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In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds

Bertrand Russell, Søren Kierkegaard, Andrei Tarkovsky, Susan Sontag, Adam Phillips, Renata Adler, and more.

“I can excuse anything but boredom,” Hedy Lamarr famously quipped. It is befitting that the woman who invented the technology that laid the foundation for wifi would provide the de facto motto of the Information Age. Today, amid our cult of productivity, we’ve come to see boredom as utterly inexcusable — the secular equivalent of a mortal sin. We run from it as if to be caught in our own unproductive company were a profound personal failure. We are no longer able, let alone willing, to do nothing all alone with ourselves.

And yet boredom is not only an adaptive emotion but a vital one — with its related faculties of contemplation, solitude, and stillness, it is essential for the life of the mind and the life of the spirit, for art and science in equal measure.

When Jane Goodall set out to turn her childhood dream into reality, she spent three years squatting in the dirt to patiently perform repetitive work that required an enormous capacity for boredom — something at the root of the art of observation upon which all science rests. A capacity for boredom is equally central to the arts. Without boredom, there would be no daydreaming and no room for reflection. Without “positive constructive daydreaming,” there is no creativity; without reflection, we are no longer able to respond and instead merely react.

To be bored is to be unafraid of our interior lives — a form of moral courage central to being fully human. Gathered below are some of the most enduring and insightful meditations on boredom and its paradoxical blessings I’ve encountered over the years.

BERTRAND RUSSELL

In his 1930 classic The Conquest of Happiness (public library), British philosopher Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) turned his characteristically prescient eye to the problem of boredom, why our dread of it is a self-inflicted wound, and how our quest to eliminate it from our lives also robs us of some absolutely vital faculties.

In a chapter titled “Boredom and Excitement,” Russell 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.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, attempt at running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

Indeed, the cultivation of this core capacity early in life fortifies the psychological immune system of the adult. Nearly a century before the iPad, which is now swiftly shoved in the screen-hungry hands of every toddler bored to disgruntlement, Russell writes:

The capacity to endure a more or less monotonous life is one which should be acquired in childhood. Modern parents are greatly to blame in this respect; they provide their children with far too many passive amusements… and they do not realize the importance to a child of having one day like another, except, of course, for somewhat rare occasions.

Instead, he exhorts 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.” Russell 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. Pleasures which are exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example, as the theatre, should occur very rarely. The excitement is in the nature of a drug, of which more and more will come to be required, and the physical passivity during the excitement is contrary to instinct. 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.

Read more here.

SØREN KIERKEGAARD

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) was a man of such timeless insight and prescience that he was able to explain, nearly two centuries ago, such presently pertinent issues as the psychology of online trolling and bullying, the reason why we conform, and our greatest source of unhappiness.

He turned the same perceptive eye to the problem of boredom in a section of his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), framing boredom as existential emptiness defined not by an absence of stimulation but by an absence of meaning — something that explains why we can, today more than at any other point in history, feel overstimulated but bored.

Thirty-year-old Kierkegaard bemoans his “utterly meaningless” life and writes:

How dreadful boredom is — how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like… I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness. I do not even suffer pain… Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me. If I were offered all the glories of the world or all the torments of the world, one would move me no more than the other; I would not turn over to the other side either to attain or to avoid. I am dying death. And what could divert me? Well, if I managed to see a faithfulness that withstood every ordeal, an enthusiasm that endured everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I were to become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite.

He illuminates our modern cult of productivity and our compulsive busyness as a hedge against that dreaded boredom:

Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.

Such a conception explains, for instance, why all the cute-cat listicles spewed by the BuzzWorthy establishment of commodified distraction are hapless in assuaging the soul’s cry — which is, after all, the task of philosophy — in the face of such terrifying boredom springing from a lack of meaning. Alan Watts, another sage of the ages, termed such futile strategies of diversion “orgasm without release.” Noting that such “misguided diversion” is itself the source of existential boredom — which is “partly an acquired immediacy” — Kierkegaard adds:

It seems doubtful that a remedy against boredom can give rise to boredom, but it can give rise to boredom only insofar as it is used incorrectly. A mistaken, generally eccentric diversion has boredom within itself, and thus it works its way up and manifests itself as immediacy.

And yet boredom, he argues, is our basic constitution:

All human beings, then, are boring. The very word indicates the possibility of a classification. The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebeians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility. How remarkable it is that those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others.

Echoing his own admonition against our busyness as a distraction from living, he adds:

Generally, those who do not bore themselves are busy in the world in one way or another, but for that very reason they are, of all people, the most boring of all, the most unbearable… The other class of human beings, the superior ones, are those who bore themselves… They generally amuse others — at times in a certain external way the masses, in a deeper sense their co-initiates. The more thoroughly they bore themselves, the more potent the medium of diversion they offer others, also when the boredom reaches its maximum, since they either die of boredom (the passive category) or shoot themselves out of curiosity (the active category).

So what, then, are we to do to protect ourselves against the great evil of boredom? As its counterpoint, Kierkegaard offers the virtue of “idleness” — a concept he uses much like we use the notion of stillness today, a quality of being necessary for mindful presence with our own lives. Kierkegaard writes:

Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored… Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good. Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.

Read more here.

ARTHUR SCHOPENHAUER

Long before contemporary psychologists coined the term “hedonic treadmill” to describe our compulsive consumerism and how quickly after we attain sought-after benchmarks of achievement they lose their luster, the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (February 22, 1788–September 21, 1860) contemplated the role of boredom, which he defined as “the feeling of the emptiness of life,” in our eternally unsatisfying dance with satisfaction. In The Essays of Schopenhauer (free download; public library) — the same excellent volume that gave us Schopenhauer on style and his prescient admonition about the ethics of online publishing — he writes:

In the present age, which is intellectually impotent and remarkable for its veneration of what is bad in every form … the pantheists make bold to say that life is, as they call it, “an end-in itself.” If our existence in this world were an end-in-itself, it would be the most absurd end that was ever determined; even we ourselves or any one else might have imagined it.

