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The 13 Best Children’s, Illustrated, and Picture Books of 2013

Young Mark Twain’s lost gem, the universe in illustrated dioramas, Maurice Sendak’s posthumous love letter to the world, Kafka for kids, and more treats for all ages.

“It is an error … 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,” J. R. R. Tolkien wrote in his superb meditation on fantasy and why there’s no such thing as writing “for children,” intimating that books able to captivate children’s imagination aren’t “children’s books” but simply really good books. After the year’s best books in psychology and philosophy, art and design, and history and biography, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the loveliest “children’s” and picture-books of 2013. (Because the best children’s books are, as Tolkien believes, always ones of timeless delight, do catch up on the selections for 2012, 2011, and 2010.)

1. ADVICE TO LITTLE GIRLS

In 1865, when he was only thirty, Mark Twain penned a playful short story mischievously encouraging girls to think independently rather than blindly obey rules and social mores. In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon and fell in love with a lovely Italian edition of this little-known gem with Victorian-scrapbook-inspired artwork by celebrated Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky. I knew the book had to come to life in English, so I partnered with the wonderful Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn-based indie publishing house Enchanted Lion, maker of extraordinarily beautiful picture-books, and we spent the next two years bringing Advice to Little Girls (public library) to life in America — a true labor-of-love project full of so much delight for readers of all ages. (And how joyous to learn that it was also selected among NPR’s best books of 2013!)

While frolicsome in tone and full of wink, the story is colored with subtle hues of grown-up philosophy on the human condition, exploring all the deft ways in which we creatively rationalize our wrongdoing and reconcile the good and evil we each embody.

Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.

If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.

One can’t help but wonder whether this particular bit may have in part inspired the irreverent 1964 anthology Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and its mischievous advice on brother-sister relations:

If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud — never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.

If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.

Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.

Originally featured in April — see more spreads, as well as the story behind the project, here.

2. YOU ARE STARDUST

“Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” Carl Sagan famously marveled in his poetic Pale Blue Dot monologue, titled after the iconic 1990 photograph of Earth. The stardust metaphor for our interconnection with the cosmos soon permeated popular culture and became a vehicle for the allure of space exploration. There’s something at once incredibly empowering and incredibly humbling in knowing that the flame in your fireplace came from the sun.

That’s precisely the kind of cosmic awe environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Toronto-based Korean artist Soyeon Kim seek to inspire in kids in You Are Stardust (public library) — an exquisite picture-book that instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today.

Kim’s breathtaking dioramas, to which this screen does absolutely no justice, mix tactile physical materials with fine drawing techniques and digital compositing to illuminate the relentlessly wondrous realities of our intertwined existence: The water in your sink once quenched the thirst of dinosaurs; with every sneeze, wind blasts out of your nose faster than a cheetah’s sprint; the electricity that powers every thought in your brain is stronger than lightning.

But rather than dry science trivia, the message is carried on the wings of poetic admiration for these intricate relationships:

Be still. Listen.

Like you, the Earth breathes.

Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers.

Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.

The book is nonetheless grounded in real science. Kelsey notes:

I wrote this book as a celebration — one to honor the extraordinary ways in which all of us simply are nature. Every example in this book is backed by current science. Every day, for instance, you breathe in more than a million pollen grains.

But what makes the project particularly exciting is that, in the face of the devastating gender gap in science education, here is a thoughtful, beautiful piece of early science education presented by two women, the most heartening such example since Lauren Redniss’s Radioactive.

A companion iPad app features sound effects, animation, an original score by Paul Aucoin, behind-the-scenes glimpses of Kim’s process in creating her stunning 3D dioramas, and even build-your-own-diorama adventures.

Originally featured in March — see more here.

3. THE HOLE

The Hole (public library) by artist Øyvind Torseter, one of Norway’s most celebrated illustrators, tells the story of a lovable protagonist who wakes up one day and discovers a mysterious hole in his apartment, which moves and seems to have a mind of its own. Befuddled, he looks for its origin — in vain. He packs it in a box and takes it to a lab, but still no explanation.

With Torseter’s minimalist yet visually eloquent pen-and-digital line drawings, vaguely reminiscent of Sir Quentin Blake and Tomi Ungerer yet decidedly distinctive, the story is at once simple and profound, amusing and philosophical, the sort of quiet meditation that gently, playfully tickles us into existential inquiry.

What makes the book especially magical is that a die-cut hole runs from the wonderfully gritty cardboard cover through every page and all the way out through the back cover — an especial delight for those of us who swoon over masterpieces of die-cut whimsy. In every page, the hole is masterfully incorporated into the visual narrative, adding an element of tactile delight that only an analog book can afford. The screen thus does it little justice, as these digital images feature a mere magenta-rimmed circle where the die-cut hole actually appears, but I’ve tried to capture its charm in a few photographs accompanying the page illustrations.

Originally featured in September, with lots more illustrations.

4. MY BROTHER’S BOOK

For those of us who loved legendary children’s book author Maurice Sendak — famed creator of wild things, little-known illustrator of velveteen rabbits, infinitely warm heart, infinitely witty mind — his death in 2012 was one of the year’s greatest heartaches. Now, half a century after his iconic Where The Wild Things Are, comes My Brother’s Book (public library; UK) — a bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. In fact, a foreword by Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt reveals the book is based on the Bard’s “A Winter’s Tale.”

It tells the story of two brothers, Jack and Guy, torn asunder when a falling star crashes onto Earth. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years ago, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn, whose prolonged illness and eventual loss in 2007 devastated Sendak — the character of Guy reads like a poetic fusion of Sendak and Glynn. And while the story might be a universal “love letter to those who have gone before,” as NPR’s Renee Montagne suggests in Morning Edition, it is in equal measure a private love letter to Glynn. (Sendak passed away the day before President Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, but Sendak fans were quick to honor both historic moments with a bittersweet homage.)

Indeed, the theme of all-consuming love manifests viscerally in Sendak’s books. Playwright Tony Kushner, a longtime close friend of Sendak’s and one of his most heartfelt mourners, tells NPR:

There’s a lot of consuming and devouring and eating in Maurice’s books. And I think that when people play with kids, there’s a lot of fake ferocity and threats of, you know, devouring — because love is so enormous, the only thing you can think of doing is swallowing the person that you love entirely.

My Brother’s Book ends on a soul-stirring note, tender and poignant in its posthumous light:

And Jack slept safe
Enfolded in his brother’s arms
And Guy whispered ‘Good night
And you will dream of me.’

Originally featured in February.

5. DOES MY GOLDFISH KNOW WHO I AM?

In 2012, I wrote about a lovely book titled Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds, in which some of today’s greatest scientists, writers, and philosophers answer kids’ most urgent questions, deceptively simple yet profound. It went on to become one of the year’s best books and among readers’ favorites. A few months later, Gemma Elwin Harris, the editor who had envisioned the project, reached out to invite me to participate in the book’s 2013 edition by answering one randomly assigned question from a curious child. Naturally, I was thrilled to do it, and honored to be a part of something as heartening as Does My Goldfish Know Who I Am? (public library) — a compendium of primary school children’s funny, poignant, innocent yet insightful questions about science and how life works, answered by such celebrated minds as rockstar physicist Brian Cox, beloved broadcaster and voice-of-nature Sir David Attenborough, legendary linguist Noam Chomsky, science writer extraordinaire Mary Roach, stat-showman Hans Rosling, Beatle Paul McCartney, biologist and Beagle Project director Karen James, and iconic illustrator Sir Quentin Blake. As was the case with last year’s edition, more than half of the proceeds from the book — which features illustrations by the wonderful Andy Smith — are being donated to a children’s charity.

The questions range from what the purpose of science is to why onions make us cry to whether spiders can speak to why we blink when we sneeze. Psychologist and broadcaster Claudia Hammond, who recently explained the fascinating science of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets all warped while we’re on vacation in one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2013, answers the most frequently asked question by the surveyed children: Why do we cry?

It’s normal to cry when you feel upset and until the age of twelve boys cry just as often as girls. But when you think about it, it is a bit strange that salty water spills out from the corners of your eyes just because you feel sad.

One professor noticed people often say that, despite their blotchy faces, a good cry makes them feel better. So he did an experiment where people had to breathe in over a blender full of onions that had just been chopped up. Not surprisingly this made their eyes water. He collected the tears and put them in the freezer. Then he got people to sit in front of a very sad film wearing special goggles which had tiny buckets hanging off the bottom, ready to catch their tears if they cried. The people cried, but the buckets didn’t work and in the end he gathered their tears in tiny test tubes instead.

He found that the tears people cried when they were upset contained extra substances, which weren’t in the tears caused by the onions. So he thinks maybe we feel better because we get rid of these substances by crying and that this is the purpose of tears.

But not everyone agrees. Many psychologists think that the reason we cry is to let other people know that we need their sympathy or help. So crying, provided we really mean it, brings comfort because people are nice to us.

Crying when we’re happy is a bit more of a mystery, but strong emotions have a lot in common, whether happy or sad, so they seem to trigger some of the same processes in the body.

(For a deeper dive into the biological mystery of crying, see the science of sobbing and emotional tearing.)

Joshua Foer, who knows a thing or two about superhuman memory and the limits of our mind, explains to 9-year-old Tom how the brain can store so much information despite being that small:

An adult’s brain only weighs about 1.4 kilograms, but it’s made up of about 100 billion microscopic neurons. Each of those neurons looks like a tiny branching tree, whose limbs reach out and touch other neurons. In fact, each neuron can make between 5,000 and 10,000 connections with other neurons — sometimes even more. That’s more than 500 trillion connections! A memory is essentially a pattern of connections between neurons.

Every sensation that you remember, every thought that you think, transforms your brain by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, you will have created a new memory, which means your brain will have physically changed.

Neuroscientist Tali Sharot, who has previously studied why our brains are wired for optimism, answers 8-year-old Maia’s question about why we don’t have memories from the time we were babies and toddlers:

We use our brain for memory. In the first few years of our lives, our brain grows and changes a lot, just like the rest of our body. Scientists think that because the parts of our brain that are important for memory have not fully developed when we are babies, we are unable to store memories in the same way that we do when we are older.

