Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

17 SEPTEMBER, 2013

Famous Writers on New York: Timeless Private Reflections from Diaries, Letters & Personal Essays

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Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, E. B. White, Washington Irving, Anaïs Nin, Italo Calvino, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

New York City has been the subject of poetic love letters, essayistic homages, emotional cartographies, and artistic tributes. But hardly anything captures the gritty, unfiltered magic of the world’s greatest city than the private recollections of beloved authors, recorded in their journals and correspondence, untainted by the prospect of an evaluating audience. Collected here are some of my favorite such impressions, culled from years of my personal marginalia in famous diaries, letters, and the occasional personal essay.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from 'Changing New York.' Click image for details.

Mark Twain — in between dispensing advice to little girls and criticizing the popular press — makes a laconic note of New York’s unmanageable scale in an 1867 reflection included in the vintage anthology Mirror For Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present (public library):

The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.

In the recently released Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us the author’s wisdom on writing, America, and the meaning of lifeItalo Calvino writes to his friend Paolo Spriano on Christmas Eve 1959, shortly after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to travel around America for six months alongside six other young writers:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

From the fantastic New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) — one of the best history books of 2012, which you can sample here — comes this 1947 celebration of New York’s defiant diversity by Simone de Beauvoir:

I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.

In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:

In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.

Illustration from 'Paris vs. New York' by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

In a 1934 letter to her lifelong friend and then-lover Henry Miller, found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932–1953 (public library), Anaïs Nin echoes de Beauvoir’s affection for the city:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

But five years later, Nin grows diametrically disillusioned and writes in her diary — which also gave us her timeless wisdom on anxiety and love, how emotional excess fuels creativity, and embracing the unfamiliar — she contrasts New York to her native Paris:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for details.

In a September 22, 1917, letter to her mother and sister — found in the same superb out-of-print anthology that gave us the poet’s reflections on the love of music, her playfully lewd self-portrait, and the story of how she was almost banned from her own graduation — 18-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay grumbles with her signature wry wit:

There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.

She later adds:

There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.

Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:

New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.

Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:

I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.

Unlike Irving, E. B. White found in the city’s exuberant turmoil cause for awe rather than distress. In Here Is New York (public library), one of the best books about Gotham, he captures the city’s vibrant whimsy in his breathlessly beautiful prose:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Malcolm Gladwell's hand-drawn personal memory map of Manhattan. Click image for details.

26-year-old Susan Sontag writes in an 1959 diary entry, found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library), which also gave us her meditations on art, marriage, life, and the four people any great writer must be:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.

Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:

New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.

The Chrysler Building by James Gulliver Hancock from 'All the Buildings in New York.' Click image for details.

But perhaps most poignant and timeless of all is this meta-meditation on writing about New York from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library). In a diary entry dated April 3, 1976, the celebrated author and literary sage reflects:

The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.

New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:

Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.

After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:

The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)

For more on the private joys and tribulations this “only city” has afforded some of literary history’s greatest icons, revisit the wonderful New York Diaries, then celebrate its dimensional magic with these 10 favorite books on Gotham’s glory.

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29 JULY, 2013

The Best Books on Writing, NYC, Animals, and More: A Collaboration with the New York Public Library

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A celebration of timelessly wonderful reads in an elaborate diorama of papercraft book sculptures.

As an enormous lover and patron of public libraries, I was beyond delighted when the fine folks at the New York Public Library asked me to curate a selection of books for their bookstore and gave me free range to do whatever I wished. My original thought was to do a single reading list around a specific theme, much like I had been doing for the TED bookstore. But my chronic maximalism soon kicked in — the single reading list swelled into four reading lists (wisdom on writing, great reads about New York City, heart- and brain-stirring books on pets and animals, and timeless treats for young readers) and the simple tabletop display became an elaborate installation in the bookstore’s main window. That’s when I reached out to the impossibly talented Kelli Anderson, with whom I’d previously collaborated on the Curator’s Code and The Reconstructionists projects, and invited her to bestow her singular gift for disruptive wonder upon the library as we both donated our time and resources to the project.

Kelli, with her own brand of idealistic maximalism, decided to turn the reading lists into a magnificent papercraft wonderland featuring oversized three-dimensional sculptures of each of the books amidst an intricate paper cityscape of the Manhattan skyline.

