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9 Books About the Many Meanings of Time: A TED Bookstore Collaboration

From Ada Lovelace to dark matter, a kaleidoscopic lens on life’s most elusive dimension.

9 Books About the Many Meanings of Time: A TED Bookstore Collaboration

“I don’t like time to flap round me,” Virginia Woolf lamented in her diary. And yet time is always and forever flapping round us, impervious to our protestations. We might as well befriend it, then.

For this year’s installment of my annual collaboration with the TED Bookstore, I selected nine books that explore the many dimensions of time — the flow of a single life, punctuated by the triumphs and tragedies that compose the universal human experience; the contrasting time-scales of the universe, in which billions of years conspire in the slow evolution of life and cataclysmic events can alter its course in an instant; the unending dialogue between the past and the present, reminding us that nothing we experience as new is truly new; the diurnal record of seemingly mundane moments out of which the meaning of life arises.

tedbookstore2016

Here are the selections, along with the short descriptions I wrote, as they appear in the bookstore.

ON THE MOVE

On the Move: A Life (public library) by Oliver Sacks:

Oliver Sacks is a Copernicus of the mind and a Dante of medicine who turned the case study into a poetic form. His autobiography, in addition to offering a revelatory lens on his singular spirit, is a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (we see him go from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (there he is, a young gay man looking for true love in the 1960s, which was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (on the beaches of City Island, he watches horseshoe crabs mate exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primeval seas). On every page, this supreme poet of science reminds us what it means to live a full, purposeful life.

Read more here.

ENORMOUS SMALLNESS

Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) by poet Matthew Burgess and artist Kris Di Giacomo:

Beloved poet E.E. Cummings remains one of the most innovative creative voices of the twentieth century. This lyrical illustrated biography chronicles his life and creative bravery with uncommon tenderness, befitting Cummings’s onetime proclamation that he is “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

Read more here.

M TRAIN

M Train (public library) by Patti Smith:

“The transformation of the heart is a wondrous thing, no matter how you land there,” writes Patti Smith in this most unusual and breathtaking book — part memoir, part dreamscape, part elegy for the departed and for time itself, in which she looks back on a lifetime of loves and losses through the lens of the beloved literature that shaped her mind and music: from William Blake to Sylvia Plath to Haruki Murakami. What emerges is an uncommonly beautiful meditation on time, transformation, and how the radiance of love redeems the pain of loss.

Read more here.

THE LIFE OF THE MIND

The Life of the Mind (public library) by Hannah Arendt:

In 1973, Hannah Arendt became the first woman to speak at the prestigious Gifford Lectures — an annual series established in 1888 aiming “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term,” bridging science, philosophy, and spirituality. Other speakers have included such celebrated minds as William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Carl Sagan. A significant portion of this altogether mind-expanding book adaptation of her lecture explores the perplexity of memory and how our thinking ego shapes our experience of the elasticity of time.

Read more here.

DAYBOOK

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist (public library) by Anne Truitt:

At the age of fifty-three, the influential artist Anne Truitt confronted the existential discomfort any creative person feels in facing a major retrospective of his or her work — the discomfort of being forced into a finite and therefore limiting definition of what one is and what one’s art stands for. To untangle her unease, Truitt set out to explore the dimensions of her personality and her creative impulse in a diary, in which she wrote diligently for a period of seven years. Formally trained as a psychologist, she possessed exceptional powers of introspection and self-awareness which, coupled with her artist’s penchant for patient observation, which made her journal a true masterwork of psychological insight into the creative process and the life of the spirit.

Read more here.

THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library) by Sydney Padua:

Graphic artist and animator Sydney Padua tells the story of how two eccentric Victorian geniuses — Ada Lovelace, widely considered the world’s first computer programmer, and Charles Babbage — invented the first computer, the Analytical Engine. Although it has the visual sensibility of a comic book, this is actually a masterwork of scholarship and an incredibly thoughtful poetic analog to the subject matter: The story of Analytical Engine began when Ada Lovelace translated a paper by an Italian military engineer and added 7 footnotes to it, which together measured 65 pages — two and a half times the length of the original paper; in them, she penned the first computer program. Padua’s book has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio. In the footnotes — which, of course, are the original analog hyperlinks — she draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials: Lovelace and Babbage’s letters, autobiographies, unpublished paper and lectures, and various encounters with their famous contemporaries, from Charles Dickens to Mary Somerville.

