Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘omnibus’

16 SEPTEMBER, 2011

New York and the Dawn of Cartoons: 7 Animation Pioneers

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What lovable dinosaurs have to do with chalkboard, Cab Calloway and the hypocrisies of Hollywood.

While California may have its Pixar and Dreamworks, much of the talent that gave animation its start hailed from New York. Today, we turn to the seminal work of five such pioneering animators who did New York proud, a follow-up to our recent omnibus of five early animation pioneers.

J. STUART BLACKTON

J. Stuart Blackton may be best-known for his 1900 masterpiece, The Enchanted Drawing, which earned him the credit of having pioneered animation in America. But his 1906 gem Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, while less well-known, is equally important and era-defining as the earliest surviving American animated film in the strict sense of single-exposures of drawings simulating movement — in this case, using chalkboard sketches and cut-outs.

MAX FLEISCHER

Max Fleischer, a pioneer of animated cartoons, brought us the iconic Betty Boop, Koko the Clown and Popeye characters. In 1932, Betty Boop appeared in “Minnie the Moocher,” a jazz classic by the legendary Cab Calloway.

WINSOR MCCAY

In 1911, Winsor McCay created the landmark film Little Nemo, which is often debated as the first “true” animation. Three years later, his Gertie the Dinosaur claimed its place in history as the first cartoon to feature a character with a well-definted, lovable personality.

OTTO MESSMER

Otto Messmer is best-known as the creator of the Felix the Cat cartoons and comic strips, produced by Pat Sullivan studio. In this 1923 episode, Felix goes to Hollywood, where he encounters celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin and Will Hays. Underpinning the cartoon are Messmer’s subtle stabs at Hollywood’s corrupt morals and many hypocrisies.

WALTER LANTZ

Most of us know animator, director, producer and cartoonist Walter Lantz as the creator of Woody Woodpecker. In 1926, some 15 years before Woody, Lantz produced Tail of the Monkey, blending live-action film with cartoon animation.

EARL HURD

Besides inventing the process of cel animation in the early 1910s, Earl Hurd created the once influential and now sadly nearly-forgotten Bobby Bumps animated shorts. Sample them with this treat from 1916: Bobby Bumps and the Stork.

PAUL TERRY

Between 1915 and 1955, Paul Terry produced some 1,300 cartoons, many under his popular Terrytoons studio. Among them was the 1923 gem A Cat’s Life — which, some might say, got a head start on the viral cat videos meme by some 80 years.

For more on the marvel and promise of the dawn of animation, see the excellent Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons.

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12 SEPTEMBER, 2011

5 Timeless Books of Insight on Fear and the Creative Process

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From Monet to Tiger Woods, or why creating rituals and breaking routines don’t have to be conflicting notions.

“Creativity is like chasing chickens,” Christoph Niemann once said. But sometimes it can feel like being chased by chickens — giant, angry, menacing chickens. Whether you’re a writer, designer, artist or maker of anything in any medium, you know the creative process can be plagued by fear, often so paralyzing it makes it hard to actually create. Today, we turn to insights on fear and creativity from five favorite books on the creative process and the artist’s way.

ART & FEAR

Despite our best-argued cases for incremental innovation and creativity via hard work, the myth of the genius and the muse perseveres in how we think about great artists. And yet most art, statistically speaking, is made by non-geniuses but people with passion and dedication who face daily challenges and doubts, both practical and psychological, in making their art. (And let’s pause here to observe that “art” can encompass an incredible range of creative output, from painting to music to literature and everything in between.) In Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, working artists David Bayles and Ted Orland explore not only how art gets made, but also how it doesn’t — what stands in the way of the creative process and how to overcome it. Fear, of course, is a cornerstone of those obstacles.

In the ideal — that is to say, real — artist, fears not only continue to exist, they exist side by side with the desires that complement them, perhaps drive them, certainly feed them. Naive passion, which promotes work done in ignorance of obstacles, becomes — with courage — informed passion, which promotes work done in full acceptance of those obstacles.

THE WAR OF ART

Steven Pressfield is a prolific champion of the creative process, with all its trials and tribulations. You might recall his most recent book, Do The Work, from our omnibus of five manifestos for life. But Pressfield is best-known for The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which tackles our greatest forms of resistance (“Resistance” with a capital R, that is) to the creative process head-on.

