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The Best of Brain Pickings 2012

Everything you missed and everything you’d want to revisit, in one place.

On this last day of the year, what better way to send 2012 off than with a look back at the its most stimulating reads? Gathered here are the most read and shared articles published on Brain Pickings this year, to complement the recent omnibus of the year’s best books. Enjoy, and may 2013 be inspired in every possible way.

  1. How to Find Your Purpose and Do What You Love
    Why prestige is the enemy of passion, or how to master the balance of setting boundaries and making friends – insights from seven thinkers who have contemplated the art-science of making your life’s calling a living.
  2. The Daily Routines of Famous Writers
    “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.” E. B. White, Ray Bradbury, Susan Sontag, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Joan Didion, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary icons share their writing habits, painstakingly culled from decades’ worth of interviews and diary entires.
  3. Susan Sontag on Love: Illustrated Diary Excerpts
    “Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.” Artist Wendy MacNaughton illustrates Sontag’s most poignant, most private meditations on love – candid, vulnerable, hopeful, hopeless – culled from the author’s recently released journals.
  4. Charles Bukowski, Arthur C. Clarke, Annie Dillard, John Cage, and Others on the Meaning of Life
    “We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.” In 1988, the editors of LIFE magazine asked 300 “wise men and women,” from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to everyday farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers, what the meaning of life might be. Here is a selection of the answers.
  5. 10 Tips on Writing from David Ogilvy
    “Never write more than two pages on any subject.” Timeless wisdom on writing from the original Mad Man.
  6. John Steinbeck on Falling in Love: A 1958 Letter
    “If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.” A moving letter of advice to the author’s teenage son upon his first love.
  7. A 5-Step Technique for Producing Ideas circa 1939
    “…the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.”
  8. Ted Hughes on the Universal Inner Child, in a Moving Letter to His Son
    “The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated.”
  9. Internal Time: The Science of Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired
    Debunking the social stigma around late risers, or what Einstein has to do with teens’ risk for smoking.
  10. This Will Make You Smarter: 151 Big Thinkers Each Pick a Concept to Enhance Your Cognitive Toolkit
    The importance of “the umwelt,” or why failure and uncertainty are essential for science and life.
  11. Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing & Daily Creative Routine
    “When you can’t create you can work.”
  12. Why Emotional Excess is Essential to Writing and Creativity
    “Something is always born of excess: great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them.”
  13. How to Avoid Work: A 1949 Guide to Doing What You Love
    “Life really begins when you have discovered that you can do anything you want.”
  14. The Seven Lady Godivas, His Little-Known “Adult” Book of Nudes
    In 1939, when Theodor Seuss Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, he had one condition for his new publisher, Bennett Cerf – that he would let Geisel do an “adult” book first. This is the little-known result.
  15. Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story
    “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
  16. John Cleese on the 5 Factors to Make Your Life More Creative
    “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating.”
  17. Austin Kleon on 10 Things Every Creator Should Remember But We Often Forget
    What T.S. Eliot has to do with genetics and the optimal investment theory for your intellectual life.
  18. Jack Kerouac’s List of 30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life
    “No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.”
  19. 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design
    From visual puns to the grid, or what Edward Tufte has to do with the invention of the fine print.
  20. New Year’s Resolution Reading List: How To Read More and Write Better
    As far as New Year’s resolutions go, hardly anything does one’s mental, spiritual, and creative health more good than resolving to read more and write better. This reading list, originally published in early January 2012, addresses these parallel aspirations. And since the number of books written about reading and writing likely far exceeds the reading capacity of a single human lifetime, this omnibus couldn’t be – shouldn’t be – an exhaustive list. It is, instead, a collection of timeless texts bound to radically improve your relationship with the written word, from whichever side of the equation you approach it.
  21. Women in Science: Einstein’s Advice to a Little Girl Who Wants to Be a Scientist
    The heartening correspondence between Einstein and a South African little girl named Tyffany.
  22. How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read
    “Non-reading is not just the absence of reading. It is a genuine activity, one that consists of adopting a stance in relation to the immense tide of books that protects you from drowning. On that basis, it deserves to be defended and even taught.”
  23. A Liberal Decalogue: Bertrand Russell on the Ten Commandments of Teaching
    “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
  24. Charles Darwin’s List of the Pros and Cons of Marriage
    “My God, it is intolerable to think of spending one’s whole life, like a neuter bee, working, working, & nothing after all.”
  25. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
    “The useless days will add up to something….These things are your becoming.”

Trailblazing Graphic Designer Paula Scher on Creativity

“To invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience.”

In How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (public library), Debbie Millman sits down with twenty of today’s most celebrated graphic designers to unravel the secrets of their creative process, work ethic, and general philosophy on life. The result is a kind of modern-day equivalent of the 1942 gem Anatomy of Inspiration, presenting a rare glimpse of the creative machinery behind some of today’s most talented and influential designers through conversations that reveal in equal measure their purposeful brilliance and tender humanity.

One of the most stimulating interviews is with the inimitable Paula Scher — identity and branding goddess, Pentagram partner, maker of magnificent hand-drawn maps, tireless champion of combinatorial creativity — who echoes Thoreau in this beautiful, poetic definition of success:

If I get up every day with the optimism that I have the capacity for growth, then that’s success for me.

