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A Loving Illustrated Homage to Virginia Woolf’s Remarkable Life and Legacy

“I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great.’ I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped.”

A Loving Illustrated Homage to Virginia Woolf’s Remarkable Life and Legacy

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern,” Virginia Woolf wrote in recounting the sublime epiphany in which she knew she was an artist. “The whole world is a work of art… There is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

In Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography (public library) — a fine addition to these favorite illustrated biographies of luminaries and one of four wonderful picture-books about the creative life I recently reviewed for The New York Times — writer Zena Alkayat and artist Nina Cosford pull back the cotton wool of Woolf’s own remarkable life and explore the thing itself with equal parts concision, compassion, and unsentimental reverence.

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From her childhood, marked by literature and loss from an early age — the two great constants of her life — to her emergence as one of the most singular and significant artistic voices of the past century, the story follows Woolf’s creative development and unearths the building blocks of her formidable legacy.

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While her brothers were away at school, Virginia would read and write obsessively. Her older sister Vanessa spent hours at her easel.

They went on to devote their lives to each other.

Woven into the story are unforgettably electrifying lines from Woolf’s books, journals, and letters. Woolf writes in her diary in October of 1933:

I will not be ‘famous,’ ‘great.’ I will go on adventuring, changing, opening my mind and my eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped.

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We meet Woolf’s sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, and their Bloomsbury posse of artists and intellectuals; Woolf’s husband, Leonard, and their pet marmoset Mitz, a mascot of the Bloomsbury group; her beloved nephews, Quentin and Julian, with whom she collaborated on a humorous family newspaper; her lover Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Woolf’s gender-bending, genre-bending, groundbreaking novel Orlando, which Sackville-West’s son rightly called “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”

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Leonard had spent seven years working for the Colonial Civil Service in Ceylon. He was a writer, an intellectual, and a perfectionist.

He was also tall and dark with blue eyes and trembling hands.

[…]

Leonard would call her “mandrill.” Virginia would call him “mongoose.”

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While enjoying London’s party scene, Virginia met the aristocratic Vita Sackville-West.

Vita’s life was scandalous. She had an open marriage, passionate lesbian affairs, and a penchant for cross-dressing. She was also a mother, a writer, and a poet.

As their relationship bubbled and fizzled, Virginia wrote To the Lighthouse. It was an ode to her parents.

There is struggle — it takes fifteen years for Woolf’s debut novel to sell 2,000 copies, and in those years she survives a World War and a severe bout of depression that nearly takes her life. There is also joy — the seemingly idyllic Charleston retreat of the Bloomsbury set, and the simple joys of dogs and gardening and the ocean.

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Every great biography, in telling the story of a particular personhood, recreates the texture of the era in which that personhood unfolded. Intersecting the line of Woolf’s life are cultural milestones, events both triumphant and tragic.

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The suffrage movement paves the way for women’s intellectual, creative, and sexual emancipation as young Virginia is finding that room of her own.

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When the war comes, we see Virginia and Leonard crouching in their coal cellar, where they take shelter night after nightmarish night.

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On March 28, 1941, Virginia fills her overcoat pockets with rocks, leaves Leonard a poignant farewell letter, walks into the River Ouse behind their house, and drowns. Measured by its end, her life is undeniably tragic. Measured by its substance, a sort of creative aliveness which few artists have matched in the entire history of humanity, it is undeniably triumphant. The book is a reminder — perhaps uncomfortable, but very much necessary and ultimately jubilant — that complexity and contradiction are the raw material of life, and that an extraordinary life contains an extraordinary dosage of both.

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Complement Alkayat and Cosford’s marvelous Virginia Woolf, which is part of their series of illustrated biographies of exceptional women, with notable picture-books celebrating Louise Bourgeois, e.e. cummings, Pablo Neruda, Jane Goodall, Albert Einstein, and Nellie Bly, then revisit Woolf on how to read a book, why the best mind is the androgynous mind, the paradox of the soul, and the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

Illustrations © Nina Cosford courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Cicero on the Positive Side of Envy, Its Counterintuitive Kinship with Compassion, and Its Power as a Tuning Fork for the Instrument of Our Determination

“Wisdom is an acquaintance with all divine and human affairs, and a knowledge of the cause of everything.”

