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The Best Children’s Books of 2016

From love to mortality to the lives of Einstein and Louise Bourgeois, by way of silence and the color of the wind.

The Best Children’s Books of 2016

In his meditation on the three ways of writing for children and the key to authenticity in all writing, C.S. Lewis admonished against treating children, in literature or life, as “a strange species whose habits you have ‘made up’ like an anthropologist or a commercial traveller.” J.R.R. Tolkien expressed the same sentiment in his timeless insistence on why there is no such thing as writing “for children.” And a generation later, Maurice Sendak, perhaps the most beloved creator of so-called “children’s” books in our own era, scoffed in his final interview: “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

After the year’s greatest science books, here are the picture-books I found most imaginative, intelligent, and warmhearted this year — books that speak, even sing, to hearts of all ages and embody E.B. White’s proclamation that successful writers of children’s books “have to write up, not down.”

CRY, HEART, BUT NEVER BREAK

cryheartbutneverbreak“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote, “so why … be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” Half a millennium earlier, Montaigne posed the same question somewhat differently in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.”

Yet mortality continues to petrify us — our own, and perhaps even more so that of our loved ones. And if the adult consciousness is so thoroughly unsettled by the notion of death, despite intellectually recognizing it as a necessary and inevitable part of life, how is the child consciousness to settle into comprehension and comfort?

Now comes a fine addition to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books about making sense of death — the crowning jewel of them all, even, and not only because it bears what might be the most beautiful children’s book title ever conceived: Cry, Heart, But Never Break (public library) by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi, translated into English by Robert Moulthrop.

Although Ringtved is celebrated for his humorous and mischievous stories, this contemplative tale sprang from the depths of his own experience — when his mother was dying and he struggled to explain what was happening to his young children, she offered some words of comfort: “Cry, Heart, but never break.” It was the grandmother’s way of assuring the children that the profound sadness of loss is to be allowed rather than resisted, then folded into the wholeness of life, which continues to unfold. (I’m reminded of Maira Kalman’s unforgettable words: “When Tibor died, the world came to an end. And the world did not come to an end. That is something you learn.”)

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This warmly wistful story begins outside the “small snug house” where four children live with their beloved grandmother. Not wanting to scare the young ones, Death, who has come for the old lady, has left his scythe by the door. Immediately, in this small and enormously thoughtful gesture, we are met with Death’s unexpected tenderness.

Inside, he sits down at the kitchen table, where only the youngest of the kids, little Leah, dares look straight at him.

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What makes the book particularly touching, thanks to Pardi’s immensely expressive illustration, is just how crestfallen — broken, even — Death himself looks the entire time he is executing his mission, choked up with some indiscernible fusion of resignation and recompense.

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THE WHITE CAT AND THE MONK

“If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work,” Muriel Spark counseled, “you should acquire a cat.” Long before the cat became a modern literary muse, a monk whose identity remains a mystery immortalized his beloved white cat named Pangur. Sometime in the ninth century, somewhere in present-day southern Germany, this solitary scholar penned a beautiful short poem in Old Irish, titled “Pangur Bán” — an ode to the parallel pleasures of man and feline as one pursues knowledge and the other prey, and to how their quiet companionship amplifies their respective joys.

The poem has been translated and adapted many times over the centuries (perhaps most famously by W.H. Auden), but nowhere more delightfully than in The White Cat and the Monk (public library) by writer Jo Ellen Bogart and illustrator Sydney Smith — one of four wonderful children’s books about the creative life, which I recently reviewed for The New York Times.

Smith, who has previously illustrated the immeasurably wonderful Sidewalk Flowers, imbues the ancient text with contemporary visual language through his singular, elegantly minimalist graphic novel aesthetic.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

We see the old monk poring over his manuscripts in search of wisdom as Pangur prances around their spartan shared abode, chasing after a mouse and a butterfly. Each is totally absorbed in his task.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

In a subtle story-with-a-story, one of the monk’s manuscripts contains an even more ancient depiction of another monk and another cat — a reminder that this creaturely communion is a primal joy of the human experience.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

At the end of each day, the two rest into their respective gladnesses in quiet camaraderie.

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

The White Cat and the Monk: A Retelling of the Poem Pangur Bán

Written as a playful ode in the ninth century, today the poem lives partway between lamentation and celebration — it stands as counterpoint to our culture of competitive striving and ceaseless self-comparisons, but it also reminds us that the accomplishments of others aren’t to the detriment of our own; that we can remain purposeful about our pursuits while rejoicing in those of others; that we can choose to amplify each other’s felicity because there is, after all, enough to go around even in the austerest of circumstances.

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CLOTH LULLABY

“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer,” the great French-American artist Louise Bourgeois (December 11, 1911– May 31, 2010) wrote in her diary toward the end of her long and illustrious life. That perfect fabric metaphor is not coincidental. Psychologists now know that metaphorical thinking is the birthplace of the imagination, “essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent,” and it begins in childhood as young minds transmute the namable things that surround them into fresh metaphors for the unnamable things that they experience inside.

Born into a family that restored tapestries for a living, Bourgeois wove the world of colorful textiles into her imagination and into the very work that would establish her as one of the most important and influential artists of the twentieth century. It was in this family trade that she came to see her beloved mother as a deft, patient spider repairing broken threads — the metaphor at the heart of the iconic large-scale spider sculptures for which Bourgeois is best known and which earned her the moniker Spiderwoman.

In Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois (public library) — one of four marvelous children’s books about the life of ideas I recently reviewed for The New York Times and a crowning curio among the loveliest picture-books celebrating cultural icons — writer Amy Novesky and illustrator Isabelle Arsenault trace the thread of Bourgeois’s creative development from the formative years of her unusual childhood to the pinnacle of her success as an artist.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Novesky, who has previously authored a children’s book about Billie Holiday, tells the story of Bourgeois’s life in a wonderfully lyrical way. Arsenault — whom I have long considered one of the most gifted and unrepeatable artists of our time, the kind whose books will be cherished a century from now — carries the story with her soft yet vibrantly expressive illustrations.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Louise kept diaries of her days. And in a cloth tent pitched in the garden, she and her siblings would stay till the dark surprised them, the light from the house, and the sound of a Verdi opera, far away through the trees.

Sometimes, they’d spend the night, and Louise would study the web of stars, imagine her place in the universe, and weep, then fall asleep to the rhythmic rock and murmur of river water.

The ever-flowing blue strand of the river becomes the thread of continuity across Bourgeois’s life. It flows into the Siene and takes young Louise along to Paris, where she attends university studying mathematics and astronomy.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

Bourgeois’s studies are severed by her mother’s sudden death, the devastation of which drives the young woman to abandon science and turn to the certain uncertainty of art. She cuts up all the fabric she owns — her dresses, her bed linens, her new husband’s handkerchiefs — and spends the remainder of her life making it and making herself whole again, putting it all together into cloth sculptures, colorful hand-sewn spirals, cloth drawings, cloth books, and many, many, many spiders.

Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

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DU IZ TAK?

“It is almost banal to say so yet it needs to be stressed continually: all is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” Henry Miller wrote in contemplating art and the human future. The beautiful Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi invites us to find meaning and comfort in impermanence, and yet so much of our suffering stems from our deep resistance to the ruling law of the universe — that of impermanence and constant change. How, then, are we to accept the one orbit we each have along the cycle of life and inhabit it with wholeheartedness rather than despair?

That’s what illustrator and author Carson Ellis explores with great subtlety and warmth in Du Iz Tak? (public library) — a lyrical and imaginative tale about the cycle of life and the inexorable interdependence of joy and sorrow, trial and triumph, growth and decay.

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The marvelously illustrated story is written in the imagined language of bugs, the meaning of which the reader deduces with delight from the familiar human emotions they experience throughout the story — surprise, exhilaration, fear, despair, pride, joy. We take the title to mean “What is that?” — the exclamation which the ento-protagonists issue upon discovering a swirling shoot of new growth, which becomes the centerpiece of the story as the bugs try to make sense, then make use, of this mysterious addition to their homeland. “Ma nazoot,” answers another — “I don’t know.”

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The discoverers of the shoot enlist the help of a wise and many-legged elder who lives inside a tree stump — a character reminiscent in spirit of Owl in Winnie-the-Pooh. He lends the operation his ladder and the team begins building an elaborate fort onto the speedily growing plant.

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But their joyful plan is unceremoniously interrupted by a giant spider, who envelops their new playground in a web — a reminder that in nature, where one creature’s loss is another’s gain and vice versa, gain and loss are always counterbalanced in perfect equilibrium with no ultimate right and ultimate wrong.

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As the bugs witness the spider’s doing in dejected disbelief, a bird — a creature even huger and more formidable — swoops in to eat the spider and further devastates the stalk-fort. At its base, we see the bugs grow from disheartened to heartbroken.

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But when the bird leaves, one of them discovers — with the excited exclamation “Su!,” which we take to mean “Look!” — that the plant has not only survived the invasion but has managed, in the meantime, to produce a glorious, colorful bud.

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As the bugs resume repair and construction, the bud blossoms into invigorating beauty. Drawn to the small miracle of the flower, other tiny forest creatures join the joyful labor — the ants interrupt their own industry, the slug slides over in wide-eyed wonder, the bees and the butterflies hover in admiration, and even the elder’s wife emerges from the tree trunk, huffing a pipe as she marvels at the new blossom.

But then, nature once again asserts her central dictum of impermanence and constant change: The flower begins to wilt.

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The fort collapses and the bugs, looking not terribly distraught — perhaps because they know that this is nature’s way, perhaps because they know that they too will soon follow the flower’s fate in this unstoppable cycle of life — say farewell and walk off.

Night comes, then autumn, bringing their own magic as the world silently performs its eternal duty of churning the cycle of growth and decay.

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The remnants of the wilted flower sink into the forest bed as a nocturnal serenade unfolds overhead before a blanket of snow stills the forest.

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In the final pages, we see spring arrive with its redemptive bounty to reveal not one shoot but the promise of an entire flower garden. “Du iz tak?” exclaims a new bug who walks onto the scene — a gentle invitation to reflect on where the others have gone as the seasons turned, presenting a subtle opportunity for parents to broach the cycle of life.

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A CHILD OF BOOKS

Half a millennium before Carl Sagan pointed to books as “proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” while James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny. “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her lyrical meditation on the intimacy of reading and writing. But what, exactly, is the lifeblood pumping through that heart? Perhaps Hermann Hesse put it best in his beautiful essay on reading:

At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.

That transcendent stream is what London-based typographic fine artist Sam Winston and Belfast-born, Brooklyn-based artist and children’s book maestro Oliver Jeffers plunge us into with A Child of Books (public library) — a serenading invitation into the joyful wonderland of reading, extended by a courageous little girl besotted with books to a little boy timorous to take the dive.

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An homage to literary classics carries the story as an undercurrent of affectionate appreciation for the way in which literature carves our interior landscapes. Jeffers is no stranger to appropriating existing art in original storytelling. Here, his unmistakable illustrations animate Winston’s landscapes, crafted from the texts of classic children’s stories, nursery rhymes, and lullabies — typographic topographies composed of multigenerational cultural treasures like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Frankenstein.

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THE DAY I BECAME A BIRD

In what remains the greatest definition of love, Tom Stoppard described the real thing as “knowledge of each other, not of the flesh but through the flesh, knowledge of self, the real him, the real her, in extremis, the mask slipped from the face.” And yet the grandest paradox of love — the source of its necessary frustration, the root of the inescapable lover’s sulk — is our insistence on crafting and putting on ever more elaborate masks under the mistaken belief that these idealized selves, presented to the object of our infatuation, would render us more desirable and worthier of love. We tuck our messy real selves behind polished veneers, orchestrate grand gestures, and perform various psychoemotional acrobatics driven by the illusion that love is something we must earn by what we do, rather than something that comes to us unbidden simply for who we are.

The deconditioning of that dangerous delusion is what French children’s book author Ingrid Chabbert and Spanish artist Guridi explore with imaginative subtlety in The Day I Became a Bird (public library).

The protagonist of this minimalist, maximally expressive story is a tenderhearted little boy who falls in love for the first time the day he starts school.

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Because love always sneaks in through the backdoor of our awareness before it makes a home in the heart, not until a few pages into the book do we find out that the object of his affection is a classmate named Sylvia — a passionate bird enthusiast who seems to only have eyes for feathered creatures.

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PINOCCHIO

“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them,” Albert Camus wrote. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, observed a century earlier as she contemplated the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties: “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us.”

This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace.

As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story.

In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two.

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A fitting follow-up to The River — Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.

Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.

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The tree is an organic choice for this unusual cosmogony — after all, trees have inspired centuries of folk tales around the world; a 17th-century English gardener marveled at how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons” and Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.”

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It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal.

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THE SOUND OF SILENCE

“There are many fine things which we cannot say if we have to shout,” Henry David Thoreau observed in contemplating how silence ennobles speech. A year earlier, he had written in his journal: “I wish to hear the silence of the night, for the silence is something positive and to be heard.” It’s a sentiment of almost unbearable bittersweetness today, a century and a half later, as we find ourselves immersed in a culture that increasingly mistakes loudness for authority, vociferousness for voice, screaming for substance. We seem to have forgotten what Susan Sontag reminded us half a century ago — that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” that it has its own aesthetic, and that learning to wield it is among the great arts of living.

Of the nine kinds of silence that Sontag’s contemporary and friend Paul Goodman outlined, “the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul” is the kind we seem to have most hastily forsaken — and yet it is also the one we most urgently need if we are to reclaim the aesthetic of silence in the art of living.

That ennobling, endangered kind of silence is what writer Katrina Goldsaito and illustrator Julia Kuo celebrate in The Sound of Silence (public library) — the story of a little boy named Yoshio, who awakens to the elusive beauty of silence amid Tokyo’s bustle and teaches himself its secret language.

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Conceptually, the book is a trans-temporal counterpart to In Praise of Shadows — that magnificent 1933 serenade to ancient Japanese aesthetics, lamenting how excessive illumination obscures so many of life’s most beautiful dimensions, just as today’s excessive noise silences life’s subtlest and most beautiful signals.

Goldsaito’s lyrical writing, part ballad and part haiku, and Kuo’s illustrations, midway between manga and Chris Ware yet thoroughly original, carry the story with effortless poetic enchantment.

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We follow Yoshio as he leaves home one rainy morning and steps into the symphony of urban sounds cascading through the city — “raindrops pattering on his umbrella,” “boots squishing and squashing through the puddles.”

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As he makes his way through this aural wonderland, he is suddenly enthralled by a most magical sound. He follows it to discover a koto player tuning her instrument.

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Then the koto player played. The notes were twangy and twinkling; they tickled Yoshio’s ears! When the song finished, Yoshio said, “Sensei, I love sounds, but I’ve never heard a sound like that!”

The koto player laughed, and it sounded like the metal bell that swayed in the wind in Mama’s garden.

