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The Evolution of the Book, Animated

From stretched animal skins to metal alloys to pixels, an inquiry into what makes a book.

The Evolution of the Book, Animated

Carl Sagan saw books as “proof that human beings are capable of working magic.” “Reading books is the most glorious pastime that humankind has yet devised,” Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska observed in her memorable meditation on why we read. “If anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space … the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books,” Hermann Hesse asserted in his increasingly timely 1930 contemplation of why the magic of the book will outlast other technologies. Books, Susan Sontag wrote in her beautiful letter to Borges, grant us “a way of being fully human.” Indeed, any thinking, feeling human being knows that it is impossible to be fully alive and awake to the world without reading, and so we’ve come to see books not only as essential to our humanity.

But this wasn’t always so. Although our humanoid ancestors have walked this earth for millions of years, writing has only been around for several thousand and printed books as we know them for not even six hundred. If the history of our species since the first modern humans were plotted on a 12-hour clock, modern books would emerge just after the seconds hand sweeps the bottom of the dial at 11:57pm.

So how did something so nascent become so elemental to our humanity? That’s what educator Julie Dreyfuss and animator Patrick Smith (whose unmistakable style you might recognize from his wonderful work for Blank on Blank) explore in this short TED-Ed animation chronicling the history of books:

As the book evolves and we replace bound texts with flat screens and electronic ink, are these objects and files really books? Does the feel of the cover or the smell of the paper add something crucial to the experience, or does the magic live only within the words, no matter what their presentation?

Complement with Rebecca Solnit on why we read and write, Kafka’s terrific and slightly terrifying metaphor for what books do for the human spirit, and this vintage illustrated love letter to how books are made, then revisit other terrific TED-Ed animated primers on what makes you you, how melancholy enhances creativity, why some people are left-handed, what depression actually feels like, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.


Amanda Palmer Reads “Humanity I Love You” by E.E. Cummings

A timeless ode to the human spirit and the courage of “making poems in the lap of death.”

Amanda Palmer Reads “Humanity I Love You” by E.E. Cummings

“Poetry, like all art, has a trinitarian function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying,” Vassar Miller asserted. “It is creative because it takes the raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning.”

Few poets have enacted this trinitarian function more fiercely and timelessly than e.e. cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962) — an artist who “despised fear, and [whose] life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.” And few of his works embody this fearless radiance more powerfully than “Humanity i love you,” the first of the five-part poem “La Guerre” from his groundbreaking 1923 collection Tulips and Chimneys (public library) — a bold experiment in semantics, syntax, and punctuation that established Cummings (who, contrary to popular misconception, spelled his name both capitalized and not) as a visionary avant-garde poet.

Illustration from Enormous Smallness, a picture-book about the life and genius of E.E. Cummings

Here comes a stirring reading of this stirring poem performed by Amanda Palmer — brilliant musician, writer of great wisdom, dear friend, and fellow poetry-lover who has previously read the beautiful poems “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska.

Please enjoy, and join me in supporting Amanda’s music and category-blind art on Patreon.

Humanity i love you
because you would rather black the boots of
success than enquire whose soul dangles from his
watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both

parties and because you
unflinchingly applaud all
songs containing the words country home and
mother when sung at the old howard

Humanity i love you because
when you’re hard up you pawn your
intelligence to buy a drink and when
you’re flush pride keeps

you from the pawn shop and
because you are continually committing
nuisances but more
especially in your own house

Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down

on it
and because you are
forever making poems in the lap
of death Humanity

i hate you

This beautiful reading was Amanda’s remote and time-shifted contribution to Verses for Hope — a pop-up poetry reading I organized in collaboration with the Academy of American Poets, born out of a restless desire to offer solace after the dispiriting events of late and to create a space for celebration amid suffering.

Complement it with Cummings on what it really means to be an artist, his poetry set to song, the fairy tales he wrote for his only daughter, and this impossibly lovely picture-book about his life and legacy, then revisit Amanda on art, love, and our lifelong quest to feel real and join me in supporting her art, which (like Brain Pickings) is free to all and nourished by donations.


E.B. White on Weapons, Justice, and What It Really Takes to Live in a Peaceful World

“Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening.”

E.B. White on Weapons, Justice, and What It Really Takes to Live in a Peaceful World

Each epoch creates a handful of grab-bag terms, phrased in its distinctive vocabulary, to hold its central anxieties. But although the concretization of those anxieties into specific catchphrases might differ from era to era, the undergirding psychology springs from the same elemental, perennial source — the fear of having our safety, security, and basic human freedoms violated.

