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The Big New Yorker Book of Cats

“Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity. Believing is seeing.”

“Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs,” Malcolm Gladwell proclaimed in the introduction to The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs, one of the best art books of 2012 and among the finest pet-related books of all time. Cats, on the other hand — despite their long history as literary muses, poetic devices, creative catalysts, and targets of artful grievances — are largely about something else, about some facet or other of our human needs, desires, and conceits: our relationships, our cities, our grappling with mortality.

So bespeaks The Big New Yorker Book of Cats (public library), the highly anticipated feline sequel to last year’s canine edition — a shiny, well-fed tome that gathers the best cat-coddling articles, essays, short stories, poems, cartoons, covers, and other feats of literature and art from the New Yorker archives. Spanning nearly nine decades, the collection featuring contributions from such celebrated minds as John Updike, Margaret Atwood, James Thurber, Susan Orlean, and even the patron saint of “the other side,” famed dog-lover E. B. White.

In the foreword, the great New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane lays out the decrees of cat-connoisseurship:

The first rule of felinology: you need to learn to look at cats down to the last whisker, every bit as closely as they look at you. To them, remember, nothing is lost in the dark.

And another solemn dictum:

Serious cat people, like first-rate art critics, are chivvied by passion into perspicacity. Believing is seeing.

Lane considers the singular allure of using the feline psyche as literary fodder:

This will never be anything but challenging, even if you wear motorcycle gauntlets and a knight’s visor, but it remains a quest to which many writers are lured. Perhaps they view it as a kind of scratching post — ready-made, abrasive chance to sharpen their natural skills.

Even Joyce, Lane tells us, was privy to it — in the fourth chapter of Ulysses, he tackled a “very specific quandary, the spelling of a cat’s ululation … and came up with the infinitesimal swell of ‘mkgnao’ into ‘mrkgnao.’” Lane illustrates the affectionate absurdity of it all with a tongue-in-cheek invitation: “Try both, out loud, but not after eating crackers, and see if you can tell them apart.”

More than anything, however, the anthology embodies the cat’s defining characteristic: its cluster of opposites, rolled together into a giant hairball of cultural attitudes — something, perhaps, at once uncomfortably and assuringly reflective of our own chronically conflicted selves. Lane writes:

So it is, as this well-fed book stretches out in languor, that the array of feline opposites starts to emerge. Cats must be destroyed; cats should be saved. Cats are like us; no, cats are not of this world. Cats can be savored for their fellowship, then eaten for their flesh. . . . Cats exist in these pages, as they do throughout our lives, both as obsessively singular … and as a barely controllable mass, doomed to proliferate forever, like poison ivy or biographies of Napoleon. Above all, for every cat who is liked, accepted or worshipped from afar, there is another who peers into our eyes — those hopeless orbs, superfluous at night — and spies only horror, indifference, and fear.

Indeed, despite the bountiful and often ardent cat-lovers among literary history’s famous pet-owners, Lane challenges the very notion that cats and literature go together:

Perhaps we need to rethink the assumption, deep-rooted but far from well grounded, that writers and cats are a good mix. Sure, Mark Twain had cats, such as Sour Mash and Blatherskite, and, up at the more louche and loping end of American literature, in the life and work of Poe, Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Edward Gorey, and Stephen King, you are never that far from the patter of ominous paws; whether a cat has been reared on a diet of neat Burroughs would find a niche at The New Yorker, however, is open to debate. We aim at the scrutable, the translucent, the undrugged, and the verified; whether we even get close is not for us to say, but such aspirations find no echo in the bosom of the cat. The cat sneers at clarity and career plans, and even its major stratagems can be dropped upon a whim. . . .

One of the best pieces in the collection, both for the sheer joy of exquisite language and for its disarming insight into the baffling paradoxes of the human-feline psychic bond, is a long 2002 feature by Susan Orlean, titled “The Lady and the Tigers.” Beyond the undeniable freakshow mesmerism of a true story about a New Jersey woman who owns more than two dozen tigers for no other reason than her intense love for the species, the essay, much like good visual caricature, also reveals a whole lot about the psychology of our ordinary relationships with small domestic cats through this woman’s extraordinary relationship with her gigantic felines. Take, for instance, the evolution of the woman’s tiger menagerie:

After arriving in Jackson, Byron-Marasek got six more tigers — Bengal, Hassan, Madras, Marco, Royal, and Kizmet — from McMillan and from Ringling Brothers. The next batch — Kirin, Kopan, Bali, Brunei, Brahman, and Burma — were born in the back yard after Byron-Marasek allowed her male and female tigers to commingle. More cubs were born, and more tigers obtained, and the tiger population of Holmeson’s Corner steadily increased. Byron-Marasek called her operation the Tigers Only Preservation Society. Its stated mission was, among other things, to conserve all tiger species, to return captive tigers to the wild, and “to resolve the human/tiger conflict and create a resolution.”

