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The Best Children’s Books of 2015

From power-hungry sheep to power-hungry tigers, by way of ghosts, E.E. Cummings, and the unseen Dr. Seuss.

The Best Children’s Books of 2015

“I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak scoffed in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” Some generations earlier, J.R.R. Tolkien vehemently asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and C.S. Lewis cautioned against treating children as a different species, while E.B. White saw them as “the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers” among our own species.

With this lens, on the heels of the year’s best science books and best art books, here are the year’s most intelligent and imaginative books published “for children” but immeasurably rewarding for all readers.

1. ENORMOUS SMALLNESS

“In a Cummings poem,” Susan Cheever wrote in her spectacular biography of E. E. Cummings, “the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.” Such a burst is what rewards the reader, whatever his or her age, in Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings (public library) — an uncommonly delightful picture-book celebration of Cummings’s life by Brooklyn-based poet Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (the artist behind the wonderful alphabet book Take Away the A).

To reimagine the beloved poet’s life in a tango of word and image is quite befitting — unbeknownst to many, Cummings had a passion for drawing and once described himself as “an author of pictures, a draughtsman of words.”

The project comes from Brooklyn-based indie powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — publisher of some of the most daring and tender children’s books of our time — and was first envisioned by ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, who approached Burgess about writing a children’s biography of Cummings. Miraculously, Burgess had visited Cummings’s home at 4 Patchin Place in New York City three years earlier, after a serendipitous encounter with the current resident — an experience that had planted a seed of quietly germinating obsession with the legendary poet’s life.

And so the collaboration stretched between them, as Cummings might say, like “a pleasant song” — Burgess and Bedrick worked side by side for four years to bring this wonder of a book to life.

The story begins with Cummings, already known as “E. E.” and living in his New York City home where he spent the last forty years of his life, typing away as the love of his life, the fashion model and photographer Marion Moorehouse, summons him to tea-time with an elephant-shaped bell.

From there, Burgess takes the reader on an affectionate biographical detective story, tracing how Edward Estlin became E. E., what brought him to Manhattan from his native Cambridge, and how elephants (and trees, and birds) became his lifelong creative companions in the circus of his imagination.

Young Estlin’s first poem “poured out of his mouth when he was only three.”

With the loving support of the unsung champions with whom the history of creative culture is strewn — the mother who began recording his spontaneous recitations in a little book titled “Estlin’s Original Poems”; the father who stomped on his hands and knees, play-pretending into existence the mighty elephant that was little Estlin’s creative muse; the teacher who encouraged him to pursue his love of words; the uncle who gave him a book on how to write poetry — he eventually made it to Harvard.

There, he came upon the words of his favorite poet, John Keats — “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of the Imagination” — which awakened young Estlin’s creative courage. After graduation, he began experimenting with poetry and moved to New York City, falling in love with its “irresistibly stupendous newness.”

But then World War I struck and Estlin went to France, volunteering as an ambulance-driver. While working in the French countryside, he was mistaken for a spy and sent to prison for several months.

When the war ended, he wrote a book about his experience, titled The Enormous Room. Estlin was reborn as E. E.

The following year, he published his first book of poems, Tulips & Chimneys.

Burgess writes:

Using a style all his own,
e. e. put lowercase letters where capitals normally go,
and his playful punctuation grabbed readers’ attention.

His poems were alive with experimentation
and surprise!

And because of his love for lowercase letters,
his name began to appear with two little e’s (& a little c, too).

But his expansive experimentation was too much for the small-minded literary pantheon:

Some people criticized him for painting with words.
Other said his poems were
too strange
too small.
Some said they were
no good at all.

And yet Cummings, who viewed society’s criteria for what it means to be a successful artist with mischievous wryness, was undeterred. A century before Neil Gaiman’s memorable advice that the artist’s only appropriate response to criticism is to make good art, Cummings embodied this ethos. Burgess captures this spirit with quiet elegance, weaving one of Cummings’s poems into the story:

But no matter what the world was giving or taking,
E. E. went right on dreaming and making.
For inside, he knew his poems were new and true.

love is a place

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places

yes is a world
& in this world of
yes live
(skillfully curled)
all worlds.

His poems were his way
of saying YES.

YES to the heart
and the roundness of the moon,
to birds, elephants, trees,
and everything he loved.

YES to spring, too
which always brought him back
to childhood, when the first
sign of his favorite season
was the whistling arrival
of the balloon man.

The book’s epigraph is a celebration of this unflinching yes-saying: “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”

See more here.

2. LOUIS I, KING OF THE SHEEP

“Never be hard upon people who are in your power,” Charles Dickens counseled in a letter of advice to his young son. And yet power has a way of calling forth the hardest and most unhandsome edges of human nature — something John F. Kennedy observed in his spectacular eulogy to Robert Frost, lamenting that power “leads men towards arrogance” and “narrows the areas of man’s concern.” Redemption, he argued, is only possible when we recognize that “what counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity.”

It’s a difficult lesson to impart even on the most intelligent and receptive of grownups, and one especially crucial in planting the seeds of good personhood in childhood, when we first brush with power dynamics in ways so real and raw that they can imprint us for life.

That’s what French illustrator Olivier Tallec accomplishes with extraordinary humor, sensitivity, and warmth in Louis I, King of the Sheep (public library) — one of the loveliest children’s books I’ve ever encountered.

Inspired by watching children tussle with power on the playground, it tells the story of a humble sheep named Louis who becomes self-appointed king after a fickle gust of wind deposits a royal crown at his feet.

As Louis I rises to power by nothing more than chance, he gradually transmogrifies into an entitled and arrogant tyrant — a woefully familiar behavioral pattern calling to mind the legendary Stanford Prison Experiment, that cornerstone of social psychology in which students were randomly assigned to be either prison guards or prisoners in a mock-jail and the “guards” proceeded to exploit their randomly assigned power to a point of devastating inhumanity.

Intoxicated with his newfound authority, Louis I goes on to find himself a throne “from which to hand down justice,” begins addressing the people, and embarks upon such royal activities as hunting — even for lions.

Eventually, he becomes so drunk on power that he decides he must bring order to his dominion by driving out all sheep who don’t resemble him — perhaps Tallec’s subtle invitation to parents to teach kids about the Holocaust, that darkest of episodes in the history of human nature, undergirded by the very same atrocious impulses.

And then, just like that, another fickle gust of wind takes the crown away.

See more here.

3. SIDEWALK FLOWERS

“How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her magnificent defense of living with presence. But in our age of productivity, we spend our days running away from boredom, never mind its creative and spiritual benefits, and toward maximum efficiency. Under the tyranny of multitasking, the unitasking necessary for the art of noticing has been exiled from our daily lives. And yet, as we grow increasingly disillusioned with the notion of “work/life balance,” something in our modern souls is aching for the resuscitation of this dying capacity for presence. That capacity is especially essential in parenting, where the cultural trope of the device-distracted parent is an increasingly disquieting pandemic.

Half a century after Ruth Krauss wrote, and Maurice Sendak illustrated, one of the loveliest lines in the history of children’s books — “Everybody should be quiet near a little stream and listen.” — poet JonArno Lawson and illustrator Sydney Smith team up on a magnificent modern manifesto for the everyday art of noticing in a culture that rips the soul asunder with the dual demands of distraction and efficiency.

Sidewalk Flowers (public library) tells the wordless story of a little girl on her way home with her device-distracted father, a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood walking through the urban forest. Along the way, she collects wildflowers and leaves them as silent gifts for her fellow participants in this pulsating mystery we call life — the homeless man sleeping on a park bench, the sparrow having completed its earthly hours, the neighbor’s dog and, finally, her mother’s and brothers’ hair.

The flowers become at once an act of noticing and a gift of being noticed, a sacred bestowing of attention with which the child beckons her father’s absentee mind back to mindful presence.

See more here.

4. THE LITTLE GARDENER

The Little Gardener (public library) by Hawaiian-born, British-based illustrator Emily Hughes comes on the heels and in the spirit of her wondrous debut, Wild — one of the best children’s books of 2014.

Here, Hughes tells the story of a tiny boy, no larger than a thumb, and his garden. The charming, immeasurably sweet tale calls to mind what Van Gogh wrote to his brother: “Whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done!” It is at heart a parable of purpose — tender assurance for anyone who has ever undertaken a labor of love against seemingly insurmountable odds and persevered through hardship, continuing to nourishing that labor until the love emanates out, becomes contagious, and draws in kindred spirits as a centripetal force of shared purpose and enthusiasm.

Hughes’s illustrations, vibrant and deeply alive, capture that strange tapestry of tenderness and wilderness of which the human soul is woven.

