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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

The Art of Self-Culture and the Crucial Difference Between Being Educated and Being Cultured: John Cowper Powys’s Forgotten Wisdom from 1929

“The art of self-culture begins with a deeper awareness … of the marvel of our being alive at all; alive in a world as startling and mysterious, as lovely and horrible, as the one we live in.”

The Art of Self-Culture and the Crucial Difference Between Being Educated and Being Cultured: John Cowper Powys’s Forgotten Wisdom from 1929

“In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and learnt a monologue from ‘Faust,’ Anton Chekhov wrote in an 1886 letter to his brother, outlining the eight qualities of cultured people — among them sincerity, “no shallow vanity,” and a compassionate heart that “aches for what the eye does not see.” This essential difference between being educated and being cultured is what the great British novelist, philosopher, literary critic, educator, and poet John Cowper Powys (October 8, 1872–June 17, 1963) examined in greater dimension a generation later in the 1929 masterwork The Meaning of Culture (public library) — one of the most thoughtful and beautifully written books I’ve ever encountered.

Powys begins with the tenet that “culture is what is left over after you have forgotten all you have definitely set out to learn” and sets out to examine what, exactly, is left over — which is often too surprising and subtle, too aglow with inarticulable radiances, to fit into our intellectual templates of understanding.

johncowperpowys

He writes:

Whenever I am lost in admiration for a man or a woman, as fulfilling my ideal of what a human being should be, it is rarely that such a person fits precisely into the formula whose qualities I have defined so patiently as bearing the hallmarks of culture.

[…]

Whatever it may be, it is clear that it appeals to elements in us which are deeper-rooted and more widely human than any trained aesthetic taste or any industriously acquired scholarship.

[…]

I am sometimes tempted to regard the truest culture as the compensation of the unsuccessful, something that … can remain with us when all else is taken away.

Such a conception of culture, Powys points out, is something entirely different from a good education or a cultivated aesthetic taste. In a sentiment triply timely today, as we struggle to glean wisdom in the age of information, he considers that crucial difference:

The truth is that as education is only real education when it is a key to something beyond itself, so culture is only real culture when it has diffused itself into the very root and fibre of our endurance of life. Culture becomes in this way something more than culture. It becomes wisdom; a wisdom that can accept defeat, a wisdom that can turn defeat into victory.

And it can render us independent of our weakness, of our surroundings, of our age. It is at once an individual thing, a fortress for the self within the self, and a universal thing, a breaking down of the barriers of race, of class, of nation.

Art from The Three Astronauts, Umberto Eco's vintage semiotic children's book about cross-cultural tolerance
Art from The Three Astronauts, Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s book about cross-cultural tolerance

This kind of culture, Powys asserts, ought to be pushed “down and in, till it is blood of our blood and bone of our bone,” so that it can inform our morale and permeate what we call character. Without such osmotic synthesis, he cautions, what passes for culture is a falsehood devoid of humanity:

The reason why that super-refined aesthete, Mr. Osborne, the villain in Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady,” is so repulsive a figure, is that his culture has remained purely intellectual and aesthetic. It has neither fortified his stoicism, nor subtilized his human sympathy. Culture without natural human goodness has an extremely disconcerting effect. There is something weird and terrifying about it.

Echoing the metaphor that a seventeenth-century gardener coined for human nature, Powys considers how we cultivate such authentic culturedness within ourselves:

Just as rustic mother-wit has a charm and a dignity that education too often spoils, so the whole problem of Culture is really the familiar problem of Horticulture. It is in fact the problem of how to graft the subtle and the exquisite upon the deep and the vital. For, by this grafting alone can the sap of the natural give life and strength to the unusual, and the roots of the rugged sweeten the distinguished and rare.

Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451
Illustration by Ralph Steadman for a rare edition of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

Long before Alain de Botton’s terrific definition of philosophy’s role in our everyday lives, Powys argues that this grafting is the true task of philosophy and the central preoccupation of what was once called metaphysics:

The long personal pilgrimage of culture begins with the formulation of one’s own philosophy… In considering those obscure motions of the mind, wherein our individual consciousness, ceasing to be content with blind responses to its environment, begins to look before and after, it is important to remember that behind all the great controversial names, such as “will,” “behaviour,” “soul,” “First Cause,” “the One, the Many,” “universe,” “multiverse,” “good and evil,” “substance,” “essence,” “immortality,” there lies some actual feeling or sensation or experience; which, under a quite different name, or perhaps under no name at all, must still exist, when the logical fashion of the hour, refusing to use such traditional expressions, has moved on and away.

