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The Invention of Empathy: Rilke, Rodin, and the Art of “Inseeing”

How a doctor, a philosopher, a poet, and a sculptor co-created the modern concept of empathy.

The Invention of Empathy: Rilke, Rodin, and the Art of “Inseeing”

Empathy, an orientation of spirit decidedly different from sympathy, has become central to our moral universe. We celebrate it as the hallmark of a noble spirit, a pillar of social justice, and the gateway to reaching our highest human potential — a centerpiece of our very humanity. And yet this conception of empathy is a little more than a century old and originated in art: It only entered the modern lexicon in the early twentieth century, when it was used to describe the imaginative act of projecting oneself into a work of art in an effort to understand why art moves us.

That improbable origin and its wide ripples across the popular imagination are what Rachel Corbett explores in You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin (public library) — a layered and lyrical inquiry into the personal, interpersonal, and cultural forces behind and around Rainer Maria Rilke’s iconic Letters to a Young Poet, a book so beloved and widely quoted in the century since its publication that it has taken on the qualities of a sacred text for secular culture. Out of its origin story Corbett wrests a larger story of “how the will to create drives young artists to overcome even the most heart-hollowing of childhoods and make their work at any cost.”

Recounting her revelatory first encounter with the Rilke classic, a gift from her mother, who had in turn received it from a mentor as a young girl, Corbett captures the singular enchantment that this miraculous book has held for generations:

Reading it that evening was like having someone whisper to me, in elongated Germanic sentences, all the youthful affirmations I had been yearning to hear. Loneliness is just space expanding around you. Trust uncertainty. Sadness is life holding you in its hands and changing you. Make solitude your home.

[…]

What gives the book its enduring appeal is that it crystallizes the spirit of delirious transition in which it was written. You can pick it up during any of life’s upheavals, flip it open to a random page, and find a consolation that feels both universal and breathed into your ear alone.

What most people don’t know, Corbett points out, is that as Rilke was bequeathing his poetic wisdom to the recipient of his letters, the nineteen-year-old cadet and aspiring poet Franz Xaver Kappus, he was also channelling his own great mentor — the French sculptor Rodin, for whom Rilke worked for a number of years and whom he revered for the remainder of his life. Despite their staggering surface differences — “Rodin was a rational Gallic in his sixties, while Rilke was a German romantic in his twenties,” Corbett writes, likening Rodin to a mountain and Rilke to “the mist encircling it” — the sculptor became the young poet’s most significant influence. But Rodin’s greatest gift to Rilke was the very thing that lends Letters to a Young Poet its abiding spiritual allure: the art of empathy.

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Corbett writes:

The invention of empathy corresponds to many of the climactic shifts in the art, philosophy and psychology of fin-de-siècle Europe, and it changed the way artists thought about their work and the way observers related to it for generations to come.

Empathy may be a concept saturating today’s popular lexicon so completely as to border on meaninglessness, yet it was entirely novel and ablaze with numinous meaning in Rilke’s day. Its invention is the work of two unlikely co-creators — Wilhelm Wundt, a German doctor who “accidentally forged the birth of psychology in the 1860s,” and Theodor Lipps, a philosopher from the following generation. In seeking to understand why art affects us so powerfully, Lipps originated the then-radical hypothesis that the power of its impact didn’t reside in the work of art itself but was, rather, synthesized by the viewer in the act of viewing. Corbett condenses the essence of his proposition and traces its combinatorial creation:

The moment a viewer recognizes a painting as beautiful, it transforms from an object into a work of art. The act of looking, then, becomes a creative process, and the viewer becomes the artist.

Lipps found a name for his theory in an 1873 dissertation by a German aesthetics student named Robert Vischer. When people project their emotions, ideas or memories onto objects they enact a process that Vischer called einfühlung, literally “feeling into.” The British psychologist Edward Titchener translated the word into English as “empathy” in 1909, deriving it from the Greek empatheia, or “in pathos.” For Vischer, einfühlung revealed why a work of art caused an observer to unconsciously “move in and with the forms.” He dubbed this bodily mimesis “muscular empathy,” a concept that resonated with Lipps, who once attended a dance recital and felt himself “striving and performing” with the dancers. He also linked this idea to other somatosensory imitations, like yawns and laughter.