This was the garden.
It didn’t look like much, but it meant everything to its gardener.
It was his home. It was his supper.
It was his joy.

But the little gardener, joyful and hardworking as he is, isn’t “much good at gardening,” for he is “just too little” — a beautiful metaphor for that feeling familiar to any artist and entrepreneur at the outset of a creative project, that sense of smallness in the face of a seemingly enormous endeavor, that moment where humility and faith must converge in order for one to surmount the mental barrier and march forward.

Mismatch of task and capability notwithstanding, the little gardener’s hard work pays off and one thing does blossom.

It was a flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the gardener hope and made him want to work even harder.

And so he does — he toils day and night, tirelessly tending to his jungle of a garden.

Even so, it begins to perish, his home, his supper, and his joy all at stake.

One particularly hopeless night, the little gardener peers out the window of his tiny straw hut and sends a single wish into the night sky — he wished that he could have some help, so his beloved garden would be saved.

No one heard his little voice, but someone saw his flower.

It was alive and wonderful.

It gave the someone hope.

It made the someone want to work harder.

As he blows his wish into the cosmos with a heavy heart, the little gardner drifts into sleep just as heavy — he sleeps a whole day, a whole week, a whole month. But, meanwhile, the Gulliveresque girl enchanted by that single flower — the little gardener’s sole labor of love — begins tending to the whole garden.

By the time the little gardener awakens, the garden is transformed into a blooming wonderland, nurtured by the largeness of a contagious love the seed for which he had planted in the heart of another.

This is the garden now.

And this is its gardener.

He doesn’t look like much,
but he means everything to his garden.

See more here.

5. THE TIGER WHO WOULD BE KING

“Power narrows the areas of man’s concern,” John F. Kennedy asserted in one of the greatest speeches of all time, adding: “What counts is the way power is used — whether with swagger and contempt, or with prudence, discipline and magnanimity. What counts is the purpose for which power is used — whether for aggrandizement or for liberation.” A century earlier, Nietzsche admonished against the self-aggrandizement aspect of power as he contemplated the fine line between constructive and destructive rebellion. But no one has addressed the ego’s blind lust for power with starker simplicity and more acuity of sentiment than beloved humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (December 8, 1894–November 2, 1961).

In 1927, the year his friend E.B. White helped him join the staff of the New Yorker for what would become a decades-long editorial relationship, young Thurber penned a short and piercing fable about a power-hungry tiger who sets out to become the king of beasts and ends up decimating the jungle into a subjectless dominion — a timeless text of penetrating timeliness amid our culture of mindless violence, too often punctuated by protest for protest’s sake and destructive rather than constructive rebellion.

Nearly a century later, illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon — the talent behind Beastly Verse, one of the best art books of the year — brings the Thurber classic to breathtaking new life in the stunning picture-book The Tiger Who Would Be King (public library).

Yoon, creator of the immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse, enlists her mastery of early printmaking techniques in amplifying the dramatic vibrancy of the story, which she tells in only two colors layered over the hearty white paper to create a stunning interplay of light and shadow, stillness and brutality.

One morning the tiger woke up in the jungle and told his mate that he was king of beasts.

“Leo, the lion, is king of beasts,” she said.

“We need a change,” said the tiger. “The creatures are crying for change.”

The tigress listened but she could hear no crying, except that of her cubs.

So drunk does the tiger become on his obsession with omnipotence that he holds back no delusion:

“I’ll be king of beasts by the time the moon rises,” said the tiger. “It will be a yellow moon with black stripes, in my honor.”

“Oh, sure,” said the tigress as she went to look after her young, one of whom, a male, very like his father, had got an imaginary thorn in his paw.

Undergirding the story is a subtle subversion of gender stereotypes — the kind perpetuated by Disney in the same era, painting women as irrationally emotional and men as governed by cool reason. Thurber, whose cartoons frequently depicted women in calm control, casts his tigress as the lucid counterpoint to the masculine energy of baseless ego-driven violence.

But despite his mate’s refutations, the tiger makes his way to the lion’s den, where the lioness announces the belligerent visitor to her mate.

“The king is here to see you,” she said.

“What king?” he inquired, sleepily.

“The king of beasts,” she said.

“I am the king of beasts,” roared Leo, and he charged out of the den to defend his crown against the pretender.

A terrible brawl ensues and electrifies the jungle until sundown.

All the animals of the jungle joined in, some taking the side of the tiger and others the side of the lion. Every creature from the aardvark to the zebra took part in the struggle to overthrow the lion or to repulse the tiger, and some did not know which they were fighting for, and some fought for both, and some fought whoever was nearest, and some fought for the sake of fighting.

Thurber delivers his punchline, dark and delightful in its darkness:

When the moon rose, fevered and gibbous, it shone upon a jungle in which nothing stirred except a macaw and a cockatoo, screaming in horror.

All the beasts were dead except the tiger, and his days were numbered and his time was ticking away. He was monarch of all he surveyed, but it didn’t seem to mean anything.

MORAL: You can’t very well be king of beasts if there aren’t any.

See more here.

6. POOL

A century and a half after Lewis Carroll plunged his Alice into a fantastical world through the looking-glass, South Korean fine artist and illustrator JiHyeon Lee offers a magnificent modern counterpart in her picture-book debut, Pool (public library) — a wordless masterpiece of space, scale, and silence converging to create an underwater world of wonder just beneath the reflective surface of ordinary life.

Lee’s delicate yet immensely expressive pencil illustrations, partway between Sophie Blackall and mid-career Maurice Sendak, emanate childhood’s tender trepidations and the gentle playfulness at the heart of the story.

We meet a boy standing poolside, looking reluctantly at the boisterous crowd lurching into the annual invasion of the public pool — a noisy, chaotic scene Lee communicates with great subtlety and quietude.

Perched on an uncrowded corner of the pool, the boy hesitantly contemplates the prospect of plunging.

At last, he takes the leap and dives below the superficial clamor of the crowd, where he encounters his unexpected counterpart — a little girl propelled by the same shy curiosity.

Together, they dive even deeper and the pool suddenly transmogrifies into a whimsical underwater wonderland full of strange and beautiful creatures — a magical mashup of the ocean’s most glorious real-life inhabitants, the mythological marine deities of ancient folklore, and Borges’s imaginary beings.

Suddenly, they come upon a most magnificent sight.

With a mastery of pacing time through negative space, calling to mind Marianne Dubuc’s exquisite The Lion and the Bird, Lee paints a visual gasp as the two children find themselves facing a gentle giant — a peculiar being reminiscent of our planet’s largest real creature (the subject of another spectacular picture-book), only white and furry.

They peer into its giant eye, into its enormous otherness, not with fear but with affectionate awe — a sweet and subtle reminder that, as Neil Gaiman memorably put it, “behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us.”

As the two make their way back to the surface, that watery looking-glass through which they had plunged into a modern-day Wonderland, they exit the pool from the other end, somehow transformed; the clamorous crowd, having completed this annual chore, leaves the same way it had flounced in.

And then, as they take off their goggles, they peer into each other’s naked eyes to find in the otherness an affectionate sameness of spirit peering back.

See more here.

7. LEO: A GHOST STORY

“Death is our friend precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love,” Rilke wrote in contemplating how mortality expands our aliveness. That, perhaps, is why ghost tales are among the most universal and perennial fixtures of all mythologies and storytelling traditions — the very notion of a ghost welcomes a point of presence with life and death simultaneously. That most such stories cast ghosts as fearsome speaks to our lamentable tendency to approach the unfamiliar and the unknown — death, of course, being the ultimate unknown — with fear rather than with openminded, openhearted curiosity. Rilke knew this, writing in a letter that “fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.” A generation later, Anaïs Nin observed that “it is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.”

In Leo: A Ghost Story (public library), beloved children’s book author Mac Barnett and illustrator Christian Robinson subvert the many dimensions of this human tendency in a heartening parable of seeing through difference, meeting the unfamiliar with unflinching friendliness, and dignifying the reality of the other.

We meet little Leo, a warmhearted ghost who has been living in a great old house on the edge of the city for many years, spending his days reading and drawing.

But his bibliophilic idyll changes the day a new family buys the house and moves in.

At first excited for the company and eager to be “a good ghost,” Leo tries to welcome them by making mint tea and honey toast.

But the mysterious treats alarm the family and send them running for help, eventually enlisting “a scientist, a clergyman, and a psychic to get rid of the ghost.”

Disheartened by being this unwelcome in his own home, Leo decides to try living as a roaming ghost and heads to the city.

Leo saw the city and the people who lived there.
Nobody saw Leo.

