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Celebrated Writers on the Culturally Controversial Choice Not to Have Children

“It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.”

“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions,” Italo Calvino wrote in his magnificent letter on reproductive rights, “but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.” Thirty-five years earlier, in 1940, Anaïs Nin made the same point with even greater precision and prescience when she wrote in her diary: “Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.” And yet here we are decades later, with millennia of human civilization under our belt — aspirin to Austen, Guggenheim to Google, bicycle to Bach — still subscribing to the same primitive biological imperative that a life unprocreated is a life wasted; still succumbing to the tyrannical cultural message that opting out of parenthood is a failure of ambition or magnanimity or social duty, or simply the symptom of a profound character flaw. Being childless by choice — like being alone, like living alone — is still considered by unspoken consensus the errant choice.

A potent and sorely needed antidote to this toxic myth comes in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (public library), edited by the brilliant Meghan Daum — a writer of rare aptitude for articulating the unspeakable. The contributions — sometimes witty, sometimes wistful, always wise — come from such celebrated authors as Geoff Dyer, Anna Holmes, and Sigrid Nunez, whose reasons for going not having children range from the personal trauma of difficult childhoods to political convictions about everything from reproductive rights to overpopulation and income inequality to the increasingly hard-to-meet requirement of undivided attention that is the hallmark of great parenting.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from ‘Sidewalk Flowers’ by JonArno Lawson. Click image for more.

With an eye to Tolstoy’s famous line from the opening of Anna Karenina“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Daum writes in the introduction:

Of course, [Tolstoy’s] maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.

Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood … are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.

Daum considers the many ways in which one can come to stand in one’s truth as a nonparent — an act, essentially, of standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, in the eye of a sociocultural hurricane, with the absolute stillness of deep self-knowledge — Daum writes:

For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else — a partner, a family member, the culture at large.

Illustration from ‘Little Boy Brown,’ a vintage ode to childhood’s loneliness. Click image for more.

And yet despite the wide array of paths to the willfully childless life, the cultural narrative about this choice remains strikingly myopic. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that polarities invariably impoverish the nuances of life, Daum points to the primary purpose of the anthology:

I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.

[…]

It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.

This begs the necessary question of gender balance — in the larger cultural conversation as well as in the particularity of this volume — which Daum addresses with no-nonsense elegance:

There are notably more women than men here — a thirteen to three ratio, to be exact. That ratio felt to me more or less proportionate to the degree to which men devote serious thought to parenthood (at least before it happens) compared to women, who are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth. Still, I thought it was essential that the collection include male voices. Too often, this subject is framed as a women’s issue. But men who are disinclined toward fatherhood must contend with their own set of prejudices; for instance, assumptions that they can’t commit to a partner, that they wish to prolong adolescence indefinitely, or that they’ll be intractably (and gratefully) domesticated as soon as the right partner reels them in.

But for all its diversity of perspectives on and paths to nonparenthood, the anthology is underpinned by one obvious self-selection bias — all sixteen contributors are writers, and as Martin Amis memorably observed, “the first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.” What’s more, in addition to a greater need for solitude and higher tolerance for financial uncertainty, artists and writers have in common one other key differentiator from the general population: We tend to measure legacy in memetics rather than genetics — in the ideas rather than the infants we seed into society. (In one extreme, writers who do choose to procreate end up designating their children like they do their works — with a byline: Take F. Scott Fitzgerald and his daughter, Scottie.)

To be sure, Daum counters this disclaimer by pointing out that if the choice were as simple as “writing versus children,” writers “wouldn’t have much to say on the subject” — and they have a great deal to say, with a great deal of dimension.

Geoff Dyer (Photograph: Jason Oddy)

In one of the funniest essays, Geoff Dyer brings all of his wonderful, curmudgeonly, self-deprecating Englishness to the subject and writes:

In a park, looking at smiling mothers and fathers strolling along with their adorable toddlers, I react like the pope confronted with a couple of gay men walking hand in hand: Where does it come from, this unnatural desire (to have children)?

[…]

By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles. Man, you should have seen what happened a couple of years ago when a friend and I were playing tennis in Highbury Fields, London, next to the children’s area where kids were cavorting around under the happily watchful eyes of their mums. It’s quite a large area, but it is, needless to say, not big enough. A number of children kept coming over to the tennis courts, rattling on the gate, and trying to get in. The watching middle-class mums did nothing to restrain them. Eventually my friend yelled, “Go AWAY!” Whereupon the watching mums did do something. A mob of them descended on us as though my friend had exposed himself. Suddenly we were in the midst of a maternal zombie film. It was the nearest I’ve ever come to getting lynched — they were after my friend rather than me and though, strictly speaking, I was his opponent, I was a tacit accomplice — and a clear demonstration that the rights of parents and their children to do whatever they please have priority over everyone else’s.

