Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

17 JULY, 2015

The Paradox of Identical Twins and What It Reveals About the Psychology of Personal Identity and Celebrity Culture


“The way we treat identical twins is strikingly similar to the way we treat celebrities.”

When I was a little girl growing up in Bulgaria, I was best friends with a pair of identical twins named Ema and Maia. If this alone didn’t already dangerously discombobulate the very notion of a “best” friend, the situation was rife with various other complexities of negotiating identity — theirs, as well as mine. I oscillated between being best-er friends with one, then with the other. I was furious with my mother for never having learned to tell them apart and often calling one by the other’s name. I found myself in frequent spirited arguments with other kids, determined to make them concede Ema and Maia’s vast differences of temperament and spirit. (The reality was somewhere partway between my insistent differentiation and the other kids’ insistent conflation.)

All of this I did in part on the twins’ behalf, for I believed it to be the chief duty of the twin-friend, and in part for my own benefit: Duality in any form is hard enough for adults to make sense of, but the constant scanning for sameness and difference, the reflexive dance with comparison and contrast, was too overwhelming for my eight-year-old psyche to comfortably sit with — to resolve the tension, I was bent on seeing them as categorically different; to resolve the tension, those outside the best-friends bubble were bent on seeing them as categorically the same. I — we — couldn’t understand, or perhaps couldn’t accept, that they were both tremendously similar and tremendously different, often at the same time.

Quite unexpectedly, Ema and Maia’s mother won a green card in the American lottery. The day the family moved from Bulgaria to Baltimore was among the saddest of my childhood. It was followed by many mostly friendless years, for no single person — no monad of identity — seemed a sufficient substitute for my dyad of best friends.

Of course, the identity ambivalences with which the twin-friend grapples are merely a microcosmic refraction of what the siblings themselves deal with daily. And yet to be in the mere presence of twins, let alone to negotiate one’s sameness and difference of feelings for each of the dyad, is to inevitably confront one’s own most unsettling and unsettled questions of identity.

These complex questions and a dimensional lot more are what writer Caroline Paul explores in Almost Her: The Strange Dilemma of Being Nearly Famous — a short and piercing memoir of her life as a twin. Amplifying the inherent complexities of twindom is the fact that her sister happens to be the Baywatch star Alexandra Paul.

In 1993, the Guinness book of world records declared the show the most watched television program in the history of humanity. With more than a billion viewers per week, it catapulted Alexandra — and, inadvertently, the almost-her version the world saw in Caroline — into a strange parallel universe of celebrity, raising whole new questions about the sisters’ separate and collective identity, in public and in private.

Beneath the personal story lurk larger inquiries about who we are as a culture, who we are as individuals, and how we come to construct and inhabit the “who” of who we are.

Caroline Paul

Reflecting on how early the constant tussle between the conflation and separation of their identities began, Paul writes:

Our twinning experience was strange right from the beginning. When my mother’s doctor heard one strong, steady heartbeat through his stethoscope back in 1963, he surmised she was cooking a vigorous, healthy baby, and not two girls whose hearts were in sync (ultrasounds were not yet in widespread use). Even when my mother went into labor six weeks early, no one suspected. It was not until Alexandra was in his hands that the doctor cried, “Hold on, Mrs. Paul, there’s another one coming!” and two minutes later I glissaded onto the table, already not wanting to be left behind. We were both well under five pounds. We were labeled Baby A and Baby B and rushed to separate incubators. We had inadvertently posed as one person for nine months, and it would be days until my parents would recover enough from the shock to name us.


We called each other by my name, Caroline, supposedly because I could not pronounce Alexandra… Early on, Alexandra was the more precocious one, I more shy. Baby photos are easily deciphered because her mouth was always open, mid-babble or laugh, while I stared at her or at the camera like a marmot caught in the beam of a flashlight, baffled and resigned. And so it was preordained: Alexandra had the makings of an actress, and I was already comfortable with the fleeting attention due a fake celebrity.


