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Rebecca Solnit’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Books Solace, Empower, and Transform Us

“Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some books are wings… Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.”

Rebecca Solnit’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Books Solace, Empower, and Transform Us

Galileo considered reading our sole means of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, a book was “the axe for the frozen sea inside us”; for Anaïs Nin, the alarm to awaken us from the slumber of almost-living; for Gwendolyn Brooks, “meat and medicine and flame and flight and flower.”

Since the invention of the printing press, books have fed the human animal’s irrepressible hunger for truth and meaning, and some of the most celebrated exemplars of our species have extolled reading as a pillar of our very humanity. Among them is Rebecca Solnit — one of the most lyrical and insightful writers of our time.

In her beautiful memoiristic essay about how books saved her life, Solnit observed that “the object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.” In childhood, when life itself is pure potential, a book becomes potential squared. Solnit speaks to this exquisitely in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Liniers for Rebecca Solnit’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popov and Claudia Zoe Bedrick.

Solnit writes:

Dear Readers,

Nearly every book has the same architecture — cover, spine, pages — but you open them onto worlds and gifts far beyond what paper and ink are, and on the inside they are every shape and power. Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some books are wings. Some are horses that run away with you. Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends. In some books you meet one remarkable person; in others a whole group or even a culture. Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying. Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles. Some long books are journeys, and at the end you are not the same person you were at the beginning. Some are handheld lights you can shine on almost anything.

The books of my childhood were bricks, not for throwing but for building. I piled the books around me for protection and withdrew inside their battlements, building a tower in which I escaped my unhappy circumstances. There I lived for many years, in love with books, taking refuge in books, learning from books a strange data-rich out-of-date version of what it means to be human. Books gave me refuge. Or I built refuge out of them, out of these books that were both bricks and magical spells, protective spells I spun around myself. They can be doorways and ships and fortresses for anyone who loves them.

And I grew up to write books, as I’d hoped, so I know that each of them is a gift a writer made for strangers, a gift I’ve given a few times and received so many times, every day since I was six.

Rebecca Solnit

For more loveliness from A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, peek inside the book and savor one of the most moving letters from it — a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor’s true story of how a book saved actual lives — then revisit Solnit on rewriting the world’s broken stories, our mightiest force of resistance, and what it means to live with lucid hope in hard times.

BP

Confidence Through Criticism: Walt Whitman and the Discipline of Creative Self-Esteem

“The quality of BEING, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.”

Confidence Through Criticism: Walt Whitman and the Discipline of Creative Self-Esteem

“Re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) wrote in offering his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life in the preface to Leaves of Grass. When Whitman first published his masterpiece in 1855, it was met with indifference punctuated by bursts of harsh criticism. It is difficult to imagine just how insulting to the young poet’s soul such reception must have been, or what it took for him to dismiss it and carry on writing. What buoyed his spirit through the tidal wave of negativity was an extraordinary letter of appreciation from Ralph Waldo Emerson — the era’s most respected literary tastemaker and Whitman’s greatest hero, whose 1844 essay The Poet had inspired Leaves of Grass. The young poet wore Emerson’s praise of “incomparable things said incomparably well” like an armor, almost literally — he carried the letter folded in his shirt-pocket over his heart, regularly reading it to friends and lovers.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

It is certainly easier, though never easy, to dismiss what insults one’s soul when it comes from critics who haven’t earned one’s confidence — “Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect,” Jeanette Winterson offered in her ten wise rules of writing. But to dismiss criticism that insults the soul from someone we respect — or, harder still, love — requires superhuman strength of spirit. How do we hold on to the integrity and solidity of our conviction and vision, be it creative or existential, when it is being challenged and censured by a person we regard with high intellectual esteem and tenderness of heart?

Whitman modeled this exquisitely in an encounter with Emerson himself.

On a crisp February afternoon in 1860, five years after the publication of Leaves of Grass, the two men took a two-hour walk along Boston Common. They had by then befriended one another and formed a courteous, frank relationship embodying Emerson’s ideal of friendship: “A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere.” That winter day, Whitman found Emerson to be “in his prime, keen, physically and morally magnetic, arm’d at every point, and when he chose, wielding the emotional just as well as the intellectual.” When the criticism came, Whitman knew it sprang from that selfsame source — a quality of character he deeply respected, even revered. And yet, rather than coming undone by self-doubt, he was able to stay rooted in his own values and vision.

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a stunning rare edition of Leaves of Grass.

