The 13 Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2013
From Alan Turing to Susan Sontag, by way of a lost cat, a fierce Victorian lady-journalist, and some very odd creative habits.
By Maria Popova
It’s that time of year again, the time for those highly subjective, grossly non-exhaustive, yet inevitable and invariably fun best-of reading lists. To kick off the season, here are my thirteen favorite biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013. (Catch up on last year’s best history books.)
1. LOST CAT
“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell asserted indignantly in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs. Though hailed as memetic rulers of the internet, cats have also enjoyed a long history as artistic and literary muses, but never have they been at once more about cats and more about something else than in Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton, she of many wonderful collaborations — a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. (You might recall a subtle teaser for this gem in Wendy’s wonderful recent illustration of Gay Talese’s taxonomy of cats.) Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love.
After Caroline crashes an experimental plane she was piloting, she finds herself severely injured and spiraling into the depths of depression. It both helps and doesn’t that Caroline and Wendy have just fallen in love, soaring in the butterfly heights of new romance, “the phase of love that didn’t obey any known rules of physics,” until the crash pulls them into a place that would challenge even the most seasoned and grounded of relationships. And yet they persevere as Wendy patiently and lovingly takes care of Caroline.
When Caroline returns from the hospital with a shattered ankle, her two thirteen-year-old tabbies — the shy, anxious Tibby (short for Tibia, affectionately — and, in these circumstances, ironically — named after the shinbone) and the sociable, amicable Fibby (short for Fibula, after the calf bone on the lateral side of the tibia) — are, short of Wendy, her only joy and comfort:
Tibia and Fibula meowed happily when I arrived. They were undaunted by my ensuing stupor. In fact they were delighted; suddenly I had become a human who didn’t shout into a small rectangle of lights and plastic in her hand, peer at a computer, or get up and disappear from the vicinity, only to reappear through the front door hours later. Instead, I was completely available to them at all times. Amazed by their good luck, they took full feline advantage. They asked for ear scratches and chin rubs. They rubbed their whiskers along my face. They purred in response to my slurred, affectionate baby talk. But mostly they just settled in and went to sleep. Fibby snored into my neck. Tibby snored on the rug nearby. Meanwhile I lay awake, circling the deep dark hole of depression.
Without my cats, I would have fallen right in.
And then, one day, Tibby disappears.
Wendy and Caroline proceed to flyer the neighborhood, visit every animal shelter in the vicinity, and even, in their desperation, enlist the help of a psychic who specializes in lost pets — but to no avail. Heartbroken, they begin to mourn Tibby’s loss.
And then, one day five weeks later, Tibby reappears. But once the initial elation of the recovery has worn off, Caroline begins to wonder where he’d been and why he’d left. He is now no longer eating at home and regularly leaves the house for extended periods of time — Tibby clearly has a secret place he now returns to. Even more worrisomely, he’s no longer the shy, anxious tabby he’d been for thirteen years — instead, he’s a half pound heavier, chirpy, with “a youthful spring in his step.” But why would a happy cat abandon his loving lifelong companion and find comfort — find himself, even — elsewhere?
When the relief that my cat was safe began to fade, and the joy of his prone, snoring form — sprawled like an athlete after a celebratory night of boozing — started to wear thin, I was left with darker emotions. Confusion. Jealousy. Betrayal. I thought I’d known my cat of thirteen years. But that cat had been anxious and shy. This cat was a swashbuckling adventurer back from the high seas. What siren call could have lured him away? Was he still going to this gilded place, with its overflowing food bowls and endless treats?
There only one obvious thing left to do: Track Tibby on his escapades. So Caroline, despite Wendy’s lovingly suppressed skepticism, heads to a spy store — yes, those exist — and purchases a real-time GPS tracker, complete with a camera that they program to take snapshots every few minutes, which they then attach to Tibby’s collar.
What follows is a wild, hilarious, and sweet tale of tinkering, tracking, and tenderness. Underpinning the obsessive quest is the subtle yet palpable subplot of Wendy and Caroline’s growing love for each other, the deepening of trust and affection that happens when two people share in a special kind of insanity.
“Evert quest is a journey, every journey a story. Every story, in turn, has a moral,” writes Caroline in the final chapter, then offers several “possible morals” for the story, the last of which embody everything that makes Lost Cat an absolute treat from cover to cover:
6. You can never know your cat. In fact, you can never know anyone as completely as you want.
7. But that’s okay, love is better.
Take a closer look here, then hear MacNaughton and Paul in conversation about combining creative collaboration with a romantic relationship.
2. SUSAN SONTAG: THE COMPLETE ROLLING STONE INTERVIEW
In 1978, Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott interviewed Susan Sontag in twelve hours of conversation, beginning in Paris and continuing in New York, only a third of which was published in the magazine. More than three decades later and almost a decade after Sontag’s death, the full, wide-ranging magnificence of their tête-à-tête, spanning literature, philosophy, illness, mental health, music, art, and much more, is at last released in Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — a rare glimpse of one of modern history’s greatest minds in her element.
Cott marvels at what made the dialogue especially extraordinary:
Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed — the pianist Glenn Gould is the one other exception — Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning” — as she once described Henry James’s writing style—with which she framed and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings with parenthetical remarks and qualifying words (“sometimes,” “occasionally,” “usually,” “for the most part,” “in almost all cases”), the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours — an inebriation with the spoken word. “I am hooked on talk as a creative dialogue,” she once remarked in her journals, and added: “For me, it’s the principal medium of my salvation.