The world compared us constantly. It was easy; we had a measuring stick right next to us. Who was prettier, stronger, smarter, nicer, funnier? Naturally, I wanted to be — but not at the expense of my twin. Could I just be pretty, strong, smart, nice, funny? No. Unbidden, the first thing people did was enumerate our differences. We were seen in reference to each other, and never on our own terms.

Illustration by John Vernon Lord for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

With an eye to what she elegantly calls “the porous relationship between reality and entertainment,” Paul draws a perceptive parallel between two very different yet very similar cultural domains of identity-muddling:

The way we treat identical twins is strikingly similar to the way we treat celebrities. Our stares are naked, open, unapologetic… We conflate twins with each other, and celebrities with the characters they play on TV.

Tucked into the story are also curious and reality-warping facts about the strange science of twindom that illuminate our assumptions about the givens of being human — the wellspring of so many of our beliefs about identity. Recounting one particularly comical anecdote from their twenties, when the sisters successfully used their twindom to prank Alexandra’s director on the film set, Paul writes:

“You’re so lucky!” singletons exclaim upon hearing stories like this one. “I wish I was a twin.”

“Well,” I tell them, “Perhaps you were.”

One in 90 live births result in twins (fraternal and identical), but one in eight begin as twins. This phenomenon of “the vanishing twin” still puzzles scientists; they aren’t sure why one disappears and one remains. The “how” is only a little clearer. The best guess is that the fetus is absorbed into the mother’s body; sometimes it may be assimilated into the surviving twin. Often it happens so early that no one is the wiser. But advances in technology mean that fetuses can be tracked earlier and earlier, and it’s now clear that many humans born alone may once have had a sibling in the womb.

While the numbers are new and surprising, the vanishing twin phenomenon has been recognized for centuries. Hair and teeth were found in singletons, often much later in life. Five tiny fetuses were once discovered in the brain of a child. A six-pound fetus was removed from an elderly man. Sometimes two fraternal embryos can merge to become one body — detected when blood tests show two different blood types…

All of this is to say that 15 percent of singletons — and this is a conservative number — had a twin who disappeared sometime during pregnancy. What does this mean for the survivor? Is there a subconscious understanding that a twin was lost? Could this account for some singletons’ fascination with twins, or others’ inexplicable certainty that something is missing?

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce's Ulysses. Click image for more.

In complete contrast to the innermost identity that defines twins — one woven into the very strands of their DNA — is the identity conferred by celebrity, a judgment of personhood granted from the outside on the basis of outermost characteristics. Paul writes:

Celebrity is not an inner condition, like happiness or desperation; it is instead bestowed by the rest of us. Celebrity is not even dependent on something you consciously do; it is just, according to Merriam-Webster, the “state of being famous, celebrated.” A celebrity may be a talented soccer player/opera singer/banker. But a talented soccer player/opera star/banker is not necessarily a celebrity. The mantle is placed after an unspoken agreement between a certain number of other people.

But perhaps the greatest and most uncomfortable question of identity in the story is the subtlest, most unspoken one. Make no mistake — for all her self-effacing geniality and the generosity with which she paints her sister’s virtues of character, Caroline herself is an exceptional person: a former firefighter who spent many years as one of only fifteen women on San Francisco’s 1,500-person Fire Department, a fearless pilot who flies experimental planes, and a terrifically talented writer, author of the memoir Fighting Fire, the historical novel East Wind, Rain, and the funny and poignant micro-memoir Lost Cat, illustrated by her partner and frequent Brain Pickings collaborator Wendy MacNaughton.

Yet under the tyranny of celebrity culture, we idolize not the writer, pilot, and firefighter but the Hollywood actor; we lionize the fictional lifeguard on television while her real-life twin spends her days saving real lives from burning buildings and writing excellent books about it. Amplifying this gobsmacking inversion is the question of gender — twenty years after the heyday of Baywatch, ours remains a culture still more likely to celebrate women for being beautiful and half-naked than for being strong, selfless, and intellectually zealous.