Writing in Specimen Days (public library) — the endlessly rewarding collection of prose fragments and diary entries, which gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees, the power of music, the essence of happiness, the “meaning” of art, and optimism as a force of resistance — he recounts:

During those two hours he was the talker and I the listener. It was an argumentstatement, reconnoitring, review, attack, and pressing home, (like an army corps in order, artillery, cavalry, infantry,) of all that could be said against that part (and a main part) in the construction of my poems, “Children of Adam.” More precious than gold to me that dissertation — it afforded me, ever after, this strange and paradoxical lesson; each point of E.’s statement was unanswerable, no judge’s charge ever more complete or convincing, I could never hear the points better put — and then I felt down in my soul the clear and unmistakable conviction to disobey all, and pursue my own way. “What have you to say then to such things?” said E., pausing in conclusion. “Only that while I can’t answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory, and exemplify it,” was my candid response. Whereupon we went and had a good dinner at the American House. And thenceforward I never waver’d or was touch’d with qualms, (as I confess I had been two or three times before).

Emerson — the patron saint of self-reliance, who exhorted: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” — no doubt appreciated this orientation of spirit. Whitman’s first and foremost biographer, the great naturalist John Burroughs, goes even further in his sublimely poetic 1896 biography Whitman: A Study:

In many ways was Whitman, quite unconsciously to himself, the man Emerson invoked and prayed for,– the absolutely self-reliant man; the man who should find his own day and land sufficient; who had no desire to be Greek, or Italian, or French, or English, but only himself; who should not whine, or apologize, or go abroad; who should not duck, or deprecate, or borrow; and who could see through the many disguises and debasements of our times the lineaments of the same gods that so ravished the bards of old.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

To be sure, Whitman did not dismiss criticism wholesale — rather, he separated the wheat from the chaff through the sieve of confidence and surefooted creative vision. But criticism, he believed, could be far more valuable than praise. In Leaves of Grass, he wrote under the heading “STRONGER LESSONS”:

Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you and were tender with you? and stood aside for you?
Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?

The kind of criticism he readily dismissed was that of the professional critics and opinionators — those aimed at tearing down rather than improving a writer’s art, for their judgments are based on the standards of their time and therefore tend to censure any vigorous break with convention. Such critics are apt to pronounce any work of true originality bad, and then to embody W.H. Auden’s incisive observation that “one cannot review a bad book without showing off.”

Burroughs noted this in his praiseful biography of Whitman, composed at a time when the poet was still more rejected than celebrated by his era:

There are no more precious and tonic pages in history than the records of men who have faced unpopularity, odium, hatred, ridicule, detraction, in obedience to an inward voice, and never lost courage or good-nature.

[…]

Every man is a partaker in the triumph of him who is always true to himself and makes no compromises with customs, schools, or opinions.

Later in life, Whitman himself would reflect:

Has it never occurr’d to any one how the last deciding tests applicable to a book are entirely outside of technical and grammatical ones, and that any truly first-class production has little or nothing to do with the rules and calibres of ordinary critics?… I have fancied the ocean and the daylight, the mountain and the forest, putting their spirit in a judgment on our books. I have fancied some disembodied human soul giving its verdict.

[…]

The quality of BEING, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.

Illustration by Margaret C. Cook for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass.

Whitman’s poetry, founded upon the unshakable foundation of his creative and spiritual vision, eventually catapulted him to the top of the English-language literary pantheon. Leaves of Grass endures as one of the most beloved poetic works of all time, having influenced generations of writers and buoyed ordinary livers of life through the worst existential upheavals — such is the power of poetic truth channeled with unwavering stability of confidence and vision.

Complement with Descartes on the crucial difference between confidence and pride, Bruce Lee on willpower and self-esteem, and some excellent advice from great writers on how to survive criticism, then revisit Whitman on creativity, democracy, his advice to the young, and his most direct definition of happiness.

BP

The Art-Science of Taking Perspective

A journey from the farthest cosmic horizons of reality to the depths of our poetic truth.

The Art-Science of Taking Perspective

I have been thinking a great deal lately about the notion of perspective. We speak of taking another’s perspective — an admirable moral aspiration but, in a strict sense, a physical impossibility. Even the most well-intentioned and empathetic among us are creatures invariably bound by our frames of reference, with our vantage point confined to our own corner of reality. And yet we aim, as we must, to transcend our perspectival blindnesses and see the world from different points of view — that, it seems to me, is one of the fundamental requirements of human decency and one of the great paradoxes of morality.

