Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

29 AUGUST, 2013

Henry Hikes to Fitchburg: Lovely Illustrated Children’s Adaptation of Thoreau’s Philosophy, Full of Universal Wisdom for All

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An existential walk into what money can and can’t buy.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her sublime meditation on presence vs. productivity. There is hardly a more enduring embodiment of this spirit than Henry David Thoreau, for whom the very definition of success rested on the ability to greet one’s day with joy. Yet this philosophy of mindfulness and immersion in the richness of life is increasingly eroded by our culture’s cult of productivity, which eats away at our ability to truly see life as it unfolds before us.

That’s precisely what author and artist D. B. Johnson aims to counter with Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (public library) — an absolutely wonderful children’s story told through Johnson’s vibrant, minimalist, infinitely expressive colored-pencil-and-paint-on-paper illustrations. Based on a famous passage from Walden, it contrasts two different approaches to life — one prioritizing productivity and one worshiping wonder. It tells the tale of Thoreau and his unnamed friend, both cast as lovable bears, who decide to meet in the town of Fitchburg one summer evening, thirty miles away. Henry’s friend insists that the train is the most efficient way to get there and resolves to work until he has enough money to buy the 90-cent ticket, doing chores for neighbors — including some of Thoreau’s equally esteemed contemporaries, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. But Henry decides that walking, while less “efficient,” is the better way to get to Fitchburg — more present, more transcendent, more full of wonder.

Johnson tells young readers:

Henry David Thoreau was a real person who lived in Concord, Massachusetts, more than 150 years ago. He loved to take long walks through the woods and fields and write about the plants and animals he saw there. In his pockets he carried a pencil and paper, a jackknife, some string, a spyglass, a magnifying glass, and a flute. He could easily walk thirty miles in a day with an old music book under his arm for pressing plants and a walking stick that was notched for measuring things. … Henry thought people could live happily without big houses, lots of furniture, and high-paying jobs. They could spend less time working to earn money and more time doing things that interested them. Henry tried out these ideas. He built a small cabin at Walden Pond and for two years lived there alone.

As the two friends part ways and go about their plans, we begin to see how these divergent approaches frame each bear’s experience of life.

While Henry’s friend sweeps the post office for 5 cents, Henry walks five miles and carves a walking stick.

While his friend earns 15 cents ridding Mr. Hawthorne’s garden of weeds, Henry collects ferns and flowers to press in his book.

While his friend climbs bookcases to arrange Mr. Emerson’s study for another 15 cents, Henry climbs a tree and enjoys the view.

While his friend cleans out Mrs. Thoreau’s chicken house for 10 cents, Henry takes delight in a bird’s nest he discovers in a swamp 12 miles from Fitchburg.

On they go, each about his strategy of choice, until Henry’s friend finally races to catch the packed train, having earned his fare, while Henry takes a refreshing dive into a pond 7 miles from Fitchburg.

In the final scene, in which the two friends finally meet in Fitchburg, Johnson’s gift for saying so much in so few words and such subtle pictures shines with the utmost brilliance:

His friend was sitting in the moonlight when Henry arrived. “The train was faster,” he said.

Henry took a small pail from his pack. “I know,” he smiled. “I stopped for blackberries.”

More than a mere children’s primer on Thoreau’s philosophy, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg is both a stunning piece of art and an essential reminder for all of us about what money, no matter how much we worry about it, can and cannot buy, and that the art of living lies in how we choose to pay attention.

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26 AUGUST, 2013

Culinary Advice from James Beard, Illustrated by the Provensens

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“Take time to cherish the old and to investigate the new.”

As an aficionado of both unusual cookbooks and the whimsical vintage illustrations of Alice and Martin Provensen, I’m infinitely grateful to Mimi Sheraton, who authored the wonderful Seducer’s Cookbook, for tipping me off to the existence of The Fireside Cook Book: A Complete Guide to Fine Cooking for Beginner and Expert (public library) — a 1949 gem penned by none other than culinary legend James Beard. Intended “for people who are not content to regard food just as something one transfers periodically from plate to mouth,” it offers 1,217 recipes accompanied by more than 400 endlessly delightful illustrations by The Provensens.

But perhaps most timeless of all is a small section prefacing the delicious recipes and drawings, humbly titled “A Word of Advice,” in which Beard captures the spirit of good cooking and, more than half a century before Michael Pollan’s seminal Food Rules, presages much of today’s wisdom on simplicity and integrity of ingredients.

There is absolutely no substitute for good food. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing. If you use the best butter, eggs, cream, meat, and other ingredients, and use them carefully and wisely, you will have less waste than if you search for bargains and end up with a full garbage pail.

Plan ahead. Plan carefully and shop in advance for what you need. Planning saves money, as well as time and steps.

