From Descartes to Curie to the Oxford English Dictionary, a biblio-anatomy of an unrepeatable mind.
By Maria Popova
A Galileo of the mind and a Goethe of medicine, Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015) considered his patients “more instructive than any book.” And yet he enchanted the world with their stories and turned the case study into a poetic form precisely because of his abiding love of books, the indelible exoskeleton that bolstered his enormous spirit. He read widely and voraciously since childhood, reaching for literature spanning an incredible range of eras, subjects, and sensibilities — the true mark of the prepared mind. Some he read in the course of specific research related to his own work, others through the sheer centrifugal force of unbridled curiosity radiating into the everythingness of everything.
Science was his constant companion — from its granular esoterica, particularly related to his obsessions with minerals, cephalopods, and ferns, to its masterworks on consciousness and the brain, to its meeting point with art in science fiction. As I recently learned from Kate Edgar, Dr. Sacks’s friend, assistant, and editorial collaborator of thirty years, he especially loved biographies of great scientists. But he also cherished philosophy and poetry. The slim, poignant autobiography Scottish philosopher David Hume penned in the last year of his life inspired Dr. Sacks’s own poignant farewell to the world. His friendship with the poet Thom Gunn deeply informed his understanding of creativity and his own magnificent autobiography — which crowned the best books of 2015 and remains one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — borrows its title from a Gunn verse.
In his autobiography, Dr. Sacks traces his lifelong love of books to his childhood home:
Another sacred room was the library, which, in the evenings at least, was especially my father’s domain. One section of the library wall was covered with his Hebrew books, but there were books on every subject — my mother’s books (she was fond of novels and biographies), my brothers’ books, and books inherited from grandparents. One bookcase was entirely devoted to plays — my parents, who had met as fellow enthusiasts in a medical students’ Ibsen society, still went to the theater every Thursday.
In many ways, his uncommonly wide lens on the world reflected the fundamentally different animating motives of his parents — his father, the humanist; his mother, the scientist. Dr. Sacks writes in his autobiography:
My father’s quiet hours were all spent with books, in the library, surrounded by biblical commentaries or occasionally his favorite First World War poets. Human beings, human behavior, human myths and societies, human language and religions occupied his entire attention — he had little interest in the nonhuman, in “nature,” as my mother had. I think my father was drawn to medicine because its practice was central in human society, and that he saw himself in an essentially social and ritual role. I think my mother, though, was drawn to medicine because for her it was part of natural history and biology. She could not look at human anatomy or physiology without thinking of parallels and precursors in other primates, other vertebrates. This did not compromise her concern and feeling for the individual — but placed it, always, in a wider context, that of biology and science in general.
Outside the home, young Oliver found refuge in another sanctuary of books:
The Willesden Public Library was an odd triangular building set at an angle to Willesden Lane, a short walk from our house. It was deceptively small outside, but vast inside, with dozens of alcoves and bays full of books, more books than I had ever seen in my life. Once the librarian was assured I could handle the books and use the card index, she gave me the run of the library and allowed me to order books from the central library and even sometimes to take rare books out. My reading was voracious but unsystematic: I skimmed, I hovered, I browsed, as I wished…
In my years of devouring his writing, I was always fascinated by Dr. Sacks’s reading range — his voracious and unsystematic hoverings, which stayed with him for life. I kept extensive notes on the books he mentioned — some sentimentally, with the tenderness of one paying due homage to a formative influence, and some scholarly, as scientific beacons that lit the way for his own work with patients.
Having previously compiled similar lifelong reading lists for Patti Smith and Gabriel Garcia Márquez based on their respective autobiographical writings, I set out to do the same for Dr. Sacks — an undertaking much more labor-intensive by comparison, on account of his impressive body of work, and months in the making.
Gathered here for the first time are the books that informed, inspired, and invigorated one of the most radiant and unrepeatable minds of our time, culled from his own many books and including a few of his particularly delightful reflections on some of his favorites. Special thanks to Kate Edgar, who now spearheads the Oliver Sacks Foundation, for helping me fill in any crucial gaps.
Thom Gunn has written powerfully of the “occasions” of poetry. Science has its occasions no less than art: sometimes a dream-metaphor, like Kekulé’s snakes; sometimes an analogy, like Newton’s apple; sometimes a literal event, the thing-in-itself, which suddenly explodes into unimagined significance, like Archimedes’s “Eureka!” in his bath. Every such occasion is a eureka or epiphany.
Eve Curie’s biography of her mother—which my own mother gave me when I was ten — was the first portrait of a scientist I ever read, and one that deeply impressed me.1 It was no dry recital of a life’s achievements, but full of evocative, poignant images — Marie Curie plunging her hands into the sacks of pitchblende residue, still mixed with pine needles from the Joachimsthal mine; inhaling acid fumes as she stood amid vast steaming vats and crucibles, stirring them with an iron rod almost as big as herself; transforming the huge, tarry masses to tall vessels of colorless solutions, more and more radioactive, and steadily concentrating these, in turn, in her drafty shed, with dust and grit continually getting into the solutions and undoing the endless work.
I was particularly moved by the description in Eve Curie’s book of how her parents, restless one evening and curious as to how the fractional crystallizations were going, returned to their shed late one night and saw in the darkness a magical glowing everywhere, from all the tubes and vessels and basins containing the radium concentrates, and realized for the first time that their element was spontaneously luminous. The luminosity of phosphorus required the presence of oxygen, but the luminosity of radium arose entirely from within, from its own radioactivity. Marie Curie wrote in lyrical terms of this luminosity:
“One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night when we perceived the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles and capsules containing our products… It was really a lovely sight and always new to us. The glowing tubes looked like faint fairy lights.”
In 1998 I spoke at a meeting for the centennial of the discovery of polonium and radium. I said that I had been given this book when I was ten, and that it was my favorite biography. As I was talking I became conscious of a very old lady in the audience, with high Slavic cheekbones and a smile going from one ear to the other. I thought, “It can’t be!” But it was — it was Eve Curie, and she signed her book for me sixty years after it was published, fifty-five years after I got it.
When I asked Deborah whether Clive [Wearing’s amnesiac husband] knew about her memoir, she told me that she had shown it to him twice before, but that he had instantly forgotten. I had my own heavily annotated copy with me, and asked Deborah to show it to him again.
“You’ve written a book!” he cried, astonished. “Well done! Congratulations!” He peered at the cover. “All by you? Good heavens!” Excited, he jumped for joy. Deborah showed him the dedication page (“For my Clive”). “Dedicated to me?” He hugged her. This scene was repeated several times within a few minutes, with almost exactly the same astonishment, the same expressions of delight and joy each time.
Clive and Deborah are still very much in love with each other, despite his amnesia (indeed, the [first edition] subtitle of Deborah’s book is A Memoir of Love and Amnesia). He greeted her several times as if she had just arrived. It must be an extraordinary situation, I thought, both maddening and flattering, to be seen always as new, as a gift, a blessing.
