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The Prescient Poem 10-Year-Old Anne Frank Penned in Her Schoolmate’s Friendship Book

“For-get-me-not.”

Long before Facebook, young people exchanged musings on life in friendship books (abbreviated, amusingly enough, as FBs) — small booklets or hand-bound pamphlets, also known as poetry albums, which a person would pass around for friends and penpals to fill with verses and inspirational quotes. This shared journal was a kind of primitive cross between Tumblr and Facebook — yet another example of vintage versions of modern social media. In the Netherlands, these booklets were known as pöesiealbums and were especially popular among schoolgirls.

In The Secret Museum (public library) — which also gave us Van Gogh’s never-before-seen sketchbooks and the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was bornMolly Oldfield unearths a friendship book entry by none other than Anne Frank, who penned a short verse in her friend Juultje Ketellapper’s poetry album in June of 1939, a couple of weeks after Anne’s tenth birthday.

Anne Frank’s entry in Juultje Ketellapper’s friendship book

On the third page of the book, Anne glued a photograph of herself, then inscribed each corner of the page with “For-get-me-not.” On page four, she wrote her short poem:

Dear Juultje,

What shall I write here?
Wait, Dear Juul, I have an idea:
Good health and all the best!
Be good be full of zest,
And whatever fate may be divining,
Remember every cloud has a silver lining.

In memory of your friend
Anne Frank

Anne Frank’s tenth birthday, 1939. Anne is the second girl from the left, and Juultje the fifth.

Oldfield ponders:

I could imagine Anne sticking in that photograph herself — that same fun, expressive face, now famous — then carefully writing her words into her friend’s book. Her writing was very neat.

It was a time when Jews were still treated largely on par with Amsterdam’s non-Jewish citizens — a time when it was possible for a child as bright and joyful as Anne to have many friends, both Jewish and not, and to inhabit her childhood with the beautiful buoyancy of trusting the future stretched wide open with hope and promise. The poem is thus at once optimistic and crushingly ominous in its prescience of what that future, so grimly different from her childhood hope, held for Anne.

Anne Frank’s bedroom

While it’s hard — morally repugnant, even — to consider anything about Anne’s tragedy a “silver lining,” the closest we get to such consolation is her enduring legacy, preserved thanks to her famous, existentially indispensable diary. In it, with equally heartbreaking prescience, she writes:

You’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to be a journalist and, later on, a famous writer.

And if anyone had the right — the desperate urgency — to seek such a “silver lining,” it was Anne’s father, Otto, who was the only surviving member of the family and who honored his daughter’s wish by bringing her diary to life with a wish of his own:

I hope Anne’s book will have an effect on the rest of your life so that, insofar as possible in your own circumstances, you will work for unity and peace.

Photographs from The Secret Museum, courtesy of Molly Oldfield / Harper Collins

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The Science of Dreams and Why We Have Nightmares

The psychology of our built-in nocturnal therapy.

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind,” Freud argued in his influential treatise The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. “The earth is heavy and opaque without dreams,” Anaïs Nin wrote in her diary in 1940. “In the olden days, people believed that our dreams were full of clues about the future,” Alain de Botton told a little kid who wanted to know about dreaming. But what, exactly, are dreams and why do we have them? Modern psychology has given us a fair amount of insight on the creative purpose of daydreaming, but — aside from Rosalind Cartwright’s compelling research on how dreams and REM sleep mediate our negative emotions — the study of dreams has largely stagnated since Freud’s day.

In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library) — one of the best science books of 2012, exploring what happens while you sleep and how it affects your every waking moment, which also gave us this fascinating read on sleep and the teenage brainDavid K. Randall traces psychologists’ evolving understanding of why we dream.

Freud’s theories — premised on the idea that the symbolism of dreams encoded the dreamer’s subconscious desires and concerns, often of a sexual nature — were systematically challenged and dismissed over the course of the 20th century, but without much of a viable alternative theory. It wasn’t until Calvin Hall, a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University, set out to record and catalog people’s dreams in the 1950s that glimmers of illumination began piercing the darkness shrouding this psychological mystery. Randall writes of Hall’s empirical findings, which came diametrically opposed to Freud’s theories:

By the time [Hall] died in 1985, Hall had synopses of more than fifty thousand dreams from people of all age groups and nationalities. From this large database, he created a coding system that essentially treated each dream like it was a short story. He recorded, among other things, the dream’s setting, its number of characters and their genders, any dialogue, and whether what happened in the dream was pleasant or frightening. He also noted basics about each dreamer as well, such as age, gender, and where the person lived.

Hall introduced the world of dream interpretation to the world of data. He pored through his dream collection, bringing numbers and statistical rigor into a field that had been split into two extremes. He tested what was the most likely outcome of, say, dreaming about work. Would the dreamer be happy? Angry? And would the story hew close to reality or would the people in the dream act strange and out of character? If there were predictable outcomes, then maybe dreams followed some kind of pattern. Maybe they even mattered.

