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On Tenderness: What Genetics Godfather Gregor Mendel Teaches Us about the Heart of Science

“There is tenderness in the chemist measuring and re-measuring salts in the hood; in the mathematician kneading his equations to understand the shape of the cosmos; in the marine biologist learning to talk to dolphins…”

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 (public library), edited by the pioneering cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee — who penned the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer — collects precisely what it promises, with contributions from such celebrated minds as Alan Lightman, who explores our place in the universe, David Deutsch, who ponders the quantum horizons, Oliver Sacks, who takes us to the mind-bending world of hallucinations, Robert Sapolsky, who considers what comes after humanity, and Gareth Cook, who challenges our assumptions about autism. Still, it’s worth noting that of the anthology’s twenty-seven essays, five are by women — where are Rebecca Skloot, Maria Konnikova, and Maggie Koerth-Baker , among countless other women who write about science with unparalleled rigor and eloquence? (Perhaps fretting over the obvious omission of Mary Roach, grand dame of popular science, can be put at rest, since she did edit the 2011 edition of the anthology.)

Gender imbalance aside, however, the essays are undeniably exquisite. But among the most poignant is in fact the foreword by Mukherjee, in which he adds to history’s finest definitions of science a beautiful and counterintuitive reflection on what lies at the heart of science. A masterful storyteller, he draws us into a personal anecdote, then catapults us into a larger meditation on what the peculiar life of genetics godfather Gregor Mendel reveals about the driving force of true science:

In the summer of 2012, I traveled to Brno, in the Czech Republic, to visit the monastery of Gregor Mendel. I knew the barest details of Mendel’s life — enough to generate an anatomical sketch but not much more. Originally from a farming family in Moravia, he had joined the Augustinian monastery in Brno in the 1830s. In 1864, working with peas in the garden of his monastery, he stumbled on arguably the most seminal discovery of modern biology: that hereditary information is transmitted from one generation to the next in the form of discrete particles of information — “genes.”

As a geneticist himself, Mukherjee was inordinately excited about his pilgrimage. But he was unprepared for his brush with that classic Eastern European bureaucracy, the kind so vexing it might just engender violence: Once he made his way to Mendel’s monastery, he realized that the abbey, tended by an auburn-haired Czech woman, was closed that day and he had to fill out an application, in duplicate, in order to enter it and look for Mendel’s coveted notebooks and set foot in the room where the great geneticist made his historic pea hybrids tabulations. This was exasperating information, given he was only in town for a night. The absurdity of the situation only swelled when the woman informed him it was to her the application ought to be made. Mukherjee recounts:

I scrutinized her face. If there was even the faintest glimmer of irony, I had missed it. Well, two could play this game, I thought.

“In that case, I am applying to you now,” I said. “I hereby present my application to visit Gregor Mendel’s monastery.” I restrained myself from executing a small bow.

The woman considered the impasse carefully. A moment of understanding passed between us, like a tiny, malevolent bolt of electricity. She looked defeated.

“No photographs, okay?” she said. She pulled out a large key from under her desk and escorted me in.

And so Mukherjee entered the holy premises of scientific history — but only to find damp walls, austere one-room cells, and a modest library of about 200 leather-bound books — none on botany or even any aspect of biology — with a reading chair beside them. Mendel’s own room was befitting, with only a small bed and a chair in the corner. Mukherjee found himself hopelessly underwhelmed — having traveled 3,000 miles to the birthplace of genetics in search of “something magical,” of “an insight into the soul of the man who had revolutionized biology,” he felt a growing sense of disappointment. He felt duped, even, in that familiar way we all have of being angry at no one in particular for the unfortunate turn of events that crushed our optimistic expectation. Once his anger cooled, though, he reflected on the apt meta-message of the experience:

Perhaps the custodians of Mendel’s legacy had — if unwittingly — achieved a rather accurate re-creation, or even a reenactment, of his life in the abbey. The rule-boundedness, the deference to authority, the moral disapproval at the smallest transgressions of discipline — that ever-so-slight shrug at my unfiled application — were all symptomatic; had Mendel himself been asked to curate a monument to his own stifling times, he could not have chosen a more seasoned actor to play its guardian.