The most paradoxical part is that although Caroline’s loving depiction renders Alexandra a kind and altogether wonderful person, these actual character qualities are utterly irrelevant in the currency of her celebrity, sold by Hollywood and bought by fans on the basis of a complete fictional projection, celebrated for the make-belief attributes of the character she portrays on TV, or even for her mere scale of her presence in millions of homes via the permeable membrane of the TV screen.

Celebrity, indeed, is a curious condition — it rarely afflicts Nobel laureates but is automatically conferred upon television stars watched by a billion viewers. This says something quite unsettling about our culture’s values and our civilizational priorities. It also asks us to examine not only the object of our stares — be it a celebrity or a pair of twins — but also the deepest values of the self behind the eyes that do the staring.

In the remainder of the thoroughly pause-giving Almost Her, many such grand questions about cultural and individual identity arise from the minute scale of Paul’s experience both as a twin and as the twin of a celebrity, from the moral and emotional ambivalences of being constantly mistaken for her famous sister to our collective contract about privacy and its culturally permissible invasions to the strangely supple pillars of personhood.

Complement it with Meghan Daum on how we become who we are, young Leo Tolstoy’s diaries of the search for a solid self, and Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity over time.

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15 JULY, 2015

35-Year-Old Emerson’s Extraordinary Harvard Divinity School Address on the Divine Transcendence of Nature


In praise of the sentiment through which the soul comes to know itself.

I have long considered the commencement address the secular sermon of our time — the greatest commencement addresses deliver precisely the kind of well-packaged, eloquent, enchanting advice on what it takes to lead a good life that we used to find in worship services. But on July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson took the podium before the graduating class at what is now the Harvard Divinity School to deliver a powerful and immeasurably beautiful speech that bridged these two traditions — the religious sermon and the secular packet of life-advice — unlike anything before or since.

He was only thirty-five.

Found in his altogether indispensable Essays and Lectures (public library; free download) — the source of Emerson’s enduring wisdom on the two pillars of friendship, the key to personal growth, what beauty really means, and how to live with maximum aliveness — the speech is notable both for its substance and its place in time: Emerson wrote it in the midst of a deeply religious era, more than two decades before Darwin penned On the Origin of Species and formulated his theory of evolution, and was addressing a graduating class of divinity students. And yet despite that — or, rather, precisely because of it — what makes his speech so extraordinary is that he extolls a sort of secular spirituality nearly two centuries before our contemporary conceptions of it. Emerson admonishes against superstition and dogma, instead championing a “religious sentiment” — the era’s term for spirituality — predicated on moral virtue, a philosophy of presence, and a reverence of nature.

Emerson writes:

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse. How wide; how rich; what invitation from every property it gives to every faculty of man!

Art by Christopher Marley from 'Biophilia.' Click image for more.

A century and a half before Hannah Arendt made her elegant case for how our unanswerable questions make us human, Emerson argues that these are precisely the kinds of questions sparked in the human mind when we behold nature’s beauty and with with the awe it produces in us:

What am I? and What is? asks the human spirit with a curiosity new-kindled, but never to be quenched. Behold these outrunning laws, which our imperfect apprehension can see tend this way and that, but not come full circle. Behold these infinite relations, so like, so unlike; many, yet one. I would study, I would know, I would admire forever. These works of thought have been the entertainments of the human spirit in all ages.

But from this awe, Emerson observes, springs an inquiry far more profound — one that has to do with the meaning of the good life:

A more secret, sweet, and overpowering beauty appears to man when his heart and mind open to the sentiment of virtue… He learns that his being is without bound…

The sentiment of virtue is a reverence and delight in the presence of certain divine laws. It perceives that this homely game of life we play, covers, under what seem foolish details, principles that astonish… This sentiment is the essence of all religion.

