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How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

Wisdom and wit from Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, William Styron, Truman Capote, and other literary titans.

How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century

“Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Criticism,” artist Ai Weiwei told an interviewer, “is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.” The truth, of course, is that it’s both — criticism is a technology of thought and, like any technology, it can be put to constructive or destructive use depending on the intention of its originator and the receptivity of its object. One thing is certain: For every artist — that is, for every human being who gives form to his or her inner life and shares that form with the outside world — critical response is inevitable, for every successful act of engaging with the world guarantees that the world will engage back. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is therefore one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.

That’s what some of the most celebrated writers of the past century address in a section of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — George Plimpton’s wonderful 1989 collection of wisdom from Paris Review interviews, which also gave us James Baldwin’s advice on writing.

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

Two centuries after David Hume contemplated the only good response to critics and half a century before “don’t feed the trolls” became the self-protection mantra of the Internet, Truman Capote offers:

Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion… There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.

Aldous Huxley reflects on why he doesn’t read reviews of his own work:

They’ve never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.

John Irving inverts and subverts this notion, quoting Cocteau:

Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.

William Styron considers an inescapable yet professionally inconvenient byproduct of our humanity:

I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery.


There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sell-out. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I”m getting along all right.

Kurt Vonnegut laments critics’ growing taste for blood as a writer’s reputation grows. He recounts how critics who had previously praised him on his way up began tearing him down once he reached a certain tipping point of success:

All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug… It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.

In a sentiment that calls to mind the poet Donald Hall’s terrific advice to writers, Thornton Wilder offers the most lucid disposition of all:

The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work.

Complement this particular bit of the wholly magnificent The Writer’s Chapbook with Neil Gaiman on the only adequate response to critics — some of the most lucid and luminous advice on the creative life ever articulated — and Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s brilliant strategy for preempting criticism.


Great Writers on the Power of Music

Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Friedrich Nietzsche, and more.

“Music is the best means we have of digesting time,” Igor Stravinsky once remarked (a remark often misattributed to W.H. Auden). “Music is the sound wave of the soul,” the wise and wonderful Morley observed. Psychologists have studied why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity and how listening to music enraptures the brain. But, more than that, music works over the human spirit and stands as a supreme manifestation of our very humanity — something Carl Sagan knew when he sent the Golden Record into the cosmos as a representation of the most universal truths of our civilization.

Gathered here are uncommonly beautiful reflections on the singular power of music by some of humanity’s greatest writers, collected over years of reading — please enjoy.


Susan Sontag spent the majority of her adult life reading between eight and ten hours a day, and never fewer than four. Her intense love of literature was paralleled by a commensurate love of music. In a diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the spectacular volume that gave us young Sontag on personal growth, art, marriage, the four people a great writer must be, and her duties for being a twenty-something — she writes at age 15:

Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts — it is the most abstract, the most perfect, the most pure — and the most sensual. I listen with my body and it is my body that aches in response to the passion and pathos embodied in this music.


In his final essay collection, A Man Without a Country (public library) — the source of his abiding wisdom on the shapes of storiesKurt Vonnegut wrote that music, above all else, “made being alive almost worthwhile” for him. He synthesized the sentiment in an extra-concentrated dose of his wry irreverence:

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:


Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay makes a similar point via counterpoint. In a beautiful 1920 letter to a friend, found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us the beloved poet on what it really means to be an anarchist, her touching appreciation of her mother, and her exquisite love letters — 28-year-old Millay writes:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principle of geometry.


No one has illustrated the vitalizing power of music with more marvelous morbidity than Friedrich Nietzsche. In an aphorism from his 1889 book Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer (public library), he proclaims:

Without music life would be a mistake.

The point of this morbidity, of course, is to convey the infinitely enlivening power of music — something Nietzsche elaborated on in an autobiographical fragment quoted in Julian Young’s altogether fantastic Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (public library):

God has given us music so that above all it can lead us upwards. Music unites all qualities: it can exalt us, divert us, cheer us up, or break the hardest of hearts with the softest of its melancholy tones. But its principal task is to lead our thoughts to higher things, to elevate, even to make us tremble… The musical art often speaks in sounds more penetrating than the words of poetry, and takes hold of the most hidden crevices of the heart… Song elevates our being and leads us to the good and the true. If, however, music serves only as a diversion or as a kind of vain ostentation it is sinful and harmful.


