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Patti Smith on Libraries and the Transformative Love of Books

On books, bronchitis, and a mother’s “sympathetic exasperation.”

Patti Smith on Libraries and the Transformative Love of Books

“Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in reflecting on how she saved herself by reading. “A library is a rainbow in the clouds,” Maya Angelou harmonized in recollecting how a library saved her own life. Her contemporary and titanic peer Ursula K. Le Guin located the source of that salvation in the portal to personal and intellectual liberty that opens up between the shelves of the public library, between the covers of a book: “Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.”

A generation after a little boy named James Baldwin reached for that liberty and read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon at the local library, a little girl named Patricia Lee Smith read her way from a poor rural community in southern New Jersey to the world’s stage and the world’s heart, soon to become the voice of generations and one of the most original, revolutionary, and generous artists of her time, of our time, and of all time.

In Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable, symphonic exploration of dreams, love, loss, and mending the broken realities of lifePatti Smith recounts how her local childhood library nurtured her inner life, tilling the soil of her becoming.

In consonance with that lovely parenthetical line from one of Nikki Giovanni’s poems celebrating libraries and librarians — “(You never know what troubled little girl needs a book.)” — Smith writes of the endearing, almost unreasonable devotion with which she sought solace for her nine-year-old troubles amid the stacks:

Every Saturday I would go to the library and choose my books for the week. One late-autumn morning, despite menacing clouds, I bundled up and walked as always, past the peach orchards, the pig farm and the skating rink to the fork in the road that led to our sole library. The sight of so many books never failed to excite me, rows and rows of books with multicolored spines. I’d spent an inordinate amount of time choosing my stack of books that day, with the sky growing more ominous. At first, I wasn’t worried as I had long legs and was a pretty fast walker, but then it became apparent that there was no way I was going to beat the impending storm. It grew colder, the winds picked up, followed by heavy rains, then pelting hail. I slid the books under my coat to protect them, I had a long way to go; I stepped in puddles and could feel the icy water permeate my ankle socks. When I finally reached home my mother shook her head with sympathetic exasperation, prepared a hot bath and made me go to bed. I came down with bronchitis and missed several days of school. But it had been worth it, for I had my books, among them The Tik-Tok Man of Oz, Half Magic and The Dog of Flanders. Wonderful books that I read over and over, only accessible to me through our library.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Complement this tiny fragment of the wholly enchanting Year of the Monkey — which crowned my favorite books of 2019 — with Oliver Sacks, reflecting on the early character-sculpting role the local library played in his own life, on the library as a locus of intellectual freedom and community-building, then revisit Patti Smith on the two kinds of literary masterpieces and her fifty favorite books. (One might hope that letting her spinach get cold is now among her qualifying criteria for a favorite book.)

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The Heartbreak of Hans Christian Andersen

Of turning sorrow into song.

The Heartbreak of Hans Christian Andersen

Harriet Hosmer — whose remarkable forgotten story I tell in Figuring (public library), from which this essay too is adapted — was not yet thirty when she became the world’s first successful female sculptor, claimed a place for American art in the European pantheon, and furnished queer culture with a bold new vocabulary of being. Her studio in Rome became a pilgrimage site for royalty and luminaries, drawing such esteemed admirers as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Maria Mitchell, the Prince of Wales, the Crown Princess of Germany, and the exiled queen of Naples (who would become Hosmer’s lover).

Among her famous visitors was Hans Christian Andersen (April 2, 1805–August 4, 1875) — a man of supreme storytelling genius and aching self-alienation, which Hosmer instantly intuited. In a letter home, she described Andersen as “a tall, gaunt figure of the Lincoln type with long, straight, black hair, shading a face striking because of its sweetness and sadness,” adding that “it was perhaps by reason of the very bitterness of his struggles, that he loved to dwell among the more kindly fairies in whose world he found no touch of hard humanity.”

