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Robert Browning on Artistic Integrity, Withstanding Criticism, and the Courage to Create Rather Than Cater

A countercultural serenade to the wellspring of the creative spirit against the tidal forces of commerce and criticism.

Robert Browning on Artistic Integrity, Withstanding Criticism, and the Courage to Create Rather Than Cater

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” the 26-year-old Van Gogh wrote to his brother in his stirring letter about the struggle for artistic purpose and recognition. “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.” It is a hollowing feeling every artist experiences at one point or another, this dispiriting mismatch between the ferocity of one’s inner fire and the cold, blind eye of the outside world.

In the same era, another artist of towering genius and paltry recognition articulated this sentiment, as well as its heartening antidote, in a letter to the love of his life.

Robert Browning

Robert Browning (May 7, 1812–December 12, 1889) met and fell in love with Elizabeth Barrett in the land of verse. “I love these books with all my heart — and I love you too,” he wrote to the stranger who had enchanted him with her 1844 poetry collection. He was an obscure poet six years her junior and this was the beginning of a most improbable courtship, recounted in Figuring, that would soon become one of the grandest, most beautiful true love stories in the common record.

“You and I seem to meet in a mild contrarious harmony,” Elizabeth wrote to Robert in their early epistolary romance, collected in the almost unbearably beautiful Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning (public library | free ebook). What harmonized their differences and contradictions was literature — the shared passion for it, the intellectual and creative bond around it, the mutual admiration of each other’s artistic gift, particularly transformative for Robert: Elizabeth’s confidence in his talent buoyed him when criticism and indifference sank his spirit as he struggled for recognition.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (British Library)

In a letter penned at the dawn of their courtship, Elizabeth probes his orientation to criticism and creative purpose:

I do not know, I cannot guess, whether you are liable to be pained deeply by hard criticism and cold neglect, such as original writers like yourself are too often exposed to — or whether the love of Art is enough for you, and the exercise of Art the filling joy of your life.

Aware of her own creative courage and defiance of convention, the 33-year-old Robert responds:

You inquire about my “sensitiveness to criticism”… I write from a thorough conviction that it is the duty of me, and with the belief that, after every drawback and shortcoming, I do my best, all things considered — that is for me, and, so being, the not being listened to by one human creature would, I hope, in nowise affect me.

A decade before Walt Whitman proclaimed in Leaves of Grass, “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,” Browning reflects on his own poems, dismissed and misunderstood by critics, and the fiery animating force behind them:

These scenes and song-scraps are such mere and very escapes of my inner power, which lives in me like the light in those crazy Mediterranean phares I have watched at sea, wherein the light is ever revolving in a dark gallery, bright and alive, and only after a weary interval leaps out, for a moment, from the one narrow chink, and then goes on with the blind wall between it and you; and, no doubt, then, precisely, does the poor drudge that carries the cresset set himself most busily to trim the wick — for don’t think I want to say I have not worked hard — (this head of mine knows better) — but the work has been inside, and not when at stated times I held up my light to you — and, that there is no self-delusion here, I would prove to you (and nobody else), even by opening this desk I write on, and showing what stuff, in the way of wood, I could make a great bonfire with, if I might only knock the whole clumsy top off my tower! Of course, every writing body says the same, so I gain nothing by the avowal; but when I remember how I have done what was published, and half done what may never be, I say with some right, you can know but little of me.

In a sentiment even more countercultural today, as many artists sacrifice creative authenticity at the alter of catering — to existing tastes, to lucrative “markets,” to the guarantees of convention and their own past proven successes — Elizabeth condemns Tennyson, perhaps the most “successful” poet in the English language at the time and a writer she did admire, for his readiness in catering to the likes and dislikes of critics and tastemakers rather than composing from a place of authentic creative vision. A century before James Baldwin considered the artist’s struggle for integrity and Mark Rothko lamented that “while the authority of the doctor or plumber is never questioned, everyone deems himself a good judge and an adequate arbiter of what a work of art should be and how it should be done,” she writes:

That such a poet [as Tennyson] should submit blindly to the suggestions of his critics… is much as if Babbage were to take my opinion and undo his calculating machine by it.

Emboldened by her insistence on authenticity over approval, Robert concurs:

Tennyson reads the Quarterly and does as they bid him, with the most solemn face in the world — out goes this, in goes that, all is changed and ranged. Oh me!

