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2013’s Best Books on Writing and Creativity

Timeless wisdom and practical advice on the pleasures and perils of the written word and the creative life.

After the year’s best books in photography, psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, science and technology, “children’s” (though we all know what that means), and pets and animals, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists concludes with the year’s best reads on writing and creativity.

1. WHY WE WRITE

The question of why writers write holds especial mesmerism, both as a piece of psychological voyeurism and as a beacon of self-conscious hope that if we got a glimpse of the innermost drivers of greats, maybe, just maybe, we might be able to replicate the workings of genius in our own work. So why do great writers write? George Orwell itemized four universal motives. Joan Didion saw it as access to her own mind. For David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Joy Williams found in it a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket. Italo Calvino found in writing the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise.

In Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do (public library), editor Meredith Maran seeks out answers on the why and advice on the how of writing from twenty of today’s most acclaimed authors.

Prolific novelist Isabel Allende shares in Kurt Vonnegut’s insistence on rooting storytelling in personal experience and writes:

I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession. Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story? I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later. Over the years I’ve discovered that all the stories I’ve told, all the stories I will ever tell, are connected to me in some way. If I’m talking about a woman in Victorian times who leaves the safety of her home and comes to the Gold Rush in California, I’m really talking about feminism, about liberation, about the process I’ve gone through in my own life, escaping from a Chilean, Catholic, patriarchal, conservative, Victorian family and going out into the world.

Though many famous writers have notoriously deliberate routines and rituals, Allende’s is among the most unusual and rigorous. Ultimately, however, she echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Thomas Edison (“Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application.”), E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”) and Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), stressing the importance of work ethic over the proverbial muse:

I start all my books on January eighth. Can you imagine January seventh? It’s hell. Every year on January seventh, I prepare my physical space. I clean up everything from my other books. I just leave my dictionaries, and my first editions, and the research materials for the new one. And then on January eighth I walk seventeen steps from the kitchen to the little pool house that is my office. It’s like a journey to another world. It’s winter, it’s raining usually. I go with my umbrella and the dog following me. From those seventeen steps on, I am in another world and I am another person. I go there scared. And excited. And disappointed — because I have a sort of idea that isn’t really an idea. The first two, three, four weeks are wasted. I just show up in front of the computer. Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.

She offers three pieces of advice for aspiring writers:

  • It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling or describe a situation. Use a thesaurus, use your imagination, scratch your head until it comes to you, but find the right word.
  • When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—the characters are shaping up, you can see them, you can hear their voices, and they do things that you haven’t planned, things you couldn’t have imagined—then you know the book is somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word, into this world.
  • When you tell a story in the kitchen to a friend, it’s full of mistakes and repetitions. It’s good to avoid that in literature, but still, a story should feel like a conversation. It’s not a lecture.

Celebrated journalist and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean considers the critical difference between fiction and nonfiction, exploring the osmotic balance of escapism and inner stillness:

When it comes to nonfiction, it’s important to note the very significant difference between the two stages of the work. Stage one is reporting. Stage two is writing.

Reporting is like being the new kid in school. You’re scrambling to learn something very quickly, being a detective, figuring out who the people are, dissecting the social structure of the community you’re writing about. Emotionally, it puts you in the place that everybody dreads. You’re the outsider. You can’t give in to your natural impulse to run away from situations and people you don’t know. You can’t retreat to the familiar.

Writing is exactly the opposite. It’s private. The energy of it is so intense and internal, it sometimes makes you feel like you’re going to crumple. A lot of it happens invisibly. When you’re sitting at your desk, it looks like you’re just sitting there, doing nothing.

A necessary antidote to the tortured-genius cultural mythology of the writer, Orlean, like Ray Bradbury, conceives of writing as a source of joy, even when challenging:

Writing gives me great feelings of pleasure. There’s a marvelous sense of mastery that comes with writing a sentence that sounds exactly as you want it to. It’s like trying to write a song, making tiny tweaks, reading it out loud, shifting things to make it sound a certain way. It’s very physical. I get antsy. I jiggle my feet a lot, get up a lot, tap my fingers on the keyboard, check my e-mail. Sometimes it feels like digging out of a hole, but sometimes it feels like flying. When it’s working and the rhythm’s there, it does feel like magic to me.

She ends with four pieces of wisdom for writers:

  • You have to simply love writing, and you have to remind yourself often that you love it.
  • You should read as much as possible. That’s the best way to learn how to write.
  • You have to appreciate the spiritual component of having an opportunity to do something as wondrous as writing. You should be practical and smart and you should have a good agent and you should work really, really hard. But you should also be filled with awe and gratitude about this amazing way to be in the world.
  • Don’t be ashamed to use the thesaurus. I could spend all day reading Roget’s! There’s nothing better when you’re in a hurry and you need the right word right now.

True to Alan Watts’s philosophy and the secret to the life of purpose, Michael Lewis remained disinterested in money as a motive — in fact, he recognized the trap of the hedonic treadmill and got out before it was too late:

Before I wrote my first book in 1989, the sum total of my earnings as a writer, over four years of freelancing, was about three thousand bucks. So it did appear to be financial suicide when I quit my job at Salomon Brothers — where I’d been working for a couple of years, and where I’d just gotten a bonus of $225,000, which they promised they’d double the following year—to take a $40,000 book advance for a book that took a year and a half to write.

My father thought I was crazy. I was twenty-seven years old, and they were throwing all this money at me, and it was going to be an easy career. He said, “Do it another ten years, then you can be a writer.” But I looked around at the people on Wall Street who were ten years older than me, and I didn’t see anyone who could have left. You get trapped by the money. Something dies inside. It’s very hard to preserve the quality in a kid that makes him jump out of a high-paying job to go write a book.

More than a living, Lewis found in writing a true calling — the kind of deep flow that fully absorbs the mind and soul:

There’s no simple explanation for why I write. It changes over time. There’s no hole inside me to fill or anything like that, but once I started doing it, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do anything else for a living. I noticed very quickly that writing was the only way for me to lose track of the time.

[…]

I used to get the total immersion feeling by writing at midnight. The day is not structured to write, and so I unplug the phones. I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.

“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod famously wrote. It might be an overly cynical notion, one that perpetuates the unjustified yet deep-seated cultural guilt over simultaneously doing good and doing well, but Lewis echoes the sentiment:

Once you have a career, and once you have an audience, once you have paying customers, the motives for doing it just change.

And yet Lewis approaches the friction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation — one experienced by anyone who loves what they do and takes pride in clarity of editorial vision, but has an audience whose approval or disapproval becomes increasingly challenging to tune out — with extraordinary candor and insight:

Commercial success makes writing books a lot easier to do, and it also creates pressure to be more of a commercial success. If you sold a million books once, your publisher really, really thinks you might sell a million books again. And they really want you to do it.

That dynamic has the possibility of constraining the imagination. There are invisible pressures. There’s a huge incentive to write about things that you know will sell. But I don’t find myself thinking, “I can’t write about that because it won’t sell.” It’s such a pain in the ass to write a book, I can’t imagine writing one if I’m not interested in the subject.

And yet his clarity of vision is still what guides the best of his work:

Those are the best moments, when I’ve got the whale on the line, when I see exactly what it is I’ve got to do.

After that moment there’s always misery. It never goes quite like you think, but that moment is a touchstone, a place to come back to. It gives you a kind of compass to guide you through the story.

That feeling has never done me wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand the misery it will lead to, but it’s always been right to feel it. And it’s a great feeling.

Lewis offers some advice to aspiring writers, adding to the collected wisdom of literary greats with his three guidelines:

  1. It’s always good to have a motive to get you in the chair. If your motive is money, find another one.
  2. I took my biggest risk when I walked away from a lucrative job at age twenty-seven to be a writer. I’m glad I was too young to realize what a dumb decision it seemed to be, because it was the right decision for me.
  3. A lot of my best decisions were made in a state of self-delusion. When you’re trying to create a career as a writer, a little delusional thinking goes a long way.

Sample more of this indispensable compendium here, here, here, and here.

2. MANAGE YOUR DAY-TO-DAY

We seem to have a strange but all too human cultural fixation on the daily routines and daily rituals of famous creators, from Vonnegut to Burroughs to Darwin — as if a glimpse of their day-to-day would somehow magically infuse ours with equal potency, or replicating it would allow us to replicate their genius in turn. And though much of this is mere cultural voyeurism, there is something to be said for the value of a well-engineered daily routine to anchor the creative process. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (public library), edited by Behance’s 99U editor-in-chief Jocelyn Glei and featuring contributions from a twenty of today’s most celebrated thinkers and doers, delves into the secrets of this holy grail of creativity.

Reflecting Thomas Edison’s oft-cited proclamation that “genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration,” after which 99U is named, the crucial importance of consistent application is a running theme. (Though I prefer to paraphrase Edison to “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent aspiration” — since true aspiration produces effort that feels gratifying rather than merely grueling, enhancing the grit of perspiration with the gift of gratification.)

One of the book’s strongest insights comes from Gretchen Rubin — author of The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, one of these 7 essential books on the art and science of happiness, titled after her fantastic blog of the same name — who points to frequency as the key to creative accomplishment:

We tend to overestimate what we can do in a short period, and underestimate what we can do over a long period, provided we work slowly and consistently. Anthony Trollope, the nineteenth-century writer who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” Over the long run, the unglamorous habit of frequency fosters both productivity and creativity.

Frequency, she argues, helps facilitate what Arthur Koestler has famously termed “bisociation” — the crucial ability to link the seemingly unlinkable, which is the defining characteristic of the creative mind. Rubin writes:

You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting. That’s critical, because I have a voracious need for material, and as I become hyperaware of potential fodder, ideas pour in. By contrast, working sporadically makes it hard to keep your focus. It’s easy to become blocked, confused, or distracted, or to forget what you were aiming to accomplish.

[…]

Creativity arises from a constant churn of ideas, and one of the easiest ways to encourage that fertile froth is to keep your mind engaged with your project. When you work regularly, inspiration strikes regularly.

Echoing Alexander Graham Bell, who memorably wrote that “it is the man who carefully advances step by step … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” and Virginia Woolf, who extolled the creative benefits of keeping a diary, Rubin writes:

Step by step, you make your way forward. That’s why practices such as daily writing exercises or keeping a daily blog can be so helpful. You see yourself do the work, which shows you that you can do the work. Progress is reassuring and inspiring; panic and then despair set in when you find yourself getting nothing done day after day. One of the painful ironies of work life is that the anxiety of procrastination often makes people even less likely to buckle down in the future.

Riffing on wisdom from her latest book, Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life, Rubin offers:

I have a long list of “Secrets of Adulthood,” the lessons I’ve learned as I’ve grown up, such as: “It’s the task that’s never started that’s more tiresome,” “The days are long, but the years are short,” and “Always leave plenty of room in the suitcase.” One of my most helpful Secrets is, “What I do every day matters more than what I do once in a while.”

With a sentiment reminiscent of William James’s timeless words on habit, she concludes:

Day by day, we build our lives, and day by day, we can take steps toward making real the magnificent creations of our imaginations.

Entrepreneurship guru and culture-sage Seth Godin seconds Rubin and admonishes against confusing vacant ritualization with creative rituals that actually spur productivity:

Everybody who does creative work has figured out how to deal with their own demons to get their work done. There is no evidence that setting up your easel like Van Gogh makes you paint better. Tactics are idiosyncratic. But strategies are universal, and there are a lot of talented folks who are not succeeding the way they want to because their strategies are broken.

The strategy is simple, I think. The strategy is to have a practice, and what it means to have a practice is to regularly and reliably do the work in a habitual way.

There are many ways you can signify to yourself that you are doing your practice. For example, some people wear a white lab coat or a particular pair of glasses, or always work in a specific place — in doing these things, they are professionalizing their art.

He echoes Chuck Close (“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), Tchaikovsky (“a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”) E. B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), and Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), observing:

The notion that I do my work here, now, like this, even when I do not feel like it, and especially when I do not feel like it, is very important. Because lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it. And that emotional waiver is why this is your work and not your hobby.

Originally featured in May — read more here.

3. STILL WRITING

“At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace,” Annie Dillard famously observed, adding the quintessential caveat, “It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” And yet, Zadie Smith admonished in her 10 rules of writing, it’s perilous to romanticize the “vocation of writing”: “There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.”

Still, surely there must be more to it than that — whole worlds rise and fall, entire universes blossom and die daily in that enchanted space between the writer’s sensation of writing and the word’s destiny of being written on a page. For all that’s been mulled about the writing life and its perpetual osmosis of everyday triumphs and tragedies, its existential feats and failures, at its heart remains an immutable mystery — how can a calling be at once so transcendent and so soul-crushing, and what is it that enthralls so many souls into its paradoxical grip, into feeling compelled to write “not because they can but because they have to”? That, and oh so much more, is what Dani Shapiro explores in Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life (public library) — her magnificent memoir of the writing life, at once disarmingly personal and brimming with widely resonant wisdom on the most universal challenges and joys of writing.

Shapiro opens with the kind of crisp conviction that underpins the entire book:

Everything you need to know about life can be learned from a genuine and ongoing attempt to write.

Book sculpture by an anonymous artist left at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse. Click image for more.

Far from a lazy aphorism, however, this proclamation comes from her own hard-earned experience — fragments of which resonate deeply with most of us, on one level or another — that Shapiro synthesizes beautifully:

When I wasn’t writing, I was reading. And when I wasn’t writing or reading, I was staring out the window, lost in thought. Life was elsewhere — I was sure of it—and writing was what took me there. In my notebooks, I escaped an unhappy and lonely childhood. I tried to make sense of myself. I had no intention of becoming a writer. I didn’t know that becoming a writer was possible. Still, writing was what saved me. It presented me with a window into the infinite. It allowed me to create order out of chaos.

‘Paper Typewriter’ by artist Jennifer Collier. Click image for more.

Above all, however, Shapiro’s core point has to do with courage and the creative life:

The writing life requires courage, patience, persistence, empathy, openness, and the ability to deal with rejection. It requires the willingness to be alone with oneself. To be gentle with oneself. To look at the world without blinders on. To observe and withstand what one sees. To be disciplined, and at the same time, take risks. To be willing to fail — not just once, but again and again, over the course of a lifetime. “Ever tried, ever failed,” Samuel Beckett once wrote. “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” It requires what the great editor Ted Solotoroff once called endurability.

In other words, it requires grit — that the science of which earned psychologist Angela Duckworth her recent MacArthur “genius” grant and the everyday art of which earns actual geniuses their status.

Writing is also, as Shapiro poetically puts it, a way “to forge a path out of [our] own personal wilderness with words” — a way to both exercise and exorcise our most fundamental insecurities and to practice what Rilke so memorably termed living the questions, the sort of “negative capability” of embracing uncertainty that Keats thought was so fundamental to the creative process. Shapiro echoes that Dillardian insistence on presence as the heart of the creative life:

‘Flights of mind’ by artist Vita Wells. Click image for more.

We are all unsure of ourselves. Every one of us walking the planet wonders, secretly, if we are getting it wrong. We stumble along. We love and we lose. At times, we find unexpected strength, and at other times, we succumb to our fears. We are impatient. We want to know what’s around the corner, and the writing life won’t offer us this. It forces us into the here and now. There is only this moment, when we put pen to page.

[…]

The page is your mirror. What happens inside you is reflected back. You come face-to-face with your own resistance, lack of balance, self-loathing, and insatiable ego—and also with your singular vision, guts, and fortitude. No matter what you’ve achieved the day before, you begin each day at the bottom of the mountain. … Life is usually right there, though, ready to knock us over when we get too sure of ourselves. Fortunately, if we have learned the lessons that years of practice have taught us, when this happens, we endure. We fail better. We sit up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.

In fact, it’s hard not to feel Dillard’s influence and the echo of her voice in Shapiro’s own words as she considers the conflicted yet inexorable mesmerism of writing:

What is it about writing that makes it—for some of us — as necessary as breathing? It is in the thousands of days of trying, failing, sitting, thinking, resisting, dreaming, raveling, unraveling that we are at our most engaged, alert, and alive. Time slips away. The body becomes irrelevant. We are as close to consciousness itself as we will ever be. This begins in the darkness. Beneath the frozen ground, buried deep below anything we can see, something may be taking root. Stay there, if you can. Don’t resist. Don’t force it, but don’t run away. Endure. Be patient. The rewards cannot be measured. Not now. But whatever happens, any writer will tell you: This is the best part.

These rewards manifest not as grand honors and prizes and bestseller rankings — though hardly any writer would deny the warming pleasure of those, however fleeting — but in the cumulative journey of becoming. As Cheryl Strayed put it in her timelessly revisitable meditation on life, “The useless days will add up to something. . . . These things are your becoming.” Ultimately, Shapiro seconds this sentiment by returning to the notion of presence and the art of looking as the centripetal force that summons the scattered fragments of our daily experience into our cumulative muse — a testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity, reassuring us that no bit of life is “useless” and reminding us of the vital importance of what Stephen King has termed the art of “creative sleep”. Shapiro writes:

If I dismiss the ordinary — waiting for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — I may just miss my life.

[…]

To allow ourselves to spend afternoons watching dancers rehearse, or sit on a stone wall and watch the sunset, or spend the whole weekend rereading Chekhov stories—to know that we are doing what we’re supposed to be doing — is the deepest form of permission in our creative lives. The British author and psychologist Adam Phillips has noted, “When we are inspired, rather like when we are in love, we can feel both unintelligible to ourselves and most truly ourselves.” This is the feeling I think we all yearn for, a kind of hyperreal dream state. We read Emily Dickinson. We watch the dancers. We research a little known piece of history obsessively. We fall in love. We don’t know why, and yet these moments form the source from which all our words will spring.