In one segment of the conversation, Sontag discusses how the false divide between “high” and pop culture impoverishes our lives. In another, she makes a beautiful case for the value of history:
I really believe in history, and that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I know that what we do and think is a historical creation. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly a real belief: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period — and we’re essentially still dealing with expectations and feelings that were formulated at that time, like ideas about happiness, individuality, radical social change, and pleasure. We were given a vocabulary that came into existence at a particular historical moment. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert at CBGB, I enjoy, participate, appreciate, and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche.
In another meditation, she argues for the existential and creative value of presence:
What I want is to be fully present in my life — to be really where you are, contemporary with yourself in your life, giving full attention to the world, which includes you. You are not the world, the world is not identical to you, but you’re in it and paying attention to it. That’s what a writer does — a writer pays attention to the world. Because I’m very against this solipsistic notion that you find it all in your head. You don’t, there really is a world that’s there whether you’re in it or not.
In another passage, she considers how taking responsibility empowers rather than disempowers us:
I want to feel as responsible as I possibly can. As I told you before, I hate feeling like a victim, which not only gives me no pleasure but also makes me feel very uncomfortable. Insofar as it’s possible, and not crazy, I want to enlarge to the furthest extent possible my sense of my own autonomy, so that in friendship and love relationships I’m eager to take responsibility for both the good and the bad things. I don’t want this attitude of “I was so wonderful and that person did me in.” Even when it’s sometimes true, I’ve managed to convince myself that I was at least co-responsible for bad things that have happened to me, because it actually makes me feel stronger and makes me feel that things could perhaps be different.
The conversation, in which Sontag reaches unprecedented depths of self-revelation, also debunks some misconceptions about her public image as an intellectual in the dry, scholarly sense of the term:
Most of what I do, contrary to what people think, is so intuitive and unpremeditated and not at all that kind of cerebral, calculating thing people imagine it to be. I’m just following my instincts and intuitions. […] An argument appears to me much more like the spokes of a wheel than the links of a chain.
Originally featured earlier this month — take a closer look here.
3. MAURICE SENDAK: A CELEBRATION OF THE ARTIST AND HIS WORK
Maurice Sendak is celebrated by many, myself included, as the greatest and most influential children’s book artist of the past century. A year after Sendak’s death comes Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (public library) — the companion volume to the wonderful 2013 exhibition at New York’s Society of Illustrators. From rich essays by historians and artists who contextualize Sendak’s life and legacy to a selection of his best-loved and notable little-known illustrations, the book is a treasure trove of insight on Sendak’s spirit, sensibility, and evolution as an artist.
Dive deeper with excerpts exploring Sendak’s lessons on art and storytelling and his lovely vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading.
4. DIVINE FURY: A HISTORY OF GENIUS
“Genius is nothing more nor less than doing well what anyone can do badly,” celebrated British novelist Amelia E. Barr wrote in her 9 rules for success in 1901. Indeed, the notion of what genius is and isn’t endures as one of our culture’s greatest fixations. We apply the label of “genius” to everyone from our greatest luminaries to exceptional children’s book editors to our dogs, and we even nickname prestigious cultural awards after it. But what, precisely, is genius? Why was the concept of it born in the first place, where did it begin, how did it evolve, and what does it mean today? That’s precisely what historian Darrin M. McMahon explores in Divine Fury: A History of Genius (public library) — a fascinating, first-of-its-kind chronicle of the evolution of genius as a cultural concept, its permutations across millennia of creative history, and its more recent role as a social equalizer and a double-edged sword of democratization.
Even today, more than 2,000 years after its first recorded use by the Roman author Plautus, [the word “genius”] continues to resonate with power and allure. The power to create. The power to divine the secrets of the universe. The power to destroy. With its hints of madness and eccentricity, sexual prowess and protean possibility, genius remains a mysterious force, bestowing on those who would assume it superhuman abilities and godlike powers. Genius, conferring privileged access to the hidden workings of the world. Genius, binding us still to the last vestiges of the divine.
Such lofty claims may seem excessive in an age when football coaches and rock stars are frequently described as “geniuses.” The luster of the word — once reserved for a pantheon of eminence, the truly highest of the high — has no doubt faded over time, the result of inflated claims and general overuse. The title of a BBC television documentary on the life of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman sums up the situation: No Ordinary Genius. There was a time when such a title would have been redundant. That time is no more.
McMahon argues that, in an age where we’re urged to explore the “genius” in all of us, we’ve grown increasingly obsessed with the word and the idea of genius, robbing it of substance in the process. Particularly in the last century, we’ve applied the label of “genius” frivolously and indiscriminately to everyone from rock stars to startup founders to, even, Adolf Hitler, whom TIME magazine crowned “man of the year” in 1938 for his evil genius. And yet the impulse to know — to be — genius is among our greatest, most profound human yearnings for union with divinity, something the legendary literary critic Harold Bloom has explored in his own meditation on genius. For the perfect embodiment of this desire, McMahon points to Albert Einstein, whom he considers “the quintessential modern genius”:
“I want to know how God created the world,” Einstein once observed. “I want to know his thoughts.” It was, to be sure, a manner of speaking, like the physicist’s celebrated line about the universe and dice. Still, the aspiration is telling. For genius, from its earliest origins, was a religious notion, and as such was bound up not only with the superhuman and transcendent, but also with the capacity for violence, destruction, and evil that all religions must confront.