Life presents itself next as a task, the task, that is, of [making a living]. If this is solved, then that which has been won becomes a burden, and involves the second task of its being got rid of in order to ward off boredom, which, like a bird of prey, is ready to fall upon any life that is secure from want. So that the first task is to win something, and the second, after the something has been won, to forget about it, otherwise it becomes a burden.

With his characteristic pessimism, he argues that the satisfaction of our needs invariably leads to boredom and “boredom is immediately followed by fresh needs,” which leaves us seeped in meaninglessness:

Man is a compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy… If they are satisfied, all he is granted is a state of painlessness, in which he can only give himself up to boredom. This is a precise proof that existence in itself has no value, since boredom is merely the feeling of the emptiness of life. If, for instance, life, the longing for which constitutes our very being, had in itself any positive and real value, boredom could not exist; mere existence in itself would supply us with everything, and therefore satisfy us. But our existence would not be a joyous thing unless we were striving after something; distance and obstacles to be overcome then represent our aim as something that would satisfy us — an illusion which vanishes when our aim has been attained… Even sensual pleasure itself is nothing but a continual striving, which ceases directly its aim is attained. As soon as we are not engaged in one of these two ways, but thrown back on existence itself, we are convinced of the emptiness and worthlessness of it; and this it is we call boredom.

Schopenhauer, of course, was a masterful craftsman whose main material was pessimism. One need not subscribe to the same dismal disposition to find a glimmering kernel of wisdom under the drab flesh of his ideas. For, as Annie Dillard wrote in her luminous meditation on prioritizing presence over productivity, sensory satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are very different things — only the former is finite in its attainment and thus destined for the crucible of boredom; in the pursuit of the latter, boredom is our comrade rather than enemy, the necessary stillness-ground of contemplation reels us back from our compulsive business of doing and into a deeply present state of being.

WALTER BENJAMIN

In his indispensable Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (public library), German philosopher, cultural theorist, and literary critic Walter Benjamin (July 15, 1892–September 26, 1940) explores the role of boredom in the context of his larger meditation on the role of storytelling in setting wisdom apart from information. Arguing that the rise of information has precipitated the decline of storytelling, he calls out our allergy to boredom as a particularly perilous affliction of the Information Age. Half a century before its present metastasis, Benjamin admonishes against this spiritual malady:

There is nothing that commends a story to memory more effectively than that chaste compactness which precludes psychological analysis. And the more natural the process by which the storyteller forgoes psychological shading, the greater becomes the story’s claim to a place in the memory of the listener, the more completely is it integrated into his own experience, the greater will be his inclination to repeat it to someone else someday, sooner or later. This process of assimilation, which takes place in depth, requires a state of relaxation which is becoming rarer and rarer. If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places — the activities that are intimately associated with boredom — are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well. With this the gift for listening is lost and the community of listeners disappears. For storytelling is always the art of repeating stories, and this art is lost when the stories are no longer retained. It is lost because there is no more weaving and spinning to go on while they are being listened to. The more self-forgetful the listener is, the more deeply is what he listens to impressed upon his memory. When the rhythm of work has seized him, he listens to the tales in such a way that the gift of retelling them comes to him all by itself. This, then, is the nature of the web in which the gift of storytelling is cradled. This is how today it is becoming unraveled at all its ends after being woven thousands of years ago in the ambience of the oldest forms of craftsmanship.

Read more here.

SUSAN SONTAG

Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) used her diaries as a record of her reading and rereading diet, which was extensive and voracious — she read, by her own admission, eight to ten hours a day. With her formidable intellect, she took threads of thought encountered through her reading — including the ideas of Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, and Benjamin, all of whom she noted in her journals — and wove them into the fabric of her own ideas, which is invariably the combinatorial task of the creative mind.

In a diary entry from As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Sontag’s wisdom on love, art, writing, censorship, and aphorisms, and her illustrated insights on love — comes a meditation on the creative purpose of boredom as a form of attention:

Function of boredom. Good + bad

[Arthur] Schopenhauer the first imp[ortant] writer to talk about boredom (in his Essays) — ranks it with “pain” as one of the twin evils of life (pain for have-nots, boredom for haves— it’s a question of affluence).  

People say “it’s boring” — as if that were a final standard of appeal, and no work of art had the right to bore us.  

But most of the interesting art of our time is boring. Jasper Johns is boring. Beckett is boring, Robbe-Grillet is boring. Etc. Etc.  

Maybe art has to be boring, now. (Which obviously doesn’t mean that boring art is necessarily good — obviously.)  

We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art.  

Boredom is a function of attention. We are learning new modes of attention — say, favoring the ear more than the eye— but so long as we work within the old attention-frame we find X boring … e.g. listening for sense rather than sound (being too message-oriented). Possibly after repetition of the same single phrase or level of language or image for a long while — in a given written text or piece of music or film, if we become bored, we should ask if we are operating in the right frame of attention. Or — maybe we are operating in one right frame, where we should be operating in two simultaneously, thus halving the load on each (as sense and sound).

RENATA ADLER

Because boredom is such an elemental force of human life, its exploration need not be confined to nonfiction and epistemological discourse. In her 1976 novel Speedboat (public library), author and critic Renata Adler (b. October 19, 1938) captures paradoxical interplay of boredom and its counterpoint, attention:

It is not at all self-evident what boredom is. It implies, for example, an idea of duration. It would be crazy to say, For three seconds there, I was bored. It implies indifference but, at the same time, requires a degree of attention. One cannot properly be said to be bored by anything one has not noticed, or in a coma, or asleep. But this I know, or think I know, that idle people are often bored and bored people, unless they sleep a lot, are cruel. It is no accident that boredom and cruelty are great preoccupations in our time. They flourish in a single region of the mind.