[It is] a remarkable book, so tender, yet so tough-minded and realistic.
A workhorse of a book — straight, uninspired, pedestrian in tone, designed as a practical manual, but nevertheless, for me, filled with wonders. Inside its cover, corroded, discolored, and stained (for it had done time in the lab in its day), it bore the words “Best wishes and congratulations 21/1/1 — Mick” — it had been given to my mother on her eighteenth birthday by her twenty-five-year-old brother Mick, already a research chemist himself. Uncle Mick, a younger brother of Dave, had gone to South Africa with his brothers, and then worked in a tin mine on his return. He loved tin, I was told, as much as Uncle Dave loved tungsten, and he was sometimes referred to in the family as Uncle Tin. I never knew Uncle Mick, for he died of a malignancy the year I was born — he was only forty-five — a victim, his family thought, of the high levels of radioactivity in the uranium mines in Africa. But my mother had been very close to him, and his memory and image stayed vividly in her mind. The notion that this was my mother’s own chemistry book, and of the never-known, young chemist uncle who gave it to her, made the book especially precious to me.
Very different in style and content, though equally designed to awake the sense of wonder (“The common life of man is full of Wonders, Chemical and Physiological. Most of us pass through this life without seeing or being sensible of them …”)
Auntie Len had given me [this book] for my tenth birthday, and I had been intoxicated by the imaginary journey Jeans described into the heart of the sun, and his casual mention that the sun contained platinum and silver and lead, most of the elements we have on earth.
Soddy’s book The Interpretation of Radium in the last year of the war, and I was enraptured by his vision of endless energy, endless light. Soddy’s heady words gave me a sense of the intoxication, the sense of power and redemption, that had attended the discovery of radium and radioactivity at the start of the century.
But side by side with this, Soddy voiced the dark possibilities, too. These indeed had been in his mind almost from the start, and, as early as 1903, he had spoken of the earth as “a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of.” This note was frequently sounded in The Interpretation of Radium, and it was Soddy’s powerful vision that inspired H.G. Wells to go back to his early science-fiction style and publish, in 1914, The World Set Free (Wells actually dedicated his book to The Interpretation of Radium).
When I first found that my patients’ reactions to L-DOPA were becoming erratic and unpredictable — that what had been clear was clear no longer, that something strange and unintelligible was gradually taking over — I felt fear, guilt, and a sort of revulsion.
This attitude changed when I first read Prigogine and gained the sense that there could be a hidden order, a new sort of order, in the midst of disorder. A most vivid sense of this new order – new, but also old, because it is the order of trees, of landscapes, of innumerable natural features — was given to me, visually, when I saw Mandelbrot’s book.
My mother, a surgeon and anatomist, while accepting that I was too clumsy to follow in her footsteps as a surgeon, expected me at least to excel in anatomy at Oxford. We dissected bodies and attended lectures and, a couple of years later, had to sit for a final anatomy exam. When the results were posted, I saw that I was ranked one from bottom in the class. I dreaded my mother’s reaction and decided that, in the circumstances, a few drinks were called for. I made my way to a favorite pub, the White Horse in Broad Street, where I drank four or five pints of hard cider—stronger than most beer and cheaper, too.
Rolling out of the White Horse, liquored up, I was seized by a mad and impudent idea. I would try to compensate for my abysmal performance in the anatomy finals by having a go at a very prestigious university prize — the Theodore Williams Scholarship in Human Anatomy. The exam had already started, but I lurched in, drunkenly bold, sat down at a vacant desk, and looked at the exam paper.
There were seven questions to be answered; I pounced on one (“Does structural differentiation imply functional differentiation?”) and wrote nonstop for two hours on the subject, bringing in whatever zoological and botanical knowledge I could muster to flesh out the discussion. Then I left, an hour before the exam ended, ignoring the other six questions.
The results were in The Times that weekend; I, Oliver Wolf Sacks, had won the prize. Everyone was dumbfounded — how could someone who had come one but last in the anatomy finals walk off with the Theodore Williams prize? I was not entirely surprised, for it was a sort of repetition, in reverse, of what had happened when I took the Oxford prelims. I am very bad at factual exams, yes-or-no questions, but can spread my wings with essays.
Fifty pounds came with the Theodore Williams prize — £50! I had never had so much money at once. This time I went not to the White Horse but to Blackwell’s bookshop (next door to the pub) and bought, for £44, the twelve volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary, for me the most coveted and desirable book in the world. I was to read the entire dictionary through when I went on to medical school, and I still like to take a volume off the shelf, now and then, for bedtime reading.
Please join me in donating to the Oliver Sacks Foundation, whose mission is to extend Dr. Sacks’s legacy by bringing to life his unpublished writings and supporting the work of other writers animated by a shared ethos of illuminating the human mind and brain through narrative nonfiction.
I have no doubt that our thinking goes on for the most part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should it happen that we sometimes “wonder” quite spontaneously about some experience? This “wondering” appears to occur when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us. Whenever such a conflict is experienced sharply and intensely it reacts back upon our world of thought in a decisive way. The development of this world of thought is in a certain sense a continuous flight from “wonder.”
A wonder of this kind I experienced as a child of four or five years when my father showed me a compass. That this needle behaved in such a determined way did not at all fit in the kind of occurrences that could find a place in the unconscious world of concepts (efficacy produced by direct “touch”). I can still remember — or at least believe I can remember — that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.
Cultivate honorable relationships, resist absentminded busyness, tell the world how to treat you, embrace enoughness, and more.
By Maria Popova
What if we could augment the bucket-list of typical New Year’s resolutions, dominated by bodily habits and pragmatic daily practices, with higher-order aspirations — habits of mind and spiritual orientations borrowed from some of humanity’s most timelessly rewarding thinkers? After last year’s selection of worthy resolutions inspired by such luminaries as Seneca, Maya Angelou, Bruce Lee, and Virginia Woolf, here is another set for the new year borrowed from a new roster of perennially elevating minds.
One of the most influential poets of the twentieth century and a woman of unflinching conviction, Adrienne Rich (May 16, 1929–March 27, 2012) became the first and to date only person to decline the National Medal of Arts in protest against the growing monopoly of power and the government’s proposed plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Although her poetry collection The Dream of a Common Language is a cultural cornerstone and required reading for every thinking, feeling human being, her lesser-known collected prose, published as On Lies, Secrets, and Silence (public library), pours forth Rich’s most direct insight into the political, philosophical, and personal dimensions of human life.
In it, she writes:
An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in doing so we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.
In a latter chapter, titled “The Unhappiest Man,” he considers how we grow unhappy by fleeing from presence and busying ourselves with the constant pursuit of some as-yet unattained external goal:
The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.
The unhappy one is absent… It is only the person who is present to himself that is happy.
I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Reflecting on a question she is frequently asked — to distill her essential advice on writing — Sontag offers:
I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”
Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.
For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.
But these tenets of storytelling, Sontag argues, aren’t just writerly virtues — they are a framework for human virtues:
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.
