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The Art of Looking: Eleven Ways of Viewing the Multiple Realities of Our Everyday Wonderland

“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”

“How we spend our days,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timelessly beautiful meditation on presence over productivity, “is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And nowhere do we fail at the art of presence most miserably and most tragically than in urban life — in the city, high on the cult of productivity, where we float past each other, past the buildings and trees and the little boy in the purple pants, past life itself, cut off from the breathing of the world by iPhone earbuds and solipsism. And yet: “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates — and it can be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) — a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different “experts,” from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year, if not the decade, and the most enchanting thing I’ve read in ages. In a way, it’s the opposite but equally delightful mirror image of Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City — a concrete, immersive examination of urbanity — blending the mindfulness of Sherlock Holmes with the expansive sensitivity of Thoreau.

Horowitz begins by pointing our attention to the incompleteness of our experience of what we conveniently call “reality”:

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.

By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

This adaptive ignorance, she argues, is there for a reason — we celebrate it as “concentration” and welcome its way of easing our cognitive overload by allowing us to conserve our precious mental resources only for the stimuli of immediate and vital importance, and to dismiss or entirely miss all else. (“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator,” Horowitz tells us. “It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”) But while this might make us more efficient in our goal-oriented day-to-day, it also makes us inhabit a largely unlived — and unremembered — life, day in and day out.

Art by Maira Kalman from ‘On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes’

For Horowitz, the awakening to this incredible, invisible backdrop of life came thanks to Pumpernickel, her “curly haired, sage mixed breed” (who also inspired Horowitz’s first book, the excellent Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), as she found herself taking countless walks around the block, becoming more and more aware of the dramatically different experiences she and her canine companion were having along the exact same route:

Minor clashes between my dog’s preferences as to where and how a walk should proceed and my own indicated that I was experiencing almost an entirely different block than my dog. I was paying so little attention to most of what was right before us that I had become a sleepwalker on the sidewalk. What I saw and attended to was exactly what I expected to see; what my dog showed me was that my attention invited along attention’s companion: inattention to everything else.

The book was her answer to the disconnect, an effort to “attend to that inattention.” It is not, she warns us, “about how to bring more focus to your reading of Tolstoy or how to listen more carefully to your spouse.” Rather, it is an invitation to the art of observation:

Together, we became investigators of the ordinary, considering the block — the street and everything on it—as a living being that could be observed.

In this way, the familiar becomes unfamiliar, and the old the new.

Her approach is based on two osmotic human tendencies: our shared capacity to truly see what is in front of us, despite our conditioned concentration that obscures it, and the power of individual bias in perception — or what we call “expertise,” acquired by passion or training or both — in bringing attention to elements that elude the rest of us. What follows is a whirlwind of endlessly captivating exercises in attentive bias as Horowitz, with her archetypal New Yorker’s “special fascination with the humming life-form that is an urban street,” and her diverse companions take to the city.

First, she takes a walk all by herself, trying to note everything observable, and we quickly realize that besides her deliciously ravenous intellectual curiosity, Horowitz is a rare magician with language. (“The walkers trod silently; the dogs said nothing. The only sound was the hum of air conditioners,” she beholds her own block; passing a pile of trash bags graced by a stray Q-tip, she ponders parenthetically, “how does a Q-tip escape?”; turning her final corner, she gazes at the entrance of a mansion and “its pair of stone lions waiting patiently for royalty that never arrives.” Stunning.)

But as soon as she joins her experts, Horowitz is faced with the grimacing awareness that despite her best, most Sherlockian efforts, she was “missing pretty much everything.” She arrives at a newfound, profound understanding of what William James meant when he wrote, “My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind.”:

I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.

These “blinders,” despite psychologists’ concentrated efforts to dissect this strange phenomenon we call “attention,” remain largely a mystery — or, at best, a series of misconstrued hypotheses:

Though paying attention seems simple, there are numerous forms of payment. … To concentrate, to pay attention, is viewed as a brow-furrowing exercise. Sit still, don’t blink, and attend.

[…]

This may do for a moment of concentration, but it is not the way to better attention in your daily life. For that, we need to know what attention is. The very concept is odd. Is it an ability, a tendency, a skill? Is it processed in a special nugget in the brain, or by your eyes and ears? …

The longtime model used by psychologists is that of a “spotlight” that picks out particular items of interest to examine, bringing some things into focus and awareness while leaving other things in the dim, dusty sidelines. The metaphor makes me feel like a headlight-wearing spelunker who can only see what is right in front of her in the darkness of the cave. Such a comparison can be misleading, because in fact one can still report on what was within one’s peripheral vision at rates better than chance. And despite that spotlight, we seem to miss huge elements of the thing we are ostensibly attending to.

A better way of thinking about attention is to consider the problems that evolution might have designed “attention” to solve. The first problem emerges from the nature of the world. The world is wildly distracting. It is full of brightly colored things, large things casting shadows, quickly moving things, approaching things, loud things, irregular things, smelly things.

Thus, evolution’s problem-solving left us modern humans with two kinds of attention: vigilance, which allows us to have a quick and life-saving fight-or-flight response to an immediate threat, be it a leaping lion or a deranged boss, and selective attention, which unconsciously curates the few stimuli to attend to amidst the flurry bombarding us, enabling us to block out everything except what we’re interested in ingesting. (Selective attention, of course, can mutate to dangerous degrees, producing such cultural atrocities as the filter bubble.) Much like French polymath Henri Poincaré argued that to invent is simply to choose ideas, to attend, it turns out, is simply to choose stimuli — but what sounds so deceptively simple turns out to be marvelously complex. In her walks with expert companions, Horowitz tickles this latter type of attention to unravel all the unseen, unsmelled, and unheard miracles of a city block, the wonderlands of sensation and awareness that bloom behind the looking glass of our evolutionarily primed everyday inattention.

The first “expert” Horowitz walks with is her very own toddler, from whom we learn that a walk is not necessarily the purposeful and linear transfer of a body from point A to point B, but rather an exploratory exercise in touching and — eek! — tasting textures and surfaces, pointing at sights, pausing to absorb the tickling brush of the breeze:

A walk is, instead, an investigatory exercise that begins with energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted.

Much of what makes the story so compelling is Horowitz’s ability to swiftly weave scientific insight into the details of these anecdotal experiences. Here, she notes:

The perceptions of infants are remarkable. That infants reliably develop into adults, who for all their wisdom or kindness are often unremarkable, blinds us to this fact. The infant’s world is a case study in confused attention. … The world is not yet organized into discrete objects for these new eyes: it is all light and dark, shadow and brightness.

Infants, in fact, seem to experience syneshtesia as a baseline sensory given. (Perhaps MoMA’s Juliet Kinchin touched on a bigger cognitive truth when she reflected that “children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real.”) But, eventually, they grow out of this wondrous multidimensional awareness, which William James called “aboriginal sensible muchness,” and we, the sensible and selectively attentive adults, emerge:

Part of normal human development is learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, sound — but to function, we have to ignore some of it. The world still holds these details. Children sense the world at a different granularity, attending to parts of the visual world we gloss over; to sounds we have dismissed as irrelevant. What is indiscernible to us is plain to them.

Part of toddlers’ extraordinary capacity for noticing has to do with their hard-wired neophilia — the allure of the new and unfamiliar, which for them includes just about everything that we, old and jaded, have deemed familiar and thus uninteresting. (Horowitz points to one systematic exception for us adults — vacations — which brim with enough novelty to produce such fascinating, reality-warping psychological phenomena as the holiday paradox. The reason, Horowitz argues, lies in two factors: “We actually do see new places and second, we bother to look.”)

In a way, “experts” have a toddler’s ability to zoom in on the details, the very fabric of experience, that most of us glide adaptively by.

From beloved artist and reconstructionist Maira Kalman — a woman of boundless wisdom on life and unrelenting faith in walking as a creative device, whom Horowitz aptly describes as “a hoarder, in the finest sense of that word, of both experience and image” — we learn that looking at the ordinary, looking and really seeing it, seeing its extraordinary wonder, is a special talent that takes patient cultivation. Horowitz writes:

One perceptual constraint that I knowingly labor under is the constraint that we all create for ourselves: we summarize and generalize, stop looking at particulars and start taking in scenes at a glance—all in an effort to not be overwhelmed visually when we just need to make it through the day. The artist seems to retain something of the child’s visual strategy: how to look at the world before knowing (or without thinking about) the name or function of everything that catches the eye. An infant treats objects with an unprejudiced equivalence: the plastic truck is of no more intrinsic worth to the child than an empty box is, until the former is called a toy and the latter is called garbage. My son was as entranced by the ubiquitous elm seeds near our doorstep as any of the menus, mail, flyers, or trash that concern the adults.

Echoing Anaïs Nin’s timeless words on the shared magic of the child and the artist, Horowitz writes:

To the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant; little is unseen.

Once you look at what seems ordinary long enough, though, it often turns odd and unfamiliar, as any child repeatedly saying his own name aloud learns. I had the suspicion that walking with Kalman would be the ambulatory equivalent of saying my own name aloud a hundred times.

But Kalman’s singular spirit came to life not in the purposeful stride of a destination-walk but in the creative digression of an amble:

With Kalman, walking around the block entered a fourth dimension. … Eventually, we made it from A to B, but not before visiting all of the later letters of the alphabet. … Objects and people on our route became possibilities for interaction, rather than decoration or obstruction, as the urban pedestrian might define them.

Kalman gently nudges Horowitz to remove the “invisibility cloak” so familiar to us urbanites as we shield ourselves from strangers, and the two do something city dwellers — especially New Yorkers — never do: They talk to policemen, movers, a mailman, churchgoers, and the social workers tending to a halfway house. In other words, they cease to simply coexist with their fellow citizens and, for the duration of the walk, live with them instead, attend to them with presence and curiosity, see them; they slow their cadence, now tourists in their native fast-paced New York; they amble. Horowitz once again returns to her potent blend of philosophical reflection and scientific substance:

I had not noticed, until forced to by Kalman’s sociability, how I was engaging in a fundamentally social activity by walking out in public.

Still, we all have a sense of the “appropriate” personal space around us — a kind of zone of privacy that we wear, even on the social sidewalk. Indeed, we have many coencentric circles of personal spaces, plural. The Swiss zoologist Heini Hediger, elaborating from studies of animal behavior, proposed that the personal zones around us fall into a few categories. Those with whom we do not mind “inescapable involvement” — as our loved ones — can broach the closest zone and get nearer than eighteen inches to us. At that proximity, we can smell them, feel the heat of their bodies, their breath, hear the small sounds they mutter or emit. We can whisper together. Most social interactions take place in a comfortable zone about one and a half to four feet away — closer in some cultures (Latin American) than others (North American). Friends can waltz through; acquaintances can hover on the edge. We have a social distance up to twelve feet from our bodies for more formal transactions, or for those we don’t know well. Beyond that is a kind of public distance in which we use our “outdoor” voice. All of these zones are artificial, varying with differing relationships, based on context and the physical setting — but we have a bodily sense of the reality of these spaces. Violate them, and we may feel stressed and anxious.

Art by Maira Kalman from ‘On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes’

Eventually, Horowitz realizes that Kalman has a wholly different way not only of looking, but also of seeing — she challenges the normative expectations of where one is allowed to go in the city and experiences space not “as defined by an edge, but as an infinitely explorable openness” — and so she wonders what it is about the artist’s brain that enables that limitless perception of possibility. Though she is careful to insure against any phrenology-like pseudoscience of the “creative brain,” Horowitz does point to a curious study that suggests brains like Kalman’s might, in fact, be wired differently:

One research team, though, reported a correspondence between the brains of those who seem to be especially creative thinkers. Certain people, they found, have fewer of one kind of dopamine receptor in the thalamus of the brain. These people also performed well on tests of “divergent thinking,” in which people are asked to concoct more and more elaborate uses for ordinary objects, for instance. The reduction in receptors might actually increase information flow to various parts of the brain, essentially allowing them to think up new and interesting solutions. “Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box,” the researchers wrote.

(For more on this research by Stanford’s Carol Dweck, see this.)

A typographic storefront from James and Karla Murray’s Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York

From typography nerd Paul Shaw, who brought us the almost true story of New York’s subway Helvetica, we learn that our minds are constantly coerced into reading the “dull, tedious words” that bombard us from storefronts, billboards, and computer screens nearly every waking moment — but besides the linguistic burden, embedded in each letter we ingest is also a design one, for typography can quietly convey an unwritten message, set a mood, create an ineffable sense of something being either terribly wrong or terribly wonderful. A letter, Horowitz reminds us as she discovers the humanistic quality of words while touring New York’s type-smothered streets with Shaw, can be “jaunty” or “uncomfortable” amidst awkward kerning, an ampersand can be “pregnant” and an S “complacent.” She encapsulates:

Three hours of walking with Shaw later, I felt relieved, for the moment, of my compulsion to read what was readable, to parse text when I saw it. Surprisingly, this relief came not from avoiding text, but from seeking it out — only to zoom in on the details held within. It was a vision that let me miss the forest and see the trees. Rather than words, I saw the components of words. Some small part of my brain (the linguistic part) rested; the shape-identifying part hummed with activity.