Originally featured in October — sample it further with Shapiro’s meditation on the perils of plans.

4. 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.

Jack Kerouac’s hand-drawn cross-country road trip map from ‘On the Road’

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 in his white coat

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.

Flannery O’Connor and her peacocks

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.”

Charles Dickens’s manuscript for ‘Our Mutual Friend.’ Image courtesy of The Morgan Library.

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.

Originally featured in September — for more quirky habits, read the original article here.

5. MAXIMIZE YOUR POTENTIAL

“You are what you settle for,” Janis Joplin admonished in her final interview. “You are ONLY as much as you settle for.” In Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career (public library), which comes on the heels of their indispensable guide to mastering the pace of productivity and honing your creative routine, editor Jocelyn Glei and her team at Behance’s 99U pull together another package of practical wisdom from 21 celebrated creative entrepreneurs. Despite the somewhat self-helpy, SEO-skewing title, this compendium of advice is anything but contrived. Rather, it’s a no-nonsense, experience-tested, life-approved cookbook for creative intelligence, exploring everything from harnessing the power of habit to cultivating meaningful relationships that enrich your work to overcoming the fear of failure.

In the introduction, Glei affirms the idea that, in the age of make-your-own-success and build-your-own-education, the onus and thrill of finding fulfilling work falls squarely on us, not on the “system”:

If the twentieth-century career was a ladder that we climbed from one predictable rung to the next, the twenty-first-century career is more like a broad rock face that we are all free-climbing. There’s no defined route, and we must use our own ingenuity, training, and strength to rise to the top. We must make our own luck.

Stressing the importance of staying open and alert in order to maximize your “luck quotient,” Glei cites Stanford’s Tina Seelig, who writes about the importance of cultivating awareness and embracing the unfamiliar in her book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20:

Lucky people take advantage of chance occurrences that come their way. Instead of going through life on cruise control, they pay attention to what’s happening around them and, therefore, are able to extract greater value from each situation… Lucky people are also open to novel opportunities and willing to try things outside of their usual experiences. They’re more inclined to pick up a book on an unfamiliar subject, to travel to less familiar destinations, and to interact with people who are different than themselves.

But “luck,” it turns out, is a grab-bag term composed of many interrelated elements, each dissected in a different chapter. In a section on reprogramming your daily habits, Scott H. Young echoes William James and recaps the science of rewiring your “habit loops”, reminding us how routines dictate our days:

If you think hard about it, you’ll notice just how many “automatic” decisions you make each day. But these habits aren’t always as trivial as what you eat for breakfast. Your health, your productivity, and the growth of your career are all shaped by the things you do each day — most by habit, not by choice.

Even the choices you do make consciously are heavily influenced by automatic patterns. Researchers have found that our conscious mind is better understood as an explainer of our actions, not the cause of them. Instead of triggering the action itself, our consciousness tries to explain why we took the action after the fact, with varying degrees of success. This means that even the choices we do appear to make intentionally are at least somewhat influenced by unconscious patterns.

Given this, what you do every day is best seen as an iceberg, with a small fraction of conscious decision sitting atop a much larger foundation of habits and behaviors.

We can’t, however, simply will ourselves into better habits. Since willpower is a limited resource, whenever we’ve overexerted our self-discipline in one domain, a concept known as “ego depletion” kicks in and renders us mindless automata in another. Instead, Young suggests, the key to changing a habit is to invest heavily in the early stages of habit-formation so that the behavior becomes automated and we later default into it rather than exhausting our willpower wrestling with it. Young also cautions that it’s a self-defeating strategy to try changing several habits at once. Rather, he advises, spend one month on each habit alone before moving on to the next — a method reminiscent of the cognitive strategy of “chunking” that allows our brains to commit more new information to memory.

As both a lover of notable diaries and the daily keeper of a very unnotable one, I was especially delighted to find an entire section dedicated to how a diary boosts your creativity — something Virginia Woolf famously championed, later echoed by Anaïs Nin’s case for the diary as a vital sandbox for writing and Joan Didion’s conviction that keeping a notebook gives you better access to yourself.

Though the chapter, penned by Steven Kramer and Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, co-authors of The Progress Principle, along with 13-year IDEO veteran Ela Ben-Ur, frames the primary benefit of a diary as a purely pragmatic record of your workday productivity and progress — while most dedicated diarists would counter that the core benefits are spiritual and psychoemotional — it does offer some valuable insight into the psychology of how journaling elevates our experience of everyday life:

This is one of the most important reasons to keep a diary: it can make you more aware of your own progress, thus becoming a wellspring of joy in your workday.

Citing their research into the journals of more than two hundred creative professionals, the authors point to a pattern that reveals the single most important motivator: palpable progress on meaningful work:

On the days when these professionals saw themselves moving forward on something they cared about — even if the progress was a seemingly incremental “small win” — they were more likely to be happy and deeply engaged in their work. And, being happier and more deeply engaged, they were more likely to come up with new ideas and solve problems creatively.

Even more importantly, however, they argue that a diary offers an invaluable feedback loop:

Although the act of reflecting and writing, in itself, can be beneficial, you’ll multiply the power of your diary if you review it regularly — if you listen to what your life has been telling you. Periodically, maybe once a month, set aside time to get comfortable and read back through your entries. And, on New Year’s Day, make an annual ritual of reading through the previous year.

This, they suggest, can yield profound insights into the inner workings of your own mind — especially if you look for specific clues and patterns, trying to identify the richest sources of meaning in your work and the types of projects that truly make your heart sing. Once you understand what motivates you most powerfully, you’ll be able to prioritize this type of work in going forward. Just as important, however, is cultivating a gratitude practice and acknowledging your own accomplishments in the diary:

This is your life; savor it. Hold on to the threads across days that, when woven together, reveal the rich tapestry of what you are achieving and who you are becoming. The best part is that, seeing the story line appearing, you can actively create what it — and you — will become.

The lack of a straight story line, however, might also be a good thing. That’s what Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance and creator of the wonderful Good Life Project, explores in another chapter:

Every creative endeavor, from writing a book to designing a brand to launching a company, follows what’s known as an Uncertainty Curve. The beginning of a project is defined by maximum freedom, very little constraint, and high levels of uncertainty. Everything is possible; options, paths, ideas, variations, and directions are all on the table. At the same time, nobody knows exactly what the final output or outcome will be. And, at times, even whether it will be. Which is exactly the way it should be.

Echoing John Keats’s assertion that “negative capability” is essential to the creative process Rilke’s counsel to live the questions, Richard Feynman’s assertion that the role of great scientists is to remain uncertain, and Anaïs Nin’s insistence that inviting the unknown helps us live more richly, Fields reminds us of what Orson Welles so memorably termed “the gift of ignorance”:

Those who are doggedly attached to the idea they began with may well execute on that idea. And do it well and fast. But along the way, they often miss so many unanticipated possibilities, options, alternatives, and paths that would’ve taken them away from that linear focus on executing on the vision, and sent them back into a place of creative dissidence and uncertainty, but also very likely yielded something orders of magnitude better.

All creators need to be able to live in the shade of the big questions long enough for truly revolutionary ideas and insights to emerge. They need to stay and act in that place relentlessly through the first, most obvious wave of ideas.

Fields argues that if we move along the Uncertainty Curve either too fast or too slowly, we risk either robbing the project of its creative potential and ending up in mediocrity. Instead, becoming mindful of the psychology of that process allows us to pace ourselves better and master that vital osmosis between freedom and constraint. He sums up both the promise and the peril of this delicate dance beautifully:

Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done.

Originally featured in October — read more here, then sample more of this invaluable compendium with this short read on the psychology of getting unstuck.

6. MAKE ART MAKE MONEY

“Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it,” Hugh MacLeod proclaimed in Ignore Everybody, echoing a prevalent cultural sentiment. And yet there’s something terribly disheartening and defeatist in the assumption that we’ve created a society in which it’s impossible to both make good art and not worry about money — an assumption that tells us art is necessarily bad if commercially successful, and commercial success necessarily unattainable if the art is any good. But in Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career, writer Elizabeth Hyde Stevens sets out to debunk this toxic myth through the life and legacy of the beloved Muppeteer.

The story begins with a skit titled “Business, Business,” which Henson performed on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968. It tells the story of two conflicting sets of creatures — the slot-machine-eyed, cash-register-voiced corporate heads who talk in business-ese, and the naïve, light-bulb-headed softies who talk of love, joy, and beauty:

Stevens writes:

“Business, Business” implies that business and idealism are diametrically opposed. The idealist is attacked not just by the establishment, but also from within, where greed starts to change one’s motives.

For the most part, money is the enemy of art. … Put simply, great art wants quality, whereas good business wants profit. Quality requires many man-hours to produce, which any accountant will tell you cuts significantly into your profit. Great artists fight for such expenditures, whereas successful businessmen fight against them.

And yet, like most dogmatic dichotomies — take, for instance, science and spirituality — this, too, is invariably reductionistic. Henson’s life and legacy, Stevens argues, is proof that art and business can be — and inherently are — complementary rather than contradictory. Produced only six months after the Summer of Love, “Business, Business” straddled a profound cultural shift as a new generation of “light-bulb idealists” — baby boomers, flower children, and hippies who lived in youth collectives, listened to rock, and championed free love — rejected the material ideals of their parents and embraced the philosophy of Alan Watts. And yet Henson himself was an odd hybrid of these two worlds. When he made “Business, Business,” he was thirty-one, which placed him squarely between the boomers and their parents, and lived in New York City with his wife, living comfortably after having made hundreds of television commercials for everything from lunch meats to computers. In his heart, however, Henson, a self-described Mississippi Tom Sawyer who often went barefoot, was an artist — and he was ready to defend this conviction with the choices he made.

Stevens writes:

Henson was already a capitalist when he made “Business, Business.” And we could even conclude that the skit describes his own conversion from idealism to capitalism. In 1968, he had an agent who got him TV appearances on Ed Sullivan and freelance commercial gigs hawking products as unhippielike as IBM computers and Getty oil.

Yet Jim Henson’s business wasn’t oil — it was art. While today, most artists are too timid to admit it, Henson freely referred to himself as an “artist,” and his agent went even further, calling him “artsy-craftsy.” Henson may have worked in show business, but he’d also traveled in Europe as a young man, sketching pictures of its architecture. He owned a business, but his business rested on the ideas the idealists were shouting—brotherhood, joy, and love. He wore a beard. Biographers would say it was to cover acne scars, but in the context of the late sixties, it aligns Henson with a category of people that is unmistakable. Though a capitalist, he was also a staunch artist.

“It seems to be difficult for any one to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote in her diaries. And yet what Henson’s case tells us, Stevens suggests in returning to “Business, Business,” is that the very notion of “selling out” is one big non-truth that pits two parallel possibilities against each other:

If art and money are at odds, which side was Jim Henson really on? If you watch the skit, the clue is in the characters’ voices. Of the Slinky-necked business-heads and idealist-heads, Henson was really both and neither, because in “Business, Business,” he parodies both. Locked in conflict, they sound like blowhards and twerps, respectively, but they were both facets of his life. As an employer to two other men, Henson was the boss man — the suit, cash register, and slot machine — who wrote the checks. But he also got together with his friends to sing, laugh, and play with puppets in the kind of collectivism that hippies celebrated.

Jim’s sketches of Rowlf from ‘Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal.’ Click image for more.

This cultural ambivalence — which dates at least as far back as Tchaikovsky’s concerns over creative integrity vs. commissioned work and which was famously, beautifully articulated by Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson in his 1990 Kenyon College commencement address — is arguably exacerbated today. Stevens laments:

Today — especially with Generation X and Millennials — serious artists often refuse contact with business. Large numbers of liberal arts graduates bristle when presented with the corporate world, rejecting its values to protect their ideals. Devoted artists move home to a parent’s basement to complete their masterpieces, while the more pragmatic artists live in cloistered “Neverland” artist collectives, grant-funded arts colonies, and university faculty lounges.

Stevens, however, sees in Henson’s story hope for healing this “split personality” by learning to embrace our inner contradictions, which are core to what it means to be human. Stevens writes:

What is a human being? Complex to the point of absurdity, a whole person is both greedy and generous. It is foolish to think we can’t be both artists and entrepreneurs, especially when Henson was so wildly successful in both categories.

Since he was in college, Jim Henson was a natural capitalist. He owned a printmaking business and made commercials for lunchmeats. In the 1970s, he became a merchandizing millionaire and made Hollywood movies. By 1987, he had shows on all three major networks plus HBO and PBS. … Of course, Henson was not just another Trump. Believe the beard.

[…]

When Henson joined on to the experimental PBS show Sesame Street in 1968, he was underpaid for his services creating Big Bird and Oscar. Yet he spent his free nights in his basement, shooting stop-motion films that taught kids to count. If you watch these counting films, the spirit of Henson’s gift shines through. I think any struggling artist today could count Henson among their ilk. He had all the makings of a tragic starving artist. The only difference between him and us is that he made peace with money. He found a way to make art and money dance.

Jim’s sketches of Kermit and Miss Piggy on bicycles at Battersea Park from ‘Imagination Illustrated: The Jim Henson Journal.’ Click image for more.

The key, of course, is to master this dance with equal parts determination and grace. Riffing off Lewis Hyde’s famous meditation on gift economies in The Gift, where he argues that the artist must first cultivate a protected gift-sphere for making pure art and then make contact with the market, Stevens offers a blueprint:

The dance involves art and money, but not at the same time. In the first stage, it is paramount that the artist “reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the art is created.” He keeps money out of it. But in the next two phases, they can dance. The way I see it, Hyde’s dance steps go a little something like this:

  1. Make art.
  2. Make art make money.
  3. Make money make art.

It is the last step that turns this dance into a waltz — something cyclical so that the money is not the real end. Truly, for Jim Henson, money was a fuel that fed art.

Originally featured in September — read more here.

7. 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.

In a lengthy letter to literary critic Mario Motta dated January 16, 1950, Calvino addresses the alleged death of the novel, a death toll still nervously resounding today:

There have been so many debates on the novel in the last thirty years, both by those who claimed it was dead and by those who wanted it to be alive in a certain way, that if one conducts the debate without serious preliminary work to establish the terms of the question as it has to be set up and as it has never been set up before, we’ll end up saying and making others say a lot of commonplaces.

Calvino echoes Herbert Spencer’s admonition that “to have a specific style is to be poor in speech” in a March 1950 letter to Elsa Morante, one of the most influential postwar novelists, whom he had befriended:

The fact is that I already feel I am a prisoner of a kind of style and it is essential that I escape from it at all costs: I’m now trying to write a totally different book, but it’s damned difficult; I’m trying to break up the rhythms, the echoes which I feel the sentences I write eventually slide into, as into pre-existing molds, I try to see facts and things and people in the round instead of being drawn in colors that have no shading. For that reason the book I’m going to write interests me infinitely more than the other one.

As dangerous as the blind adhesion to a style, Calvino writes in a May 1959 letter, is the blind reliance on tools, the cult of medium over message — but harnessing the power of tools is one of the craft’s greatest arts:

One should never have taboos about the tools we use, that as long as the thought or images or style one wants to put forward do not become deformed by the medium, one must on the contrary try to make use of the most powerful and most efficient of those tools.

Several years later, Calvino returns to his conception of fiction, this time with more dimension and more sensitivity to the inherent contradictions of literature:

One cannot construct in fiction a harmonious language to express something that is not yet harmonious. We live in a cultural ambience where many different languages and levels of knowledge intersect and contradict each other.

Sample the altogether fantastic volume with Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, his poetic resume, and his thoughts on America.

8. MAKE GOOD ART

Commencement season is upon us and, after Greil Marcus’s soul-stirring speech on the essence of art at the 2013 School of Visual Arts graduation ceremony, here comes an exceptional adaptation of one of the best commencement addresses ever delivered: In May of 2012, beloved author Neil Gaiman stood up in front of the graduating class at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and dispensed some timeless advice on the creative life; now, his talk comes to life as a slim but potent book titled Make Good Art (public library).

Best of all, it’s designed by none other than the inimitable Chip Kidd, who has spent the past fifteen years shaping the voice of contemporary cover design with his prolific and consistently stellar output, ranging from bestsellers like cartoonist Chris Ware’s sublime Building Stories and neurologist Oliver Sacks’s The Mind’s Eye to lesser-known gems like The Paris Review‘s Women Writers at Work and The Letter Q, that wonderful anthology of queer writers’ letters to their younger selves. (Fittingly, Kidd also designed the book adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2006 commencement address.)

When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.

A wise woman once said, “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” Gaiman articulates the same sentiment with his own brand of exquisite eloquence:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Originally featured in May — read the full article here, along with a video of Gaiman’s original commencement address.

BP

The Best Photography Books of 2013

From Mongolia to Mars, by way of mesmerizing mines and Manhattan’s characters.

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless meditation on photography nearly three decades before the age of Instagram and the selfie. Indeed, the photographic image has not only retained by amplified its power to move, to mesmerize, to usurp power. On the heels of the year’s best books in psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, science and technology, “children’s” (though we all know what that means), and pets and animals, here are 2013’s most exquisite books on photography.

