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Umberto Eco’s Antilibrary: Why Unread Books Are More Valuable to Our Lives than Read Ones

How to become an “antischolar” in a culture that treats knowledge as “an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order.”

“It is our knowledge — the things we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning,” Lincoln Steffens wrote in his beautiful 1925 essay. Piercingly true as this may be, we’ve known at least since Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave that “most people are not just comfortable in their ignorance, but hostile to anyone who points it out.”. Although science is driven by “thoroughly conscious ignorance” and the spiritual path paved with admonitions against the illusion of thorough understanding, we cling to our knowledge — our incomplete, imperfect, infinitesimal-in-absolute-terms knowledge — like we cling to life itself.

And yet the contour of what we know is a mere silhouette cast by the infinite light of the unknown against the screen of the knowable. The great E.F. Schumacher captured this strange dynamic in the concept of adaequatio — the notion that “the understanding of the knower must be adequate to the thing to be known.” But how do we face our inadequacy with grace and negotiate wisely this eternal tension between the known, the unknown, the knowable, and the unknowable?

That’s what Lebanese-American scholar, statistician, and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores in a section of his modern classic The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (public library) — an illuminating inquiry into the unknowable and unpredictable outlier-events that precipitate profound change, and our tendency to manufacture facile post-factum explanations for them based on our limited knowledge.

Taleb uses legendary Italian writer Umberto Eco’s uncommon relationship with books and reading as a parable of the most fruitful relationship with knowledge:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Tsudonku: Japanese for leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books. Illustration by Ella Frances Sanders from ‘Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World.’ Click image for more.

Eco himself has since touched on humanity’s curious relationship with the known and the unknown in his encyclopedia of imaginary lands, the very existence of which is another symptom of our compulsive tendency to fill in the gaps of our understanding with concrete objects of “knowledge,” even if we have to invent them by the force of our imagination. Taleb adds:

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head.

Illustration from ‘The Three Astronauts,’ Umberto Eco’s little-known vintage semiotic children’s book. Click image for more.

Noting that his Black Swan theory centers on “our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises” because we underestimate the value of what we don’t know and take what we do know “a little too seriously,” Taleb envisions the perfect dancer in the tango with knowledge:

Let us call this an antischolar — someone who focuses on the unread books, and makes an attempt not to treat his knowledge as a treasure, or even a possession, or even a self-esteem enhancement device — a skeptical empiricist.

Complement The Black Swan, which is fascinating it its totality, with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in a culture obsessed with certitude, philosopher Hannah Arendt on how unanswerable questions give shape to the human experience, and novelist Marilynne Robinson on the beauty of the unknown.

HT Bobulate

BP

Margaret Mead on the Root of Racism and the Liability of Law Enforcement

“The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it… It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.”

UPDATE 2015: A footnote in this book led me to discover Mead’s superb forgotten conversation with James Baldwin about identity, otherness, justice, democracy, religion, consumerism, and so much more.

As one of world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologists, Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) became one of the first modern academic celebrities, touring the world to give university lectures, public talks, and presentations at various institutions. She brought with her the essential tools of anthropology — the art of looking, coupled with a great capacity for listening, for asking and answering questions. In 1963, Redbook Magazine began publishing Mead’s answers to the best questions she had received from audiences over her extensive career.

After Mead’s death in late 1978, her partner of a quarter-century, the anthropologist and Redbook editor Rhoda Metraux, collected the best of these questions and answers in Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views (public library) — a compendium of Mead’s timeless insight into the human condition, bearing remarkably timely relevance to contemporary culture and public life even today. Many of Mead’s views — particularly her beliefs on equal parenting and the fluidity of human sexuality — were decades ahead of her time, but one particular subject stuns with its prescience half a century later, in the heartbreaking aftermath of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner: Mead’s piercing wisdom on the root of racism and the liability of law enforcement.

In January of 1969, Mead rebuffs the then-common belief among psychologists that children are born knowing how to love and are taught to hate, addressing the greater question of the root of intolerance and racial injustice:

Love and hate are two aspects of the same human capacity to react to other human beings in terms of experience. The infant whose world is warm, giving and reliable responds with love that echoes the love he has received. But the infant who is continually hungry, cold and neglected will come to hate those who hurt him and do not attend to his needs. In a sense, both love and hate are learned: the infant is born with the capacity to respond, and experience guides his learning.

It does seem true that hatred of a given person or a category of persons or things must be learned. We have to be taught whom to hate, and if we are not taught to hate people in categories, we won’t.

