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Leo Tolstoy on Kindness and the Measure of Love

“Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.”

“Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful letter to his first wife and lifelong friend. Somehow, despite our sincerest intentions, we repeatedly fall short of this earthly divinity, so readily available yet so easily elusive. And yet in our culture, it has been aptly observed, “we are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” In his stirring Syracuse commencement address, George Saunders confessed with unsentimental ruefulness: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.” I doubt any decent person, upon candid reflection, would rank any other species of regret higher. To be human is to leap toward our highest moral potentialities, only to trip over the foibled actualities of our reflexive patterns. To be a good human is to keep leaping anyway.

In the middle of his fifty-fifth year, Leo Tolstoy (September 9, 1828–November 20, 1910) set out to construct a reliable springboard for these moral leaps by compiling “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people,” whose wisdom “gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness” — thinkers and spiritual leaders who have shed light on what is most important in living a rewarding and meaningful life. Such a book, Tolstoy envisioned, would tell a person “about the Good Way of Life.” He spent the next seventeen years on the project.

Leo Tolstoy

In 1902, by then seriously ill and facing his own mortality, Tolstoy finally completed the manuscript under the working title A Wise Thought for Every Day. It was published two years later, in Russian, but it took nearly a century for the first English translation, by Peter Sekirin, to appear: A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul, Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (public library). For each day of the year, Tolstoy had selected several quotes by great thinkers around a particular theme, then contributed his own thoughts on the subject, with kindness as the pillar of the book’s moral sensibility.

Perhaps prompted by the creaturely severity and the clenching of heart induced by winter’s coldest, darkest days, or perhaps by the renewed resolve for moral betterment with which we face each new year, he writes in the entry for January 7:

The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.

Kindness enriches our life; with kindness mysterious things become clear, difficult things become easy, and dull things become cheerful.

At the end of the month, in a sentiment Carl Sagan would come to echo in his lovely invitation to meet ignorance with kindness, Tolstoy writes:

You should respond with kindness toward evil done to you, and you will destroy in an evil person that pleasure which he derives from evil.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf by Nadine Brun-Cosme.

In the entry for February 3, he revisits the subject:

Kindness is for your soul as health is for your body: you do not notice it when you have it.

After copying out two kindness-related quotations from Jeremy Bentham (“A person becomes happy to the same extent to which he or she gives happiness to other people.”) and John Ruskin (“The will of God for us is to live in happiness and to take an interest in the lives of others.”), Tolstoy adds:

Love is real only when a person can sacrifice himself for another person. Only when a person forgets himself for the sake of another, and lives for another creature, only this kind of love can be called true love, and only in this love do we see the blessing and reward of life. This is the foundation of the world.

Nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.

Feast on more of Tolstoy’s deeply nourishing Calendar of Wisdom here. Complement this particular fragment with Albert Einstein on the meaning of kindness, Jacqueline Woodson’s lovely letter to children about kindness, and Naomi Shihab Nye on the remarkable true story behind her beloved poem “Kindness,” then revisit Tolstoy on love and its paradoxical demands, his early diaries of moral development, and his deathbed writings on what gives meaning to our lives.


An Illustrated Field Guide to the Art, Science, and Joy of Tea

From leaf to cup, by way of the history of human civilization.

An Illustrated Field Guide to the Art, Science, and Joy of Tea

“The first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy,” Jack Kerouac wrote of tea in his 1958 novel The Dharma Bums. Late one night that year, he walked five miles with an enormous tape recorder strapped to his back to keep the woman he loved from taking her own life.

Lois Beckwith didn’t die that night. She and Jack soon parted ways as lovers, but remained friends. Eventually, he introduced her to the man who would become her husband. Their son would go on to devote his life to tea.

In Pursuit of Tea founder Sebastian Beckwith fell in love with tea while working as a trekking guide in Bhutan and northern India in the 1980s, and has spent the years since procuring and advocating for the planet’s finest, most sustainably grown and ethically harvested teas. Traveling to and working with small farms in Asia’s most historic tea-growing regions, he sources teas that grace the menus of some of New York City’s finest restaurants and have powered much of my own writing over the years. In his workshops, seminars, and lectures, he has brought the art-science of tea to the American Museum of Natural History, the French Culinary Institute, and Columbia University.