ANDREI TARKOVSKY

Russian filmmaker and writer Andrei Tarkovsky (April 4, 1932–December 29, 1986) is one of the most influential figures in the history of cinema. Ingmar Bergman considered him the greatest director, “one who invented a new language.” His films speak to the simplest and often most difficult aspects of life with the great subtlety and elegance of that new language. In this excerpt from a vintage documentary, he explores one such aspect directly — the necessity of being alone with oneself:

Since the video subtitles convey only a selective portion of what Tarkovsky actually says — quite distractingly so — I asked my friend Julia to help with a proper transcription, which she kindly did:

What would you like to tell people?

I don’t know… I think I’d like to say only that they should learn to be alone and try to spend as much time as possible by themselves. I think one of the faults of young people today is that they try to come together around events that are noisy, almost aggressive at times. This desire to be together in order to not feel alone is an unfortunate symptom, in my opinion. Every person needs to learn from childhood how to be spend time with himself. That doesn’t mean he should be lonely, but that he shouldn’t grow bored with himself — because people who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.

ADAM PHILLIPS

Children have a way of asking deceptively simple yet existentially profound questions. Among them, argues the celebrated British psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips (b. September 19, 1954), is “What shall we do now?”

In a deeply satisfying essay titled “On Being Bored,” found in his altogether spectacular 1993 collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (public library), Phillips writes:

Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.

Phillips, of course, is writing more than two decades before the modern internet had given us the ubiquitous “social web” that envelops culture today. This lends his insights a new layer of poignancy as we consider the capacity for boredom — not only in children, though especially in children, but also in adults — amidst our present age of constant access to and unmediated influx of external stimulation. This is particularly pause-giving considering the developmental function of boredom in shaping our psychological constitution and the way we learn to pay attention to the world — or not. Phillips writes:

Boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize… The capacity to be bored can be a developmental achievement for the child.

And yet the child’s boredom evokes in adults a reprimand, a sense of disappointment, an accusation of failure — that is, provided boredom is even agreed to or acknowledged in the first place — commonly alleviated today, twenty years later, by sticking a digital device in the child’s hands. In a certain sense, we treat boredom like we treat childishness itself — as something to be overcome and grown out of, rather than simply as a different mode of being, an essential one at that. Phillips writes:

How often, in fact, the child’s boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult’s wish to distract him — as though the adults have decided that the child’s life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time.

Read more here.

* * *

For more on boredom’s sister faculties, see Alan Watts on how to live with presence, Wendell Berry on the grace of solitude, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone in the modern world, then test yourself on the Boredom Proneness Scale.

Photographs: Bertrand Russell by Hulton Getty; Søren Kierkegaard by Niels Christian Kierkegaard; Arthur Schopenhauer by Jacob Seib; Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar; Renata Adler by Marilyn K. Yee; Adam Phillips by Murdo Macleod

BP

Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read

How to “glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”

In December of 2011, Neil deGrasse Tysonchampion of science, celebrator of the cosmic perspective, master of the soundbite — participated in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series of public questions and answers. One reader posed the following question: “Which books should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet?” Adding to history’s notable reading lists — including those by Leo Tolstoy, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Carl Sagan — Tyson offers the following eight essentials, each followed by a short, and sometimes wry, statement about “how the book’s content influenced the behavior of people who shaped the western world”:

  1. The Bible (public library; free ebook), to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself
  2. The System of the World (public library; free ebook) by Isaac Newton, to learn that the universe is a knowable place
  3. On the Origin of Species (public library; free ebook) by Charles Darwin, to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth
  4. Gulliver’s Travels (public library; free ebook) by Jonathan Swift, to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos
  5. The Age of Reason (public library; free ebook) by Thomas Paine, to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world
  6. The Wealth of Nations (public library; free ebook) by Adam Smith, to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself
  7. The Art of War (public library; free ebook) by Sun Tzu, to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art
  8. The Prince (public library; free ebook) by Machiavelli, to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it

Tyson adds:

If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.

(What has driven it, evidently, is also the systematic exclusion of the female perspective. The prototypical “intelligent person” would be remiss not to also read, at the very least, Margaret Fuller’s foundational text Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which is even available as a free ebook, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. But, of course, the question of diversity is an infinite one and any list is bound to be pathologically unrepresentative of all of humanity — a challenge I’ve addressed elsewhere — so Tyson’s selections remain indispensable despite their chromosomal lopsidedness. My hope, meanwhile, is that we’ll begin to see more such reading lists by prominent female scientists, philosophers, artists, or writers of the past and present; to my knowledge, none have been made public as of yet — except perhaps Susan Sontag’s diary, which is essentially a lifelong reading list.)

Complement with Nabokov on the six short stories every writer should read, then revisit Tyson on genius and the most humbling fact about the universe.

BP

How the Invention of the Alphabet Usurped Female Power in Society and Sparked the Rise of Patriarchy in Human Culture

A brief history of gender dynamics from page to screen.

The Rosetta Stone may be one of the 100 diagrams that changed the world and language may have propelled our evolution, but the invention of the written word was not without its costs. As Sophocles wisely observed, “nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” That curse is what Leonard Shlain explores in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (public library) — a pause-giving look at the relationship between literacy and patriarchy. Without denying the vastness of the benefits literacy bestowed upon humanity, Shlain uses Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum — “the medium is the message” — to examine how the advent of the written word and our ability to read reconfigured the human brain, effecting profound changes in the cultural dynamics of gender roles.

“By profession, I am a surgeon… I am by nature a storyteller,” Shlain tells us, and it is through this dual lens of critical thinking and enchantment that he examines his iconoclastic subject — a subject whose kernel was born while Shlain was touring Mediterranean archeological sites in the early 1990s and realized that the majority of shrines had been originally consecrated to female deities, only to be converted to male-deity worship later, for unknown reasons. (Beyond the broader cultural appeal such an observation might hold for a mind as inquisitive as Shlain’s, it’s worth noting that he had just sent off his own young daughter — one very special daughter — to college and into a world still very much shaped by gender dynamics.) A major culprit in the shift, Shlain argues, was the invention of the alphabet. (He takes great care to avoid the trap of correlation vs. causation and offers a wonderfully poetic formulation of the danger of conflating the two: “Correlation … does not prove causality — the disappearance of the stars at dawn does not cause the sun to rise.”)