Disoriented by the urban chaos, he tries to ask the policewoman for directions — but she walks right through him.

At last, Leo meets a little named Jane. Miraculously, Jane — who we’re told is wearing a crown — sees Leo and invites him to play Knights of the Round Table, then promptly knights him and introduces her to her imaginary friends at the roundtable.

But we never see the crown — a subtle bow before the mutual dignity of recognition, for Leo, too, sees something in Jane that others don’t.

When Jane’s mother beckons her back home, Leo is delighted to have met someone who could see him, but his heart sinks upon realizing that Jane perceives him as another imaginary friend, once again having his reality yanked away from him.

Still, the two reconvene after dinner for another playdate of slaying imaginary dragons with their make-believe swords. But just as they retire for bedtime, Leo hears rustling — it’s a burglar sneaking through the window.

He, too, walks right through Leo, despite the boy’s protective protestations.

Suddenly, Leo gets an idea — he tosses a bed sheet over himself and flies at the thief, startling him and causing him to drop the silverware, then chasing him into the main closet and locking him in until the police arrives.

“Later Leo would not be able to say where the idea came from,” writes Barnett — another wink at subverting cultural tropes and using them to one’s advantage, for the idea came, of course, from the familiar depiction of the ghost as a sheet-draped invisible presence. One can’t help but appreciate this wonderfully subtle reminder that children absorb the countless ideas permeating our culture. The positive manifestation of this is the creative act itself — we create by borrowing and combining ideas we’ve accumulated by the very act of being alive and attentive to the world. The negative manifestation is how stereotypes proliferate, planting seeds for ideas that seem to come out of nowhere, germinating our unconscious social biases.

The story offers a magnificent counterpoint to precisely this proliferation. In a cultural landscape where only 3% of children’s books feature characters of color and many continue to purvey limiting gender stereotypes, here’s a story where a little black girl is the knight in shining armor, the one who confers power and dignity upon Leo’s reality, and where a woman cop catches the bad guy in the end. It’s also a story that treats the difficult subject of death with levity and openness, adding to the most unusual and wonderful children’s books about making sense of mortality.

See more here.

8. THE MENINO

As the recent honorary aunt of an exceptional small human, I was thrilled to come upon The Menino: A Story Based on Real Events (public library) by Argentine singer, author, and illustrator Marisol Misenta, better known as Isol — a delightful developmental odyssey seen from the parallel perspectives of the strange new creature and his joyfully disoriented parents.

From breastfeeding to the complexities of crying to theory of mind, this tender and truthful tale chronicles what happens once a new baby lodges itself between the parents’ former lives as competent grownups who know what they’re doing and this thrilling yet terrifying next chapter aswirl with learning curves. The poetic, the philosophical, and the practical converge into a love letter to the unfolding of new life, so mysterious and mystifying to the surrounding adults who, after all, were once babies themselves.

The Menino arrives
very hungry
and has to eat often.

He activates a pump
that he has in his mouth
and uses it to sip
and suck.

He prefers the milk
that is prepared by the woman of the house.

One ordinary day when they are playing with him, telling him stories or talking in high squeaky voices, The Menino discovers something surprising… that big people were once Meninos themselves.

Then The Menino feels at home… and decides to live here.

See more here.

9. HOME

“Home,” Maya Angelou wrote in her magnificent meditation on belonging and (not) growing up, “is that youthful region where a child is the only real living inhabitant.” Indeed, it seems that only for children, with their purity of feeling and their ability to “mediate the ideal and the real,” does the Venn diagram of home and house integrate into one fully overlapping circle. In adulthood, the circles drift further and further apart as we begin to project our conflicted dream-home ideals onto our real houses.

In the impossibly wonderful Home (public library), illustrator and children’s book author Carson Ellis presents an imaginative taxonomy of houses and a celebration of the wildly different kinds of people who call them home.

What emerges is a playful and tender reminder that however different our walks of life — what contrast there is between the Slovakian duchess’s mansion and the Kenyan blacksmith’s shack, between the babushka’s kitchen and the artist’s studio! — we are united by our deep desire for a place to call home.

After all, we begin belonging to his world — to borrow Mary Oliver’s wonderful phrase — first by rooting ourselves into it; by staking out a little corner of it to call our very own. It need not have walls or a roof — it can be a tour bus, or even a shoe, as Ellis’s illustrated taxonomy assures — but only from that place of safety can we reach out to connect, to understand one another, and to begin belonging together.

Ellis guides the reader to and through this common thread of belonging by placing little semi-hidden markers of communion and continuity — the same house plant graces multiple homes; a pigeon visits the young girl in Brooklyn and then perches on the Russian babushka’s window; the icon that hangs on the wall of the babushka’s kitchen is seen, several pages later, on the wall of the artist’s studio. (The artist, endearingly enough, is Ellis herself.)

Sprinkled amid the very real homes of very real people from different cultures are the whimsical abodes familiar from beloved tales — right next to the Japanese businessman is the Norse god, proudly standing before his magical palace, and a giant upside-down cup calls to mind Leonard Weisgard’s magnificent mid-century illustrations for Alice in Wonderland.

See more here.

10. WHAT PET SHOULD I GET?

Theodor Geisel (March 2, 1904–September 24, 1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, is one of the most beloved children’s book authors of all time. Maurice Sendak called him “a creature content with himself as animal and artist, and one who didn’t give a lick or a spit for anyone’s opinion, one way or another, of his work.” Geisel was also a creature besotted with animals, in his art and his life. One of literary history’s greatest pet-lovers, he had more pets throughout his life than he did accolades, and accolades he had many — including a Pulitzer Prize, three Caldecott Honors, and eight honorary degrees. Animals populated his many children’s books, his secret art, and even his wartime propaganda cartoons.

In the spring of 1957, almost two decades after his little-known “adult” book of nudes, it was an animal book — The Cat in the Hat — that led critics to declare Dr. Seuss an overnight success, despite the fact that he had been writing for twenty years and this was his thirteenth book. That fall, How the Grinch Stole Christmas sealed his status as a celebrity of creative culture and he joined Random House as the editor of a new imprint for young readers.

But the book into which Dr. Seuss poured his most exuberant love of animals, created sometime between 1958 and 1962, was never made public in his lifetime.

In 1991, shortly after his death, Geisel’s widow Audrey and his longtime secretary and friend Claudia Prescott discovered among his papers the manuscript and finished line art for what is now finally published as What Pet Should I Get? (public library).

Although the story, on the surface, is about a classic practical dilemma of childhood, it has — like all Dr. Seuss books, and like all great children’s books, for there is no such thing as writing “for children” — a deeper philosophical undercurrent. At its heart is a meditation on two all too common maladies afflicting modern grownups — the paradox of choice, which Geisel witnessed closely as the Mad Men era ushered in consumerist society and which continues to fascinate psychologists today, and the fear of missing out, so pervasive in contemporary culture that we’ve shorthanded it into the buzzwordy acronym FOMO.

We meet a brother and sister who arrive at the pet store, enraptured by their father’s permission to choose one — and only one — pet to take home. But as soon as they enter, a growing chorus of lovable animals make their irresistible appeals. The common binary choice of cat or dog soon expands into an overwhelming array of increasingly fantastical creatures, beginning with other less common real-life pet options and eventually tipping over into Dr. Seuss’s famous imaginary beings.

Recurring throughout the story and interjecting the otherwise first-person narrative is an omniscient voice urging the kids, “Make up your mind” — the quintessential refrain of the mind paralyzed by the paradox of choice and tortured by FOMO.

The cat?
Or the dog?
The kitten?
The pup?

Oh boy!
It is something
to make a mind up.

Then I looked at Kay.
I said, “What will we do?
I like all the pets that I see.
So do you.

We have to pick ONE pet
and pick it out soon.
You know Mother told us
to be back by noon.”

The ending is both playful and profound: Under the use-it-or-lose-it proposition of the time they were given to choose a pet, the kids do as the refrain urges, make up their minds, and choose — except we never find out which creature they chose.

Undergirding this open-endedness is a poetic reminder that in the face of life’s dilemmas, there is often no right or wrong choice — what matters is only that we do choose, that we make up our minds and march forward, for nothing dulls the little time we have more surely than the paralysis of indecision. One is reminded of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who tells the Cheshire Cat: “I don’t much care where … so long as I get somewhere.

“I will do it right now.
I will do it!” I said.
“I will make up the mind
that is up in my head.”

The dog…? Or the rabbit…?
The fish…? Or the cat…?
I picked one out fast,
and that that was that.