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.

THE CREATIVE HABIT

There’s hardly a creative bibliophile who hasn’t read, or at least heard of, Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. It frames creativity as the product of preparation, routine and persistent effort — which may at first seem counterintuitive in the context of the Eureka! myth and our notion of the genius suddenly struck by a brilliant idea, but Tharp demonstrates it’s the foundation of how cultural icons and everyday creators alike, from Beethoven to professional athletes to ordinary artists, hone their craft, cultivate their genius and overcome their fears.

There’s nothing wrong with fear; the only mistake is to let it stop you in your tracks.

Athletes know the power of triggering a ritual. A pro golfer may walk along the fairway chatting with his caddie, his playing partner, a friendly official or scorekeeper, but when he stands behind the ball and takes a deep breath, he has signaled to himself it’s time to concentrate. A basketball player comes to the free-throw line, touches his socks, his shorts, receives the ball, bounces it exactly three times, and then he is ready to rise and shoot, exactly as he’s done a hundred times a day in practice. By making the start of the sequence automatic, they replace doubt and fear with comfort and routine.

THE COURAGE TO CREATE

In 1975, six years after the great success of his wildly influential book Love & Will, existential psychologist Rollo May published The Courage to Create — an insightful and compelling case for art and creativity as the centripetal force, not a mere tangent, of human experience, and a foundation to science and logic. May draws on his extensive experience as a therapist to offer a blueprint for breaking out of our patterns of creative stagnation. Particularly interesting are his observations on fear, technology and irrationality, which might at first seem akin to the techno-paranoia propagated by Orson Welles and, more recently, Nicholas Carr, but are in fact considered counsel against our propensity for escapism, all the more relevant in the age of the digital convergence, nearly four decades after May’s insights.

What people today do out of fear of irrational elements in themselves and in other people is to put tools and mechanisms between themselves and the unconscious world. This protects them from being grasped by the frightening and threatening aspects of irrational experience. I am saying nothing whatever, I am sure it will be understood, against technology or mechanics in themselves. What I am saying is that danger always exists that our technology will serve as a buffer between us and nature, a block between us and the deeper dimensions of our experience. Tools and techniques ought to be an extension of consciousness, but they can just as easily be a protection against consciousness. […] This means that technology can be clung to, believed in, and depended on far beyond its legitimate sphere, since it also serves as a defense against our fears of irrational phenomena. Thus the very success of technological creativity […] is a threat to its own existence.

TRUST THE PROCESS

More than 13 years later, Shaun McNiff’s Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go remains a cocoon of creative reassurance that unpacks the artist’s process into small, simple, yet remarkably effective steps that together choreograph a productive and inspired sequence of creativity. Never preachy or patronizing, McNiff captures both the exhilaration and the terror of creating — and, more importantly, how the two complement one another, even in the face of fear.

The empty space is the great horror and stimulant of creation. But there is also something predictable in the way the fear and apathy encountered at the beginning are accountable for feelings of elation at the end. These intensities of the creative process can stimulate desires of consistency and control, but history affirms that few transformative experiences are generated by regularity.

When asked for advice on painting, Claude Monet told people not to fear mistakes. The discipline of art requires constant experimentation, wherein errors are harbingers of original ideas because they introduce new directions for expression. The mistake is outside the intended course of action, and it may present something that we never saw before, something unexpected and contradictory, something that may be put to use.

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29 AUGUST, 2011

Analog Books to Die For: Five Fantastic Die-Cut Books

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What cutting-edge digital culture has to do with an unmakeable book, lasers, and Sherlock Holmes.

For all their wonder and promise, one crucial component of the joy of reading still eludes the publishing platforms of the future: holding a beautifully bound, meticulously designed, thoughtfully crafted tome in your two hands. Hardly does that tactile delight get more intense than with a magnificent die-cut book. (Die-cutting is a process using a steel die to cut away sections of a page.) Here are five old-timey treasures that will make you swoon in rediscovered awe of the analog.