Half a century later, Mark Rothko would observe: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” He was articulating the model of creative contagion — or what Leo Tolstoy called the “emotional infectiousness” of art — that Lipps had formulated. Corbett writes:

Empathy explained why people sometimes describe the experience of “losing themselves” in a powerful work of art. Maybe their ears deafen to the sounds around them, the hair rises on the backs of their necks or they lose track of the passage of time. Something produces a “gut feeling” or triggers a flood of memory, like Proust’s madeleine. When a work of art is effective, it draws the observer out into the world, while the observer draws the work back into his or her body. Empathy was what made red paint run like blood in the veins, or a blue sky fill the lungs with air.

But although empathy originated in the contemplation of art, it was psychologists who imported it into popular culture, largely thanks to the cross-pollination of art and science in early-twentieth-century Europe. Corbett writes:

In Vienna, the young professor Sigmund Freud wrote to a friend in 1896 that he had “immersed” himself in the teachings of Lipps, “who I suspect has the clearest mind among present-day philosophical writers.” Several years later, Freud thanked Lipps for giving him “the courage and capacity” to write his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. He went on to advance Lipps’s research further when he made the case that empathy should be embraced by psychoanalysts as a tool for understanding patients. He urged his students to observe their patients not from a place of judgment, but of empathy. They ought to recede into the background like a “receptive organ” and strive toward the “putting of oneself in the other person’s place,” he said.

The concept, of course, was far from novel, even if the language to contain it was — half a century earlier, across the Atlantic, Walt Whitman had articulated the very same notion in his timeless treatise on medicine and the human spirit. But Lipps devised the right language to infiltrate the popular imagination and placed himself in the right place, at the right time. When he became chair of the University of Munich’s philosophy department in 1894, his students included the great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who would later come to echo a number of Lipps’s ideas in his writings about the spiritual element in art, and Rilke, who enrolled in Lipps’s foundational aesthetics course as soon as he arrived in Munich from Prague.

Central to Lipps’s invention of empathy was his notion of einsehen, or “inseeing” — a kind of conscious observation which Corbett so poetically describes as “the wondrous voyage from the surface of a thing to its heart, wherein perception leads to an emotional connection.” She writes:

If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin.

The concept struck Rilke as a particularly revelatory way of looking at not only art but life itself. He wrote in a letter to a friend:

Though you may laugh if I tell you where my very greatest feeling, my world-feeling, my earthly bliss was, I must confess to you: it was, again and again, here and there, in such in-seeing in the indescribably swift, deep, timeless moments of this godlike in-seeing.

Corbett captures the crux of Rilke’s insight:

In describing his joy at experiencing the world this way, Rilke echoed Lipps’s belief that, through empathy, a person could free himself from the solitude of his mind. At the same time that Rilke was studying at the zoo in Paris, Lipps was in Munich working on his theory of empathy and aesthetic enjoyment. In his seminal paper on the subject he identified the four types of empathy as he saw them: general apperceptive empathy: when one sees movement in everyday objects; empirical empathy: when one sees human qualities in the nonhuman; mood empathy: when one attributes emotional states to colors and music, like “cheerful yellow”; and sensible appearance empathy: when gestures or movements convey internal feelings.

Out of this dynamic dialogue between inner and outer arises the most elemental question of existence: What is the self? This invites an auxiliary question: If we ourselves can possess a self, how can we know that others are also in possession of selves? Corbett writes:

[This] was the question to which Rilke’s old professor Theodor Lipps’s empathy research eventually led him. He had reasoned that if einfühlung explained the way people see themselves in objects, then the act of observation was not one of passive absorption, but of lived recognition. It was the self existing in another place. And if we see ourselves in art, perhaps we could also see ourselves in other people. Empathy was the gateway into the minds of others. Rilke’s prodigious capacity for it, then, was both his greatest poetic gift and probably his hardest-borne cross.

In the remainder of the spectacular You Must Change Your Life, Corbett goes on to disentangle the intricate mesh of influences and interdependencies that shaped Rilke’s enduring legacy and its broader implications for the inner life of artists. Complement it with Rilke himself on writing and what it means to be an artist and the life-expanding value of uncertainty.

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The Difficult Art of Counter-Criticism: Rebecca Solnit on Celebrating Complexity, Savoring the Unquantifiable, and Defying the Urge to Simplify and Contain

“There is a kind of counter-criticism that … can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination.”

