24 OCTOBER, 2014
By: Maria Popova
A celebration of makers and hackers from half a century before they were called makers and hackers.
Legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written beautifully about why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life and Susan Sontag contemplated the creative purpose of boredom. Perhaps we understand this intellectually, but we — now more than ever, it seems — have a profound civilizational anxiety about being alone. And the seed for it is increasingly planted in childhood — in an age when play is increasingly equated with screens and interfaces, being alone with a screen is not quite being alone at all, so the art of taking joy in one’s own company slips further and further out of reach.
In 1958, a self-described 42-year-old kid named Robert Paul Smith penned a little book titled How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself (public library), which his wife Elinor, an accomplished author herself, illustrated — a delightful field guide to hacking household objects and making mischievous contraptions from nature’s gifts, long before the rise of hacker culture and the modern Maker Movement. Before working as a broadcaster in Manhattan in the 1930s, an era prior to the dawn of television and many decades before the web, Smith had grown up at a time when icemen filled ice-boxes by horse and wagon and every house had a hatstand and “all mothers sewed,” producing a steady supply of empty spools for kids to play with — and yet his book is timeless and remarkably timely in both spirit and hands-on ingenuity.
With a wink — perhaps inadvertent — to the existential value of philosophy, Smith writes:
I understand some people get worried about kids who spend a lot of time all alone, by themselves. I do a little worrying about that, but I worry about something else even more; about kids who don’t know how to spend any time all alone, by themselves. It’s something you’re going to be doing a whole lot of, no matter what, for the rest of your lives. And I think it’s a good thing to do; you get to know yourself, and I think that’s the most important thing in the whole world.
He offers how-to guidance on a wealth of simple yet imaginative playthings — indoor boomerangs, pin pianos, broken umbrella bow-and-arrows, pussy-willow bees, peach pit turtles, clamshell bracelets “for your sister, if you’ve got a sister, or your girl, if you’ve got a girl, or if not, just for the fun of making them,” a quirky prank-ready contraption made out of “a chicken or a turkey wishbone, some chewing gum, a burnt kitchen match and a rubber band.” Today, when even LEGO bricks come as kits of pre-imagined possibilities, these unstructured activities — “There are no kits to build these things,” Smith cautions — come as welcome assurance that there are enormous rewards in what Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.”
Indoor boomerang: 'Get a piece of very thin cardboard. If your father uses business cards, that’s exactly the right kind of cardboard, and the right size. The top flap of a matchbook will do, too. Now just cut a boomerang shape out of it, just about the same size and shape as in the drawing. Now put it on a book, so that one arm sticks out just a little bit. Flick it with your fingernail and it’ll go sailing out just like an Australian boomerang, and after very little practice, you’ll find out how to make it whirl so that it will come back to you. A good way to do it is to hold the book in one hand, tipped up a little, so that the boomerang goes up in the air at an angle, and slides back at just about the same angle, like a ball going almost to the top of a hill, and then rolling down again.'
There is also subtle, charming humor:
These days, you see a kid lying on his back and looking blank and you begin to wonder what’s wrong with him. There’s nothing wrong with him, except he’s thinking… He is trying to arrive at some conclusion about his thumb.
Pin piano: 'If you can get a piece of wood and ten pins you can make a piano. Oh, not a big piano like the one you have. You’d need a lot more wood and pins for that. This is a pin-piano, and it’s a musical instrument, and it plays very piano. The word piano means soft. The real name for a piano is pianoforte, and all it means is an instrument that can play loud or soft. Well, this is a pin-piano and it just plays soft. All you do is stick the pins into the piece of wood, each one a little further in than that first one. If you take a nail and hit the pin, you’ll hear a certain note. By pushing the next pin in a little further, you’ll hear a higher note. And so on. Tune as you go, do re mi fa sol la ti do. But that’s only eight pins. Why did I say ten? Because you’re going to bend at least two of the pins trying to get them in to the right depth. '
But tucked inside Smith’s practical manifesto for self-reliant play is also a love letter to public libraries, the merits of which he extolls throughout the book as he encourages the reader to find out more about obscure subjects and hobbies at the library. He writes:
If you don’t know what a willow tree looks like, go to the public library and get out a book about trees. You’ll notice that all through this book, I advise you to go to the library when you want to find out something. I think just plain going to the library and getting out a book is a swell thing to do. It’s something to do, when you’ve got nothing to do, all by yourself. It’s a thing I still do when I’ve got nothing special to do. I just wander around until I find a book that looks interesting; let’s say, a book about ship-building, or rockets, or a story by some author I’ve never heard of before. Now, chances are I’ll never build a ship, or ride in a rocket, and maybe I won’t like the way the author I never heard of writes. But it’s interesting to know how someone else builds a ship, or plans to fly in a rocket, or how the author feels about things.