“Sensei,” Yoshio said, “do you have a favorite sound?”

“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”

“Silence?” Yoshio asked. But the koto player just smiled a mysterious smile and went back to playing.

Puzzled and vitalized by the cryptic message, the little boy sets out to find the sound of silence.

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WE FOUND A HAT

“If you perceive the universe as being a universe of abundance, then it will be. If you think of the universe as one of scarcity, then it will be,” legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser observed in his conversation with Debbie Millman. One might say that it is difficult, perhaps even delusional, to elect perception over the hard facts of physical reality — after all, if there is only one apple in front of you, how could you perceive your way to having two? And yet the great physicist David Bohm, a scientist grounded in the fundamental building blocks of physical reality, articulated a parallel truth in contemplating how our perceptions shape our reality:

Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.

Beloved children’s book author and illustrator Jon Klassen explores this disorienting paradox with great subtlety, simplicity, and sensitivity in We Found a Hat (public library) — the conclusion of his celebrated hat trilogy, following I Want My Hat Back (2011) and This Is Not My Hat.

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The story follows two turtles who discover a hat together — a very winsome hat, they both feel — and are suddenly faced by a practical predicament: There is one hat to be had, and two of them who want to have it.

Carrying Klassen’s minimalist, maximally expressive illustrations — entire worlds of emotion and intent are intimated by the turn of the turtles’ black-and-white eyes — are his equally spartan words, which envelop his protagonists’ interior worlds in sweetness and gentleness as he tells this touching story of covetousness transformed into generosity and justice.

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We found a hat.

We found it together.

But there is only one hat.

And there are two of us.

How does it look on me?

It looks good on you.

How does it look on me?

It looks good on you too.

It looks good on both of us.

But it would not be right if one of us had a hat and the other did not.

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DAYTIME VISIONS

“We live in the word,” Elizabeth Alexander observed in contemplating writing and the self in language, “and the word is one of the ways we have to reach across to each other.” And it is often in learning to live in the word — that is, in those formative years of first understanding how sounds make shapes to make words — that we also begin mastering the art of human connection. That’s what lends imaginative alphabet books their magic and their singular place in the developmental journey, and among the most imaginative is Daytime Visions: An Alphabet (public library) by beloved Argentinian musician, artist, and children’s book author Isol.

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Instead of consciously considering the semantic aspect of the images and vignettes she drew for each of the letters, Isol let the shape of the letter lead her brush toward a spontaneous burst of visual meaning — a sort of creative game that produced something utterly magical, more dream than dictionary, populated by kiwis and caterpillars and otherworldly creatures animated by the most inescapable emotional dimensions of human life: loneliness, gladness, petulance, tenderness, joy.

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PREACHING TO THE CHICKENS

Civil rights icon and nonviolent resistance leader John Lewis (b. February 21, 1940) is rightly celebrated as a true “healer of the heart of democracy.” He is also a testament to how the humblest beginnings can produce lives of towering heroism. Long before Congressman Lewis became a key figure in ending racial segregation in America, little John was one of nine siblings living on the family’s farm in southern Alabama. It was in that unlikely environment, heavy with labor and love, that young Lewis found his voice as a leader.

Writer Jabari Asim and illustrator E.B. Lewis tell the improbable and inspiring origin story of this largehearted legend in Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis (public library) — a superb addition to the greatest picture-book biographies of cultural icons.

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Little John Lewis loved the spring. He loved it not only because it was the time when the whole planet came alive, but also because it was the season of the chicks. Winter was too cold to bring them safely into the world, and summer was too hot. Spring was just right.

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John’s mother cooked the family meals from vegetables she grew — collards, tomatoes, sweet potatoes — and other goodies. She cleaned the family’s clothes in a big iron pot, stirring them in the boiling water and washing them with homemade soap before hanging them on the line to dry.

Yes, Lord, plenty of work on a farm.

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One day, John is put in charge of the chickens and so begins his foray into leadership. His heart ablaze with the dream of becoming a preacher, the boy begins practicing before his willing — or, at least, tacitly agreeable — avian audience. E.B. Lewis’s luminous watercolors are the perfect complement to Asim’s lyrical prose, which together carry the story of how John Lewis incubated his talent for wielding words that move and mobilize mind, body, and spirit.

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THE POLAR BEAR

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?

That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear (public library), also among the year’s best science books — the follow-up to The Blue Whale, Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, which was among the best science books of 2015.

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The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.

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Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.

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WHAT COLOR IS THE WIND?

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince. Those bereft of vision, therefore, need not be bereft of the essential — they discern it by means other than sight.

The richness of that otherness is what Belgian artist and author Anne Herbauts came to see in a surprising and profound question from a blind child. During a bookmaking workshop she was leading, a little boy asked her whether she, as an artist, could tell him what color the wind was — a notion of the same trans-sensory, synesthetic quality as Helen Keller’s electrifying account of “hearing” Beethoven.

Touched by the sincerity of the boy’s curiosity, Herbauts set out to offer her answer in What Color Is the Wind? (public library), translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick — a largehearted, unusual book that takes the reader on a sensorial adventure, with the tactile magic of The Black Book of Colors and the die-cut delight of Bruno Munari’s visionary vintage gems.

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The story’s protagonist, whom Herbauts affectionately calls “the little giant,” goes in search of an answer to his synesthetic question. Every piece of nature he encounters gives him a different answer — to the bee, the wind is the warm color of the sun; the old dog, who perceives the world through smell, experiences it as “pink, flowery, pale white”; to the wolf, it smells of the forest; for the mountain, the wind is a bird; for the window, it is the color of time.

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Herbauts paints the sensory landscape with extraordinarily inventive bookmaking techniques to which this screen can do no justice — appleseeds peek through a die-cut hole, raindrops gleam embossed on a laminated page, debossed grooves invite the touch of tree bark. What emerges is a parallel invitation to empathy and self-expansion in imagining the world as the unsighted experience it and exploring a different sensorial space than the one we sighted humans ordinarily inhabit. Just as the universe of smell unlocks hidden layers of reality, so does the universe of touch.

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The little giant asks the bird,
What color…

But the bird has flown away.

And the enormous giant,
with a slow gesture says:
The color of the wind?

It is everything at once.
This whole book.

Then he takes the book and,
thumb against its edge,
he lets the pages fly.

See more here.

THE PANCAKE KING

At a dinner some years ago, I had the good fortune of being seated next to the great graphic designer and illustrator Seymour Chwast (b. August 18, 1931). A warm but reticent conversation companion, he became, like Oliver Sacks, unusually animated when it came to his creative passions. At one point in the evening, I asked Chwast what his favorite project was from the entire span of his illustrious career. Here was a man whose work had influenced generations of designers and had received just about every imaginable accolade in the graphic arts. So I was both surprised and utterly delighted by his answer, which he offered without hesitation but with a certain wistfulness — an obscure vintage children’s book by Phyllis La Farge he had illustrated in 1971, which had since fallen out of print and sunk into oblivion.

The following day, invigorated by curiosity, I set about finding a surviving copy. Victorious at last with a bedraggled book discarded by the Breton Downs Library and found at a thrift bookseller, I instantly knew why Chwast had so fondly and resolutely chosen this forgotten gem as the favorite of a lifetime — it was a sweet, subversive parable about the tradeoffs of creativity and commerce, the messy relationship between success and life-satisfaction, the treacherous way in which prestige can hijack our sense of purpose, and what happens when a personal labor of love becomes a “brand.” A story, in other words, both timeless and immensely time today, when the integrity of every creative life is bending under the ever-growing pressures of bigger-better-faster.

So imagine my enormous gladness at the news that Princeton Architectural Press is bringing The Pancake King (public library) back to life as part of the same vintage children’s book revival series that also resurrected the marvelous The Brownstone by graphic design legend (and, incidentally, Chwast’s spouse of four decades) Paula Scher.

See more here.

EINSTEIN

Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) is celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius” and his groundbreaking discoveries have changed the course of science, but he was also a man of enormous and thus inescapably fallible humanity, whose confusion and conflictedness were inseparable from his genius.

This seething cauldron of brilliant complexity is what Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon explore in Einstein (public library) — the third installment in their series of illustrated biographies of thinkers who have shaped modern life, following Freud and Marx.

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From Einstein’s formative childhood experiences to his arrival in America, from his annus mirabilis to his Nobel Prize, from his views on religion to his civil rights activity, the graphic novel unfolds with elegant simplicity of language and intelligent playfulness that would have delighted Einstein, who was known for his irreverent wit.

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See more here.

WHAT CAN I BE

In the late 1950s, children’s book author Ann Rand collaborated with her then-husband, the graphic design legend Paul Rand, on a series of unusual and imaginative children’s books — Sparkle and Spin and I Know a Lot of Things. Even after they divorced in 1958, they continued working together and published the loveliest of their collaborations, Little 1, in 1961.

After Rand’s death in 2012, a marvelous unpublished manuscript of hers from the 1970s was discovered — a most unusual concept book, partway between graphic design primer, Norton Juster’s The Dot and the Line, and Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s books, exploring how our imagination combines lines and shapes to build an entire world.

Four decades later, this forgotten masterpiece is brought to life as What Can I Be? (public library) with stunning illustrations by painter and architecture professor Ingrid Fiksdahl King.

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It is hardly a coincidence that King co-authored the 1977 architecture and urbanism classic A Pattern Language — a pioneering inquiry into how the elements of urban design and their arrangement form the patterns that compose the language of community livability. It is our ability to imagine, after all — to combining basic elements into a language of the possible — that makes life livable.

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With simple, inviting words, Rand constructs a poetic game of possibility.

See more here.

* * *

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best children’s books of 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

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The Greatest Science Books of 2016

From the sound of spacetime to time travel to the microbiome, by way of polar bears, dogs, and trees.

I have long believed that E.B. White’s abiding wisdom on children’s books — “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.” — is equally true of science books. The question of what makes a great book of any kind is, of course, a slippery one, but I recently endeavored to synthesize my intuitive system for assessing science books that write up to the reader in a taxonomy of explanation, elucidation, and enchantment.

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Gathered here are exceptional books that accomplish at least two of the three, assembled in the spirit of my annual best-of reading lists, which I continue to consider Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — not a list of priorities for the year ahead, but a reflection on the reading most worth prioritizing in the year being left behind.

BLACK HOLE BLUES

In Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space (public library), cosmologist, novelist, and unparalleled enchanter of science Janna Levin tells the story of the century-long vision, originated by Einstein, and half-century experimental quest to hear the sound of spacetime by detecting a gravitational wave. This book remains one of the most intensely interesting and beautifully written I’ve ever encountered — the kind that comes about once a generation if we’re lucky.

Everything we know about the universe so far comes from four centuries of sight — from peering into space with our eyes and their prosthetic extension, the telescope. Now commences a new mode of knowing the cosmos through sound. The detection of gravitational waves is one of the most significant discoveries in the entire history of physics, marking the dawn of a new era as we begin listening to the sound of space — the probable portal to mysteries as unimaginable to us today as galaxies and nebulae and pulsars and other cosmic wonders were to the first astronomers. Gravitational astronomy, as Levin elegantly puts it, promises a “score to accompany the silent movie humanity has compiled of the history of the universe from still images of the sky, a series of frozen snapshots captured over the past four hundred years since Galileo first pointed a crude telescope at the Sun.”

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Astonishingly enough, Levin wrote the book before the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) — the monumental instrument at the center of the story, decades in the making — made the actual detection of a ripple in the fabric of spacetime caused by the collision of two black holes in the autumn of 2015, exactly a century after Einstein first envisioned the possibility of gravitational waves. So the story she tells is not that of the triumph but that of the climb, which renders it all the more enchanting — because it is ultimately a story about the human spirit and its incredible tenacity, about why human beings choose to devote their entire lives to pursuits strewn with unimaginable obstacles and bedeviled by frequent failure, uncertain rewards, and meager public recognition.

Indeed, what makes the book interesting is that it tells the story of this monumental discovery, but what makes it enchanting is that Levin comes at it from a rather unusual perspective. She is a working astrophysicist who studies black holes, but she is also an incredibly gifted novelist — an artist whose medium is language and thought itself. This is no popular science book but something many orders of magnitude higher in its artistic vision, the impeccable craftsmanship of language, and the sheer pleasure of the prose. The story is structured almost as a series of short, integrated novels, with each chapter devoted to one of the key scientists involved in LIGO. With Dostoyevskian insight and nuance, Levin paints a psychological, even philosophical portrait of each protagonist, revealing how intricately interwoven the genius and the foibles are in the fabric of personhood and what a profoundly human endeavor science ultimately is.

She writes:

Scientists are like those levers or knobs or those boulders helpfully screwed into a climbing wall. Like the wall is some cemented material made by mixing knowledge, which is a purely human construct, with reality, which we can only access through the filter of our minds. There’s an important pursuit of objectivity in science and nature and mathematics, but still the only way up the wall is through the individual people, and they come in specifics… So the climb is personal, a truly human endeavor, and the real expedition pixelates into individuals, not Platonic forms.

For a taste of this uncategorizably wonderful book, see Levin on the story of the tragic hero who pioneered gravitational astronomy and how astronomer Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars.

TIME TRAVEL

Time Travel: A History (public library) by science historian and writer extraordinaire James Gleick, another rare enchanter of science, is not a “science book” per se, in that although it draws heavily on the history of twentieth-century science and quantum physics in particular (as well as on millennia of philosophy), it is a decidedly literary inquiry into our temporal imagination — why we think about time, why its directionality troubles us so, and what asking these questions at all reveals about the deepest mysteries of our consciousness. I consider it a grand thought experiment, using physics and philosophy as the active agents, and literature as the catalyst.

Gleick, who examined the origin of our modern anxiety about time with remarkable prescience nearly two decades ago, traces the invention of the notion of time travel to H.G. Wells’s 1895 masterpiece The Time Machine. Although Wells — like Gleick, like any reputable physicist — knew that time travel was a scientific impossibility, he created an aesthetic of thought which never previously existed and which has since shaped the modern consciousness. Gleick argues that the art this aesthetic produced — an entire canon of time travel literature and film — not only permeated popular culture but even influenced some of the greatest scientific minds of the past century, including Stephen Hawking, who once cleverly hosted a party for time travelers and when no one showed up considered the impossibility of time travel proven, and John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term “black hole” and coined “wormhole,” both key tropes of time travel literature.

Gleick considers how a scientific impossibility can become such fertile ground for the artistic imagination:

Why do we need time travel, when we already travel through space so far and fast? For history. For mystery. For nostalgia. For hope. To examine our potential and explore our memories. To counter regret for the life we lived, the only life, one dimension, beginning to end.

Wells’s Time Machine revealed a turning in the road, an alteration in the human relationship with time. New technologies and ideas reinforced one another: the electric telegraph, the steam railroad, the earth science of Lyell and the life science of Darwin, the rise of archeology out of antiquarianism, and the perfection of clocks. When the nineteenth century turned to the twentieth, scientists and philosophers were primed to understand time in a new way. And so were we all. Time travel bloomed in the culture, its loops and twists and paradoxes.