Also, when we are very young we do not know how to speak. This makes it difficult to keep events in your mind and remember them later, because we use language to remember what happened in the past.

In answering 8-year-old Hannah’s question about what newspapers do when there is no news, writer and journalist Oliver Burkeman, author of the excellent The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, offers a primer on media literacy — an important caveat on news that even we, as alleged grown-ups, frequently forget:

Newspapers don’t really go out and find the news: they decide what gets to count as news. The same goes for television and radio. And you might disagree with their decisions! (For example, journalists are often accused of focusing on bad news and ignoring the good, making the world seem worse than it is.)

The important thing to remember, whenever you’re reading or watching the news, is that someone decided to tell you those things, while leaving out other things. They’re presenting one particular view of the world — not the only one. There’s always another side to the story.

And my answer, to 9-year-old Ottilie’s question about why we have books:

Some people might tell you that books are no longer necessary now that we have the internet. Don’t believe them. Books help us know other people, know how the world works, and, in the process, know ourselves more deeply in a way that has nothing to with what you read them on and everything to do with the curiosity, integrity and creative restlessness you bring to them.

Books build bridges to the lives of others, both the characters in them and your countless fellow readers across other lands and other eras, and in doing so elevate you and anchor you more solidly into your own life. They give you a telescope into the minds of others, through which you begin to see with ever greater clarity the starscape of your own mind.

And though the body and form of the book will continue to evolve, its heart and soul never will. Though the telescope might change, the cosmic truths it invites you to peer into remain eternal like the Universe.

In many ways, books are the original internet — each fact, each story, each new bit of information can be a hyperlink to another book, another idea, another gateway into the endlessly whimsical rabbit hole of the written word. Just like the web pages you visit most regularly, your physical bookmarks take you back to those book pages you want to return to again and again, to reabsorb and relive, finding new meaning on each visit — because the landscape of your life is different, new, “reloaded” by the very act of living.

Originally featured in November — read more here.

6. LITTLE BOY BROWN

“I didn’t feel alone in the Lonely Crowd,” young Italo Calvino wrote of his visit to America, and it is frequently argued that hardly any place embodies the “Lonely Crowd” better than New York, city of “avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways.” That, perhaps, is what children’s book writer Isobel Harris set out to both affirm and decondition in Little Boy Brown (public library) — a magnificent ode to childhood and loneliness, easily the greatest ode to childhood and loneliness ever written, illustrated by the famed Hungarian-born French cartoonist and graphic designer André François. Originally published in 1949, this timeless story that stirred the hearts of generations has been newly resurrected by Enchanted Lion.

This is the story of a four-year-old boy living with his well-to-do mother and father in a Manhattan hotel, in which the elevator connects straight to the subway tunnel below the building and plugs right into the heart of the city. And yet Little Boy Brown, whose sole friends are the doormen and elevator operators, feels woefully lonely — until, one day, his hotel chambermaid Hilda invites him to visit her house outside the city, where he blossoms into a new sense of belonging.

Underpinning the charming tale of innocence and children’s inborn benevolence is a heartwarming message about connection across the lines of social class and bridging the gaps of privilege with simple human kindness.

Hilda’s mother kissed me before she even knew who I was!

[…]

Hilda’s family is smarter than we are. They can all speak two different languages, and they can close their eyes and think about two different countries. They’ve been on the Ocean, and they’ve climbed high mountains. They haven’t got quite enough of anything. It makes it exciting when a little more comes!

The story itself, at once a romantic time-capsule of a bygone New York and a timeless meditation on what it’s like feel so lonesome in a crowd of millions, invites us to explore the tender intersection of loneliness and loveliness. François, who studied with Picasso, illustrated a number of iconic New Yorker covers, and belongs to the same coterie of influential mid-century creative legends as Sir Quentin Blake, Tomi Ungerer, and his close friend and collaborator of Ronald Searle, brings all this wonderful dimensionality to life in his singular illustrations, all the more special given that this was his first children’s book.

Originally featured in November — see more here.

7. THE MIGHTY LALOUCHE

The more you win, the more you win, the science of the “winner effect” tells us. The same interplay of biochemistry, psychology and performance thus also holds true of the opposite — but perhaps this is why we love a good underdog story, those unlikely tales of assumed “losers” beating the odds to triumph as “winners.” Stories like this are fundamental to our cultural mythology of ambition and anything-is-possible aspiration, and they speak most powerfully to our young and hopeful selves, to our inner underdogs, to the child who dreams of defeating her bully in blazing glory.

That ever-alluring parable is at the heart of The Mighty Lalouche (public library), written by Matthew Olshan, who famously reimagined Twain’s Huckleberry Finn with an all-girl cast of characters, and illustrated by the inimitable Sophie Blackall, one of the most extraordinary book artists working today, who has previously given us such gems as her drawings of Craigslist missed connections and Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. It tells the heartening story of a humble and lithe early-twentieth-century French postman named Lalouche, his profound affection for his pet finch Geneviève, and his surprising success in the era’s favorite sport of la boxe française, or French boxing.

One day, at the height of Parisians’ infatuation with the novelty of electric cars, Lalouche’s boss at the post office informs him that a new electric autocar is replacing all walking postmen, who are too slow by comparison. Desperate to provide for himself and Geneviève, Lalouche sees a flyer offering cash to any sparring partners willing to fight the champions at the Bastille Boxing Club. Though Lalouche is small and “rather bony,” his hands are nimble and strong from handling weighty packages, and his feet are fast from racing up apartment stairs in his deliveries — so he signs up.

One should never underestimate a man who loves his finch.

Thanks to his agility and love for the birdie, to everyone’s astonishment, he goes on to defeat each of the champions in turn — even the formidable Anaconda, “the biggest, baddest beast the city has ever seen,” infamous for his deadly sleeper hold. But when the postal service chief realizes the autocar is just a gimmick good for nothing and asks whether Lalouche is willing to take his job back, the tiny champ gladly agrees, for his heart is in the joy he brings people as their mail arrives.

Underpinning the simple allegory of unlikely triumph is a deeper reflection on our present-day anxieties about whether or not machines — gadgets, robots, algorithms — will replace us. The story gently assuring us that the most quintessential of human qualities and capacities — courage, integrity, love — will always remain ours and ours alone.

But what makes the book particularly exceptional are the curious archival images uncovered in the research, presented here exclusively alongside the soulful and expressive illustrations Blackall reincarnated them into:

Boxer trading cards, 1895

Boxer pose II, early 1900s

Three boxers, early 1900s

Originally featured n May — see more here.

8. GOBBLE YOU UP

For nearly two decades, independent India-based publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a collective of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautiful books based on regional folk traditions, producing such gems as Waterlife, The Night Life of Trees, and Drawing from the City. A year after I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail — one of the best art books of 2012, a magnificent 17th-century British “trick” poem adapted in a die-cut narrative and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe — comes Gobble You Up (public library), an oral Rajasthani trickster tale adapted as a cumulative rhyme in a mesmerizing handmade treasure released in a limited edition of 7,000 numbered handmade copies, illustrated by artist Sunita and silkscreened by hand in two colors on beautifully coarse kraft paper custom-made for the project. What makes it especially extraordinary, however, is that the Mandna tradition of tribal finger-painting — an ancient Indian art form practiced only by women and passed down from mother to daughter across the generations, created by soaking pieces of cloth in chalk and lime paste, which the artist squeezes through her fingers into delicate lines on the mud walls of village huts — has never before been used to tell a children’s story.

And what a story it is: A cunning jackal who decides to spare himself the effort of hunting for food by tricking his fellow forest creatures into being gobbled up whole, beginning with his friend the crane; he slyly swallows them one by one, until the whole menagerie fills his belly — a play on the classic Meena motif of the pregnant animal depicted with a baby inside its belly, reflecting the mother-daughter genesis of the ancient art tradition itself.

Indeed, Sunita herself was taught to paint by her mother and older sister — but unlike most Meena women, who don’t usually leave the confines of their village and thus contain their art within their community, Sunita has thankfully ventured into the wider world, offering us a portal into this age-old wonderland of art and storytelling.

Gita Wolf, Tara’s visionary founder, who envisioned the project and wrote the cumulative rhyme, describes the challenges of adapting this ephemeral, living art form onto the printed page without losing any of its expressive aliveness:

Illustrating the story in the Meena style of art involved two kinds of movement. The first was to build a visual narrative sequencing from a tradition which favored single, static images. The second challenge was to keep the quality of the wall art, while transferring it to a different, while also smaller, surface. We decided on using large sheets of brown paper, with Sunita squeezing diluted white acrylic paint through her fingers.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

9. BALLAD

The best, most enchanting stories live somewhere between the creative nourishment of our daydreams and the dark allure of our nightmares. That’s exactly where beloved French graphic artist Blexbolex transports us in Ballad (public library) — his exquisite and enthralling follow-up to People, one of the best illustrated books of 2011, and Seasons.

This continuously evolving story traces a child’s perception of his surroundings as he walks home from school. It unfolds over seven sequences across 280 glorious pages and has an almost mathematical beauty to it as each sequence exponentially blossoms into the next: We begin with school, path, and home; we progress to school, street, path, forest, home; before we know it, there’s a witch, a stranger, a sorcerer, a hot air balloon, and a kidnapped queen. All throughout, we’re invited to reimagine the narrative as we absorb the growing complexity of the world — a beautiful allegory for our walk through life itself.

The frontispiece makes a simple and alluring promise:

It’s a story as old as the world — a story that begins all over again each day.

The dark whimsy of Blexbolex’s unusual visual storytelling sings to us a ballad of danger and delight, serenading with the enchantment of fairy tales, the starkness of graphic novels, and the liberation of choose-your-own-adventure stories. And this is precisely where Blexbolex’s singular talent springs to life: Trained as a painter in the 1980s but having left art school to find himself as a silk-screen artist, he blends the charisma of vintage graphic design and traditional printing techniques with the dynamic mesmerism of contemporary graphic novels and experimental narratives to create an entirely new, wholly different form of bewitching visual storytelling, where a few carefully chosen words invite perpetual reinterpretation of layered and expressive scenes.

Originally featured in October — see more here.