Yes, it is just as incredibly time-consuming as it sounds — Kelli and her team spent countless hours cutting and hand-gluing each of the letters onto the books, engineering the physics of the suspension, and masterminding the minutest detail of this enormous labor of love. The ever-talented Debbie Millman provided the hand-lettering and Jacob Krupnick of Wild Combination (the team behind Girl Walk // All Day) photographed the process and filmed this beautiful timelapse of the assembly:

And the end result, up close and personal:

Here are the four reading lists, along with my original text that appears in the library bookshop window, followed by some production photos to give you an idea of the incredible love and energy Kelli and her team poured into bringing this to life.

Why I Write (public library) by George Orwell: Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and 1984, but he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest nonfiction feats is this 1946 masterpiece, in which Orwell traces how the painful experiences of his childhood steered him towards writing and lays out what he believes to be the four universal motives for writing, most of which resonate with just about any domain of creative work. Sample it with the fantastic title essay on the four universal motives for writing.

The Elements of Style (public library) illustrated by Maira Kalman: For anyone who thinks grammar can’t be fun, here comes beloved artist Maira Kalman, whose colorful whimsy breathes new life into Strunk and White’s indispensable 1959 style guide to create an instant classic in its own right. More here.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) by Anne Lamott: This 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer’s life as it is a profound treasure-trove of wisdom on the life of the heart and mind, brimming with insight on everything from overcoming self-doubt to navigating the osmotic balance of intuition and analytical thought. More here.

The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) by Henry Miller: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Miller writes in the title essay of the anthology, and indeed his singular orientation to life permeates this sublime collection of his short stories, profiles, and literary criticism. Sample it with his meditation on the art of living.

Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (public library) by Walter Benjamin: “The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself,” legendary German literary critic, philosopher, and essayist Walter Benjamin advises in his indispensable dictum “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” one of the many gems in this compendium of his essays, aphorisms and autobiographical writings.

Zen in the Art of Writing (public library): Here, our beloved Bradbury shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft. Blending practical how-to’s on everything from negotiating with editors to finding your voice with snippets and glimpses of the author’s own career, the book is at once a manual and a manifesto, imbued with equal parts edification and enthusiasm. More here.

Writers On Writing (public library): This remarkable collection of 46 timeless essays from The New York Times features contributions from such literary icons as Saul Bellow, Ann Patchett, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, spanning the entire spectrum from the playful to the profound, the practical to the philosophical. Sample it with Mary Gordon on the joy of notebooks and writing by hand as creative catalyst.

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews (public library) by Samuel Delany: “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t,” argues celebrated author and literary critic Samuel Delany — who, for a fascinating factlet, penned the controversial 1972 “women’s liberation” issue of Wonder Woman — in this synthesis of his most valuable insights from thirty-five years of teaching creative writing. Sample this volume with Delany’s wisdom on talented writing vs. good writing.

Why We Write (public library) edited by Meredith Maran: Twenty acclaimed authors — including Jennifer Egan, James Fray, and Michael Lewis — pop the hood of the literary machine to probe the internal engine of writing. Sample this volume with some fantastic contributions by Susan Orlean, Mary Karr, and Isabel Allende.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff: An intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices, revealing in the process her immeasurable insight on writing. It has given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, her illustrated wisdom on art, and her bulletpointed bodily self-portrait.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by Caroline Paul, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton: From firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton comes a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love. Devour a taste of this impossibly lovely treasure here, and hear an interview with Wendy and Caroline on the delicate balance of combining a creative collaboration with a romantic relationship here.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library): “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in the introduction to this magnificent compendium of canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — culled from the New Yorker magazine archives, also one of the best art books of 2012. What unites the contributing titans — among them E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl — is a trifecta of love for dogs, for literature, and for this dog-loving literary city. Sample it with ample visuals and excerpts here.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (public library) by T. S. Eliot, illustrated by Edward Gorey: In the 1930s, legendary poet T. S. Eliot penned a handful of marvelous verses about feline psychology and social order in a series of letters to his godchildren. The poems, first collected and published in 1939, eventually became the basis for the famed Broadway musical Cats. But nowhere do they shine with more whimsical charisma than in this special 1982 edition illustrated by the great Edward Gorey. Peek inside a rare signed original edition here.

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by Jon Mooallem: “Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything,” writes Jim Mooallem as he treks across mountains and wildlife reserves to trace the fates of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird. This isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing characteristic of environmental writing but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for, as T. S. Eliot famously put it, “negative capability.” Dive inside here.