Read more here.

THE PHYSICIST & THE PHILOSOPHER

The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time (public library) by Jimena Canales:

On April 6, 1922, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson sat down for a public debate. Although the event was intended to be a polite academic conversation, the two intellectual titans clashed completely and vehemently on just about every count related to the subject of the debate, which was the nature of time. The repercussions of that disagreement were enormous and profound, laying the foundation of how we currently understand, study, and experience time.

Read more here.

DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) by Lisa Randall:

Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall presents a fascinating speculative theory linking the extinction of the dinosaurs to dark matter. Undergirding the theory is a stimulating exploration of the evolution of the universe, the lineage of scientific breakthroughs that led to our present understanding of space, time, and matter, and the sobering reality of life as both a function both of cosmic work billions of years in the making and of dramatic accidents that alter everything in an instant.

Read more here.

ONGOINGNESS

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) by Sarah Manguso:

“Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing,” writes Sarah Manguso in her magnificent exploration of time, memory, beginnings and endings, and how we measure the rhythm of our aliveness. Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection on time exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.”

Read more here.

BP

The Life of the Mind: Oliver Sacks’s 121 Formative and Favorite Books from a Lifetime of Reading

From Descartes to Curie to the Oxford English Dictionary, a biblio-anatomy of an unrepeatable mind.

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.

Oliver Sacks by Wendy MacNaughton for Brain Pickings

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.

Oliver Sacks in Oxford in 1953 (Photograph: David Drazin)
  1. The Sense of Movement (public library) by Thom Gunn (1957)
  2. 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.

  3. Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (public library) by Stephen Jay Gould (1989)
  4. Speak, Memory (public library) by Vladimir Nabokov (1966)
  5. Childhood’s End (public library) by Arthur C. Clarke (1953)
  6. Madame Curie (public library) by Eve Curie (1937)
  7. 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.

  8. The Jungle Book (public library) by Rudyard Kipling (1894)
  9. A gentle founding myth that pleased my romantic side.

  10. The Geological Story Briefly Told (public library) by James Dwight Dana (1875)
  11. Humphry Davy: Science and Power (public library) by David Knight (1998)
  12. Ulysses (public library | free ebook) by James Joyce (1922)
  13. The Mind of the Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory (public library) by A.R. Luria (1968)
  14. The greatest neurological treasure of our time, for both thought and case description, is the works of A.R. Luria.

  15. Man with a Shattered World (public library) by A.R. Luria (1972)
  16. The Working Brain (public library) by A.R. Luria (1973)
  17. Higher Cortical Functions in Man (public library) by A.R. Luria (1966)
  18. Restoration of Function After Brain Injury (public library) by A.R. Luria (1963)
  19. The Nature of Human Conflicts; or Emotion, Conflict and Will (public library) by A.R. Luria (1932)
  20. The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge (public library) by Rainer Maria Rilke (1910)
  21. On Certainty (public library) by Ludwig Wittgenstein (1951)
  22. Forever Today: A True Story of Lost Memory and Never-Ending Love (public library) by Deborah Wearing (2005)
  23. 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.

  24. Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome (public library) by Darold Treffert (1989)
  25. British Botanists (public library) by John Gilmour (1944)
  26. The Discovery of the Elements (public library) by Mary Elvira Weeks (1934)
  27. One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest (public library) by Wade Davis (1996)
  28. Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (public library) by Wade Davis (2011)
  29. Collected Poems (public library) by W.H. Auden (1976)
  30. Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799–1804 (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1852)
  31. Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe (public library | free ebook) by Alexander von Humboldt (1849)
  32. Humboldt and the Cosmos (public library) by Douglas Botting (1973)
  33. Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein (public library) by Abraham Pais (1982)
  34. Niels Bohr’s Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (public library) by Abraham Pais (1991)
  35. J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (public library) by Abraham Pais (2006)
  36. Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2007)
  37. Einstein (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1973)
  38. Three Degrees Above Zero: Bell Labs in the Information Age (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1984)
  39. Cranks, Quarks, and the Cosmos: Writings in Science (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (1993)
  40. Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (public library) by Jeremy Bernstein (2004)
  41. Chemical Recreations: A Popular Manual of Experimental Chemistry (public library) by J.J. Griffin (1860)
  42. Practical Chemistry (public library) by William George Valentin (1908)
  43. 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.

