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Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing

“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today’s most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her rules. My favorite is Zadie Smith’s list — an exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic, and a fine addition to this ongoing omnibus of great writers’ advice on the craft.

Zadie Smith (Photograph: Francesco Guidicini)

Smith counsels:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

What a fine addition to famous writers’ timeless wisdom on the craft, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Complement with Smith on the psychology of the two types of writers.

BP

The 15 Best Books of 2015

Rewarding reflections on time, love, loss, courage, creativity, and other transformations of the heart.

In the spirit of treating my annual best-of reading lists as a sort of Old Year’s resolutions in reverse, reflecting not aspirational priorities for the new year but what proved most worth prioritizing over the year past, here are the fifteen most rewarding books I read in 2015, following the subject-specific selections of the year’s best art books, best science books, and best children’s books. Please enjoy.

1. ON THE MOVE

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning mapped the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

The book, made all the more poignant by Dr. Sacks’s death shortly after its release, is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Dive deeper into this enormously rewarding book here.

2. H IS FOR HAWK

Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor. Because it is, of course, about everything — it might take a specific something as its subject, but its object is nothing less than the whole of the human spirit, mirrored back to itself.

H Is for Hawk (public library) by Helen Macdonald is one such book — the kind one devours voraciously, then picks up and puts down repeatedly, unsure how to channel its aboutness in a way that isn’t woefully inadequate.

For a necessary starting point, here’s an inadequate summation: After her father’s sudden and soul-splitting death, Macdonald, a seasoned falconer, decides to wade through the devastation by learning to train a goshawk — the fiercest of raptors, “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths,” capable of inflicting absolute gore with absolute grace. Over the course of that trying experience — which she chronicles by weaving together personal memory, natural history (the memory of our planet), and literary history (the memory of our culture) — she learns about love and loss, beauty and terror, control and surrender, and the myriad other dualities reconciling which is the game of life.

British goshawk by Archibald Thorburn, 1915 (public domain)
British goshawk by Archibald Thorburn, 1915 (public domain)

Macdonald writes:

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

Out of that aloneness a singular and paradoxical madness is born:

I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world… Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.

Rippling through Macdonald’s fluid, mesmerizingly immersive prose are piercing, short, perfectly placed deliverances, in both senses of the word: there is the dark (“What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later.”), the luminous (“I’d halfway forgotten how kind and warm the world could be.”), the immediate (“Time passed. The wavelength of the light around me shortened. The day built itself.”), the timeless (“Those old ghostly intuitions that have tied sinew and soul together for millennia.”), and the irrepressibly sublime (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”).

See more here.

3. CONSOLATIONS

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice. But words also belong to us, as much as we belong to them — and out of that mutual belonging arises our most fundamental understanding of the world, as well as the inescapable misunderstandings that bedevil the grand sensemaking experiment we call life.

This constant dialogue between reality and illusion, moderated by our use of language, is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a most remarkable book “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty.” Whyte — who has previously enveloped in his wisdom such intricacies of existence as what happens when love leaves and how to break the tyranny of work-life balance — constructs an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense by reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace. And he does it all with a sensibility of style and spirit partway between Aristotle and Anne Lamott, Montaigne and Mary Oliver.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Whyte chooses 52 such ordinary words, the same number as the playing cards in a standard deck — perhaps a subtle suggestion that words, like cards, are as capable of illusion as they are of magic: two sides of the same coin, chosen by what we ourselves bring to the duality. Indeed, dualities and counterpoints dominate the book — Whyte’s short essays examine ambition and disappointment, vulnerability and courage, anger and forgiveness.

Among the words Whyte ennobles with more luminous understanding are those connoting the most complex conversations between human hearts: friendship, love — both unconditional and unrequited — and heartbreak. Of friendship — which Emerson considered the supreme fruit of “truth and tenderness,” Aristotle the generous act of holding up a mirror to each other, Thoreau a grand stake for which the game of life may be played, and C.S. Lewis “one of those things which give value to survival” — Whyte writes:

FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Let’s Be Enemies’ by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Echoing Anne Lamott’s beautifully articulated conviction that friendship is above all the art of allowing the soft light of love to fall upon even our darkest sides, Whyte adds:

In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.

Whyte argues that friendship helps us “make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love” — two concepts to which he dedicates entire separate word-meditations. He writes of the former:

HEARTBREAK is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

And yet while heartbreak has this immense spiritual value, and even an evolutionarily adaptive one, we still treat it like a problem to be solved rather than like the psychoemotional growth-spurt that it is. Whyte writes:

Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.

[…]

There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.

Stripped of the unnecessary negative judgments we impose upon it, heartbreak is simply a fathometer for the depth of our desire — for a person, for an accomplishment, for belonging to the world and its various strata of satisfaction. Whyte captures this elegantly:

Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose.

[…]

Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is an introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something and someone that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.

See more here.

4. M TRAIN

“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?” philosopher Rebecca Goldstein asked in contemplating how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of time. A little less than a century earlier, just as the theory of relativity was taking hold, Virginia Woolf articulated in exquisite prose what quantum physics sought to convey in equations — that thing we feel in our very bones, impervious to art or science, by virtue of being ephemeral creatures in a transient world.

That transcendent transience is what beloved musician, artist, and poet Patti Smith explores in M Train (public library) — a most unusual and breathtaking book: part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself.

A person possessing the rare gift of remaining radiant even in her melancholy, Smith grieves for her husband and her brother; she commemorates her great heroes, from friends like William S. Burroughs, who influenced her greatly, to kindred companions on the creative path across space and time like Frida Kahlo, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath; she even mourns the closing of the neighborhood café she frequented for more than a decade, one of those mundane anchors of constancy by which we hang on to existence.

The point, of course, is that each loss evokes all losses — a point Smith delivers with extraordinary elegance of prose and sincerity of spirit. What emerges is a strange and wonderful consolation for our inconsolable longing for permanency amid a universe driven by perpetual change and inevitable loss.

Frida Kahlo’s bed (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Smith writes:

The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

But every transformation is invariably a loss, and the transformed must be mourned before the transformed-into can be relished. The mystery of the continuity between the two — between our past and present selves — is one of the greatest perplexities of philosophy. Smith arrives at it with wistful wonderment as she contemplates the disorientation of aging, that ultimate horseman of terminal transformation:

I considered what it meant to be sixty-six. The same number as the original American highway, the celebrated Mother Road that George Maharis, as Buz Murdock, took as he tooled across the country in his Corvette, working on oil rigs and trawlers, breaking hearts and freeing junkies. Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell. I could feel my chronology mounting, snow approaching. I could feel the moon, but I could not see it. The sky was veiled with a heavy mist illuminated by the perpetual city lights. When I was a girl the night sky was a great map of constellations, a cornucopia spilling the crystalline dust of the Milky Way across its ebony expanse, layers of stars that I would deftly unfold in my mind. I noticed the threads on my dungarees straining across my protruding knees. I’m still the same person, I thought, with all my flaws intact, same old bony knees…

[…]

The phone was ringing, a birthday wish from an old friend reaching from far away. As I said good-bye I realized I missed that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown, that’s for sure.

Patti Smith, late 1970s

In a sentiment reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the fluidity of past and present, Smith considers what “real time” is:

Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress, is that still real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory. I looked out into the street and noticed the light changing. Perhaps the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Perhaps time had slipped away.

See more here. Also from this gem of a book, Smith’s fifty favorite books.

5. THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

“I am not saying that we should love death,” urged Rilke in his clarion call for befriending our mortality, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” Nearly a century later, Elizabeth Alexander — one of the greatest poets of our time, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” welcomed Barack Obama into his presidency and made her only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, joining such legendary dyads as Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy — invigorates Rilke’s proclamation as she bears witness to the vertiginous tango of these odd companions, death and love.

This she chronicles with uncommon elegance in The Light of the World (public library) — her soul-stretching memoir of how Ficre, the love of her life and her husband of fifteen Christmases, an artist and a chef, a blueberries-and-oatmeal-eating yogi and proud self-proclaimed “African ox,” collapsed while running on the treadmill in their basement. He was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday — a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss — a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love.

