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10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings

Fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.

10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings

I remember my first awareness of mortality as a child in Bulgaria. I was nine and my father was relaying an anecdote from his youth. I asked him when it had taken place. With unconcerned casualness, he replied: “About a decade ago.” I was astonished that people could segment their lives into blocks this big — my own life hadn’t yet lasted a decade. In realizing that “a decade ago” I hadn’t existed — the self I now so vividly experienced daily was then a nonentity — I also realized that in several more of those ten-year blocks, my dad, and eventually I, will cease to exist.

With dad, year 0
With dad, year 0

After one such time-block, I left Bulgaria for America, lured by the liberal arts education promise of being taught how to live. As the reality fell short of that promise, I began keeping my own record of what I was reading and learning outside the classroom in mapping this academically unaddressed terra incognita of being.

All the while, I was working numerous jobs to pay my way through school. What I was learning at night and on weekends, at the library and on the internet — from Plato to pop art — felt too uncontainably interesting to keep to myself, so I decided to begin sharing these private adventures with my colleagues at one of my jobs. On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as a plain-text email to seven friends. Halfway through my senior year of college, juggling my various jobs and academic course load, I took a night class to learn coding and turned the short weekly email into a sparse website, which I updated manually every Friday, then, eventually, every weekday.

The site grew as I grew — an unfolding record of my intellectual, creative, and spiritual development. At the time, I had no idea that this small labor of love and learning would animate me with a sense of purpose and become both my life and my living, nor that its seven original readers would swell into several million. I had no idea that this eccentric personal record, which I began keeping in the city where Benjamin Franklin founded the first subscription library in America, would one day be included in the Library of Congress archive of “materials of historical importance.”

And now, somehow, a decade has elapsed.

Because I believe that our becoming, like the synthesis of meaning itself, is an ongoing and dynamic process, I’ve been reluctant to stultify it and flatten its ongoing expansiveness in static opinions and fixed personal tenets of living. But I do find myself continually discovering, then returning to, certain core values. While they may be refined and enriched in the act of living, their elemental substance remains a center of gravity for what I experience as myself.

I first set down some of these core beliefs, written largely as notes to myself that may or may not be useful to others, when Brain Pickings turned seven (which kindred spirits later adapted into a beautiful poster inspired by the aesthetic of vintage children’s books and a cinematic short film). I expanded upon them to mark year nine. Today, as I round the first decade of Brain Pickings, I feel half-compelled, half-obliged to add a tenth learning, a sort of crowning credo drawn from a constellation of life-earned beliefs I distilled in a commencement address I delivered in the spring of 2016.

Here are all ten, in the order that they were written.

From year seven:

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most important, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as important, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

From year nine:

  1. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William Blake and her creative influences, talks about writers and artists who magnified her spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often. Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
  2. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society. Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives and in the collective dream called culture.

And as I round the decade:

  1. Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively. Fight it in yourself, for this ungainly beast lays dormant in each of us, and counter it in those you love and engage with, by modeling its opposite. Cynicism often masquerades as nobler faculties and dispositions, but is categorically inferior. Unlike that great Rilkean life-expanding doubt, it is a contracting force. Unlike critical thinking, that pillar of reason and necessary counterpart to hope, it is inherently uncreative, unconstructive, and spiritually corrosive. Life, like the universe itself, tolerates no stasis — in the absence of growth, decay usurps the order. Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction. There is nothing more difficult yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincerity and acting from a place of largehearted, constructive, rational faith in the human spirit, continually bending toward growth and betterment. This remains the most potent antidote to cynicism. Today, especially, it is an act of courage and resistance.

