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13 JUNE, 2011

(Almost) Everything You Need to Know about Culture in 10 Books

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What the limits of the universe have to do with the history of jazz and the secret of happiness.

Last week, I was reorganizing my library and realized that some of my favorite books are ones that introduced me to subjects I either admired but knew little about or was unaware of altogether. The kinds of reads that profoundly enrich one’s lens on the world. So I thought I’d put together a modest reading list of essential primers for, well, everything. Okay, maybe not everything — I’m keenly aware of how laughable that proposition is — but a fair amount to offer a basis for the kind of cross-disciplinary understanding of culture that I believe is crucial to contributing to the world in a meaningful way. To begin, here are ten essential primers on everything from jazz to data visualization to money.

DATA VISUALIZATION

Long before there was The Visual Miscellaneum or Data Flow, there was Graphis diagrams: The graphic visualization of abstract data — a seminal vision for the convergence of aesthetics and information value, originally published in 1974, which codified the conventions of contemporary data visualization and information design. One of the 100 most influential design books of the past 100 years, it features work by icons like legendary designer and animator Saul Bass, Brain Pickings favorite Milton Glaser, TED founder Richard Saul Wurman and many more.

Images courtesy of insect54

JAZZ

As a lover of jazz, I was thrilled for this month’s release of The History of JazzTed Gioia‘s fascinating and ambitious cultural biography of the genre, though such classification is incredibly reductionist, that permeated just about every facet of creative culture, social dynamics and politics.

The idea of a ragtime ballet or opera must have seemed an oxymoron to those on both sides of the great racial divide that characterized turn-of-the-century American society. It required the development of a different aesthetic before such works could be appreciated on their own terms.

In our own day, we have embraced just such a new aesthetic, one that allows audience not only to accept, but often rush to praise, willy-nilly, various transformations of vernacular forms of culture into serious art. This tendency is evident not only — or even primarily — in jazz but in virtually every contemporary genre and style of creative human expression. But even in tolerant, liberal-mined times, the tension between these two streams of activity continues to seethe under the surface. This dynamic interaction, the clash and fusion — of African and European, composition and improvisation, spontaneity and deliberation, the popular and the serious, high and low — will follow us at virtually every turn as we unfold the complex history of jazz music.” ~ Ted Gioia

COSMOLOGY

In 1988, legendary theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking wrote what’s commonly held as the most important book in popular science ever published. A Brief History of Time attempted to answer one of humanity’s most fundamental questions — where did the universe come from? — and tackled the complex subject of cosmology through a multitude of angles, including the Big Bang theory, black holes, high mathematics, the nature of time, gravity and much more, yet did it in a way digestible enough to invite the non-expert reader to consider the universe in an entirely new way. (Eight years later, a fantastic illustrated edition offered a revised, updated and expanded version of the book.) With a foreword by none other than Carl Sagan, the book remains a fundamental sensemaking mechanism for understanding the cosmos, our place in it, how we got there and where we might be going.

Perhaps most powerful of all is the human hope and scientific vision of Hawking’s ending:

If we find [a unified theory], it would be the ultimate triumph — for then we would know the mind of God.”

INFORMATION THEORY

The future of information is something I’m deeply interested in, but no such intellectual exploit is complete without a full understanding of its past. Running the risk of overbeating that drum — since I both reviewed it separately earlier this year and placed it atop my annual summer reading list for 2011 — I still maintain that James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood is the most important and ambitious work in illuminating human communication and media theory since the days of Marshall McLuhan. Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency.

We know about streaming information, parsing it, sorting it, matching it, and filtering it. Our furniture includes iPods and plasma screens, our skills include texting and Googling, we are endowed, we are expert, so we see information in the foreground. But it has always been there.” ~ James Gleick

But what makes the book truly shine is that, unlike some of his more techno-dystopian contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair over our limitations.

MONEY

In The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, Harvard historian Niall Ferguson makes a compelling case for banking and the development of currency as a central force behind how civilization has evolved. As we begin to emerge from one of the biggest global recessions in recorded history, Ferguson offers a timely and timeless reminder of one of the greatest truths in financial history and, I would add, human psychology at large: Sooner or later, every bubble bursts. What makes the book even more interesting is that Ferguson completed his research for it prior to the actual economic recession in the U.S., yet many of his insights and conclusions presage what was about to happen with uncanny accuracy.

