Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

15 JUNE, 2012

From Fitzgerald to Reagan, 5 Letters of Fatherly Advice from History’s Greatest Public Dads


“The secret of success is concentrating interest in life… interest in the small things of nature… In other words to be fully awake to everything.”

With Father’s Day around the corner, let’s take a moment to pay heed to some of the wisest, most heart-warming advice from history’s famous dads. Gathered here are five timeless favorites, further perpetuating my well-documented love of the art of letter-writing.


In a 1933 letter to his 11-year-old daughter Scottie, F. Scott Fitzgerald produced this poignant and wise list of things to worry, not worry, and think about, found in the altogether excellent F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters:

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about…

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?


In this beautiful 1928 letter, culled from American Letters 1927-1947: Jackson Pollock & Family, Jackson Pollock’s dad, LeRoy, offers his son a sincere, optimistic lens on what matters most in life and how to cultivate it.

Dear Son Jack,

Well it has been some time since I received your fine letter. It makes me a bit proud and swelled up to get letters from five young fellows by the names of Charles, Mart, Frank, Sande, and Jack. The letters are so full of life, interest, ambition, and good fellowship. It fills my old heart with gladness and makes me feel ‘Bully.’ Well Jack I was glad to learn how you felt about your summer’s work & your coming school year. The secret of success is concentrating interest in life, interest in sports and good times, interest in your studies, interest in your fellow students, interest in the small things of nature, insects, birds, flowers, leaves, etc. In other words to be fully awake to everything about you & the more you learn the more you can appreciate & get a full measure of joy & happiness out of life. I do not think a young fellow should be too serious, he should be full of the Dickens some times to create a balance.

I think your philosophy on religion is okay. I think every person should think, act & believe according to the dictates of his own conscience without too much pressure from the outside. I too think there is a higher power, a supreme force, a governor, a something that controls the universe. What it is & in what form I do not know. It may be that our intellect or spirit exists in space in some other form after it parts from this body. Nothing is impossible and we know that nothing is destroyed, it only changes chemically. We burn up a house and its contents, we change the form but the same elements exist; gas, vapor, ashes. They are all there just the same.

I had a couple of letters from mother the other day, one written the twelfth and one the fifteenth. Am always glad to get letters from your mother, she is a Dear isn’t she? Your mother and I have been a complete failure financially but if the boys turn out to be good and useful citizens nothing else matters and we know this is happening so why not be jubilant?

The weather up here couldn’t be beat, but I suppose it won’t last always, in fact we are looking forward to some snowstorms and an excuse to come back to the orange belt. I do not know anything about what I will do or if I will have a job when I leave here, but I am not worrying about it because it is no use to worry about what you can’t help, or what you can help, moral ‘don’t worry.’

Write and tell me all about your schoolwork and yourself in general. I will appreciate your confidence.

You no doubt had some hard days on your job at Crestline this summer. I can imagine the steep climbing, the hot weather, etc. But those hard things are what builds character and physic. Well Jack I presume by the time you have read all this you will be mentally fatigued and will need to relax. So goodnight, pleasant dreams and God bless you.

Your affectionate Dad

Originally featured here in February.


Days before 26-year-old Michael Reagan’s wedding in June of 1971, would-be U.S. President Ronald Reagan sent him this thoughtful and strikingly honest letter of marital advice, found in Reagan: A Life In Letters:

Dear Mike:

Enclosed is the item I mentioned (with which goes a torn up IOU). I could stop here but I won’t.

You’ve heard all the jokes that have been rousted around by all the “unhappy marrieds” and cynics. Now, in case no one has suggested it, there is another viewpoint. You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life. It can be whatever you decide to make it.

Some men feel their masculinity can only be proven if they play out in their own life all the locker-room stories, smugly confident that what a wife doesn’t know won’t hurt her. The truth is, somehow, way down inside, without her ever finding lipstick on the collar or catching a man in the flimsy excuse of where he was till three A.M., a wife does know, and with that knowing, some of the magic of this relationship disappears. There are more men griping about marriage who kicked the whole thing away themselves than there can ever be wives deserving of blame. There is an old law of physics that you can only get out of a thing as much as you put in it. The man who puts into the marriage only half of what he owns will get that out. Sure, there will be moments when you will see someone or think back to an earlier time and you will be challenged to see if you can still make the grade, but let me tell you how really great is the challenge of proving your masculinity and charm with one woman for the rest of your life. Any man can find a twerp here and there who will go along with cheating, and it doesn’t take all that much manhood. It does take quite a man to remain attractive and to be loved by a woman who has heard him snore, seen him unshaven, tended him while he was sick and washed his dirty underwear. Do that and keep her still feeling a warm glow and you will know some very beautiful music. If you truly love a girl, you shouldn’t ever want her to feel, when she sees you greet a secretary or a girl you both know, that humiliation of wondering if she was someone who caused you to be late coming home, nor should you want any other woman to be able to meet your wife and know she was smiling behind her eyes as she looked at her, the woman you love, remembering this was the woman you rejected even momentarily for her favors.

