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Advice to Little Girls: Young Mark Twain’s Little-Known, Lovely 1865 Children’s Book

“Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.”

In the summer of 2011, I chanced upon a lovely Italian edition of a little-known, playful short story young Mark Twain had written in 1865 at age of 30, with Victorian-scrapbook-inspired artwork by celebrated Russian-born children’s book illustrator Vladimir Radunsky, mischievously encouraging girls to think independently rather than blindly obey rules and social mores. I was instantly in love. So I approached my friend Claudia Zoe Bedrick of Brooklyn’s Enchanted Lion Books, whom I’d befriended through her beautiful books and with whom I’d already begun collaborating on another side project, to see if she’d be willing to take a leap of faith and help bring this gem to life in America. It took a bit of convincing, but we eventually joined forces, pooled our lunch money to pay Vladimir his advance, and found a printer capable of reflecting the mesmerism of the Twain/Radunsky story in the book’s physicality — rich colors, crisp text, thick beautiful paper with a red fabric spine.

I’m enormously delighted to announce that Advice to Little Girls (public library) is officially out this week — a true labor of love nearly two years in the making. (You might recall a sneak peek from my TED Bookstore selections earlier this year.) Grab a copy, enjoy, and share!

While frolicsome in tone and full of wink, the story — like the most timeless of children’s books — is colored with subtle hues of grown-up philosophy on the human condition, exploring all the deft ways in which we creatively rationalize our wrongdoing and reconcile the good and evil we each embody.

Good little girls ought not to make mouths at their teachers for every trifling offense. This retaliation should only be resorted to under peculiarly aggravated circumstances.

If you have nothing but a rag-doll stuffed with sawdust, while one of your more fortunate little playmates has a costly China one, you should treat her with a show of kindness nevertheless. And you ought not to attempt to make a forcible swap with her unless your conscience would justify you in it, and you know you are able to do it.

One can’t help but wonder whether this particular bit may have in part inspired the irreverent 1964 anthology Beastly Boys and Ghastly Girls and its mischievous advice on brother-sister relations:

If at any time you find it necessary to correct your brother, do not correct him with mud — never, on any account, throw mud at him, because it will spoil his clothes. It is better to scald him a little, for then you obtain desirable results. You secure his immediate attention to the lessons you are inculcating, and at the same time your hot water will have a tendency to move impurities from his person, and possibly the skin, in spots.

If your mother tells you to do a thing, it is wrong to reply that you won’t. It is better and more becoming to intimate that you will do as she bids you, and then afterward act quietly in the matter according to the dictates of your best judgment.

Good little girls always show marked deference for the aged. You ought never to ‘sass’ old people unless they ‘sass’ you first.

There are no words to describe how much Advice to Little Girls makes my heart sing — let’s make a choir.

BP

George Plimpton on the Art of Public Speaking and How to Overcome Stage Fright

“The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized.”

The art of giving a great presentation has occupied humanity for as long as recorded history can trace, from the great oratory schools of Ancient Greece to the TED era.

In How to Use the Power of the Printed Word (public library) — the same treasure trove that gave us Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 timeless rules of writing, Bill Cosby’s 3 proven strategies for reading faster, and James Dickey’s beautiful essay on how to enjoy poetry — legendary Paris Review editor George Plimpton shares his secrets of combating the fear of public speaking.

He begins with an emphasis on doing your homework, with a grounding reminder of what research meant a generation before the age of Google, email, and Wikipedia:

The more you sweat in advance, the less you’ll have to sweat once you appear on stage. Research your topic thoroughly. Check the library for facts, quotes, books, and timely magazine and newspaper articles on your subject. Get in touch with experts. Write to them, make phone calls, get interviews to help round out your material.

In short, gather — and learn — far more than you’ll ever use. You can’t imagine how much confidence that knowledge will inspire.

He advocates for setting the tone quickly and purposefully, in line with the main objective of your speech:

An audience makes up its mind very quickly. Once the mood of an audience is set, it is difficult to change it, which is why introductions are important.

[…]

There are four main intents in the body of the well-made speech. These are (1) to entertain, which is probably hardest; (2) to instruct, which is the easiest if the speaker has done the research and knows the subject; (3) to persuade, which one does at a sales presentation, a political rally, or a town meeting; and finally, (4) to inspire, which is what the speaker emphasizes at a sales meeting, in a sermon, or at a pep rally.

Plimpton stresses the importance of sounding spontaneous and — ironically, but without irony — offers some tips on staging spontaneity:

The best speakers are those who make their words sound spontaneous even if memorized. I’ve found it’s best to learn a speech point by point, not word for word. Careful preparation and a great deal of practicing are required to make it come together smoothly and easily. Mark Twain once said, ‘It takes three weeks to prepare a good ad-lib speech.’

“No speech was ever too short,” a duo of legendary admen famously advised, and Plimpton agrees: He wrote this the year TED was founded and, like any great oracle of culture, he intuited the format-meme that TED would eventually rein in, arguing for the supremacy of the 20-minute talk over the hour-long academic-style lecture:

As anyone who listens to speeches knows, brevity is an asset. Twenty minutes are ideal. An hour is the limit an audience can listen comfortably.

In mentioning brevity, it is worth mentioning that the shortest inaugural address was George Washington’s — just 135 words. The longest was William Henry Harrison’s in 1841. he delivered a two-hour, nine-thousand -word speech into the teeth of a freezing northeast wind. He came down with a cold the following day, and a month later he died of pneumonia.

He shares a counterintuitive insight about the size of the audience:

The larger the crowd, the easier it is to speak, because the response is multiplied and increased. Most people do not believe this. They peek out from behind the curtain, and if the auditorium is filled to the rafters, they begin to moan softly in the back of their throats.

Plimpton concludes with a few related words of wisdom on stage fright:

Very few speakers escape the so-called ‘butterflies.’ There does not seem to be any cure for them, except to realize that they are beneficial rather than harmful, and never fatal. The tension usually means that the speaker, being keyed up, will do a better job. Edward R. Murrow called stage fright ‘the sweat of perfection.’ Mark Twain once comforted a fright-frozen friend about to speak: ‘Just remember they don’t expect much.’ My own feeling is that with thought, preparation and faith in your ideas, you can go out there and expect a pleasant surprise.

And what a sensation it is — to hear applause.

How to Use the Power of the Printed Word is fantastic in its entirety, featuring more wisdom from John Irving, Tony Randall, Jane Bryant Quinn, and other luminaries.

BP

The True Science of Parallel Universes, Animated

Choose-your-own-adventure realities, black holes, and other cosmic escapism.

Some of the greatest minds in science and the humanities have wondered — and attempted to answer — why the universe exists. That is, our universe, the universe, in the singular. But while it might be alluring to imagine what it would be like to live in a universe of ten dimensions, reality is at once simpler and more complex. From the wonderful MinutePhysics — who have previously explored whether the universe has a purpose, why the color pink doesn’t exist, how science education is stuck in the 19th century, why the past is different from the future, and why it’s dark at night — comes a lesson in science and semantics that distills the various hypotheses of parallel universes:

We must remember that physics is science, not philosophy, and in our attempts to explain the universe that we observe, we have to make claims that can in principle be tested — and then test them.

There is, however, plenty of room for philosophy in science — look no further than Jim Holt’s fantastic, mind-bending, and oddly soothing Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, one of the best philosophy books of 2012.

BP

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