5. BERTRAND RUSSELL: MAKE ROOM FOR “FRUITFUL MONOTONY”
In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement,” Russell teases apart the paradoxical question of why, given how central it is to our wholeness, we dread boredom as much as we do. Long before our present anxieties about how the age of distraction and productivity is thwarting our capacity for presence, he writes:
We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.
As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense.
Many decades before our present concerns about screen time, he urges parents to allow children the freedom to experience “fruitful monotony,” which invites inventiveness and imaginative play — in other words, the great childhood joy and developmental achievement of learning to “do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.” He writes:
The pleasures of childhood should in the main be such as the child extracts from his environment by means of some effort and inventiveness… A child develops best when, like a young plant, he is left undisturbed in the same soil. Too much travel, too much variety of impressions, are not good for the young, and cause them as they grow up to become incapable of enduring fruitful monotony.
I do not mean that monotony has any merits of its own; I mean only that certain good things are not possible except where there is a certain degree of monotony… A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.
6. URSULA K. LE GUIN: REFUSE TO PLAY THE PERFECTION GAME
Reflecting on various cultures’ impossible and often punishing ideals of human beauty, “especially of female beauty,” Le Guin writes:
There are a whole lot of ways to be perfect, and not one of them is attained through punishment.
I think of when I was in high school in the 1940s: the white girls got their hair crinkled up by chemicals and heat so it would curl, and the black girls got their hair mashed flat by chemicals and heat so it wouldn’t curl. Home perms hadn’t been invented yet, and a lot of kids couldn’t afford these expensive treatments, so they were wretched because they couldn’t follow the rules, the rules of beauty.
Beauty always has rules. It’s a game. I resent the beauty game when I see it controlled by people who grab fortunes from it and don’t care who they hurt. I hate it when I see it making people so self-dissatisfied that they starve and deform and poison themselves. Most of the time I just play the game myself in a very small way, buying a new lipstick, feeling happy about a pretty new silk shirt.
There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place, and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.
And yet for all the ideals we impose on our bodies, Le Guin argues in her most poignant but, strangely, most liberating point, it is death that ultimately illuminates the full spectrum of our beauty — death, the ultimate equalizer of time and space; death, the great clarifier that makes us see that, as Rebecca Goldstein put it, “a person whom one loves is a world, just as one knows oneself to be a world.”
With this long-view lens, Le Guin remembers her own mother and the many dimensions of her beauty:
My mother died at eighty-three, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among fifty years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories. I see a little red-haired child in the mountains of Colorado, a sad-faced, delicate college girl, a kind, smiling young mother, a brilliantly intellectual woman, a peerless flirt, a serious artist, a splendid cook—I see her rocking, weeding, writing, laughing — I see the turquoise bracelets on her delicate, freckled arm — I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.
That must be what the great artists see and paint. That must be why the tired, aged faces in Rembrandt’s portraits give us such delight: they show us beauty not skin-deep but life-deep.
Our cultural mythology depicts love as something that happens to us — something we fall into, something that strikes us arrow-like, in which we are so passive as to be either lucky or unlucky. Such framing obscures the fact that loving — the practice of love — is a skill attained through the same deliberate effort as any other pursuit of human excellence.
Long before the Zen sage Thich Nhat Hahn admonished that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love,” the great German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and philosopher Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900–March 18, 1980) addressed this neglected skillfulness aspect of love in his 1956 classic The Art of Loving (public library) — a case for love as a skill to be honed the way artists apprentice themselves to the work on the way to mastery, demanding of its practitioner both knowledge and effort.
Love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him… [All] attempts for love are bound to fail, unless [one] tries most actively to develop [one’s] total personality, so as to achieve a productive orientation; …satisfaction in individual love cannot be attained without the capacity to love one’s neighbor, without true humility, courage, faith and discipline. In a culture in which these qualities are rare, the attainment of the capacity to love must remain a rare achievement.
There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.
The only way to abate this track record of failure, Fromm argues, is to examine the underlying reasons for the disconnect between our beliefs about love and its actual machinery — which must include a recognition of love as an informed practice rather than an unmerited grace:
The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice. If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one — my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art. But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art — the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry — and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.
8. ANNE TRUITT: CHOOSE UNDERSTANDING OVER JUDGMENT
Perhaps because she was formally trained as a psychologist, artist Anne Truitt (March 16, 1921–December 23, 2004) possessed exceptional powers of introspection and self-awareness coupled with an artist’s penchant for patient observation. This made her diary, eventually published as Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library), a true masterwork of psychological insight.
In one particularly poignant entry, she considers how our preconceptions and our ready-made judgments are keeping us from truly seeing one another, erecting a perilous barrier to love:
Unless we are very, very careful, we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves. This indifference can be, in its extreme, a form of murder and seems to me a rather common phenomenon. We claim autonomy for ourselves and forget that in so doing we can fall into the tyranny of defining other people as we would like them to be. By focusing on what we choose to acknowledge in them, we impose an insidious control on them. I notice that I have to pay careful attention in order to listen to others with an openness that allows them to be as they are, or as they think themselves to be. The shutters of my mind habitually flip open and click shut, and these little snaps form into patterns I arrange for myself. The opposite of this inattention is love, is the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.
Long before scientists had empirical evidence of the astounding ways in which our minds affect our bodies, French philosopher and political activist Simone Weil (February 3, 1909–August 24, 1943) — a thinker of unparalleled intellectual elegance and a sort of modern saint whom Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our times” — examined the delicate relationship between our physical and spiritual suffering, between the anguish of the material body and that of the soul.
A few months before her painful yet stoic death from tuberculosis — despite her diagnosis and her doctor’s explicit orders to eat heartily, Weil consumed only what was rationed to her compatriots under the German Occupation in a remarkable gesture of solidarity, ultimately resulting in fatal malnutrition — she turned to the problem of pain in First and Last Notebooks (public library). In an entry from late 1942, Weil considers how our instinctive reaction to suffering often only amplifies our pain:
The way to make use of physical pain. When suffering no matter what degree of pain, when almost the entire soul is inwardly crying “Make it stop, I can bear no more,” a part of the soul, even though it be an infinitesimally small part, should say: “I consent that this should continue throughout the whole of time, if the divine wisdom so ordains.” The soul is then split in two. For the physically sentient part of the soul is — at least sometimes — unable to consent to pain. This splitting in two of the soul is a second pain, a spiritual one, and even sharper than the physical pain that causes it.
Weil extends this philosophy beyond physical pain and into other forms of bodily and spiritual discomfort that we habitually exacerbate by stiffening with resistance to the unpleasantness:
A similar use can be made of hunger, fatigue, fear, and of everything that imperatively constrains the sentient part of the soul to cry: I can bear no more! Make it stop! There should be something in us that answers: I consent that it should continue up to the moment of death, or that it should not even finish then, but continue for ever. Then it is that the soul is as if divided by a two-edged sword.
To make use in this way of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself.