More than half a century after Tolstoy and Gandhi corresponded about war and why we hurt each other, Mead notes that modern wars are fought not out of personal human hatred but out of institutionalized economic and political agendas. Understanding learned hate, she argues, is more relevant to race and ethnic conflict than to war. She writes:

Children’s initial response to the strange often is one of fear. A brown-skinned child, seeing a white person for the first time, may scream with fear. A white-skinned child, seeing a dark person for the first time, may also. If the screaming, fearful child is comforted, reassured and given a chance to learn to know and trust the stranger, he will have one kind of response — one of trust and expectation of friendship. But if his fear is unassuaged or is reinforced by the attitude of the older children and adults around him, he may come to hate what he has feared.

This is why it is so important in a multiracial world and a multiracial society like ours that children have many experiences with individuals of races different from their own. Only in this way can we hope surely to dispel their early fear of the strange and enable them to distinguish among individuals, caring for some and disliking others, not because they belong to a category of loved or hated people, but because of their own personality, as individuals.

(Many decades earlier, Mark Twain had articulated the same sentiment, then even more ahead of its time, in his moving meditation on slavery and injustice.)

Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926, during her pioneering work in the Samoan Islands (Library of Congress)

In a question from 1964, just as the term “Negro” was beginning to fall out of popular use and shortly before it was replaced by the more politically dignified “African American,” Mead was asked to explain the statistic that “the Chinese, who live as unassimilated a life in America as Negroes do and who have suffered similarly from the effects of poverty and prejudice, have been so remarkably free of a criminal record.” With great sensitivity to nuance, she addresses the complex systemic issues at hand through the lens of anthropology, sociology, and political history:

In spite of superficial resemblances, the experiences of Chinese in America and of American Negroes have been very different. For the most part, Chinese migrants to the United States came of their own accord, and while they lived and worked here most of them remained closely related to their own society, to which, in theory if not always in practice, they expected to return. The Chinese have an ancient tradition of living in extraterritorial communities, and those who settled here organized a way of living which in some respects paralleled the way of living organized for Europeans and Americans who went to Chinese cities. Except for the scholars who came as students, most of those who left China were very poor, and they bettered their lot — and sometimes the lot of their families in China — by coming. Until recently the overwhelming majority were men, and the few women and children were protected within the Chinese community.

This role of independent, self-governing communities within the larger organism of American society, Mead argues, was a crucial factor in maintaining order and moral behavior within the Chinese immigrant communities, allowing them to “exact conforming behavior and punish infractions of accepted rules without, in general, appealing to American law-enforcing agencies.” Such autonomy made possible a self-regulating ecosystem of conduct as the Chinese essentially became “members of a self-selected colony” temporarily taking advantage of “the economic possibilities of an alien land.” Mead, of course, acknowledges the racism to which Chinese immigrants have been subjected in America, but points out a crucial qualitative difference:

When Americans exploited the Chinese through their unfamiliarity with our style of life or treated them to the kind of racism we have meted out to other non-Caucasians (or sometimes to non-Northern Europeans or non-English-speaking peoples), the Chinese colonists were angry and resentful, but the individual was not effectively damaged as a person. The greatest damage was to American clarity – to our own ability to see and understand a people different from ourselves.

Mead contrasts this with the “strikingly different” historical and social backdrop for African Americans, inflicted by the atrocity of slavery:

The ancestors of these Americans were brought from Africa by force, torn from a score of very different societies, speaking many different languages, without any traditional way of bridging the gaps between them and without a means of communicating with their own people still in Africa. Under slavery the family system, which was as strong in Africa as it was in China, was destroyed, and men were denied the right to have responsibility for their women and children. From the beginning, white men ruthlessly abused African women, and a new population grew up that was both bound in speech and custom to its white ancestry and punished by social ostracism and poverty for every trace of its African ancestry.

In a remark particularly — and devastatingly — prescient half a century later as we bear witness to the gruesome fallout of such historical baggage, Mead considers how such factors shaped these respective groups’ relationship with the law enforcement structures of the dominant society:

Unlike the Chinese, Negro Americans have had no ongoing style of social regulation to fall back on; what they have shared is the knowledge that the law is administered in one way for the white men and in other ways for themselves. Whereas the Chinese community has been able to protect its members, control its children, mete out informal punishment and reward, and cover for its members who break American laws, Negro Americans have had until very recently few means of protecting themselves to give them a sense of security and pride as a group.

But Mead’s most poignant and stunningly timely remark comes in her answer to another question about crime, law enforcement, and race in March of 1968:

The difficulty is that laws that attempt to enforce special forms of moral behavior breed disrespect for the law and for law-enforcing agencies among those who do not share the beliefs on which these regulations are based. And where disrespect and lawbreaking by the respectable are combined, one also finds connivance with crime in other areas of living.