Behind each great historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret, and this book sets out to illuminate the most important of these. For example, the Renaissance created such a boom in the market for art and architecture because Italian bankers like the Medici made fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Habsburg Empire because having the world’s first modern stock market was financially preferable to having the world’s biggest silver mine. The problems of the French monarchy could not be resolved without a revolution because a convicted Scots murderer had wrecked the French financial system by unleashing the first stock market bubble and bust.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Above all, the book — one of 5 must-read books by this year’s TED Global speakers and a companion read to a BBC documentary of the same name, now free to watch online — is an admirable effort to break down what Ferguson calls “the dangerous barrier which has arisen between financial knowledge and other kinds of knowledge,” a hallmark of the holistic knowledge and cross-disciplinary curiosity I so firmly believe are the key to a richer, more creative, more intelligent life.

CLASSICAL MUSIC

The Rest Is NoiseClassical music is something most people recognize for its cultural importance, but admire from a safe distance. Yet its influence on contemporary culture, both musically and beyond, is wide and all-permeating. In The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, New Yorker music critic Alex Ross dances across the most essential 20th-century pieces in major and minor with so much grace and eloquence that you emerge with a newfound understanding for and appreciation of the beautiful language of classical music. From Strauss to Mahler to Coltrane to Glass, from politics to technological innovation to art history, Ross offers a biographical, historical and social context for the most elevated soundtrack of the past century and extends an invitation to listen to it with new ears and new heart.

Because composers have infiltrated every aspect of modern existence, their work can be depicted only on the largest possible canvas. The Rest Is Noise chronicles not only the artists themselves but also the politicians, dictators, millionaire patrons, and CEOs who tried to control what music was written; the intellectuals who attempted to adjudicate style; the writers, painters, dancers, and filmmakers who provided companionship on lonely roads of exploration; the audiences who variously reveled in, reviled, or ignored what composers were doing; the technologies that changed how music was made and heard; and the revolutions, hot and cold wars, waves of emigration, and deeper social transformations that reshape the landscape in which composers worked.” ~ Alex Ross

Ross’s sequel, Listen to This, is one of 7 must-read books on music, emotion and the brain.

WRITING

When it was published earlier this year, it didn’t take long to recognize How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by New York Times columnist Stanley Fish as the most important and ambitious work on the art and craft of language since Strunk and White’s iconic 1918 classic, The Elements of Style. In fact, Fish offers an intelligent rebuttal to some of the cultish mandates of Strunk and White’s bible, most notably the blind insistence on brevity and sentence minimalism. To make his case, he picks apart some of history’s most powerful sentences, from Shakespeare to Dickens to Lewis Carroll, using a kind of literary forensics to excavate the essence of beautiful language through its fundamental building block, the sentence.

The pleasure I take in the sentence has nothing to do with the case or with the merits of either the majority’s or the dissent’s arguments. It is the pleasure of appreciating a technical achievement — here the athletic analogy might be to target shooting. […] I carry the sentence around with me as others might carry a precious gem or a fine Swiss watch. I pull it out and look at it. I pull it out and invite others (who are sometimes reluctant) to look at it. I put it under a microscope and examine its innermost workings.” ~ Stanley Fish

FILM

Howard Suber is considered America’s most distinguished film scholar, having founded the UCLA Film Archive and dramatically reformed the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and The Power of Film is nothing short of a remarkable reflection of his reputation and his lifetime of teaching film. In fact, screenwriter David Koepp might not be exaggerating when he says that what Aristotle did for drama, Suber has done for film. The book is essentially a laboratory exploring the patterns, principles and elements of cinematic storytelling that make a film successful, memorable and culturally impactful. And, as Francis Ford Coppola points out about the book, “[m]uch of it is surprisingly contrary to what ‘everyone knows.'”

Popular films are a special kind of drama. While much that is in them can be traced back to the ancient dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose works were performed in a kind of popular theater for Athenians, only some of what was true for dramatists and their audiences then continues to be true twenty-five centuries later.