McMahon sets out to unravel this lineage of unexpected associations by tracing the history of genius, both as a concept and as a figure, from antiquity to today, exploring a vibrant spectrum of individuals who both embodied and shaped the label — poets, philosophers, artists, scientists, inventors, composers, military strategists, entrepreneurs, and even a horse. As much a history of ideas as a psychological history of our grasping after the divine, the journey he takes us on is above all one of introspection through the lens of history. Reminding us that, as Toni Morrison memorably wrote, “definitions belong to the definers, not the defined,” McMahon argues for the social construction of genius:
If we wish to appreciate the role that genius has played in the modern world, we must recall the evil with the good, bearing in mind as we do so the uncomfortable thought that genius is ultimately the product of the hopes and longings of ordinary people. We are the ones who marvel and wonder, longing for the salvation genius might bring. We are the ones who pay homage and obeisance. In a very real sense, the creator of genius is us.
Which is not to deny that geniuses almost always possess something special, something real, however elusive that something may be. But it is to recognize the commonsense fact that genius is in part a social creation — what historians like to call a “construction” — and, as such, of service to those who build. That fact reminds us further that for all their originality (and originality is itself a defining feature of genius in its modern form), extraordinary human beings not only define their images but embody them, stepping into molds prepared by the social imaginary and the exemplars who came before. Even outliers as remarkable, as deviant, as Einstein and Hitler are no exceptions to this rule: however inimitable — however unique — their genius was partly prepared for them, worked out over the course of generations.
Originally featured in October — read the full article here.
5. MAD GIRL’S LOVE SONG
Half a century ago this year, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world — took her own life, leaving behind her husband Ted Hughes and their two children. In the highly anticipated biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library) — titled after the exquisite Plath poem — Andrew Wilson explores the poorly understood period of Plath’s life before her relationship with Hughes. Diving into the darkest corners of her diaries and letters, as well as previously unavailable archives and direct interviews with those who knew Plath, Wilson sets out to “trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors — the real disquieting muses — conspired against her.”
He writes in the introduction:
In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the ‘edge.’ She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below.
This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.
Wilson notes Plath’s chronic dissonance between repression and an insatiable hunger for life:
Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing. In the same letter she goes on to write of her deep envy of males, anger she describes as ‘insidious, malignant, latent.’
Sex — or rather the constraints and repressions surrounding it — played a central role in Plath’s creative and psychological development. She realized, as she wrote in her journal in the autumn of 1950, she was too well brought up to disregard tradition, yet she hated boys who could express themselves sexually while she had no choice but to ‘drag’ herself from one date to the next in ‘soggy desire.’ The system, she added, disgusted her.
If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means. Her letters and journals are full of references to feeling inferior and self-conscious because of her low status. As a scholarship girl at Smith College — one of America’s top universities for women — she was surrounded by the daughters of the country’s great and the good. She peeled potatoes, chopped vegetables, and waited on tables as a way of reducing her course fees. In order to try and take the burden off her mother — who worked at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters to pay the shortfall between her daughter’s fees and her scholarship — Sylvia volunteered for extra jobs at the college and, in whatever spare time she had, she wrote poems and stories for money. If she took boys home to her family’s two-bedroom house in Wellesley, Massachusetts — where she was forced to share a room with her mother — she worried that they would see the marks and rips in the wallpaper; on occasions like these, the lights would have to be kept low so as to try and disguise the blemishes. In her first semester at Smith, in the fall of 1950, she wrote in her journal of the arduous transition period between childhood and young adulthood. To help her make sense of this new, troubling reality, she made a list of certain aspects of life that she found difficult, an inventory of notes addressed to herself that she could use to boost her confidence when it was low. One of the sections focuses on her economic position in society. She noted how she knew she would have to compete with other girls who had been born into wealthier families. The Plaths, she realized, were not only of modest means but they didn’t come from a line of well-connected intellectuals. She observed how boys from richer families would often remark, in a casual fashion, of her ‘side of town,’ and although they didn’t mean to be cruel, she felt the comments keenly.
Originally featured in February — read the full article here.
6. DARWIN: A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY
Joining other famous graphic biographies of cultural icons like Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, The Carter Family, and Steve Jobs, Darwin: A Graphic Biography (public library) offers a delightful visual take on the story of the father of evolution, decoder of human emotion, hopeless romantic, and occasional grump.
Written by journalist Eugene Byrne and illustrated by cartoonist Simon Gurr, the story takes us into the life and times of Darwin — from a curious child on a “beeting” expedition to a patient young man persevering through the ups and downs of battling creationist oppression to a worldwide legend — tracing his intellectual adventures amidst the fascinating scientific world of the 1800s.
The best part? This illustrated version of Darwin’s famous balance sheet on the pros and cons of marriage:
Originally featured in February — see more panels here.
7. EIGHTY DAYS
“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real,” science fiction godfather Jules Verne famously proclaimed. He was right about the general sentiment but oh how very wrong about its gendered language: Sixteen years after Verne’s classic novel Eighty Days Around the World, his vision for speed-circumnavigation would be made real — but by a woman. On the morning of November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, an audacious newspaper reporter, set out to outpace Verne’s fictional itinerary by circumnavigating the globe in seventy-five days, thus setting the real-world record for the fastest trip around the world. In Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (public library), Matthew Goodman traces the groundbreaking adventure, beginning with a backdrop of Bly’s remarkable journalistic fortitude and contribution to defying our stubbornly enduring biases about women writers:
No female reporter before her had ever seemed quite so audacious, so willing to risk personal safety in pursuit of a story. In her first exposé for The World, Bly had gone undercover … feigning insanity so that she might report firsthand on the mistreatment of the female patients of the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum. … Bly trained with the boxing champion John L. Sullivan; she performed, with cheerfulness but not much success, as a chorus girl at the Academy of Music (forgetting the cue to exit, she momentarily found herself all alone onstage). She visited with a remarkable deaf, dumb, and blind nine-year-old girl in Boston by the name of Helen Keller. Once, to expose the workings of New York’s white slave trade, she even bought a baby. Her articles were by turns lighthearted and scolding and indignant, some meant to edify and some merely to entertain, but all were shot through with Bly’s unmistakable passion for a good story and her uncanny ability to capture the public’s imagination, the sheer force of her personality demanding that attention be paid to the plight of the unfortunate, and, not incidentally, to herself.