Mendel’s forty-odd-year stint at the Brno abbey was, indeed, deeply constrained by rules, habits, and limits. He began his experiments on inheritance by breeding field mice but was asked to discontinue them because forcing mice to mate was considered too risqué for a monk. He failed his training exams in science —notably in geology and biology — because he was unable to classify rocks and mammals using the elaborate traditional systems of classification. A sympathetic superior, Abbot Napp, allowed him to continue his experiments on peas in his garden plot, but Mendel was held to the abbey’s strict routines and demands. In one of the few letters that survive, a stern note from his watchers instructs him to remember to wear his cap to church services. Mendel, for his part, was all too eager to comply. Far from a boundary-breaking, rule-bending enfant terrible, he was disciplined, deferential, and dull.

How on earth, then, did this man, in this place, unlock the secret of genes?

At this point, Charles Bukowski might chime in with his sarcastic admonition about the ideal conditions of creativity, but Mukherjee continues:

Newton had his cometary intellect; Einstein was born a rebel and bred to defy convention; Feynman was the comic genius of physics, exposing his discipline’s vanities like a jester in a court of fools. But Gregor Mendel? The founder of modern biology seems, in contrast, to have been born without contrast — a man of habits plodding his way among men in habits.

William James, on the other hand, would have gladly commended rather than condemned habit as a force of creativity. But Mukherjee steers his way to a different kind of solution to the seeming puzzle, one that captures with equal parts poetry and pride the essence of science:

At least part of the answer, I think, takes us back to the monastery — to that minuscule rectangle of land by the refectory; to the walled garden; to the indelible image of a monk in wire-rimmed glasses tending plants—stooping, with paintbrush and forceps, to transfer the orange dust of pollen from the stamen of one flower to the pistil of the next. “It requires indeed some courage to undertake a labor of such far-reaching extent,” Mendel wrote in his 1865 paper, describing an eight-year experiment on cross-fertilization that ultimately revealed the existence of genes. But “courage,” I would argue, is the wrong word here. More than “courage,” there is something else evident in that work — a quality that I can only describe as “tenderness.”

It is a word not typically used to describe science or scientists. It shares roots, of course, with “tending” — a farmer’s or gardener’s activity — but also with “tension,” the stretching of a pea tendril to incline it toward sunlight or train it on an arbor. It describes a certain intimacy between humans and nature — a nourishment that must happen before investigation can happen, the delicacy of labor that must be performed before the delicacy of its fruits can be harvested.

It’s interesting, too, that George R. R. Martin has used a similar metaphor to describe the two kinds of writers, architects and gardeners. It’s precisely this gift for “gardening,” argues Mukherjee, that lent the godfather of genetics his great strength:

Mendel was, first and foremost, a gardener; his science began with tending. His genius was certainly not fueled by deep knowledge of the conventions of biology (thankfully, he failed that exam). Rather, it was his instinctual knowledge of the garden, coupled with an incisive power of observation, that brought him to question the nature of inheritance and thereby discover genes. The act of tending — the laborious cross-pollination of seedlings, the meticulous tabulation of the colors of cotyledons and the markings of wrinkles on seeds — soon led him to findings that could not be explained by the traditional understanding of inheritance. Heredity, Mendel realized, could be explained only by the passage of discrete pieces of information from parents to offspring. There had to be atoms of information — particles of inheritance — moving from one generation to the next. Tending generated tension — until the old fulcrum of biology was snapped in two.

