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Conchology, or, the Natural History of Shells: Stunning 19th-Century Illustrations from the World’s First Pictorial Encyclopedia of Mollusks

Voluptuaries of geometry and color, elaborate living urns, lavish lampshades for the place of some sea god, miniature Hindu temples, gorgeous drag queens of the deep, otherworldly amphoras from the bottom of this spectacular world.

A century-old annual report by one of the greatest public-good institutions our civilization has produced — New York’s Cooper Union, site of the speech that bewinged Lincoln’s ascent to the presidency, alma mater to some of the most visionary artists and thinkers of the past century and a half, founded by the inspired mechanic Peter Cooper the year Darwin published On the Origin of Species — begins with this plainspoken benediction of a mission statement:

For over half a century the Cooper Union has given, in order to advance Science and Art, education to over 180,000 men and women, regardless of race or creed, without money and without price.

In 1893, moved to aid this ennobling endeavor, the wealthy widow Mary Stuart established a $10,000 annual fund — close to $300,000 today — devoted to acquiring important, scrumptiously illustrated rare books for the Cooper Union library. Among them is the world’s first comprehensive illustrated encyclopedia of shell-dwelling animals: Conchology, or, The Natural History of Shells — a work I discovered by a sidewise research trail during my tender adventures in snailhood.

Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Born in 1771, the English naturalist and malacologist George Perry became the era’s preeminent scholar of shell-bearing mollusks. In 1811, he published his research in this exquisite 266-page treasure, featuring sixty-two color plates of strange and wondrous creatures, illustrated by the English artist and engraver John Clarke, “executed from the natural specimens and including the latest discoveries” — the mobile homes of marine creatures turned voluptuaries of geometry and color, elaborate living urns, lavish lampshades for the palace of some sea god, miniature Hindu temples, gorgeous drag queens of the deep, otherworldly amphoras from the bottom of this spectacular world.

Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Perry notes how deeply and widely shells have permeated the human cultural experience over the ages — from the drinking cups used in ancient religious rituals to the purple dye extracted from a delicate Mediterranean shell of the genus Polyplex, with which the early poets produced the oldest surviving writings, to the volutes gracing the iconic capital columns of Grecian architecture, which borrow their shape from the geometry of the ram’s horn squid, the only surviving member of the genus Spirula.

Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

In an era when the chief purpose of science was seen as a confirmation of the perfection of a Creator-god, half a century before Darwin began shattering the brittle creationist mythology of unreason with the anvil of his elegantly reasoned evolutionary revelation, Perry opens the book with a poetic sentiment reverencing the aesthetic and spiritual rewards of shells beyond their science:

The study of Shells, or testaceous animals, is a branch of natural history which, although not greatly useful to the mechanical arts, or the human economy, is, nevertheless, by the beauty of the subjects it comprises, most admirably adapted to recreate the senses, to improve the taste or invention of the Artist, and, finally and insensibly, to lead to the contemplation of the great excellence and wisdom of the Divinity in their formation.

Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Working with the copy digitized by the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library, I have restored and color-corrected the finest, most beautiful, most otherworldly of these visual serenades to the diverse splendor of our irreplaceable world to make them available as prints and face masks — part of the growing collection of vintage science face masks, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.
Available as a print and as a face mask, benefiting The Nature Conservancy.

Complement with some psychedelic fishes from the world’s first encyclopedia of marine life in color, some candy-colored corals from the world’s first encyclopedia of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, and the astonishing butterfly drawings of two nineteenth-century Australian teenage sisters who fomented one of the greatest conservation triumphs of the twenty-first century.

BP

Why We Like What We Like: Poet and Philosopher George Santayana on the Formation and Confirmation of Our Standards and Sensibilities

“Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves.”

Why We Like What We Like: Poet and Philosopher George Santayana on the Formation and Confirmation of Our Standards and Sensibilities

In the 1850s, Emily Dickinson’s passionate first love shaped her uncommon body of work for a lifetime to come, shaped the spare and searing poems that would go on animating lives for generations to come.