Now, Beckwith harvests the wisdom of his life’s work in A Little Tea Book: All the Essentials from Leaf to Cup (public library) — part practical field guide to choosing, preparing, and enjoying tea, part love letter, co-written with his childhood friend, former firefighter, and Gutsy Girl author Caroline Paul, and splendidly illustrated by Caroline’s wife and my dear friend Wendy MacNaughton.

Radiating from the pages are deep knowledge, good-natured humor, and a largehearted love of tea — the plant, the experience, the ecosystem of botany and labor and ritual, which George Orwell considered “one of the main stays of civilization.” What emerges is an encyclopedia of fact and joy, delving into the cultural and political histories of tea alongside its practical science and daily delights, bridging the sensorial and the spiritual dimensions of this ancient tradition turned modern staple.

Punctuating the book are various curiosities from the history of tea, emanating broader insight into human culture, the nature of creativity, and the serendipitous, often haphazard ways in which new ideas take root. Take, for instance, the story of the tea bag:

Tea bags were invented in the late 1800s but became wildly popular only after a New York tea purveyor named Thomas Sullivan sent samples of tea in silk bags. These were intended to be opened, the tea emptied out and then brewed, but customers instead dropped the bags straight into the water — and then complained that the material did not allow for the tea to steep. Sullivan turned to a more porous cloth and the tea bag was quickly embraced in America (though most of Britain turned up its nose, using loose tea until the mid-1970s.)

There are also invaluable antidotes to various oft-repeated myths, misconceptions, and half-truths — from the elemental fact that the six basic types of tea (white, green, yellow, oolong, black, and dark) all come from a single plant, Camellia sinensis, to the complex matter of caffeine. Beckwith and Paul offer a scientific corrective:

Many of us drink tea to wake up at the beginning of our day. You may even have heard that Camellia sinensis contains more caffeine than coffee beans. This is true, but misleading. We use much less tea than coffee by weight for a serving, so your cup of tea actually has at most one half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee. The relative level varies depending on the leaf used (the buds have higher concentrations), the cultivar, the leaf shape (a larger leaf results in a slower infusion because there is less surface area than, say, a fanning tea grade in your cup), and the brew time and technique (since caffeine is water-soluble, the longer tea steeps, the more caffeine is extracted; powdered tea like matcha has more caffeine because the leaves are consumed, not infused). It is important to note that caffeine does not correspond with tea type, so one cannot categorically say that black tea has more than green, or yellow tea has more than white.

Tea also contains the unique calming and relaxing — but not sedative — amino acid theanine, which has been found only in Camellia sinensis and one mushroom, Boletus badius. Theanine has been shown to improve mood and increase focus when combined with caffeine. This may be why tea drinkers often avoid the anxiety and jitters of those who imbibe coffee (known to some of us tea lovers as “devil juice.”)

Complement the lovely Little Tea Book with Orwell’s eleven golden rules for making the perfect cup of tea and the MacNaughton-illustrated field guide to wine, then revisit the touching, improbable story of how Kerouac saved Beckwith’s mother’s life.


Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

Mastering the essential complementarity of compassion and total objectivity.

Anton Chekhov’s 6 Rules for a Great Story

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted,” Kurt Vonnegut offered in the first of his 8 tips for writing a good story. “A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds,” the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner observed in his essay on what makes a great story. “Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.” What, then, makes for maximally convincing lifelikeness in a story that leaves the reader grateful for the time spent reading it?

