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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

Darwin’s Life, Adapted in Poems by His Great-Great-Granddaughter

“He is the most transparent man I ever saw and most affectionate.”

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science,” William Wordsworth wrote in his timeless meditation on poetry. And while he wasn’t necessarily being literal, the relationship between poetry and science — despite Coleridge’s attestation to the opposite — is a fruitful and alluring one, from Diane Ackerman’s verses for the cosmos to this vintage scientific paper published as a 38-stanza poem.

Now comes a fine testament inspired by the life of Charles Darwingraphic novel hero, man of formidable daily routine, scholar of human emotional expression, occasional grump. In Darwin: A Life in Poems (public library), the legendary scientist’s great-great-granddaughter, the poet Ruth Padel, draws on Darwin’s books, journals, autobiography, scientific papers, notebooks, drafts, and letters to summon an affectionate and imaginative memoir of rare poetic elegance.

In the first chapter, titled “Boy” and exploring Darwin’s childhood, Padel adapts the earliest memory of Darwin by anyone other than his family — an 1817 recollection by the botanist William Leighton, at the time an older pupil at the small school seven-year-old Charles attended in the medieval English town of Shrewsbury, where his father had built a house in 1800.

FINDING THE NAME IN THE FLOWER

I

THE CHAPEL SCHOOL

‘He brought a flower to school. He said his mother
taught him to look inside the blossom
and discover the name of the plant.
I inquired how it could be done
but the lesson was not transmissible.’
A walk through the zebra maze, to the Unitarian
chapel on Claremont Hill. What do they say,
the black stripes on white house-walls? He ’s afraid
of the dogs on Baker Street. When boys play
he chews the inside of his mouth. He can never fight.

Darwin’s mother, Susanna, died at a young age in July of the same year, when Charles was barely eight. Padel captures the chilling memory of the tragedy:

II

THE YEAR MY MOTHER DIED

‘I remember her sewing-table, curiously constructed.
Her black velvet gown. Nothing else
except her death-bed. And my Father, crying.’ No embrace.
‘My older sisters, in their great grief,
did not speak her name.’ Her memory was silence.
No memento of her face.

Charles as a child, with his sister Catherine. (Cambridgeshire Collection)

In a chapter dedicated to Emma Darwin, Padel channels the smitten obsessiveness of new love as Emma first encounters her future husband in 1838, only a few months before Darwin famously weighed the pros and cons of marriage.

SHE DIDN’T THINK HE CARED

‘I was glad he was not too sure of being accepted. I went
immediately to the village school but found after an hour
I’d taught the children nothing, was turning into an idiot
and so came away. Every word expressed his real thought.
But he is so fond of us all at Maer, so demonstrative
in his manner, I did not think it meant anything. The week
I spent in London, earlier, I felt sure he did not care
about me. He was very unwell. That was all.’

Charles and Emma went on to marry and have ten children. They remained together for 43 years, until Darwin’s death in 1882.

Darwin: A Life in Poems is a delight in its entirety.

BP

Beloved Film Critic Roger Ebert on Writing, Life, and Mortality

“Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to.”

What a cultural loss to bid farewell to beloved critic Roger Ebert at the age of 70, after a long battle with the cancer that first claimed his jaw and, now, his life. Though I’d followed Ebert’s writing for some time, with the sort of detached appreciation one directs at cultural commentators, it wasn’t until I encountered him in the flesh at TED 2011, where he delivered his brave and stirring talk about learning to speak again, that I found myself in sheer awe of his spirit. A few months later, his memoir, Life Itself (public library), was released and I absorbed it voraciously. Today, some of its most resonant parts come back to mind, a bittersweet reminder of the incredible mind we’ve lost.

Roger Ebert (photograph by Anne Ryan, USA Today)

Ebert begins with an apt and beautiful metaphor for his existence:

I was born inside the movie of my life. The visuals were before me, the audio surrounded me, the plot unfolded inevitably but not necessarily. I don’t remember how I got into the movie, but it continues to entertain me.

In recalling the mismatch between his memory of his childhood home and the reality of the house once he returned as an adult, he captures that ineffable feeling of questioning the very fabric of reality:

I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It’s a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely. I doubt I’ve experienced it ten times in my life. I felt it at Smith Drugs when I was seven or eight and opened a nudist magazine and discovered that all women had breasts. I felt it when my father told me he had cancer. I felt it when I proposed marriage. Yes, and I felt it in the old Palais des Festivals at Cannes, when the Ride of the Valkyries played during the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now.