Popular films have their own principles, patterns and structures. These deal not so much with style and technique as with the psychology of storytelling, which ultimately is the psychology of contemporary human beings.” ~ Howard Suber

SCIENCE FICTION

Science fiction is a relatively nascent literary genre, and yet it has become intricately intertwined with much of contemporary culture, from entertainment to design to scientific inquiry to technological innovation. As Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry famously noted in a 1980 letter, “[t]he links between science fiction and science are well-established.” In The Secret History of Science Fiction anthologists James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel offer a fascinating parallel history of the genre born out of an active rebellion against the very term “genre” and a frustration with the multitude of definitions of “science fiction.”

We understand why some might say that, after the mid-1970s, sf went back to the playroom, never to be taken seriously again. But they do a vast disservice to the writers and readers of the next thirty years. What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the early 1970s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered. We offer evidence that the developments of the 1960s and early ’70s have been carried forth, if mostly outside of the public eye. For years they have been overshadowed by popular media sf and best-selling books that cater to the media audience. And at the same time that, on one side of the genre divide, sf was being written at the highest levels of ambition, on the other side, writers came to use the materials of sf for their own purposes, writing fiction that is clearly science fiction, but not identified by that name.”

The book features 19 stories from iconic authors, many not classically considered science fiction writers, including Margaret Atwood, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Lethem and George Saunders. (It’s also incredibly refreshing to see such a gender-balanced anthology.)

HAPPINESS

Earlier this year, I did an extensive reading list of what I consider to be the 7 most essential books on the art and science of happiness. Topping it was Jonathan Haidt‘s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, which examines millennia of philosophical thought on the grand question of what makes us happy to unearth ten great theories of happiness discovered by the thinkers of the past. From Plato to Jesus to Buddha, they reveal a surprising abundance of common tangents. (For example, from Shakespeare: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” From Buddha: “Our life is the creation of our mind.”)

Haidt takes this ambitious analysis of philosophical thought over the centuries and examines it through the prism of modern psychology research to paint a profound portrait of our civilization’s understanding of happiness and extract a remarkably compelling blueprint for optimizing the human condition for well-being.

The story begins with an account of how the human mind works. Not a full account, of course, just two ancient truths that must be understood before you can take advantage of modern psychology to improve your life. The first truth is the foundational idea of this book: The mind is divided into parts that sometimes conflict. Like a rider on the back of an elephant, the conscious, reasoning part of the mind has only limited control of what the elephant does. Nowadays, we know the causes of these divisions, and a few ways to help the rider and the elephant work better as a team.” ~ Jonathan Haidt

* * *

What are the books that gave you new understanding of something or opened your eyes to a facet of culture that had been previously foreign to you?

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07 JUNE, 2011

The Sorcerers & Their Apprentices: The Untold Story of MIT Media Lab

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What jazz-playing robots have to do with intelligent cars, the future of reading and augmented intuition.

Since its inception by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, the MIT Media Lab has become a potent petri dish of innovation, churning out some of the smartest, most exciting, most optimistic technology-driven promises for a better tomorrow. From humanoid robots to e-ink to smart city cars, the lab continually pushes the bleeding-edge of what MoMA’s Paola Antonelli calls “humanized technology” — objects, devices and systems that enrich and empower our lives. Now, the fascinating story of the MIT Media Lab is finally told in full in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives — a fantastic new book by Frank Moss, who spearheaded the lab’s vision and operations between 2006 and April of this year, when he was replaced by Joi Ito.

Moss, whose formal background is in aerospace engineering and who became an early tech entrepreneur before taking over the lab, pulls the curtain on what Google’s Eric Schmidt calls “the creative chaos” behind the remarkable inner workings of this hub of human genius.

The book really is about people and their passion, how they go about inventing. So often today people write books and talk about innovation as if it were a business process. True creativity and invention, which are the seed of innovation, come from people and they come from the stories of people. They come from their backgrounds, their passions, what moves them, the things that worry them, the things that are their dreams.” ~ Frank Moss

For a taste of the kind of astonishing, jaw-dropping, all-inspiring brilliance that emanates from the lab and its projects, look no further than the incredible Sixth Sense wearable gestural interface project by Patti Maes and Pranav Mistry, demoed at TED in 2009:

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent review and Amazon has a fascinating (but ironically un-embeddable) video tour of the lab as Moss talks about the book.