But to harness that experience fully and properly, Powys notes, we must learn to culture ourselves:

The art of self-culture begins with a deeper awareness, borne in upon us either by some sharp emotional shock or little by little like an insidious rarefied air, of the marvel of our being alive at all; alive in a world as startling and mysterious, as lovely and horrible, as the one we live in.

And yet marvel alone, Powys cautions, is not enough — or at least not something that passively befalls us. Rather, the seedbed of self-culture lies in a deliberate and habitual orientation toward wisdom:

Self-culture without some kind of integrated habitual manner of thinking is apt to fail us just when it is wanted most. To be a cultured person is to be a person with some kind of original philosophy… This implies a desire to focus such imaginative reason as we possess upon the mystery of life. The subtle and imperceptible stages, however, by which this will to think condenses and hardens into a will to live according to one’s thought are not always easy to articulate.

Powys’s most salient point — and the point most urgent amid our culture of instant opinions — is that the personal philosophy of the cultured person is not a hodgepodge of impressions and reactions assembled around an ego but a reflective and considered tapestry of understanding:

Our innermost self, as we grow more and more conscious of it, surprises us again and again by new explosions of feeling drawn from emotional, nervous, and even chemical reactions; but for all its surreptitious dependence on these impulses, its inner report upon its own nature is that it is a clear, hard, enclosed, secretive nucleus with a detached and independent existence of its own. Our reliance upon this introspective report may easily be shaken by logical argument; but it is not often that any argument, however plausible, disposes of the feeling of this interior identity, of the feeling of this integral “I am I,” underlying the stream of our impressions. The truth is that every man and every woman has, consciously or unconsciously, some sort of patched-up, thrown-together philosophy of life, a concretion of accumulated reactions gathered round this nucleus of personality. What, however, denotes the cultured person is the conscious banking up of this philosophy of his own, its protection from disintegrating elements, the guiding of its channel-bed through jungles of brutality and stupidity.

In a sentiment that Tom Wolfe would come to echo eight decades later in his magnificent admonition against the rise of the pseudo-intellectual, Powys draws the vital distinction between an educated person and a cultured person:

The more culture a man has, the more austerely — though naturally with many ironic reserves — does he abide by his own taste.

[…]

An educated person can glibly describe what he wishes you to regard as his last ready-made philosophy. A cultured person often finds it very difficult to explain what his philosophy is; but when he does manage to articulate it you feel that this is what he has secretly and profoundly lived by for many a long year. For in a cultured person’s life intellectual snobbishness has ceased to exist. He is not interested in the question whether his attitude is “intellectual” according to the current fashion or not.

Illustration from Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds by Jim Stoten
Illustration from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds by Jim Stoten

The distinction Powys makes is essentially that between artifice and authenticity. The latter necessitates that we do something inherently difficult and increasingly rare today — cultivate a capacity for nuance and duality and master the art of living with opposing truths. Powys writes:

Real culture has almost always a certain tendency to combine infinite subtlety with a kind of childish naïveté… What a perpetual stumbling-block, for instance, is the cultured person’s innate predilection for combining extreme opposites in his thought and his taste! His philosophical opinions will be found as a rule, judged by the standards of the merely educated, to be at once startlingly revolutionary and startlingly reactionary… One always feels that a merely educated man holds his philosophical views as if they were so many pennies in his pocket. They are separate from his life. Whereas with a cultured man there is no gap or lacuna between his opinions and his life. Both are dominated by the same organic, inevitable fatality. They are what he is.

Living out of one’s essence, and continually clarifying that essence through the daily act of living itself, is what Powys sees as both the measure of philosophy and the mark of the cultured person:

To philosophize with the real wisdom of the serpent and the real harmlessness of the dove it is not necessary to exhaust one’s brain upon riddles which are likely enough eternally insoluble. What is necessary, is to experiment with ordinary life; to adjust one’s appreciative and analytical powers to all the natural human sensations which are evoked by the recurrences of the seasons, by birth and death, by good and evil, by all those little diurnal happenings which make up our life upon earth… To isolate them, as they form and re-form in the calm-flowing stream of the deeper reality, to contemplate them, to assimilate them, as they pass, this is the true philosophical art.