Illustration by Giselle Potter for Gertrude Stein’s posthumously published ‘To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays.’ Click image for details.

Shlain frames the premise:

Of all the sacred cows allowed to roam unimpeded in our culture, few are as revered as literacy. Its benefits have been so incontestable that in the five millennia since the advent of the written word numerous poets and writers have extolled its virtues. Few paused to consider its costs. . . . One pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture.

He defines the feminine outlook as a “holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world” and the masculine as a “linear, sequential, reductionist” one characterized by abstract thinking, while recognizing — as Susan Sontag did decades earlier in condemning our culture’s artificial polarities — that “every individual is generously endowed with all the features of both.” Shlain writes:

They coexist as two closely overlapping bell-shaped curves with no feature superior to its reciprocal. These complementary methods of comprehending reality resemble the ancient Taoist circle symbol of integration and symmetry in which the tension between the energy of the feminine yin and the masculine yang is exactly balanced. One side without the other is incomplete; together, they form a unified whole that is stronger than either half. First writing, and then the alphabet, upset this balance. Affected cultures, especially in the West, acquired a strong yang thrust.

The Rosetta Stone, one of 100 diagrams that changed the world. Click image for details.

The invention of the alphabet, Shlain argues, is what tilted the balance of power toward the masculine — a shift that took place eons ago, but one that is also evidenced by isolated indigenous cultures of the present and recent past:

Anthropological studies of non-literate agricultural societies show that, for the majority, relations between men and women have been more egalitarian than in more developed societies. Researchers have never proven beyond dispute that there were ever societies in which women had power and influence greater than or even equal to that of men. Yet, a diverse variety of preliterate agrarian cultures—the Iroquois and the Hopi in North America, the inhabitants of Polynesia, the African !Kung, and numerous others around the world—had and continue to have considerable harmony between the sexes.

He cites the work of legendary anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who was among the first to examine the dark side of literacy in 1969:

There is one fact that can be established: the only phenomenon which, always and in all parts of the world, seems to be linked with the appearance of writing … is the establishment of hierarchical societies, consisting of masters and slaves, and where one part of the population is made to work for the other part.

Shlain puts it in even less uncertain terms than Lévi-Strauss:

Literacy has promoted the subjugation of women by men throughout all but the very recent history of the West. Misogyny and patriarchy rise and fall with the fortunes of the alphabetic written word.

Written language, Shlain argues, shaped both the development of the human nervous system and the social dynamics of gender relations, affecting both sides of the nature/nurture equation profoundly:

Although each of us is born with a unique set of genetic instructions, we enter the world as a work-in-progress and await the deft hand of the ambient culture to sculpt the finishing touches. Among the two most important influences on a child are the emotional constellation of his or her immediate family and the configuration of his or her culture. Trailing a close third is the principal medium with which the child learns to perceive and integrate his or her culture’s information. This medium will play a role in determining which neuronal pathways of the child’s developing brain will be reinforced.

Artwork from ‘Shapes for Sounds,’ a visual history of the alphabet. Click image for details.

To illustrate the mesmerism of the written word, Shlain urges us to “observe an enthralled four-year-old mastering the letters of the alphabet” — an invocation that calls to mind an anecdote my own grandmother likes to tell: One day, when I was in the first grade and we had just had our first lesson in writing the letters of the alphabet, grandma picked me up from school and made a quick stop at the supermarket on the way home. She left me with a kindly cashier while she ran inside to grab whatever she needed to buy. Upon returning, she found me perched up atop the counter, having filled an entire lined notebook with dutifully drawn letter-curves. She uses this anecdote as evidence of my hunger for learning, but if Shlain is correct, it might be more indicative of just how early children latch onto the inescapable hegemony of the alphabet. Shlain contemplates this duck-to-water uptake:

Literacy, once firmly rooted, will eclipse and supplant speech as the principal source of culture-changing information. Adults, for so long enmeshed in the alphabet’s visual skein, cannot easily disentangle themselves to assess its effect on culture. One could safely assume that fish have not yet discovered water.

He juxtaposes the written word with the visual processing of images, exploring the gender implications of this dichotomy:

Images are primarily mental reproductions of the sensual world of vision. Nature and human artifacts both provide the raw material from the outside that the brain replicates in the inner sanctum of consciousness. Because of their close connection to the world of appearances, images approximate reality: they are concrete. The brain simultaneously perceives all parts of the whole integrating the parts synthetically into a gestalt. The majority of images are perceived in an all-at-once manner.

Reading words is a different process. When the eye scans distinctive individual letters arranged in a certain linear sequence, a word with meaning emerges. The meaning of a sentence, such as the one you are now reading, progresses word by word. Comprehension depends on the sentence’s syntax, the particular horizontal sequence in which its grammatical elements appear. The use of analysis to break each sentence down into its component words, or each word down into its component letters, is a prime example of reductionism. This process occurs at a speed so rapid that it is below awareness. An alphabet by definition consists of fewer than thirty meaningless symbols that do not represent the images of anything in particular; a feature that makes them abstract. Although some groupings of words can be grasped in an all-at-once manner, in the main, the comprehension of written words emerges in a one-at-a-time fashion.

To perceive things such as trees and buildings through images delivered to the eye, the brain uses wholeness, simultaneity, and synthesis. To ferret out the meaning of alphabetic writing, the brain relies instead on sequence, analysis, and abstraction. Custom and language associate the former characteristics with the feminine, the latter, with the masculine. As we examine the myths of different cultures, we will see that these linkages are consistent.

Beyond the biological, Shlain argues, this divergence also manifests in the spiritual aspect of human culture. Returning to the historical roots of the phenomenon, he points out that while hunter-gatherer societies tend to worship a mixture of male and female deities, while hunting societies prioritize virile spirits and cultures where gathering is the primary method of survival instead place greater value on nurturing, the female domain. The parts of the world we often refer to as “the cradle of civilization” — generally, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Greece — were populated primarily by gathering-based cultures and originally worshipped female deities. But by the fifth century A.D., these objects of worship were almost entirely replaced by masculine ones, to a point where women were “prohibited from conducting a single major Western sacrament.”