Arthur Schopenhauer was a major influence on his compatriot of Nietzsche. In his extensive inquiry into the power of music, found in the first volume of his 1818 masterwork The World as Will and Representation (public library), Schopenhauer writes:

Music … stands quite apart from all the [other arts]. In it we do not recognize the copy, the repetition, of any Idea of the inner nature of the world. Yet it is such a great and exceedingly fine art, its effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself, that in it we certainly have to look for more than that exercitium arithmeticae occultum nescientis se numerare animi [“an unconscious exercise in arithmetic in which the mind does not know it is counting”] which Leibniz took it to be… We must attribute to music a far more serious and profound significance that refers to the innermost being of the world and of our own self.

More of Schopenhauer’s ideas about music can be found here.


In her early twenties, Virginia Woolf found a very different kind of exaltation in music. In a lengthy 1903 diary entry titled “A Dance at Queen’s Gate” from A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1909 (public library), the 21-year-old writer recounts the particularly intoxicating effect of dance music (which, at the time, involved violins) during a wild night on the town:

That is the quality which dance music has — no other: it stirs some barbaric instinct — lulled asleep in our sober lives — you forget centuries of civilization in a second, & yield to that strange passion which sends you madly whirling round the room — oblivious of everything save that you must keep swaying with the music — in & out, round & round — in the eddies & swirls of the violins. It is as though some swift current of water swept you along with it. It is magic music.


The great French Romantic poet, novelist, and dramatist Victor Hugo extolled music’s singular potency with sublime succinctness. In the preface to his 1864 study of those he considered to be “the greatest geniuses of all time,” somewhat deceptively titled William Shakespeare (public library), he writes:

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.


Aldous Huxley takes a complementary perspective in a beautiful essay titled The Rest Is Silence (on which Alex Ross’s excellent The Rest Is Noise is a play), found in the altogether terrific 1931 collection Music at Night and Other Essays (public library):

After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.


When the inexpressible had to be expressed, Shakespeare laid down his pen and called for music.


Perhaps the most dedicated and prolific diarist of all time, French-Cuban writer Anaïs Nin began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and continued until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse and timeless subjects as love, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In an entry from The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5 (public library) — which also gave us Nin’s sublime meditation on embracing the unfamiliar — she writes:

Jazz is the music of the body. The breath comes through brass. It is the body’s breath, and the strings’ wails and moans are echoes of the body’s music. It is the body’s vibrations which ripple from the fingers. And the mystery of the withheld theme, known to jazz musicians alone, is like the mystery of our secret life. We give to others only peripheral improvisations.


In his timeless and tremendously timely 1860s essay Democratic Vistas, found in the Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (public library), Walt Whitman writes:

Music, the combiner, nothing more spiritual, nothing more sensuous, a god, yet completely human, advances, prevails, holds highest place; supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply.


Nearly a century and a half later, Oliver Sacks captured this supreme spiritual sustenance of music in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (public library), which remains the most stimulating inquiry into the source of music’s power ever written. Reflecting on a particularly trying moment for the human spirit — the days following the September 11 attacks — Dr. Sacks writes:

On my morning bike ride to Battery Park, I heard music as I approached the tip of Manhattan, and then saw and joined a silent crowd who sat gazing out to sea and listening to a young man playing Bach’s Chaconne in D on his violin. When the music ended and the crowd quietly dispersed, it was clear that the music had brought them some profound consolation, in a way that no words could ever have done.

Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.

Complement with Anthony Burgess’s account of the magical moment he fell in love with music as a little boy and this wonderful vintage guide to the seven essential skills of listening to music, then revisit similar collections of great writers’ reflections on New York City, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, the importance of boredom, and how creativity works.


The Greatest Commencement Addresses of All Time

Kurt Vonnegut, J.K. Rowling, David Foster Wallace, Patti Smith, Anna Quindlen, Steve Jobs, and more.

