Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “famous writers”

Illustrated Bookshelves of Famous Artists’ and Writers’ Favorite Books

Patti Smith, David Sedaris, Jennifer Egan, Maira Kalman, Mary Karr, and more.

In 2007, artist and illustrator Jane Mount began painting “portraits of people through the spines of their books” — those aspirational bookshelves we all hold in our heads (and, ideally, on our walls), full of all the books that helped us discover and rediscover who we are, what we stand for, and what we’d like to become. A kind of book spine poetry of identity. In 2010, she paired with Paris Review writer Thessaly La Force and the two asked more than a hundred of today’s most exciting creators — writers, artists, designers, critics, filmmakers, chefs, architects — what those favorite, timeless books were for them. Thus, My Ideal Bookshelf * (public library) was born — a magnificent collection of Mount’s illustrated “portraits” of these modern-day icons, alongside short essays by each contributor explaining why the books included are meaningful to him or her. Besides the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of peeking inside the personal libraries of great minds, the project is at once a celebration of bibliophilia and a testament to the fact that the most interesting people are woven of incredibly eclectic influences.

La Force offers a necessary disclaimer in the introduction:

So much depends on where you, the reader, are — physically and metaphorically — when you decide to pick up a book and give it a chance. Which explains why there’s no such thing as one ideal bookshelf; there is no ur-bookshelf. It would be a mistake to try to read this book with that goal in mind. In the end., the one element that links all the ideal bookshelves in these pages is the never-ending search. e’re all still hunting, still hoping to discover one more book that we’ll love and treasure for the rest of our lives.

Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon speaks to the influence ecosystem that William Gibson once so eloquently termed “personal microculture” and captures the essence of combinatorial creativity:

Your style is still going to be constructed out of the material that you have inherited, but it’s going to be put together in some way that has, hopefully, never quite been heard before.

Maira Kalman

The ever-wise, ever-delightful Maira Kalman channels her love of libraries:

I love the architecture of public libraries, the very large windows. Inside it’s polished, it’s quiet; during the day, the sun is usually streaming through one room or another. And all the people are sitting there together, but they’re all going to completely different places through the books they’re reading.

Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan contemplates the substance of life:

My goal as a writer is to do as much as possible at one time. Life itself is so cacophonous and complex. It’s not that I want to create a cacophony, but I want to do justice to the complexity around us. I don’t want to oversimplify it. I want to take one thing and build from that, and then keep building, until I begin to approximate the complexity of the world and our perceptions of it.

Paola Antonelli

MoMA’s Paola Antonelli considers a book’s content in contrast to its thing-ness:

Hello World is a new book by Alice Rawsthorn, the one and only, the best design critic in the entire world. She keeps the banner of design flying high. Irma Boom designed it, and Irma is very simply the best book designer alive. I personally love reading books electronically. I proudly have a big wall of books in my apartment, but I’m continually getting rid of books that get on my nerves because I don’t think they’re good enough to deserve to take up space in my life. You can walk into a bookstore and find that 95 percent of the books on display might as well have been directly electronic. Mind you, they might be great texts, fabulous additions to human knowledge, but they did not need to have their own paper body. I want physical books to have a concept. Irma designs objects. her books are breathtaking as things.

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem winks at the cumulative usefulness of useless knowledge:

The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passes the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it — it’s just an excellent way to waste your life.

Jakob Trollbäck

Designer Jakob Trollbäck explores books as a generative force:

These books are about transformation. I think that, ultimately, evolution is about transformation, and creativity is a necessary force of evolution.

Christoph Niemann

Illustrator extraordinaire Christoph Niemann speaks to the indispensable value of influence and considers David Foster Wallace as a creative echelon:

I think the most successful illustrations are those that build on some other reference. You can’t completely reinvent something.

[…]

For me, David Foster Wallace is almost painful to read. It’s like he’s mumbling. You think he’s just writing down every single idea that comes into his head, but then when you reach the end, you realize that every sentence has been perfectly composed. I wish I could find something in his work that I could put to use in my own.

Patti Smith

The one and only Patti Smith touches on that quality of literature that makes it the original “Internet” of hyperlinked discovery:

I longed to read everything I possibly could, and the things I read in turn produced new yearnings.