The Difficult Art of Counter-Criticism: Rebecca Solnit on Celebrating Complexity, Savoring the Unquantifiable, and Defying the Urge to Simplify and Contain

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern… the whole world is a work of art,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her sublime meditation on the recognition of subtleties and interconnections at the heart of creative work. “There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.” And yet in the lapse between Woolf’s time and ours, we have lost sight of our thingness and ceased seeing the pattern behind the cotton wool. Ours is an age bedeviled by the urge — an urge bearing the ominous compulsiveness of addiction — to reduce, flatten, and simplify what is more expansive, dimensional, and complex than can be easily understood. Too often, we choose this ease — the ease of reflexive reactions and instant opinions — over the difficult but nourishing work of consideration. As if the sensationalist headlines of the news media weren’t corrosive enough to the contemplative necessities of the human spirit, even our cultural commentary on such supreme temples of contemplation as literature and art has taken on the same predatory tendency to traffic in simplistic, often sadistic criticism that impoverishes the conversation and our collective conscience of nuance.

But there is another way — an antidote that, by countering these poisonous narratives, enriches and perhaps even saves our interior lives. That antidote is what Rebecca Solnit, unparalleled high priestess of nuance and intelligent contemplation, explores in a piece titled “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable,” found in her subversive and sanctifying essay collection Men Explain Things To Me (public library).

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: David Butow)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: David Butow)

Solnit notes that much of our commentary on art and culture embodies a “kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent” and “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain.” She points to the alternative — an alternative we frequently forget exists at all:

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art. This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, to invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. The worst criticism seeks to have the last word and leave the rest of us in silence; the best opens up an exchange that need never end.

Solnit borrows her friend Chip Ward’s term “the tyranny of the quantifiable” and considers how we impoverish our imagination whenever we relinquish the unquantifiable for “systems of accounting that can’t count what matters”:

What can be measured almost always takes precedence over what cannot: private profit over public good; speed and efficiency over enjoyment and quality; the utilitarian over the mysteries and meanings that are of greater use to our survival and to more than our survival, to lives that have some purpose and value that survive beyond us to make a civilization worth having. The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things.

In a sentiment that calls to mind bryologist and Native American storyteller Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful case for how the naming of things confers dignity upon their existence, Solnit adds:

It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described, and so the task of naming and describing is an essential one in any revolt against the status quo of capitalism and consumerism.

With an eye to Virginia Woolf as a writer who consistently defied this tendency to reduce and contain by modeling its opposite for generations, Solnit — a Woolf, perhaps the Woolf, of our time in myriad ways — reflects:

My own task these past twenty years or so of living by words has been to try to find or make a language to describe the subtleties, the incalculables, the pleasures and meanings — impossible to categorize — at the heart of things.

This delicate mesh of meanings and subtleties is what Woolf meant by the pattern hidden behind the cotton wool. This, too, was what Albert Einstein had in mind when he marveled that there lies “something deeply hidden” behind the nature of things. Solnit herself offers an elegant definition of this expansive counterpoint to the contraction of certitude:

Mystery is the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.

Men Explain Things To Me is a sobering and ennobling read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, then revisit Solnit on the annihilation of space and time, living with intelligent hope in dispiriting times, the rewards of walking, how maps can oppress and liberate, and why we read.

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The Best Children’s Books of 2016

From love to mortality to the lives of Einstein and Louise Bourgeois, by way of silence and the color of the wind.

The Best Children’s Books of 2016

In his meditation on the three ways of writing for children and the key to authenticity in all writing, C.S. Lewis admonished against treating children, in literature or life, as “a strange species whose habits you have ‘made up’ like an anthropologist or a commercial traveller.” J.R.R. Tolkien expressed the same sentiment in his timeless insistence on why there is no such thing as writing “for children.” And a generation later, Maurice Sendak, perhaps the most beloved creator of so-called “children’s” books in our own era, scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

After the year’s greatest science books, here are the picture-books I found most imaginative, intelligent, and warmhearted this year — books that speak, even sing, to hearts of all ages and embody E.B. White’s proclamation that successful writers of children’s books “have to write up, not down.”

CRY, HEART, BUT NEVER BREAK

cryheartbutneverbreak“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote, “so why … be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Half a millennium earlier, Montaigne posed the same question somewhat differently in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”

Yet mortality continues to petrify us — our own, and perhaps even more so that of our loved ones. And if the adult consciousness is so thoroughly unsettled by the notion of death, despite intellectually recognizing it as a necessary and inevitable part of life, how is the child consciousness to settle into comprehension and comfort?

