Brain Pickings

Keith Haring on Art, the Diversity of Human Experience, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“The need to separate ourselves and connect ourselves to our environment (world) is a primary need of all human beings.”

Keith Haring on Art, the Diversity of Human Experience, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“Envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” artist Egon Schiele wrote in contemplating why visionaries tend to come from the minority. Artists are so often those whom society paints as other by some hue of identity and belonging, and yet they are also the ones who, in seeing how and what most people don’t see, teach us what it takes to be ourselves, what it feels like to be someone other than ourselves, and what it means to be a human being.

Iris Murdoch found in this the ultimate evidence of why art is essential for democracy; in it, James Baldwin recognized the titanic dual task of the artist as society’s essential destabilizing force and its “emotional or spiritual historian,” whose job it is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

We make art with everything we are, the doom and the glory of it. We make art to know ourselves, to locate ourselves in the web of being, to make ourselves more alive. We make art that, at its best, helps other people locate themselves and live.

All artists know this and feel this, consciously or not, but few have contemplated that knowledge more deeply and articulated it more beautifully than Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990), whose largehearted art has touched countless lives and helped generations of humans — this one included — live.

Keith Haring by Josh Cochran from Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess

Haring explores this question with uncommon thoughtfulness and tenderness throughout his diary, posthumously published as Keith Haring Journals (public library) — the wondrous cathedral of creative vitality rising at the intersection of the intimate and the universal that gave us Haring’s impassioned insistence on the love of life even in the face of death.

In the early autumn of 1978, having just left Pittsburgh to begin his brave new life as an artist in New York City, the twenty-year-old Haring finds himself sitting in Washington Square Park — a microcosm of the city’s vibrant polyphony of life. He takes out his journal and begins composing a long stream-of-consciousness meditation on art and life, at the heart of which is the sentiment that would come to define his creative ethos:

No two human beings ever experience two sensations, experiences, feelings, or thoughts identically.


I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.

Haring would devote the remainder of his short life to using art as a celebration of difference and an empathic bridge for coming as close as we can ever come to the way a consciousness other than our own is experiencing reality.

Keith Haring. Untitled, 1978, from Keith Haring Journals.

In an entry penned years later, not yet knowing his own consciousness is soon to meet its untimely end, he revisits the question of the ultimate function of art in human life — life inextricable from the larger web of life, the destructive unweaving of which had colored Haring’s childhood as the modern environmental movement was coming awake:

“Art”… is at the very basis of human existence. The need to separate ourselves and connect ourselves to our environment (world) is a primary need of all human beings.

Art becomes the way we define our existence as human beings. This has a perverse air to it, I admit. The very idea that we are so different from other beings (animals) and things (rocks, trees, air, water) is, I think, a great misconception, but if understood is not necessarily evil. We know that “humans” determine the future of this planet. We have the power to destroy and create. We, after all is said and done, are the perpetrators of the destruction of the Earth we inhabit. No matter how slowly this destruction is occurring, no matter how “natural” this de-composition is, we are the harborers of this change.

And yet even against this backdrop, Haring defies the easy defeatism of painting our species and our civilization as purely evil, of classing human nature as an antagonist of nature rather than its function and functionary, just as replete with the capacity for destruction as with the capacity for beauty — like nature itself. What dignifies us, what redeems us, what saves us from ourselves, is the animating impulse of art. He writes:

We are human and we “understand” beauty.

Complement with Virginia Woolf’s exquisite epiphany about what it means to be an artist and the childhood encounter in which Pablo Neruda found the ultimate metaphor for why we make art, then revisit Drawing on Walls — poet Matthew Burgess and muralist Josh Cochran’s picture-book biography of Haring, inspired by his altogether ravishing journals.


Tracing the Roots of the Big Apple: The Mysterious Origins of the World’s Most Famous City Moniker

A working theory of grafting Eden.