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED IN MY LIFE SO FAR

Every seven years, Stefan Sagmeister takes a year-long sabbatical, during which he does absolutely no commercial work. Instead, he retreats to Bali or another off-the-grid corner of the world, where he immerses himself in creative exploration and self-improvement. Things I have learned in my life so far, sitting atop our selection of beautifully designed books by prominent graphic designers, grew from a list in his diary compiled during his first such sabbatical. The book, which consists of 15 unbound signatures in a gorgeous die-cut slipcase producing 15 different covers, is a reflection on life, being human, and the meaning of happiness, relayed through the language Sagmeister is so masterfully fluent in — elegant, eloquent graphic design. Each spread presents a beautifully and thoughtfully designed typographic sentiment, or fragment of a sentiment continued on the following spread, about one of life’s simple truths — part Live Now, part Everythign Is Going To Be OK, part The 3D Type Book, yet it both predates and outshines all three.

TREE OF CODES

Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes topped our list of the best art, design and photography books of 2010 — and for good reason. So ambitious was Foer’s project that nearly all bookbinders he approached deemed it unmakeable. When Belgian publishing house Die Keure finally figured out a way to make it work, what came out was a brilliant piece of “analog interactive storytelling” — a book created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, rearranging the text to form an entirely different story. The die-cut narrative hangs in an aura of negative space for a beautiful blend of sculpture and storytelling, adding a layer of physicality to the reading experience in a way that completely reshapes your relationship with text and the printed page.

I thought: What if you pushed it to the extreme, and created something not old-fashioned or nostalgic but just beautiful? It helps you remember that life can surprise you.” ~ Jonathan Safran Foer

Our full review here, including remarkable making-of footage.

HOLY CLUES

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most beloved and enduring literary characters of all time, to this day culturally relevant and alluring. In the 1999 unlikely gem Holy Clues : The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes, author Stephen Kendrick explores how Holmes’ legendary methods of Zen-like awareness, observation and deduction can be employed in our relationship with spirituality. (Cue in our omnibus of 7 essential meditations on the science of spirituality.) The book’s dust jacket features a single die-cut hole, through which peeks Sherlock’s iconic silhouette on a patterned pictorial cover.

OFFF, YEAR ZERO

For the past decade, the OFFF festival of post-digital culture has been a beacon of contemporary art, design and media innovation, offering a provocative lens for understanding modern culture. Every year, OFFF releases a lavish book that’s both a catalog of work from the festival and a scrumptious keepsake tome of visual culture. This year, as the festival celebrates its roots and its return to Barcelona, it produced what’s easily the most ambitious book yet: OFFF, Year Zero: Artwork and Designs from the OFFF Festival, published by our friends at Mark Batty and featuring astounding, visually gripping work around the “Year Zero” theme.

Each of the tome’s 300 pages is die-cut, so the stunning artworks can be hung on the walls of homes, studios, classrooms and creativity hubs alike.

CURIOUS BOYM

Since 1986, designer Constantin Boym and his partner Laurene Leon Boym, working as Boym Partners, have been finding humor in the humdrum and magic in the mundane to churn out relentlessly whimsical work across product design, furniture, installations and more. Curious Boym from Princeton Architectural Press and design duo Hjalti Karlsson + Jan Wilker is an appropriately playful volume covering the many mediums of Boym’s creative curiosity. The tactile, interactive book features a die-cut cover, pop-ups, pull-outs, and other analog surprises that play into Boym’s irreverent, exuberant and fun approach to design.

The lovely Abe Books has even more die-cut gems for your gushing pleasure.

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22 AUGUST, 2011

Understanding Urbanity: 7 Must-Read Books About Cities

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What airports have to do with Medieval towns, Brooklyn’s bookstores and Le Corbusier.

“Cities are the crucible of civilization,” Geoffrey West proclaimed in his recent TED talk. Cities are where most of humanity’s creative and intellectual ideation, communication, and innovation takes place, so understanding cities is vital to understanding our civilization. To help do that, here is an omnibus of seven fantastic books exploring the complex and faceted nature, function, history, and future of urbanity’s precious living organism, from design to sociology to economics and beyond.

1. THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES

Jane Jacobs is easily history’s most important writer in urban planning. Her massively influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, originally published in 1961, is a book so central to the last half-century of urbanism that it’s almost an embarrassment to mention it in any kind of introductory context. Rather than a hapless attack on then-new planning policies and their negative impact on inner-city communities, Jacobs offers an intelligent, constructive critique that proposes new principles for planning and rebuilding smart, functional cities, debunking the widely held belief that if only we had enough money, we’d wipe out the slums, reverse urban decay, anchor the wandering tax money of the middle class, and even solve the traffic problem — a belief, mind you, that has metastasized all more dangerously in contemporary culture, some half a century later.

But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

In addition to the meat of the book, buried in its first pages is Jacobs’ curious aside about illustration, alluding to the creative medium’s role as a sensemaking mechanism for the world:

The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might also listen, linger and think about what you see.

2. TRIUMPH OF THE CITY

Thirty-six million people inhabit the greater Tokyo area, the world’s most productive city, and nearly 70% of the U.S. population live in 3% of the country’s land area, yet we do so with the constant civic guilt, perpetuated by the media, about the wasteful, unhealthy, crime-ridden, ecologically unreasonable ways of city life. In Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, pioneering urban economist Edward Glaeser debunks a number of popular myths about the ills of cities to reveal, through examples past and present, how and why cities can in fact be a model for optimal well-being, both human and of the environment. (Did you know that urbanites use 40% less energy than their suburban counterparts, and both cancer and heart disease are significantly lower in New York City than the American national average?)

The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist. To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must hold on to these truths and dispatch harmful myths. We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”

3. THE CITY IN HISTORY

Originally published in 1952, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects by prolific author Lewis Mumford traces the evolution of the urban form throughout human civilization, from the earliest tribal habitats to the towns of the Middle Ages to the vintage-modern commerce hubs of the 1950s. From keenly analyzing the past to accurately assessing the future, Mumford’s insights half a century ago presaged some of the most pressing conversation about cities occupying today’s urbanists, scholars, and civic leaders.

By building up sub-centers, based on pedestrian circulation, within the metropolitan region, a good part of urban transportation difficulties could have been obviated. To make the necessary journeys about the metropolis swift and efficient the number of unnecessary journeys–and the amount of their unnecessary length–must be decreased. Only by bringing work and home closer together can this be achieved.

But beneath his astute observations of all the ways in which we could (and did) screw up our cities lies an undercurrent of breathless optimism about our capacity for wisdom, betterment, and moral imagination:

But happily life has one predictable attribute: it is full of surprises. At the last moment–and our generation may in fact be close to the last moment–the purposes and projects that will redeem our present aimless dynamism may gain the upper hand. When that happens, obstacles that now seem insuperable will melt away; and the vast sums of money and energy, the massive efforts of science and technics, which now go into the building of nuclear bombs, space rockets, and a hundred other cunning devices directly or indirectly attached to dehumanized and demoralized goals, will be released for the recultivation of the earth and the rebuilding of cities: above all, for the replenishment of the human personality. If once the sterile dreams and sadistic nightmares that obsess the ruling elite are banished, there will be such a release of human vitality as will make the Renascence seem almost a stillbirth.

4. AEROTROPOLIS

For much of human civilization, cities — the places where people gather around and exchange money, goods, and ideas — have been defined by transportation hubs, from ports to railway stations. In Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, academic researcher and urban adviser John Kasarda and journalist Greg Lindsay examine today’s most important transit hub, the airport, as an epicenter of tomorrow’s civilization in the shape of the “aerotropolis” — a combination of enormous airport, planned metropolis, and commerce cluster. Both radical and practical, the aerotropolis lives at the intersection of urbanism, civic engineering, sociology, international relations, economics, cartography, and design to offer a compelling vision for our emergent urban future.

The aerotropolis is the urban incarnation of [the] physical Internet; the primacy of air transport makes airports and their hinterlands the places to see how it functions — and to observe the consequences. The three rules of real estate have changed from location, location, location to accessibility, accessibility, accessibility. There’s a new metric. It’s no longer space; it’s time and cost. And if you look closely at the aerotropolis, what appears to be sprawl is slowly evolving into a system of reducing both. It’s here where we can see how globalization will reshape our cities, lives, and culture.

