Bibliophilic delight from Sophie Blackall, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, and other beloved artists, benefiting public libraries.
By Maria Popova
After eight years of labor, it has been astonishing and heartening to witness the enthusiasm with which A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader — our anthology of illustrated letters to children about why we read from 121 of the most inspiring humans of our time — has been welcomed into the world. To honor that enthusiasm, eleven artists from the book have kindly granted us permission to turn their illustrations into art prints, with all proceeds — like those from the book itself — benefitting the New York public library system. I like to think of them as the diverse contemporary counterpart of Maurice Sendak’s lovely vintage posters celebrating books, libraries, and the love of reading, which were a mighty inspiration for our project.
Viva books — please enjoy:
See more of this monumental labor of love, including a glimpse of the other 111 illustrations, here. You can claim your copy of this timeless, seasonless book from Enchanted Lion now, or pre-order it from Powell’s, Amazon, or an independent bookstore of your choice.
In October of 1883, a paper in the nation’s capital reported under the heading “Current Gossip” that “an Iowa woman has spent seven years embroidering the solar system on a quilt” — a news item originally printed in Iowa and syndicated widely in newspapers across the country that autumn and winter. The New York Times reprinted the report as it appeared in the Iowa paper, dismissively qualifying it as a “somewhat comical statement.”
The woman in question, Ellen Harding Baker (June 8, 1847–March 30, 1886), was not a person to be dismissed with a patronizing chuckle. Baker taught science in rural Iowa, in an era when most institutions of higher education were still closed to women, all the whilst raising her five surviving children. She used her Solar System quilt to illustrate her astronomy lectures. To ensure the accuracy of her embroidered depiction, Baker traveled to the Chicago Observatory to view sunspots and a comet — most likely the Great Comet of 1882, which had become a national attraction — through the professional telescope there.
Baker was born in the year Maria Mitchell — the figure who sparked the initial inspiration for my book Figuring — made the landmark comet discovery that earned her worldwide acclaim and established her as America’s first professional female astronomer. When Baker began working on her Solar System quilt, she was the same age Mitchell was when she discovered her comet — twenty-nine.
The quilt, crafted long before we knew the universe contained galaxies other than our own, depicts an enormous radiant sun orbited by the planets known prior to Pluto’s discovery in 1930, as a comet — one of those mysterious and enchanting celestial bodies, extolled in poems and foreboded in Medieval paintings — blazes in one corner. The quilt is made of wool, lined with a cotton-and-wool fabric, and embroidered in silk and wool.
The convergence of the threaded arts and astronomy was not entirely uncommon in Baker’s day. Mitchell herself, while condemning the needle as “the chain of woman” and resenting the tyranny of “stitch, stitch, stitch” as society’s means of keeping women confined to the domestic sphere, believed that the needle could be reclaimed as an instrument of the mind. “The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer,” she wrote in her diary.
Nearly a century after Baker made her quilt, the pioneering astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin — who revolutionized our understanding of the universe by discovering its chemical composition and became the first woman to chair a Harvard department, having ended up at the esteemed university thanks to a fellowship established there by the Maria Mitchell Association — would pick up where Baker left off, crafting a stunning yarn-on-canvas needlepoint depiction of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. In the year of Payne’s death, the artist Judy Chicago would also bring needlepoint and astronomy together in her iconic project The Dinner Party, which features a hand-embroidered runner celebrating Caroline Herschel — the world’s first woman astronomer and the subject of Adrienne Rich’s stunning tribute.
Baker’s quilt is available as an art print, with all proceeds benefiting the Maria Mitchell Association.
“We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.”
By Maria Popova
Few things in life are more seductive than the artificial sweetness of being capital-R Right — of “winning the narrative,” as my friend Amanda likes to say. This delicious doom and glory of being Right — which is, of course, a matter of feeling rather than being it — tends to involve framing our emotional triggers as moral motives, then thundering them upon those we cast in the role of the Wrong, who may do the same in turn.
