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The Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2014

Nabokov’s love letters, Shackleton’s courageous journey, the unsung heroes behind creative icons, Joni Mitchell unbound, and more.

After the year’s best reads in science, children’s books, psychology and philosophy, and art, design, and photography, here come the finest memoirs, biographies, and history books of the year — our most inviting bridge between past and present, personal and universal.

1. A LIFE WORTH LIVING

“To decide whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question of philosophy,” Albert Camus wrote in his 119-page philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus in 1942. “Everything else … is child’s play; we must first of all answer the question.” One of the most famous opening lines of the twentieth century captures one of humanity’s most enduring philosophical challenges — the impulse at the heart of Seneca’s meditations on life and Montaigne’s timeless essays and Maya Angelou’s reflections, and a wealth of human inquiry in between. But Camus, the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature after Rudyard Kipling, addressed it with unparalleled courage of conviction and insight into the irreconcilable longings of the human spirit.

In the beautifully titled and beautifully written A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning (public library | IndieBound), historian Robert Zaretsky considers Camus’s lifelong quest to shed light on the absurd condition, his “yearning for a meaning or a unity to our lives,” and its timeless yet increasingly timely legacy:

If the question abides, it is because it is more than a matter of historical or biographical interest. Our pursuit of meaning, and the consequences should we come up empty-handed, are matters of eternal immediacy.

[…]

Camus pursues the perennial prey of philosophy — the questions of who we are, where and whether we can find meaning, and what we can truly know about ourselves and the world — less with the intention of capturing them than continuing the chase.

Dive deeper with more on Camus’s crusade for happiness as our moral obligation.

2. CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT?

“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead,” John Updike wrote in his magnificent memoir. “So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?” It’s a sentiment somewhat easier to swallow — though certainly not without its ancient challenge — when it comes to our own death, but when that of our loved ones skulks around, it’s invariably devastating and messy, and it catches us painfully unprepared no matter how much time we’ve had to “prepare.”

Count on another beloved New Yorker contributor, cartoonist Roz Chast, to address this delicate and doleful subject with equal parts wit and wisdom in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir (public library | IndieBound) — a remarkable illustrated chronicle of her parents’ decline into old age and death, pierced by those profound, strangely uplifting in-between moments of cracking open the little chests of truth we keep latched shut all our lives until a brush with our mortal impermanence rattles the lock and lets out some understanding, however brief and fragmentary, of the great human mystery of what it means to live.

The humor and humility with which Chast tackles the enormously difficult subject of aging, illness and death is nothing short of a work of genius.

See more here.

3. SUSAN SONTAG

In addition to being a great personal hero of mine, Susan Sontag endures as one of the most influential intellectuals of the past century. But her most enchanting quality was a singular blend of fierce, opinionated intellect and vast emotional capacity — a mind not only aware of the world, but also of itself and its own vulnerability, coupled with a heart that beat with uncommon intensity and inhabited its fallible human potentiality fully, unflinchingly — not only a “professional observer” of life, per her memorable definition of a writer, but also an active participant in life, both public and private. Sontag lived with more dimension than most people are capable of even imagining, let alone comprehending, which rendered her at times revered, at times reviled, but mostly artificially flattened into the very labels she so deplored.

To capture Sontag’s life and spirit by honoring her dimensionality, then, is a monumental task, but one which Berlin-based writer and art critic David Schreiber accomplishes with enormous elegance in the long-awaited Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library | IndieBound).

Perhaps the most interesting narrative thread in Schreiber’s story of Sontag explores how she claimed her place in culture and crafted her version of “the American dream,” beginning with her conquest of New York:

In March 1959, Susan and her son, David, moved to New York. With her typical flair for self-dramatization, Sontag told interviewers that she arrived in the metropolis with only two suitcases and thirty dollars. Later it was seventy dollars, a somewhat more realistic amount that would be about $450 in today’s dollars. Because of the low rents in New York at the time, it would have been enough to make a start.

As Sontag told it, it sounds like a version of the American dream: a twenty-three-year-old single mother without resources moves to a huge and hostile city intending to live there as an author, filmmaker, and intellectual. And on her own and against all odds, she realizes her dream. There could not have been a better place than New York for Sontag to convert her fantasy of the bohemian life into reality. In this city, everything seemed possible for a young, ambitious woman.

Portrait of Susan Sontag by Peter Hujar, 1975, from ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.’ Click image for details.

But it wasn’t merely a matter of ambition: Sontag possessed a rare talent to possess — people, places, social situations. Schreiber cites an account by one of Sontag’s lifelong friends, the American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Howard:

Howard remembers what a natural Sontag was at making new contacts, striking up friendships, and meeting influential people. “She could be very, very nice — even seductive — to people she wanted something from. She just could not talk to stupid people.”

[…]

Sontag’s natural and self-confident contact with this exclusive society is all the more remarkable when one recalls how difficult it was to gain admittance. The gathering of New York’s high society of writers, artists, and intellectuals was an almost hermetically sealed world with strict criteria for admission.

[…]

Sontag seemed to exude an irresistible mixture of intelligence, hipness, sex, and beauty, so that, as she herself once said, she had Jasper Johns, Bobby Kennedy, and Warren Beatty all at her feet.

Dive deeper here.

4. MEANWHILE IN SAN FRANCISCO

Although Meanwhile, in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words (public library | IndieBound) by illustrator extraordinaire and frequent Brain Pickings contributor Wendy MacNaughton may be “about” a city, in the sense that the raw inspiration was drawn from the streets of San Francisco, it is really about the city, any city — about community, about subcultures and belonging, about the complexities of gentrification, about what it means to have individual dignity and shared identity. In that sense, it is a collective memoir of community.

Like a modern-day Margaret Mead armed with ink and watercolor, not a critic or commentator but an observer and amplifier of voice, MacNaughton plunges into the living fabric of the city with equal parts curiosity and compassion, gentleness and generosity, wit and wisdom, and emerges with a dimensional portrait painted with honesty, humor, and humility.

Beneath the individual stories — of the bus driver, of the hipsters, of the old men in Chinatown, of the librarian, of the street preacher — lies a glimpse of our shared humanity, those most vulnerable and earnest parts of the human soul that we often overlook and dismiss as we reduce people to their demographic and psychographic variables, be those race or gender or socioeconomic status or subcultural identification. Embedded in these simple, moving stories is MacNaughton’s tender reminder that there is no greater gift we can give each other than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing, of peering beyond the persona and into the person with an awareness that however different our struggles and circumstances may be, we are inextricably bonded by the great human longing to be truly seen for who we are.