I wrote about Gleick’s uncommonly pleasurable book at length here.

FELT TIME

A very different take on time, not as cultural phenomenon but as individual psychological interiority, comes from German psychologist Marc Wittmann in Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time (public library) — a fascinating inquiry into how our subjective experience of time’s passage shapes everything from our emotional memory to our sense of self. Bridging disciplines as wide-ranging as neuroscience and philosophy, Wittmann examines questions of consciousness, identity, happiness, boredom, money, and aging, exposing the centrality of time in each of them. What emerges is the disorienting sense that time isn’t something which happens to us — rather, we are time.

One of Wittmann’s most pause-giving points has to do with how temporality mediates the mind-body problem. He writes:

Presence means becoming aware of a physical and psychic self that is temporally extended. To be self-conscious is to recognize oneself as something that persists through time and is embodied.

In a sense, time is a construction of our consciousness. Two generations after Hannah Arendt observed in her brilliant meditation on time that “it is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Wittmann writes:

Self-consciousness — achieving awareness of one’s own self — emerges on the basis of temporally enduring perception of bodily states that are tied to neural activity in the brain’s insular lobe. The self and time prove to be especially present in boredom. They go missing in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, which results from the acceleration of social processes. Through mindfulness and emotional control, the tempo of life that we experience can be reduced, and we can regain time for ourselves and others.

Perception necessarily encompasses the individual who is doing the perceiving. It is I who perceives. This might seem self-evident. Perception of myself, my ego, occurs naturally when I consider myself. I “feel” and think about myself. But who is the subject if I am the object of my own attention? When I observe myself, after all, I become the object of observation. Clearly, this intangibility of the subject as a subject — and not an object — poses a philosophical problem: as soon as I observe myself, I have already become the object of my observation.

More here.

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware — an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living. But when this finitude is made acutely imminent, one suddenly collides with awareness so acute that it leaves no choice but to fill the shadow with as much light as a human being can generate — the sort of inner illumination we call meaning: the meaning of life.

That tumultuous turning point is what neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi chronicles in When Breath Becomes Air (public library) — his piercing memoir of being diagnosed with terminal cancer at the peak of a career bursting with potential and a life exploding with aliveness. Partway between Montaigne and Oliver Sacks, Kalanithi weaves together philosophical reflections on his personal journey with stories of his patients to illuminate the only thing we have in common — our mortality — and how it spurs all of us, in ways both minute and monumental, to pursue a life of meaning.

What emerges is an uncommonly insightful, sincere, and sobering revelation of how much our sense of self is tied up with our sense of potential and possibility — the selves we would like to become, those we work tirelessly toward becoming. Who are we, then, and what remains of “us” when that possibility is suddenly snipped?

Paul Kalanithi in 2014 (Photograph: Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Hospital and Clinics)
Paul Kalanithi in 2014 (Photograph: Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Hospital and Clinics)

A generation after surgeon Sherwin Nuland’s foundational text on confronting the meaning of life while dying, Kalanithi sets out to answer these questions and their myriad fractal implications. He writes:

At age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land, from Gilead to Jericho to the Mediterranean Sea. I could see a nice catamaran on that sea that Lucy, our hypothetical children, and I would take out on weekends. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could see myself finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be.

And then the unthinkable happens. He recounts one of the first incidents in which his former identity and his future fate collided with jarring violence:

My back stiffened terribly during the flight, and by the time I made it to Grand Central to catch a train to my friends’ place upstate, my body was rippling with pain. Over the past few months, I’d had back spasms of varying ferocity, from simple ignorable pain, to pain that made me forsake speech to grind my teeth, to pain so severe I curled up on the floor, screaming. This pain was toward the more severe end of the spectrum. I lay down on a hard bench in the waiting area, feeling my back muscles contort, breathing to control the pain — the ibuprofen wasn’t touching this — and naming each muscle as it spasmed to stave off tears: erector spinae, rhomboid, latissimus, piriformis…

A security guard approached. “Sir, you can’t lie down here.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, gasping out the words. “Bad … back … spasms.”

“You still can’t lie down here.”

[…]

I pulled myself up and hobbled to the platform.

Like the book itself, the anecdote speaks to something larger and far more powerful than the particular story — in this case, our cultural attitude toward what we consider the failings of our bodies: pain and, in the ultimate extreme, death. We try to dictate the terms on which these perceived failings may occur; to make them conform to wished-for realities; to subvert them by will and witless denial. All this we do because, at bottom, we deem them impermissible — in ourselves and in each other.

I wrote about the book at length here.

THE CONFIDENCE GAME

“Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours,” Carl Sagan urged in his excellent Baloney Detection Kit — and yet our tendency is to do just that, becoming increasingly attached to what we’ve come to believe because the belief has sprung from our own glorious, brilliant, fool-proof minds. How con artists take advantage of this human hubris is what New Yorker columnist and psychology writer Maria Konnikova explores in The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It … Every Time (public library) — a thrilling psychological detective story investigating how con artists, the supreme masterminds of malevolent reality-manipulation, prey on our hopes, our fears, and our propensity for believing what we wish were true. Through a tapestry of riveting real-life con artist profiles interwoven with decades of psychology experiments, Konnikova illuminates the inner workings of trust and deception in our everyday lives.

She writes:

It’s the oldest story ever told. The story of belief — of the basic, irresistible, universal human need to believe in something that gives life meaning, something that reaffirms our view of ourselves, the world, and our place in it… For our minds are built for stories. We crave them, and, when there aren’t ready ones available, we create them. Stories about our origins. Our purpose. The reasons the world is the way it is. Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.

Konnikova describes the basic elements of the con and the psychological susceptibility into which each of them plays:

The confidence game starts with basic human psychology. From the artist’s perspective, it’s a question of identifying the victim (the put-up): who is he, what does he want, and how can I play on that desire to achieve what I want? It requires the creation of empathy and rapport (the play): an emotional foundation must be laid before any scheme is proposed, any game set in motion. Only then does it move to logic and persuasion (the rope): the scheme (the tale), the evidence and the way it will work to your benefit (the convincer), the show of actual profits. And like a fly caught in a spider’s web, the more we struggle, the less able to extricate ourselves we become (the breakdown). By the time things begin to look dicey, we tend to be so invested, emotionally and often physically, that we do most of the persuasion ourselves. We may even choose to up our involvement ourselves, even as things turn south (the send), so that by the time we’re completely fleeced (the touch), we don’t quite know what hit us. The con artist may not even need to convince us to stay quiet (the blow-off and fix); we are more likely than not to do so ourselves. We are, after all, the best deceivers of our own minds. At each step of the game, con artists draw from a seemingly endless toolbox of ways to manipulate our belief. And as we become more committed, with every step we give them more psychological material to work with.

Needless to say, the book bears remarkable relevance to the recent turn of events in American politics and its ripples in the mass manipulation machine known as the media.

More here.

THE GENE

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his diary. For Tolstoy, this was a philosophical inquiry — or a metaphysical one, as it would have been called in his day. But between his time and ours, science has unraveled the inescapable physical dimensions of this elemental question, rendering the already disorienting attempt at an answer all the more complex and confounding.

In The Gene: An Intimate History (public library), physician and Pulitzer-winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee offers a rigorously researched, beautifully written detective story about the genetic components of what we experience as the self, rooted in Mukherjee’s own painful family history of mental illness and radiating a larger inquiry into how genetics illuminates the future of our species.

Mukherjee writes:

Three profoundly destabilizing scientific ideas ricochet through the twentieth century, trisecting it into three unequal parts: the atom, the byte, the gene. Each is foreshadowed by an earlier century, but dazzles into full prominence in the twentieth. Each begins its life as a rather abstract scientific concept, but grows to invade multiple human discourses — thereby transforming culture, society, politics, and language. But the most crucial parallel between the three ideas, by far, is conceptual: each represents the irreducible unit — the building block, the basic organizational unit — of a larger whole: the atom, of matter; the byte (or “bit”), of digitized information; the gene, of heredity and biological information.

Why does this property — being the least divisible unit of a larger form — imbue these particular ideas with such potency and force? The simple answer is that matter, information, and biology are inherently hierarchically organized: understanding that smallest part is crucial to understanding the whole.

Among the book’s most fascinating threads is Mukherjee’s nuanced, necessary discussion of intelligence and the dark side of IQ.

THE POLAR BEAR

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote 150 years ago in his ode to the spirit of sauntering. But in a world increasingly unwild, where we are in touch with nature only occasionally and only in fragments, how are we to nurture the preservation of our Pale Blue Dot?

That’s what London-based illustrator and Sendak Fellow Jenni Desmond explores in The Polar Bear (public library) — the follow-up to Desmond’s serenade to the science and life of Earth’s largest-hearted creature, The Blue Whale, which was among the best science books of 2015.

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The story follows a little girl who, in a delightful meta-touch, pulls this very book off the bookshelf and begins learning about the strange and wonderful world of the polar bear, its life, and the science behind it — its love of solitude, the black skin that hides beneath its yellowish-white fur, the built-in sunglasses protecting its eyes from the harsh Arctic light, why it evolved to have an unusually long neck and slightly inward paws, how it maintains the same temperature as us despite living in such extreme cold, why it doesn’t hibernate.

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Beyond its sheer loveliness, the book is suddenly imbued with a new layer of urgency. At a time when we can no longer count on politicians to protect the planet and educate the next generations about preserving it, the task falls on solely on parents and educators. Desmond’s wonderful project alleviates that task by offering a warm, empathic invitation to care about, which is the gateway to caring for, one of the creatures most vulnerable to our changing climate and most needful of our protection.

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Look closer here.

THE BIG PICTURE

“We are — as far as we know — the only part of the universe that’s self-conscious,” the poet Mark Strand marveled in his beautiful meditation on the artist’s task to bear witness to existence, adding: “We could even be the universe’s form of consciousness. We might have come along so that the universe could look at itself… It’s such a lucky accident, having been born, that we’re almost obliged to pay attention.” Scientists are rightfully reluctant to ascribe a purpose or meaning to the universe itself but, as physicist Lisa Randall has pointed out, “an unconcerned universe is not a bad thing — or a good one for that matter.” Where poets and scientists converge is the idea that while the universe itself isn’t inherently imbued with meaning, it is in this self-conscious human act of paying attention that meaning arises.

Physicist Sean Carroll terms this view poetic naturalism and examines its rewards in The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (public library) — a nuanced inquiry into “how our desire to matter fits in with the nature of reality at its deepest levels,” in which Carroll offers an assuring dose of what he calls “existential therapy” reconciling the various and often seemingly contradictory dimensions of our experience.

With an eye to his life’s work of studying the nature of the universe — an expanse of space and time against the incomprehensibly enormous backdrop of which the dramas of a single human life claim no more than a photon of the spotlight — Carroll offers a counterpoint to our intuitive cowering before such magnitudes of matter and mattering:

I like to think that our lives do matter, even if the universe would trundle along without us.

[…]

I want to argue that, though we are part of a universe that runs according to impersonal underlying laws, we nevertheless matter. This isn’t a scientific question — there isn’t data we can collect by doing experiments that could possibly measure the extent to which a life matters. It’s at heart a philosophical problem, one that demands that we discard the way that we’ve been thinking about our lives and their meaning for thousands of years. By the old way of thinking, human life couldn’t possibly be meaningful if we are “just” collections of atoms moving around in accordance with the laws of physics. That’s exactly what we are, but it’s not the only way of thinking about what we are. We are collections of atoms, operating independently of any immaterial spirits or influences, and we are thinking and feeling people who bring meaning into existence by the way we live our lives.

Carroll’s captivating term poetic naturalism builds on a worldview that has been around for centuries, dating back at least to the Scottish philosopher David Hume. It fuses naturalism — the idea that the reality of the natural world is the only reality, that it operates according to consistent patterns, and that those patterns can be studied — with the poetic notion that there are multiple ways of talking about the world and of framing the questions that arise from nature’s elemental laws.

I wrote about the book at length here.

THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES

Trees dominate the world’s the oldest living organisms. Since the dawn of our species, they have been our silent companions, permeating our most enduring tales and never ceasing to inspire fantastical cosmogonies. Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.” A forgotten seventeenth-century English gardener wrote of how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons.”

But trees might be among our lushest metaphors and sensemaking frameworks for knowledge precisely because the richness of what they say is more than metaphorical — they speak a sophisticated silent language, communicating complex information via smell, taste, and electrical impulses. This fascinating secret world of signals is what German forester Peter Wohlleben explores in The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (public library).

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Wohlleben chronicles what his own experience of managing a forest in the Eifel mountains in Germany has taught him about the astonishing language of trees and how trailblazing arboreal research from scientists around the world reveals “the role forests play in making our world the kind of place where we want to live.” As we’re only just beginning to understand nonhuman consciousnesses, what emerges from Wohlleben’s revelatory reframing of our oldest companions is an invitation to see anew what we have spent eons taking for granted and, in this act of seeing, to care more deeply about these remarkable beings that make life on this planet we call home not only infinitely more pleasurable, but possible at all.

Read more here.

BEING A DOG

“The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking itself,” the great science storyteller Lewis Thomas wrote in his beautiful 1985 meditation on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge. But, like the conditioned consciousness out of which our thoughts arise, our olfactory perception is beholden to our cognitive, cultural, and biological limitations. The 438 cubic feet of air we inhale each day are loaded with an extraordinary richness of information, but we are able to access and decipher only a fraction. And yet we know, on some deep creaturely level, just how powerful and enlivening the world of smell is, how intimately connected with our ability to savor life. “Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes,” Anna Quindlen advised in her indispensable Short Guide to a Happy Life — but the noticing eclipses the getting, for the salt water breeze is lost on any life devoid of this sensorial perception.

Dogs, who “see” the world through smell, can teach us a great deal about that springlike sensorial aliveness which E.E. Cummings termed “smelloftheworld.” So argues cognitive scientist and writer Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, in Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell (public library) — a fascinating tour of what Horowitz calls the “surprising and sometimes alarming feats of olfactory perception” that dogs perform daily, and what they can teach us about swinging open the doors of our own perception by relearning some of our long-lost olfactory skills that grant us access to hidden layers of reality.

Art by Maira Kalman from Beloved Dog

The book is a natural extension of Horowitz’s two previous books, exploring the subjective reality of the dog and how our human perceptions shape our own subjective reality. She writes:

I am besotted with dogs, and to know a dog is to be interested in what it’s like to be a dog. And that all begins with the nose.

What the dog sees and knows comes through his nose, and the information that every dog — the tracking dog, of course, but also the dog lying next to you, snoring, on the couch — has about the world based on smell is unthinkably rich. It is rich in a way we humans once knew about, once acted on, but have since neglected.

Savor more of the wonderland of canine olfaction here.