Tracing the Roots of the Big Apple: The Mysterious Origins of the World’s Most Famous City Moniker

On May 3, 1921, John J. Fitz Gerald — a sports journalist for the New York Morning Telegraph reporting on the horse-racing circuit — suddenly began referring to results from New York City as news from “the big apple.” He soon titled his entire column “Around the Big Apple,” extolling the Big Apple as “the dream of every lad that had ever thrown a leg over a thoroughbred and the goal of all horsemen.” Eventually, people began wondering why he had so nicknamed their city.

Five years after he first began using the term, Fitz Gerald half-answered.

Several years earlier, traveling to New Orleans for a race, he had overheard two African American stable hands discussing the horses in their respective care and where they were headed next. One of the young men told the other, in a “bright and snappy” quip, that the horse was going to “the big apple.” Fitz Gerald, knowing that the horse was in fact headed to New York City, seized on the term without asking where it came from — something about it just felt like the right poetic image for the grandeur and lushness of life in his hometown.

He died without ever saying anything else about it, having seeded into the urban dictionary the single most powerful and recognizable botanical metaphor in popular culture.

A century after the inception of the term, while curating and hosting an apple-tree planting ceremony at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, I found myself wondering what the metaphor was actually for.

Poets Marissa Davis (left) and Marie Howe at the planting ceremony for artist Sam Van Aken’s Tree of 40 Fruit: New York Apples. Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, October 2020. Photograph by Walter Wlodarczyk.

Immersed in the world of apples — apples as botany, apples as poetry, apples as cultural symbology — my historical voracity and scholarly stubbornness grew restless with the unsolved mystery of why the two men in New Orleans had referred to the city that way in the first place. It is a term now familiar the world over, yet opaque even to New Yorkers, most of whom either know nothing about the origin at all or know one of the several circulated origin myths since debunked. The scholar Barry Popik has done most of this debunking, but his considerable work on the history of the moniker focuses more on how the term bloomed into popular culture after Fitz Gerald popularized it. I was interested in the roots, predating Fitz Gerald and predating even the young men from whom he had heard it.

After extensive trawling of archival newspapers, out-of-print books, and oral histories, I emerged with a working theory.

The Red Must Apple from an 1811 guide to the finest apple varieties. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In the early nineteenth century, as newspapers became the first truly mass medium, they quickly bent under the same market forces that warp today’s online journalism and social media — forces they themselves engineered with the formative model of trading an audience for advertising revenue, with attention as the currency. Tempted to grow their audience, newspapers increasingly sacrificed substance and integrity at the altar of scale, inventing what we now call “clickbait” — sensational titles designed to grab the reader’s most primal attention, hovering over mediocre stories of moderate entertainment value and no lasting intellectual or emotional reward.

There were then, as there are now, several primary categories of clickbait. Let us call one of them Big Things.

With the Industrial Revolution still perfecting its human-made Big Things, news of the biggest bridge yet and the deepest oil well yet and the tallest building yet made regular headlines. But America was still primarily an agricultural nation — such industrial feats so scintillated precisely because they were few and far between, isolated to the major cities. Throughout the vast sweep of farmland that was the rest of the country, farmers could not compete with bridges and buildings. But they could make their own claims to the Big Things category with human-assisted feats of nature, taking especial pride in fruits, vegetables, and animals that grew to staggering size under their care. (The notion of genetics, and therefore of mutation, was still foreign — size was seen less as a chance-stroke of nature than as a metric of farming acumen.)

Of those, exceptionally big apples were the most popular news item.

Page from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1848.

By the 1850s, a new term had emerged: “to wager a big apple,” or “to bet a big apple” — which meant to risk your best, the measure of your skill and character, taking a chance on something promising but uncertain.

In an era before Abraham Lincoln wagered his own biggest apple on the Emancipation Proclamation, it was an act of tremendous courage for a black person in the South to travel North in pursuit of their freedom and their basic human rights. To do this, people risked everything they had. Many lost everything they had — including their lives. New York City, with its lively liberal culture and its political umbilical cord to somewhat more egalitarian Europe still uncut, appeared as a particularly fertile garden for personal liberation and self-actualization — not only for fugitive slaves, but for anyone who came from very little and dared dream of very much: immigrants, entrepreneurs, women interested in soaring beyond the domestic sphere, dissenters against dogma and convention along every axis of identity and equality. It is where Frederick Douglass journeyed to begin his free life — a life that reshaped his country’s political conscience — and where Margaret Fuller journeyed to lay the foundation of modern feminism.