See more here.

5. EVER YOURS

Vincent van Gogh was woven of contradictions — an extraordinary artist who also illuminated the scientific mysteries of movement and light; a man of great hunger for love and light and a great capacity for anguish. Nowhere does the role of these polarizing pulls in the making of his genius shine more brilliantly than in Ever Yours: The Essential Letters (public library | IndieBound) — a revelatory selection of 265 letters exploring Van Gogh’s creative restlessness, his struggle to find his path in life, his tentative first steps into painting, and his views on art, society, love, and life.

In one letter, Van Gogh writes to his brother, Theo:

I’m always inclined to believe that the best way of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, you’ll be on the right path to knowing more thoroughly, afterwards; that’s what I say to myself. But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, with a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek to know more thoroughly, better, and more.

‘Self-Portrait with Straw Hat’ by Vincent van Gogh

In another, he despairs:

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember,and he has vague ideas and says to himself, “the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood,” and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering. “Look, there’s an idler,” says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration. A bout of melancholy — but, say the children who look after him, he’s got everything that he needs in his cage, after all — but he looks at the sky outside, heavy with storm clouds, and within himself feels a rebellion against fate. I’m in a cage, I’m in a cage, and so I lack for nothing, you fools! Me, I have everything I need! Ah, for pity’s sake, freedom, to be a bird like other birds!

An idle man like that resembles an idle bird like that.

[…]

You may not always be able to say what it is that confines, that immures, that seems to bury, and yet you feel [the] bars…

Dive deeper with Van Gogh’s heartfelt letters on his struggle to find his purpose.

6. THE UNSPEAKABLE

Meghan Daum is undoubtedly one of the finest essayists of our time. In The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (public library | IndieBound), she explores “the tension between primal reactions and public decorum” and aiming at “a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses,” driven by a valiant effort to unbridle those messy, complex experiences from the simplistic templates with which we address them, both privately and publicly.

In the introduction, Daum echoes Zadie Smith’s piercing critique of our platitudes-paved road to self-actualization and laments the hijacking of our darker, more disquieting emotions by the happiness industrial complex:

For all the lip service we pay to “getting real,” we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told — and in turn tell others — that illness and suffering isn’t a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we’re supposed to find joy isn’t a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we’re apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American.

Dive deeper with Daum on aging, nostalgia, and how we become who we are.

7. WORN STORIES

One of the most extraordinary things about human beings is that we weave our lives of stories, stories woven of sentimental memories, which we can’t help but attach to our physical environment — from where we walk, creating emotional place-memory maps of a city, to how smell transports us across space and time, to what we wear.

For artist and editor Emily Spivack, clothes can be an “evolving archive of experiences, adventures, and memories” and a powerful storytelling device. Since 2010, she has been meticulously curating a remarkable catalog of such wearable personal histories from the living archives of some of the most interesting minds of our time — artists and Holocaust survivors, writers and renegades, hip-hop legends and public radio personalities. In Worn Stories (public library), published by Princeton Architectural Press, Spivack shares the best of these stories — some poignant, some funny, all imbued with disarming humanity and surprising vulnerability — from an impressive roster of contributors, including performance artist Marina Abramovic, writer Susan Orlean, comedian John Hodgman, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley, Orange Is the New Black memoirist Piper Kerman, artist Maira Kalman, MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, and artist, writer, and educator Debbie Millman.

The stories span a remarkable range — a traditional Indian shirt worn during a spiritual Hindu gathering turned kidnapping; the shoes in which Marina Abramovic walked the Great Wall of China while saying farewell to a soulmate; an oddly uncharacteristic purple silk tuxedo shirt that belonged to Johnny Cash, preserved by his daughter; and, among myriad other shreds and threads of the human experience, various mementos from the “soul loss” — as one contributor puts it — of love affairs ending.

Read some of the stories here, then hear Spivack’s fascinating interview on Design Matters.

8. LETTERS TO VÉRA

Long before Vladimir Nabokov became a sage of literature, Russia’s most prominent literary émigré, and a man of widely revered strong opinions, the most important event of his life took place: 24-year-old Vladimir met 21-year-old Véra. She would come to be not only his great love and wife for the remaining half century of his life, but also his editor, assistant, administrator, agent, archivist, chauffeur, researcher, stenographer in four languages, and even his bodyguard, famously carrying a small pistol in her purse to protect her husband from assassination after he became America’s most famous and most scandalous living author.

So taken was Vladimir with Véra’s fierce intellect, her independence, her sense of humor, and her love of literature — she had been following his work and clipping his poems since she was nineteen and he twenty-two — that he wrote his first poem for her after having spent mere hours in her company. But nowhere did his all-consuming love and ebullient passion unfold with more mesmerism than in his letters to her, which he began writing the day after they met and continued until his final hours. They are now collected in the magnificent tome Letters to Véra (public library) — a lifetime of spectacular contributions to the canon of literary history’s greatest love letters, with intensity and beauty of language rivaled only, perhaps, by the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and those of Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.

Véra and Vladimir Nabokov, Montreaux, 1968 (Photograph: Philippe Halsman)

In July of 1923, a little more than two months after they met, Vladimir writes to Véra:

I won’t hide it: I’m so unused to being — well, understood, perhaps, — so unused to it, that in the very first minutes of our meeting I thought: this is a joke… But then… And there are things that are hard to talk about — you’ll rub off their marvelous pollen at the touch of a word… You are lovely…

[…]

Yes, I need you, my fairy-tale. Because you are the only person I can talk with about the shade of a cloud, about the song of a thought — and about how, when I went out to work today and looked a tall sunflower in the face, it smiled at me with all of its seeds.

[…]

See you soon my strange joy, my tender night.

By November, his love has only intensified:

How can I explain to you, my happiness, my golden wonderful happiness, how much I am all yours — with all my memories, poems, outbursts, inner whirlwinds? … I swear — and the inkblot has nothing to do with it — I swear by all that’s dear to me, all I believe in — I swear that I have never loved before as I love you, — with such tenderness — to the point of tears — and with such a sense of radiance.

Devour more of Nabokov’s exquisite love letters here.