For all her extraordinary talent and work ethic, Bly’s appearance was decidedly unremarkable — a fact that shouldn’t matter, but one that would be repeatedly remarked upon by her critics and commentators, something we’ve made sad little progress on in discussing women’s professional, intellectual, and creative merit more than a century later. Goodman paints a portrait of Bly:
She was a young woman in a plaid coat and cap, neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, not quite pretty enough to turn a head: the sort of woman who could, if necessary, lose herself in a crowd.
Her voice rang with the lilt of the hill towns of western Pennsylvania; there was an unusual rising inflection at the ends of her sentences, the vestige of an Elizabethan dialect that had still been spoken in the hills when she was a girl. She had piercing gray eyes, though sometimes they were called green, or blue-green, or hazel. Her nose was broad at its base and delicately upturned at the end — the papers liked to refer to it as a “retroussé” nose — and it was the only feature about which she was at all self-conscious. She had brown hair that she wore in bangs across her forehead. Most of those who knew her considered her pretty, although this was a subject that in the coming months would be hotly debated in the press.
But, as if the ambitious adventure weren’t scintillating enough, the story takes an unexpected turn: That fateful November morning, as Bly was making her way to the journey’s outset at the Hoboken docks, a man named John Brisben Walker passed her on a ferry in the opposite direction, traveling from Jersey City to Lower Manhattan. He was the publisher of a high-brow magazine titled The Cosmopolitan, the same publication that decades later, under the new ownership of William Randolph Hearst, would take a dive for the commercially low-brow. On his ferry ride, Walker skimmed that morning’s edition of The World and paused over the front-page feature announcing Bly’s planned adventure around the world. A seasoned media manipulator of the public’s voracious appetite for drama, he instantly birthed an idea that would seize upon a unique publicity opportunity — The Cosmopolitan would send another circumnavigator to race against Bly. To keep things equal, it would have to be a woman. To keep them interesting, she’d travel in the opposite direction.
And so it went:
Elizabeth Bisland was twenty-eight years old, and after nearly a decade of freelance writing she had recently obtained a job as literary editor of The Cosmopolitan, for which she wrote a monthly review of recently published books entitled “In the Library.” Born into a Louisiana plantation family ruined by the Civil War and its aftermath, at the age of twenty she had moved to New Orleans and then, a few years later, to New York, where she contributed to a variety of magazines and was regularly referred to as the most beautiful woman in metropolitan journalism. Bisland was tall, with an elegant, almost imperious bearing that accentuated her height; she had large dark eyes and luminous pale skin and spoke in a low, gentle voice. She reveled in gracious hospitality and smart conversation, both of which were regularly on display in the literary salon that she hosted in the little apartment she shared with her sister on Fourth Avenue, where members of New York’s creative set, writers and painters and actors, gathered to discuss the artistic issues of the day. Bisland’s particular combination of beauty, charm, and erudition seems to have been nothing short of bewitching.
But Bisland was no literary bombshell. Wary of beauty’s fleeting and superficial nature — she once lamented, “After the period of sex-attraction has passed, women have no power in America” — she blended Edison’s circadian relentlessness and Tchaikovsky’s work ethic:
She took pride in the fact that she had arrived in New York with only fifty dollars in her pocket, and that the thousands of dollars now in her bank account had come by virtue of her own pen. Capable of working for eighteen hours at a stretch, she wrote book reviews, essays, feature articles, and poetry in the classical vein. She was a believer, more than anything else, in the joys of literature, which she had first experienced as a girl in ancient volumes of Shakespeare and Cervantes that she found in the library of her family’s plantation house. (She taught herself French while she churned butter, so that she might read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original — a book, as it turned out, that she hated.) She cared nothing for fame, and indeed found the prospect of it distasteful.
And yet, despite their competitive circumstances and seemingly divergent dispositions, something greater bound the two women together, some ineffable force of culture that quietly united them in a bold defiance of their era’s normative biases:
On the surface the two women … were about as different as could be: one woman a Northerner, the other from the South; one a scrappy, hard-driving crusader, the other priding herself on her gentility; one seeking out the most sensational of news stories, the other preferring novels and poetry and disdaining much newspaper writing as “a wild, crooked, shrieking hodge-podge,” a “caricature of life.” Elizabeth Bisland hosted tea parties; Nellie Bly was known to frequent O’Rourke’s saloon on the Bowery. But each of them was acutely conscious of the unequal position of women in America. Each had grown up without much money and had come to New York to make a place for herself in big-city journalism, achieving a hard-won success in what was still, unquestionably, a man’s world.
Originally featured in May — read the full article, including Bly’s entertaining illustrated packing list, here.
8. ODD TYPE WRITERS
Famous authors are notorious for their daily routines — sometimes outrageous, usually obsessive, invariably peculiar. In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors (public library), Brooklyn-based writer Celia Blue Johnson takes us on a guided tour of great writers’ unusual techniques, prompts, and customs of committing thought to paper, from their ambitious daily word quotas to their superstitions to their inventive procrastination and multitasking methods.