David Sedaris

David Sedaris channels Henry Miller:

I really think you can’t progress as a writer unless you read, and the ideal time to read is when you can read generously. It didn’t even occur to me that I could have a book of my own in the library someday. That’s how you should read.

Stefan Sagmeister

Design and typography maestro Stefan Sagmeister draws a parallel between his design process and his book selection:

As a designer, I often use a process described by the Maltese philosopher Edward de Bono. He suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random objet as a point of departure. So, let’s say I have to design a pen. Instead of looking at other pens, and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is, and so on and so forth, I’ll consider, say — I’m in a hotel room right now — beadspreads.

Alex Ross

Wrier and critic Alex Ross — whose recent New Yorker piece on the history of the LGBT movement is a must-read — worries about the future of criticism:

All criticism is in danger right now. … Whether in the future there will be any magazines or newspapers with critics on staff is an open question. But as long as writers remain true to their passions and identify a language that’s faithful to those passions, they will find an audience for their writing.

Mary Karr

Mary Karr, calculatedly wicked yet disarmingly wise as ever, quips:

If you want to write, don’t err by setting the bar too low. Maybe you want to write like Emily Dickinson. Maybe you want to write like Nabokov. Just be willing, at the end of the day, to look at your work and say, ‘That’s not as good as Nabokov, but boy, it’s as good as I could make it today.’ Fall in love with books and with modes of being. I just spent a pile of money I can’t afford on opera tickets to see Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Think of all the cocaine I could have bought with that eight hundred dollars! Yet here I am blowing it to go sit in a room with a bunch of stiffs next Tuesday night. I’m in love, I can’t help it.

Jen Bekman

20×200 founder Jen Bekman reflects on her formative reading in a comment rather ironic in the context of this footnote regarding the book:

I read Ways of Seeing in media studies when I was in college, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Berger writes about how reproductions of the Mona Lisa have only strengthened the iconic value of the original painting. I’m very much on board with that idea. Scarcity continues to be one of the primary drivers of value in the art world, but I’m a firm believer in access and the power of building an audience. I’m a huge champion of prints and multiples: I always say that the artist’s editions we’re selling at 20×200 enhance the value of the limited-edition works, rather than diminishing it. It’s been satisfying to see that assertion powered true as the business has matured.

The inimitable book cover designer Coralie Bickford Smith considers the private allure of her work, as well as its public aspiration:

I love the fact that I get to repackage amazing literature that has stood the test of time. I really couldn’t be designing anything more important. The written word means so much to me. If I design a cover that gets people to pick up a book, then I’ve done my job. I want the younger generation to fall in love with books like Jane Eyre again. That’s why I do what I do.

Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler, better-known as Lemony Snicket, confesses:

I started writing for children because someone asked me to. I thought it was a different skill set, even though it’s really not. I asked the editor to send me a bunch of children’s books that the publishing house had published. And they were all terrible. Every single one of them. Which inspired me.

Pico Iyer

But perhaps most poignant of all, or at least most resonant with my own relationship with books, is writer Pico Iyer:

What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart. The books on my shelf never asked to come together, and they would not trust or want to listen to one another; but each is a piece of a stained-glass whole without which I couldn’t make sense to myself, or to the world outside.

For the ultimate book-lover’s treat, Jane will paint your ideal bookshelf.

* * *

And now for the not-so-footnotey footnote: In case you’re wondering why you can’t see any of Jane’s gorgeous bookshelf paintings properly reproduced here for a taste — what you do see are photographs of the book I took and edited myself in lieu of proper artwork — it is because the publisher of the book, Little, Brown and Company, informed me I could only use “three images (plus the author photos and jacket images) for free.” If I wanted more (“wanted,” of course, meaning “wanted to speak highly of their book in front of a few million of my readers for free“), their publicist kindly offered to “get [their] subsidiary rights department involved, and have them create a contract and some kind of fee.”

It would’ve been easy to indulge the instinct to roll my eyes at this laughable anachronism, shrug off the publisher’s voluntary self-deportation from relevance, and refuse to feature the book in righteous indignation. But given how much I want to support Thessaly and Jane’s wonderful work, how much I respect the remarkable roster of contributors, many of whom I know personally, and how much the project sings to my own bibliophile heart, that wouldn’t have been the answer. Instead, I choose to write about the book, but also refuse to perpetuate this hideous underbelly of the old-world publishing pantheon by virtue of tacit silence.