In such considerations, we use the word perspective in its figurative sense, but that sense — far more so than for most words — is deeply entwined with the word’s literal meaning and its history. Even the word figurative is part of the history of perspective.

Left: Galileo Galilei’s Moon drawings, 1610. Right: Thomas Harriot’s Moon maps, 1610.

This passage from Figuring traces the interleaving of art and science in the development of perspective, responsible for one of our greatest leaps in understanding the nature of reality:

Euclid’s Elements remains one of the most influential scientific texts of all time, on a par with Newton’s Principia. For centuries after Euclid’s death, his geometry remained our only model of understanding space. This breakthrough in science shaped art through the development of perspective — a technique originally called geometric figuring, which invited architecture and the figurative arts into the three-dimensional world for the first time, then through them gave back to science. Galileo’s Moon drawings were so revolutionary in large part because, trained in perspective, he depicted the topography of its mountains and craters, emanating the radical suggestion that our satellite is not a perfectly smooth orb of ethereal matter but as solid and rugged as the Earth — not a heavenly body but a material one. Mere months earlier, the English mathematician and astronomer Thomas Harriot had become the first person known to make a drawing of the Moon seen through a telescope. Untrained in perspective and ignorant of the Euclid-informed projective geometries that had made their way to Florence but not yet to England, he depicted the Moon as a dappled disc resembling an engraved medal. The genius that led Galileo to see what Harriot could not was indelibly genius loci, as much a function of his mind as of his time and place.

This question of the relationship between perspective in the scientific sense and perspective in the moral sense was recently reignited when I watched the iconic 1977 film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames — a perspectival masterpiece that did for our understanding of scale and orders of magnitude what Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Victorian novella Flatland did for our understanding of dimensions. I had seen Powers of Ten numerous times before, but this time — perhaps because I watched it projected onto a ceiling, lying flat on my back, with an astrophysicist beside me — its genius struck a deeper chord. It belongs to that rare species of science communication that transcends the scientific and reaches into the poetic, effecting not mere explanation, not even just elucidation, but enchantment.

The film was made months after the launch of the Voyager mission, in an era infused with Carl Sagan’s poetic sensibility and ablaze with the thrill of cosmic curiosity — a time when humanity’s prosthetic eye first left our corner of the Solar System and set out for its farthest reaches, in order to view our cosmic neighborhood from a perspective other than the one allotted us by gravity. To watch Powers of Ten — and to take the telescopic perspective in any way — is to humble ourselves, to dwarf our hyperlocal human dramas against the backdrop of a far vaster reality. If only we could move through the world with the continual awareness that we are each but tiny particles of universal matter, yet we each contain entire cosmoses of physical and psychic reality — we do, as much as everyone we see as other does.

Powers of Ten ends its perspectival extension into the largest scale at 100 million lightyears from Earth, or 1024 meters — the limit of our vision in 1977. In the decades since, humanity’s prosthetic eye — our Earth-tethered instruments, our space telescopes, our data modeling — has extended beyond this horizon, further calibrating our parochial cosmic perspective. In 2009, the American Museum of Natural History teamed up with the Rubin Museum to produce a visualization of the scale of the universe, to the extent that it was then known. While it lacks the poetic enchantment of the Eames classic and ventures only into the large scales, omitting the subatomic, it offers an astounding journey to our cosmic horizon in space and time, as far as 13.7 billion years of light travel away from Earth, to regions of spacetime illuminated by the light of the baby universe — the afterglow of the Big Bang:

A visualization produced five years later, in 2014, explores more recent scientific discoveries about the largest known structures in the universe, superclusters — regions of spacetime densely packed with galaxies — and how our own home supercluster, Laniakea, fits into the biggest picture of reality we have yet painted:

But I side with Susan Sontag in the conviction that “information will never replace illumination” and with Rachel Carson in her lifelong ethos that the scientific and the poetic must converge to illuminate nature in a way that not only informs us but moves us to transcend the limitations of our vantage point. To me, far superior than any data visualization in broadening our perspective — perspective in the humanistic sense as well as the cosmic sense — is Marie Howe’s stunning poem “Singularity,” written for and performed at the second annual Universe in Verse at Pioneer Works:

SINGULARITY
by Marie Howe

          (after Stephen Hawking)

Do you sometimes want to wake up to the singularity
we once were?

so compact nobody
needed a bed, or food or money —

nobody hiding in the school bathroom
or home alone

pulling open the drawer
where the pills are kept.

