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A Typographic Literary Map of San Francisco, in a Puzzle

From Kerouac to Steinbeck by way of The Mission.

This week, I’m in San Francisco for the fantastic Pop Up Magazine, and what better time to dust off a thematic old favorite with a new twist? As a lover of maps in general and literary geography in particular, I was thrilled to learn that John McMurtrie’s fantastic 2009 typographic map of San Francisco literary geography, illustration by artist Ian Huebert, is now available as a jigsaw puzzle. And not just any jigsaw puzzle — a laser-cut wooden jigsaw puzzle.

With 152 pieces and several dozen authors, including Brain Pickings favorites Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, Philip K. Dick, and John Steinbeck, the cartographic-typographic puzzle is a beautifully designed treat for the lit geek in your life, or in your heart.

The complete list of authors and works:

BP

7 Essential Collections of Conversations with Cultural Icons

Inside our era’s greatest minds, or what Nelson Mandela has to do with the fringes of the art world.

Whatever we might say of the future of the written word, a book remains a remarkable curated package of ideas that matter, one that lives on as a precious time-capsule of the era defined by those ideas. Nowhere is this property of the book more concentrated than in anthologies that gather the first-hand insights and cultural observations of an era’s greatest thinkers. Today, we turn to seven such treasure troves of ideas by some of our time’s most influential writers, artists, scientists, creators, and philosophers.

WISDOM

If you aren’t yet familiar with the work of photographer Andrew Zuckerman, you’re missing some of the most compelling visual philosophy of our day. In Wisdom: The Greatest Gift One Generation Can Give to Another, Zuckerman went wisdom-hunting among 50 of our time’s greatest thinkers and doers — writers, artists, philosophers, politicians, designers, activists, musicians, religious and business leaders — all over 65 years of age. (Though Zuckerman himself is just over 30.) He posed 7 questions, recording his subjects’ candid responses in a way that unearths a landslide of intelligence, inspiration, and invaluable insight. From Nelson Mandela to Jane Goodall to Desmond Tutu, the list of modern-day shamans reads like an all-star pickup game between TED and the Nobel Prize.

You don’t stop doing things because you get old. You get old because you stop doing things.” ~ Rosamunde Pilcher, writer

Against the plain white backdrop and in the signature crispness of Zuckerman’s shot, the subjects are stripped down to their core essence, decontextualized and thus democratized in a way that truly captures a cross-cultural cross-section of our era, with all its burdens and triumphs.

Zuckerman subsequently divided the great tome into four smaller, more digestible sub-volumes, each with its own thematic DVD: Wisdom: Life, Wisdom: Love, Wisdom: Peace, and Wisdom: Ideas.

See more, including a behind-the-scenes peek, here.

SCIENCE IS CULTURE

In 2001, Adam Bly founded Seed Magazine with the vision of exploring the social, creative, intellectual, economic, and political transformations underpinned by science. One of the magazine’s most beloved features has been the Seed Salon, pairing a scientist and artist, humanist, or other non-scientist in a conversation about issues of common interest and shared significance. In 2010, Bly collected 12 of these conversations in Science Is Culture: Conversations at the New Intersection of Science + Society — a who’s who of contemporary art, science, literature, and philosophy, methodically and thoughtfully bridging the age-old yet, as these conversations prove, artificial divide between science and culture. These tête-à-têtes include momentous pairings like David Byrne + Daniel Levitin, Benoit Mandelbrot + Paola Antonelli, E.O Wilson + Daniel Dennett, and Jonathan Lethem + Janna Levin. (It’s also worth nothing that of the seven books in this omnibus, this one is by far the most gender-balanced in perspectives and representation — something that would be commendable were it not for the tragic admission of male-centricity still being the norm implicit to such commendation.)

Here’s a taste from the salon conversation between author Alan Lightman and choreographer Richard Colton, who discuss the relationship between art and time:

Alan Lightman: If I had a few hours or longer, I could work on a writing project. If I had half an hour, I could do errands or pay bills. If I only had two or three minutes, I could answer telephone messages. I realized that I had carved up the entire day into five-minute units of efficiency, andd I was appalled. I was very upset to think that i was becoming a robot — and I’m wondering, how do you use time in your life?

Richard Colton: One of the things that came to mind when you told this story is something I remember reading during the Gertrude Stein phase, which is that Stein believed the first ingredient for creativity was boredom. You must trust that the mundane will lead to something interesting.

John Cage also taught that if you let the duration of a movement or musical phrase just keep going, it will almost always become more interesting, which is the exact opposite of carving something up into small increments. You will go through a period where the music seems boring, but if you let it keep going it can become quite interesting.”