Art from The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, an illustrated fable about love and loss

From the very opening lines, her writing flows with undramatic weight and piercing precision of emotional truth:

The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.

Indeed, embedded in her remembrance is a meditation on love itself:

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.

What more beautiful a definition of love is there — in all of humanity’s centuries of seeking to capture its essence — than the gift of making life possible for one another? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, in fact, deals with the forcible disentwining of their two possibilities as the impossibility of death wedges itself between them.

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf memorably admonished. “Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet under Alexander’s lucid and luminous sidewise gaze, the soul is summoned to reveal itself rather than vaporizing. She writes:

Henry Ford believed the soul of a person is located in their last breath and so captured the last breath of his best friend Thomas Edison in a test tube and kept it evermore. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, like Galileo’s finger in the church of Santa Croce, but Edison’s last breath is an invisible relic.

Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll marveled at this mystery, Alexander considers the boundary between the body and the soul:

When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre.

When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself.

When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us.

His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us.

Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

Between the lines of a favorite poem — Lucille Clifton lyrical meditation on her own husband’s death, which includes the lines “rising and turning / through my skin, / there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves” — Alexander rediscovers this transmutation of energies as life and death waltz across the expanse of existence:

Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin… A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath… What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: “The things / themselves.”

The mirrored mutuality of love and loss reveals itself again as Alexander returns to this notion of invisible essences in reflecting on the calling that most animated Ficre:

To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.

See more here.

6. ONGOINGNESS

Some of humanity’s most celebrated writers and artists have reaped, and extolled, the creative benefits of keeping a diary. For John Steinbeck, journaling was a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt; for Virginia Woolf, a way to “loosen the ligaments” of creativity; for André Gide, a conduit to “spiritual evolution”; for Anaïs Nin, who remains history’s most dedicated diarist, the best way to “capture the living moments.”

Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.

Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.” She becomes, in fact, a kind of McLuhan of the self, probing not the collective conscience but the individual psyche, yet extracting widely resonant human truth and transmuting it into enormously expansive wisdom.

Manguso traces the roots of her diaristic journey, which began as an almost compulsive hedge against forgetting, against becoming an absentee in her own life, against the anguishing anxiety that time was slipping from her grip:

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

[…]

The trouble was that I failed to record so much.

I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.

[…]

I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.

So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time.

[…]

I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.

Upon arriving at a view of death reminiscent of Alan Watts’s, Manguso revisits the limiting fragmentation of life’s ongoingness into beginnings and endings:

The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will — diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows — weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.

For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for ‘The Velveteen Rabbit.’ Click image for more.

Then something happened — something utterly ordinary in the grand human scheme that had an extraordinary impact on Manguso’s private dance with memory and mortality: she became a mother. She writes:

I began to inhabit time differently.

[…]

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.

[…]

Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.

As she awoke to this immutable continuity of life, Manguso became more acutely aware of those bewitched by beginnings. There is, of course, a certain beauty — necessity, even — to that beginner’s refusal to determine what is impossible before it is even possible. She writes:

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.

I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.

Perhaps there is an element of “untested hope” in journaling itself — we are drawn to the practice because we hope that the diary would safe-keep precisely such throbbing, self-strengthening memories; that, in recording the unfolding ways in which we invent ourselves into personhood, it would become a constant reassurance of our own realness, a grownup version of The Velveteen Rabbit, reminding us that “real isn’t how you are made [but] a thing that happens to you.” Bearing witness to the happening itself, without trying to fragment it into beginnings and endings, is both the task of living and the anguish of the liver.

Manguso captures this elegantly:

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.

See more here.

7. FELICITY

For more than half a century, beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) has been beckoning us to remember ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time, to contact both our creatureliness and our transcendence as we move through the shimmering world her poetry has mirrored back at us — an unremitting invitation to live with what she calls “a seizure of happiness.” Nowhere is this seizure more electrifying than in love — a subject Oliver’s poetry has tended to celebrate only obliquely, and one she addressed most directly in her piercing elegy for her soul mate.

But in her most recent collection, Felicity (public library), Oliver dedicates nearly half the poems to the scintillating seizure that is love. There is bittersweetness in her words — these are loves that have bloomed in the hindsight of eighty long, wide years. But there is also radiant redemption, reminding us — much as Patti Smith did in her sublime new memoir — that certain loves outlast loss.

Mary Oliver in 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Here are four of my favorite love poems from the collection — please enjoy.

I KNOW SOMEONE

I know someone who kisses the way
a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
against them.
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.

I DID THINK, LET’S GO ABOUT THIS SLOWLY

I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.

HOW DO I LOVE YOU?

How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by

demonstration? Like
this, and
like this and

    no more words now

NOT ANYONE WHO SAYS

Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
  careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
unsuitable —
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.

See more, including Krista Tippett’s spectacular interview with the reclusive poet, here.

8. THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

See more here.

9. RISING STRONG

“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Vladimir Nabokov famously proclaimed. Today, hardly anyone embodies this sentiment more fully than Brené Brown, who came of age as a social scientist in an era when the tyranny of facts trivialized the richness of fancy and the human experience was squeezed out of the qualitative in the service of the quantitative, the two pitted as polarities. But like Susan Sontag, who recognized how polarities limit and imprison us, Brown defied these dogmatic dichotomies and went on to become what she calls a “researcher-storyteller” — a social scientist who studies the complexities and nuances of the human experience with equal regard for data and story, enriching story with data and ennobling data with story in a quest to “find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources.”

In Rising Strong (public library), Brown builds upon her earlier work on vulnerability to examine the character qualities, emotional patterns, and habits of mind that enable people to transcend the catastrophes of life, from personal heartbreak to professional collapse, and emerge not only unbroken but more whole.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

To be sure, this isn’t another iteration of “fail forward,” that tired and trendy (but far from new) cultural trope of extolling failure as a stepping stone to success — Brown’s research is about what happens in the psyche and the spirit when we are in the thick of the failure itself, facedown in the muddy stream, gasping for air; about what those who live from a deep place of worthiness have in common; about the choices involved in living a wholehearted life and the consequences of those choices in rising from our facedown moments to march forward.

Brown writes:

While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for — love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.

Brown argues that we live in “a Gilded Age of Failure,” where we fetishize recovery stories for their redemptive ending, glossing over the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it. (Some time ago, I too lamented this cultural tendency in my seven most important learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings.) This, Brown points out, does a disservice to the essence of grit, which has been shown to be a primary trait of those who succeed in life. She writes:

Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.

Although we live in a culture of perfectionism where our idealized selves become our social currency, we know, at least on some level, that risk-taking, failure, and success are inextricably linked. Brown captures this elegantly:

If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.

See more here.

10. ENORMOUS SMALLNESS

“In a Cummings poem,” Susan Cheever wrote in her spectacular biography of E. E. Cummings, “the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.” Such a burst is what rewards the reader, whatever his or her age, in Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) — an uncommonly delightful picture-book celebration of Cummings’s life by Brooklyn-based poet Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (the artist behind the wonderful alphabet book Take Away the A).

To reimagine the beloved poet’s life in a tango of word and image is quite befitting — unbeknownst to many, Cummings had a passion for drawing and once described himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

The project comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of some of the most daring and tender children’s books of our time — and was first envisioned by ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, who approached Burgess about writing a children’s biography of Cummings. Miraculously, Burgess had visited Cummings’s home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City three years earlier, after a serendipitous encounter with the current resident — an experience that had planted a seed of quietly germinating obsession with the legendary poet’s life.

And so the collaboration stretched between them, as Cummings might say, like “a pleasant song” — Burgess and Bedrick worked side by side for four years to bring this wonder of a book to life.

The story begins with Cummings, already known as “E. E.” and living in his New York City home where he spent the last forty years of his life, typing away as the love of his life, the fashion model and photographer Marion Moorehouse, summons him to tea-time with an elephant-shaped bell.