1. THIS IS MARS

“Whether or not there is life on Mars now, there WILL be by the end of this century,” Arthur C. Clarke predicted in 1971 while contemplating humanity’s quest to conquer the Red Planet. “Whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you,” Carl Sagan said a quarter century later in his bittersweet message to future Mars explorers shortly before his death. Sagan, of course, has always been with us — especially as we fulfill, at least partially, Clarke’s prophecy: On March 10, 2006, we put a proxy of human life on, or at least very near, Mars — NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, with its powerful HiRISE telescope, arrived in the Red Planet’s orbit and began mapping its surface in unprecedented detail.

This Is Mars (public library) — a lavish visual atlas by French photographer, graphic designer and editor Xavier Barral, featuring 150 glorious ultra-high-resolution black-and-white images culled from the 30,000 photographs taken by NASA’s MRO, alongside essays by HiRISE telescope principal researcher Alfred S. McEwen, astrophysicist Francis Rocard, and geophysicist Nicolas Mangold — offers an unparalleled glimpse of those mesmerizing visions of otherworldly landscapes beamed back by the MRO in all their romantic granularity, making the ever-enthralling Red Planet feel at once more palpable and more mysterious than ever. At the intersection of art and science, these mesmerizing images belong somewhere between Berenice Abbot’s vintage science photography, the most enchanting aerial photography of Earth, and the NASA Art Project.

In a sentiment of beautiful symmetry to Eudora Welty’s meditation on place and fiction, Barral considers how these images simultaneously anchor us to a physical place and invite us into an ever-unfolding fantasy:

At the end of this voyage, I have gathered here the most endemic landscapes. They send us back to Earth, to the genesis of geological forms, and, at the same time, they upend our reference points: dunes that are made of black sand, ice that sublimates. These places and reliefs can be read as a series of hieroglyphs that take us back to our origins.

Originally featured in October.

2. HUMANS OF NEW YORK

The ever-evolving portrait of New York City has been painted through Gotham’s cats and its dogs, its buildings and its parks, its diaries and its letters. Underpinning all of those, of course, are the city’s true building blocks: its humans.

In the summer of 2010, Brandon Stanton — one of the warmest, most talented and most generous humans I know — lost his job as a bond trader in Chicago and was forced to make new light of his life. Having recently gotten his first camera and fallen in love with photography, he decided to follow that fertile combination of necessity and passion, and, to his parents’ terror and dismay, set out to pursue photography as a hobby-turned-vocation. (For his mother, who saw bond trading as a reputable occupation, photography “seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to avoid employment.”) Brandon recalls:

I had enjoyed my time as a trader. The job was challenging and stimulating. And I’d obsessed over markets in the same way I’d later obsess over photography. But the end goal of trading was always money. Two years of my life were spent obsessing over money, and in the end I had nothing to show for it. I wanted to spend the next phase of my life doing work that I valued as much as the reward.

In photography, he found that rewarding obsession. Approaching it with the priceless freshness of Beginner’s Mind, he brought to his new calling the gift of ignorance and an art of seeing untainted by the arrogance of expertise, hungry to make sense of the world through his lens as he made sense of his own life. And make he did: Brandon, who quickly realized that “the best way to become a photographer was to start photographing,” set out on a photo tour across several major American cities, beginning in Pittsburgh and ending up in New York City, where he had only planned to spend a week but where he found both his new home and his new calling.

And so, in a beautiful embodiment of how to find your purpose and do what you love, Brandon’s now-legendary online project documenting Gotham’s living fabric was born — at first a humble Facebook page, which blossomed into one of today’s most popular photojournalism blogs with millions of monthly readers. Now, his photographic census of the world’s most vibrant city spills into the eponymous offline masterpiece Humans of New York (public library) — a magnificent mosaic of lives constructed through four hundred of Brandon’s expressive and captivating photos, many never before featured online.

These portraits — poignant, poetic, playful, heartbreaking, heartening — dance across the entire spectrum of the human condition not with the mockingly complacent lens of a freak-show gawker but with the affectionate admiration and profound respect that one human holds for another.

In the age of the aesthetic consumerism of visual culture online, HONY stands as a warm beacon of humanity, gently reminding us that every image is not a disposable artifact to be used as social currency but a heart that beat in the blink of the shutter, one that will continue to beat with its private turbulence of daily triumphs and tribulations even as we move away from the screen or the page to resume our own lives.

The captions, some based on Brandon’s interviews with the subjects and others an unfiltered record of his own observations, add a layer of thought to the visual story: One photograph, depicting two elderly gentlemen intimately leaning into each other on a park bench, reads: “It takes a lot of disquiet to achieve this sort of quiet comfort.” Another, portraying a very old gentleman in a wheelchair with matching yellow sneakers, shorts, and baseball cap, surprises us by revealing that this is Banana George, world record-holder as the oldest barefoot water-skier.

Some are full of humor:

Damn liberal arts degree.

Others are hopelessly charming:

When I walked by, she was really moving to the music — hands up, head nodding, shoulders swinging. I really wanted to take her photo, so I walked up to the nearest adult and asked: “Does she belong to you?”

Suddenly the music stopped, and I heard: “I belong to myself!”

Others still are humbling and soul-stirring:

My wife passed away a few years back. Her name was Barbara, I used to call her Ba. My name was Lawrence, she used to call me La. When she died, I changed my name to Bala.

I stepped inside an Upper West Side nursing home, and met this man in the lobby. He was on his way to deliver a yellow teddy bear to his wife. “I visit her every day,” he said. “Even when the mind is gone, the heart shows through.”

Then there are the city’s favorite tropes: Its dogs

…and its bikes…

I’m ninety years old and I ride this thing around everywhere. I don’t see why more people don’t use them. I carry my cane in the basket, I get all my shopping done. I can go everywhere. I’ve never hit anyone and never been hit. Of course, I ride on the sidewalk, which I don’t think I’m supposed to do, but still…

…and the deuce delight of dogs on bikes:

Above all, however, there is something especially magical about framing these moments of stillness and of absolute attention to the individual amidst this bustling city of millions, a city that never sleeps and never stops.

Whatever your geographic givens, Humans of New York is an absolute masterpiece of cultural celebration, both as vibrant visual anthropology and as a meta-testament, by way of Brandon’s own story, to the heartening notion that this is indeed a glorious age in which we can make our own luck and make a living doing what we love.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

3. BLACK MAPS

For nearly three decades, photographer and visual artist David Maisel — whose gloriously haunting Library of Dust project you might recall from a few years back — has been transforming landscape photography with his stunning aerial images exploring the relationship between Earth and humanity. Now, the best of them are collected in the magnificent monograph Black Maps: American Landscape and the Apocalyptic Sublime (public library) — a lavish large-format tome featuring more than 100 of Maisel’s surreally entrancing portraits of our worldly reality, at once beautiful and tragic. From cyanide-leaching ponds to open-pit mines to the sprawl of urbanization, Maisel’s mesmerizing photographs — which, without context, could be mistaken as much for abstract impressionism as they could for cellular microscopy — capture fragments of the landscape that “correspond to the structure of human thought and feeling.”

From ‘The Mining Project’ © David Maisel
From ‘The Mining Project’ © David Maisel
From ‘The Mining Project’ © David Maisel
From ‘The Mining Project’ © David Maisel
From ‘Oblivion’ © David Maisel
From ‘Terminal Mirage’ © David Maisel
From ‘Terminal Mirage’ © David Maisel
From ‘Terminal Mirage’ © David Maisel
4. DOROTHEA LANGE

At the same time that pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott was busy capturing the urban fabric and trailblazing anthropologist Margaret Mead was laying the groundwork for modern anthropology, Dorothea Lange mastered the intersection of the two in her influential Depression-era photojournalism and documentary photography. In Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning (public library), Lange’s goddaughter Elizabeth Partridge, an accomplished and prolific author in her own right, presents a first-of-its-kind career-spanning monograph of the legendary photographer’s work, placing her most famous and enduring photographs in a biographical context that adds new dimension to these iconic images.

Among the biographical sketches is also the story of Lange’s best-known, infinitely expressive, most iconic photograph of all — Migrant Mother, depicting an agricultural worker named Florence Owens Thompson with her children — which came to capture the harrowing realities of the Great Depression not merely as an economic phenomenon but as a human tragedy.

Migrant Mother, 1936

In 1935, Lange and her second husband, the Berkeley economics professor and self-taught photographer Paul Taylor, were transferred to the Resettlement Administration (RA), one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs designed to help the country recover from the depression. Lange began working as a Field Investigator and Photographer under Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division.

Resettlement Administration Report, ‘Rural Rehabilitation Camps for Migrants’ by Paul Taylor and Dorothea Lange. Lange had absorbed Taylor’s working habits, particularly the practice of listening attentively to the migrant workers and taking handwritten notes on what they said. (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

In early February of 1936, while living in a small two-bedroom house in California with Taylor and her two step-children, Lange received an assignment to photograph California’s rural and urban slums and farmworkers. She was supposed to spend a month on the road, but severe weather along the coast delayed her departure. When she finally set out for Los Angeles, the first destination on her route, she wrote in a letter to Stryker:

Tried to work in the pea camps in heavy rain from the back of the station wagon. I doubt that I got anything. . . . Made other mistakes too. . . . I make the most mistakes on subject matter that I get excited about and enthusiastic. In other words, the worse the work, the richer the material was.

Accompanying this photograph was Lange’s handwritten caption: ‘Old Negro — the kind the planters like. He hoes, picks cotton, and is full of good humor.’ Aldridge Plantation, Mississippi, 1937 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

It was in the pea camps that she captured her most iconic image less than two weeks later — an image that, due to its unshakable grip of empathy, would transcend the status of mere visual icon and effect critical cultural awareness on both a social and political level. Partridge writes:

Two weeks of sleet and steady rain had caused a rust blight, destroying the pea crop. There was no work, no money to buy food. Dorothea approached “the hungry and desperate mother,” huddled under a torn canvas tent with her children. The family had been living on frozen vegetables they’d gleaned from the fields and birds the children killed. Working quickly, Dorothea made just a few exposures, climbed back in her car, and drove home.

Dorothea knew the starving pea pickers couldn’t wait for someone in Washington, DC to act. They needed help immediately. She developed the negatives of the stranded family, and rushed several photographs to the San Francisco News. Two of her images accompanied an article on March 10th as the federal government rushed twenty thousand pounds of food to the migrants.

Another shot of Florence Owens Thompson. Lange’s caption from her notebook: ‘Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven children without food. Mother aged thirty-two. Father is a native Californian.’ Nipomo, California, 1936 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

The most remarkable part of the story, however, is that this was an image Lange almost didn’t take: At the end of that cold and wretched winter, she had been on the road for almost a month, with only the insufficient protection of her camera lens between her and the desperate, soul-stirringly dejected living and working conditions of California’s migratory farm workers. Downhearted and weary, both physically and psychologically, she decided she had seen and captured enough, packed up her clunky camera equipment, and headed north on Highway 101, bickering with herself in her notebook: “Haven’t you plenty of negatives already on the subject? Isn’t this just one more of the same?” But then something happened — a fleeting glance, one of those pivotal chance encounters that shape lives. Partridge transports us to that fateful March day:

The cold, wet conditions of Northern California gave way to sweltering heat in Los Angeles, a “vile town,” Dorothea wrote. By the beginning of March she was headed home, exhausted, her camera bags packed on the front seat beside her.

Hours later, the hand-lettered “Pea pickers camp” sign flashed by her. Did she have it in her to try one more time?

She did.

The long, hard rains that had delayed Dorothea at the outset of her journey had deluged the Nipomo pea pickers. And even as Dorothea drove north and homeward, the camp was still floundering in water and mud. Not long before Dorothea arrived, Florence Thompson and four of her six children, along with some of the other stranded migrants, had moved to a higher, sandy location nearby. Thompson left word at the first camp for her partner, Jim Hill, on where to find them. Earlier in the day he’d set off walking with Thompson’s two sons to find parts for their broken-down car.

The sandy camp in front of a windbreak of eucalyptus trees is where Dorothea pulled in and found Florence Thompson and her children. They were waiting for Hill and the boys to show up, for the ground to dry, for crops to ripen for harvesting. They were waiting for their luck to change.

In minutes, Dorothea took the photograph that would become the definitive icon of the Great Depression, intuitively conveying the migrants’ perilous predicament in the frame of her camera.

Dorothea Lange’s studio and darkroom, Berkeley, California (Photograph: Rondal Partridge, c. 1957 / Helen Dixon Collection)

Originally featured in November.

5. BEFORE THEY PASS AWAY

In the late 1990s, photographer Jimmy Nelson became fascinated by Earth’s last living indigenous tribes. It took him a decade to begin documenting their fascinating lives, but once he did, what came out of his 4×5 camera was nothing short of mesmerizing — a glimpse of what feels like a parallel universe, or rather parallel multiverses, to our Western eyes, yet one full of our immutable shared humanity. The magnificent results are now gathered in Before They Pass Away (public library) — a lavish large-format tome featuring 500 of Nelson’s striking photographs, standing somewhere between Jeroen Toirkens’s visual catalog of Earth’s last nomads and Rachel Sussman’s photographic record of the oldest living things in the world.

The journey took Nelson all over the world, from the deserts of Africa to the steppes of Siberia. He writes:

I wanted to create an ambitious aesthetic photographic document that would stand the test of time. A body of work that would be an irreplaceable ethnographic record of a fast disappearing world.

The semi-nomadic Kazakhs, descendent from the Huns, have been herding in the valleys of Mongolia since the 19th century and take great pride in their ancient art of eagle-hunting.

The Huli of Papua New Guinea migrated to the island about 45,000 years ago. Today, the remaining tribes often fight with one another for resources — land, livestock, women. To intimidate the enemy, the largest tribe, the Huli wigmen, continue the ancient tradition of painting their faces in yellow, red and white and making elaborate wigs of their own hair.

Though the Gauchos of South America might appear more “modern” than other indigenous tribes, these free-spirited nomadic horsemen have remained a self-contained culture since they first started roaming the prairies in the 1700s.

A distinct ethnic group and even more distinct cultural collective, Tibetans, descendent from aboriginal and nomadic Qiang tribes, are known for their prayer flags, sky burials, spirit traps, and festival devil dances, which encapsulate their history and beliefs.

The Maasai endure as one of the oldest and greatest warrior cultures. As they migrated from the Sudan in the 15th century, they took possession of the local tribes’ cattle and conquered much of the Rift Valley. To this day, they depend on the natural cycles of rainfall and drought for their cattle, which remain their core source of sustenance.

The reindeer-herding Nenets of northern Arctic Russia have thrived for over a millennium at temperatures ranging from 58ºF below zero in the winter to 95ºF in the summer, migrating across more than 620 miles per year, 30 of which consist in the grueling crossing of the frozen Ob River.

Originally featured in November — see more here, including Nelson’s entertaining and moving TEDxAmsterdam talk.

6. FACES OF JUSTICE

On the heels of Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear comes Justice: Faces of the Human Rights Revolution (public library) by New-York-based photographer Mariana Cook — who gave us this heart-warming portrait of Maurice Sendak and his dog Herman, a fine addition to history’s beloved literary pets. The humanist upgrade to Platon’s Power, Cook’s magnificent black-and-white portraits, poetic and dignified, capture 99 beloved luminaries ranging from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who spearheaded the opposition to apartheid, to President Jimmy Carter to Sir Sydney Kentridge, who served as the lead lawyer in the 1962 trial of Nelson Mandela, to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who helped champion this week’s historic win for marriage equality.

Cook frames the project in her preface:

How do people come to feel so passionately about fairness and freedom that they will risk their livelihoods, even their lives, to pursue justice? A few years ago, I became fascinated by such people—people for whom the “rule of law” is no mere abstraction, for whom human rights is a fiercely urgent concern. I wanted to give a face to social justice by making portraits of human rights pioneers. I am a photographer. I understand by seeing. Peering through the camera lens, I hoped to gain an understanding of how they become so devoted to the rights and dignity of others.

Ludmilla Alexeeva
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Desmond Tutu
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Aung San Suu Kyi
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Raja Shehadeh
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Hina Jilani
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Takna Sangpo
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Photograph: Mariana Cook
Nicholas Kristof
Photograph: Mariana Cook

Accompanying each portrait is a micro-essay exploring the life, legacy, and singular spirit of its subject.

Originally featured in June.

7. VIVIAN MAIER: SELF-PORTRAITS

In 2007, 26-year-old amateur historian and collector John Maloof wandered into the auction house across from his home and won, for $380, a box of 30,000 extraordinary negatives by an unknown artist whose street photographs of mid-century Chicago and New York rivaled those of Berenice Abbott and predated modern fixtures like Humans of New York by decades. They turned out to be the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who made a living by raising wealthy suburbanites’ children and made her life by capturing the world around her in exquisite detail and striking composition. Mesmerized, Maloof began tracking down more of Maier’s work and amassed more than 100,000 negatives, thousands of prints, 700 rolls of undeveloped color film, home movies, audio interviews, and even her original cameras. Only after Maier’s death in 2009 did her remarkable work gain international acclaim — exhibitions were staged all over the world, magnificent monograph of her photographs published, and a documentary made.

But it wasn’t until 2013 that the most intimate and revealing of her photographs were at last released in Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits (public library) — a collection befitting the year of the “selfie” and helping to officially declare this the season of the creative self-portrait.

Maloof writes in the foreword:

As secretive as Vivian Maier was in life, in death her mystery has only deepened. Without the creator to reveal her motives and her craft, we are left to piece together the life and intent of an artist based on scraps of evidence, with no way to gain definitive answers.