Mike, you know better than many what an unhappy home is and what it can do to others. Now you have a chance to make it come out the way it should. There is no greater happiness for a man than approaching a door at the end of a day knowing someone on the other side of that door is waiting for the sound of his footsteps.



P.S. You’ll never get in trouble if you say “I love you” at least once a day.

Letters of Note


Half a century ago last month, 37-year-old Malcolm Scott Carpenter piloted the Aurora 7 into space, becoming only the second American to orbit the Earth. The day before his landmark journey, he received the following letter from his father, Marion, found in For Spacious Skies: The Uncommon Journey of a Mercury Astronaut:

Dear Son,

Just a few words on the eve of your great adventure for which you have trained yourself and anticipated for so long — to let you know that we all share it with you, vicariously.

As I think I remarked to you at the outset of the space program, you are privileged to share in a pioneering project on a grand scale — in fact the grandest scale yet known to man. And I venture to predict that after all the huzzas have been uttered and the public acclaim is but a memory, you will derive the greatest satisfaction from the serene knowledge that you have discovered new truths. You can say to yourself: this I saw, this I experienced, this I know to be the truth. This experience is a precious thing; it is known to all researchers, in whatever field of endeavour, who have ventured into the unknown and have discovered new truths.

You are probably aware that I am not a particularly religious person, at least in the sense of embracing any of the numerous formal doctrines. Yet I cannot conceive of a man endowed with intellect, perceiving the ordered universe about him, the glory of the mountain top, the plumage of a tropical bird, the intricate complexity of a protein molecule, the utter and unchanging perfection of a salt crystal, who can deny the existence of some higher power. Whether he chooses to call it God or Mohammed or Buddha or Torquoise Woman or the Law of Probability matters little. I find myself in my writings frequently calling upon Mother Nature to explain things and citing Her as responsible for the order of the universe. She is a very satisfactory divinity for me. And so I shall call upon Her to watch over you and guard you and, if she so desires, share with you some of Her secrets which She is usually so ready to share with those who have high purpose.

With all my love,


Letters of Note


Nobel laureate John Steinbeck was a prolific and eloquent letter-writer, as the magnificent Steinbeck: A Life in Letters reveals. Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom’s 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck’s words of wisdom — tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious — should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.

Dear Thom:

We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.

First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.

Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.

You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.

But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.

Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.

The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.

If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.

Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.

It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.

Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.

We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.

And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.



Originally featured here in January.

Donating = Loving

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:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

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.

14 JUNE, 2012

Sylvia Plath’s Drawings


“The pleasure of odds and ends,” in pen, ink, and literary history.

Last week, we found out Queen Victoria was a semi-secret but masterful artist — and she wasn’t the only cultural icon whose artistic talent remained shadowed by her primary claim to fame. London’s Mayor Gallery recently exhibited 44 of Sylvia Plath’s pen and ink sketches that capture her “deepest source of inspiration”: art. The astonishingly adroit drawings, collected in the 2007 anthology Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (public library), reveal not only the literary icon’s exceptional attention to detail, but also a kind of diverse yet introspective curiosity about the world, from nature to architecture, from intimacy to public life.

Cow near Grantchester

The Bell Jar

Untitled (Male Portrait in Profile)

Cambridge: a view of gables and chimney-pots

Untitled (Cow)

Harbor Cornucopia, Wisconsin

The Ubiquitous Umbrella

Boats of Rock Harbor, Cape Cod

Untitled (Chianti Bottle)

Curious French Cat.

Untitled (Fruit Plate)

Tabac Opposite Palais de Justice

Purple Thistle

Untitled (Study of a Church and Chapel)

The Pleasure of Odds and Ends

For more on Plath’s surprisingly skillful and thoughtful visual art, examined in the context of her literary career, see Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual.

The Telegraph

Donating = Loving

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:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

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.

14 JUNE, 2012

An Unquiet History of Libraries and Navigating Knowledge, from Alexandria to the Internet


“…texts, fabrics to be shredded and woven together in new combinations and patterns…”

Everything in the world exists to end up in a book,” the French poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé famously proclaimed.

My mother was formally trained in library science and although she went into computer software instead, her academic bequest always instilled in me a profound respect for these institutions. (From which the New York Public Library benefits with regular donations.) A great library doesn’t just contain knowledge, it kindles knowledge — getting lost in its endless corridors of curiosity, you inevitably find yourself. In Library: An Unquiet History (public library), a fine companion to Books: A Living History, Harvard rare books librarian Matthew Battles traces the survival and destruction of information, from Alexandria to the internet. But besides the fascinating history, Battles paints a loving, layered portrait of the universal library itself, both as a sanctuary of culture and a pragmatic mechanism for knowledge-wielding.