How, amid this ping-pong of righteousness grenades, do we maintain not only a clear-minded and pure-hearted relationship with reality, but also forgiveness and respect for others, which presuppose self-forgiveness and self-respect — the key to unlatching the essential capacity for joy that makes life worth living?
When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.
We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.
It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.
What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.
From this recognition of the shared flow of existence — the wellspring of what the poet Lucille Clifton called “the bond of live things everywhere” — arises a calm universal compassion, which becomes the mightiest antidote to self-righteousness. Lamott writes:
Almost everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, and yet designed for joy. Even (or especially) people who seem to have it more or less together are more like the rest of us than you would believe. I try not to compare my insides to their outsides, because this makes me much worse than I already am, and if I get to know them, they turn out to have plenty of irritability and shadow of their own. Besides, those few people who aren’t a mess are probably good for about twenty minutes of dinner conversation.
This is good news, that almost everyone is petty, narcissistic, secretly insecure, and in it for themselves, because a few of the funny ones may actually long to be friends with you and me. They can be real with us, the greatest relief.
As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too.
Only by coming to terms with our own brokenness, Lamott suggests, can we build from the pieces a temple of joy — a state of being that is almost countercultural today, one which Lamott defines as “a slightly giddy appreciation, an inquisitive stirring, as when you see the first crocuses, the earliest struggling, stunted emergence of color in late winter, cream or gold against the tans and browns.” With an eye to the miracle of joy in a world so imperfect and strewn with suffering, she writes:
This is how most of us are — stripped down to the bone, living along a thin sliver of what we can bear and control, until life or a friend or disaster nudges us into baby steps of expansion. We’re all both irritating and a comfort, our insides both hard and gentle, our hearts both atrophied and pure.
How did we all get so screwed up? Putting aside our damaged parents, poverty, abuse, addiction, disease, and other unpleasantries, life just damages people. There is no way around this. Not all the glitter and concealer in the world can cover it up. We may have been raised in the illusion that if we played our cards right, life would work out. But it didn’t, it doesn’t.
Even with the Internet, deciphering the genetic code, and great advances in immunotherapy, life is frequently confusing at best, and guaranteed to be hard and weird and sad at times… We witness and try to alleviate others’ suffering, but sometimes it just outdoes itself and we are left gasping, groaning. And running through it all there is the jangle, both the machines outside and the chattering treeful of monkeys inside us.
Lamott reflects on the improbable relationship between brokenness and joy:
The lesson here is that there is no fix. There is, however, forgiveness. To forgive yourselves and others constantly is necessary. Not only is everyone screwed up, but everyone screws up.
How can we know all this, yet somehow experience joy? Because that’s how we’re designed — for awareness and curiosity. We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.
We see this toward the end of many people’s lives, when everything in their wasted bodies fights to stay alive, for a few more kisses or bites of ice cream, one more hour with you. Life is still flowing through them: life is them.
That’s magic, or the human spirit, or hope — whatever you want to call it — to captivate, to share contented time.
“Deciphering is both a science and an art… In no other science are the rules and principles so little followed and so often broken; and in no other art is the part played by reasoning and logic so great.”
By Maria Popova
“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message,” the mathematician, philosopher, and cybernetics pioneer Norbert Wiener wrote in his landmark treatise on communication, control, and the morality of our machines. We are patterned messages, and we make and exchange patterned messages in order to describe, understand, and navigate what we are and world in which we are — this may be the defining feature of what makes us human. Ursula K. Le Guin captured this in her splendid meditation on the magic of human communication: “Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
But there is a special class of messages designed with a dual purpose — to feed and amplify understanding for some, while muddling and muffling it for others: cryptography, or the art-science of encoding and decoding secret messages. The mind capable of making codes, but especially the mind capable of breaking them, is one endowed with a singular combination of skills and dispositions that illuminate the nature of creativity itself.
One such mind belonged to Elizebeth Friedman (August 26, 1892–October 31, 1980) — the cryptography pioneer who helped defeat the Nazis with pencil, paper, and perseverance, and the heroine of Jason Fagone’s excellent book The Woman Who Smashed Codes (public library). Friedman worked closely with her husband, William, as the two laid the groundwork of contemporary cryptography. Along the way, they authored a number of papers designed to train government personnel in code-breaking, but brimming with broader insight into the qualities of mind and character that make this uncommonly difficult and creative endeavor possible.