The more complex a society becomes, the more fully the law must take into account the diversity of the people who live in it. The approach to crime is not a matter for the police and the courts — or even the lawmakers — alone. It is a matter in which the whole society is involved.

Mead, after all, is the person credited with the undying maxim, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead: Some Personal Views is an infinitely insightful read in its entirety, spanning sixteen years of Mead’s thoughts on love, sex, religion, politics, social dynamics, gender equality, personal choices, and the human condition. It is a pity that this treasure is long out of print — or, perhaps, evidence that even the most timeless and urgently necessary of humanity’s wisdom is seen by the publishing industry as disposable marketable commodity and quickly abandoned for some new fad — but used copies can still be found and are well, well worth the hunt.

BP

The 7-Word Autobiographies of Famous Writers, Artists, Musicians, and Philosophers

John Irving, Joan Didion, David Byrne, Rem Koolhaas, Madeleine Albright, Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Dennett, Andrew Sullivan, Ed Ruscha, Brian Eno, and more.

Since 2005, the LIVE from the NYPL program masterminded and anchored by intellectual impresario Paul Holdengräber — one of the most interesting people to ever encounter, should you be so fortunate — has transformed the New York Public Library into a wonderland of stimulating conversations on literature and life with some of today’s most celebrated writers, scientists, artists, philosophers, musicians, and other luminaries. Among Holdengräber’s signature touches are the 7-word autobiographies he asks each of his prominent guests to provide, to be read as he introduces them. Here is a selection of the best such personal micro-biographies — the literal, the abstract, the sarcastic, the poetic — from the entire run of the series so far:

Tom Wolfe at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Tom Wolfe drops some delightful vintage lingo:

Ace daddy, gym rat, Balzolan reporter, Ph.D.

Cheryl Strayed at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Sarah Stacke courtesy NYPL)

The magnificent Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and is one of the best existential favors one can do oneself, goes for truth-by-way-of-its-opposite, offering “seven words that won’t define [her]”:

Reticent.
Boney.
Mahout.
Indifferent.
Tame.
Archipelago.
Republican.

Daniel Dennett, man of infinite wisdom and endlessly quotable insight:

Philosopher, professor, author, sailor, New Atheist

Jim Holt, whose Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story remains indispensable and who has previously shared some mind-bending insight on the nature of “nothing”:

Failed mathematician who happily declined into journalism.

David Byrne at LIVE from the NYPL, December 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

David Byrne, who knows a thing or two about how music and creativity work, appears blissfully oblivious to the 7-word-limit brief:

unfinished, unprocessed, uncertain, unknown, unadorned, underarms, underpants, unfrozen, unsettled, unfussy

Daniel Kahneman in conversation with Nassim Taleb at LIVE from the NYPL, February 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Daniel Kahneman, whose Thinking, Fast and Slow is one of the most insightful psychology books in recent history, compensates for Byrne’s excess with his own sub-quota answer:

Endlessly amused by people’s minds

Brian Eno at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Brian Eno, sage of timeless insight on art:

I like making and thinking about culture.

Andrew Solomon in conversation with Paul Holdengräber and Krista Tippett at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2010 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Andrew Solomon, whose meditation on horizontal vs. vertical identity and the power of love is a soul-stirring must-read, goes for something his mother used to say to him:

Good listeners: more interesting than good talkers.

Paul Holdengräber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Rem Koolhaas at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Hans Ulrich Obrist, legendary curator and art instigator:

Catalyst
Conversation
Curating
Curiosity
Junctionmaking
Protest against forgetting

Malcolm Gladwell, overlord of the contrarian:

Father said: “Anything but journalism.” I rebelled.

William Gibson in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, April 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

William Gibson, champion of “personal microculture” and a solid daily creative routine, offers an answer somewhere between Yoda and Gertrude Stein:

Postwar. Cold War. Stop the War. Later.

Elizabeth Gilbert in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, May 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Elizabeth Gilbert playfully riffs off the title of her modern classic:

Eats/Loves too much…should Pray more.

Ed Ruscha in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, March 2013 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Ed Ruscha, who does indeed have a soft spot for sign painting:

Lapsed catholic
Newspaper carrier
Hitchhiker
Sign painter
Printer’s devil
Daydreamer
Artist

Rufus Wainwright with Lucinda Childs at LIVE from the NYPL, September 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Rufus Wainwright, music god, rebels against humility with his characteristic charming irreverence:

According to Elton John world’s greatest singer-songwriter

Sherry Turkle in conversation with Steven Johnson at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Sherry Turkle stays true to her technodystopia:

Technology doesn’t just change what we do; it changes who we are.