Since such a time machine of reflection would get nowhere without the substance that fueled it, here are ten of the things I most loved reading and writing about in this first decade of Brain Pickings:

  1. Love, Lunacy, and a Life Fully Lived: Oliver Sacks, the Science of Seeing, and the Art of Being Seen

  2. Virginia Woolf on the Relationship Between Loneliness and Creativity

  3. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Real Human Conversation

  4. James Baldwin on Freedom and How We Imprison Ourselves

  5. Cry, Heart, But Never Break: A Remarkable Illustrated Meditation on Loss and Life

  6. Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers

  7. James Gleick on How Our Cultural Fascination with Time Travel Illuminates Memory, the Nature of Time, and the Central Mystery of Human Consciousness

  8. The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will

  9. Patti Smith on Time, Transformation, and How the Radiance of Love Redeems the Rupture of Loss

  10. What Makes a Person: The Seven Layers of Identity in Literature and Life


Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.”

Nonstop Metropolis: An Atlas of Maps Reclaiming New York’s Untold Stories and Unseen Populations

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York. But meaning never exists in the singular in this city of infinite multiplicity, this mecca of idealism, iconoclasm, and codified idiosyncrasy, which means many different things to its eight million inhabitants and seven billion onlookers — a densely populated capital of loneliness, a canine kingdom, an ever-changing castle, a city that makes and breaks the American dream, a city that impelled Walt Whitman to demand: “Keep your splendid silent sun… Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum… give me the streets of Manhattan!”

The poetics of that multiplicity is what Rebecca Solnit, in collaboration with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, explores in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (public library) — the culmination of Solnit’s cartographically scrumptious trilogy, after Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, exploring “what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.” The trilogy, Solnit notes, arose from “the belief that any significant place is in some sense infinite, because its stories are inexhaustible and the few that are well known overshadow the many worth knowing.” Any place can therefore be mapped in innumerable ways, each casting before the viewer a particular point of view and thus contributing to cartography’s long history as power and propaganda.

The twenty-six maps, each accompanied by an original essay, explore facets of the city as varied as its songscape, its linguistic wilderness, its notable women, its brownstones and basketball courts, its riots, and its various human and physical energy systems.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Kelsey Garrity-Riley




Beyond the revelations of this particular city, the maps reveal the nature of all cities as functions of human intention with its always dual and often dueling capacities for good and evil, for revolution and repression, for power and prejudice, for creation and destruction. To map any city is to present a polished mosaic of selective memory built atop the rubble of selective forgetting. In reimagining the social and cultural landscape of New York, Solnit and Shapiro reclaim the unmapped territories of being and the untold stories of beings marginalized by the dominant psychogeographies of their time — from women to Native Americans to wildlife species.

Solnit writes in the introduction:

A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grace and grind against each other for centuries.


Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.

With an eye to the inherent incompleteness of any cartographic representation of a place as rife with infinite possibility as a city, Solnit adds:

Each of us grasps and inhabits only part of the pattern. The complexity beyond comprehension is one of the marvels of great cities, their inexhaustible, ever-renewing mystery… Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.


A city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and collaborations and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.

Among the peculiarities of New York, a city that is at once a template and a glorious oddity, is the mismatch between its location and its significance — perched on the periphery of the country and hanging off the very edge of the continent, it is nonetheless an epicenter of creative culture and intellectual life. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable words on the crucial difference between being in the middle and being at the center, Solnit captures the centripetal force of this peripheral city:

The opera diva from the rustic West at the center of Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark leaves small-town Colorado for Chicago for her first round of education as a musician, but she triumphed by becoming a successful artist in New York, as Cather did herself for the last forty-one years of her life. There she wrote vividly about the West, while living with her partner, editor Edith Lewis, in the East, where a publishing job had brought her and where privacy, tolerance, sophistication, maybe access to Europe and editors, seem to have kept her.

It’s a reverse of the old mythic westward migration for freedom — though it’s worth remembering that other New Yorkers left the city in search of liberation, whether it was the patrician Edith Wharton checking out of the closed upper-class society she continued to write about or James Baldwin escaping American racism for a while. Then there’s Djuna Barnes, who had a lively early career with the New York newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Walt Whitman once edited, moved on to a legendary era in lesbian Paris, and then spent the reclusive last half of her life on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. You could come to New York to appear or to disappear; the city accommodated all kinds of wishes.