We now know, indeed, that this virtuous disposition is at the heart of the Golden Rule, a version of which is a centerpiece of all major religious traditions. Emerson considers the deeper moral impulse beneath the teachings of virtue:

The intuition of the moral sentiment is an insight of the perfection of the laws of the soul. These laws execute themselves. They are out of time, out of space, and not subject to circumstance. Thus; in the soul of man there is a justice whose retributions are instant and entire. He who does a good deed, is instantly ennobled. He who does a mean deed, is by the action itself contracted.

He turns to truth as the ultimate moral beauty:

Speak the truth, and all nature and all spirits help you with unexpected furtherance. Speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there, do seem to stir and move to bear you witness.

From this moral aspiration, Emerson argues, springs what we call spirituality:

The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment which we call the religious sentiment, and which makes our highest happiness. Wonderful is its power to charm and to command. It is a mountain air. It is the embalmer of the world. It is myrrh and storax, and chlorine and rosemary. It makes the sky and the hills sublime, and the silent song of the stars is it. By it, is the universe made safe and habitable…

This sentiment is divine and deifying. It is the beatitude of man. It makes him illimitable. Through it, the soul first knows itself.

Illustration from 'You Are Stardust.' Click image for more.

In an admonition particularly poignant and timely in our era of divisive dogma, Emerson argues that spirituality cannot be taken on faith, as it were — it is not the result of preaching or dogma absorbed from the outside but a sentiment to be cultivated on the inside, a private “conversation with the beauty of the soul.” Emerson writes:

Whilst the doors of the temple stand open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this, namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul. What he announces, I must find true in me, or wholly reject; and on his word, or as his second, be he who he may, I can accept nothing.

Once again, Emerson astonishes with his capacity for holding duality — the hallmark of the truly enlightened mind. Here he is, delivering an address at the world’s foremost divinity school, and yet advocating for what is essentially a proto-version of the critical thinking Carl Sagan championed a century and a half later in his famous Baloney Detection Kit.

Emerson was well ahead of his time — and perhaps even of ours — in more ways than one. More than a century before Alan Watts began popularizing Eastern philosophy in the West, he argues that these spiritual-moral values are best cultivated, and have been for millennia, “in the minds of men in the devout and contemplative East.” With an eye to these Eastern traditions, Emerson envisions a new spiritual movement that integrates these ideas into Western life:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men … and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.

Emerson’s Essays and Lectures, it bears repeating, is a magnificent and existentially necessary read in its hefty totality. Sample it further with Emerson on why we resist change, the true measure of friendship, and how beauty bewitches the human imagination, then complement this particular meditation with a contemporary counterpart: Sam Harris on how to cultivate spirituality without religion.

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15 JULY, 2015

Beloved Poet Nikki Giovanni on Love, Friendship, and Loneliness


“Some people forget that love is tucking you in and kissing you ‘Good night’ no matter how young or old you are.”

In his magnificent meditation on the nature of creativity, the late poet Mark Strand defined poetry as the art of “meaning carried to a high order,” adding: “It’s not just essential communication, daily communication; it’s a total communication.” Few poets embody this ideal of totality more boldly and bridge the daily with the essential more beautifully than writer, activist, educator, and queer icon Nikki Giovanni (b. June 7, 1943), recipient of twenty honorary degrees from some of the world’s most renowned universities and the Langston Hughes Medal for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters.

Giovanni shares a kinship of sensibility with such diverse peers as e.e. cummings, Denise Levertov and Wislawa Szymborska. Her poetry is, perhaps above all, a masterwork of translation — the personal into the universal, the mundane into the monumental, the traumatic into the transcendent. Inside and between her verses, the most elemental human longings and concerns — love, loss, friendship, loneliness, freedom — at once new and even more immutable.

Here are my readings of five of Giovanni’s most beautiful poems — please enjoy.