Bronze cast of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s clasped hands by the pioneering sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Nathaniel Hawthorne would later write of Hosmer’s piece as capturing “the individuality and heroic union of two high, poetic lives.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Robert Browning would go on to become one of the most beloved and influential poets our civilization has produced, much thanks to Elizabeth’s encouragement. Although today he is the better known of the two Brownings — a common selective erasure reflective of history’s worship of the Y chromosome — he spent most of his career in her shadow, always ungrudgingly, always in admiration. As Elizabeth rose to celebrity, Robert’s pride in her work was so great that he sublimated his own ego, readily recounting a period during which he could get publishers interested in his own work only if he also sent them something of his wife’s. A decade into their love, he published Men and Women — a two-volume collection of his poems, for which both Brownings had high hopes. It fell on unenchanted ears, dismissed by critics and ignored by the public. Several months later, Aurora Leigh — her epic novel in blank verse, a sensation best described today as viral — stationed Elizabeth atop a new stratum of celebrity. Robert was jubilant. “I am surprised, I own, at the amount of success,” a disbelieving Elizabeth wrote to her sister-in-law. “Golden-hearted Robert is in ecstasies about it — far more than if it all related to a book of his own.” Perhaps she was thinking of Robert’s obscurity and the public’s painful indifference to his books when she had her protagonist proclaim:

We get no good
By being ungenerous, even to a book
And calculating profits — so much help
By so much rending. It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth —
’Tis then we get the right good from a book.

Complement this fragment of the altogether magnificent Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning with the couple’s contemporaries Felix Mendelssohn on artistic integrity and Walt Whitman on keeping criticism from sinking your creative confidence, then revisit Elizabeth Barrett Browning — an artist who persevered through an inordinate share of suffering — on what makes life worth living and happiness as a moral obligation.

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Virginia Woolf on Being Ill and the Strange Transcendence Accessible Amid the Terrors of the Ailing Body

“Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

Virginia Woolf on Being Ill and the Strange Transcendence Accessible Amid the Terrors of the Ailing Body

“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” computing pioneer Alan Turing wrote as he contemplated the binary code of body and spirit in the spring of his twenty-first year, having just lost the love of his life to tuberculosis. Nothing garbles that code more violently than illness — from the temporary terrors of food poisoning to the existential tumult of a terminal diagnosis — our entire mental and emotional being is hijacked by the demands of a malcontented body as dis-ease, in the most literal sense, fills sinew and spirit alike. These rude reminders of our atomic fragility are perhaps the most discomfiting yet most common human experience — it is difficult, if at all possible, to find a person unaffected by illness, for we have all been or will be ill, and have all loved or will love someone afflicted by illness.

No one has articulated the peculiar vexations of illness, nor addressed the psychic transcendence accessible amid the terrors of the body, more thoughtfully than Virginia Woolf (January 25, 1882–March 28, 1941) in her 1926 essay “On Being Ill,” later included in the indispensable posthumous collection of her Selected Essays (public library).

Portrait of Virginia Woolf from Literary Witches.

Half a century before Susan Sontag’s landmark book Illness as Metaphor, Woolf writes:

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth — rinse the mouth” with the greeting of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us — when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no; with a few exceptions — De Quincey attempted something of the sort in The Opium Eater; there must be a volume or two about disease scattered through the pages of Proust — literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent.

Five years earlier, the ailing Rilke had written in a letter to a young woman: “I am not one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul, since my soul would thoroughly dislike being served in such a fashion.” Woolf, writing in the year of Rilke’s death and well ahead of the modern scientific inquiry into how the life of the body shapes the life of the mind, rebels against the residual Cartesianism of the mind-body divide with her characteristic fusion of wisdom and wry humor, channeled in exquisite prose:

All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane — smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record. People write always of the doings of the mind; the thoughts that come to it; its noble plans; how the mind has civilised the universe. They show it ignoring the body in the philosopher’s turret; or kicking the body, like an old leather football, across leagues of snow and desert in the pursuit of conquest or discovery. Those great wars which the body wages with the mind a slave to it, in the solitude of the bedroom against the assault of fever or the oncome of melancholia, are neglected. Nor is the reason far to seek. To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth. Short of these, this monster, the body, this miracle, its pain, will soon make us taper into mysticism, or rise, with rapid beats of the wings, into the raptures of transcendentalism.

Art from the vintage science primer The Human Body: What It Is and How It Works.