9. SHACKLETON’S JOURNEY

In August of 1914, legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton led his brave crew of men and dogs on a journey to the end of the world — the enigmatic continent of Antarctica. That voyage — monumental both historically and scientifically — would become the last expedition of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, which stretched from 1888 to 1914. From Flying Eye Books — the children’s book imprint of British indie press Nobrow, which gave us Freud’s comic biography, Blexbolex’s brilliant No Man’s Land and some gorgeous illustrated histories of aviation and the Space Race — comes Shackleton’s Journey (public library | IndieBound), a magnificent chronicle by emerging illustrator William Grill, whose affectionate and enchanting colored-pencil drawings bring to life the legendary explorer and his historic expedition.

As Grill tells us in the introduction, Shackleton was a rather extraordinary character:

Shackleton was the second of ten children. From a young age, Shackleton complained about teachers, but he had a keen interest in books, especially poetry — years later, on expeditions, he would read to his crew to lift their spirits. Always restless, the young Ernest left school at 16 to go to sea. After working his way up the ranks, he told his friends, “I think I can do something better, I want to make a name for myself.”

And make it he did. Reflecting on the inescapable allure of exploration, which carried him through his life of adventurous purpose, Shackleton once remarked:

I felt strangely drawn to the mysterious south. I vowed to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow, and go on and on ’til I came to one of the poles of the Earth, the end of the axis on which this great round ball turns.

Years later, Shackleton himself captured the spirit that carried them:

I chose life over death for myself and my friends… I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.

See more here.

10. THE WHO, THE WHAT, AND THE WHEN

There is something quite wonderful about witnessing one human being selflessly bolster the creative achievement of another, especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator — from the man who helped Bukowski quit his soul-sucking day job to become a full-time writer to the way Ursula Nordstrom nurtured young Maurice Sendak’s talent. But those who blow quiet, steadfast wind into the sails of genius clash with our narrow mythology of solitary brilliance — not to mention that as we so readily dismiss creative contribution on the accusatory grounds of “privilege” today, we weigh the material advantages but forget that the loving and staunch support of human capital is often the greatest privilege of all. And for many people we’ve come to celebrate as geniuses, such human capital was precisely what made their achievements possible — a vital aid rather than a detractor of their greatness.

That’s precisely what illustrator extraordinaire Julia Rothman and her collaborators Jenny Volvovski and Matt Lamothe celebrate in The Who, the What, and the When: 65 Artists Illustrate the Secret Sidekicks of History (public library | IndieBound) — an illuminating inventory of the little-known champions behind a wide range of cultural icons and an homage to the gift of what Robert Krulwich once so poetically termed “friends in low places.” Each story is told by a different writer and illustrated by a different artist, all of astounding range and talent.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Among these enabling unknowns are George Washington’s dentist, Andy Warhol’s mother, Alan Turing’s teenage crush, Emily Dickinson’s dog, Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, and Roald Dahl’s mother. Indeed, as immeasurably heartening as the project is, there is also a heartbreaking undertone reminding us how consistently women are sidelined in history — throughout the book, the most frequently recurring roles of these silent supporters are of wife and mother, who doubled and tripled and quadrupled as assistant, caretaker, editor, publicist, and a great many more utilitarian and creative duties.

Véra Nabokov, 1902–1991; art by Thomas Doyle

Rothman and team write in the introduction:

Behind every great person there is someone who enabled his or her ascension. These friends, relatives, partners, muses, colleagues, coaches, assistants, lovers, teachers, and caretakers deserve some credit… When you consider your own life, there are dozens of people who have guided you along your path — whether a teacher from fifth grade who finally got you to raise your hand in class, a family friend who gave you your first camera, or that whiskey-sipping neighbor who’d tell you stories of his childhood. These relationships shape our lives, some lightly and others with more impact.

Julia Warhola, 1891–1971; art by Leslie Herman

Read some of these heartening illustrated stories here.

11. E.E. CUMMINGS

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras memorably wrote. Half a century earlier, a young poet began teaching the world this art, and teaching us to question what is seen, then made another art of that questioning. In E. E. Cummings: A Life (public library | IndieBound), memoirist, biographer, and journalist Susan Cheever chronicles the celebrated poet’s “wildly ambitious attempt at creating a new way of seeing the world through language.”

Cheever considers the three ways in which modernists like Cummings and his coterie — which included such icons as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Marcel Duchamp — reshaped culture:

Modernism as Cummings and his mid-twentieth-century colleagues embraced it had three parts. The first was the exploration of using sounds instead of meanings to connect words to the reader’s feelings. The second was the idea of stripping away all unnecessary things to bring attention to form and structure: the formerly hidden skeleton of a work would now be exuberantly visible. The third facet of modernism was an embrace of adversity. In a world seduced by easy understanding, the modernists believed that difficulty enhanced the pleasures of reading. In a Cummings poem the reader must often pick his way toward comprehension, which comes, when it does, in a burst of delight and recognition.

One can’t help but feel the particular timeliness, today, of the third — how often are we offered “a burst of delight and recognition” in our culture of monotonously shrill linkbait as we struggle to glean any semblance of wisdom in the age of information? Cummings knew that equally essential was the capacity to notice the invitation to experience that burst — a capacity ever-shrinking, ever-urgently longed for in our age of compulsive flight from stillness — and he made an art of that noticing. Cheever writes:

[The modernists] were trying to slow down the seemingly inexorable rush of the world, to force people to notice their own lives. In the twenty-first century, that rush has now reached Force Five; we are all inundated with information and given no time to wonder what it means or where it came from. Access without understanding and facts without context have become our daily diet.

Read more, including a note on the faux-controversy over Cummings’s name capitalization, here.

12. THE LONDON JUNGLE BOOK

Something happened to us between Shackleton’s day in the Golden Age of Exploration and today — something that transformed us from wide-eyed wanderers who came to know distant lands with a sense of wonder and awe into the habitually crabby, short-tempered, entitled travelers we are today. We tap our feet impatiently at the airport security line, oblivious to the miracle we’re about to experience — a giant beast of our own creation is to take us high into the sky (where we can enjoy food and Academy-Award-winning cinema) and to a distant, often foreign land. A mere century ago, the vast majority of people never traveled more than fifty miles from their place of birth in their lifetime — and yet here we are today, jaded and irritable at the prospect of travel. How did we end up that way? And what if we arrogant moderns could, if only for a moment, strip ourselves of our cultural baggage and experience travel afresh, with eager new eyes and exuberant joy for the journey?