  44. The Chemistry of Common Life (public library) by J.F.W. Johnston (1855)
  45. 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 …”)

  46. The Chemical Pocket-Book or Memoranda Chemica (public library) by James Parkinson (1803)
  47. Antoine Lavoisier: Scientist, Economist, Social Reformer (public library) by Douglas McKie (1952)
  48. An Autobiographical Sketch (public library) by Justus von Liebig (1891)
  49. The Stars in Their Courses (public library) by James Jeans (1931)
  50. 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.

  51. The Interpretation of Radium (public library) by Frederick Soddy (1922)
  52. 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).

  53. Beyond Good and Evil (public library | free ebook) by Friedrich Nietzsche (1886)
  54. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
  55. The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: An Anatomy of Consciousness (public library) by Israel Rosenfield (1992)
  56. A Collection of Moments: A Study of Involuntary Memories (public library) by Esther Salaman (1970)
  57. Vision: A Computational Investigation of Visual Representation in Man (public library) by David Marr (1982)
  58. Art of Memory (public library) by Francis Yates (1966)
  59. The Great Mental Calculators (public library) by Steven Smith (1983)
  60. Human Personality (public library | free ebook) by F.W.H. Myers (1961)
  61. Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child (public library) by Lorna Selfe (1977)
  62. The Thread of Life (public library) by Richard Wollheim (1984)
  63. The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body (public library) by Steven Mithen (2006)
  64. Hereditary Genius (public library) by Francis Galton (1869)
  65. Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (public library | free ebook) by Francis Galton (1883)
  66. Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing (public library) by John Harrison (2001)
  67. Consciousness Lost and Found (public library) by Lawrence Weiskrantz (1997)
  68. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (public library) by Umberto Eco (2005)
  69. I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self (public library) by Rodolfo Llinás (2001)
  70. Sound and Symbol (public library) by Victor Zuckerkandl (1956)
  71. Music and the Mind (public library) by Anthony Storr (1992)
  72. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (public library) by Merlin Donald (1991)
  73. Time and the Nervous System (public library) by William Gooddy (1988)
  74. Memoirs of Hector Berlioz: From 1803 to 1865, Comprising His Travels in Germany, Italy, Russia, and England (public library) by Hector Berlioz (1865)
  75. The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music (public library) by Theodor Reik (1953)
  76. Room for Doubt (public library) by Wendy Lesser (2007)
  77. The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music (public library) by Steve Lopez (2008)
  78. The (Strangest) Song: One Father’s Quest to Help His Daughter Find Her Voice (public library) by Teri Sforza (2006)
  79. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (public library) by Jean-Dominique Bauby (1997)
  80. Elegy for Iris (public library) by John Bayley (1999)
  81. The Anatomy of Melancholy (public library) by Robert Burton (1621)
  82. The Descent of Man (public library | free ebook) by Charles Darwin (1871)
  83. The Dance of Life (public library | free ebook) by Havelock Ellis (1923)
  84. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (public library) by Howard Gardner (1983)
  85. Measure of the Heart: A Father’s Alzheimer’s, a Daughter’s Return (public library) by Mary Ellen Geist ()
  86. Drumming at the Edge of Magic (public library) by Mickey Hart (1990)
  87. Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness (public library) by John Hull (1990)
  88. Why Birds Sing (public library) by David Rothenberg (2005)
  89. The World as Will and Representation (public library) by Arthur Schopenhauer (1818)
  90. Poetics of Music: In the Form of Six Lessons (public library) by Igor Stravinsky (1970)
  91. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (public library) by William Styron (1990)
  92. The Kreutzer Sonata, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1889)
  93. Master and Man, and Other Stories (public library | free ebook) by Leo Tolstoy (1895)
  94. The Fountain Overflows (public library) by Rebecca West (1956)
  95. Essays in Biography (public library) by Maynard Keynes (1951)
  96. The Garden of Cyrus (public library) by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  97. The Perception of the Visual World (public library) by James Gibson (1950)
  98. Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (public library) by Nora Ellen Groce (1985)
  99. The Complete Short Stories (public library) by H.G. Wells (1966)
  100. Suburban Shaman (public library) by Cecil Helman (2006)
  101. Life Itself (public library) by Francis Crick (1981)
  102. Of Molecules and Men (public library) by Francis Crick (1966)
  103. Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (public library) by Francis Crick (1994)
  104. An Essay on the Shaking Palsy (public library | free ebook) by James Parkinson (1817)
  105. The Lost World (public library | free ebook) by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
  106. Earth Abides (public library) by George Stewart (1976)
  107. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (public library) by Erving Goffman (1961)
  108. Bereavement: Studies of Grief in Adult Life (public library) by C.M. Parkes (1972)
  109. The Basal Ganglia and Posture (public library) by James Purdon Martin (1967)
  110. From Being to Becoming: Time and Complexity in the Physical Sciences (public library) by Ilya Prigogine (1980)
  111. The Fractal Geometry of Nature (public library) by Benoit Mandelbrot (1982)
  112. 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.