In the 1950s, Rai Weiss fell in love with a pianist, fell in love with his lover’s passion for music, and went on to invent the colossal instrument that captured the sound of spacetime, revolutionizing our understanding of the universe and earning him the Nobel Prize in Physics.

In 1957, after becoming the second-youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Albert Camus hastened to send his childhood teacher a tender letter of gratitude for shaping the spirit and sensibility of the boy that made the man that made the work that won humanity’s highest accolade.

With uncommon insight into these joint fomentations of heart and mind, the great Spanish-American philosopher, poet, essayist, and novelist George Santayana (December 16, 1863–September 26, 1952) takes up the question of how our sensibilities are formed in a portion of Reason in Art — the fourth volume, nestled between Reason in Religion and Reason in Science, of his five-volume 1906 masterwork The Life of Reason; or, the Phases of Human Progress (public domain | public library).

George Santayana, 1880s

Considering the formative infrastructure of our frames of reference and our standards, our likes and dislikes, our aesthetic and moral judgments — that colossal compass of sensibility we call “taste,” by which we orient ourselves to the world, for we only ever orient by our yeas and nays — Santayana writes:

Taste is formed in those moments when aesthetic emotion is massive and distinct; preferences then grown conscious, judgments then put into words, will verbal reverberate through calmer hours; they will constitute prejudices, habits of apperception, secret standards for all other beauties. A period of life in which such intuitions have been frequent may amass tastes and ideals sufficient for the rest of our days. Youth in these matters governs maturity, and while men may develop their early impressions more systematically and find confirmations of them in various quarters, they will seldom look at the world afresh or use new categories in deciphering it. Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves. Never being so deeply stirred again, we remain persuaded that no objects save those we then discovered can have a true sublimity.

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print)

In consonance with the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell’s observation that “whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” and with an eye to our criteria for beauty — which apply to beauty in the broad Robinson Jeffers sense of not only aesthetic beauty but intellectual and moral beauty — Santayana adds:

It may be some eloquent appreciations read in a book, or some preference expressed by a gifted friend, that may have revealed unsuspected beauties in art or nature; and then, since our own perception was vicarious and obviously inferior in volume to that which our mentor possessed, we shall take his judgments for our criterion, since they were the source and exemplar of all our own. Thus the volume and intensity of some appreciations, especially when nothing of the kind has preceded, makes them authoritative over our subsequent judgments. On those warm moments hang all our cold systematic opinions; and while the latter fill our days and shape our careers it is only the former that are crucial and alive.

More than a century later, The Life of Reason remains an intellectual lavishment. Complement this particular fragment with Joseph Brodsky on how to develop your taste in reading, W. I. B. Beveridge on the cultivation of scientific taste, and Wordsworth on the artist’s responsibility of elevating taste.

BP

Child of Glass: A Soulful Italian Illustrated Meditation on How to Live with Our Human Fragility

A subtle celebration of the terrifying tenderness that makes life barely survivable but also makes it worth living.

Child of Glass: A Soulful Italian Illustrated Meditation on How to Live with Our Human Fragility

“To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed in contemplating how to live with our human fragility. The monumental challenge, however, is that of sculpting such trusting openness from the messy elemental vulnerability of being human, at times too tender to bear the world with all the uncontrollable invasions of its chaos and uncertainty, invasions that so often make us feel like we are about to shatter beyond repair.

To be a complete human being is to befriend the fear of fragility, intimate and menacing as it is — the work of a lifetime that begins in those most formative and fragile years when we first become aware of a world separate from ourselves, a world we must live in, a separateness we must live with, and somehow remain whole.

How to befriend that fear is what Italian artist and children’s book author Beatrice Alemagna explores with great allegorical deftness and tenderness in Child of Glass (public library) — a long-belated addition to the loveliest children’s books of its year.

With its undertone of magical realism, the story, translated and published in English by the indefatigable Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Enchanted Lion, begins in a small European village, with the astonishing birth of a child of glass — a baby girl named Gisele.