More than anything, The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices is a fresh breath of optimism amidst a culture of techno-dystopia 30 years in the making, offering a surprisingly believable blueprint for the kind of innovation that maybe, just maybe, can abate our worst nightmares and materialize our greatest dreams for the future.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

06 JUNE, 2011

5 Must-Read Books by TED Global 2011 Speakers

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What the pursuit of pleasure has to do with lie-detection, the history of money and the sorrows of work.

TED is among the highlights of my year and, every time before the big event, I like to prepare by reading or re-reading books by that TED season’s roster of speakers. (Previously: Long Beach 2011 in two parts and TED Global 2010.) Last week, TED revealed next month’s TED Global speakers and I was delighted to find, as always, some of my favorite thinkers, writers and doers on the list. Here are five fantastic books by some of them.

HOW PLEASURE WORKS

We’ve previously looked closely at the art and science of happiness, and one of the simplest ways in which we humans grasp after happiness is through the pursuit of pleasure. What is pleasure, exactly, and is it really just a simplistic, false substitute for happiness? That’s exactly what Yale psychologist Paul Bloom explores in How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like — a fascinating look at the complex cognitive and sociological elements of what we find pleasurable. Bloom looks at common pleasure sources across the entire spectrum of social conduct — food, sex, art, video games, drugs, saunas, crossword puzzles, reality TV — through a hybrid lens of developmental psychology, evolutionary science, philosophy, neuroscience, behavioral economics and sociology to examine the mechanisms and ultimate function of pleasure.

Bloom explores the prevalent theory of “essentialism” — the idea that things in the world, including other people, have invisible, distinct essences that make them what they are, and we are born with a predilection for subscribing to this worldview. Bloom uses essentialism to explain the mysterious pleasures of everyday life, from our attachments to objects like celebrity memorabilia to our hunger for art to the pleasures of the imagination to the appeal of science and religion, examining pleasure through both its developmental origin in us as individuals and its evolutionary roots in our species.

If you look through a psychology textbook, you will find little or nothing about sports, art, music, drama, literature, play, and religion. These are central to what makes us human, and we won’t understand any of them until we understand pleasure.” ~ Paul Bloom

What makes Bloom’s argument most interesting, perhaps, is that it centers around two seemingly conflicting claims: That pleasure is deep and transcendent, which implies it must be socialized, cultured and learned, and that pleasure is a byproduct of evolution, which implies that it should be simple, superficial and a knee-jerk response to environmental stimuli. The truth, however, is a marriage of the two — we have evolved essentialism to help us make sense of the world, but it now pushes us to desire things that have nothing to do with survival and reproduction. (Pornography, for instance, is enjoyed by a great deal of people, and while we’re biologically inclined to have an interest in real-life attractive naked people, there’s absolutely no reproductive advantage associated with watching attractive naked people get it on on the screen.)

Gracefully dancing across everything from Shakespeare to cannibalism to IKEA furniture, Bloom more than lives up to his reputation as one of modern psychology’s deepest thinkers, crispest writers and most eloquent storytellers. Besides, as Newsweek‘s Mary Carmichael put it, “Is there anyone who could resist a book about sex, food, art, and fun?”

THE ASCENT OF MONEY

Historian Niall Ferguson is a prolific and relentlessly fascinating author, so choosing just one of his excellent books is no easy task. His most recent masterpiece, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World, makes a compelling case for banking and the development of currency as a central force behind how civilization has evolved. As we’re just beginning to barely emerge from the financial crisis that swept the Western world four summers ago, Ferguson offers a timely and timeless reminder of one of the greatest truths in financial history and, I would add, human psychology at large: Sooner or later, every bubble bursts. What makes the book even more interesting is that Ferguson completed his research for it prior to the actual economic recession in the U.S., yet many of his insights and conclusions presage what was about to happen with uncanny accuracy.

