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Oliver Sacks on Libraries

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

Oliver Sacks on Libraries

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

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

Oliver Sacks, 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

Lyrical reflections at the crossroads of truth and meaning.

The Universe in Verse: Regina Spektor Reads “Theories of Everything” by Astronomer, Poet, and Tragic Genius Rebecca Elson

In her haunting ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Adrienne Rich serenaded “the ex-stasis of galaxies / so out from us there’s no vocabulary / but mathematics and optics / equations letting sight pierce through time / into liberations, lacerations of light and dust.” It is a peculiar meta-miracle, to fuse these complementary modes of sensemaking — mathematics, the language of truth, and poetry, the language of meaning — into something that enlarges both, expanding the horizons of beauty and understanding in the mind beholding the fusion.

This miracle is what The Universe in Verse celebrates, and no person embodies it more exquisitely than the Canadian astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson (January 2, 1960–May 19, 1999), who belonged to that rare species of genius with extraordinary talent in not just one but two, and thoroughly different, domains of creative endeavor.

The daughter of a geologist, Elson grew up as a keen observer of the natural world, spending large swaths of her childhood exploring the shores of a prehistoric lake. By the age of six, she could distinguish sandstone pebbles from limestone pebbles. By nine, she had grown besotted with the dazzling nocturnal skies of northern Canada, with the way they emanated the infinite question of what it means for the universe to be infinite, beguiled by the cosmic wonders filling that infinity. By sixteen, she was in university, falling further in love with astronomy. Her first glimpse of Andromeda, our sister galaxy, dazed her with its “delicate wisp of milky spiral light floating in what seemed a bottomless well of empty space.”

The spiral galaxy NGC 7331, located in the constellation Pegasus about 45 million light-years from Earth, discovered by William Herschel in 1784. (NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)

At twenty-six, having completed her Ph.D. at Cambridge — Newton’s hallowed ground — Elson received a postdoctoral research fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study — Einstein’s hallowed ground — to work with the first data from the Hubble, which was about to launch later that year. But when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before the grief-stricken eyes of the world, the horizons of space exploration darkened, the launch of the Hubble was delayed, and Elson’s research assignment vanished. Trapped in Princeton’s unwelcoming atmosphere of systemic sexism, without support and without a riveting project at hand, she found herself withdrawing as a researcher.

One thing solaced and perhaps even saved Elson as her astronomical career took this dispiriting dip — the lively Tuesday evening gatherings of poets, whose company and camaraderie she found to be “far more expansive and congenial” than the stranglehold of the scientific patriarchy. Verse opened up new frontiers of inquiry and observation — not of the universe without, but of the universe within. She came to cherish it and practice it with the same passion she had brought to astronomy.

In her twenty-ninth year, just as she began teaching creative writing at Radcliffe-Harvard during a fellowship there and became the youngest astronomer to serve on a decennial review committee in the history of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Elson was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma — a blood cancer that most commonly afflicts people in their sixties and seventies. She transmuted the brutality of the treatment into raw material for poetry — “Not outer space, just space / The light of all the not yet stars,” she writes in “Antidotes to Fear of Death” — and continued pursuing her first and greatest scientific love: galaxy formation and the study of how stars are born, live, and die.

Upon returning to Cambridge in her early thirties, with her illness in remission, Elson and her team used the deepest image of space the Hubble had ever taken to determine the limits of how much regular stars contribute to the mysterious halo of dark matter enveloping the Milky Way — a major contribution to our understanding of the universe and a bittersweet metaphor for Elson’s life and body of work, hovering in that liminal space between limit and possibility, darkness and light.

Rebecca Elson, 1987

Elson returned her stardust to the universe at only thirty-nine, leaving behind 56 scientific papers, a slender, sublimely beautiful book of poetry titled A Responsibility to Awe (public library), and the devastating question of what else a person of such uncommon genius would have given the world had chance granted her a longer life.

At the third annual Universe in Verse, I invited Regina Spektor, one of the most intensely poetic songwriters of our time, to honor Elson’s singular, tragic, transcendent genius with a lovely reading of her poem “Theories of Everything” — a meditation on our eternal struggle to discern the unfeeling laws of the universe, over which we have no control and by which we must abide, and to project ourselves onto them, creating cosmoses of beauty and meaning within their indifferent parameters, all the while ourselves remaining mere projections of these very laws.

THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
(When the lecturer’s shirt matches the painting on the wall)

He stands there speaking without love
Of theories where, in the democracy
Of this universe, or that,
There could be legislators
Who ordain trajectories for falling bodies,
Where all things must be dreamed with indifference,
And purpose is a momentary silhouette
Backlit by a blue anthropic flash,
A storm on the horizon.

But even the painting on the wall behind,
Itself an accident of shattered symmetries,
Is only half eclipsed by his transparencies
Of hierarchy and order,
And the history of thought.

And what he cannot see is this:
Himself projected next to his projections
Where the colours from the painting
Have spilled onto his shirt,
Their motion stilled into a rigorous
Design of lines and light.