The story’s protagonists are the same kids that had appeared in Dr. Seuss’s 1960 book One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. (Geisel, like Maurice Sendak and other children’s book authors, sometimes recycled his characters.) Like most of the books Dr. Seuss created before 1963, One Fish was colored using basic CMYK — cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — without mixing the inks to create other colors, such as green and purple, which would only appear in his later books.

Geisel was ordinarily meticulous about indicating what colors should go where in his line art, but he had left no such markings on this manuscript. To address the practical challenge while honoring Dr. Seuss’s aesthetic, Cathy Goldsmith — the Random House art director tasked with bringing the manuscript to posthumous life — turned to the fish book as a color guide but bridged it with Dr. Seuss’s later work to create a hybrid palette composed primarily of CMYK, enriched by a few additional colors. This would no doubt have pleased Geisel, a notorious perfectionist who belabored every detail and once professed:

I know my stuff looks like it was rattled off in twenty-eight seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.

A spread from ‘What Pet Should I Get?’ as it was originally found. Geisel estimated that he produced more than a thousand pages of text and images for a typical 64-page book, revising over and over. He always taped the text into position on the original line art, as seen here.

See more here.

11. THE BOOK OF MEMORY GAPS

“The least contaminated memory,” wrote Sarah Manguso in her magnificent meditation on memory and the ongoingness of time, “might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.” Those contaminations, of course, are the very act of living, and slicing this paradox asunder is the double-edged sword of memory itself — something legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks captured perfectly in observing that we humans are equipped with “memory systems that have fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections — but also great flexibility and creativity.”

But while psychologists have demonstrated that creativity does indeed hinge on memory and modern science has illuminated how memory actually works, its crucial role in our experience of stress, and why sleep is essential for its proper function, we remain mystified by its astonishing and often debilitating glitches. And yet these imperfections, to paraphrase Rilke, are the demons exorcising which would make the angels of our creativity flee in solidarity.

How to embrace, or at least making sense of, memory’s necessary fallibilities is what Brooklyn-based Mexican illustrator Cecilia Ruiz explores with equal parts playfulness and poignancy in The Book of Memory Gaps (public library) — a collection of fourteen short, lyrical illustrated vignettes, each centered around one protagonist experiencing a particular misfiring of memory.

Although the characters are fictional, each of the micro-stories captures the intimate human experience of living with a real memory disorder — from face blindness (which Dr. Sacks himself has) to savant syndrome to cryptomnesia to Alzheimer’s to various forms of amnesia.

Ruiz’s vignettes are decidedly dark — even tragic — but undergirding them is a certain sympathetic wistfulness for those reality-warping and unimaginably trying conditions. At its heart, the book is a dual invitation to appreciate the mundane miracle of memory, the proper functioning of which we’ve come to take for granted, and to practice the art of moral imagination by learning to empathize with the invisible daily struggles of those experiencing life with a memory impairment.

We meet Pyotr, who has uncannily accurate memory and can repeat the song of a bird he heard years ago; Simon, the pastor who confuses the memories of his confessors for his own and anguishes over his borrowed sins; Nadya, who has never been to the ocean but has a vivid sensory memory of swimming in the saltwater; Alexander, who axes his piano and quits being a composer in despair over repeatedly writing music that someone else has already written.

Veronika was bad at faces but good with smells. She learned to make perfumes and gave them to the ones she loved so she might know when they were near.

Every evening, Viktor arrived home on the same shore, thinking that he had been at sea for months. His wife would be there to welcome him, though he had left that same morning. Sadly for him, his wife’s excitement could never equal his own.

Natascha constantly has words on the tip of her tongue. She keeps feeling she is about to remember, but they never come. She spends her days searching for all of her missing words.

The short epilogue — a verse from Jorge Luis Borges’s 1969 poem “Cambridge” — seals the book’s conceptual splendor:

We are our memory,
we are that chimerical museum of shifting shapes,
that pile of broken mirrors.

And since the finest children’s books provide, as Tolkien believed, timeless delight, step into the chimerical museum of stellar selections from 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

BP

The Best Science Books of 2015

From Earth’s largest-hearted creature to the interconnectedness of the universe, by way of Einstein and artificial intelligence.

The Best Science Books of 2015

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White observed in a wonderful 1969 interview. “You have to write up, not down.” What’s true of great children’s books is true of great science books, which must do three things for the reader — explain, enchant, and elevate. They must tell you what something is and why it matters, captivate you to care about it and tickle you into taking pleasure in understanding it, and leave you in a higher state of awareness regarding whatever subtle or monumental aspect of the world the book had made its subject.

After the best art books of the year, here are the most stimulating science books of 2015, possessing this trifecta of merit.

1. ON THE MOVE

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning mapped the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

The book, made all the more poignant by Dr. Sacks’s death shortly after its release, is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Dive deeper into this enormously rewarding book here.

2. ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND THE INVENTION OF NATURE

No thinker has shaped our understanding of the astounding interconnectedness of the universe more profoundly than the great Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769–May 6, 1859), who pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements, each in constant dynamic dialogue with every other — a concept a century ahead of its time. His legacy isn’t so much any single discovery — although he did discover the magnetic equator, invented isotherms, and came up with climate zones — as it is a mindset, a worldview, a singular sensemaking sublimity.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, remarked that a single day with Humboldt enriched him more than years spent alone, enthusing:

What a man he is! … He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.

Darwin asserted that Humboldt’s writings kindled in him a zeal without which he wouldn’t have boarded the Beagle or written On the Origin of Species. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Humboldt’s “habit of close observation,” without the influence of which there might have been no Walden. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who met Humboldt weeks before his death, marveled in her diary that “no young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered,” and his ideas reverberate through her famous assertion that science is “not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Emerson, in his essays and lectures, called Humboldt “a man whose eyes, ears, and mind are armed by all the science, arts, and implements which mankind have anywhere accumulated” and saw him as living proof that “a certain vastness of learning, or quasi omnipresence of the human soul in nature, is possible.”

Goethe's diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt
Goethe’s diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt

In informing and impressing the greatest minds of his time, Humboldt invariably influenced the course of science and its intercourse with the rest of culture in ways innumerable, enduring, and profound. His visionary understanding of nature’s interconnected sparked the basic ecological awareness that gave rise to the environmental movement. His integrated approach to science, incorporating elements of art, philosophy, poetry, politics, and history, provided the last bold counterpoint to the disconnected and dysfunctional “villages” of specialization into which science would fragment a mere generation later. And yet Humboldt, despite his enormous contribution to our most fundamental understanding of life, is largely forgotten today.

In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (public library), London-based design historian and writer Andrea Wulf sets out to liberate this extraordinary man’s legacy from the grip of obscurity and short-termism, illuminating the myriad threads of influence through which he continues to shape our present thinking about science, society, and life itself.

Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.
Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.

Wulf paints the backdrop for Humboldt’s enduring genius:

Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time. Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, he discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked. As a young man he set out on a five-year exploration to Latin America, risking his life many times and returning with a new sense of the world. It was a journey that shaped his life and thinking, and that made him legendary across the globe. He lived in cities such as Paris and Berlin, but was equally at home on the most remote branches of the Orinoco River or in the Kazakh Steppe at Russia’s Mongolian border. During much of his long life, he was the nexus of the scientific world, writing some 50,000 letters and receiving at least double that number. Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.

But knowledge, for Humboldt, wasn’t merely an intellectual faculty — it was an embodied, holistic presence with life in all of its dimensions. A rock-climber, volcano-diver, and tireless hiker well into his eighties, Humboldt saw observation as an active endeavor and continually tested the limits of his body in his scientific pursuits. For him, mind, body, and spirit were all instruments of inquiry into the nature of the world. Two centuries before Carl Sagan sold us on the idea that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” Humboldt advocated for this then-radical notion amid a culture that drew a thick line between reason and emotion.

Wulf writes:

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analysed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. He wanted to excite a “love of nature.” At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.

Out of this integrated approach to knowledge sprang Humboldt’s revolutionary view of life — the scientifically informed counterpart to Ada Lovelace’s famous assertion that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.” Wulf captures his greatest legacy:

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel.

Read more here.

3. DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS

Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.

Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.

Randall writes:

The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.

A 17th-century conception of non-space by the English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

In Humboldt’s tradition of interconnectedness, Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:

Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.

But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.

Read more here.

4. THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

See more here.

5. THE BLUE WHALE

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.

Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.

There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.

Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.

And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:

Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.

And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.

Look closer here.

6. THE PHYSICIST & THE PHILOSOPHER

“It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. A generation earlier, Virginia Woolf contemplated how this insertion engenders the astonishing elasticity of time; a generation later, Patti Smith pondered the subjectivity of how we experience time’s continuous flow. These reflections, once so radical and now so woven into the cultural fabric, wouldn’t have been possible without a fateful conversation that took place on April 6, 1922, which steered the course of twentieth-century science and shaped our experience of time.