And so we get the perfect Orleanean spear at the heart of the human condition in all its absurdity:

You know how it is — you start with one tiger, then you get another and another, then a few are born and a few die, and you start to lose track of details like exactly how many tigers you actually have.

In the process of unraveling the common for the bizarrely uncommon, we also learn some curious factoids:

It is not hard to buy a tiger. Only eight states prohibit the ownership of wild animals; three states have no restrictions whatsoever, an the rest have regulations that range from trivial to modest and are barely enforced. Exotic-animal auction houses and animal markets thrive in the Midwest and the Southeast, where wildlife laws are the most relaxed.

On the internet — and, bear in mind, that was 2002 — things are even worse: On an exotic animals website, you could buy two baby tigers “with white genes” for $1,800 each. Orlean marvels:

It is so easy to get a tiger, in fact, that wildlife experts estimate that there are at least fifteen thousand pet tigers in the country — more than seven times the number of registered Irish setters or Dalmatians.

(What more tragic testament to Quentin Bell’s notion of pets as ornaments?)

In a 2013 piece, Margaret Atwood — she of ceaseless practicality — offers an entertaining solution to the most menacing problem cats present in the ecosystem, a brilliant satire of everything from techno-utopianism to corporate opportunism:

My proposal is called the Robo-Coyote. It would address the fact that billions of migratory birds are killed in North America every year by cats, both feral and owner-operated. When you add to that the mega-millions killed by urban high-rises whose proprietors foolishly keep the lights on all night, it’s a wonder there’s a bird left in the skies. And, since birds are a main predator of forest insects, their dwindling is already affecting the health of our forests. … What’s more, the cats — millions of them — are gobbling up small rodents that are staple fare of owls, falcons, and hawks, which may cause a further decline in those bird numbers.

What to do? No point in proposing a cat cull: the same people who love birds also love cats — I am among their number — and the animal-rights folks would be aroused in their irate thousands. Whatever is set in motion must not harm any cats by a single whisker, and must be enjoyable for kittydom as well.

Hence my Robo-Coyote. With foreseen advances in robotics and 3-D soft-tissue printing, the engineering of this artificial game warden should be well within reach. The Robo-Coyote would prowl the forests, ignoring skunks, porcupines, and rabbits, attuned to feral cats alone and emitting whiffs of mating hormones and possibly some soulful howls in order to attract them. Unlike a real coyote, the Robo-Coyote would be able to shinny up trees. ONce a cat had been lured close enough, the Robo-Coyote’s mouth would open wide. The cat would then enter, descend the throat, and find itself in a comfortable nook, complete with cushion and squeaky-mouse catnip toy.

Thus amused, the cat would be transported by the swiftly traveling Robo-Coyote to a cat fun fair — an enclosure within which cats would be free to chase robo-birds, robo-shrews and moles, robo-squirrels, and even robo-butterflies. A cat’s hunting and playing instincts are said to be separate from its hunger cycles, so the sequestered cats need not eat the robo-prey should they manage to catch any. Food would be supplied on a contract basis by cat-food companies eager to show the world of animal- and bird-lovers that they are doing their best to tackle the migratory-bird issue, while assuring their shareholders that they are improving their bottom line: with the Robo-Coyote deployed in full force, one need not feel guilty about “owning” a cat. And the pet-food companies could even sponsor their own Robo-Coyotes, which could have advertising banners painted on their sides.

Tucked between the essays and short stories are also a number of delightful poems, such as this 1960 gem by Ted Hughes:

TOMCATS

Daylong this tomcat lies stretched flat
As an old rough mat, no mouth and no eyes.
Continual wars and wives are what
Have tattered his ears and battered his head.

Like a bundle of old rope and iron
Sleeps till blue dusk. Then reappear
His eyes, green as ringstones: he yawns wide red,
Fangs fine as a lady’s needle and bright.