Certainly, publishers are for-profit entities that need to make money in order to exist — as an enormous lover of books, I know this is essential for allowing the printed page to survive and flourish. But it is a sign of great insecurity in the value proposition of your product when you have to place artificial barriers between it and its core user. As I pointed out to the Little Brown publicist, in seven years of doing what I do, one thing has become blatantly apparent to me: For the readers who savor the joy of a beautiful book, seeing a few images from it on a computer or mobile screen, be they three or three hundred, detracts absolutely nothing from the desire to hold that book in their hands, to own it, to call it theirs — if anything, it amplifies that desire by virtue of the tease; and those for whom the few web images suffice would not have bought the book anyway.

Yes, this is an immeasurably wonderful project and a beautiful book. And, yes, it lives in an antiquated paradigm that serves neither authors nor their readers but is instead unapologetic about serving solely the publishers’ commercial interests. But, no, these don’t have to remain a tradeoff. Therein lies the challenge — and, likely, the death sentence — of the old-school publishing industry: As long as serving the corporate bottom line and serving the real stakeholders in literature — writers and readers — continue to be a binary choice, the business of books will remain segregated from the joy of books. And that truly serves no one in the long run.

To the authors and artists caught in this toxic paradigm and its false choice between going with a big publisher and never reaching an audience, I say: Take heart — there are people who will gladly support you and help you find your readers, not at the cost of your integrity or your soul, and there are publishers — not many, but some — who get this intricate ecosystem and believe wholeheartedly in the intrinsic value of what they create, without those insecure artificial mechanisms of feigning said value.

To the readers, the people like you and me who love books and buy books and want to see books survive, I say: Remember that every purchase is a vote for the future you’d like to see, not just creatively and culturally, by virtue of the authors you support, but also in terms of the underlying models that make it all possible.

To the Little, Browns of the world, I say: Good night, and good luck.

BP

Writers and Their Books: Inside Famous Authors’ Personal Libraries

Lessons in reading from an 18th-century lord, or why the allure of an unread book is like the dawn of romance.

As a hopeless bibliophile, an obsessive lover of bookcases, and a chronic pursuer of voyeuristic peeks inside the minds of creators, I’m utterly spellbound by Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books — a vicarious journey into the personal libraries of thirteen favorite authors, who share their collections of childhood favorites, dusty textbooks, prized first editions, and beloved hardcovers, along with some thoughts on books, reading, and the life of the mind. Alongside the formidable collections — featuring Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Díaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund Whit — are short interviews with the authors about the books most important to them (including their top 10), their style of organization, and their thoughts on what the future of books might hold. (Cue in writers on the future of books.) The interviews are prefaced by Leah Price’s fascinating brief history of bookshelves, from the rise of the vertical book on a horizontal shelf to how social bookmarking services are changing our relationship with tagging and indexing information.

A self without a shelf remains cryptic; a home without books naked.” ~ Leah Price

With a nod to both the Medieval florilegium and the productive messiness of marginalia, Price echoes Craig Mod’s vision for the future of post-artifact books:

Far from making reader response invisible, then, the digital age may be taking us back to the Renaissance tradition of readers commenting in the margins of their friends’ or employers’ books and contributing homemade indexes to the flyleaves. Only after the rise of the nineteenth- century public library did such acts come to be seen as defacing, rather than enriching, the book.”

Steven Pinker + Rebecca Goldstein

A common denominator in many of my nonfiction choices is their combination of clarity, rigor, accessibility, depth, and wit. The novels by Twain and Melville are gold mines for anyone interested in language and in human nature.” ~ Steven Pinker

Kant tells us that a person can never be used as a means to an end, but must be viewed as an end in itself. This is one of the formulations of his famous categorical imperative. Well, that pretty much summarizes my attitude toward books. I would never use a book as a coaster or to prop up something else, any more than I’d use a person toward that end.” ~ Rebecca Goldstein

Jonathan Lethem

People sometimes act as though owning books you haven’t read constitutes a charade or pretense, but for me, there’s a lovely mystery and pregnancy about a book that hasn’t given itself over to you yet — sometimes I’m the most inspired by imagining what the contents of an unread book might be.”

(Isn’t that strikingly like the beginning of a romance?)