Behind each great historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret, and this book sets out to illuminate the most important of these. For example, the Renaissance created such a boom in the market for art and architecture because Italian bankers like theMedici mad fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Habsburg Empire because having the world’s first modern stock market was financially preferable to having the world’s biggest silver mine. The problems of the French monarchy could not be resolved without a revolution because a convicted Scots murderer had wrecked the French financial system by unleashing the first stock market bubble and bust.” ~ Niall Ferguson

Above all, the book is an admirable effort to break down what Ferguson calls “the dangerous barrier which has arisen between financial knowledge and other kinds of knowledge,” a celebration of the holistic, cross-disciplinary curiosity I so firmly believe is the key to a richer, more creative, more intelligent life.

Ferguson’s latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, comes out in November and looks to be very much worth a read.

LIESPOTTING

Years ago, I did a thesis largely on the work of psychologist Paul Ekman, who pioneered the study of emotion through facial expression. He devised a system for coding and interpreting facial “microexpressions,” which has since been used by everyone from the FBI to financial loan officers to actors, and has become instrumental in assisting lie detection. My longstanding fascination with the field led me to the work of Pamela Meyer, who uses visual cues and psychology to detect deception. In Liespotting: Proven Techniques to Detect Deception, Meyer reveals some of the most reliable techniques for detecting and, in turn, protecting ourselves against dishonesty.

Calling myself a liespotter — a human lie detector — might suggest that I live in anticipation of being deceived, wary and suspicious of everyone with whom I come into contact. Actually, becoming a trained liespotter allows you to do the opposite. You’ll know you have the tools you need to protect yourself in situations in which you might encounter falsehood or obfuscation. Becoming a liespotter doesn’t inspire paranoia — it frees you from it.” ~ Pamela Meyer

Though Meyer’s work isn’t nearly as rigorously scientific as Ekman’s and at times calls for a grain of salt, it nonetheless offers the foundation of a skill few of us have and most of us desire.

Liespotting will introduce the [basic] method, which combines facial recognition with advanced interrogation techniques. It will show you how to read the map of the human face and body, as well as how to decode human language and vocal tone, exposing the myriad signs people inadvertently leave behind when they are working to hide the truth about something that really matters.” ~ Pamela Meyer

While the techniques in Liespotting can be tremendously valuable in an ideal, neutral scenario, the thing I find most important to remember — and most difficult to accept — is that even if we worked ourselves into the perfect, most accurate human lie detectors, when it comes to the dishonesty of those we care about the most about the things that most matter to us, we have a remarkable ability to ignore, dismiss and disregard any intuitive or factual evidence of deception. In order for Meyer’s techniques to be of practical value in those most crucial situations, we need to couple them with a keen awareness of this bigger, fundamental human bias and an actionable desire to change.

THE PLEASURES AND SORROWS OF WORK

Sure, I’ll take any excuse to sing the praises of Alain de Botton, dubbed the creator of the “literary self-help genre” and a master of philosophical social criticism through an eloquent blend of wit and wisdom. (His How Proust Can Change Your Life will change your life.) There’s no better way to celebrate his second TED Global appearance than with The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, about which he spoke in his first:

One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.” ~ Alain de Botton

One of the reasons we might be suffering is that we are surrounded by snobs. A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses it to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. And the dominant form of snobbery that exists today is job snobbery — you encounter it within minutes at a party when you get asked that famous, iconic question of the 21st century: ‘What do you do?’ The opposite of a snob is your mother.” ~ Alain de Botton

THE PHILOSOPHICAL BABY

Children are at once profound and enigmatic vessels of the human mind, and yet the first 2,500 years of philosophy contain almost no reference to or study of children. But the scientific revolution of the past 30 years has led philosophers and scientists to take children seriously for the first time. That’s exactly what psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik addresses in The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life — an ambitious look at how babies, in many ways, are more conscious than adults in that they don’t operate on the kind of autopilot that often drives us. In the process, Gopnik explores philosophical questions about the nature of love, the relativity of truth, and various facets of the human condition.