Illustration by Tomi Ungerer from ‘Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls.’ Click image for more.

Summoning Virginia Woolf in her own most curmudgeonly Englishness — “A child is the very devil,” she wrote in a letter, “calling out, as I believe, all the worst and least explicable passions of the parents.” — Dyer adds:

Certainly at that moment, the threatened love these mums felt for their children seemed ferocious and vile, either a kind of insanity or, at the very least, a form of deeply antisocial behavior. I stress this because it’s often claimed that having kids makes people more conscious of the kind of world they’re creating or leaving for their offspring. That would be why, in London, a city with excellent public transportation, parents have to make sure they have cars. Many of these cars come speeding along my street on their way to the extremely expensive private school on the corner. You can see, from the looks on these mums’ faces as they drop off their kids at this little nest of privilege, that the larger world — as represented by me, some loser on his bike — doesn’t exist, is no more than an impediment to finding a parking space. Parenthood, far from enlarging one’s worldview, results in an appalling form of myopia. Hence André Gide’s verdict on families, “those misers of love.”

Dyer turns a skeptical eye toward the most common case for having children:

Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life “meaning” is the one to which I am most hostile — apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose. It would be a lot less fun if it did have a purpose — then we would all be obliged (and foolish not) to pursue that purpose.

Okay, if you can’t handle the emptiness of life, fine: have kids, fill the void. But some of us are quite happy in the void, thank you, and have no desire to have it filled.

It’s worth pausing here to circle back to Tolstoy and point out that although he filled his existential void with fourteen children, he quickly found them to be insufficient filler and spiraled into his now-legendary search for meaning. But Dyer is equally skeptical of turning to “the writing life” for such existential filler as he is of the pro-procreation dogma:

Any exultation of the writing life is as abhorrent to me as the exultation of family life. Writing just passes the time and, like any kind of work, brings in money. If you want to make sure I never read a line you’ve written, tell me about the sacrifices you’ve made in order to get those lines written… Sacrifice is part of the parent’s vocabulary.

[…]

After a couple of years of parenthood people become incapable of saying what they want to do in terms of what they want to do. Their preferences can only be articulated in terms of a hierarchy of obligations — even though it is by fulfilling these obligations (visiting in-laws, being forced to stay in and baby-sit) that they scale the summit of their desires.

Unmasking this charade of “sacrifice,” Dyer pounces at the jugular of the anti-childlessness tyrant:

Does this mean, as parents might claim, that I’m just too selfish? Now, there’s a red herring if ever there was one. Not having children is seen as supremely selfish, as though the people having children were selflessly sacrificing themselves in a valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated island of ours. People raise kids because they want to, but they always emphasize how hard it is.

Anna Holmes (Photograph: Victor Jeffries)

Jezebel founder and epistolary heartbreak-hunter Anna Holmes addresses another facet of the Me-First myth, considering the choice not to have children as an act of self-caring — of knowing intimately the singular, un-peer-pressured needs of one’s inner life and honoring them — rather than one of selfishness:

Herein lies the rub: as it stands now, I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for — or ability to achieve — success in any other arena. Basically, I’m afraid of my own competence.

[…]

Some might call my trepidation at the idea of motherhood “selfishness” — I would call it “agency” — but those people are probably either (1) dudes or (2) self-satisfied professional parents, and I’m not sure I care enough about their opinions that I wouldn’t just agree with them and shrug my shoulders in shared chagrin. [My choice] has nothing to do with a distaste for kids, who, along with animals, I like and identify with more than I do with most adults.) But the fact is, it is never far from my mind that the means of reproduction — and its costs — are beasts of burden borne, historically, by the fairer sex.

[…]

As I enter my forties, I find that I am only now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no. (No, I cannot perform that job; no, I cannot meet you for coffee ; no, I cannot be in a relationship in which I feel starved for emotional and physical connection.) … The irony is that if and when I reach the point where I feel able to give my all to another human being and still keep some semblance of the self I’ve worked so hard to create, I will probably not be of childbearing age. Them’s the breaks.