New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.

Cather, Wharton, and Barnes are among the women depicted in one of the most fetching maps in the atlas, City of Women, which reimagines the iconic New York City subway map — a feat of graphic design but a failure of social justice, with its complacent abundance of stops named after white men. In this alternative version, each stop on the city’s twenty-two subway lines is renamed after a notable woman who was born, lived, or made her name nearby.

Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority
Cartography: Molly Roy; subway route symbols © Metropolitan Transit Authority

Populating this transit of Venus is an eclectic cast of writers, artists, scientists, philosophers, and other luminaries, including Hannah Arendt, Adrienne Rich, Margaret Mead, , Nora Ephron, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Audre Lorde, Ella Fitzgerald, Maira Kalman, Louise Bourgeois, and Anaïs Nin.(I’d be remiss not to savor the supreme, if solipsistic, existential satisfaction of being placed as near as I will ever get to Susan Sontag, my great abiding hero.)



Another map, The Singing City, plots New York’s musical creativity onto a typographic songscape celebrating “the ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Gent Sturgeon


What Is a Jew? captures the astonishing diversity of the subpopulation associated with New York’s intellectual elite but, in reality, spanning a vast spectrum of inclinations, interests, and legacies. (One can grasp that staggering range in reading Alfred Kazin’s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being in a culture but not of it, penned amid Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood as Robert Moses, another Jew, was masterminding Manhattan across the river.)

Cartography: Molly Roy
Cartography: Molly Roy

Solnit, herself the daughter of a Jewish New Yorker mother, introduces the map:

Stereotypes and generalizations generally precede discrimination. Often they depend on the belief that all members of the hated group have common characteristics, so much so that you can punish any member for the sins all members share. Except that they don’t. Categories are leaky, anomalies often occur, and differences within groups can matter as much or more than similarities. You could make this map, pointing up diversity, of any ethnic group, but we made it of Jews because New York has the greatest concentration of Jews on earth outside Israel, and because the word Jew contains a host of internal contradictions, from positions on Israel and capitalism and religion to race and class. What can you say of a group that, even within New York, ranges from Busy Siegel to Sammy Davis Jr. to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys? Whether Judaism is a culture, an ethnicity, or a religion is an unresolved question for people who are good at questions, and even Judaism the religion runs from the progressive inclusiveness of Chelsea’s queer-friendly Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to the mysticism and strictures of the Hasidic ranks of Williamsburg. What is a Jew? This is an exploration without an answer, or with as many answers as there are Jews.

Riot! depicts the eruptions of unrest and revolution in “a city at a simmer that boils over readily.”

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper's Weekly, August 1, 1863
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Thomas Nast, illustration of Draft Riots, Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863

In the accompanying essay, Luc Sante makes clear that most of these uprisings sprang up when the systemic abuse and oppression of minorities reached a breaking point, from the Stonewall riots to the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder in the hands of the NYPD. (I’m reminded here of Chinua Achebe’s astute observation that those who condemn something as too political are simply those who see it as discordant with their politics and who prefer the status quo undisturbed, so the very act of labeling a civic event a “riot” can itself be a function of the oppressive status quo.)



Indeed, dissent, difference, and divergent viewpoints are core to the genome of the city’s spirit — this city, as any great city. These, after all, were the conditions that catalyzed the emergence of the revolutionary Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century, which forever changed the course of art, science, and philosophy. I recall a poignant passage of May Sarton’s journals, in which she describes Dallas — “just plain inhuman, too rich, too new” — as a city of artificial beauty empty of poetry, where people are “starved for a kind of reality that does not exist in Neiman Marcus fur coats, in changes of fashion, in redecorating,” where “under the polite small talk, one sensed nostalgia, the nostalgia of the bored child who does not know what he lacks, but knows he is being deprived of something essential to his well-being.” Such homogeneity of privileged politeness threatens to sap any city of its essential energy. With an eye to these forces “driving diversity and complexity” out of the city, Solnit asks:

What are cities when the qualities that have defined them are drowned in rising tides of what we call wealth — that increase in holdings for some that increases scarcity, desperation, and exclusion for others?

