A lavish celebration of the intersection of art, science, and technology.
By Maria Popova
Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library (public library) brings together an extraordinary collection of works from the Rare Book Room and Rare Book Collections of the American Museum of Natural History’s Research Library, spanning five centuries of anthropology, astronomy, earth science, paleontology, and zoology representing all seven continents. Each highlighted work is accompanied by a short essay exploring its significance, what makes it rare — scarcity, uniqueness, age, binding type, size, value, or nature of the illustrations — and its place in natural history.
Tom Baione, who oversees AMNH’s library and who edited the collection, notes in the introduction:
The stories behind the works selected, these natural histories, not only tell the story of the history of science and art over the last five hundred years, but also of the advances and revelations of science and technology during the age of print. While still tools for science, these works endure as small monuments to the achievements and struggles involved in the study of natural science over the centuries.
What makes many of these illustrations particularly fascinating is that they represent a brief slice of history in the evolution of visual representation — after the advent of photography in the early 20th century, many of these lavish artistic illustrations were supplanted by photographic images, which shifted science to a much more aesthetically sterile approach to describing and depicting species. They’re also a heartening and enduring example of the magic that lies at the intersection of art and science as scientists not only sought out the best artists to illustrate their articles, but also versed themselves in drawing and produced exquisite artworks of their own.
The most striking element of Haeckel’s illustrations in Kunstformen der Natur is the startling arrangement of the life forms depicted — especially the microscopic subjects. it appears almost as if some unseen magnetic force had aligned them and arranged each in perfect position for viewing. This maximized the real estate on the paper and allowed the greatest number of related organisms to be studied and admired. While the result was artistic, the intention was educational and scientific. For Haeckel, illustrating and sharing his observations was a way to convey knowledge and information about the natural world. While some scientists observed and described connections between similar forms and functions to show relatedness between animals, Haeckel’s vision and documentary skills went a step further, illustrating similar creatures together, so that anyone — scientists or not — could clearly see their relatedness. As a fervent believer in Darwinian evolutionary theory, he merely pointed out to his viewers the logic of the theory by providing them with a view by which they could see the obvious connections for themselves.
The book comes in a beautiful slip-case containing 40 stunning, frame-ready prints:
From visionary Indian indie publisher Tara Books, who for nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on beautifully crafted books celebrating Indian folk art traditions. Their latest gem, Drawing from the City (public library) by artist Tejubehan, is both more exquisite and born out of a more moving personal story than just about any book I’ve come across. Its gorgeous black-and-white pen-and-ink drawings, brimming with expressive lines and dots somewhere between Yayoi Kusama and Edward Gorey, tell the partly autobiographical, partly escapist tale of this self-taught artist who came of age as a woman trapped between unimaginable poverty and a wildly imaginative inner world in a patriarchal society.
Tejubehan takes us on a journey from her small village into the big city, where her poor parents move to find work. Three years pass. Teju is now a young woman and she marries a man who sings for a living. With his encouragement, she becomes an artist.
It is like magic. I sit in one place with paper and pen, and it is my hand that starts to move. Lines, dots, more lines, and more dots, and you have a picture. I can bring to life things that I have seen and know, but also things that I imagine. I can even bring the two together.
I have been moving all my life, looking for ways to survive, but this is a new direction. My heart is full.
I see a girl going somewhere on a bicycle, and I draw a whole group of girls, all of them on the way somewhere.
We reach the city! Everything is on the move here, not just the train. People rush past, pushing their way through the streets. Only the tall buildings seem rooted to the spot, along with a few trees that stand guard on the other side.
I don’t mind the rush though. The sun is setting, and I marvel at the lampposts that can turn night into day. Nights in our village are really dark.
At its heart, however, the story is really a feminist story — a vision for women’s liberation in a culture with oppressive gender norms and limiting social expectations. In envisioning the woman of the city — biking, driving, flying — Tejubehan is really envisioning what it might be like to live in a world where to be female means to be free to move and free to just be.