The shape-shifting quality of memory is something Ebert returns to again and again:

One of the rewards of growing old is that you can truthfully say you lived in the past. … In these years after my illness, when I can no longer speak and am set aside from the daily flow, I live more in my memory and discover that a great many things are safely stored away. It all seems still to be in there somewhere. … You find a moment from your past, undisturbed ever since, still vivid, surprising you. In high school I fell under the spell of Thomas Wolfe: ‘A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.’ Now I feel all the faces returning to memory.

[…]

I remember everything. All my life I’ve been visited by unexpected flashes of memory unrelated to anything taking place at the moment. These retrieved moments I consider and replace on the shelf. When I began writing this book, memories came flooding to the surface, not because of any conscious effort but simply in the stream of writing. I started in a direction and the memories were waiting there, sometimes of things I hadn’t consciously thought about since.

Thomas Wolfe was, in fact, a big part of how fell in love with reading shortly after his high school graduation:

I read endlessly, often in class, always late at night. There was no pattern; one book led randomly to another. The great influence was Thomas Wolfe, who burned with the need to be a great novelist, and I burned in sympathy. I felt that if I could write like him, I would have nothing more to learn. I began to ride my bike over to campus and steal quietly into the bookstores.

Roger Ebert

Echoing E. B. White’s famous admonition that “writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper” and Isabel Allende’s counsel to “show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too,” Ebert shares some invaluable advice:

My colleague late at night, a year or two older, was Bill Lyon, who covered Champaign High School sports and became a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. … Bill and I would labor deep into the night on Fridays, composing our portraits of the [football] games. I was a subscriber to the Great Lead Theory, which teaches that a story must have an opening paragraph so powerful as to leave few readers still standing. … Lyon watched as I ripped one sheet of copy paper after another out of my typewriter and finally gave me the most useful advice I have ever received as a writer: ‘One, don’t wait for inspiration, just start the damn thing. Two, once you begin, keep on until the end. How do you know how the story should begin until you find out where it’s going?’ These rules saved me half a career’s worth of time and gained me a reputation as the fastest writer in town. I’m not faster. I spend less time not writing.

Much like his ability to summon memories without deliberate effort, Ebert’s mastery of the writing process is largely an unconscious act, a state of mesmerism experienced in finding your purpose and doing what you love:

When I write, I fall into the zone many writers, painters, musicians, athletes, and craftsmen of all sorts seem to share: In doing something I enjoy and am expert at, deliberate thought falls aside and it is all just there. I think of the next word no more than the composer thinks of the next note.

He marvels at how the social web, despite his initial skepticism, liberated his impulse for self-expression as his writing took on an autobiographical life of its own:

My blog became my voice, my outlet, my ‘social media’ in a way I couldn’t have dreamed of. Into it I poured my regrets, desires, and memories. Some days I became possessed. The comments were a form of feedback I’d never had before, and I gained a better and deeper understanding of my readers. I made ‘online friends,’ a concept I’d scoffed at. Most people choose to write a blog. I needed to. I didn’t intend for it to drift into autobiography, but in blogging there is a tidal drift that pushes you that way. … the Internet encourages first-person writing, and I’ve always written that way. How can a movie review be written in the third person, as if it were an account of facts? If it isn’t subjective, there’s something false about it.

The blog let loose the flood of memories. Told sometimes that I should write my memoirs, I failed to see how I possibly could. I had memories, I had lived a good life in an interesting time, but I was at a loss to see how I could organize the accumulation of a lifetime. It was the blog that taught me how. It pushed me into first-person confession, it insisted on the personal, it seemed to organize itself in manageable fragments. Some of these words, since rewritten and expanded, first appeared in blog forms. Most are here for the first time. They come pouring forth in a flood of relief.

Roger Ebert and wife Chaz, 2011 (photograph by Fred Thornhill/Reuters via The New York Times)

He captures the diverse spectrum of what we call “journalism,” sharply aware of where he plants his own stake:

I used journalism to stay at one remove from my convictions: I wouldn’t risk arrest but would bravely report about those who did. My life has followed that pattern. I observe and describe at a prudent reserve.

At the heart of cinema, Ebert sees a deep resonance with the human condition:

If you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear. Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about. Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.

On the art of the interview:

My secret as an interviewer was that I was actually impressed by the people I interviewed … I am beneath everything else a fan. I was fixed in this mode as a young boy and am awed by people who take the risks of performance. I become their advocate and find myself in sympathy.

On writing as a substitute for the human pleasures that were taken from him by his illness:

What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.

On our relationship with mortality, at once rather complex and rather simple:

We’re all dying in increments.

