Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

11 MAY, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut’s Fictional Interviews with Luminaries

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What near-death experiences have to do with Shakespeare, Jesus and Isaac Asimov.

In 1997, iconic writer Kurt Vonnegut pitched an idea to New York public radio station WNYC: He would conduct fictional interview with dead cultural luminaries and ordinary people through controlled near-death experiences courtesy of real-life physician-assisted suicide proponent Dr. Jack Kevorkian, allowing the author to access heaven, converse with his subjects, and leave before it’s too late. The producers loved the idea and Vonnegut churned out a number of 90-second segments “interviewing” anyone from Jesus to Hitler to Isaac Asimov. The interviews — funny, poignant, illuminating, timeless, profoundly human — are collected in God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, a fantastic anthology playing on the title of Vonnegut’s 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, some of the best cultural satire of the past century.

During my most recently controlled near-death experience, I got to interview William Shakespeare. We did not hit it off. He said the dialect I spoke was the ugliest English he had ever heard, ‘fit to split the ears of groundlings.’ He asked if it had a name, and I said ‘Indianapolis.'” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Thanks to the wonderful Letters of Note — which you should be reading, or else you’re seriously missing out — here’s Vonnegut’s original pitch to WNYC:

Image courtesy of WNYC via Letters of Note

The interviews offer a priceless blend of cultural commentary and existential human preoccupations by way of comedy, from politics to the meaning of life, in what’s perhaps best-described as TED meets SNL.

I asked this heroic pet lover how it felt to have died for a schnauzer named Teddy. Salvador Biagiani was philosophical. He said it sure beat dying for absolutely nothing in the Viet Nam War.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Relentlessly entertaining and (un)surprisingly insightful, God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian is absolutely fantastic and a rare fiction treat even for those of us with a strong general proclivity for nonfiction.

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09 MAY, 2011

Sam + Friends: Vintage Muppets Explore Visual Thinking

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What vintage Muppets have to do with synesthesia and visual thinking.

Fifty-six years ago today, Sam + Friends — the early live-action puppet TV show by Muppets creator Jim Henson and his eventual wife Jane — made its official debut. Its characters, all of whom Henson voiced himself, presaged not only modern icons like Kermit and The Muppets, but even some of today’s cultural archetypes. (One of Sam’s friends was named Harry the Hipster.)

This vintage kinescope from the show’s early days offers a rare look at the dawn of a cultural icon and explores visual thinking, particularly in music — something we’ve recently covered and have an ongoing fascination with.

For more on the story of Sam + Friends, see Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, as well as Chapter 2 of the altogether fantastic Kermit book, Before You Leap: A Frog’s Eye View of Life’s Greatest Lessons.

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09 MAY, 2011

Railway Maps of the World

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What the evolution of standardized time zones has to do with train travel in Zimbabwe.

We love maps, especially subway and train-related maps. So we’re all over Mark Ovenden’s Railway Maps of the World — the fantastic follow-up to his excellent 2007 Transit Maps of the World and 2009 Paris Underground. The lavish, large-format tome culls the world’s most interesting railway maps, posters and related ephemera, from the historical to the modern.

From early maps-printing techniques to beautiful vintage travel advertising ephemera to the latest digital real-time maps for mobile devices, Ovenden scours rare archives and architectural dreams alike, from the Liverpool and Manchester Railway of 1830 to China’s proposed 2020 high-speed train networks, to explore the evolution of cartography and the social role of train travel. Besides the lust-worthy design candy, the book also offers fascinating historical context and tells the story of how railroads became the vehicle for cultural change, bridging nations, driving economic growth, changing our diets by putting previously unavailable foods on the table, and even giving us standardized time zones.

With over 500 images and maps representing more than 120 countries from Algeria to Zimbabwe, Railway Maps of the World is a beautiful treasure chest of fascination for map lovers, design aficionados and history geeks alike, a rare record of a civilization in perpetual motion.

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06 MAY, 2011

BBC: The Making of The King James Bible

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What Medieval catacombs have to do with remix culture and the evolution of the English language.

This week, the King James Bible celebrated its 400th anniversary. The third official translation of the Bible in English, it was completed by 47 scholars from the Church of England over the course of 7 years, with the grand goal of bringing new life to the churches. To this day, the King James version is commonly considered the greatest piece of English Literature ever produced (regardless of whether you consider it fiction or nonfiction) and remains a key to understanding not only one of the world’s largest religions but also a pivotal era of European scholarship, the history of collaborative creation. and even the evolution of the English language. (Did you know that many modern phrases and idioms — “by the skin of your teeth,” “flesh and blood,” “labour of love” — originate from the KJB?)

When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible is a fascinating new BBC documentary exploring the surprising story of the great volume, from it uncanny similarity to the Millennium Dome to rare recently discovered 17th century manuscripts to the actual translation process itself, revealing why this antique work of art and science is anything but antiquated.

17th-century England was a chaotic, violent, often bureaucratic place. The most unlikely beginnings for a book that would change the world. So how did they make it happen? In this program, I look back to a world of religious power and majesty, of immense seriousness and linguistic skill, fraught with religious and political passions, to show how and why it produced the greatest book of all time.” ~ Adam Nicolson

For a related journey into the history of the epic tome, do see the newly released documentary, KJB: The Book That Changed the World (trailer), in which beloved Welsh actor John Rhys-Davie tours historical landmark and explains essential relics that shaped the culture and context of the King James Bible.

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