Hans Christian Andersen (Portrait by Christian Albrecht Jensen, 1836)

Andersen’s struggles were ones of a heart unsettled, ambivalent, at war with itself. By all biographical evidence, he died a virgin. For years, he was infatuated with the Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind, but his great erotic love was reserved for Edvard Collin — a boyhood beloved who remained the single most intense emotional relationship throughout Andersen’s life. “The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery,” he wrote to Edvard, who left in his memoir a forlorn record of the dual heartbreak that scars all such relationships between people who love each other deeply but differently: “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.” Andersen was unambiguous about both his feelings and his suffering, writing to Edvard with heart-rending plaintiveness:

I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman.

Jenny Lind, on the other hand, was a woman of the highest caliber of femininity, and one of the most successful women artists of her time. Andersen sent her passionate, pouting letters, then wrote his classic story “The Nightingale” out of his frustrated reverence shortly before making an awkward marriage proposal in a letter handed to her on a train platform. The tale didn’t earn him Lind’s reciprocity, but it earned her the monicker “the Swedish Nightingale.”

Jenny Lind (Portrait by Eduard Magnus, 1862)

To make art out of heartache is, of course, the most beautiful thing one could do with one’s sorrow, as well as the most generous — no artist knows how the transfiguration of their pain into beauty will salve another heart, give another sorrower the language of their own truth, the vessel for navigating their own experience.

Across the Atlantic, Andersen’s heartbreak-fermented fairy tales furnished the language of understanding between two other deeply entwined hearts. Susan Gilbert — the love of Emily Dickinson’s life, to whom the poet had written those electrifying love letters — had married Emily’s brother to be near her. Having managed marital celibacy for an impressive five years, Susan eventually gave birth to her first child. That season, Dickinson sent to her editor a famed cryptic letter on the meaning of which biographers would speculate for centuries to come, telling him of some great unnamed and perhaps unnameable hurt:

I had a terror… I could tell to none, and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid.

Illustration for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Nightingale” by Ukrainian artist Georgi Ivanovich Narbut, 1912.

Not a “fright,” not a “shock,” but a terror. Whether or not she was the cause, Susan knew of Emily’s suffering and suffered in consonance, for any two hearts bound by love are also bound to share in sorrow. Drawing on an image from Andersen’s fairy tale “The Nightingale and the Rose” — which in turn drew, as most of his fairy tales did, on the terrors of his own unmet heart — Susan captured the parallel heartbreak of their impossible love in a letter apologizing for turning away from Emily’s kiss:

If you have suffered this past Summer — I am sorry — I Emily bear a sorrow that I never uncover — If a nightingale sings with her breast against a thorn, why not we?

Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert

Complement this fragment of Figuring with Andersen’s arresting account of climbing Vesuvius during an eruption and the most beautiful illustrations from 150 years of his fairy tales, then revisit Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to his friend and neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, penned in the same era and pained with the same sorrow.

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A Curious Herbal: Gorgeous Illustrations from Elizabeth Blackwell’s 18th-Century Encyclopedia of Medicinal Botany

Time-travel to the dawn of modern medical science via the stunning art of a self-taught woman illustrator and botanist.

A century before botany swung open the backdoor to science for Victorian women and ignited the craze for herbaria — none more enchanting than the adolescent Emily Dickinson’s forgotten herbarium — a Scottish woman by the name of Elizabeth Blackwell (1707–1758) published, against all cultural odds, an ambitious and scrumptiously illustrated guide to medicinal plants, titled A Curious Herbal: Containing Five Hundred Cuts of the Most Useful Plants Which Are Now Used in the Practice of Physick (public library).

Elizabeth Blackwell

Blackwell — not to be confused with the 19th-century physician of the same name, who became the first woman to earn a medical degree from an American university — was not yet thirty when she began the project. It was a rare triumph of turning desperation into inspiration, or what Audre Lorde called turning fear into fire for creative work: Impoverished beyond imagination, with her husband in debtor’s prison and a young child to care for at home, Blackwell decided to enlist her early training in painting — women’s access to formal education was still centuries ahead — in saving her family. But she didn’t yet know exactly how.

After befriending the head curator Chelsea Physic Garden — a teaching facility for apprentice apothecaries established several decades earlier — she realized that there was a need for a handbook depicting and describing the garden’s new collection of mysterious plants from the New World. A keen observer, a gifted artist, and an entrepreneur by nature, she set about bridging the world’s need and her own.