Now comes a fine addition to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death — the crowning jewel of them all, even, and not only because it bears what might be the most beautiful children’s book title ever conceived: Cry, Heart, But Never Break (public library) by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi, translated into English by Robert Moulthrop.

Although Ringtved is celebrated for his humorous and mischievous stories, this contemplative tale sprang from the depths of his own experience — when his mother was dying and he struggled to explain what was happening to his young children, she offered some words of comfort: “Cry, Heart, but never break.” It was the grandmother’s way of assuring the children that the profound sadness of loss is to be allowed rather than resisted, then folded into the wholeness of life, which continues to unfold. (I’m reminded of Maira Kalman’s unforgettable words: “When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.”)

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This warmly wistful story begins outside the “small snug house” where four children live with their beloved grandmother. Not wanting to scare the young ones, Death, who has come for the old lady, has left his scythe by the door. Immediately, in this small and enormously thoughtful gesture, we are met with Death’s unexpected tenderness.

Inside, he sits down at the kitchen table, where only the youngest of the kids, little Leah, dares look straight at him.

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What makes the book particularly touching, thanks to Pardi’s immensely expressive illustration, is just how crestfallen — broken, even — Death himself looks the entire time he is executing his mission, choked up with some indiscernible fusion of resignation and recompense.

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See more here.

THE WHITE CAT AND THE MONK

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark counseled, “you should acquire a cat.” Long before the cat became a modern literary muse, a monk whose identity remains a mystery immortalized his beloved white cat named Pangur. Sometime in the ninth century, somewhere in present-day southern Germany, this solitary scholar penned a beautiful short poem in Old Irish, titled “Pangur Bán” — an ode to the parallel pleasures of man and feline as one pursues knowledge and the other prey, and to how their quiet companionship amplifies their respective joys.

The poem has been translated and adapted many times over the centuries (perhaps most famously by W.H. Auden), but nowhere more delightfully than in The White Cat and the Monk (public library) by writer Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrator Sydney Smith — one of four wonderful children’s books about the creative life, which I recently reviewed for The New York Times.

Smith, who has previously illustrated the immeasurably wonderful Sidewalk Flowers, imbues the ancient text with contemporary visual language through his singular, elegantly minimalist graphic novel aesthetic.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

We see the old monk poring over his manuscripts in search of wisdom as Pangur prances around their spartan shared abode, chasing after a mouse and a butterfly. Each is totally absorbed in his task.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

In a subtle story-with-a-story, one of the monk’s manuscripts contains an even more ancient depiction of another monk and another cat — a reminder that this creaturely communion is a primal joy of the human experience.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

At the end of each day, the two rest into their respective gladnesses in quiet camaraderie.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration — it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others aren’t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each other’s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.

See more here.

CLOTH LULLABY

“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer,” the great French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010) wrote in her diary toward the end of her long and illustrious life. That perfect fabric metaphor is not coincidental. Psychologists now know that metaphorical thinking is the birthplace of the imagination, “essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent,” and it begins in childhood as young minds transmute the namable things that surround them into fresh metaphors for the unnamable things that they experience inside.

Born into a family that restored tapestries for a living, Bourgeois wove the world of colorful textiles into her imagination and into the very work that would establish her as one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century. It was in this family trade that she came to see her beloved mother as a deft, patient spider repairing broken threads — the metaphor at the heart of the iconic large-scale spider sculptures for which Bourgeois is best known and which earned her the moniker Spiderwoman.

In Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois (public library) — one of four marvelous children’s books about the life of ideas I recently reviewed for The New York Times and a crowning curio among the loveliest picture-books celebrating cultural icons — writer Amy Novesky and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault trace the thread of Bourgeois’s creative development from the formative years of her unusual childhood to the pinnacle of her success as an artist.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Novesky, who has previously authored a children’s book about Billie Holiday, tells the story of Bourgeois’s life in a wonderfully lyrical way. Arsenault — whom I have long considered one of the most gifted and unrepeatable artists of our time, the kind whose books will be cherished a century from now — carries the story with her soft yet vibrantly expressive illustrations.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Louise kept diaries of her days. And in a cloth tent pitched in the garden, she and her siblings would stay till the dark surprised them, the light from the house, and the sound of a Verdi opera, far away through the trees.

Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.