Childhood is a profound part of the human condition. But it is also a largely unexamined part of that condition — so taken for granted that most of the time we hardly notice it at all. Childhood is a universal fact, but when we do think about it, it is almost always in individual first-person terms: What should i do, now, about my child? What did my parents do that led me to be the way I am? Most books about children are like this, from memoirs and novels to the ubiquitous parenting advice books. But childhood is not just a particular plot complication of Irish autobiographies or a particular problem to be solved by American self-help programs. It is not even just something that all human being share. It is, I’ll argue, what makes all human beings human.” ~ Alison Gopnik

If you missed last year’s roundup, it’s never too late to catch up with these 7 must-read books by TED Global 2010 speakers, as well as these two sets of must-reads by this year’s TED Long Beach speakers.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

06 JUNE, 2011

The Moby Awards for Best and Worst Book Trailers

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What zero-gravity intercourse has to do with the future of information and the fate of the printed page.

We have a soft spot for brilliant book trailers here at Brain Pickings, so it was a delight to stumble upon the 2011 Moby Awards for best and worst book trailers, who revealed the winners last week. Zany rather than brainy, and yet uniquely illuminating, the Moby winners — selected by a panel of judges from literary tastemakers like Slate, Flavorpill, GoodReads and The Millions — are a treat of creativity, humor and an occasional profound human truth. Drumroll please…

GRAND JURY AWARD

Subtitled “We’re Giving You This Award Because Otherwise You’d Win Too Many Other Awards,” the quasi-epic mega-award was bestowed upon Gary Shteyngart for his Super Sad True Love Story — a dystopian, profane and, in its own twisted way, relentlessly entertaining vision for the future. (This, friends, is no Optimist’s Tour of the Future, mind you.) Veiled in the love story between a middle-aged man obsessed with eternal life and a 20-something Korean American oppressed by her overbearing parents is a faceted commentary on the obsessions and catastrophes of the information age, adding to the ongoing conversation on what the future of information and the internet may hold.

The James Franco cameo also landed the trailer the award in the Most Celebtastic Performance category.

BEST SMALL HOUSE

Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Tree of Codes, dubbed the “impossible book” for its ambitious production vision, landed atop our list of the best art, design and photography books of 2010 — a remarkable literary remix created by cutting out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz, and rearranging the text to form an entirely different story. Its trailer, just as meta as the book itself, scored the Moby Award for Best Small House.

BEST BIG HOUSE

After two excellent books at the intersection of the curious and the macabre, and a controversial TED talk, Mary Roach has done it again with Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, in which she explores the psychology, physiology, technology and politics of sending humans into space. Roach looks beyond the shiny techno-luster of space travel to explore its most fundamental human concerns — eating, having sex and bathing, going to the bathroom, not dying when reentering Earth’s atmosphere — in her signature style of irreverent curiosity, wry humor and irresistible science writing.

Admittedly, however, I was rooting for Steven Johnson in this category with his Where Good Ideas Come From (which topped our list of the best books in business, life and mind for 2010), brilliantly animated by The RSA, a longtime Brain Pickings darling.

STAND-ALONE ART OBJECT

The Book Trailers as Stand-Alone Art Object award went to How Did You Get This Number — a collection of nine thoughtful essays by Sloane Crosley exploring the delights and distresses of youth, from foreign travel to social awkwardness to heartbreak, complete with ten quasi-innocuous federal offenses Crosley has consciously broken in the past 10 years of being, well, a young person with a restless mind and a creative itch.

WORST PERFORMANCE BY AN AUTHOR

Though Jonathan Franzen recently delivered one of the smartest, timeliest, most poignant graduation addresses I’ve ever had the joy of hearing, he didn’t fare so well on the book trailers front, where he scored the Worst Performance by an Author.

And that’s quite unfortunate, because the book the trailer is for — Freedom: A Novel — is commonly considered some of the best fiction to come by in years.

WHAT ARE WE DOING TO OUR CHILDREN?

It’s a Book by award-winning children’s book author Lane Smith is part playful pastime for your favorite tiny human, part poignant manifesto for the printed page in the digital age.

It rightfully snagged the Moby Award in the children’s lit category, edging out Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s excellent The Hidden Alphabet, and is also an honoree in our own selection of 7 best book book trailers.

Want more? See the full list of winners and the finalists with whom they battled it out.

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