The Best Books of 2012: Your 10 Overall Favorites
From children’s existential questions to 100 ideas that changed graphic design, by way of Yayoi Kusama and illustrated scientific mysteries.
By Maria Popova
The final addition to this year’s best-of reading lists — spanning art, design, philosophy and psychology, picturebooks, history, graphic novels and graphic nonfiction, food, and music — is a look at your favorite reads featured on Brain Pickings in 2012, based on an alchemy of various readership statistics and other data voodoo.
BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch,” Carl Sagan famously observed in Cosmos, “you must first invent the universe.” The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library), one of the best children’s books of 2012 — a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, featuring such modern-day icons as Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, and many more, with a good chunk of the proceeds being donated to Save the Children, and also one of the best science books of 2012.
Most of the time, you feel in charge of your own mind. You want to play with some Lego? Your brain is there to make it happen. You fancy reading a book? You can put the letters together and watch characters emerge in your imagination.
But at night, strange stuff happens. While you’re in bed, your mind puts on the weirdest, most amazing and sometimes scariest shows.
In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future. Nowadays, we tend to think that dreams are a way for the mind to rearrange and tidy itself up after the activities of the day.
Why are dreams sometimes scary? During the day, things may happen that frighten us, but we are so busy we don’t have time to think properly about them. At night, while we are sleeping safely, we can give those fears a run around. Or maybe something you did during the day was lovely but you were in a hurry and didn’t give it time. It may pop up in a dream. In dreams, you go back over things you missed, repair what got damaged, make up stories about what you’d love, and explore the fears you normally put to the back of your mind.
Dreams are both more exciting and more frightening than daily life. They’re a sign that our brains are marvellous machines — and that they have powers we don’t often give them credit for, when we’re just using them to do our homework or play a computer game. Dreams show us that we’re not quite the bosses of our own selves.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins breaks down the math of evolution and cousin marriages to demonstrate that we are all related:
Yes, we are all related. You are a (probably distant) cousin of the Queen, and of the president of the United States, and of me. You and I are cousins of each other. You can prove it to yourself.
Everybody has two parents. That means, since each parent had two parents of their own, that we all have four grandparents. Then, since each grandparent had to have two parents, everyone has eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great- great-grandparents and thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents and so on.
You can go back any number of generations and work out the number of ancestors you must have had that same number of generations ago. All you have to do is multiply two by itself that number of times.
Suppose we go back ten centuries, that is to Anglo-Saxon times in England, just before the Norman Conquest, and work out how many ancestors you must have had alive at that time.
If we allow four generations per century, that’s about forty generations ago.
Two multiplied by itself forty times comes to more than a thousand trillion. Yet the total population of the world at that time was only around three hundred million. Even today the population is seven billion, yet we have just worked out that a thousand years ago your ancestors alone were more than 150 times as numerous.
The real population of the world at the time of Julius Caesar was only a few million, and all of us, all seven billion of us, are descended from them. We are indeed all related. Every marriage is between more or less distant cousins, who already share lots and lots of ancestors before they have children of their own.
By the same kind of argument, we are distant cousins not only of all human beings but of all animals and plants. You are a cousin of my dog and of the lettuce you had for lunch, and of the next bird that you see fly past the window. You and I share ancestors with all of them. But that is another story.
Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains why we can’t tickle ourselves:
To understand why, you need to know more about how your brain works. One of its main tasks is to try to make good guesses about what’s going to happen next. While you’re busy getting on with your life, walking downstairs or eating your breakfast, parts of your brain are always trying to predict the future.
Remember when you first learned how to ride a bicycle? At first, it took a lot of concentration to keep the handlebars steady and push the pedals. But after a while, cycling became easy. Now you’re not aware of the movements you make to keep the bike going. From experience, your brain knows exactly what to expect so your body rides the bike automatically. Your brain is predicting all the movements you need to make.
You only have to think consciously about cycling if something changes — like if there’s a strong wind or you get a flat tyre. When something unexpected happens like this, your brain is forced to change its predictions about what will happen next. If it does its job well, you’ll adjust to the strong wind, leaning your body so you don’t fall.
Why is it so important for our brains to predict what will happen next? It helps us make fewer mistakes and can even save our lives.