A tomcat sprang at a mounted knight,
Locked round his neck like a trap of hooks
While the knight rode fighting its clawing and bite.
After hundreds of years the stain’s there

On the stone where he fell, dead of the tom:
That was at Barnborough. The tomcat still
Grallochs odd dogs on the quiet,
Will take the head clean off your simple pullet.

Is unkillable. From the dog’s fury,
From gunshot fired point-blank he brings
His skin whole, and whole
From owlish moons of bekittenings

Among ashcans. He leaps and lightly
Walks upon sleep, his mind on the moon
Nightly over the round world of men
Over the roofs go his eyes and outcry.

(The poem was penned the year Frieda, his daughter with Sylvia Plath, was born — a child nursed on nursery rhymes — so one can’t help but find in Hughes’s playful verses the hint of an irreverent nursery rhyme.)

In 1953, Robert Graves, freshly abandoned by a lover who had left him to marry another man, uses a feline metaphor to be moan the phenomenon of women succumbing to unworthy men:

CAT GODDESSES

A perverse habit of cat-goddesses —
Even the blackest of them, black as coals
Save for a new moon blazing on each breast,
With coral tongues and beryl eyes like lamps,
Long-leggèd, pacing three by three in nines –
This obstinate habit is to yield themselves,
In verisimilar love-ecstasies,
To tatter-eared and slinking alley-toms
No less below the common run of cats
Than they above it; which they do not for spite,
To provoke jealousy — not the least abashed
By such gross-headed, rabbit colored litters
As soon they shall be happy to desert.

One curious pattern that presents itself across the art is the apparent golden age of feline-themed covers in the 1970s — a decade in which the visual depiction of cats was as much of a New Yorker cover meme as it is an internet one today.

In a fictional story-within-a-story titled “Town of Cats,” Haruki Murakami hands his protagonist a short story written by an obscure German author sometime between the two World Wars, which paints a whimsical picture of Tokyo’s feline underbelly:

In fact, this is a town of cats. When the sun starts to go down, many cats come trooping across the bridge — cats of all different kinds and colors. They are much larger than ordinary cats, but they are still cats. The young man is shocked by this sight. He rushes into the bell tower in the center of town and climbs to the top to hide. The cats go about their business, raising the shop shutters or seating themselves at their desks to start their day’s work. Soon, more cats come, crossing the bridge into town like the others. They enter the shops to buy things or go to the town hall to handle administrative matters or eat a meal at the hotel restaurant or drink beer at the tavern and sing lively cat songs. Because cats can see in the dark, they need almost no lights, but that particular night the glow of the full moon floods the town, enabling the young man to see every detail from his perch in the bell tower. When dawn approaches, the cats finish their work, close up the shops, and swarm back across the bridge.

In a 2001 poem, Henri Cole explores the parallel universe of felines from another angle:

MYSELF WITH CATS

Hanging out the wash, I visit the cats.
“I don’t belong to nobody,” Yin insists vulgarly.
“Yin,” I reply, “you don’t know nothing.”
Yang, an orange tabby, agrees
but puts kindness ahead of rigid truth.
I admire her but wish she wouldn’t idolize
the one who bullies her. I once did that.
Her silence speaks needles when Yang thrusts
his ugly tortoiseshell body against hers,
sprawled in my cosmos. “Really, I don’t mind,”
she purrs-her eyes horizontal, her mouth
an Ionian smile, her legs crossed nobly
in front of her, a model of cat Nirvana —
“withholding his affection, he made me stronger.”

In his 1992 piece “Cat Man,” George Steiner tells the story of “the most illustrious, compelling cat in the history of literature” — a Montparnasse tabby named Bébert, who was abandoned by his Germany-bound owners at the onset of WWII and met his second owner, the novelist, physician and “manic crank” Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, better-known as Céline, in Paris. Bébert promptly proceeded to enthrall the man into describing him as “magic itself, tact by wavelength.” When the cat’s time came in his Sphinx-like years at the end of 1952, the obituary Destouches wrote — rivaled only by E. B. White’s remembrance of his beloved dog Daisy — was nothing short of a literary micro-masterpiece:

After many an adventure, jail, bivouac, ashes, all of Europe … he died agile and graceful, impeccably, he had jumped out the window that very morning. . . . We, who are born old, look ridiculous in comparison!