I like cars. I wonder what it’s like to move at such a high speed and to be in control of where you’re going. There are always two women in my cars. One drives and the other looks out of the window.
I want to be both of those women.
But even in the plane, my women are not content to sit still. So I float them down, wondering where they should go next. Should they fly forever like birds? Or should I draw some lines taking them down to the sea?
I rest my pen here for a moment. I have time to decide.
Like many of Tara’s other books, Drawing from the City has been silkscreen-printed and bound by hand on handmade paper. The cover is colored with traditional Indian dyes, emanating an enchanting earthy smell that reminds you what it’s like to hold an analog labor of love in your analog human hands.
Originally featured, with more images, in October.
Since childhood, Kusama has had a rare condition that makes her see colorful spots on everything she looks at. Her vision, both literally and creatively, is thus naturally surreal, almost hallucinogenic. Her vibrant artwork, sewn together in a magnificent fabric-bound hardcover tome, becomes an exquisite embodiment of Carroll’s story and his fascination with the extraordinary way in which children see and explore the ordinary world.
Originally featured, with more photos and a trailer, in April.
STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST
Much has been said about how creativity works, what its secrets are, and where good ideas come from, but most of that wisdom can be lost on young minds just dipping their toes in the vast and tumultuous ocean of self-initiated creation. Some time ago, artist and writer Austin Kleon — one of my favorite thinkers, a keen observer of and participant in the creative economy of the digital age — was invited to give a talk to students, the backbone for which was a list of 10 things he wished he’d heard as a young creator:
The book opens with a timeless T.S. Eliot endorsement of remix culture:
Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.
Kleon goes on to delineate the qualities you’ll need to cultivate for the creative life — things like kindness, curiosity, “productive procrastination,” “a willingness to look stupid” — demonstrating that “creativity” isn’t some abstract phenomenon bestowed upon the fortunate few but, rather, a deliberate mindset and pragmatic ethos we can architect for ourselves. As he puts it, “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.”
He writes in the introduction:
It’s one of my theories that when people give advice, they’re really just talking to themselves in the past.
This book is me talking to a previous version of myself.
These are things I’ve learned over almost a decade of trying to figure out how to make art, but a funny thing happened when I started sharing them with others — I realized that they aren’t just for artists. They’re for everyone.
These ideas are for everyone who’s trying to inject some creativity into their life and their work. (That should describe all of us.)
Draw the art you want to see, start the business you want to run, play the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read, build the products you want to use — do the work you want to see done.
What does it mean to ‘change art’? Art, in any definition, is so much a business of transformation that change is always and everywhere part of its nature, whether you think of it in physical terms (stone into statue) or in intellectual or spiritual ones (giving form to invisible things). No sooner has an idea changed art that art reformulates that idea, allowing it to recognize itself. Around the early fifth century BC, for example, Greek sculptors changed the way they represented naked figures, probably under the influence of certain intellectual attitudes to the human body. At the same time, their nude statues endowed fifth-century Greek ideas about what it means to be human with an extraordinarily long and fertile posterity. As so often where art is concerned, the transformation works both ways, more on the analogy of a chemical reaction than the introduction of a new material in engineering or a new process in politics.
Whereas stories are diachronic — they take time in the telling and involve the unfolding of events through time — visual images work synchronically, being interpreted almost instantaneously by the viewer. Visual artists have therefore developed a wide range of strategies for the task of storytelling.