Because your brain is always predicting your own actions, and how your body will feel as a result, you cannot tickle yourself. Other people can tickle you because they can surprise you. You can’t predict what their tickling actions will be.
And this knowledge leads to an interesting truth: if you build a machine that allows you to move a feather, but the feather moves only after a delay of a second, then you can tickle your- self. The results of your own actions will now surprise you.
Particle physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss explains why we’re all made of stardust:
Everything in your body, and everything you can see around you, is made up of tiny objects called atoms. Atoms come in different types called elements. Hydrogen, oxygen and carbon are three of the most important elements in your body.
How did those elements get into our bodies? The only way they could have got there, to make up all the material on our Earth, is if some of those stars exploded a long time ago, spew- ing all the elements from their cores into space. Then, about four and a half billion years ago, in our part of our galaxy, the material in space began to collapse. This is how the Sun was formed, and the solar system around it, as well as the material that forms all life on earth.
So, most of the atoms that now make up your body were created inside stars! The atoms in your left hand might have come from a different star from those in your right hand. You are really a child of the stars.
But my favorite answers are to the all-engulfing question, How do we fall in love?. Author Jeanette Winterson offers this breathlessly poetic response:
You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall like falling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)
And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.
PS You have to be brave.
What happens when we fall in love is probably one of the most difficult things in the whole universe to explain. It’s something we do without thinking. In fact, if we think about it too much, we usually end up doing it all wrong and get in a terrible muddle. That’s because when you fall in love, the right side of your brain gets very busy. The right side is the bit that seems to be especially important for our emotions. Language, on the other hand, gets done almost completely in the left side of the brain. And this is one reason why we find it so difficult to talk about our feelings and emotions: the language areas on the left side can’t send messages to the emotional areas on the right side very well. So we get stuck for words, unable to describe our feelings.
But science does allow us to say a little bit about what happens when we fall in love. First of all, we know that love sets off really big changes in how we feel. We feel all light-headed and emotional. We can be happy and cry with happiness at the same time. Suddenly, some things don’t matter any more and the only thing we are interested in is being close to the person we have fallen in love with.
These days we have scanner machines that let us watch a person’s brain at work. Different parts of the brain light up on the screen, depending on what the brain is doing. When people are in love, the emotional bits of their brains are very active, lighting up. But other bits of the brain that are in charge of more sensible thinking are much less active than normal. So the bits that normally say ‘Don’t do that because it would be crazy!’ are switched off, and the bits that say ‘Oh, that would be lovely!’ are switched on.
Why does this happen? One reason is that love releases certain chemicals in our brains. One is called dopamine, and this gives us a feeling of excitement. Another is called oxytocin and seems to be responsible for the light-headedness and cosiness we feel when we are with the person we love. When these are released in large quantities, they go to parts of the brain that are especially responsive to them.
But all this doesn’t explain why you fall in love with a particular person. And that is a bit of a mystery, since there seems to be no good reason for our choices. In fact, it seems to be just as easy to fall in love with someone after you’ve married them as before, which seems the wrong way round. And here’s another odd thing. When we are in love, we can trick ourselves into thinking the other person is perfect. Of course, no one is really perfect. But the more perfect we find each other, the longer our love will last.
Big Questions from Little People is a wonderful complement to The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science and is certain to give you pause about much of what you thought you knew, or at the very least rekindle that childlike curiosity about and awe at the basic fabric of the world we live in.
Originally featured in November.
TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS
When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. This year, all of Sugar’s no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — was released in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (UK; public library), along with several never-before-published columns, under Sugar’s real name: Cheryl Strayed.
The book, one of the year’s finest reads in psychology and philosophy, is titled after Dear Sugar #64, which remains my own favorite by a long stretch. It’s exquisite in its entirety, but this particular bit makes the heart tremble with raw heartness:
Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.
When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t ‘mean anything’ because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.
One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.
In the introduction, Steve Almond, who once attempted to be Sugar before there was Sugar, captures precisely what makes Sugar Sugar:
The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.
But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it.
Originally featured in July.