Feminist remapping of the New York City subway system from Nonstop Metropolis by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly Shapiro.

It is where Kahlil Gibran journeyed to find his voice as a poet, painter, and philosopher, trading his native Lebanon for this strange and wondrous city where one is bound to “gaze with a thousand eyes and listen with a thousand ears all through the day,” the place that a generation later staggered Italo Calvino as “the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day,” the place in which another generation later Zadie Smith located the testing ground of the American dream.

In the generations since the term was coined, for those of us coming from other countries and cultures, with identities that are in any way other, escaping dictatorships or poverty or violent homes, or simply leaving behind lives too small for our dreams, beginning a new life in New York City has remained a wager of the biggest existential apple.

Photograph by Bill Hayes from How New York Breaks Your Heart

For a broader diameter of the cultural Venn diagram of New York and apples, savor some poetry, storytelling, and music from the planting ceremony for artist Sam Van Aken’s symphonic living sculpture Tree of 40 Fruit: New York Apples, freely available to any body in any city on Pioneer Works’ culturally lush online journal The Broadcast.


Waking Up: David Whyte on the Power of Poetry and Silence as Portal to Presence

“The object in meditation and all of our contemplative disciplines is silence… in order for you to perceive something other than yourself… Poetry is the verbal art-form by which we can actually create silence.”

Waking Up: David Whyte on the Power of Poetry and Silence as Portal to Presence

Poetry interrupts the momentum of story, unweaves the narrative thread with which we cocoon our inner worlds. A single poetic image can lift us from the plane of our storied worldview toward the gasp of a whole new vista, where in the spacious silence of the unimagined we imagine ourselves afresh.

For Adrienne Rich, poetry was a tool to “break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire”; for Audre Lorde, a lens for focusing “the quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives”; for Shelley, a tonic that “purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being”; for Elizabeth Alexander, a fulcrum for raising the fundamental human question that so easily falls by distraction, indifference, and confusion: “And are we not of interest to each other?”

Sometimes — not often — prose can do that, prose that carries the spirit of poetry, the spirit that opens up rather than pins down the concepts language conveys.

Among the rare travelers between these twin worlds is the Irish-English poet and philosopher David Whyte.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Drawing on his superb collection of short semantic-lyrical essays, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library), he has created a series of poetry-driven guided broadenings of perspective for neuroscientist Sam Harris’s mighty contemplative toolkit Waking Up.

In his short introductory conversation with Sam, David reflects:

The object in meditation and all of our contemplative disciplines is silence. But… that silence is in order for you to perceive something other than yourself — what you’ve arranged as yourself to actually perceive this frontier between what you call your self and what you call other than your self, whether that’s a person or a landscape.

Echoing Susan Sontag’s observation that silence is a form of spirituality and a form of speech, he considers poetry as a channel for contemplative silence:

One of the greatest arts of poetry is actually to create silence through attentive speech — speech that says something in such a way that it appears as a third frontier between you and the world, and invites you into a deeper and more generous sense of your own identity and the identity of the world… Poetry is the verbal art-form by which we can actually create silence.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by poet Ruth Krauss

His essay on silence in Consolations harmonizes this sentiment:

Silence is frightening, an intimation of the end, the graveyard of fixed identities. Real silence puts any present understanding to shame; orphans us from certainty; leads us beyond the well-known and accepted reality and confronts us with the unknown and previously unacceptable conversation about to break in upon our lives.