While Shlain points to influences like “foreign invaders, the invention of private property, the formation of archaic states, the creation of surplus wealth, and the educational disadvantaging of women” as partially responsible, he argues that the single most important factor was the invention of writing:

The introduction of the written word, and then the alphabet, into the social intercourse of humans initiated a fundamental change in the way newly literate cultures understood their reality. It was this dramatic change in mindset … that was primarily responsible for fostering patriarchy.

Illustration by Sir Quentin Blake from ‘Quentin Blake’s ABC.’ Click image for details.

He turns to the world’s major religions for evidence of the pattern:

The Old Testament was the first alphabetic written work to influence future ages. Attesting to its gravitas, multitudes still read it three thousand years later. The words on its pages anchor three powerful religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each is an exemplar of patriarchy. Each monotheistic religion features an imageless Father deity whose authority shines through His revealed Word, sanctified in its written form. Conceiving of a deity who has no concrete image prepares the way for the kind of abstract thinking that inevitably leads to law codes, dualistic philosophy, and objective science, the signature triad of Western culture. I propose that the profound impact these ancient scriptures had upon the development of the West depended as much on their being written in an alphabet as on the moral lessons they contained.

Goddess worship, feminine values, and women’s power depend on the ubiquity of the image . God worship, masculine values, and men’s domination of women are bound to the written word. Word and image, like masculine and feminine, are complementary opposites. Whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and egalitarianism flourish.

What is especially interesting is that Shlain was writing in 1998, when the internet as we know it — a medium that lends text and image seemingly equal gravitas — was in its infant stage. The golden age of web video was nearly a decade away, as was the invention of the smartphone camera and its constant connection to the web. Could it be that the world wide web, especially the image-heavy ecosystem of social sharing, would emerge as an equalizer of gender dynamics? To be sure, the cultural and biological changes Shlain examines in relation to the invention of the alphabet unfolded over millennia — so whatever equalizing effects the web might have, they wouldn’t be fully detected for many generations.

Indeed, Shlain acknowledges that certain developments in the history of modern media challenged the dominance of the written word:

World War II was a firestorm for modern civilization, but the conflict also marked the beginning of yet another massive shift in global consciousness. The combining of two “feminine” influences, photography and electromagnetism, was chiefly responsible for this change. In 1939, Philo T. Farnsworth invented television. After the war ended, television spread rapidly — literally house to house. One after another, living rooms were illuminated by the glow of fuzzy electronic pictures. The tube was an overnight sensation, and soon the amount of time people spent watching images flit on and off the front of the glowing box began to surpass the amount of time people spent reading linear rows of black letters.

Artwork by Shepard Fairey for Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Medium Is The Massage.’ Click image for details.

With this new narrative form came new modes of cognitive processing:

Comprehending television required an entirely different hemispheric strategy than that used in reading. Viewers called forth their pattern-recognition skills to decipher the screen’s low-definition flickering mosaic mesh. The retina’s cones need bright light to scan a static page of print, but television brings the eye’s rods into play. They see best in dim surroundings and can detect the slightest movements. As people watched more and more television, the supremacy of the left hemisphere dimmed as the right’s use increased. For 750, 000 years, families had gathered around lit hearths whose flames supplied warmth, illuminated darkness, encouraged camaraderie, and encouraged storytelling. Campfires had been an essential ingredient for the evolution of oral epics. In 1950, a new kind of fire replaced the hearth; and it encouraged a different set of social qualities.

Shlain points out that when a person reads a book, his or her electroencephalogram (EEG) brain wave patterns differ significantly from those registered when that person is watching television — a finding made all the more remarkable by the fact that these patterns deviate negligibly when the content of the book or TV program is varied. Watching television generates the same slow alpha and theta waves as meditating — patterns representing a “passive, receptive, and contemplative state of mind” — while reading generates beta waves, typically registered when the mind is concentrating on a task. Shlain ties this back to the question of balance in the human spirit:

Task-oriented beta waves activate the hunter/killer side of the brain as alpha and theta waves emanate more from the gatherer/nurturer side. Perhaps Western civilization has for far too long been stuck in a beta mode due to literacy, and striking a balance with a little more alpha and theta, regardless of the source, will serve to soothe humankind’s savage beast.

[…]

Television, being a flickering image-based medium, derails the masculine-left-linear strategy, just as in parallel, the written word had earlier disoriented the gestalt-feminine-right one.

In one of the final chapters, Shlain does consider how the invention of the computer, if not the internet, plays into these male/female modalities:

The computer … converted the television screen from a monologue to a dialogue by making it interactive. And features peculiar to computers shifted the collective cultural consciousness of the men and women who used them toward a right-hemispheric mode, which in turn has further diminished male dominance.

The computer was originally designed to aid scientists, most of whom were male. Since the 1970s, therefore, males have rushed in droves to learn what their fathers and grandfathers contemptuously dismissed as a skill for women and sissies — typing. Unlike all the scribes of past cultures, men now routinely write using both hands instead of only the dominant one. The entry into the communication equation of millions of men’s left hands, directed by millions of male right brains tapping out one half of every computer-generated written message, is, I believe, an unrecognized factor in the diminution of patriarchy.

Illustration by Edward Gorey from his alphabet book ‘The Gashlycrumb Tinies.’ Click image for details.

One particularly curious phenomenon Shlain points to as evidence of this shift is the seemingly sudden rise of dyslexia:

Dyslexic children, predominantly male (9:1), have difficulty deciphering the alphabet. One credible theory proposes that it is due to a failure of hemispheric dominance. Ninety percent of the language centers traditionally reside in the left hemisphere of right-handed people. In the right-handed dyslexic, the distribution of language centers may be more on the order of 80/20 or 70/30. Although we cannot be sure that dyslexia was not always among us, it seems to have erupted at the very moment that an entire generation was devaluing the left hemispheric mode of knowing. Perhaps television is the agent equilibrating the human brain’s two differing modes of perception.