[…]

A cultured man is not one who turns from a disorganized feverish day to a nightly orgy with Hegel and Bergson. He is rather one for whom the diurnal magic-mirror, whether its fleeting images catch the sun or sink into shadow, offers a vision of the world that becomes steadily more and more his own. To philosophize is not to read philosophy; it is to feel philosophy… None can call himself a philosopher whose own days are not made more intense and dramatic by his philosophizing.

John Cowper Powys by Gertrude Mary Powys (1944)
John Cowper Powys by Gertrude Mary Powys (1944)

Out of this feeling philosophy, Powys argues, springs forth what Nathaniel Hawthorn memorably termed (and Oliver Sacks memorably echoed) “an intercourse with the world” — the dynamic interaction that comes to define our lived, living experience:

This life in itself is not passively reflected, but is something that has been half-created, as well as half-discovered, by the creative mind.

[…]

In the lovely-ghastly world … we are all of us half-creating and half-discovering.

In the remainder of the wholly rewarding The Meaning of Culture, Powys goes on to explore this symbiosis of creation and discovery by examining culture’s dialogue with literature, nature, art, happiness, and love. Complement it with Bertrand Russell, a compatriot and contemporary of Powys’s, on what “the good life” really means and Simone Weil on how to be a complete human being.

Many thanks to Tim O’Reilly for pointing me to this vintage gem.

BP

24-Year-Old William Styron on Happiness, Presence, and the True Measure of Maturity, in a Letter to His Father

“I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.”

William Styron (June 11, 1925–November 1, 2006) is one of the most influential writers of the past century, a man as doggedly dedicated to the craft of writing as he was to his unflinching faith in the human ability to discern right from wrong and, based on that discernment, to act nobly, however difficult the choice might be. Nowhere does the wholehearted idealism for which he is most beloved shine more luminously than in a letter Styron sent to his father in the spring of 1949, found in Selected Letters of William Styron (public library) — the same marvelous compendium that gave us the young man, while still a senior at Duke, on why a college education is a waste of time for writers.

Right around the time Alan Watts was beginning to popularize Eastern philosophy in the West, formulating his enduring ideas on happiness and how to live with presence, 24-year-old Styron arrives at these eternal truths through incredibly insightful introspection, articulated with the intellectual elegance and pulsating prose of a great writer.

Having just moved to New York and settled into an apartment in Brooklyn, Styron begins with an endearing rant on rent — second only to Vonnegut’s — certain to delight and mildly infuriate any past or present New Yorker with its embedded testament to the collusion of time, capitalism, and rent gouging:

Dear Pop,

I am writing this letter from my new home in — you wouldn’t believe it — Brooklyn. I arrived in New York a little over a week ago, immediately began hunting around for an apartment, but found that places to live in are still terribly difficult to get, even though I had heard beforehand that things had loosened up somewhat. The last isn’t true at all. You’d think that everyone in the country had converged upon New York, and that each was making a concerted effort to get an apartment, room — even an alcove somewhere. I suppose that it all involves some terrifically complicated economic theory, but it still strikes me as being a gigantic sort of fraud — that one has to knock his brains out and pay away his soul to boot to be able to get a roof over his head and a minimum of the necessities of life.

Brooklyn by pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott from her series ‘Changing New York.’ Click image for more.

But such struggles, young Styron precociously intuits, feed the empathetic muscle that fortifies the heart of all idealism and creative purpose:

I guess it’s merely the fact that I’m politically naïve, and that the way to knowledge is mainly through experience — such experience as I am going through now. I suppose, too, that 99% of the radicals, so-called liberals, and Communists are only that way, not through any a priori, bookish idealism, but because they were broke once, or out in the rain, and had to turn to some politico-economic father confessor. Which from my point of view is all the more reason for bucking life as you see it — artistically speaking, that is — or accepting it, or making the most of it — writing about it faithfully, in the long run, and not getting mixed up with the soothsayers. I suppose that if you really catch hell from life — as an untouchable, say, or a sharecropper — your artistic instincts wither, and you become political. That’s natural enough. But Americans are political enough as it is. We’ve got nearly everything, and we still bitch about this and that at every turn.

Which is all by way of saying that though I somehow resent not being able to settle down in a cozy Greenwich Village apartment at $40 a month, I am still glad to be in Brooklyn in a clean and decent place…

Actually I hope I’m not giving the impression that I’m complaining, because this is a pretty nice place by anyone’s standards. It’s in an old weatherbeaten house overlooking Prospect Park. There are plenty of trees around, plenty of grass, and big windows to look at the grass through. I’m in an apartment on the ground floor — two rooms, bath, kitchen, all furnished, $70 a month — the rent being impossible were it not for the fact that I am — or will be in June — sharing the apartment with Bob Loomis of Duke, who is coming to N.Y. to get a job. Split, the rent will be $9 a week, utilities included, which isn’t bad.