And yet, echoing poet-philosopher Wendell Berry’s lovely insistence that in silence and solitude “one’s inner voices become audible [so that] one responds more clearly to other lives,” he adds:

In silence, essence speaks to us of essence itself and asks for a kind of unilateral disarmament, our own essential nature slowly emerging as the defended periphery atomizes and falls apart. As the busy edge dissolves we begin to join the conversation through the portal of a present unknowing, robust vulnerability, revealing in the way we listen, a different ear, a more perceptive eye, an imagination refusing to come too early to a conclusion, and belonging to a different person than the one who first entered the quiet.


Reality met on its own terms demands absolute presence, and absolute giving away, an ability to live on equal terms with the fleeting and the eternal, the hardly touchable and the fully possible, a full bodily appearance and disappearance, a rested giving in and giving up; another identity braver, more generous and more here than the one looking hungrily for the easy, unearned answer.

Moon at Magome by Hasui Kawase from his contemplative-poetic vintage woodblock prints. (Available as a print.)

Consolations touched me deeply when I first read it several years ago and remains my regular companion through life, as does Waking Up, which has been nothing less than a lifeline this past life-syphoning year.

Complement this strand of contemplation with The Sound of Silence — a lovely Japanese-inspired illustrated serenade to the art of listening to the inner voice amid the noise of modern life — and Kahlil Gibran on silence, solitude, and the courage to know yourself, and then revisit David Whyte’s stunning lyric meditation on walking into the questions of our becoming.


The Woman Who Saved the Hawks: Redeeming an Overlooked Pioneer of Conservation

The story of the countercultural courage and persistence that shaped the modern ecological conscience.

The Woman Who Saved the Hawks: Redeeming an Overlooked Pioneer of Conservation

It is 1928 and you are walking in Central Park, saxophone and wren song in the April air, when you spot her beneath the colossal leafing elm with her binoculars. You mistake her for another pearled Upper East Side lady who has taken to birding in the privileged boredom of her middle age. And who could blame you? In some obvious ways — polished and traveled, born into a wealthy New York family to a British father whose first cousin was Charles Dickens — she bears the markings. In some invisible ways — in the strata of personhood that our unchosen surfaces and accidents of birth are apt to conceal and shortchange — she is anything but.

Within a quarter century — a span in which she would change the course of culture and the vitality of nature for centuries to come — she would be celebrated on the pages of the nation’s most esteemed cultural journal as “the only honest, unselfish, indomitable hellcat in the history of conservation.” Those whom she held uncomfortably accountable would deride her as “a very hot potato” and a “common scold” — but that accountability would revolutionize policies and mindsets. She would become things the words for which — words all of us now live with, for things many of us are living — did not yet exist in the popular lexicon: dissident, activist, citizen scientist.

Rosalie Edge by textile artist Leotie Richards from her American Folk Heroes quilt portrait series.

Rosalie Edge (November 3, 1877–November 30, 1962) was well into her fifties when she became invested in the plight of birds after reading about the slaughter of 70,000 bald eagles in Alaska. She would later write:

Thousands of people who had within them a yearning toward nature, a deep-seated need to preserve its beauty, had been in very truth asleep. I know, for I was one of them.

Until that point, her fierce wakefulness to justice had been channeled toward the plight of half of her own species, which culminated with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. But the multigenerational triumph left Edge — who had spent years composing pamphlets, delivering speeches, and serving as secretary-treasurer of the New York State chapter of the Woman Suffrage Party — with the postpartum hollowing of spirit that follows the completion of any project into which one has poured all of oneself.

But a person of passion and brilliance is never bored for long.

One night while traveling in Europe with her family, Edge found herself reading and rereading a sixteen-page pamphlet — the era’s primary whistleblowing medium — titled “A Crisis in Conservation.” It exposed the ties the nation’s network of Audubon Societies had to gun and ammunition makers and the consequent withholding of protection from species hunters considered pests or targets — including the bird, which this very nation had taken for its symbol and spirit animal: the North American bald eagle.

Edge’s family summoned her for dinner, but she kept pacing the room in fiery disbelief, later recalling:

For what to me were dinner and the boulevards of Paris when my mind was filled with the tragedy of beautiful birds, disappearing through the neglect and indifference of those who had at their disposal wealth beyond avarice with which these creatures might be saved?