HOW TO BE AN EXPLORER OF THE WORLD
As a longtime fan of guerrilla artist and illustrator Keri Smith’s Wreck This Box set of interactive journals, part of these 7 favorite activity books for grown-ups, I was delighted to discover her How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum (UK; public library) — a wonderful compendium of 59 ideas for how to get creatively unstuck by engaging with everyday objects and your surroundings in novel ways. From mapping found sounds to learning the language of trees to turning time observation into art, these playful and poetic micro-projects aren’t just a simple creativity booster — they’re potent training for what Buddhism would call “living from presence” and inhabiting your life more fully.
It all began with this simple list, which Smith scribbled on a piece of paper in the middle a sleepless night in 2007:
Eventually, it became the book.
Smith says of the book’s curious choice of subtitle:
I am interested in the idea of taking art (or museum shows/collections) out of the realm of ‘institution’ and into the hands of the individual, one does not need a formal space to put things in, in order for it to be valid. A museum is what YOU make it. You decide what goes in it, what is interesting, why it is interesting, how it could be displayed. It gives the reader permission to create their own portable (or not portable) show. It doesn’t have to be a public show either, it could just be your own private collections of whatever YOU find interesting. Think of it as a kind of “Sim Museum”, except in the real world. The book begins with ideas about what and how to collect things you find in the world (found objects, thoughts, ideas, stories, things from nature, etc.), a section on various ways of displaying the things you collect, and how to set up a showing.
Especially delightful — and not only because of the Anaïs Nin reference — is this author’s note in the preface, a nod to Mark Twain’s conviction that “all ideas are second-hand” and Henry Miller’s contention that most of what we create is composed of “hand-me-down ideas”:
Both daring and meditative, How to Be an Explorer of the World is part Maira Kalman, part Wendy MacNaughton, part its very own kind of whimsy, delivering — beautifully — exactly what it says on the tin, with an invitation to be just a little bit more alive each day.
Originally featured in August.
Much has been said about how creativity works, what its secrets are, and where good ideas come from, but most of that wisdom can be lost on young minds just dipping their toes in the vast and tumultuous ocean of self-initiated creation. Some time ago, artist and writer Austin Kleon — one of my favorite thinkers, a keen observer of and participant in the creative economy of the digital age — was invited to give a talk to students, the backbone for which was a list of 10 things he wished he’d heard as a young creator:
So widely did the talk resonate that Kleon decided to deepen and enrich its message in Steal Like an Artist (UK; public library), one of the best art books of 2012 — an intelligent and articulate manifesto for the era of combinatorial creativity and remix culture that’s part 344 Questions, part Everything is a Remix, part The Gift, at once borrowed and entirely original.
The book opens with a timeless T.S. Eliot endorsement of remix culture:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
Kleon goes on to delineate the qualities you’ll need to cultivate for the creative life — things like kindness, curiosity, “productive procrastination,” “a willingness to look stupid” — demonstrating that “creativity” isn’t some abstract phenomenon bestowed upon the fortunate few but, rather, a deliberate mindset and pragmatic ethos we can architect for ourselves. As he puts it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”
He writes in the introduction:
It’s one of my theories that when people give advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.
This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.
These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.
These ideas are for everyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)
On doing what you love, Kleon urges:
Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.
Originally featured at length in March.
A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS
Literature is the original “inter-net,” woven of a web of allusions, references, and citations that link different works together into an endless rabbit hole of discovery. Case in point: Last week’s wonderful field guide to creativity, Dancing About Architecture, mentioned in passing an intriguing old book originally published by James Webb Young in 1939 — A Technique for Producing Ideas (UK; public library), which I promptly hunted down and which will be the best $5 you spend this year, or the most justified trip to your public library.
Young — an ad man by trade but, as we’ll see, a voraciously curious and cross-disciplinary thinker at heart — lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.
Right from the introduction, original Mad Man and DDB founder Bill Bernbach captures the essence of Young’s ideas, with which Steve Jobs would have no doubt agreed when he proclaimed that “creativity is just connecting things”:
Mr. Young is in the tradition of some of our greatest thinkers when he describes the workings of the creative process. It is a tribute to him that such scientific giants as Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein have written similarly on this subject. They agree that knowledge is basic to good creative thinking but that it is not enough, that this knowledge must be digested and eventually emerge in the form of fresh, new combinations and relationships. Einstein refers to this as intuition, which he considers the only path to new insights.