There is, however, something fundamentally unsettling with this proposition — after all, a human being is a constantly evolving open question rather than a definitive answer, a fluid self only trapped by the labels applied from without. And so even though Maloof argues that the book answers “the nagging question of who Vivian Maier really was” by revealing her true self through her self-portraits, what it really does — and what its greatest, most enchanting gift is — is take us along as silent companions on a complex woman’s journey of self-knowledge and creative exploration, a journey without a definitive destination but one that is its own reward.

It’s also, however, hopelessly human to try to interpret others and assign them into categories based on the “scraps of evidence” they bequeath. I was certainly not immune to this tendency, as I began to suspect Maier was a queer woman who found in her art a vehicle for connection, for belonging, for feeling at once a part of the society she documented and an onlooker forever separated by her lens. Because we know so little about Maier’s life, this remains nothing more than intuitive speculation — but one I find increasingly hard to dismiss as her self-portraits peel off another layer of guarded intimacy.

The beauty and magnetism of Vivian Maier: Self-Portraits is that it leaves you with your own interpretations, not with definitive answers but with crystalline awareness of Maier’s elusive selfhood.

Originally featured in November.

* * *

Catch up on all the year’s best-of reading lists here.

BP

The 13 Best Science and Technology Books of 2013

The wonders of the gut, why our brains are wired to be social, what poetry and math have in common, swarm intelligence vs. “God,” and more.

On the heels of the year’s best reads in psychology and philosophy, art and design, history and biography, and children’s books, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continues with the finest science and technology books of 2013. (For more timeless stimulation, revisit the selections for 2012 and 2011.)

1. THIS EXPLAINS EVERYTHING

Every year since 1998, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman has been posing a single grand question to some of our time’s greatest thinkers across a wide spectrum of disciplines, then collecting the answers in an annual anthology. Last year’s answers to the question “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” were released in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.

In 2012, the question Brockman posed, proposed by none other than Steven Pinker, was “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?” The answers, representing an eclectic mix of 192 (alas, overwhelmingly male) minds spanning psychology, quantum physics, social science, political theory, philosophy, and more, are collected in the edited compendium This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works (UK; public library) and are also available online.

In the introduction preceding the micro-essays, Brockman frames the question and its ultimate objective, adding to history’s most timeless definitions of science:

The ideas presented on Edge are speculative; they represent the frontiers in such areas as evolutionary biology, genetics, computer science, neurophysiology, psychology, cosmology, and physics. Emerging out of these contributions is a new natural philosophy, new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions.

[…]

Perhaps the greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way. These explanations are called ‘beautiful’ or ‘elegant.’

[…]

The contributions presented here embrace scientific thinking in the broadest sense: as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything — including such fields of inquiry as philosophy, mathematics, economics, history, language, and human behavior. The common thread is that a simple and nonobvious idea is proposed as the explanation of a diverse and complicated set of phenomena.

Puffer fish with Akule by photographer Wayne Levin. Click image for details.

Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, eloquent as ever, marvels at the wisdom of the crowd and the emergence of swarm intelligence:

Observe a single ant, and it doesn’t make much sense, walking in one direction, suddenly careening in another for no obvious reason, doubling back on itself. Thoroughly unpredictable.

The same happens with two ants, a handful of ants. But a colony of ants makes fantastic sense. Specialized jobs, efficient means of exploiting new food sources, complex underground nests with temperature regulated within a few degrees. And critically, there’s no blueprint or central source of command—each individual ants has algorithms for their behaviors. But this is not wisdom of the crowd, where a bunch of reasonably informed individuals outperform a single expert. The ants aren’t reasonably informed about the big picture. Instead, the behavior algorithms of each ant consist of a few simple rules for interacting with the local environment and local ants. And out of this emerges a highly efficient colony.

Ant colonies excel at generating trails that connect locations in the shortest possible way, accomplished with simple rules about when to lay down a pheromone trail and what to do when encountering someone else’s trail—approximations of optimal solutions to the Traveling Salesman problem. This has useful applications. In “ant-based routing,” simulations using virtual ants with similar rules can generate optimal ways of connecting the nodes in a network, something of great interest to telecommunications companies. It applies to the developing brain, which must wire up vast numbers of neurons with vaster numbers of connections without constructing millions of miles of connecting axons. And migrating fetal neurons generate an efficient solution with a different version of ant-based routine.

A wonderful example is how local rules about attraction and repulsion (i.e., positive and negative charges) allow simple molecules in an organic soup to occasionally form more complex ones. Life may have originated this way without the requirement of bolts of lightning to catalyze the formation of complex molecules.

And why is self-organization so beautiful to my atheistic self? Because if complex, adaptive systems don’t require a blue print, they don’t require a blue print maker. If they don’t require lightning bolts, they don’t require Someone hurtling lightning bolts.

Developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, who famously coined the seminal theory of multiple intelligences, echoes Anaïs Nin in advocating for the role of the individual and Susan Sontag in stressing the impact of individual acts on collective fate. His answer, arguing for the importance of human beings, comes as a welcome antidote to a question that suffers the danger of being inherently reductionist:

In a planet occupied now by seven billion inhabitants, I am amazed by the difference that one human being can make. Think of classical music without Mozart or Stravinsky; of painting without Caravaggio, Picasso or Pollock; of drama without Shakespeare or Beckett. Think of the incredible contributions of Michelangelo or Leonardo, or, in recent times, the outpouring of deep feeling at the death of Steve Jobs (or, for that matter, Michael Jackson or Princess Diana). Think of human values in the absence of Moses or Christ.

[…]

Despite the laudatory efforts of scientists to ferret out patterns in human behavior, I continue to be struck by the impact of single individuals, or of small groups, working against the odds. As scholars, we cannot and should not sweep these instances under the investigative rug. We should bear in mind anthropologist Margaret Mead’s famous injunction: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.’

Uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who also contributed to last year’s volume, considers the parallel role of patterns and chance in the works of iconic composer John Cage and painter Gerhard Richter, and the role of uncertainty in the creative process:

In art, the title of a work can often be its first explanation. And in this context I am thinking especially of the titles of Gerhard Richter. In 2006, when I visited Richter in his studio in Cologne, he had just finished a group of six corresponding abstract paintings which he gave the title Cage.

There are many relations between Richter’s painting and the compositions of John Cage. In a book about the Cage series, Robert Storr has traced them from Richter‘s attendance of a Cage performance at the Festum Fluxorum Fluxus in Düsseldorf 1963 to analogies in their artistic processes. Cage has often applied chance procedures in his compositions, notably with the use of the I Ching. Richter in his abstract paintings also intentionally allows effects of chance. In these paintings, he applies the oil paint on the canvas by means of a large squeegee. He selects the colors on the squeegee, but the factual trace that the paint leaves on the canvas is to a large extent the outcome of chance.

[…]

Richter‘s concise title, Cage, can be unfolded into an extensive interpretation of these abstract paintings (and of other works)—but, one can say, the short form already contains everything. The title, like an explanation of a phenomenon, unlocks the works, describing their relation to one of the most important cultural figures of the twentieth century, John Cage, who shares with Richter the great themes of chance and uncertainty.

Writer, artist, and designer Douglas Coupland, whose biography of Marshall McLuhan remains indispensable, offers a lyrical meditation on the peculiar odds behind coincidences and déja vus:

I take comfort in the fact that there are two human moments that seem to be doled out equally and democratically within the human condition—and that there is no satisfying ultimate explanation for either. One is coincidence, the other is déja vu. It doesn’t matter if you’re Queen Elizabeth, one of the thirty-three miners rescued in Chile, a South Korean housewife or a migrant herder in Zimbabwe—in the span of 365 days you will pretty much have two déja vus as well as one coincidence that makes you stop and say, “Wow, that was a coincidence.”

The thing about coincidence is that when you imagine the umpteen trillions of coincidences that can happen at any given moment, the fact is, that in practice, coincidences almost never do occur. Coincidences are actually so rare that when they do occur they are, in fact memorable. This suggests to me that the universe is designed to ward off coincidence whenever possible—the universe hates coincidence—I don’t know why—it just seems to be true. So when a coincidence happens, that coincidence had to work awfully hard to escape the system. There’s a message there. What is it? Look. Look harder. Mathematicians perhaps have a theorem for this, and if they do, it might, by default be a theorem for something larger than what they think it is.

What’s both eerie and interesting to me about déja vus is that they occur almost like metronomes throughout our lives, about one every six months, a poetic timekeeping device that, at the very least, reminds us we are alive. I can safely assume that my thirteen year old niece, Stephen Hawking and someone working in a Beijing luggage-making factory each experience two déja vus a year. Not one. Not three. Two.

The underlying biodynamics of déja vus is probably ascribable to some sort of tingling neurons in a certain part of the brain, yet this doesn’t tell us why they exist. They seem to me to be a signal from larger point of view that wants to remind us that our lives are distinct, that they have meaning, and that they occur throughout a span of time. We are important, and what makes us valuable to the universe is our sentience and our curse and blessing of perpetual self-awareness.

Originally featured in January — read more here.

2. YOU ARE STARDUST

“Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” Carl Sagan famously marveled in his poetic Pale Blue Dot monologue, titled after the iconic 1990 photograph of Earth. The stardust metaphor for our interconnection with the cosmos soon permeated popular culture and became a vehicle for the allure of space exploration. There’s something at once incredibly empowering and incredibly humbling in knowing that the flame in your fireplace came from the sun.

That’s precisely the kind of cosmic awe environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Toronto-based Korean artist Soyeon Kim seek to inspire in kids in You Are Stardust (public library) — an exquisite picture-book that instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world, and also among the best children’s books of the year. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today.

Kim’s breathtaking dioramas, to which this screen does absolutely no justice, mix tactile physical materials with fine drawing techniques and digital compositing to illuminate the relentlessly wondrous realities of our intertwined existence: The water in your sink once quenched the thirst of dinosaurs; with every sneeze, wind blasts out of your nose faster than a cheetah’s sprint; the electricity that powers every thought in your brain is stronger than lightning.

But rather than dry science trivia, the message is carried on the wings of poetic admiration for these intricate relationships:

Be still. Listen.

Like you, the Earth breathes.

Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers.

Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.

The book is nonetheless grounded in real science. Kelsey notes:

I wrote this book as a celebration — one to honor the extraordinary ways in which all of us simply are nature. Every example in this book is backed by current science. Every day, for instance, you breathe in more than a million pollen grains.

But what makes the project particularly exciting is that, in the face of the devastating gender gap in science education, here is a thoughtful, beautiful piece of early science education presented by two women, the most heartening such example since Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive.

A companion iPad app features sound effects, animation, an original score by Paul Aucoin, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Kim’s process in creating her stunning 3D dioramas, and even build-your-own-diorama adventures.

Originally featured in March — see more here.

3. ON LOOKING

“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timelessly beautiful meditation on presence over productivity, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And nowhere do we fail at the art of presence most miserably and most tragically than in urban life — in the city, high on the cult of productivity, where we float past each other, past the buildings and trees and the little boy in the purple pants, past life itself, cut off from the breathing of the world by iPhone earbuds and solipsism. And yet: “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates — and it can be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library), also among the best psychology and philosophy books of the year — a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages. In a way, it’s the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City — a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity — blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.

Horowitz begins by pointing our attention to the incompleteness of our experience of what we conveniently call “reality”:

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.

By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

This adaptive ignorance, she argues, is there for a reason — we celebrate it as “concentration” and welcome its way of easing our cognitive overload by allowing us to conserve our precious mental resources only for the stimuli of immediate and vital importance, and to dismiss or entirely miss all else. (“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator,” Horowitz tells us. “It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”) But while this might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also makes us inhabit a largely unlived — and unremembered — life, day in and day out.

For Horowitz, the awakening to this incredible, invisible backdrop of life came thanks to Pumpernickel, her “curly haired, sage mixed breed” (who also inspired Horowitz’s first book, the excellent Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), as she found herself taking countless walks around the block, becoming more and more aware of the dramatically different experiences she and her canine companion were having along the exact same route:

Minor clashes between my dog’s preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.

The book was her answer to the disconnect, an effort to “attend to that inattention.” It is not, she warns us, “about how to bring more focus to your reading of Tolstoy or how to listen more carefully to your spouse.” Rather, it is an invitation to the art of observation:

Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block — the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.

In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.

Her approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception — or what we call “expertise,” acquired by passion or training or both — in bringing attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker’s “special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street,” and her diverse companions take to the city.

First, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language. (“The walkers trod silently; the dogs said nothing. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners,” she beholds her own block; passing a pile of trash bags graced by a stray Q-tip, she ponders parenthetically, “how does a Q-tip escape?”; turning her final corner, she gazes at the entrance of a mansion and “its pair of stone lions waiting patiently for royalty that never arrives.” Stunning.)

But as soon as she joins her experts, Horowitz is faced with the grimacing awareness that despite her best, most Sherlockian efforts, she was “missing pretty much everything.” She arrives at a newfound, profound understanding of what William James meant when he wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”:

I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.

Originally featured in August, with a closer look at the expert insights. For another peek at this gem, which is easily among my top three favorite books of the past decade, learn how to do the step-and-slide.

4. WILD ONES

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by journalist Jon Mooallem isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing typical of many environmental activists but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for “negative capability.” Rather than ready-bake answers, he offers instead directions of thought and signposts for curiosity and, in the process, somehow gently moves us a little bit closer to our better selves, to a deep sense of, as poet Diane Ackerman beautifully put it in 1974, “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

In the introduction, Mooallem recalls looking at his four-year-old daughter Isla’s menagerie of stuffed animals and the odd cultural disconnect they mime:

[T]hey were foraging on the pages of every bedtime story, and my daughter was sleeping in polar bear pajamas under a butterfly mobile with a downy snow owl clutched to her chin. Her comb handle was a fish. Her toothbrush handle was a whale. She cut her first tooth on a rubber giraffe.

Our world is different, zoologically speaking — less straightforward and more grisly. We are living in the eye of a great storm of extinction, on a planet hemorrhaging living things so fast that half of its nine million species could be gone by the end of the century. At my place, the teddy bears and giggling penguins kept coming. But I didn’t realize the lengths to which humankind now has to go to keep some semblance of actual wildlife in the world. As our own species has taken over, we’ve tried to retain space for at least some of the others being pushed aside, shoring up their chances of survival. But the threats against them keep multiplying and escalating. Gradually, America’s management of its wild animals has evolved, or maybe devolved, into a surreal kind of performance art.

Yet even conservationists’ small successes — crocodile species bouncing back from the brink of extinction, peregrine falcons filling the skies once again — even these pride points demonstrate the degree to which we’ve assumed — usurped, even — a puppeteer role in the theater of organic life. Citing a scientist who lamented that “right now, nature is unable to stand on its own,” Mooallem writes:

We’ve entered what some scientists are calling the Anthropocene — a new geologic epoch in which human activity, more than any other force, steers change on the planet. Just as we’re now causing the vast majority of extinctions, the vast majority of endangered species will only survive if we keep actively rigging the world around them in their favor. … We are gardening the wilderness. The line between conservation and domestication has blurred.

He finds himself uncomfortably straddling these two animal worlds — the idyllic little-kid’s dreamland and the messy, fragile ecosystem of the real world:

Once I started looking around, I noticed the same kind of secondhand fauna that surrounds my daughter embellishing the grown-up world, too — not just the conspicuous bald eagle on flagpoles and currency, or the big-cat and raptor names we give sports teams and computer operating systems, but the whale inexplicably breaching in the life-insurance commercial, the glass dolphin dangling from a rearview mirror, the owl sitting on the rump of a wild boar silk-screened on a hipster’s tote bag. I spotted wolf after wolf airbrushed on the sides of old vans, and another wolf, painted against a full moon on purple velvet, greeting me over the toilet in a Mexican restaurant bathroom. … [But] maybe we never outgrow the imaginary animal kingdom of childhood. Maybe it’s the one we are trying to save.

[…]

From the very beginning, America’s wild animals have inhabited the terrain of our imagination just as much as they‘ve inhabited the actual land. They are free-roaming Rorschachs, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them. The wild animals always have no comment.

So he sets out to better understand the dynamics of the cultural forces that pull these worlds together with shared abstractions and rip them apart with the brutal realities of environmental collapse. His quest, in which little Isla is a frequent companion, sends him on the trails of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird — which fall on three different points on the spectrum of conservation reliance, relying to various degrees on the mercy of the very humans who first disrupted “the machinery of their wildness.” On the way, he encounters a remarkably vibrant cast of characters — countless passionate citizen scientists, a professional theater actor who, after an HIV diagnosis, became a professional butterfly enthusiast, and even Martha Stewart — and finds in their relationship with the environment “the same creeping disquiet about the future” that Mooallem himself came to know when he became a father. In fact, the entire project was inextricably linked to his sense of fatherly responsibility:

I’m part of a generation that seems especially resigned to watching things we encountered in childhood disappear: landline telephones, newspapers, fossil fuels. But leaving your kids a world without wild animals feels like a special tragedy, even if it’s hard to rationalize why it should.

The truth is that most of us will never experience the Earth’s endangered animals as anything more than beautiful ideas. They are figments of our shared imagination, recognizable from TV, but stalking places — places out there — to which we have no intention of going. I wondered how that imaginative connection to wildlife might fray or recalibrate as we’re forced to take more responsibility for its wildness.