The library … is no mere cabinet of curiosities; it’s a world, complete and completable, and it is filled with secrets. Like a world, it has its changes and its seasons, which belie the permanence that ordered ranks of books imply. Tugged by the gravity of readers’ desires, books flow in and out of the library like the tides. The people who shelve the books in [Harvard’s] Widener talk about the library’s breathing — at the start of the term, the stacks exhale books in great swirling clouds; at the end of term, the library inhales, and the books fly back. So the library is a body, too, the pages of books pressed together like organs in the darkness.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, ca. 1566

How alluring a library is, with its promise of a blueprint to the totality of the world:

In the stacks of the library … I have the distinct impression that its millions of volumes may indeed contain the entirety of human experience: that they make not a model for but a model of the universe.

But in the very notion of the universal library, with its diverse and seemingly infinite selection of information about the world, lies a dangerous implicit bias:

There’s a reductive danger in this fantasy: for if the world can be compressed into a library, then why not into a single book — why not into a single word?

Columbia’s Stuart Firestein touches on this in his excellent Ignorance: How It Drives Science, suggesting that when a hungry-eyed college student is a handed a mammoth science textbook that makes Darwin’s The Origin of Species look like a pamphlet by comparison, it’s easy for the young mind to assume the book contains all the answers. But science, like all meaningful knowledge, is about the questions and the relationships between facts, not about the answers and the accumulation of facts.

Indeed, the very rate at which a library accumulates information — “The Library of Congress, the world’s largest universal library, each day adds some 7,000 books to the more than 100 million items already standing on its 530 miles of shelves” — makes it all the more important to understand its role not as a repository of facts but as an orienteering system for knowledge. As such, it also serves to de-fetishize books:

In the universal library … books are not treated as precious and crystalline essences … Instead, they are texts, fabrics to be shredded and woven together in new combinations and patterns. Like the stars in the sky or the flowers of Linnaeus, they are not to be praised for particular influences or qualities; they must be counted and classified before they may be desired.

In a very urgent sense, the same could of course be said of the internet — which is, in fact, the world’s true “largest universal library” — and the idea that in order for us to access, or desire, what’s technically accessible, we must first know of its existence and its position within our framework of meaningful information. But among the layers of meaning that separate physical books from the web, Battles reminds us, are their embodied histories:

Brought together in multitudes, heaped up and pared down, read and forgotten, library books take on lives and histories of their own, not as texts but as physical objects in the world.

But that physicality is also the source of navigational weakness. Battles cites the prominent American librarian Edmund Lester Pearson’s 1909 lament about library card catalogs, which remains as relevant today:

Almost any day in any large library their fearful influence may be observed. Dozens of harrowed individuals are seen trying to think whether the name of Thomas De Quincy will be found in the drawer marked De or that labelled Qu. Then they make the choice — always wrong — and are seen, with pain only too apparent on their brows, dashing off to the other drawer…

(This reminded me of another fantastic book, Everything Is Miscellaneous (public library), which examines the advantage bits have over atoms in being better able to harness the multiplicity of meaning implicit to all objects and information, and thus to create better infrastructure for organizing the world. In the case of bits, that Thomas De Quincy book would appear in both the search results under “De” and those under “Qu.”)

Still, the library remains a formidable force of culture. Take, for instance, Harvard’s own Widener Library, where Battles works:

Endowed by the grieving mother of Harry Elkins Widener, a Harvard graduate and bibliophile who went down with the Titanic, Widener is the Great Unsinkable Library. Its ten levels contain fifty-seven miles of shelves, enough to hold some 4.6 million bound volumes, give or take a few. The shelves are great armatures of forged iron that carry the weight of the building; the library quite literally is supported by its books. Peopled not only with librarians, patrons, and professors but also with carpenters, couriers, cooks, accountants, student and part-time book shelvers, webmasters, network administrators, and human resource consultants, it is the city-state at the center of a confederacy of Harvard’s ninety-odd school and departmental collections, totaling some 14 million volumes; taken together, they make up the largest academic library the world has ever known.

Library: An Unquiet History goes on to explore how libraries are built and destroyed, celebrated and vilified — from the decay of the Library of Alexandria, the ancient world’s largest and most significant repository of knowledge, to the third-century book burnings of Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi in an effort to erase history, to the 20th-century destruction of libraries in Eastern Europe, but also Julius Cesar’s championing of the library movement in Ancient Rome, the Jewish library in the Vilna ghetto during WWII that served as social glue for a community under attack, the making of the great British Museum library. At its heart, the book is above all a celebration of mankind’s ceaseless quest to quench curiosity and organize knowledge — a quest all the more timely, yet more overwhelming, in an era when our collective “library” has swelled into the world wide web, the largest information system humanity has ever known.

Donating = Loving

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:

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:

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.