What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (public library) by John Homans: “If you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience,” writes John Homans in his remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts warmth and scientific rigor. Sample the soul-stirring goodness here.

Creature (public library) by Andrew Zuckerman: With his signature style of crisp yet tender portraits, Zuckerman captures the spirit of Earth’s diverse creatures, from panthers to fruit bats to bald eagles, making them appear familiar and fresh at the same time, and altogether breathtaking. Peek inside here.

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library) by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods: This absorbing survey of radical research on canine cognition explores such fascinating questions as how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence and what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. What emerges, in fact, is a necessary revision of our narrow definition of what genius itself means, not just canine but human as well. Get a taste here.

The Animal Fair (public library) by Alice and Martin Provensen: Alice and Martin Provensen began their collaboration when they got married in 1944 and went on to produce a wealth of vibrantly illustrated stories of curiosity and kindness. This is one of their most delightful gems, originally published in 1952 — a collection of 22 original stories and poems by the Provensens, from a lively journey to the farmyard, zoo, and forest to humorous advice on “how to sleep through the winter” and “how to recognize a wolf in the forest.” Peek inside this vintage gem here.

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (public library) by Virginia Morell: Most people who have observed animals even briefly wouldn’t question their emotional lives and their thriving inner worlds. While anthropomorphic animal tales have populated storytelling for as long as humanity has existed, science writer Virginia Morell takes us on an unprecedented tour of laboratories around the world and explores the work of pioneering animal cognition researchers to reveal the scientific basis for our basic intuition about what goes on in the hearts and minds of our fellow beings, from the laughter of rats to the intellectual curiosity of dolphins.

What Pete Ate from A to Z (public library) by Maira Kalman: In this heart-warming and utterly refreshing take on the traditional alphabet book, the inimitable Maira Kalman — one of New York’s living creative treasures — unleashes her signature wordplay and expressive visual whimsy on the story of the charmingly shaggy, omnivorous, and hopelessly lovable Pete, based on Kalman’s own beloved pup.

Here Is New York (public library) by E. B. White: In the sweltering summer of 1948, E. B. White sat down in a hotel room and penned what endures as the most heartening love letter to New York — a roaming essay full of wit, wisdom, and immutable affection for the city as an icon, a friend, an intricate ecosystem of triumphs and tragedies, a canvas for the vibrancy of life. “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” he writes. “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” Sample this gem with Literary Jukebox.

New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library): This dimensional mosaic portrait of the city, one of the best history books of 2012, draws on the private journals of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in Gotham’s grid over the past four hundred years. Culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections, these engrossing entries invite us into the private worlds of such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Jack Kerouac, Simone de Beauvoir, and Mark Twain, leaving us with an ever-deeper appreciation of our shared existence in this glorious city. Sample some of the entries here.

Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers (public library) edited by Becky Cooper: A tender cartographic love letter to this timeless city of multiple dimensions, parallel realities, and perpendicular views, featuring 75 hand-drawn memory maps from both strangers and famous New Yorkers alike, including cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson, artist-philosopher Yoko Ono, wire-walked Philippe Petit, author Malcolm Gladwell, and chef David Chang. See some of the hand-drawn cartographic goodness, including my own addition, here.

This Is New York (public library) by Miroslav Šašek: Though this lovely 1960 gem, the first American city in Sašek’s legendary This Is series, was originally designed with a child-reader in mind, the vibrant vintage illustrations leap off the pages to enchant children and grown-ups in equal measure, New Yorkers and visitors, admirers of big bustling streets and lovers of quiet little corners.

Changing New York (public library) by Berenice Abbott: Between 1935 and 1939, pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott made 307 black-and-white prints of New York City that endure as some of the most iconic images of Gotham’s changing face. In advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, 200 of them were gathered in this collection, along with a selection of variant images, line drawings, period maps, and background essays — a lavish time-capsule of urban design organized in eight geographical sections, documenting the social, architectural, and cultural history of the city. See some of her extraordinary photographs here.

All the Buildings in New York (That I’ve Drawn So Far) (public library) by James Gulliver Hancock: When Australian illustrator James Gulliver Hancock moved to New York City, he set out to “own” his new home in a unique way: by drawing every single building in town. Collected here are the best of these drawings — a charmingly illustrated tour of Gotham’s cityscape and architecture, from icons to oddities, spanning the entire urban spectrum in between. Peek inside here.