Quite apart from the gobsmacking amusement of the then-and-now rent comparison — my own tiny apartment in Brooklyn, mere blocks from Styron’s, costs about fiftyfold as much — there is a deeper reward to his reflections, one found in the mindfulness with which he counters his complaints with an antidote of gratefulness.

Illustration for ‘Alice in Wonderland’ by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.

Decades before Pico Iyer asserted that “what gives you lasting happiness is not the stuff you have but the use you make of it,” young Styron reflects on the real source of happiness, which has to do with mastering the art of presence, and the true measure of maturity, which requires learning how to be alone and savor one’s own company. He writes:

For some reason, although I’m not exactly ecstatic about the world and life in general, I’m very happy. I don’t know why that should be, as I’ve always thought of myself as an exceptionally melancholy person.* Maybe the melancholy was merely adolescent, and maybe, though I can’t really sense it, I’m growing up, or reaching an “adjustment,” as the psychologists say. Whatever it is, it’s nice.

It’s not love — love of a girl, that is, because I haven’t found her yet.** It’s not the excitement of being in New York, because I’ve been in New York before and now know how to take with a grain of salt its synthetic stimuli (though I still love New York). Actually I don’t know what it is. For the past four or five days I’ve been alone, not seeing anyone or talking to anyone I know except over the phone. Ordinarily this aloneness would have made me miserable, utterly wretched. But I haven’t minded it at all. I haven’t drunk hardly anything — a few beers, that’s all. And yet I’ve been quite content, suffused with a sort of pleasant well-being that demanded really nothing strenuous of myself, or of anyone else.

Perhaps it’s merely that I’ve gained a measure of Emerson’s self-reliance. Perhaps it’s just that, for some reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel surer of myself than I ever have before — more confident of my worth and my ultimate success, and less fearful of failure.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s wonderful notion of “a seizure of happiness,” Styron describes a quality of vibrant presence at the heart of his contentment:

Maybe — again for some reason I haven’t quite been able to analyze — I’m finding that life excites me, appeals to me in a way I’ve never felt before. I still have awful moments of despair, and I guess I always will, but they don’t seem to be as overpowering as in the past. I don’t take so much pleasure in my despondency any more; I try to throw my bleak moods off — which again perhaps is a sign that I’m growing up.

I don’t know how this novel will turn out. Naturally, I hope it’s good. But best of all is the fact that I’m not afraid of its being bad, literarily speaking, provided I know I’ve done my best. In the meantime I’m taking great pleasure in living, and in being alone without being a recluse. At night, after I’ve worked through the day, I walk up Church Avenue to Flatbush and thence down Flatbush, enjoying every minute of the walk.

Atlantic Terminal Tower, Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for more.

But his most heartening insight is the precocious awareness that kindness, selflessness, and empathic understanding are not merely a gift to others but, above all, a gift to ourselves. Nearly a decade before Jack Kerouac advised that you should “practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now” and three decades before Kurt Vonnegut admonished that “hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Styron tells his father:

It’s somehow all of a sudden wonderfully exciting. Maybe it’s just forgetting one’s self for a minute, not trying to be smug and self-centered and aloof. And I’ve learned to do finally — at least with far less effort and self-consciousness — something that three or four years ago you told me was one of the touchstones of maturity: being nice to people even when they’re not nice to you… I’ll always hate the stupid and the bat-brained and the petty. But it doesn’t seem nearly so important anymore to hate, as try to understand.

Styron considers the ever-elusive art of balance in his closing lines, planting the seed for the beautiful credo that would come to define his literary legacy:

It’s incredible how one runs about frantically at times like a rat in a maze, not really knowing right from wrong (and often really not caring), victim of one’s own passions and instincts rather than master of one’s own soul. I suppose the proper thing to do is just to stop every now and then and say, Where am I heading? Actually, though I’m still much like the psychologist’s rat, I find myself asking myself that question almost too often. I suppose the very fact that I realize my indulgence in too much introspection is another sign (I hope) of maturity. Too much brooding is unhealthy and, although I still have my slumps, I’ve begun to realize that one of the great secrets is striking a balance between thought and action… Living, acting, thinking; not just vegetating neurotically, on one hand, or blundering about, on the other hand, like so many people do, like trapped flies. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I think it can be done, and that in this exciting-sorrowful age of ours it can make great literature.