I CONTAIN MULTITUDES

“I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” Galileo marveled as he peered through his microscope — a tool that, like the telescope, he didn’t invent himself but he used with in such a visionary way as to render it revolutionary. The revelatory discoveries he made in the universe within the cell are increasingly proving to be as significant as his telescopic discoveries in the universe without — a significance humanity has been even slower and more reluctant to accept than his radical revision of the cosmos.

That multilayered significance is what English science writer and microbiology elucidator Ed Yong explores in I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (public library) — a book so fascinating and elegantly written as to be worthy of its Whitman reference, in which Yong peels the veneer of the visible to reveal the astonishing complexity of life thriving beneath and within the crude confines of our perception.

Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolaria, one of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel
Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolarians, some of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel

Artist Agnes Martin memorably observed that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” but Yong offers a biopoetic counterpoint in the fact that we are never truly alone. He writes:

Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis — a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right — a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.

[…]

All zoology is really ecology. We cannot fully understand the lives of animals without understanding our microbes and our symbioses with them. And we cannot fully appreciate our own microbiome without appreciating how those of our fellow species enrich and influence their lives. We need to zoom out to the entire animal kingdom, while zooming in to see the hidden ecosystems that exist in every creature. When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends, we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction. In fact, we are legion, each and every one of us. Always a “we” and never a “me.”

There are ample reasons to admire and appreciate microbes, well beyond the already impressive facts that they ruled “our” Earth for the vast majority of its 4.54-billion-year history and that we ourselves evolved from them. By pioneering photosynthesis, they became the first organisms capable of making their own food. They dictate the planet’s carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus cycles. They can survive anywhere and populate just about corner of the Earth, from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to the loftiest clouds. They are so diverse that the microbes on your left hand are different from those on your right.

But perhaps most impressively — for we are, after all, the solipsistic species — they influence innumerable aspects of our biological and even psychological lives. Young offers a cross-section of this microbial dominion:

The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.

In August, I wrote about one particularly fascinating aspect of Yong’s book — the relationship between mental health, free will, and your microbiome.

HIDDEN FIGURES

“No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in American science, admonished the first class of female astronomers at Vassar in 1876. By the middle of the next century, a team of unheralded women scientists and engineers were powering space exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Meanwhile, across the continent and in what was practically another country, a parallel but very different revolution was taking place: In the segregated South, a growing number of black female mathematicians, scientists, and engineers were steering early space exploration and helping American win the Cold War at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

Long before the term “computer” came to signify the machine that dictates our lives, these remarkable women were working as human “computers” — highly skilled professional reckoners, who thought mathematically and computationally for their living and for their country. When Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon, his “giant leap for mankind” had been powered by womankind, particularly by Katherine Johnson — the “computer” who calculated Apollo 11’s launch windows and who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama at age 97 in 2015, three years after the accolade was conferred upon John Glenn, the astronaut whose flight trajectory Johnson had made possible.

Katherine Johnson at her Langley desk with a globe, or "Celestial Training Device," 1960 (Photographs: NASA)
Katherine Johnson at her Langley desk with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device,” 1960 (Photographs: NASA)

In Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (public library), Margot Lee Shetterly tells the untold story of these brilliant women, once on the frontlines of our cultural leaps and since sidelined by the selective collective memory we call history.

She writes:

Just as islands — isolated places with unique, rich biodiversity — have relevance for the ecosystems everywhere, so does studying seemingly isolated or overlooked people and events from the past turn up unexpected connections and insights to modern life.

Against a sobering cultural backdrop, Shetterly captures the enormous cognitive dissonance the very notion of these black female mathematicians evokes:

Before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female.

Shetterly herself grew up in Hampton, which dubbed itself “Spacetown USA,” amid this archipelago of women who were her neighbors and teachers. Her father, who had built his first rocket in his early teens after seeing the Sputnik launch, was one of Langley’s African American scientists in an era when words we now shudder to hear were used instead of “African American.” Like him, the first five black women who joined Langley’s research staff in 1943 entered a segregated NASA — even though, as Shetterly points out, the space agency was among the most inclusive workplaces in the country, with more than fourfold the percentage of black scientists and engineers than the national average.

Over the next forty years, the number of these trailblazing black women mushroomed to more than fifty, revealing the mycelia of a significant groundswell. Shetterly’s favorite Sunday school teacher had been one of the early computers — a retired NASA mathematician named Kathleen Land. And so Shetterly, who considers herself “as much a product of NASA as the Moon landing,” grew up believing that black women simply belonged in science and space exploration as a matter of course — after all, they populated her father’s workplace and her town, a town whose church “abounded with mathematicians.”

Embodying astronomer Vera Rubin’s wisdom on how modeling expands children’s scope of possibility, Shetterly reflects on this normalizing and rousing power of example:

Building 1236, my father’s daily destination, contained a byzantine complex of government-gray cubicles, perfumed with the grown-up smells of coffee and stale cigarette smoke. His engineering colleagues with their rumpled style and distracted manner seemed like exotic birds in a sanctuary. They gave us kids stacks of discarded 11×14 continuous-form computer paper, printed on one side with cryptic arrays of numbers, the blank side a canvas for crayon masterpieces. Women occupied many of the cubicles; they answered phones and sat in front of typewriters, but they also made hieroglyphic marks on transparent slides and conferred with my father and other men in the office on the stacks of documents that littered their desks. That so many of them were African American, many of them my grandmother’s age, struck me as simply a part of the natural order of things: growing up in Hampton, the face of science was brown like mine.

[…]

The community certainly included black English professors, like my mother, as well as black doctors and dentists, black mechanics, janitors, and contractors, black cobblers, wedding planners, real estate agents, and undertakers, several black lawyers, and a handful of black Mary Kay salespeople. As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.

Katherine Johnson, age 98 (Photograph: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair)
Katherine Johnson, age 98 (Photograph: Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair)

But despite the opportunities at NASA, almost countercultural in their contrast to the norms of the time, life for these courageous and brilliant women was no idyll — persons and polities are invariably products of their time and place. Shetterly captures the sundering paradoxes of the early computers’ experience:

I interviewed Mrs. Land about the early days of Langley’s computing pool, when part of her job responsibility was knowing which bathroom was marked for “colored” employees. And less than a week later I was sitting on the couch in Katherine Johnson’s living room, under a framed American flag that had been to the Moon, listening to a ninety-three-year-old with a memory sharper than mine recall segregated buses, years of teaching and raising a family, and working out the trajectory for John Glenn’s spaceflight. I listened to Christine Darden’s stories of long years spent as a data analyst, waiting for the chance to prove herself as an engineer. Even as a professional in an integrated world, I had been the only black woman in enough drawing rooms and boardrooms to have an inkling of the chutzpah it took for an African American woman in a segregated southern workplace to tell her bosses she was sure her calculations would put a man on the Moon.

[…]

And while the black women are the most hidden of the mathematicians who worked at the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and later at NASA, they were not sitting alone in the shadows: the white women who made up the majority of Langley’s computing workforce over the years have hardly been recognized for their contributions to the agency’s long-term success. Virginia Biggins worked the Langley beat for the Daily Press newspaper, covering the space program starting in 1958. “Everyone said, ‘This is a scientist, this is an engineer,’ and it was always a man,” she said in a 1990 panel on Langley’s human computers. She never got to meet any of the women. “I just assumed they were all secretaries,” she said.

These women’s often impossible dual task of preserving their own sanity and dignity while pushing culture forward is perhaps best captured in the words of African American NASA mathematician Dorothy Vaughan:

What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured.

Dive in here.

THE GLASS UNIVERSE

Predating NASA’s women mathematicians by a century was a devoted team of female amateur astronomers — “amateur” being a reflection not of their skill but of the dearth of academic accreditation available to women at the time — who came together at the Harvard Observatory at the end of the nineteenth century around an unprecedented quest to catalog the cosmos by classifying the stars and their spectra.

Decades before they were allowed to vote, these women, who came to be known as the “Harvard computers,” classified hundreds of thousands of stars according to a system they invented, which astronomers continue to use today. Their calculations became the basis for the discovery that the universe is expanding. Their spirit of selfless pursuit of truth and knowledge stands as a timeless testament to pioneering physicist Lise Meitner’s definition of the true scientist.

The "Harvard Computers" at work, circa 1890.
The “Harvard computers” at work, circa 1890.

Science historian Dava Sobel, author of Galileo’s Daughter, chronicles their unsung story and lasting legacy in The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars (public library).

Sobel, who takes on the role of rigorous reporter and storyteller bent on preserving the unvarnished historical integrity of the story, paints the backdrop:

A little piece of heaven. That was one way to look at the sheet of glass propped up in front of her. It measured about the same dimensions as a picture frame, eight inches by ten, and no thicker than a windowpane. It was coated on one side with a fine layer of photographic emulsion, which now held several thousand stars fixed in place, like tiny insects trapped in amber. One of the men had stood outside all night, guiding the telescope to capture this image, along with another dozen in the pile of glass plates that awaited her when she reached the observatory at 9 a.m. Warm and dry indoors in her long woolen dress, she threaded her way among the stars. She ascertained their positions on the dome of the sky, gauged their relative brightness, studied their light for changes over time, extracted clues to their chemical content, and occasionally made a discovery that got touted in the press. Seated all around her, another twenty women did the same.

Women working at the Harvard Observatory, with Williamina Fleming (standing) supervising
The “computers” working at the Harvard Observatory, with Williamina Fleming (standing) supervising. (Harvard University Archives)

Among the “Harvard computers” were Antonia Maury, who had graduated from Maria Mitchell’s program at Vassar; Annie Jump Cannon, who catalogued more than 20,000 variable stars in a short period after joining the observatory; Henrietta Swan Levitt, a Radcliffe alumna whose discoveries later became the basis for Hubble’s Law demonstrating the expansion of the universe and whose work was so valued that she was paid 30 cents an hour, five cents over the standard salary of the computers; and Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, who became not only the first woman but the first person of any gender to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Helming the team was Williamina Fleming — a Scotswoman whom Edward Charles Pickering, the thirty-something director of the observatory, first hired as a second maid at his residency in 1879 before recognizing her mathematical talents and assigning her the role of part-time computer.

Dive into their story here.

WOMEN IN SCIENCE

For a lighter companion to the two books above, one aimed at younger readers, artist and author Rachel Ignotofsky offers Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (public library) — an illustrated encyclopedia of fifty influential and inspiring women in STEM since long before we acronymized the conquest of curiosity through discovery and invention, ranging from the ancient astronomer, mathematician, and philosopher Hypatia in the fourth century to Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, born in 1977.

True as it may be that being an outsider is an advantage in science and life, modeling furnishes young hearts with the assurance that people who are in some way like them can belong and shine in fields comprised primarily of people drastically unlike them. It is this ethos that Igontofsky embraces by being deliberate in ensuring that the scientists included come from a vast variety of ethnic backgrounds, nationalities, orientations, and cultural traditions.

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There are the expected trailblazers who have stood as beacons of possibility for decades, even centuries: Ada Lovelace, who became the world’s first de facto computer programmer; Marie Curie, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize and to this day the only person awarded a Nobel in two different sciences; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who once elicited the exclamation “Miss Bell, you have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century!” (and was subsequently excluded from the Nobel she deserved); Maria Sybilla Merian, the 17th-century German naturalist whose studies of butterfly metamorphosis revolutionized entomology and natural history illustration; and Jane Goodall — another pioneer who turned her childhood dream into reality against tremendous odds and went on to do more for the understanding of nonhuman consciousness than any scientist before or since.

Take a closer look here.

* * *

On December 2, I joined Science Friday alongside Scientific American editor Lee Billings to discuss some of our favorite science books of 2016:

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best science books of 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

BP

The 15 Best Books of 2015

Rewarding reflections on time, love, loss, courage, creativity, and other transformations of the heart.

In the spirit of treating my annual best-of reading lists as a sort of Old Year’s resolutions in reverse, reflecting not aspirational priorities for the new year but what proved most worth prioritizing over the year past, here are the fifteen most rewarding books I read in 2015, following the subject-specific selections of the year’s best art books, best science books, and best children’s books. Please enjoy.

1. ON THE MOVE

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning mapped the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

The book, made all the more poignant by Dr. Sacks’s death shortly after its release, is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Dive deeper into this enormously rewarding book here.

2. H IS FOR HAWK

Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor. Because it is, of course, about everything — it might take a specific something as its subject, but its object is nothing less than the whole of the human spirit, mirrored back to itself.

H Is for Hawk (public library) by Helen Macdonald is one such book — the kind one devours voraciously, then picks up and puts down repeatedly, unsure how to channel its aboutness in a way that isn’t woefully inadequate.

For a necessary starting point, here’s an inadequate summation: After her father’s sudden and soul-splitting death, Macdonald, a seasoned falconer, decides to wade through the devastation by learning to train a goshawk — the fiercest of raptors, “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths,” capable of inflicting absolute gore with absolute grace. Over the course of that trying experience — which she chronicles by weaving together personal memory, natural history (the memory of our planet), and literary history (the memory of our culture) — she learns about love and loss, beauty and terror, control and surrender, and the myriad other dualities reconciling which is the game of life.

British goshawk by Archibald Thorburn, 1915 (public domain)
British goshawk by Archibald Thorburn, 1915 (public domain)

Macdonald writes:

Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.

Out of that aloneness a singular and paradoxical madness is born:

I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world… Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.

Rippling through Macdonald’s fluid, mesmerizingly immersive prose are piercing, short, perfectly placed deliverances, in both senses of the word: there is the dark (“What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later.”), the luminous (“I’d halfway forgotten how kind and warm the world could be.”), the immediate (“Time passed. The wavelength of the light around me shortened. The day built itself.”), the timeless (“Those old ghostly intuitions that have tied sinew and soul together for millennia.”), and the irrepressibly sublime (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”).

See more here.

3. CONSOLATIONS

“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice. But words also belong to us, as much as we belong to them — and out of that mutual belonging arises our most fundamental understanding of the world, as well as the inescapable misunderstandings that bedevil the grand sensemaking experiment we call life.

This constant dialogue between reality and illusion, moderated by our use of language, is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a most remarkable book “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty.” Whyte — who has previously enveloped in his wisdom such intricacies of existence as what happens when love leaves and how to break the tyranny of work-life balance — constructs an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense by reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace. And he does it all with a sensibility of style and spirit partway between Aristotle and Anne Lamott, Montaigne and Mary Oliver.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Whyte chooses 52 such ordinary words, the same number as the playing cards in a standard deck — perhaps a subtle suggestion that words, like cards, are as capable of illusion as they are of magic: two sides of the same coin, chosen by what we ourselves bring to the duality. Indeed, dualities and counterpoints dominate the book — Whyte’s short essays examine ambition and disappointment, vulnerability and courage, anger and forgiveness.