Pomegranate. (Available as a print.)

Blackwell took rooms near the garden and began painting the plants as she saw them. She then took the drawings to her husband’s cell and had him supply each plant’s name in Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, and German. (The Linnaean classification system did not yet exist — Carl Linnaeus, born the same year as Blackwell, was yet to revolutionize taxonomy with his binomial nomenclature.) After producing an astonishing 500 drawings — many of species now endangered or altogether extinct, species falling out of our dictionary and imagination — she engraved the copper printing plates for the images and text herself, and hand-colored the illustrations.

Saffron. (Available as a print.)
Red poppy. (Available as a print.)
Dandelion. (Available as a print.)
Iris. (Available as a print.)

In 1737, just around her thirtieth birthday, Elizabeth Blackwell began publishing A Curious Herbal, which has since been digitized by the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library — one of the most inspired and inspiring digital scholarship initiatives.

I have restored a selection of her gorgeous illustrations and made them available as prints, benefiting The Nature Conservancy to support their noble, necessary work of preserving our planet’s biodiversity.

Fig. (Available as a print.)

Punctuating the pictorial splendor are the fascinating fossils of modern medicine — folk remedies like the use of cucumber seeds to treat kidney stones and urinary tract infections, stinging nettles to stop internal bleeding and counter coughs, mistletoe (now studied for its capacity to shrink tumors) to fight “convulsion fits, the apoplexy, palsy, and vertigo,” and the world’s first mass-market antidepressant: St. John’s Wort to allay “melancholy and madness.”

Mistletoe. (Available as a print.)
Coffee. (Available as a print.)

Across from her illustration of the coffee plant, Blackwell explains:

Accounted good for those who are of a cold, flegmatic constitution. But for persons of a thin, hot and dry temperament, the drinking it too much may bring on them nervous distempers.

Radiating from the pages is also the welcome disorientation of time travel, deconditioning our habit of mistaking today’s culturally constructed commonplaces for ahistorical givens: Blackwell’s bright-red tomato blazes the reminder that this plant — so common today as to be commonplace the world over — was then an exotic native of the New World, known in the Old World as love-apple.

Tomato, or Love-Apple. (Available as a print.)
Hot pepper, or Guinea pepper. (Available as a print.)

Against this botanical backdrop of cultural change arise certain cultural constants — under the entry for Agnus castus, commonly known as chaste tree for the belief that it preserves chastity, Blackwell wryly remarks, as every human culture has always remarked on its own moral collapse under the forces of progress, that “this age has left that medicine out of the dispensatory as useless.” (I am reminded of James Baldwin’s incisive remarks on Shakespeare: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” The past is better. The past is worse. Our misplaced historical nostalgia is a hideout for the terror of our own temporality and the concession that our present is always someone else’s past, both better and worse.)

Cucumber. (Available as a print.)

Blackwell’s book did for plants what Sarah Stone would do for animals a generation later with her trailblazing natural history illustrations of exotic species. The handsome two-volume set, featuring hundreds of Blackwell’s hand-colored full-page engravings, was embraced by the medical community and lauded by the Royal College of Physicians. With the revenues, she was able to secure her husband’s release from prison. Outliving both Elizabeth and her husband, the book remained in print for decades — a rarity in the era’s ecosystem of publishing. Sir Joseph Banks — who christened Australia’s Botany Bay after alighting there with Captain Cook and who would become president of the Royal Society twenty years after Blackwell’s death — cherished his copy of her book and bequeathed it to the British Library. As Blackwell’s illustrated botany made its way across Europe, it eventually reached Linnaeus himself, who came to admire her work so ardently that he gave her the affectionate nickname Botanica Blackwellia.

Grapevine. (Available as a print.)
Quince. (Available as a print.)

Complement with the stunning algae cyanotypes of the self-taught Victorian botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, who more than a century after Blackwell and shortly after the invention of photography became the first person to publish a scientific book illustrated with photographic images, then revisit poet and painter Rebecca Hey’s wondrous 19th-century illustrations for the world’s first encyclopedia of trees and French artist Paul Sougy’s vibrant mid-twentieth-century scientific diagrams of plants, animals, and the human body.