Manhattan ’45 (public library) by Jan Morris: Jan Morris paints a remarkably dynamic portrait of the city as it was on June 25, 1945 — the day 14,000 American servicemen and women, the first contingent returning from the victory over Nazi Germany, sailed into New York aboard the British liner Queen Mary — reconstructed in 1987, when the book was originally published. From the novelty of stockings to the technological marvel of high-rise elevators to the class-equalizing power of a heat wave, she blends the mesmerism of time-travel with the absorbing voyeurism of travel writing, transporting us to a city at once curiously foreign and comfortably familiar. Sample it with this lovely abstract depicting Gotham’s heat wave as the ultimate class equalizer (plus a curious biographical detail about Morris, who was born James and became Jan).

Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities (public library) by Vahram Muratyan: Graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” chronicles the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits — vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses, from beverages to beards, hands to houses, that capture the intricacies of cultural difference with equal parts humor and affection. This gem was one of the best art books of 2012 — peek inside it and chuckle here.

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (public library) by Eric Sanderson: Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson spent more than a decade trying to reconstruct what Henry Hudson saw on that fateful day of September 12, 1609, when he first set foot on the island that would become Manhattan. His is a masterful feat of a kind of analog augmented reality — using an 18th-century map geographically overlaid upon the layout of modern-day Manhattan and troves of historic documents and scientific data, Sanderson takes us on a lavishly illustrated tour of the wild forests of Times Square, the sunny meadows of Harlem, and the soggy swamps of Soho.

Central Park: An Anthology (public library) edited by Andrew Blauner: Twenty of the New York’s most celebrated authors — including Adam Gopnik, Mark Helprin, Colson Whitehead, and Francine Prose — pay homage to one particular, and particularly beloved, part of the city, inviting us on a literary walk through the park with some of the most intensely interesting companions imaginable. Sample the absorbing tales here.

People (public library) by Blexbolex: Celebrated French illustrator Blexbolex captures the human condition in its diversity, richness and paradoxes — from mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies. His signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing. One of the best children’s and picture books of 2011 — see for yourself with a peek inside.

Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain (public library) by Mark Twain, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky: In 1865, when he was only 30, Mark Twain penned a little-known and lovely children’s story, in which he challenged kids to digest the intelligent humor that had captivated his adult audiences and mischievously encouraged girls to think independently rather than blindly obey social mores. Nearly a century and a half later, beloved Russian children’s illustrator Vladimir Radunsky brings Twain’s irreverent gem to life, envisioned in the style of the Victorian scrapbooks that children of that era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera. Sample this treasure, a pet project of mine two years in the making, here.

You Are Stardust (public library) by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Soyeon Kim: With its whimsical 3D paper dioramas and enchanting verses, this exquisite picture-book sets out to inspire in kids the kind of cosmic awe that would spark in them a profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today. Peek inside here.

Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library) edited by Gemma Elwin Harris: The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, Alain de Botton, and many more — to answer them. The result is a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, from what we’re made of to why we fall in love to how dreams work, and was among the best children’s books of 2012 as well as among readers’ overall favorites. Read some of the wonderful questions and answers here.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (public library) by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat: In this infinitely inspired intersection of greatness, Angelou’s simple, strong words are paired with drawings by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose signature style of child-like fancy and colorful emotional intensity offers a perfect match for Angelou’s courageous verses. Peek inside, and hear Angelou herself reading from the book, here.

Drawing from the City (public library) by Tejubehan: For nearly two decades, Indian independent publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Here, self-taught artist Tejubehan weaves a partly autobiographical, partly escapist, whimsically illustrated tale of a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society. Also one of the best children’s books of 2012 — see for yourself with a peek inside.

And Tango Makes Three (public library) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole: This is the heartening, tenderly illustrated true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo, who fell in love in 1998 and started a family, raising little Tango — the zoo’s first and only baby-girl with two daddies. Peek inside here.

My Brother’s Book (public library) by Maurice Sendak: Half a century after Where The Wild Things Are comes this bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years prior to the book’s publication, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. One of the loveliest books of all time — see for yourself.

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (public library) by Gertrude Stein, illustrated by Giselle Potter: In 1940, the grand dame of experimental literature penned a manuscript for an alphabet book that was rejected by publisher after publisher as being too complex for children. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version. In 2011, more than half a century later, came this first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter. Peek inside here.