The commencement address is the secular sermon of our time — a packet of timeless advice on life, dispensed by a podium-perched patronly or matronly shaman of wisdom to a congregation of eager young minds about to enter the so-called “real world.” But the genre’s finest specimens speak to all of us looking for some guidance on the path to the Good Life, transcending boundaries of age or occupation or life-stage. The best commencement speeches are also masterworks of paradox: On the one hand, they gently remind us that what we think we know, we don’t; on the other, they urge us to trust our deepest intuitions about confidence, kindness, integrity, and all those embarrassingly elemental truths which, in all other contexts, our culturally conditioned cynicism leads us to dismiss as tired truisms. But not here — the commencement address is society’s most potent mechanism for clearing the clouds of our cynicism just long enough to allow a few rays of receptivity to shine through, long enough to hang our beliefs and vulnerabilities and hopes on something solid and soul-affirming, and to do so in a non-ironic way.

Gathered in this ongoing archive are the best commencement addresses I’ve encountered over the years — words of wisdom that offer such rare respite, a source of sincere solace for us cynical moderns. Please enjoy.

  1. Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life (University of Michigan, 1988)
    “Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo.”
  2. David Foster Wallace on life (Kenyon College, 2005)
    Revisiting the tragic literary hero’s only public insights on life.
  3. Kurt Vonnegut on kindness, technology, community, and the power of great teachers (Agnes Scott College, 1999)
    “Teaching, may I say, is the noblest profession of all in a democracy.”
  4. Bill Watterson on life and creative integrity (Kenyon College, 1990)
    “The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive.”
  5. Anna Quindlen on the secret to a happy life (Villanova, 2000 / undelivered)
    “You cannot be really first-rate at your work if your work is all you are.”
  6. George Saunders on the power of kindness (Syracuse, 2013)
    “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”
  7. Patti Smith on life and making a name for yourself (Pratt, 2010)
    How dental care protects our inner Pinocchio.
  8. Greil Marcus on the toxic division of high vs. low culture (School of Visual Arts, 2013)
    “What art does … is tell us, make us feel that what we think we know, we don’t.”
  9. Joss Whedon on embracing our inner contradictions (Wesleyan, 2013)
    “Identity is something that you are constantly earning. It is a process that you must be active in.”
  10. Neil Gaiman on mistakes and the creative life (Philadelphia University of the Arts, 2012)
    “Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”
  11. Ann Patchett on writing and life (Sarah Lawrence College, 2006)
    “Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected.”
  12. Judith Butler on the value of the humanities and why we read (McGill, 2013)
    “We lose ourselves in what we read, only to return to ourselves, transformed and part of a more expansive world.”
  13. Kurt Vonnegut on reading, boredom, belonging, and hate (Fredonia, 1978)
    “Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”
  14. Ellen Degeneres on success and following your own path (Tulane, 2009)
    “Never follow anyone else’s path, unless you’re in the woods and you’re lost and you see a path, and by all means you should follow that.”
  15. Aaron Sorkin on trusting your compass (Syracuse, 2012)
    “Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.”
  16. Barack Obama on the life of service and the impulse to change the world (Wesleyan, 2008)
    “All it takes is one act of service — one blow against injustice — to send forth what Robert Kennedy called that tiny ripple of hope. That’s what changes the world. That one act.”
  17. Conan O’Brien on disappointment and what defines us (Dartmouth, 2011)
    “Whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.”
  18. J.K. Rowling on defining failure for ourselves (Harvard, 2008)
    “Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.”
  19. Robert Krulwich on friends in low places (Berkeley School of Journalism, 2011)
    “This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.”
  20. Meryl Streep on change and making our own “normal” (Barnard, 2010)
    “Really, there is no ‘normal.’ There’s only change, and resistance to it, and then more change.”
  21. Jeff Bezos on cleverness vs. kindness (Princeton, 2010)
    “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.”
  22. Oprah Winfrey on failure and maxing out our humanity (Harvard, 2013)
    “The key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.”
  23. Adrienne Rich on why an education is something we claim, not something we receive (Douglass College, 1977)
    “Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions.”
  24. Steve Jobs on serendipity and connecting the dots of life (Stanford, 2005)
    “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
  25. Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life (San Jose State University, 2013)
    “Imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time.”
  26. Richard Feynman on integrity (Caltech, 1974)
    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself.”
  27. Daniel Pink on why the best roadmap to an interesting life is the one you make up as you go along (Weinberg College, 2014)
    “Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are or what life you should lead is to do less PLANNING and more LIVING — to burst the double bubble of comfort and convention and just DO stuff.”
  28. Teresita Fernández on What It Really Takes to Be an Artist
    “Being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth… will also become the raw material for the art you make.”
  29. Tom Wolfe on the rise of the pseudo-intellectual (Boston University, 2000)
    “We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion.”
  30. John Waters on Creative Rebellion and the Artist’s Task to Cause Constructive Chaos (RISD, 2015)
    “Refuse to isolate yourself. Separatism is for losers.”
  31. Toni Morrison on How to Be Your Own Story and Reap the Rewards of Adulthood in a Culture That Fetishizes Youth (Wellesley, 2004)
    “There is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood… Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.”
  32. Parker Palmer on the Six Pillars of the Examined Life (Naropa University, 2015)
    “Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself… When you are able to say, ‘I am … my shadow as well as my light,’ the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.”