[…]

The thing you are doing now affects the thing you see next.

From geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History we learn that our entire world consists of only two types of things: minerals and the biomass of plants and animals. A city suddenly becomes not a sterile “man-made” object but a thriving ecosystem of living and once-living landscapes, “an ersatz natural landscape writ small … on every single block,” a place suddenly brimming with reminders of its own impermanence:

Viewed with this lens, the city feels less artificial. The cold stone is natural, almost living: it absorbs water, warms under the sun, and sloughs its skin in rain. Like us, stone is affected by time, its outer layer softened and its veins made more prominent. And viewed as a natural landscape, the city feels less permanent: even the strongest-looking behemoth of an apartment tower is gradually deteriorating under the persistent, patient forces of wind, water, and time.

Organisms inhabiting a single cubic foot of space from One Cubic Foot by photographer David Liittschwager

From field naturalist and insects advocate Charlie Eiseman, we learn that on every square inch of surface, entire microcosms oscillate between vibrant life and violent death. (“If a driveway holds an ecosystem,” Horowitz ponders, “what of a parking lot? Perchance a universe.”) Over the next few hours, the two proceed to discover traces of just about every kind of insect — from spider egg cases to discarded fly exoskeletons — lacing the most ordinary of city blocks. What emerges is a keen awareness that the negative space of the unseen is itself a source of rich information:

Surprisingly, those leaves that have no sign, no holes, no smattering of excrement, are themselves sign of something else. They indicate that the tree is probably not from around here.

Once again, Horowitz explores what enables Eisenman’s brain to function so differently from her own and pops the cognitive hood of his singular selective attention, tracing it to the work of notable early twentieth-century bird-watcher Luunk Tinbergen:

Tinbergen noticed that songbirds did not prey on just any insect that had recently hatched in the vicinity; instead, they tended to prefer one kind of bug — say, a particular species of beetle — at a time. As the numbers of young beetles rose through a season, the birds gorged on these beetlettes, ignoring any other available young insects nearby. Tinbergen suggested that, once the birds found a food they liked, they began to look just for that food, ignoring all others. He called this a search image: a mental image of a beetle—with its characteristic beetly shape, size, and colors—with which the bird scans her environment.

This search image, it turns out, is something all of us employ when we need to narrow our attention in a goal-oriented task, like spotting a friend across the crowded street or finding the brand of salsa we went looking for amidst the overwhelmingly well-stocked shelves at Whole Foods. But this search aid, Horowitz soon realizes, is only helpful or even possible if we know what to look for, and most of us won’t have the luxury of being escorted along our familiar walks by some of the world’s most fascinating brains. Horowitz shares this “melancholy thought” with Eiseman as they conclude their walk:

Eiseman reflected for a moment, and then quoted one of his tracking teachers, Susan Morse: “Half of tracking is knowing where to look, and the other half is looking.” If you understand even the most superficial elements of the life histories of different animals — such as what kinds of things they are attracted to — once you start looking, you are going to find them everywhere. … A small bit of knowledge goes a long way when thinking about “where to look.” … Once you have an eye for these things, even when you’re not looking for them, they just jump out at you. Everything is a sign of something.

Next, from Humane Society senior wildlife scientist John Hadidian we learn that the main distinction in the city’s life is that between day and night, and a remarkable amount of wildlife floods the seemingly humdrum city streets once the sun averts its gaze — pigeons, sparrows, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons. (And, lest we forget, the bountiful “wild cats” Gay Talese so poetically described.) High above, falcons, eagles, and hawks haunt the urban skies. Down below, rats — who spend most of their waking hours preening and who use their sensitive whiskers to navigate along walls and orient themselves — run their ceaseless races. (Of the latter, Hadidian says that “from a strictly natural history perspective, they’re one of the most poorly understood animals out there.”)

We also learn that “every animal you can think of is drawn to the persimmon tree” — a useful factlet should you ever find yourself lonely in your backyard. But most humbling of all is the sudden awareness that nearly every single crack, hole, and slit between buildings is part of a vast and elaborate transit system of urban wildlife passageways, with which comes the equally humbling reminder that maybe, just maybe, we aren’t the complacent kings of our own city we go about fancying ourselves to be:

This is what makes the urban animal so elusive. He is actually attempting to elude us, and our imaginations do not seem to account for animals (aside from pets) in cities. Even our sense of scale is distorted when considering urban wildlife corridors and passageways. Remembering, perhaps, a childhood inability to scale a fence or shimmy through a gate, we find it incredible that urban animals are not thwarted by the seemingly impenetrable stone walls and chain-linked barbed-wire fencing we present to them. But the descriptions of nearly all urban animals include an impressive dimension: the size hole the animal can squeeze into, through, or out of. Raccoons, even as adults, can fit in a four-inch space between grates, flattening themselves and taking advantage of their broad, short skulls. Squirrels fit through a hole the size of a quarter; mice, through dime-sized holes. Look around you on your next walk. See any holes at all? Gaps between stair and building? Between sidewalk and curb? An animal goes there (after you have passed).

And so we return to the straitjackets of our perception, that disconnect between seeing and knowing what to look for, filtered through the uncompromising sieve of our attention — something most memorably demonstrated in the famous invisible gorilla experiment. Horowitz writes:

Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation. In a sense, expectation is the lost cousin of attention: both serve to reduce what we need to process of the world “out there.” Attention is the more charismatic member, packaged and sold more effectively, but expectation is also a crucial part of what we see. Together they allow us to be functional, reducing the sensory chaos of the world into unbothersome and understandable units.

As intriguing as the city’s non-human dwellers are, its human ones brim with a deluge of data that something as seemingly simple as observing their bodies and movement can reveal. That’s precisely what Horowitz learns from her walk with Dr. Bennett Lorber, president-elect of the country’s oldest medical institution, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia:

Simply by being outside on the street, people are inadvertently revealing their life histories in their bodies, in their steps, in the hunch of their shoulders or set of their jaw.

Indeed, we learn that a man’s gait can reveal anything from his medical pathology to his occupation to, even, his religion. (Enter another curious factlet: the average step is divided into 62% stance, meaning contact with ground, and 38% swing, meaning no contact with ground.) We also realize that the extraordinary act of walking — a miracle of motion and alignment that propels us forward despite the awkward balance of our bodies’ bipedalism, a rarity in the animal kingdom — is an exquisite metaphor for the human spirit as “one becomes aware of how many different but successful ways there are to propel oneself around one’s day.” Still, there is such a thing as an ideal walker:

Their gaits had few asymmetries, were smooth and loose, and wasted no energy doing anything but going forward. From an evolutionary perspective, efficiency is the key. Our ancestors may have been easily outrun by any potential predator — we are not a particularly fast species — but we have endurance: those proto-humans who could keep running won their lives. And they could do that if their gait was efficient.

Horowitz once again considers the difference between her brain and the experts’:

While I had a vague sense of Hmm, something’s amiss . . . , they could diagnose. It is not only the diagnosis that I valued; it is the way that knowledge orients their looking — an ability to “see what they see,” as it were.

But partway through her experiment, Horowitz is befallen by a medical curveball of her own — a herniated disk in her back paralyzes her foot and renders her barely able to walk, which presents an obvious challenge to her walking exploration of city blocks. She writes:

The street changed for me during those months, as it certainly changes for anyone who is temporarily or permanently injured, or suffers the ultimate injury of simply aging.

Still, she perseveres and brings even greater awareness to the next portion of her urban anatomy — the sensory landscape of the city. She meets Arlene Gordon, a remarkable woman who has traveled the world and shares enchanting stories of the souvenirs filling her apartment. And this is where the gift of Horowitz’s narrative comes most viscerally alive: as she talks to Gordon and notes the subtle details of her dimly lit apartment and her too-blue eyes, you the reader (or at least I, the reader), already primed for this art of observation, realize before Horowitz reveals it that Gordon is completely blind — and oh how sweetly gratifying this earned micro-mastery is, and oh what plump promise it holds for the possibility of similarly broadening our everyday awareness as we follow Horowitz’s experiment.

As the two stroll together, their walk becomes a powerful revelation:

After a handful of city walks I realized that what many of them were missing was any experience other than a visual experience. This was not terribly surprising. After all, humans are visual creatures. Our eyes have prime positioning on our faces. We have trichromatic vision, which is sufficient to paint a Technicolor, million-colored landscape of the world. Our brains’ visual areas, with hundreds of millions of neurons designed to make sense of what we see, takes up a full fifth of each of our cortices. The resplendent scene our eyes carry to us is entrancing. As a result, we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual. What we wear, where we live, where we visit, even whom we love is based in large part on appearance — visual appearance.

But the world around us is not entirely or even mostly defined by its light-reflective qualities. What of the odors of the molecules making up every object, and those loosened odors wafting in the space around us? Or the perturbations of air that we can hear as sound — and the frequencies higher or lower than we can hear? I imagined that someone who has lost her sense of sight could lead me, however superficially, into the invisible block that I miss with my wide open eyes.

And lead she does: Gordon navigates swiftly along the sidewalk, masterfully using her cane — a sort of sensory extension of herself and the “peripersonal space,” that bubble of space defined by our bodies and their immediate surroundings — and Horowitz marvels at our brains’ magnificent plasticity, the same adaptability behind the “limbic revision” of love.

Our brains are changed by experience — in a way directly related to the details of that experience. If we have enough experience doing an action, viewing a scene, or smelling an odor to become an “expert” in a field, then our brains are functionally — and visibly — different from nonexperts.

And yet:

The brain is plastic, and can creatively adapt to a new situation, but it changes right back when it no longer needs to be creative.

From the walk with Gordon, we learn about the physics of wind, which moves according to the Bernoulli principle and the Venturi effect, creating a whole new layer of aerial flux over the city’s landscape:

Winds over the rivers flanking Manhattan Island speed down side streets on land. … Tall buildings create other wind effects: winds that hit high on a building rush down its face, sometimes creating enough pressure to make passage in and out of the doorway difficult. Sheer glass towers can pull air not just down, but also up from below (the Bernoulli principle) — as well as lift any skirts being worn in the vicinity.

But most poignant of all are Gordon’s parting words, emblematic of the book’s broader underpinning message:

In front of her building she turned to shake my hand. “Nice to see you,” she said. And then, as if noticing my smile in response, she added: “There’s someone in my building who asked me, ‘How come you use that word, “see?” How can you say “I see it”?’ Well, I do see it. I said, ‘see’ has many definitions.”

Next, from sound designer and vocal engineer Scott Lehrer we learn that the urban soundscape is often a violent cacophony on which Dickens and Babbage were right to wage war, and our ability to tune it out is among the most fascinating manifestations of our selective attention — though our ears are always open, we only attend to a fraction of what is audible, and even to that we append our intellectual interpretations:

Simply giving a name to a sound can change the experience of it: when we see the thing that clatters or moans or sighs, we hear it differently.

(In fact, Horowitz herself employs, perhaps unwittingly, this emotional soundscape in a previous chapter: limping awkwardly and painfully with her paralyzed leg to meet Gordon, she encounters a door that “sighs” open for her.)

But with Lehrer she sets out to “to listen to the sounds in and of themselves, to hear beyond their names.” She learns that the tires of a car sound different when it rains and that sounds can reverberate with various levels of “wetness” in different spaces, depending on the size of the space, the objects filling it, and the distance of the sound source from the walls. She learns how the fact that even temperature alters sound perception explains why birds sing at dusk and dawn. She then ponders the man-made distinction between “sound” and “noise” as she considers legendary avant-garde composer John Cage’s legacy:

What makes that “noise” and not just neutral “sound” is another question. The avant-garde composer John Cage famously declared that “music is sounds,” and thus appropriated ordinary sounds to be his music. In one of his compositions, the orchestra is silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds; whatever sounds come in through the window of the concert hall or emerge from the increasingly restless and puzzled audience constitute his music. Still, if Cage was right, it need not follow that all sounds are music(al). Any sound we do not like we call noise, thereby introducing a subjective assessment to the din. That subjectivity is always there in talking about noise.

