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Kurt Vonnegut’s Daily Routine

“In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.”

As a lover of letters and of all things Kurt Vonnegut, I spent months eagerly awaiting Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library), which has finally arrived and is just as fantastic as I’d come to expect. What makes the anthology particularly sublime is that strange, endearing way in which so much of what Vonnegut wrote about to his friends, family, editors, and critics appears at first glance mundane but somehow peels away at the very fabric of his character and reveals the most tender boundaries of his soul.

Here’s a taste: In the mid-1960s, Vonnegut was offered a teaching position at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. His role as long-distance father and husband was propelled by voluminous correspondence with his family, who remained in their Cape Cod residence.

vonnegut

In a letter to his wife, Jane, dated September 28, 1965, he outlines his daily routine:

Dearest Jane,

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me. I’m just as glad they haven’t consulted me about the tiresome details. What they have worked out is this: I awake at 5:30, work until 8:00, eat breakfast at home, work until 10:00, walk a few blocks into town, do errands, go to the nearby municipal swimming pool, which I have all to myself, and swim for half an hour, return home at 11:45, read the mail, eat lunch at noon. In the afternoon I do schoolwork, either teach or prepare. When I get home from school at about 5:30, I numb my twanging intellect with several belts of Scotch and water ($5.00/fifth at the State Liquor store, the only liquor store in town. There are loads of bars, though.), cook supper, read and listen to jazz (lots of good music on the radio here), slip off to sleep at ten. I do pushups and sit-ups all the time, and feel as though I am getting lean and sinewy, but maybe not. Last night, time and my body decided to take me to the movies. I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heart-breaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.

Compare and contrast with Henry Miller’s daily routine.

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How the Gutenberg Press Embodies Combinatorial Creativity

From metallurgy to the division of labor, or why Gutenberg was a typesetting despot.

Brain Pickings celebrated its seventh birthday last week. Since day one, it has been my belief that we create by amalgamating different pieces of knowledge from various fields, with various sensibilities, and from various time periods — knowledge that may seem useless but ultimately isn’t — into new combinations that we call our own ideas; by cultivating a certain way of operating that allows for the remixing of our existing ideas; by creating a rich personal micro-culture that lends itself to such alchemy. Creativity is, in other words, combinatorial and it’s reliant upon a vast, eclectic pool of such intellectual resources. Brain Pickings has always been a sort of library for these diverse building blocks of combinatorial creativity.

In The Half-life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date (public library), applied mathematician and network scientist Samuel Arbesman explores how Gutenberg’s printing press embodied the power of combinatorial creativity, and did so to a degree that far exceeds what the popular mythology around it would have us believe:

It turns out that the printing press is far from simple. The technological innovations that Gutenberg developed were much more than the modification of a wine press and the addition of the idea of movable type. Gutenberg combined and extended a whole host of technologies and innovations from an astonishing number of areas, and that is what made his work so powerful. He used metallurgical developments to create metal type that not only had a consistent look (Gutenberg insisted on this), but type that could be easily cast, allowing whole pages to be printed simply at once. He used chemical innovations to create a better ink than had ever been used before in printing. Gutenberg even exploited the concept of the division of labor by employing a large team of workers, many of whom were illiterate, to churn out books at a rate never before seen in history. And he even employed elegant error-checking mechanisms to ensure that the type was always set properly: There was a straight line on one side of each piece of type so that the workers could see at a glance whether any letters had been set upside down.

Only by having the combined knowledge of all of these technologies does the printing press become possible and cost-effective.

Early wooden printing press,1568, capable of producing up to 240 impressions per hour; public domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Though Steve Jobs may have been right in asserting that “creativity is just connecting things,” it’s more than that — it’s connecting the right kinds of things. And, above all, it’s equipping oneself with the very things to connect in the first place — it’s building a mental catalog of knowledge, then cultivating the right “associative trails” running through that catalog.

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The Cats of Copenhagen: Delightful Recently Discovered Children’s Story by James Joyce

A charming, irreverent picture-book based on Joyce’s letters to his only grandson.

As a connoisseur of little-known children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, I already knew that James Joyce had penned the charming 1965 picture-book The Cat and the Devil, based on a 1936 letter to his most beloved audience, his grandson Stephen. So imagine my delight at the news of a posthumous Joyce children’s release, The Cats of Copenhagen (public library) — a never-before-published short story also based on a letter to Stephen.

In August 1936, Joyce mailed his grandson “a little cat filled with sweets” — a sort of candy mule designed to outwit Stephen’s parents. “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen,” Joyce wrote Stephen from Denmark a month later in a wonderfully playful, mischievous letter that unfolded into a whimsical tale. The short story, illustrated by Casey Sorrow in a style reminiscent of Edward Gorey and beautifully typeset by book artist Michael Caine, was only recently rediscovered and makes an offbeat but characteristically masterful addition to Joyce’s well-known body of work.

The preface speaks to Joyce’s love of cats, a kind of bonding agent for him and his grandson — because, after all, what great writer doesn’t know the creative power of a cat:

Exquisite, minuscule, and with strong, almost anarchic subtext, The Cats of Copenhagen is a slightly younger twin sister to The Cat and the Devil, the only other known example of James Joyce’s writing a story for young children. Both works, written within a few weeks of each other, are in letters posted to stephen James Joyce, his only grandchild. Clearly, cats were a common currency between them: cats, and their common need to have somebody around to help them cross the road.

[…]

Like many otherwise sensible people, James Joyce detested, even loathed, dogs; but he thought the world of cats. In the first chapter of Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom appears, the very first conversation is between a hungry feline and a kind-hearted Bloom.

The Cats of Copenhagen is an absolute treat — highly recommended.

We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie

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