10. JAMES BALDWIN: TELL THE WORLD HOW TO TREAT YOU
I remember once a few years ago, in the British Museum a black Jamaican was washing the floors or something and asked me where I was from, and I said I was born in New York. He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” I did not know what he meant. “Where did you come from before that?” he explained. I said, “My mother was born in Maryland.” “Where was your father born?” he asked. “My father was born in New Orleans.” He said, “Yes, but where are you from?” Then I began to get it; very dimly, because now I was lost. And he said, “Where are you from in Africa?” I said, “Well, I don’t know,” and he was furious with me. He said, and walked away, “You mean you did not care enough to find out?”
Now, how in the world am I going to explain to him that there is virtually no way for me to have found out where I came from in Africa? So it is a kind of tug of war. The black American is looked down on by other dark people as being an object abjectly used. They envy him on the one hand, but on the other hand they also would like to look down on him as having struck a despicable bargain.
But identity, Baldwin argues, isn’t something we are born with — rather, it is something we claim for ourselves, then must assert willfully to the world:
You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.
11. JOHN STEINBECK: USE DISCIPLINE TO CATALYZE CREATIVE MAGIC
Many celebrated writers have championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary, but no one has put the diary to more impressive practical use in the creative process than John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968).
In the spring of 1938, he embarked on the most intense writing experience of his life. The public fruit of this labor would become the 1939 masterwork The Grapes of Wrath, which earned Steinbeck the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and was a cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later. But its private rewards are at least as important and morally instructive: Alongside the novel, Steinbeck also began keeping a diary, eventually published as Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath (public library) — a living record of his creative journey, in which this extraordinary writer tussles with excruciating self-doubt (exactly the kind Virginia Woolf so memorably described) but plows forward anyway, with equal parts gusto and grist, determined to do his best with the gift he has despite his limitations.
His journal, which became for him a practice both redemptive and transcendent, stands as a supreme testament to the fact that the essential substance of genius is the daily act of showing up. Steinbeck captures this perfectly in an entry that applies just as well to any field of creative endeavor:
In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently there must be some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility, in me at least, of saying, “I’ll do it if I feel like it.” One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all. The rest is nonsense. Perhaps there are people who can work that way, but I cannot. I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.
The journal thus becomes at once a tool of self-discipline (he vowed to write in it every single weekday, and did, declaring in one of the first entries: “Work is the only good thing.”), a pacing mechanism (he gave himself seven months to complete the book, anticipated it would actually take only 100 days, and finished it in under five months, averaging 2,000 words per day, longhand, not including the diary), and a sounding board for much-needed positive self-talk in the face of constant doubt (“I am so lazy and the thing ahead is so very difficult,” he despairs in one entry; but he assures himself in another: “My will is low. I must build my will again. And I can do it.”) Above all, it is a tool of accountability to keep him moving forward despite life’s litany of distractions and responsibilities. “Problems pile up so that this book moves like a Tide Pool snail with a shell and barnacles on its back,” he writes, and yet the essential thing is that despite the problems, despite the barnacles, it does move. He captures this in one of his most poignant entries, shortly before completing the first half of the novel:
Every book seems the struggle of a whole life. And then, when it is done — pouf. Never happened. Best thing is to get the words down every day. And it is time to start now.
A few days later, he spirals into self-doubt again:
My many weaknesses are beginning to show their heads. I simply must get this thing out of my system. I’m not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people. I wish I were. This success will ruin me as sure as hell. It probably won’t last, and that will be all right. I’ll try to go on with work now. Just a stint every day does it. I keep forgetting.
And so he inches forward, day after day. As he nears the finish line, he is even more certain of this incremental reach for greatness:
I’ll get the book done if I just set one day’s work in front of the last day’s work. That’s the way it comes out. And that’s the only way it does.
And yet even as he approaches the end, his self-doubt remains as unshakable as his commitment to finish:
I only hope it is some good. I have very grave doubts sometimes. I don’t want this to seem hurried. It must be just as slow and measured as the rest but I am sure of one thing — it isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book. And the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do. Now to work on it.
The book, of course, was far from run-of-the-mill. In addition to earning the two highest accolades in literature, The Grapes of Wrath remained atop the bestseller list for almost a year after it was published, sold nearly 430,000 copies in its first year alone, and remains one of the most read and celebrated novels ever written.
12. MARTHA NUSSBAUM: HEED THE INTELLIGENCE OF THE EMOTIONS
As scientists are shedding light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence. The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum (b.May 6, 1947), whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.
A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.
Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.
She considers the rationale behind the book’s title:
Emotions should be understood as “geological upheavals of thought”: as judgments in which people acknowledge the great importance, for their own flourishing, of things that they do not fully control — and acknowledge thereby their neediness before the world and its events.
Perhaps the greatest perplexity of aging is how to fill with gentleness the void between who we feel we are on the inside and who our culture tells us is staring back from that mirror. The cultivation of that gentleness is what beloved writer Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007) examines in a magnificent short piece titled “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age,” originally written for the New Yorker in 2002 and included in Here and Somewhere Else: Stories and Poems by Grace Paley and Robert Nichols (public library) — a celebration of literature, love, and the love of literature by Paley and her husband, published a few months before she died at the age of eighty-five.
My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn’t think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it’s for later, years from now. And besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kids in time to come.
They said, Really?
My father wanted to begin as soon as possible.
Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.
That’s a metaphor, right?
Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It’s probably easier for a man. Then talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.
Say anything, but be respectful. Say — maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.
“Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” Elizabeth Gilbert asked in framing her catalyst for creative magic. This is among life’s most abiding questions and the history of human creativity — our art and our poetry and most empathically all of our philosophy — is the history of attempts to answer it.
Nietzsche, translated here by Daniel Pellerin, writes:
Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow his conscience, which calls out to him: “Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you.”
Every young soul hears this call by day and by night and shudders with excitement at the premonition of that degree of happiness which eternities have prepared for those who will give thought to their true liberation. There is no way to help any soul attain this happiness, however, so long as it remains shackled with the chains of opinion and fear. And how hopeless and meaningless life can become without such a liberation! There is no drearier, sorrier creature in nature than the man who has evaded his own genius and who squints now towards the right, now towards the left, now backwards, now in any direction whatever.
No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!
To this abiding question of the creative life, legendary choreographer Martha Graham (May 11, 1894–April 1, 1991) offers an answer at once remarkably grounding and remarkably elevating in a conversation found in the 1991 biography Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham (public library) by dancer and choreographer Agnes de Mille.
In 1943, De Mille was hired to choreograph the musical Oklahoma!, which became an overnight sensation and ran for a record-setting 2,212 performances. Feeling that critics and the public had long ignored work into which she had poured her heart and soul, De Mille found herself dispirited by the sense that something she considered “only fairly good” was suddenly hailed as a “flamboyant success.” Shortly after the premiere, she met Graham “in a Schrafft’s restaurant over a soda” for a conversation that put into perspective her gnawing grievance and offered what De Mille considered the greatest thing ever said to her. She recounts the exchange:
I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.
Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”
“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”
“No artist is pleased.”