Stephen Carter notes the importance of being pushed out of our intellectual and literary filter bubbles:

My life was changed. The books she gave me opened my mind to the simple realization that there is in the world such a thing as truly great literature; and that I would never discover it by mere hit-or-miss, or by reading only what interested me.”

Claire Messud + James Wood

Owning books has been only intermittently of importance to me. At one time, collecting books that were my own, feeling I had my own intellectual and literary trajectory visible before me, seemed necessary and meaningful. But now, in midlife, I feel that my tendency to acquire books is rather like someone smoking two packs a day: it’s a terrible vice that I wish I could shuck. I love my books, and with all their dog-ears and under- linings they are irreplaceable; but I sometimes wish they’d just vanish. To be weighed down by things — books, furniture — seems somehow terrible to me. It’s important to be ready to move on.” ~ Claire Messud

Gary Shteyngart

Some books are just crap and have to be thrown out. But some crappy books remind you of certain times in your life and have to be kept. In the closet.” ~ Gary Shteyngart

Philip Pullman

How does the reading feed into the writing, and vice versa? Continually, continuously, promiscuously, in a million ways.” ~ Philip Pullman

And in the vein of last week’s meditation on how to read a book, Price relays the following advice, bequeathed by the Earl of Chesterfield to his son in 1747:

I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments; and it will make any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind.”

(The same Lord Chesterfield two years later pronounced, “Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.”)

Equal parts voyeuristically indulgent and unapologetically stimulating, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books is the second installment in Yale University Press’s ongoing series, following 2009’s Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press

BP

Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression

On the consolations of monarchs and of stars.

Beloved Writers on Nature as an Antidote to Depression

“It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, the dark threw its patches down upon me also,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in his deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem. When the dark patches fall on me also, I stand with Whitman in turning to the most reliable wellspring of light — the natural world, or what he so soulfully termed “the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life” — the Moon seen through a telescope, so proximate and unassailable, this radiant orb of primeval scar tissue; the mossy trunk of a centuries-old cedar, ringed with the survival of wars and famines, a silent witness to countless human heartaches; the song of the thrush and the bloom of the magnolia and the lush optimism of that first blade of grass through the frosty soil — these bewilderments of beauty do not dissipate the depression, but they do dissipate the self-involvement with which we humans live through our sorrows, and in so unselfing us, they give us back to ourselves.

The Bearable Lightness of Being by Maria Popova. (Available as a print benefiting The Nature Conservancy.)

Here are several beloved writers from the past quarter millennium who have known the dark patches intimately and have written beautifully about this abiding antidote to the inner gloom, beginning, as we must, with the poet laureate of Nature himself.

WALT WHITMAN

Even as he was composing Leaves of Grass — that timeless gift of light — Whitman was wormed by the darkest self-doubt: “Every thing I have done seems to me blank and suspicious,” he anguished in his diary. “I doubt whether my greatest thoughts…. are not shallow — and people will most likely laugh at me.” But on some elemental level, he knew that those capable of reaching “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are equally apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” He believed “that no artist or work of the very first class may be or can be without them.” It is a notion entirely different from the dangerous myth of the suffering artist — rather, it is the bold acknowledgement that in order for one to make works of irrepressible truth and beauty, one ought to feel fully, to draw on the entire spectrum of being without repressing the darkest emotions.

In Whitman’s fifty-third year, life tested his credo — a paralytic stroke left him severely disabled. Under his brother’s care in the woods of New Jersey, he set about the slow, painstaking process of recovery. As he began regaining use of his body, he attributed the small, hard-earned triumphs to being “daily in the open air,” among the trees and under the stars. He eventually recovered almost completely, having turned the woods into an outdoor gym, but the cataclysm left him existentially shaken into considering the most elemental questions: Where does one find meaning amid the precarious uncertainty of being? How does one maximize those little pockets of gladness that make it possible to go on living and making art through acute suffering? What, ultimately, makes life worth living?

His resulting meditations appear in Specimen Days (public library) — the altogether indispensable collection of his prose fragments, letters, and journal entries that also gave us Whitman’s reflections on the spiritual power of music, optimism as a force of political resistance, and how to keep criticism from sinking your creative confidence.

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

A decade after his stroke, Whitman looked back on what saved him — body and soul — and writes:

The trick is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.