  113. The Body in Question (public library) by Jonathan Miller (1978)
  114. The Remembered Present: A Biological Theory of Consciousness (public library) by Gerald M. Edelman (1989)
  115. Madness in Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (public library) by Michel Foucault (1965)
  116. The Principles of Psychology (public library) by William James (1890)
  117. The Varieties of Religious Experience (public library) by William James (1902)
  118. The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (public library) by Robert E L Masters and Jean Houston (1966)
  119. Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems (public library) by Virginia Hamilton Adair (1996)
  120. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way (public library) by Molly Brinbaum (2011)
  121. Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing — and Discovering — the Primal Sense (public library) by Bonnie Blodgett (2010)
  122. The World of Imagination: Sum and Substance (public library) by Eva Brann (1991)
  123. A Fever in Salem: A New Interpretation of the New England Witch Trials (public library) by Laurie Winn Carlson (1999)
  124. Meditations on First Philosophy (public library) by René Descartes (1641)
  125. Great Expectations (public library | free ebook) by Charles Dickens (1861)
  126. The Idiot (public library | free ebook) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1869)
  127. Brave New World (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1932)
  128. The Devils of Loudon (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1952)
  129. The Doors of Perception (public library) by Aldous Huxley (1954)
  130. Moby-Dick (public library | free ebook) by Herman Melville (1851)
  131. The Oxford English Dictionary (public library)
  132. 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.

For other notable selections of luminaries’ favorite books, see the reading lists of Carl Sagan, David Byrne, Joan Didion, Leo Tolstoy, Susan Sontag, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

BP

Something Deeply Hidden Behind Things: Einstein on Wonderment and the Nature of the Human Mind

How a simple compass oriented one of humanity’s greatest minds toward the truth of things.

Something Deeply Hidden Behind Things: Einstein on Wonderment and the Nature of the Human Mind

“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her breathtaking recollection of the insight that made her an artist. “The whole world is a work of art… there is no Shakespeare… no Beethoven… no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”

In 1946, five years after Woolf’s death, another one of humanity’s most luminous and expansive minds recounted arriving at a strikingly similar notion via a strikingly similar formative experience.

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In a passage from his Autobiographical Notes (public library), sixty-seven-year-old Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879–April 18, 1955) considers the nature of wonderment:

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.

Complement Autobiographical Notes, a revelatory read in its slim but potent entirety, with Einstein on kindness, the secret to learning anything, the common language of science, his exquisite love letters, and this lovely picture-book biography of the great scientist.

BP

Elevating Resolutions for the New Year Inspired by Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

Cultivate honorable relationships, resist absentminded busyness, tell the world how to treat you, embrace enoughness, and more.

Elevating Resolutions for the New Year Inspired by Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

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.

1. ADRIENNE RICH: CULTIVATE HONORABLE RELATIONSHIPS

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.