So argues science historian Jimena Canales in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time (public library) — a masterwork of cultural forensics, dissecting the many dimensions of the landmark conversation between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson.

einsteinbergson

What makes the encounter particularly notable is that unlike the canon of great public conversations between intellectual titans — including those between David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, and Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel — where surface disagreements are undergirded by and ultimately reveal a larger shared ethos, Einstein and Bergson clashed completely and vehemently on the subject of their conversation: the nature of time. Einstein insisted that only two types of time existed: physical, the kind measured by clocks, and psychological, the subjective kind Virginia Woolf would later observe. For Bergson, this was a barbaric and reductionist perspective robbing time of the philosophical dimension that permeates nearly every aspect of how we experience its flow.

The debris of that disagreement became the foundation of our present ideas about the fabric of existence.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

What the encounter also reveals is the astounding amount of humanity upon which science, with all of its presumed rationalism and universal objectivity, is built. How pause-giving to think that our present understanding of time is largely the function of the personal differences between two men. Canales writes:

While Einstein searched for consistency and simplicity, Bergson focused on inconsistencies and complexities.

[…]

Bergson was the paradigmatic philosopher of memories, dreams, and laughter.

[…]

Time, he argued, was not something out there, separate from those who perceived it. It did not exist independently from us. It involved us at every level.

Bergson found Einstein’s definition of time in terms of clocks completely aberrant. The philosopher did not understand why one would opt to describe the timing of a significant event, such as the arrival of a train, in terms of how that event matched against a watch. He did not understand why Einstein tried to establish this particular procedure as a privileged way to determine simultaneity. Bergson searched for a more basic definition of simultaneity, one that would not stop at the watch but that would explain why clocks were used in the first place.

At that point, Einstein was busy rattling our understanding of time with his relativity theory. Bergson, one of the most prominent philosophers of the century and a major influence on such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Elliot, and William Faulkner, had advanced a theory of time that explained what the mechanics of clock-time could not, from the malleability of memory to the perplexities of premonitions. A staunch defender of intuition over the intellect, Bergson was sometimes accused, most famously by Bertrand Russell, of anti-intellectualism — but he was undeniably one of the most intelligent and incisive minds of his time. Although today Einstein is the better-known of the two, the opposite was true at the time of their confrontation, the consequences of which were profound and rippled out not only across the scientific community but across all of culture.

Read more here.

7. WHAT TO THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK

When Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage invented the world’s first computer, their “Analytical Engine” became the evolutionary progenitor of a new class of human extensions — machines that think. A generation later, Alan Turing picked up where they left off and, in laying the foundations of artificial intelligence with his Turing Test, famously posed the techno-philosophical question of whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or compel you to fall in love with it.

From its very outset, this new branch of human-machine evolution made it clear that any answer to these questions would invariably alter how we answer the most fundamental questions of what it means to be human.

That’s what Edge founder John Brockman explores in the 2015 edition of his annual question, inviting 192 of today’s most prominent thinkers to tussle with these core questions of artificial intelligence and its undergirding human dilemmas. The answers, collected in What to Think About Machines That Think: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence (public library), come from such diverse contributors as physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, music pioneer Brian Eno, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Positive Psychology founding father Martin Seligman, computer scientist and inventor Danny Hillis, TED curator Chris Anderson, neuroscientist Sam Harris, legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, and yours truly.

Art from Neurocomic, a graphic novel about how the brain works

The answers are strewn with a handful of common threads, a major one being the idea that artificial intelligence isn’t some futuristic abstraction but a palpably present reality with which we’re already living.

Beloved musician and prolific reader Brian Eno looks at the many elements of his day, from cooking porridge to switching on the radio, that work seamlessly thanks to an invisible mesh of connected human intelligence — a Rube Goldberg machine of micro-expertise that makes it possible for the energy in a distant oil field to power the stove built in a foreign factory out of components made by scattered manufacturers, and ultimately cook his porridge. In a sentiment that calls to mind I, Pencil — that magnificent vintage allegory of how everything is connected — Eno explains why he sees artificial intelligence not as a protagonist in a techno-dystopian future but as an indelible and fruitful part of our past and present:

My untroubled attitude results from my almost absolute faith in the reliability of the vast supercomputer I’m permanently plugged into. It was built with the intelligence of thousands of generations of human minds, and they’re still working at it now. All that human intelligence remains alive, in the form of the supercomputer of tools, theories, technologies, crafts, sciences, disciplines, customs, rituals, rules of thumb, arts, systems of belief, superstitions, work-arounds, and observations that we call Global Civilization.

Global Civilization is something we humans created, though none of us really know how. It’s out of the individual control of any of us — a seething synergy of embodied intelligence that we’re all plugged into. None of us understands more than a tiny sliver of it, but by and large we aren’t paralyzed or terrorized by that fact — we still live in it and make use of it. We feed it problems — such as “I want some porridge” — and it miraculously offers us solutions that we don’t really understand.

[…]

We’ve been living happily with artificial intelligence for thousands of years.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes. Click image for more.

In one of the volume’s most optimistic essays, TED curator Chris Anderson, who belongs to the increasingly endangered tribe of public idealists, considers how this “hive mind” of semi-artificial intelligence could provide a counterpoint to some of our worst human tendencies and amplify our collective potential for good:

We all know how flawed humans are. How greedy, irrational, and limited in our ability to act collectively for the common good. We’re in danger of wrecking the planet. Does anyone thoughtful really want humanity to be evolution’s final word?

[…]

Intelligence doesn’t reach its full power in small units. Every additional connection and resource can help expand its power. A person can be smart, but a society can be smarter still…

By that logic, intelligent machines of the future wouldn’t destroy humans. Instead, they would tap into the unique contributions that humans make. The future would be one of ever richer intermingling of human and machine capabilities. I’ll take that route. It’s the best of those available.

[…]

Together we’re semiunconsciously creating a hive mind of vastly greater power than this planet has ever seen — and vastly less power than it will soon see.

“Us versus the machines” is the wrong mental model. There’s only one machine that really counts. Like it or not, we’re all — us and our machines — becoming part of it: an immense connected brain. Once we had neurons. Now we’re becoming the neurons.

Astrophysicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser, who has written beautifully about how to live with mystery in a culture obsessed with knowledge, echoes this idea by pointing out the myriad mundane ways in which “machines that think” already permeate our daily lives:

We define ourselves through our techno-gadgets, create fictitious personas with weird names, doctor pictures to appear better or at least different in Facebook pages, create a different self to interact with others. We exist on an information cloud, digitized, remote, and omnipresent. We have titanium implants in our joints, pacemakers and hearing aids, devices that redefine and extend our minds and bodies. If you’re a handicapped athlete, your carbon-fiber legs can propel you forward with ease. If you’re a scientist, computers can help you extend your brainpower to create well beyond what was possible a few decades back. New problems that once were impossible to contemplate, or even formulate, come around every day. The pace of scientific progress is a direct correlate of our alliance with digital machines.

We’re reinventing the human race right now.

Another common thread running across a number of the answers is the question of what constitutes “artificial” intelligence in the first place and how we draw the line between machine thought and human thought. Caltech theoretical physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll performs elegant semantic acrobatics to invert the question:

We are all machines that think, and the distinction between different types of machines is eroding.

We pay a lot of attention these days, with good reason, to “artificial” machines and intelligences — ones constructed by human ingenuity. But the “natural” ones that have evolved through natural selection, like you and me, are still around. And one of the most exciting frontiers in technology and cognition is the increasingly permeable boundary between the two categories.

Art from Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore, an allegory of quantum physics inspired by Alice in Wonderland

In my own contribution to the volume, I consider the question of “thinking machines” from the standpoint of what thought itself is and how our human solipsism is limiting our ability to envision and recognize other species of thinking:

Thinking isn’t mere computation — it’s also cognition and contemplation, which inevitably lead to imagination. Imagination is how we elevate the real toward the ideal, and this requires a moral framework of what is ideal. Morality is predicated on consciousness and on having a self-conscious inner life rich enough to contemplate the question of what is ideal. The famous aphorism attributed to Einstein — “Imagination is more important than knowledge” — is interesting only because it exposes the real question worth contemplating: not that of artificial intelligence but of artificial imagination.