Mendel’s legacy, of course, is history — not only in science, but in every aspect of culture. Without it, for instance, Richard Dawkins would’ve never coined the concept of a “meme,” which he originally explained with an analogy to Mendel’s discovery: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

Mukherjee reflects on the broader role of tenderness in science and its function as our last bulwark against the dehumanizing capacities of technology, an antidote to this age of exponentially glorified science-industrial complex of big data, factory-like labs, and disembodied algorithms:

When I witness science in action, I see this tenderness in abundance. … Look closely among scientists, and you find this quality everywhere. There is tenderness in the chemist measuring and re-measuring salts in the hood; in the mathematician kneading his equations to understand the shape of the cosmos; in the marine biologist learning to talk to dolphins. . . . In age of increasingly mechanized production, the genesis of scientific knowledge remains an unyieldingly, obstreperously hand-hewn process. It is among the most human of our activities. Far from being subsumed by the dehumanizing effects of technology, science remains our last stand against it.

And so it is with this criterion in mind — tenderness — that Mukherjee selected the essays in the collection, meditations that reveal not only how science actually happens but also who or what propels its immutable humanity. Complement The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 with this collection of 2012’s finest science writing online, then revisit the best science books of the past year.

BP

The Odd Habits and Curious Customs of Famous Writers

Color-coded muses, rotten apples, self-imposed house arrest, and other creative techniques at the intersection of the superstitious and the pragmatic.

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) — the more dimensional and thoroughly researched counterpart to Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals — 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.

Pages from ‘Virginia Wolf,’ a children’s book about Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her sister, Vanessa Bell. Click image for more.

Woolf remained incredibly resourceful — an inventor of sorts, even. After she switched from standing to sitting, she created a contraption of which she was very proud: She used a piece of thin plywood as a writing board, to which she attached a tray for pens and ink so she wouldn’t have to get up and disrupt her flow of inspiration should she run out of materials. Driven by a similar fear of depletion of materials, John Steinbeck, who liked to write his drafts in pencil, always kept exactly twelve perfectly sharpened pencils on his desk. He used them so heavily that his editor had to send him round pencils to alleviate the calluses Steinbeck had developed on his hands from the traditional hexagonal ones.

Some habits, of course, were far less pragmatic, harking instead to creative superstition. Truman Capote wouldn’t begin or end a piece of work on a Friday, would change hotel rooms if the room phone number involved the number 13, and never left more than three cigarette butts in his ashtray, tucking the extra ones into his coat pocket.

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.

A minority, however, measured quantity as inversely proportional to quality. James Joyce proudly considered the completion of two perfect sentences a full day of work and Dorothy Parker, an obsessive reviser, even skewed to the negative, once lamented, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”

Even more curious were the resourceful methods authors used to compel themselves to execute their daily quotas. In the fall of 1830, Victor Hugo set out to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame against the seemingly impossible deadline of February 1831. He bought an entire bottle of ink in preparation and practically put himself under house arrest for months, using a most peculiar anti-escape technique:

Hugo locked away his clothes to avoid any temptation of going outside and was left with nothing to wear except a large gray shawl. He had purchased the knitted outfit, which reached right down to his toes, just for the occasion. It served as his uniform for many months.

He finished the book weeks before deadline, using up the whole bottle of ink to write it. He even considered titling it What Came Out of a Bottle of Ink, but eventually settled for the less abstract and insidery title.

Flannery O'Connor and her peacocks
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.”

(A semi-scientific hypothesis of an aside here: If left to rot long enough, decomposing biomass, such as apples, produces methane gas. Though methane is not toxic, it can displace oxygen in a closed space — like, say, an obsessive writer’s small den — and could eventually pose asphyxiation risk if the displacement runs rampant. In small doses, however, it can cause light-headedness — that pleasant near-tipsy feeling of slight dizziness one gets when in the grip of creative inspiration. It is possible, then, that the rotting apples were more than an odd olfactory stimulus for Schiller and actually had a biological effect on his mental state.)

Most authors, of course, didn’t let their food rot for inspiration, but they were no less particular about their preferred edibles for fueling the muse. Agatha Christie munched on apples in the bathtub while pondering murder plots, Flannery O’Connor crunched vanilla wafers, and Vladimir Nabokov fueled his “prefatory glow” with molasses.

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.

Gertrude Stein’s famous Model T Ford. Click image for details.