From The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1995 (public library):


if i can’t do
what i want to do
then my job is to not
do what i don’t want
to do

it’s not the same thing
but it’s the best i can

if i can’t have
what i want … then
my job is to want
what i’ve got
and be satisfied
that at least there
is something more to want

since i can’t go
where i need
to go … then i must … go
where the signs point
through always understanding
parallel movement
isn’t lateral

when i can’t express
what i really feel
i practice feeling
what i can express
and none of it is equal

i know
but that’s why mankind
alone among the animals
learns to cry


i’m not lonely
sleeping all alone
you think i’m scared
but i’m a big girl
i don’t cry or anything

i have a great
big bed to roll around
in and lots of space
and i don’t dream
bad dreams like i used
to have that you
were leaving me

now that you’re gone
i don’t dream
and no matter
what you think
i’m not lonely
all alone

From the 1997 volume Love Poems (public library), one of Giovanni’s most delicious:


Some people forget that love is
tucking you in and kissing you
“Good night”
no matter how young or old you are

Some people don’t remember that
love is
listening and laughing and asking
no matter what your age

Few recognize that love is
commitment, responsibility
no fun at all

Love is
You and me


We are not lovers
because of the love
we make
but the love
we have

We are not friends
because of the laughs
we spend
but the tears
we save

I don’t want to be near you
for the thoughts we share
but the words we never have
to speak

I will never miss you
because of what we do
but what we are

From her most recent and most exhaustive volume, The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968–1998 (public library):


when i die i hope no one who ever hurt me cries
and if they cry i hope their eyes fall out
and a million maggots that had made up their brains
crawl from the empty holes and devour the flesh
that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person
that i probably tried
to love

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14 JULY, 2015

How a Dream Came True: Young Jane Goodall’s Exuberant Letters and Diary Entries from Africa


How the beloved scientist transformed a childhood fantasy into the rugged reality of revolutionary work.

When Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) was a little girl, she was given a stuffed toy chimpanzee, whom she named Jubilee. From that moment on, little Jane and Jubilee became inseparable, but she especially enjoyed sitting with him on a tree branch in her family’s backyard, where she would read the Tarzan novels for hours on end. Like most children, Jane transformed the toy and the books into raw material for dreams — in her case, the dream of going to Africa to study the curious lives of monkeys. Unlike most children, she spent the next two decades turning that childhood dream into a reality by becoming the world’s most influential primatologist and the most celebrated woman in science since Marie Curie.

When she boarded the S.S. Kenya Castle one chilly spring day, 22-year-old Goodall was burning with exuberant enthusiasm for the work she was heading to Kenya to do. But she had no idea that this work, at first met with enormous resistance, would revolutionize not only our understanding of chimpanzees — her lifelong locus of curiosity and expertise — but our understanding of the complexities of all animal consciousness.

Jane Goodall with the young chimp Flint at Gombe (Photograph: Hugo van Lawick, Goodall's first husband, courtesy of Jane Goodall Institute)

In a letter to her family penned aboard the Kenya Castle in March of 1957, found in the altogether magnificent Africa in My Blood: An Autobiography in Letters (public library), Goodall writes:

Darling Family,

It is now 4 p.m. on Thursday and I still find it difficult to believe that I am on my way to Africa. That is the thing — AFRICA. It is easy to imagine I am going for a long sea voyage, but not that names like Mombasa, Nairobi, South Kinangop, Nakuru, etc., are going to become reality.

The first page of Goodall's letter to her family from aboard the Kenya Castle

On April 3 — her twenty-third birthday — Goodall finally arrived in the dreamsome reality of Nairobi. Her first letter home brims with uncontainable gusto for the life she was about to begin — a life she had purposefully pursued since childhood:

I really do simply adore Kenya. It’s so wild, uncultivated, primitive, mad, exciting, unpredictable. It is also slightly degrading in its effect on some rather weak characters, but on the whole I am living in the Africa I have always longed for, always felt stirring in my blood.