But Horowitz finds a certain reassurance in the relativity of noise as she realizes that sound resonates with what we bring to it and our experience of the city’s soundscape can change dramatically with exposure. (Cue in E. B. White, who embraced the hustle-and-bustle of New York’ with such memorable poeticism.) But one of her most chilling realizations has to do with the biology of our ear — itself a magnificent machine — and violent ways in which the city assaults it daily:

Decibels are the subjective experience of the intensity of a sound. Zero decibels marks the threshold for hearing a sound—and in a modern city, there is never a moment of zero decibel silence. We mostly reside in the 60–80 decibel range, which includes sounds from normal conversation across the dinner table, vacuum cleaners, and traffic noise. Once a sound gets to 85 decibels, it begins to damage the mechanism of our ears irreparably. The reason lies in the mechanism itself.

Cilia, tiny hair cells that stand upright in the cochlea, sway and jiggle when the vibration of air—the rush of air that is sound — wends its way into the inner ear. So stimulated, the cilia trigger nerves to fire, translating that vibration into electrical signals that give us the experience of hearing something. If those vibrations are strong enough, the hair cells bend deeply under their force. Air pressure can mow, crush, or sever the hairs until they are splayed, fused, floppy, or fractured — an earful of well-trodden grass. Bent and damaged enough because of exposure to loud sounds for prolonged periods, the hair cells do not grow back; the ears lose their neural downiness. The world becomes progressively quieter for the person attached to those ears, until there are no sounds, no music, no noise.

Cities are crowded with sources of sound regularly approaching this threshold of hearing loss. … Enormous numbers of man-made sounds occur in those same frequencies. We often find high pure tones the most irritating: the screech of a subway turning a tight corner or braking, at 3,000 or 4,000 hertz, or the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, between 2,000 and 4,000 hertz. These sounds clobber us because of the shape of the human ear, which allows high frequencies to find their way efficiently to the cochlea. The very design of the ear amplifies these vibrations for waiting hair cells. But it is not just our ears that find the sound distressing; it is our brains. If we know that we are hearing what we have already deemed an “annoying sound,” our bodies react to it as though it is: we have a sympathetic nervous system response, usually reserved for final exams, suddenly appearing lions, and the sight of our beloved. We sweat, and then we notice that we are sweating, and we sweat some more.

From Christoph Niemann’s Abstract City: “To describe different phenomena, physicists use various units. PASCALS, for example, measure the pressure applied to a certain area. COULOMBS measure electric charge (that can occur if said area is a synthetic carpet). DECIBELS measure the intensity of the trouble the physicist gets into because he didn’t take off his shoes first.”

And still, her walk with Lehrer yields a celebration rather than a lament of the city’s sounds — an invitation to know and love the city in yet another dimension:

What I heard had morphed from noxious urban noise into being the characteristic, flavorful clatter of my city. I enjoyed the roar of traffic and the buzz of flies; I looked at pigeons hoping they would coo; I stared down passersby, silently egging them on to hum or cough. I counted squeals and squeaks and squawks and measured them against whines and whistles. Each sound felt invited, a pleasure.

Horowitz’s final walking companion is — fittingly, given the original inspiration for the project — her new dog, the playfully curious Finnegan. (That a cognitive scientist would name her dog with a nod to James Joyce is only further evidence of Horowitz’s remarkably well-rounded mind.) And if you thought the human ear was a marvel, just wait for the dog’s nose:

The inside of the nose is a labyrinth of tunnels lined with specialized olfactory receptors waiting for an odorant molecule — a smell — to land on them. In the back of the nose is an “olfactory recess” separated from the main respiratory pathway by a bony plate, allowing smelling to be distinct from breathing, and letting odors loiter for a long time to be considered. Though we tend to think that only some things are smelly — a spring bloom, a trash can, a new car, a bus’s exhaust — just about everything has a scent. Anything with molecules that can be “volatile,” that can evaporate into the air and travel toward a receptor in someone’s nose, smells.

The dog nose has hundreds of millions of receptors in that nose; they even have a second kind of nose above the hard palate of their mouth, called a vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ. Molecules such as hormones that do not stir the receptors of the nose to fire may find a rousing welcome here. All animals house hormones, which are involved in bodily and brain activities, and those hormones we emit, called pheromones, are detected by the vomeronasal organ. This is how a dog could detect another dog’s stress or sexual readiness in a spray of her urine left on the ground.

Dogs are called macrosmatic, or keen-scented, while humans are called microsmatic, or feeble-scented.

Drawing by Wendy MacNaughton based on a proposed (and, sadly, rejected) cover for a Print magazine issue themed Communication.

How humbling it is and how hard to maintain the typical human god-complex when the layman language describing our natural givens contains the word “feeble.” In fact, our feebleness is not due to software but to hardware — it’s not that we don’t know how to use our noses like a dog does, it’s that we lack the dog’s extravagant number of cells to detect and decode smells, which they’re able to do at the unimaginably low concentration of one or two parts per trillion. (As Horowitz puts it, “One part mustard, one trillion parts hot dog: dogs can detect the mustard.”) Even more remarkably, a dog’s nose is wired to detect the half-life of smells, with each noseful of the “same” smell delivering different information — a sort of stereo olfaction that gives them astounding precision in tracing where the smell has come from and where its carrier has gone next. Horowitz reflects:

To see a scene is not to stare fixedly at one point; it is to open our eyes to everything in front of us, looking to and fro. Similarly, to smell a scene, Finn approached it from the side, from above, sniffing the air to see if the artist who concocted this particular odor splotch was anywhere nearby. A dog can smell something different in each noseful — and there is something different there to smell. This taught me something about smells: they are not at fixed points, nor are they static and unchanging. They are a haze, a cloud, spreading out from their source. Viewed as odors, the street is a mishmash of overlapping object identities, each crowding into the next’s odorous scene.

After her olfactory adventure with Finn, Horowitz takes one final walk by herself as she attempts to implement all her new learnings in experiencing her city block with new layers of awareness. And she does:

A simple walk had become unrecognizably richer. … Part of seeing what is on an ordinary block is seeing that everything visible has a history. It arrived at the spot where you found it at some time, was crafted or whittled or forged at some time, filled a certain role or existed for a particular function. It was touched by someone (or no one), and touches someone (or no one) now. It is evidence.

The other part of seeing what is on the block is appreciating how limited our own view is. We are limited by our sensory abilities, by our species membership, by our narrow attention — at least the last of which can be overcome.

But the greatest learning is that our ability to see is a factor of two complementary forces — attention and intention — as the choices we make in what we attend to shape our entire experience of reality. And expertise is nothing but the carefully orchestrated osmotic balance of the two:

What allowed me to see the bits that I would have otherwise missed was not the expertise of my walkers, per se; it was their simple interest in attending. I selected these walkers for their ability to boost my own selective attention. An expert can only indicate what she sees; it is up to your own head to tune your senses and your brain to see it. Once you catch that melody, and keep humming, you are forever changed.

Indeed, one of Horowitz’s most piercing insights arrives during her walk with Paul Shaw:

One trouble with being human — with the human condition — is that, as with many conditions, you cannot turn it off. Even as we develop from relatively immobile, helpless infants into mobile, autonomous adults, we are more and more constrained by the ways we learn to see the world.

But the greatest promise of On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes — which, it can’t be stressed enough, is a rare and necessary soul-expander for any city-dweller — appears as a poetic aside Horowitz drops during her walk with the geologist:

Follow me here: your brain will begin to change as you do.

She notes that he “can never walk down a block and not see its geology.” And that’s precisely the point: The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen — a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.

BP

Favorite Books of 2018

The anatomy of feeling, the science of psychedelics, Ursula K. Le Guin’s final poetry collection, arresting essays by Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Anne Lamott, and Audre Lorde, a physicist’s lyrical meditation on science and spirituality, and more.

I treat my annual best-of reading lists as Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which frame aspirational priorities for the new year, they present a record of the reading that merited priority over the year past. In consequence, they are invariably subjective and incomplete — a shelf’s worth of books that I, one person, read and enjoyed in the time given, with the sensibility I have. Since this year I finished writing one book and putting together another, my reading time for new releases has been especially limited, which means these annual selections are especially subjective — no doubt I missed a great many worthy and wonderful books. But of those I did read, here — in excerpts from the pieces I originally wrote about them earlier in the year — are the ones I loved with all my heart and mind:

SO FAR SO GOOD

In November of 2014, the wise and wonderful Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) — one of the great losses of 2018 — accepted the National Book Award with a stunning speech that quickly became our era’s supreme manifesto for protecting the art of the written word from the assault of the market. In consonance with her conviction, Le Guin sent the manuscript of her final poetry collection to an independent nonprofit poetry publisher, Copper Canyon Press, who turned directly to her readers to bring it to life. And oh how alive So Far So Good (public library) is — a sort of existential atlas, traversing bordering territories of mediations, incantations, and divinations on subjects like time, impermanence, and the splendors of uncertainty. Undergirding the verses is Le Guin’s largehearted generosity of spirit — toward the reader, toward nature and reality, toward the intertwined natures of life and art.

One of the loveliest poems in the book serenades a theme recurring throughout Le Guin’s body of work as her central poetic preoccupation and an animating force of her philosophical fiction: time.

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME
Ursula K. Le Guin

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

FEEL FREE

In the superb essay collection Feel Free (public library), Zadie Smith applies her symphonic mind to subjects as varied as music, what writers can learn from dancers, climate change, Brexit, the nature of joy, and the confusions of personhood in the age of social media.

In one of the most arresting essays, titled “On Optimism and Despair,” Smith takes on an eternal question that has bared its sharpest edges in our cultural moment — the question John Steinbeck tussled with when he wrote to his best friend at the peak of WWII: “All the goodness and the heroisms will rise up again, then be cut down again and rise up. It isn’t that the evil thing wins — it never will — but that it doesn’t die.”

Caught in the maelstrom of the moment, we forget this cyclical nature of history — history being, as I wrote in Figuring, not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance. We forget that the present always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside — something James Baldwin knew when, in considering why Shakespeare endures, he observed: “It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it — no time can be easy if one is living through it.” We forget that our particular moment, with all its tribulations and triumphs, is not neatly islanded in the river of time but swept afloat by massive cultural currents that have raged long before it and will rage long after.

Zadie Smith (Photograph by Dominique Nabokov)

Two days after the 2016 American presidential election, Smith — a black Englishwoman living in the freshly sundered United States — was invited to give a speech upon receiving a literary award in Germany. Traveling from a country on the brink of one catastrophic political regime to a country that has survived another, Smith took the opportunity to unmoor the despair of the present from the shallow waters of the cultural moment and cast it into the oceanic context of humanity’s pasts, aswirl with examples and counterexamples of progress, with ideals attained and shattered, with abiding assurance that we shape tomorrow by how we navigate our parallel potentialities for moral ruin and moral redemption today.

Nearly half a century after the German humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm asserted that “optimism is an alienated form of faith, pessimism an alienated form of despair” and a turn of the cycle after Rebecca Solnit contemplated our grounds for hope in dark times, Smith addresses a question frequently posed before her — why her earlier novels are aglow with optimism, while her later writing “tinged with despair” — a question implying that the arc of her body of work inclines toward an admission of the failure of its central animating forces: diversity, multiculturalism, the polyphony of perspectives. With an eye to “what the ancient Greeks did to each other, and the Romans, and the seventeenth-century British, and the nineteenth-century Americans,” Smith offers a corrective that stretches the ahistorical arc of that assumption:

My best friend during my youth — now my husband — is himself from Northern Ireland, an area where people who look absolutely identical to each other, eat the same food, pray to the same God, read the same holy book, wear the same clothes and celebrate the same holidays have yet spent four hundred years at war over a relatively minor doctrinal difference they later allowed to morph into an all-encompassing argument over land, government and national identity. Racial homogeneity is no guarantor of peace, any more than racial heterogeneity is fated to fail.

Photograph by Maria Popova

Speaking from the German stage, Smith recounts visiting the country during her first European book tour in her early twenties, traveling with her father, who had been there in 1945 as a young soldier in the reconstruction:

We made a funny pair on that tour, I’m sure: a young black girl and her elderly white father, clutching our guidebooks and seeking those spots in Berlin that my father had visited almost fifty years earlier. It is from him that I have inherited both my optimism and my despair, for he had been among the liberators at Belsen and therefore seen the worst this world has to offer, but had, from there, gone forward, with a sufficiently open heart and mind, striding into one failed marriage and then another, marrying both times across various lines of class, color and temperament, and yet still found in life reasons to be cheerful, reasons even for joy.

[…]

He was a member of the white working class, a man often afflicted by despair who still managed to retain a core optimism. Perhaps in a different time under different cultural influences living in a different society he would have become one of the rabid old angry white men of whom the present left is so afeared. As it was, born in 1925 and dying in 2006, he saw his children benefit from the civilized postwar protections of free education and free health care, and felt he had many reasons to be grateful.