Many authors were notorious multitaskers: Alexandre Dumas dedicated every spare moment to his craft, writing between errands and meals, and Gertrude Stein wrote during errands as her wife, Alice B. Toklas, drove the duo around in their famed Model T Ford, Aunt Pauline (named after Stein’s real aunt, because the car, like Pauline herself, “always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most of the time if she was properly flattered”). Johnson tells us:

In the privacy of an automobile, she could let her mind wander and jot down a few lines, no matter where she was. Stein was especially productive during errands. She’d sit in the car while her partner, Alice B. Toklas, dashed into a store. While she waited, Stein would pull out a pencil and a scrap of paper. She was particularly inspired by the traffic on busy Parisian streets. Automobiles stopped and started with a rhythm that thrummed right into her poetry and prose.

Stein, like Vladimir Nabokov, even liked to write in a parked car, which served as a perfectly contained bubble of stillness ideal for writing. But other authors’ relationships with transportation and the muse were decidedly less safe — Eudora Welty jotted down ideas during the long drives to her mother’s nursing home and Sir Walter Scott composed poetry on horseback.

Moving vehicles and motion, in fact, have a long history of stirring up inspiration. (I get the vast majority of my own ideas while riding my bike around the city or working out on the elliptical at the gym.) Joseph Heller arrived at some of his greatest ideas while riding the bus and even famously stated that the closing line of Catch-22 came to him on a bus. When he was sixteen, Woody Allen channeled his budding comedic genius on his daily crowded subway rides to the New York ad agency that had offered him an after-school job. Most impressive of all, however, was that he managed to write his ideas down without the luxury of a seat, standing and wobbling alongside irate commuters. Johnson cites Allen’s recollection:

Straphanging, I’d take out a pencil and by the time I’d gotten out I’d have written forty or fifty jokes … fifty jokes a day for years.

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.

Odd Type Writers is both fascinating in its particular oddities and oddly assuring in its general testament to the grounding power of personal habit and the coexistence of creativity and quirk. Complement it with some more practical help from famous authors in their collected wisdom on writing.

BP

10 Famous Creators’ Secret Obsessions and Little-Known Talents

Feynman’s sketches, Monroe’s poetry, Plath’s drawings, Magritte’s album art, and more.

A recent piece on director David Lynch’s avant-garde visual art sounded the dot-connecting bell and sent me digging through the Brain Pickings archives for more examples of artists famous in one medium or genre who created little-known but wonderful art in another — a living testament to creativity’s medium-blind nature. Here are ten favorite surprises.

RICHARD FEYNMAN’S SKETCHES

Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science, adviser of future generations, bongo player — was a surprisingly gifted semi-secret artist. He started drawing at the age of 44, shortly after developing the visual language for his famous Feynman diagrams, after a series of amicable arguments about art vs. science with his artist-friend Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian — the same friend to whom Feynman’s timeless ode to a flower was in response. Eventually, the two agreed that they’d exchange lessons in art and science on alternate Sundays. Feynman went on to draw — everything from portraits of other prominent physicists and his children to sketches of strippers and very, very many female nudes — until the end of his life. His drawings are collected in The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character (public library), edited by his daughter Michelle.

Dancer at Gianonni’s Bar (1968)
Female Posing (1968)
Equations and Sketches (1985)
Jirayr Zorthian (date N/A)

In an introductory essay titled But Is It Art?, Feynman recounts his arrangement with Jerry and observes the intersection of art and science:

I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.

See more here.

MARILYN MONROE’S UNPUBLISHED POETRY

Did you ever begin Ulysses? Did you ever finish it? Marilyn Monroe did both. She took great pains to be photographed reading or holding a book — insistence born not out of vain affectation but of a genuine love of literature. Her personal library contained four hundred books, including classics like Dostoyevsky and Milton, and modern staples like Hemingway and Kerouac. While she wasn’t shooting, she was taking literature and history night classes at UCLA. And yet, the public image of a breezy, bubbly blonde endures as a caricature of Monroe’s character, standing in stark contrast with whatever deep-seated demons led her to take her own life.