In 2007, artist and illustrator Jane Mount began painting “portraits of people through the spines of their books” — those aspirational bookshelves we all hold in our heads (and, ideally, on our walls), full of all the books that helped us discover and rediscover who we are, what we stand for, and what we’d like to become. A kind of book spine poetry of identity. In 2010, she paired with Paris Review writer Thessaly La Force and the two asked more than a hundred of today’s most exciting creators — writers, artists, designers, critics, filmmakers, chefs, architects — what those favorite, timeless books were for them. Thus, My Ideal Bookshelf* (public library) was born — a magnificent collection of Mount’s illustrated “portraits” of these modern-day icons, alongside short essays by each contributor explaining why the books included are meaningful to him or her. Besides the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of peeking inside the personal libraries of great minds, the project is at once a celebration of bibliophilia and a testament to the fact that the most interesting people are woven of incredibly eclectic influences.
La Force offers a necessary disclaimer in the introduction:
So much depends on where you, the reader, are — physically and metaphorically — when you decide to pick up a book and give it a chance. Which explains why there’s no such thing as one ideal bookshelf; there is no ur-bookshelf. It would be a mistake to try to read this book with that goal in mind. In the end., the one element that links all the ideal bookshelves in these pages is the never-ending search. e’re all still hunting, still hoping to discover one more book that we’ll love and treasure for the rest of our lives.
I love the architecture of public libraries, the very large windows. Inside it’s polished, it’s quiet; during the day, the sun is usually streaming through one room or another. And all the people are sitting there together, but they’re all going to completely different places through the books they’re reading.
Jennifer Egan contemplates the substance of life:
My goal as a writer is to do as much as possible at one time. Life itself is so cacophonous and complex. It’s not that I want to create a cacophony, but I want to do justice to the complexity around us. I don’t want to oversimplify it. I want to take one thing and build from that, and then keep building, until I begin to approximate the complexity of the world and our perceptions of it.
MoMA’s Paola Antonelli considers a book’s content in contrast to its thing-ness:
Hello World is a new book by Alice Rawsthorn, the one and only, the best design critic in the entire world. She keeps the banner of design flying high. Irma Boom designed it, and Irma is very simply the best book designer alive. I personally love reading books electronically. I proudly have a big wall of books in my apartment, but I’m continually getting rid of books that get on my nerves because I don’t think they’re good enough to deserve to take up space in my life. You can walk into a bookstore and find that 95 percent of the books on display might as well have been directly electronic. Mind you, they might be great texts, fabulous additions to human knowledge, but they did not need to have their own paper body. I want physical books to have a concept. Irma designs objects. her books are breathtaking as things.
The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passes the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it — it’s just an excellent way to waste your life.
Illustrator extraordinaire Christoph Niemann speaks to the indispensable value of influence and considers David Foster Wallace as a creative echelon:
I think the most successful illustrations are those that build on some other reference. You can’t completely reinvent something.
For me, David Foster Wallace is almost painful to read. It’s like he’s mumbling. You think he’s just writing down every single idea that comes into his head, but then when you reach the end, you realize that every sentence has been perfectly composed. I wish I could find something in his work that I could put to use in my own.
The one and only Patti Smith touches on that quality of literature that makes it the original “Internet” of hyperlinked discovery:
I longed to read everything I possibly could, and the things I read in turn produced new yearnings.
I really think you can’t progress as a writer unless you read, and the ideal time to read is when you can read generously. It didn’t even occur to me that I could have a book of my own in the library someday. That’s how you should read.
Design and typography maestro Stefan Sagmeister draws a parallel between his design process and his book selection:
As a designer, I often use a process described by the Maltese philosopher Edward de Bono. He suggests starting to think about an idea for a particular project by taking a random objet as a point of departure. So, let’s say I have to design a pen. Instead of looking at other pens, and thinking about how pens are used and who my target audience is, and so on and so forth, I’ll consider, say — I’m in a hotel room right now — beadspreads.
I started writing for children because someone asked me to. I thought it was a different skill set, even though it’s really not. I asked the editor to send me a bunch of children’s books that the publishing house had published. And they were all terrible. Every single one of them. Which inspired me.