This is the world I knew. Things have changed, but history is not erased by change, and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us, opportunities to remake, for a new generation, the conditions from which we ourselves have benefited… Progress is never permanent, will always be threatened, must be redoubled, restated and reimagined if it is to survive.

Continue reading here.

SEARCHING FOR STARS ON AN ISLAND IN MAINE

“Every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she contemplated science, spirituality, and our conquest of truth. A century later, Carl Sagan tussled with the same question shortly before his death: “The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

It is, of course, an abiding question, as old as consciousness — we are material creatures that live in a material universe, yet we are capable of experiences that transcend what we can atomize into physical facts: love, joy, the full-being gladness of a Beethoven symphony on a midsummer’s night.

The Nobel-winning physicist Niels Bohr articulated the basic paradox of living with and within such a duality: “The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”

Nearly a century after Bohr, the physicist and writer Alan Lightman takes us further, beyond these limiting dichotomies, in Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine (public library) — a lyrical and illuminating inquiry into our dual impulse for belief in the unprovable and for trust in truth affirmed by physical evidence. Through the lens of his personal experience as a working scientist and a human being with uncommon receptivity to the poetic dimensions of life, Lightman traces our longing for absolutes in a relative world from Galileo to Van Gogh, from Descartes to Dickinson, emerging with that rare miracle of insight at the meeting point of the lucid and the luminous.

Art by Derek Dominic D’souza from Song of Two Worlds by Alan Lightman

Lightman, who has previously written beautifully about his transcendent experience facing a young osprey, relays a parallel experience he had one summer night on an island off the coast of Maine, where he and his wife have been going for a quarter century. On this small, remote speck of land, severed from the mainland without ferries or bridges, each of the six families has had to learn to cross the ocean by small boat — a task particularly challenging at night. Lightman recounts the unbidden revelation of one such nocturnal crossing:

No one was out on the water but me. It was a moonless night, and quiet. The only sound I could hear was the soft churning of the engine of my boat. Far from the distracting lights of the mainland, the sky vibrated with stars. Taking a chance, I turned off my running lights, and it got even darker. Then I turned off my engine. I lay down in the boat and looked up. A very dark night sky seen from the ocean is a mystical experience. After a few minutes, my world had dissolved into that star-littered sky. The boat disappeared. My body disappeared. And I found myself falling into infinity. A feeling came over me I’d not experienced before… I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars, as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time — extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute. After a time, I sat up and started the engine again. I had no idea how long I’d been lying there looking up.

One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s pioneering 19th-century astronomical drawings.

Lightman — the first professor at MIT to receive a dual faculty appointment in science and the humanities — syncopates this numinous experience with the reality of his lifelong devotion to science:

I have worked as a physicist for many years, and I have always held a purely scientific view of the world. By that, I mean that the universe is made of material and nothing more, that the universe is governed exclusively by a small number of fundamental forces and laws, and that all composite things in the world, including humans and stars, eventually disintegrate and return to their component parts. Even at the age of twelve or thirteen, I was impressed by the logic and materiality of the world. I built my own laboratory and stocked it with test tubes and petri dishes, Bunsen burners, resistors and capacitors, coils of electrical wire. Among other projects, I began making pendulums by tying a fishing weight to the end of a string. I’d read in Popular Science or some similar magazine that the time for a pendulum to make a complete swing was proportional to the square root of the length of the string. With the help of a stopwatch and ruler, I verified this wonderful law. Logic and pattern. Cause and effect. As far as I could tell, everything was subject to numerical analysis and quantitative test. I saw no reason to believe in God, or in any other unprovable hypotheses.

Yet after my experience in that boat many years later… I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes — ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred. At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, I remained a scientist. I remained committed to the material world.

Against our human finitude, temporality, and imperfection, these “Absolutes” offer infinity, eternity, perfection. Lightman defines them as concepts and beliefs that “refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives” — notions like constancy, immortality, permanence, the soul, “God”; notions unprovable by the scientific method. Conversely, however, notions that belong to this realm of Absolutes fall apart when they make claims in the realm of science — claims disproven by the facts of the material world. With an eye to how the discoveries of modern science — from heliocentricity to evolution to the chemical composition of the universe — have challenged many of these Absolutes, Lightman writes:

Nothing in the physical world seems to be constant or permanent. Stars burn out. Atoms disintegrate. Species evolve. Motion is relative. Even other universes might exist, many without life. Unity has given way to multiplicity. I say that the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.

Generations after Henry Miller insisted that “it is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Lightman adds:

From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.

[…]

On the one hand, such an onslaught of discovery presents a cause for celebration… Is it not a testament to our minds that we little human beings with our limited sensory apparatus and brief lifespans, stuck on our one planet in space, have been able to uncover so much of the workings of nature? On the other hand, we have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller “strings” of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls. Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still. If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.

Continue reading here.

HOW TO BE A GOOD CREATURE

“To be a good human being,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum observed, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control” — to have, that is, a willingness to regard with an openhearted curiosity what is other than ourselves and therefore strange, discomfiting, difficult to fathom and relate to, difficult at first to love, for we cannot love what we do not understand. Out of such regard arises the awareness at the heart of Lucille Clifton’s lovely poem “cutting greens” — a recognition of “the bond of live things everywhere,” among which we are only a small part of a vast and miraculous world, and from which we can learn a great deal about being better versions of ourselves.

That is what naturalist and author Sy Montgomery, one of the most poetic science writers of our time, explores in How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals (public library), illustrated by artist Rebecca Green — an autobiographical adventure into the wilderness of our common humanity, where the world of science and the legacy of Aesop converge into an existential expedition to uncover the elemental truth that “knowing someone who belongs to another species can enlarge your soul in surprising ways.”

Looking back on her unusual and passionate life of swimming with electric eels, digging for mistletoe seeds in emu droppings, and communing with giant octopuses, Montgomery reflects on what she learned about leadership from an emu, about ferocity and forgiveness from an ermine, about living with a sense of wholeness despite imperfection from a one-eyed dog named Thurber (after the great New Yorker cartoonist and essayist James Thurber, who was blinded in one eye by an arrow as a child), and about what it takes for the heart to be “stretched wide with awe.”

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

At the New England Aquarium, Montgomery gets to know one of Earth’s most alien creatures — the subject of her exquisite book The Soul of an Octopus. She writes:

Reading an octopus’s intentions is not like reading, for instance, a dog’s. I could read [my dog] Sally’s feelings in a glance, even if the only part of her I could see was her tail, or one ear. But Sally was family, and in more than one sense. Dogs, like all placental mammals, share 90 percent of our genetic material. Dogs evolved with humans. Octavia and I were separated by half a billion years of evolution. We were as different as land from sea. Was it even possible for a human to understand the emotions of a creature as different from us as an octopus?

Illustration by Rebecca Green from How to Be a Good Creature by Sy Montgomery.

As Octavia slowly allows this improbable and almost miraculous cross-species creaturely connection, Montgomery reflects on the insight attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus — “The universe is alive, and has fire in it, and is full of gods.” — and writes:

Being friends with an octopus — whatever that friendship meant to her — has shown me that our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.

Continue reading here.

A BURST OF LIGHT

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear,” Toni Morrison exhorted in considering the artist’s task in troubled times. In our interior experience as individuals, as in the public forum of our shared experience as a culture, our courage lives in the same room as our fear — it is in troubled times, in despairing times, that we find out who we are and what we are capable of.

That is what the great poet, essayist, feminist, and civil rights champion Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934–November 17, 1992) explores with exquisite self-possession and might of character in a series of diary entries included in A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (public library).

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde

Seventeen days before she turned fifty, and six years after she underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer, Lorde was told she had liver cancer. She declined surgery and even a biopsy, choosing instead to go on living her life and her purpose, exploring alternative treatments as she proceeded with her planned teaching trip to Europe. In a diary entry penned on her fiftieth birthday, Lorde reckons with the sudden call to confront the ultimate fear:

I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.

“Not every man knows what he shall sing at the end,” the poet Mark Strand, born within weeks of Lorde, wrote in his stunning ode to mortality. Exactly a month after her diagnosis, with the medical establishment providing more confusion than clarity as she confronts her mortality, Lorde resolves in her journal:

Dear goddess! Face-up again against the renewal of vows. Do not let me die a coward, mother. Nor forget how to sing. Nor forget song is a part of mourning as light is a part of sun.

By the spring, she had lost nearly fifty pounds. But she was brimming with a crystalline determination to do the work of visibility and kinship across difference. She taught in Germany, immersed herself in the international communities of the African Diaspora, and traveled to the world’s first Feminist Book Fair in London. “I may be too thin, but I can still dance!” she exults in her diary on the first day of June. She dances with her fear in an entry penned six days later:

I am listening to what fear teaches. I will never be gone. I am a scar, a report from the frontlines, a talisman, a resurrection. A rough place on the chin of complacency.

Continue reading here.

CALL THEM BY THEIR TRUE NAMES

“Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in reflecting on what her Native American tradition and her training as a scientist taught her about how naming confers dignity upon life. If to name is to see and reveal — to remove the veil of blindness, willful or manipulated, and expose things as they really are — then it is in turn another step in remaking the world, another form of resistance to the damaging dominant narratives that go unquestioned. Walt Whitman knew this when he contemplated our greatest civic might: “I can conceive of no better service… than boldly exposing the weakness, liabilities and infinite corruptions of democracy.”

A century and a half after Whitman, Rebecca Solnit — one of our own era’s boldest public defenders of democracy, and one of the most poetic — explores this crucial causal link between the stories we tell and the world we build in Call Them by Their True Names (public library) — a collection of her essays at the nexus of politics, philosophy, and the selective record of personal and political choices we call history. Composed in response to more than a decade’s worth of cultural crises and triumphs, the pieces in the book furnish an extraordinarily lucid yet hopeful lens on the present and a boldly uncynical telescopic perspective on the future.

Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)
Rebecca Solnit (Photograph: Sallie Dean Shatz)

Solnit writes in the preface:

One of the folktale archetypes, according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of these stories, tells of how “a mysterious or threatening helper is defeated when the hero or heroine discovers his name.” In the deep past, people knew names had power. Some still do. Calling things by their true names cuts through the lies that excuse, buffer, muddle, disguise, avoid, or encourage inaction, indifference, obliviousness. It’s not all there is to changing the world, but it’s a key step.

When the subject is grim, I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you’re facing, you’re far better equipped to know what you can do about it. Research, support, and effective treatment, as well as possibly redefining the disease and what it means, can proceed from this first step. Once you name a disorder, you may be able to connect to the community afflicted with it, or build one. And sometimes what’s diagnosed can be cured.

That, indeed, is what the philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton celebrated in his beautiful fan letter to Rachel Carson after she catalyzed the modern environmental movement by speaking inconvenient truth to power in exposing the truth about pesticides, marketed at the time as harmless helpers to humanity — an act Merton considered “contributing a most valuable and essential piece of evidence for the diagnosis of the ills of our civilization.” Such naming of wrongs, betrayals, and corruptions unweaves the very fabric of the status quo. It is, Solnit argues, “the first step in the process of liberation” and often leads to shifts in the power system itself. In the age of “alternative facts,” when language is used as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, her words reverberate with the irrepressible, unsilenceable urgency of truth:

To name something truly is to lay bare what may be brutal or corrupt — or important or possible — and key to the work of changing the world is changing the story.

Continue reading here.

HIKING WITH NIETZSCHE

Chance and choice converge to make us who we are, and although we may mistake chance for choice, our choices are the cobblestones, hard and uneven, that pave our destiny. They are ultimately all we can answer for and point to in the architecture of our character. Joan Didion captured this with searing lucidity in defining character as “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life” and locating in that willingness the root of self-respect.

A century before Didion, Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900) composed the score for harmonizing our choices and our contentment with the life they garner us. Nietzsche, who greatly admired Emerson’s ethos of nonconformity and self-reliant individualism, wrote fervently, almost frenetically, about how to find yourself and what it means to be a free spirit. He saw the process of becoming oneself as governed by the willingness to own one’s choices and their consequences — a difficult willingness, yet one that promises the antidote to existential hopelessness, complacency, and anguish.

Friedrich Nietzsche

The legacy of that deceptively simple yet profound proposition is what philosopher John J. Kaag explores in Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are (public library) — part masterwork of poetic scholarship, part contemplative memoir concerned with the most fundamental question of human life: What gives our existence meaning?

The answer, Kaag suggests in drawing on Nietzsche’s most timeless ideas, challenges our ordinary understanding of selfhood and its cascading implications for happiness, fulfillment, and the building blocks of existential contentment. He writes:

The self is not a hermetically sealed, unitary actor (Nietzsche knew this well), but its flourishing depends on two things: first, that it can choose its own way to the greatest extent possible, and then, when it fails, that it can embrace the fate that befalls it.