But her private poetry — fragmentary, poem-like texts scribbled in notebooks and on loose-leaf paper, published for the first time in Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters (public library) — reveals a complex, sensitive being who peered deeply into her own psyche and thought intensely about the world and other people. What these texts bespeak, above all, is the tragic disconnect between a highly visible public persona and a highly vulnerable private person, misunderstood by the world, longing to be truly seen.

Only parts of us will ever
touch only parts of others —
one’s own truth is just that really — one’s own truth.
We can only share the part that is understood by within another’s knowing acceptable to
the other — therefore
so one
is for most part alone.
As it is meant to be in
evidently in nature — at best though perhaps it could make
our understanding seek
another’s loneliness out.

Life —
I am of both of your directions
Life
Somehow remaining hanging downward
the most
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind — I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a paintings — ah life they
have cheated you

See more here.

ANDY WARHOL’S CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATIONS

Andy Warhol may be one of only seven artists in the world to have ever sold a canvas for $100 million, but you might be able to own “a Warhol” for about $5 — that is, if you can get your hands on a used copy of one of the children’s books he illustrated in the late 1950s, while making a living designing book covers and illustrating dry business books as one of Doubleday’s freelance artists. Shortly before halting his love affair with the corporate world in fear of compromising his flirtations with the art world, he illustrated six stories for the classic Best In Children’s Books series, including “The Little Red Hen” in 1958 and “Card Games Are Fun” in 1959.

See more here and here.

RENÉ MAGRITTE’S ALBUM COVERS

Legendary Belgian Surrealist artist René Magritte had a little-known early commercial career. Young Magritte made rent by working as a draughtsman at a wallpaper factory and designing graphic ephemera, among which were some 40 sheet music covers he produced in the 1920s, nearly two decades before Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover as we know it today.

‘Marche des Snobs,’ sheet music cover (1924). 13 3/4×10 1/2 inches, 35×26 3/4 cm. J. Buyst, Brussels
‘Arlita / Chanson Lumineuse,’ sheet music cover (c. 1925). 13 1/4×10 1/2 inches, 33 1/2×26 3/4 cm.
‘Un Rien … (Nothing),’ sheet music cover (1925). 13 3/4×10 3/4 inches, 35×27 1/4 cm. Éditions Musicales de l’Art Belge, Brussels.

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DR. SEUSS’S WWII PROPAGANDA

Dr. Seuss may be best-remembered for his irreverent children’s rhymes and the timeless prescriptions for living embedded in them, but he was also a prolific maker of subversive secret art and the auteur of a naughty book for adults. Though his children’s books have already been shown to brim with subtle political propaganda, during WWII, he lent his creative talents to far more explicit, adult-focused wartime propaganda when he joined the New York daily newspaper PM as a political cartoonist. Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel (public library) collects 200 of Geisel’s black-and-white illustrations, but more than half of his editorial cartoons were never previously made publicly available.

We’re just going to knock out the unnecessary floors designed by F.D.R., published by PM Magazine on May 18, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego
Insure your home against Hitler!, published by PM Magazine on July 28, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego
In Russia a chap, so we’re told, knits an object strange to behold. Asked what is his gag, he says ‘This is the bag that the great Adolf will hold!,’ published by PM Magazine on August 11, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego
Wipe that sneer off his face!, published by PM Magazine on October 13, 1942, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego
Time to swap the old book for a set of brass knuckles, published by PM Magazine on December 30, 1941, Dr. Seuss Collection, MSS 230. Mandeville Special Collections Library, UC San Diego

See more here.

PATTI SMITH’S POETRY

Patti Smith is a modern-day creative muse of rare eclectic brilliance. The Coral Sea (public library) collects her breathtaking prose poems exorcising the loss of her lifelong spirit-mate, beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). She describes the collection as “a season in grief” and writes:

All that I knew of him encrypted within a small suite of prose poems. They speak of his love for art, his patron Sam Wagstaff, and his caring for me. But most importantly his resolute will to live, that could not be contained, not even in death.

