Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

23 APRIL, 2012

E. B. White’s Only New Yorker Cover, April 23, 1932

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‘I can’t draw or paint, but I was sick in bed…and I had nothing to occupy me, but I had a cover idea.’

E. B. White was a man of many talents — a fierce idealist, a writer of warm and witty love letters, a champion of optimism in the human condition. In April of 1932, he expanded his roster of creative accomplishments by contributing his only cover for the New Yorker, the magazine that would go on to be his literary home for five decades.

In his fantastic 1969 Paris Review interview, the same gem that gave us his timeless insights on the role and responsibility of the writer, White tells George Plimpton the cover’s story:

I’m not an artist and never did any drawings for The New Yorker. I did turn in a cover and it was published. I can’t draw or paint, but I was sick in bed with tonsillitis or something, and I had nothing to occupy me, but I had a cover idea — of a sea horse wearing a nose bag. I borrowed my son’s watercolor set, copied a sea horse from a picture in Webster’s dictionary, and managed to produce a cover that was bought. It wasn’t much of a thing. I even loused up the whole business finally by printing the word ‘oats’ on the nose bag, lest somebody fail to get the point. I suppose the original of that cover would be a collector’s item of a minor sort, since it is my only excursion into the world of art. But I don’t know where it is. I gave it to Jed Harris. What he did with it, knows God.

Various prints of the cover are available from the Conde Nast store, and it can also be found in the altogether fantastic 2000 compendium, Covering the New Yorker: Cutting-Edge Covers from a Literary Institution.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0375869832/ref=as_li_ss_til?tag=braipick-20&camp=0&creative=0&linkCode=as4&creativeASIN=0375869832&adid=02YXM5MD2VFTBCC5WMM6&Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

20 APRIL, 2012

5 (Mostly) Vintage Children’s Books by Iconic Graphic Designers

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Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Bruno Munari, Paul Rand.

As a lover of children’s books, I have a particularly soft spot for little-known gems by well-known creators. After two rounds of excavating obscure children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups and icons of the art world, here are five wonderful vintage children’s books by some of history’s most celebrated graphic designers.

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS BY SAUL BASS

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is commonly considered the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. This year, half a century later, Rizzoli reprinted Henri’s Walk to Paris (public library) — an absolute gem like only Bass can deliver, at once boldly minimalist and incredibly rich, telling the sweet, aspirational, colorful story of a boy who lives in rural France and dreams of going to Paris.

Originally featured here in February, with more images.

THE ALPHAZEDS BY MILTON GLASER

Many of us regard Milton Glaser as the greatest graphic designer alive. From the iconic I ♥ NY logo to his prolific newspaper and magazine designs, logos, brand identities, posters and other celebrated visual ephemera, his work seeks to inform and delight. In 2003, he collaborated with his wife, Shirley Glaser, on The Alphazeds (public library) — mighty fuel for my obsession with alphabet books, in which the letters of the alphabet turn into a boisterous bunch and meet one another for the first time in a small yellow room. Delightful havoc ensues.

In 2005, the duo collaborated once again, producing The Rabbit Race (public library) — an adaptation of the famous Aesop fable.

THE BROWNSTONE BY PAULA SCHER

Paula Scher might be best-known for her iconic identity design and, most recently, her obsessive typographic maps, but in 1973 she teamed up with pioneering documentary-style cartoonist Stanley Mack to produce The Brownstone(public library). It tells the tale of six animal families who have trouble finding the right apartment in a classic New York City brownstone building. The collaboration is somewhat surprising — Scher, a formidable visual communicator herself, took the role of writer, while Mack illustrated the story. The book is long out of print, but you can find a used copy at reasonable price with some rummaging online, or look for it in your favorite public library.

THE ELEPHANT’S WISH BY BRUNO MUNARI

Italian creative polymath Bruno Munari has tried his hand, with celebrated success, at painting, sculpture, film, industrial design, graphic design, and literature. In 1945, he expanded his roster of talents into children’s books with The Elephant’s Wish (public library) — a stunningly illustrated story, with playful folding flaps to add tactile delight. It was published in the U.S. in 1959. This book is also out of print (hey, Rizzoli, what are you waiting for?), but used copies are reasonably priced and you can, of course, look for one in your local library.

In 1960, Munari followed up with the graphically astonishing ABC (public library), then with Zoo public library in 1963. The two were reissued in 2006 and 2005, respectively.

Images courtesy of Douglas Stewart Fine Books

SPARKLE AND SPIN BY PAUL RAND

In the late 1950s, legendary graphic designer and notorious curmudgeon Paul Rand and his then-wife Anne set out to write and illustrate a series of children’s books. First came Sparkle and Spin: A Book About Words (public library), originally featured here in February. With its bold, playful interplay of words and pictures, the book encourages an understanding of the relationship between language and image, shape and sound, thought and expression, a lens we’ve also seen when Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco introduced young readers to semiotics in the same period.

Though the cover of the 2006 reprint, with its all too literal glitter gimmick, would have likely sent Rand into a vapid fury, the book is an absolute treasure, one I’m happy to see survive the out-of-print fate of all too many mid-century gems.

Sparkle and Spin was followed by Little 1 in 1962 and the out-of-print, incredibly hard to find Listen! Listen! in 1970.

For more seminal vintage children’s book illustration, see the fantastic Children’s Picturebooks: The Art of Visual Storytelling.

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17 APRIL, 2012

E. B. White on the Role and Responsibility of the Writer

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“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

Today, I’m headed to Columbia to take part in a symposium on the future of journalism — a subject that feels at once on some great cusp and under the weight of a myriad conflicting pressures. It prompted me to revisit one of my all-time favorite Paris Review interviews, a 1969 conversation, in which the great George Plimpton and sidekick Frank H. Crowther interview E. B. White. White has previously voiced strong opinions on the free press and, of course, the architecture of language, but here he shares some timeless yet strikingly timely insights on the role and the responsibility of the writer:

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

One important reflection is that in 1969, implicit to the very nature of print was a kind of accountability, a truth standard that engendered in White this sense of “responsibility to society.” As news and opinion have shifted online, a medium much more fluid and dynamic, this notion of baked-in accountability no longer holds true and, one might observe, has allowed journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. What standards and expectations we adopt and instill in writers and publishers today will “inform and shape life.”

When asked how he sees the role of the writer in an era “increasingly enamored of and dependent upon science and technology” — bear in mind, this is 1969 — White answers:

The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.’

A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.

I love this notion of a custodian, or secretary, or interpreter, of culture. Though the word “curator” is tragically flawed, the ideals at its heart — to shine a light on the meaningful, to frame for the reader or viewer what matters in the world and why — remain an important piece of the evolution of authorship. What White describes as the role of the writer is very much the role of the cultural custodian today, in the broadest, most platform-agnostic sense of the role possible.

But perhaps most brilliantly, in one swift sentence White captures everything that’s wrong with the sensationalism that permeates media today, from the HuffPostification of headlines to the general linkbait alarmism of language designed to squeeze out another barely-monetized pageview:

Shocking writing is like murder: the questions the jury must decide are the questions of motive and intent.

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