And yet such theories highlight our culture’s toxic polarity between intellect and intuition. Shlain makes the same argument for dyslexia that Temple Grandin has been championing about autism — that rather than a “disease” producing an abnormal or lesser mind, it is an evolution producing a different mind:

The very concept of “brain dominance” is presently under scrutiny, as many dyslexics are talented artists, architects, musicians, composers, dancers, and surgeons. The idea that logical, linear thinking is better than intuition and holistic perception was a script written by left-brainers in the first place. Our culture has classified dyslexia as a disability. But as culture becomes more comfortable with its reliance on images, it may turn out that dyslexia will be reassessed as another of the many harbingers that announced the arrival of the Iconic Revolution.

The Alphabet Versus the Goddess is a fascinating read in its entirety, certain to pull into question a great many of our cultural assumptions and perceived givens.

BP

The Best Books on Writing, NYC, Animals, and More: A Collaboration with the New York Public Library

A celebration of timelessly wonderful reads in an elaborate diorama of papercraft book sculptures.

As an enormous lover and patron of public libraries, I was beyond delighted when the fine folks at the New York Public Library asked me to curate a selection of books for their bookstore and gave me free range to do whatever I wished. My original thought was to do a single reading list around a specific theme, much like I had been doing for the TED bookstore. But my chronic maximalism soon kicked in — the single reading list swelled into four reading lists (wisdom on writing, great reads about New York City, heart- and brain-stirring books on pets and animals, and timeless treats for young readers) and the simple tabletop display became an elaborate installation in the bookstore’s main window. That’s when I reached out to the impossibly talented Kelli Anderson, with whom I’d previously collaborated on the Curator’s Code and The Reconstructionists projects, and invited her to bestow her singular gift for disruptive wonder upon the library as we both donated our time and resources to the project.

Kelli, with her own brand of idealistic maximalism, decided to turn the reading lists into a magnificent papercraft wonderland featuring oversized three-dimensional sculptures of each of the books amidst an intricate paper cityscape of the Manhattan skyline.

Yes, it is just as incredibly time-consuming as it sounds — Kelli and her team spent countless hours cutting and hand-gluing each of the letters onto the books, engineering the physics of the suspension, and masterminding the minutest detail of this enormous labor of love. The ever-talented Debbie Millman provided the hand-lettering and Jacob Krupnick of Wild Combination (the team behind Girl Walk // All Day) photographed the process and filmed this beautiful timelapse of the assembly:

And the end result, up close and personal:

Here are the four reading lists, along with my original text that appears in the library bookshop window, followed by some production photos to give you an idea of the incredible love and energy Kelli and her team poured into bringing this to life.

Why I Write (public library) by George Orwell: Literary legend Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, remains best remembered for authoring the cult-classics Animal Farm and 1984, but he was also a formidable, masterful essayist. Among his finest nonfiction feats is this 1946 masterpiece, in which Orwell traces how the painful experiences of his childhood steered him towards writing and lays out what he believes to be the four universal motives for writing, most of which resonate with just about any domain of creative work. Sample it with the fantastic title essay on the four universal motives for writing.

The Elements of Style (public library) illustrated by Maira Kalman: For anyone who thinks grammar can’t be fun, here comes beloved artist Maira Kalman, whose colorful whimsy breathes new life into Strunk and White’s indispensable 1959 style guide to create an instant classic in its own right. More here.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (public library) by Anne Lamott: This 1994 classic is as much a practical guide to the writer’s life as it is a profound treasure-trove of wisdom on the life of the heart and mind, brimming with insight on everything from overcoming self-doubt to navigating the osmotic balance of intuition and analytical thought. More here.

The Wisdom of the Heart (public library) by Henry Miller: “On how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it,” Miller writes in the title essay of the anthology, and indeed his singular orientation to life permeates this sublime collection of his short stories, profiles, and literary criticism. Sample it with his meditation on the art of living.

Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (public library) by Walter Benjamin: “The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself,” legendary German literary critic, philosopher, and essayist Walter Benjamin advises in his indispensable dictum “The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses,” one of the many gems in this compendium of his essays, aphorisms and autobiographical writings.

Zen in the Art of Writing (public library): Here, our beloved Bradbury shares not only his wisdom and experience in writing, but also his contagious excitement for the craft. Blending practical how-to’s on everything from negotiating with editors to finding your voice with snippets and glimpses of the author’s own career, the book is at once a manual and a manifesto, imbued with equal parts edification and enthusiasm. More here.

Writers On Writing (public library): This remarkable collection of 46 timeless essays from The New York Times features contributions from such literary icons as Saul Bellow, Ann Patchett, Joyce Carol Oates, and John Updike, spanning the entire spectrum from the playful to the profound, the practical to the philosophical. Sample it with Mary Gordon on the joy of notebooks and writing by hand as creative catalyst.

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews (public library) by Samuel Delany: “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t,” argues celebrated author and literary critic Samuel Delany — who, for a fascinating factlet, penned the controversial 1972 “women’s liberation” issue of Wonder Woman — in this synthesis of his most valuable insights from thirty-five years of teaching creative writing. Sample this volume with Delany’s wisdom on talented writing vs. good writing.

Why We Write (public library) edited by Meredith Maran: Twenty acclaimed authors — including Jennifer Egan, James Fray, and Michael Lewis — pop the hood of the literary machine to probe the internal engine of writing. Sample this volume with some fantastic contributions by Susan Orlean, Mary Karr, and Isabel Allende.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980 (public library) edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff: An intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices, revealing in the process her immeasurable insight on writing. It has given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, her insight on why lists appeal to us, her illustrated wisdom on art, and her bulletpointed bodily self-portrait.