Hall’s conclusion was the opposite of Freud’s: Far from being full of hidden symbols, most dreams were remarkably straightforward and predictable. Dream plots were consistent enough that, just by knowing the cast of characters in a dream, Hall could forecast what would happen with surprising accuracy. A dream featuring a man whom the dreamer doesn’t know in real life, for instance, almost always entails a plot in which the stranger is aggressive. Adults tend to dream of other people they know, while kids usually dream of animals. About three out of every four characters in a man’s dream will be other men, while women tend to encounter an equal number of males and females. Most dreams take place in the dreamers’ homes or offices and, if they have to go somewhere, they drive cars or walk there. And not surprisingly, college students dream about sex more often than middle-aged adults.

In other words, he found that dreams are far from surreal wonderlands where our imaginations roam wildly — rather, they are explorations of our mundane concerns, recast in a light only slightly removed from reality.

And yet theories continue to differ. Ernest Hartmann, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine, studies the content of dreams and how it relates to their function:

Hartmann sees dreams as a form of built-in nocturnal therapy. In dreams, he says, the mind takes what is new or bothersome and blends it into what the brain already knows, making the new information seem less novel or threatening. … Hartmann argues that the life of early man was filled with the kind of traumas — watching friends gored by animals with sharp tusks or fall through holes in the ice and drown, just to give you two possibilities — that few people experience today. Those who were able to regain their emotional balance after living through a traumatic event were more likely to survive over the long run than those who dwelled on the negative.

As evidence of his theory, Hartmann points to the fact that the mind has a tendency to replay scary or harrowing experiences in dreams almost exactly as they happened in real life for several nights after the event. … For some people, however, the brain gets stuck replaying traumas, like a band that only knows one song. When the brain fails to set aside the event in its long-term memory — a move that researchers see as a sign that the emotional system has come to accept what happened and can now put it into perspective — a person may experience recurring nightmares, which is one of the hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Grim as this may sound, however, let’s not forget that dreams also help us do the very opposite — they allow our brains to digest and regulate negative emotions. And, if all else fails, there’s always the option of training yourself to control your dreams.

Dreamland remains a must-read in its entirety. Complement it with the science of internal time.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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What Makes a Great Interview

“True storytellers write not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story.”

Perhaps because it blends the transfixing allure of voyeurism with the intricacy of introspection, the art of the interview is among the most elusive of journalistic feats. In How to Read a Novelist (public library) — a magnificent collection of conversations with 55 literary icons, including David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Margaret Atwood — celebrated writer and book critic John Freeman showcases the interview’s most commanding incarnation as he sets out “to describe an encounter, to show to the reader what the writer revealed to me, at their own choosing, over an hour or two or three, sometimes more, of conversation.”

Freeman, who belongs to that generation of “silent” interviewers ushered in by the Paris Review revolution, frames the appeal of literary interviews against the backdrop of a necessary caveat:

It was a breach of everyone’s privacy when a reader turns to a writer, or a writer’s books, for vicariously learned solutions to his own life problems. This is the fallacy behind every interview or biographical sketch, to tether a writer’s life too literally to his work, or to insist that a novel function as a substitute for actually living through the mistakes a person must live through in order to learn how to properly, maybe even happily, survive.

And yet he speaks to the peculiar mesmerism of so breaching a writer’s privacy in particular:

I have always felt there is something electrifying about meeting novelists. It isn’t like running into a celebrity, where your eye readjusts to the true physical contours of someone seen primarily on-screen. It has to do with grasping that the creator of a fictional world, a universe that lives inside you as a reader while also feeling strangely disembodied, is not as interior as that world but alive: flesh and blood.

Freeman, however, is wary of the observer-expectancy effect that inevitably filters into each such conversation as the interviewer, being human and thus an embodiment of Hunter S. Thompson’s contention that “there is no such thing as Objective Journalism,” inevitably bends it through the prism of his own experience:

An interview [is] a form of conversation that has the same relationship to talking as fiction does to life. In order to work, fiction must abide by a set of rules it defines for itself, even if invisibly, and if an interview is to flow like a chat between two people it, too, must follow a set of conventions, some of them quite contradictory to how we are taught to interact naturally. Namely, that the interviewer asks all of the questions, offers pieces of information only for the purpose of stimulating more from the subject, and, primarily, that neither party calls attention to the artificiality of what is happening.

There is, however, a powerful antidote to this peril, one that sets the masterful interviewer apart. One thing Freeman’s fantastic interviews reveal, by virtue of contrast, is the insidiousness of online Q&A masquerading as interviews — those formulaic exchanges, most often conducted via email, that attempt to fit their subject into a template of compulsory questions, portending to reveal something meaningful about the complexity and inner workings of a singular mind while squeezing it into this one-size-fits-all model. The richness of the truly revelatory interview, of course, comes from those unplanned meanderings between planned questions, which unfold through the art of conversation and not though the dutiful adherence to a template.