10. THE DARK

Daniel Handler — beloved author, timelessly heartening literary jukeboxer — is perhaps better-known by his pen name Lemony Snicket, under which he pens his endlessly delightful children’s books. In fact, they owe much of their charisma to the remarkable creative collaborations Snicket spawns, from 13 Words illustrated by the inimitable Maira Kalman to Who Could It Be At This Hour? with artwork by celebrated cartoonist Seth. Snicket’s 2013 gem, reminiscent in spirit of Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, is at least as exciting — a minimalist yet magnificently expressive story about a universal childhood fear, titled The Dark (public library) and illustrated by none other than Jon Klassen.

In a conversation with NPR, Handler echoes Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless wisdom on freedom from fear and articulates the deeper, more universal essence of the book’s message:

I think books that are meant to be read in the nighttime ought to confront the very fears that we’re trying to think about. And I think that a young reader of The Dark will encounter a story about a boy who makes new peace with a fear, rather than a story that ignores whatever troubles are lurking in the corners of our minds when we go to sleep.

Originally featured in June.

11. JANE, THE FOX AND ME

“Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality,” Nora Ephron wrote. “If I can’t stand the world I just curl up with a book, and it’s like a little spaceship that takes me away from everything,” Susan Sontag told an interviewer, articulating an experience at once so common and so deeply personal to all of us who have ever taken refuge from the world in the pages of a book and the words of a beloved author. It’s precisely this experience that comes vibrantly alive in Jane, the Fox, and Me (public library) — a stunningly illustrated graphic novel about a young girl named Hélène, who, cruelly teased by the “mean girls” clique at school, finds refuge in Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre. In Jane, she sees both a kindred spirit and aspirational substance of character, one straddling the boundary between vulnerability and strength with remarkable grace — just the quality of heart and mind she needs as she confronts the common and heartbreaking trials of teenage girls tormented by bullying, by concerns over their emerging womanly shape, and by the soul-shattering feeling of longing for acceptance yet receiving none.

Written by Fanny Britt and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault — the artist behind the magnificent Virginia Wolf, one of the best children’s books of 2012 — this masterpiece of storytelling is as emotionally honest and psychologically insightful as it is graphically stunning. What makes the visual narrative especially enchanting is that Hélène’s black-and-white world of daily sorrow springs to life in full color whenever she escapes with Brönte.

Originally featured in November — see more here.

12. MY FIRST KAFKA

Sylvia Plath believed it was never too early to dip children’s toes in the vast body of literature. But to plunge straight into Kafka? Why not, which is precisely what Brooklyn-based writer and videogame designer Matthue Roth has done in My First Kafka: Runaways, Rodents, and Giant Bugs (public library) — a magnificent adaptation of Kafka for kids. With stunning black-and-white illustrations by London-based fine artist Rohan Daniel Eason, this gem falls — rises, rather — somewhere between Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, and the Graphic Canon series.

The idea came to Roth after he accidentally started reading Kafka to his two little girls, who grew enchanted with the stories. As for the choice to adapt Kafka’s characteristically dark sensibility for children, Roth clearly subscribes to the Sendakian belief that grown-ups project their own fears onto kids, who welcome rather than dread the dark. Indeed, it’s hard not to see Sendak’s fatherly echo in Eason’s beautifully haunting black-and-white drawings.

Much like Jonathan Safran Foer used Street of Crocodiles to create his brilliant Tree of Codes literary remix and Darwin’s great-granddaughter adapted the legendary naturalist’s biography into verse, Roth scoured public domain texts and various translations of Kafka to find the perfect works for his singsong transformations: the short prose poem “Excursion into the Mountains,” the novella “The Metamorphosis,” which endures as Kafka’s best-known masterpiece, and “Josefine the Singer,” his final story.

“I don’t know!”
I cried without being heard.

“I do not know.”

If nobody comes,
then nobody comes.

I’ve done nobody any harm.
Nobody’s done me any harm.
But nobody will help me.

A pack of nobodies
would be rather fine,
on the other hand.

I’d love to go on a trip — why not? —
with a pack of nobodies.

Into the mountains, of course.
Where else?

In a way, the book — like most of Kafka’s writing — also bears the odd mesmerism of literary history’s letters and diaries, the semi-forbidden pleasure of which swells under the awareness that their writers never meant for us to read the very words we’re reading, never sought to invite us into their private worlds. Kafka wished for his entire world to remain private — he never finished any of his novels and burned the majority of his manuscripts; the rest he left with his closest friend and literary executor, Max Brod, whom he instructed to burn the remaining diaries, sketches, manuscripts, and letters. It was out of love that Brod chose not to, possibly displeasing his friend but eternally pleasing the literary public.

Originally featured in July — see more here.

13. MY FATHER’S ARMS ARE A BOAT

The finest children’s books have a way of exploring complex, universal themes through elegant simplicity and breathless beauty. From my friends at Enchanted Lion, collaborators on Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls and makers of some of the most extraordinary picture-books you’ll ever encounter, comes My Father’s Arms Are a Boat (public library) by writer Stein Erik Lunde and illustrator Øyvind Torseter. This tender and heartening Norwegian gem tells the story of an anxious young boy who climbs into his father’s arms seeking comfort on a cold sleepless night. The two step outside into the winter wonderland as the boy asks questions about the red birds in the spruce tree to be cut down the next morning, about the fox out hunting, about why his mother will never wake up again. With his warm and assuring answers, the father watches his son make sense of this strange world of ours where love and loss go hand in hand.

Lunde, who also writes lyrics and has translated Bob Dylan into Norwegian, is a masterful storyteller who unfolds incredible richness in few words. Meanwhile, Torseter’s exquisite 2D/3D style combining illustration and paper sculpture, reminiscent of Soyeon Kim’s wonderful You Are Stardust, envelops the story in a sheath of delicate whimsy.

Above all, My Father’s Arms Are a Boat is about the quiet way in which boundless love and unconditional assurance can lift even the most pensive of spirits from the sinkhole of existential anxiety.

Originally featured in April.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design by legendary graphic designer Chip Kidd, Night Light by New York Times art director and illustrator Nicholas Blechman, and Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Caldecott Honor artist Peter Brown.

BP

Famous Writers on New York: Timeless Private Reflections from Diaries, Letters and Personal Essays

Mark Twain, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, E. B. White, Washington Irving, Anaïs Nin, Italo Calvino, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joyce Carol Oates, and more.

New York City has been the subject of poetic love letters, essayistic homages, emotional cartographies, and artistic tributes. But hardly anything captures the gritty, unfiltered magic of the world’s greatest city than the private recollections of beloved authors, recorded in their journals and correspondence, untainted by the prospect of an evaluating audience. Collected here are some of my favorite such impressions, culled from years of my personal marginalia in famous diaries, letters, and the occasional personal essay.

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street. Photograph by Berenice Abbott from ‘Changing New York.’ Click image for details.

Mark Twain — in between dispensing advice to little girls and criticizing the popular press — makes a laconic note of New York’s unmanageable scale in an 1867 reflection included in the vintage anthology Mirror For Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present (public library):

The only trouble about this town is, that it is too large. You cannot accomplish anything in the way of business, you cannot even pay a friendly call, without devoting a whole day to it — that is, what people call a whole day who do not get up early. Many business men only give audience from eleven to one; therefore, if you miss those hours your affair must go over till next day. Now if you make the time at one place, even though you stay only ten or fifteen minutes, you can hardly get to your next point, because so many things and people will attract your attention and your conversation and curiosity, that the other three quarters of that hour will be frittered away. You have but one hour left, and my experience is that a man cannot go anywhere in New York in an hour. The distances are too great — you must have another day to it. If you have got six things to do, you have got to take six days to do them in.

In the recently released Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us the author’s wisdom on writing, America, and the meaning of lifeItalo Calvino writes to his friend Paolo Spriano on Christmas Eve 1959, shortly after receiving a grant from the Ford Foundation to travel around America for six months alongside six other young writers:

New York has swallowed me up like a carnivorous plant swallowing a fly, I have been living a breathless life for fifty days now, here life consists of a series of appointments made a week or a fortnight in advance: lunch, cocktail party, dinner, evening party, these make up the various stages of the day which allow you constantly to meet new people, to make arrangements for other lunches, other dinners, other parties and so on ad infinitum. America (or rather New York, which is something quite separate) is not the land of the unforeseen, but it is the land of the richness of life, of the fullness of every hour in the day, the country which gives you the sense of carrying out a huge amount of activity, even though in fact you achieve very little, the country where solitude is impossible (I must have spent maybe just one evening on my own out of the fifty I have spent here, and that was because my date with the girl that I had arranged for that evening fell through: here you have to order everything in advance, they are buying theater tickets for March now, and a girl, even if she happens to be your girl at present, has to know a week in advance the evenings she is going out with you otherwise she goes out with someone else).

From the fantastic New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library) — one of the best history books of 2012, which you can sample here — comes this 1947 celebration of New York’s defiant diversity by Simone de Beauvoir:

I’m utterly taken with New York. It’s true that both camps tell me, “New York is not America.” V. irritates me when he declares, “If you like New York, it’s because it’s a European city that’s strayed to the edge of this continent.” It is all too clear that New York is not Europe. But I’m even more distrustful of P., another pro-American Pétain supporter, when he contrasts New York — a city of foreigners and Jews — to the idyllic villages of New England, where the inhabitants are 100 percent American and endowed with patriarchal virtues. We have often heard “the real France” praised this way in contrast to the corruption of Paris.

In another reflection from the same volume, de Beauvoir further marvels at New York’s singular character and medley of complementary contradictions:

In Paris, in Rome, history has permeated the bowels of the ground itself; Paris reaches down into the center of the earth. In New York, even the Battery doesn’t have such deep roots. Beneath the subways, sewers, and heating pipes, the rock is virgin and inhuman. Between this rock and the open sky, Wall Street and Broadway bathe in the shadows of the giant buildings; this morning they belong to nature. The little black church with its cemetery of flat paving stones is as unexpected and touching in the middle of Broadway as a crucifix on a wild ocean beach.

Illustration from ‘Paris vs. New York’ by Vahram Muratyan. Click image for more.