Here is an exclusive recording of Smith reading my favorite poem from the book, the stirring “Reflecting Robert”:

Blessedness is within us all
It lies upon the long scaffold
Patrols the vaporous hall
In our pursuits, though still, we venture forth
Hoping to grasp a handful of cloud and return
Unscathed, cloud in hand. We encounter
Space, fist, violin, or this — an immaculate face
Of a boy, somewhat wild, smiling in the sun.
He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.
Soon they will gather power, disenchantment
They will reflect enlightenment, agony
They will reveal the process of love
They will, in an hour alone, shed tears.
His mouth a circlet, a baptismal font
Opening wide as the lips of a damsel
Sounding the dizzying extremes.
The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest
For the sake of wing there is shoulder.
For symmetry there is blade.
He kneels, humiliates, he pierces her side.
Offering spleen to the wolves of the forest.
He races across the tiles, the human board.
Virility, coquetry all a game — well played.
Immersed in luminous disgrace, he lifts
As a slave, a nymph, a fabulous hood
As a rose, a thief of life, he will parade
Nude crowned with leaves, immortal.
He will sing of the body, his truth
He will increase the shining neck
Pluck airs toward our delight
Of the waning
The blossoming
The violent charade
But who will sing of him?
Who will sing of his blessedness?
The blameless eye, the radiant grin
For he, his own messenger, is gone
He has leapt through the orphic glass
To wander eternally
In search of perfection
His blue ankles tattooed with stars.

See more, including Smith’s original handwritten manuscripts, here.

J.R.R. TOLKIEN’S DRAWINGS

In October of 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien delivered to his publisher the manuscript of what would become one of the most celebrated fantasy books of all time. In September of the following year, The Hobbit made its debut, with 20 or so original drawings, two maps, and a cover painting by Tolkien himself. But it turns out the author created more than 100 illustrations, recently uncovered amidst Tolkien’s papers, digitized by Oxford’s Bodleian Library, and released in Art of the Hobbit — a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit with 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors, as well as conceptual sketches for the now-iconic dust jacket cover painting of the mountains Bilbo Baggins transverses in his adventures.

See more here.

JIM HENSON’S EXPERIMENTAL FILM

The nature and mystery of time is a subject of longrunning scientific fascination, but what about its subjective, abstract nature? In 1964, exactly a decade after creating his original Muppets for Sesame Street predecessor Sam + Friends, Jim Henson wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a short experimental film titled Time Piece, exploring in a visceral way the effect time-keeping has on all of us. It premiered on May 6, 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art and was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966.

Originally featured here.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S GRAPHIC DESIGN

Frank Lloyd Wright is commonly regarded as the most influential architect in modern history, but despite his enormous cultural recognition, the full extent of his contribution to design — posters, brochures, typography, murals, book and magazine covers — remains relatively obscure. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist (public library), Penny Fowler examines Wright’s ingenious and bold graphic work — his covers for Liberty (some of which were so radical that the magazine rejected them), his mural designs for Midway Gardens, his photographic experiments, his hand-drawn typographical studies, the jacket designs for his own publications, including The House Beautiful and An Autobiography, and a wealth more.

Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, 1955. ©FLW Foundation

From his childhood encounter with Friedrich Froebel’s educational building blocks at the 1876 Centennial Exposition to his experiments with geometric designs long before the Mondrian age to his obsession with the woodblock art of Old Japan, Fowler traces Wright’s inspirations, influences, and singular style as his work dances across aesthetic movements like Bauhaus, Japanisme, Arts and Crafts, and De Stijl.

Hendrikus Theodorus Wijdeveld, ‘Architectuur/Frank Lloyd Wright,’ 1930.
Printed by Jon Enschede en Zonen, Harlem, Netherlands. Color lithograph ©The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MIA
Magazine cover, Town and Country, July 1937.
One of the designs that Wright originally proposed for Liberty, it is the only one ever published as a magazine cover. ©FLW Foundation
Hendrikus Theodorus Wijdeveld, wrapper design for the Wendingen Wrightnummers (fourth paper, January 1926).
Published by C. A. Mees, Santpoort, Netherlands. Black and red ink on white paper. This wrapper design was used (with minor variations) for all of the Wrightnummers (October 1925–April 1926). ©FLW Foundation

See more here.