To be sure, however, Young marries the intuitive with the practical in his formulation:
[T]he production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.
In a chapter on training the mind, Young offers:
In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.
Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up [of] so called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.
So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.
But the most compelling part of Young’s treatise, in a true embodiment of combinatorial creativity, builds upon the work of legendary Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (of Pareto principle fame) and his The Mind and Society. Young proposes two key principles for creating — that an idea is a new combination and that the ability to generate new combinations depends on the ability to see relationships between different elements.
The first [principle is] that an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.
The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.
Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.
STEP 1: GATHERING RAW MATERIAL
Young talks about the importance of building a rich pool of “raw material” — mental resources from which to build new combinations — in a way that resonates deeply with the Brain Pickings founding philosophy, and also articulates the increasing importance of quality information filters in our modern information diet. This notion of gathering raw material is the first step in his outline of the creative process:
Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.
Every really good creative person…whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested — from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.
The process is something like that which takes place in the kaleidoscope. The kaleidoscope, as you know, is an instrument which designers sometimes use in searching for new patterns. It has little pieces of colored glass in it, and when these are viewed through a prism they reveal all sorts of geometrical designs. Every turn of its crank shifts these bits of glass into a new relationship and reveals a new pattern. The mathematical possibilities of such new combinations in the kaleidoscope are enormous, and the greater the number of pieces of glass in it the greater become the possibilities for new and striking combinations.
(I once used a similar analogy with LEGO.)
STEP 2: DIGESTING THE MATERIAL
In his second stage of the creative process, digesting the material, Young affirms Paola Antonelli’s brilliant metaphor of the curious octopus:
What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.
In his third stage of the creative process, Young stresses the importance of making absolutely “no effort of a direct nature”:
It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.
[W]hen you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.
STEP 4: THE A-HA MOMENT
Then and only then, Young promises, everything will click in the fourth stage of the seemingly serendipitous a-ha! moment:
Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.
It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.
STEP 5: IDEA MEETS REALITY
Young calls the last stage “the cold, gray dawn of the morning after,” when your newborn idea has to face reality:
It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.
Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.
When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.
* * *
Years later, upon reissuing A Technique for Producing Ideas, Young recounted the many letters he had gotten from “poets, painters, engineers, scientists, and even one writer of legal briefs” who had found his technique empowering and helpful. But what’s perhaps most interesting is the following note he made to the postscript of a reprint:
From my own further experience in advertising, government, and public affairs I find no essential points which I would modify in the idea-producing process. There is one, however, on which I would put greater emphasis. This is as to the store of general materials in the idea-producer’s reservoir.
I am convinced, however, that you gather this vicarious experience best, not when you are boning up on it for an immediate purpose, but when you are pursuing it as an end in itself.
Originally featured in May.
100 IDEAS THAT CHANGED GRAPHIC DESIGN
Design history books abound, but they tend to be organized by chronology and focused on concrete -isms. From publisher Laurence King, who brought us the epic Saul Bass monograph, and the prolific design writer Steven Heller with design critic Veronique Vienne comes 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design (UK; public library) — a thoughtfully curated inventory of abstract concepts that defined and shaped the art and craft of graphic design, each illustrated with exemplary images and historical context, and one of the year’s best design books.
From concepts like manifestos (#25), pictograms (#45), propaganda (#22), found typography (#38), and the Dieter-Rams-coined philosophy that “less is more” (#73) to favorite creators like Alex Steinweiss, Noma Bar, Saul Bass, Paula Scher, and Stefan Sagmeister, the sum of these carefully constructed parts amounts to an astute lens not only on what design is and does, but also on what it should be and do.
Heller and Vienne write in the introduction:
[Big ideas] are notions, conceptions, inventions, and inspirations — formal, pragmatic, and conceptual — that have been employed by graphic designers to enhance all genres of visual communication. These ideas have become, through synthesis and continual application, the ambient language(s) of graphic design. They constitute the technological, philosophical, forma, and aesthetic constructs of graphic design.