The 11 Best Biographies and Memoirs of 2011

Illustrated correspondence, rock’n’roll, and what an old Kurt Vonnegut has to do with a young Hemingway.

After the year’s best children’s books, art and design books, photography books, science books, history books, food books, and psychology and philosophy books, the 2011 best-of series continues with the most compelling, provocative and thought-provoking psychology and philosophy books featured here this year.


In 2004, Steve Jobs asked former TIME Magazine editor and prolific biographer Walter Isaacson to write his biography. Isaacson — who has previously profiled such icons as Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Kissinger — thought the request not only presumptuous but also odd for a man of Jobs’s age. What he didn’t know was that Jobs had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had starkly brushed up against his mortality. Over the next few years, Isaacson ended up having over 40 interviews and conversations with Jobs, from which he gleaned the backbone for Steve Jobs, his highly anticipated biography — perhaps an expected pick for my omnibus of the year’s best biographers and memoirs, yet very much a deserving one, not merely because Jobs was a personal hero who shaped my own intellectual and creative development, but also because beneath the story of Jobs as an individual lies a broader story about the meat of innovation and creativity at large.

He was not a model boss or human being, tidily packaged for emulation. Driven by demons, he could drive those around him to fury and despair. But his personality and passions and products were all interrelated, just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as if part of an integrated system. His tale is thus both instructive and cautionary, filled with lessons about innovation, character, leadership, and values.”

Sample the book through Isaacson’s conversation with Charlie Rose and Nick Bilton’s excellent one-on-one interview with the author.

For a complementary read, see I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words — a wonderful anthology of more than 200 quotes and excerpts from his many appearances in the media over the years.


Just when you thought I couldn’t possibly slip Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout into another best-of reading list — it appeared among the year’s best art and design books, best science books, and best history books — here it is, again. But consider this a measure of its merit: In this cross-disciplinary gem, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Marie Curie — one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science, a pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, and not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences — through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: radioactivity and love. It’s remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

It’s also a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.


Kurt Vonnegut — prolific author, anarchist, Second Life dweller, imaginary interviewer of the dead. And, apparently, troubled soul. At least that’s what’s behind the curtain Charles Shields (of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee fame) peels in And So It Goes, subtitled Kurt Vonnegut: A Life — the first-ever true Vonnegut biography, revealing a vulnerable private man behind the public persona, a difficult and damaged man deeply scarred by his experiences.

The project began in 2006, when Shields reached out to Vonnegut in a letter, asking his permission for a planned biography. Though Vonnegut at first declined, Shields wasn’t ready to take “no” for an answer and eventually persuaded the counterculture hero into a “yes,” spending precious time with Vonnegut and his letters during the last year of the author’s life.

From his uneasy childhood to his tortured divorces to his attempted suicide to his explosion into celebrity, Vonnegut’s life was an intricate osmotic balance between private hell and public performance. As a leading figure in a movement of authors as a public intellectuals and a former PR agent for GE, he knew how to craft an image that would appeal to an audience — an art timelier than ever as we watch some of yesterday’s media pundits voice increasingly disconnected opinions on today’s issues.

He read the signs of what was happening in the country, and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about.” ~ Charles Shields

In a lot of ways, Vonnegut was an embodiment of the spirit behind today’s Occupy movement. Shields observes on NPR:

Kurt was a disenchanted American. He believed in America, he believed in its ideals … and he wanted babies to enter a world where they could be treated well, and he wanted to emphasize that people should be kind to one another.”