With her large, lovely eyes, the luminous Gisele learns to live with her strange condition of total transparency, blending into the landscape and the city, changing color with the setting sun “and shimmering like a thousand mirrors beneath the moon.”

As word of this living marvel spreads throughout the village and beyond, people make pilgrimages from all over the world — to see her, to touch her, to ask the well-meaning, rude questions about whether her parents have insured her and how she can be patented.

But Gisele’s own deepest fear is not about the fragility of physical breakage — it is the savage vulnerability of being completely transparent, her inner world completely unprotected from the ceaseless invasions of the outer world, her thoughts and feelings, even the most disquieting anxieties and most private terrors, visible like a colossal ever-changing collage.

Here, the genius of the physical book, untranslatable to a screen, steps in to magnify the sensitivity of the story with a syncopation of translucent and solid pages. Transparencies of Gisele’s face layer different mood-states to render the composite confusion of her being (as we all are) half-opaque to herself but her also being (as we only imagine ourselves to be) wholly transparent to the world.

Alarmed by the visible darkness flitting across her mindscape as it flits invisibly through all of ours, the villagers turn on Gisele, begin scolding and shaming her. Unable to take the abuse, Gisele, “sparkling and luminous, sensitive and transparent,” packs her suitcase, kisses her goodbye parents, and leaves.

But wherever she goes, carrying her fragile transparency and the unbearable cargo of the attendant vulnerability, she encounters the same.

Eventually, she realizes that her only salvation lies not in changing the world’s orientation to her but in changing her own orientation to her condition, which in turn changes her interchange with the world.

The story resolves in a soulful reminder that there is no cure for our fragility — there is only the courage of not merely living with it but embracing it as a wellspring of the tenderness that makes life worth living.

Couple Child of Glass, the touching and tactile loveliness of which the screen only diminishes, with Alemagna’s wondrous illustrated celebration of the rewards of nature and solitude in the age of screens, then revisit her visual serenade to the joy of reading accompanying Adam Gopnik’s letter to children in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Illustration by Beatrice Alemagna courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

BP

Toni Morrison on the Body as an Instrument of Joy, Sanity, and Self-Love

“Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them… Love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up… Love your heart. For this is the prize.”

Toni Morrison on the Body as an Instrument of Joy, Sanity, and Self-Love

Thinking lately about what it means to have the right heart, which intimates the question of what it means to tend to one’s own heart rightly, I was reminded of a passage from what may be the loveliest, truest, most quietly transcendent thing ever written about the art of growing older: “The main thing is this,” Grace Paley wrote in 1989, “when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.”

I was reminded, too, of a kindred passage penned two years earlier by another titan of thought and feeling in language: Toni Morrison (February 18, 1931–August 5, 2019), writing in her 1987 masterpiece Beloved (public library) — the novel that soon made her the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize, which she received with a speech of staggering insight into the human heart.

Toni Morrison. Jacket photograph for her debut novel, 1970.

From within the story’s broader meditation on the deepest meaning of freedom and the body as the locus of liberation, Morrison unspools this splendid sentiment from the lips of her protagonist:

In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard.

A century after Walt Whitman declaimed in Leaves of Grass that “the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern and includes and is the soul,” composing his reverent catalogue of body-parts — “head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears… mouth, tongue, lips, teeth… strong shoulders… bowels sweet and clean… brain in its folds inside the skull-frame… heart-valves…” — Morrison writes:

Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face… Love your mouth… This is flesh… Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms… Love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver — love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts… love your heart. For this is the prize.

The Human Heart. One of French artist Paul Sougy’s mid-century scientific diagrams of life. Available as a print.

Beloved remains the rare sort of masterpiece that gives the English language back to itself and your conscience back to itself. Complement this particular fragment with , then revisit Morrison on literature as rebellion and redemption, wisdom in the age of information, the artist’s task in trying times, and the little-known, lovely children’s book about kindness she wrote with her son.

BP

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