From how rub-on lettering democratized design by fueling the DIY movement and engaging people who knew nothing about typography to how the concept of the “teenager” was invented after World War II as a new market for advertisers, many of the ideas are mother-of-invention parables. Together, they converge into a cohesive meditation on the fundamental mechanism of graphic design — to draw a narrative with a point of view, and then construct that narrative through the design process and experience.
History, as we all know, is written by the survivors. And there are certain historical facts that never get covered. And, in graphic design, it’s fascinating how many things don’t get covered until somebody uncovers them.
Originally featured, with more examples and images, in May.
THE WHERE, THE WHY, AND THE HOW
At the intersection of art and science, The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (UK; public library), one of the year’s best science books, invites some of today’s most celebrated artists to create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language.
The images, which come from a mix of well-known titans and promising up-and-comers, including favorites like Lisa Congdon, Gemma Correll, and Jon Klassen, borrow inspiration from antique medical illustrations, vintage science diagrams, and other historical ephemera from periods of explosive scientific curiosity.
Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves. The trio urge in the introduction:
With this book, we wanted to bring back a sense of the unknown that has been lost in the age of information. … Remember that before you do a quick online search for the purpose of the horned owl’s horns, you should give yourself some time to wonder.
The motion graphics book trailer is an absolute masterpiece itself:
Pondering the age-old question of why the universe exists, Brian Yanny asks:
Was there an era before our own, out of which our current universe was born? Do the laws of physics, the dimensions of space-time, the strengths and types and asymmetries of nature’s forces and particles, and the potential for life have to be as we observe them, or is there a branching multi-verse of earlier and later epochs filled with unimaginably exotic realms? We do not know.
Exploring how gravity works, Terry Matilsky notes:
[T]he story is not finished. We know that general relativity is not the final answer, because we have not been able to synthesize gravity with the other known laws of physics in a comprehensive “theory of everything.”
Zooming in on the microcosm of our own bodies and their curious behaviors, Jill Conte considers why we blush:
The ruddy or darkened hue of a blush occurs when muscles in the walls of blood vessels within the skin relax and allow more blood to flow. Interestingly, the skin of the blush region contains more blood vessels than do other parts of the body. These vessels are also larger and closer to the surface, which indicates a possible relationship among physiology, emotion, and social communication. While it is known that blood flow to the skin, which serves to feed cells and regulate surface body temperature, is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, the exact mechanism by which this process is activated specifically to produce a blush remains unknown.
Originally featured in October.
HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS
Saul Bass (1920-1996) is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. This year, exactly half a century later, Rizzoli reprinted Henri’s Walk to Paris, one of this year’s best children’s books — an absolute gem like only Bass can deliver, at once boldly minimalist and incredibly rich, telling the sweet, aspirational, colorful story of a boy who lives in rural France and dreams of going to Paris.
In his wonderful essay on Bass’s talent, Martin Scorsese observed, as if thinking of this book in particular:
Saul’s designs…speak so eloquently that they address all of us, no matter when, or where, you were born.”
Originally featured in February.
YAYOI KUSAMA’S ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass endure as some of history’s most beloved children’s storytelling, full of timeless philosophy for grown-ups and inspiration for computing pioneers. The illustrations that have accompanied Lewis Carroll’s classics over the ages have become iconic in their own right, from Leonard Weisgard’s stunning artwork for the first color edition of the book to Salvador Dali’s little-known but breathtaking version. Now, from Penguin UK and Yayoi Kusama, Japan’s most celebrated contemporary artist, comes a striking contender for the most visually captivating take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland yet — and one of the year’s best art books.
Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.
Originally featured, with more photos and a trailer, in April.
WHAT’S A DOG FOR
It must be the season of the dog, from the recent treasure chest that is The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (one of the the best art books of 2012) to the history of rabies to Fiona Apple’s stirring handwritten letter about her dying dog. But what is it about dogs, exactly, that has us so profoundly transfixed?
That’s exactly what former New York magazine executive editor John Homans explores in What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (public library) — a remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts tenderness and scientific rigor.
In a chapter on reconciling the inevitable pain we invite into our lives when we commit to love a being biologically destined to die before we do and the boundless joy of choosing to love anyway, Homans cites John Updike’s heartbreaking poem “Another Dog’s Death” about the last days of one of his beloved animals:
For days the good old bitch had been dying, her back
pinched down to the spine and arched to ease the pain,
her kidneys dry, her muzzle white. At last
I took a shovel into the woods and dug her grave
in preparation for the certain. She came along,
which I had not expected. Still, the children gone,
such expeditions were rare, and the dog,
spayed early, knew no nonhuman word for love.