At the center of Nietzsche’s philosophy is the idea of eternal return — the ultimate embrace of responsibility that comes from accepting the consequences, good or bad, of one’s willful action. Embedded in it is an urgent exhortation to calibrate our actions in such a way as to make their consequences bearable, livable with, in a hypothetical perpetuity. Nietzsche illustrates the concept with a simple, stirring thought experiment in his final book, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence — even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself…”

Continue reading here.

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND

“Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that,” cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz wrote in her inquiry into how our conditioned way of looking narrows the lens of our perception. Attention, after all, is the handmaiden of consciousness, and consciousness the central fact and the central mystery of our creaturely experience. From the days of Plato’s cave to the birth of neuroscience, we have endeavored to fathom its nature. But it is a mystery that only seems to deepen with each increment of approach. “Our normal waking consciousness,” William James wrote in his landmark 1902 treatise on spirituality, “is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different… No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

Half a century after James, two new molecules punctured the filmy screen to unlatch a portal to a wholly novel universe of consciousness, shaking up our most elemental assumptions about the nature of the mind, our orientation toward mortality, and the foundations of our social, political, and cultural constructs. One of these molecules — lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD — was a triumph of twentieth-century science, somewhat accidentally synthesized by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the year physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. The other — the compound psilocin, known among the Aztecs as “flesh of the gods” — was the rediscovery of a substance produced by a humble brown mushroom, which indigenous cultures across eras and civilizations had been incorporating into their spiritual rituals since ancient times, and which the Roman Catholic Church had violently suppressed and buried during the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

Together, these two molecules commenced the psychedelic revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, frothing the stream of consciousness — a term James coined — into a turbulent existential rapids. Their proselytes included artists, scientists, political leaders, and ordinary people of all stripes. Their most ardent champions were the psychiatrists and physicians who lauded them as miracle drugs for salving psychic maladies as wide-ranging as anxiety, addiction, and clinical depression. Their cultural consequence was likened to that of the era’s other cataclysmic disruptor: the atomic bomb.

And then — much thanks to Timothy Leary’s reckless handling of his Harvard psilocybin studies that landed him in prison, where Carl Sagan sent him cosmic poetry — a landslide of moral panic and political backlash outlawed psychedelics, shut down clinical studies of their medical and psychiatric uses, and drove them into the underground. For decades, academic research into their potential for human flourishing languished and nearly perished. But a small subset of scientists, psychiatrists, and amateur explorers refused to relinquish their curiosity about that potential.

The 1990s brought a quiet groundswell of second-wave interest in psychedelics — a resurgence that culminated with a 2006 paper reporting on studies at Johns Hopkins, which had found that psilocybin had occasioned “mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and significance” for terminally ill cancer patients — experiences from which they “return with a new perspective and profound acceptance.” In other words, the humble mushroom compound had helped people face the ultimate frontier of existence — their own mortality — with unparalleled equanimity. The basis of the experience, researchers found, was a sense of the dissolution of the personal ego, followed by a sense of becoming one with the universe — a notion strikingly similar to Bertrand Russell’s insistence that a fulfilling life and a rewarding old age are a matter of “[making] your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.”

More clinical experiments followed at UCLA, NYU, and other leading universities, demonstrating that this psilocybin-induced dissolution of the ego, extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in our ordinary consciousness, has profound benefits in rewiring the faulty mental mechanisms responsible for disorders like alcoholism, anxiety, and depression.

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

This renaissance of psychedelics, with its broad implications for understanding consciousness and the connection between brain and mind, treating mental illness, and recalibrating our relationship with the finitude of our existence, is what Michael Pollan explores in the revelatory How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence (public library). With an eye to this renaissance and the scientists using brain-imaging technology to investigate how psychedelics may illuminate consciousness, Pollan writes:

One good way to understand a complex system is to disturb it and then see what happens. By smashing atoms, a particle accelerator forces them to yield their secrets. By administering psychedelics in carefully calibrated doses, neuroscientists can profoundly disturb the normal waking consciousness of volunteers, dissolving the structures of the self and occasioning what can be described as a mystical experience. While this is happening, imaging tools can observe the changes in the brain’s activity and patterns of connection. Already this work is yielding surprising insights into the “neural correlates” of the sense of self and spiritual experience.

Pollan examines the psilocybin studies of cancer patients, which reignited scientific interest in psychedelics, and the profound results of subsequent studies exploring the use of psychedelics in treating mental illness, including addiction, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder. He approaches his subject as a science writer and a skeptic endowed with equal parts rigorous critical thinking and openminded curiosity. In a sentiment evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s elegant braiding of the numinous and the scientific, he echoes Carl Sagan’s views on the mystery of reality and examines his own lens:

My default perspective is that of the philosophical materialist, who believes that matter is the fundamental substance of the world and the physical laws it obeys should be able to explain everything that happens. I start from the assumption that nature is all that there is and gravitate toward scientific explanations of phenomena. That said, I’m also sensitive to the limitations of the scientific-materialist perspective and believe that nature (including the human mind) still holds deep mysteries toward which science can sometimes seem arrogant and unjustifiably dismissive.

Was it possible that a single psychedelic experience — something that turned on nothing more than the ingestion of a pill or square of blotter paper — could put a big dent in such a worldview? Shift how one thought about mortality? Actually change one’s mind in enduring ways?

The idea took hold of me. It was a little like being shown a door in a familiar room — the room of your own mind — that you had somehow never noticed before and being told by people you trusted (scientists!) that a whole other way of thinking — of being! — lay waiting on the other side. All you had to do was turn the knob and enter. Who wouldn’t be curious? I might not have been looking to change my life, but the idea of learning something new about it, and of shining a fresh light on this old world, began to occupy my thoughts. Maybe there was something missing from my life, something I just hadn’t named.

Continue reading here.

ALMOST EVERYTHING: NOTES ON HOPE

We go through life seeing reality not as it really is, in its unfathomable depths of complexity and contradiction, but as we hope or fear or expect it to be. Too often, we confuse certainty for truth and the strength of our beliefs for the strength of the evidence. When we collide with the unexpected, with the antipode to our hopes, we are plunged into bewildered despair. We rise from the pit only by love. Perhaps Keats had it slightly wrong — perhaps truth is love and love is truth.

That is what Anne Lamott, one of the rare sages of our time, reminds us with equal parts humility, humor, and largehearted wisdom in Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library).

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes in the prelude:

In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death or rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.

She turns to the greatest paradox of the human heart — our parallel capacities for the perpendiculars of immense love and immense despair:

Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.

So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks?

We just do.

To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.

Illustration by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

And yet, in the wreckage of this hardship, we find our most redemptive potentialities:

There is the absolute hopelessness we face that everyone we love will die, even our newborn granddaughter, even as we trust and know that love will give rise to growth, miracles, and resurrection. Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope. Yet no matter how much we recycle, believe in our Priuses, and abide by our local laws, we see that our beauty is being destroyed, crushed by greed and cruel stupidity. And we also see love and tender hearts carry the day. Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.

In a sentiment that calls to mind what psychologists call “the vampire problem” — the limiting loop by which we fail to imagine transformation because the very faculty doing the imagining can only be informed by the already transformed self — Lamott adds:

We can change. People say we can’t, but we do when the stakes or the pain is high enough. And when we do, life can change. It offers more of itself when we agree to give up our busyness.

Continue reading here, then here.

LITTLE PANIC

“Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Alan Watts wrote in the early 1950s, nearly a quarter century before Thomas Nagel’s landmark essay “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” unlatched the study of other consciousnesses and seeded the disorienting awareness that other beings — “beings who walk other spheres,” to borrow Whitman’s wonderful term — experience this world we share in ways thoroughly alien to our own.

Today, we know that we need not step across the boundary of species to encounter such alien-seeming ways of inhabiting the world. There are innumerable ways of being human — we each experience life and reality in radically different ways merely by our way of seeing, but these differences are accentuated to an extreme when mental illness alters the elemental interiority of a consciousness. In these extreme cases, it can become impossible for even the most empathic imagination to grasp — not only cerebrally but with an embodied understanding — the slippery reality of an anguished consciousness so different from one’s own. Conversely, it can become impossible for those who share that anguish to articulate it, effecting an overwhelming sense of alienation and the false conviction that one is alone in one’s suffering. To convey that reality to those unbedeviled by such mental anguish, and to wrap language around its ineffable interiority for others who suffer silently from the same, is therefore a creative feat and existential service of the highest caliber.

That is what author, Happy Ending Music & Reading Series host, and my dear friend Amanda Stern accomplishes in Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life (public library) — part-memoir and part-portrait of a cruelly egalitarian affliction that cuts across all borders of age, gender, race, and class, clutching one’s entire reality and sense of self in a stranglehold that squeezes life out. What emerges is a sort of literary laboratory of consciousness, anatomizing an all-consuming yet elusive feeling-pattern to explore what it takes to break the tyranny of worry and what it means to feel at home in oneself.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Part of the splendor of the book is the way Stern unspools the thread of being to the very beginning, all the way to the small child predating conscious memory. In consonance with Maurice Sendak, who so passionately believed that a centerpiece of healthy adulthood is “having your child self intact and alive and something to be proud of,” the child-Amanda emerges from the pages alive and real to articulate in that simple, profound way only children have what the yet-undiagnosed acute anxiety disorder actually feels like from the inside:

Whenever I am afraid, worry sounds itself as sixty, seventy, radio channels playing at the same time inside my head. Refrains loop around and around my brain like fast jabber and I cannot get any of it to stop. I know there is something wrong with me, but no one knows how to fix me. Not anyone outside my body, and definitely not me. Eddie [Stern’s older brother] says a body is blood and bones and skin, and when everything falls off you’re a skeleton, but I am air pressure and tingly dots; energy and everything. I am air and nothing.

[…]

My breath flips on its side, horizontal and too wide to go through my lungs.

The grave paradox of mental illness and mental health is that, despite what we now know about how profoundly our emotions affect our physical wellbeing, these terms sever the head from the body — the physical body and the emotional body. A century after William James proclaimed that “a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” Stern offers a powerful corrective for our ongoing cultural Cartesianism. Her vivid prose, pulsating with a life in language, invites the reader into the interiority of a deeply embodied mind that experiences and comprehends the world somatically. “I was born with a basketball net slung over my top ribs, where the world dunks its balls of dread,” she writes as she channels her young self’s budding awareness that something is terribly, fundamentally wrong with her:

I am a growing constellation of errors. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, only that something is, and it must be too shameful to divulge, or so rare that even the doctors are stumped.

At the end of the book, Stern considers the centrality of anxiety in her own blink of existence and telescopes to a larger truth about this widespread yet largely invisible affliction that seems a fundamental feature of being human:

When did it start? It started before I was born. It started before my mother was born. It started when friction created the world. When does anything start? It doesn’t, it just grows, sometimes to unmanageable heights, and then, when you’re at the very edge, it becomes clear: something must be done.

Left untreated, anxiety disorders, like fingernails, grow with a person. The longer they go untended, the more mangled and painful they become. Often, they spiral, straight out of control, splitting and splintering into other disorders, like depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia. A merry-go-round of features we rise and fall upon. Separation anxiety handicaps its captors, preventing them from leaving bad relationships, moving far from home, going on trips, to parties, applying for jobs, having children, getting married, seeing friends, or falling asleep. Some people are so crippled by their anxiety they have panic attacks in anticipation of having a panic attack.

I’ve had panic attacks in nearly every part of New York City, even on Staten Island. I’ve had them in taxis, on subways, public bathrooms, banks, street corners, in Washington Square Park, on multiple piers, the Manhattan Bridge, Chinatown, the East Village, the Upper East Side, Central Park, Lincoln Center, the dressing room at Urban Outfitters, Mamoun’s Falafel, the Bobst library, the Mid-Manhattan Library, the main library branch, the Brooklyn Library, the Fort Greene Farmer’s Market, laundromats, book kiosks, in the entrance of FAO Schwartz, at the post office, the steps of the Met, on stoops, at the Brooklyn Flea, in bars, at friends’ houses, on stage, in the shower, in queen-sized beds, double beds, twin beds, in my crib.

I’ve grown so expert at hiding them, most people would never even know that I’m suffering. How, after all, do you explain that a restaurant’s decision to dim their lights swelled your throat shut, and that’s why you must leave immediately, not just the restaurant, but the neighborhood? If you cannot point to something, then it is invisible. Like a cult leader, anxiety traps you and convinces you that you’re the only one it sees.