“But then there is no satisfaction?”
“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel ‘Catch-22’
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
Not bad! Rest in peace!
Rewarding reflections on time, love, loss, courage, creativity, and other transformations of the heart.
By Maria Popova
In the spirit of treating my annual best-of reading lists as a sort of Old Year’s resolutions in reverse, reflecting not aspirational priorities for the new year but what proved most worth prioritizing over the year past, here are the fifteen most rewarding books I read in 2015, following the subject-specific selections of the year’s best art books, best science books, and best children’s books. Please enjoy.
1. ON THE MOVE
“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,”Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning mapped the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.
The book, made all the more poignant by Dr. Sacks’s death shortly after its release, is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.
Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:
I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…
But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.
On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:
I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”
In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.
Dive deeper into this enormously rewarding book here.
2. H IS FOR HAWK
Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor. Because it is, of course, about everything — it might take a specific something as its subject, but its object is nothing less than the whole of the human spirit, mirrored back to itself.
H Is for Hawk (public library) by Helen Macdonald is one such book — the kind one devours voraciously, then picks up and puts down repeatedly, unsure how to channel its aboutness in a way that isn’t woefully inadequate.
For a necessary starting point, here’s an inadequate summation: After her father’s sudden and soul-splitting death, Macdonald, a seasoned falconer, decides to wade through the devastation by learning to train a goshawk — the fiercest of raptors, “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths,” capable of inflicting absolute gore with absolute grace. Over the course of that trying experience — which she chronicles by weaving together personal memory, natural history (the memory of our planet), and literary history (the memory of our culture) — she learns about love and loss, beauty and terror, control and surrender, and the myriad other dualities reconciling which is the game of life.
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.
Out of that aloneness a singular and paradoxical madness is born:
I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world… Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.
Rippling through Macdonald’s fluid, mesmerizingly immersive prose are piercing, short, perfectly placed deliverances, in both senses of the word: there is the dark (“What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later.”), the luminous (“I’d halfway forgotten how kind and warm the world could be.”), the immediate (“Time passed. The wavelength of the light around me shortened. The day built itself.”), the timeless (“Those old ghostly intuitions that have tied sinew and soul together for millennia.”), and the irrepressibly sublime (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”).
“Words belong to each other,” Virginia Woolf asserted in the only surviving recording of her voice. But words also belong to us, as much as we belong to them — and out of that mutual belonging arises our most fundamental understanding of the world, as well as the inescapable misunderstandings that bedevil the grand sensemaking experiment we call life.
This constant dialogue between reality and illusion, moderated by our use of language, is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a most remarkable book “dedicated to WORDS and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty.” Whyte — who has previously enveloped in his wisdom such intricacies of existence as what happens when love leaves and how to break the tyranny of work-life balance — constructs an alternative dictionary inviting us to befriend words in their most dimensional sense by reawakening to the deeper and often counterintuitive meanings beneath semantic superficialities and grab-bag terms like pain, beauty, and solace. And he does it all with a sensibility of style and spirit partway between Aristotle and Anne Lamott, Montaigne and Mary Oliver.
Whyte chooses 52 such ordinary words, the same number as the playing cards in a standard deck — perhaps a subtle suggestion that words, like cards, are as capable of illusion as they are of magic: two sides of the same coin, chosen by what we ourselves bring to the duality. Indeed, dualities and counterpoints dominate the book — Whyte’s short essays examine ambition and disappointment, vulnerability and courage, anger and forgiveness.
FRIENDSHIP is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn. A friend knows our difficulties and shadows and remains in sight, a companion to our vulnerabilities more than our triumphs, when we are under the strange illusion we do not need them. An undercurrent of real friendship is a blessing exactly because its elemental form is rediscovered again and again through understanding and mercy. All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.
Echoing Anne Lamott’s beautifully articulated conviction that friendship is above all the art of allowing the soft light of love to fall upon even our darkest sides, Whyte adds:
In the course of the years a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves, to remain friends we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them, not through critique but through addressing the better part of them, the leading creative edge of their incarnation, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.
Whyte argues that friendship helps us “make sense of heartbreak and unrequited love” — two concepts to which he dedicates entire separate word-meditations. He writes of the former:
HEARTBREAK is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…
Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colors and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life. Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.
And yet while heartbreak has this immense spiritual value, and even an evolutionarily adaptive one, we still treat it like a problem to be solved rather than like the psychoemotional growth-spurt that it is. Whyte writes:
Heartbreak is how we mature; yet we use the word heartbreak as if it only occurs when things have gone wrong: an unrequited love, a shattered dream… But heartbreak may be the very essence of being human, of being on the journey from here to there, and of coming to care deeply for what we find along the way.
There is almost no path a human being can follow that does not lead to heartbreak.
Stripped of the unnecessary negative judgments we impose upon it, heartbreak is simply a fathometer for the depth of our desire — for a person, for an accomplishment, for belonging to the world and its various strata of satisfaction. Whyte captures this elegantly:
Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope but as the close embrace of the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose.
Heartbreak asks us not to look for an alternative path, because there is no alternative path. It is an introduction to what we love and have loved, an inescapable and often beautiful question, something and someone that has been with us all along, asking us to be ready for the ultimate letting go.
“Is there anything we know more intimately than the fleetingness of time, the transience of each and every moment?” philosopher Rebecca Goldstein asked in contemplating how Einstein and Gödel shaped our experience of time. A little less than a century earlier, just as the theory of relativity was taking hold, Virginia Woolf articulated in exquisite prose what quantum physics sought to convey in equations — that thing we feel in our very bones, impervious to art or science, by virtue of being ephemeral creatures in a transient world.
That transcendent transience is what beloved musician, artist, and poet Patti Smith explores in M Train (public library) — a most unusual and breathtaking book: part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself.
A person possessing the rare gift of remaining radiant even in her melancholy, Smith grieves for her husband and her brother; she commemorates her great heroes, from friends like William S. Burroughs, who influenced her greatly, to kindred companions on the creative path across space and time like Frida Kahlo, William Blake, and Sylvia Plath; she even mourns the closing of the neighborhood café she frequented for more than a decade, one of those mundane anchors of constancy by which we hang on to existence.
The point, of course, is that each loss evokes all losses — a point Smith delivers with extraordinary elegance of prose and sincerity of spirit. What emerges is a strange and wonderful consolation for our inconsolable longing for permanency amid a universe driven by perpetual change and inevitable loss.
The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there.