As curious as these habits are, however, Johnson reminds us that public intellectuals often engineer their own myths, which means the quirky behaviors recorded in history’s annals should be taken with a grain of Salinger salt. She offers a necessary disclaimer, enveloped in a thoughtful meta-disclaimer:
One must always keep in mind that these writers and the people around them may have, at some point, embellished the facts. Quirks are great fodder for gossip and can morph into gross exaggeration when passed from one person to the next. There’s also no way to escape the self-mythologizing particularly when dealing with some of the greatest storytellers that ever lived. Yet even when authors stretch the truth, they reveal something about themselves, when it is the desire to project a certain image or the need to shy away from one.
Mode and medium of writing seem to be a recurring theme of personal idiosyncrasy. Wallace Stevens composed his poetry on slips of paper while walking — an activity he, like Maira Kalman, saw as a creative stimulant — then handed them to his secretary to type up. Edgar Allan Poe, champion of marginalia, wrote his final drafts on separate pieces of paper attached into a running scroll with sealing wax. Jack Kerouac was especially partial to scrolling: In 1951, planning the book for years and amassing ample notes in his journals, he wrote On The Road in one feverish burst, letting it pour onto pages taped together into one enormously long strip of paper — a format he thought lent itself particularly well to his project, since it allowed him to maintain his rapid pace without pausing to reload the typewriter at the end of each page. When he was done, he marched into his editor Robert Giroux’s office and proudly spun out the scroll across the floor. The result, however, was equal parts comical and tragic:
To [Kerouac’s] dismay, Giroux focused on the unusual packaging. He asked, “But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?” Giroux recalled saying, “Jack, you know you have to cut this up. It has to be edited.” Kerouac left the office in a rage. It took several years for Kerouac’s agent, Sterling Lord, to finally find a home for the book, at the Viking Press.
James Joyce wrote lying on his stomach in bed, with a large blue pencil, clad in a white coat, and composed most of Finnegans Wake with crayon pieces on cardboard. But this was a matter more of pragmatism than of superstition or vain idiosyncrasy: Of the many outrageously misguided myths the celebrated author of Ulysses and wordsmith of little-known children’s books, one was actually right: he was nearly blind. His childhood myopia developed into severe eye problems by his twenties. To make matters worse, he developed rheumatic fever when he was twenty-five, which resulted in a painful eye condition called iritis. By 1930, he had undergone twenty-five eye surgeries, none of which improved his sight. The large crayons thus helped him see what he was writing, and the white coat helped reflect more light onto the page at night. (As someone partial to black bedding, not for aesthetic reasons but because I believe it provides a deeper dark at night, I can certainly relate to Joyce’s seemingly arbitrary but actually physics-driven attire choice.)
Virginia Woolf was equally opinionated about the right way to write as she was about the right way to read. In her twenties, she spent two and a half hours every morning writing, on a three-and-half-foot tall desk with an angled top that allowed her to look at her work both up-close and from afar. But according to her nephew and irreverent collaborator, Quentin Bell, Woolf’s prescient version of today’s trendy standing desk was less a practical matter than a symptom of her sibling rivalry with her sister, the Bloomsbury artist Vanessa Bell — the same sibling rivalry that would later inspire a charming picture-book: Vanessa painted standing, and Virginia didn’t want to be outdone by her sister. Johnson cites Quentin, who was known for his wry family humor:
This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality.
Many authors measured the quality of their output by uncompromisingly quantitative metrics like daily word quotas. Jack London wrote 1,000 words a day every single day of his career and William Golding once declared at a party that he wrote 3,000 words daily, a number Norman Mailer and Arthur Conan Doyle shared. Raymond Chandler, a man of strong opinions on the craft of writing, didn’t subscribe to a specific daily quota, but was known to write up to 5,000 words a day at his most productive. Anthony Trollope, who began his day promptly at 5:30 A.M. every morning, disciplined himself to write 250 words every 15 minutes, pacing himself with a watch. Stephen King does whatever it takes to reach his daily quota of 2,000 adverbless words and Thomas Wolfe keeps his at 1,800, not letting himself stop until he has reached it.
We already know how much famous authors loved their pets, but for many their non-human companions were essential to the creative process. Edgar Allan Poe considered his darling tabby named Catterina his literary guardian who “purred as if in complacent approval of the world proceeding under [her] supervision.” Flannery O’Connor developed an early affection for domestic poultry, from her childhood chicken (which, curiously enough, could walk backwards and once ended up in a newsreel clip) to her growing collection of pheasants, ducks, turkeys, and quail. Most famously, however, twenty-something O’Connor mail-ordered six peacocks, a peahen, and four peachicks, which later populated her fiction. But by far the most bizarre pet-related habit comes from Colette, who enlisted her dog in a questionable procrastination mechanism:
Colette would study the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, with a discerning eye. Then she’d pluck a flea from Souci’s back and would continue the hunt until she was ready to write.
But arguably the strangest habit of all comes from Friedrich Schiller, relayed by his friend Goethe:
[Goethe] had dropped by Schiller’s home and, after finding that his friend was out, decided to wait for him to return. Rather than wasting a few spare moments, the productive poet sat down at Schiller’s desk to jot down a few notes. Then a peculiar stench prompted Goethe to pause. Somehow, an oppressive odor had infiltrated the room.