That’s precisely what award-winning artist Bhajju Shyam, working in the Gond tradition of Indian folk art, does in The London Jungle Book (public library | IndieBound) — an extraordinary and invigorating book from Indian independent publisher Tara Books, who continue to give international voice to marginalized art and literature through their commune of artists, writers and designers collaborating on unusual, often handmade books. Titled as both an homage and a mirror-image counterpoint to Rudyard Kipling’s iconic The Jungle Book, this gem tells the story of young Bhajju’s reality-warping encounter with London, where he journeyed from his native India.

At once a highly symbolic, almost semiotic visual travelogue and a work of remarkable philosophical sensitivity, the book invites us to see our tiresomely familiar world through the eyes of a young man who has a creative intelligence few adults are endowed with and a childlike capacity for wonder and metaphorical imagery. The busy King’s Cross station of the London Tube becomes a serpentine King of the Underworld, Big Ben a giant omniscient rooster, and London’s female workforce — women who seem to Shyam to do most of the work “and happily” — multi-handed goddesses.

Dive deeper with more of Shyam’s gorgeous drawings and the story of his voyage from poverty in a small Indian village to international acclaim as a self-made artist.

13. CATALOGING THE WORLD

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web. (Even the visual bookshelf I use to manage the Brain Pickings book archive is named after him.)

In Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (public library | IndieBound), writer, educator, and design historian Alex Wright traces Otlet’s legacy not only in technology and information science, but also in politics, social reform, and peace activism, illustrating why not only Otlet’s ideas, but also his idealism matter as we contemplate the future of humanity.

The Mundaneum, with its enormous filing system designed by Otlet himself, allowed people to request information by mail-order. By 1912, Otlet and his team were fielding 1,500 such requests per year.
(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

Read more here.

14. MOCHA DICK

In May of 1839, Herman Melville found himself riveted by an article in the New York monthly magazine The Knickerbocker about a “renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers” — a formidable albino whale named Mocha Dick, who had been terrorizing whaling ships with unprecedented ferocity for nearly half a century. Twelve years later, the beast was immortalized in Melville’s Moby-Dick, a commercial failure in the author’s lifetime that went on to be celebrated as one of the Great American Novels and is among the greatest books of all time.

Now, children’s book author Brian Heinz and artist Randall Enos tell the story of the original white whale behind Melville’s masterpiece in Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury (public library | IndieBound) — a captivating picture-book “biography” of the monster-turned-literary-legend, from how human aggression turned the “peaceful giant” into a ferocious beast to his first recorded attack near the South American island of Mocha off the coast of Chile to the final, fatal harpoon blow.

Suddenly, the whale burst through the waves, his jaws gnashing in the foam. One sweep of his flukes hurled the craft high into the air, spilling the crew into the sea. Twenty-six pairs of teeth as long as a man’s hand clamped down on the boat. The huge head shook savagely until only splinters remained. Then the whale disappeared in the twilight. The remaining boats plucked up their comrades and rowed briskly to their whaler. Some men sat stone-faced. Some shook.

Randall’s gorgeous linocut collage illustrations, to which the screen does no justice whatsoever, lend Heinz’s lyrical narrative dimension and magic that render the end result utterly enchanting.

See more here.

15. UPDIKE

John Updike (March 18, 1932–January 27, 2009) wasn’t merely the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Humanities medal, among a wealth of other awards. He had a mind that could ponder the origin of the universe, a heart that could eulogize a dog with such beautiful bittersweetness, and a spirit that could behold death without fear. He is also credited with making suburban sex sexy, which landed him on the cover of Time magazine under the headline “The Adulterous Society” — something Adam Begley explores in the long-awaited biography Updike (public library | IndieBound).

Begley chronicles Updike’s escapades in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the early 1960s, just as he was breaking through with The New Yorker — the bastion of high culture to which he had dreamed of contributing since the age of twelve. His literary career was beginning to gain momentum with the publication of Rabbit, Run in 1960 — the fictional story of a twenty-something suburban writer who, drowning in responsibilities to his young family, finds love outside of marriage. That fantasy would soon become a reality for 28-year-old Updike, a once-dorky kid who had gotten through Harvard by playing the class clown clad in his ill-fitted tweed jackets and unfashionably wide ties.

Dive deeper with the story of how Updike made suburban sex sexy.

16. JONI MITCHELL

At the age of eight, Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943) contracted polio during the last major North American epidemic of the disease before the invention of the polio vaccine. Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home. And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. The liner notes of her 2004 compilation album Dreamland capture with elegant precision her tenacious spirit and creative restlessness: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”

When musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom chanced into a dark hole of a coffeehouse one November night in 1966, it was this explorer’s soul that she felt emanating from 23-year-old Mitchell, who was quietly tuning and retuning her guitar onstage. Marom knew that she was in the presence of genius. Over the decades that followed, she would interview Mitchell on three separate occasions — in 1973, in 1979, and in 2012. These remarkably wide-ranging conversations are now collected in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library | IndieBound) — an effort “to crack something so mysterious … the creative process itself, in all its fullness,” over the course of which Mitchell, with equal parts conviction and vulnerability, tussles with those “big questions.”

Dive deeper with Mitchell on freedom, the source of creativity, and the dark side of success and therapy and the creative mind.

17. RADIO BENJAMIN

Walter Benjamin may be best known as a literary critic, philosopher, and essayist — with enduring insight on the written word that includes his thirteen rules of writing and his advice on how to write a fat tome — but he was also a pioneer of early German radio. Between 1927 and 1933, thirty-something Benjamin wrote and delivered nearly ninety broadcasts over the nascent medium. (The world’s first radio news program had aired in August of 1920 and commercial entertainment broadcasts followed in 1922.) Those pioneering pieces, at last translated into English and released as Radio Benjamin (public library | IndieBound), were notable for many reasons, but perhaps most of all for upholding the idealism and optimism of any young medium. (Early German radio, for instance, was based on subscriptions and had strict rules against commercially sponsored programming — something wholly heartening and wholly heartbreaking in our era of “native advertising” and other unending violations of the church-state relationship between public-interest journalism and private-interest greed.) Many of Benjamin’s broadcasts were also groundbreaking in being aimed at children, from educational programming to fairy-tale adaptations to original plays.

Dive deeper with Benjamin’s satirical take on the key qualities of the successful person.