HANS ULRICH OBRIST INTERVIEWS

Since 1993, curator, critic and art historian Hans-Ulrich Obrist, whom you might remember from the 2010 documentary The Future of Art, has been interviewing hundreds of noteworthy characters who have piqued his curiosity, from renowned luminaries to emerging artists, including writers, scientists, designers, composers, architects, and other thinkers and doers. The project was inspired by two long conversations HUO, as Obrist is often referred to, read when he was a student — one was between Pierre Cabanne and Marcel Duchamp, and the other between David Sylvester and Francis Bacon.

Throughout The Interview Project, HUO has amassed thousands of hours of tapes and more than 300 interviews to date. The first batch of 75 were released in 2003 in Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, currently out-of-print and a collector’s item. In 2010, HUO released the highly anticipated sequel, Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, Volume 2 — an epic 950-page tome featuring 70 fascinating interviews with great minds from inside and outside the art world born between 1900 and 1989, organized by date of birth. Though you might recognize some of the bigger names, like Ai Weiwei and Miranda July, the beauty of the project is that many of its “endless conversations” live in the fringes of culture, where the most provocative art and thought take place.

A meditation on the art of the interview by the exceptional Douglas Coupland captures HUO’s unique gift:

Hans is one of the few people who know what a true interview out to accomplish, and he has an amazing knack for getting to the essence of a person. He’s the press equivalent of laser eye surgery. With HUO you never get to the twenty-first minute, and with HUO you feel like you’ve had a conversation. He does it the old fashioned way, in person, with a microphone, transcribing the results. This second volume of HUO’s interviews is more diverse than his first, and reflects a broader span of voices and points of view. Each person is a person, and each person is unique. This is a difficult feat to accomplish.”

Amen.

Thanks, Bettina

THE INNOVATOR’S COOKBOOK

Speaking of Steven Johnson, the freshest of these anthologies comes precisely from him. On the heels of his excellent Where Good Ideas Come From comes The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What Is Next — a formidable compendium of essays, interviews, and insights on innovation featuring big thinkers like Richard Florida, John Seely Brown, Peter Drucker and many more, alongside Johnson’s own narrative mesmerism. The book does away with everything that makes the innovation space a minefield of fluff-lined buzz and offers instead a lucid, thoughtful, cross-disciplinary lens refracting across education, art, science, economics, urban design, and more.

Underpinning the anthology is a message about the essential role serendipity plays in innovation — or, as Johnson puts it, “the importance of getting lost.” And for the ultimate treat, the trailer for it is a stop-motion gem 3D-printed by MakerBot, one of the 7 open-source platforms changing the future of manufacturing:

It may not be possible to ‘win the future,’ in President Obama’s words, but if we’re going to encourage more innovation, it’s not enough for us to just dig in and work harder. We also need to encourage surprise and serendipity. We need to play each other’s instruments.” ~ Steven Johnson

CULTURE

For the past 15 years, literary-agent-turned-crusader-of-human-progress John Brockman has been a remarkable curator of curiosity, long before either “curator” or “curiosity” was a frivolously tossed around buzzword. His Edge.org has become an epicenter of bleeding-edge insight across science, technology and beyond, hosting conversations with some of our era’s greatest thinkers (and, once a year, asking them some big questions.) In Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology, Brockman gathers invaluable essays and interviews by and with icons like Brian Eno, George Dyson and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it’s us. It’s us who make those meanings.” ~ Brian Eno, “A Big Theory of Culture” (1997)

See the full review, with more excerpts, here.

AN OPTIMIST’S TOUR OF THE FUTURE

By now, you’re no doubt familiar with An Optimist’s Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets Out to Answer “What’s Next?”, one of our 7 favorite books on optimism and required reading from our summer reading list for cognitive sunshine. To recap: After a stark confrontation with his own mortality, comedian Mark Stevenson spent a year traveling 60,000 miles across four continents and talked to scientists, philosophers, inventors, politicians and other thought leaders around the world, hoping to find an optimistic antidote to all the dystopian futurism that constantly bombards us. He synthesized these fascinating insights in an illuminating and refreshingly hopeful guide to our shared tomorrow.

From longevity science to robotics to synthetic biology, these cutting-edge ideas, gathered from all over the world and featuring (alas, mostly male) minds like Chris Anderson, John Seely Brown, and Tim Berners Lee, span a wide spectrum of science and technology, revealing above all the incredible potential for innovation through the cross-pollination of disciplines and modes of thinking — a centerpiece of the Brain Pickings ethos.