The ever-flowing blue strand of the river becomes the thread of continuity across Bourgeois’s life. It flows into the Siene and takes young Louise along to Paris, where she attends university studying mathematics and astronomy.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Bourgeois’s studies are severed by her mother’s sudden death, the devastation of which drives the young woman to abandon science and turn to the certain uncertainty of art. She cuts up all the fabric she owns — her dresses, her bed linens, her new husband’s handkerchiefs — and spends the remainder of her life making it and making herself whole again, putting it all together into cloth sculptures, colorful hand-sewn spirals, cloth drawings, cloth books, and many, many, many spiders.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

See more here.

DU IZ TAK?

“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating art and the human future. The beautiful Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi invites us to find meaning and comfort in impermanence, and yet so much of our suffering stems from our deep resistance to the ruling law of the universe — that of impermanence and constant change. How, then, are we to accept the one orbit we each have along the cycle of life and inhabit it with wholeheartedness rather than despair?

That’s what illustrator and author Carson Ellis explores with great subtlety and warmth in Du Iz Tak? (public library) — a lyrical and imaginative tale about the cycle of life and the inexorable interdependence of joy and sorrow, trial and triumph, growth and decay.

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The marvelously illustrated story is written in the imagined language of bugs, the meaning of which the reader deduces with delight from the familiar human emotions they experience throughout the story — surprise, exhilaration, fear, despair, pride, joy. We take the title to mean “What is that?” — the exclamation which the ento-protagonists issue upon discovering a swirling shoot of new growth, which becomes the centerpiece of the story as the bugs try to make sense, then make use, of this mysterious addition to their homeland. “Ma nazoot,” answers another — “I don’t know.”

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The discoverers of the shoot enlist the help of a wise and many-legged elder who lives inside a tree stump — a character reminiscent in spirit of Owl in Winnie-the-Pooh. He lends the operation his ladder and the team begins building an elaborate fort onto the speedily growing plant.

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But their joyful plan is unceremoniously interrupted by a giant spider, who envelops their new playground in a web — a reminder that in nature, where one creature’s loss is another’s gain and vice versa, gain and loss are always counterbalanced in perfect equilibrium with no ultimate right and ultimate wrong.

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As the bugs witness the spider’s doing in dejected disbelief, a bird — a creature even huger and more formidable — swoops in to eat the spider and further devastates the stalk-fort. At its base, we see the bugs grow from disheartened to heartbroken.

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But when the bird leaves, one of them discovers — with the excited exclamation “Su!,” which we take to mean “Look!” — that the plant has not only survived the invasion but has managed, in the meantime, to produce a glorious, colorful bud.

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As the bugs resume repair and construction, the bud blossoms into invigorating beauty. Drawn to the small miracle of the flower, other tiny forest creatures join the joyful labor — the ants interrupt their own industry, the slug slides over in wide-eyed wonder, the bees and the butterflies hover in admiration, and even the elder’s wife emerges from the tree trunk, huffing a pipe as she marvels at the new blossom.

But then, nature once again asserts her central dictum of impermanence and constant change: The flower begins to wilt.

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The fort collapses and the bugs, looking not terribly distraught — perhaps because they know that this is nature’s way, perhaps because they know that they too will soon follow the flower’s fate in this unstoppable cycle of life — say farewell and walk off.

Night comes, then autumn, bringing their own magic as the world silently performs its eternal duty of churning the cycle of growth and decay.

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The remnants of the wilted flower sink into the forest bed as a nocturnal serenade unfolds overhead before a blanket of snow stills the forest.

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In the final pages, we see spring arrive with its redemptive bounty to reveal not one shoot but the promise of an entire flower garden. “Du iz tak?” exclaims a new bug who walks onto the scene — a gentle invitation to reflect on where the others have gone as the seasons turned, presenting a subtle opportunity for parents to broach the cycle of life.

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See more here.

A CHILD OF BOOKS

Half a millennium before Carl Sagan pointed to books as “proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” while James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny. “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her lyrical meditation on the intimacy of reading and writing. But what, exactly, is the lifeblood pumping through that heart? Perhaps Hermann Hesse put it best in his beautiful essay on reading:

At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.

That transcendent stream is what London-based typographic fine artist Sam Winston and Belfast-born, Brooklyn-based artist and children’s book maestro Oliver Jeffers plunge us into with A Child of Books (public library) — a serenading invitation into the joyful wonderland of reading, extended by a courageous little girl besotted with books to a little boy timorous to take the dive.