In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Nikki Giovanni’s remark to James Baldwin that “if you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else,” Stern adds:

For better or worse, we can only teach others what we understand… Each person begins, after all, as a story other people tell. And when we fall outside the confines of our common standards, we will assume our deficits define us.

[…]

My fear and my conviction were the same: that I was the flaw in the universe; the wrongly circled letter in our multiple-choice world. This terrible truth binds us all: fear there’s a single, unattainable, correct way to be human.

Continue reading here.

THE STRANGE ORDER OF THINGS

“A purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity,” William James wrote in his pioneering 1884 theory of how our bodies affect our feelings. In the century-some since, breakthroughs in neurology, psychobiology, and neuroscience have contributed leaps of layered (though still incomplete) understanding of the relationship between the physical body and our emotional experience. That tessellated relationship is what neuroscientist Antonio Damasio examines in The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures (public library) — a title inspired by the disorienting fact that several billion years ago, single-cell organisms began exhibiting behaviors strikingly analogous to certain human social behaviors and 100 million years ago insects developed interactions, instruments, and cooperative strategies that we might call cultural. That such sociocultural behaviors long predate the development of the human brain casts new light on the ancient mind-body problem and offers a radical revision of how we understand mind, feeling, consciousness, and the construction of cultures.

Two decades after his landmark exploration of how the relationship between the body and the mind shapes our conscious experience, Damasio draws a visionary link between biology and social science in a fascinating investigation of homeostasis — the delicate balance that underpins our physical existence, ensures our survival, and defines our flourishing. At the heart of his inquiry is his lifelong interest in the nature of human affect — why we feel what we feel, how we use emotions to construct selfhood, what makes our intentions and our feelings so frequently contradictory, how the body and the mind conspire in the inception of emotional reality. What emerges is not an arsenal of certitudes and answers but a celebration of curiosity and a reminder that intelligent, informed speculation is how we expand the territory of knowledge by moving the boundary of the knowable further into the unknown.

One of Salvador Dalí’s illustrations for the essays of Montaigne

Feelings, Damasio argues, are the unheralded germinators of human culture:

Human beings have distinguished themselves from all other beings by creating a spectacular collection of objects, practices, and ideas, collectively known as cultures. The collection includes the arts, philosophical inquiry, moral systems and religious beliefs, justice, governance, economic institutions, and technology and science.

[…]

Language, sociality, knowledge, and reason are the inventors and executors of these complicated processes. But feelings get to motivate them and stay on to check the results… Cultural activity began and remains deeply embedded in feeling. The favorable and unfavorable interplay of feeling and reason must be acknowledged if we are to understand the conflicts and contradictions of the human condition.

Continue reading here.

THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES

While computing pioneer Alan Turing was breaking Nazi communication in England, eleven thousand women, unbeknownst to their contemporaries and to most of us who constitute their posterity, were breaking enemy code in America — unsung heroines who helped defeat the Nazis and win WWII.

Among them was American cryptography pioneer Elizebeth Friedman (August 26, 1892–October 31, 1980). The subject of Jason Fagone’s excellent biography The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies (public library), Friedman triumphed over at least three Enigma machines and cracked dozens of different radio circuits to decipher more than four thousand Nazi messages that saved innumerable lives, only to have J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI take credit for her invisible, instrumental work.

Elizebeth Friedman in her twenties.

Fagone writes:

The modern-day universe of codes and ciphers began in a cottage on the prairie, with a pair of young lovers smiling at each other across a table and a rich man urging them to be spectacular.

The two young lovers were Elizebeth Smith and William Friedman, and the rich man, the eccentric textile tycoon George Fabyan.

The youngest of nine children raised in a modest Quaker home, Elizebeth was born in an era when fewer than four percent of American women graduated from college. Four years after earning her degree in Greek and English literature, she still felt like “a quivering, keenly alive, restless, mental question mark.” The following year, 1916, she began her improbable career at Riverbank Laboratories — Fabyan’s Wonderland-like estate, where the billionaire had hired Elizebeth to work on the cipher at the heart of a literary conspiracy theory claiming that Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare’s works. At Riverbank, she met William, a young geneticist living in a windmill — one of the many fanciful fixtures of Riverbank — and studying seeds in order to infuse crops with optimal properties as a kind of proto genetic engineering. Over long walks, animated by parallel intellectual voraciousness and shared skepticism of the Bacon cipher conspiracy, the two fell in love.

William and Elizebeth Friedman, circa 1920s (The George C. Marshall Foundation)

William and Elizebeth were married at Riverbank, where they had begun collaborating on cryptographic work. The papers on the subject they wrote together — though always published under William’s name alone — soon spread their reputation beyond Riverbank. Cryptography was new then, new and thrilling and full of unmined possibility for government intelligence, and so the U.S. Navy eventually recruited the Friedmans. Fagone writes:

The savaging of Nazis, the birth of a science: It begins on the day when a twenty-three-year-old American woman decides to trust her doubt and dig with her own mind.

The room is dark but her pencil is sharp. An envelope of puzzles arrives from Washington, sent by men who have the largest of responsibilities and the tiniest of clues. With William she examines the puzzles. He is game, he looks at her with eyes like little bonfires, he is in love with her. She is not in love yet but she would not be ashamed to fall in love with such a bright and kind person. She stares at the odd blocks of text and starts to flip and stack and rearrange them on a scratch pad, a kindling of letters, a friction of alphabets hot to the touch, and then a flame catches and then catches again, until she understands that she can ignite whenever she wants, that a power is there for the taking, for her and for anyone, and nothing will ever be the same. The ribs of a pattern shine through. Something rises at the nib of her pencil and her heart whomps away. The skeletons of words leap out and make her jump.

Continue reading here.

THE MAKER OF PATTERNS

At twenty-two, physicist Freeman Dyson (b. December 15, 1923) ascended to a position Newton had held a quarter millennium earlier at Trinity College, where Dyson lived in a room just below Ludwig Wittgenstein’s. Nearly a century later, Dyson remains one of the preeminent scientific minds of our time and a rare witness of a great many cultural milestones, triumphs, and tragedies that have shaped modern life as we know it — landmark discoveries like cosmic microwave background radiation and the double helix structure of DNA, which have profoundly changed our understanding of the universe; the invention of the atomic bomb and the scarring brutality of a World War; the rise of the Internet. He has seen the stars of countless political regimes, scientific theories, and ideologies rise and fall. In Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library), Dyson unleashes his warm wisdom and unboastful wit on subjects as varied as politics, the enchantment of science, the vacuity of celebrity, the value of the immigrant perspective, his vibrant friendship with Richard Feynman, and the complexities of being human. He recounts “a flash of illumination” on the Greyhound bus that revealed to him the nature of creativity and composes a singularly delightful account of meeting the great, troubled logician Kurt Gödel at a farewell party for T.S. Eliot at the Princeton home of Robert Oppenheimer. What emerges is not only the fascinating memoir of an uncommon genius, composed of Dyson’s letters to his loved ones, but an invaluable time-capsule of collective memory.

Sample it here and here.

THE MOTH SNOWSTORM

“Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” Rachel Carson wrote in reflecting on our spiritual bond with nature shortly before she awakened the modern environmental conscience.

The rewards and redemptions of that elemental yet endangered response is what British naturalist and environmental writer Michael McCarthy, a modern-day Carson, explores in The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy (public library) — part memoir and part manifesto, a work of philosophy rooted in environmental science and buoyed by a soaring poetic imagination.

McCarthy writes:

The natural world can offer us more than the means to survive, on the one hand, or mortal risks to be avoided, on the other: it can offer us joy.

[…]

There can be occasions when we suddenly and involuntarily find ourselves loving the natural world with a startling intensity, in a burst of emotion which we may not fully understand, and the only word that seems to me to be appropriate for this feeling is joy.

“Roots” by Maria Popova

In a sentiment that calls to mind Theodore Roosevelt’s assertion that “the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” McCarthy weighs the particular necessity and particular precariousness of joy in our cynicism-crippled world:

Referring to it as joy may not facilitate its immediate comprehension either, not least because joy is not a concept, nor indeed a word, that we are entirely comfortable with, in the present age. The idea seems out of step with a time whose characteristic notes are mordant and mocking, and whose preferred emotion is irony. Joy hints at an unrestrained enthusiasm which may be thought uncool… It reeks of the Romantic movement. Yet it is there. Being unfashionable has no effect on its existence… What it denotes is a happiness with an overtone of something more, which we might term an elevated or, indeed, a spiritual quality.

A century and a half after Thoreau extolled nature as a form of prayer and an antidote to the smallening of spirit amid the ego-maelstrom we call society — “In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean,” he lamented in his journal — McCarthy considers the role of the transcendent feelings nature can stir in us in a secular world:

They are surely very old, these feelings. They are lodged deep in our tissues and emerge to surprise us. For we forget our origins; in our towns and cities, staring into our screens, we need constantly reminding that we have been operators of computers for a single generation and workers in neon-lit offices for three or four, but we were farmers for five hundred generations, and before that hunter-gatherers for perhaps fifty thousand or more, living with the natural world as part of it as we evolved, and the legacy cannot be done away with.

Continue reading here.

*ALSO: A VELOCITY OF BEING

Having devoted eight years of my life to it, and having a heart swelling with gratitude to the legion of writers and artists who contributed original letters and illustrations for this monumental labor of love, I must proudly include A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson

Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault for a letter by Jacqueline Novogratz

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik
Art by Vladimir Radunsky for a letter by Ann Patchett

Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion, for all of whom their letter is their last published work.)

Art by Marianne Dubuc for a letter by Elizabeth Gilbert
Art by Christoph Niemann for a letter by William Powers
Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte
Art by Brian Rea for a letter by Chris Anderson
Art by Oliver Jeffers for a letter by Holland Taylor
Art by Julie Paschkis for a letter by Sarah Lewis
Art by Maira Kalman for a letter by Paul Holdengräber
Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman

Read more about the project here.

BP

The Loveliest Children’s Books of 2018

A “new” Maurice Sendak treasure, James Baldwin’s only children’s book, a celebration of history’s heroic women illustrated by Maira Kalman, a stunning serenade to the wilderness, and more.

The Loveliest Children’s Books of 2018

Once a year, every year, I reread The Little Prince and manage to find in it new layers of loveliness and wisdom each time, always seemingly written to allay whatever my greatest struggle at that moment is. It is a special book, yes, but it is not singular in being a testament to something I have long believed: that great children’s books transcend both age and time. They are exquisite distillations of philosophies for living, addressing in the language of children — which is the language of absolute sincerity, so countercultural in our age of cynicism — the deepest, most eternal truths about what it means to live a meaningful, beautiful, inspired, noble life. Although written with children in mind, they speak to the eternal child that each of us lives with and answers to, but often neglects — something Antoine de Saint-Exupéry knew and articulated beautifully in dedicating The Little Prince to the little boy inside his grown-up best friend.

Here are the loveliest such timeless, ageless illustrated philosophies for living that I read in 2018. (And in this spirit of timelessness, treat yourself to their counterparts from 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

BEAR AND WOLF

Otherness has always been how we define ourselves — by contrast and distinction from what is unlike us, we find out what we are like: As I have previously written, we are what remains after everything we are not. But otherness can also be the most beautiful ground for connection — in slicing through the surface unlikenesses, we can discover a deep wellspring of kinship, which in turn enlarges our understanding of ourselves and the other. “The world’s otherness is antidote to confusion,” Mary Oliver wrote in her moving account of what saved her life. “Standing within this otherness… can re-dignify the worst-stung heart.”

That is what Brooklyn-based author and illustrator Daniel Salmieri explores with great thoughtfulness and tenderness in Bear and Wolf (public library).

On a calm winter’s night, Bear ventures into the forest in consonance with Thoreau’s love of winter walks and his insistence that “we must go out and re-ally ourselves to Nature every day.” As she savors the touch of the sparkling snowflakes falling on her fur, she spots “something poking from the glistening white.”

At the same time, Wolf was out walking, then he spotted something poking out form the glistening white.

As the two solitary walkers approach, they see each other up close — a young bear, a young wolf.

She could see the wolf’s pointy snout, smooth gray fur, golden eyes, and wet black nose… He could see the bear’s big round head, soft black fur, deep brown eyes, and wet black nose.

In a testament to Anaïs Nin’s observation that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar,” Bear and Wolf meet each other not with frightened hostility but with openhearted, compassionate curiosity. Their encounter is a shared question mark regarded with mutual goodwill and concern for rather than fear of the other:

“Are you lost?” asked Bear.

“No, I’m not lost. Are you?” asked Wolf.

“No, I’m not lost. I’m out for a walk to feel the cold on my face, and to enjoy the quiet of the woods when it snows. What are you doing?”