That is what Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (January 29, 1860–July 15, 1904) examined in a letter to his brother Alexander, included in the 1973 volume Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentaries (public library),

Anton Chekhov (Portrait by Osip Braz, 1898)

Writing on May 10, 1888, Chekhov lays out his six tenets of a great story:

  1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature
  2. Total objectivity
  3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects
  4. Extreme brevity
  5. Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype
  6. Compassion

Embedded in the complementarity rather than contradiction of the second and the sixth — total objectivity and compassion — is the recognition that no depiction of reality is realistic unless it include an empathic account of all perspectives, which might be the defining characteristic not only of Chekhov as a writer but of any great storyteller.

Chekhov had put his own principles to fine use — that year, his short story collection At Dusk won him the prestigious Pushkin Prize, named after his famed compatriot Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (June 6, 1799–February 10, 1837), who had articulated a remarkably similar philosophy of storytelling half a century earlier.

In a fragment from 1830, Pushkin considers what makes a great dramatist — the most esteemed species of storyteller in the era’s ecosystem of literature — and lists the following necessary qualities:

A philosophy, impartiality, the political acumen of a historian, insight, a lively imagination. No prejudices or preconceived ideas. Freedom.

Complement with Chekhov — a lover of lists — on the 8 qualities of cultured people, then revisit other abiding advice on the craft from great writers: Susan Sontag on the art of storytelling, Jeanette Winterson’s 10 rules of writing and another 10 from Zadie Smith, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, John Steinbeck’s 6 guideposts, Jack Kerouac’s 30 “beliefs & techniques” for writing and life, Eudora Welty on the art of narrative, Kurt Vonnegut on the shapes of stories, James Baldwin’s advice to writers, and Ernest Hemingway’s reading list of essential books for every aspiring writer to read.


Beethoven and the Crucial Difference Between Genius and Talent

“Genius has to be founded on major talent, but it adds a freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit…”

Beethoven and the Crucial Difference Between Genius and Talent

The question of whether talent and genius differ in degree or in kind is an abiding one, and often discomfiting for any creative person to contemplate — we don’t, after all, like to consider that we might be merely endowed with talent but bereft of genius. And yet examining the relationship between the two can be a source of tremendously vitalizing insight into the creative spirit in its multitude of manifestations. Thoreau drew a vital distinction between an artisan, an artist, and a genius. Schopenhauer likened talent to hitting a target no one else can hit and genius to hitting a target no one else can see. “Genius gives birth, talent delivers,” Jack Kerouac asserted in contemplating whether great artists are born or made. “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin cautioned aspiring writers as he considered the real building blocks of genius.

Another illuminating distinction between genius and talent comes from biographer Jan Swafford in Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (public library) — his fascinating account of an artist marked by the tragic and triumphant genius of being an outsider, whom Swafford describes as “utterly sure of himself and his gift, but no less self-critical and without sentimentality concerning his work.”

Beethoven by Joseph Karl Stieler

With an eye to Beethoven’s unmistakable genius, Swafford writes:

Genius is something that lies on the other side of talent… Talent is largely inborn, and in a given field some people have it to a far higher degree than others. Still, in the end talent is not enough to push you to the highest achievements. Genius has to be founded on major talent, but it adds a freshness and wildness of imagination, a raging ambition, an unusual gift for learning and growing, a depth and breadth of thought and spirit, an ability to make use of not only your strengths but also your weaknesses, an ability to astonish not only your audience but yourself.

Reflecting on the cultural history of genius, Swafford adds:

My sense of the idea is closer to that of the eighteenth century: I believe in genius, but not in demigods… For me, the idea of spending one’s life chasing something impossible is simply normal, necessary, even a touch heroic. It is what artists do all the time.

He quotes Beethoven himself, who wrote in a poetic passage from his 1812 letter to Emilie:

The true artist has no pride. He sees unfortunately that art has no limits; he has a vague awareness of how far he is from reaching his goal; and while others may perhaps admire him, he laments the fact that he has not yet reached the point whither his better genius only lights the way for him like a distant sun.

Complement this particular portion of the thoroughly fascinating Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph with neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal on the six “diseases of the will” that keep the talented from achieving greatness, then revisit Beethoven’s stirring letter to his brothers about how music saved his life and the secret to his superhuman vitality.


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