She made her stiff legs trot and let her bent tail wag.
We found a spot we liked, where the pines met the field.
The sun warmed her fur as she dozed and I dug;
I carved her a safe place while she protected me.
I measured her length with the shovel’s long handle;
she perked in amusement, and sniffed the heaped-up earth.
Back down at the house, she seemed friskier,
but gagged, eating. We called the vet a few days later.
They were old friends. She held up a paw, and he
injected a violet fluid. She swooned on the lawn;
we watched her breathing quickly slow and cease.
In a wheelbarrow up to the hole, her warm fur shone.
This state of being-in-the-moment is what’s so compelling about dogs. It’s hard for a human to get to it. Even in the most difficult times, dogs are cheerful and ready for experience. A dog can’t figure out that it’s being measured for its grave. The three-legged chow that walks on my street every day doesn’t know the number three or have any sense that anything is wrong with her at all (and as I write, the dog is sixteen and still fit). It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition ‘the Dog Wish,’ the ‘strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.’ This is a dog’s blessing, a dim-wittedness one can envy.
He considers the warm tackiness of loving a dog:
Loving a dog means, among other things, making peace with kitsch, if you haven’t already. You don’t have to make goo-goo eyes at every puppy picture you see in a magazine or bake your dog birthday cakes. But if you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience. … Dogs are a national religion with a catechism composed by Hallmark, so heresy is necessary. I suspect some people resist the dog culture with such passion precisely to avoid the kitsch, the appalling melodrama: if you give in to it, you’re trapped in a narrative you can’t control. You feel like a dope, buying into it. The emotions around the dog can be as neotenized as the animal itself.
Rather than an end, kitsch can be a starting point. … Much as I’d like to think that kitsch has no purchase in my world, it’s found its way in — and it’s sleeping on my rug.
Beautifully written and absolutely engrossing, What’s a Dog For? goes on to examine such fascinating fringes of canine culture as how dogs served as Darwin’s muse, why they were instrumental in the birth of empathy, and what they might reveal about the future of evolution.
Originally featured earlier this month.
BONUS: WRITING THAT WORKS
“Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times,” David Ogilvy famously commanded in the first of his 10 uncompromising tips on writing. Indeed, more than thirty years after its original publication in 1981, Writing That Works: How to Communicate Effectively In Business (UK; public library) by former Ogilvy & Mather CEO Kenneth Roman and legendary adman Joel Raphaelson offers some timelessly practical tips on the art, science, and psychology of successful communication, in business and beyond. Because even if you’ve happily bid the corporate world adieu and figured out a way to avoid work by doing what you love, there are certain skills and techniques you’ll find yourself resorting to again and again in order to communicate your ideas with impact, whatever your discipline.
Take, for instance, the art of a great presentation. Roman and Raphaelson offer a concise, precise plan:
How to Organize a Presentation
Organizing a presentation is a combination of clear thinking (the pyramid principle, for example) and clear communications (points that follow here).
The setting is most likely a conference room. It’s a business environment. Everything you say, everything you show, every device you use, must move you toward your objectives in a businesslike fashion.
- Keep things simple — keep them on target
Start with specific, written objectives — and a strategy. You need a theme to give your presentation unity and direction, and to fix your purpose in your audience’s mind. Make it a simple theme, easy to remember, and open with it, using a headline to state it.
Tie every element in your presentation to the theme. If you’re using charts, put your theme all by itself on one chart and place it where it will be visible throughout the presentation. This keeps the people in your audience — sometimes sleepy, often distracted, always with lots on their minds — focused on your theme (and message).
- Tell your audience where you’re going
Show an agenda that lists the points you are going to cover. Describe the structure of your presentation, and say how long it will take. Estimate time conservatively — err on the long side rather than the short side. A presentation that is promised for twenty minutes and goes twenty-five seems like an eternity. The same thing promised for thirty minutes seems short in twenty-five, crisp and businesslike.