Goethe followed the odor to its origin, which was actually right by where he sat. It was emanating from a drawer in Schiller’s desk. Goethe leaned down, opened the drawer, and found a pile of rotten apples. The smell was so overpowering that he became light-headed. He walked to the window and breathed in a few good doses of fresh air. Goethe was naturally curious about the trove of trash, though Schiller’s wife, Charlotte, could only offer the strange truth: Schiller had deliberately let the apples spoil. The aroma, somehow, inspired him, and according to his spouse, he “could not live or work without it.”
Then there was the color-coding of the muses: In addition to his surprising gastronome streak, Alexandre Dumas was also an aesthete: For decades, he penned all of his fiction on a particular shade of blue paper, his poetry on yellow, and his articles on pink; on one occasion, while traveling in Europe, he ran out of his precious blue paper and was forced to write on a cream-colored pad, which he was convinced made his fiction suffer. Charles Dickens was partial to blue ink, but not for superstitious reasons — because it dried faster than other colors, it allowed him to pen his fiction and letters without the drudgery of blotting. Virginia Woolf used different-colored inks in her pens — greens, blues, and purples. Purple was her favorite, reserved for letters (including her love letters to Vita Sackville-West, diary entries, and manuscript drafts. Lewis Carroll also preferred purple ink (and shared with Woolf a penchant for standing desks), but for much more pragmatic reasons: During his years teaching mathematics at Oxford, teachers were expected to use purple ink to correct students’ work — a habit that carried over to Carroll’s fiction.
But lest we hastily surmise that writing in a white coat would make us a Joyce or drowning pages in purple ink a Woolf, Johnson prefaces her exploration with another important, beautifully phrased disclaimer:
That power to mesmerize has an intangible, almost magical quality, one I wouldn’t dare to try to meddle with by attempting to define it. It was never my goal as I wrote this book to discover what made literary geniuses tick. The nuances of any mind are impossible to pinpoint.
You could adopt one of these practices or, more ambitiously, combine several of them, and chances are you still wouldn’t invoke genius. These tales don’t hold a secret formula for writing a great novel. Rather, the authors in the book prove that the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.
9. ITALO CALVINO: LETTERS, 1941–1985
Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library) offers more than four decades of wisdom in 600+ pages of personal correspondence by one of the 20th century’s most enchanting writers and most beautiful minds. In one letter, written on July 27, 1949, Calvino contributes one of his many insights on writing:
To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.
In another, he considers the secret of living well:
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
10. DUKE: A LIFE OF DUKE ELLINGTON
Much like Freud engineered his own myth and Salinger crafted his personal legend, jazz legend Duke Ellington — whose funeral was witnessed by 10,000 people in the pews at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, another 2,500 listening outside via loudspeakers, and thousands more tuned into the live radio broadcast, even prompting President Nixon to take a timeout from Watergate and praise “America’s foremost composer” — sculpted his public image with meticulous, obsessive, almost paranoid precision. In Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington (public library), writer, playwright, librettist, and Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout sets out to lift the veneer of Ellington’s polished public persona and uncover the mysterious complexity of Duke’s private person. Though Teachout — who also penned Pops, the excellent 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong — calls his biography “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis” for its collaging of existing research, interviews, and materials, don’t let his humility deceive you: This is a masterwork of dimensional insight into an icon who sought to flatten and flatter himself as much as possible and to shroud his exceptional artistry in exceptional artifice, a man woven of paradoxes, who, despite his chronic failings of private self-control, exerted his every faculty on controlling his public image. And yet, somehow, Teachout manages to peel away these protective layers and expose the flawed human being beneath them by elevating rather than diminishing Ellington’s humanity, enriching rather than discrediting his legacy.
Despite surrounding himself with a formidable entourage of deft PR custodians, he was ultimately his own best publicist — a man who employed the same charisma that made him an incredible entertainer in making his off-stage image as credible as possible, despite its assiduous artifice and methodical manipulation. Teachout writes:
That was Ellington’s way. He talked not to explain himself but to conceal himself. Even Ruth, his adoring younger sister, said that he “definitely wasn’t direct. He wasn’t direct with anybody about anything.” Yet he talked so fluently and impressively that nearly everyone believed him, save for those who had reason to know better.
His publicists — who dubbed him “Harlem’s Aristocrat of Jazz” — took great care to echo and amplify the image Duke himself was projecting, pitching him not only as a mere jazzman but as a true artist bearing the seal of approval of the era’s glitterati. They issued actual publicity manuals that were sent out to the managers of theaters and ballrooms where Ellington performed. One read:
Sell Ellington as a great artist, a musical genius whose unique style and individual theories of harmony have created a new music. . . . Ellington’s genius as a composer, arranger and musician has won him the respect and admiration of such authorities as Percy Grainger, head of the department of music at the New York University; Basil Cameron, conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski, famed conductor of the celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra; Paul Whiteman, whose name is synonymous with jazz, and many others.
Ellington was especially attached to the idea of serving as a spokesperson for African Americans — an aspiration admirable enough on the surface, but only if unbridled from ego and self-inflation, something of which Ellington was far from innocent given the amount of personal publicity he poured into his objective. To support this goal of his, another publicity pamphlet emphasized his presentability in addition to his talent:
He is as genial as he is intelligent, always creates a good impression upon newspaper people with whom he comes in contact and invariably supplies them with good copy for their stories.