A Responsibility to Awe is a breathtaking read in its slim totality.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring homage to Stephen Hawking, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s tribute to Marie Curie, then revisit Regina Spektor reading “The Everyday Enchantment of Music” by Mark Strand — one of the most beautiful things ever written about the power of music.

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Zadie Smith Reads Frank O’Hara’s Love Poem to Time via an Old-Fashioned Telephone Line

A bittersweet serenade to the bidirectional pull of existence.

“Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity we once were?” poet Marie Howe asked in her stunning ode to time in memoriam of Stephen Hawking. It is an elemental question that cuts to the heart of being human: Despite being creatures of time, or precisely because of it, we live suspended between two temporal antagonisms — the acute awareness, so pointedly articulated by Virginia Woolf, that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living” and the nostalgic longing for how we used to be and who we used to be when we used to be. Perhaps Meghan Daum captured the paradox most piercingly: “Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.”

Nothing intensifies this sundering bidirectional pull of the arrow of time and the spear of nostalgia more than the hindsights of love — what was once a delirious present projecting into an imagined future of infinite bliss is now ambered into the bittersweet remembrance of a perished past.

That universal bittersweetness is what Frank O’Hara (March 27, 1926–July 25, 1966) explores in twelve perfect lines in his 1950 poem “Animals,” found in his Selected Poems (public library) and read here by Zadie Smith via an old-fashioned telephone line, part of Coudal’s lovely Poetry After the Beep series.

ANIMALS
by Frank O’Hara

Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Couple with O’Hara himself reading his “Metaphysical Poem” in a rare 1964 recording, then revisit other great contemporary artists and writers reading great poets of yore: Meryl Streep reading Sylvia Plath, Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman reading Ursula K. Le Guin, Amanda Palmer reading E.E. Cummings, James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop, Cynthia Nixon reading Emily Dickinson, Terrance Hayes reading Lucille Clifton, and Patti Smith singing William Blake.

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The Universe in Verse 2018: Full Show

An evening of poems celebrating science, read by beloved artists, writers, scientists, and musicians.

In the spring of 2018, after the improbable success of the inaugural show in 2017, I once again joined forces with Pioneer Works and The Academy of American Poets to host The Universe in Verse — an evening of science-inspired poems read by artists, writers, scientists, and musicians, part protest and part celebration, with all proceeds benefiting the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou at The Universe in Verse, April 2018. (Photograph: Annie Minoff.)

“The real wealth of the Nation,” marine biologist and author Rachel Carson wrote in her courageous 1953 protest letter, “lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” Carson’s legacy inspired the creation of Earth Day and the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, whose hard-won environmental regulations are now being undone in the hands of a heedless administration. Carson was a scientist who thought and wrote like a poet. As she catalyzed the modern environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring, she was emboldened by a line from a 1914 poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.

Rachel Carson (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

Dedicated to Rachel Carson’s legacy, the 2018 show was a sort of prelude to Figuring. More than a thousand people packed in to celebrate the Earth — from the oceans and trees and volcanos to bees and kale and the armadillo — with poems by Maya Angelou, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, Denise Levertov, Walt Whitman, and more, read by musicians Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, and Sean Ono Lennon, astrophysicists Janna Levin and Natalie Batalha, authors A.M. Homes and James Gleick, poet Terrance Hayes, artist Maira Kalman, bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, and actors, writers, and directors America Ferrera and John Cameron Mitchell. Three of the great poets of our time — Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, and Diane Ackerman — read their own work. Gracing the evening was an original poem by Neil Gaiman, composed for the occasion, and a special musical surprise.

The full recording, released as we announce the 2019 Universe in Verse, is below. As usual, prefacing each poem is my introduction of the reader and some connective tissue contextualizing the poem choice. The poem playlist follows, with links to the individual reading and full text of each poem, where available — please enjoy:

  1. “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, read by Janna Levin
  2. “Sojourns in the Parallel World” by Denise Levertov, read by America Ferrera
  3. “The World Below the Brine” by Walt Whitman, read by John Cameron Mitchell
  4. “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay, read by Natalie Batalha
  5. “The Fish in the Stone” by Rita Dove, read by Zöe Keating
  6. “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, read by James Gleick
  7. “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, read by Terrance Hayes
  8. “Singularity (for Stephen Hawking)” by Marie Howe, read by the poet herself
  9. “The Explorers” by Adrienne Rich, read by A.M. Homes
  10. “Optimism” by Jane Hirshfield, read by Jane Hirshfield and animated by Kelli Anderson
  11. “Cosymbionts” by Vicki Graham, read by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  12. “[bee]” by Emily Dickinson, read by Maira Kalman
  13. “The Consolation of Apricots” by Diane Ackerman, read by the poet herself
  14. “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics” by Roald Hoffmann, read by Sean Ono Lennon
  15. “After Silence (for Rachel Carson)” by Neil Gaiman, read by Amanda Palmer
  16. FINALE: “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Amanda Palmer and performed by The Decomposers: Amanda Palmer (vocals), Zöe Keating (cello), Sean Ono Lennon (guitar and vocals), and John Cameron Mitchell (vocals)
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