But every transformation is invariably a loss, and the transformed must be mourned before the transformed-into can be relished. The mystery of the continuity between the two — between our past and present selves — is one of the greatest perplexities of philosophy. Smith arrives at it with wistful wonderment as she contemplates the disorientation of aging, that ultimate horseman of terminal transformation:
I considered what it meant to be sixty-six. The same number as the original American highway, the celebrated Mother Road that George Maharis, as Buz Murdock, took as he tooled across the country in his Corvette, working on oil rigs and trawlers, breaking hearts and freeing junkies. Sixty-six, I thought, what the hell. I could feel my chronology mounting, snow approaching. I could feel the moon, but I could not see it. The sky was veiled with a heavy mist illuminated by the perpetual city lights. When I was a girl the night sky was a great map of constellations, a cornucopia spilling the crystalline dust of the Milky Way across its ebony expanse, layers of stars that I would deftly unfold in my mind. I noticed the threads on my dungarees straining across my protruding knees. I’m still the same person, I thought, with all my flaws intact, same old bony knees…
The phone was ringing, a birthday wish from an old friend reaching from far away. As I said good-bye I realized I missed that particular version of me, the one who was feverish, impious. She has flown, that’s for sure.
Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present comprehended? Are our thoughts nothing but passing trains, no stops, devoid of dimension, whizzing by massive posters with repeating images? Catching a fragment from a window seat, yet another fragment from the next identical frame? If I write in the present yet digress, is that still real time? Real time, I reasoned, cannot be divided into sections like numbers on the face of a clock. If I write about the past as I simultaneously dwell in the present, am I still in real time? Perhaps there is no past or future, only the perpetual present that contains this trinity of memory. I looked out into the street and noticed the light changing. Perhaps the sun had slipped behind a cloud. Perhaps time had slipped away.
“I am not saying that we should love death,” urged Rilke in his clarion call for befriending our mortality, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” Nearly a century later, Elizabeth Alexander — one of the greatest poets of our time, whose poem “Praise Song for the Day” welcomed Barack Obama into his presidency and made her only the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration, joining such legendary dyads as Robert Frost and John F. Kennedy — invigorates Rilke’s proclamation as she bears witness to the vertiginous tango of these odd companions, death and love.
This she chronicles with uncommon elegance in The Light of the World (public library) — her soul-stretching memoir of how Ficre, the love of her life and her husband of fifteen Christmases, an artist and a chef, a blueberries-and-oatmeal-eating yogi and proud self-proclaimed “African ox,” collapsed while running on the treadmill in their basement. He was dead before his body hit the ground, four days after his fiftieth birthday — a death that Alexander and her two young sons had to somehow comprehend and fold into their suddenly disorienting aliveness. What emerges is a remarkable atlas of loss — a violent remapping of inner life, which Alexander ultimately transmutes into a cartography of love.
From the very opening lines, her writing flows with undramatic weight and piercing precision of emotional truth:
The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.
Indeed, embedded in her remembrance is a meditation on love itself:
Each of us made it possible for the other. We got something done. Each believed in the other unsurpassingly.
What more beautiful a definition of love is there — in all of humanity’s centuries of seeking to capture its essence — than the gift of making life possible for one another? One of the most poignant aspects of the book, in fact, deals with the forcible disentwining of their two possibilities as the impossibility of death wedges itself between them.
“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf memorably admonished. “Looked at, it vanishes.” And yet under Alexander’s lucid and luminous sidewise gaze, the soul is summoned to reveal itself rather than vaporizing. She writes:
Henry Ford believed the soul of a person is located in their last breath and so captured the last breath of his best friend Thomas Edison in a test tube and kept it evermore. It is on display at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit, like Galileo’s finger in the church of Santa Croce, but Edison’s last breath is an invisible relic.
Ficre breathed his last breath into me when I opened his mouth and breathed everything I had into him. He felt like a living person then. I am certain his soul was there. And then in the ambulance, riding the long ride down to the hospital, even as they worked and worked, the first icy-wind blew into me: he was going, or gone.
When I held him in the basement, he was himself, Ficre.
When I held him in the hospital as they worked and cut off his clothes, he was himself.
When they cleaned his body and brought his body for us to say goodbye, he had left his body, though it still belonged to us.
His body was colder than it had been, though not ice-cold, nor stiff and hard. His spirit had clearly left as it had not left when we found him on the basement floor and I knew that he could hear us.
Now I know for sure the soul is an evanescent thing and the body is its temporary container, because I saw it. I saw the body with the soul in it, I saw the body with the soul leaving, and I saw the body with the soul gone.
Between the lines of a favorite poem — Lucille Clifton lyrical meditation on her own husband’s death, which includes the lines “rising and turning / through my skin, / there was all around not the / shapes of things / but oh, at last, the things / themselves” — Alexander rediscovers this transmutation of energies as life and death waltz across the expanse of existence:
Death itself is like a snake shedding its skin… A new self reveals itself when the old carapace has shed and died, as though we live in exoskeletons with something truer underneath… What we see with our eyes is different from what we know: “The things / themselves.”
The mirrored mutuality of love and loss reveals itself again as Alexander returns to this notion of invisible essences in reflecting on the calling that most animated Ficre:
To love and live with a painter means marveling at the space between the things they see that you cannot see, that they then make.
Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.
Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.” She becomes, in fact, a kind of McLuhan of the self, probing not the collective conscience but the individual psyche, yet extracting widely resonant human truth and transmuting it into enormously expansive wisdom.
Manguso traces the roots of her diaristic journey, which began as an almost compulsive hedge against forgetting, against becoming an absentee in her own life, against the anguishing anxiety that time was slipping from her grip:
I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.
The trouble was that I failed to record so much.
I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.
I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.
So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time.
I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.
Upon arriving at a view of death reminiscent of Alan Watts’s, Manguso revisits the limiting fragmentation of life’s ongoingness into beginnings and endings:
The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will — diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows — weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.
For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it.
Then something happened — something utterly ordinary in the grand human scheme that had an extraordinary impact on Manguso’s private dance with memory and mortality: she became a mother. She writes:
I began to inhabit time differently.
I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.
My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.
Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.
As she awoke to this immutable continuity of life, Manguso became more acutely aware of those bewitched by beginnings. There is, of course, a certain beauty — necessity, even — to that beginner’s refusal to determine what is impossible before it is even possible. She writes:
My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.
I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.
Perhaps there is an element of “untested hope” in journaling itself — we are drawn to the practice because we hope that the diary would safe-keep precisely such throbbing, self-strengthening memories; that, in recording the unfolding ways in which we invent ourselves into personhood, it would become a constant reassurance of our own realness, a grownup version of The Velveteen Rabbit, reminding us that “real isn’t how you are made [but] a thing that happens to you.” Bearing witness to the happening itself, without trying to fragment it into beginnings and endings, is both the task of living and the anguish of the liver.
Manguso captures this elegantly:
Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.
For more than half a century, beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) has been beckoning us to remember ourselves and forget ourselves at the same time, to contact both our creatureliness and our transcendence as we move through the shimmering world her poetry has mirrored back at us — an unremitting invitation to live with what she calls “a seizure of happiness.” Nowhere is this seizure more electrifying than in love — a subject Oliver’s poetry has tended to celebrate only obliquely, and one she addressed most directly in her piercing elegy for her soul mate.
But in her most recent collection, Felicity (public library), Oliver dedicates nearly half the poems to the scintillating seizure that is love. There is bittersweetness in her words — these are loves that have bloomed in the hindsight of eighty long, wide years. But there is also radiant redemption, reminding us — much as Patti Smith did in her sublime new memoir — that certain loves outlast loss.