“Is language the adequate expression of all realities?” Nietzsche had asked when Woolf was just genetic potential in her parents’ DNA. Language, the fully formed human argues as she considers the unreality of illness, has been utterly inadequate in conferring upon this commonest experience the dignity of representation it confers upon just about every other universal human experience:

To hinder the description of illness in literature, there is the poverty of the language. English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache. It has all grown one way.

In a passage Oliver Sacks could have written, Woolf pivots to the humorous, somehow without losing the profundity of the larger point:

Yet it is not only a new language that we need, more primitive, more sensual, more obscene, but a new hierarchy of the passions; love must be deposed in favour of a temperature of 104; jealousy give place to the pangs of sciatica; sleeplessness play the part of villain, and the hero become a white liquid with a sweet taste — that mighty Prince with the moths’ eyes and the feathered feet, one of whose names is Chloral.

And then, just like that, in classic Woolfian fashion, she fangs into the meat of the matter — the way we plunge into the universality of illness, so universal as to border on the banal, until we reach the rock bottom of utter existential aloneness:

That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you — is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.

Art by Nina Cosford from the illustrated biography of Virginia Woolf

In health, Woolf argues, we maintain the illusion, both psychological and outwardly performative, of being cradled in the arms of civilization and society. Illness jolts us out of it, orphans us from belonging. But it also does something else, something beautiful and transcendent: In piercing the trance of busyness and obligation, it awakens us to the world about us, whose smallest details, neglected by our regular societal conscience, suddenly throb with aliveness and magnetic curiosity. It renders us “able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up — to look, for example, at the sky”:

The first impression of that extraordinary spectacle is strangely overcoming. Ordinarily to look at the sky for any length of time is impossible. Pedestrians would be impeded and disconcerted by a public sky-gazer. What snatches we get of it are mutilated by chimneys and churches, serve as a background for man, signify wet weather or fine, daub windows gold, and, filling in the branches, complete the pathos of dishevelled autumnal plane trees in autumnal squares. Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it! — this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and waggons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away…

But in the consolations of this transcendent communion with nature resides the most disquieting fact of existence — the awareness of an unfeeling universe, operating by impartial laws unconcerned with our individual fates:

Divinely beautiful it is also divinely heartless. Immeasurable resources are used for some purpose which has nothing to do with human pleasure or human profit.

Drawing from The Comet Book — a 16th-century pre-astronomical document of magical thinking about the laws of the universe.

It would take Woolf more than a decade to fully formulate, in a most stunning reflection, the paradoxical way in which these heartless laws are the very reason we are called to make beauty and meaning within their unfeeling parameters: “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,” she would write in 1939. Now, in her meditation on illness, she hones the anchor of these ideas:

Poets have found religion in nature; people live in the country to learn virtue from plants. It is in their indifference that they are comforting. That snowfield of the mind, where man has not trodden, is visited by the cloud, kissed by the falling petal, as, in another sphere, it is the great artists, the Miltons and the Popes, who console not by their thought of us but by their forgetfulness.

[…]

It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal — that she in the end will conquer; heat will leave the world; stiff with frost we shall cease to drag ourselves about the fields; ice will lie thick upon factory and engine; the sun will go out.

This sudden awareness of elemental truth renders the ill person a sort of seer, imbued with an almost mystical understanding of existence, beyond any intellectual interpretation. Nearly a century before Patti Smith came to contemplate how illness expands the field of poetic awareness, Woolf writes:

In illness words seem to possess a mystic quality. We grasp what is beyond their surface meaning, gather instinctively this, that, and the other — a sound, a colour, here a stress, there a pause — which the poet, knowing words to be meagre in comparison with ideas, has strewn about his page to evoke, when collected, a state of mind which neither words can express nor the reason explain. Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne, some phrase in Latin or Greek, and the words give out their scent and distil their flavour, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having come to us sensually first, by way of the palate and the nostrils, like some queer odour.

Complement this portion of Woolf’s thoroughly fantastic Selected Essays with Roald Dahl on how illness emboldens creativity and Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant sister, whom Woolf greatly admired — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Woolf on the art of letters, the relationship between loneliness and creativity, the creative potency of the androgynous mind, and her transcendent account of a total solar eclipse.

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Visionary Photographer Edward Weston on Creativity and the Importance of Cross-Disciplinary Curiosity

“In this age of communication… who can be free from influence, — preconception? But — it all depends upon what one does with this cross-fertilization: — is it digested, or does it bring indigestion?”