From there, Burgess takes the reader on an affectionate biographical detective story, tracing how Edward Estlin became E. E., what brought him to Manhattan from his native Cambridge, and how elephants (and trees, and birds) became his lifelong creative companions in the circus of his imagination.

Young Estlin’s first poem “poured out of his mouth when he was only three.”

With the loving support of the unsung champions with whom the history of creative culture is strewn — the mother who began recording his spontaneous recitations in a little book titled “Estlin’s Original Poems”; the father who stomped on his hands and knees, play-pretending into existence the mighty elephant that was little Estlin’s creative muse; the teacher who encouraged him to pursue his love of words; the uncle who gave him a book on how to write poetry — he eventually made it to Harvard.

There, he came upon the words of his favorite poet, John Keats — “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination” — which awakened young Estlin’s creative courage. After graduation, he began experimenting with poetry and moved to New York City, falling in love with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.”

But then World War I struck and Estlin went to France, volunteering as an ambulance-driver. While working in the French countryside, he was mistaken for a spy and sent to prison for several months.

When the war ended, he wrote a book about his experience, titled The Enormous Room. Estlin was reborn as E. E.

The following year, he published his first book of poems, Tulips & Chimneys.

Burgess writes:

Using a style all his own,
e. e. put lowercase letters where capitals normally go,
and his playful punctuation grabbed readers’ attention.

His poems were alive with experimentation
and surprise!

And because of his love for lowercase letters,
his name began to appear with two little e’s (& a little c, too).

But his expansive experimentation was too much for the small-minded literary pantheon:

Some people criticized him for painting with words.
Other said his poems were
too strange
too small.
Some said they were
no good at all.

And yet Cummings, who viewed society’s criteria for what it means to be a successful artist with mischievous wryness, was undeterred. A century before Neil Gaiman’s memorable advice that the artist’s only appropriate response to criticism is to make good art, Cummings embodied this ethos. Burgess captures this spirit with quiet elegance, weaving one of Cummings’s poems into the story:

But no matter what the world was giving or taking,
E. E. went right on dreaming and making.
For inside, he knew his poems were new and true.

love is a place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds.

His poems were his way
of saying YES.

YES to the heart
and the roundness of the moon,
to birds, elephants, trees,
and everything he loved.

YES to spring, too
which always brought him back
to childhood, when the first
sign of his favorite season
was the whistling arrival
of the balloon man.

The book’s epigraph is a celebration of this unflinching yes-saying: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

See more here.

11. BIG MAGIC

“When you’re an artist,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her magnificent manifesto for the creative life, “nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.” The craftsmanship of that wand, which is perhaps the most terrifying and thrilling task of the creative person in any domain of endeavor, is what Elizabeth Gilbert explores in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — a lucid and luminous inquiry into the relationship between human beings and the mysteries of the creative experience, as defined by Gilbert’s beautifully broad notion of “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” It’s an expansive definition that cracks open the possibilities within any human life, whether you’re a particle physicist or a postal worker or a poet — and the pursuit of possibility is very much at the heart of Gilbert’s mission to empower us to enter into creative endeavor the way one enters into a monastic order: “as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence.”

elizabethgilbert
A generation earlier, Julia Cameron termed the spark of this creative transcendence “spiritual electricity,” and a generation before that Rollo May explored the fears keeping us from attaining it. Gilbert, who has contemplated the complexities of creativity for a long time and with electrifying insight, calls its supreme manifestation “Big Magic”:

This, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?

[…]

Surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living.

The courage to go on that hunt in the first place — that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.

The often surprising results of that hunt — that’s what I call Big Magic.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for ‘The Big Green Book’ by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

That notion of summoning the courage to bring forth one’s hidden treasures is one Gilbert borrowed from Jack Gilbert — a brilliant poet to whom she is related not by genealogy but by creative kinship, graced with the astonishing coincidence of their last names and a university teaching position they both occupied a generation apart. She reflects on the poet’s unusual creative ethos:

“We must risk delight,” he wrote. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

[…]

He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged [his students] to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.

Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small — far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.

See more here.

12. NEGROLAND

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their revelatory conversation on power and privilege. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” The many modes of telling and the many types of trouble are what trailblazing journalist, longtime New York Times theater critic, and Pulitzer winner Margo Jefferson (b. October 17, 1947) explores in Negroland: A Memoir (public library) — a masterwork of both form and substance.

Jefferson transforms her experience of growing up in an affluent black family into a lens on the broader perplexities of privilege and its provisional nature. Her piercing cultural insight unfolds in uncommonly beautiful writing, both honoring the essence of the memoir form — a vehicle for reaching the universal from the outpost of the personal — and defying its conventions through enlivening narrative experimentation.

Jefferson, who came of age in an era when the biological fallacies of racial difference still ran rampant, writes:

I was taught to avoid showing off.

I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.

But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?

In my Negroland childhood, this was a perilous business.

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant. Showing off was permitted, even encouraged, only if the result reflected well on your family, their friends, and your collective ancestors.

Jefferson and her older sister in Canada, during the family’s 1956 cross-country road trip.

What is perhaps most disorienting about visibilia like race, age, and gender is that they externalize the inner contradictions with which we live — those tug-of-wars between dignity and self-doubt, between the yearning to belong and the fear that we don’t. Jefferson captures these dimensions beautifully:

Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it. Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers. White people who, like us, had manners, money, and education… But wait: “Like us” is presumptuous for the 1950s. Liberal whites who saw that we too had manners, money, and education lamented our caste disadvantage. Less liberal or non-liberal whites preferred not to see us in the private schools and public spaces of their choice. They had ready a bevy of slights: from skeptics the surprised glance and spare greeting; from waverers the pleasantry, eyes averted; from disdainers the direct cut. Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege.

Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largesse in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty. We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.

Among the most poignant threads in Jefferson’s cultural memoir is the paradoxical notion of privilege earned. Privilege, after all, is granted by definition — earned privilege is the simulacrum of privilege, staked at the entrance to the power club and demanding the price of admission: endless self-contortion.

A self-described “chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor,” Jefferson writes:

That’s the generic version of a story. Here’s the specific version: the midwestern, midcentury story of a little girl, one of two born to an attractive couple pleased with their lives and achievements, wanting the best for their children and wanting their children to be among the best.

To be successful, professionally and personally.

And to be happy.

Children always find ways to subvert while they’re busy complying. This child’s method of subversion? She would achieve success, but she would treat it like a concession she’d been forced to make. For unto whomsoever much is given, of her shall be much required. She came to feel that too much had been required of her. She would have her revenge. She would insist on an inner life regulated by despair… She embraced her life up to a point, then rejected it, and from that rejection have come all her difficulties.

See more here.

13. DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS

Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.

Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.

Randall writes:

The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.

A 17th-century conception of non-space by the English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

In Humboldt’s tradition of interconnectedness, Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:

Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.

But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.

Read more here.

14. SELFISH, SHALLOW, AND SELF-ABSORBED

“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions,” Italo Calvino wrote in his magnificent letter on reproductive rights, “but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.” Thirty-five years earlier, in 1940, Anaïs Nin made the same point with even greater precision and prescience when she wrote in her diary: “Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.” And yet here we are decades later, with millennia of human civilization under our belt — aspirin to Austen, Guggenheim to Google, bicycle to Bach — still subscribing to the same primitive biological imperative that a life unprocreated is a life wasted; still succumbing to the tyrannical cultural message that opting out of parenthood is a failure of ambition or magnanimity or social duty, or simply the symptom of a profound character flaw. Being childless by choice — like being alone, like living alone — is still considered by unspoken consensus the errant choice.

A potent and sorely needed antidote to this toxic myth comes in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (public library), edited by the brilliant Meghan Daum — a writer of rare aptitude for articulating the unspeakable. The contributions — sometimes witty, sometimes wistful, always wise — come from such celebrated authors as Geoff Dyer, Anna Holmes, and Sigrid Nunez, whose reasons for going not having children range from the personal trauma of difficult childhoods to political convictions about everything from reproductive rights to overpopulation and income inequality to the increasingly hard-to-meet requirement of undivided attention that is the hallmark of great parenting.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from ‘Sidewalk Flowers’ by JonArno Lawson. Click image for more.