Here are four of my favorite love poems from the collection — please enjoy.
I KNOW SOMEONE
I know someone who kisses the way
a flower opens, but more rapidly.
Flowers are sweet. They have
short, beatific lives. They offer
much pleasure. There is
nothing in the world that can be said
Sad, isn’t it, that all they can kiss
is the air.
Yes, yes! We are the lucky ones.
I DID THINK, LET’S GO ABOUT THIS SLOWLY
I did think, let’s go about this slowly.
This is important. This should take
some really deep thought. We should take
small thoughtful steps.
But, bless us, we didn’t.
HOW DO I LOVE YOU?
How do I love you?
Oh, this way and that way.
Oh, happily. Perhaps
I may elaborate by
like this and
no more words now
NOT ANYONE WHO SAYS
Not anyone who says, “I’m going to be
careful and smart in matters of love,”
who says, “I’m going to choose slowly,”
but only those lovers who didn’t choose at all
but were, as it were, chosen
by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable
and beautiful and possibly even
only those know what I’m talking about
in this talking about love.
See more, including Krista Tippett’s spectacular interview with the reclusive poet, here.
8. THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE
In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.
About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.
The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.
Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”
Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:
Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.
She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:
Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.
But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.
Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.
And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.
Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.
Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:
The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.
And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.
“There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” Vladimir Nabokov famously proclaimed. Today, hardly anyone embodies this sentiment more fully than Brené Brown, who came of age as a social scientist in an era when the tyranny of facts trivialized the richness of fancy and the human experience was squeezed out of the qualitative in the service of the quantitative, the two pitted as polarities. But like Susan Sontag, who recognized how polarities limit and imprison us, Brown defied these dogmatic dichotomies and went on to become what she calls a “researcher-storyteller” — a social scientist who studies the complexities and nuances of the human experience with equal regard for data and story, enriching story with data and ennobling data with story in a quest to “find knowledge and truth in a full range of sources.”
In Rising Strong (public library), Brown builds upon her earlier work on vulnerability to examine the character qualities, emotional patterns, and habits of mind that enable people to transcend the catastrophes of life, from personal heartbreak to professional collapse, and emerge not only unbroken but more whole.
To be sure, this isn’t another iteration of “fail forward,” that tired and trendy (but far from new) cultural trope of extolling failure as a stepping stone to success — Brown’s research is about what happens in the psyche and the spirit when we are in the thick of the failure itself, facedown in the muddy stream, gasping for air; about what those who live from a deep place of worthiness have in common; about the choices involved in living a wholehearted life and the consequences of those choices in rising from our facedown moments to march forward.
While vulnerability is the birthplace of many of the fulfilling experiences we long for — love, belonging, joy, creativity, and trust, to name a few — the process of regaining our emotional footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness in our lives; it’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.
Brown argues that we live in “a Gilded Age of Failure,” where we fetishize recovery stories for their redemptive ending, glossing over the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it. (Some time ago, I too lamented this cultural tendency in my seven most important learnings from the first seven years of Brain Pickings.) This, Brown points out, does a disservice to the essence of grit, which has been shown to be a primary trait of those who succeed in life. She writes:
Embracing failure without acknowledging the real hurt and fear that it can cause, or the complex journey that underlies rising strong, is gold-plating grit. To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important — toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.
To reimagine the beloved poet’s life in a tango of word and image is quite befitting — unbeknownst to many, Cummings had a passion for drawing and once described himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”
The project comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of some of the most daring and tender children’s books of our time — and was first envisioned by ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, who approached Burgess about writing a children’s biography of Cummings. Miraculously, Burgess had visited Cummings’s home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City three years earlier, after a serendipitous encounter with the current resident — an experience that had planted a seed of quietly germinating obsession with the legendary poet’s life.
And so the collaboration stretched between them, as Cummings might say, like “a pleasant song” — Burgess and Bedrick worked side by side for four years to bring this wonder of a book to life.
The story begins with Cummings, already known as “E. E.” and living in his New York City home where he spent the last forty years of his life, typing away as the love of his life, the fashion model and photographer Marion Moorehouse, summons him to tea-time with an elephant-shaped bell.
From there, Burgess takes the reader on an affectionate biographical detective story, tracing how Edward Estlin became E. E., what brought him to Manhattan from his native Cambridge, and how elephants (and trees, and birds) became his lifelong creative companions in the circus of his imagination.
Young Estlin’s first poem “poured out of his mouth when he was only three.”
With the loving support of the unsung champions with whom the history of creative culture is strewn — the mother who began recording his spontaneous recitations in a little book titled “Estlin’s Original Poems”; the father who stomped on his hands and knees, play-pretending into existence the mighty elephant that was little Estlin’s creative muse; the teacher who encouraged him to pursue his love of words; the uncle who gave him a book on how to write poetry — he eventually made it to Harvard.
There, he came upon the words of his favorite poet, John Keats — “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination” — which awakened young Estlin’s creative courage. After graduation, he began experimenting with poetry and moved to New York City, falling in love with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.”
But then World War I struck and Estlin went to France, volunteering as an ambulance-driver. While working in the French countryside, he was mistaken for a spy and sent to prison for several months.
When the war ended, he wrote a book about his experience, titled The Enormous Room. Estlin was reborn as E. E.
“When you’re an artist,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her magnificent manifesto for the creative life, “nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.” The craftsmanship of that wand, which is perhaps the most terrifying and thrilling task of the creative person in any domain of endeavor, is what Elizabeth Gilbert explores in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — a lucid and luminous inquiry into the relationship between human beings and the mysteries of the creative experience, as defined by Gilbert’s beautifully broad notion of “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” It’s an expansive definition that cracks open the possibilities within any human life, whether you’re a particle physicist or a postal worker or a poet — and the pursuit of possibility is very much at the heart of Gilbert’s mission to empower us to enter into creative endeavor the way one enters into a monastic order: “as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence.”
This, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
Surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.
The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living.
The courage to go on that hunt in the first place — that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.
The often surprising results of that hunt — that’s what I call Big Magic.
That notion of summoning the courage to bring forth one’s hidden treasures is one Gilbert borrowed from Jack Gilbert — a brilliant poet to whom she is related not by genealogy but by creative kinship, graced with the astonishing coincidence of their last names and a university teaching position they both occupied a generation apart. She reflects on the poet’s unusual creative ethos:
“We must risk delight,” he wrote. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged [his students] to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.
Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small — far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.
“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their revelatory conversation on power and privilege. “If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” The many modes of telling and the many types of trouble are what trailblazing journalist, longtime New York Times theater critic, and Pulitzer winner Margo Jefferson (b. October 17, 1947) explores in Negroland: A Memoir (public library) — a masterwork of both form and substance.