Sigrid Nunez (Photograph: Marion Ettlinger)

In one of the most somber, sobering, and intense essays in the volume, Sigrid Nunez explores the complex variables that go into that choice — the wanting, the not-wanting, the wanting-to-want — through the lens of her own life as well as those of yesteryear’s prominent childless women writers.

Nunez is among those of us unafraid to acknowledge that one’s childhood shapes one’s disposition to being a parent in adulthood. She reflects on her mother — a woman who was decidedly unmaternal and to whom “a child, any child, was a brat”:

The circumstances of her own youth (the war, the too-early pregnancy, the immigration to America with a husband who was in all ways an unsuitable match and whom she considered beneath her) ensured that she would always see herself as unlucky, as someone who had been cheated. Whatever good might come her way from having had a family (and that good would not come before the children were grown), it was the bad that marked her, that made her life what it was.

Nunez grew up in a community of families made up of people like her mother — “people whose lives were harder than most, people with low-paying jobs or dependent on welfare, people with limited education, foreign accents, poor English, bad teeth, dark skin — people who were all too aware of being at the bottom of the ladder” — and experienced the direct results of that anguishing awareness:

Their inevitable frustrations were, inevitably, taken out at home. Husbands beat wives; parents beat children; big children beat little children.

“Don’t let’s think about the pets,” she adds parenthentically, and those of us who grew up in such homes instantly know what she means. Worse yet, this acting-out of frustrations wasn’t confined to the home — it was condoned by the community:

The dominant emotion toward children, from mothers and fathers both, seemed to be anger. It was part of the chaos of that place and time: you never knew when some grown-up was going to fly off the handle. Children were forever being screamed at, sworn at, slapped around, or worse… The berating or whipping of a child in public, often before a smirking crowd, was nothing rare. And the suffering of anyone subjected to that particular humiliation was so obvious and so dreadful that it was hard to believe the parent inflicting it could possibly also love that child.

Much of what Nunez endured calls to mind Kafka’s relationship with his abusive father — most of all, perhaps, the way in which children who grow up in such environments come to mistake such parenting for the norm; when our pain is consistently invalidated and dismissed, we come to believe that there is something wrong with us for experiencing that pain, rather than with our parents for inflicting it. Nunez considers the complexities of the issue and the psychological aftershocks, which never quite leave us:

At some point, of course, I came to understand that not all children had been unwanted, and that, like people everywhere, most of the parents I knew, the mothers in particular, had counted having a family among their life’s sweetest dreams. The problem for many of them arose from being unable to prevent having more children than they’d wanted, or from having them come along at times when they couldn’t help being more burden — Another mouth to feed! Where’s he gonna sleep? — than blessing. And I began to understand how a person could love his or her children and at the same time deeply resent them… But I have known many whose lives were formed — or deformed, perhaps I should say — by having been made to feel guilty for all the trouble they caused by coming into the world.

[…]

Once, when I was six or seven, walking with my mother down a certain mean Brooklyn street, we passed a group of surly-looking boys gathered on a stoop. As my mother quickened her steps, dragging me along, one of the boys threw something at me: the wooden stick from an ice-cream pop he’d just finished eating . I tugged my mother’s hand. “Mommy, that boy hit me!” Marching on, staring grimly ahead, she addressed me in a voice that was like a slap: “And what do you think I can do about it?” At which a certain knowledge sank into my bones, and with that knowledge a fear that would never wholly leave me.

[…]

As a child, I never felt safe. Every single day of my entire childhood I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to me. I live like that still. And so the big question: How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe? The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was nothing harder to accomplish in life than being a good parent. The store of patience and wisdom and kindness that seemed to be required was truly daunting; I wasn’t sure that I myself possessed even the minimum to prevent catastrophe.

As a counterpoint to her early and enduring doubt as to what kind of parent she’d make, Nunez grew up with absolute clarity and certainty about being a writer. This she discusses in a way that makes clear the anthology’s greatest feat: its testament to what we intuitively understand but refuse to accept — that many of those willingly childless were themselves the children of unwilling (and thus unloving, unpresent, unskilled) parents; that parenting is a tradeoff with creative and intellectual achievement. Nunez writes:

Although in my youthful, naive way I gravely underestimated how difficult such a life would be, I stuck to it, and I was steadfast in not letting other things distract me. No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children… Doris Lessing declared herself “not the best person” to raise the two young children she left behind when she moved from southern Africa to London to pursue her career. Why? “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.”

Illustration by Maurice Sendak for ‘The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm.’ Click image for more.