Indeed, Freeman found himself with a gradually dwindling list of prepared questions as he began to really listen to his subjects, rather than dictating the course of the conversations:

I began arriving at interviews having read the books but without a single question in hand. This forced me to listen to people’s answers, and it meant we could have an actual conversation, with all the unpredictability and freshness of a good one.

In a way, then, a great interview abides by the third of legendary artist Richard Diebenkorn’s 10 rules of painting: “Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.” It is perhaps no coincidence that we find a beautiful symmetry between the art of the interview and the art of fiction — this supremacy of the intuitive over the intentional is also something Freeman finds as a steady undercurrent beneath all of his subjects’ work, the answer to the quintessential question of why writers write. He puts it beautifully:

True storytellers write, I believe, not because they can but because they have to. There is something they want to say about the world that can only be said in a story.

Of course, specific motives and inclinations differ across authors. (Though, arguably, they all comply with Orwell’s model of the four universal motives.) Freeman writes:

For some novelists, like Toni Morrison or Ngugi wa Thiong’o or Louise Erdrich, this task of telling stories about a place has a political dimension; it is about making visible a history, a sensibility, which history has repressed or occluded. For other writers, like David Foster Wallace, the need to write grew from an obsession with language, and further dimensions of their work all developed from that originating fire. Some of these novelists, like Mark Danielewski or Susanna Clarke, were so new to publishing that what haunted them was still developing and they spoke of it warily, revising and thinking aloud. Others were so near the end of their career—such as Philip Roth or Norman Mailer—they had already begun to try to curate how their work was read after they stopped writing or living.

The one recurring theme of psychological drive, however, appears to be the impulse for unity and integration, for “making the disparate parts of the world, and [the writer’s] experience, whole.” And so, once again, we arrive at Freeman’s mastery of the interview and insight into the form’s true role:

An interviewer’s job, I found, was not to close that gap — between here and there, between what was broken and what was whole — but to make it more mysterious.

His own role, however, he sees as one of necessary invisibility, made visible only through its steadfast implicit sensibility:

It would have felt grandiose to include much of myself in these pieces. I am there, I suppose, in the questions I ask and in the things I note. I am there in the tack I take through their books, and the quotes I chose to give the narrative of our encounter sail, as all interviewers must do, but the self I live in, the one made by factors accidental and chosen, remains, I hope, discrete. I have done this with the goal of making it easier for readers to step into the frame and imagine themselves there.

In this regard, the great interviewer is a sort of curator* of conversation, both absent and present. (* Suppose, for a moment, the word weren’t made as vacant of meaning by way of misuse and overuse, and still stood for something — stood for what it once used to designate, as in a museum curator who gently guides you along a theme of importance and interest.) This is something that sets apart not only today’s most exceptional interviewers, but also our time’s finest cultural “curators” — take, for instance, Andrew Sullivan, who highlights notable ideas from other publications, yet whose voice and sensibility are very much present and absolutely unmistakable even as his own extensive commentary is absent from most of his selections.

Freeman is also mindful of the novelist’s ever-fluid self — something Anaïs Nin articulated beautifully in 1946 — and this awareness informs his approach:

The only thing an interviewer can do to capture what a novelist truly does is to make them talk and tell stories, and think aloud. These are not meant to be definitive life profiles but rather glimpses spied through a moving window. Writers are always evolving, publishing, and they are also in constant direct or indirect dialogue with another.

(Coincidentally, at the recent New Yorker Festival, Jonathan Franzen affirmed this sentiment by noting, “I should have more conversations like this in public because it actually forces me to organize my thoughts.”)

One of Freeman’s keenest insights touches on the same immutable insecurity that drives writers’ notorious penchant for productivity rituals (“I have a theory [that] if you lead a very repetitious life, your imagination works very well,” Haruki Murakami tells Freeman), the famous writerly self-consciousness which drives even the greatest literary virtuosos to see their completed work as “a kind of miracle”:

Whether they have a Nobel or a Pulitzer, or a first novel ten years in the making, all of these novelists are still shocked, each time they finish, that it gets done at all. Perhaps that is why chance remains, aside from sheer effort, the most cited factor in how they discovered their voices.

Ultimately, however, it is at this interplay between doggedness and serendipity — something successful scientists welcome as “chance-opportunism” — that anchors writers to themselves:

In the end, it becomes impossible to separate the two forces from one another, just as it is so difficult, but necessary, to separate writers from their work. Their bodies are their bodies of work, and even the most prolific of them, like Updike, are driven against a dying of the light.

How to Read a Novelist goes on to employ this intricate art of the interview in unraveling the secrets of the craft and the essence of the writer’s soul, in all its uncontainable, template-resistant complexity. Complement it with the collected wisdom of literary greats.

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