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology (public library) by Caroline Paul, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton: From firefighter-turned-writer Caroline Paul and illustrator extraordinaire Wendy MacNaughton comes a tender, imaginative memoir infused with equal parts humor and humanity. Though “about” a cat, this heartwarming and heartbreaking tale is really about what it means to be human — about the osmosis of hollowing loneliness and profound attachment, the oscillation between boundless affection and paralyzing fear of abandonment, the unfair promise of loss implicit to every possibility of love. Devour a taste of this impossibly lovely treasure here, and hear an interview with Wendy and Caroline on the delicate balance of combining a creative collaboration with a romantic relationship here.

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library): “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in the introduction to this magnificent compendium of canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — culled from the New Yorker magazine archives, also one of the best art books of 2012. What unites the contributing titans — among them E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl — is a trifecta of love for dogs, for literature, and for this dog-loving literary city. Sample it with ample visuals and excerpts here.

Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (public library) by T. S. Eliot, illustrated by Edward Gorey: In the 1930s, legendary poet T. S. Eliot penned a handful of marvelous verses about feline psychology and social order in a series of letters to his godchildren. The poems, first collected and published in 1939, eventually became the basis for the famed Broadway musical Cats. But nowhere do they shine with more whimsical charisma than in this special 1982 edition illustrated by the great Edward Gorey. Peek inside a rare signed original edition here.

Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America (public library) by Jon Mooallem: “Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything,” writes Jim Mooallem as he treks across mountains and wildlife reserves to trace the fates of three endangered species — a bear, a butterfly, and a bird. This isn’t the typical story designed to make us better by making us feel bad, to scare us into behaving, into environmental empathy; Mooallem’s is not the self-righteous tone of capital-K knowing characteristic of environmental writing but the scientist’s disposition of not-knowing, the poet’s penchant for, as T. S. Eliot famously put it, “negative capability.” Dive inside here.

What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (public library) by John Homans: “If you resist too much the power of the big primary-color emotions that surround the dog, you’re missing the experience,” writes John Homans in his remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts warmth and scientific rigor. Sample the soul-stirring goodness here.

Creature (public library) by Andrew Zuckerman: With his signature style of crisp yet tender portraits, Zuckerman captures the spirit of Earth’s diverse creatures, from panthers to fruit bats to bald eagles, making them appear familiar and fresh at the same time, and altogether breathtaking. Peek inside here.

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think (public library) by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods: This absorbing survey of radical research on canine cognition explores such fascinating questions as how the self-domestication of dogs gave them a new kind of social intelligence and what the minds of dogs reveal about our own. What emerges, in fact, is a necessary revision of our narrow definition of what genius itself means, not just canine but human as well. Get a taste here.

The Animal Fair (public library) by Alice and Martin Provensen: Alice and Martin Provensen began their collaboration when they got married in 1944 and went on to produce a wealth of vibrantly illustrated stories of curiosity and kindness. This is one of their most delightful gems, originally published in 1952 — a collection of 22 original stories and poems by the Provensens, from a lively journey to the farmyard, zoo, and forest to humorous advice on “how to sleep through the winter” and “how to recognize a wolf in the forest.” Peek inside this vintage gem here.

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures (public library) by Virginia Morell: Most people who have observed animals even briefly wouldn’t question their emotional lives and their thriving inner worlds. While anthropomorphic animal tales have populated storytelling for as long as humanity has existed, science writer Virginia Morell takes us on an unprecedented tour of laboratories around the world and explores the work of pioneering animal cognition researchers to reveal the scientific basis for our basic intuition about what goes on in the hearts and minds of our fellow beings, from the laughter of rats to the intellectual curiosity of dolphins.

What Pete Ate from A to Z (public library) by Maira Kalman: In this heart-warming and utterly refreshing take on the traditional alphabet book, the inimitable Maira Kalman — one of New York’s living creative treasures — unleashes her signature wordplay and expressive visual whimsy on the story of the charmingly shaggy, omnivorous, and hopelessly lovable Pete, based on Kalman’s own beloved pup.

Here Is New York (public library) by E. B. White: In the sweltering summer of 1948, E. B. White sat down in a hotel room and penned what endures as the most heartening love letter to New York — a roaming essay full of wit, wisdom, and immutable affection for the city as an icon, a friend, an intricate ecosystem of triumphs and tragedies, a canvas for the vibrancy of life. “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” he writes. “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” Sample this gem with Literary Jukebox.

New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009 (public library): This dimensional mosaic portrait of the city, one of the best history books of 2012, draws on the private journals of the writers, artists, thinkers, and tourists, both famous and not, who dwelled in Gotham’s grid over the past four hundred years. Culled from the archives of libraries, museums, and private collections, these engrossing entries invite us into the private worlds of such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Jack Kerouac, Simone de Beauvoir, and Mark Twain, leaving us with an ever-deeper appreciation of our shared existence in this glorious city. Sample some of the entries here.

Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers (public library) edited by Becky Cooper: A tender cartographic love letter to this timeless city of multiple dimensions, parallel realities, and perpendicular views, featuring 75 hand-drawn memory maps from both strangers and famous New Yorkers alike, including cosmic sage Neil deGrasse Tyson, artist-philosopher Yoko Ono, wire-walked Philippe Petit, author Malcolm Gladwell, and chef David Chang. See some of the hand-drawn cartographic goodness, including my own addition, here.

This Is New York (public library) by Miroslav Šašek: Though this lovely 1960 gem, the first American city in Sašek’s legendary This Is series, was originally designed with a child-reader in mind, the vibrant vintage illustrations leap off the pages to enchant children and grown-ups in equal measure, New Yorkers and visitors, admirers of big bustling streets and lovers of quiet little corners.

Changing New York (public library) by Berenice Abbott: Between 1935 and 1939, pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott made 307 black-and-white prints of New York City that endure as some of the most iconic images of Gotham’s changing face. In advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, 200 of them were gathered in this collection, along with a selection of variant images, line drawings, period maps, and background essays — a lavish time-capsule of urban design organized in eight geographical sections, documenting the social, architectural, and cultural history of the city. See some of her extraordinary photographs here.