Ellington’s lifelong desire to “act on behalf of the race,” as he himself put it, was an expression of his own life’s contradictions — the son of a butler and the grandson of a slave, he carried himself with an air of regality; a high school dropout, he made a special effort to teach himself the etiquette and manners of high society. Teachout notes the effect of this deliberate application:
For all his polish, it was his artistry, not his personality, that was the source of his enduring appeal. But it was the personality that made white people who might not otherwise have done so give him a second glance, and in time it opened doors of opportunity through which few other blacks had been allowed to pass.
Arguably the most accurate, succinctly eloquent description of Ellington’s elusive personhood comes from Rex Stewart, cornetist of the Duke Ellington Orchestra:
Ellington is the most complex and paradoxical individual that I’ve ever known . . . a combination of Sir Galahad, Scrooge, Don Quixote, and God knows what other saints and sinners that were apt to pop out of his ever-changing personality.
Indeed, Ellington was a bundle of inner contradictions — the kind we all grapple with by virtue of being human, only his were far more numerous, more entangled, and more full of friction than average. Teachout writes:
He was at once deeply (if superstitiously) religious and a tireless philanderer who, in the words of an admiring friend, had the sexual appetite of “a romping, stomping alley cat.” He pretended to be a devoted family man for the benefit of the ever-vigilant press, he deserted Edna, his first and only wife, later settling into a long-term relationship with a Cotton Club showgirl whom he chose not to marry (he never divorced Edna) and on whom he cheated as often as he liked.
In fact, one of Ellington’s most pressing publicity concerns was keeping his affairs out of the papers — information he felt would greatly compromise the very presentability and wholesomeness he worked so hard to craft in order to feel like he belonged in high society. As Teachout observes, he went to great lengths to make sure “his fans saw only what he wished them to see, and nothing more.” At one point, he even went as far as paying off gossip columnists and placing expensive ads in newspapers to prevent his relationship with Evie from being reported.
Teachout, however, takes great care not to dim the enormity of Ellington’s talent in light of his immutable imperfection, noting instead that he used the former as a vehicle for both exorcising and tucking away the latter:
He was, like Chopin, Paul Klee, Jorge Luis Borges, and Flannery O’Connor, a disciplined lyric miniaturist who knew how to express the grandest of emotions on the smallest of scales, and who needed no more room in which to suggest his immortal longings.
Complement with Teachout’s Design Matters interview, where he talks to Debbie Millman about the book and Duke’s elusive “immortal longings”:
11. TURING: PIONEER OF THE INFORMATION AGE
It is to Alan Turing — godfather of the digital universe, voracious reader, tragic hero of his era’s inhumane bigotry — that we owe an enormous amount of today’s givens, including my writing this very sentence and your reading it. In Turing: Pioneer of the Information Age (public library), philosophy professor and Turing Archive for the History of Computing director B. Jack Copeland turns to conversations and correspondence with some of Turing’s closest friends and collaborators to explore the life and legacy of this man of uncommon genius with unprecedented depth and insight, from the invention of the Universal Turing Machine — the granddaddy of the modern stored program computer — to Turing’s codebreaking feats during WWII to the tragic and mysterious circumstances of his death.
Copeland succinctly captures the magnitude of Turing’s contribution to contemporary life:
To Turing we owe the brilliant innovation of storing applications, and all the other programs necessary for computers to do our bidding, inside the computer’s memory, ready to be opened when we wish. We take for granted that we use the same slab hardware to shop, manage our finances, type our memoirs, play our favorite music and videos, and send instant messages across the street or around the world. Like many great ideas, this one now seems as obvious as the wheel and the arch, but with this single invention — the stored-program universal computer — Turing changed the way we live.
Indeed, it took an exceptional mind — one inhabiting the outermost fringes of the obvious, in every imaginable way — to conceive of such world-changing technology. Copeland goes on to paint a portrait of Turing more dimensional and moving than ever before:
He was a Spartan in all things, inner and outer, and had no time for pleasing decor, soft furnishings, superfluous embellishment, or unnecessary words. To him what mattered was the truth. Everything else was mere froth.
What would it have been like to meet him? Turing was tallish (5 feet 10 inches) and broadly built. He looked strong and fit. You might have mistaken his age, as he always seemed younger than he was. He was good-looking but strange. If you came across him at a party, you would certainly notice him. In fact, you might ask, ‘Who on earth is that?’ It wasn’t just his shabby clothes or dirty fingernails. It was the whole package. Part of it was the unusual noise he made. This has often been described as a stammer, but it wasn’t. It was his way of preventing people from interrupting him, while he thought out what he was trying to say. ‘Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah… Ah.’ He did it loudly.
If you crossed the room to talk to him, you would have probably found him gauche and rather reserved. He was decidedly lah-di-dah, but the reserve wasn’t standoffishness. He was shy, a man of few words. Polite small talk did not come easily to him. He might — if you were lucky — smile engagingly, his blue eyes twinkling, and come out with something quirky that would make you laugh. If conversation developed, you’d probably find him vivid and funny. He might ask you, in his rather high-pitched voice, whether you think a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or could make you fall in love with it.
Like everyone else, Turing craved affection and company, but he never seemed to quite fit in anywhere. He was bothered by his own social strangeness — although, like his hair, it was a force of nature he could do little about. Occasionally he could be very rude. If he thought that someone wasn’t listening to him with sufficient attention, he would simply walk away. Turing was the sort of man who, usually unintentionally, ruffled people’s feathers — especially pompous people, people in authority, and scientific poseurs. … Beneath the cranky, craggy, irreverent exterior there was an unworldly innocence, though, as well as sensitivity and modesty.
Originally featured in April — read the original article here.
12. AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN, VOLUME 2
Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (public library) — the highly anticipated sequel to the excellent first installment — reveals previously unknown facets of the greatest American satirist, celebrated as “the Lincoln of literature.” A large part of what made Twain Twain was his capacity for cultural nitpicking, from his irreverent advice to little girls to his critique of the press to his snarky commentary on the outrageous requests he received, but one subject to which Twain applied his exquisite satire with absolute seriousness was religion — something that comes fully ablaze in this new volume.
In April of 1906, Twain — who famously believed that any claim of originality was merely misguided narcissism — offers this humorous lament on religion as a manifestation of human egotism:
The human race … sits up nine nights in the week to admire its own originality. The race has always been able to think well of itself, and it doesn’t like people who throw bricks at its naïve self-appreciation. It is sensitive upon this point. The other day I furnished a sentiment in response to a man’s request — to wit:
“The noblest work of God?” Man.
“Who found it out?” Man.
I thought it was very good, and smart, but the other person didn’t.
In another meditation, dictated in 1906 and posthumously published in 1963 in the Hudson Review under the title “Reflections on Religion,” then eventually included in the altogether excellent The Bible According to Mark Twain: Irreverent Writings on Eden, Heaven, and the Flood by America’s Master Satirist, Twain revisits the subject of evidence-free idolatry of deistic character:
We deal in a curious and laughable confusion of notions concerning God. We divide Him in two, bring half of Him down to an obscure and infinitesimal corner of the world to confer salvation upon a little colony of Jews — and only Jews, no one else — and leave the other half of Him throned in heaven and looking down and eagerly and anxiously watching for results. We reverently study the history of the earthly half, and deduce from it the conviction that the earthly half has reformed, is equipped with morals and virtues, and in no way resembles the abandoned, malignant half that abides upon the throne. We conceive that the earthly half is just, merciful, charitable, benevolent, forgiving, and full of sympathy for the sufferings of mankind and anxious to remove them.
Apparently we deduce this character not by examining facts, but by diligently declining to search them, measure them, and weigh them. The earthly half requires us to be merciful, and sets us an example by inventing a lake of fire and brimstone in which all of us who fail to recognize and worship Him as God are to be burned through all eternity. And not only we, who are offered these terms, are to be thus burned if we neglect them, but also the earlier billions of human beings are to suffer this awful fate, although they all lived and died without ever having heard of Him or the terms at all. This exhibition of mercifulness may be called gorgeous. We have nothing approaching it among human savages, nor among the wild beasts of the jungle.
An early proponent of the conviction that evidence should outweigh mythology, he continues:
There is no evidence that there is to be a Heaven hereafter. … Heaven exists solely upon hearsay evidence — evidence furnished by unknown persons; persons who did not prove that they had ever been there.
According to the hearsay evidence the character of every conspicuous god is made up of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, sorrow for all suffering and desire to extinguish it. Opposed to this beautiful character — built wholly upon valueless hearsay evidence – it is the absolute authentic evidence furnished us every day in the year, and verifiable by our eyes and our other senses, that the real character of these gods is destitute of love, mercy, compassion, justice and other gentle and excellent qualities, and is made up of all imaginable cruelties, persecutions and injustices. The hearsay character rests upon evidence only — exceedingly doubtful evidence. The real character rests upon proof — proof unassailable.
Twain then traces the evolution — or, as it were, devolution — of religion over the course of human history, considering Christianity’s odds for survival:
Do I think the Christian religion is here to stay? Why should I think so? There had been a thousand religions before it was born. They are all dead. There had been millions of gods before ours was invented. Swarms of them are dead and forgotten long ago. Our is by long odds the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination — and shall He and his Christianity be immortal against the great array of probabilities furnished by the theological history of the past? No. I think that Christianity and its God must follow the rule. They must pass on in their turn and make room for another God and a stupider religion. Or perhaps a better [one] than this? No. That is not likely. History shows that in the matter of religions we progress backward and not the other way.
(More than a century later, legendary atheist Richard Dawkins would come to echo this sentiment in his newly published biography, writing: “I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?”)
Originally featured in October — full article here.
13. THE SECRET HISTORY OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV
Vladimir Nabokov — beloved author, butterfly-lover, no-bullshit lecturer, hater of clichés, man of strong opinions — endures as Russia’s most revered literary émigré export. While his journey to cultural acclaim in America was in many ways a story of hope, it was also one underpinned by profound sadness and loss that would come to permeate his work. After the Bolshevik Revolution, when Nabokov was only eighteen, his family was forced to flee their hometown of St. Petersburg. As refugees in nomadic exile, they finally settled in Berlin in 1920. Two years later, Nabokov’s father, who had become secretary of Russian Provisional Government, was killed by accident while trying to shield the real target of a political assassination. Shortly thereafter, Nabokov’s mother and sister moved to Prague, but he remained in Berlin and garnered considerable recognition as a poet. In 1923, he met Véra Evseyevna Slonim, the Jewish-Russian love of his life, with whom he’d remain for the rest of his days.
In The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov (public library), Andrea Pitzer, founder of Harvard’s narrative nonfiction site Nieman Storyboard, shines an unprecedented, kaleidoscopic spotlight on the author’s largely enigmatic life and its complex political context. What few realize — and what Pitzer reveals through newly-declassified intelligence files and rigorously researched military records — is that Nabokov wove serious and unsettling political history into the fabric of his fiction, which had gone undetected for decades: until now.
Originally featured in April, with the fascinating story of Nabokov’s travails with homeland security.
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Honorable mentions: An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins, Salinger: The Private War of J.D. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan, and The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout.
Published November 25, 2013