Today, one of the issues that most foment and torment our collective conscience is contained within the phrase “gun control,” which is of course a grab-bag term for a complex ecosystem of issues including violence, freedom, safety, justice, commerce, morality, and human rights. Half a century ago, in the zenith of the Cold War, its counterpart was the phrase “nuclear disarmament.” The focal point of one individuals — their rights, their responsibilities, their vulnerabilities — and of the other, nations. But the most lucid arguments about the underlying issues apply with striking similarity to both.

Among those is a spectacular essay by E.B. White (July 11, 1899–October 1, 1985) titled “Unity,” penned in the spring of 1960 and later included in Essays of E.B. White (public library) — the same timelessly rewarding volume the foreword to which gave us White’s meta-wisdom on the art of the essay.

White writes:

Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening. What is this good thing? I think it is the evolution of community, community slowly and surely invested with the robes of government by the consent of the governed.

Traditional approaches to peace, White notes, have sought to address symptoms rather than causes — an argument that applies equally to the failures of gun control today. He writes:

We cannot conceivably achieve a peaceful life merely by relaxing the tensions of sovereign nations; there is an unending supply of them. We may gain a breather by relaxing a tension here and there, but I think it a fallacy that a mere easement, or diplomacy triumphant, can ever be the whole base for peace. You could relax every last tension tonight and wake tomorrow morning with all the makings of war, all the familiar promise of trouble.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

The very notion of “disarmament,” White cautions, is emblematic of this futile effort to control outcomes while turning a blind eye to causes:

Unfortunately, disarmament doesn’t have much to do with peace… Keeping itself strong is always a nation’s first concern whenever arms are up for discussion, and disarmament is simply one of the devices by which a nation tries to increase its strength relative to the strength of others. On this naked earth, a nation that approaches disarmament as though it were a humanitarian ideal is either suffering from delusions or planning a deception.


Disarmament talks divert our gaze from the root of the matter, which is not the control of weapons, or weapons themselves, but the creation of machinery for the solution of the problems that give rise to the use of weapons.

Disarmament, I think, is a mirage. I don’t mean it is indistinct or delusive, I mean it isn’t there. Every ship, every plane could be scrapped, every stockpile destroyed, every soldier mustered out, and if the original reasons for holding arms were still present, the world would not have been disarmed. Arms would simply be in a momentary state of suspension, preparatory to new and greater arms. The eyes of all of us are fixed on a shape we seem to see up ahead—a vision of a world relaxed, orderly, secure, friendly. Disarmament looks good because it sounds good, but unhappily one does not get rid of disorder by getting rid of munitions, and disarmament is not solid land containing a harbor, it is an illusion caused by political phenomena, just as a mirage is an illusion caused by atmospheric phenomena, a land mass that doesn’t exist.

Illustration from Once Upon an Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers

In a sentiment that resounds with astonishing pertinence to our present predicament, he adds:

Weapons are worrisome and expensive; they make everyone edgy. But weapons are not and never have been the cause of the trouble.

Noting, with his characteristic genius for metaphor, that arms are “among the most intimate of a nation’s garments … which a nation instinctively conceals from view,” White considers the question of transparency and why mere policing is not the path to amplify trust:

National life is secret life. It is always been secret, and I think it is necessarily secret. To live openly, one must first have a framework of open living — a political framework very different from anything that now exists on the international level. A disarmament arrangement backed by controls and inspection is not such a framework, it is simply a veiled invitation to more and greater secrecy.

An adequate approach to the issue, he argues, must reconcile the liberty of a particular nation with the common good of the world — an argument whose analogue is the growing urgency of reconciling the personal freedom of the individual with the good of the society she inhabits. For an elegant articulation of the paradox, White points to an op-ed by the great Spanish diplomat, writer, and pacifist Salvador de Madariaga, which had appeared in the New York Times Magazine several months earlier:

Señor de Madaringa ended his article with an observation that should inform and enliven every free nation.

“The trouble today,” he wrote, “is that the Communist world understands unity but not liberty, while the free world understands liberty but not unity. Eventual victory may be won by the first of the two sides to achieve the synthesis of both liberty and unity.”

Illustration by Soyeon Kim from Wild Ideas

In a sentiment that echoes his contemporary Primo Levi’s vision for a united humanity, White concludes:

Justice will find a home where there is a synthesis of liberty and unity in a framework of government. And when justice appears on any scene, on any level of society, men’s problems enjoy a sort of automatic solution, because they enjoy the means of solution. Unity is no mirage. It is the distant shore. I believe we should at least head for that good shore, though most of us will not reach it in this life.

Essays of E.B. White, it bears repeating, is an indispensable trove of abiding insight into the human experience revealed through lenses as wide-ranging as railroad travel, Christmas ornaments, Walden, equestrianism, and the psychology of humor. Complement it with White on the future of reading, the two faces of discipline, what makes a great city, and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.


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