Errol Morris in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Errol Morris, documentarian extraordinaire and bastion of photographic truth:

autodidact, necrophile, voyeur, filmmaker, opinionated writer, father

Don DeLillo at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2012 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Don DeLillo, who also abides by a rigorous writing routine, goes for a beautiful format:

       Bronx boy
wondering
       why he is here.

Madeleine Albright echoes Helen Keller:

Optimist who worries a lot; Grateful American

John Irving at LIVE from the NYPL, January 2013 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

John Irving, crusader against censorship, employs a strategic semicolon:

Imagined missing father; wrestled, wrote, fathered children.

Irving was apparently so delighted by the exercise that he took the liberty of writing a few more seven-word bios for other notables:

FOR DICKENS (THE WRITER):
Had many kids; wrote about unhappy childhoods.

FOR THE OTHER DICKENS, MY DOG:
Best dog ever — she had a family.

AND THOMAS HARDY:
Fate, the universe driver; stopped writing for idiots.

NATURALLY, I COULDN’T RESIST MELVILLE:
More than a postal worker; knew whales, too.

Edmund de Waal in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL, October 2011 (Photograph by Jori Klein courtesy NYPL)

Edmund de Waal has some fun with it:

Actually, I still make pots you know.

Rem Koolhaas stays true to form:

Mystic rational sober baroque patient immediate

Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan in conversation at LIVE from the NYPL

Andrew Sullivan, who is one of the living reasons to love the internet and whose decades-long advocacy has been critical in the historic attainment of marriage equality, follows Strayed’s suit with anti-descriptive sarcasm:

French, straight, single, Anglican, diabetic, illiterate, slut.

Then comes Dan Savage, whose own tireless advocacy can’t be overstated:

asshole, blond, slut, shy, sunny, father, husband.

Anish Kapoor offers what’s arguably the most beautiful, in sheer poetics of language, answer:

As if to celebrate I discovered a mountain

Joan Didion at LIVE from the NYPL, November 2012 (Photograph courtesy NYPL)

But my favorite comes from notebook-lover Joan Didion, who has a rare gift for wry self-awareness and unwavering self-respect:

Seven words do not yet define me.

Paul Holdengräber (Photograph by Jocelyn Chase)

And, of course, this omnibus wouldn’t be complete without Holdengräber’s own 7-word autobiography, as pointedly brilliant as the man:

Mother always said: Two ears, one mouth.

See the full conversations on the LIVE from the NYPL Vimeo channel, treat yourself to one of the upcoming live events, and join me in supporting NYPL programming, which, like Brain Pickings, is made possible by patron donations.

BP

La Figa: Visions of Food and Form

Humanity’s greatest appetites together at last, or what the farmer’s market has to do with the boudoir.

Food is fundamental. It’s sustenance, it’s comunity, it’s a global economy. But for Italian artist Tiberio Simone it’s all that and much more: It’s a medium of creative expression, a sensory portal to truth, beauty and sensuality. His La Figa: Visions of Food and Form is nothing short of a feast for the senses, celebrating two of the most primal human hungers and pleasures while elevating both through the artistic lens of a true creative visionary using the human body as his canvas and food as his paintbrush. Simone’s edible masterpieces, which remained ephemeral until he collaborated with photographer Matt Freedman, spring to life from the page, extending an alluring come-hither invitation to reconnect with our own understanding of food, sexuality, and how the two feed one another.

Alongside the luscious and playful images are imaginative essays and delicious, uncommon recipes that amplify the experiential delight of Simone’s work.

‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly know how far one can go,’ wrote T. S. Eliot. In La Figa, Tiberio and Matt transport us with their provocative and mesmerizing photographs to a place where a simple fruit, combined with the basic human form, explodes our senses – from a pomegranate bikini to rolling hills of ingredientcovered hips. I, for one, will never think of seaweed or avocado in the same way. La Figa invites us to pierce through mundane living and savor the basic ingredients of life.” ~ Nassim Nassefi, M.D.

Filmmaker Dan McComb has created a handful of wonderful, artful, poetic segments on Simone and the La Figa project that bespeak the incredible passion with which Simone approaches his work.

But what makes Simone all the more interesting as a creator and someone filled with such exuberant positivity is the grim story that led him there. After a childhood of abuse and grueling work on his father’s farm, he became a prostitute, until he finally found solace in the kitchen and eventually discovered food art as his true calling and his salvation. Watch him tell his remarkable story in this excellent talk from TEDxRainier:

With over 160 lavish full-color images, 20 mouth-watering recipes and 40 essays on food, love and life, La Figa is a genuine treat for the senses and an invitation to approach something that’s been overly functionalized and commodified with a little bit more playfulness, poignancy and poetry.

Thanks, Nassim

BP

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