Throughout the meeting, refer to the agenda to keep your audience on track. Prepare a presentation book the audience can keep, and tell them at the start that you’ll give them copies after the meeting. This will relieve them from taking voluminous notes (instead of listening), so you’ll get their full attention. Do everything that’s been asked — and a little more. Be precise and complete in covering what was requested. If you cannot cover some point or other, say so and say why.
- Think headlines, not labels
Presenters often have impressive data on their charts, but fail to extract what the data shows, so the audience doesn’t understand what the numbers prove. What does your data say? Headings on charts should tell the audience how to think about the numbers. … Use headings to establish your main points. Guide the audience by numbering them on charts or slides, telling people how many you have.
- Involve the audience
Look for interesting visual devices to present dry, routine materials. A little creativity goes a long way. New computer programs make it easy to do colorful things with pie charts and bar charts. Newsmagazines hire top artists to make their charts interesting and clear. USA Today is particularly adept at charts, and runs at least one every day in the lower left-hand corner of the front page. Study the techniques of these publications — and borrow from them.
Think of ways to involve your audience. Play games with them. Invite people to guess the answers to questions, or to predict the results of research — before you reveal them.
Try to add something extra, something unexpected. It demonstrates more than routine interest. You might play tape recordings of customers describing your audience’s product, or quote a relevant passage from a speech your audience’s chief executive made years ago, or show an excerpt from yesterday’s TV news that illuminates or reinforces an important point.
- Finish strong
‘Oh, give me something to remember you by’ goes the song. As soon as you’ve gone, your audience is likely to turn its attention to other things — perhaps to presentations competitive to yours. Leave something to remember you by.
Don’t let a meeting drift off into trivia. Close with a summary and a strong restatement of your proposition or recommendation. For major presentations, look for a memorable, dramatic close — something visual, perhaps a small gift that symbolizes your main point.
Keep your promise about how much time you’ll take. Running longer than you said you would at the outset shows a lack of discipline.
Presenters often sprout wings and fly when confronted with an audience. They expand, tell anecdotes — and hate to sit down. If what you’ve written is exactly on time in rehearsal, you’ll probably run over in performance. If you’ve been allotted twenty minutes, write for fifteen.
An additional section explores “speeches that make a point” with several tips:
- Frame the subject with a point of view
Some cynics maintain that the subliminal title of every speech is ‘How to Be More Like Me.’ While your audience might not look forward to a speech that actually had such a title, good speeches nearly always express a strongly held personal point of view.
Ideas that you believe in make good speeches. Tom Peters, author of In Search of Excellence, advises not to accept any topic that you don’t feel strongly about: ‘Stick to topics you care deeply about, and don’t keep your passion buttoned inside your vest. An audience’s biggest turn-on is the speaker’s obvious enthusiasm.’
- Start fast
It may be ‘an honor and a privilege’ to have been invited to speak, but that is not what people came to hear. Plunge into what you want to say. The occasion may require some pro forma opening courtesies, but keep them as short as possible.
Start with that single point you want your audience to take away, then conclude with a memorable way for them to do so. Don’t just repeat it (‘As I said at the beginning of this talk …’) but find a vivid image to register the point.
- Write your speech to be spoken
Don’t think of it as an oration. Think of it as a conversation with a friend.
Read aloud the draft of your speech, and edit it until it sounds like you talking naturally. Ghostwriters can help, but your speech must ultimately reflect you. Never deliver a speech drafted by someone else before you have revised it to sound like you.
- Leave them thinking
A great speech is one that inspires the audience to think about a subject from a fresh perspective. It helps a lot if you have the credibility, if the audience perceives that you are speaking from personal knowledge.
- No speech was ever too short
On your way out after a speech, do you remember ever thinking it was good — but a little too short? Most good talks take less than twenty minutes. Consider what you have so often had to sit through, and how much better it could have been said in few words.
One final piece of advice addresses how to make it sound easy:
The most effective speeches and presentations sound as if they have been spoken, ad-lib, and not written down at all. Great presenters and speakers make it all sound so easy and so natural that one assumes it just pours out of them. It almost never does.
Complement Writing That Works with these 5 things every presenter should know about people, animated.
Published December 26, 2012