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An homage to literary classics carries the story as an undercurrent of affectionate appreciation for the way in which literature carves our interior landscapes. Jeffers is no stranger to appropriating existing art in original storytelling. Here, his unmistakable illustrations animate Winston’s landscapes, crafted from the texts of classic children’s stories, nursery rhymes, and lullabies — typographic topographies composed of multigenerational cultural treasures like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Frankenstein.

See more here.

THE DAY I BECAME A BIRD

In what remains the greatest definition of love, Tom Stoppard described the real thing as “knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” And yet the grandest paradox of love — the source of its necessary frustration, the root of the inescapable lover’s sulk — is our insistence on crafting and putting on ever more elaborate masks under the mistaken belief that these idealized selves, presented to the object of our infatuation, would render us more desirable and worthier of love. We tuck our messy real selves behind polished veneers, orchestrate grand gestures, and perform various psychoemotional acrobatics driven by the illusion that love is something we must earn by what we do, rather than something that comes to us unbidden simply for who we are.

The deconditioning of that dangerous delusion is what French children’s book author Ingrid Chabbert and Spanish artist Guridi explore with imaginative subtlety in The Day I Became a Bird (public library).

The protagonist of this minimalist, maximally expressive story is a tenderhearted little boy who falls in love for the first time the day he starts school.

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Because love always sneaks in through the backdoor of our awareness before it makes a home in the heart, not until a few pages into the book do we find out that the object of his affection is a classmate named Sylvia — a passionate bird enthusiast who seems to only have eyes for feathered creatures.

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PINOCCHIO

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them,” Albert Camus wrote. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, observed a century earlier as she contemplated the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties: “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us.”

This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace.

As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story.

In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two.

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A fitting follow-up to The River — Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.

Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.

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The tree is an organic choice for this unusual cosmogony — after all, trees have inspired centuries of folk tales around the world; a 17th-century English gardener marveled at how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons” and Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.”

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It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal.

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THE SOUND OF SILENCE

“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.” It’s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago — that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.

Of the nine kinds of silence that Sontag’s contemporary and friend Paul Goodman outlined, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul” is the kind we seem to have most hastily forsaken — and yet it is also the one we most urgently need if we are to reclaim the aesthetic of silence in the art of living.

That ennobling, endangered kind of silence is what writer Katrina Goldsaito and illustrator Julia Kuo celebrate in The Sound of Silence (public library) — the story of a little boy named Yoshio, who awakens to the elusive beauty of silence amid Tokyo’s bustle and teaches himself its secret language.

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Conceptually, the book is a trans-temporal counterpart to In Praise of Shadows — that magnificent 1933 serenade to ancient Japanese aesthetics, lamenting how excessive illumination obscures so many of life’s most beautiful dimensions, just as today’s excessive noise silences life’s subtlest and most beautiful signals.

Goldsaito’s lyrical writing, part ballad and part haiku, and Kuo’s illustrations, midway between manga and Chris Ware yet thoroughly original, carry the story with effortless poetic enchantment.

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We follow Yoshio as he leaves home one rainy morning and steps into the symphony of urban sounds cascading through the city — “raindrops pattering on his umbrella,” “boots squishing and squashing through the puddles.”

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As he makes his way through this aural wonderland, he is suddenly enthralled by a most magical sound. He follows it to discover a koto player tuning her instrument.

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Then the koto player played. The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears! When the song finished, Yoshio said, “Sensei, I love sounds, but I’ve never heard a sound like that!”

The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mama’s garden.

“Sensei,” Yoshio said, “do you have a favorite sound?”

“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”

“Silence?” Yoshio asked. But the koto player just smiled a mysterious smile and went back to playing.

Puzzled and vitalized by the cryptic message, the little boy sets out to find the sound of silence.

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WE FOUND A HAT

“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be,” legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser observed in his conversation with Debbie Millman. One might say that it is difficult, perhaps even delusional, to elect perception over the hard facts of physical reality — after all, if there is only one apple in front of you, how could you perceive your way to having two? And yet the great physicist David Bohm, a scientist grounded in the fundamental building blocks of physical reality, articulated a parallel truth in contemplating how our perceptions shape our reality:

Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.

Beloved children’s book author and illustrator Jon Klassen explores this disorienting paradox with great subtlety, simplicity, and sensitivity in We Found a Hat (public library) — the conclusion of his celebrated hat trilogy, following I Want My Hat Back (2011) and This Is Not My Hat.