The odd notion of the central city as a place where bohemia and dissent thrive has been withering away as cities become enclaves of the affluent and the corporate — or empty zones. Many of the condominiums and luxury apartments are often unoccupied, either because they’re not primary residences, or because they’re places to park money for the transnational super-wealthy or their corporations.

Reflecting on a world where gentrification has inverted Langston Hughes’s lament about white flight, Solnit adds:

The poor are pushed to the periphery, to the old suburbs, which fall into their own kind of decay. In the inner city the poor had access to shared resources like public pools and parks, to public transit, and to the possibility of a collective power and civil society engagement that the suburbs do not offer. There they become literally marginal.


Cities are not over. But it’s hard not to fear that the great cities of the North are never going to be what they were. Just as most have cased to be centers of industrial production, so they may cease to be centers of cultural production, at last with the intensity they once possessed. Now they’re menaced by climate change, too. New York CIty’s coastline will be pummeled with hurricanes and blizzards; hotter, wetter weather will bring the kind of heat waves that tend to kill seniors; food prices will likely rise, and climate refugees will become a new subpopulation. It’s impossible to say exactly what this city, like other great cities ceasing to be what they were, will become.

Brooklyn Villages, laid out in the style of the first modern world map, plots former Native American settlements, original Dutch and English villages, and Freedmen’s towns alongside contemporary housing complexes and real estate developments. My own home nestles uncomfortably between a onetime Ihretonga settlement and the aptly named “Rapacious Developers Village” of today.

Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew
Cartography: Molly Roy; artwork: Hannah Chalew



And yet the stories told in this atlas — for every map is a story — are decidedly redemptive. They offer considered counterpoints which, in exposing the fragments of our sociocultural brokenness, compose us closer to wholeness.

Noting the “special incandescent joy” with which we humans respond to maps, Solnit examines her criteria for these cartographic redemptions:

Maps demand work, and this kind of cerebral work can be exhilarating.

By a good map I mean an aesthetic one, a map that is an invitation to the imagination, a map that offers a fresh view of the familiar or an introduction to the unfamiliar or finds the latter in the former. If every map is a story, most of them are mysteries that invite you to solve them while remaining forever unsolved, in that they indicate more — more past, more future, more adventures, more travels. They have an openness, indicating more than they depict.

Maps, Solnit reminds us, are above all exercises in editing, both conscious and unconscious:

A map can trace one story, though it often portrays the coexistences of many stories in relation to each other. It can show how the physical, economic, visual, and social landscape can shape those stories, letting some bloom, grinding out others. Multiple stories in spatial relation become the geosocial constellations of our lives…

A map is a proposition: here is what this place is, or was, or will be. Most contemporary maps are predictable propositions: here are streets and freeways and also parking and maybe shopping or subway lines. But imagination can always go beyond what even the most quotidian map shows. You know that when you exit the Columbus Circle subway stop, Central Park will be there, and that may evoke majestic trees or strolls or memories of crimes or performances; or the Mets-Willets Point subway stop in Queens on the 7 may make you think about the Unisphere or Venus and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open or when the ash heaps described in The Great Gatsby were nearby.

We furnish maps with imagination; they offer us rooms to furnish thus. Even the most straightforward map is an invitation…

In orienting oneself in this atlas — and orient is a fitting word in speaking of New York, for it comes from the Latin oriens, meaning to find east by looking for the rising sun — one is invited to fathom the many New Yorks hidden from history’s eye. But, more than that, the atlas stands as a reminder that maps make cities as much as cities make maps, and that humans make meaning through how we build and map and live our cities and our stories.