To be fair, this is perhaps a matter more selectively anecdotal than representative of empirical evidence — one imagines, for instance, Zadie Smith reading this as she cradles her second baby and raises an intelligent and unbored eyebrow.

Still, Nunez points to Sylvia Plath as a woman who had wanted it all with blazing ambition — the immortality of a creative genius, but also the feminine ideal of the family — only to crash and burn in the grip of deadly mental illness. (The direction of causality is left wanting: Did the desire to have it all, without resigning to the fact of any tradeoff, precipitate Plath’s mental illness, or was the desire itself a symptom of her mental illness? I err on the side of the latter, and Nunez seems to suggest the former.) Nunez returns to her own reality:

That there could be something in the world that a woman could want more than children has been viewed as unacceptable. Things may be marginally different now, but, even if there is something she wants more than children, that is no reason for a woman to remain childless. Any normal woman, it is understood, wants — and should want — both.

A graduate student of mine tells me, with some heat, “I do plan to have kids one day, but I certainly hope they won’t be the most important thing in my life!”

Am I wrong to think that perhaps, if this is how she feels and continues to feel, she ought at least to consider not having kids?

I can hear her respond, with equal heat, “But that’s not fair. You wouldn’t say that to a man.”

In any case, she will learn soon enough that her honesty isn’t likely to be met with understanding. When Michelle Obama (to name just one prominent, accomplished woman) announces, “I’m a mother first,” she is of course saying what most people want to hear. (It is inconceivable that any woman running for public office today could get away with explaining that although she loves her children dearly, for her, being a leader comes first. President Obama has often been heard to say, meaningfully, “I am a father.” No one leans in expecting to hear first.)

Illustration by Hilary Knight from ‘When I Have a Little Girl / When I Have a Little Boy’ by Charlotte Zolotow. Click image for more.

Nunez illustrates the social judgment to which a woman’s priorities are inevitably subjected with Nobel-winning writer Alice Munro’s uncompromisingly candid Paris Review interview:

“I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, ‘This was a hard-hearted young woman.’” Munro confesses to not having been there for her small children and knowing that they suffered for it. “When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other.… This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me.”

Back to the important thing. What was most important to me. Make no mistake, this was a writer first.

[…]

Here’s my question: Is there any way for a woman in the young Munro’s position to escape being judged — by herself, by the world — as hard-hearted?

It’s worth wondering, perhaps, how Nunez’s question may have been shaped by her relationship with the son of one of the greatest writers of all time — Susan Sontag — who seems to have raised her child with an attitude similar to Munro’s. It’s hard to imagine that being in intimate proximity to this complex dynamic of love and resentment, and witness its enduring aftershocks, wouldn’t color one’s view of the parenthood-versus-writing tradeoff, to say nothing of seeding the baseline assumption that it is a tradeoff only the nuances — not the existence — of which are to be debated.

But for Nunez, the choice was ultimately not so much about sparing herself the resentment toward a child that distracts from her literary career as about sparing a child the lifelong trauma of being resented as a distraction — a decision based on compassionate realism rather than selfish idealism. It is, essentially, a question of deciding for oneself — as Munro did — what “the most important thing” is:

Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love — oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over. “Children detect things like that,” acknowledged Munro.

[…]

To forgo motherhood was the right thing to do. But whether it was a choice I made or one that was made for me is perhaps another question.

[…]

But let me say this: the idea of having it all has always been foreign to me. I grew up believing that if you worked incredibly hard and were incredibly lucky, you might get to have one dream in life come true. Going for everything was a dangerous, distracting fantasy. I believe I have been incredibly lucky.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a nuanced and necessary read in its totality. Complement it with some thoughts on another socially frowned-upon personal choice — that of being alone — then revisit Meghan Daum on why we romanticize our own imperfect younger selves.

BP

The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility

“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

“Nothing any good isn’t hard,” F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted in his letter of advice on writing to his fifteen-year-old daughter upon her enrollment in high school. That uncomfortable yet strangely emboldening counsel is what Cheryl Strayed offers — with greater poeticism and much better grammar — to a despairing young writer in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), the ample soul-satisfactions of which have been previously extolled here.

Long before Wild — her magnificent memoir of learning, oh, just about every dimension of the art of living while hiking more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail — was turned into a major motion picture, Strayed wielded her art as an advice columnist for The Rumpus, simply known as Sugar. Among the thousands of Dear Sugar letters she received was one from a self-described “pathetic and confused young woman of twenty-six” named Elissa Bassist, a “writer who can’t write,” a “high-functioning head case, one who jokes enough that most people don’t know the truth.” “The truth,” she tells Sugar, “[is that] I am sick with panic that I cannot — will not — override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Like all the letters Strayed answered as Sugar, this one is profoundly personal yet speaks to the artist’s universal dance with the fear — the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.