Of course, imagination is always “artificial,” in the sense of being concerned with the unreal or trans-real — of transcending reality to envision alternatives to it — and this requires a capacity for accepting uncertainty. But the algorithms driving machine computation thrive on goal-oriented executions in which there’s no room for uncertainty. “If this, then that” is the antithesis of imagination, which lives in the unanswered, and often vitally unanswerable, realm of “What if?” As Hannah Arendt once wrote, losing our capacity for asking such unanswerable questions would be to “lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

[…]

Will machines ever be moral, imaginative? It’s likely that if and when they reach that point, theirs will be a consciousness that isn’t beholden to human standards. Their ideals will not be our ideals, but they will be ideals nonetheless. Whether or not we recognize those processes as thinking will be determined by the limitations of human thought in understanding different — perhaps wildly, unimaginably different — modalities of thought itself.

See more responses here.

BONUS: THUNDER & LIGHTNING

Although this gem is among the best art books of the year, it is also a project of significant scientific scholarship, so it warrants inclusion among the year’s best science books as well.

“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer,” E.B. White wrote in his elevating letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, adding: “I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly.” Our most steadfast companion since the dawn of our species, the weather seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, affects the way we think, and continues to lend itself to such apt metaphors for the human experience. Its reliable inconstancy constantly assures us that neither storm nor sunshine lasts forever; that however thick the gloom which shrouds today, the sun always rises tomorrow.

That abiding and dimensional relationship with the weather is what artist, Guggenheim Fellow, and American Museum of Natural History artist-in-residence Lauren Redniss explores in the beguiling Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (public library).

Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.” Although Redniss’s selections might give the impression of trivia at first brush, make no mistake — these are not random factlets that trivialize their subject but an intentional kaleidoscopic gleam that shines the light of attention onto some of the most esoteric and enchanting aspects of the weather.

Like Redniss’s previous book — her astonishing visual biography of Marie Curie — this project is enormously ambitious both conceptually and in its execution. Redniss created her illustrations using copperplate etching, an early printmaking technique popular prior to 1820, and typeset the text in an original font she designed herself, which she titled Qanec LR after the Eskimo word for “falling snow.”

Take a closer look here.

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best science books of 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.

BP

The Best Art Books of 2015

Urban dogs, underworld dragons, the unseen Peanuts, and every living person in New York.

I think of my annual best-of reading lists as Old Year’s resolutions in reverse — unlike traditional resolutions, which frame our aspirational priorities for the new year, these reflect on the books that emerged as most worth prioritizing over the setting year. To kick off reverse-resolutions season, here are the best art books of the year. (And since creative genius is timeless, revisit the selections for 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.)

1. BELOVED DOG

“A lot of us humans,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her magnificent meditation on aging and what beauty really means, “are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like.” But humanity’s abiding love of dogs has to do with something deeper than this psychological kinship — in loving us, dogs clarify our own size and shape by mirroring back to us who we really are.

The magnetism of that mutuality is what artist, visual memoirist, and champion of attentiveness Maira Kalman explores in Beloved Dog (public library) — a tender, quirky, scrumptiously sincere love letter to our canine companions, part memoir of and part manifesto for the adoration of Dog.

Composed of Kalman’s vast existing body of work celebrating the canine spirit — spreads from her children’s books and illustrated memoirs, New Yorker covers, portraits of dog-loving literary icons, and more — the book is both quintessentially New York and astonishingly universal, a reminder that however much we may think with animals, we feel with them infinitely more.

Kalman, an irrepressible humanist and patron saint of presence, writes:

When I go out for a walk, there is so much that makes me happy to be alive. Breathing. Not thinking. Observing. I am grateful beyond measure to be part of it all. There are people, of course, heroic and heartbreaking, going about their business in splendid fashion.

There are the discarded items — chairs, sofas, tables, umbrellas, shoes — also heroic for having lived life in happy (or unhappy) homes.

There are trees. Glorious and consoling. Changing with the seasons. Reminders that all things change. And change again. There are flowers, birds, babies, buildings.

I love all of these. But above all, I am besotted by dogs.

A passionate reader, Kalman communes with literary history’s famous dog-lovers: Kafka, for whom dogs (along with books) were the only light amid his existential darkness, Gertrude Stein, whose French poodle named Basket was central to her daily routine, and E.B. White, literature’s greatest champion of dogs.

Take a closer look here.

2. BEASTLY VERSE

Half a century after Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls, legendary artist Tomi Ungerer’s illustrated compendium of famous authors’ verses about brothers and sisters, another singular illustrator of our own era applies the concept to a different domain of the human experience — the inclination toward thinking with animals in making sense of our own lives.

In Beastly Verse (public library), her spectacular picture-book debut, Brooklyn-based illustrator and printmaker JooHee Yoon brings to vibrant life sixteen beloved poems about nonhuman creatures, real and imagined — masterworks as varied in sentiment and sensibility as Lewis Carroll’s playful “The Crocodile,” D.H. Lawrence’s revolutionarily evolutionary homage to the hummingbird, Christina Rossetti’s celebration of butterfly metamorphosis, and William Blake’s bright-burning ode to the tiger.

What makes the book doubly impressive is the ingenuity of its craftsmanship and the striking results it produces. Trained as a printmaker and fascinated by the traditional, industrial techniques of artists from the first half of the twentieth century, Yoon uses only three colors — cyan, magenta, and yellow — on flat color layers, which she then overlaps to create a controlled explosion of secondary colors.

A gladdening resonance emerges between her printmaking process and the craftsmanship of poetry itself — using only these basic colors and manipulating their layering, Yoon is able to produce a kaleidoscope of emotion much like poets build entire worlds with just a few words, meticulously chosen and arranged.

Yoon explains her process:

Seen alone, each layer is a meaningless collection of shapes, but when overlapped, these sets of shapes are magically transformed into the intended image. To me the process of creating these images is like doing a puzzle, figuring out what color goes where and to make a readable image… There is a luminous brilliant quality to the colors when images are reproduced this way that I love.

The project, four years in the making, comes from Brooklyn-based independent picture-book powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books — creator of consistently rewarding treasures — and was a close collaboration between Yoon and ELB founder Claudia Zoe Bedrick, an immense poetry-lover herself, who became besotted with poetry early and has remained bewitched for life:

For my 8th birthday, my dad gave me a book called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle: a book that now sits on my teenage son’s shelf. His inscription: Stories are a meal. But poetry is a glass of water, perhaps even a single drop that will save your life. At the age of eight, I didn’t fully understand what he meant, but I came to, and have ever since thought of poetry as water: essential, calm, churning, a vortex of light and shadow, refreshingly cool, pleasingly warm, and sometimes just hot enough or cold enough to jolt, charge, render slightly uncomfortable, and bring one fully, deeply to life once again.

Adding to the pictorial delight are four gatefolds out of which the elephant of Laura E. Richards’s “Eletelephony” marches into the living room, Palmer Brown’s spangled pandemonium hides from its hunter, D.H. Lawrence’s hummingbird stretches its beak across evolutionary time, and Blake’s tiger marches majestically into the jungle.

THE TIGER

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand and what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And water’d heaven with their tears,
Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake

HUMMING-BIRD

I can imagine, in some otherworld
Primeval-dumb, far back
In that most awful stillness, that only gasped and hummed,
Humming-birds raced down the avenues.

Before anything had a soul,
While life was a heave of Matter, half inanimate,
This little bit chipped off in brilliance
And went whizzing through the slow, vast, succulent stems.

I believe there were no flowers, then,
In the world where the humming-bird flashed ahead of creation.
I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak.

Probably he was big
As mosses, and little lizards, they say were once big.
Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.
We look at him through the wrong end of the long telescope of Time,
Luckily for us.

D.H. Lawrence

CATERPILLAR

Brown and furry
Caterpillar in a hurry,
Take your walk
To the shady leaf, or stalk,
Or what not,
Which may be the chosen spot.
No toad spy you,
Hovering bird of prey pass by you;
Spin and die,
To live again a butterfly.

Christina Rosetti

DREAM SONG

Sunlight, moonlight,
Twilight, starlight —
Gloaming at the close of day,
And an owl calling,
Cool dews falling
In a wood of oak and may.

Lantern-light, taper-light,
Torchlight, no-light:
Darkness at the shut of day,
And lions roaring,
Their wrath pouring
In wild waste places far away.

Elf-light, bat-light,
Touchwood-light and toad-light,
And the sea a shimmering gloom of grey,
And a small face smiling
In a dream’s beguiling
In a world of wonders far away.

Walter de la Mare

Complement Yoon’s immeasurably wonderful Beastly Verse with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s similarly printed, very differently bewitching Ballad, then revisit this fascinating exploration of why animal metaphors enchant us.

Take a closer look here.