Why We Have Day and Night. (public library) by Edward Gorey: Edward Gorey, mid-century illustrator of the macabre and fanciful, has influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Long after his death, Gorey still manages to charm us with his signature style of darkly delightful illustrations that illuminate young readers on the mystery of why we have night and light in one of the best children’s and picture books of 2011. Take a peek here.

Read more about the nitty-gritty of it on Kelli’s blog. Meanwhile, here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the magic:

If you’re in New York, stop by the NYPL bookstore sometime to see the installation in its analog glory, and join me in supporting the library here. (You’re also always welcome to support Brain Pickings here.)

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13 JUNE, 2013

The Lonesome Traveler: Kerouac’s Tour of the Unseen New York

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“Might as well enjoy it… Greatest city the world has ever seen.”

New York City is arguably one of modern history’s greatest literary muses — Frank O’Hara extolled its dirty streets, Gay Talese marveled at the social order of its cats, and countless essayists channeled Central Park’s glory. Among Gotham’s many admirers was Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922–October 21, 1969) — passionate teenage diarist, admonisher against popular opinion, sage of literature and life.

Somewhere between young Gay Talese’s New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey and E.B. White’s classic Here Is New York comes a chapter titled “New York Scenes” from Kerouac’s 1960 gem Lonesome Traveler (public library) — a kind of narrative emotional cartography of Manhattan, woven of fascinating sketches of Gotham’s vibrant life and cast of characters as recorded in Kerouac’s travel journals, written in his signature style of spontaneous prose, complete with his famous disdain for apostrophes.

He opens the chapter with a loving appreciation of his mother, a testament to parents’ power of cultivating genius and encouraging “horizontal identity”:

[M]y mother was living alone in a little apartment in Jamaica Long Island, working in the shoe factory, waiting for me to come home so I could keep her company and escort her to Radio City once a month. She had a tiny bedroom waiting for me, clean linen in the dresser, clean sheets in the bed. It was a relief after all the sleepingbags and bunks and railroad earth. It was another of the many opportunities she’d given me all her life to just stay home and write.

I always give her all my leftover pay. I settled down to long sweet sleeps, day-long meditations in the house, writing, and long walks around beloved old Manhattan a half hour subway ride away. I roamed the streets, the bridges, Times Square, cafeterias, the waterfront, I looked up all my poet beatnik friends and roamed with them, I had love affairs with girls in the Village, I did everything with that great mad joy you get when you return to New York City.

Kerouac proceeds to invite us into the inner circle of the beatniks and their experience of the city:

My friends and I in New York city have our own special way of having fun without having to spend much money and most important of all without having to be importuned by formalistic bores, such as, say, a swell evening at the mayor’s ball. — We dont have to shake hands and we don’t have to make appointments and we feel all right. — we sorta wander around like children. — We walk into parties and tell everybody what we’ve been doing and people think we’re showing off. — They say: “Oh look at the beatniks!”

He then offers a guided tour of a beatnik’s New York, full of Kerouac-isms (“Men do love bars and good bars should be loved”) and irreverent romance (“…some romantic heroes just in from Oklahoma with ambitions to end up yearning in the arms of some unpredictable sexy young blonde in a penthouse on the Empire State Building.”) One by one he sketches out some of Manhattan’s most iconic places and faces, then takes us to the crown jewel of tourist attraction and ogles it with equal parts cynicism and awe:

What’s Times Square doing there anyway? Might as well enjoy it. — Greatest city the world has ever seen. — Have they got a Times Square on Mars? What would the Blob do on Times Square? Or St. Francis?

Next, he turns to the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue, “near the great Whelan’s drug store,” to echo the eternal New Yorker’s lament over the city’s ever-changing landscape:

Across the street you can see the ruins of New York already started — the Globe Hotel being torn down there, an empty tooth hole right on 44th Street — and the green McGraw-Hill building gaping up in the sky, higher than you believe — lonely all by itself down towards the Hudson River where freighters wait in the rain for their Montevideo limestone. —

Gliding downtown for some night life, Kerouac takes us to the East Village to visit with some jazz legends and recounts a charming anecdote about his beatnik brother-in-arms, Allen Ginsberg, who once famously mistook Patti Smith for “a very pretty boy.”

The Five Spot on 5th Street and Bowery sometimes features Thelonious Monk on the piano and you go on there. If you know the proprietor you sit down at the table free with beer, but if you dont know him you can sneak in and stand by the ventilator and listen. Always crowded weekends. Monk cogitates with deadly abstraction, clonk, and makes a statement, huge foot beating delicately on the floor, head turned to one side, listening, entering the piano.