All the Buildings in New York (That I’ve Drawn So Far) (public library) by James Gulliver Hancock: When Australian illustrator James Gulliver Hancock moved to New York City, he set out to “own” his new home in a unique way: by drawing every single building in town. Collected here are the best of these drawings — a charmingly illustrated tour of Gotham’s cityscape and architecture, from icons to oddities, spanning the entire urban spectrum in between. Peek inside here.

Manhattan ’45 (public library) by Jan Morris: Jan Morris paints a remarkably dynamic portrait of the city as it was on June 25, 1945 — the day 14,000 American servicemen and women, the first contingent returning from the victory over Nazi Germany, sailed into New York aboard the British liner Queen Mary — reconstructed in 1987, when the book was originally published. From the novelty of stockings to the technological marvel of high-rise elevators to the class-equalizing power of a heat wave, she blends the mesmerism of time-travel with the absorbing voyeurism of travel writing, transporting us to a city at once curiously foreign and comfortably familiar. Sample it with this lovely abstract depicting Gotham’s heat wave as the ultimate class equalizer (plus a curious biographical detail about Morris, who was born James and became Jan).

Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities (public library) by Vahram Muratyan: Graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” chronicles the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits — vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses, from beverages to beards, hands to houses, that capture the intricacies of cultural difference with equal parts humor and affection. This gem was one of the best art books of 2012 — peek inside it and chuckle here.

Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City (public library) by Eric Sanderson: Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson spent more than a decade trying to reconstruct what Henry Hudson saw on that fateful day of September 12, 1609, when he first set foot on the island that would become Manhattan. His is a masterful feat of a kind of analog augmented reality — using an 18th-century map geographically overlaid upon the layout of modern-day Manhattan and troves of historic documents and scientific data, Sanderson takes us on a lavishly illustrated tour of the wild forests of Times Square, the sunny meadows of Harlem, and the soggy swamps of Soho.

Central Park: An Anthology (public library) edited by Andrew Blauner: Twenty of the New York’s most celebrated authors — including Adam Gopnik, Mark Helprin, Colson Whitehead, and Francine Prose — pay homage to one particular, and particularly beloved, part of the city, inviting us on a literary walk through the park with some of the most intensely interesting companions imaginable. Sample the absorbing tales here.

People (public library) by Blexbolex: Celebrated French illustrator Blexbolex captures the human condition in its diversity, richness and paradoxes — from mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies. His signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing. One of the best children’s and picture books of 2011 — see for yourself with a peek inside.

Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain (public library) by Mark Twain, illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky: In 1865, when he was only 30, Mark Twain penned a little-known and lovely children’s story, in which he challenged kids to digest the intelligent humor that had captivated his adult audiences and mischievously encouraged girls to think independently rather than blindly obey social mores. Nearly a century and a half later, beloved Russian children’s illustrator Vladimir Radunsky brings Twain’s irreverent gem to life, envisioned in the style of the Victorian scrapbooks that children of that era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera. Sample this treasure, a pet project of mine two years in the making, here.

You Are Stardust (public library) by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Soyeon Kim: With its whimsical 3D paper dioramas and enchanting verses, this exquisite picture-book sets out to inspire in kids the kind of cosmic awe that would spark in them a profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today. Peek inside here.

Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library) edited by Gemma Elwin Harris: The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — Mary Roach, Noam Chomsky, Philip Pullman, Richard Dawkins, Alain de Botton, and many more — to answer them. The result is a compendium of fascinating explanations of deceptively simple everyday phenomena, from what we’re made of to why we fall in love to how dreams work, and was among the best children’s books of 2012 as well as among readers’ overall favorites. Read some of the wonderful questions and answers here.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (public library) by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat: In this infinitely inspired intersection of greatness, Angelou’s simple, strong words are paired with drawings by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose signature style of child-like fancy and colorful emotional intensity offers a perfect match for Angelou’s courageous verses. Peek inside, and hear Angelou herself reading from the book, here.

Drawing from the City (public library) by Tejubehan: For nearly two decades, Indian independent publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Here, self-taught artist Tejubehan weaves a partly autobiographical, partly escapist, whimsically illustrated tale of a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society. Also one of the best children’s books of 2012 — see for yourself with a peek inside.

And Tango Makes Three (public library) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole: This is the heartening, tenderly illustrated true story of Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo, who fell in love in 1998 and started a family, raising little Tango — the zoo’s first and only baby-girl with two daddies. Peek inside here.

My Brother’s Book (public library) by Maurice Sendak: Half a century after Where The Wild Things Are comes this bittersweet posthumous farewell to the world, illustrated in vibrant, dreamsome watercolors and written in verse inspired by some of Sendak’s lifelong influences: Shakespeare, Blake, Keats, and the music of Mozart. Though on the surface about the beloved author’s own brother Jack, who died 18 years prior to the book’s publication, the story is also about the love of Sendak’s life and his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. One of the loveliest books of all time — see for yourself.

To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays (public library) by Gertrude Stein, illustrated by Giselle Potter: In 1940, the grand dame of experimental literature penned a manuscript for an alphabet book that was rejected by publisher after publisher as being too complex for children. In 1957, more than a decade after Stein’s death, Yale University Press published a text-only version. In 2011, more than half a century later, came this first illustrated version true to Stein’s original vision, with exquisite artwork by New Yorker illustrator Giselle Potter. Peek inside here.

Why We Have Day and Night. (public library) by Edward Gorey: Edward Gorey, mid-century illustrator of the macabre and fanciful, has influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Long after his death, Gorey still manages to charm us with his signature style of darkly delightful illustrations that illuminate young readers on the mystery of why we have night and light in one of the best children’s and picture books of 2011. Take a peek here.

Read more about the nitty-gritty of it on Kelli’s blog. Meanwhile, here’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the magic:

If you’re in New York, stop by the NYPL bookstore sometime to see the installation in its analog glory, and join me in supporting the library here. (You’re also always welcome to support Brain Pickings here.)

BP

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