In a 1934 letter to her lifelong friend and then-lover Henry Miller, found in A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932–1953 (public library), Anaïs Nin echoes de Beauvoir’s affection for the city:

I’m in love with N.Y. It matches my mood. I’m not overwhelmed. It is the suitable scene for my ever ever heightened life. I love the proportions, the amplitude, the brilliance, the polish, the solidity. I look up at Radio City insolently and love it. It is all great, and Babylonian. Broadway at night. Cellophane. The newness. The vitality. True, it is only physical. But it’s inspiring. Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power. I’m not moved, not speechless. I stand straight, tough, and I meet the impact. I feel the glow and the dancing in everything. The radio music in the taxis, scientific magic, which can all be used lyrically. That’s my last word. Give New York to a poet. He can use it. It can be poetized. Or maybe that’s a mania of mine, to poetize. I live lightly, smoothly, actively, ears and eyes wide open, alert, oiled! I feel a kind of exhilaration and the tempo is like that of my blood. I’m at once beyond, over and in New York, tasting it fully.

But five years later, Nin grows diametrically disillusioned and writes in her diary — which also gave us her timeless wisdom on anxiety and love, how emotional excess fuels creativity, and embracing the unfamiliar — she contrasts New York to her native Paris:

In Paris, when entering a room, everyone pays attention, seeks to make you feel welcome, to enter into conversation, is curious, responsive. Here it seems everyone is pretending not to see, hear, or look too intently. The faces reveal no interest, no responsiveness.

Overtones are missing. Relationships seem impersonal and everyone conceals his secret life, whereas in Paris it was the exciting substance of our talks, intimate revelations and sharing of experience.

In another diary entry a year later, she revisits the contrast with growing fervor:

New York is the very opposite of Paris. People’s last concern is with intimacy. No attention is given to friendship and its development. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of life itself. There is much talk about the ‘world,’ about millions, groups, but no warmth between human beings. They persecute subjectivity, which is a sense of inner life; an individual’s concern with growth and self-development is frowned upon.

Subjectivity seems to be in itself a defect. No praise or compliments are given, because praise is politeness and all politeness is hypocrisy. Americans are proud of telling you only the bad. The ‘never-talk-about-yourself’ taboo is linked with the most candid, unabashed self-seeking, and selfishness.

New Yorker cover by Mark Ulriksen from ‘The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.’ Click image for details.

In a September 22, 1917, letter to her mother and sister — found in the same superb out-of-print anthology that gave us the poet’s reflections on the love of music, her playfully lewd self-portrait, and the story of how she was almost banned from her own graduation — 18-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay grumbles with her signature wry wit:

There is no air on 5th Avenue, there is nothing but oil & old gasoline & new gasoline — there is never one breath of pure air — nothing but gas, gas, gas — but people who live in New York walk there to get air. Probably they do get it — all of it — & that’s why it blows to me so scummily.

She later adds:

There is a beautiful anonymity about life in New York.

Three years later, in another letter to her mother, Millay grows exasperated with the city:

New York life is getting too congested for me — too many people; I get no time to work.

Washington Irving shares Millay’s frustration with the city’s density. How endearing and comic to consider that, in this 1847 letter to his sister who hadn’t seen her native city in over forty years, he compares New York (current population: 8.3 million) to Frankfurt (current population: 691,000) in an effort to capture its bustling expansiveness:

I often think what a strange world you would find yourself in, if you could revisit your native place, and mingle among your relatives. New York, as you knew it, was a mere corner of the present huge city ; and that corner is all changed, pulled to pieces, burnt down and rebuilt — all but our little native nest in William street, which still retains some of its old features, though those are daily altering. I can hardly realize that, within my term of life, this great crowded metropolis, so full of life, bustle, noise, show, and splendor, was a quiet little city of some fifty or sixty thousand inhabitants. It is really now one of the most racketing cities in the world, and reminds me of one of the great European cities (Frankfort, for instance) in the time of an annual fair. Here it is a fair almost all the year round. For my part, I dread the noise and turmoil of it, and visit it but now and then, preferring the quiet of my country retreat; which shows that the bustling time of life is over with me, and that I am settling down into a sober, quiet, good-for-nothing old gentleman.

Unlike Irving, E. B. White found in the city’s exuberant turmoil cause for awe rather than distress. In Here Is New York (public library), one of the best books about Gotham, he captures the city’s vibrant whimsy in his breathlessly beautiful prose:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Malcolm Gladwell’s hand-drawn personal memory map of Manhattan. Click image for details.

26-year-old Susan Sontag writes in an 1959 diary entry, found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library), which also gave us her meditations on art, marriage, life, and the four people any great writer must be:

The ugliness of New York. But I do like it here … In NY sensuality completely turns into sexuality — no objects for the senses to respond to, no beautiful river, houses, people. Awful smells of the street, and dirt … Nothing except eating, if that, and the frenzy of the bed.

Adjusting to the city vs. making the city answer better to the self.

Also in New York Diaries, Randy Cohen notes Gotham’s curious customs, which take on a wholly different context than their practice anywhere else:

New York is not Mexico City, but twice a year, we parents at the 96th Street school-bus stop collect money for Mr. R., the driver. “You have to give, or he’ll drop your kid in Times Square alone,” someone jokes. And it is a joke. New York is not Lagos, Mr. R. is a responsible man, and the money is a gift.

The Chrysler Building by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for details.

But perhaps most poignant and timeless of all is this meta-meditation on writing about New York from The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates (public library). In a diary entry dated April 3, 1976, the celebrated author and literary sage reflects:

The impulse of every writer is to create a fictional world that represents the “real” world in abbreviated, heightened, poetic fashion. … Philip Roth’s New York is his own no less than Beckett’s interior landscapes are his own. Otherwise there would be little pleasure in art: it would be a mere attempt at reportage.

New York, to Oates, is the realest and most pleasurable of worlds. In another diary entry several weeks later, she rejoices in the city’s imminent promise:

Leaving tomorrow for my parents’, then to NYC… Poetry reading Monday evening. Then: freedom to explore New York. Our favorite city. The only city.

After the “totally enjoyable, many-faceted visit,” Oates captures New York’s polarizing mesmerism:

The undeniable attraction of that city: its pulse, atmosphere, people. (NYC is much maligned by the rest of the country out of resentment, one suspects. There is only one city in the United States and the others are envious.)

For more on the private joys and tribulations this “only city” has afforded some of literary history’s greatest icons, revisit the wonderful New York Diaries, then celebrate its dimensional magic with these 10 favorite books on Gotham’s glory.

BP

The Best History Books of 2012

From Mark Twain’s diary to the visual history of evolution, by way of Vonnegut, Sontag, and Klimt.

Following this year’s best science books, art books, design books, philosophy and psychology books, and children’s books, the 2012 best-of reading lists continue with the annual roundup of the year’s ten-or-so most fascinating history books. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)

NEW YORK DIARIES

For the past four centuries, New York City has been courted, confabulated, and cursed, in public and in private, by the millions of citizens who have called it home. New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (UK; public library) is a remarkable feat of an anthology by Teresa Carpenter, culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections to reveal a dimensional mosaic portrait of the city through the journal entries of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in its grid over the past 400 years — easily the most dynamic and important depiction of the city since E. B. White’s timeless Here Is New York.

In an ingenious touch, Carpenter arranges the entries by day of the year, rather than chronologically, which brings to the foreground certain common patterns of daily life that appear to shape our experience of the city, be it in 1697 or 1976. At its heart, however, the collection exudes a certain unflinching quality of the city, unshakable solid ground that stands tenacious beneath the tempestuous weather patterns of great wars and great loves and great losses that swirl over.

Carpenter writes:

Every century produces a diarist who laments, ‘This is the worst catastrophe ever to befall New York!’ Surely it seems that way at the moment. The city takes the blow, catches its breath, then moves along to the insistent rhythm of the tides. New York, as it emerges from these pages, is by turns a wicked city, a compassionate city, a muscular city, a vulnerable city, an artistic wonder, an aesthetic disaster, but forever a resilient city — and one loved fiercely by its inhabitants.

From the voyeuristic glimpses of famous lives (Edison, Kerouac, Twain, Roosevelt, de Beauvoir) to the textured anonymous masses (businessmen, clergymen, Victorian teenagers) that constitute the intricate living fabric of the city, the diary entries are at once engrossingly intimate and strikingly prototypical of the human condition.

On May 20, 1948, Jack Kerouac reflects on a general sociocultural peculiarity of New York, folded into the particular peculiarity of the writer’s life as he considers his first novel, The Town and the City:

No word from Scribner’s. Their silence and businesslike judicious patience is driving me crazy with tension, worry, expectation, disappointment — everything. And the novel is yet unfinished, really, and the time has come to start typing it and straightening it out. What a job in this weary life of mine, this lazy life. But I’ll get down to it. The news that Jesse James is still alive is very thrilling news to me, and my mother too, but we’ve noticed that it doesn’t seem to impress the New York world at all — which does bear out, in its own way, what I say about New York, that it is a heaven for European culture and not American culture. I don’t get personally mad these things any more, because that is overdoing things in the name of culture and at the expense of general humanity, but still, I get personally mad at those who scoff at the significance of Jesse James, bandit or no, to the regular American with a sense of his nation’s past.

Just the previous year, on November 19, a wholly different, more private side of Kerouac emerges:

Dark Eyes came to my house tonight and we danced all night long, and into the morning. We sat on the floor, on the beautiful rug my mother made for me, and listened to the royal wedding at six in the morning. My mother was charming when she got up and saw us there. I made Dark Eyes some crêpes suzette. We danced again, & sang.

On February 18, 1867, a 32-year-old Mark Twain paints a portrait in stark contrast with recent portrayals of the NYPD:

The police of Broadway seem to have been selected with special reference to size. They are nearly all large, fine-looking men, and their blue uniforms, well studded with brass buttons, their jack boots and their batons worn like a dagger, give them an imposing military aspect. They are gentlemanly in appearance and conduct… I hear them praised on every hand for their efficiency, integrity and watchful attention to business. It seems like an extravagant compliment to pay a policeman, don’t it? I am charmed with the novelty of it.”