Lester Young played there just before he died and used to sit in the back kitchen between sets. My buddy poet Allen Ginsberg went back and got on his knees and asked him what he would do if an atom bomb fell on New York. Lester said he would break the window in Tiffany’s and get some jewels anyway. He also said, “what you doin’ on your knees?” not realizing he is a great hero of the beat generation and now enshrined. The Five Spot is darkly lit, has weird waiters, good music always, sometimes John “Train” Coltrane showers his rough notes for his big tenor horn all over the place. On weekends parties of well-dressed uptowners jam-pack the place talking continuously — nobody minds.

He then turns to the party scene of the underground artists, socialites, and literary types. One of them, Leroi Jones, who self-published Yugen Magazine “on a little cranky machine and everybody’s poems are in it,” Kerouac describes as a “historic publisher, secret hipster of the trade” — an early use of “hipster” at the dawn of its popular coinage. But then, true to the rebellious beat spirit, he urges:

Let’s get out of here, it’s too literary. — Let’s go get drunk on the Bowery or eat those long noodles and tea in glasses at Hong Fat’s in Chinatown. — What are we always eating for? Let’s walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and build up another appetite. — How about some Okra on Sands Street?

Shades of Hart Crane!

But the full vibrancy of Manhattan and its multitude of eccentric characters, the full range of the beatnik existence in the city that never sleeps, comes aglow under Kerouac’s gaze in the Village:

Ah, let’s go back to the Village and stand on the corner of Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue and watch the intellectuals go by. — AP reporters luring home to their basement apartments on Washington Square, lady editorialists with huge German police dogs breaking their chains, lonely dikes melting by, unknown experts on Sherlock Holmes with blue fingernails going up to their rooms to take scopolamine, a muscle-bound young man in a chap gray German suit explaining something weird to his fat girl friend, great editors leaning politely at the newsstand buying the early edition of the Times, great fat furniture movers out of 1910 Charlie Chaplin films coming home with great bags full of chop suey (feeding everybody), Picasso’s melancholy harlequin now owner of a print and frame shop musing on his wife and newborn child lifting up his finger for a taxi, rolypoly recording engineers rush in fur hats, girl artists down from Columbia with D.H. Lawrence problems picking up 50-year-old men, old men in the Kettle of Fish, and the melancholy spectre of New York Women’s prison that looms high and is folded in silence as the night itself — at sunset their windows look like oranges — poet e.e. cummings buying a package of cough drops in the shade of that monstrosity. — If it’s raining you can stand under the awning in front of Howard Johnson’s and watch the street from the other side.

Beatnik Angel Peter Orlovsky in the supermarket five doors away buying Uneeda Biscuits (late Friday night), ice cream, caviar, bacon, pretzels, sodapop, TV Guide, Vaseline, three toothbrushes, chocolate milk (dreaming of roast suckling pig), buying whole Idaho potatoes, raisin bread, wormy cabbage by mistake, and fresh-felt tomatoes and collecting purple stamps. — Then he goes home broke and dumps it all on the table, takes out a big book of Mayakovsky poems, turns on the 1949 television set to the horror movie, and goes to sleep.

And this is the beat night life of New York.

Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac’s first authentically autobiographical work, is an endless delight in its entirety. Complement it with Anaïs Nin on the poetic of New York and Sylvia Plath’s notorious New York summer.

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12 JUNE, 2013

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953

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What a catalog of superficiality reveals about the complex inner worlds of young women.

On June 1, 1953, twenty women in the summer before their senior year of college were selected to travel to New York City from all over the United States to work for one month as guest editors of the college issue of Mademoiselle magazine. The young women had already been members of Mademoiselle’s College Board, feeding tips about college life to editors in New York “on frosted pink paper…the general effect was that you were corresponding with an older, very stylish, very sweet, and very pretty friend.”

Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (public library) by Elizabeth Widmer is a fascinating chronicle of a busy month in the lives of these twenty young women, made famous by one of their own when guest editor Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, little-known artist and children’s book author, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer — published her novel The Bell Jar under a pseudonym in 1963. In writing about Sylvia Plath’s life before her marriage, many have tried to scour her letters, her diaries, her taste in clothes, music, poems, and men, as signposts on the way to an inevitable end, and her month at Mademoiselle as the breakdown that started it all. But this short time was also a period of joyful and intense work for nineteen other women, a summer that was far more about living than dying. In 2003, when the surviving women returned the Barbizon, the hotel for women where the guest editors lived, it was apparent that the famous month was a sliver of time in the lives of these women: “You rarely have a reunion of people who only knew each other for a few weeks.”