As soon as she returned to America, still thinking about the eagles, Edge turned her wakeful intellect and indomitable passion for justice toward the broader fate of feathered beings in the hands of the thumbed.

Eagle-owl from The Royal Natural History, 1893. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

On the eve of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, Rosalie Edge, in her dress and her greying bun, walked across Central Park to the twenty-fifth annual gathering of the National Association of Audubon Societies. There, she calmly rose from the back to hold its leaders accountable for the practices revealed by the pamphlet. After a stunned silence, various men in power took turns with defensive stabs at her credibility, then derided the rhetorical style of the pamphlet without addressing its substance.

To Edge, this was only evidence that something was amiss, that she must persist until it is righted.

And so she did. Over the years that followed, Rosalie Edge “stood up very often,” as she later recalled. After seeing a photograph of hundreds of dead hawks neatly lined up on the Appalachian forest floor, she traveled to Eastern Pennsylvania to witness the barbaric tradition that had occasioned the horror: recreational hunters gathering every autumn to shoot thousands of migrating hawks, having stalked out the perfect summit from which to intercept the migration path and perform the mass slaughter.

Haws killed near Kempton, Pennsylvania. (Photograph: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary)

Realizing that cruelty of such scale and such tradition required a solution just as grand, Edge had no qualms about using her privilege as an instrument of justice: She set out to buy the mountain.

In 1934, she borrowed $500 from Willard Gibbs Van Name (not that Willard Gibbs; the American Museum of Natural History zoologist who had first awakened her passion for conservation and with whom she had founded the Emergency Conservation Committee two years earlier), signed a two-year lease with the option of eventually buying the 1,400-acre wilderness for $3,000, and hired two wardens — an ornithologically ardent couple from New England — to keep hunters away. And so Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was born. Rosalie Edge was fifty-seven.

Rosalie Edge shortly after the founding of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. (Photograph: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.)

Within a single migration cycle, hawk populations improved dramatically. The sanctuary became a pioneering model of conservation, replicated by other conservationists in other habitats to protect other species. Nearly a century later, it is the world’s most active site of raptor conservation and observation.

For the remaining two decades of her life, Rosalie Edge went on to become one of the most vocal, visible, and effective champions of conservation, inspiring the founding of The Nature Conservancy, The Environmental Defense Fund, and The Wilderness Society; inspiring generations of ordinary citizens with her ethos that the protection of nature is not something to be awaited from above but a basic civic duty for each of us, echoing her contemporary and kindred spirit Eleanor Roosevelt’s insistence on the power of personal responsibility in social change.

Rosalie Edge in her late years. (Photograph: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary)

The New York Times never honored the city’s most ecologically impactful daughter with an obituary, not even in their wonderfully redemptive and honorable series of post-posthumous obituaries of brilliant overlooked women. In Rosalie Edge’s lifetime, the paper’s sole headline containing her name — printed the year Olympic National Park was created largely thanks to the nationwide grassroots campaign Edge had spearheaded — hovers over a two-sentence report of a shoulder fracture that Edge, “known for establishing a mountain sanctuary for predatory birds,” had suffered upon slipping at a dance party. But she is redeemed at long last as one of the conservation heroes profiled and celebrated in Michelle Nijhuis’s altogether magnificent book Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction (public library), in which Edge figures as an exquisite specimen of the species of visionaries Nijhuis interleaves into the broader story of conservation:

Each person profiled here stood, or stands, at a turning point in the story of modern species conservation — a story which, for better and sometimes worse, still guides the international movement to protect life on earth… Though they often used pragmatic arguments to convert others to their cause, their personal motivations ran deeper, for many had started keeping company with members of other species to escape their own troubles. Some were painfully shy, or burdened with mental or physical illness. Some were separated from spouses at a time when divorce was a scandal, or drawn to their own gender when homosexuality was taboo. Most of them knew something about suffering, and they found consolation in the sights and sounds of other forms of life.