Visionary Photographer Edward Weston on Creativity and the Importance of Cross-Disciplinary Curiosity

“Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos,” Frankenstein author Mary Shelley observed in contemplating how creativity works. All creative people recognize this chaos — the chaos of influences, inspirations, memories, and stimulations, cross-pollinating in the mind to germinate the seed of something we dare call original: our very own contribution to the world, tessellated of these myriad existing worlds we carry within us. Rilke knew this when we composed his exquisite meditation on inspiration and the combinatorial nature of creativity: “For the sake of a few lines one must see many cities, men and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the small flowers open in the morning… One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others… One must also have been beside the dying, one must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window…” Whitman, too, knew it when he composed his tenets of creation: “All must have reference to the ensemble of the world, and the compact truth of the world.”

The influential photographer Edward Weston (March 24, 1886–January 1, 1958) articulates this elemental yet often unregarded, even deliberately evaded, truth of the creative life with uncommon splendor of sentiment in the out-of-print 1966 treasure The Daybooks of Edward Weston: Volume II, California (public library).

Edward Weston by Tina Modotti, 1924. (Museum of Modern Art)

In a diary entry from October 29, 1930 — the year he discovered his singular creative voice and began taking his now-iconic closeups of fruits and vegetables — Weston writes:

In this age of communication, through books, reproductions, exhibits brought from all over the world, who can be free from influence, — preconception? But — it all depends upon what one does with this cross-fertilization: — is it digested, or does it bring indigestion?

Reflecting on his own creative process at Point Lobos — the breathtaking natural reserve on the Big Sur coast of California, near where he lived for many years and where he took some of his most famous photographs — Weston echoes Montaigne’s disdain for the illusion of originality and Auden’s insistence on the crucial difference between authenticity and originality, and adds:

When I start out in the field, for instance at “The Point,” it seems to me no one could be more free from intention, preconception than I am: allowing whatever crosses my path to incite me to work — and working I do not think: of course there is one’s subconscious memory to draw upon, — all the events, all the eyes have seen in this life and how many more lives? to influence one. But no one starts alone, apart, — we only add to that which has gone before, we are only parts of the whole.

Even so, Weston observes, this morass of influences and existing ideas is sieved through one’s individual artistic sensibility to deliver the golden grains of genius by which a great artist leaves a mark upon the monolith of culture:

The “individual” adds more or combines more than the mass does, he stands out more clearly, a prophet, with a background, a future, and the strength, clarity to speak, — in his chosen way, — music — paint — words; a Bach or a Blake.

Edward Weston: Pepper No. 30 (1930)

More than a year later, Weston revisits the subject of inspiration in another diary entry, insisting that such combinatorial creativity is all the stronger if the influences come from fields other than one’s own — which, of course, is the founding ethos of Brain Pickings. He writes:

I feel that I have been more deeply-moved by music, literature, sculpture, panting than I have by photography, — that is by the other workers in my own medium. This needs explanation. I am not moved to emulate, — neither to compete with or imitate, these other creative expressions, but seeing, hearing, reading something fine excites me to greater effort, — (“inspires” is just the word, but how it has been abused!). Reading about Stieglitz, for instance, means more to me than seeing his work. Kandinsky, Brancusi, Van Gogh, El Greco, have given me fresh impetus: and of late Keyserling, Spengler, Melville, (catholic taste!) in literature. I never hear Bach without deep enrichment, — I almost feel he has been my greatest “influence.” It is as though, in taking to me these great conceptions of other workers, the fallow soil in my depths, emotionally stirred, receptive, has been fertilized.

Every page of The Daybooks of Edward Weston unspools a different flavor of insight into life and art, offered with tremendous self-awareness, humility, and generosity of spirit. Complement this particular fragment with Beethoven on idea-incubation and Oliver Sacks on the three essential elements of creativity, then revisit Virginia Woolf’s transcendent epiphany about what it means to be an artist.

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Oliver Sacks on Libraries

In praise of intellectual freedom, community, and the ecstasy of serendipitous discovery.

Oliver Sacks on Libraries

“Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote as she celebrated the sacredness of public libraries. “A library is a rainbow in the clouds,” Maya Angelou exulted in reflecting on how a library saved her life. It was thanks to the library that James Baldwin read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon. “You never know what troubled little girl needs a book,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in one of her lovely poems celebrating libraries and librarians.

Among the titans of mind and spirit shaped and saved by libraries was the great neurologist, author, and voracious reader Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015).