Among the words Whyte ennobles with more luminous understanding are those connoting the most complex conversations between human hearts: friendship, love — both unconditional and unrequited — and heartbreak. Of friendship — which Emerson considered the supreme fruit of “truth and tenderness,” Aristotle the generous act of holding up a mirror to each other, Thoreau a grand stake for which the game of life may be played, and C.S. Lewis “one of those things which give value to survival” — Whyte writes:

FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from ‘Let’s Be Enemies’ by Janice May Udry. Click image for more.

Echoing Anne Lamott’s beautifully articulated conviction that friendship is above all the art of allowing the soft light of love to fall upon even our darkest sides, Whyte adds:

In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.

Whyte argues that friendship helps us “make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love” — two concepts to which he dedicates entire separate word-meditations. He writes of the former:

HEARTBREAK is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

And yet while heartbreak has this immense spiritual value, and even an evolutionarily adaptive one, we still treat it like a problem to be solved rather than like the psychoemotional growth-spurt that it is. Whyte writes:

Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.

[…]

There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.

Stripped of the unnecessary negative judgments we impose upon it, heartbreak is simply a fathometer for the depth of our desire — for a person, for an accomplishment, for belonging to the world and its various strata of satisfaction. Whyte captures this elegantly:

Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose.

[…]

Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is an introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something and someone that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.

See more here.

4. M TRAIN

“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?” philosopher Rebecca Goldstein asked in contemplating how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of time. A little less than a century earlier, just as the theory of relativity was taking hold, Virginia Woolf articulated in exquisite prose what quantum physics sought to convey in equations — that thing we feel in our very bones, impervious to art or science, by virtue of being ephemeral creatures in a transient world.

That transcendent transience is what beloved musician, artist, and poet Patti Smith explores in M Train (public library) — a most unusual and breathtaking book: part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself.

A person possessing the rare gift of remaining radiant even in her melancholy, Smith grieves for her husband and her brother; she commemorates her great heroes, from friends like William S. Burroughs, who influenced her greatly, to kindred companions on the creative path across space and time like Frida Kahlo, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath; she even mourns the closing of the neighborhood café she frequented for more than a decade, one of those mundane anchors of constancy by which we hang on to existence.

The point, of course, is that each loss evokes all losses — a point Smith delivers with extraordinary elegance of prose and sincerity of spirit. What emerges is a strange and wonderful consolation for our inconsolable longing for permanency amid a universe driven by perpetual change and inevitable loss.

Frida Kahlo’s bed (Photograph: Patti Smith)

Smith writes:

The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.

But every transformation is invariably a loss, and the transformed must be mourned before the transformed-into can be relished. The mystery of the continuity between the two — between our past and present selves — is one of the greatest perplexities of philosophy. Smith arrives at it with wistful wonderment as she contemplates the disorientation of aging, that ultimate horseman of terminal transformation:

I considered what it meant to be sixty-six. The same number as the original American highway, the celebrated Mother Road that George Maharis, as Buz Murdock, took as he tooled across the country in his Corvette, working on oil rigs and trawlers, breaking hearts and freeing junkies. Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell. I could feel my chronology mounting, snow approaching. I could feel the moon, but I could not see it. The sky was veiled with a heavy mist illuminated by the perpetual city lights. When I was a girl the night sky was a great map of constellations, a cornucopia spilling the crystalline dust of the Milky Way across its ebony expanse, layers of stars that I would deftly unfold in my mind. I noticed the threads on my dungarees straining across my protruding knees. I’m still the same person, I thought, with all my flaws intact, same old bony knees…

[…]

The phone was ringing, a birthday wish from an old friend reaching from far away. As I said good-bye I realized I missed that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown, that’s for sure.

Patti Smith, late 1970s

In a sentiment reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s thoughts on the fluidity of past and present, Smith considers what “real time” is:

Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress, is that still real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory. I looked out into the street and noticed the light changing. Perhaps the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Perhaps time had slipped away.

See more here. Also from this gem of a book, Smith’s fifty favorite books.

5. THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

“I am not saying that we should love death,” urged Rilke in his clarion call for befriending our mortality, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” Nearly a century later, Elizabeth Alexander — one of the greatest poets of our time, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” welcomed Barack Obama into his presidency and made her only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, joining such legendary dyads as Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy — invigorates Rilke’s proclamation as she bears witness to the vertiginous tango of these odd companions, death and love.

This she chronicles with uncommon elegance in The Light of the World (public library) — her soul-stretching memoir of how Ficre, the love of her life and her husband of fifteen Christmases, an artist and a chef, a blueberries-and-oatmeal-eating yogi and proud self-proclaimed “African ox,” collapsed while running on the treadmill in their basement. He was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday — a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss — a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love.

Art from The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers, an illustrated fable about love and loss

From the very opening lines, her writing flows with undramatic weight and piercing precision of emotional truth:

The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.

Indeed, embedded in her remembrance is a meditation on love itself:

Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.

What more beautiful a definition of love is there — in all of humanity’s centuries of seeking to capture its essence — than the gift of making life possible for one another? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, in fact, deals with the forcible disentwining of their two possibilities as the impossibility of death wedges itself between them.

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf memorably admonished. “Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet under Alexander’s lucid and luminous sidewise gaze, the soul is summoned to reveal itself rather than vaporizing. She writes:

Henry Ford believed the soul of a person is located in their last breath and so captured the last breath of his best friend Thomas Edison in a test tube and kept it evermore. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, like Galileo’s finger in the church of Santa Croce, but Edison’s last breath is an invisible relic.

Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll marveled at this mystery, Alexander considers the boundary between the body and the soul:

When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre.

When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself.

When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us.

His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us.

Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.

Between the lines of a favorite poem — Lucille Clifton lyrical meditation on her own husband’s death, which includes the lines “rising and turning / through my skin, / there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves” — Alexander rediscovers this transmutation of energies as life and death waltz across the expanse of existence:

Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin… A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath… What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: “The things / themselves.”

The mirrored mutuality of love and loss reveals itself again as Alexander returns to this notion of invisible essences in reflecting on the calling that most animated Ficre:

To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.

See more here.

6. ONGOINGNESS

Some of humanity’s most celebrated writers and artists have reaped, and extolled, the creative benefits of keeping a diary. For John Steinbeck, journaling was a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt; for Virginia Woolf, a way to “loosen the ligaments” of creativity; for André Gide, a conduit to “spiritual evolution”; for Anaïs Nin, who remains history’s most dedicated diarist, the best way to “capture the living moments.”

Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.

Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.” She becomes, in fact, a kind of McLuhan of the self, probing not the collective conscience but the individual psyche, yet extracting widely resonant human truth and transmuting it into enormously expansive wisdom.

Manguso traces the roots of her diaristic journey, which began as an almost compulsive hedge against forgetting, against becoming an absentee in her own life, against the anguishing anxiety that time was slipping from her grip:

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

[…]

The trouble was that I failed to record so much.

I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.

[…]

I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.

So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time.

[…]

I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.

Upon arriving at a view of death reminiscent of Alan Watts’s, Manguso revisits the limiting fragmentation of life’s ongoingness into beginnings and endings:

The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will — diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows — weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.

For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for ‘The Velveteen Rabbit.’ Click image for more.

Then something happened — something utterly ordinary in the grand human scheme that had an extraordinary impact on Manguso’s private dance with memory and mortality: she became a mother. She writes:

I began to inhabit time differently.

[…]

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.

[…]

Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.

As she awoke to this immutable continuity of life, Manguso became more acutely aware of those bewitched by beginnings. There is, of course, a certain beauty — necessity, even — to that beginner’s refusal to determine what is impossible before it is even possible. She writes:

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.

I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.

Perhaps there is an element of “untested hope” in journaling itself — we are drawn to the practice because we hope that the diary would safe-keep precisely such throbbing, self-strengthening memories; that, in recording the unfolding ways in which we invent ourselves into personhood, it would become a constant reassurance of our own realness, a grownup version of The Velveteen Rabbit, reminding us that “real isn’t how you are made [but] a thing that happens to you.” Bearing witness to the happening itself, without trying to fragment it into beginnings and endings, is both the task of living and the anguish of the liver.

Manguso captures this elegantly:

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.

See more here.

7. FELICITY

For more than half a century, beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) has been beckoning us to remember ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time, to contact both our creatureliness and our transcendence as we move through the shimmering world her poetry has mirrored back at us — an unremitting invitation to live with what she calls “a seizure of happiness.” Nowhere is this seizure more electrifying than in love — a subject Oliver’s poetry has tended to celebrate only obliquely, and one she addressed most directly in her piercing elegy for her soul mate.

But in her most recent collection, Felicity (public library), Oliver dedicates nearly half the poems to the scintillating seizure that is love. There is bittersweetness in her words — these are loves that have bloomed in the hindsight of eighty long, wide years. But there is also radiant redemption, reminding us — much as Patti Smith did in her sublime new memoir — that certain loves outlast loss.

Mary Oliver in 1964 (Photograph: Molly Malone Cook)

Here are four of my favorite love poems from the collection — please enjoy.

I KNOW SOMEONE

I know someone who kisses the way
a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
against them.
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.

Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.

I DID THINK, LET’S GO ABOUT THIS SLOWLY

I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.

But, bless us, we didn’t.

HOW DO I LOVE YOU?

How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by

demonstration? Like
this, and
like this and

    no more words now

NOT ANYONE WHO SAYS

Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
  careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
unsuitable —
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.

See more, including Krista Tippett’s spectacular interview with the reclusive poet, here.

8. THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

See more here.

9. RISING STRONG

“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Vladimir Nabokov famously proclaimed. Today, hardly anyone embodies this sentiment more fully than Brené Brown, who came of age as a social scientist in an era when the tyranny of facts trivialized the richness of fancy and the human experience was squeezed out of the qualitative in the service of the quantitative, the two pitted as polarities. But like Susan Sontag, who recognized how polarities limit and imprison us, Brown defied these dogmatic dichotomies and went on to become what she calls a “researcher-storyteller” — a social scientist who studies the complexities and nuances of the human experience with equal regard for data and story, enriching story with data and ennobling data with story in a quest to “find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources.”

In Rising Strong (public library), Brown builds upon her earlier work on vulnerability to examine the character qualities, emotional patterns, and habits of mind that enable people to transcend the catastrophes of life, from personal heartbreak to professional collapse, and emerge not only unbroken but more whole.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

To be sure, this isn’t another iteration of “fail forward,” that tired and trendy (but far from new) cultural trope of extolling failure as a stepping stone to success — Brown’s research is about what happens in the psyche and the spirit when we are in the thick of the failure itself, facedown in the muddy stream, gasping for air; about what those who live from a deep place of worthiness have in common; about the choices involved in living a wholehearted life and the consequences of those choices in rising from our facedown moments to march forward.

Brown writes:

While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for — love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.

Brown argues that we live in “a Gilded Age of Failure,” where we fetishize recovery stories for their redemptive ending, glossing over the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it. (Some time ago, I too lamented this cultural tendency in my seven most important learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings.) This, Brown points out, does a disservice to the essence of grit, which has been shown to be a primary trait of those who succeed in life. She writes:

Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.

Although we live in a culture of perfectionism where our idealized selves become our social currency, we know, at least on some level, that risk-taking, failure, and success are inextricably linked. Brown captures this elegantly:

If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.

See more here.

10. ENORMOUS SMALLNESS

“In a Cummings poem,” Susan Cheever wrote in her spectacular biography of E. E. Cummings, “the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.” Such a burst is what rewards the reader, whatever his or her age, in Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) — an uncommonly delightful picture-book celebration of Cummings’s life by Brooklyn-based poet Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (the artist behind the wonderful alphabet book Take Away the A).

To reimagine the beloved poet’s life in a tango of word and image is quite befitting — unbeknownst to many, Cummings had a passion for drawing and once described himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

The project comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of some of the most daring and tender children’s books of our time — and was first envisioned by ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, who approached Burgess about writing a children’s biography of Cummings. Miraculously, Burgess had visited Cummings’s home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City three years earlier, after a serendipitous encounter with the current resident — an experience that had planted a seed of quietly germinating obsession with the legendary poet’s life.

And so the collaboration stretched between them, as Cummings might say, like “a pleasant song” — Burgess and Bedrick worked side by side for four years to bring this wonder of a book to life.

The story begins with Cummings, already known as “E. E.” and living in his New York City home where he spent the last forty years of his life, typing away as the love of his life, the fashion model and photographer Marion Moorehouse, summons him to tea-time with an elephant-shaped bell.

From there, Burgess takes the reader on an affectionate biographical detective story, tracing how Edward Estlin became E. E., what brought him to Manhattan from his native Cambridge, and how elephants (and trees, and birds) became his lifelong creative companions in the circus of his imagination.

Young Estlin’s first poem “poured out of his mouth when he was only three.”

With the loving support of the unsung champions with whom the history of creative culture is strewn — the mother who began recording his spontaneous recitations in a little book titled “Estlin’s Original Poems”; the father who stomped on his hands and knees, play-pretending into existence the mighty elephant that was little Estlin’s creative muse; the teacher who encouraged him to pursue his love of words; the uncle who gave him a book on how to write poetry — he eventually made it to Harvard.

There, he came upon the words of his favorite poet, John Keats — “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination” — which awakened young Estlin’s creative courage. After graduation, he began experimenting with poetry and moved to New York City, falling in love with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.”

But then World War I struck and Estlin went to France, volunteering as an ambulance-driver. While working in the French countryside, he was mistaken for a spy and sent to prison for several months.

When the war ended, he wrote a book about his experience, titled The Enormous Room. Estlin was reborn as E. E.

The following year, he published his first book of poems, Tulips & Chimneys.

Burgess writes:

Using a style all his own,
e. e. put lowercase letters where capitals normally go,
and his playful punctuation grabbed readers’ attention.

His poems were alive with experimentation
and surprise!

And because of his love for lowercase letters,
his name began to appear with two little e’s (& a little c, too).

But his expansive experimentation was too much for the small-minded literary pantheon:

Some people criticized him for painting with words.
Other said his poems were
too strange
too small.
Some said they were
no good at all.

And yet Cummings, who viewed society’s criteria for what it means to be a successful artist with mischievous wryness, was undeterred. A century before Neil Gaiman’s memorable advice that the artist’s only appropriate response to criticism is to make good art, Cummings embodied this ethos. Burgess captures this spirit with quiet elegance, weaving one of Cummings’s poems into the story:

But no matter what the world was giving or taking,
E. E. went right on dreaming and making.
For inside, he knew his poems were new and true.

love is a place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds.

His poems were his way
of saying YES.

YES to the heart
and the roundness of the moon,
to birds, elephants, trees,
and everything he loved.

YES to spring, too
which always brought him back
to childhood, when the first
sign of his favorite season
was the whistling arrival
of the balloon man.

The book’s epigraph is a celebration of this unflinching yes-saying: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

See more here.

