by animation studio ORDER — enjoy, and see if you can hold back the chills. (No, no you couldn’t.)

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

It’s Okay To Be Smart

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