'Six Girls in a Two Room Apartment in Greenwich Village, New York,' from LIFE Magazine, January 1954 (Photograph by Lisa Larsen)

In the early 1950s, the single girl living in the city was such a curious phenomenon that the merited a spread in LIFE Magazine, curious about how a young girl could possibly take care of herself at the age of twenty. An array of objects stands in for their hopes and dreams:

There are makeshift desks piled with raspberry jam, toast, tea-cups, leaf-shaped ashtrays and packs of Chesterfield cigarettes. Black Bakelite telephones, hatboxes, and corkboards pinned with glamour shots and modeling cards. Rusty radiators, guitar propped by the window…

It’s a telling description of the Mademoiselle girl, a catalog of accomplishments and things, more suitcase than personality. In her application letter to Mademoiselle, Sylvia addressed her vocational skills: she was a “skilled” waitress, an “excellent” spinach-picker, a governess, a villanelle writer, and a “reasonably” good typist. Her first assignment was to interview the poet Elizabeth Bowen, (and for Sylvia to have her photograph taken while interviewing her). She was concerned about her appearance as she knew it was a powerful and creative force. For months before she left, she had collected “blouses of sheer nylon, straight gray skirts, tight black jerseys, and black heeled pumps.” She wore her very best outfit to interview Bowen, with pearls, gloves, and a hat.

Sylvia Plath is photographed while interviewing poet Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle

One of the most confounding and exhausting parts of the experience was that the girls were both charged with creating a product — writing and editing an issue of Mademoiselle — and simultaneously living that product, showing up neatly pressed to cocktail parties, attending lingerie shows. That June was hot during the week, and it rained every weekend, but the pressure remained to appear dewy and fresh each morning. The month was a mania of seeing and being seen, where every girl expected to be both the model and the mind. The “Millie” guest editor was a member of the most glamorous finishing school of the day, in which the final product was shipped to young women all over the country.

Plath in a Mademoiselle photo shoot of the guest editors

June, 1953 may have been one of the most well-documented months in Sylvia Plath’s life, but she barely wrote about it in her diary. On the night of Friday, June 26, the girls celebrated their last night on the rooftop of the Barbizon, and Sylvia hauled up her suitcase and threw every last nylon, slip, skirt, and blouse off the roof. The next day, she borrowed a skirt and peasant top and, without a single item she brought with her to New York, took the train back home. There was no job after the month at Mademoiselle. Any girl who stayed in the city had likely been spotted by a model scout or hired by a fashion designer she had met during the monthlong gig.

That August, the college issue of Mademoiselle went on newsstands. It contained thirty-three advertisements for secretary schools, an article written by Sylvia about famous poets teaching on college campuses, a column by the inventor of the “Beat Generation” that claimed “careers are passé among young women” next to an add for blouses with French cuffs for career girls, ideas for dorm crafts, how to pin the perfect curl, and tips on finding the perfect Ivy League boyfriend.

Only nine years later, a new kind of magazine would give young women hope for an empowered existence.

The August 1953 college issue of Mademoiselle, which Sylvia Plath worked on.

The college girl, the career girl, and the wife each had their set of accessories, and the choices women had — to be an intellectual, a mother, an editor — were characters to play, not lives to live. That July, small tragedies compounded for Sylvia: a rejection from a fiction writing class, a boyfriend leaving for officer training, depression, electroshock therapy, and twenty-one days without sleep. On August 24, just as her issue was about to leave newsstands forever, Sylvia crawled into the basement of her house with a bottle of her mother’s sleeping pills and made her first medically documented suicide attempt.

Pain, Parties, Work might at first appear like a frivolous account — a catalog of clothes, shoes, haircuts, suitcases, lunches, dates, parties, typewriters, letters, nylons, and men — but it allows that the banalities of the exterior life do affect the interior life, that madness, moods, and depth of feeling exist within the same world as morning coffee and an egg sandwich on the way to work. Most of the working women of Mademoiselle didn’t simply exist on a polar scale of benign beauties and basket cases, burning out their creative energies, but instead lived in that month the best anyone could, and moved on. Complement it with 18-year-old Plath’s meditation on life, death, hope, and happiness.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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