With an eye to Tolstoy’s famous line from the opening of Anna Karenina“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Daum writes in the introduction:

Of course, [Tolstoy’s] maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.

Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood … are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.

Daum considers the many ways in which one can come to stand in one’s truth as a nonparent — an act, essentially, of standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, in the eye of a sociocultural hurricane, with the absolute stillness of deep self-knowledge — Daum writes:

For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else — a partner, a family member, the culture at large.

Illustration from ‘Little Boy Brown,’ a vintage ode to childhood’s loneliness. Click image for more.

And yet despite the wide array of paths to the willfully childless life, the cultural narrative about this choice remains strikingly myopic. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that polarities invariably impoverish the nuances of life, Daum points to the primary purpose of the anthology:

I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.

[…]

It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.

See more here.

15. HURRY UP AND WAIT

“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” Alan Watts observed in his magnificent meditation on the art of timing half a century before our paradoxical modern mecca of ever-multiplying procrastination options amid a Productivity Rush in which we’re mining every last frontier of sanity and stillness for the tiniest nugget of precious efficiency. “Of all ridiculous things,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness nearly two centuries earlier, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” Somehow, even if we know that we habitually miss most of what is going on around us, we rarely break our busy gait on the hamster wheel of goal-chasing. And yet when we do pause — be it by will or, perhaps more commonly, by accident — the miraculous reveals itself in the mundane.

That’s what longtime collaborators Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler explore in the immensely wonderful children’s-book-for-grownups Hurry Up and Wait (public library) — the second installment in their collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, following their quirky Girls Standing on Lawns.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Paris, Avenue des Acacias, 1912 (printed 1962).
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2015 Association des Amis de Jacques Henri Lartigue

It feels so good to go someplace.

Except when you want to stay
right there where you are.

Once again, Kalman and Handler wade through MoMA’s impressive archive to curate a set of unusual, whimsical, and purely delightful photographs that capture the osmotic relationship between motion and stillness. The images come from the middle of the twentieth century, the heyday of the Mad Men era that set the hedonic treadmill of consumerism into motion and ripped the modern psyche asunder by the conflicting pulls of doing and being.

Garry Winogrand. New York City, 1961.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2015 The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This is the history of the entire world.

People are seen striding and strolling, racing and ruminating, dashing and daydreaming — living testaments to the counterpoints of disposition by which we orient ourselves to the same mundane daily actions and to the present moment itself. We are reminded that even something as simple as a walk can be, as Thoreau believed, “a sort of crusade” — but we get to choose whether to crusade for productivity or for presence.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

Jump right in, or wade in slowly.
Advantage to one, it’s over quickly.
Advantage to the other, it isn’t.

Handler’s meditative writing is a kind of aphoristic prose poetry, at once irreverent and wholehearted and profound, partway between Mark Twain and Rumi, with a touch of Virginia Woolf’s perfectly placed commas to punctuate attention into reflective pause of just the right duration.

The accompanying paintings by Kalman — herself a patron saint of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments” and an unparalleled noticer of the magic in the mundane — reimagine the historical photographs through the raw material of Kalman’s art: that delicious dialogue between representation and response.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

You’re supposed to stop and smell the roses
but truth be told it doesn’t take that long
to smell them. You hardly have to stop.
You can smell the roses and still have time to
run all those errands before the sun goes
down and it’s dinner time.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

What emerges is a contemporary counterpart to Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, a Walden for the modern metropolis reminding us what it really means to be awake, yet wholly original and scrumptiously singular in spirit.

Jens S. Jensen. Boy on the Wall, Hammarkullen, Gothenburg, 1973.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist

I’m just standing still, and then suddenly
I think I am waiting for something.
Once I’ve decided I’m waiting it’s like
I’m not standing still anymore.

All childhood long they told me to
hurry up, and now all this
time
later I can’t imagine what the rush was.
But every morning my child never puts on
his shoes on time, and we have to go,
we have to go.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

When I was a kid my father would say,
if you get lost, don’t look for me.
Stay there. Stay there an I will find you.

He’s gone now.

See more here.

And since I side with Susan Sontag, who considered reading an act of rebirth, I encourage you to revisit the selections for 2014 and 2013.

BP

The Best Children’s Books of 2015

From power-hungry sheep to power-hungry tigers, by way of ghosts, E.E. Cummings, and the unseen Dr. Seuss.

The Best Children’s Books of 2015

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Some generations earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien vehemently asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and C.S. Lewis cautioned against treating children as a different species, while E.B. White saw them as “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers” among our own species.

With this lens, on the heels of the year’s best science books and best art books, here are the year’s most intelligent and imaginative books published “for children” but immeasurably rewarding for all readers.

1. ENORMOUS SMALLNESS

“In a Cummings poem,” Susan Cheever wrote in her spectacular biography of E. E. Cummings, “the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.” Such a burst is what rewards the reader, whatever his or her age, in Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) — an uncommonly delightful picture-book celebration of Cummings’s life by Brooklyn-based poet Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (the artist behind the wonderful alphabet book Take Away the A).

To reimagine the beloved poet’s life in a tango of word and image is quite befitting — unbeknownst to many, Cummings had a passion for drawing and once described himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

The project comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of some of the most daring and tender children’s books of our time — and was first envisioned by ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, who approached Burgess about writing a children’s biography of Cummings. Miraculously, Burgess had visited Cummings’s home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City three years earlier, after a serendipitous encounter with the current resident — an experience that had planted a seed of quietly germinating obsession with the legendary poet’s life.

And so the collaboration stretched between them, as Cummings might say, like “a pleasant song” — Burgess and Bedrick worked side by side for four years to bring this wonder of a book to life.

The story begins with Cummings, already known as “E. E.” and living in his New York City home where he spent the last forty years of his life, typing away as the love of his life, the fashion model and photographer Marion Moorehouse, summons him to tea-time with an elephant-shaped bell.

From there, Burgess takes the reader on an affectionate biographical detective story, tracing how Edward Estlin became E. E., what brought him to Manhattan from his native Cambridge, and how elephants (and trees, and birds) became his lifelong creative companions in the circus of his imagination.

Young Estlin’s first poem “poured out of his mouth when he was only three.”

With the loving support of the unsung champions with whom the history of creative culture is strewn — the mother who began recording his spontaneous recitations in a little book titled “Estlin’s Original Poems”; the father who stomped on his hands and knees, play-pretending into existence the mighty elephant that was little Estlin’s creative muse; the teacher who encouraged him to pursue his love of words; the uncle who gave him a book on how to write poetry — he eventually made it to Harvard.

There, he came upon the words of his favorite poet, John Keats — “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination” — which awakened young Estlin’s creative courage. After graduation, he began experimenting with poetry and moved to New York City, falling in love with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.”

But then World War I struck and Estlin went to France, volunteering as an ambulance-driver. While working in the French countryside, he was mistaken for a spy and sent to prison for several months.

When the war ended, he wrote a book about his experience, titled The Enormous Room. Estlin was reborn as E. E.

The following year, he published his first book of poems, Tulips & Chimneys.

Burgess writes:

Using a style all his own,
e. e. put lowercase letters where capitals normally go,
and his playful punctuation grabbed readers’ attention.

His poems were alive with experimentation
and surprise!

And because of his love for lowercase letters,
his name began to appear with two little e’s (& a little c, too).

But his expansive experimentation was too much for the small-minded literary pantheon:

Some people criticized him for painting with words.
Other said his poems were
too strange
too small.
Some said they were
no good at all.

And yet Cummings, who viewed society’s criteria for what it means to be a successful artist with mischievous wryness, was undeterred. A century before Neil Gaiman’s memorable advice that the artist’s only appropriate response to criticism is to make good art, Cummings embodied this ethos. Burgess captures this spirit with quiet elegance, weaving one of Cummings’s poems into the story:

But no matter what the world was giving or taking,
E. E. went right on dreaming and making.
For inside, he knew his poems were new and true.

love is a place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds.

His poems were his way
of saying YES.