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The story follows two turtles who discover a hat together — a very winsome hat, they both feel — and are suddenly faced by a practical predicament: There is one hat to be had, and two of them who want to have it.

Carrying Klassen’s minimalist, maximally expressive illustrations — entire worlds of emotion and intent are intimated by the turn of the turtles’ black-and-white eyes — are his equally spartan words, which envelop his protagonists’ interior worlds in sweetness and gentleness as he tells this touching story of covetousness transformed into generosity and justice.

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We found a hat.

We found it together.

But there is only one hat.

And there are two of us.

How does it look on me?

It looks good on you.

How does it look on me?

It looks good on you too.

It looks good on both of us.

But it would not be right if one of us had a hat and the other did not.

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DAYTIME VISIONS

“We live in the word,” Elizabeth Alexander observed in contemplating writing and the self in language, “and the word is one of the ways we have to reach across to each other.” And it is often in learning to live in the word — that is, in those formative years of first understanding how sounds make shapes to make words — that we also begin mastering the art of human connection. That’s what lends imaginative alphabet books their magic and their singular place in the developmental journey, and among the most imaginative is Daytime Visions: An Alphabet (public library) by beloved Argentinian musician, artist, and children’s book author Isol.

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Instead of consciously considering the semantic aspect of the images and vignettes she drew for each of the letters, Isol let the shape of the letter lead her brush toward a spontaneous burst of visual meaning — a sort of creative game that produced something utterly magical, more dream than dictionary, populated by kiwis and caterpillars and otherworldly creatures animated by the most inescapable emotional dimensions of human life: loneliness, gladness, petulance, tenderness, joy.

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PREACHING TO THE CHICKENS

Civil rights icon and nonviolent resistance leader John Lewis (b. February 21, 1940) is rightly celebrated as a true “healer of the heart of democracy.” He is also a testament to how the humblest beginnings can produce lives of towering heroism. Long before Congressman Lewis became a key figure in ending racial segregation in America, little John was one of nine siblings living on the family’s farm in southern Alabama. It was in that unlikely environment, heavy with labor and love, that young Lewis found his voice as a leader.

Writer Jabari Asim and illustrator E.B. Lewis tell the improbable and inspiring origin story of this largehearted legend in Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis (public library) — a superb addition to the greatest picture-book biographies of cultural icons.

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Little John Lewis loved the spring. He loved it not only because it was the time when the whole planet came alive, but also because it was the season of the chicks. Winter was too cold to bring them safely into the world, and summer was too hot. Spring was just right.

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John’s mother cooked the family meals from vegetables she grew — collards, tomatoes, sweet potatoes — and other goodies. She cleaned the family’s clothes in a big iron pot, stirring them in the boiling water and washing them with homemade soap before hanging them on the line to dry.

Yes, Lord, plenty of work on a farm.

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One day, John is put in charge of the chickens and so begins his foray into leadership. His heart ablaze with the dream of becoming a preacher, the boy begins practicing before his willing — or, at least, tacitly agreeable — avian audience. E.B. Lewis’s luminous watercolors are the perfect complement to Asim’s lyrical prose, which together carry the story of how John Lewis incubated his talent for wielding words that move and mobilize mind, body, and spirit.

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THE POLAR BEAR

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?

That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear (public library), also among the year’s best science books — the follow-up to The Blue Whale, Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, which was among the best science books of 2015.

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The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.

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Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.

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WHAT COLOR IS THE WIND?

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince. Those bereft of vision, therefore, need not be bereft of the essential — they discern it by means other than sight.

The richness of that otherness is what Belgian artist and author Anne Herbauts came to see in a surprising and profound question from a blind child. During a bookmaking workshop she was leading, a little boy asked her whether she, as an artist, could tell him what color the wind was — a notion of the same trans-sensory, synesthetic quality as Helen Keller’s electrifying account of “hearing” Beethoven.

Touched by the sincerity of the boy’s curiosity, Herbauts set out to offer her answer in What Color Is the Wind? (public library), translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick — a largehearted, unusual book that takes the reader on a sensorial adventure, with the tactile magic of The Black Book of Colors and the die-cut delight of Bruno Munari’s visionary vintage gems.