“I’m out for a walk to feel the cold under my paws, and to listen to the crunching of the snow as I walk.”

“Do you want to walk with me?” asked Bear.

“Sure,” said Wolf.

And so they head into the woods furry side by furry side, wet nose near wet nose, aware that they are “both creatures made to be comfortable in the very cold.” They savor the splendor of this forest world they share, smelling “the wet bark on the trees,” listening to “the small sounds” of the snowflakes falling on their fur, looking closely at the multitude of shapes.

Meanwhile, above them, Bird spots two tiny figures “poking out from the glistening white.”

As Bear and Wolf walk forth, they come upon a great white clearing in the woods — a place faintly familiar, for they have both been there before, but in the summertime. What is now a vast oval of white was then a vast blue lake.

They venture onto the frozen lake, clean a window of ice, and peer down to see fish floating, asleep.

And then the time comes for them to part ways and return to their separate lives, lived in parallel in this shared world.

See more here.

JEROME BY HEART

To love every fiber of another’s being with every fiber of your own is a rare, beautiful, and thoroughly disorienting experience — one which the term in love feels too small to hold. Its fact becomes a gravitational center of your emotional universe so powerful that the curvature of language and reality bends beyond recognition, radiating Nietzsche’s lamentation that language is not the adequate expression of all realities. The consummate reality of such a love is the native poetry of existence, known not in language but by heart.

The uncontainable, unclassifiable beauty of such love is what French writer Thomas Scotto explores with great tenderness in Jerome by Heart (public library), translated by Claudia Bedrick and Karin Snelson, and illustrated by the ever-wonderful Olivier Tallec — the story of a little boy named Raphael and his boundless adoration for another little boy, Jerome, which unfolds in Scotto’s lovely words like a poem, like a song.

He always holds my hand.
It’s true.
Really tight.

Jerome always sees Raphael from far away, shares his snacks with him, and pairs up with him on school trips to the art museum. Under Tallec’s sensitive brush, we see them standing side by side, peering into a painting together — a sweet embodiment of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s assertion that “love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

That’s why I love Jerome.

It doesn’t bother me at all.
Raphael loves Jerome.
I can say it.
It’s easy.

Jerome and Raphael share a love pure and infinite. It flows between them at its most buoyant and expansive, which means its most unselfconscious. But the grownups around them, caught in the tyranny of labels and classifications too small, are made uneasy by its largeness — a tragic testament to Bob Dylan’s observation that “people have a hard time accepting anything that overwhelms them.”

Eventually, Raphael begins to feel the weight of their unease at so boundless a bond. He sorrows in his dad’s lament that Jerome isn’t strong because he doesn’t play soccer and in his mom’s impression of Jerome as merely “polite,” in her blindness to “how warm his smile is” and to the “secret hideout” Raphael has in it.

Against the smallness of his parents’ perception, Raphael takes solace in the largeness that fills his own heart.

See more here.

A VELOCITY OF BEING

Having devoted eight years of my life to it, and having a heart swelling with gratitude to the legion of writers and artists who contributed original letters and illustrations for this monumental labor of love, I must proudly include A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

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

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Vladimir Radunsky for a letter by Ann Patchett from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion, for all of whom their letter is their last published work.)

Art by Marianne Dubuc for a letter by Elizabeth Gilbert from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Christoph Niemann for a letter by William Powers from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Brian Rea for a letter by Chris Anderson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Oliver Jeffers for a letter by Holland Taylor from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Julie Paschkis for a letter by Sarah Lewis from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Maira Kalman for a letter by Paul Holdengräber from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Read more here.

THE FOREST

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” When Walt Whitman beheld the singular wisdom of trees, he saw in them qualities “almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic.” Philosopher Martin Buber insisted that trees can teach us to see others as they truly are.

Indeed, whatever the splendor, wisdom, and heroism of trees may be, it stems from the individual’s orientation to the whole — not only as an existential metaphor, but as a biological reality as science is uncovering the remarkable communication system via which trees feel and communicate with one another. Biologist David George Haskell recognized this in his poetic expedition to a dozen of the world’s most unusual trees: “The forest is not a collection of entities [but] a place entirely made from strands of relationship.”

That relational, existential mesmerism is what Italian author Riccardo Bozzi explores in The Forest (public library), illustrated by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali, and translated from the Italian by Debbie Bibo. Less a book than a tactile expedition into the existential wilderness, the journey unfolds across time and space, in “an enormous, ancient forest that has not yet been fully explored.”

The illustrations, minimalist yet luscious, peek through die-cuts and stretch across gatefolds, emulating the way one lovely thing becomes another when you look closely at nature with generous attentiveness to life at all scales.

Constructed in the tradition of Japanese binding, the book is wrapped in translucent velum that gives the lush cover illustration the aura of a mist-enveloped forest early in the morning.

The story begins when the forest is young — little more than a grove of small trees. With each page, it grows thicker and thicker, more impenetrable and more fascinating at the same time. We see the silhouettes of the explorers — white shadows cast of negative space against the vibrant forest — trek and kneel “to investigate its beauties and its dangers.”

It is said that the forest has a certain limit if you look straight ahead, but the sides are boundless. Here is where the explorers can venture with enjoyment and curiosity.

As the forest grows, so does the explorer: Rising out of the crisp-white page are the subtly embossed faces of different genders and races, also progressing along the way of life — an infant, an adolescent boy, a young woman, an old man.

See more here.

LOVE

“What is love?” Kafka asked in contemplating love and the power of patience. “After all, it is quite simple,” he answered his own question. “Love is everything which enhances, widens, and enriches our life. In its heights and in its depths. Love has as few problems as a motor-car. The only problems are the driver, the passengers, and the road.”

Behind the comical quip lies a common strain of cynicism. One need not be as profoundly defeated by love as Kafka to default to this achingly human form of self-defense — for cynicism is, after all, a maladaptive coping mechanism when we feel the threat of disappointment and heartbreak. I take a less cynical perspective and stand with J.D. McClatchy: “Love is the quality of attention we pay to things.” And in those moments when the heart stands on the brink of breakage, I like to revise Borges’s timeless reflection on the nature of time, substituting love for time to produce a sentiment of equally exquisite profundity: “Love is the substance I am made of. Love is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

Perhaps the truest and most abiding thing about love is that it means different things to each of us, and presents itself in myriad different guises.

That splendid multiplicity of manifestations is what author Matt de la Peña and illustrator Loren Long explore with uncommon loveliness in a book simply titled Love (public library) — a testament to my long-held conviction that great “children’s” books are simply great books, imaginative and intelligible to young readers, replete with soulful wisdom that spills into what we grownups call philosophy.

In the beginning there is light and two wide-eyed figures standing near the foot of your bed, and the sound of their voices is love.

The book is as a mosaic of vignettes, each unfolding against the backdrop of the New York City skyline and capturing a particular tessellation of love, addressed in the second person to a child who transmogrifies across ages, genders, ethnicities, and faiths across the pages — a small black boy whose older brother hands him breakfast as they watch their father take the bus to work in the blizzard at dawn; a small Latina girl clutching her teddy bear as terrifying news streams into the family living room under the blessing glances of Frida Kahlo and Jesus Christ; a Muslim girl laying in an open field of flowers, drinking in the love of the trees and the wind and the universe; a little white boy curled with his dog under the grand piano of a lavish home, looking small and lonely and afraid as his father rages and his mother cries; a young black girl searching her own beautiful eyes in the bathroom mirror — all discovering the various meanings and manifestations of love, braided of sweetness and difficulty and simple gladness.

A cabdriver plays love softly on his radio while you bounce in back with the bumps of the city and everything smells new, and it smells like life.

Love is the embrace of a mother after a bad dream, and a grandfather’s creased face, and a father dancing with his daughter atop their mobile home overlooking a clothesline and the ocean sunset, and the old lady pointing to the sky with reverence for the steadfast stars.

Love, too, is the smell of crashing waves, and a train whistling blindly in the distance, and each night the sky above your trailer turns the color of love.

On the night the fire alarm blares, you’re pulled from sleep and whisked into the street, where a quiet old lady is pointing to the sky.

“Stars shine long after they’ve flamed out,” she tells you, “and the shine they shine with love.”

See more here.

LITTLE MAN, LITTLE MAN

“The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people,” James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) wrote in his superbly insightful essay on Shakespeare, language as a tool of love, and the writer’s responsibility in a divided society. But while “the people” of sixteenth-century Europe were very different from the people of twentieth-century America, as were their lives, cultural representations of “the people” of our time and place — of what Whitman celebrated as “a great, aggregated, real PEOPLE, worthy the name, and made of develop’d heroic individuals” — have remained woefully stagnant and unreflective of diversity in the centuries since Shakespeare.

Fifteen years after Gwendolyn Brooks — the first black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize — released her trailblazing poems for kids celebrating diversity and the universal spirit of childhood, Baldwin set out to broaden the landscape of representation in children’s literature by composing a short, playful yet poignant story inspired by his own nephew — Tejan Kafera-Smart, or TJ. Originally published in 1976, with a jacket that billed it as “a child’s story for adults,” Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (public library) is Baldwin’s addition to the compact canon of sole children’s books composed by literary icons for their own kin, including Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Mr. Bliss, and William Faulkner’s The Wishing Tree.

The book is less a story than a series of vignettes depicting African American life and childhood on a particular block on New York City’s Upper West Side — one that looks “a little like the street in the movies or the TV when the cop cars come from that end of the street and then they come from the other end of the street.” Baldwin, who considered the book a “celebration of the self-esteem of black children,” began working on it shortly after his historic conversation about race with anthropologist Margaret Mead and set out to find the right illustrator for it.

He chose Yoran Cazac, a white French artist he had met more than a decade earlier through a mutual friend — the African American painter Beauford Delaney, who had mentored the young Baldwin and had taught him what it really means to see. When Delaney was diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed to a psychiatric asylum outside of Paris, Baldwin and Cazac rekindled their friendship in this hour of devastation and sorrow, and soon began collaborating on bringing Little Man, Little Man to life.

Cazac would complete the art — pencil and watercolor, vibrant and alive, evocative of children’s jubilant and free drawings — without having ever been to Harlem. Instead, Baldwin transported the artist by giving him books on black life, telling him stories about his time in New York, and sharing photographs of his own family there, including his nephew and niece, after whom the characters in the book were modeled. Cazac was determined to “imagine the unimaginable” through these telegraphic descriptions that became a form of artistic telepathy.

The story is written in the authentic colloquial language — children’s language, African American language — of its time and place. It is a creative choice that embodies poet Elizabeth Alexander’s notion of “the self in language” and evokes a sentiment from the stunning speech on the power of language Toni Morrison delivered when she became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

See more here.

BE STILL, LIFE

“Life goes headlong,” Emerson lamented in contemplating how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, offering the antidote to our civilizational haste: “Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.” Half a century later, writing about the most important habit for living with presence, Hermann Hesse cautioned: “The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.” Another century later, in the midst of an ever-accelerating cultural trance of busyness, Annie Dillard distilled the heart of the paradox in her sublime insistence on choosing presence over productivity: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

An uncommonly tenderhearted, wide-eyed invitation to fill our days with lively presence comes in Be Still, Life (public library) — a splendid illustrated poem of a picture-book by Ohara Hale, whose work I have long cherished and who has the loveliest back-flap author bio I have ever encountered:

Ohara Hale is a self-taught artist who works with many different forms and materials. She sings, writes, draws, and performs sounds, words, colors, and movements that are questions and ideas about love, life, nature, and all the unseen, unknown, and dreamed in between. Hale lives on planet Earth with her rescue dog, Banana.

From the slumbering snail to the purposeful gentleness of the honeybees at work to the dance of the leaves in the whispering breeze, Hale beckons eye, heart, and mind to drink in the glorious aliveness of the world with a generous curiosity, evocative of Simone Weil’s assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest kind of generosity.” What emerges is a mirthful modern-day counterpart to Thoreau’s celebration of nature as a form of prayer. Playful levity and vibrancy carry the deeper soulfulness of the message, which unfolds with a songlike quality — a sort of hymn in word and image. (Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for Hale is also a gifted musician, and we bring everything we are, our whole selves and all of our multitudes, to any one thing we do.)

See more here.

PRESTO & ZESTO IN LIMBOLAND

The Bulgaria of my childhood was bereft of the classics of American children’s literature. Instead, I grew up with the unsugared Brothers Grimm and the strangeness of Lewis Carroll. I discovered The Velveteen Rabbit and The Giving Tree and Charlotte’s Web only as a young adult, and found in them a shock of warmth and wisdom for my fledgling life as an immigrant. I still remember sitting on a Brooklyn rooftop and reading Where the Wild Things Are for the first time, well into my twenties, aching with dislocation from the world and a roaring sense of lack of control. I remember feeling suddenly awash in reassurance that the inconsolable loneliness of living is survivable, that love can be steadfast and belonging possible even amid the world’s wildness.