But perhaps most poignant of all, or at least most resonant with my own relationship with books, is writer Pico Iyer:
What more could one ask of a companion? To be forever new and yet forever steady. To be strange and familiar all at once, with enough change to quicken my mind, enough steadiness to give sanctuary to my heart. The books on my shelf never asked to come together, and they would not trust or want to listen to one another; but each is a piece of a stained-glass whole without which I couldn’t make sense to myself, or to the world outside.
Each line of the “trick verse” builds upon the previous one, flowing into a kind of rhythmic redundancy embodied in the physical structure of the book as each repeating line is printed only once, but appears on two pages by peeking through exquisitely die-cut holes that play on the stark black-and-white illustrations. Thus, if read page by page the way one would read a traditional book, the poem sounds spellbindingly surreal — but if read through the die-cuts, a beautiful and crisp story comes together.
French comic artist and illustrator Blexbolex may be best-known for his contemplative meditations on people and time, aimed at children yet agelessly delightful and thought-provoking, but he is also a masterful explorer of complex grown-up themes. No Man’s Land (public library), from London indie publisher No Brow, is a poignant satire of the mind’s well-documented gift for fooling itself and seducing us into our own hand-spun illusory realities. Printed in three spot-colors, screenprint-like, on beautiful matte paper — Blexbolex’s signature style — it tells the story of a hero spiraling into an implausible dreamland in hopeless escapism from the processes of mortality.
And still, that insinuating, ever-growing silence.
Hell. I survived hell; you don’t even have the beginning of the slightest idea.
For the past two years, graphic designer Vahram Muratyan, a self-described “lover of Paris wandering through New York,” has been chronicling the peculiarities and contradictions of the two cities through “a friendly visual match” of minimalist illustrated parallel portraits. This year, Muratyan joined the finest blog-turned-books with Paris versus New York: A Tally of Two Cities (public library) — an absolutely charming collection of these vibrant visual dichotomies and likenesses. From beverages to beards, hands to houses, Muratyan captures the intricacies of cultural difference in a way that blends the minimalist and playful visual whimsy of Noma Bar’s Guess Who? with the side-by-side parallelism of Mark Laita’s Created Equal to deliver something entirely new and entirely delightful.
Originally featured, with more images, in January.
THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF DOGS
Dogs have enjoyed a long track record as fiction heroes, photography models, and subjects of scientific curiosity. But they’ve also had an admirable history of inhabiting the spectrum between trope and muse for some of literary history’s greatest talent. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) collects such canine-themed gems — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — from a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including Brain Pickings regulars E. B. White, Maira Kalman, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem, and Roald Dahl. Divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs, and Underdogs — and spanning such subjects as evolution, domesticity, love, family, obedience, bereavement, language, and more, the lavishly illustrated 400-page tome is an absolute treat from cover to cover.
Malcolm Gladwell writes in the foreword:
A few words about you. You bought this book: several hundred pages on dogs. You are, in other words, as unhealthily involved in the emotional life of dogs as the rest of us. Have you wondered why you bought it? One possible answer is that you see the subject of man’s affection for dogs as a way of examining all sorts of broader issues. Is it the case of a simple thing revealing a great many complex truths? We do a lot of this at The New Yorker. To be honest: I do a lot of this at The New Yorker — always going on and on about how A is just a metaphor for B, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s be clear. You didn’t really buy this boo because of some grand metaphor. Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.
From E. B. White comes a playful, heart-warming poem circa 1930:
DOG AROUND THE BLOCK
Dog around the block, sniff,
Hydrant sniffing, corner, grating,
Sniffing, always, starting forward,
Backward, dragging, sniffing backward,
Leash at taut, least at dangle,
Leash in people’s feet entangle—
Sniffing dog, apprised of smellings,
Loving old acquaintances, sniff,
Sniffing hydrant for reminders,
Leg against the wall, raise,
Leaving grating, corner greeting,
Chance for meeting, sniff, meeting,
Meeting, telling, news of smelling,
Nose to tail, tail to nose,
Rigid, careful, pose,
Liking, partly liking, hating,
Then another hydrant, grating,
Leash at taut, leash at dangle,
Tangle, sniff, untangle,
Dog around the block, sniff.