SYLVIA PLATH’S DRAWINGS

Sylvia Plath — beloved poet, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience”, steamy romancer — had a few creative surprises up her sleeve. In addition to her little-known artist and children’s books, she was also a strikingly adroit artist. The pen and ink drawings collected in Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual (public library) capture the literary icon’s “deepest source of inspiration”: art. They reveal Plath’s exceptional attention to detail and her diverse yet introspective curiosity about the world, from nature to architecture, from intimacy to public life.

Cow near Grantchester
The Bell Jar
Untitled (Male Portrait in Profile)
Tabac Opposite Palais de Justice

See more here.

BP

Isaac Asimov’s Fan Mail to Young Carl Sagan

“You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.”

Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov first met in the 1960s. “I visualized him as an elderly person (the stereotype of the astronomer at his telescope,)” Asimov recounted in his autobiography, “but what I found him to be was a twenty-seven-year-old, handsome young man; tall, dark, articulate, and absolutely incredibly intelligent.” The two went on to be good friends for more than 25 years as Asimov’s first impression was not only confirmed but amplified.

From the altogether fantastic Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters (public library), edited by Asimov’s younger brother Stanley, come a few short and infinitely delightful letters Asimov wrote to and about Sagan over the course of their friendship, brimming with equal parts good-natured humor and overwhelming respect.

There’s so much to love in this note Asimov sent to another friend on March 22, 1966:

Sagan has read half through my book on the universe and has caught one fundamental error so far. In my rendering of Eddington’s theories on stellar structure, I talked of radiation pressure. Apparently, I didn’t have to. Fortunately, it just means correcting a sentence here and there.

But that’s what I need Sagan for. Anything he doesn’t catch isn’t there to be caught. If only he were a little faster about it. I said to him I realized he was awfully busy, too, but then I added with my particular brand of ingenuousness, “But then, what is your work compared to mine?”

And he said, “You say it in such a way that I can take it as a joke. But you really mean it, don’t you?”

So I made the best of it. I said, “Yes, I do.”

A very smart fellow, that Sagan.

Jest aside, however, Asimov held profound admiration and respect for Sagan — but never revealed it in the raw, uncushioned by that same “particular brand of ingenuousness.” On December 13, 1973, he sent Sagan a short note of appreciation, with the appropriate twist of affable irreverence:

I have just finished The Cosmic Connection and loved every word of it. You are my idea of a good writer because you have an unmannered style, and when I read what you write, I hear you talking.

One thing about the book made me nervous. It was entirely too obvious that you are smarter than I am. I hate that.

Asimov and Sagan at a banquet celebrating the 20th anniversary of Mariner 2, December 14, 1982

On June 15, 1985, Asimov sent another admiring note:

I just heard your talk on nuclear winter on Public Broadcasting. I am so proud of you, I almost burst with it. It was absolutely the sanest best speech I could imagine on the subject. It delighted me so much to find that I was on your side in every sentence of your talk.

But most heart-warming of all is this short limerick Asimov sent on the occasion of Carl Sagan’s marriage to Anne Druyan, one of the most epic love stories of modern history, in 1980:

Three loud cheers for Carl Sagan and Ann
Who today have become woman and man.
Be your lives bright as day
As the broad Milky Way
As the Big Bang with which all began.

One final note on the affectionate faux-rivalry between the two appears in a letter Asimov sent to another friend on March 15, 1986:

Half a year ago, Carl Sagan published Contact and that knocked half the sales off Robots and Empire. (These days, who can afford to buy two hard-covers?)

Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Lifetime in Letters is full of many more such gems from Asimov’s singular mind and heart. Complement it with Asimov on curiosity, risk-taking and the value of space exploration in this magnificent interview by the Muppets and Carl Sagan on the meaning of life.

BP

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