On March 2, 1842, Charles Dickens writes:

Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder in the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel-window twenty times while we were sitting there. We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select part of half-a-dozen gentlemen-hogs have just now turned the corner…

And who knew Thomas Edison had such a penchant for the poetic? On July 12, 1885, he captures beautifully a morning experience all too familiar:

Awakened at 5:15 A.M. — My eyes were embarrassed by the sunbeams — turned my back to them and tried to take another dip into oblivion — succeeded — awakened at 7 A.M. Thought of Mina, Daisy, and Mamma G — Put all 3 in my mental kaleidoscope to obtain a new combination à la Galton. Took Mina as a basis, tried to improve her beauty by discarding and adding certain features borrowed from Daisy and Mamma G. A sort of Raphaelized beauty, got into it too deep, mind flew away and I went to sleep again.

And on the following day, a deadpan blend of dark humor and entrepreneurship:

Went to New York via Desbrosses Street ferry. Took cars across town. Saw a woman get into car that was so tall and frightfully thin as well as dried up that my mechanical mind at once conceived the idea that it would be the proper thing to run a lancet into her arm and knee joints and insert automatic self-feeding oil cups to diminish the creaking when she walked.

Simone de Beauvoir, fashion critic? On February 4, 1947:

During the night, New York was covered with snow. Central Park is transformed. The children have cast aside their roller skates and taken up skis; they rush boldly down the tiny hillocks. Men remain barehanded, but many of the young people stick fur puffs over their ears fixed to a half-circle of plastic that sticks to their hair like a ribbon — it’s hideous.

On October 29, 1985, a little over a year before his death, Andy Warhol meditates:

I broke something and realized I should break something once a week to remind me how fragile life is. It was a good plastic ring from the twenties.

It’s hard to imagine how many accounts Carpenter must have sifted through and oscillated between before settling on Mark Allen’s raw, harrowing record of 9/11. From it:

2:30 p.m. The first blast jolted me out of bed!!!! My apartment shook and I heard all these people on the street screaming. Dashed outside – Armageddon??? WTC on fire! Both towers! I watched them burning from the Williamsburg Bridge. Unsure why – no one around me spoke english! Run back inside my apartment no phone – all TV stations static – cell doesn’t work – modem does – weird – quickly listen to news on my little battery operated transistor alarm clock radio. Terrorists! Hear first tower COLLAPSED right outside my window – freak! On radio – radio news people are freaking out. – run outside with my bike and camera. Everyone I see on the street is saying shit like “Oh my fucking God!” – everyone is in weird shock. No one is not effected.

In a chaotic Chinatown. Looking at only ONE WTC tower – on fire – so surreal. Just one – superbizarre! Was on cell phone with Bryan – only person I could get through to – weird) , camera in hand, as 2nd tower COLLAPSED right in front of me!! You could feel the dull roar in the concrete. Will never forget it – EVER. It was like a blooming grey daffodil that bloomed big and then dissipated into dust. An unbelievable image I will never forget. People on street – totally edgy. Super razor blade vibe everywhere – no traffic. EVERYONE – MOBS walking AWAY from disaster. I can’t believe I am looking up and there are no twin towers – like a fever dream.

My favorite entry comes on November 29, 1941, from a 19-year-old Jack Kerouac — at once a living testament to the richness of life as a college-dropout-turned-lifelong-learner (cue in Kio Stark’s new project) and a poignant meditation on the most fundamental tension of the human condition:

I returned to college in the Fall, but my mind wasn’t at rest. My family was not any too well fixed; I felt out of place, the coaches were insulting, I was lonely; I left and went down to the South to think things over. Since then, on my own, I have been learning fast, writing a lot, reading good men, and have been slowly making up my mind, seriously & quietly. Either I am loathsome to others, I have decided, or else I shall be a beacon of rich warm light, spreading good and plenty, making things prosper, being a cosmic architect, conquering the world and being respected, myself grinning surreptitiously. Either that, Sirs, or I shall be the most loathsome, useless, and parasitical (on myself) creature in the world. I shall be a denizen of the Underground, or a successful man of the world. There shall be no compromise!!! I mean it.

My only lament? Susan Sontag, one of my greatest intellectual heroes and a formidable New York diarist, didn’t make it into the collection. Omission notwithstanding, New York Diaries is an absolute masterpiece blending a curator’s discernment, an archivist’s obsessive rigor, a writer’s love of writing, and a New Yorker’s love of New York — the ultimate celebration of the city’s tender complexity and beautiful chaos.

Originally featured, with more excerpts, in January.

THE ORIGINS OF SEX

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution (UK; public library) by Oxford University historian Faramerz Dabhoiwala offers a masterfully researched, absorbing, eloquent account of how, contrary to the modern mythology of the 1960s, today’s permissive sexual behavior first developed, seemingly suddenly, some three hundred years earlier, in 17th-century Western Europe. What emerges is a new lens for understanding the Enlightenment as a cultural phenomenon, by connecting this critical sexual transformation to the intellectual, political, and social forces that shaped the period.

The history of sex is usually treated as part of the history of private life, or of bodily experience. Yet that is itself a consequence of the Enlightenment’s conception of it as an essentially personal matter. My concern, by contrast, is not primarily to enter into the bedrooms and between the sheets of the past. It is to recover the history of sex as a central public preoccupation, and to demonstrate that how people in the past thought about and dealt with it was shaped by the most profound intellectual and social currents of their time.

[…]

The sexual revolution demonstrates how far and how quickly enlightened ways of thinking spread, and what important effects they had on popular attitudes and behavior.

Rembrandt, The Bed (1646): a rare contemporary illustration of a couple making love, composed around the time that the artist began an illicit relationship with his maid, Hendrickje Stoffels.

These new norms of behavior, Dabhiowala is careful to point out, didn’t affect everyone equally — like other kinds of liberty, they “primarily benefited a minority of white, heterosexual, propertied men.” He goes on to explore how urbanization placed the enforcement of sexual discipline under increasing pressure, making London — the largest metropolis in the world at the time, a hub of political power, literature, culture, and innovation — the epicenter of these shifts. Regulating the newly sexually awakened masses, however, was another matter:

The principle that illicit sex was a public crime was asserted with increasing vigor form the early middle ages onwards.

Indeed, since the dawn of history every civilization had prescribed severe laws against at least some kinds of sexual immorality. The oldest surviving legal codes (c. 2100-1700 BCE), drawn up by the kings of Babylon, made adultery punishable by death, and most other near eastern and classical cultures also treated it as a serious offence: this was the view taken by the Assyrians, the ancient Egyptians, the Jews, the Greeks, and, to some extent, the Romans. The main concern of such laws was usually to uphold the honour and property rights of fathers, husbands, and higher-status groups.

[…]

The laws of Ethelbert (c. 602), the Anglo-Saxon king of Kent, stipulate the different fines payable ‘if a man takes a widow who does not belong to him’; for lying with servants or slave women of different classes; and for adultery with the wife of another freeman — in which case, as well as a heavy fine, the offender was ‘to obtain another wife with his own money, and bring her to the other’s home’.

[…]

The code of Alfred the Great (c. 893) made it lawful for any man to kill another if he found him ‘with his wedded wife, within closed doors or under the same blanket, or with his legitimate daughter or his legitimate sister, or with his mother’. That of King Cnut (c. 1020-23) forbade married men even from fornicating with their own slaves, and ordered that adulteresses should be publicly disgraced, lose their goods, and have their ears and noses cut off.

If these sound barbaric, the ethos of the dominant Christian tradition was — and remains — hardly different:

‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ was the seventh of [God’s] Ten Commandments, and every adulterer and adulteress, he had ordered, ‘shall surely be put to death’. The same fate was to be imposed upon anyone guilty of incest or bestiality, as upon men who had sex with each other: all such people defiled themselves and the community. If the daughter of a priest were to fornicate, she should be burned alive. If a man lay with a menstruating woman, ‘both of them shall be cut off from among their people’. If any man should lie with a betrothed maid, God’s will was that ‘ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of the city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die’ — ‘so thou shalt put away evil from among you’.

The patriarchal philanthropist: Robert Dingley, merchant and founder of the Magdalen Hospital for Penitent Prostitutes. On his knee, in the frontispiece to the charity’s published Account (1761), rests one of the penitents.

The centuries that followed brought little change and instead further developed what Dabhoiwala calls “this essentially negative view of sex.” Among the most powerful proponents of this view was Saint Augustine (354-430), bishop of the town of Hippo on the north African coast, who Dabhiowala argues has had a more profound impact on Christian attitudes towards sexuality than any other person. He came to see lust as the most dangerous of all human drives and, in a letter to another bishop, summed up his philosophy thusly:

For it intrudes where it is not needed and tempts the hearts of faithful and holy people with its untimely and even wicked desire. Even if we do not give in to these restless impulses of it by any sign of consent but rather fight against them, we would nonetheless, out of a holier desire, want them not to exist in us at all, if that were possible.

The church took these moral matters into its own hands with the establishment of is permanent courts around 1100, catapulting sexual offenses from the realm of private confession into the increasingly powerful system of public inquisition. The rise of towns and cities imposed yet another layer of punishment, giving rise to new civic penalties against adultery, fornication, and prostitution. By the later 13th century, such sexual and marital legal cases accounted for anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of all litigation. But despite the development of a formal system, punishments a remained crude violation of modern human rights:

In London, Bristol, and Gloucester, they constructed a special public ‘cage’ in the main market-place, in which to imprison and display prostitutes, adulterers, and lecherous priests; elsewhere, cucking-stools were used to punish whores… There also became established elaborate rituals of civic punishment for convicted whores, bawds, and adulterers. Serious offenders were taken on a long public procession through the city, dressed in symbolically degrading clothes and accompanied by the raucous clanging of pans and basins. Sometimes they would also be whipped, put in the pillory, have their hair shaved off, or be banished from the city.

Edward Rigby striking an unrepentant pose in 1703. This print was produced just a few months after his release from prison for attempted sodomy.

But, by the 16th century, these punishments seemed insufficient to a moral-extremist cohort as the Protestant movement began to vocally condemn the Catholic Church — nicknamed the Whore of Babylon — for a lax attitude towards sexual morality, from its lecherous priests who took the ideal of clerical celibacy as a joke to the toleration of prostitution. And yet, the church was thriving in its hypocrisy:

[A]s the morals of the people were left to decay, the church itself grew rich on the proceeds of fines, indulgences, and other tricks it imposed on its hapless flock. In short, there was a direct connection between the spiritual and sexual corruption of the papacy and its followers.