[…]

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

In another entry, he considers the essence of happiness, locating it in absolute presence with nature and unalloyed attention with the rhythms of the Earth:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)

JOHN KEATS

“Life must be undergone,” John Keats (October 31, 1795–February 23, 1821) wrote to his closest friend, “and I certainly derive a consolation from the thought of writing one or two more Poems before it ceases.” Keats’s brief life was savaged by periodic onslaughts of depression. In another fragment of his excellent in his Selected Letters (public library), he writes: “I am now so depressed I have not an Idea to put to paper — my hand feels like lead — and yet it is an unpleasant numbness it does not take away the pain of existence.”

Keats found only two remedies for the soul-stifling numbness: the love of his friends (“I could not live without the love of my friends”) and the love of nature. Another letter to his dearest friend stands as a beautiful, bittersweet testament to both:

You perhaps at one time thought there was such a thing as Worldly Happiness to be arrived at, at certain periods of time marked out — you have of necessity from your disposition been thus led away — I scarcely remember counting upon any Happiness — I look not for it if it be not in the present hour — nothing startles me beyond the Moment. The setting sun will always set me to rights — or if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existence and pick about the Gravel.

LORRAINE HANSBERRY

It is impressive enough that Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — whom James Baldwin adored and described as “a small, shy, determined person… not trying to ‘make it’ [but just] trying to keep the faith” — revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility by becoming the first black playwright performed on Broadway and going on to furnish civil rights with a whole new vocabulary of action. It is triply impressive that she did so while the grey nimbus of depression hung low and heavy over vast swaths of her life. Hansberry kept the faith largely by turning to nature for its irrepressible light.

In a diary entry quoted in Imani Perry’s altogether magnificent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes with dispassionate remove that her unhappiness has taken on the shape of “a steady, calm quiet sort of misery”; sitting in a place she had once adored, now feeling “feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired” there, she turns her weary gaze toward the only salve she knows:

Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries… even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.

HENRY DAVID THOREAU

To those superficially acquainted with his life and work, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) might appear as a rosy-lensed optimist drunk on transcendentalist delusion, living in self-elected exile from the darker realities of the world. Such an estimation of his inner world — of anyone’s inner world — is not only impoverished of nuance, but orthogonal to the complex full-spectrum human begin who rises from the pages of The Journal of Henry David Thoreau (public library) — that timeless fount of truth bathing us across the centuries in Thoreau’s wisdom on such varied aspects of aliveness as knowing versus seeing, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success.

To be sure, living in such intimate proximity with nature, Thoreau was given to elations that evade the modern civilization-stifled mind. In an entry penned two days after his thirty-third birthday, he exults:

What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely encouraging society there is in every natural object, and so in universal nature, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man! There can be no really black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has still his senses.

But his existential radiance was abruptly blackened when his best and at times only friend — his brother John — died of tetanus from a shaving cut when Thoreau was twenty-five. He watched in helpless horror as lockjaw warped his brother’s face and spasms contorted his body before the deadly bacterium claimed his life. He then sank into a deep depression that never fully receded, lapping at him in lifelong waves.

Again and again, Thoreau took solace in nature. In the high summer of 1852, a decade after his brother’s death and a decade before his own, Thoreau draws in the margin of his journal a sketch of the local hill crests, dotted with the tops of trees, then considers this natural vista as a life-saving calibration of perspective for the sorrow-blinded heart:

Even on the low principle that misery loves company and is relieved by the consciousness that it is shared by many, and therefore is not so insignificant and trivial, after all, this blue mountain outline is valuable. In many moods it is cheering to look across hence to that blue rim of the earth, and be reminded of the invisible towns and communities, for the most part also unremembered, which lie in the further and deeper hollows between me and those hills. Towns of sturdy uplandish fame, where some of the morning and primal vigor still lingers… it is cheering to think that it is with such communities that we survive or perish… The melancholy man who had come forth to commit suicide on this hill might be saved by being thus reminded how many brave and contented lives are lived between him and the horizon. Those hills extend our plot of earth; they make our native valley or indentation in the earth so much the larger.