18.THE YEAR OF READING DANGEROUSLY

“A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his fourteen definitions of a classic, “but which always shakes the particles off.” And yet even if we agree that “a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” there is an infinite range of what different chests can — or want to — hold. The question of what makes a great book is thus notoriously elusive — so much so that even the most celebrated writers of our time can’t agree on the greatest books of all time. That question is what Andy Miller implicitly, and at times explicitly, asks in The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life (public library | IndieBound) — his wonderfully elevating and entertaining memoir of the twelve months he spent reading “some of the greatest and most famous books in the world, and two by Dan Brown.” (With this, at the very outset, comes a comforting character test that casts Miller as the kind of person who cherishes the written word but does so without an ounce of the self-important puffery with which most professional cherishers parade around literature.)

Miller’s project — which parallels Henry Miller’s The Books in My Life in some ways and intersects it at one point — began as an earnest effort to pay off his literary debt by reading many of the books he had “succeeded in dodging during an otherwise fairly literate thirty-seven years on Earth.” His intention was not to construct a definitive canon — he calls the project “a diary rather than a manifesto; a ledger, not an agenda,” a quest to “to integrate books — to reintegrate them — into an ordinary day-to-day existence, a life which was becoming progressively less engaging to the individual living it.”

Read more here.

19. MARX

The history of our species is rife with ideologies — political, religious, social, philosophical — that have been either wholly hijacked from their creators or gradually warped, with only fragments of the original vision intact, doomed to being continually misunderstood by posterity.

On the heels of the excellent graphic biography of Freud, British indie press Nobrow is back with Marx (public library | IndieBound) by Swiss writer, economist, historian, and psychoanalyst Corinne Maier and French illustrator Anne Simon — an illuminating chronicle of the life and legacy of a man at once reviled as “the Devil” for denouncing capitalism and celebrated for his ideals of eradicating inequality, injustice, and exploitation from the world. More than the sum total of his political legacy, Marx’s story is also one of great personal turmoil and tragedy, inner conflict, and moral tussle — subtleties that the comic genre, with its gift for stripping complexities to their simplest truths without losing dimension, reveals with great sensitivity and insight.

The story begins with Marx’s childhood as the third of nine kids in a traditional Jewish family and traces his exasperation with classical education and his choice to study philosophy instead, how he fell in love with the woman who would become his partner for life, the evolution of his influential treatise The Communist Manifesto, how he ended up dying a stateless person, “both adored and hated,” and what his ideas have to do with the 2008 economic collapse.

See more here.

20. THE PILOT AND THE LITTLE PRINCE

“The Little Prince will shine upon children with a sidewise gleam. It will strike them in some place that is not the mind and glow there until the time comes for them to comprehend it.” So sang a 1943 review of The Little Prince, published a few months before the beloved book’s author disappeared over the Bay of Biscay never to return. But though it ultimately became the cause of his tragic death, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s experience as a pilot also informed the richness of his life and the expansive reach of his spirit, from his reflection on what his time in the Sahara desert taught him about the meaning of life to his beautiful meditation on the life-saving potential of a human smile. It was at the root of his identity and his imagination, and as such inspired the inception of The Little Prince.

That interplay between Saint-Exupéry the pilot and Saint-Exupéry the imaginative creator of a cultural classic is what celebrated Czech-born American children’s book author and illustrator Peter Sís explores in the beautiful graphic biography The Pilot and the Little Prince (public library | IndieBound) — a sensitive account of Saint-Exupéry’s life, underpinned by a fascinating chronicle of how aviation came to change humanity and a poignant undercurrent of political history, absolutely magical it its harmonized entirety.

Dive deeper here.

For more timelessly rewarding biographies, memoirs, and history books, see the selections for 2013, 2012, and 2011.

BP

How We Become Who We Are: Meghan Daum on Nostalgia, Aging, and Why We Romanticize Our Imperfect Younger Selves

“Life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally—and sometimes maddeningly—who we are.”

In her mind-bending meditation on what makes you and your young self the same person despite a lifetime of changes, philosopher Rebecca Goldstein pondered the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.” Psychologists, meanwhile, have demonstrated that we’re woefully flawed at predicting the priorities of our future selves. Even so, Joan Didion was right to counsel in her classic essay on keeping a notebook that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” But the most confounding thing about our relationship with the evolution of our own selves is that we tend to romanticize our youth even if we don’t find the versions of ourselves that inhabited it “attractive company” at all.

This conundrum is one of the many human perplexities Meghan Daum, one of the finest essayists of our time, explores in The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (public library) — a magnificent collection of personal essays examining “the tension between primal reactions and public decorum” and aiming at “a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses,” driven by a valiant effort to unbridle those messy, complex experiences from the simplistic templates with which we address them, both privately and publicly.

Meghan Daum (Photograph: Laura Kleinhenz)

In the introduction, Daum echoes Zadie Smith’s piercing critique of our platitudes-paved road to self-actualization and laments the hijacking of our darker, more disquieting emotions by the happiness industrial complex:

For all the lip service we pay to “getting real,” we remain a culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes. We are told — and in turn tell others — that illness and suffering isn’t a ruthless injustice, but a journey of hope. Finding disappointment in places where we’re supposed to find joy isn’t a sign of having different priorities as much as having an insufficiently healthy outlook. We love redemption stories and silver linings. We believe in overcoming adversity, in putting the past behind us, in everyday miracles. We like the idea that everything happens for a reason. When confronted with the suggestion that life is random or that suffering is not always transcendent we’re apt to not only accuse the suggester of rudeness but also pity him for his negative worldview. To reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American.

In one of the collection’s most pause-giving essays, titled “Not What It Used to Be,” Daum reflects on the conflicted, paradoxical nostalgia we tend to place on our youth — nostalgia woven of an openness of longing, as the infinite possibilities of life stretch ahead, but also of many misplaced longings for the wrong things, the dangerous things, the dangerously safe things. Daum writes:

Most of us have unconscious disbeliefs about our lives, facts that we accept at face value but that still cause us to gasp just a little when they pass through our minds at certain angles. Mine are these: that my mother is dead, that the Vatican actually had it in itself to select a pope like Pope Francis, and that I am now older than the characters on thirtysomething. That last one is especially upending. How is it that the people who were, for me, the very embodiment of adulthood, who, with their dinner parties and marital spats and career angst represented the place in life I’d like to get to but surely never will, are on average six to eight years my junior? How did I get to be middle-aged without actually growing up?