Complement Life Itself with Ebert’s unforgettable TED talk:

BP

February 25, 1956: Sylvia Plath Meets Ted Hughes in One of Literary History’s Steamiest Encounters

“He ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears.”

On February 25, 1956, young Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience” — walked into a crowded literary party and was instantly drawn to the man with whom she’d come to enter into a tumultuous marriage, the man who years after Plath’s suicide would write an exquisite letter of life advice to the couple’s son, the man who’d become the controversial executor of Plath’s literary estate: Ted Hughes.

The encounter, which Andrew Wilson describes in the ambitious recent biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library), is the stuff of literary legend:

On February 25, 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described in her diary as a “big, dark, hunky boy.” She asked her companions if anyone knew the name of this young man but she received no answer. The party was in full swing and the free-form rhythms of the jazz — the “syncopated strut” of the piano, the seductive siren call of the trumpet — made conversation difficult. Sylvia, in Cambridge studying on a Fulbright Fellowship, had been drinking all night: a lethal line of “red-gold” Whisky Macs at a pub in town with her date for that night, Hamish Stewart. The potent combination of scotch and ginger wine had left her feeling like she could almost walk through the air. In fact, the alcohol had had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she had found herself so inebriated that she had kept banging into trees.

On arrival at the Women’s Union — the venue in Falcon Yard chosen to celebrate the first issue of the slim student-made literary journal the St. Botolph’s Review — Sylvia saw that the room was packed with young men in turtleneck sweaters and women in elegant black dresses. Counterpointing the jazz, the sound of poetry was in the air: great chunks of it being quoted back and forth like rallies in a game of literary dominance and seduction. Sylvia was in a bullish mood that night. One of the contributors to St. Botolph’s Review, Daniel Huws, had sneered at two of her poems that had appeared in another Cambridge literary magazine, dismissing her work as too polished and well made. “Quaint and electric artfulness,” he had written in Broadsheet. “My better half tells me ‘Fraud, fraud,’ but I will not say so; who am I to know how beautiful she may be.” Plath felt justifiably angry; after all, she had been writing for publication since the age of eight and she had already earned sizable sums for poems and short stories from Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. She walked up to Huws, a pale, freckle-faced undergraduate at Peterhouse, and said in a tone of “friendly aggression,” “Is this the better or worse half?” Huws, who later regarded the words as a “fair retaliation” for his “facetious and wounding” remarks, did not know quite how to respond. From Sylvia’s point of view, Huws looked too boyish. She was equally as dismissive of the rest of the St. Botolph’s set, describing Lucas Myers, who was studying at Downing College, as inebriated and wearing a “satanic smile,” and Than Minton, reading natural sciences at Trinity, as so small-framed you would have to sit down if you wanted to talk to him (in Plath’s world a short man was about as useful and attractive as a homosexual).

By this point, Sylvia had knocked back another drink, emptying its contents into her mouth, down her hands, and onto the floor. She then tried to dance the twist with Myers and, although her movements may well have been less than smooth, her memory was razor sharp. As she danced, she proceeded to recite the whole of Myers’s poem “Fools Encountered,” which she had read for the first time earlier that day in St. Botolph’s Review. When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same “hunky boy,” the one who had been “hunching” around over women whom she had seen earlier. He introduced himself as Ted Hughes. She recalled the three poems he had published in St. Botolph’s Review, and in an effort to dazzle him with her vivacity, she immediately began reciting segments of them to him. In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the poems she declaimed, “Law in the Country of the Cats,” addresses the violent, irrational sense of enmity and rivalry that can often exist between individuals, even strangers. On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes — who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the J. Arthur Rank film company — and Plath was instant. But Sylvia sensed something else too. “There is a panther stalks me down: / One day I’ll have my death of him,” she wrote in “Pursuit,” a poem that she composed two days later.

Plath recorded this encounter — now one of the most famous in all literary history — in her journal the next day. Suffering from a terrible hangover — she joked she thought she might be suffering from the DTs — she described the sexual tension that had flared up between them. After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth. Almost immediately, they started discussing Huws’s critique of her poetry. Hughes joked that his friend knew that Plath was beautiful, that she could take such criticism, and that he would never have attacked her had she been a “cripple.” He told her he had “obligations” in the next room — in effect, another Cambridge student, named Shirley — and that he was working in London and earning £10 a week. Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”

Mad Girl’s Love Song is sublime in its entirety, laced with the same blend of scintillating narrative and fascinating historical context.

Photographs via The Times and London Evening Standard

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