In a piece bearing the deceptively unassuming title “Dog Story,” Adam Gopnik deploys his formidable dual storytelling torpedo of disarming personal anecdote and uncompromising scientific rigor to explore post-Darwinian views on dog domestication:
[C]ountering [Darwin’s] view comes a new view of dog history, more in keeping with our own ostentatiously less man-centered world view. Dogs, we are now told, by a sequence of scientific speculators … domesticated themselves. They chose us. A marginally calmer canid came close to the circle of human warmth — and, more important, human refuse — and was tolerated by the humans inside: let him eat the garbage. Then this scavenging wolf mated with another calm wolf, and soon a family of calmer wolves proliferated just outside the firelight. It wasn’t cub-snatching on the part of humans, but breaking and entering on the part of wolves, that gave us dogs. ‘Hey, you be ferocious and eat them when you can catch them,’ the protodogs said, in evolutionary effect, to their wolf siblings. ‘We’ll just do what they like and have them feed us. Dignity? It’s a small price to pay for free food. Check with you in ten thousand years and we’ll see who’s had more kids.’ (Estimated planetary dog population: one billion. Estimated planetary wild wolf population: three hundred thousand.)
A few pages later, Gopnik’s gentle arrow to the heart of our relationship with dogs:
Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle.
In another essay on Thurber, the magazine’s quintessential dog-lover, whose artwork graces the book cover, Gopnik does away with Gladwell’s disclaimer and offers an insightful A-is-a-metaphor-for-B analysis of Thurber’s meta-symbolism:
So why dogs? The answer is simple: for Thurber, the dog chimed with, represented, the American man in his natural state—a state that, as Thurber saw it, was largely scared out of him by the American woman. When Thurber was writing about dogs, he was writing about men. The virtues that seemed inherent in dogs—peacefulness, courage, and stoical indifference to circumstance—were ones that he felt had been lost by their owners. The American man had the permanent jumps, and the American dog did not. The dog was man set free from family obligations, Monastic Man. Dogs ‘would in all probability have averted the Depression, for they can go through lots tougher things than we and still think it’s boom time. They demand very little of their heyday; a kind word is more to them than fame, a soup bone than gold; they are perfectly contented with a warm fire and a good book to chew (preferably an autographed first edition lent by a friend); wine and song they can completely forgo; and they can almost completely forgo women.’ For Thurber, the dog is not man’s best friend so much as man’s sole dodgy ally in his struggle with man’s strangest necessity, woman.
Indeed, it is also Gopnik who, in the same essay, captures in just a few short sentences the entire ethos of the book — and the very heart of man’s relationship with dog:
Integrity, even grouchy growling integrity, in a world that doesn’t value it; nobility in a time that doesn’t want it—what Thurber’s dogs do is absurd or even pernicious (they bite people, or drag junk furniture for miles) but demonstrates the necessary triumph of the superfluous. Which is what dogs are all about; it is the canine way. Nothing is less necessary than a pet dog, or more needed. Thurber’s theme is that a dog’s life is spent, as a man’s life should be, doing pointless things that have the solemnity of inner purpose.
“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”
By Maria Popova
This season has been ripe with Kurt Vonnegut releases, from the highly anticipated collection of his letters to his first and last works introduced by his daughter, shedding new light on the beloved author both as a complex character and a masterful storyteller. All the recent excitement reminded me of an old favorite, in which Vonnegut maps out the shapes of stories, with equal parts irreverence and perceptive insight, along the “G-I axis” of Good Fortune and Ill Fortune and the “B-E axis” of Beginning and Entropy. The below footage is an excerpt from a longer talk, the transcript of which was published in its entirety in Vonnegut’s almost-memoir A Man Without a Country (public library) under a section titled “Here is a lesson in creative writing,” featuring Vonnegut’s hand-drawn diagrams.
Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.
Though the video ends after Cinderella, in A Man Without a Country Vonnegut goes on to sketch out a fourth plot, that of a typical Kafka story:
Now there’s a Franz Kafka story [begins line D toward bottom of G-I axis]. A young man is rather unattractive and not very personable. He has disagreeable relatives and has had a lot of jobs with no chance of promotion. He doesn’t get paid enough to take his girl dancing or to go to the beer hall to have a beer with a friend. One morning he wakes up, it’s time to go to work again, and he has turned into a cockroach [draws line downward and then infinity symbol]. It’s a pessimistic story.
He then moves on to Hamlet, delivering his signature blend of literary brilliance and existential philosophy:
The question is, does this system I’ve devised help us in the evaluation of literature? Perhaps a real masterpiece cannot be crucified on a cross of this design. How about Hamlet? It’s a pretty good piece of work I’d say. Is anybody going to argue that it isn’t? I don’t have to draw a new line, because Hamlet’s situation is the same as Cinderella’s, except that the sexes are reversed.
His father has just died. He’s despondent. And right away his mother went and married his uncle, who’s a bastard. So Hamlet is going along on the same level as Cinderella when his friend Horatio comes up to him and says, ‘Hamlet, listen, there’s this thing up in the parapet, I think maybe you’d better talk to it. It’s your dad.’ So Hamlet goes up and talks to this, you know, fairly substantial apparition there. And this thing says, ‘I’m your father, I was murdered, you gotta avenge me, it was your uncle did it, here’s how.’
Well, was this good news or bad news? To this day we don’t know if that ghost was really Hamlet’s father. If you have messed around with Ouija boards, you know there are malicious spirits floating around, liable to tell you anything, and you shouldn’t believe them. Madame Blavatsky, who knew more about the spirit world than anybody else, said you are a fool to take any apparition seriously, because they are often malicious and they are frequently the souls of people who were murdered, were suicides, or were terribly cheated in life in one way or another, and they are out for revenge.
So we don’t know whether this thing was really Hamlet’s father or if it was good news or bad news. And neither does Hamlet. But he says okay, I got a way to check this out. I’ll hire actors to act out the way the ghost said my father was murdered by my uncle, and I’ll put on this show and see what my uncle makes of it. So he puts on this show. And it’s not like Perry Mason. His uncle doesn’t go crazy and say, ‘I-I-you got me, you got me, I did it, I did it.’ It flops. Neither good news nor bad news. After this flop Hamlet ends up talking with his mother when the drapes move, so he thinks his uncle is back there and he says, ‘All right, I am so sick of being so damn indecisive,’ and he sticks his rapier through the drapery. Well, who falls out? This windbag, Polonius. This Rush Limbaugh. And Shakespeare regards him as a fool and quite disposable.
You know, dumb parents think that the advice that Polonius gave to his kids when they were going away was what parents should always tell their kids, and it’s the dumbest possible advice, and Shakespeare even thought it was hilarious.
‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be.’ But what else is life but endless lending and borrowing, give and take?
‘This above all, to thine own self be true.’ Be an egomaniac!
Neither good news nor bad news. Hamlet didn’t get arrested. He’s prince. He can kill anybody he wants. So he goes along, and finally he gets in a duel, and he’s killed. Well, did he go to heaven or did he go to hell? Quite a difference. Cinderella or Kafka’s cockroach? I don’t think Shakespeare believed in a heaven or hell any more than I do. And so we don’t know whether it’s good news or bad news.
I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.
But there’s a reason we recognize Hamlet as a masterpiece: it’s that Shakespeare told us the truth, and people so rarely tell us the truth in this rise and fall here [indicates blackboard]. The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.
And if I die — God forbid — I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, ‘Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?’
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