It also occurred to me early on that all three endangered species I was getting to know could be gone by the time Isla is my age. It’s possible that, thirty years from now, they’ll have receded into the realm of dinosaurs, or the realm of Pokémon, for that matter — fantastical creatures whose names and diets little kids memorize from books. And it’s possible, too, I realized, that it might not even make a difference, that there would still be polar bears on footsy pajamas and sea turtle-shaped gummy vitamins — that there could be so much actual destruction without ever meaningfully upsetting the ecosystems in our minds.

Originally featured in May — read more here.

5. THINKING IN NUMBERS

Daniel Tammet was born with an unusual mind — he was diagnosed with high-functioning autistic savant syndrome, which meant his brain’s uniquely wired circuits made possible such extraordinary feats of computation and memory as learning Icelandic in a single week and reciting the number pi up to the 22,514th digit. He is also among the tiny fraction of people diagnosed with synesthesia — that curious crossing of the senses that causes one to “hear” colors, “smell” sounds, or perceive words and numbers in different hues, shapes, and textures. Synesthesia is incredibly rare — Vladimir Nabokov was among its few famous sufferers — which makes it overwhelmingly hard for the majority of us to imagine precisely what it’s like to experience the world through this sensory lens. Luckily, Tammet offers a fascinating first-hand account in Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math (public library) — a magnificent collection of 25 essays on “the math of life,” celebrating the magic of possibility in all its dimensions. In the process, he also invites us to appreciate the poetics of numbers, particularly of ordered sets — in other words, the very lists that dominate everything from our productivity tools to our creative inventories to the cheapened headlines flooding the internet.

Reflecting on his second book, Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind, and the overwhelming response from fascinated readers seeking to know what it’s really like to experience words and numbers as colors and textures — to experience the beauty that a poem and a prime number exert on a synesthete in equal measure — Tammet offers an absorbing simulation of the synesthetic mind:

Imagine.

Close your eyes and imagine a space without limits, or the infinitesimal events that can stir up a country’s revolution. Imagine how the perfect game of chess might start and end: a win for white, or black, or a draw? Imagine numbers so vast that they exceed every atom in the universe, counting with eleven or twelve fingers instead of ten, reading a single book in an infinite number of ways.

Such imagination belongs to everyone. It even possesses its own science: mathematics. Ricardo Nemirovsky and Francesca Ferrara, who specialize in the study of mathematical cognition, write that “like literary fiction, mathematical imagination entertains pure possibilities.” This is the distillation of what I take to be interesting and important about the way in which mathematics informs our imaginative life. Often we are barely aware of it, but the play between numerical concepts saturates the way we experience the world.

Sketches from synesthetic artist and musician Michal Levy’s animated visualization of John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps.’ Click image for details.

Tammet, above all, is enchanted by the mesmerism of the unknown, which lies at the heart of science and the heart of poetry:

The fact that we have never read an endless book, or counted to infinity (and beyond!) or made contact with an extraterrestrial civilization (all subjects of essays in the book) should not prevent us from wondering: what if? … Literature adds a further dimension to the exploration of those pure possibilities. As Nemirovsky and Ferrara suggest, there are numerous similarities in the patterns of thinking and creating shared by writers and mathematicians (two vocations often considered incomparable.)

In fact, this very link between mathematics and fiction, between numbers and storytelling, underpins much of Tammet’s exploration. Growing up as one of nine siblings, he recounts how the oppressive nature of existing as a small number in a large set spurred a profound appreciation of numbers as sensemaking mechanisms for life:

Effaced as individuals, my brothers, sisters, and I existed only in number. The quality of our quantity became something we could not escape. It preceded us everywhere: even in French, whose adjectives almost always follow the noun (but not when it comes to une grande famille). … From my family I learned that numbers belong to life. The majority of my math acumen came not from books but from regular observations and day-to-day interactions. Numerical patterns, I realized, were the matter of our world.

This awareness was the beginning of Tammet’s synesthetic sensibility:

Like colors, the commonest numbers give character, form, and dimension to our world. Of the most frequent — zero and one — we might say that they are like black and white, with the other primary colors — red, blue, and yellow — akin to two, three, and four. Nine, then, might be a sort of cobalt or indigo: in a painting it would contribute shading, rather than shape. We expect to come across samples of nine as we might samples of a color like indigo—only occasionally, and in small and subtle ways. Thus a family of nine children surprises as much as a man or woman with cobalt-colored hair.

Daniel Tammet. Portrait by Jerome Tabet.

Sampling from Jorge Luis Borges’s humorous fictional taxonomy of animals, inspired by the work of nineteenth-century German mathematician Georg Cantor, Tammet points to the deeper insight beneath our efforts to itemize and organize the universe — something Umberto Eco knew when he proclaimed that “the list is the origin of culture” and Susan Sontag intuited when she reflected on why lists appeal to us. Tammet writes:

Borges here also makes several thought-provoking points. First, though a set as familiar to our understanding as that of “animals” implies containment and comprehension, the sheer number of its possible subsets actually swells toward infinity. With their handful of generic labels (“mammal,” “reptile,” “amphibious,” etc.), standard taxonomies conceal this fact. To say, for example, that a flea is tiny, parasitic, and a champion jumper is only to begin to scratch the surface of all its various aspects.

Second, defining a set owes more to art than it does to science. Faced with the problem of a near endless number of potential categories, we are inclined to choose from a few — those most tried and tested within our particular culture. Western descriptions of the set of all elephants privilege subsets like “those that are very large,” and “those possessing tusks,” and even “those possessing an excellent memory,” while excluding other equally legitimate possibilities such as Borges’s “those that at a distance resemble flies,” or the Hindu “those that are considered lucky.”

[…]

Reading Borges invites me to consider the wealth of possible subsets into which my family “set” could be classified, far beyond those that simply point to multiplicity.

Tammet circles back to the shared gifts of literature and mathematics, which both help cultivate our capacity for compassion:

Like works of literature, mathematical ideas help expand our circle of empathy, liberating us from the tyranny of a single, parochial point of view. Numbers, properly considered, make us better people.

Originally featured in August — read more here.

6. SMARTER THAN YOU THINK

“The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1946, decades before the internet as we know it even existed. Her fear has since been echoed again and again with every incremental advance in technology, often with simplistic arguments about the attrition of attention in the age of digital distraction. But in Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (public library), Clive Thompson — one of the finest technology writers I know, with regular bylines for Wired and The New York Times — makes a powerful and rigorously thought out counterpoint. He argues that our technological tools — from search engines to status updates to sophisticated artificial intelligence that defeats the world’s best chess players — are now inextricably linked to our minds, working in tandem with them and profoundly changing the way we remember, learn, and “act upon that knowledge emotionally, intellectually, and politically,” and this is a promising rather than perilous thing.

He writes in the introduction:

These tools can make even the amateurs among us radically smarter than we’d be on our own, assuming (and this is a big assumption) we understand how they work. At their best, today’s digital tools help us see more, retain more, communicate more. At their worst, they leave us prey to the manipulation of the toolmakers. But on balance, I’d argue, what is happening is deeply positive. This book is about the transformation.

Page from ‘Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life.’ Click image for details.

But Thompson is nothing if not a dimensional thinker with extraordinary sensitivity to the complexities of cultural phenomena. Rather than revisiting painfully familiar and trite-by-overuse notions like distraction and information overload, he examines the deeper dynamics of how these new tools are affecting the way we make sense of the world and of ourselves. Several decades after Vannevar Bush’s now-legendary meditation on how technology will impact our thinking, Thompson reaches even further into the fringes of our cultural sensibility — past the cheap techno-dystopia, past the pollyannaish techno-utopia, and into that intricate and ever-evolving intersection of technology and psychology.

One of his most fascinating and important points has to do with our outsourcing of memory — or, more specifically, our increasingly deft, search-engine-powered skills of replacing the retention of knowledge in our own brains with the on-demand access to knowledge in the collective brain of the internet. Think, for instance, of those moments when you’re trying to recall the name of a movie but only remember certain fragmentary features — the name of the lead actor, the gist of the plot, a song from the soundtrack. Thompson calls this “tip-of-the-tongue syndrome” and points out that, today, you’ll likely be able to reverse-engineer the name of the movie you don’t remember by plugging into Google what you do remember about it. Thompson contextualizes the phenomenon, which isn’t new, then asks the obvious, important question about our culturally unprecedented solutions to it:

Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome is an experience so common that cultures worldwide have a phrase for it. Cheyenne Indians call it navonotootse’a, which means “I have lost it on my tongue”; in Korean it’s hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, which has an even more gorgeous translation: “sparkling at the end of my tongue.” The phenomenon generally lasts only a minute or so; your brain eventually makes the connection. But … when faced with a tip-of-the-tongue moment, many of us have begun to rely instead on the Internet to locate information on the fly. If lifelogging … stores “episodic,” or personal, memories, Internet search engines do the same for a different sort of memory: “semantic” memory, or factual knowledge about the world. When you visit Paris and have a wonderful time drinking champagne at a café, your personal experience is an episodic memory. Your ability to remember that Paris is a city and that champagne is an alcoholic beverage — that’s semantic memory.

[…]

What’s the line between our own, in-brain knowledge and the sea of information around us? Does it make us smarter when we can dip in so instantly? Or dumber with every search?

Vannevar Bush’s ‘memex’ — short for ‘memory index’ — a primitive vision for a personal hard drive for information storage and management. Click image for the full story.

That concern, of course, is far from unique to our age — from the invention of writing to Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, new technology has always been a source of paralyzing resistance and apprehension:

Writing — the original technology for externalizing information — emerged around five thousand years ago, when Mesopotamian merchants began tallying their wares using etchings on clay tablets. It emerged first as an economic tool. As with photography and the telephone and the computer, newfangled technologies for communication nearly always emerge in the world of commerce. The notion of using them for everyday, personal expression seems wasteful, risible, or debased. Then slowly it becomes merely lavish, what “wealthy people” do; then teenagers take over and the technology becomes common to the point of banality.

Thompson reminds us of the anecdote, by now itself familiar “to the point of banality,” about Socrates and his admonition that the “technology” of writing would devastate the Greek tradition of debate and dialectic, and would render people incapable of committing anything to memory because “knowledge stored was not really knowledge at all.” He cites Socrates’s parable of the Egyptian god Theuth and how he invented writing, offering it as a gift to the king of Egypt, Thamus, who met the present with defiant indignation:

This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

That resistance endured as technology changed shape, across the Middle Ages and past Gutenberg’s revolution, but it wasn’t without counter-resistance: Those who recorded their knowledge in writing and, eventually, collected it in the form of books argued that it expanded the scope of their curiosity and the ideas they were able to ponder, whereas the mere act of rote memorization made no guarantees of deeper understanding.

Ultimately, however, Thompson points out that Socrates was both right and wrong: It’s true that, with some deliberately cultivated exceptions and neurological outliers, few thinkers today rely on pure memorization and can recite extensive passages of text from memory. But what Socrates failed to see was the extraordinary dot-connecting enabled by access to knowledge beyond what our own heads can hold — because, as Amanda Palmer poignantly put it, “we can only connect the dots that we collect,” and the outsourcing of memory has exponentially enlarged our dot-collections.

With this in mind, Thompson offers a blueprint to this newly developed system of knowledge management in which access is critical:

If you are going to read widely but often read books only once; if you going to tackle the ever-expanding universe of ideas by skimming and glancing as well as reading deeply; then you are going to rely on the semantic-memory version of gisting. By which I mean, you’ll absorb the gist of what you read but rarely retain the specifics. Later, if you want to mull over a detail, you have to be able to refind a book, a passage, a quote, an article, a concept.

But Thompson argues that despite history’s predictable patterns of resistance followed by adoption and adaptation, there’s something immutably different about our own era:

The history of factual memory has been fairly predictable up until now. With each innovation, we’ve outsourced more information, then worked to make searching more efficient. Yet somehow, the Internet age feels different. Quickly pulling up [the answer to a specific esoteric question] on Google seems different from looking up a bit of trivia in an encyclopedia. It’s less like consulting a book than like asking someone a question, consulting a supersmart friend who lurks within our phones.

And therein lies the magic of the internet — that unprecedented access to humanity’s collective brain. Thompson cites the work of Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, who first began exploring this notion of collective rather than individual knowledge in the 1980s by observing how partners in long-term relationships often divide and conquer memory tasks in sharing the household’s administrative duties:

Wegner suspected this division of labor takes place because we have pretty good “metamemory.” We’re aware of our mental strengths and limits, and we’re good at intuiting the abilities of others. Hang around a workmate or a romantic partner long enough and you begin to realize that while you’re terrible at remembering your corporate meeting schedule, or current affairs in Europe, or how big a kilometer is relative to a mile, they’re great at it. So you begin to subconsciously delegate the task of remembering that stuff to them, treating them like a notepad or encyclopedia. In many respects, Wegner noted, people are superior to these devices, because what we lose in accuracy we make up in speed.

[…]

Wegner called this phenomenon “transactive” memory: two heads are better than one. We share the work of remembering, Wegner argued, because it makes us collectively smarter — expanding our ability to understand the world around us.

This ability to “google” one another’s memory stores, Thompson argues, is the defining feature of our evolving relationship with information — and it’s profoundly shaping our experience of knowledge:

Transactive memory helps explain how we’re evolving in a world of on-tap information.

He illustrates this by turning to the work of Betsy Sparrow, a graduate student of Wegner’s, who conducted a series of experiments demonstrating that when we know a digital tool will store information for us, we’re far less likely to commit it to memory. On the surface, this may appear like the evident and worrisome shrinkage of our mental capacity. But there’s a subtler yet enormously important layer that such techno-dystopian simplifications miss: This very outsourcing of memory requires that we learn what the machine knows — a kind of meta-knowledge that enables us to retrieve the information when we need it. And, reflecting on Sparrow’s findings, Thomspon points out that this is neither new nor negative:

We’ve been using transactive memory for millennia with other humans. In everyday life, we are only rarely isolated, and for good reason. For many thinking tasks, we’re dumber and less cognitively nimble if we’re not around other people. Not only has transactive memory not hurt us, it’s allowed us to perform at higher levels, accomplishing acts of reasoning that are impossible for us alone. It wasn’t until recently that computer memory became fast enough to be consulted on the fly, but once it did — with search engines boasting that they return results in tenths of a second — our transactive habits adapted.

Thompson’s most important point, however, has to do with how outsourcing our knowledge to digital tools actually hampers the very process of creative thought, which relies on our ability to connect existing ideas from our mental pool of resources into new combinations, or what the French polymath Henri Poincaré has famously termed “sudden illuminations.” Without a mental catalog of materials which to mull and let incubate in our fringe consciousness, our capacity for such illuminations is greatly deflated. Thompson writes:

These eureka moments are familiar to all of us; they’re why we take a shower or go for a walk when we’re stuck on a problem. But this technique works only if we’ve actually got a lot of knowledge about the problem stored in our brains through long study and focus. … You can’t come to a moment of creative insight if you haven’t got any mental fuel. You can’t be googling the info; it’s got to be inside you.

But while this is a valid concern, Thompson doubts that we’re outsourcing too many bits of knowledge and thus curtailing our creativity. He argues, instead, that we’re mostly employing this newly evolved skill to help us sift the meaningful from the meaningless, but we remain just as capable of absorbing that which truly stimulates us:

Evidence suggests that when it comes to knowledge we’re interested in — anything that truly excites us and has meaning — we don’t turn off our memory. Certainly, we outsource when the details are dull, as we now do with phone numbers. These are inherently meaningless strings of information, which offer little purchase on the mind. … It makes sense that our transactive brains would hand this stuff off to machines. But when information engages us — when we really care about a subject — the evidence suggests we don’t turn off our memory at all.

Originally featured in September — read more here.

7. COSMIC APPRENTICE

As if to define what science is and what philosophy is weren’t hard enough, to delineate how the two fit together appears a formidable task, one that has spurred rather intense opinions. But that’s precisely what Dorion Sagan, who has previously examined the prehistoric history of sex, braves in the introduction to Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science (public library) as he sets out to explore the intricate ways in which the two fields hang “in a kind of odd balance, watching each other, holding hands”:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything. There is truth in this clever crack, but, as Niels Bohr impressed, while the opposite of a trivial truth is false, the opposite of a great truth is another great truth.

I would say that applies to the flip side of the above flip takedown: Science’s eye for detail, buttressed by philosophy’s broad view, makes for a kind of alembic, an antidote to both. This intellectual electrum cuts the cloying taste of idealist and propositional philosophy with the sharp nectar of fact yet softens the edges of a technoscience that has arguably lost both its moral and its epistemological compass, the result in part of its being funded by governments and corporations whose relationship to the search for truth and its open dissemination can be considered problematic at best.

Sagan refutes the popular perception of science as rationally objective, a vessel of capital-T Truth, reminding us that every scientific concept and theory was birthed by a subjective, fallible human mind:

All observations are made from distinct places and times, and in science no less than art or philosophy by particular individuals. … Although philosophy isn’t fiction, it can be more personal, creative and open, a kind of counterbalance for science even as it argues that science, with its emphasis on a kind of impersonal materialism, provides a crucial reality check for philosophy and a tendency to overtheorize that [is] inimical to the scientific spirit. Ideally, in the search for truth, science and philosophy, the impersonal and autobiographical, can “keep each other honest,” in a kind of open circuit. Philosophy as the underdog even may have an advantage, because it’s not supposed to be as advanced as science, nor does it enjoy science’s level of institutional support — or the commensurate heightened risks of being beholden to one’s benefactors.