YES to the heart
and the roundness of the moon,
to birds, elephants, trees,
and everything he loved.

YES to spring, too
which always brought him back
to childhood, when the first
sign of his favorite season
was the whistling arrival
of the balloon man.

The book’s epigraph is a celebration of this unflinching yes-saying: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

See more here.

2. LOUIS I, KING OF THE SHEEP

“Never be hard upon people who are in your power,” Charles Dickens counseled in a letter of advice to his young son. And yet power has a way of calling forth the hardest and most unhandsome edges of human nature — something John F. Kennedy observed in his spectacular eulogy to Robert Frost, lamenting that power “leads men towards arrogance” and “narrows the areas of man’s concern.” Redemption, he argued, is only possible when we recognize that “what counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity.”

It’s a difficult lesson to impart even on the most intelligent and receptive of grownups, and one especially crucial in planting the seeds of good personhood in childhood, when we first brush with power dynamics in ways so real and raw that they can imprint us for life.

That’s what French illustrator Olivier Tallec accomplishes with extraordinary humor, sensitivity, and warmth in Louis I, King of the Sheep (public library) — one of the loveliest children’s books I’ve ever encountered.

Inspired by watching children tussle with power on the playground, it tells the story of a humble sheep named Louis who becomes self-appointed king after a fickle gust of wind deposits a royal crown at his feet.

As Louis I rises to power by nothing more than chance, he gradually transmogrifies into an entitled and arrogant tyrant — a woefully familiar behavioral pattern calling to mind the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, that cornerstone of social psychology in which students were randomly assigned to be either prison guards or prisoners in a mock-jail and the “guards” proceeded to exploit their randomly assigned power to a point of devastating inhumanity.

Intoxicated with his newfound authority, Louis I goes on to find himself a throne “from which to hand down justice,” begins addressing the people, and embarks upon such royal activities as hunting — even for lions.

Eventually, he becomes so drunk on power that he decides he must bring order to his dominion by driving out all sheep who don’t resemble him — perhaps Tallec’s subtle invitation to parents to teach kids about the Holocaust, that darkest of episodes in the history of human nature, undergirded by the very same atrocious impulses.

And then, just like that, another fickle gust of wind takes the crown away.

See more here.

3. SIDEWALK FLOWERS

“How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her magnificent defense of living with presence. But in our age of productivity, we spend our days running away from boredom, never mind its creative and spiritual benefits, and toward maximum efficiency. Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives. And yet, as we grow increasingly disillusioned with the notion of “work/life balance,” something in our modern souls is aching for the resuscitation of this dying capacity for presence. That capacity is especially essential in parenting, where the cultural trope of the device-distracted parent is an increasingly disquieting pandemic.

Half a century after Ruth Krauss wrote, and Maurice Sendak illustrated, one of the loveliest lines in the history of children’s books — “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” — poet JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith team up on a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

Sidewalk Flowers (public library) tells the wordless story of a little girl on her way home with her device-distracted father, a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood walking through the urban forest. Along the way, she collects wildflowers and leaves them as silent gifts for her fellow participants in this pulsating mystery we call life — the homeless man sleeping on a park bench, the sparrow having completed its earthly hours, the neighbor’s dog and, finally, her mother’s and brothers’ hair.

The flowers become at once an act of noticing and a gift of being noticed, a sacred bestowing of attention with which the child beckons her father’s absentee mind back to mindful presence.

See more here.

4. THE LITTLE GARDENER

The Little Gardener (public library) by Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes comes on the heels and in the spirit of her wondrous debut, Wild — one of the best children’s books of 2014.

Here, Hughes tells the story of a tiny boy, no larger than a thumb, and his garden. The charming, immeasurably sweet tale calls to mind what Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!” It is at heart a parable of purpose — tender assurance for anyone who has ever undertaken a labor of love against seemingly insurmountable odds and persevered through hardship, continuing to nourishing that labor until the love emanates out, becomes contagious, and draws in kindred spirits as a centripetal force of shared purpose and enthusiasm.

Hughes’s illustrations, vibrant and deeply alive, capture that strange tapestry of tenderness and wilderness of which the human soul is woven.

This was the garden.
It didn’t look like much, but it meant everything to its gardener.
It was his home. It was his supper.
It was his joy.

But the little gardener, joyful and hardworking as he is, isn’t “much good at gardening,” for he is “just too little” — a beautiful metaphor for that feeling familiar to any artist and entrepreneur at the outset of a creative project, that sense of smallness in the face of a seemingly enormous endeavor, that moment where humility and faith must converge in order for one to surmount the mental barrier and march forward.

Mismatch of task and capability notwithstanding, the little gardener’s hard work pays off and one thing does blossom.

It was a flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the gardener hope and made him want to work even harder.

And so he does — he toils day and night, tirelessly tending to his jungle of a garden.

Even so, it begins to perish, his home, his supper, and his joy all at stake.

One particularly hopeless night, the little gardener peers out the window of his tiny straw hut and sends a single wish into the night sky — he wished that he could have some help, so his beloved garden would be saved.

No one heard his little voice, but someone saw his flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the someone hope.

It made the someone want to work harder.

As he blows his wish into the cosmos with a heavy heart, the little gardner drifts into sleep just as heavy — he sleeps a whole day, a whole week, a whole month. But, meanwhile, the Gulliveresque girl enchanted by that single flower — the little gardener’s sole labor of love — begins tending to the whole garden.

By the time the little gardener awakens, the garden is transformed into a blooming wonderland, nurtured by the largeness of a contagious love the seed for which he had planted in the heart of another.

This is the garden now.

And this is its gardener.

He doesn’t look like much,
but he means everything to his garden.

See more here.

5. THE TIGER WHO WOULD BE KING

“Power narrows the areas of man’s concern,” John F. Kennedy asserted in one of the greatest speeches of all time, adding: “What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation.” A century earlier, Nietzsche admonished against the self-aggrandizement aspect of power as he contemplated the fine line between constructive and destructive rebellion. But no one has addressed the ego’s blind lust for power with starker simplicity and more acuity of sentiment than beloved humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (December 8, 1894–November 2, 1961).

In 1927, the year his friend E.B. White helped him join the staff of the New Yorker for what would become a decades-long editorial relationship, young Thurber penned a short and piercing fable about a power-hungry tiger who sets out to become the king of beasts and ends up decimating the jungle into a subjectless dominion — a timeless text of penetrating timeliness amid our culture of mindless violence, too often punctuated by protest for protest’s sake and destructive rather than constructive rebellion.

Nearly a century later, illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon — the talent behind Beastly Verse, one of the best art books of the year — brings the Thurber classic to breathtaking new life in the stunning picture-book The Tiger Who Would Be King (public library).

Yoon, creator of the immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse, enlists her mastery of early printmaking techniques in amplifying the dramatic vibrancy of the story, which she tells in only two colors layered over the hearty white paper to create a stunning interplay of light and shadow, stillness and brutality.

One morning the tiger woke up in the jungle and told his mate that he was king of beasts.

“Leo, the lion, is king of beasts,” she said.

“We need a change,” said the tiger. “The creatures are crying for change.”

The tigress listened but she could hear no crying, except that of her cubs.

So drunk does the tiger become on his obsession with omnipotence that he holds back no delusion:

“I’ll be king of beasts by the time the moon rises,” said the tiger. “It will be a yellow moon with black stripes, in my honor.”

“Oh, sure,” said the tigress as she went to look after her young, one of whom, a male, very like his father, had got an imaginary thorn in his paw.

Undergirding the story is a subtle subversion of gender stereotypes — the kind perpetuated by Disney in the same era, painting women as irrationally emotional and men as governed by cool reason. Thurber, whose cartoons frequently depicted women in calm control, casts his tigress as the lucid counterpoint to the masculine energy of baseless ego-driven violence.

But despite his mate’s refutations, the tiger makes his way to the lion’s den, where the lioness announces the belligerent visitor to her mate.

“The king is here to see you,” she said.

“What king?” he inquired, sleepily.

“The king of beasts,” she said.