This is a book that won’t tell you how to think about [the future], but will give you the tools to make up your mind about it. Whether you’re feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the future is up to you, but I do believe you should be fully informed about all the options we face. And one thing I became very concerned about is when we talk about the future, we often talk about it as damage and limitation exercise. That needn’t be the case — it could be a Renaissance.” ~ Mark Stevenson

PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS

Last year, the excellent Paris Review opened up its archive, containing a half-century worth of fascinating interviews with some of the greatest literary figures in modern history. The Paris Review Interviews, Vols. 1-4 is a priceless box-set of these extraordinary interviews and revelatory self-portraits captured between the 1950s and today. From Ernest Hemingway to Maya Angelou to Stephen King, the archive isn’t merely a reflection of literary history, it’s also a goldmine of meditations on culture and creativity by some of our greatest literary icons.

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to create your own world whenever you want to. Writing is very pleasurable, very seductive, and very therapeutic. Time passes very fast when I’m writing—really fast. I’m puzzling over something, and time just flies by. It’s an exhilarating feeling. How bad can it be? It’s sitting alone with fictional characters. You’re escaping from the world in your own way and that’s fine. Why not?” ~ Woody Allen

Here are 10 favorite quotes from the interviews, to give you a taste.

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The Paris Review Archival Interviews: 10 Favorite Quotes

The excellent Paris Review has just opened up its archive, a half-century worth of fascinating interviews with some of the greatest literary figures in modern history. From William Faulkner to Stephen King, the archive spans hundreds of interviews taken between the 1950s and today.

We’ve curated 10 quotes from 10 of our favorite interviews.

The ideal reader of my novels is a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read. He should also be about my age.” ~ Anthony Burgess

Of course I thought I was Jo in Little Women. But I didn’t want to write what Jo wrote. Then in Martin Eden I found a writer-protagonist with whose writing I could identify, so then I wanted to be Martin Eden—minus, of course, the dreary fate Jack London gives him. I saw myself as (I guess I was) a heroic autodidact. I looked forward to the struggle of the writing life. I thought of being a writer as a heroic vocation.” ~ Susan Sontag

I’ve always been keenly aware of the passing of time. I’ve always thought that I was old. Even when I was twelve, I thought it was awful to be thirty. I felt that something was lost. At the same time, I was aware of what I could gain, and certain periods of my life have taught me a great deal. But, in spite of everything, I’ve always been haunted by the passing of time and by the fact that death keeps closing in on us. For me, the problem of time is linked up with that of death, with the thought that we inevitably draw closer and closer to it, with the horror of decay. It’s that, rather than the fact that things disintegrate, that love peters out.” ~ Simone de Beauvoir

Now, if you don’t like that, Berrigan, that’s the history of my family. They don’t take no shit from nobody. In due time I ain’t going to take no shit from nobody. You can record that.” ~ Jack Kerouac

You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices.” ~ Ray Bradbury

It’s a wonderful thing to be able to create your own world whenever you want to. Writing is very pleasurable, very seductive, and very therapeutic. Time passes very fast when I’m writing—really fast. I’m puzzling over something, and time just flies by. It’s an exhilarating feeling. How bad can it be? It’s sitting alone with fictional characters. You’re escaping from the world in your own way and that’s fine. Why not?” ~ Woody Allen

I would be a liar, a hypocrite, or a fool—and I’m not any of those—to say that I don’t write for the reader. I do. But for the reader who hears, who really will work at it, going behind what I seem to say. So I write for myself and that reader who will pay the dues.” ~ Maya Angelou

When I began to lose my sight, the last color I saw, or the last color, rather, that stood out, because of course now I know that your coat is not the same color as this table or of the woodwork behind you—the last color to stand out was yellow because it is the most vivid of colors. That’s why you have the Yellow Cab Company in the United States. At first they thought of making the cars scarlet. Then somebody found out that at night or when there was a fog that yellow stood out in a more vivid way than scarlet. So you have yellow cabs because anybody can pick them out. Now when I began to lose my eyesight, when the world began to fade away from me, there was a time among my friends… well they made, they poked fun at me because I was always wearing yellow neckties. Then they thought I really liked yellow, although it really was too glaring. I said, ‘Yes, to you, but not to me, because it is the only color I can see, practically!’ I live in a gray world, rather like the silver-screen world. But yellow stands out.” ~ Jorge Luis Borges

The idea that addiction is somehow a psychological illness is, I think, totally ridiculous. It’s as psychological as malaria. It’s a matter of exposure.” ~ William S. Burroughs

You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

The series is also available in book form, as a four-volume box set that we highly recommend — a priceless timecapsule of cultural history.

via Open Culture

BP

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Fragility of Knowing Who We Are

“There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is.”