Like Richard Feynman, who argued tirelessly for the scientist’s responsibility to remain unsure, Sagan echoes the idea that willful ignorance is what drives science and the fear of being wrong is one of its greatest hindrances:

Science’s spirit is philosophical. It is the spirit of questioning, of curiosity, of critical inquiry combined with fact-checking. It is the spirit of being able to admit you’re wrong, of appealing to data, not authority, which does not like to admit it is wrong.

Sagan reflects on his father’s conviction that “the effort to popularize science is a crucial one for society,” one he shared with Richard Feynman, and what made Carl’s words echo as profoundly and timelessly as they do:

Science and philosophy both had a reputation for being dry, but my father helped inject life into the former, partly by speaking in plain English and partly by focusing on the science fiction fantasy of discovering extraterrestrial life.

In that respect, science could learn from philosophy’s intellectual disposition:

Philosophy today, not taught in grade school in the United States, is too often merely an academic pursuit, a handmaiden or apologetics of science, or else a kind of existential protest, a trendy avocation of grad students and the dark-clad coffeehouse set. But philosophy, although it historically gives rise to experimental science, sometimes preserves a distinct mode of sustained questioning that sharply distinguishes it from modern science, which can be too quick to provide answers.

[…]

Philosophy is less cocksure, less already-knowing, or should be, than the pundits’ diatribes that relieve us of the difficulties of not knowing, of carefully weighing, of looking at the other side, of having to think things through for ourselves. Dwell in possibility, wrote Emily Dickinson: Philosophy at its best seems a kind of poetry, not an informational delivery but a dwelling, an opening of our thoughts to the world.

Like Buckminster Fuller, who vehemently opposed specialization, Sagan attests to the synergetic value of intellectual cross-pollination, attesting to the idea that true breakthroughs in science require cross-disciplinary connections and originality consists of linking up ideas whose connection was not previously suspected:

It is true that science requires analysis and that it has fractured into microdisciplines. But because of this, more than ever, it requires synthesis. Science is about connections. Nature no more obeys the territorial divisions of scientific academic disciplines than do continents appear from space to be colored to reflect the national divisions of their human inhabitants. For me, the great scientific satoris, epiphanies, eurekas, and aha! moments are characterized by their ability to connect.

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” advised Martine in his wonderful 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.” Science, Sagan suggests — at least at its most elegant — is a conversation of constant revision, where each dead end brings to life a new fruitful question:

Theories are not only practical, and wielded like intellectual swords to the death … but beautiful. A good one is worth more than all the ill-gotten hedge fund scraps in the world. A good scientific theory shines its light, revealing the world’s fearful symmetry. And its failure is also a success, as it shows us where to look next.

Supporting Neil deGrasse Tyson’s contention that intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance, Sagan applies this very paradigm of connection-making to the crux of the age-old science vs. religion debate, painting evolution not as a tool of certitude but as a reminder of our connectedness to everything else:

Connecting humanity with other species in a single process was Darwin’s great natural historical accomplishment. It showed that some of the issues relegated to religion really come under the purview of science. More than just a research program for technoscience, it provides a eureka moment, a subject of contemplation open in principle to all thinking minds. Beyond the squabbles over its mechanisms and modes, evolution’s epiphany derives from its widening of vistas, its showing of the depths of our connections to others from whom we’d thought we were separate. Philosophy, too … in its ancient, scientifico-genic spirit of inquiry so different from a mere, let alone peevish, recounting of facts, needs to be reconnected to science for the latter to fulfill its potential not just as something useful but as a source of numinous moments, deep understanding, and indeed, religious-like epiphanies of cosmic comprehension and aesthetic contemplation.

Originally featured in April — see more here.

8. SOCIAL

“Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind,” Einstein wrote, “life would have seemed to me empty.” It is perhaps unsurprising that the iconic physicist, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” intuited something fundamental about the inner workings of the human mind and soul long before science itself had attempted to concretize it with empirical evidence. Now, it has: In Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect (public library), neuroscientist Matthew D. Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab, sets out to “get clear about ‘who we are’ as social creatures and to reveal how a more accurate understanding of our social nature can improve our lives and our society. Lieberman, who has spent the past two decades using tools like fMRI to study how the human brain responds to its social context, has found over and over again that our brains aren’t merely simplistic mechanisms that only respond to pain and pleasure, as philosopher Jeremy Bentham famously claimed, but are instead wired to connect. At the heart of his inquiry is a simple question: Why do we feel such intense agony when we lose a loved one? He argues that, far from being a design flaw in our neural architecture, our capacity for such overwhelming grief is a vital feature of our evolutionary constitution:

The research my wife and I have done over the past decade shows that this response, far from being an accident, is actually profoundly important to our survival. Our brains evolved to experience threats to our social connections in much the same way they experience physical pain. By activating the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain, our experience of social pain helps ensure the survival of our children by helping to keep them close to their parents. The neural link between social and physical pain also ensures that staying socially connected will be a lifelong need, like food and warmth. Given the fact that our brains treat social and physical pain similarly, should we as a society treat social pain differently than we do? We don’t expect someone with a broken leg to “just get over it.” And yet when it comes to the pain of social loss, this is a common response. The research that I and others have done using fMRI shows that how we experience social pain is at odds with our perception of ourselves. We intuitively believe social and physical pain are radically different kinds of experiences, yet the way our brains treat them suggests that they are more similar than we imagine.

Citing his research, Lieberman affirms the notion that there is no such thing as a nonconformist, pointing out the social construction of what we call our individual “selves” — empirical evidence for what the novelist William Gibson so eloquently termed one’s “personal micro-culture” — and observes “our socially malleable sense of self”:

The neural basis for our personal beliefs overlaps significantly with one of the regions of the brain primarily responsible for allowing other people’s beliefs to influence our own. The self is more of a superhighway for social influence than it is the impenetrable private fortress we believe it to be.

Contextualizing it in a brief evolutionary history, he argues that this osmosis of sociality and individuality is an essential aid in our evolutionary development rather than an aberrant defect in it:

Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. These bets come in the form of adaptations that are selected because they promote survival and reproduction. These adaptations intensify the bonds we feel with those around us and increase our capacity to predict what is going on in the minds of others so that we can better coordinate and cooperate with them. The pain of social loss and the ways that an audience’s laughter can influence us are no accidents. To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.

The implications of this span across everything from the intimacy of our personal relationships to the intricacy of organizational management and teamwork. But rather than entrusting a single cognitive “social network” with these vital functions, our brains turn out to host many. Lieberman explains:

Just as there are multiple social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, each with its own strengths, there are also multiple social networks in our brains, sets of brain regions that work together to promote our social well-being.

These networks each have their own strengths, and they have emerged at different points in our evolutionary history moving from vertebrates to mammals to primates to us, Homo sapiens. Additionally, these same evolutionary steps are recapitulated in the same order during childhood.

He goes on to explore three major adaptations that have made us so inextricably responsive to the social world:

  • Connection: Long before there were any primates with a neocortex, mammals split off from other vertebrates and evolved the capacity to feel social pains and pleasures, forever linking our well-being to our social connectedness. Infants embody this deep need to stay connected, but it is present through our entire lives.
  • Mindreading: Primates have developed an unparalleled ability to understand the actions and thoughts of those around them, enhancing their ability to stay connected and interact strategically. In the toddler years, forms of social thinking develop that outstrip those seen in the adults of any other species. This capacity allows humans to create groups that can implement nearly any idea and to anticipate the needs and wants of those around us, keeping our groups moving smoothly.
  • Harmonizing: The sense of self is one of the most recent evolutionary gifts we have received. Although the self may appear to be a mechanism for distinguishing us from others and perhaps accentuating our selfishness, the self actually operates as a powerful force for social cohesiveness. During the preteen and teenage years, adolescent refers to the neural adaptations that allow group beliefs and values to influence our own.

Originally featured in November — see more here, including Liberman’s fantastic TEDxStLouis talk.

9. GULP

Few writers are able to write about science in a way that’s provocative without being sensationalistic, truthful without being dry, enchanting without being forced — and even fewer are able to do so on subjects that don’t exactly lend themselves to Saganesque whimsy. After all, it’s infinitely easier to inspire awe while discussing the bombastic magnificence of the cosmos than, say, the function of bodily fluids and the structures that secrete them. But Mary Roach is one of those rare writers, and that’s precisely what she proves once more in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (public library) — a fascinating tour of the body’s most private hydraulics.

Roach writes in the introduction:

The early anatomists had that curiosity in spades. They entered the human form like an unexplored continent. Parts were named like elements of geography: the isthmus of the thyroid, the isles of the pancreas, the straits and inlets of the pelvis. The digestive tract was for centuries known as the alimentary canal. How lovely to picture one’s dinner making its way down a tranquil, winding waterway, digestion and excretion no more upsetting or off-putting than a cruise along the Rhine. It’s this mood, these sentiments — the excitement of exploration and the surprises and delights of travel to foreign locales — that I hope to inspire with this book.

It may take some doing. The prevailing attitude is one of disgust. … I remember, for my last book, talking to the public-affairs staff who choose what to stream on NASA TV. The cameras are often parked on the comings and goings of Mission Control. If someone spots a staffer eating lunch at his desk, the camera is quickly repositioned. In a restaurant setting, conviviality distracts us from the biological reality of nutrient intake and oral processing. But a man alone with a sandwich appears as what he is: an organism satisfying a need. As with other bodily imperatives, we’d rather not be watched. Feeding, and even more so its unsavory correlates, are as much taboos as mating and death.

The taboos have worked in my favor. The alimentary recesses hide a lode of unusual stories, mostly unmined. Authors have profiled the brain, the heart, the eyes, the skin, the penis and the female geography, even the hair, but never the gut. The pie hole and the feed chute are mine.

Roach goes on to bring real science to those subjects that make teenagers guffaw and that populate mediocre standup jokes, exploring such bodily mysteries as what flatulence research reveals about death, why tasting has little to do with taste, how thorough chewing can lower the national debt, and why we like the foods we like and loathe the rest.< /p>

10. WONDERS OF THE UNIVERSE

“I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral,” ur-astronomer Ptolemy contemplated nearly two millennia ago, “but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies, I no longer touch earth with my feet. I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.” But while the cosmos has fascinated humanity since the dawn of time, its mesmerism isn’t that of an abstract other but, rather, the very self-reflexive awareness that Ptolemy attested to, that intimate and inextricable link between the wonders of life here on Earth and the magic we’ve always found in our closest cosmic neighbors.

That’s precisely what modern-day science-enchanter Brian Cox explores in Wonders of the Solar System (public library) — the fantastic and illuminating book based on his BBC series of the same title celebrating the spirit of exploration, and a follow-up to his Wonders of Life and every bit as brimming with his signature blend of enthralling storytelling, scientific brilliance, and contagious conviction.

Cox begins by reminding us that preserving the spirit of exploration is both a joy and a moral obligation — especially at a time when it faces tragic threats of indifference and neglect from the very authorities whose job it is to fuel it, despite a citizenry profoundly in love with the ethos of exploration:

[The spirit of exploration] is desperately relevant, an idea so important that celebration is perhaps too weak a word. It is a plea for the spirit of the navigators of the seas and the pioneers of aviation and spaceflight to be restored and cherished; a case made to the viewer and reader that reaching for worlds beyond our grasp is an essential driver of progress and necessary sustenance for the human spirit. Curiosity is the rocket fuel that powers our civilization. If we deny this innate and powerful urge, perhaps because earthly concerns seem more worthy or pressing, then the borders of our intellectual and physical domain will shrink with our ambitions. We are part of a much wider ecosystem, and our prosperity and even long-term survival are contingent on our understanding of it.

But most revelational of all is Cox’s gift from illustrating what our Earthly phenomena, right here on our seemingly ordinary planet, reveal about the wonders and workings of the Solar System.

Tornadoes, for instance, tell us how our star system was born — the processes that drive these giant rotating storms obey the same physics forces that caused clumps to form at the center of nebulae five billion years ago, around which the gas cloud collapsed and began spinning ever-faster, ordering the chaos, until the early Solar System was churned into existence. This universal principle, known as the conservation of angular momentum, is also what drives a tornado’s destructive spiral.

Cox synthesizes:

This is how our Solar System was born: rather than the whole system collapsing into the Sun, a disc of dust and gas extending billions of kilometers into space formed around the new shining star. In just a few hundred million years, pieces of the cloud collapsed to form planets and moons, and so a star system, our Solar System, was formed. The journey from chaos into order had begun.

Then we have Iceland’s icebergs and glacial lagoons, which offer remarkable insight into the nature of Saturn’s rings. Both shine with puzzling brightness — the lagoons, here on Earth, by bringing pure water that is thousands of years old and free of pollutants from the bottom of the seabed to the surface as they rise, forming ice crystals of exceptional vibrance; Saturn’s rings, young and ever-changing, by circling icy ring particles around the planet, constantly crashing them together and breaking them apart, thus exposing bright new facets of ice that catch the sunlight and dazzle amidst a Solar System that is otherwise “a very dirty place.”

Cox explains:

It’s difficult to imagine the scale, beauty and intricacy of Saturn’s rings here on Earth, but the glacial lagoons of Iceland can transport our minds across millions of kilometers of space and help us understand the true nature of the rings. … At first sight, the lagoon appears to be a solid sheet of pristine ice,but this is an illusion. The surface is constantly shifting, an almost organic, every-changing raft of thousands of individual icebergs floating on the water. The structure of Saturn’s rings is similar, because despite appearances the rings aren’t solid. Each ring is made up of hundreds of ringlets and each ringlet is made up of billions of separate pieces. Captured by Saturn’s gravity, the ring particles independently orbit the panel in an impossibly thin layer.

Cox goes on to explore other such illuminating parallels, from how Alaska’s Lake Eyak illustrate the methane cycles of the universe to what Hawaii’s Big Island tells us about the forces that keep any planet alive to how the volcanic features of India’s Deccan Traps explain why Venus choked to death. He ends with T. S. Eliot’s timeless verses on the spirit of exploration and echoes Neil deGrasse Tyson’s wisdom on your ego and the cosmic perspective, concluding:

You could take the view that our exploration of the Universe has made us somehow insignificant; one tiny planet around one star amongst hundreds of billions. But I don’t take that view, because we’ve discovered that it takes the rarest combination of chance and the laws of Nature to produce a planet that can support a civilization, that most magnificent structure that allows us to explore and understand the Universe. That’s why, for me, our civilization is the wonder of the Solar System, and if you were to be looking at the Earth from outside the Solar System that much would be obvious. We have written the evidence of our existence onto the surface of our planet. Our civilization has become a beacon that identifies our planet as a home to life.

Originally featured in August — see more here.

11. SAVE OUR SCIENCE

“What is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications,” the great E. O. Wilson offered in his timeless advice to young scientists — a conviction shared by some of history’s greatest scientific minds. And yet it is rote memorization and the unimaginative application of technical skill that our dominant education system prioritizes — so it’s no wonder it is failing to produce the Edisons and Curies of our day. In Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists, materials scientist, inventor, and longtime Yale professor Ainissa Ramirez takes on a challenge Isaac Asimov presaged a quarter century ago, advocating for the value of science education and critiquing its present failures, with a hopeful and pragmatic eye toward improving its future. She writes in the introduction:

The 21st century requires a new kind of learner — not someone who can simply churn out answers by rote, as has been done in the past, but a student who can think expansively and solve problems resourcefully.

To do that, she argues, we need to replace the traditional academic skills of “reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic” with creativity, curiosity, critical-thinking, and problem-solving. (Though, as psychology has recently revealed, problem-finding might be the more valuable skill.)

Ainissa Ramirez at TED 2012 (Photograph: James Duncan Davidson for TED)

She begins with the basics:

While the acronym STEM sounds very important, STEM answers just three questions: Why does something happen? How can we apply this knowledge in a practical way? How can we describe what is happening succinctly? Through the questions, STEM becomes a pathway to be curious, to create, and to think and figure things out.

Even for those of us who deem STEAM (wherein the A stands for “arts”) superior to STEM, Ramirez’s insights are razor-sharp and consistent with the oft-affirmed idea that creativity relies heavily upon connecting the seemingly disconnected and aligning the seemingly misaligned:

There are two schools of thought on defining creativity: divergent thinking, which is the formation of a creative idea resulting from generating lots of ideas, and a Janusian approach, which is the act of making links between two remote ideas. The latter takes its name from the two-faced Roman god of beginnings, Janus, who was associated with doorways and the idea of looking forward and backward at the same time. Janusian creativity hinges on the belief that the best ideas come from linking things that previously did not seem linkable. Henri Poincaré, a French mathematician, put it this way: ‘To create consists of making new combinations. … The most fertile will often be those formed of elements drawn from domains which are far apart.’

Another element inherent to the scientific process but hardly rewarded, if not punished, in education is the role of ignorance, or what the poet John Keats has eloquently and timelessly termed “negative capability” — the art of brushing up against the unknown and proceeding anyway. Ramirez writes:

My training as a scientist allows me to stare at an unknown and not run away, because I learned that this melding of uncertainty and curiosity is where innovation and creativity occur.

Yet these very qualities are missing from science education in the United States — and it shows. When the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) took their annual poll in 2006, the U.S. ranked 35th in math and 29th in science out of the 40 high-income, developed countries surveyed.

