Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

08 AUGUST, 2011

Letters to Children from Cultural Icons on the Love of Libraries

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A reading manifesto from Dr. Seuss, or what space ships have to do with fairy godmothers and civil rights.

In the spring of 1971, just before the opening of Michigan’s first public library in Troy, an audacious librarian by the name of Marguerite Hart set out to inspire the city’s youngsters to read and love the library. So she dreamed up a letter-writing campaign, inviting dozens of cultural luminaries — writers, actors, musicians, politicians, artists — to share what made reading special for them and speak to the importance of libraries. She got 97 letters in return, spanning 50 states and a multitude of occupations, including notes from such icons as Dr. Seuss, Neil Armstrong, E.B. White and Isaac Asimov. The collection became known as Letters to the Children of Troy and is available online in its entirety, from beloved children’s book illustrator Edward Ardizzone’s four-page hand-written letter, to the charming doodle of artist Hardie Gramatky, to the marvelous letterheads of various state senators. Gathered here are a few favorites from it, with a semi-secret wish that some thoughtful indie publisher would turn this into a beautiful book that belongs in a library.

Dear Children of Troy

Your library is more full of good things than a candy store or a pirate’s chest. What you get from books is not only pleasurable and valuable but it lasts all the rest of your life.

I send my love to all of you.” ~ Ben Spock

A library is many things. It’s a place to go, to get in out of the rain. It’s a place to go if you want to sit and think. But particularly it is a place where books live, and where you can get in touch with other people, and other thoughts, through books… A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your questions answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people — people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book.” ~ E.B. White

Dear Boys and Girls:

Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you — and most of all, a gateway to a better and happier and more useful life.” ~ Isaac Asimov

This note from the Mayor of Cleveland makes one wish today’s government would be full of more people like him.

As a young person, I was encouraged by my mother, my teachers and librarians to read for recreation, for information and for knowledge. Let me encourage you, as they encouraged me; for this country, despite all its failures and present inconsistencies, does promise and deliver much to those who prepare themselves.” ~ Carl B. Stokes

Here’s Helen Gurley Brown, one of the longest-tenured magazine editors-in-chief in history, spearheading Cosmopolitan for 32 years, also the author of the 1962 cult-classic, Sex and the Single Girl:

Dear Children:

Did you ever think of all the people you could be meeting at your library? Why — acrobats, singers, baseball players, knights in armour, kings, queens, elephants, dolls, jacks-in-the-box, angels, fairy godmothers, actors, astronauts, tuba-players — in fact, anyone you wish, through books!

You’ll never forget these friends of fantasy-land once you know what warm companions they are. Happy exploring!” ~ Helen Gurley Brown

And the governor of Vermont, with a timely sentiment on empathy and civil rights just as women and blacks were beginning to enter the workforce with critical mass:

Read! It is nourishing, civilizing, worthwhile. Read! It destroys our ignorance and our prejudices. Read! It teaches us to understand our fellowman better and, once we understand him, it will be much easier to love him and work with him in a daily more complex society.” ~ Deane Davis

My favorite has to be Neil Armstrong:

Knowledge is fundamental to all human achievement and progress. It is both the key and the quest that advances mankind. The search for knowledge is what brought men to the moon; but it took knowledge already acquired to make it possible to get there.

How we use the knowledge we gain determines our progress on earth, in space or on the moon. Your library is a storehouse for mind and spirit. Use it well.” ~ Neil Armstrong

Explore the full collection in the Letters to the Children of Troy archive and, while you’re at it, consider donating to your public library. (Every month, I allocate a portion of Brain Pickings donations to the New York Public Library.)

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08 AUGUST, 2011

Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers On Their Art

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What cubism and Lewis Carroll have to do with the foundations of modern photojournalism.

There’s something about photography that makes its fundamental ethos spill over into a multitude of disciplines and resonate on a deep human level. In 1989, Brooks Johnson set out to unearth that x-factor by hunting down the writings of yesteryear’s greatest photographers and asking the era’s greatest living ones to reach within and extract the essence of their art. The result was Photography Speaks: 66 Photographers on Their Art, followed by Photography Speaks II: 76 Photographers on Their Art in 1995 and the 2004 crown jewel, Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers On Their Art — a remarkable anthology of micro-essays by icons like Robert Frank, Cindy Sherman, Eadweard Muybridge, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and a wealth more. Each glorious double-page spread features one image from each photographer on the right-hand page, facing biographical background and a short, insightful personal reflection on the left.