James Gillray’s lurid pun on the name and the role of Dorothy Jordan, longtime mistress to the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV

The Origins of Sex goes on to reverse-engineer how modern ideas about sexual freedom and gender equality coalesced out of the stormy sexual attitudes and behaviors of 17th, 18th, and 19th-century England, exposing a rich new layer of understanding humanity’s most intimate mechanism for relating to self and other.

Originally featured in June.

HONORABLE MENTION: Sex and Punishment: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire.

TREES OF LIFE

Since the dawn of recorded history, humanity has been turning to the visual realm as a sensemaking tool for the world and our place in it, mapping and visualizing everything from the body to the brain to the universe to information itself. Trees of Life: A Visual History of Evolution (UK; public library) catalogs 230 tree-like branching diagrams, culled from 450 years of mankind’s visual curiosity about the living world and our quest to understand the complex ecosystem we share with other organisms, from bacteria to birds, microbes to mammals.

Though the use of a tree as a metaphor for understanding the relationships between organisms is often attributed to Darwin, who articulated it in his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, the concept, most recently appropriated in mapping systems and knowledge networks, is actually much older, predating the theory of evolution itself. The collection is thus at once a visual record of the evolution of science and of its opposite — the earliest examples, dating as far back as the sixteenth century, portray the mythic order in which God created Earth, and the diagrams’ development over the centuries is as much a progression of science as it is of culture, society, and paradigm.

Theodore W. Pietsch writes in the introduction:

The tree as an iconographic metaphor is perhaps the most universally widespread of all great cultural symbols. Trees appear and reappear throughout human history to illustrate nearly every aspect of life. The structural complexity of a tree — its roots, trunk, bifurcating branches, and leaves — has served as an ideal symbol throughout the ages to visualize and map hierarchies of knowledge and ideas.

The Ladder of Ascent and Descent of the Intellect, not tree-like at first glance, but certainly branching dichotomously, the steps labeled from bottom to top, with representative figures on the right and upper left: Lapis (stone), Flamma (fire), Planta (plant), Brutum (beast), Homo (human), Caelum (sky), Angelus (angel), and Deus (God), a scheme that shows how one might ascend from inferior to superior beings and vice versa. After Ramon Lull (1232–1315), Liber de ascensu et descensu intellectus, written about 1305 but not published until 1512.
The ‘Crust of the Earth as Related to Zoology,’ presenting, at one glance, the ‘distribution of the principle types of animals, and the order of their successive appearance in the layers of the earth’s crust,’ published by Louis Agassiz and Augustus Addison Gould as the frontispiece of their 1848 Principles of Zoölogy. The diagram is like a wheel with numerous radiating spokes, each spoke representing a group of animals, superimposed over a series of concentric rings of time, from pre-Silurian to the ‘modern age.’ According to a divine plan, different groups of animals appear within the various ‘spokes’ of the wheel and then, in some cases, go extinct. Humans enter only in the outermost layer, at the very top of the diagram, shown as the crowning achievement of all Creation.
‘Genealogy of the class of fishes’ published by Louis Agassiz in his Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Research on fossil fishes) of 1844.
The unique egg-shaped ‘system of animals’ published by German zoologist Georg August Goldfuss in his Über de Entwicklungsstufen des Thieres (On animal development) of 1817.
‘Universal system of nature,’ from Paul Horaninow’s Primae lineae systematis naturae (Primary system of nature) of 1834, an ingenious and seemingly indecipherable clockwise spiral that places animals in the center of the vortex, arranged in a series of concentric circles, surrounded in turn by additional nested circles that contain the plants, nonmetallic minerals, and finally metals within the outermost circle. Not surprisingly, everything is subjugated to humans (Homo) located in the center.

Ernst Haeckel’s famous ‘great oak,’ a family tree of animals, from the first edition of his 1874 Anthropogenie oder Entwickelungsgeschichte des menschen (The evolution of man).

(More on Haeckel’s striking biological art here.)

Tree by John Henry Schaffner showing the relationships of the flowering plants. The early split at the base of the tree leads to the monocotyledonous plants on the left and the dicotyledons on the right.
Schaffner, 1934, Quarterly Review of Biology, 9(2):150, fig. 2; courtesy of Perry Cartwright and the University of Chicago Press.
A phylogeny of horses showing their geological distribution throughout the Tertiary, by Ruben Arthur Stirton.
Stirton, 1940, plate following page 198; courtesy of Rebecca Wells and the University of California Press.
William King Gregory’s 1946 tree of rodent relationships.
Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.
The frontispiece of William King Gregory’s two-volume Evolution Emerging.
Gregory, 1951, Evolution Emerging: A Survey of Changing Patterns from Primeval Life to Man, vol. 2, p. 757; fig. 20.33; courtesy of Mary DeJong, Mai Qaraman, and the American Museum of Natural History.

Originally featured, with more images, in May.

AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH

It’s no secret Susan Sontag’s journals have been on heavy rotation here this year. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (UK; public library), the second published volume of her diaries and also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of the year, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. The tome includes her insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.

Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.

FAKING IT

“The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” Susan Sontag famously asserted in On Photography. But in the quarter century since, the rise of digital photography and image manipulation software has increasingly transmogrified the photographer into a constructor of reality, a reality in which believing is seeing. Still, image manipulation dates much further back — in fact, to the dawn of photography itself. Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop (UK; public library), the companion book to the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of the same title, traces the evolution of image manipulation from the 1840s to the 1990s, when computer software first began to revolutionize the alteration of photographs.

Man on Rooftop with Eleven Men in Formation on His Shoulders (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Dirigible Docked on Empire State Building, New York (Unidentified American artist, 1930)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Powerful Collision (Unidentified German artist, 1914)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

These images — artful, subversive, unapologetic in their unreality — serve sometimes to amuse and entertain, sometimes to deliberately deceive, sometimes to comment on social and political issues, and always to give pause with how they tease and taunt our assumptions of optical reality and visual representation.

Met curator Mia Fineman writes in the introduction:

Over the past twenty years, photography has undergone a dramatic transformation. Mechanical cameras and silver-based film have been replaced by electronic image sensors and microchips; instead of shuffling through piles of glossy prints, we stare at the glowing screens of laptops, tablets, and mobile phones; negative enlargers and chemical darkrooms have given way to personal computers and image-processing software. Digital cameras and applications such as Photoshop have create, look at, and think about photographs. Among the most profound cultural effects of these new technologies has been a heightened awareness of the malleability of the photographic image and a corresponding loss of faith in photography as an accurate, trustworthy means of representing the visual world. As viewers, we have become increasingly savvy, even habitually skeptical, about photography’s claims to truth.

The Vision (Orpheus Scene) (F. Holland Day, 1907)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Aberdeen Portraits No. 1 (George Washington Wilson, 1857)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Fading Away (Henry Peach Robinson, 1858)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Lenin and Stalin in Gorki in 1922 (Unidentified Russian artist, 1949)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as Artist and Model (Maurice Guibert, ca. 1900)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Man Juggling His Own Head (Unidentified French artist, Published by Allain de Torbéchet et Cie. ca. 1880)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Two-Headed Man (Unidentified American artist, ca. 1930)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Room with Eye (Maurice Tabard, 1930)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Hearst Over the People (Barbara Morgan, 1939)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sueño No. 1: Articulos eléctricos para el hogar / Dream No. 1: Electrical Appliances for the Home (Grete Stern, 1948)
Image courtesy: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Originally featured in October.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, 100 Ideas That Changed Film, and 100 Ideas That Changed Art.

KURT VONNEGUT: LETTERS

Abidingly yet impatiently awaited by Vonnegut fans everywhere, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (UK; public library) finally arrived this year and is just as fantastic as expected. What makes the anthology particularly sublime is that strange, endearing way in which so much of what Vonnegut wrote about to his friends, family, editors, and critics appears at first glance mundane but somehow peels away at the very fabric of his character and reveals the most tender boundaries of his soul.

For a taste: In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut was offered a teaching position at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His role as long-distance father and husband was propelled by voluminous correspondence with his family, who remained in their Cape Cod residence. In a letter to his wife, Jane, dated September 28, 1965, he outlines his daily routine:

Dearest Jane,

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach of prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

Compare and contrast with Henry Miller’s daily routine, and also see this lovely short poem Vonnegut sent his friend Knox Burger in 1961.

Originally featured in November.

THE MEDICAL BOOK

Last year, Clifford Pickover brought us The Physics Book — a lavish chronology of physics milestones, from the Big Bang (13.7 billion BC) to Quantum Resurrection (> 100 trillion), and one of the 11 best science books of 2011. This year, he follows up with The Medical Book: From Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (UK; public library) — an equally impressive tome inviting us on “a vast journey into the history of medicine that includes eminently practical topics along with the odd and perplexing.” From practical inventions like eyeglasses (1284), condoms (1564), and cochlear implants (1977) and to era-defining innovations like hospitals (1784), the discovery of viruses (1892), and psychoanalysis (1899) to politicized subjects like abortion (70 A.D.), health insurance (1883), and the birth control pill (1955), the short entries, arranged chronologically from 10,000 B.C. (“witch doctor”) to 2008 (“human cloning”), offer a concise introduction and overview of each medical milestone, alongside a full-page image — ranging from an archeological artifact to a Renaissance painting to bleeding-edge photomicroscopy –that captures its essence and cultural significance.

Pickover writes in the introduction:

When colleagues ask me what I feel are the greatest milestones in medicine, I usually offer three events. the first involves the use of ligatures to stem the flow of blood during surgeries, for example, as performed by the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590). he promoted ligature (e.g., tying off with twine) of blood vessels to prevent hemorrhage during amputations, instead of the traditional method of burning the stump with a hot iron to stop bleeding. The second key milestone includes methods for decreasing pain through general anesthetics such as ether, attributed to several American physicians. The third breakthrough concerns antiseptic surgery, which was promoted by British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912), whose use of carbolic acid (now called phenol) as a means of sterilizing wounds and surgical instruments dramatically reduced postoperative infections.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Hidden Treasure, which explored 10 centuries of visualizing the human body in medicine, and The Art of Medicine, a 2,000-year visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity.