Jefferson transforms her experience of growing up in an affluent black family into a lens on the broader perplexities of privilege and its provisional nature. Her piercing cultural insight unfolds in uncommonly beautiful writing, both honoring the essence of the memoir form — a vehicle for reaching the universal from the outpost of the personal — and defying its conventions through enlivening narrative experimentation.
I was taught to distinguish myself through presentation, not declaration, to excel through deeds and manners, not showing off.
But isn’t all memoir a form of showing off?
In my Negroland childhood, this was a perilous business.
Negroland is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference, and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice.
Too many Negroes, it was said, showed off the wrong things: their loud voices, their brash and garish ways; their gift for popular music and dance, for sports rather than the humanities and sciences. Most white people were on the lookout, we were told, for what they called these basic racial traits. But most white people were also on the lookout for a too-bold display by us of their kind of accomplishments, their privilege and plenty, what they considered their racial traits. You were never to act undignified in their presence, but neither were you to act flamboyant. Showing off was permitted, even encouraged, only if the result reflected well on your family, their friends, and your collective ancestors.
What is perhaps most disorienting about visibilia like race, age, and gender is that they externalize the inner contradictions with which we live — those tug-of-wars between dignity and self-doubt, between the yearning to belong and the fear that we don’t. Jefferson captures these dimensions beautifully:
Nothing highlighted our privilege more than the menace to it. Inside the race we were the self-designated aristocrats, educated, affluent, accomplished; to Caucasians we were oddities, underdogs and interlopers. White people who, like us, had manners, money, and education… But wait: “Like us” is presumptuous for the 1950s. Liberal whites who saw that we too had manners, money, and education lamented our caste disadvantage. Less liberal or non-liberal whites preferred not to see us in the private schools and public spaces of their choice. They had ready a bevy of slights: from skeptics the surprised glance and spare greeting; from waverers the pleasantry, eyes averted; from disdainers the direct cut. Caucasians with materially less than us were given license by Caucasians with more than them to subvert and attack our privilege.
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largesse in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty. We knew what was expected of us. Negro privilege had to be circumspect: impeccable but not arrogant; confident yet obliging; dignified, not intrusive.
Among the most poignant threads in Jefferson’s cultural memoir is the paradoxical notion of privilege earned. Privilege, after all, is granted by definition — earned privilege is the simulacrum of privilege, staked at the entrance to the power club and demanding the price of admission: endless self-contortion.
A self-described “chronicler of Negroland, a participant-observer, an elegist, dissenter and admirer; sometime expatriate, ongoing interlocutor,” Jefferson writes:
That’s the generic version of a story. Here’s the specific version: the midwestern, midcentury story of a little girl, one of two born to an attractive couple pleased with their lives and achievements, wanting the best for their children and wanting their children to be among the best.
To be successful, professionally and personally.
And to be happy.
Children always find ways to subvert while they’re busy complying. This child’s method of subversion? She would achieve success, but she would treat it like a concession she’d been forced to make. For unto whomsoever much is given, of her shall be much required. She came to feel that too much had been required of her. She would have her revenge. She would insist on an inner life regulated by despair… She embraced her life up to a point, then rejected it, and from that rejection have come all her difficulties.
Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.
Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.
The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.
In Humboldt’s tradition of interconnectedness, Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:
Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.
But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.
“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions,” Italo Calvino wrote in his magnificent letter on reproductive rights, “but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.” Thirty-five years earlier, in 1940, Anaïs Nin made the same point with even greater precision and prescience when she wrote in her diary: “Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.” And yet here we are decades later, with millennia of human civilization under our belt — aspirin to Austen, Guggenheim to Google, bicycle to Bach — still subscribing to the same primitive biological imperative that a life unprocreated is a life wasted; still succumbing to the tyrannical cultural message that opting out of parenthood is a failure of ambition or magnanimity or social duty, or simply the symptom of a profound character flaw. Being childless by choice — like being alone, like living alone — is still considered by unspoken consensus the errant choice.
With an eye to Tolstoy’s famous line from the opening of Anna Karenina — “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Daum writes in the introduction:
Of course, [Tolstoy’s] maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.
Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood … are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.
Daum considers the many ways in which one can come to stand in one’s truth as a nonparent — an act, essentially, of standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, in the eye of a sociocultural hurricane, with the absolute stillness of deep self-knowledge — Daum writes:
For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else — a partner, a family member, the culture at large.
And yet despite the wide array of paths to the willfully childless life, the cultural narrative about this choice remains strikingly myopic. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that polarities invariably impoverish the nuances of life, Daum points to the primary purpose of the anthology:
I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.
It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.
“Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” Alan Watts observed in his magnificent meditation on the art of timing half a century before our paradoxical modern mecca of ever-multiplying procrastination options amid a Productivity Rush in which we’re mining every last frontier of sanity and stillness for the tiniest nugget of precious efficiency. “Of all ridiculous things,” Kierkegaard wrote in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness nearly two centuries earlier, “the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” Somehow, even if we know that we habitually miss most of what is going on around us, we rarely break our busy gait on the hamster wheel of goal-chasing. And yet when we do pause — be it by will or, perhaps more commonly, by accident — the miraculous reveals itself in the mundane.
That’s what longtime collaborators Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler explore in the immensely wonderful children’s-book-for-grownups Hurry Up and Wait (public library) — the second installment in their collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, following their quirky Girls Standing on Lawns.
It feels so good to go someplace.
Except when you want to stay
right there where you are.
Once again, Kalman and Handler wade through MoMA’s impressive archive to curate a set of unusual, whimsical, and purely delightful photographs that capture the osmotic relationship between motion and stillness. The images come from the middle of the twentieth century, the heyday of the Mad Men era that set the hedonic treadmill of consumerism into motion and ripped the modern psyche asunder by the conflicting pulls of doing and being.
This is the history of the entire world.
People are seen striding and strolling, racing and ruminating, dashing and daydreaming — living testaments to the counterpoints of disposition by which we orient ourselves to the same mundane daily actions and to the present moment itself. We are reminded that even something as simple as a walk can be, as Thoreau believed, “a sort of crusade” — but we get to choose whether to crusade for productivity or for presence.
Jump right in, or wade in slowly.
Advantage to one, it’s over quickly.
Advantage to the other, it isn’t.
Handler’s meditative writing is a kind of aphoristic prose poetry, at once irreverent and wholehearted and profound, partway between Mark Twain and Rumi, with a touch of Virginia Woolf’s perfectly placed commas to punctuate attention into reflective pause of just the right duration.
You’re supposed to stop and smell the roses
but truth be told it doesn’t take that long
to smell them. You hardly have to stop.
You can smell the roses and still have time to
run all those errands before the sun goes
down and it’s dinner time.
I’m just standing still, and then suddenly
I think I am waiting for something.
Once I’ve decided I’m waiting it’s like
I’m not standing still anymore.
All childhood long they told me to
hurry up, and now all this
later I can’t imagine what the rush was.
But every morning my child never puts on
his shoes on time, and we have to go,
we have to go.
When I was a kid my father would say,
if you get lost, don’t look for me.
Stay there. Stay there an I will find you.