In another entry penned in autumn — which, long before the diagnostic notion of seasonal affective disorder, Thoreau noted as a season when the human spirit tends to take a marked downturn — he draws from a particular creation of nature a living metaphor for how to move through the darkest seasons of the heart:

If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year. Their gravestones are not bespoken yet. Is it the winter of their discontent? Do they seem to have lain down to die, despairing of skunk-cabbagedom? “Up and at ’em,” “Give it to ’em,” “Excelsior,” “Put it through,” — these are their mottoes. Mortal human creatures must take a little respite in this fall of the year; their spirits do flag a little. There is a little questioning of destiny, and thinking to go like cowards to where the “weary shall be at rest.” But not so with the skunk-cabbage. Are these false prophets? Is it a lie or a vain boast underneath the skunk-cabbage bud, pushing it upward and lifting the dead leaves with it? They rest with spears advanced; they rest to shoot!… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.

RACHEL CARSON

“Last night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could,” the great marine biologist and author Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) wrote to her soul mate, Dorothy Freeman, of that symphonic moment when she turned in the manuscript of Silent Spring — the courageous exposé that catalyzed the environmental movement, which had taken Carson a decade of incubation and four years of rigorous research to bring to life as she was dying of cancer. Dorothy had been her pillar throughout both of these superhuman parallel journeys — the only person in whom this brilliant, stoical woman confided the complexity of her inner world, her writing process and the loneliness of creative work, her silent battles. (Their tender relationship and how it shored up Carson’s scientific work and far-reaching cultural legacy animate the last two hundred pages of Figuring, from which this miniature essay is adapted.)

In early June 1963, a year after the release of Silent Spring, Carson climbed into the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile and had her assistant take her from her home in Maryland to Capitol Hill — the pain in her back, spine, shoulder, and neck was by now too unbearable for Carson to drive even this short distance herself — to appear before a congressional committee on pesticides, summoned as a consequence of Silent Spring. Under the bright television lights, all traces of physical agony fled from the authoritative presence that took the witness stand in the windowless, wood-paneled Room 102 of the Senate building. 101 years after Abraham Lincoln greeted Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe with the words “This is the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” the presiding Senator greeted Carson: “Miss Carson… we welcome you here. You are the lady who started all this. Will you please proceed.”

Speaking calmly into the press posy of six microphones before her, Carson proceeded to deliver a stunning forty-minute testimony predicated on revealing the delicate interconnectedness of nature and tracing the far-reaching devastation inflicted by poisonous chemicals once they enter an ecosystem. She called for a “strong and unremitting effort” to reduce and eventually eliminate pesticides. While her testimony was strewn with facts, it was palpably poetic in its elegy for ecology. She gave her strong recommendation for establishing an agency tasked with safeguarding nature — a landmark development that would take the government another seven years to institute. Carson would never live to see the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, nor its ban of DDT, both the direct result of her work.

Her congressional testimony, after which she was flooded by letters from citizens thanking her for having spoken inconvenient truth to power, was a crowning moment for the sense of duty that had propelled Carson through the arduous years leading up to Silent Spring. Having executed her responsibility as a citizen, scientist, and steward of life, she was free and restless to return to the sea, to her summer cabin on Southport Island in Maine, to Dorothy.

No record survives of the weeks containing Rachel and Dorothy’s last summer hours together — the absence of letters suggesting that they spent every precious moment in each other’s presence. Tide pool excursions were now a thing of the past — compression fractures in Carson’s spine made it difficult to walk, painful even to stand. Dorothy thought she looked like alabaster. They spent afternoons together in a little clearing in the woods near Carson’s cottage, watching the clouds float across the sky, listening to the avian orchestra in the trees, and reading to each other from their favorite books.

One shimmering day in early September, Dorothy took Rachel to their favorite spot on the tip of the island, where they had once watched meteors blaze ephemeral bridges of light across the riverine haze of the Milky Way. With their arms around each other, they slowly made the short, aching walk to the wooden benches perched atop the shore and sat under the blue late morning skies. Above the crashing waves, under the wind-strummed spruces, Dorothy and Rachel sat in intimate silence and watched a majestic procession of monarch butterflies flit toward the southern horizon on their annual migration — living meteors of black and gold. Half a century later, monarchs would take flight aboard the International Space Station, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, where Carson had begun her career, would call for their inclusion in the protections of the Endangered Species Act — one of several dozen environmental protection laws passed in the 1970s as direct and indirect consequences of Silent Spring.

That afternoon, Rachel sent Dorothy a lyrical “postscript” to their morning. Detailing the splendors that had etched themselves onto her memory — the particular hue of the sky, the particular score of the surf — she wrote:

Most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it had been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly — for when any living thing has come to the end of its life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to an end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it — so I hope, may you.