Nineteen years later, Styron would win the Pulitzer Prize for transmuting that hard balance into great literature.

Selected Letters of William Styron is a trove of wisdom in its hefty totality. Complement it with young Hunter S. Thompson’s equally precocious, if bittersweet in hindsight, letter of advice on living a meaningful life and young Sylvia Plath’s breathtaking, and at least as bittersweet in hindsight, letters to her mother on living wholeheartedly.

* Decades later, Styron became painfully reacquainted with his melancholy nature and its deeper pathology — an experience he would come to recount in the 1990 masterwork Darkness Visible, perhaps the most powerful memoir of depression ever written.

** Styron did find the girl four years later in a young Baltimore poet named Rose Burgunder, who soon become Rose Styron and, after loving Bill until his dying day, brought to life this very collection of letters.

BP

Thea’s Tree: An Illustrated Ode to Daydreaming, the Passage of Time, and the Gift of Human Imagination

“Go plant this seed… And give it water and love and conversation.”

For the tellers of ancient myths, trees project the secret life of the spiritual world; for the great explainers of science, they remind us that we come from the sun; throughout history, trees have lent their shape to symbolic diagrams visualizing human knowledge. Humanity has always had a special relationship with trees — they are, after all, the oldest living unitary things in the world. Therein lies a potent metaphor that makes trees an exceptional storytelling device for some of the most difficult concepts with which the human mind tussles — notions like time, permanence, and impermanence. That’s precisely what author and illustrator Judith Clay explores with great gentleness and playful whimsy in Thea’s Tree (public library) — a belated but befitting addition to the best children’s books of 2014 by Indian independent publisher Karadi Tales, who bring to life wonderful and unusual stories from cultures around the world.

This particular masterpiece tells the story of a little girl named Thea, who lives in a city full of “houses, houses, and more houses,” and longs for nothing more than a tree — that exotic comrade in play and daydreaming, known to Thea only by her parents’ tales of their own childhood adventures.

As she dreams of “trees to climb, trees to hide in, trees to sit under and dream,” something unusual happens one late October day — a solitary leaf comes “floating gently and quietly past Thea’s window.”

Clay’s uncommonly imaginative and tender illustrations bring to life that delicate dance between desire and despair familiar to all who have yearned for something intensely and have been suddenly exhilarated by the faintest possibility of attaining it.

So uncontainable is Thea’s exhilaration that she rushes out to her friends, playing on the concrete street, and excitedly urges them to help her find the source of that hope-giving leaf. But they are unmoved, because “perhaps they didn’t even know what a tree was.” Indeed, implicit to the story is a subtle lamentation of how the legacy of the twentieth century has robbed children of essential childhood experiences like that vitalizing connection to the natural world.

Lulled by the precious leaf’s rustle, Thea drifts smoothly into a dream. The leaf carries her, by way of a giant moon — that quintessential patron saint of the child’s innocence — to the beautiful tree from which it came.

Once again, Clay’s subtle lament of how humanity has exploited the natural world comes to light as the tree speaks to Thea:

The tree saw right into Thea’s heart and found her deepest desire.

“Why do you want a tree, my dear?” the tree asked gently. “Do you want to build a hut or a boat or a fire with it? Do you want to make it into newspapers and books?”

Thea shook her head. Shyly, she said, “I want a tree for climbing and playing and to sit and dream under.”

“Then go plant this seed,” said the wise, white tree, “And give it water and love and conversation.”

When Thea awakes, she finds herself outside her house, seed in hand. She plants it into “a small patch of ground” and goes on to water it and love it and talk to it every day, until a tiny plant sprouts from the soil.

As Thea grows, so does the tree, which becomes a loyal dream-mate not only to her, and to her children, and to her grandchildren — a tender reminder that however much we may resist nature by replacing it with our houses and streets and treeless cities, the cycles of life are impervious to our resistance and peace only comes when we finally surrender to them and relinquish our vain resistance.

Thea’s Tree is absolutely magical from cover to cover. Complement it with The Farmer and the Clown, another belated addition to last year’s loveliest children’s books, then revisit a very different but equally rewarding Indian treasure celebrating trees, the breathtaking The Night Life of Trees.

Illustrations courtesy of Karadi Tales / Judith Clay

BP

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