Amazon has an excellent Q&A with Lindsay.

5. WHO’S YOUR CITY

Richard Florida, apart from being one of the most continuously stimulating people to follow on Twitter and a fellow contributor to The Atlantic, is also one of the most insightful people writing and thinking about cities today. In Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life, he examines the macro elements of cities, from economy to transportation, through the micro lens of personal happiness. (Which, in fact, makes the book a fine addition to this reading list of essential books on happiness.) Florida blends heavy-duty statistics and theory with passionately argued ideas and fascinating maps to expose the power of place in its richest, most multidimensional form, revealing the intricate interplay between our cities, our personalities, and our very sense of self and well-being.

The so-called death of place is hardly a new story. First the railroad revolutionized trade and transport like never before. Then the telephone made everyone feel connected and closer. The automobile was invented, then the airplane, and then the World Wide Web — perhaps the quintessential product of a globalized world. All of these technologies have carried the promise of a boundless world. They would free us from geography, allowing us to move out of crowded cities and into lives of our own bucolic choosing. Forget the past, when cities and civilizations were confined to fertile soil, natural ports, or raw materials. In today’s high-tech world, we are free to live wherever we want. Place, according to this increasingly popular view, is irrelevant.

It’s a compelling notion, but it’s wrong. Today’s key economic factors — talent, innovation, and creativity — are not distributed evenly across the global economy. They concentrate in specific locations.

Ultimately, Who’s Your City?, offers an intelligent blueprint for balancing the trade-offs of place and personality to find, or learn to enjoy, the city and community best tailored to your life, your responsibilities, and your aspirations.

6. ZINESTER’S GUIDE TO NYC

The Zinester’s Guide to NYC is no ordinary city guide. In the age of crowdsourcing and digital everything, it’s a delightfully analog, painstakingly curated tour of all the things that make the Big Apple a cross-cultural icon. From Brooklyn’s bookstores to the midday madness of Midtown to the peculiar cultures of different neighborhoods, ZG2NYC is a remarkable achievement of urban curiosity, beautifully illustrated with original artwork, spanning everything from architecture to art to culinary curiosity and beyond. In the eloquently laconic words of Stephen Colbert’s review, “it kicks ass.”

For sure, use your device to double check addresses and hours, but then stash it, man! Your eyes and ears and nose remain excellent portals for receiving, interpreting, and storing information. I get that it could be fun to review your email on the subway, but if you’re always doing that, you are never going to sketch the person seated across from you. Ten years from now, which will prove the better key to this long forgotten day? A deleted digital message (received on a no doubt archaic device) or an inexpert but keenly observed rendering born of being wholly present in the exterior word?

Don’t miss this offbeat interview with Halliday, accompanied by more images from the book.

7. MAKESHIFT METROPOLIS

While the work of Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford may have shaped generations of thinking about cities, much has changed since their ideas were coined half a century ago as our technology, economic mechanisms, design processes, and political priorities have evolved. In Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities, University of Pennsylvania urbanism professor and Slate architecture critic Witold Rybczynski explores what these changes mean for envisioning the optimal city of tomorrow. Rybczynski, who 16 years ago started teaching design and development to MBAs and real estate majors at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, summarizes what he has learned about city planning and urban development through data-driven insights about the present and future of cities at the intersection of sociology, design, and behavioral economics, as well as fascinating urban innovation projects from around the world that challenge the definition of a city in an era of changing human demands and resource availability.

From Mumford to Jacobs, from Le Corbusier to Frank Lloyd Wright, from public parks to high-tech skyscrapers, from Buffalo to Boston, Rybczynski spans an incredible spectrum of material to explain why we behave the way we behave, live the way we live, and choose what we choose — and, more importantly, how these seminal ideas about cities can be built upon to shape the 21st-century city, with all its liveliness, heterogeneity, and multifunctionality.

Is a city the result of design intentions, or of market forces, or a bit of both? These are the questions I explore in this book.

Intelligent and highly readable, Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities embodies the Brain Pickings ethos of cross-disciplinary curiosity, of lateral connections, of knowing and understanding the thinking of the past in order to envision and frame the ideas of the future.

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