In fact, the adage of the nine lives crumbles in the face of the very real grief for a beloved cat, a pattern that recurs across the collection. In a 2003 poem, Frank Wright exorcises his:

ON THE DEATH OF A CAT

In life, death
was nothing
to you: I am

willing to wager
my soul that it
simply never occurred

to your nightmareless
mind, while sleep
was everything

(see it raised
to an infinite
power and perfection) — no death

in you then, so now
how even less. Dear stealth
of innocence

licked polished
to an evil
luster, little

milk fang, whiskered
night
friend —

go.

Perhaps the most recurring theme of all, however, is the concept of the cat not as an extension of the human self, as a dog might be, but rather as something otherworldly, mysterious, with a mind of its own onto which we may project our human intentions and interpretations, but one which we will ultimately never comprehend — a force of nature, often as uncontrollable as its elements, as in this 1960 poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

ELECTRICAL STORM

Dawn an unsympathetic yellow.
Cra-aack! — dry and light.
The house was really struck.
Crack! A tinny sound, like a dropped tumbler.
Tobias jumped in the window, got in bed —
silent, his eyes bleached white, his fur on end.
Personal and spiteful as a neighbor’s child,
thunder began to bang and bump the roof.
One pink flash;
then hail, the biggest size of artificial pearls.
Dead-white, wax-white, cold —
diplomats’ wives’ favors
from an old moon party —
they lay in melting windrows
on the red ground until well after sunrise.
We got up to find the wiring fused,
no lights, a smell of saltpetre,
and the telephone dead.

The cat stayed in the warm sheets.
The Lent trees had shed all their petals:
wet, stuck, purple, among the dead-eye pearls.

Complement The Big New Yorker Book of Cats with the greatest love letter ever written to a cat (and a human), the magnificent Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.

BP

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing

“If it sounds like writing … rewrite it.”

On July 16, 2001, Elmore Leonard (October 11, 1925–August 20, 2013) made his timeless contribution to the meta-literary canon in a short piece for The New York Times, outlining his ten rules of writing. The essay, which inspired the Guardian series that gave us similar lists of writing rules by Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, and Neil Gaiman, was eventually adapted into Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing (public library) — a slim, beautifully typeset book, with illustrations by Joe Ciardiello accompanying Leonard’s timeless rules.

He prefaces the list with a short disclaimer of sorts:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

Leonard then goes on to lay out the ten commandments, infused with his signature blend of humor, humility, and uncompromising discernment:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

  3. Avoid prologues.
  4. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

    There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

  5. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  6. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

  7. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” …
  8. …he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

  9. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  10. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

  11. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  12. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

  13. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  14. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

  15. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  16. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

  17. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  18. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

    And finally:

  19. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
  20. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

    If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

    What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

    Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

    Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Complement Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing with the 10 best books on writing and the collected advice of other famous writers, including Walter Benjamin’s thirteen rules, H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Zadie Smith’s 10 rules of writing, Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 keys to the power of the written word, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, Neil Gaiman’s 8 rules, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

BP

The Surprising History of the Pencil

What medieval smuggling has to do with the atomic structure of carbon.

Having previously explored such mysteries as who invented writing and how sounds became shapes, it’s time to turn to something much less mysterious, a seemingly mundane yet enormously influential tool of human communication: the humble pencil.

“Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak,” states the first of Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules of writing. “But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.” But even though the pencil has fueled such diverse feats of creative culture as celebrated artists’ sketchbooks, Marilyn Monroe’s soulful unpublished poems, Lisa Congdon’s stunning portraits, and David Byrne’s diagrams of the human condition, it has only been around for a little over two hundred years. In the altogether fascinating 100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World (public library), John D. Barrow tells the story of this underrated technological marvel:

The modern pencil was invented in 1795 by Nicholas-Jacques Conte, a scientist serving in the army of Napoleon Bonaparte. The magic material that was so appropriate for the purpose was the form of pure carbon that we call graphite. It was first discovered in Europe, in Bavaria at the start of the fifteenth century; although the Aztecs had used it as a marker several hundred years earlier. Initially it was believed to be a form of lead and was called ‘plumbago’ or black lead (hence the ‘plumbers’ who mend our lead water-carrying pipes), a misnomer that still echoes in our talk of pencil ‘leads’. It was called graphite only in 1789, using the Greek word ‘graphein’ meaning ‘to write’. Pencil is an older word, derived from the Latin ‘pencillus’, meaning ‘little tail’, to describe the small ink brushes used for writing in the Middle Ages.