The Crowned Eagle by George Edwards, 1758. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

With an eye to Edge and her legacy in particular, Nijhuis writes:

When Edge and Van Name founded the Emergency Conservation Committee, the language of ecology was still unfamiliar, even within the conservation movement. The concept of the food chain, sometimes called the food web, had been proposed only three years earlier by the British ecologist Charles Elton. The word “ecosystem,” commonly used in ecology and conservation to describe an assemblage of interacting species and their physical surroundings, would not be coined until 1935. Many scientists — and most of the general public — continued to think of the living world as an assembly of relatively independent parts, not an interconnected whole.

Edge’s understanding of ecological relationship… set her apart from most conservationists of her time. Her concern for all species and her opposition to most hunting were shared by animal welfare activists, including many of the women who opposed the plume trade. But while Edge hated cruelty to individual animals, she devoted most of her energy to preventing the extinction of species.

American sparrow-hawk by J.L. Ridgways, 1901. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

She quotes Edge herself, who observed two generations after Ernst Haeckel coined the term ecology:

The birds and animals must be protected not merely because this species or another is interesting to some group of biologists, but because each is a link in a living chain.

Rosalie Edge with her wardens and fellow conservationists at Hawk Mountain. (Photograph: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.)

I first came within the aura of Edge’s influence during my long immersion in Rachel Carson world in the research for Figuring: Edge — who died months after Silent Spring raised its epoch-making voice of ecological conscience, and who never lived to see it inspire the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency — had been an early voice of dissent and admonition against the heedless use of pesticides. She had furnished Carson, who visited Hawk Mountain two decades earlier, with key DDT data about the pesticide’s savaging impact on birds.

While Rosalie Edge did not have Rachel Carson’s poetic gift, her fierce devotion to hawks inspired it: Carson, who would soon popularize the esoteric word ecology, composed one of her most breathtaking essays about the interconnectedness of nature upon returning from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in 1945:

They came by like brown leaves drifting on the wind. Sometimes a lone bird rode the air currents; sometimes several at a time, sweeping upward until they were only specks against the clouds or dropping down again toward the valley floor below us; sometimes a great burst of them milling and tossing, like the flurry of leaves when a sudden gust of wind shakes loose a new batch from the forest trees.


On the horizon to the north, formed by a series of seven peaks running almost at right angles to the ridge on which we sit, an indistinct blur takes form against the sky. Second by second the outlines sharpen. Soon the unmistakable silhouette of a hawk is etched on the gray.


Here on the mountain top we are in the sweep of all the winds out of a great emptiness of sky, and the cold seeps through to the very marrow of my bones. But cold, windy weather is hawk weather, and so I am glad, although I shiver and my nose reddens, and I look speculatively at my thermos of hot coffee… Mists are drifting over the valley. A grayness overhangs all the sky and the clouds seem heavy with unshed rain. It is an elemental landscape — a great rockpile atop a mountain, nearby a few trees that have been stripped and twisted by the mountain winds, a vast, pale, arching sky.

Perhaps it is not strange that I, who greatly love the sea, should find much in the mountains to remind me of it. I cannot watch the headlong descent of the hill streams without remembering that, though their journey be long, its end is in the sea. And always in these Appalachian highlands there are reminders of those ancient seas that more than once lay over all this land. Halfway up the steep path to the lookout is a cliff formed of sandstone; long ago it was laid down under shallow marine waters where strange and unfamiliar fishes swam; then the seas receded, the mountains were uplifted, and now wind and rain are crumbling the cliff away to the sandy particles that first composed it. And these whitened limestone rocks on which I am sitting — these, too, were formed under that Paleozoic ocean, of the myriad tiny skeletons of creatures that drifted in its water. Now I lie back with half closed eyes and try to realize that I am at the bottom of another ocean — an ocean of air on which the hawks are sailing.

Art by Jackie Morris from The Lost Spells by Robert Macfarlane

Complement with Helen Macdonald’s stunning H Is for Hawk, then revisit Carson’s ecological clarion call to the next generations — that is, to us — delivered months before Edge’s death.


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