Undergirding the project is a certain countercultural quality in calling on paper maps to nurture us with richer meaning in an age when digital maps feed us mere information. In a sentiment that harkens back to her beautiful meditation on how modern technology is changing our experience of time and place, Solnit writes:

Digital devices tend to offload knowledge from brains to machines, promise us that our ignorance will be adequate because machines will augment us. All recording technologies do this, but paper maps have a way of transferring their data to your mind, so that you become the map. You don’t become the phone. Expertise about place never becomes yours with the digital devices, but it often does with paper, which, paradoxically enough, makes paper a more fluid interactive technology.


In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Nonstop Metropolis, Solnit, Shapiro, and their venerable stable of writers go on to celebrate “the complexity, the layers and tangles, the cross-pollinations and conflicts, the hidden and overlooked, the ugly and beautiful” aspects of the city. Complement it with pioneering photographer Beatrice Abbott’s stunning black-and-white portraits of New York’s changing face and Jack Kerouac’s tour of the unseen New York, then revisit Solnit on living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, the rewards of walking, what reading does for the human spirit, and how Muybridge shaped visual culture.

Maps courtesy of University of California Press; photographs by Maria Popova


May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a consolatory letter to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as he was wrestling with depression, nearly a century before psychologists came to study the nonlinear relationship between creativity and mental illness. A generation later, with an eye to what made Goethe a genius, Humphrey Trevelyan argued that great artists must have the courage to despair, that they “must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”

Few artists have articulated the dance between this “divine discontent” and creative fulfillment more memorably than the poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995). In her Journal of a Solitude (public library), Sarton records and reflects on her interior life in the course of one year, her sixtieth, With remarkable candor and courage. Out of these twelve private months arises the eternity of the human experience with its varied universal capacities for astonishment and sorrow, hollowing despair and creative vitality.

May Sarton
May Sarton

In an entry from September 15, 1972, Sarton writes:

It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…

She considers solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery:

For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.


My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

In another journal entry penned three days later, in the grip of her recurrent struggle with depression, Sarton revisits the question of the difficult, necessary self-confrontations that solitude makes possible:

The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation … may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.

In a passage that calls to mind William Styron’s sobering account of living with depression, Sarton adds:

The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.

Perhaps Albert Camus was right in asserting that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” but this is a truth hard to take in and even harder to swallow when one is made tongueless by depression. In an entry from October 6, still clawing her way out of the pit of darkness, Sarton considers the only cure for despair she knows:

Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.

By mid-October, Sarton has begun to emerge from the abyss and marvels at the transformation in a beautiful testament to the finitude and transitoriness of all things, even the deepest-cutting and most all-consuming of states:

I can hardly believe that relief from the anguish of these past months is here to stay, but so far it does feel like a true change of mood — or rather, a change of being where I can stand alone.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s memorable insight into writing and self-doubt — the same self-doubt with which Steinbeck’s diary is strewn — Sarton considers the measure of success in creative work:

So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful. It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.

Complement these particular passages of the wholly exquisite Journal of a Solitude with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckages of the soul, then revisit Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone needs at least one prolonged period of solitude in life.


A Small Dark Light: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Legacy of the Tao Te Ching and What It Continues to Teach Us About Personal and Political Power 2,500 Years Later

“It is the profound modesty of the language that offers what so many people for so many centuries have found in this book: a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are part.”

A Small Dark Light: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Legacy of the Tao Te Ching and What It Continues to Teach Us About Personal and Political Power 2,500 Years Later

Two and a half millennia ago, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu wrote a poetic and profound short text known as the Tao Te Ching. With uncommon elegance, it crystallized the teachings of Taoist philosophy on such perennial matters as power, happiness, and the source of meaning in human life. As its wisdom radiated West over the centuries, it went on to influence minds as varied as John Cage (who wove it into his pioneering musical aesthetic), Franz Kafka (who considered it the clearest view of reality), Bruce Lee (who anchored his famous metaphor for resilience in it), Alan Watts (who placed it at the center of his philosophy), and Leo Tolstoy (who leaned on it in his proto-blog about the meaning of life). One changeless constant has endured across the millennia: Every generation of admirers has felt, and continues to feel, a prescience in these ancient teachings so astonishing that they appear to have been written for their own time.