But Shields makes a special point not to vilify Vonnegut or frame him as cynical. Beneath the discomfort with this new private persona lies a deep respect for the iconic author and the intricate balance between private demons and public creativity, channelled perhaps most eloquently in this quote from Vonnegut himself, printed on the book’s opening page:

I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. I am myself a work of fiction.”

The downside of And So It Goes is that it perpetuates, all too dangerously in my opinion, the myth of the creative genius as a damaged soul — something Vonnegut’s son has since attacked the book for misportraying. Nonetheless, it remains a powerful, revealing, and ultimately deeply human read.

Originally featured in November.


Every year since 2005, Nicholas Felton has been publishing his wonderful and entertaining annual reports, which capture the minutia of his life — drinks drunk, trips taken, methods of transportation, mood experienced, and just about everything in between — in clean, beautiful infographics. In 2010, however, Felton lost his father and decided to make his annual report a reconstruction of his father’s life based on calendars, letters, slides, postcards, passports, and other ephemera in his possession. The result is a poignant, beautiful, and tender journey into the adventures and qualities of Felton’s father through the unexpected lens of the quantitative.

The report was printed in a limited-edition run of 3,000 and is long sold out, but you can see it online in its entirety.


Iconic photographer Diane Arbus is as known for her stunning, stark black-and-white square photographs of fringe characters — dwarfs, giants, nudists, nuns, transvestites — as she is for her troubled life and its untimely end with suicide at the age of 48. Barely a year after her death, Arbus became the first American photographer represented at the prestigious Venice Biennale. In the highly anticipated biography An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, also one of the year’s best photography books, psychologist Todd Schultz offers an ambitious “psychobiography” of the misunderstood photographer, probing the darkness of the artist’s mind in an effort to shed new light on her art. Shultz not only got unprecedented access to Arbus’s therapist, but also closely examined some recently released, previously unpublished work and writings by Arbus and, in the process, fought an uphill battle with her estate who, as he puts it, “seem to have this idea that any attempt to interpret the art diminishes the art.”

Schultz explores the mystery of Arbus’s unsettled existence through five key areas of inquiry — her childhood, her penchant for the marginalized, her sexuality, her time in therapy, and her suicide — underpinned by a thoughtful larger narrative about secrets and sex. Ultimately, Schultz’s feat is in exposing the two-sided mirror of Arbus’s lens to reveal how the discomfort her photographs of “freaks” elicited in the viewer was a reflection of her own unease and self-perception as a hopeless outcast.

Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967
Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, New York City, 1962
Eddie Carmel, Jewish Giant, taken at Home with His Parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970

Poignant and provocative, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus offers an entirely new way of relating to and understanding one of the most revered and influential postmodern photographers, in the process raising timeless and universal questions about otherness, the human condition, and the quest for making peace with the self.

Originally featured in August.


It’s hard not to adore Tina Fey, who has had a pretty grand year, from becoming the third female and youngest ever recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — and giving a brilliant acceptance speech that unequivocally validates the award — to the publication of Bossypants, her excellent and impossibly funny sort-of-memoir about modern comedy, that whole gender thing and, well, life.

Once in a generation a woman comes along who changes everything. Tina Fey is not that woman, but she met that woman once and acted weird around her.”

In April, Fey brought Bossypants to the fantastic Authors@Google. Besides Fey’s lovable brand of awkward, it’s particularly priceless to watch Google’s Eric Schmidt — who’s had quite a year himself — fumble with various politically incorrect phrases and, you know, “women things.”

Originally featured in April.


Though neither exactly a memoir nor exactly a biography, The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922 captures the lived experience and biographical milestones of the iconic author’s life through the unusual lens of his previously unpublished correspondence. After spending a decade sifting through Hemingway’s correspondence, Penn State professor Sandra Spanier collaborated with Kent State University’s Robert W. Trogdon to curate this first in what will be a series of at least 16 volumes, peeling away at a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we’ve come to know through his published works.

Though Hemingway had articulated to his wife in the 1950s that he didn’t want his correspondence published, his son, Patrick Hemingway, says these letters could dispel the myth of the writer as a tortured figure and distorted soul, a pop-culture image of his father he feels doesn’t tell a complete and honest story. (Note the contrast with the Vonnegut biography above.)