Stagger your preparations so that they fit in with your other duties. If you prepare vegetables and other ingredients in advance, the last-minute rush is greatly eased and you will have a few minutes to relax and enjoy the paper or a chat before dinner. Plan so that you do not have three or four things that need attention at the same time.

Avoid having too many courses. If the food is good, that is all the more reason to limit the number of dishes, so that each may be fully savored.

Divide your meal into separate entities. As we shall try to show in the vegetable chapter, many vegetables are important enough to have single billing on your menu and should be served as a separate course.

Give as much care to simple dishes and the humbler foods as you do to elaborate dishes and ambitious menus. At the same time, do not neglect to take advantage of new developments in the growing, shipping, preserving, and cooking of food. Take time to cherish the old and to investigate the new.

Here are some of the loveliest illustrations:

The Fireside Cook Book is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. Complement it with more of the Provensens’ vintage treats, including their adaptation of the Odyssey and the Iliad for young readers, their homage to William Blake, and their splendid take on twelve classic fairy tales. Their 1944 treasure The Animal Fair was also featured in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library as one of 10 favorite books about animals.

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20 AUGUST, 2013

Carving Culture: Sculptural Masterpieces Made from Old Books

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“The infinite ways a book can be explored with our minds and our tools has just begun.”

As a fervent lover of papercraft, book sculpture, and creative repurposing of physical books, I was instantly taken with Art Made from Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed (public library) — a compendium of extraordinary artworks from the around the world, using the physical book as raw material for creative contemplation and cultural commentary. Sensual, rugged, breathtakingly intricate, ranging from “literary jewelry” to paperback chess sets to giant area rugs woven of discarded book spines, these cut and carved tomes remind us that art is not a thing but a way — a way of being in the world that transmutes its dead cells into living materials, its cultural legacy into ever-evolving art forms and creative sensibilities.

Guerrilla book sculpture made for the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival by an anonymous artist.

In the preface, the inimitable Brian Dettmer, himself a celebrated master of book sculpture, recounts growing up in the 1980s with his brother next to a school for the developmentally disabled and building a massive library in their attic from the school’s discarded books. A decade later, he started carving books as a celebration of the enormous mesmerism and stimulation with which they filled his childhood. But, he laments, our collective relationship with the book has changed:

The book is no longer the king of the information ecosystem. We can now access almost anything instantly online, and bound encyclopedias have become large land mammals that can’t compete with the newer species. They have collapsed and they can’t go on. Do we feed from the carcass? Ideas, like protein, are valuable and shouldn’t go to waste. They should be consumed by someone. Or, do we treat them through taxidermy to preserve them in an inanimate state for future generations to view in museums?

[…]

Most of this book work has emerged as a result of, or a response to, the rise of the Internet and the fact that the role of books has dramatically changed in our current information ecology. Many nonfiction books, specifically reference books, have lost their original function.

[…]

We have an excess of old material we no longer use and an emergence of new ideas about the book. By altering the book, we can explore the meanings of the material and the idea of the book as a symbol for knowledge. We can explore questions about the history and the future of books and the impact of new technology. We can contemplate and illustrate ideas about literature and information technology.

It is not about nostalgia. It is about the richness of its history and the beauty of its form, though more often it goes far beyond this. The infinite ways a book can be explored with our minds and our tools has just begun. We are at an exciting and pivotal moment in the way we record and receive our information. The form of the book, a symbol for ideas, information, and literature, may be the most relevant signifier and richest material we can work with today. We need to take advantage of this moment and respect the history of the book while contemplating its future in the face of shifts to digital technology.

'Skulduggery,' James Allen, 2012. (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking)

'Stuart Little,' Thomas Allen, 2011. A weathered and discarded copy of the E. B. White's classic was gently manipulated to make big pictures of a little mouse.

Another sculpture by the same anonymous artist was left at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse in 2011 to celebrate an iconic venue, invaluable to those who also enjoy their books on the big screen.

'Alice: A Mad Tea Party,' Su Blackwell, 2007. Deconstructed book in a box.

'Paper Typewriter,' Jennifer Collier, 2011. Vintage typewriter manual pages, gray board, machine stitching.

'El orden y el caos,' Arián Dylan, 2010 (detail). Trimmed book (laser and hand), binding material.

'Prove It,' Jennifer Khoshbin, 2009. Cut book.

'Thesaurus,' Pablo Lehmann, 2011. Paper cut out with text from 'The Unconscious' by Sigmund Freud.

'Flights of mind,' Vita Wells, 2007. Book, hair, lights, fan, key, screws, hinges, glue.

Find more such whimsy inside the pages of Art Made from Books — pages that maybe, just maybe, would lend themselves to transformation one day.

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