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak told Stephen Colbert in his last on-camera appearance, four months before his death in 2012. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” From his largely forgotten 1956 debut as the author-illustrator of a picture book, Kenny’s Window — a philosophically inclined parable of love, loneliness, and knowing what you really want — to his most beloved masterpieces, Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen, to his final farewell to the world, the beautiful and sorrowful My Brother’s Book, Sendak has enchanted generations with singularly illustrated stories that delight children and emanate existential consolation for the trauma of living.

Presto & Zesto in Limboland (public library), Sendak’s posthumously published collaboration with the writer and director Arthur Yorinks, is not one of those books. At least not at first glance. Rather, it is the playful story of two friends’ adventures in a topsy-turvy world, part Alice in Wonderland, part Grimm fairy tale, part prescient analogue for the nonsensical cultural moment we inhabit. “One day Presto and Zesto, good friends, took a walk and ended up in Limboland,” we read. “They didn’t mean to go there, who would go there, but they had a lot on their minds.”

In this uncanny world, two sugar beets are getting married, but their perfect wedding gift — a set of bagpipes, of course — is in the hands of the formidable Bumbo, a monster resembling a Wild Thing skinned of sweetness. As Presto and Zesto journey through Limboland to steal the bagpipes from Bumbo, they encounter visual strangenesses left unexplained — a rat holding a ruler, a goat’s rear sticking up from a pond — indulging the way children’s minds so naturally whisper This could be us at even the most bizarre and improbable vignettes.

The story is not so much a story as a narrative filmstrip reeled around Sendak’s art — ten drawings he created in 1990 as projections for a London Symphony Orchestra performance of a 1927 opera setting Czech nursery rhymes to music. Sendak resurfaced the art once more for a charity concert in 1997, then tucked it away for good. But Yorinks — a friend of Sendak’s for more than four decades who had collaborated with him on two previous children’s books, The Miami Giant and Mommy — had fallen in love with the drawings and never forgot them. He brought them up over a work lunch with Sendak and suggested that they might be a book — a book in need of a story. That afternoon, the two friends arranged the pictures on Sendak’s drawing table and, in a state of creative flow punctuated by wild bursts of laughter, began improvising the story. They refined the manuscript over the coming months and declared it a picture book. But then, as it happens in life, life happened. Presto & Zesto vanished in the shadow of other projects.

One day long after his friend’s death, Yorinks received a note from Sendak’s longtime assistant and now literary executor, Lynn Caponera, alerting him that she had discovered among the author’s papers a strange manuscript titled Presto & Zesto in Limboland. I imagine how difficult it must have been for Yorinks to revisit this story of two friends, named after the nicknames he and Sendak had for each other; how difficult and beautiful to see it morph into a private elegy — in the classic dual sense of lamentation and celebration — for a lost friendship.

And so, six years after Sendak’s death, this unusual picture book is finally being born. It is both like and unlike classic Sendak. At times, there are leaps in the narrative that strain the effort to stitch the drawings into a cohesive story. As a young man, when asked to illustrate a book of Tolstoy’s short stories, Sendak had confided in his editor — the visionary Ursula Nordstrom — that he admired the “cohesion and purpose” of Tolstoy’s narrative but feared that his art would fail to match it. Nordstrom, ever the nurturer of unpolished genius, assured him otherwise. He did illustrate Tolstoy. This formative storytelling ideal of “cohesion and purpose” became an animating force of his work. Perhaps Sendak put Presto & Zesto in a drawer because he was unsure the book had achieved this.

But I am glad it lives. In a story propelled by surprise after surprise in deliberate defiance of the expectations of ordinary reality, where logical discontinuity is a vehicle of joy, these leaps furnish rather than obstruct the whimsical world-building. The dialogue between image and story becomes essentially an act of translation, calling to mind the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska’s lovely notion of “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review on September 25, 2018.

BOLD & BRAVE

“While any one is base, none can be entirely free and noble,” Margaret Fuller — one of the central figures in my book Figuring — wrote in her epoch-making 1845 treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century, insisting that the “improvement in the daughters will best aid in the reformation of the sons of this age.” It was indeed an age of transformation, in which Fuller’s book became the foundation of American women’s movement toward social equity and political power. Her writings empowered generations of leaders to fight for equality, ultimately winning women the right to vote seven decades after Fuller’s death.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand celebrates ten of these leaders (though, curiously, not Fuller herself) in Bold & Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote (public library) — an illustrated encyclopedia of courage and persistence, with art by the inimitable Maira Kalman.

Kindred in spirit to my long-ago project The Reconstructionists — a series of illustrated micro-biographies of women who have profoundly transfigured our world and our worldview — the book focuses particularly on American politics. Inspired by a lineage of politically daring women stretching back to her great-grandmother, Gillibrand highlights a diverse dectet of visionaries, ranging from schoolbooks staples like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth to icons like Harriet Tubman and Inez Milholland, whose famous last words open the book, to lesser-known heroes like Jovita Idár, who championed the rights of women and Mexican Americans, started a free kindergarten, and founded the League of Mexican Women, and Lucy Burns, who worked tirelessly on both sides of the Atlantic to win women political representation and power, co-founding the National Woman’s Party alongside her friend Alice Paul, also one of Gillibrand’s suffragists.

Most of these women were Thoreau’s contemporaries and embodied his ethos of civil disobedience to advance their cause, many of them at the price of arrest and assault.

Inscribed onto each of Kalman’s lovely portraits is a distillation of the central lesson the respective woman modeled in her life.

See more here.

THE BRILLIANT DEEP

“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in her stunning contribution to The Universe in Verse. She imagined a time before we severed ourselves from “Nature,” a time when there were “no tests to determine if the elephant grieves her calf or if the coral reef feels pain.”

The living reality of coral reefs animated another visionary poet a century and a half earlier: In his ode to “the world below the brine,” Walt Whitman celebrated corals as some of our planet’s most wondrous creatures. A living example of non-Euclidean geometry, corals have graced Earth for hundreds of millions of years. They are as remarkable in their evolutionary longevity as they are fragile in their dependence on the health of the world’s oceans, from which springs the health of Earth itself — a physical embodiment of naturalist and Whitman biographer John Muir’s poetic assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” But under the combinatorial assault of climate change, overfishing, and pollution, coral reefs have been dying at a heartbreaking rate in the century and a half between Muir and Whitman’s time and our own — how, we must wonder, could they not feel the pain of such brutal demise?

One man set out to heal this ecological heartbreak with an ingenious remedy involving hammer and glue.

Ken Nedimyer grew up near the Kennedy Space Center as the son of a NASA engineer in the golden age of space exploration. And yet he fell in love not with the stars but with the depths — a world then more mysterious than the Moon — after seeing a television program about the ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

This young love became a lifelong devotion.

Nedimyer’s story and immensely inspiring work come alive in The Brilliant Deep: Rebuilding the World’s Coral Reefs (public library) by Kate Messner, illustrated by Matthew Forsythe — a lovely addition to the growing body of picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Like many scientific breakthroughs, Nedimyer’s radical marine remedy began with a stroke of luck.

Nedimyer had translated his childhood love of the oceans into a quiet life of farming live rocks — rocks covered with algae, sponges, mollusks, and other marine life, used as a handsome natural water purification system in saltwater aquariums. One day, he noticed that a colony of staghorn corals had spawned and migrated to his rocks from the nearby open waters of Florida.

Messner writes:

It starts with one.

One night, after a full moon, the corals begin to spawn — releasing first one, then millions of tiny lives — until the waters swirl like a snow globe.

As Nedimyer and his daughter observed these lovely interlopers, they noticed that if they cut pieces of living coral off and attached them to other rocks — literally gluing them on — the coral from the original colony would grow on this new blank canvas for life. So they wondered what would happen if they grew a coral colony and tried attaching it to a dying reef.

Nedimyer decided to return to the reef where he had learned to dive as a child — a reef that had begun dying when he was still young. He took six small coral colonies from his farm, each no larger than an outstretched hand, and glued them onto the bleached and barren limestone.

Month after month, Nedimyer and his team dove to check on this hand-mended reef. Month by month, the coral colonies grew larger and larger.

See more here.

JULIÁN IS A MERMAID

“To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,” E.E. Cummings offered in his advice to aspiring artists. “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin argued two decades later in his fantastic forgotten conversation about identity with anthropologist Margaret Mead. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” Both the vulnerability and the courage of that world-telling are in direct proportion to our sense of otherness — to how far the teller diverges from society’s centuries-old, dogma-proscribed, limiting ideas about the correct way to be a human being.

A lovely celebration of the courage to tell the world who you are comes in Julián Is a Mermaid (public library) by Jessica Love — a sweet story of loving acceptance and the jubilant inner transformation that takes place when one is welcomed to be and to dream beyond society’s narrow templates of being and dreaming.

Whenever Julián goes to the swimming pool with his grandmother, he dreams of being a mermaid.

One day, on the subway ride home, he glimpses three beautiful women dressed as mermaids. He is instantly entranced.

“Abuela, I am also a mermaid,” he tells his grandmother shyly, the way one whispers a closely guarded innermost truth.

When Julián’s grandmother goes to take a bath, an idea alights to his enchanted mind: He sheds his boy-clothes and fashions a headdress out of a fern. Like a miniature Scarlett O’Hara, he transforms the window curtain into a long skirt, tying its end to resemble a mermaid’s tail.

Just as he is rejoicing in his self-creation, grandma returns from the bath, frowns, and walks away.

But she quickly returns to unsink Julián’s heart by handing him the perfect finishing touch for his mermaid regalia.

Julián takes her hand and follows her out of the house, through the streets, wondering where she is taking him. “You’ll see,” she says.

See more here.

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Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Be still, life, be still at the break of dawn, and you’ll feel the sun’s light when you hear the morning’s song.”

Be Still, Life: A Songlike Illustrated Invitation to Living with Presence

“Life goes headlong,” Emerson lamented in contemplating how to live with presence in a culture of busyness, offering the antidote to our civilizational haste: “Now pause, now possession is required, and the power to swell the moment from the resources of our own heart until it supersedes sun & moon & solar system in its expanding immensity.” Half a century later, writing about the most important habit for living with presence, Hermann Hesse cautioned: “The high value put upon every minute of time, the idea of hurry-hurry as the most important objective of living, is unquestionably the most dangerous enemy of joy.” Another century later, in the midst of an ever-accelerating cultural trance of busyness, Annie Dillard distilled the heart of the paradox in her sublime insistence on choosing presence over productivity: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

An uncommonly tenderhearted, wide-eyed invitation to fill our days with lively presence comes in Be Still, Life (public library) — a splendid illustrated poem of a picture-book by Ohara Hale, whose work I have long cherished and who has the loveliest back-flap author bio I have ever encountered:

Ohara Hale is a self-taught artist who works with many different forms and materials. She sings, writes, draws, and performs sounds, words, colors, and movements that are questions and ideas about love, life, nature, and all the unseen, unknown, and dreamed in between. Hale lives on planet Earth with her rescue dog, Banana.

From the slumbering snail to the purposeful gentleness of the honeybees at work to the dance of the leaves in the whispering breeze, Hale beckons eye, heart, and mind to drink in the glorious aliveness of the world with a generous curiosity, evocative of Simone Weil’s assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest kind of generosity.” What emerges is a mirthful modern-day counterpart to Thoreau’s celebration of nature as a form of prayer. Playful levity and vibrancy carry the deeper soulfulness of the message, which unfolds with a songlike quality — a sort of hymn in word and image. (Perhaps it cannot be otherwise, for Hale is also a gifted musician, and we bring everything we are, our whole selves and all of our multitudes, to any one thing we do.)

The ending calls to mind Denise Levertov’s wonderful poem about our odd tendency to see the rest of nature as a separate world parallel to our own. “You are also a part of the wonderfulness of life,” Hale exults on the final page, inviting the reader — who can be any one of us, child or adult, nursed on a chronic civilizational delusion — to unlearn the artificial severance from the natural world that modern life has inflicted upon us and relearn the creaturely presence with life that radiates from our most elemental humanity.

Be Still, Life comes from the largehearted and singularly imaginative Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such uncommon treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, The Lion and the Bird, This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, and Bertolt. Complement it with Sidewalk Flowers — another illustrated invitation to living with wakefulness to the world — and Margaret Wise Brown’s little-known, kindred-spirited Quiet Noisy Book, then revisit Alan Watts on how to live with presence and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on learning to see the wonder in our everyday reality.

Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books © Ohara Hale; photographs by Maria Popova

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