Brain Pickings

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The Importance of Frustration in the Creative Process, Animated

“Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment.”

Last week, Jonah Lehrer took us inside “the seething cauldron of ideas” with Imagine: How Creativity Works, his long-awaited (by me, at least) new book. Now, from Flash Rosenberg — Guggenheim Fellow, NYPL artist-in-residence, live-illustrator extraordinaire, and Brain Pickings darling — comes this wonderful hand-drawn teaser for the book, distilling one of Lehrer’s key ideas in Rosenberg’s signature style of simple yet visually eloquent line drawings.

When we tell stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase. We neglect to mention those days when we wanted to quit, when we believed that our problem was impossible. Instead, we skip straight to the breakthrough. We tell the happy ending first.

The danger of this scenario is that the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process. Before we can find the answer — before we can even know the question — we must be immersed in disappointment, convinced that a solution is beyond our reach. We need to have wrestled with the problem and lost. Because it’s only after we stop searching that an answer may arrive.

For a related treat, see Rosenberg’s live-illustration of John Lithgow reading Mark Twin at the New York Public Library.

BP

Writers and Their Books: Inside Famous Authors’ Personal Libraries

Lessons in reading from an 18th-century lord, or why the allure of an unread book is like the dawn of romance.

As a hopeless bibliophile, an obsessive lover of bookcases, and a chronic pursuer of voyeuristic peeks inside the minds of creators, I’m utterly spellbound by Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books — a vicarious journey into the personal libraries of thirteen favorite authors, who share their collections of childhood favorites, dusty textbooks, prized first editions, and beloved hardcovers, along with some thoughts on books, reading, and the life of the mind. Alongside the formidable collections — featuring Alison Bechdel, Stephen Carter, Junot Díaz, Rebecca Goldstein and Steven Pinker, Lev Grossman and Sophie Gee, Jonathan Lethem, Claire Messud and James Wood, Philip Pullman, Gary Shteyngart, and Edmund Whit — are short interviews with the authors about the books most important to them (including their top 10), their style of organization, and their thoughts on what the future of books might hold. (Cue in writers on the future of books.) The interviews are prefaced by Leah Price’s fascinating brief history of bookshelves, from the rise of the vertical book on a horizontal shelf to how social bookmarking services are changing our relationship with tagging and indexing information.

A self without a shelf remains cryptic; a home without books naked.” ~ Leah Price

With a nod to both the Medieval florilegium and the productive messiness of marginalia, Price echoes Craig Mod’s vision for the future of post-artifact books:

Far from making reader response invisible, then, the digital age may be taking us back to the Renaissance tradition of readers commenting in the margins of their friends’ or employers’ books and contributing homemade indexes to the flyleaves. Only after the rise of the nineteenth- century public library did such acts come to be seen as defacing, rather than enriching, the book.”

Steven Pinker + Rebecca Goldstein

A common denominator in many of my nonfiction choices is their combination of clarity, rigor, accessibility, depth, and wit. The novels by Twain and Melville are gold mines for anyone interested in language and in human nature.” ~ Steven Pinker

Kant tells us that a person can never be used as a means to an end, but must be viewed as an end in itself. This is one of the formulations of his famous categorical imperative. Well, that pretty much summarizes my attitude toward books. I would never use a book as a coaster or to prop up something else, any more than I’d use a person toward that end.” ~ Rebecca Goldstein

Jonathan Lethem

People sometimes act as though owning books you haven’t read constitutes a charade or pretense, but for me, there’s a lovely mystery and pregnancy about a book that hasn’t given itself over to you yet — sometimes I’m the most inspired by imagining what the contents of an unread book might be.”

(Isn’t that strikingly like the beginning of a romance?)

Stephen Carter notes the importance of being pushed out of our intellectual and literary filter bubbles:

My life was changed. The books she gave me opened my mind to the simple realization that there is in the world such a thing as truly great literature; and that I would never discover it by mere hit-or-miss, or by reading only what interested me.”

Claire Messud + James Wood

Owning books has been only intermittently of importance to me. At one time, collecting books that were my own, feeling I had my own intellectual and literary trajectory visible before me, seemed necessary and meaningful. But now, in midlife, I feel that my tendency to acquire books is rather like someone smoking two packs a day: it’s a terrible vice that I wish I could shuck. I love my books, and with all their dog-ears and under- linings they are irreplaceable; but I sometimes wish they’d just vanish. To be weighed down by things — books, furniture — seems somehow terrible to me. It’s important to be ready to move on.” ~ Claire Messud

Gary Shteyngart

Some books are just crap and have to be thrown out. But some crappy books remind you of certain times in your life and have to be kept. In the closet.” ~ Gary Shteyngart

Philip Pullman

How does the reading feed into the writing, and vice versa? Continually, continuously, promiscuously, in a million ways.” ~ Philip Pullman

And in the vein of last week’s meditation on how to read a book, Price relays the following advice, bequeathed by the Earl of Chesterfield to his son in 1747:

I knew a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments; and it will make any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind.”

(The same Lord Chesterfield two years later pronounced, “Due attention to the inside of books, and due contempt for the outside is the proper relation between a man of sense and his books.”)

Equal parts voyeuristically indulgent and unapologetically stimulating, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books is the second installment in Yale University Press’s ongoing series, following 2009’s Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books.

Images courtesy of Yale University Press

BP

Vintage Halloween: Haunted Postcards from the Early 1900s

Visual snark from the early 20th century, or what haunted mirrors have to do with the lover of your dreams.

In the olden days, Hallowe’en provided another reason to send friends and family celebratory postcards. (These days, it provides another reason to don a slutty outfit and make out with strangers.) Culled from the New York Public Library digital gallery of vintage ephemera, here are some wonderful public domain archival images of haunted postcards from the 1910s.

One thing yesteryear’s Halloween festivities had in common with today’s were the popular parties for young adults to celebrate the occasion. A common superstition from the era held that if a young woman looked in a mirror on that night, she’d see the face of the man she was meant to marry. True to the period’s typical snark, many of the postcards poked fun at the hooey.

And in another wink at the past’s visions for the future of technology, here’s a card that depicts a high-tech witch with her “charms new and all up do date,” flying an “Aeroplane” instead of broom.

An NYPL digital librarian notes:

The playful style and breezy content of the postcards vividly evoke an era of frequent correspondence on every possible occasion, in which postcards served as the ’email’ of their time.”

(Cue in omnibus of vintage versions of modern social media.)

As a lover of public libraries, I make regular donations to NYPL — a small token of gratitude for their tireless preservation of the past, thoughtful lens on the present, and keen eye on the future. Join me in supporting them.

BP

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