Illustration by from 'Me ... Jane,' a picture-book about Goodall's childhood. Click image for more.

But the most fateful date in Goodall’s journey came more than three years later: On July 14, 1960, she arrived in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park, where she would spend many years conducting the groundbreaking research for which she is celebrated today, and to which she still returns frequently in the course of her tireless environmental conservation work.

It was there that she met, named, and befriended the now-famous David Greybeard — the first chimp to overcome the fear of human contact and the generous gatekeeper who made possible Goodall’s research amid the chimpanzee community.

Jane Goodall with David Greybeard at Gombe

On her very first day at Gombe, Goodall saw her first chimp. It was a highly unlikely occurrence — at that point, scientists considered chimpanzees mysterious creatures at once wild and timid, nearly impossible to sight, let alone approach. In a diary entry from that first day, preserved by The Jane Goodall Institute, the young scientist captures the tremendous thrill of that miraculous event — a visceral affirmation that she was indeed living her childhood dream:

We woke at dawn … Left about 9 and arrived about 11. The fisherman were all along the beaches frying their dagga fish. It looked as though patches of sand had been whitewashed. Above, the mountains rose up steeply behind the beaches. The slopes were thickly covered with accacia and other trees… Every so often a stream cascaded down the vallys between the ridges, with its thick fringe of forest — the home of the chimps.

The lake water was so clear I could scarcely believe it.

Our tent was up in no time, in a clearing up from the fisherman’s huts on the stony beach. We had some lunch together, and then Ma and I spent an exhausting and hot afternoon setting things in order. I say exhausting because I had a foul sore throat, turning into a cold.

Then, about 5 o’clock, someone came along to say some people had seen a chimp. So off we went and there was the chimp. It was quite a long way -too far to tell its sex or even see properly what it looked like — but it was a chimp. It moved away as we drew level with the crowd of fishermen gazing at it, and, though we climbed the neighboring slope, we didn’t see it again. However, we went over to the trees & found a fresh nest there. — Whether that day’s of the day before I couldn’t tell. We returned to the beach and walked back.

We all had dinner together, and after long chats, & helplessly endeavoring to hear the news, Ma and I thankfully retired to bed.

Although 26-year-old Goodall was accompanied by her mother at Gombe — a requirement by the park’s chief warden, who was concerned about the young primatologist’s safety, and a reflection of what women scientists had to grapple with in that era — she continued corresponding with her relatives at home. On day three at Gombe, she writes in a picturesque letter to her grandmother Danny and the rest of the family:

We got here, Danny, on your birthday & mentally had tea with you — just after I had seen my first chimpanzee! I could hardly believe I could be lucky enough to see one on my very first day. We were quite far away, but at least close enough to know it was a chimp & not a baboon. There are lots of Baboon here — one Troop comes very close to the tent each morning to watch us. I went out yesterday afternoon to do a little exploring on my own and saw a beautiful bushbuck — a smallish animal, lovely reddish gold colour. He flew away almost from under my feet, barking like a dog.

The country here is quite beautiful, but very rugged. The little stream behind the tent rushes down the steep rock valley, gurgling and splashing down steppes of waterfalls. The water is pure and sweet — doesn’t even have to be boiled. 16 such streams flow down the valleys between the mountain ridges, & along their banks are the forest galleries, the home of the chimps. In between the mountain slopes are fairly bare — really it is ideal country for my job, though at the moment the task seems of a huge magnitude.

To see the passion and perseverance with which Goodall has dedicated her life to the accomplishment of that monumental task is nothing short of breathtaking.

Jane Goodall with David Greybeard at Gombe

Complement the altogether exhilarating Africa in My Blood, a trove of Goodall’s contagious enthusiasm and goodness, with the beloved scientist on empathy and our highest human potential, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and a lovely children’s book about her childhood.

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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.