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Fragility of Knowing Who We Are

It takes a great sobriety of spirit to know your own depths — and your limits. It takes a special grandeur of spirit to know the limits of your self-knowledge.

A recent brush with those limits reminded me of a short, stunning essay by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) titled “The Mirror of Enigmas,” found in his Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of stories, essays, and parables that gave us his timeless parable of the divided self and his classic refutation of time.

Titling the essay after St. Paul’s famous cryptic statement Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate — loosely translated as We now see through a mirror, enigmatically — Borges considers the tribe of thinkers who have perched their efforts to reconcile knowledge and mystery, the scientific and the spiritual, on the assumption that “the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — has an incalculable, symbolical value.” With his characteristic poetic precision, he condenses this common and somewhat tired hypothesis:

The outer world — forms, temperatures, the moon — is a language humans have forgotten or which we can scarcely distinguish.

No one, Borges argues, has taken this precarious hypothesis to more surefooted ground than the French novelist, poet, and philosophical pamphleteer Léon Bloy (July 11, 1846–November 3, 1917).

Digging through the surviving fragments of Bloy’s written thought, he surfaces a passage emblematic of Bloy’s uncommon physics of the metaphysical — an 1894 passage fomented by his interest in the teachings of St. Paul. Translated by Borges himself, Bloy writes:

[St. Paul’s statement] would be a skylight through which one might submerge himself in the true Abyss, which is the soul of man. The terrifying immensity of the firmament’s abyss is an illusion, an external reflection of our own abysses, perceived “in a mirror.” We should invert our eyes and practice a sublime astronomy in the infinitude of our heart… If we see the Milky Way, it is because it actually exists in our souls.

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750 — the first book to describe the spiral shape of the Milky Way. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

A century before Milan Kundera considered the eternal challenge of knowing what we really want in his classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bloy shines a sidewise gleam on the elemental self-opacity with and within which we live:

Everything is a symbol, even the most piercing pain. We are dreamers who shout in our sleep. We do not know whether the things afflicting us are the secret beginning of our ulterior happiness or not.

These ideas haunted Bloy, animated his pamphlets, his poems, his novels, then culminated in his 1912 book-length essay The Soul of Napoleon — a philosophical prose poem that sets out, as Borges puts it, “to decipher the symbol Napoleon, considered as the precursor of another hero — man and symbol as well — who is hidden in the future.” Bloy, translated again by Borges, writes in this uncommon work:

Every man* is on earth to symbolize something he is ignorant of and to realize a particle or a mountain of the invisible materials that will serve to build the City of God.

[…]

There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light… History is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and the dots are worth no less than the entire verses or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden.

But as you contemplate these existential immensities, you face the limits of contemplation — the limits of meaning-making in relation to elemental truth.

Borges recognized this, closing the essay with by acknowledging “it is doubtful that the world has a meaning… even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning.”

I recognized this upon sitting down in for morning meditation in my garden after a nightlong storm and watching an almost otherworldly deposit roll onto the cushion: a tiny, perfect robin egg, improbable and sorrowful in its displaced blue beauty.

Singing Only Is by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

I considered climbing the neighbor’s colossal tree to find the storm-shaken nest and reinstate the egg. (Perfectly, the tree is an Ailanthus altissima, known as “tree-of-heaven” in its native China — a migrant now rooted in Brooklyn, like me.)

But then I considered this chance-event as the product of the same impartial forces that deposited the exact spermatozoid of my father’s onto my mother’s ovum at the exact moment to produce the chance-event of my particular configuration of atoms animated by this particular consciousness that just is, the consciousness mourning the robin that will never be. To call one expression of chance good and another bad is mere human hubris — the hubris of narrative and interpretation superimposed on an impartial universe devoid of why, awash in is.

No one knows the meaning of why anything comes to be, or doesn’t. Here is this pale blue orb, dropped from the tree-of-heaven onto a tiny Brooklyn point on the face of this Pale Blue Dot, itself a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” within an immense and impartial universe, conceived in the creation myths and early scientific theories of our meaning-hungry ancestors as a great cosmic egg.

Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750, illustrating Thomas Wright’s model of the cosmos as an egg-like structure of nested infinities. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Here I am, and here you are, and here is the robin’s egg in its near-life collision with chance. To ask for its meaning is as meaningless a question as to demand the meaning of a color or the meaning of a bird. On this particular day, at this particular moment — the only locus of aliveness we ever have — the contour of meaning comes in shades of blue, singing only is.

BP

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