For every atom belonging to me as good
Belongs to you.
   Remember?

There was no   Nature.    No
 them.   No tests

to determine if the elephant
grieves her calf    or if

the coral reef feels pain.    Trashed
oceans don’t speak English or Farsi or French;

would that we could wake up   to what we were
— when we were ocean    and before that

to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was
liquid and stars were space and space was not

at all — nothing

before we came to believe humans were so important
before this awful loneliness.

Can molecules recall it?
what once was?    before anything happened?

No I, no We, no one. No was
No verb      no noun
only a tiny tiny dot brimming with

is is is is is

All   everything   home

For more perspectival masterpieces from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, actor and activist America Ferrera reading Denise Levertov’s poem about our belonging to nature, and astrophysicist Natalie Batalha’s poetic reflection on what we see when we look past the veils of our perception.

BP

The Best of Brain Pickings 2018

The splendors of the unknown, the uncertain, and the unclassifiable, truth and beauty at the intersection of poetry and science, the timeless tangles of the heart.

In this annual review, as usual, “best” is a composite measure of what I most enjoyed thinking and writing about, and what readers most enjoyed reading and sharing. It follows the annual selections of the year’s loveliest children’s books and overall favorite books.

Here is to the intellectual and spiritual electricity of the eclectic, and to a beautiful new orbit.

* * *

The Difficult Art of Giving Space in Love: Rilke on Freedom, Togetherness, and the Secret to a Good Marriage

Read the article here.

* * *

A Brave and Startling Truth: Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Maya Angelou’s Stunning Humanist Poem That Flew to Space, Inspired by Carl Sagan

Read/hear the poem here.

* * *

Life, Loss, and the Wisdom of Rivers

Read the article here.

* * *

Figuring

Read the article here.

* * *

Two Hundred Years of Blue

Read the article here.

* * *

Singularity: Poet Marie Howe’s Beautiful Tribute to Stephen Hawking and Our Belonging to the Universe

Read/hear the poem here.

* * *

A Gentle Corrective for the Epidemic of Identity Politics Turning Us on Each Other and on Ourselves

Read the article here.

* * *

A Velocity of Being: Illustrated Letters to Children about Why We Read by 121 of the Most Inspiring Humans in Our World

Read the article here.

* * *

How to Grow Old: Bertrand Russell on What Makes a Fulfilling Life

Read the article here.

* * *

Kahlil Gibran on the Courage to Weather the Uncertainties of Love

Read the article here.

* * *

Zadie Smith on Optimism and Despair

Read the article here.

* * *

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality

Read the article here.

* * *

Elizabeth Gilbert on Love, Loss, and How to Move Through Grief as Grief Moves Through You

Read the article here.

* * *

Against the Illusion of Separateness: Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful and Humanistic Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Read the article here.

* * *

Emily Dickinson’s Electric Love Letters to Susan Gilbert

Read the article here.

* * *

Walt Whitman on Democracy and Optimism as a Mighty Form of Resistance

Read the article here.

* * *

Iris Murdoch on Storytelling, Why Art Is Essential for Democracy, and the Key to Good Writing

Read the article here.

* * *

Create Dangerously: Albert Camus on the Artist as a Voice of Resistance and a Liberator of Society

Read the article here.

* * *

The Hour of Land: Terry Tempest Williams on the Responsibility of Awe and the Wilderness as an Antidote to the War Within Ourselves

Read the article here.

* * *

Carl Sagan on Mystery, Why Common Sense Blinds Us to the Universe, and How to Live with the Unknown

Read the article here.

* * *

Bear and Wolf: A Tender Illustrated Fable of Walking Side by Side in Otherness

Read the article here.

* * *

Literary Witches: An Illustrated Celebration of Trailblazing Women Writers Who Have Enchanted and Transformed the World

Read the article here.

* * *

Ursula K. Le Guin on Art, Storytelling, and the Power of Language to Transform and Redeem

Read the article here.

* * *

From Euclid to Equality: Mathematician Lillian Lieber on How the Greatest Creative Revolution in Mathematics Illuminates the Core Ideals of Social Justice and Democracy

Read the article here.

* * *

Nobel-Winning Physicist Niels Bohr on Subjective vs. Objective Reality and the Uses of Religion in a Secular World

Read the article here.

* * *

Georgia O’Keeffe on the Art of Seeing

Read the article here.

* * *

Astrophysicist Janna Levin Reads Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Hymn to Time”

Read/hear the poem here.

BP

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