3. THUNDER & LIGHTNING

“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer,” E.B. White wrote in his elevating letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, adding: “I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly.” Our most steadfast companion since the dawn of our species, the weather seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, affects the way we think, and continues to lend itself to such apt metaphors for the human experience. Its reliable inconstancy constantly assures us that neither storm nor sunshine lasts forever; that however thick the gloom which shrouds today, the sun always rises tomorrow.

That abiding and dimensional relationship with the weather is what artist, Guggenheim Fellow, and American Museum of Natural History artist-in-residence Lauren Redniss explores in the beguiling Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (public library).

Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.” Although Redniss’s selections might give the impression of trivia at first brush, make no mistake — these are not random factlets that trivialize their subject but an intentional kaleidoscopic gleam that shines the light of attention onto some of the most esoteric and enchanting aspects of the weather.

Like Redniss’s previous book — her astonishing visual biography of Marie Curie — this project is enormously ambitious both conceptually and in its execution. Redniss created her illustrations using copperplate etching, an early printmaking technique popular prior to 1820, and typeset the text in an original font she designed herself, which she titled Qanec LR after the Eskimo word for “falling snow.”

Take a closer look here.

4. THE ART OF PEANUTS

For half a century, Charles M. Schulz (November 26, 1922–February 12, 2000) made an art of difficult emotions while delighting the world with his enormously influential Peanuts. The 17,897 comic strips he published between 1950 and 2000 are considered, in the words of cultural historian Robert Thompson, “the longest story ever told by one human being.”

In Only What’s Necessary: Charles M. Schulz and the Art of Peanuts (public library), beloved graphic designer Chip Kidd offers a guided behind-the-scenes tour of Schulz’s genius. With tremendous reverence and unprecedented access to the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Kidd delves into the raw material of Schulz’s creative process — his sketches, his correspondence, rare early editions of his comics, a wealth of previously unpublished artwork, and various never-before-seen ephemera that emanate the singular spirit of this irreplaceable creative force.

Kidd writes in the preface:

If bringing joy to other people is proof of a meaningful existence, then Charles M. Schulz led one of the most meaningful lives of the twentieth century.

From the heartening origin story of how teenage Charles Monroe “Sparky” Schulz had his first drawing of the family dog published in the popular Believe It or Not! in 1936, to the evolution of his pre-Peanuts characters, to the stratospheric success of Peanuts, this glorious tome is equal parts museum and monument, a masterwork of curatorial rigor and an affectionate homage.

Jeff Kinney writes in the introduction:

In creating Macbeth, William Shakespeare embodied a single character with a full and often contradictory range of human traits — ambition, weakness, gullibility, bravery, fearfulness, tyranny, kindness. A character as complex as Macbeth could only be created by someone with a complete understanding of what it means to be a human being, and suggests that Shakespeare himself shared many traits with his most famous literary character.

In the same way, the characters in Peanuts reflect the multiple dimensions of their creator. Interviewers asked Schulz if he was really Charlie Brown, expecting, perhaps, an uncomplicated confirmation. But Schulz was all the characters in Peanuts — Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Pig-Pen, Franklin, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, even Snoopy. Each character represented a different aspect of Schulz, making Peanuts perhaps the most richly layered autobiography of all time.

But Peanuts was in many ways a cultural biography as well, speaking in ways both subtle and profound not only to the abiding complexities of our inner lives but also to the singular concerns of the era. Nowhere is this osmosis of timelessness and timeliness more pronounced than in the story of how Schulz’s Franklin character was born.

See that story here.

5. BIOPHILIA

In his 1973 book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm — author of what is perhaps the most insightful treatise on love — popularized the word biophilia as a term for a positive psychological state of being. Literally translated as “love of life,” it is more vibrantly captured in Fromm’s own translation as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive… the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.” Many decades later, the great Mary Oliver — whose poetry is among humanity’s highest celebrations of biophilia — would come to call this feeling the “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

That passionate love of aliveness and that exulted awareness of the citizenry of all beings is what artist, designer, and photographer Christopher Marley captures in Biophilia (public library) — an exquisite collection of his artwork incorporating various life-forms, from insects to reptiles to marine creatures. A modern-day Ernst Haeckel of photographic art, Marley painstakingly arranges his specimens into mesmerizing patterns and stages them for individual portraits that reveal the dazzling grandeur of these humble creatures, from butterflies that would’ve made Nabokov proud to fish that outshine the greatest natural history illustrations.

Chrysina Prism (France, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Honduras, Australia, Tanzania, Borneo)
Cerulean Butterflies (Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Irian, Sulawesi, France)
Urchin Spheres (Thailand, Philippines, United States, Mexico)
Tropical Fish Mosaic (Worldwide)

Marley, a self-described “chronically afflicted biophiliac,” writes:

It is our biophilia that causes us to find so much beauty and satisfaction in nature. We do not love nature because it is beautiful; we find beauty in nature because we are a part of it, and it is a part of us.

[…]

It is a symbiotic relationship. The more we grow in understanding and appreciation of the natural world and the more we invest in it, the greater the peace, satisfaction, and joy we receive from our association in return, just as we involuntarily develop love for those people we truly understand and serve. As with all ordained goodness, the more we give, the more we receive.

That goodness permeates Marley’s work. After growing up in a family of hunters, he developed an aversion to killing any creature — even an insect — and spent years developing ethical, sustainable ways of collecting and preserving the specimens he uses in his artwork, working with a worldwide network of researchers, citizen scientists, and institutions.

Aesthetica Sphere (Worldwide species)

A century and a half after Emerson contemplated how beauty bewitches the human spirit, asserting that “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting,” Marley makes infinitely interesting — or, rather, illuminates the inherent interestingness of — various species with which we share our shimmering world but which we, blinded by the momentum of our prejudices and phobias, ordinarily consider ugly or unremarkable. He uses beauty — “the form under which the intellect prefers to study the world,” per Emerson — as a tool of translation, shifting our frame of reference from one of antipathy or apprehension to one of appreciation and even affection.

Marley writes:

I have found that when my subjects are meticulously composed, it makes the translation more intelligible for the public at large, just as random music notes, once properly orchestrated, can enter the heart and sway it almost against our volition. Once an appreciation for the aesthetics of insects is born, it is amazing how quickly old prejudiced and stereotypes fall away. When people begin to see beauty where they had previously known only a mundane, distasteful, or even frightening world of arcane organisms, positive changes in their perceptions of arthropods as a whole are sure to follow.

[…]

If the work I do provides no other benefit than to kindle a new appreciation of insects (and any other creatures that evoke trepidation in the human heart), that is enough for me. It is the primary reason why I do what I do: because it brings people — myself and others — joy.

The joy his work brings is of the most colorful, ebullient kind — the kind that emanates an exuberant celebration of biodiversity and an invitation for us to belong to this world more fully, calling to mind Mary Oliver’s unforgettable verse: “I know, you never intended to be in this world. / But you’re in it all the same. / So why not get started immediately. / I mean, belonging to it. / There is so much to admire, to weep over.”

Fulgens Prism (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan)
Feather Mosaic (Worldwide)
Elegans Prism (Thailand, Indonesia, Cameroon, Malaysia)

Take a closer look here.

6. EVERY PERSON IN NEW YORK

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York, adding: “The city is like poetry.” In 2008, illustrator Jason Polan set out to capture the enormous human poetics compressed in Gotham’s geographic smallness by drawing every person in the city. The first seven years of this ongoing project, totaling drawings of 30,000 people, are now collected in Every Person in New York (public library) — a marvelous tome of Polan’s black-and-white line drawings, colored in with the intense aliveness of a city where, as White wrote more than half a century earlier, “wonderful events that are taking place every minute.” What emerges is itself a kind of poetry — fragmentary glimpses of ideas and images, commanded by an internal rhythm to paint a complete whole of this human hive.

Alongside the lively jumble of faces at Grand Central and the staple of sleeping strangers on just about every train line and the taxi drivers and the subway cellists and the many, many Taco Bell patrons (a recurring locale that tells us something about Polan’s own habitual affections) are some of the city’s most beloved public figures — there’s Marina Abramović performing her now-legendary The Artist Is Present show at the Museum of Modern art, Nick Cave at the Armory, Don DeLillo at Grand Central, Marc Jacobs in Soho, and Joan Didion walking, allotted an entire page in a subtle act of reverence.

Here and there, snippets of overheard conversation invite us to cast these anonymous citizens as characters in imaginary dramas that, however fanciful, might just be true — this, after all, is New York.