My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway’s life than any of his biographers to date […] [My father] was not a tragic figure. He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person.” ~ Patrick Hemingway

The letters — lively, quirky, full of doodles and delightfully unusual spellings — cover everything from Hemingway’s childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, to his adventures as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in WWI to the heartbreak of his romance with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky and his eventual marriage to Hadley Richardson.

From lovers to rivals to his mother, the recipients of the letters each seem to get a different piece of Hemingway, custom-tailored for them not in the hypocritical way of an inauthentic social chameleon but in the way great writers know the heart, mind, and language of their reader. The letters thus become not only a tender homage to this unknown Hemingway, revealing new insights into his creative process along the way, but also a bow before the lost art of letter-writing itself.

Originally featured in October.


For the past 10 years, Rolling Stone Keith Richards has been consistently chosen in music magazine list after music magazine list as the rocker most likely to die. And, yet, he hasn’t. Instead, he has recorded his rocking, rolling, riveting story in Life — a formidable 547-page tome of a memoir that traces his tale from his childhood in the grey suburbs of London, to the unlikely formation and rapid rise of the Stones (who, at their peak, didn’t finish a single show in 18 months, playing five to ten minutes before the teenage fans started screaming, then the fainting, then getting piled unconscious on the stage by the security), to the drugs and the disillusionment and the ultimate downfall. Funny, difficult, touching, harrowing, mischievous, the narrative — written with the help of James Fox — spans the entire spectrum of emotion and experience, only to always return to its heart: the love of rock.

You try going into a truck stop in 1964 or ’65 or ’66 down south or in Texas. It felt much more dangerous than anything in the city. You’d walk in and there’s the good ol’ boys and slowly you realize that you’re not going to have a very comfortable meal in there… They’d call us girls because of the long hair. ‘How you doing, girls? Dance with me.’ Hair… the little things that you wouldn’t think about that changed whole cultures.”

Best paired with Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which came out late last year.


Legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman is a longtime favorite, his insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity pure gold. Feynman is a charming, affectionate, and inspiring graphic novel biography from librarian by day, comic nonfictionist by night Jim Ottoviani and illustrator Leland Myrick, also one of the year’s best science books and a fine addition to our 10 favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.

From Feynman’s childhood in Long Island to his work on the Manhattan Project to the infamous Challenger disaster, by way of quantum electrodynamics and bongo drums, the graphic narrative unfolds with equal parts humor and respect as it tells the story of one of the founding fathers of popular physics.

Colorful, vivid, and obsessive, the pages of Feynman exude the famous personality of the man himself, full of immense brilliance, genuine excitement for science, and a healthy dose of snark.

Originally featured, with more images, in October.


Why do we remember, and how? Is there a finite capacity to our memory reservoir? Can we hack our internal memory chip? Those questions are precisely what science writer Joshua Foer sought to unravel when he set out to cover and compete in the U.S. Memory Championship. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is his fascinating sort-of-memoir, telling the story of his journey as he became enthralled by the secrets of the participants and learned how to play with the pre-wired quirks of the brain, optimizing it to remember information it ordinarily wouldn’t. (It’s also a fine addition to the year’s best psychology and philosophy books.)

The title refers to a memory device I used in the US Memory Championship—specifically it’s a mnemonic that helped me memorize a deck of playing cards. Moonwalking with Einstein works as a mnemonic because it’s such a goofy image. Things that are weird or colorful are the most memorable. If you try to picture Albert Einstein sliding backwards across a dance floor wearing penny loafers and a diamond glove, that’s pretty much unforgettable.” ~ Joshua Foer

In the process of studying these techniques, I learned something remarkable: that there’s far more potential in our minds than we often give them credit for. I’m not just talking about the fact that it’s possible to memorize lots of information using memory techniques. I’m talking about a lesson that is more general, and in a way much bigger: that it’s possible, with training and hard work, to teach oneself to do something that might seem really difficult.” ~ Joshua Foer

Originally featured in March.


Between September 1968 and October 1969, Edward Gorey — mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton — set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer. Over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.

This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art. Though neither a biography of Gorey nor a memoir by Neumeyer, it’s a delightful and revealing blend of both, full of intellectual banter and magnificent illustrations, and is also one of the year’s finest art and design books.

In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer

Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.

There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

Originally featured, with more wonderful illustrations, in September.


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