“I am the king of beasts,” roared Leo, and he charged out of the den to defend his crown against the pretender.

A terrible brawl ensues and electrifies the jungle until sundown.

All the animals of the jungle joined in, some taking the side of the tiger and others the side of the lion. Every creature from the aardvark to the zebra took part in the struggle to overthrow the lion or to repulse the tiger, and some did not know which they were fighting for, and some fought for both, and some fought whoever was nearest, and some fought for the sake of fighting.

Thurber delivers his punchline, dark and delightful in its darkness:

When the moon rose, fevered and gibbous, it shone upon a jungle in which nothing stirred except a macaw and a cockatoo, screaming in horror.

All the beasts were dead except the tiger, and his days were numbered and his time was ticking away. He was monarch of all he surveyed, but it didn’t seem to mean anything.

MORAL: You can’t very well be king of beasts if there aren’t any.

See more here.

6. POOL

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll plunged his Alice into a fantastical world through the looking-glass, South Korean fine artist and illustrator JiHyeon Lee offers a magnificent modern counterpart in her picture-book debut, Pool (public library) — a wordless masterpiece of space, scale, and silence converging to create an underwater world of wonder just beneath the reflective surface of ordinary life.

Lee’s delicate yet immensely expressive pencil illustrations, partway between Sophie Blackall and mid-career Maurice Sendak, emanate childhood’s tender trepidations and the gentle playfulness at the heart of the story.

We meet a boy standing poolside, looking reluctantly at the boisterous crowd lurching into the annual invasion of the public pool — a noisy, chaotic scene Lee communicates with great subtlety and quietude.

Perched on an uncrowded corner of the pool, the boy hesitantly contemplates the prospect of plunging.

At last, he takes the leap and dives below the superficial clamor of the crowd, where he encounters his unexpected counterpart — a little girl propelled by the same shy curiosity.

Together, they dive even deeper and the pool suddenly transmogrifies into a whimsical underwater wonderland full of strange and beautiful creatures — a magical mashup of the ocean’s most glorious real-life inhabitants, the mythological marine deities of ancient folklore, and Borges’s imaginary beings.

Suddenly, they come upon a most magnificent sight.

With a mastery of pacing time through negative space, calling to mind Marianne Dubuc’s exquisite The Lion and the Bird, Lee paints a visual gasp as the two children find themselves facing a gentle giant — a peculiar being reminiscent of our planet’s largest real creature (the subject of another spectacular picture-book), only white and furry.

They peer into its giant eye, into its enormous otherness, not with fear but with affectionate awe — a sweet and subtle reminder that, as Neil Gaiman memorably put it, “behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us.”

As the two make their way back to the surface, that watery looking-glass through which they had plunged into a modern-day Wonderland, they exit the pool from the other end, somehow transformed; the clamorous crowd, having completed this annual chore, leaves the same way it had flounced in.

And then, as they take off their goggles, they peer into each other’s naked eyes to find in the otherness an affectionate sameness of spirit peering back.

See more here.

7. LEO: A GHOST STORY

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote in contemplating how mortality expands our aliveness. That, perhaps, is why ghost tales are among the most universal and perennial fixtures of all mythologies and storytelling traditions — the very notion of a ghost welcomes a point of presence with life and death simultaneously. That most such stories cast ghosts as fearsome speaks to our lamentable tendency to approach the unfamiliar and the unknown — death, of course, being the ultimate unknown — with fear rather than with openminded, openhearted curiosity. Rilke knew this, writing in a letter that “fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.” A generation later, Anaïs Nin observed that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

In Leo: A Ghost Story (public library), beloved children’s book author Mac Barnett and illustrator Christian Robinson subvert the many dimensions of this human tendency in a heartening parable of seeing through difference, meeting the unfamiliar with unflinching friendliness, and dignifying the reality of the other.

We meet little Leo, a warmhearted ghost who has been living in a great old house on the edge of the city for many years, spending his days reading and drawing.

But his bibliophilic idyll changes the day a new family buys the house and moves in.

At first excited for the company and eager to be “a good ghost,” Leo tries to welcome them by making mint tea and honey toast.

But the mysterious treats alarm the family and send them running for help, eventually enlisting “a scientist, a clergyman, and a psychic to get rid of the ghost.”

Disheartened by being this unwelcome in his own home, Leo decides to try living as a roaming ghost and heads to the city.

Leo saw the city and the people who lived there.
Nobody saw Leo.

Disoriented by the urban chaos, he tries to ask the policewoman for directions — but she walks right through him.

At last, Leo meets a little named Jane. Miraculously, Jane — who we’re told is wearing a crown — sees Leo and invites him to play Knights of the Round Table, then promptly knights him and introduces her to her imaginary friends at the roundtable.

But we never see the crown — a subtle bow before the mutual dignity of recognition, for Leo, too, sees something in Jane that others don’t.

When Jane’s mother beckons her back home, Leo is delighted to have met someone who could see him, but his heart sinks upon realizing that Jane perceives him as another imaginary friend, once again having his reality yanked away from him.

Still, the two reconvene after dinner for another playdate of slaying imaginary dragons with their make-believe swords. But just as they retire for bedtime, Leo hears rustling — it’s a burglar sneaking through the window.

He, too, walks right through Leo, despite the boy’s protective protestations.

Suddenly, Leo gets an idea — he tosses a bed sheet over himself and flies at the thief, startling him and causing him to drop the silverware, then chasing him into the main closet and locking him in until the police arrives.

“Later Leo would not be able to say where the idea came from,” writes Barnett — another wink at subverting cultural tropes and using them to one’s advantage, for the idea came, of course, from the familiar depiction of the ghost as a sheet-draped invisible presence. One can’t help but appreciate this wonderfully subtle reminder that children absorb the countless ideas permeating our culture. The positive manifestation of this is the creative act itself — we create by borrowing and combining ideas we’ve accumulated by the very act of being alive and attentive to the world. The negative manifestation is how stereotypes proliferate, planting seeds for ideas that seem to come out of nowhere, germinating our unconscious social biases.

The story offers a magnificent counterpoint to precisely this proliferation. In a cultural landscape where only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color and many continue to purvey limiting gender stereotypes, here’s a story where a little black girl is the knight in shining armor, the one who confers power and dignity upon Leo’s reality, and where a woman cop catches the bad guy in the end. It’s also a story that treats the difficult subject of death with levity and openness, adding to the most unusual and wonderful children’s books about making sense of mortality.

See more here.

8. THE MENINO

As the recent honorary aunt of an exceptional small human, I was thrilled to come upon The Menino: A Story Based on Real Events (public library) by Argentine singer, author, and illustrator Marisol Misenta, better known as Isol — a delightful developmental odyssey seen from the parallel perspectives of the strange new creature and his joyfully disoriented parents.

From breastfeeding to the complexities of crying to theory of mind, this tender and truthful tale chronicles what happens once a new baby lodges itself between the parents’ former lives as competent grownups who know what they’re doing and this thrilling yet terrifying next chapter aswirl with learning curves. The poetic, the philosophical, and the practical converge into a love letter to the unfolding of new life, so mysterious and mystifying to the surrounding adults who, after all, were once babies themselves.

The Menino arrives
very hungry
and has to eat often.

He activates a pump
that he has in his mouth
and uses it to sip
and suck.

He prefers the milk
that is prepared by the woman of the house.

One ordinary day when they are playing with him, telling him stories or talking in high squeaky voices, The Menino discovers something surprising… that big people were once Meninos themselves.

Then The Menino feels at home… and decides to live here.

See more here.

9. HOME

“Home,” Maya Angelou wrote in her magnificent meditation on belonging and (not) growing up, “is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant.” Indeed, it seems that only for children, with their purity of feeling and their ability to “mediate the ideal and the real,” does the Venn diagram of home and house integrate into one fully overlapping circle. In adulthood, the circles drift further and further apart as we begin to project our conflicted dream-home ideals onto our real houses.

In the impossibly wonderful Home (public library), illustrator and children’s book author Carson Ellis presents an imaginative taxonomy of houses and a celebration of the wildly different kinds of people who call them home.