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

In a sentiment that calls to mind Maya Angelou’s unforgettable words on growing up, Daum adds:

Luckily, even some of the most confounding questions have soothingly prosaic answers. On the subject of growing up, or feeling that you have succeeded in doing so, I’m pretty sure the consensus is that it’s an illusion. Probably no one ever really feels grown-up, except for certain high school math teachers or members of Congress. I suspect that most members of AARP go around feeling in many ways just as confused and fraudulent as most middle school students. You might even be able to make a case that not feeling grown-up is a sign that you actually are, much as worrying that you’re crazy supposedly means you’re not.

Daum’s astonishment is especially resonant for those of us who compounded our dissatisfying college experience with the culturally inflicted guilt of feeling like not finding satisfaction there was a profound personal failure:

I managed to have such a mediocre time at a place that is pretty much custom designed for delivering the best years of your life. I’d like to say that I wasn’t the same person back then that I later became and now am. But the truth is that I was the exact same person. I was more myself then than at any other time in my life. I was an extreme version of myself. Everything I’ve always felt I felt more intensely. Everything I’ve always wanted, I wanted more. Everything I currently dislike, I downright hated back then. People who think I’m judgmental, impatient, and obsessed with real estate now should have seen me in college. I was bored by many of my classmates and irked by the contrived mischief and floundering sexual intrigues of dormitory life. I couldn’t wait to get out and rent my own apartment, preferably one in a grand Edwardian building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In that sense, I guess my college experience was just as intense as my husband’s. I just view that intensity negatively rather than nostalgically, which perhaps is its own form of nostalgia.

To illuminate that curious misplacing of nostalgia, Daum invokes an imaginary encounter between her present self and her older self — the concept behind an emboldening old favorite of letters by luminaries to their younger selves — in which Older Self ambushes Younger Self “like a goon sent in to settle a debt”:

At first, Younger Self is frightened and irritated (Older Self speaks harshly to her) but a feeling of calm quickly sets in over the encounter. Younger Self sits there rapt, as though receiving the wisdom of Yoda or of some musician she idolizes, such as Joni Mitchell. But Older Self is no Yoda. Older Self is stern and sharp. Older Self has adopted the emphatic, no-nonsense speaking style of formidable women with whom she worked in countless New York City offices before deciding she never again wanted to work anywhere but her own home (a place where, over the years, she has lost a certain amount of people skills and has been known to begin conversations as though slamming a cleaver into a side of raw beef). Older Self begins her sentences with “Listen” and “Look.” She says, “Listen, what you’re into right now isn’t working for you.” She says, “Look, do yourself a favor and get out of this situation right now. All of it. The whole situation. Leave this college. Forget about this boy you’re sleeping with but not actually dating. Stop pretending you did the reading for your Chaucer seminar when you didn’t and never will.”

To which Younger Self will ask, “Okay, then what should I do?” And of course Older Self has no answer, because Older Self did not leave the college, did not drop the boy, did not stop pretending to have read Chaucer. And the cumulative effect of all those failures (or missed opportunities, blown chances, fuckups, whatever) is sitting right here, administering a tongue-lashing to her younger self (which is to say herself) about actions or inactions that were never going to be anything other than what they were. And at that point the younger and older selves merge into some kind of floating blob of unfortunate yet inevitable life choices, at which point I stop the little game and nudge my mind back into real time and try to think about other things, such as what I might have for dinner that night or what might happen when I die. Such is the pendulum of my post-forty thoughts.

And yet the most paradoxical, most endearingly human thing is that most of us invariably fail to see our Younger Self as part of that amalgamated blob and instead romanticize it as the counterpoint to those “unfortunate yet inevitable life choices,” as our highest potentiality at a point before crumbling into the reality of necessary concessions and mediocrities. For all its cluelessness, for all its complicity in the making of our present dissatisfactions, we continue to worship youth — especially our own.

Reflecting on the disorienting fact — because that fact is always disorienting to those of whom it becomes factual — that nothing she ever does will ever be preceded by the word young again, Daum writes:

Any traces of precocity I ever had are long forgotten. I am not and will never again be a young writer, a young homeowner, a young teacher. I was never a young wife. The only thing I could do now for which my youth would be a truly notable feature would be to die. If I died now, I’d die young. Everything else, I’m doing middle-aged.

I am nostalgic for my twenties (most of them, anyway; twenty and twenty-one were squandered at college; twenty-four was kind of a wash, too) but I can tell you for sure that they weren’t as great as I now crack them up to be. I was always broke, I was often lonely, and I had some really terrible clothes. But my life was shiny and unblemished. Everything was ahead of me. I walked around with an abiding feeling that, at any given time, anything could go in any direction. And it was often true.

In a passage that makes one wonder whether contemporary adults are thrust into an illusory sense of youth by the constant stimulation and endless temptations of the internet, Daum describes the ceaseless fear of missing out — FOMO, as the Information Age has shorthanded it — that characterized her youth:

I didn’t want to miss anything. I wanted to stretch out over the city like a giant octopus. I wanted enough appendages to be able to ring every door buzzer simultaneously. There was some switch turned on in my brain that managed to make 90 percent of conversations feel interesting or useful or, if nothing else, worth referencing later if only by way of describing how boring this person was who I got stuck talking to.

And then, echoing Joan Didion’s memorable lament that “memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember,” she adds: “Or at least it’s easy to remember it that way.”

Illustration from Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders, an illustrated compendium of untranslatable words from around the world

But the sense she describes is a palpable, familiar one, perhaps best captured by the untranslatable Portuguese word saudade. Daum writes:

This was a time in my life when I was so filled with longing for so many things that were so far out of reach that at least once a day I thought my heart would implode from the sheer force of unrequited desire.

By desire I am not referring to apartments I wanted to occupy or furniture I wanted to buy or even people I was attracted to (well, I’m referring to those things a little) but, rather, a sensation I can only describe as the ache of not being there yet.

She revisits the imaginary encounter between her two selves and considers how gobsmacked Younger Self would be by the notion that a few decades later, she’d be reminiscing fondly about the cumulative timescape of the very things presently exasperating her:

I can imagine her looking at Older Self in horrified astonishment. “I’m going to be reminiscing about this?” she’d ask while the ATM spat out her card and flashed “insufficient funds” across the screen. “You’re telling me that when I’m forty-five I’ll be pining for the temp jobs and cheap shoes that now comprise my life? You’re telling me this is as good as it gets? You’re telling me, contrary to everything I tell myself, that it’s actually all downhill from here?”