Cicero on the Positive Side of Envy, Its Counterintuitive Kinship with Compassion, and Its Power as a Tuning Fork for the Instrument of Our Determination

Kierkegaard lamented envy as the worst form of pettiness. Benjamin Franklin saw it as an obstacle to “true, solid happiness.” These are sensical, intuitive judgments — and yet they might be missing something essential, something counterintuitively heartening about our inescapably human capacity for envy.

That’s what the great Roman philosopher and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero (January 3, 106 BC–December 7, 43 BC) examines in a portion of his Tusculan Disputations (free ebook | public library).

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Cicero, translated from Latin by C.D. Younge, writes:

Could a wise man be subject to grief, he might also be liable to pity, or even might be open to a disposition towards envy… Compassion and envy are consistent in the same man; for whoever is uneasy at any one’s adversity is also uneasy at another’s prosperity.

Cicero considers envy a “soul perturbation” and a form of grief — “a grief arising from the prosperous circumstances of another, which are in no degree injurious to the person who envies.” But because our capacity for such anguish at the good fortune of another springs from the same source as our capacity for anguish at their bad fortune, which is the wellspring of compassion, envy may be a function of our lowest self but it is inseparable from our highest self:

As pity is an uneasiness which arises from the misfortunes of another, so envy is an uneasiness that proceeds from the good success of another: therefore whoever is capable of pity is capable of envy.

Eighteen centuries before David Hume made his insightful case for vanity as proof of virtue, Cicero similarly suggests that envy is rather like a tuning fork for our instrument of motivation — a mobilizing force that helps us discern the direction of our desire and then pursue that path with purposefulness:

Envy implies being uneasy at another’s good because one does not enjoy it one’s self… How can it be right that you should voluntarily grieve, rather than take the trouble of acquiring what you want to have? For it is madness in the highest degree to desire to be the only one that has any particular happiness. But who can with correctness speak in praise of a mediocrity of evils?

In other words, envy helps us identify what we value. The wise person, Cicero intimates, is not the person immune to such human perturbations but the person who observes these emotions with openhearted curiosity, examines their causes, and uses those insights to better steer herself in the direction of what is envied in order to acquire these qualities and outcomes for herself.

Cicero recapitulates:

Wisdom is an acquaintance with all divine and human affairs, and a knowledge of the cause of everything.

For a contemporary counterpart to this particular portion of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, see psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s terrific case for missing out and the value of our unlived lives.

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The White Cat and the Monk: A Lovely 9th-Century Ode to the Joy of Uncompetitive Purposefulness, Newly Illustrated

A wonderful counterpoint to our culture of competitive self-comparison, reminding us that we can choose to amplify each other’s accomplishments because there is, after all, enough to go around.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Lovely 9th-Century Ode to the Joy of Uncompetitive Purposefulness, Newly Illustrated

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark counseled, “you should acquire a cat.” Long before the cat became a modern literary muse, a monk whose identity remains a mystery immortalized his beloved white cat named Pangur. Sometime in the ninth century, somewhere in present-day southern Germany, this solitary scholar penned a beautiful short poem in Old Irish, titled “Pangur Bán” — an ode to the parallel pleasures of man and feline as one pursues knowledge and the other prey, and to how their quiet companionship amplifies their respective joys.

The poem has been translated and adapted many times over the centuries (perhaps most famously by W.H. Auden), but nowhere more delightfully than in The White Cat and the Monk (public library) by writer Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrator Sydney Smith — one of four wonderful children’s books about the creative life, which I recently reviewed for The New York Times.

Smith, who has previously illustrated the immeasurably wonderful Sidewalk Flowers, imbues the ancient text with contemporary visual language through his singular, elegantly minimalist graphic novel aesthetic.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

We see the old monk poring over his manuscripts in search of wisdom as Pangur prances around their spartan shared abode, chasing after a mouse and a butterfly. Each is totally absorbed in his task.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

In a subtle story-with-a-story, one of the monk’s manuscripts contains an even more ancient depiction of another monk and another cat — a reminder that this creaturely communion is a primal joy of the human experience.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

At the end of each day, the two rest into their respective gladnesses in quiet camaraderie.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration — it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others aren’t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each other’s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk comes from Canadian indie powerhouse Groundwood Books, who have brought us such treasures as The Menino, A Year Without Mom, and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. Complement it with the vintage gem The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat by Lore Segal and Paul O. Zelinsky and the contemporary treasure Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton — two very different, equally wonderful stories about love and humanity enlarged by a feline friend.

Illustrations © Sydney Smith courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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