What makes Strayed’s advice so vitalizing is that it is never dispensed as a holier-than-thou dictum; rather, it weaves tapestry of no-bullshit solace from the beautifully tattered threads of her own experience, messy and alive. This is exactly what she hands to Bassist, under the title “Write Like a Motherfucker.”

Invoking the time right before she wrote her first book, when she too was a twenty-something writer plagued by the same fear that she was “lazy and lame,” Strayed recounts how she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked”; in other words, she got off the nail. With an eye to Flannery O’Connor’s famous proclamation that “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” which Strayed had inscribed across the chalkboard in her living room at the time, she writes:

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote… And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweat pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from ‘Enormous Smallness’ by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Echoing Voltaire’s memorable admonition from his letter of advice on how to write well“beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose” — and Bukowski’s lament that “bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Strayed adds:

I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

Strayed directs her tough-love incisiveness at Bassist’s paradoxical blend of self-pitying defeatism and grandiose entitlement — something not uncommon in young artists, who forget that “anything worthwhile takes a long time,” and a kernel of truth in the otherwise overly flat and ungenerously applied cultural archetype of the millennial:

Buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce.

Pointing to Bassist’s litany of women writers who ended their own lives — perhaps Plath, Sexton, Woolf — Strayed calls the young writer out on perpetuating the dangerous mythology of creativity and mental illness. Reminding her — reminding all of us — that the stories we tell ourselves shape our horizons of possibility, Strayed reality-checks this perilous narrowing of attention:

In spite of various mythologies regarding artists and how psychologically fragile we are, the fact is that occupation is not a top predictor for suicide. Yes, we can rattle off a list of women writers who’ve killed themselves and yes, we may conjecture that their status as women in the societies in which they lived contributed to the depressive and desperate state that caused them to do so. But it isn’t the unifying theme.

You know what is?

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured.

[…]

The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you—,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

[…]

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

In this excerpt from her altogether fantastic 2012 conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, with Bassist in the audience, Strayed elaborates on the art of motherfuckitude:

But being a motherfucker, it’s a way of life, really… It’s about having strength rather than fragility, resilience, and faith, and nerve, and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety.

[…]

I think there are a lot of writers who can’t write, or they think they can’t write… I understand that feeling, I think every writer has wrestled with those anxieties and that self-loathing, and yet ultimately in order to succeed in anything we all have to in essence embrace humility, rather.

[…]

A lot of people think that to be a motherfucker is to be a person who is the dominant figure. But I actually think that true motherfuckerhood … really has to do with being humble. And it’s only when you can get out of your own ego that you can actually do what is necessary to do — in a relationship, in your professional life, as a parent, in any of those ways. It has to do with humility — doing the work.

Tiny Beautiful Things, it bears repeating, is nothing short of necessary to the liver of modern life. Complement this particular fragment with Dani Shapiro on the plight of the artist and this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

BP

Virginia Woolf on Writing and Self-Doubt

Consolation for those moments when you can’t tell whether you’re “the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”

“Bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Charles Bukowski lamented in an interview. Self-doubt is a familiar state for all who put pieces of their inner lives into the outside world — that is, for all artists. “Determination allows for doubt and for humility — both of which are critical,” Anna Deavere Smith counseled in her indispensable Letters to a Young Artist. And yet, integral as it may be to the creative experience by offering an antidote to the arrogance that produces most mediocre art, self-doubt isn’t something we readily or heartily embrace. Instead, we run from it, we judge it, and we hedge against it using a range of coping mechanisms, many of which backfire into self-loathing. “Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt,” Zadie Smith advised in her ten rules of writing.

But hardly anyone has captured this exasperating dance with self-doubt — which is part of the artist’s universal and necessary dance with fear — better than Virginia Woolf, she of enduring wisdom on creativity and consciousness and the challenge of writing about the soul.

In Orlando: A Biography (public library) — her subversive 1928 novel, regarded as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — Woolf captures the anguishing self-doubt with which all artists tussle along the creative process, rendering in spectacular relief the particular granularity familiar to writers:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Complement with Woolf on how to read a book, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only surviving recording of her voice, then revisit this evolving library of great writers’ wisdom on writing.

BP

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

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