Among the timeless text’s most ardent admirers is Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), who first became besotted with it as a little girl, watching her father leaf through and lovingly annotate a scrumptious cloth-bound copy of Paul Carus’s 1898 translation. Le Guin soon came to discover that this “venerable object of mystery” held enchantments deeper than the beguiling blue-and-red Chinese designs gracing its cover — upon asking her father why he was taking notes, she was told that he was marking the chapters he wanted read at his funeral. (They were read.)

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

“I was lucky to discover him so young, so that I could live with his book my whole life long,” Le Guin recalls. By the time she was in her twenties, having lived with the book and having seen the book live through her, she set out to give voice to that silent mutuality. Although she spoke no Chinese, Le Guin decided to create her own translation — or, rather, lyrical interpretation — using Carus’s 1898 translation, which included a transliteration of each Chinese character, as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decipher the poetic grammar of the ancient text against the scholarly English translations.

In her twenties, Le Guin completed several chapters, then went on adding slowly each decade. Nearly half a century later, as she was inching toward seventy, she gave this private passion public form in Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching (public library) — a book Le Guin describes as “a rendition, not a translation.” Similar in nature to Proust’s far-more-than-translation of Ruskin, it is indeed the type of work which the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska meant when she spoke of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.”

Le Guin writes of the ethos animating her version:

The Tao Te Ching was probably written about twenty-five hundred years ago, perhaps by a man called Lao Tzu, who may have lived at about the same time as Confucius. Nothing about it is certain except that it’s Chinese, and very old, and speaks to people everywhere as if it had been written yesterday.


The Tao Te Ching is partly in prose, partly in verse; but as we define poetry now, not by rhyme and meter but as a patterned intensity of language, the whole thing is poetry. I wanted to catch that poetry, its terse, strange beauty. Most translations have caught meanings in their net, but prosily, letting the beauty slip through. And in poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth.

Le Guin being Le Guin — a writer whose incisive intellect continually slices through our limiting societal structures and whose essay on being “a man” remains the finest, sharpest thing ever written about gender in language — she notes the deliberate countercultural undertone of her rendition:

Scholarly translations of the Tao Te Ching as a manual for rulers use a vocabulary that emphasizes the uniqueness of the Taoist “sage,” his masculinity, his authority. This language is perpetuated, and degraded, in most popular versions. I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, and perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul. I would like that reader to see why people have loved the book for twenty-five hundred years.

It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts, funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.

2nd century BC Ink-on-silk manuscript of the Tao Te Ching
2nd century BC Ink-on-silk manuscript of the Tao Te Ching

And so, with equal parts reverence and imaginative rigor, Le Guin plunges into the spring. Most of the chapters, each sculpted into poetic profundity that enlarges the beauty and truth of Lao Tzu’s wisdom, are footnoted with Le Guin’s illuminations, which reveal, and often add to, the original depth. Of the first, she notes:

A satisfactory translation of this chapter is, I believe, perfectly impossible. It contains the book. I think of it as the Aleph, in Borges’s story: if you see it rightly, it contains everything.

And so she presents the first chapter-poem, which she titles “Taoing”:

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s abiding admonition against interpretation, Le Guin writes:

Everything Lao Tzu says is elusive. The temptation is to grasp at something tangible in the endlessly deceptive simplicity of the words… It is the profound modesty of the language that offers what so many people for so many centuries have found in this book: a pure apprehension of the mystery of which we are part.

Among Lao Tzu’s elusive truths are counterintuitive notions like “useful emptiness,” “dim brightness,” and the Chinese concept of wu wei, trying not to try, many of which revolve around the question of what power really means. The tenth chapter, which Le Guin titles “Techniques,” explores the path to attaining these paradoxical powers:

Can you keep your soul in its body,
hold fast to the one,
and so learn to be whole?
Can you center your energy,
be soft, tender,
and so learn to be a baby?