11. BIG MAGIC

“When you’re an artist,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her magnificent manifesto for the creative life, “nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.” The craftsmanship of that wand, which is perhaps the most terrifying and thrilling task of the creative person in any domain of endeavor, is what Elizabeth Gilbert explores in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — a lucid and luminous inquiry into the relationship between human beings and the mysteries of the creative experience, as defined by Gilbert’s beautifully broad notion of “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” It’s an expansive definition that cracks open the possibilities within any human life, whether you’re a particle physicist or a postal worker or a poet — and the pursuit of possibility is very much at the heart of Gilbert’s mission to empower us to enter into creative endeavor the way one enters into a monastic order: “as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence.”

elizabethgilbert
A generation earlier, Julia Cameron termed the spark of this creative transcendence “spiritual electricity,” and a generation before that Rollo May explored the fears keeping us from attaining it. Gilbert, who has contemplated the complexities of creativity for a long time and with electrifying insight, calls its supreme manifestation “Big Magic”:

This, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?

[…]

Surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living.

The courage to go on that hunt in the first place — that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.

The often surprising results of that hunt — that’s what I call Big Magic.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves
Illustration by Maurice Sendak for ‘The Big Green Book’ by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

That notion of summoning the courage to bring forth one’s hidden treasures is one Gilbert borrowed from Jack Gilbert — a brilliant poet to whom she is related not by genealogy but by creative kinship, graced with the astonishing coincidence of their last names and a university teaching position they both occupied a generation apart. She reflects on the poet’s unusual creative ethos:

“We must risk delight,” he wrote. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”

[…]

He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged [his students] to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.

Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small — far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.

See more here.

12. NEGROLAND

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their revelatory conversation on power and privilege. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” The many modes of telling and the many types of trouble are what trailblazing journalist, longtime New York Times theater critic, and Pulitzer winner Margo Jefferson (b. October 17, 1947) explores in Negroland: A Memoir (public library) — a masterwork of both form and substance.

Jefferson transforms her experience of growing up in an affluent black family into a lens on the broader perplexities of privilege and its provisional nature. Her piercing cultural insight unfolds in uncommonly beautiful writing, both honoring the essence of the memoir form — a vehicle for reaching the universal from the outpost of the personal — and defying its conventions through enlivening narrative experimentation.

Jefferson, who came of age in an era when the biological fallacies of racial difference still ran rampant, writes:

I was taught to avoid showing off.

I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.

But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?

In my Negroland childhood, this was a perilous business.

Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.

Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant. Showing off was permitted, even encouraged, only if the result reflected well on your family, their friends, and your collective ancestors.

Jefferson and her older sister in Canada, during the family’s 1956 cross-country road trip.

What is perhaps most disorienting about visibilia like race, age, and gender is that they externalize the inner contradictions with which we live — those tug-of-wars between dignity and self-doubt, between the yearning to belong and the fear that we don’t. Jefferson captures these dimensions beautifully:

Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it. Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers. White people who, like us, had manners, money, and education… But wait: “Like us” is presumptuous for the 1950s. Liberal whites who saw that we too had manners, money, and education lamented our caste disadvantage. Less liberal or non-liberal whites preferred not to see us in the private schools and public spaces of their choice. They had ready a bevy of slights: from skeptics the surprised glance and spare greeting; from waverers the pleasantry, eyes averted; from disdainers the direct cut. Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege.

Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largesse in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty. We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.

Among the most poignant threads in Jefferson’s cultural memoir is the paradoxical notion of privilege earned. Privilege, after all, is granted by definition — earned privilege is the simulacrum of privilege, staked at the entrance to the power club and demanding the price of admission: endless self-contortion.

A self-described “chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor,” Jefferson writes:

That’s the generic version of a story. Here’s the specific version: the midwestern, midcentury story of a little girl, one of two born to an attractive couple pleased with their lives and achievements, wanting the best for their children and wanting their children to be among the best.

To be successful, professionally and personally.

And to be happy.

Children always find ways to subvert while they’re busy complying. This child’s method of subversion? She would achieve success, but she would treat it like a concession she’d been forced to make. For unto whomsoever much is given, of her shall be much required. She came to feel that too much had been required of her. She would have her revenge. She would insist on an inner life regulated by despair… She embraced her life up to a point, then rejected it, and from that rejection have come all her difficulties.

See more here.

13. DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS

Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.

Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.

Randall writes:

The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.

A 17th-century conception of non-space by the English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

In Humboldt’s tradition of interconnectedness, Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:

Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.

But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.

Read more here.

14. SELFISH, SHALLOW, AND SELF-ABSORBED

“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions,” Italo Calvino wrote in his magnificent letter on reproductive rights, “but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.” Thirty-five years earlier, in 1940, Anaïs Nin made the same point with even greater precision and prescience when she wrote in her diary: “Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.” And yet here we are decades later, with millennia of human civilization under our belt — aspirin to Austen, Guggenheim to Google, bicycle to Bach — still subscribing to the same primitive biological imperative that a life unprocreated is a life wasted; still succumbing to the tyrannical cultural message that opting out of parenthood is a failure of ambition or magnanimity or social duty, or simply the symptom of a profound character flaw. Being childless by choice — like being alone, like living alone — is still considered by unspoken consensus the errant choice.

A potent and sorely needed antidote to this toxic myth comes in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (public library), edited by the brilliant Meghan Daum — a writer of rare aptitude for articulating the unspeakable. The contributions — sometimes witty, sometimes wistful, always wise — come from such celebrated authors as Geoff Dyer, Anna Holmes, and Sigrid Nunez, whose reasons for going not having children range from the personal trauma of difficult childhoods to political convictions about everything from reproductive rights to overpopulation and income inequality to the increasingly hard-to-meet requirement of undivided attention that is the hallmark of great parenting.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from ‘Sidewalk Flowers’ by JonArno Lawson. Click image for more.

With an eye to Tolstoy’s famous line from the opening of Anna Karenina“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Daum writes in the introduction:

Of course, [Tolstoy’s] maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.

Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood … are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.

Daum considers the many ways in which one can come to stand in one’s truth as a nonparent — an act, essentially, of standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, in the eye of a sociocultural hurricane, with the absolute stillness of deep self-knowledge — Daum writes:

For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else — a partner, a family member, the culture at large.

Illustration from ‘Little Boy Brown,’ a vintage ode to childhood’s loneliness. Click image for more.

And yet despite the wide array of paths to the willfully childless life, the cultural narrative about this choice remains strikingly myopic. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that polarities invariably impoverish the nuances of life, Daum points to the primary purpose of the anthology:

I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.

[…]

It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.

See more here.

15. HURRY UP AND WAIT

“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” Alan Watts observed in his magnificent meditation on the art of timing half a century before our paradoxical modern mecca of ever-multiplying procrastination options amid a Productivity Rush in which we’re mining every last frontier of sanity and stillness for the tiniest nugget of precious efficiency. “Of all ridiculous things,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness nearly two centuries earlier, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” Somehow, even if we know that we habitually miss most of what is going on around us, we rarely break our busy gait on the hamster wheel of goal-chasing. And yet when we do pause — be it by will or, perhaps more commonly, by accident — the miraculous reveals itself in the mundane.

That’s what longtime collaborators Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler explore in the immensely wonderful children’s-book-for-grownups Hurry Up and Wait (public library) — the second installment in their collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, following their quirky Girls Standing on Lawns.

Jacques-Henri Lartigue. Paris, Avenue des Acacias, 1912 (printed 1962).
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2015 Association des Amis de Jacques Henri Lartigue

It feels so good to go someplace.

Except when you want to stay
right there where you are.

Once again, Kalman and Handler wade through MoMA’s impressive archive to curate a set of unusual, whimsical, and purely delightful photographs that capture the osmotic relationship between motion and stillness. The images come from the middle of the twentieth century, the heyday of the Mad Men era that set the hedonic treadmill of consumerism into motion and ripped the modern psyche asunder by the conflicting pulls of doing and being.

Garry Winogrand. New York City, 1961.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2015 The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This is the history of the entire world.

People are seen striding and strolling, racing and ruminating, dashing and daydreaming — living testaments to the counterpoints of disposition by which we orient ourselves to the same mundane daily actions and to the present moment itself. We are reminded that even something as simple as a walk can be, as Thoreau believed, “a sort of crusade” — but we get to choose whether to crusade for productivity or for presence.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

Jump right in, or wade in slowly.
Advantage to one, it’s over quickly.
Advantage to the other, it isn’t.

Handler’s meditative writing is a kind of aphoristic prose poetry, at once irreverent and wholehearted and profound, partway between Mark Twain and Rumi, with a touch of Virginia Woolf’s perfectly placed commas to punctuate attention into reflective pause of just the right duration.

The accompanying paintings by Kalman — herself a patron saint of “the moments inside the moments inside the moments” and an unparalleled noticer of the magic in the mundane — reimagine the historical photographs through the raw material of Kalman’s art: that delicious dialogue between representation and response.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

You’re supposed to stop and smell the roses
but truth be told it doesn’t take that long
to smell them. You hardly have to stop.
You can smell the roses and still have time to
run all those errands before the sun goes
down and it’s dinner time.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

What emerges is a contemporary counterpart to Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, a Walden for the modern metropolis reminding us what it really means to be awake, yet wholly original and scrumptiously singular in spirit.

Jens S. Jensen. Boy on the Wall, Hammarkullen, Gothenburg, 1973.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist

I’m just standing still, and then suddenly
I think I am waiting for something.
Once I’ve decided I’m waiting it’s like
I’m not standing still anymore.

All childhood long they told me to
hurry up, and now all this
time
later I can’t imagine what the rush was.
But every morning my child never puts on
his shoes on time, and we have to go,
we have to go.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

When I was a kid my father would say,
if you get lost, don’t look for me.
Stay there. Stay there an I will find you.

He’s gone now.

See more here.

And since I side with Susan Sontag, who considered reading an act of rebirth, I encourage you to revisit the selections for 2014 and 2013.

BP

The Best Children’s Books of 2014

Intelligent and imaginative tales of love, loneliness, loyalty, loss, friendship, and everything in between.

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

“It is an error,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien seven decades earlier in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing for children, “to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large.” Indeed, books that bewitch young hearts and tickle young minds aren’t “children’s books” but simply great books — hearts that beat in the chest of another, even if that chest is slightly smaller.

This is certainly the case with the most intelligent and imaginative “children’s” and picture-books published this year. (Because the best children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, perennial delight, step into the time machine and revisit previous selections for 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

1. THE LION AND THE BIRD

Once in a long while, a children’s book comes by that is so gorgeous in sight and spirit, so timelessly and agelessly enchanting, that it takes my breath away. The Lion and the Bird (public library | IndieBound) by French Canadian graphic designer and illustrator Marianne Dubuc is one such rare gem — an ode to life’s moments between the words via the tender and melodic story of a lion who finds a wounded bird in his garden one autumn day and nurses it back to flight. In the act of helping and being helped, the two deliver one another from the soul-wrenching pain of loneliness and build a beautiful friendship — the quiet and deeply rewarding kind.

Dubuc’s warm and generous illustrations are not only magical in that singular way that only someone who understands both childhood and loneliness can afford, but also lend a mesmerizing musical quality to the story. She plays with scale and negative space in a courageous and uncommon way — scenes fade into opacity as time passes, Lion shrinks as Bird flies away, and three blank pages punctuate the story as brilliantly placed pauses that capture the wistfulness of waiting and longing. What emerges is an entrancing sing-song rhythm of storytelling and of emotion.

As an endless winter descends upon Lion and Bird, they share a world of warmth and playful fellowship.

But a bittersweet awareness lurks in the shadow of their union — Lion knows that as soon as her broken wing heals, Bird will take to the spring skies with her flock, leaving him to his lonesome life.

Dubuc’s eloquent pictures advance the nearly wordless story, true to those moments in life that render words unnecessary. When spring arrives, we see Bird wave farewell to Lion.

“Yes,” says Lion. “I know.”

Nothing else is said, and yet we too instantly know — we know the universe of unspoken and ineffable emotion that envelops each and beams between them like silent starlight in that fateful moment.

The seasons roll by and Lion tends to his garden quietly, solemnly.

Summer passes slowly, softly.

Wistfully, he wonders where Bird might be. Until one autumn day…

…he hears a familiar sound.

It is Bird, returning for another winter of warmth and friendship.

The Lion and the Bird is ineffably wonderful, the kind of treasure to which the screen and the attempted explanation do no justice — a book that, as it was once said of The Little Prince, will shine upon your soul, whether child or grown-up, “with a sidewise gleam” and strike you “in some place that is not the mind” to glowing there with inextinguishable light.

Originally featured here.

2. HUG ME

A hug is such a simple act. But how anguishing when one is denied this basic exchange of human goodwill and kindness. Surely, one doesn’t even have to be human to feel the anguish of that denial. At first glance, this seems to be the premise behind Hug Me (public library | IndieBound) by animator-turned-children’s-book-author Simona Ciraolo — a sweet story about a young cactus named Felipe, who longs for such softness of contact in a family that sees emotional expression as a sign of weakness. Felipe runs away, looking for a new family to give him the affection he yearns for, but only finds heartbreak and rejection.

Felipe’s lonesomeness grows deeper when his first friend, a “bold, confident” giant yellow balloon who hovers over Felipe’s solitary patch of desert, succumbs to the inevitable outcome of the mismatched relationship. Even as he grieves his friend, Felipe is scolded for his emotional sensitivity rather than comforted with the very hug he needs.

Reaching his emotional tipping point, he finally departs to look for a new family, but quickly realizes that he is unwelcome everywhere and is left with nothing but his own company — not the self-elected art of solitude that can be so nourishing, but a forced lonesomeness that saddens the soul.

At last, Felipe finds a true friend in a little rock longing for affection amid a family as stiff and stern as his own, a kindred spirit whose cries for connection resonate in perfect unison with his own — a sweet finale reminding us that nothing dissolves loneliness like empathy and the awareness of shared experience.

There is, of course, a deeper allegorical undertone to the tale, beyond the surface interpretation of celebrating one’s inner softness in a culture that encourages hard individualism and a prickly exterior. A subtle undercurrent celebrates the spiritual homecoming of finding one’s tribe, the expansive embrace found in a kinship of souls. The story is also a celebration of free will, reminding us ever so gently that whatever our circumstances, we always have choices — and that our inability to see this is perhaps our gravest self-imposed limitation.

Originally featured here.

3. AH-HA TO ZIG-ZAG

As a lover of imaginative and intelligent alphabet books and of absolutely everything Maira Kalman does, I find the letters of the alphabet and the words they make insufficient to express the boundless wonderfulness of Kalman’s Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag (public library | IndieBound) — the children’s-book counterpart of her magnificent My Favorite Things, which began as a companion to an exhibition Kalman curated to celebrate the anticipated reopening of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In this ABC gem — which doubles as a design-history primer full not of snobbery and self-important art-speak but of a playful celebration of uncertainty and imperfection — Kalman culls thirty-one objects from the museum’s collection and strings them together into a tour of the alphabet, with her characteristic quirk, candor, and exuberant creative curiosity as the loving guide.