Originally featured in September.

BOREDOM: A LIVELY HISTORY

Boredom has never enjoyed an admirable reputation, and in the age of the internet’s incessant on-demand stimulation, it seems at once anachronistic and antithetical — a particularly pathetic condition to profess, a personal failure of sorts. But in Boredom: A Lively History (UK; public library), classics scholar Peter Toohey examines boredom as an adaptive mechanism. From Madame Bovary to fMRI, he explores the roots, symptoms, and symbolism of boredom across art history, psychology, and neurochemistry to examine what it reveals about us both as individuals and as a culture.

Boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish.

Toohey argues that boredom, unlike primary emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, takes a secondary role, alongside “social emotions” like sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, and contempt. He delineates between two main types of boredom — simple boredom, which occurs regularly and doesn’t require that you be able to name it, and existential boredom, a grab-bag condition that is “neither an emotion, nor a mood, nor a feeling” but, rather, “an impressive intellectual formulation” that has much in common with depression and is highly self-aware, something Toohey calls the most self-reflective of conditions.

Toohey examines the relationship between boredom and disgust, the former being a mild derivation of the latter — boredom is to disgust what annoyance is to anger. Boredom is also connected to surfeit — surfeit, coupled with monotony, predictability, and confinement, produces boredom.

Boredom is an emotion usually associated with a nourished body: like satiety, it is not normally for the starving.

But our reflexive means of alleviating boredom — novelty-seeking, drugs, extreme behaviors — are, as most of us are intellectually aware but have at some point been experientially blind to, remarkably ineffective. Toohey observes:

As fast as the new is experienced…it is liable to become boring. The new becomes a variant of the infinite. It recedes infinitely.

This touches on what’s perhaps the most transfixing aspect of boredom — its relationship with time:

Infinity is of course temporal as well as spatial. Time has a very interesting relationship with boredom and its representations. We have all experienced the sluggishness of time when we have been confined in boring situations. According to one of the late Clement Freud’s famous witticisms, ‘if you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving you don’t actually live longer, it just seems longer.’

In this way, boredom appears to be the polar opposite of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously termed flow — a state of intense focus you enter whilst absorbed in an enthralling task, when you lose track of time.

And yet, our tendency to seek a cure for boredom in the new and shiny appears to be a fundamental part of being human, a deep-seated cultural phenomenon:

Popular culture is littered with examples of this process of rule breaking as a way to escape the chronic boredom of modern life. The problem with this rule breaking is that it so quickly becomes predictable, prosaic and boring. Avant-garde art and rock’n’roll, to take two examples, both staged revolts against the status quo precisely by way of dazzling, intense novelty, but both quickly became as predictable as corn niblets.

[…]

Rule breaking, if it’s done regularly, quickly becomes just another element in the edifice of the middle-class boredom that it was designed to replace. Worse still, rule breaking becomes confused with fashion and being modern and that quickly becomes old-fashioned too. Remember what Oscar Wilde had to say? ‘Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.

Originally featured, with a boredom threshold self-test, in June.

LEONARDO DA VINCI: ANATOMIST

Though Leonardo da Vinci endures as the quintessential polymath, the epitome of the “Renaissance Man” dabbling in a wide array of disciplines — art, architecture, cartography, mathematics, literature, engineering, anatomy, geology, music, sculpture, botany — his interest in science was anything but cursory. In Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist (UK; public library), Martin Clayton, senior curator of the Royal Collection, looks well beyond his iconic Vitruvian Man to explore Leonardo’s remarkably accurate anatomical illustrations that remained hidden from the world for nearly 400 years after Da Vinci’s death.

A study of a man standing facing the spectator, with legs apart and arms stretched down, drawn as an anatomical figure to show the heart, lungs and main arteries.
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Three studies, one on a larger scale, of a man’s right arm and shoulder, showing muscles; three studies of a right arm; a diagram to illustrate pronation and supination of the hand.
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
An anatomical study of the principal organs and the arterial system of a female torso, pricked for transfer.
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Springing from the “true to nature” ethos of his paintings, Leonardo’s fascination with the human body took him to the morgues and hospitals of Florence, where he performed dissections of corpses, often of executed criminals. His greatest feat was understanding the workings of the heart. After discovering a bulb-shaped swelling at the root of the aorta, he came strikingly close to uncovering the mechanisms of blood circulation more than a century before formal science arrived at it. In fact, he injected melted wax into the heart of an ox, then a glass model of the cast and pumped it with water with a suspension of grass seeds in order to observe the vortexes at work. He then concluded that the swelling made the aortic valve close after each heartbeat, a proposition which cardiologists didn’t arrive at until the early 20th century and didn’t fully confirm until the 1980s.

Large drawing of an embryo within a human uterus with a cow’s placenta; smaller sketch of the same; notes on the subject; illustrative drawings in detail of the placenta and uterus; diagram demonstrating binocular vision; a note on relief in painting and on mechanics.
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
A study of a man’s left leg, stretched forward; beside it, a man’s legs seen from behind; below is a man standing, turned in profile to the left, with his left leg advanced; to the right are two studies of the bones of human left legs and thighs, and one of an animal; with many notes on the muscles.
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
A study of the dissection of the lower leg and foot of a bear, viewed in profile to the left. To the left there is also a slight drawing of the leg.
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Perhaps his most famous anatomical drawing was of a 100-year-old man, who had reported being in excellent health mere hours before his death. When Leonardo dissected him to see “the cause of so sweet a death” and found cirrhosis of the liver and a blockage of an artery to the heart, producing the first-ever description of what is now known as coronary vascular occlusion.

As a great artist, Leonardo had two advantages over his contemporary anatomists. First of all, as a sculptor, engineer, architect, he had an intuitive understanding of form — when he dissected a body, he could understand in a very fluid way how the different parts of the body fit together, worked together. And then, having made that understanding, as a supreme draftsman, he was able to record his observations and discoveries in drawings of such lucidity, he’s able to get across the form, the structure to the viewer in a way which had never been done before and, in many cases, has never been surpassed since.

Drawing of external genitalia and vagina, with notes; notes on the anal sphincter and diagrams of suggested arrangement of its fibers and its mode of action.
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Five studies of the bones of the leg and foot; a drawing of the knee joint and patella; two studies of the bones of a right leg with the knee flexed; the muscles of a right buttock, thigh and calf.
Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

Tough Leonardo intended to publish his drawings as an illustrated treatise on human anatomy, but when he died in 1519, his anatomical papers were buried amongst his private possessions and vanished from public sight. In the early 1600s, around 600 of his surviving drawings were bound in a single collection and by the end of the century, they mysterious made their way to the Royal Collection. Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist gathers 90 of these seminal drawings, contextualized in a discussion of their anatomical significance. Accompanying the books is an iPad app, presenting 268 pages of Leonardo’s notebooks in magnificent high resolution.

Originally featured in July.

THE AGE OF INSIGHT

Something unusual defined Vienna between 1890 and 1918, something that shaped more of Western culture than we dare suspect — artists, writers, thinkers and scientists across biology, medicine, and psychoanalysis came into regular contact and, in the process of these interactions, steered the course of modern art and science. In The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present (UK; public library), Nobel laureate Eric Kandel traces the spark of this ongoing dialogue between art and science through three key elements: the exchange of insights between seminal modern artists and the members of the Vienna School of Medicine; the Vienna School of Art History’s exploration of the interaction between art and the cognitive psychology of art in the 1930s; and modern science’s relatively nascent preoccupation with an emotional neuroaesthetic, bridging cognitive psychology and biology to examine our perceptual, emotional, and emphatic responses to works of art.

Kandel argues — much like physicist Lawrence Krauss has suggested — that science and art share the same fundamental questions, but go about answering them in different ways. While brain science is concerned with the mental life that arises from the activity of the brain, including how perception and memory work, and what defines consciousness, art offers insight into the more experiential qualities of mind, like the subjective measures of what certain experiences feel like. Kandel observes:

A brain scan may reveal the neural signs of depression, but a Beethoven symphony reveals what that depression feels like. Both perspectives are necessary if we are to fully grasp the nature of mind, yet they are rarely brought together.

(Cue in Jonah Lehrer’s articulate case for “a fourth culture of knowledge” that brings together the sciences and the humanities for a necessary dialogue that enriches both.)

But among Kandel’s greatest feats is the eloquent, rigorous debunking of the popular myth that bringing the lens of science to art would somehow detract from our enjoyment of the latter. (In the process, he slips in a fine addition to this recent omnibus of definitions of science.)

Science seeks to understand complex processes by reducing them to their essential actions and studying the interplay of those actions — and this reductionist approach extends to art as well. Indeed, my focus on one school of art, consisting of only three major representatives, is an example of this. Some people are concerned that a reductionist analysis will diminish our fascination with art, that it will trivialize art and deprive it of its special force, thereby reducing the beholder’s share to an ordinary brain function. I argue to the contrary, that by encouraging a dialogue between science and art and by encouraging a focus on one mental process at a time, reductionism can expand our vision and give us new insights into the nature and creation of art. These new insights will enable us to perceive unexpected aspects of art that derive from the relationship between biological and psychological phenomena.

He goes on to argue that, rather than reducing the complexity and richness of the art experience, the scientific understanding of the brain and its responses might help us better understand the very impulses and aims of creativity and would “contribute to a broader cultural framework for art history, aesthetics, and cognitive psychology.”

To keep this dialogue between the arts and sciences coherent and maximally meaningful, Kandel focuses his lens on one particular form of art. Portraiture lands itself to scientific exploration uniquely, thanks to a long legacy of studies of human facial emotional expression, shaped by Darwin’s photographic experiments, and a sufficient scientific understanding of how we respond to the facial expressions and body language of others, perceptually, emotionally, and empathically.

Kandel further focuses the discussion on three specific modernist artists — Gustav Klimt, Oscar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele — who “emphasized that the function of the modern artist was not to convey beauty, but to convey new truths.”

Gustav Klimt, Adele Block-Bauer, 1907. Oil, silver, gold on canvas.