Can you keep the deep water still and clear,
so it reflects without blurring?
Can you love people and run things,
and do so by not doing?

Opening, closing the Gate of Heaven,
can you be like a bird with her nestlings?
Piercing bright through the cosmos,
can you know by not knowing?

To give birth, to nourish,
to bear and not to own,
to act and not lay claim,
to lead and not to rule:
this is mysterious power.

Art by Shaun Tan for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Le Guin considers this central teaching of the Tao Te Ching:

Taoists gain their ends without the use of means. That is indeed a light that does not shine—an idea that must be pondered and brooded over. A small dark light.

One of Lao Tzu’s most timeless teachings is also, today, one of the timeliest — his ideas about the true source of political power. Le Guin explains:

Lao Tzu, a mystic, demystifies political power.

Autocracy and oligarchy foster the beliefs that power is gained magically and retained by sacrifice, and that powerful people are genuinely superior to the powerless.

Lao Tzu does not see political power as magic. He sees rightful power as earned and wrongful power as usurped. He does not see power as virtue, but as the result of virtue. The democracies are founded on that view.

He sees sacrifice of self or others as a corruption of power, and power as available to anybody who follows the Way. This is a radically subversive attitude. No wonder anarchists and Taoists make good friends.

Such radical subversiveness concludes the thirteenth chapter, which Le Guin aptly titles “Shameless”:

People who treated the body politic
as gently as their own body
would be worthy to govern the commonwealth.

Tucked into Lao Tzu’s millennia-old verses are observations that apply with remarkable precision to certain public figures and political actors of our own time, nowhere more acutely than in the civilizational embarrassment who signs himself Donald Trump. In the twenty-fourth chapter, for instance, Lao Tzu writes:

Self-satisfied people do no good,
self-promoters never grow up.

The fifty-sixth, in which Le Guin deliberately drops “he” from the grammatically familiar “he who,” contains one of his most famous tenets:

Who knows
doesn’t talk.
Who talks
doesn’t know.

In the thirty-third, which Le Guin titles “Kinds of Power,” Lao Tzu writes:

Knowing other people is intelligence,
knowing yourself is wisdom.
Overcoming others takes strength,
overcoming yourself takes greatness.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep
Art by Olivier Tallec from Louis I, King of the Sheep, an illustrated parable of how power changes us

The thirty-eighth chapter deals directly with the subject of true power and its simulacra:


Great power, not clinging to power,
has true power.
Lesser power, clinging to power,
lacks true power.
Great power, doing nothing,
has nothing to do.
Lesser power, doing nothing,
has an end in view.

The good the truly good do
has no end in view.
The right the very righteous do
has an end in view.
And those who act in true obedience to law
roll up their sleeves
and make the disobedient obey.

So: when we lose the Way we find power;
losing power we find goodness;
losing goodness we find righteousness;
losing righteousness we’re left with obedience.

Obedience to law is the dry husk
of loyalty and good faith.
Opinion is the barren flower of the Way,
the beginning of ignorance.

So great-minded people
abide in the kernel not the husk,
in the fruit not the flower,
letting the one go, keeping the other.

Le Guin distills the meaning:

A vast, dense argument in a minimum of words, this poem lays out the Taoist values in steeply descending order: the Way and its power; goodness (humane feeling); righteousness (morality); and — a very distant last — obedience (law and order). The word I render as “opinion” can be read as “knowing too soon”: the mind obeying orders, judging before the evidence is in, closed to fruitful perception and learning.

The whole of Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching is well worth savoring — as much for the ancient substance as for Le Guin’s stylistic splendor. Complement it with Le Guin on power, oppression, and freedom, the magic of real human conversation, the sacredness of public libraries, what beauty really means, and where good ideas come from.


Proust on Why We Read

“The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own, so that at the moment when the book has told us everything it can, it gives rise to the feeling that it has told us nothing.”