Her unusual selections, often of seemingly mundane artifacts, bespeak her extraordinary gift for finding magic in “the moments between the moments between the moments.” The accompanying words emanate from a beautiful wanderer’s mind and a spirit that is so clearly generous and kind.

There is the “itsy-bitsy nail” in I; the beautiful embroidered pocket in P, which offers the pause-giving factlet that “a long time ago, women didn’t have pockets in their clothes”; the clever play on continuity that offers “terrible news” in T as a painting of burnt toast accuses the antique toaster in Q (“Quite the toaster!) of malfunction.

The last letter winks at Kalman’s wonderful Principles of Uncertainty:

The final spread in the story offers a sweet message of embracing imperfection — a gentle reminder for all ages that, as Anne Lamott memorably put it, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people”:

But the end is not really the end — perhaps the most touching and empowering part of the book is its postscript of sorts. In the closing pages, Kalman tells the heartening story of Nellie and Sally Hewitt — the two young women who founded the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum:

They loved to sing and dance. They were just a little bit wild. A little bit.

They had sharp eyes. The kind of eyes that really LOOK at things.

One day they decided to collect the things they loved, and create a museum. And they really did it. Which is a lesson to be learned. If you have a good idea — DO IT.

Originally featured here.

4. WEDNESDAY

For more than a decade, Brooklyn’s family-owned indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion has been publishing immeasurably thoughtful and lyrical picture-books that invite young minds of all ages to explore such subtleties of the human experience as loneliness, loyalty, loss, the unknown, and the rhythms of life.

Now comes Wednesday (public library | IndieBound), the American debut of French children’s book author and illustrator Anne Bertier. It is translated by Enchanted Lion founder and editor Claudia Zoe Bedrick herself, a longtime Peace Corps volunteer, who continues to do for contemporary children’s books what Ursula Nordstrom did for the most beloved classics of the twentieth century.

Partway between Norton Juster’s 1963 gem The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and the endearing Sendak-illustrated Let’s Be Enemies, this unusual, minimalist, maximally imaginative book tells the story of two friends, Little Round and Big Square, who get together to play their favorite game every Wednesday — a game of association and transformation, where “as soon as one of them says a word, they transform themselves into it.” Together, they transmogrify into fanciful shapes — a butterfly, a flower, a mushroom, a kite.

But the fun is abated when Little Round begins to feel littler, unimportant and insufficient, as Big Square begins to parade a repertoire of words beyond Little Round’s transformation capacities.

They retreat to opposite corners, each gripped with indignation — until Little Round, undoubtedly aware that mutual understanding is at the heart of friendship, comes up with a reconciliatory idea and proposes that they come up with the words together rather than taking turns. Their first collaborative formation exudes subtle symbolism in speaking to how the I-ego keeps us separate from the universe:

“I’m going to hold myself very tall and straight.”

“And I’ll be the dot,” says Little Round.

“Our i really works!”

On they go with this collaborative creation, joyfully transforming together into a candy, a clown, a hat, a boat, a bowl, and increasingly abstract combinations that eventually take shape into recognizable forms.

The story is at once simple in its playfulness and a beautiful allegory for the combinatorial nature of creativity and thought itself, for the way we transform the building blocks we assemble by way of being alive and awake to the world — impressions, experiences, memories, influences — into new combinations that we call our own ideas. There is a reason Einstein called his thought process “combinatory play.”

Originally featured here.

5. WILD

“All good things are wild and free,” Thoreau wrote in his terrific treatise on walking. More than 150 years later, Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes makes an imaginative 21st-century case for this in Wild (public library | IndieBound) — an irreverent, charming, and oh-so-delightfully illustrated story, partway between Kipling’s The Jungle Book and Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and one of the most endearing things to come by in decades.

The story opens with a joyful and carefree little girl native to the woods, raised by the creatures of the whole forest. She is boundlessly, ebulliently wild, and wholly unashamed of her wildness.

Bird taught her to speak.
Bear taught her how to eat.
Fox taught her how to play.
And she understood, and was happy.

One day, two creatures who look an awful lot like her, only bigger, appear out of nowhere, put her in the belly of their metal beast, and hurl her into a wholly different new life — a civilized one.

Off in the big city, a somewhat well-meaning but rather dictatorial elderly couple sets out to de-wild her. “FAMED PSYCHIATRIST TAKES IN FERAL CHILD,” a newspaper headline proclaims.

The little girl is frightened, but mostly perplexed.

They spoke wrong.
They ate wrong.
They played wrong.
And she did not understand, and she was not happy.

One day, she has had enough.

Because you cannot tame something so happily wild…

Emanating from the playful and poetic story is a clarion call to shake off the external should’s that shackle us and stop keeping ourselves small by trying to please others, to celebrate what John Steinbeck called “the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected”. It is an invitation, at once tender and mischievous, to pause and ask, as Mary Oliver memorably did: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Originally featured here.

6. HANSEL & GRETEL

J.R.R. Tolkien memorably asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Maurice Sendak similarly scoffed that we shouldn’t shield young minds from the dark. It’s a sentiment that Neil Gaiman — one of the most enchanting and prolific writers of our time, a champion of the creative life, underappreciated artist, disciplined writer, and sage of literature — not only shares, in contemplating but also enacts beautifully in his work. More than a decade after his bewitching and widely beloved Coraline, Gaiman returns with another terrific embodiment of this ethos — his adaptation of the Brothers Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have attracted a wealth of reimaginings over their long history, including interpretations as wide-ranging as those by David Hockney in 1970, Edward Gorey in 1973, and Philip Pullman in 2012. But Gaiman’s is decidedly singular — a mesmerizing rolling cadence of language propelling a story that speaks to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, that listens for the peculiar crescendo where the song of the dream becomes indistinguishable from the scream of the nightmare.

With stark subtlety, Mattotti’s haunting visual interpretation amplifies the atmosphere that Gaiman so elegantly evokes.

In this wonderful short video, Gaiman — who has previously explored why scary stories appeal to us — discusses what makes fairy tales endure with legendary graphic storyteller Art Spiegelman and longtime New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly:

I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.

The book is also available as a deluxe edition — a lavish large-format volume with a die-cut cover, and dog knows die-cut treats are impossible to resist.

Originally featured here.

7. ONCE UPON AN ALPHABET

In the 1990s, three decades after the debut of his now-iconic grim alphabet book, the great Edward Gorey reimagined the letters in a series of 26-word cryptic stories. Now comes a worthy modern counterpart by one of the most original and imaginative children’s book storytellers and artists of our time: Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters (public library | IndieBound) by Oliver Jeffers — an unusual and utterly wonderful tour of the familiar letters that takes a whimsical detour via quirky, lyrical, delightfully alliterative tales for each, and makes a fine addition to the canon of offbeat alphabet books.

Jeffers’s art is subtle yet immeasurably expressive. His stories brim with the fallible and heartening humanity that makes up our vastly imperfect but mostly noble selves — our paradoxes (A is for “astronaut,” and Edmund the astronaut is afraid of heights), the silly stubbornnesses (B is for “burning a bridge” and we meet neighbors Bernard and Bob, who have spent years “battling each other for reasons neither could remember”), the playful flights of curiosity (E is for “enigma,” like the question of how many elephants can fit inside an envelope), the existential perplexities (in P, a “puzzled parsnip” spirals into anguish over realizing that he is neither a carrot nor a potato), the self-defeating control tactics we employ in attempting to assuage our fear of impermanence (the robots in R are so terrified of rusting that they steal the rainclouds from the sky and lug them around in carts).

There are touches of loveliness and thoughtfulness: The budding scientist (M is for “made of matter”) is a little girl and the manly lumberjack (L) lucubrates by lamplight, reading a copy of Once Upon an Alphabet.

There are also charming winks at continuity: The nun in N flips the enigma from E and posits that “nearly nine thousand” envelopes can fit inside an elephant; the fearless owl and octopus duo in O, who roam the ocean searching for problems to solve, come to the rescue when a regular cucumber plunges into the ocean in S (for “sink or swim”) because he “watched a program about sea cucumbers and thought it might be a better life for him,” only to realize he didn’t know how to swim; when Xavier in X wakes up one morning and is devastated to find out that his prized X-ray spectacles have been stolen, he rings the owl and the octopus for help.

There is, too, a sprinkle of Goreyesque darkness alongside the delight, speaking to Maurice Sendak’s conviction that children shouldn’t be sheltered from the dark: In T, a writer sits in front of his “terrible typewriter,” which has the uncanny ability to make his stories come true, until one day he is eaten by a monster he wrote. (The creature, coincidentally, is reminiscent of Sendak’s Wild Things.) In H, Helen lives in a half house, the other half having been swept into the sea by a hurricane; “being lazy, and not owning a hammer,” she hadn’t quite got around to fixing it yet” — so one day, she rolls out the wrong side of the bed and plummets into the ocean.

Originally featured here.

8. THE FLAT RABBIT

Neil Gaiman, in discussing his gorgeous new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, asserted that we shouldn’t protect ourselves and children from the dark. But when the thickest darkness comes, in childhood as much as in adulthood, it brings with it not the monsters and witches of fairy tales but the tragedies of life itself — nowhere more acutely than in confronting death and its ghouls of grief. And when it does come, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it’s “nothing like we expect it to be.” What we need isn’t so much protection as the shaky comfort of understanding — a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.

That’s precisely what Faroese children’s book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library | IndieBound) — a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.

The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children’s books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects — from Tove Jansson’s vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde’s Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter’s existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.

The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.

“She is totally flat,” said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.

“Do you know her?”

“Well,” said the dog, “I think she’s from number 34. I’ve never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we’ve definitely met.”

The two agree that “lying there can’t be any fun” and decide to move her, but don’t know where to take her and head to the park to think.

The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.

Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don’t come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we’ve unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him — a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.

Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.

In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.

With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife — there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven “above.” It suggests — to my mind, at least — that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.

Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don’t have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, “the mystery of being is a permanent mystery.”

Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.

“Do you think she is having a good time?” the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.

The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.

“I don’t know…” he replied slowly. “I don’t know.”

For a grownup counterpart, revisit Joan Didion on grief and Meghan O’Rourke’s magnificent memoir of navigating mourning.

Originally featured here.

10. THE BABY TREE

Children’s questions have way of being so simple that they spill into the philosophical. And yet one particular question kids ask stumps grown-ups more than any other, hurling us into a cesspool of self-doubt as we struggle for an answer that is neither too age-inappropriate nor so obviously fanciful that it fails to get the young inquisitor off our back: “Where do babies come from?” Thankfully, Australian-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator extraordinaire Sophie Blackall, who has given us such treasures as her visual love stories based on Craigslist missed connections and her illustrations for Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book, addresses that dreaded question with equal parts warmth, wisdom, and wit in The Baby Tree (public library | IndieBound) — an elegantly age-appropriate explanation of how reproduction works that neither talks down to children’s inherent intelligence nor boggles them with overly clinical dry science.

Instead, Blackall tells the imaginative tale of a little boy whose parents inform him one day that a new baby is coming.

I have a hundred questions in my head, but the only one that comes out is Are there any more cocopops? And because Mom and Dad are all happy about the baby coming, they let me have a second helping of cocopops and I make sure it’s a big one.

But once the little boy is able to get his real question out — Where do babies come from? — his parents are already out the door, running late for work. So he sets out to pose it to all the other grownup and growner-than-himself people in his life.

Right before dropping him off at school, his teenage babysitter (named after Blackall’s own daughter, Olive) tells him that babies come from the baby tree, which grows from a seed you plant.

At school, his teacher says they come from the hospital, then anxiously hurries to occupy the class with washing the paintbrushes.

His grandfather says a stork carries the baby in a bundle at night and drops it off for the parents to find on their doorstep in the morning.

Roberto the mailman says babies come from eggs, but “he doesn’t know where to get the eggs.”

Finally, confused by the wildly different explanations, the little boy asks his parents for a clear answer, and they give him a simple, sensitive, biologically accurate yet warmly conscientious answer about how reproduction works:

From inside their mom, says Mom.
They start off really tiny, says Dad.

Almost too small to see, says Mom.
They begin with a seed from their dad…
Which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…

The baby grows in there for nine months…

Until it runs out of room…
And it’s ready to be born. Sometimes at home…
But usually in the hospital.

The little boy is delighted to realize that everyone was right after all — Olive was right about the seed, Roberto about the egg, and his teacher about the hospital — except his grandpa:

I’m going to have to tell Grandpa where babies really come from.

At the end of the story, Blackall offers equally simple, succinct, and affectionately accurate answers to other questions about babies that little kids might be pondering, from how the seed gets from the dad into the mom to how adopted babies come about to what happens in families with two moms or two dads.

All in all, The Baby Tree is perfect in every imaginable way, so evidently the loving work of someone who understands both the curiosities of childhood and the perplexities of parenting. With her tender illustrations and thoughtful blend of fiction and nonfiction, Blackall — who understands complexity — offers a gentle and honest answer to a question that has continued to stump grownups but no longer has to.

Originally featured here.

11. SHACKLETON’S JOURNEY

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library | IndieBound), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

From the funding and recruitment of the famed expedition, to the pioneering engineering of the Endurance ship, to the taxonomy of crew members, dogs, and supplies, Grill traces Shackleton’s tumultuous journey from the moment the crew set sail to their misfortune-induced change of plans and soul-wrenching isolation “500 miles away from the nearest civilization” to their eventual escape from their icy prison and salvation ashore Elephant Island.

As a lover of dogs and visual lists, especially illustrated lists and dog-themed illustrations, I was especially taken with Grill’s visual inventories of equipment and dogs:

Despite the gargantuan challenges and life-threatening curveballs, Shackleton’s expedition drew to a heroic close without the loss of a single life. It is a story of unrelenting ambition to change the course of history, unflinching courage in the face of formidable setbacks, and above all optimism against all odds — the same optimism that emanates with incredible warmth from Grill’s tender illustrations.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

Originally featured here.

12. THE MEMORY OF AN ELEPHANT

Psychologists believe that our capacity for creative work hinges on our memory and the ability to draw on our mental catalog of remembered experiences and ideas. More than that, memory is our lifeline to our own selves. Indeed, can there be anything more central to identity than memory?

The Memory of an Elephant: An Unforgettable Journey (public library | IndieBound) is a most unusual picture-book by writer Sophie Strady and illustrator Jean-François Martin. Unusual not because it measures an impressive 15 inches in height — though that alone makes it a kind of enchanting narrative poster — but because it blends the fascination of encyclopedic curiosity with deep questions about memory, identity, and what makes a life worthwhile.

Marcel is a soulful old elephant who sets out to write an encyclopedia as his legacy. Having seen the Eiffel Tower built in 1889 and the first iMac introduced in 1998, and having filled the century between with a long lifetime of adventures and successes of his own, he undertakes “the enormous task of listing — in an enormous, illustrated encyclopedia — everything he’s learned throughout his long and exceptional life.”