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The story’s protagonist, whom Herbauts affectionately calls “the little giant,” goes in search of an answer to his synesthetic question. Every piece of nature he encounters gives him a different answer — to the bee, the wind is the warm color of the sun; the old dog, who perceives the world through smell, experiences it as “pink, flowery, pale white”; to the wolf, it smells of the forest; for the mountain, the wind is a bird; for the window, it is the color of time.

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Herbauts paints the sensory landscape with extraordinarily inventive bookmaking techniques to which this screen can do no justice — appleseeds peek through a die-cut hole, raindrops gleam embossed on a laminated page, debossed grooves invite the touch of tree bark. What emerges is a parallel invitation to empathy and self-expansion in imagining the world as the unsighted experience it and exploring a different sensorial space than the one we sighted humans ordinarily inhabit. Just as the universe of smell unlocks hidden layers of reality, so does the universe of touch.

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The little giant asks the bird,
What color…

But the bird has flown away.

And the enormous giant,
with a slow gesture says:
The color of the wind?

It is everything at once.
This whole book.

Then he takes the book and,
thumb against its edge,
he lets the pages fly.

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THE PANCAKE KING

At a dinner some years ago, I had the good fortune of being seated next to the great graphic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast (b. August 18, 1931). A warm but reticent conversation companion, he became, like Oliver Sacks, unusually animated when it came to his creative passions. At one point in the evening, I asked Chwast what his favorite project was from the entire span of his illustrious career. Here was a man whose work had influenced generations of designers and had received just about every imaginable accolade in the graphic arts. So I was both surprised and utterly delighted by his answer, which he offered without hesitation but with a certain wistfulness — an obscure vintage children’s book by Phyllis La Farge he had illustrated in 1971, which had since fallen out of print and sunk into oblivion.

The following day, invigorated by curiosity, I set about finding a surviving copy. Victorious at last with a bedraggled book discarded by the Breton Downs Library and found at a thrift bookseller, I instantly knew why Chwast had so fondly and resolutely chosen this forgotten gem as the favorite of a lifetime — it was a sweet, subversive parable about the tradeoffs of creativity and commerce, the messy relationship between success and life-satisfaction, the treacherous way in which prestige can hijack our sense of purpose, and what happens when a personal labor of love becomes a “brand.” A story, in other words, both timeless and immensely time today, when the integrity of every creative life is bending under the ever-growing pressures of bigger-better-faster.

So imagine my enormous gladness at the news that Princeton Architectural Press is bringing The Pancake King (public library) back to life as part of the same vintage children’s book revival series that also resurrected the marvelous The Brownstone by graphic design legend (and, incidentally, Chwast’s spouse of four decades) Paula Scher.

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EINSTEIN

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) is celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius” and his groundbreaking discoveries have changed the course of science, but he was also a man of enormous and thus inescapably fallible humanity, whose confusion and conflictedness were inseparable from his genius.

This seething cauldron of brilliant complexity is what Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon explore in Einstein (public library) — the third installment in their series of illustrated biographies of thinkers who have shaped modern life, following Freud and Marx.

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From Einstein’s formative childhood experiences to his arrival in America, from his annus mirabilis to his Nobel Prize, from his views on religion to his civil rights activity, the graphic novel unfolds with elegant simplicity of language and intelligent playfulness that would have delighted Einstein, who was known for his irreverent wit.

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WHAT CAN I BE

In the late 1950s, children’s book author Ann Rand collaborated with her then-husband, the graphic design legend Paul Rand, on a series of unusual and imaginative children’s books — Sparkle and Spin and I Know a Lot of Things. Even after they divorced in 1958, they continued working together and published the loveliest of their collaborations, Little 1, in 1961.

After Rand’s death in 2012, a marvelous unpublished manuscript of hers from the 1970s was discovered — a most unusual concept book, partway between graphic design primer, Norton Juster’s The Dot and the Line, and Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s books, exploring how our imagination combines lines and shapes to build an entire world.

Four decades later, this forgotten masterpiece is brought to life as What Can I Be? (public library) with stunning illustrations by painter and architecture professor Ingrid Fiksdahl King.

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It is hardly a coincidence that King co-authored the 1977 architecture and urbanism classic A Pattern Language — a pioneering inquiry into how the elements of urban design and their arrangement form the patterns that compose the language of community livability. It is our ability to imagine, after all — to combining basic elements into a language of the possible — that makes life livable.

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With simple, inviting words, Rand constructs a poetic game of possibility.

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* * *

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best children’s books of 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

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