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Bach and the Cosmos of Belonging: Michael Pollan on How the Transcendent Power of Music Allays the Loneliness of Being and the Ache of Regret

“Opened to the music, I became first the strings… and then the breeze of sound flowing past as it crossed the lips of the instrument and went out to meet the world, beginning its lonely transit of the universe.”

Bach and the Cosmos of Belonging: Michael Pollan on How the Transcendent Power of Music Allays the Loneliness of Being and the Ache of Regret

Some of humanity’s greatest writers have extolled the singular enchantment of music. Walt Whitman considered it the profoundest expression of nature. Maurice Sendak found in its fusion of fantasy and feeling the key to great storytelling. “Without music life would be a mistake,” Nietzsche proclaimed with his characteristic drama of finality. Music can save a life, allay the shock of death, and permeate the living flesh of memory. “After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Aldous Huxley wrote in contemplating the transcendent power of music two decades before he swung open the doors to transcendence in a different way, as charioteer in the first wave of the psychedelic revolution. Huxley discovered in psychedelics a kindred portal into the inexpressible — or what William James identified as the first of his four features of transcendent experiences: ineffability — that peculiar state of surrender — in which regions of consciousness unconquerable by thought, inaccessible by its arsenal of language, begin to emerge and to expand our understanding of reality through what Whitman celebrated as “dainty abandon.”

Illustration by Margaret Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Available as a print)

A century and a half after Whitman and a turn of the cultural cycle after Huxley, Michael Pollan revisits the transcendent, ineffable common ground between music and psychedelics in How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (public library) — a rigorously researched and sensitively reasoned inquiry into the neurophysiology, phenomenology, and inner poetry of transcendence.

During his first experience with psilocybin, Pollan asked his facilitator to put on a Bach cello suite in D minor, performed — reanimated, rather — by Yo-Yo Ma. He had heard the spare, melancholy suite many times before, usually at funerals, but had “never truly listened to it” — until that moment. With a poet’s access to the language of inner quickening, the language of the ineffable beyond the ripening of thought and feeling in ordinary consciousness, where the deepest and most mysterious substance of being lies, Pollan recounts the experience:

I lost whatever ability I still had to distinguish subject from object, tell apart what remained of me and what was Bach’s music. Instead of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, egoless and one with all it beheld, I became a transparent ear, indistinguishable from the stream of sound that flooded my consciousness until there was nothing else in it, not even a dry tiny corner in which to plant an I and observe. Opened to the music, I became first the strings, could feel on my skin the exquisite friction of the horsehair rubbing over me, and then the breeze of sound flowing past as it crossed the lips of the instrument and went out to meet the world, beginning its lonely transit of the universe. Then I passed down into the resonant black well of space inside the cello, the vibrating envelope of air formed by the curves of its spruce roof and maple walls. The instrument’s wooden interior formed a mouth capable of unparalleled eloquence — indeed, of articulating everything a human could conceive. But the cello’s interior also formed a room to write in and a skull in which to think and I was now it, with no remainder.

So I became the cello and mourned with it for the twenty or so minutes it took for that piece to, well, change everything. Or so it seemed; now, its vibrations subsiding, I’m less certain. But for the duration of those exquisite moments, Bach’s cello suite had had the unmistakable effect of reconciling me to death… Having let go of the rope of self and slipped into the warm waters of this worldly beauty — Bach’s sublime music, I mean, and Yo-Yo Ma’s bow caressing those four strings suspended over that envelope of air — I felt as though I’d passed beyond the reach of suffering and regret.

Illustration by Margaret Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. (Available as a print)

Complement this fragment of How to Change Your Mind — a symphonic read in its totality, and one of the most timeless books of its year — with Regina Spektor’s enchanting reading of poet Mark Strand’s “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” and German philosopher Joseph Pieper, writing in Huxley’s age and with uncommonly lyrical lucidity, on how Bach will save your soul.

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