Nicholas-Jacques Conte

But the history of the pencil, like that of many seminal innovations, has a dark side:

The purest deposits of lump graphite were found in Borrowdale near Keswick [England] in the Lake District in 1564 and spawned quite a smuggling industry and associated black economy in the area. During the nineteenth century a major pencil manufacturing industry developed around Keswick in order to exploit the high quality of the graphite.

And yet the pencil industry blossomed:

The first factory opened in 1832, and the Cumberland Pencil Company has just celebrated its 175th anniversary; although the local mines have long been closed and supplies of the graphite used now come from Sri Lanka and other far away places. Cumberland pencils were those of the highest quality because the graphite used shed no dust and marked the paper very well.

The oldest pencil in the world, found in timbered house built in 1630. (Image: Faber-Castell)

Plain as it appears, however, the pencil has evolved significantly since its invention:

Conte’s original process for manufacturing pencils involved roasting a mixture of water, clay and graphite in a kiln at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit before encasing the resulting soft solid in a wooden surround. The shape of that surround can be square, polygonal or round, depending on the pencil’s intended use — carpenters don’t want round pencils that are going to roll off the workbench. The hardness or softness of the final pencil ‘lead’ can be determined by adjusting the relative fractions of clay and graphite in the roasting mixture. Commercial pencil manufacturers typically market 20 grades of pencil, from the softest, 9B, to the hardest 9H, with the most popular intermediate value, HB, lying midway between H and B. ‘H’ means hard and ‘B’ means black. The higher the B number, the more graphite gets left on the paper. There is also an ‘F’, or Fine point, which is a hard pencil for writing rather than drawing.

Barrow offers the science behind an oft-cited trivia factlet:

The strange thing about graphite is that it is a form of pure carbon that is one of the softest solids known, and one of the best lubricants because the six carbon atoms that link to form a ring can slide easily over adjacent rings. Yet, if the atomic structure is changed, there is another crystalline form of pure carbon, diamond, that is one of the hardest solids known.

For the mathematically-minded, Barrow offers a delightful curiosity-quencher:

An interesting question is to ask how long a straight line could be drawn with a typical HB pencil before the lead was exhausted. The thickness of graphite left on a sheet of paper by a soft 2B pencil is about 20 nanometers and a carbon atom has a diameter of 0.14 nanometers, so the pencil line is only about 143 atoms thick. The pencil lead is about 1 mm in radius and therefore ? square mm in area. If the length of the pencil is 15 cm, then the volume of graphite to be spread out on a straight line is 150? cubic mm. If we draw a line of thickness 20 nanometers and width 2 mm, then there will be enough lead to continue for a distance L = 150? / 4 X 10-7 mm = 1,178 kilometers.

100 Essential Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know: Math Explains Your World goes on to explore such fascinating questions as the origami of the universe, what rugby has to do with relativity, how long things are likely to survive, and more.

BP

Make Good Art: Neil Gaiman’s Advice on the Creative Life, Adapted by Design Legend Chip Kidd

“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.”

Among the greatest commencement addresses of all time is an extraordinary speech beloved author Neil Gaiman delivered in May of 2012 at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. So potent and enlivening was his advice on courage and the creative life that the speech was adapted into Make Good Art (public library) — a gem of a book designed by none other than Chip Kidd. For nearly two decades, Kidd has been shaping the voice of contemporary cover design with his prolific and consistently stellar output, ranging from bestsellers like cartoonist Chris Ware’s sublime Building Stories and neurologist Oliver Sacks’s The Mind’s Eye to lesser-known treasures like Women Writers at Work and The Letter Q. (Fittingly, Kidd also designed the book adaptation of Ann Patchett’s 2006 commencement address.)

When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician — make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor — make good art. IRS on your trail — make good art. Cat exploded — make good art. Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too.

A wise woman once said, “If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” Gaiman articulates the same sentiment with his own brand of exquisite eloquence:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.

So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.

Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.

Make your mistakes, next year and forever.

Revisit the talk in its original delivery below, and reabsorb its eight indispensable lessons:

Complement Make Good Art with more remarkable wisdom for the precipice of adulthood from David Foster Wallace, Jacqueline Novogratz, Ellen DeGeneres, Aaron Sorkin, Barack Obama, Ray Bradbury, J. K. Rowling, Steve Jobs, Robert Krulwich, Meryl Streep, and Jeff Bezos.

BP

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