Oliver Sacks, 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

In a short essay titled “Libraries,” found in the bittersweet posthumous collection Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales (public library), Sacks recalls his childhood in England with the unsentimental sweetness that makes his autobiographical writings so delicious:

The oak-paneled library was the quietest and most beautiful room in the house, to my eyes, and it vied with my little chemistry lab as my favorite place to be. I would curl up in a chair and become so absorbed in what I was reading that all sense of time would be lost. Whenever I was late for lunch or dinner I could be found, completely enthralled by a book, in the library. I learned to read early, at three or four, and books, and our library, are among my first memories.

But the ur-library, for me, was our local public library, the Willesden library. There I spent many of the happiest hours of my growing-up years — our house was a five-minute walk from the library — and it was there I received my real education.

Like many of us, Sacks found his natural curiosity unstimulated, blunted even, by the industrial model of education into which he was thrust. At the library, where he was master of his own time and mind, he found the antidote — the living substance of learning without the ill-fitting structure of schooling:

On the whole, I disliked school, sitting in class, receiving instruction; information seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I could not be passive — I had to be active, learn for myself, learn what I wanted, and in the way that suited me best. I was not a good pupil, but I was a good learner, and in the Willesden library — and all the libraries that came later — I roamed the shelves and stacks, had the freedom to select whatever I wanted, to follow paths that fascinated me, to become myself. At the library I felt free — free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and to enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.

But it was at the majestic Oxford libraries that his belonging in place and time came fully abloom in the landscape of literature:

It was in the vaults of the Queen’s College that I really gained a sense of history, and of my own language.

While Sacks found at the library a locus of liberation via self-directed learning, he also found the seeming opposite — a surprising sense of community, which became a lovely complement to his newfound intellectual autonomy:

Though the library was quiet, whispered conversations might start in the stacks — two of you, perhaps, were searching for the same old book, the same bound volumes of Brain from 1890 — and conversations could lead to friendships. All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books — along with their places and their neighbors on the bookshelves — was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them to one another, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.

Art by Mouni Feddag from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, benefiting the public library system.

When Sacks moved to New York City in 1965 and began working on his first book — the epoch-making Migraine, which not only revolutionized our understanding of one of the mind’s most mystifying frontiers but ushered in a whole new aesthetic of lyrical writing about medicine — the library became his escape from the notorious oppressions and privations of a young person’s first New York shoebox:

At that time I had a horrid, poky little apartment in which there were almost no surfaces to read or write on. I was just able, holding an elbow awkwardly aloft, to write some of Migraine on the top of the refrigerator. I longed for spaciousness. Fortunately, the library at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where I worked, had this in abundance. I would sit at a large table to read or write for a while, and then wander around the shelves and stacks. I never knew what my eyes might alight upon, but I would sometimes discover unexpected treasures, lucky finds, and bring these back to my seat.

I have often wondered and worried about what rapturous rewards of such serendipitous discovery we relinquish when we surrender to search, that double-edged glory of the Internet. We may have a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips, but they are still appendages of our consciously informed intent — we reach for what we know to reach for. It is an odd question I live with daily, suspended and often sundered between these two strands of knowledge: Brain Pickings exists in the world of the Internet, but draws on the world of “unexpected treasures” found on bookshelves, unlooked for. My experience of it — of how I read what I read and how I write about it — is largely one of serendipitous discovery. It mirrors my childhood experience of pulling an encyclopedia off the shelf of my grandmother’s formidable library in Bulgaria, opening to a random page, learning about something I did not know to wonder about until I discovered it, then telling my parents about it with ecstatic enthusiasm. Sacks experienced this intimately — it was amid the stacks the library that he discovered Edward Liveing’s obscure 1873 book Megrim, which inspired him to write Migraine. Perhaps he never used a computer, not even as he continued to write prolifically into the twenty-first century, not out of some time-stilted Luddism but because he resisted, passionately and to the hilt, the relinquishing of this ecstasy of discovery.

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

Everything in Its Place is a wondrous read in its entirety, irradiating Sacks’s kaleidoscopic curiosity across subjects as varied as the joy of swimming, the pains of first love, the glories of the gingko tree, the surreal turns the mind takes under various rare neurological conditions, and the relationship between gardens and creativity. Complement this particular portion with an illustrated love letter to books by some of the greatest minds of our time, benefiting the public library system, then revisit Sacks on the building blocks of identity, the three essential elements of creativity, his formative reading list of 121 favorite books, the remarkable story of how he saved his own life by reciting poetry, and his stunning memoir of a life fully lived.

BP

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