Their insight into the art-science of code-breaking survives in a 1918 paper titled “An Introduction to Methods for the Solution of Ciphers,” composed by both Friedmans but published only under William’s name, like the vast majority of their joint work and even some of Elizebeth’s solo papers. Theirs, lest we forget, was an era long predating “the invention of women.”
The Friedmans write:
Deciphering is both a science and an art. It is a science because certain definite laws and principles have been established which pertain to it; it is also an art because of the large part played in it by imagination, skill, and experience. Yet it may be said that in no other science are the rules and principles so little followed and so often broken; and in no other art is the part played by reasoning and logic so great.
The work of deciphering, they argue, is the work of induction — applying generalized principles to a particular problem at hand, which requires that the code-breaker rest upon a set of assumptions. But this fundamental blindspot of inductive thinking is counterbalanced by unparalleled vistas of imagination, enlisting the same combinatorial faculty that governs all creative work. The Friedmans consider this uncommon marriage of logic and intuition at the heart of code-breaking:
If the special conditions of the problem approximate or conform closely to the generalized principles, the solution readily follows. But this is rarely the case, and [the decipherer] is forced to modify, not only his assumptions, but also his methods, and even to discard some of them. It is the facility and ease with which a decipherer is able to modify his methods and discard his assumptions, which differentiates the good decipherer from the poor one. Deciphering is not a process for a “one-cylinder mind.”
Likewise the part played by imagination and intuition can hardly be overestimated. The knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the interception of a message, of the correspondents, etc., furnishes a wide field for the exercise of the intuitive powers; and a shrewd “guess” will often result in more progress than a whole day’s painstaking labor. This faculty, so essential in deciphering, can be developed and trained. The exercise of the imaginative powers by attempting to assume whole words, given only two or three letters and their positions, will result in the stimulation of all the faculties concerned in the expression of ideas, will thus enlarge the decipherer’s vocabulary, and otherwise arouse those qualities of mind which are peculiarly needed in cipher work.
Persistency is absolutely necessary for deciphering. Results are often secured only after seemingly endless experiment, and concentrated effort. It may be said that even after one has a thorough grasp of the underlying principles, patience and perseverance are the key-notes to success.
Echoing Lewis Carroll — “When you have made a thorough and reasonably long effort, to understand a thing, and still feel puzzled by it, stop, you will only hurt yourself by going on,” the brilliant logician and Alice in Wonderland author had counseled in his three tips on overcoming creative block — they issue a vital caveat that applies to all creative problem-solving:
Yet, too long application soon results in mental exhaustion, and in such a condition little progress can be made. The decipherer will actually save time by ceasing from his labors and attacking the problem afresh later. A few minutes of work by a rested and clear mind is worth as many hours by a brain which is dull from fatigue.
The Friedmans summarize the essential components of the code-breaking mindset:
The qualities upon which success depends in deciphering are interrelated — reasoning from laws must be balanced with facility in modifying those laws; imagination must go hand in hand with discretion; and intuition can never wholly take the place of concentration and perseverance. Finally, let it not be forgotten that many times the greatest ally the mind has is that indefinable, intangible something, which we would forever pursue if we could — luck.
In his biography of Elizebeth Friedman, Fagone offers a kindred summation of the code-breaker’s essential character traits:
This is the essence of codebreaking, finding patterns, and because it’s such a basic human function, codebreakers have always emerged from unexpected places. They pop up from strange corners. Codebreakers tend to be oddballs, outsiders. The most important trait is not pure math skill but a deeper ability to pay attention. Monks, librarians, linguists, pianists and flutists, diplomats, scribes, postal clerks, astrologers, alchemists, players of games, lotharios, revolutionaries in coffee shops, kings and queens: these are the ones who built the field across the centuries and pushed the boundaries forward, stubborn individuals with a lot of time to sit and think and not give up.
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