Ilse Bing, American (b. Germany), 1899-1998

John Guttman, American (b. Germany), 1905-1998

Jan Groover, American, 1943-

Besides the rockstar photographers, the tome is also sprinkeld with cross-disciplinary surprises, creators like Lewis Carroll, René Magritte and David Hockney better-known for an art other than photography but whose photographic pursuits are nonetheless unmissable works of art.

Almost all cubist pictures are about things close to us. They don’t jump off the wall at you. You have to go to them, and look, and look. The camera does not bring anything close to you; it’s only more of the same void that we see. This is also true of television, and the movies. Between you and the screen there’s a window, you’re simply looking through a window. Cubism is a much more involved form of vision. It’s a better way of depicting reality, and I think it’s a truer way. It’s harder for us to see because it seems to contradict what we believe to be true. People complain that when they see a portrait of Picasso where, for instance, somebody has three eyes! It’s much simpler than that. It’s not that the person had three eyes, it’s that one of the eyes was seen twice. This reads the same way in my photographs. The fact that people can read photographs in this way made me think we’ve been deceived by the single photograph—by this image of one split second, in one fixed spot. I now see this fault in all photographs, and I can tell when drawings or paintings have been made from photographs. You can sense when the picture is not felt through space.” ~ David Hockney

From the practicalities of photography to the grandest theories of art, Photography Speaks is an extraordinary time-capsule for the cognition and emotion that fueled history’s most timeless and influential photographs, a rare backdoor into the minds of the creators who envisioned them and brought them to life.

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04 AUGUST, 2011

Driving with Plato: Life Lessons from History’s Greatest Minds

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“Life is hard,” the actress Katherine Hepburn once quipped, adding, “after all, it kills you.” Given the unavoidable end to the enterprise, then, it’s a good thing we can draw courage from the intelligence of the ages.

We’ve long been interested in the hard-won wisdom of our elders. Earlier this year, in fact, we put together a list of life advice from luminaries, which contained a great read called Breakfast with Socrates. Now its author, Robert Rowland Smith, has returned with a sequel of sorts. Bearing its own catchy title, Driving with Plato: The Meaning of Life’s Milestones, Smith’s latest provides an equally entertaining and insightful consideration of what the greats might have to say about such passages of life as going to school.

Where Breakfast with Socrates took as its structural unit a typical (Western) day, Driving with Plato considers the benchmarks of an entire life — both biological and culturally constructed — from birth onward. One chapter, for example, examines the challenge of first learning to ride a bike:

You have to embrace what in Kierkegaardian philosophy is the madness of decision, the vertiginous split second when reason must, in the name of action, go into suspense. In this critical instant of changeover, success arises only if you go at a considerable speed, if you seize the challenge of creating your own forward momentum… As Einstein (whom we’ll come to later) put it, when comparing riding a bicycle with life, “To keep your balance you have to keep moving!”

A cynic might say that Smith and his publishers were looking to exploit a clever conceit, but the book’s research and writing belie this charge. In fact, it’s altogether to the author’s credit that he creates a coherent narrative out of such disparate cultural, literary, and philosophical material.

Driving with Plato selects an appealingly wide range of sources, from Noam Chomsky to Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Smith’s prose smoothly carries the reader over the road he’s delineated. On the bain of human experience — moving — he offers this:

Probably the worst accidents at home must be those involving fire, but they’re not always such a bad thing. Rumi, the great thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, has a poem in which his house burning down makes him grateful. Why? It affords a better view of the rising moon.”

From losing one’s virginity to the ultimate loss of life itself, Driving with Plato is delightful proof of how wisdom provides ballast amidst the chaos we all have no choice but to confront.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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29 JULY, 2011

Own a Warhol for $5: Warhol’s Obscure 1959 Children’s Book

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Priceless art at a petty price, or what spades have to do with the secret nooks of the art world.

Andy Warhol may be one of only seven artists in the world to have ever sold a canvas for $100 million, but it turns out you don’t have to be a billionaire to own “a Warhol.” In fact, you can do so for about $5.

In the late 1950s, Warhol belonged to Doubleday’s stable of freelance artists, making a living designing book covers and illustrating dry business books. Shortly before halting his love affair with the corporate world in fear of compromising his flirtations with the art world, he illustrated six stories for the excellent Best In Children’s Books. (Cue in our recent review of littleknown children’s books by famous “adult” authors.) Among them was the story “Card Games Are Fun,” from Best of Children’s Books #27, published in 1959.

What’s most striking about this artwork isn’t only its complete lack of resemblance to Warhol’s most iconic pop art, but also the fact that it remains largely unacknowledged by art historians and virtually absent from most Warhol biographies. Yet something about its honesty, of style and of circumstance, makes it a rare treat of creative history.

via We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie

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