To which I’d hope that Older Self would have the good sense to assure Younger Self that that is not what she is saying, that indeed things will only go up from here. Maybe not right away and certainly not without some deep valleys to offset the peaks (as well as a few sharp left turns, as long as we’re speaking in euphemisms) but with enough steadiness to suggest that whatever she is doing now more or less constitutes being on the right track.

What makes this imaginary exchange especially alluring as a thought experiment is precisely the fact that it’s fictional — fictional not because such a fold in the space-time continuum of personal identity is impossible in real life, but because it unfolds in a microscopic level every second of every minute of every day of our real lives. What makes the encounter fictional is the very idea of a static, all-knowing Older Self at any point in life — we are, indeed, “works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” and the dividing line between our past selves and our present ones is a constantly shifting one, not so much a line as a scatterplot of impressions clustering here and there to form some aspect of our present identity, only to disperse again into the ether of our fluid personhood and reassemble in a different formation on which we hang our daily fragment of identity.

But this, perhaps, is what Daum is ultimately getting at. She follows that alluring fiction to its inevitable, necessary end:

“Listen,” Older Self might say. “The things that right now seem permanently out of reach, you’ll reach them eventually. You’ll have a career, a house, a partner in life. You will have much better shoes. You will reach a point where your funds will generally be sufficient — maybe not always plentiful, but sufficient.”

But here’s what Older Self will not have the heart to say: some of the music you are now listening to — the CDs you play while you stare out the window and think about the five million different ways your life might go — will be unbearable to listen to in twenty years. They will be unbearable not because they will sound dated and trite but because they will sound like the lining of your soul. They will take you straight back to the place you were in when you felt that anything could happen at any time, that your life was a huge room with a thousand doors, that your future was not only infinite but also elastic. They will be unbearable because they will remind you that at least half of the things you once planned for your future are now in the past and others got reabsorbed into your imagination before you could even think about acting on them. It will be as though you’d never thought of them in the first place, as if they were never meant to be anything more than passing thoughts you had while playing your stereo at night.

Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

Daum ends by reflecting on how we manage to romanticize such anguishing times by excising the anguish and framing into our memory only the sense of that octopoid reach into possibility:

Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them. What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything. I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.

With an eye toward the profound rift between who we think we’ll become and who we end up becoming, Daum concludes:

The problem, I now know, is that no one ever really feels wise, least of all those who actually have it in themselves to be so. The Older Self of our imagination never quite folds itself into the older self we actually become. Instead, it hovers in the perpetual distance like a highway mirage. It’s the destination that never gets any closer even as our life histories pile up behind us in the rearview mirror. It is the reason that I got to forty-something without ever feeling thirty-something. It is why I hope that if I make it to eighty-something I have the good sense not to pull out those old CDs. My heart, by then, surely would not be able to keep from imploding. My heart, back then, stayed in one piece only because, as bursting with anticipation as it was, it had not yet been strained by nostalgia. It had not yet figured out that life is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.

The Unspeakable is a wondrous read in its entirety. Complement this particular portion with the psychology of the self illusion.

BP

The Psychology of Flow: What Game Design Reveals about the Deliberate Tensions of Great Writing

“The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.”

A full creative life requires equally that we cultivate a capacity for boredom, as legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asserted, and learn to welcome rather than avoid difficulty, as Nietzsche believed. Great stories, like great life-stories, are woven of the same interplay between fertile ennui and surmountable frustration — so argues writer Peter Turchi in one especially rewarding section of the altogether stimulating A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic (public library | IndieBound).

In a sentiment that illuminates the psychological machinery behind Nabokov’s famous assertion that “a good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader,” Turchi recounts poet C. Dale Young’s experience of reading and rereading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.

This notion of the elusive, Turchi goes on to argue, is essential to the alchemy of storytelling. Turning to pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on flow — that state of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger — Turchi explores the role of challenge in the “flow channel” of narrative.

He cites game designer and Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell’s book The Art of Game Design, which identifies the four elements necessary to put a game player (and, by extension, a reader) into a fruitful “flow state”:

  1. clear goals
  2. no distractions
  3. direct feedback
  4. continuous challenge

The last one, Turchi argues, is of especially delicate balance. He quotes Schell:

If we start to think we can’t achieve [the goal], we feel frustrated, and our minds start seeking an activity more likely to be rewarding. On the other hand, if the challenge is too easy, we feel bored, and again, our minds start seeking more rewarding activities.

Turchi considers this tricky balance against the great trickster that is time:

Simply establishing a constant state of challenge turns out not to be effective for long. Instead, the ideal situation, flow-channel-wise, is to keep the game player or reader moving within a tolerable range of new challenge and acquired skill — or, as Csikszentmihalyi puts it, between anxiety and boredom.

A child might be challenged by playing tic-tac-toe, for instance; but once someone learns how to win or force a draw every time, the game holds less interest. Books of sudoku and crossword puzzles are often labeled easy, medium, or hard because few people will pay for a book of puzzles they can’t do, and not many more will spend time with puzzles that are too simple. With a game like chess, new players might have trouble remembering how the different pieces move; after that, the level of difficulty changes with the opponents they play.

A similar mechanism is at work in the game of narrative:

This cycle of satisfaction and frustration is familiar to every writer. We write sentences or drafts that disappoint us, and we feel frustrated. But then a sentence or paragraph or image delights us, and that success encourages us to continue. If we never felt pleasure from anything we wrote, we’d stop; but if we were completely satisfied, if we didn’t feel the urge to move beyond what we have accomplished or to take on a new challenge, we’d lose interest.

This is essentially what Zadie Smith captured in the last of her ten rules of writing: “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.” Except the sadness is simultaneously a stimulant for the satisfaction, for both reader and writer. Turchi captures this elegantly:

Most serious poetry and fiction is unlike a game in that it doesn’t intend to become increasingly difficult, but it is like a game in that we want the reader to be engaged and to experience some combination of intrigue, delight, challenge, surprise, provocation, and satisfaction. The ideal reading experience might be comparable to that flow state. The books that give us the most pleasure, the deepest pleasure, combine uncertainty and satisfaction, tension and release.

Returning to Schell’s theories of game design, Turchi relates the basic paradigm to writing:

It isn’t enough for the story to be somewhere in between too hard and too easy; ideally, the story will provide the reader an ongoing series of challenges and satisfactions.