[…]

I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.

BP

Zadie Smith on What Writers Can Learn from Some of History’s Greatest Dancers

“Between propriety and joy choose joy.”

Zadie Smith on What Writers Can Learn from Some of History’s Greatest Dancers

“Oh, how wonderful! How like thought! How like the mind it is!” Helen Keller exclaimed when she experienced dance for the first time in legendary choreographer Martha Graham’s studio. Graham herself saw a parallel between her particular art and all creative endeavors of the mind, in which “there is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action.”

That parallel is what Zadie Smith, one of the great thought-artists of our time, explores in “Dance Lessons for Writers,” found in her altogether fantastic essay collection Feel Free (public library) — the source of Smith’s incisive meditation on the interplay of optimism and despair.

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Smith writes:

The connection between writing and dancing has been much on my mind recently: it’s a channel I want to keep open. It feels a little neglected — compared to, say, the relationship between music and prose — maybe because there is something counter-intuitive about it. But for me the two forms are close to each other: I feel dance has something to tell me about what I do.

Citing Martha Graham’s famous advice on creative work, intended for dancers but replete with wisdom for writers, Smith considers the common ground beneath the surface dissimilitudes between these two art forms:

What can an art of words take from the art that needs none? Yet I often think I’ve learned as much from watching dancers as I have from reading. Dance lessons for writers: lessons of position, attitude, rhythm and style, some of them obvious, some indirect.

Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly

She proceeds to explore these dimensions through a set of contrasts between famous performers, beginning Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly:

“Fred Astaire represents the aristocracy when he dances,” claimed Gene Kelly, in old age, “and I represent the proletariat.” The distinction is immediately satisfying, though it’s a little harder to say why. Tall, thin and elegant, versus muscular and athletic — is that it? There’s the obvious matter of top hat and tails versus T-shirt and slacks. But Fred sometimes wore T-shirts and slacks, and was not actually that tall, he only stood as if he were, and when moving always appeared elevated, to be skimming across whichever surface: the floor, the ceiling, an ice-rink, a bandstand. Gene’s center of gravity was far lower: he bends his knees, he hunkers down. Kelly is grounded, firmly planted, where Astaire is untethered, free-floating. Likewise, the aristocrat and the proletariat have different relations to the ground beneath their feet, the first moving fluidly across the surface of the world, the second specifically tethered to a certain spot: a city block, a village, a factory, a stretch of fields.

When I write I feel there’s usually a choice to be made between the grounded and the floating. The ground I am thinking of in this case is language as we meet it in its “commonsense” mode. The language of the television, of the supermarket, of the advert, the newspaper, the government, the daily “public” conversation. Some writers like to walk this ground, re-create it, break bits of it off and use it to their advantage, whereas others barely recognize its existence. Nabokov — a literal aristocrat as well as an aesthetic one — barely ever put a toe upon it. His language is “literary,” far from what we think of as our shared linguistic home. One argument in defense of such literary language might be the way it admits its own artificiality. Commonsense language meanwhile claims to be plain and natural, “conversational,” but is often as constructed as asphalt, dreamed up in ad agencies or in the heart of government — sometimes both at the same time. Simultaneously sentimental and coercive (“the People’s Princess,” “the Big Society,” “Make America Great Again”), commonsense language claims to take its lead from the way people naturally speak, but any writer who truly attends to the way people speak will soon find himself categorized as a distinctive stylist or satirist or experimentalist. Beckett was like this, and the American writer George Saunders is a good contemporary example.

Echoing Goethe — whose insistence on the importance of “divine discontent” in creative work predates Martha Graham’s “divine dissatisfaction” by a century and a half, and who argued that self-comparison to Shakespeare’s greatness calibrates the ambition of any aspiring writer — Smith, in many ways a Nabokov of our time, concludes her Astaire/Kelly dichotomy:

Kelly quoted the commonplace when he danced, and he reminds us in turn of the grace we do sometimes possess ourselves… [Astaire] is “poetry in motion.” His movements are so removed from ours that he sets a limit on our own ambitions. Nobody hopes or expects to dance like Astaire, just as nobody really expects to write like Nabokov.