Average PISA scores versus expenditures for selected countries (Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development)

Ramirez offers a historical context: When American universities first took root in the colonial days, their primary role was to educate men for the clergy, so science, technology, and math were not a priority. But then Justin Smith Morrill, a little-known congressman from Vermont who had barely completed his high school education, came along in 1861 and quietly but purposefully sponsored legislation that forever changed American education, resulting in more than 70 new colleges and universities that included STEM subjects in their curricula. This catapulted enrollment rates from the mere 2% of the population who attended higher education prior to the Civil War and greatly increased diversity in academia, with the act’s second revision in 1890 extending education opportunities to women and African-Americans.

The growth of U.S. college enrollment from 1869 to 1994. (Source: S. B. Carter et al., Historical Statistics of the United States)

But what really propelled science education, Ramirez notes, was the competitive spirit of the Space Race:

The mixture of being outdone and humiliated motivated the U.S. to create NASA and bolster the National Science Foundation’s budget to support science research and education. Sputnik forced the U.S. to think about its science position and to look hard into a mirror — and the U.S. did not like what it saw. In 1956, before Sputnik, the National Science Foundation’s budget was a modest $15.9 million. In 1958, it tripled to $49.5 million, and it doubled again in 1959 to $132.9 million. The space race was on. We poured resources, infrastructure, and human capital into putting an American on the moon, and with that goal, STEM education became a top priority.

President John F. Kennedy addresses a crowd of 35,000 at Rice University in 1962, proclaiming again his desire to reach the moon with the words, ‘We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained.’ Credit: NASA / Public domain

Ramirez argues for returning to that spirit of science education as an investment in national progress:

The U.S. has a history of changing education to meet the nation’s needs. We need similar innovative forward-thinking legislation now, to prepare our children and our country for the 21st century. Looking at our history allows us to see that we have been here before and prevailed. Let’s meet this challenge, for it will, as Kennedy claimed, draw out the very best in all of us.

In confronting the problems that plague science education and the public’s relationship with scientific culture, Ramirez points to the fact that women account for only 26% of STEM bachelor’s degrees and explores the heart of the glaring gender problem:

[There is a] false presumption that girls are not as good as boys in science and math. This message absolutely pervades our national mindset. Even though girls and boys sit next to each other in class, fewer women choose STEM careers than men. This is the equivalent to a farmer sowing seeds and then harvesting only half of the fields.

The precipitous drop in girls’ enrollment in STEM classes. (Source: J. F. Latimer, What’s Happened To Our High Schools)

In turning toward possible solutions, Ramirez calls out the faulty models of standardized testing, which fail to account for more dimensional definitions of intelligence. She writes:

There is a concept in physics that the observer of an experiment can change the results just by the act of observing (this is called, not surprisingly, the observer effect). For example, knowing the required pressure of your tires and observing that they are overinflated dictates that you let some air out, which changes the pressure slightly.

Although this theory is really for electrons and atoms, we also see it at work in schools. Schools are evaluated, by the federal and state governments, by tests. The students are evaluated by tests administered by the teachers. It is the process of testing that has changed the mission of the school from instilling a wide knowledge of the subject matter to acquiring a good score on the tests.

The United States is one of the most test-taking countries in the world, and the standard weapon is the multiple-choice question. Although multiple-choice tests are efficient in schools, they don’t inspire learning. In fact, they do just the opposite. This is hugely problematic in encouraging the skills needed for success in the 21st century. Standardized testing teaches skills that are counter to skills needed for the future, such as curiosity, problem solving, and having a healthy relationship with failure. Standardized tests draw up a fear of failure, since you seek a specific answer and you will be either right or wrong; they kick problem solving in the teeth, since you never need to show your work and never develop a habit of figuring things out; and they slam the doors to curiosity, since only a small selection of the possible answers is laid out before you. These kinds of tests produce thinkers who are unwilling to stretch and take risks and who cannot handle failure. They crush a sense of wonder.

Like Noam Chomsky, who has questioned why schools train for passing tests rather than for creative inquiry, and Sir Ken Robinson, who has eloquently advocated for changing the factory model of education, Ramirez urges:

While scientists passionately explore, reason, discover, synthesize, compare, contrast, and connect the dots, students drudgingly memorize, watch, and passively consume. Students are exercising the wrong muscle. An infusion of STEM taught in compelling ways will give students an opportunity to acquire these active learning skills.

Ramirez goes on to propose a multitude of small changes and larger shifts that communities, educators, cities, institutions, and policy-makers could implement — from neighborhood maker-spaces to wifi hotspots on school buses to university science festivals to new curricula and testing methods — that would begin to bridge the gap between what science education currently is and what scientific culture could and should be. She concludes, echoing Alvin Toffler’s famous words that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”:

The skills of the 21st century need us to create scholars who can link the unlinkable. … Nurturing curious, creative problem solvers who can master the art of figuring things out will make them ready for this unknown brave new world. And that is the best legacy we can possibly leave.

Originally featured in February — see more here.

12. THE ELEMENTS OF EUCLID

Almost a century before Mondrian made his iconic red, yellow, and blue geometric compositions, and around the time that Edward Livingston Youmans was creating his stunning chemistry diagrams, an eccentric 19th-century civil engineer and mathematician named Oliver Byrne produced a striking series of vibrant diagrams in primary colors for a 1847 edition of the legendary Greek mathematical treatise Euclid’s Elements. Byrne, a vehement opponent of pseudoscience with an especial distaste phrenology, was early to the insight that great design and graphic elegance can powerfully aid learning. He explained that in his edition of Euclid, “coloured diagrams and symbols are used instead of letters for the greater ease of learners.” The book, a masterpiece of Victorian printing and graphic design long before “graphic design” existed as a discipline, is celebrated as one of the most unusual and most beautiful books of the 19th century.

Now, the fine folks of Taschen — who have brought us such visual treasures as the best illustrations from 150 years of Hans Christian Andersen, the life and legacy of infographics godfather Fritz Kahn, and the visual history of magic — are resurrecting Byrne’s gem in the lavish tome The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid (public library), edited by Swiss polymath Werner Oechslin.

Proof of the Pythagorean theorem

A masterwork of art and science in equal measure, this newly rediscovered treasure mesmerizes the eye with its brightly colored circles, squares, and triangles while it tickles the brain with its mathematical magic.

Originally featured in November — see more here.

13. DOES MY GOLDFISH KNOW WHO I AM?

In 2012, I wrote about a lovely book titled Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, in which some of today’s greatest scientists, writers, and philosophers answer kids’ most urgent questions, deceptively simple yet profound. It went on to become one of the year’s best books and among readers’ favorites. A few months later, Gemma Elwin Harris, the editor who had envisioned the project, reached out to invite me to participate in the book’s 2013 edition by answering one randomly assigned question from a curious child. Naturally, I was thrilled to do it, and honored to be a part of something as heartening as Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library), also among the best children’s books of the year — a compendium of primary school children’s funny, poignant, innocent yet insightful questions about science and how life works, answered by such celebrated minds as rockstar physicist Brian Cox, beloved broadcaster and voice-of-nature Sir David Attenborough, legendary linguist Noam Chomsky, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach, stat-showman Hans Rosling, Beatle Paul McCartney, biologist and Beagle Project director Karen James, and iconic illustrator Sir Quentin Blake. As was the case with last year’s edition, more than half of the proceeds from the book — which features illustrations by the wonderful Andy Smith — are being donated to a children’s charity.

The questions range from what the purpose of science is to why onions make us cry to whether spiders can speak to why we blink when we sneeze. Psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond, who recently explained the fascinating science of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped while we’re on vacation in one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2013, answers the most frequently asked question by the surveyed children: Why do we cry?

It’s normal to cry when you feel upset and until the age of twelve boys cry just as often as girls. But when you think about it, it is a bit strange that salty water spills out from the corners of your eyes just because you feel sad.

One professor noticed people often say that, despite their blotchy faces, a good cry makes them feel better. So he did an experiment where people had to breathe in over a blender full of onions that had just been chopped up. Not surprisingly this made their eyes water. He collected the tears and put them in the freezer. Then he got people to sit in front of a very sad film wearing special goggles which had tiny buckets hanging off the bottom, ready to catch their tears if they cried. The people cried, but the buckets didn’t work and in the end he gathered their tears in tiny test tubes instead.

He found that the tears people cried when they were upset contained extra substances, which weren’t in the tears caused by the onions. So he thinks maybe we feel better because we get rid of these substances by crying and that this is the purpose of tears.

But not everyone agrees. Many psychologists think that the reason we cry is to let other people know that we need their sympathy or help. So crying, provided we really mean it, brings comfort because people are nice to us.

Crying when we’re happy is a bit more of a mystery, but strong emotions have a lot in common, whether happy or sad, so they seem to trigger some of the same processes in the body.

(For a deeper dive into the biological mystery of crying, see the science of sobbing and emotional tearing.)

Joshua Foer, who knows a thing or two about superhuman memory and the limits of our mind, explains to 9-year-old Tom how the brain can store so much information despite being that small:

An adult’s brain only weighs about 1.4 kilograms, but it’s made up of about 100 billion microscopic neurons. Each of those neurons looks like a tiny branching tree, whose limbs reach out and touch other neurons. In fact, each neuron can make between 5,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons — sometimes even more. That’s more than 500 trillion connections! A memory is essentially a pattern of connections between neurons.

Every sensation that you remember, every thought that you think, transforms your brain by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, you will have created a new memory, which means your brain will have physically changed.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who has previously studied why our brains are wired for optimism, answers 8-year-old Maia’s question about why we don’t have memories from the time we were babies and toddlers:

We use our brain for memory. In the first few years of our lives, our brain grows and changes a lot, just like the rest of our body. Scientists think that because the parts of our brain that are important for memory have not fully developed when we are babies, we are unable to store memories in the same way that we do when we are older.

Also, when we are very young we do not know how to speak. This makes it difficult to keep events in your mind and remember them later, because we use language to remember what happened in the past.

In answering 8-year-old Hannah’s question about what newspapers do when there is no news, writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of the excellent The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, offers a primer on media literacy — an important caveat on news that even we, as alleged grown-ups, frequently forget:

Newspapers don’t really go out and find the news: they decide what gets to count as news. The same goes for television and radio. And you might disagree with their decisions! (For example, journalists are often accused of focusing on bad news and ignoring the good, making the world seem worse than it is.)

The important thing to remember, whenever you’re reading or watching the news, is that someone decided to tell you those things, while leaving out other things. They’re presenting one particular view of the world — not the only one. There’s always another side to the story.

And my answer, to 9-year-old Ottilie’s question about why we have books:

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.

Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.

And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.

In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.

Originally featured in November — read more of the questions and answers here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Space Book: From the Beginning to the End of Time, 250 Milestones in the History of Space & Astronomy by Jim Bell, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins, and The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America by Ernest Freeberg.

BP

The 13 Best Children’s, Illustrated, and Picture Books of 2013

Young Mark Twain’s lost gem, the universe in illustrated dioramas, Maurice Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world, Kafka for kids, and more treats for all ages.

“It is an error … to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large,” J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing “for children,” intimating that books able to captivate children’s imagination aren’t “children’s books” but simply really good books. After the year’s best books in psychology and philosophy, art and design, and history and biography, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the loveliest “children’s” and picture-books of 2013. (Because the best children’s books are, as Tolkien believes, always ones of timeless delight, do catch up on the selections for 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

1. ADVICE TO LITTLE GIRLS

In 1865, when he was only thirty, Mark Twain penned a playful short story mischievously encouraging girls to think independently rather than blindly obey rules and social mores. In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon and fell in love with a lovely Italian edition of this little-known gem with Victorian-scrapbook-inspired artwork by celebrated Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky. I knew the book had to come to life in English, so I partnered with the wonderful Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn-based indie publishing house Enchanted Lion, maker of extraordinarily beautiful picture-books, and we spent the next two years bringing Advice to Little Girls (public library) to life in America — a true labor-of-love project full of so much delight for readers of all ages. (And how joyous to learn that it was also selected among NPR’s best books of 2013!)

While frolicsome in tone and full of wink, the story is colored with subtle hues of grown-up philosophy on the human condition, exploring all the deft ways in which we creatively rationalize our wrongdoing and reconcile the good and evil we each embody.

Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.

If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.

One can’t help but wonder whether this particular bit may have in part inspired the irreverent 1964 anthology Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and its mischievous advice on brother-sister relations:

If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud — never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.

If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.

Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.

Originally featured in April — see more spreads, as well as the story behind the project, here.

2. YOU ARE STARDUST

“Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” Carl Sagan famously marveled in his poetic Pale Blue Dot monologue, titled after the iconic 1990 photograph of Earth. The stardust metaphor for our interconnection with the cosmos soon permeated popular culture and became a vehicle for the allure of space exploration. There’s something at once incredibly empowering and incredibly humbling in knowing that the flame in your fireplace came from the sun.

That’s precisely the kind of cosmic awe environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Toronto-based Korean artist Soyeon Kim seek to inspire in kids in You Are Stardust (public library) — an exquisite picture-book that instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today.

Kim’s breathtaking dioramas, to which this screen does absolutely no justice, mix tactile physical materials with fine drawing techniques and digital compositing to illuminate the relentlessly wondrous realities of our intertwined existence: The water in your sink once quenched the thirst of dinosaurs; with every sneeze, wind blasts out of your nose faster than a cheetah’s sprint; the electricity that powers every thought in your brain is stronger than lightning.

But rather than dry science trivia, the message is carried on the wings of poetic admiration for these intricate relationships:

Be still. Listen.

Like you, the Earth breathes.

Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers.

Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.

The book is nonetheless grounded in real science. Kelsey notes:

I wrote this book as a celebration — one to honor the extraordinary ways in which all of us simply are nature. Every example in this book is backed by current science. Every day, for instance, you breathe in more than a million pollen grains.

But what makes the project particularly exciting is that, in the face of the devastating gender gap in science education, here is a thoughtful, beautiful piece of early science education presented by two women, the most heartening such example since Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive.

A companion iPad app features sound effects, animation, an original score by Paul Aucoin, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Kim’s process in creating her stunning 3D dioramas, and even build-your-own-diorama adventures.

Originally featured in March — see more here.

3. THE HOLE

The Hole (public library) by artist Øyvind Torseter, one of Norway’s most celebrated illustrators, tells the story of a lovable protagonist who wakes up one day and discovers a mysterious hole in his apartment, which moves and seems to have a mind of its own. Befuddled, he looks for its origin — in vain. He packs it in a box and takes it to a lab, but still no explanation.

With Torseter’s minimalist yet visually eloquent pen-and-digital line drawings, vaguely reminiscent of Sir Quentin Blake and Tomi Ungerer yet decidedly distinctive, the story is at once simple and profound, amusing and philosophical, the sort of quiet meditation that gently, playfully tickles us into existential inquiry.

What makes the book especially magical is that a die-cut hole runs from the wonderfully gritty cardboard cover through every page and all the way out through the back cover — an especial delight for those of us who swoon over masterpieces of die-cut whimsy. In every page, the hole is masterfully incorporated into the visual narrative, adding an element of tactile delight that only an analog book can afford. The screen thus does it little justice, as these digital images feature a mere magenta-rimmed circle where the die-cut hole actually appears, but I’ve tried to capture its charm in a few photographs accompanying the page illustrations.

Originally featured in September, with lots more illustrations.

4. MY BROTHER’S BOOK

For those of us who loved legendary children’s book author Maurice Sendak — famed creator of wild things, little-known illustrator of velveteen rabbits, infinitely warm heart, infinitely witty mind — his death in 2012 was one of the year’s greatest heartaches. Now, half a century after his iconic Where The Wild Things Are, comes My Brother’s Book (public library; UK) — a bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. In fact, a foreword by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt reveals the book is based on the Bard’s “A Winter’s Tale.”

It tells the story of two brothers, Jack and Guy, torn asunder when a falling star crashes onto Earth. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years ago, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, whose prolonged illness and eventual loss in 2007 devastated Sendak — the character of Guy reads like a poetic fusion of Sendak and Glynn. And while the story might be a universal “love letter to those who have gone before,” as NPR’s Renee Montagne suggests in Morning Edition, it is in equal measure a private love letter to Glynn. (Sendak passed away the day before President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, but Sendak fans were quick to honor both historic moments with a bittersweet homage.)

Indeed, the theme of all-consuming love manifests viscerally in Sendak’s books. Playwright Tony Kushner, a longtime close friend of Sendak’s and one of his most heartfelt mourners, tells NPR:

There’s a lot of consuming and devouring and eating in Maurice’s books. And I think that when people play with kids, there’s a lot of fake ferocity and threats of, you know, devouring — because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.

My Brother’s Book ends on a soul-stirring note, tender and poignant in its posthumous light:

And Jack slept safe
Enfolded in his brother’s arms
And Guy whispered ‘Good night
And you will dream of me.’

Originally featured in February.

5. DOES MY GOLDFISH KNOW WHO I AM?

In 2012, I wrote about a lovely book titled Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, in which some of today’s greatest scientists, writers, and philosophers answer kids’ most urgent questions, deceptively simple yet profound. It went on to become one of the year’s best books and among readers’ favorites. A few months later, Gemma Elwin Harris, the editor who had envisioned the project, reached out to invite me to participate in the book’s 2013 edition by answering one randomly assigned question from a curious child. Naturally, I was thrilled to do it, and honored to be a part of something as heartening as Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library) — a compendium of primary school children’s funny, poignant, innocent yet insightful questions about science and how life works, answered by such celebrated minds as rockstar physicist Brian Cox, beloved broadcaster and voice-of-nature Sir David Attenborough, legendary linguist Noam Chomsky, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach, stat-showman Hans Rosling, Beatle Paul McCartney, biologist and Beagle Project director Karen James, and iconic illustrator Sir Quentin Blake. As was the case with last year’s edition, more than half of the proceeds from the book — which features illustrations by the wonderful Andy Smith — are being donated to a children’s charity.