2. SØREN KIERKEGAARD: RESIST ABSENTMINDED BUSYNESS

Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), considered the first true existentialist philosopher, remains a source of enduring wisdom on everything from the psychology of bullying to the vital role of boredom to why we conform. In a chapter of the altogether indispensable 1843 treatise Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), thirty-year-old Kierkegaard writes:

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.

3. RAINER MARIA RILKE: LIVE THE QUESTIONS

In 1902, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) began corresponding with a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. Later published as Letters to a Young Poet (public library), Rilke’s missives address such enduring questions as what it really means to love, how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves, and what reading does for the human spirit.

In one of the most potent letters, he writes:

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.

4. SUSAN SONTAG: PAY ATTENTION TO THE WORLD

In a terrific 1992 lecture, Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) asserted that “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” But this observant attentiveness to the world, Sontag believed, is as vital to being a good writer as it is to being a good human being — something she addresses in one of the many rewarding pieces collected in the posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom.

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”

Many of humanity’s greatest minds have advocated for the vitalizing role of not-doing in having a full life, but none more compellingly than British philosopher Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) in his 1930 masterwork The Conquest of Happiness (public library) — an effort “to suggest a cure for the ordinary day-to-day unhappiness from which most people in civilized countries suffer,” and a timelessly insightful lens on what “the good life” really means.

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

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Perfectionism is our most compulsive way of keeping ourselves small, a kind of psychoemotional contortionism that gives the illusion of reaching for greatness while constricting us into increasingly suffocating smallness. That’s what Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) explores in a wonderful 1992 essay titled “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty,” found in the altogether spectacular volume The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library) — the source of Le Guin’s wisdom on the cultural baggage of gender, the magic of real human conversation, and the sacredness of public libraries.

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.

More here.

7. ERICH FROMM: MASTER THE ART OF LOVING

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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.

Fromm writes:

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.

More here.

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.

More here.

9. SIMONE WEIL: MAKE USE OF YOUR SUFFERING

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

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One August evening in 1970, James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) and Margaret Mead (December 16, 1901–November 15, 1978) sat together on a stage in New York City for a remarkable public conversation. They talked for seven and a half hours over the course of the weekend, tackling such enduring concerns as power and privilege, race and gender, beauty, religion, justice, and the relationship between the intellect and the imagination. The transcript was eventually published as A Rap on Race (public library) — a testament to both how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go, exploring such timeless and timely questions as changing one’s destiny, the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, and reimagining democracy for a post-consumerist culture.

In a portion of the conversation examining race, identity, and the immigrant experience, Baldwin observes:

It takes a lot to wrest identity out of nothing.

He offers an autobiographical example:

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.

More here.

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.

Nussbaum writes:

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.

More here.

13. GRACE PALEY: MASTER THE ART OF GROWING OLDER

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.

Paley writes:

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.

Talk? What?

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.

More here.

14. FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE: WALK YOUR OWN PATH

“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.

Friedrich Nietzsche (October 15, 1844–August 25, 1900), who believed that embracing difficulty is essential for a fulfilling life, considered the journey of self-discovery one of the greatest and most fertile existential difficulties. In 1873, as he was approaching his thirtieth birthday, Nietzsche addressed this perennial question of how we find ourselves and bring forth our gifts in a beautiful essay titled Schopenhauer as Educator (public library), part of his Untimely Meditations.

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.

Echoing Picasso’s proclamation that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Nietzsche considers the only true antidote to this existential dreariness:

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!

More here.

15. MARTHA GRAHAM: EMBRACE YOUR DIVINE DISSATISFACTION

“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied,” Zadie Smith counseled in her ten rules of writing. But how does one befriend this perennial dissatisfaction while continuing to unlock, to borrow Julia Cameron’s potent phrase, the “spiritual electricity” of creative flow?

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.”

16. KURT VONNEGUT: CELEBRATE ENOUGHNESS

In 2005, Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922–April 11, 2007) — a man of discipline, a sage of storytelling, and one wise dad — penned a short and acutely beautiful remembrance of his friend Joseph Heller, who had died several years earlier. Originally published in the New Yorker, it was later reprinted in John C. Bogle’s Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life (public library).

JOE HELLER

True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead,
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!

BP

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