Proust on Why We Read

How is it that tiny black marks on a white page or screen can produce such enormous ripples in the heart, mind, and spirit? Why do we lose ourselves in books, only to find ourselves enlarged, enraptured, transformed? Galileo saw reading as a way of attaining superhuman powers. Half a millennium later, his modern counterpart Carl Sagan extolled books as “proof that humans are capable of working magic.” For Kafka, they were “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” For the poet Mary Ruefle, “someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world.” “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her lyrical meditation on why we read and write.

One of the truest and most beautiful answers to this perennial question comes from Marcel Proust (July 10, 1871–November 18, 1922).


By his mid-twenties, Proust had already published pieces in prestigious literary journals. But he was yet to write a novel. When he was twenty-six, a thousand pages into his first attempt, he found himself stumped and unable to make the book cohere. That’s when he discovered the great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, whose writings blew his mind open.

Over the next three years, Proust immersed himself in Ruskin’s prolific body of work and, despite his imperfect English, set about translating into French the books that had most moved him, obsessively annotating them with footnotes. Many years later, Proust would come to write in the seventh and final volume of In Search of Lost Time, his now-legendary novel building on the themes he had attempted to explore in that frustrated first attempt:

I realised that the essential book, the one true book, is one that the great writer does not need to invent, in the current sense of the word, since it already exists in every one of us — he has only to translate it. The task and the duty of a writer are those of a translator.

Proust’s translations of Ruskin took on a life of their own. They came to embody what the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, in the discussing the translation of her own work, extolled as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes … a second original.” The preface to one of his Ruskin translations became a second original so miraculous that it was eventually published separately as On Reading (public library). In it, Proust considers the pleasurable paradoxes of reading:

Reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone, or in other words, while continuing to bring into play the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately puts to flight; while remaining open to inspiration, the soul still hard at its fruitful labours upon itself.

Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading
Art by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston from A Child of Books, an illustrated love letter to reading

He contemplates the irrepressible, universal pleasure of childhood reading:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood that we lived as fully as the days we think we left behind without living at all: the days we spent with a favourite book. Everything that filled others’ days, so it seems, but that we avoided as vulgar impediments to a sacred pleasure — the game for whose sake a friend came looking for us right at the most interesting paragraph; the bothersome bee or sunbeam that forced us to look up from the book, or change position; the treats we had been forced to bring along but that we left untouched on the bench next to us while above our head the sun grew weaker in the blue sky; the dinner we had to go home for, during which we had no thought except to escape upstairs and finish, as soon as we were done, the interrupted chapter — our reading should have kept us from perceiving all that as anything other than obtrusive demands, but on the contrary, it has graven into us such happy memories of these things (memories much more valuable to us now than what we were reading with such passion at the time) that if, today, we happen to leaf through the pages of these books of the past, it is only because they are the sole calendars we have left of those bygone days, and we turn their pages in the hope of seeing reflected there the houses and lakes which are no more.

Proust echoes Hermann Hesse’s elegant case for why the highest form of reading is non-reading and considers the supreme reward of reading:

This is one of the great and wondrous characteristics of beautiful books (and one which enables us to understand the simultaneously essential and limited role that reading can play in our spiritual life): that for the author they may be called Conclusions, but for the reader, Provocations. We can feel that our wisdom begins where the author’s ends, and we want him to give us answers when all he can do is give us desires. He awakens these desires in us only when he gets us to contemplate the supreme beauty which he cannot reach except through the utmost efforts of his art… The end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own, so that at the moment when the book has told us everything it can, it gives rise to the feeling that it has told us nothing.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s assertion that books “give us the model of self-transcendence… a way of being fully human,” Proust suggests that a great book shows us the way to ourselves, and beyond ourselves:

Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it.


What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.

Complement On Reading with Hesse on the three types of readers, Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human experience, and Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s wonderful illustrated love letter to reading, then revisit Proust on love and how the intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart.


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