Next, she examines the writer’s sometimes parallel, sometimes perpendicular responsibilities to representation and joy by contrasting the brothers Harold and Fayard Nicholas:

Writing, like dancing, is one of the arts available to people who have nothing. “For ten and sixpence,” advises Virginia Woolf, “one can buy paper enough to write all the plays of Shakespeare.” The only absolutely necessary equipment in dance is your own body. Some of the greatest dancers have come from the lowliest backgrounds. With many black dancers this has come with the complication of “representing your race.” You are on a stage, in front of your people and other people. What face will you show them? Will you be your self? Your “best self”? A representation? A symbol? The Nicholas Brothers were not street kids — they were the children of college-educated musicians — but they were never formally trained in dance. They learned by watching their parents and their parents’ colleagues performing on the “Chitlin” circuit, as black vaudeville was then called. Later, when they entered the movies, their performances were usually filmed in such a way as to be non-essential to the story, so that when these films played in the south their spectacular sequences could be snipped out without doing any harm to the integrity of the plot. Genius contained, genius ring-fenced. But also genius undeniable. “My talent was the weapon,” argued Sammy Davis Jr., “the power, the way for me to fight. It was the one way I might hope to affect a man’s thinking.” Davis was another Chitlin hoofer, originally, and from straitened circumstances. His logic here is very familiar: it is something of an article of faith within the kind of families who have few other assets. A mother tells her children to be “twice as good,” she tells them to be “undeniable.” My mother used to say something like it to me. And when I watch the Nicholas Brothers I think of that stressful instruction: be twice as good. The Nicholas Brothers were many, many magnitudes better than anybody else. They were better than anyone has a right or need to be. Fred Astaire called their routine in Stormy Weather the greatest example of cinematic dance he ever saw. They are progressing down a giant staircase doing the splits as if the splits is the commonsense way to get somewhere. They are impeccably dressed. They are more than representing — they are excelling. But I always think I spot a little difference between Harold and Fayard, and it interests me, I take it as a kind of lesson. Fayard seems to me more concerned with this responsibility of representation when he dances: he looks the part, he is the part, his propriety unassailable. He is formal, contained, technically undeniable: a credit to the race. But Harold gives himself over to joy. His hair is his tell: as he dances it loosens itself from the slather of Brylcreem he always put on it, the irrepressible Afro curl springs out, he doesn’t even try to brush it back. Between propriety and joy choose joy.

Among the contrasting dancing styles through which Smith examine the various stylistic, aesthetic, rhetorical, and conceptual choices a writer must make — Prince vs. Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson vs. Madonna vs. Beyoncé, Rudolf Nureyev vs. Mikhail Baryshnikov — are those of David Byrne and David Bowie, singular in the choice they illustrate by way of negative space. Smith writes:

The art of not dancing — a vital lesson. Sometimes it is very important to be awkward, inelegant, jerking, to be neither poetic nor prosaic, to be positively bad. To express other possibilities for bodies, alternative values, to stop making sense. It’s interesting to me that both these artists did their “worst” dancing to their blackest cuts. “Take me to the river,” sings Byrne, in square trousers twenty times too large, looking down at his jerking hips as if they belong to someone else. This music is not mine, his trousers say, and his movements go further: Maybe this body isn’t mine, either. At the end of this seam of logic lies a liberating thought: maybe nobody truly owns anything.

In consonance with James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s agreement that our identities are often established by defining what we are not — exclusionary self-definition that serves to contract rather than expand us — Smith adds:

People can be too precious about their “heritage,” about their “tradition” — writers especially. Preservation and protection have their place but they shouldn’t block either freedom or theft. All possible aesthetic expressions are available to all peoples — under the sign of love. Bowie and Byrne’s evident love for what was “not theirs” brings out new angles in familiar sounds. It hadn’t occurred to me before seeing these men dance that a person might choose, for example, to meet the curve of a drum beat with anything but the matching curving movement of their body, that is, with harmony and heat. But it turns out you can also resist: throw up a curious angle and suddenly spasm, like Bowie, or wonder if that’s truly your own arm, like Byrne.

Feel Free is a spectacular read in its totality, dancing across the ladder of culture to demolish, with uncommon elegance of thought and language, the artificial categories of high and low in a way Susan Sontag would have appreciated. Complement it with Smith on the psychology of the two types of writers and her ten rules of writing.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.