What emerges is a playful and tender reminder that however different our walks of life — what contrast there is between the Slovakian duchess’s mansion and the Kenyan blacksmith’s shack, between the babushka’s kitchen and the artist’s studio! — we are united by our deep desire for a place to call home.

After all, we begin belonging to his world — to borrow Mary Oliver’s wonderful phrase — first by rooting ourselves into it; by staking out a little corner of it to call our very own. It need not have walls or a roof — it can be a tour bus, or even a shoe, as Ellis’s illustrated taxonomy assures — but only from that place of safety can we reach out to connect, to understand one another, and to begin belonging together.

Ellis guides the reader to and through this common thread of belonging by placing little semi-hidden markers of communion and continuity — the same house plant graces multiple homes; a pigeon visits the young girl in Brooklyn and then perches on the Russian babushka’s window; the icon that hangs on the wall of the babushka’s kitchen is seen, several pages later, on the wall of the artist’s studio. (The artist, endearingly enough, is Ellis herself.)

Sprinkled amid the very real homes of very real people from different cultures are the whimsical abodes familiar from beloved tales — right next to the Japanese businessman is the Norse god, proudly standing before his magical palace, and a giant upside-down cup calls to mind Leonard Weisgard’s magnificent mid-century illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

See more here.

10. WHAT PET SHOULD I GET?

Theodor Geisel (March 2, 1904–September 24, 1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most beloved children’s book authors of all time. Maurice Sendak called him “a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work.” Geisel was also a creature besotted with animals, in his art and his life. One of literary history’s greatest pet-lovers, he had more pets throughout his life than he did accolades, and accolades he had many — including a Pulitzer Prize, three Caldecott Honors, and eight honorary degrees. Animals populated his many children’s books, his secret art, and even his wartime propaganda cartoons.

In the spring of 1957, almost two decades after his little-known “adult” book of nudes, it was an animal book — The Cat in the Hat — that led critics to declare Dr. Seuss an overnight success, despite the fact that he had been writing for twenty years and this was his thirteenth book. That fall, How the Grinch Stole Christmas sealed his status as a celebrity of creative culture and he joined Random House as the editor of a new imprint for young readers.

But the book into which Dr. Seuss poured his most exuberant love of animals, created sometime between 1958 and 1962, was never made public in his lifetime.

In 1991, shortly after his death, Geisel’s widow Audrey and his longtime secretary and friend Claudia Prescott discovered among his papers the manuscript and finished line art for what is now finally published as What Pet Should I Get? (public library).

Although the story, on the surface, is about a classic practical dilemma of childhood, it has — like all Dr. Seuss books, and like all great children’s books, for there is no such thing as writing “for children” — a deeper philosophical undercurrent. At its heart is a meditation on two all too common maladies afflicting modern grownups — the paradox of choice, which Geisel witnessed closely as the Mad Men era ushered in consumerist society and which continues to fascinate psychologists today, and the fear of missing out, so pervasive in contemporary culture that we’ve shorthanded it into the buzzwordy acronym FOMO.

We meet a brother and sister who arrive at the pet store, enraptured by their father’s permission to choose one — and only one — pet to take home. But as soon as they enter, a growing chorus of lovable animals make their irresistible appeals. The common binary choice of cat or dog soon expands into an overwhelming array of increasingly fantastical creatures, beginning with other less common real-life pet options and eventually tipping over into Dr. Seuss’s famous imaginary beings.

Recurring throughout the story and interjecting the otherwise first-person narrative is an omniscient voice urging the kids, “Make up your mind” — the quintessential refrain of the mind paralyzed by the paradox of choice and tortured by FOMO.

The cat?
Or the dog?
The kitten?
The pup?

Oh boy!
It is something
to make a mind up.

Then I looked at Kay.
I said, “What will we do?
I like all the pets that I see.
So do you.

We have to pick ONE pet
and pick it out soon.
You know Mother told us
to be back by noon.”

The ending is both playful and profound: Under the use-it-or-lose-it proposition of the time they were given to choose a pet, the kids do as the refrain urges, make up their minds, and choose — except we never find out which creature they chose.

Undergirding this open-endedness is a poetic reminder that in the face of life’s dilemmas, there is often no right or wrong choice — what matters is only that we do choose, that we make up our minds and march forward, for nothing dulls the little time we have more surely than the paralysis of indecision. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who tells the Cheshire Cat: “I don’t much care where … so long as I get somewhere.

“I will do it right now.
I will do it!” I said.
“I will make up the mind
that is up in my head.”

The dog…? Or the rabbit…?
The fish…? Or the cat…?
I picked one out fast,
and that that was that.

The story’s protagonists are the same kids that had appeared in Dr. Seuss’s 1960 book One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. (Geisel, like Maurice Sendak and other children’s book authors, sometimes recycled his characters.) Like most of the books Dr. Seuss created before 1963, One Fish was colored using basic CMYK — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — without mixing the inks to create other colors, such as green and purple, which would only appear in his later books.

Geisel was ordinarily meticulous about indicating what colors should go where in his line art, but he had left no such markings on this manuscript. To address the practical challenge while honoring Dr. Seuss’s aesthetic, Cathy Goldsmith — the Random House art director tasked with bringing the manuscript to posthumous life — turned to the fish book as a color guide but bridged it with Dr. Seuss’s later work to create a hybrid palette composed primarily of CMYK, enriched by a few additional colors. This would no doubt have pleased Geisel, a notorious perfectionist who belabored every detail and once professed:

I know my stuff looks like it was rattled off in twenty-eight seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.

A spread from ‘What Pet Should I Get?’ as it was originally found. Geisel estimated that he produced more than a thousand pages of text and images for a typical 64-page book, revising over and over. He always taped the text into position on the original line art, as seen here.

See more here.

11. THE BOOK OF MEMORY GAPS

“The least contaminated memory,” wrote Sarah Manguso in her magnificent meditation on memory and the ongoingness of time, “might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.” Those contaminations, of course, are the very act of living, and slicing this paradox asunder is the double-edged sword of memory itself — something legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks captured perfectly in observing that we humans are equipped with “memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity.”

But while psychologists have demonstrated that creativity does indeed hinge on memory and modern science has illuminated how memory actually works, its crucial role in our experience of stress, and why sleep is essential for its proper function, we remain mystified by its astonishing and often debilitating glitches. And yet these imperfections, to paraphrase Rilke, are the demons exorcising which would make the angels of our creativity flee in solidarity.

How to embrace, or at least making sense of, memory’s necessary fallibilities is what Brooklyn-based Mexican illustrator Cecilia Ruiz explores with equal parts playfulness and poignancy in The Book of Memory Gaps (public library) — a collection of fourteen short, lyrical illustrated vignettes, each centered around one protagonist experiencing a particular misfiring of memory.

Although the characters are fictional, each of the micro-stories captures the intimate human experience of living with a real memory disorder — from face blindness (which Dr. Sacks himself has) to savant syndrome to cryptomnesia to Alzheimer’s to various forms of amnesia.

Ruiz’s vignettes are decidedly dark — even tragic — but undergirding them is a certain sympathetic wistfulness for those reality-warping and unimaginably trying conditions. At its heart, the book is a dual invitation to appreciate the mundane miracle of memory, the proper functioning of which we’ve come to take for granted, and to practice the art of moral imagination by learning to empathize with the invisible daily struggles of those experiencing life with a memory impairment.

We meet Pyotr, who has uncannily accurate memory and can repeat the song of a bird he heard years ago; Simon, the pastor who confuses the memories of his confessors for his own and anguishes over his borrowed sins; Nadya, who has never been to the ocean but has a vivid sensory memory of swimming in the saltwater; Alexander, who axes his piano and quits being a composer in despair over repeatedly writing music that someone else has already written.

Veronika was bad at faces but good with smells. She learned to make perfumes and gave them to the ones she loved so she might know when they were near.

Every evening, Viktor arrived home on the same shore, thinking that he had been at sea for months. His wife would be there to welcome him, though he had left that same morning. Sadly for him, his wife’s excitement could never equal his own.