He illustrates the interplay between challenge and satisfaction with a befitting metaphor:

If, on a hike, all we care about is convenient travel — the physical equivalent of reading a kitchen appliance manual — we’re happy to have big stepping stones, close together, and a quietly flowing stream. But if we’re looking for an interesting experience, if the stream is quiet, the stepping stones can be smaller or farther apart. If the stream is wide and the water is rushing by, we want the security of flat, broad stones. Eventually, some of us will seek out greater adventures — a deep, rushing stream and small, uneven stones that are a long, uncertain stride apart — but if that experience goes on too long, we’re likely to grow exhausted (or fall and be swept to our death; happily, such a dire fate is unlikely when we tackle Absalom! Absalom or Ulysses).

To keep her readers in that vitalizing flow state, Turchi argues, a great writer ought to deliberately move them “between stages of frustration and satisfaction, of tension and release.”

Complement A Muse and a Maze with this evolving archive of advice on the craft from famous writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Susan Sontag, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, and more.

BP

Kierkegaard on the Individual vs. the Crowd, Why We Conform, and the Power of the Minority

“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her spectacular meditation on happiness and conformity, “you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” And yet conformity is not only a survival strategy for us but also something institutionally indoctrinated in our culture.

A century earlier, the great Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855), celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher and an active proponent of the benefits of keeping a diary, contemplated this eternal tension between the individual and the crowd. Writing in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library) — the same fantastic window into his inner world that gave us Kierkegaard’s prescient insight on the psychology of online trolling and bullying — he considers how our incapacity for quiet contemplation cuts us off from our true self and instead causes us to adopt by passive absorption the ideals of others.

Lamenting the tendency to take our values from the “very loud talk” of the crowd rather than by “each individual going alone into his secret closet to commune quietly with himself” — something he had come to consider the root of our unhappiness — he writes:

One can very well eat lettuce before its heart has been formed; still, the delicate crispness of the heart and its lovely frizz are something altogether different from the leaves. It is the same in the world of the spirit. Being too busy has this result: that an individual very, very rarely is permitted to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, or the religious personality who actually has formed his heart, will never be popular, not because he is difficult, but because it demands quiet and prolonged working with oneself and intimate knowledge of oneself as well as a certain isolation.

A year later, in 1847, Kierkegaard revisits the question of the individual and the crowd:

The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd… But as yet we have not come very far concretely, though it is recognized in abstracto. That explains why it still impresses people as prideful and overweening arrogance to speak of the separate individual, whereas this precisely is truly human: each and every one is an individual.

And yet, Kierkegaard argues, most of us find it too daunting to live as individuals and instead opt for the consolations of the crowd:

Most people become quite afraid when each is expected to be a separate individual. Thus the matter turns and revolves upon itself. One moment a man is supposed to be arrogant, setting forth this view of the individual, and the next, when the individual is about to carry it out in practice, the idea is found to be much too big, too overwhelming for him.

Illustration from How to Be a Nonconformist, a 1968 satire of conformity-culture written and illustrated by a high school girl

Conformity becomes our hedge against this overwhelming idea:

Of course it is more secure to have a solid position in life, some official appointment which does not demand nearly as much of one… Most people lead far too sheltered lives, and for that reason they get to know [the divine] so little. They have permanent positions, they never put in their utmost effort…

Another year later, he returns to the subject and argues that the real arrogance is not in living up to our individuality but in denying it, and in effect denying the individuality of others:

Each human being has infinite reality, and it is pride and arrogance in a person not to honor his fellow-man…. It is a paralogism that one thousand human beings are worth more than one… The central point about being human is that the unit “1” is the highest; “1000” counts for less.

Two years later, in 1850, Kierkegaard makes a poignant case for the vital role of the minority as an antidote to the chronic groupthink of the majority:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

In regard to Truth, this troublesome monster, the majority, the public, etc., fares in the same way as we say of someone who is traveling to regain his health: he is always one station behind.

Two centuries before Zadie Smith wrote about the privilege of self-actualization, Kierkegaard is keenly aware of the class element in this interplay between minority and majority, between the individual and the crowd:

I want people to sit up and take notice, to prevent them from idling away and wasting their lives. Aristocrats take it for granted that a lot of people will always go to waste. But they keep silent about it; they live sheltered lives pretending that all these many, many people simply do not exist. That is what is ungodly about the superior status of the aristocrats; in order to be comfortable themselves they do not even call attention to anything.

Vowing not to be like the aristocrats himself, he — a self-described “complete composite of dialectics” — offers his own solution:

I will call the attention of the crowd to their own ruination. And if they don’t want to see it willingly, I shall make them see it by fair means or foul. Please understand me — or, at least, do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to beat them… I will force them to beat me. Thus I actually compel them. For if they begin to beat me, they will probably pay attention; and if they kill me, they most definitely will pay attention, and I shall have won an absolute victory.

Kierkegaard’s rationale behind this strategy is rather humanistic in considering what it takes to awaken the individual human spirit from the trance of the crowd:

[Individuals] are not so corrupt that they actually wish to do evil, but they are blinded, and don’t really know what they are doing. It is all a matter of baiting them for decisive action… A crowd triumphs if one cedes the way, steps aside, so that it never comes to realize what it is doing. A crowd has no essential viewpoint; therefore if it happens to kill a man it is eo ipso halted; it pays heed and comes to its senses.

He later adds:

Nobody wants to be this strenuous thing: an individual; it demands an effort. But everywhere services are readily offered through the phony substitute: a few! Let us get together and be a gathering, then we can probably manage. Therein lies mankind’s deepest demoralization.

Photographs from ‘Exactitudes,’ a global project highlighting the implicit conformity of subcultures. Click image for more.

But Kierkegaard’s most poignant point arrives shortly before his death, in 1854, when he addresses with prescient precision our modern anxiety about being alone, stressing its absolute vitality in living up to our individual potential:

The yardstick for a human being is: how long and to what degree he can bear to be alone, devoid of understanding with others.

A man who can bear being alone during a whole life-time, and alone in decisions of eternal significance, is farthest removed from the infant and the society-person who represent the animal-definition of being human.

In a remark to which Anne Lamott might have the perfect response, he adds:

Testifying to the fact that man is spirit … with the passing centuries, as polished brutishness mounts, becomes increasingly necessary, but also requires increasingly greater effort.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard is a short yet infinitely rewarding read. For a counterpoint to this particular excerpt, see Norman Mailer on the instinct for nonconformity, then revisit Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness and why anxiety enhances creativity rather than hinders it.

BP

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