This adds another layer of timeliness and wistful urgency to Smith’s book — today, as the web continues to grow better at giving us more of what we’re looking for, it also grows exponentially worse at helping us discover what we don’t yet know we ought to know, those invaluable unknown-unknowns. The internet is a magnificent and vitalizing medium in so many ways, but also an unforgiving one in others — amid this echo chamber of our existing convictions and interests, we are nursed on the belief that what isn’t online either doesn’t matter or doesn’t exist at all. And yet the vast majority of human knowledge, what Vannevar Bush memorably called “the common record” as he envisioned the web in 1945, lives in out-of-print books and archives and other materials of which the web makes no mark and thus takes no notice. The public library is the closest thing we have to a time machine of human wisdom, to say nothing of its essential role in democracy.
The Globe Chandelier at the Los Angeles Public Library, from Robert Dawson's book 'The Public Library.' Click image for more.
Smith later adds:
I’m really serious about the library: that’s the best place to learn more. We did lots of other things when we were kids, like collecting bugs, and wild flowers, and frogs, and snakes, and stones—and in the library I promise you there will be a really expert book on each of these, and on many other subjects, written by people who’ve made a life study of those special things. There will be books about trees and radio sets and telescopes and badminton and Indian crafts and metal work, about how to make bows and arrows, how to swim, how to — oh, there’s no end. There’s even a book on how to find a how-to book.
Some silly grownup has even written a book on how to read a book.
The most memorable such silly grownup, of course, was Virginia Woolf, whose meditation on how to read a book is an infinitely rewarding classic.
Some of Smith’s ideas might raise a few cautious eyebrows, but they spring from a place of sincere trust in children’s innate goodness and intelligence. In one such controversial section, he counsels, “You should learn how to sharpen a knife,” adding: “Something else that you’re just going to have to argue out with your mother; I did with my mother, my kids did with their mother. A sharp knife is safer than a dull knife.” Knives, in fact, play a prominent role in many of the activities — from carving patterns into pencils to various versions of flipping an actual pocket knife.
'Take one of the hexagonal pencils (hexagonal means six-sided, as a square is four-sided). These are usually painted yellow. Now, cut a very thin sliver, like this, so you’ve lifted off a little square of paint. Now on the side of the pencil right next to the side you’ve cut, cut another little square of paint that you can sliver off. Now the next side, and so on all around the pencil, making a checkerboard effect.'
In addition to the knives, there are also guns — but the type that would disarm even those of us most uneasy about the notion of kids play-pretending with lethal weapons. Smith’s make-shift “guns” aren’t today’s chillingly realistic plastic replicas, but ones made of wood and rubber bands. They wink at Freud’s assertion that “the opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real” — somehow, it’s hard to imagine such contraptions correlating with fantasies of actual deathly violence.
Wood and rubber band gun: 'The simplest way to make one is just to cut a piece of wood, somewhere between a quarter of an inch and half an inch thick, into a pistol shape. On the top, just jam the point of your knife in so that it makes a flat hole. Then cut a piece of cardboard into little half-inch squares. Put a rubber band on the gun, a rubber band big enough so that when you pull it back over the top of the handle, it’s good and stretched. You can put a thumbtack through the rubber band where it comes over the front end of the pistol. Now jam one of the little cardboard squares into the flat hole, like this. Now if you’ll hold the gun, you’ll find that by rubbing your thumb up, you’ll push the rubber band up over the end of the handle and it will spring forward and flick the card.'
While much of the book’s charm comes from its encouragement of an active, joyful engagement with the natural world — horse chestnuts, for instance, are quite simply “fun to get and fun to open the burrs and fun to look at and fun to shine” — there is also a great deal of fun to be had by the city child. New Yorkers, for instance, might find particular delight in Smith’s bow-and-arrow transformation of broken umbrellas, a common seasonal feature of our urban wilderness.
Alongside the playful projects are also illuminating asides on the imperceptible innovations that underpin modern life. Noting that busted umbrellas are harder to find than they used to be, Smith writes:
In those days, the olden days, umbrellas were made of cotton, or, if you were rich, silk. And people used to walk a lot more then, because there weren’t so many cars, and the umbrellas got used more, and cotton and silk, after a while, rot. Nowadays, umbrellas aren’t used so much, and I imagine they’re made out of nylon, and that doesn’t rot.
Indeed, playful as Smith’s premise is, he also makes a handful of rather poignant asides that often apply to life well beyond childhood play — like this perceptive remark on the perils of public opinion:
If some of the things sound a little childish, figure it out: do you think they’re too childish, or do you think that if someone else saw you doing it, he would think it was childish?
How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself is a treat in its totality. Complement it with The Little Red Schoolbook, a controversial instigator of independent thinking in teens from the same era, then revisit this fantastic grown-up field guide to the art of solitude.
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