Natascha constantly has words on the tip of her tongue. She keeps feeling she is about to remember, but they never come. She spends her days searching for all of her missing words.

The short epilogue — a verse from Jorge Luis Borges’s 1969 poem “Cambridge” — seals the book’s conceptual splendor:

We are our memory,
we are that chimerical museum of shifting shapes,
that pile of broken mirrors.

And since the finest children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, timeless delight, step into the chimerical museum of stellar selections from 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

BP

The Road to Character: David Brooks on the Art of Stumbling, “Résumé Virtues” vs. “Eulogy Virtues,” and the Humility Code of Living a Meaningful Life

“We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling.”

“Do not despise your inner world,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum admonished in her letter of advice to the young. “By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating the wisdom of the heart half a century earlier, “the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, ‘the dance of life.’” But in a culture that consistently mistakes perfection for wholeness, we are discouraged from dancing with the brokenness, messiness, and imperfection of our interior lives — and yet only when do so can we begin to feel whole and measure our lives in terms of deep meaning rather than superficial success.

How to do this is what New York Times columnist David Brooks explores in The Road to Character (public library) — an elegant and lucid case for how fostering a “counter-tradition of moral realism” can help us snap out of the “self-satisfied moral mediocrity” that defines modern life, which leaves us in a state of “unconscious boredom” (not the creatively and spiritually fruitful kind), “not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth.” What emerges is a pitch-perfect clarion call, issued not with preachy hubris but from a deep place of humility, for awakening to the greatest rewards of living.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Brooks writes:

I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.

Illustration by Gus Gordon from Herman and Rosie

Echoing Joss Whedon’s commencement address on embracing our inner contradictions, Brooks adds:

We are called to fulfill both personae, and must master the art of living forever within the tension between these two natures.

Central to his premise is the aspiration toward what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “self-purification,” with a side of Bruce Lee’s famous “be like water” philosophy and notes of Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön’s assertion that “our neurosis and our wisdom are made out of the same material.” Brooks expounds the idea that the most reliable path to our highest selves is found in surrendering (rather than succumbing) to our greatest flaws in order to transcend them; that stumbling along this path, rather than hindering our progress, is what moves our character-expedition forward. He writes:

We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling — in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.

The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes lurching, sometimes falling to her knees. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature, her mistakes and weaknesses, with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. She is sometimes ashamed of the perversities in her nature — the selfishness, the self-deceit, the occasional desire to put lower loves above higher ones.

But humility offers self-understanding. When we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.

The stumbler is made whole by this struggle.

Brooks notes that our second, more luminous nature — the stuff of “eulogy virtues” — operates in a way opposite to the “straightforward utilitarian logic” of the striving résumé-self:

It’s a moral logic, not an economic one. You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy

And yet our culture, he laments, expects and rewards the other self — the striver on the hamster wheel of achievement and approval:

We live in a society that encourages us to think about how to have a great career but leaves many of us inarticulate about how to cultivate the inner life.

[…]

The competition to succeed and win admiration is so fierce that it becomes all-consuming… The noise of fast and shallow communications makes it harder to hear the quieter sounds that emanate from the depths. We live in a culture that teaches us to promote and advertise ourselves and to master the skills required for success, but that gives little encouragement to humility, sympathy, and honest self-confrontation, which are necessary for building character.

Brooks is interested in what it takes to cultivate a heart wise enough to maintain an “inner constancy” in the face of popular disapproval — after all, there is a reason why many of the luminaries we most revere have in common the capacity to withstand rejection. To be sure, Brooks approaches this quest by practicing his non-preachy insights, plunging straight into his own perceived shortcomings with confident vulnerability:

I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I’m paid to be a narcissistic blow-hard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am, to appear smarter than I really am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have to work harder than most people to avoid a life of smug superficiality. I’ve also become more aware that, like many people these days, I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration — vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while lacking a concrete moral vocabulary, a clear understanding of how to live a rich inner life, or even a clear knowledge of how character is developed and depth is achieved.

Illustration by Benji Davies from The Storm Whale

And yet this is something we all do, in varying degrees at various times, as we settle into the morally fail-safe trajectory of life:

You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You follow your desires wherever they take you, and you approve of yourself so long as you are not obviously hurting anyone else. You figure that if the people around you seem to like you, you must be good enough. In the process you end up slowly turning yourself into something a little less impressive than you had originally hoped. A humiliating gap opens up between your actual self and your desired self.

What Brooks calls for is learning to embrace this gap so tightly that we squeeze it shut — something that requires a sort of determined humility in the face of our imperfections. It is in this faceoff with our dual selves that character is built. (Perhaps Joan Didion put it best when she wrote in her timelessly magnificent meditation on self-respect: “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”) And yet the willingness to do so seems strangely old-fashioned — something that belongs to the spiritual and philosophical traditions of yore rather than to the self-improvement industrial complex of today. With an eye to this forsaken lore, Brooks writes:

My general belief is that we’ve accidentally left this moral tradition behind. Over the last several decades, we’ve lost this language, this way of organizing life. We’re not bad. But we are morally inarticulate. We’re not more selfish or venal than people in other times, but we’ve lost the understanding of how character is built.

[…]

The central fallacy of modern life is the belief that accomplishments of the [résumé] realm can produce deep satisfaction… The ultimate joys are moral joys.

To restore the balance between the “résumé virtues” and the “eulogy virtues,” Brooks proposes what he calls a Humility Code — a fifteen-point contract with ourselves that offers greater moral clarity on “what to live for and how to live.” Among them:

1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. Day to day we seek out pleasure, but deep down, human beings are endowed with moral imagination. All human beings seek to lead lives not just of pleasure, but of purpose, righteousness, and virtue. As John Stuart Mill put it, people have a responsibility to become more moral over time. The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquillity that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle. The meaningful life is the same eternal thing, the combination of some set of ideals and some man or woman’s struggle for those ideals. Life is essentially a moral drama, not a hedonistic one.

2. Proposition one defines the goal of life. The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures. We have an innate tendency toward selfishness and overconfidence. We have a tendency to see ourselves as the center of the universe, as if everything revolves around us. We resolve to do one thing but end up doing the opposite. We know what is deep and important in life, but we still pursue the things that are shallow and vain. Furthermore, we overestimate our own strength and rationalize our own failures. We know less than we think we do. We give in to short-term desires even when we know we shouldn’t. We imagine that spiritual and moral needs can be solved through status and material things.3. Although we are flawed creatures, we are also splendidly endowed. We are divided within ourselves, both fearfully and wonderfully made. We do sin, but we also have the capacity to recognize sin, to feel ashamed of sin, and to overcome sin. We are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeing. We thus have the capacity to struggle with ourselves. There is something heroic about a person in struggle with herself, strained on the rack of conscience, suffering torments, yet staying alive and growing stronger, sacrificing a worldly success for the sake of an inner victory.

5. Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be. Pride makes it hard for us to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible. Because of pride we try to prove we are better than those around us. Pride deludes us into thinking that we are the authors of our own lives.

10. We are all ultimately saved by grace. The struggle against weakness often has a U shape. You are living your life and then you get knocked off course — either by an overwhelming love, or by failure, illness, loss of employment, or twist of fate. The shape is advance-retreat-advance. In retreat, you admit your need and surrender your crown. You open up space that others might fill. And grace floods in. It may come in the form of love from friends and family, in the assistance of an unexpected stranger, or from God. But the message is the same. You are accepted. You don’t flail about in desperation, because hands are holding you up. You don’t have to struggle for a place, because you are embraced and accepted. You just have to accept the fact that you are accepted. Gratitude fills the soul, and with it the desire to serve and give back.

13. No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you’ll always wonder if people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?

The Road to Character is an essential read in its entirety — Anne Lamott with a harder edge of moral philosophy, Seneca with a softer edge of spiritual sensitivity, E.F. Schumacher for perplexed moderns. Complement it with 16th-century godfather of blogging Montaigne on how to live and Susan Sontag on what it means to be a moral human being.

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