The seed for the project was planted many years earlier: While still in art school in Ann Arbor, Polan did a project titled I Want to Know All of You, in which he drew every single person in the school, offered the portraits for $10 each at a local gallery, and gave the $10 to the schoolmate whose likeness the drawing depicted. Eventually, Polan took to a canvas decidedly larger than the 800-person college and approached the whole of New York City with the same creative curiosity, openheartedness, and generosity of spirit.

Polan describes the aliveness of his process:

I try to be as authentic with the drawings as I can. I only draw the person while I can see them. The majority of the drawings are done (mostly) while looking at the person, not at the paper. If they are moving fast, the drawing is often very simple. If they move or get up from a pose, I cannot cheat at all by filling in a leg that has been folded or an arm pointing. This is why some of the people in the drawings might have an extra arm or leg — it had moved while I was drawing them. I think, hope, this makes the drawings better.

Take a closer look, plus an illustrated cameo by yours truly, here.

7. CREATION

“We don’t need to credit an all-seeing God with the creation of life and matter,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote in contemplating consciousness, “to suspect that something wonderfully strange is going on in the dimension we call reality.” And we don’t have to believe in such a god to appreciate the beautiful and imaginative ways in which the origin myths of the world’s various spiritual traditions capture this wonderful strangeness — from our earliest depictions of the universe to the marvelous mythic creatures that populate our legends. In advising parents on what to tell kids about Santa Claus, Margaret Mead made the crucial distinction between “fact” and “poetic truth,” and this is precisely what origin myths offer — an invitation to celebrate these ancient masterworks of storytelling, even if we recognize that they aren’t rooted in scientific fact.

Nowhere does this celebration come more vibrantly alive than in Creation (public library) by Bhajju Shyam — the best-known artist of India’s Gond tribe and the talent behind the extraordinary London Jungle Book. Shyam captures ten origin myths from Gond folklore in absolutely breathtaking illustrations.

Air

A master of the traditional folk art style for which his tribe is known, Shyam conveys the core symbols and stories of Gond cosmogony in this simple yet enormously evocative masterpiece of visual storytelling. There are the blue crows, “whirling out from the eye of a storm, from the center of creation” to bring the birth of air; the seven types of earth that arise from the mud — sand, clay, loam, rock, chalk, silt, and marsh; the Sacred Seed, which “holds a miraculous possibility within itself, and when the time is right, lets it unfold.”

The Unborn Fish

Hand-bound in a limited edition of 5,000 numbered copies and silkscreened on handmade paper with traditional Indian dyes, this beautiful book comes from South Indian independent publisher Tara Books. For the past two decades, founder Gita Wolf and her team have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on books handcrafted by local artisans in their fair-trade workshop in Chennai — treasures like The Night Life of Trees, Hope Is a Girl Selling Fruit, and Waterlife.

Death and Rebirth

Life exists because there is death — one contains the other. Just as joy has no meaning without sorrow, a beginning must have an end. But every end makes a new beginning possible.

In Gond villages, when you see smoke rising from a house, you know someone has passed away. Everyone gathers in the house of mourning, bringing the family food and comfort. There is no food cooked in the bereaved household until the third day, when they invite the whole village to a meal of fish. This signals the beginning of normal life again. You cannot accompany the dead, and in the course of time, will have to return to your own life.

One can’t help but notice the intriguing parallels with other spiritual traditions and secular philosophies: The fish, also found in Christian scripture, is the Gond symbol for water — Shyam depicts this “fish-shaped emptiness, bubbling in the water,” the first something that appeared out of the nothingness as the world was born, not unlike how evolution unfolded; the duality of day and night, sun and moon, symbolizing the male and female — two inextricably linked parts of one whole — call to mind Virginia Woolf’s notion of the androgynous mind; the Egg of Origins, “from which all life emerges,” mirrors the science of reproduction; the notion of life and death as complementary counterpoints evokes Rilke on mortality as a vitalizing force.

Time

Day and night, beginning and end, life and death — creation is made of opposites. For human beings, life is measure din time.

Time for human beings is made up of day and night. Each is a half of one whole. Human beings themselves are made up of two halves: man and woman. A man is associated with the sun, and a woman with the moon — together, they stand in for day and night. They are opposites that make the whole.

The most delicate timekeepers are insects. Their short lives measure time in hours and days.

The project itself has a most heartening origin story. Read about it and take a closer look at the art here.

BP

Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

“In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.”

Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s Brilliant Strategy for Preempting Criticism and the True Mark of Genius

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others,” the great seventeenth-century French physicist, philosopher, and inventor Blaise Pascal wrote as he contemplated the art of changing minds. Two centuries later, Charles Darwin (February 12, 1809–April 19, 1882) provided supreme practical proof of Pascal’s insight as he forever changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth. And he did so with immense rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the intricate art of crippling potential criticism of one’s ideas by taking charge of all conceivable counterarguments.

Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of preempting criticism, is what New Yorker contributor and essayist extraordinaire Adam Gopnik explores in a portion of the altogether magnificent Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life (public library) — a slim but in many ways enormous book, for it tackles some of the most abiding and unanswerable enormities of existence.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterwork On the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.

With an eye to philosopher Daniel Dennett’s four rules for arguing intelligently and criticizing with kindness, Gopnik considers the essential principle at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical brilliance, which illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.

Darwin’s singular genius was the marriage of visionary ideas and supreme mastery of argument. But it was the latter, Gopnik argues, that lent Darwin’s ideas their victorious competitive advantage in the natural selection propelling cultural evolution:

All of what remain today as the chief objections to his theory are introduced by Darwin himself, fairly and accurately, and in a spirit of almost panicked anxiety — and then rejected not by bullying insistence but by specific example, drawn from the reservoir of his minute experience of life. This is where we get it all wrong if we think that Wallace might have made evolution as well as Darwin; he could have written the words, but he could not have answered the objections. He might have offered a theory of natural selection, but he could never (as he knew) have written On the Origin of Species. For The Origin is not only a statement of a thesis; it is a book of answers to questions that no one had yet asked, and of examples answering those still faceless opponents.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar
Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

But this clever rhetorical framework was both a stylistic strategy and a reflection of Darwin’s lifelong battle with anxiety:

Darwin invented, cannily, a special, pleading, plaintive tone — believe me, I know that the counterview not only is strong but sounds a lot saner, to you and me both. And yet… The tone reflects his real state. He was worried about the objections, he did spend long days worrying about eyes and wings and missing fossils, and he found a way to articulate both the anxiety and the answers to it. Darwin tells us himself that he forced on himself the habit, whenever he came across a fact that might be inconvenient for his thesis, of copying it down and paying attention to it, and that this, more than anything else, gave him his ability to anticipate critics and answer them.

[…]

In the back-and-forth of a self-made contest, both sides have a shot.

Darwin not only posits the counterclaims; he inhabits them. He moved beyond sympathetic summary to empathetic argument. He makes the negative case as urgent as the positive claims… What’s striking is that Darwin anticipates arguments against his theory that no one had yet made… It’s a really amazing piece of intellectual empathy, and of beating one’s opponents to the punch.

Gopnik’s account of what set Darwin apart calls to mind a lecture Michael Faraday delivered five years before the publication of The Origin, in which the trailblazing scientist called for the mental discipline of contradicting one’s own ideas — a hallmark of reason, of which Darwin’s prose made a high art. Gopnik writes:

Although scientific theories imply their falsifications, they rarely list them. Darwin’s does.

[This] supplies an inner voice, a sound of rational anxiety, a recognition of fallibility and of seriousness that gives his great book an oddly unbullying tone despite being a thrusting, far from tentative or timid argument.

The habit of sympathetic summary, of reporting an objection or contrary argument fully and accurately and even, if possible, with greater force than its own believers might be able to summon, remains since Darwin the touchstone, the guarantee, of what we call seriousness. Darwin’s special virtue in this enterprise is that he had to summarize, sympathetically, views contrary to his own that did not yet exist except in his own imagination. His special shrewdness lay in making as large an emotional meal of the objections in advance as could be made; he preempted his critics by introjecting their criticisms. He saw what people might say, turned it into what they ought to say, and then answered.

Angels and Ages is an immeasurably stimulating read in its totality, exploring questions of time, loss, belief, reason, and other enduring perplexities of the human experience through the bifocal lens of two very different geniuses born within a few hours of each other on a chilly February day in 1809. Complement this particular portion with Amin Maalouf on how to disagree and Pascal on the art of persuasion, then revisit this graphic biography of Darwin and his disarming list of the pros and cons of marriage.

For more of Gopnik’s own genius, treat yourself to his On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, which brought this miraculously rewarding book to my attention and which is by far one of the most insightful interviews ever conducted, on both sides:

The price of human consciousness is the knowledge of mortality.

BP

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