Like many of history’s greatest scientists, Scher speaks to the power of intuition and additive knowledge in sparking those creative Eureka! moments, stressing the importance of what novelist William Gibson has termed “personal micro-culture.” She illustrates the point with an exquisite metaphor:

There’s a certain amount of intuitive thinking that goes into everything. It’s so hard to describe how things happen intuitively. I can describe it as a computer and a slot machine. I have a pile of stuff in my brain, a pile of stuff from all the books I’ve read and all the movies I’ve seen. Every piece of artwork I’ve ever looked at. Every conversation that’s inspired me, every piece of street art I’ve seen along the way. Anything I’ve purchased, rejected, loved, hated. It’s all in there. It’s all on one side of the brain.

And on the other side of the brain is a specific brief that comes from my understanding of the project and says, okay, this solution is made up of A, B, C, and D. And if you pull the handle on the slot machine, they sort of run around in a circle, and what you hope is that those three cherries line up, and the cash comes out.

But rather than willing the cherries into alignment, the essence of creative alchemy, says Scher, is in allowing for unconscious processing — that intuitive incubation period, to use T.S. Eliot’s term, that allows for all the combinatorial pieces gathered over years of being alive and awake to the world to click into place, to congeal into what we call “invention”:

I am conscious of resolving the brief, but I don’t think about it too hard. I allow the subconscious part of my brain to work. That’s the accumulation of my whole life. That is what’s going on in the other side of my brain, trying to align with this very logical brief.

And I’m allowing that to flow freely, so that the cherries can line up in the slot machine. I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I’ve had periods of time when the cherries never line up, and that’s scary, because then you have to rely on tricks you already have up your sleeve — the tricks in your knowledge from other jobs. And very often you rely on this.

But mostly what you want to do is invent. And to invent, you have to take the odd and the strange combination of the years of knowledge and experience on one side of the brain, and on the other side, the necessity for the brief to make sense. And you’re drawing from that knowledge to make an analogy and to find a way to solve a problem, to find a means of moving forward — in a new way — things you’ve already done.

When you succeed, it’s fantastic. It doesn’t always happen. But every so often, you take a bunch of stuff from one side of your head, and a very logical list of stuff from the other side, and through that osmosis you’re finding a new way to look at a problem and resolve a situation.

Perhaps George Lois was right, after all, when he stated that creativity is discovering ideas rather than “creating” them and John Cleese correctly defined it as “a way of operating” rather than a mystical talent.

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer is fantastic in its entirety — highly recommended.

Photograph via AIGA


British vs. American Politics in Minimalist Vintage Infographics

A visual time-capsule of political parallels and contrasts.

This month marked the 130th birthday of pioneering Austrian sociologist, philosopher, and curator Otto Neurath, who in the 1930s, together with his wife Marie, invented ISOTYPE — the vintage visual language of pictograms that gave rise to modern infographics. After recently coming upon some fantastic mid-century ISOTYPE infographics comparing and contrasting Great Britain and the United States, I embarked upon a quest to hunt down one of the last surviving copies of the book from which they came — America and Britain: Three Volumes in One (UK; public library), originally published in 1946 and long out of print.

With 53 ISOTYPE charts in color created by Neurath himself and 97 black-and-white photographs from various government archives, the book “brings together all the more important aspects of America and Britain” in three different sections: Only an Ocean Between explores “how Britain and America are alike or are different in their climate, their geography, their natural and human resources, their transport facilities, and other basic conditions of life and work”; Our Private Lives contrasts family life in both countries — “domestic habits and customs, how the British and Americans court and get married, build and furnish homes, shop, cook and eat, work and play, go to church and school”; Our Two Democracies at Work examines political structures in Britain and America.

This having been an election year in the U.S. and thus a boon for political design, I was particularly intrigued by the infographics in the third part of the book. More than a mere treasure trove of vintage graphic design, however, these charts present not only a parallel time-capsule of mid-century politics in Britain and the United States, but also a fascinating and rather visceral reminder of how much has changed over the past half-century — and how much has remained nearly the same.

D. W. Brogan writes in the foreword to the section:

Luck has played its part in the history of Britain and of the United States. Much of their success is explicable in terms of geography, natural resources, the happy conjunction of time and place. But there remains an element that it is and was easy to underrate, especially when a bogus realism and a naive materialism led to a depreciation of the traditional importance given to politics.

It is the basic merit of this book that it calls our attention to the role of political institutions and American and British life. It is made plain here that much of the success of the British and American peoples has been made possible because they found or made institutions that not only suited them at the beginning, but continued to suit them — with necessary and sometimes very expensive adaptations. But a consequence of this process of continuous adaptation is that as each system of government has been modified by historical experience — and has affected the historical development of the country concerned — the political habits of the British and American peoples have diverged more and more.

For a nitpicky observation of the era’s characteristic gender bias, note that all the Senators and Representatives are depicted using the male-figure pictogram — a choice that would be particularly anachronistic today, in the year of binders full of political diversity:

As a lover of famous city grids, I was also delighted by these two maps of London and New York’s growth:

Complement these vintage gems with the story of ISOTYPE’s birth.


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