But just as he is about to begin looking back on his many years and drawing on his vast memory-bank of knowledge, he finds his living room — his dedicated environment essential for writing, charmingly populated by iconic mid-century modern furniture and some unmistakable Eames designs — flooded with “a mountain of parcels wrapped in bright and patterned paper,” surprise birthday presents from his friends.

As he opens each package and plays with the present inside, the double meaning of the word “present” reveals itself. Marcel is transported to his past and the many lives compressed into his long and accomplished existence — his days as a world-famous musician, his stint as a sailor, his sabbatical in Vietnam, his time tending to the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, his accidental participation in France’s historic Mai 1968 worker strikes and civil unrest.

Marcel comes upon the last unopened package, a large cardboard tube. Inside, he finds a poster that reads: “In May, we’ll have our way.” As he begins to ponder the strange time-travel quality of what sounds like a political slogan from the 1968 riots, he suddenly realizes it is actually May 1, the date of his birthday. Just then, his friends emerge from behind his elegant furniture for a proper birthday surprise.

Everyone has been waiting for the old elephant to open not only his presents, but the doors of his memory.

The main story is peppered with curious encyclopedic asides both about elements of Marcel’s memories, from music to technology, and about elephants themselves — we learn that an elephant sleeps very little at night, “usually standing, always on alert,” and takes standing naps throughout the day; that an adult elephant needs to drink 30 gallons of water a day and eat between 220 and 440 pounds of food depending on the season; that an elephant can’t jump and must have one foot on the ground at all times; that despite an enormous weight of about five tons, an elephant makes no noise while walking.

Originally featured here.

13. 29 MYTHS ON THE SWINSTER PHARMACY

Few children’s book writers today could compare in humor, sensitivity, and sheer creative irreverence to Lemony Snicket, the young-readers pen name of grown-up author Daniel Handler, under which he has penned such magnificent creative collaborations as 13 Words, illustrated by the great Maira Kalman, “Who Could That Be at This Hour?,” illustrated by celebrated cartoonist Seth, and The Dark, one of the best picture books of 2013, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Now comes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by the inimitable Lisa Brown — a project all the more charming for the heartening fact that Handler and Brown are married and a living echelon of a romantic relationship that’s also a creative collaboration.

It tells the story of a little girl, a little boy, and their little dog, who grow intensely fascinated with the mysterious Swinster Pharmacy of the neighboring town and begin pondering what it might sell. Beneath it is a lovely allegory about the capacity of children’s imaginations to see enigmatic wonder in even the simplest things and find multiple meanings in the most mundane.

First, the small party journeys to the next town to investigate in person, surreptitiously observing the white-coated employees and even following one of them home one night, to his house right across the pharmacy.

Rumors around town say there are four secrets about the Swinster Pharmacy, but no one knows what any of them are.

Everything is cause for suspicion: The fruit bowl on the Pharmacy counter contains grapes that aren’t cut in half; strangers walk by casually, “just snacking or whispering or something,” and stop when they pass the Pharmacy; a news story about arson in the town pans the street on which the Pharmacy resides; they measure the building and it turns out to be a perfect square; “something about the door is electric.” All very, very suspicious.

The threesome decide to sneak behind the trees across the street from the Swinster Pharmacy and quietly scope out the comings and goings of the pharmacy’s customers. Again, very suspicious activity ensues:

A woman went in once and came out fifteen minutes later wearing the exact same outfit.

The pharmacy begins to haunt the children’s dreams:

In all of our dreams, the Pharmacy squats in the middle of the block like something blue and hungry. In the morning it is on the corner.

And still the mystery of what the Pharmacy sells endures.

What makes 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy most enchanting is that, whether intentionally or not, it serves as a cautionary parable for the subjective ways in which we decide what is true and what is real — a reminder that without the essential tools of critical thinking, we warp the art of observation into a subjective filter that colors our perception of the world to paint it as what we want it to be rather than what it is.

Originally featured here.

14. MY TEACHER IS A MONSTER

“Love,” wrote Leo Tolstoy in his poignant letters to Gandhi on why we hurt one another, “represents the highest and indeed the only law of life, as every man knows and feels in the depths of his heart (and as we see most clearly in children)…” Tolstoy believed that if only we managed to see through our superficial differences and our fear of the other’s otherness, we’d recognize instantly the universe’s basic “law of love” — something to which we are born attuned, only to forget as we enter adulthood. Kids, of course, can often be especially cruel in their inability to accept otherness — but that’s why it’s especially enchanting to witness, let alone spark, the precise moment in which a child lets go of some learned bias and sees in another person his or her intrinsic goodness, a return to innocence and Tolstoy’s “law of love.”

From children’s book author and illustrator Peter Brown comes My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not.) (public library | IndieBound) — a sweet contemporary fable about one such moment of seeing through the mask of terrifying otherness the soft heart of our shared humanity.

In vibrant, textured illustrations and simple words, Brown tells the story of little Bobby, who sees his stern teacher, Ms. Kirby, as a scary green ogre — until, one weekend, the two unexpectedly bump into each other at the park.

Suddenly, the leisurely environment strips them of their weekday roles. After the inevitable awkwardness and disorientation — in one particularly sweet exchange, Bobby, who resists his initial instinct to just run away, raises his hand while sitting next to Ms. Kirby on the bench; she gently reminds him that, outside the classroom, he can just ask his question — they have no choice but to first reluctantly, then tacitly, then gladly get to know each other.

Just as Bobby makes the first move with a compliment on Ms. Kirby’s enormous hat, the wind takes over.

The hat, it turns out, is Ms. Kirby’s favorite, so she runs after it distraught as the wind sweeps it toward peril. Right before it drops into the duck pond, Bobby leaps and saves the day. Ms. Kirby, ecstatic, proclaims him her hero and the two set out to feed the ducks side by side. Meanwhile, strangely, some of Ms. Kirby’s greenness seems to have faded and her boar-like nostrils have shrunk ever so slightly.

Bobby decides to show Ms. Kirby his favorite spot in the park and they climb up some big boulders, atop which Ms. Kirby — now with an almost neutral complexion and a hint of rosiness — gets an idea.

She hands Bobby a sheet of paper, which he gleefully folds into a paper plane and releases into the sky — the very act for which the monstrous teacher had scolded the kids in the classroom.

“I think that was the single greatest paper airplane flight in history!” Bobby exclaims. “I think you’re right,” Ms. Kirby — now having lost almost all of her monster teeth — agrees.

By the time they return to the bench at lunchtime, both are glad they had run into each other.

Miraculously, Ms. Kirby has transmogrified from a monster into an ordinary woman. With each shared moment and each small kindness exchanged, her monsterness had dissolved into her simple humanity — a sweet reminder that however much people may be the product of their culture and surrounding context, when one learns to see with “the eye of the heart,” their basic goodness will eventually emanate.

In a way, the story shines a compassionate light on a different facet of the same broader issue Brown explored in his previous book, the equally wonderful Mr. Tiger Goes Wild — a tender tale about authenticity and acceptance. The challenge of understanding others despite their differences and that of feeling accepted ourselves despite our quirks are two sides of the same coin — a coin that is undoubtedly our most valuable currency for human bonds.

Originally featured here, alongside my interview with Brown.

15. THE PILOT AND THE LITTLE PRINCE

“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.

That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library | IndieBound) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.

Saint-Exupéry was born in 1900, a golden age of discovery, just as airplanes had been invented in France and the dawn of aviation was emanating an exhilarating spirit of exploration and invention. Young Antoine quickly became enchanted with that exhilaration and at the age of twelve, he built a makeshift flying machine.

Sís writes:

It did not take off, but this didn’t discourage him.

That summer, he rode his bike to a nearby airfield every day to watch the pilots test planes. He told them he had permission from his mother to fly, so one pilot took him up in the air. His mother was not happy. Antoine couldn’t wait to go up again.

The obsession had permanently lodged itself into his psyche. When the war came and he was summoned to military duty, young Saint-Exupéry requested the air force but was assigned to the ground crew. Again, he remained unperturbed. Two years later, when he heard about a new airline operated by the postal service to deliver the mail, he got himself hired — first as a mechanic, and soon as a test pilot, eventually learning to fly by accompanying other pilots on mail routes. Sís writes:

One day, he heard the news he had been waiting for: he would fly the mail from France to Spain by himself. Henri Guillaumet, another pilot and later Antoine’s good friend, told him not just to depend on the map but to follow the face of the landscape.

Saint-Exupéry was living his dream, flying in Europe and West Africa. Eventually, the airline assigned him to an airfield in Cape Juby in southern Morocco, and the two years he spent in the desert were among the happiest in his life, a period he would go on to cherish with beautiful and bittersweet wistfulness for the rest of his days. Sís captures the romantic poetics of the experience:

He lived in a wooden shack and had few belongings and fewer visitors. With an ocean on one side and desert everywhere else, it seemed like one of the loneliest places in the world. But he loved the solitude and being under millions of stars.

The locals came to call him Captain of the Birds as he rescued stranded pilots and appeased hostile nomads who had shot down planes and kidnapped flyers. His time in the desert became powerful fuel for his writing and the raw inspiration for The Little Prince. But the skies remained his greatest love. Sís traces the trajectory of Saint-Exupéry’s travels and passions:

Eager to explore other skies, Antoine joined his fellow aviators in creating new mail routes in South America. Nothing could stop them as they crossed glaciers, rain forests, and mountain peaks, battling fierce winds and wild storms.

Antoine spent more time in the air here than anywhere else because the pilots now also flew at night. With stars above and lights below, his world felt both immense and small.

Upon returning to France, Saint-Exupéry fell in love, got married, and reached significant fame as both a pilot and an author. But driven by his chronic adventurer’s restlessness, he continued to dream up expeditions that came to border on stunts. In one, he competed for a prize for the fastest flight between Paris and Saigon, but he and his copilot crashed in North Africa, surviving by a hair and wandering the desert for days before being rescued. In another, he set out to become the first French pilot to fly from New York to the tip of South America. The plane crashed near Guatemala City but, miraculously, he survived once more.

As World War II engulfed Europe, Saint-Exupéry was called for military duty once more, this time as a pilot, observing from high in the skies the atrocities the Germans inflicted all over. Once his war service ended, he decided he couldn’t continue to live in France under German occupation and fled to Portugal on a ship — a trip that would stir the very foundations of his soul and inspire his magnificent Letter to a Hostage — eventually ending up in New York, where he found himself lonesome and alienated.

After writing Flight to Arras and sending a copy to President Roosevelt with the inscription “For President Franklin Roosevelt, whose country is taking on the heavy burden of saving the world,”Saint-Exupéry bought a set of watercolor paints and began working on the illustrations for the story that would become The Little Prince. Sís captures the layered message of the book, informed both by Saint-Exupéry’s passions and his forlorn homesickness, with beautiful simplicity:

He described a planet more innocent than his own, with a boy who ventured far from home, questioned how things worked, and searched for answers.

But the author grew increasingly restless once more. Longing to fly again and to see his family, who had remained in France, he rejoined his old squadron in North Africa, requesting flights that would take him back to France. Sís captures the tragic bluntness of how Saint-Exupéry’s story ended, at once almost sterile in its abruptness and richly poetic in the context of his lifelong obsession:

On July 31, 1944, at 8:45am, he took off from Borgo, Corsica, to photograph enemy positions east of Lyon. It was a beautiful day. He was due back at 12:30.

But he never returned. Some say he forgot his oxygen mask and vanished at sea.

Maybe Antoine found his own glittering planet next to the stars.

The Pilot and the Little Prince is a thing of beauty for both eye and spirit, and a fine addition to other delightful graphic biographies, including those of Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, Andy Warhol, and Salvador Dalí. Complement it with Saint-Exupéry’s original watercolors for The Little Prince and his soul-stretching meditations on solitude and the meaning of life and our shared humanity.

Originally featured here.

16. LARRY AND FRIENDS

Much has been said about the lack of diversity in children’s books. But these discussions — as most conversations about diversity — have been largely co-opted by questions of race, overlooking other elements of diversity, such as nationality and native language. This is particularly perplexing in America which, for a nation of immigrants that prides itself on being a “melting pot” of global cultures, has one of the world’s most hostile immigration policies. (I can attest to this myself as a “resident alien” — the tellingly unfriendly term for a U.S.-based foreign citizen — whose entire adult life has been plagued by immigration-related bureaucratic nightmares.) National policies being the seedbed of national attitudes, it’s hard not to wonder and worry about the toxic effect such legal practices might have on fostering xenophobia and intolerance. This concern, coupled with my enormous soft spot for children’s books, is why I was instantly smitten with Larry and Friends (publisher) — a heartening story about immigration, diversity, friendship, and acceptance, envisioned by Ecuadorian-born, New-York-based illustrator Carla Torres, who partnered with Belgian-born, Venezuelan-raised, New-York-based writer Nat Jaspar to bring the project, funded on Kickstarter, to life.

Torres’s gorgeous illustrations tell the tale of Larry the American dog, who decides to have a birthday celebration and invites all his friends, each from a different part of the world and an immigrant in New York, where the story is set — a fitting backdrop, given Gotham’s Ellis Island was the original entry point for immigrants in the United States and New York is the most linguistically diverse city in the world today, home to more than three million foreign-born residents who speak over 800 languages.

The bell begins to ring and each of Larry’s friends arrives, along with a piece of cultural, linguistic, and geopolitical history. We meet such endearing characters as Magda, the little pig from Poland who was sent to New York by her serious parents to “become a competent secretary” but instead pursued her passion and became a tightrope artist; Cogui, the tiny Puerto Rican frog, a violinist living in the Bronx; Gugu, the African zebra who moved to New York with only his Djembe drum and went on to become the lead percussionist at the Apollo Theater.

Then there is Laila, the sinewy cat from Iran who works as an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History; Edgar, the Colombian alligator who moved to New York as a street musician playing the accordion and now has a steady gig at a French restaurant in Manhattan; Bernard, the French gargoyle who spent years observing people from atop the Notre Dame Cathedral and was drawn to New York as the world’s best people-watching locale; and Rimshi, the Tibetan yak who moved to New York after the Chinese invasion and whom Larry met while volunteering at the refugee center where she works.

What’s perhaps most enchanting about the story, however, is that a number of the characters are drawn from the real stories of real people Torres met in New York. Pedro, the Ecuadorian guinea pig, is based on Pedro Erazo, one of the members of the beloved indie band Gogol Bordello. Jin, the Korean fox, is inspired by Mariola Paen, a self-taught Korean artist. Ashki, the Native American buffalo, is based on Melvin, a shaman from the Navajo people who performed a spiritual ceremony Torres attended some years ago.

See more here.

For more timelessly delightful and ennobling children’s books, keep an eye on this evolving bookshelf.

BP

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