Klimt, for instance, read Darwin and became fascinated by the structures of the cell, which permeated his work. In his iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the small iconographic images on Adele’s dress aren’t mere decoration — they symbolize male and female cells, with rectangles representing sperm and ovals eggs. Kandel writes:

These biologically inspired fertility symbols are designed to match the sitter’s seductive face to her full-blown reproductive capabilities.

(In heartening evidence for the cultural potency of such cross-pollination of disciplines, Adele’s portrait fetched Klimt $135 million — the most ever paid for an individual painting by that point in history, and in stark contrast with Klimt’s otherwise unremarkable career prior.)

Meanwhile, a chain of influential scientists on the Vienna scene, stretching from Second Vienna School of Medicine founder Carl von Rokitansky to Freud, built a new dynamic framework of the human psyche, which radically changed the understanding of the human mind. Through conversations with artists that took place in museums, opera houses, theaters, and coffee houses — the same Enlightenment epicenters Steven Johnson points to as crucial for innovation in Where Good Ideas Come From — these ideas entered the scope of artistic concern and were soon translated onto canvases.

Kandel brings it all together for the modern reader by outlining our current understanding of the science of perception, memory, emotion, empathy, and creativity — in short, what makes us human — and how it shapes our experience of art, making The Age of Insight not just fascinating but necessary.

Originally featured in April.

BONUS: A GLORIOUS ENTERPRISE

The institution is conceived for the purposes of rational, free, literary and scientific conversation… We meet also to compare the advances of the sciences in the rest of the world with our own… We are lovers of science.

So began the story of a small group of amateur scientists, who gathered in an equally small apartment on the corner of Second and Market streets in Philadelphia one chilly Saturday evening on January 25, 1812, several blocks away from a rival group — the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin some seventy years prior. Our heroes had been excluded from APS for “social reasons” — immigrants and self-made men, they had been shunned by the APS, a place for the socially prominent American gentry. But, passionate in their love for science and natural history, they remained undeterred and on March 21 of the same year they named their gathering the “Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia,” which stands today as the oldest natural history museum in the Western Hemisphere.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Academy, University of Pennsylvania Press at my alma mater has published A Glorious Enterprise: The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the Making of American Science (UK; public library) — a magnificent, epic tome that tells in 464 lavishly illustrated pages, weighing in at nearly 10 pounds and over a foot tall, the story of the Academy and its quest to acquire and disseminate knowledge of the natural world.

And what a story it is — from how Ernest Hemingway shaped the field of ichthyology to what Edgar Allan Poe was doing in the oldest-known photograph taken inside a museum, it’s a story brimming with rare glimpses of strange specimens and obscure images, laced with tales of scientific rivalry, boundless inspiration, ruthless pursuits of scientific immortality, and perseverance in the face of terrible odds, with cameos by Thomas Jefferson and James Bond, among other unlikely heroes.

Edgar Allan Poe (right), who spent time at the Academy doing research on mollusks; Joseph Leidy, a young medical student (center); and Samuel George Morton (left in top hat) were photographed in the Academy’s new building at Board and Sansom Streets during the winter of 1842-43. This daguerrotype, possibly by Paul Beck Goddard, is the oldest-known photograph of an American museum interior.
‘Leaf insects’ (a lineage of tropical walking sticks). These remarkable Phasmida are found in rainforest canopes of tropical Asia. Included in this group are many newly described specimens from the Philippines. The others are from New Guinea and the Seychelles.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) admires a catch aboard the Pilar, 1934. His understanding of the game fishes of the Atlantic, communicated through the Academy, made significant contributions to the field of ichthyology.
American Flamingo by John James Audubon, hand-colored engraving by Robert Havell Jr. for The Birds of America (1827-38)
Skulls of the American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) presented to the Academy by Thomas B. Wilson in 1846
Kirtland’s owl (Saw-whet owl), hand-colored lithograph by George White for John Cassin’s Illustrations of the Birds of California, Teas, Oregon, British and Russian America (1856)
Members of the American Entomological Society on a collecting trip circa 1900
Coconut crabs (Birgus latro) collected on Flint Island (an uninhabited coral atoll four hundred nautical miles northwest of Tahiti in the Central Pacific) by C. D. Voy in 1875
Shed snake skins collected by George M. Feirer in 1942
The skull of ‘Pierce’, the cannibalistic Englishman from Australia
Agricultural seed samples collected by Charles F. Kuenne, 1948
Joseph Leidy’s original drawings of rhizopods (protozoans). Leidy was 22 years old when he became a member of the Academy in 1845.

Magnificent in both its scope and its ambitious physicality, A Glorious Enterprise is a fascinating miniature museum in and of itself, exploring the cultural history of natural history with equal parts rigor and romanticism — the hallmark of great science.

Originally featured, with more images, in April.

BP

7 Obscure Children’s Books by Authors of Grown-Up Literature

What a moral cat has to do with a lost boy, a happy prince and the rules for little girls.

We’ve previously explored some beloved children’s classics with timeless philosophy for grown-ups, plus some quirky coloring books for the eternal kid, and today’s we’re looking at the flipside — little-known children’s books by beloved authors of literature for grown-ups.

JAMES JOYCE

James Joyce may be best known as a poet, playwright, short story writer and novelist. But in an August 10, 1936 letter his grandson, Stephen, Joyce planted the story seeds of what became The Cat and the Devil — a charming children’s picture-book, originally illustrated by French cartoonist Roger Blachon, about the cat of Beaugency and a moral dilemma, a classic fable narrative mixing Irish wit with French folklore, shaken and stirred with Joyce’s extraordinary storytelling.

Joyce’s original letter to “Stevie” can be found in Stuart Gilbert’s 1964 volume, Letters of James Joyce. We Too Were Children has more images, a synopsis and a timeline of different editions.

MARK TWAIN

In 1865, legendary satirist Mark Twain did something unexpected — he penned a children’s story, titled Advice to Little Girls, in which he challenged children to digest the kind of intelligent humor and knowledge he was, and still is, known for among his adult audiences. The story was eventually published in The 30,000 Dollar Bequest and Other Stories.

This year, Italian publishing house Donzelli Editore released a beautifully illustrated Italian translation of the story, envisioned in the style of the scrapbooks and small albums the children of Twain’s era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera.

You ought never to take your little brother’s ‘chewing-gum’ away from him by main force; it is better to rope him in with the promise of the first two dollars and a half you find floating down the river on a grindstone. In the artless simplicity natural to this time of life, he will regard it as a perfectly fair transaction. In all ages of the world this eminently plausible fiction has lured the obtuse infant to financial ruin and disaster.”

VIRGINIA WOOLF

In 1923, with her greatest works still ahead of her, Virginia Woolf responded to a submissions call from a family newspaper called The Charleston Bulletin, published by her teenage nephews. The Widow and the Parrot is, roughly, a tongue-in-cheek moral story about kindness to animals and though Quentin, Woolf’s older nephew, bemoaned it as a disappointment and “a tease…based on the worst Victorian examples,” devoid of Woolf’s typical subversive humor he had hoped for, it remains a sweet reflection of character, her taking the time to contribute to a small family pet project in the heat of her literary career.

The Widow and the Parrot stayed dormant in the archives of The Charleston Bulletin for over half a century, until it finally saw light of day in the 1982 issue of Redbook, celebrating 100 years since Woolf’s birth.

Ariel Wright has more on We Too Were Children.

T.S. ELIOT

T.S. Eliot is often regarded as the most important English-language poet of the 20th century. In the 1930s, Eliot, under his assumed name “Old Possum,” wrote a series of letters to his godchildren, in which he included a handful of whimsical poems about feline psychology and sociology. They were eventually published in 1939 as Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, originally illustrated by the author himself. But, given our affinity for mid-century illustrator Edward Gorey, the even bigger treat is the 1982 edition illustrated by Gorey in his signature style of black-and-white drawings at the intersection of the macabre and the whimsical.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats inspired the iconic Broadway musical Cats.

MARY SHELLEY

Between the time Mary Shelley published anonymous edition of her iconic Frankenstein in London in 1818 and the publication of the second edition in France in 1823, where her name appears for the first time, she penned Maurice, or The Fisher’s Cot — a children’s story Shelley wrote in 1820 for a daughter of friends. Shelley tried to have the story published by her father, William Godwin, but he refused, burying the text for nearly two centuries. In 1997, scholars discovered a manuscript copy was in Italy, considered one of modernity’s great feats of literary forensics.

The story, written in the straightforward Romantic language of poet William Wordsworth, whose work Shelley was reading at the time she composed Maurice, is about a boy searching for a home and his encounters with a traveller who turns out to be his long-lost father. With its melancholy tone and autobiographical undercurrents, the rediscovered text revealed a new glimpse of Shelley’s character and offered a precious missing link in the evolution of her literary style.

LEO TOLSTOY

Iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy may be best-known for his epics Anna Karenina and War and Peace, considered two of the greatest novels of all time, but he also had a keen and active interest in children and children’s literature. He founded a school for peasant children on his family’s estate, followed by a second, more experimental school with the motto, “Come when you like, leave when you like” — an early model for open education. Inspired by the simplicity and innocence with which the children of his schools told stories, he began writing about his own childhood, eventually publishing a series of alphabet books after War and Peace. Known as “The ABC Book” (Azbuka) and “The New ABC Book” (Novaia Azbuka), these easy readers were widely adopted in Russia’s education system and remained in use throughout the Soviet Era.

Classic Tales and Fables for Children features a selection of stories and fables from Tolstoy’s classic primers. Always delightful, frequently humorous and never patronizing, these wonderful tales bespeak Tolstoy’s profound respect and appreciation for children’s unique creative and moral sensibilities, as well as his dedication to the broader aspirations of education.

OSCAR WILDE

In 1888, before his most iconic plays and essays made grand their debut, Oscar Wilde wrote The Happy Prince and other Tales — a poetic collection of five children’s stories about happiness, life and death. Though the most popular Western version, illustrated by Laura Stutzman, is certainly a treat, nothing compares to the astounding 1992 Chinese translation (which features an English version in the back of the book) illustrated by renowned Chinese artist Ed Young.

The anthology’s title text, The Happy Prince, can be read online in its entirety, courtesy of The Literature Network.

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