The questions range from what the purpose of science is to why onions make us cry to whether spiders can speak to why we blink when we sneeze. Psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond, who recently explained the fascinating science of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped while we’re on vacation in one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2013, answers the most frequently asked question by the surveyed children: Why do we cry?

It’s normal to cry when you feel upset and until the age of twelve boys cry just as often as girls. But when you think about it, it is a bit strange that salty water spills out from the corners of your eyes just because you feel sad.

One professor noticed people often say that, despite their blotchy faces, a good cry makes them feel better. So he did an experiment where people had to breathe in over a blender full of onions that had just been chopped up. Not surprisingly this made their eyes water. He collected the tears and put them in the freezer. Then he got people to sit in front of a very sad film wearing special goggles which had tiny buckets hanging off the bottom, ready to catch their tears if they cried. The people cried, but the buckets didn’t work and in the end he gathered their tears in tiny test tubes instead.

He found that the tears people cried when they were upset contained extra substances, which weren’t in the tears caused by the onions. So he thinks maybe we feel better because we get rid of these substances by crying and that this is the purpose of tears.

But not everyone agrees. Many psychologists think that the reason we cry is to let other people know that we need their sympathy or help. So crying, provided we really mean it, brings comfort because people are nice to us.

Crying when we’re happy is a bit more of a mystery, but strong emotions have a lot in common, whether happy or sad, so they seem to trigger some of the same processes in the body.

(For a deeper dive into the biological mystery of crying, see the science of sobbing and emotional tearing.)

Joshua Foer, who knows a thing or two about superhuman memory and the limits of our mind, explains to 9-year-old Tom how the brain can store so much information despite being that small:

An adult’s brain only weighs about 1.4 kilograms, but it’s made up of about 100 billion microscopic neurons. Each of those neurons looks like a tiny branching tree, whose limbs reach out and touch other neurons. In fact, each neuron can make between 5,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons — sometimes even more. That’s more than 500 trillion connections! A memory is essentially a pattern of connections between neurons.

Every sensation that you remember, every thought that you think, transforms your brain by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, you will have created a new memory, which means your brain will have physically changed.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who has previously studied why our brains are wired for optimism, answers 8-year-old Maia’s question about why we don’t have memories from the time we were babies and toddlers:

We use our brain for memory. In the first few years of our lives, our brain grows and changes a lot, just like the rest of our body. Scientists think that because the parts of our brain that are important for memory have not fully developed when we are babies, we are unable to store memories in the same way that we do when we are older.

Also, when we are very young we do not know how to speak. This makes it difficult to keep events in your mind and remember them later, because we use language to remember what happened in the past.

In answering 8-year-old Hannah’s question about what newspapers do when there is no news, writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of the excellent The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, offers a primer on media literacy — an important caveat on news that even we, as alleged grown-ups, frequently forget:

Newspapers don’t really go out and find the news: they decide what gets to count as news. The same goes for television and radio. And you might disagree with their decisions! (For example, journalists are often accused of focusing on bad news and ignoring the good, making the world seem worse than it is.)

The important thing to remember, whenever you’re reading or watching the news, is that someone decided to tell you those things, while leaving out other things. They’re presenting one particular view of the world — not the only one. There’s always another side to the story.

And my answer, to 9-year-old Ottilie’s question about why we have books:

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.

Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.

And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.

In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.

Originally featured in November — read more here.

6. LITTLE BOY BROWN

“I didn’t feel alone in the Lonely Crowd,” young Italo Calvino wrote of his visit to America, and it is frequently argued that hardly any place embodies the “Lonely Crowd” better than New York, city of “avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways.” That, perhaps, is what children’s book writer Isobel Harris set out to both affirm and decondition in Little Boy Brown (public library) — a magnificent ode to childhood and loneliness, easily the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness ever written, illustrated by the famed Hungarian-born French cartoonist and graphic designer André François. Originally published in 1949, this timeless story that stirred the hearts of generations has been newly resurrected by Enchanted Lion.

This is the story of a four-year-old boy living with his well-to-do mother and father in a Manhattan hotel, in which the elevator connects straight to the subway tunnel below the building and plugs right into the heart of the city. And yet Little Boy Brown, whose sole friends are the doormen and elevator operators, feels woefully lonely — until, one day, his hotel chambermaid Hilda invites him to visit her house outside the city, where he blossoms into a new sense of belonging.

Underpinning the charming tale of innocence and children’s inborn benevolence is a heartwarming message about connection across the lines of social class and bridging the gaps of privilege with simple human kindness.

Hilda’s mother kissed me before she even knew who I was!

[…]

Hilda’s family is smarter than we are. They can all speak two different languages, and they can close their eyes and think about two different countries. They’ve been on the Ocean, and they’ve climbed high mountains. They haven’t got quite enough of anything. It makes it exciting when a little more comes!

The story itself, at once a romantic time-capsule of a bygone New York and a timeless meditation on what it’s like feel so lonesome in a crowd of millions, invites us to explore the tender intersection of loneliness and loveliness. François, who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of iconic New Yorker covers, and belongs to the same coterie of influential mid-century creative legends as Sir Quentin Blake, Tomi Ungerer, and his close friend and collaborator of Ronald Searle, brings all this wonderful dimensionality to life in his singular illustrations, all the more special given that this was his first children’s book.

Originally featured in November — see more here.

7. THE MIGHTY LALOUCHE

The more you win, the more you win, the science of the “winner effect” tells us. The same interplay of biochemistry, psychology and performance thus also holds true of the opposite — but perhaps this is why we love a good underdog story, those unlikely tales of assumed “losers” beating the odds to triumph as “winners.” Stories like this are fundamental to our cultural mythology of ambition and anything-is-possible aspiration, and they speak most powerfully to our young and hopeful selves, to our inner underdogs, to the child who dreams of defeating her bully in blazing glory.

That ever-alluring parable is at the heart of The Mighty Lalouche (public library), written by Matthew Olshan, who famously reimagined Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with an all-girl cast of characters, and illustrated by the inimitable Sophie Blackall, one of the most extraordinary book artists working today, who has previously given us such gems as her drawings of Craigslist missed connections and Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. It tells the heartening story of a humble and lithe early-twentieth-century French postman named Lalouche, his profound affection for his pet finch Geneviève, and his surprising success in the era’s favorite sport of la boxe française, or French boxing.

One day, at the height of Parisians’ infatuation with the novelty of electric cars, Lalouche’s boss at the post office informs him that a new electric autocar is replacing all walking postmen, who are too slow by comparison. Desperate to provide for himself and Geneviève, Lalouche sees a flyer offering cash to any sparring partners willing to fight the champions at the Bastille Boxing Club. Though Lalouche is small and “rather bony,” his hands are nimble and strong from handling weighty packages, and his feet are fast from racing up apartment stairs in his deliveries — so he signs up.

One should never underestimate a man who loves his finch.

Thanks to his agility and love for the birdie, to everyone’s astonishment, he goes on to defeat each of the champions in turn — even the formidable Anaconda, “the biggest, baddest beast the city has ever seen,” infamous for his deadly sleeper hold. But when the postal service chief realizes the autocar is just a gimmick good for nothing and asks whether Lalouche is willing to take his job back, the tiny champ gladly agrees, for his heart is in the joy he brings people as their mail arrives.

Underpinning the simple allegory of unlikely triumph is a deeper reflection on our present-day anxieties about whether or not machines — gadgets, robots, algorithms — will replace us. The story gently assuring us that the most quintessential of human qualities and capacities — courage, integrity, love — will always remain ours and ours alone.

But what makes the book particularly exceptional are the curious archival images uncovered in the research, presented here exclusively alongside the soulful and expressive illustrations Blackall reincarnated them into:

Boxer trading cards, 1895

Boxer pose II, early 1900s

Three boxers, early 1900s

Originally featured n May — see more here.

8. GOBBLE YOU UP

For nearly two decades, independent India-based publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a collective of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on regional folk traditions, producing such gems as Waterlife, The Night Life of Trees, and Drawing from the City. A year after I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — one of the best art books of 2012, a magnificent 17th-century British “trick” poem adapted in a die-cut narrative and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe — comes Gobble You Up (public library), an oral Rajasthani trickster tale adapted as a cumulative rhyme in a mesmerizing handmade treasure released in a limited edition of 7,000 numbered handmade copies, illustrated by artist Sunita and silkscreened by hand in two colors on beautifully coarse kraft paper custom-made for the project. What makes it especially extraordinary, however, is that the Mandna tradition of tribal finger-painting — an ancient Indian art form practiced only by women and passed down from mother to daughter across the generations, created by soaking pieces of cloth in chalk and lime paste, which the artist squeezes through her fingers into delicate lines on the mud walls of village huts — has never before been used to tell a children’s story.

And what a story it is: A cunning jackal who decides to spare himself the effort of hunting for food by tricking his fellow forest creatures into being gobbled up whole, beginning with his friend the crane; he slyly swallows them one by one, until the whole menagerie fills his belly — a play on the classic Meena motif of the pregnant animal depicted with a baby inside its belly, reflecting the mother-daughter genesis of the ancient art tradition itself.

Indeed, Sunita herself was taught to paint by her mother and older sister — but unlike most Meena women, who don’t usually leave the confines of their village and thus contain their art within their community, Sunita has thankfully ventured into the wider world, offering us a portal into this age-old wonderland of art and storytelling.

Gita Wolf, Tara’s visionary founder, who envisioned the project and wrote the cumulative rhyme, describes the challenges of adapting this ephemeral, living art form onto the printed page without losing any of its expressive aliveness:

Illustrating the story in the Meena style of art involved two kinds of movement. The first was to build a visual narrative sequencing from a tradition which favored single, static images. The second challenge was to keep the quality of the wall art, while transferring it to a different, while also smaller, surface. We decided on using large sheets of brown paper, with Sunita squeezing diluted white acrylic paint through her fingers.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

9. BALLAD

The best, most enchanting stories live somewhere between the creative nourishment of our daydreams and the dark allure of our nightmares. That’s exactly where beloved French graphic artist Blexbolex transports us in Ballad (public library) — his exquisite and enthralling follow-up to People, one of the best illustrated books of 2011, and Seasons.

This continuously evolving story traces a child’s perception of his surroundings as he walks home from school. It unfolds over seven sequences across 280 glorious pages and has an almost mathematical beauty to it as each sequence exponentially blossoms into the next: We begin with school, path, and home; we progress to school, street, path, forest, home; before we know it, there’s a witch, a stranger, a sorcerer, a hot air balloon, and a kidnapped queen. All throughout, we’re invited to reimagine the narrative as we absorb the growing complexity of the world — a beautiful allegory for our walk through life itself.

The frontispiece makes a simple and alluring promise:

It’s a story as old as the world — a story that begins all over again each day.

The dark whimsy of Blexbolex’s unusual visual storytelling sings to us a ballad of danger and delight, serenading with the enchantment of fairy tales, the starkness of graphic novels, and the liberation of choose-your-own-adventure stories. And this is precisely where Blexbolex’s singular talent springs to life: Trained as a painter in the 1980s but having left art school to find himself as a silk-screen artist, he blends the charisma of vintage graphic design and traditional printing techniques with the dynamic mesmerism of contemporary graphic novels and experimental narratives to create an entirely new, wholly different form of bewitching visual storytelling, where a few carefully chosen words invite perpetual reinterpretation of layered and expressive scenes.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

10. THE DARK

Daniel Handler — beloved author, timelessly heartening literary jukeboxer — is perhaps better-known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, under which he pens his endlessly delightful children’s books. In fact, they owe much of their charisma to the remarkable creative collaborations Snicket spawns, from 13 Words illustrated by the inimitable Maira Kalman to Who Could It Be At This Hour? with artwork by celebrated cartoonist Seth. Snicket’s 2013 gem, reminiscent in spirit of Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, is at least as exciting — a minimalist yet magnificently expressive story about a universal childhood fear, titled The Dark (public library) and illustrated by none other than Jon Klassen.

In a conversation with NPR, Handler echoes Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear and articulates the deeper, more universal essence of the book’s message:

I think books that are meant to be read in the nighttime ought to confront the very fears that we’re trying to think about. And I think that a young reader of The Dark will encounter a story about a boy who makes new peace with a fear, rather than a story that ignores whatever troubles are lurking in the corners of our minds when we go to sleep.

Originally featured in June.

11. JANE, THE FOX AND ME

“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality,” Nora Ephron wrote. “If I can’t stand the world I just curl up with a book, and it’s like a little spaceship that takes me away from everything,” Susan Sontag told an interviewer, articulating an experience at once so common and so deeply personal to all of us who have ever taken refuge from the world in the pages of a book and the words of a beloved author. It’s precisely this experience that comes vibrantly alive in Jane, the Fox, and Me (public library) — a stunningly illustrated graphic novel about a young girl named Hélène, who, cruelly teased by the “mean girls” clique at school, finds refuge in Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane, she sees both a kindred spirit and aspirational substance of character, one straddling the boundary between vulnerability and strength with remarkable grace — just the quality of heart and mind she needs as she confronts the common and heartbreaking trials of teenage girls tormented by bullying, by concerns over their emerging womanly shape, and by the soul-shattering feeling of longing for acceptance yet receiving none.

Written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault — the artist behind the magnificent Virginia Wolf, one of the best children’s books of 2012 — this masterpiece of storytelling is as emotionally honest and psychologically insightful as it is graphically stunning. What makes the visual narrative especially enchanting is that Hélène’s black-and-white world of daily sorrow springs to life in full color whenever she escapes with Brönte.

Originally featured in November — see more here.

12. MY FIRST KAFKA

Sylvia Plath believed it was never too early to dip children’s toes in the vast body of literature. But to plunge straight into Kafka? Why not, which is precisely what Brooklyn-based writer and videogame designer Matthue Roth has done in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs (public library) — a magnificent adaptation of Kafka for kids. With stunning black-and-white illustrations by London-based fine artist Rohan Daniel Eason, this gem falls — rises, rather — somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and the Graphic Canon series.

The idea came to Roth after he accidentally started reading Kafka to his two little girls, who grew enchanted with the stories. As for the choice to adapt Kafka’s characteristically dark sensibility for children, Roth clearly subscribes to the Sendakian belief that grown-ups project their own fears onto kids, who welcome rather than dread the dark. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Sendak’s fatherly echo in Eason’s beautifully haunting black-and-white drawings.

Much like Jonathan Safran Foer used Street of Crocodiles to create his brilliant Tree of Codes literary remix and Darwin’s great-granddaughter adapted the legendary naturalist’s biography into verse, Roth scoured public domain texts and various translations of Kafka to find the perfect works for his singsong transformations: the short prose poem “Excursion into the Mountains,” the novella “The Metamorphosis,” which endures as Kafka’s best-known masterpiece, and “Josefine the Singer,” his final story.

“I don’t know!”
I cried without being heard.

“I do not know.”

If nobody comes,
then nobody comes.

I’ve done nobody any harm.
Nobody’s done me any harm.
But nobody will help me.

A pack of nobodies
would be rather fine,
on the other hand.

I’d love to go on a trip — why not? —
with a pack of nobodies.

Into the mountains, of course.
Where else?

In a way, the book — like most of Kafka’s writing — also bears the odd mesmerism of literary history’s letters and diaries, the semi-forbidden pleasure of which swells under the awareness that their writers never meant for us to read the very words we’re reading, never sought to invite us into their private worlds. Kafka wished for his entire world to remain private — he never finished any of his novels and burned the majority of his manuscripts; the rest he left with his closest friend and literary executor, Max Brod, whom he instructed to burn the remaining diaries, sketches, manuscripts, and letters. It was out of love that Brod chose not to, possibly displeasing his friend but eternally pleasing the literary public.

Originally featured in July — see more here.

13. MY FATHER’S ARMS ARE A BOAT

The finest children’s books have a way of exploring complex, universal themes through elegant simplicity and breathless beauty. From my friends at Enchanted Lion, collaborators on Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls and makers of some of the most extraordinary picture-books you’ll ever encounter, comes My Father’s Arms Are a Boat (public library) by writer Stein Erik Lunde and illustrator Øyvind Torseter. This tender and heartening Norwegian gem tells the story of an anxious young boy who climbs into his father’s arms seeking comfort on a cold sleepless night. The two step outside into the winter wonderland as the boy asks questions about the red birds in the spruce tree to be cut down the next morning, about the fox out hunting, about why his mother will never wake up again. With his warm and assuring answers, the father watches his son make sense of this strange world of ours where love and loss go hand in hand.

Lunde, who also writes lyrics and has translated Bob Dylan into Norwegian, is a masterful storyteller who unfolds incredible richness in few words. Meanwhile, Torseter’s exquisite 2D/3D style combining illustration and paper sculpture, reminiscent of Soyeon Kim’s wonderful You Are Stardust, envelops the story in a sheath of delicate whimsy.

Above all, My Father’s Arms Are a Boat is about the quiet way in which boundless love and unconditional assurance can lift even the most pensive of spirits from the sinkhole of existential anxiety.

Originally featured in April.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by legendary graphic designer Chip Kidd, Night Light by New York Times art director and illustrator Nicholas Blechman, and Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Caldecott Honor artist Peter Brown.

BP

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