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Wave: A Most Unusual Coloring Book by English Artist Shantell Martin, Inspired by Life in Japan

An illustrated ode to the art of affectionate surrender to the ebb and flow of existence.

Wave: A Most Unusual Coloring Book by English Artist Shantell Martin, Inspired by Life in Japan

“A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating writing and consciousness. Nearly a century later, this powerful image of the wave in the mind — the kind of poetic image which perfectly captures in words something previously unformulated and immediately makes us feel that without it “the world’s store of truth would be diminished” — inspired a collection of excellent essays by Ursula K. Le Guin.

English artist Shantell Martin offers a wonderful visual counterpart to Woolf’s famous metaphor in Wave: A Journey Through the Sea of Imagination for the Adventurous Colorist (public library) — a most unusual accordion coloring book that unfolds into a nine-foot-long continuous illustration, which began as a visual diary Martin kept when she lived in Japan.

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Martin’s masterful line and wild imagination construct an inviting wonderland of whimsical creatures and psychedelic shapes, fusing the soft surrender of a dream with the active alertness of a jubilant hallucination.

I spoke with Martin about her creative process, the conceptual foundation for the book, and the largehearted personal philosophies radiating from her work.

Shantell Martin (Photograph: Nick Onken)
Shantell Martin (Photograph: Nick Onken)

MP:The book was inspired by your stay in Japan and the ethos behind it makes me think of the Chinese concept of wu-wei — “trying not to try,” actualization through a kind of surrender to the ebb and flow of life. Many Eastern philosophies seem to have this disposition in common. What was it about your immersion in that particular culture that catalyzed this particular project?

SM: The book is actually one of many. At the time of creating these, they acted like my diaries — I would keep one on me most of the time. Whenever I would have a spare moment — maybe waiting for a friend or riding on a train — I would draw in the book. (I should really start doing that again.) What was great about the books is that they were accordion, which meant I could draw here and there, and here and there, and then at the end connect all the lines together to be one coherent story. Over time, they became a collection of my thoughts, ideas, things I saw, and more.

One effect living in Japan had on me and my work was the idea of mastering something. I asked myself what I wanted to master and it took a while to be able to articulate what that was — but it was to master a line; to take something that we all can do and make it recognizably mine.

MP: The drawing in this book seems to have a much more detailed and intimate quality compared to your usual work — was this a deliberate decision or the organic unfolding of your style in this medium?

SM:You could say that this more detailed work is my usual work. But because it is much finer and smaller in scale, it demands your full attention — both physically and emotionally. Although my larger works have only been around for a couple of years, they are perhaps most familiar to people. They are much bigger, bolder, and easier to see — like a giant flag — and take up much of the attention. But I’ve been working on many other types of projects for a long time — from collecting objects and stories to collaborating with my grandmother to music and writing, alongside many other subtler nondrawing projects. I’m working on how I can begin to share these other areas of my art with the world.

MP: Your work radiates a kind of spirit of acceptance — acceptance of self, acceptance of the other, acceptance of the flow of life exactly as it is, even if imperfect. How does this notion of the wave, of riding the wave with a sort of affectionate surrender, relate to your personal philosophies of living?

SM: It’s constant work — constant work. There are many challenges, and also many signs and choices that are presented to us out there that can help us begin to understand. I constantly feel that I’ve just started out on my journey, that there is so much that I need to do, that there is so much yet to understand. This can feel overwhelming at times. But, to the best of our ability, we have to ride the wave. When it takes us up, ride it high, and when it brings us down, don’t fight it — lean into it.

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Wave compresses in nine feet of illustration nine billion lightyears of delight. Complement it with Outside the Lines, a quirky coloring book featuring illustrations by beloved contemporary artists, and this charming Finnish coloring book about evolution, then revisit Lynda Barry’s illustrated field guide to keeping a visual diary.

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Auden on Writing, Originality, Self-Criticism, and How to Be a Good Reader

“It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.”

Auden on Writing, Originality, Self-Criticism, and How to Be a Good Reader

“Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone,” Rebecca Solnit observed in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. “At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height,” Hermann Hesse asserted in contemplating the three styles of reading, “we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.” Both reader and writer hold this transcendent communion on the page as the highest hope for their respective reward, but it is a reward each can attain only with the utmost skill and dedication.

The separate but symbiotic rewards of reading and writing, and the skills required for each, are what W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) examines in The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (public library). Although he remains one of the most celebrated, beloved, and influential poets of the past century, it is in this posthumously collected aphoristic prose that Auden speaks most directly to his values, his ideas about literature and art, and his creative process.

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In a sentiment of even sterner conviction than Nabokov’s ten criteria for a good reader, Auden considers reading as an art unto itself:

The interests of a writer and the interests of his* readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident.

[…]

To read is to translate, for no two persons’ experiences are the same. A bad reader is like a bad translator: he interprets literally when he ought to paraphrase and paraphrases when he ought to interpret literally. In learning to read well, scholarship, valuable as it is, is less important than instinct; some great scholars have been poor translators.

Rendering Tolstoy’s prescriptive reading list for every stage of life moot, Auden considers the organic evolution of our taste in reading over a lifetime:

Good taste is much more a matter of discrimination than of exclusion, and when good taste feels compelled to exclude, it is with regret, not with pleasure.

[…]

Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our study to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity. Few of us can learn this without making mistakes, without trying to become a little more of a universal man than we are permitted to be. It is during this period that a writer can most easily be led astray by another writer or by some ideology When someone between twenty and forty says, apropos of a work of art, “I know what I like,” he is really saying “I have no taste of my own but accept the taste of my cultural milieu,” because between twenty and forty, the surest sign that a man has genuine taste of his own is that he is uncertain of it. After forty, if we have not lost our authentic selves altogether, pleasure can again become what it was when we were children, the proper guide to what we should read.

Art by Maurice Sendak for The Big Green Book by Robert Graves

The challenges of being a reader in many ways parallel those of being a writer, particularly when it comes to these tyrannical shoulds — nowhere more so than in the perennially asked, perennially answered with ire question of why a writer writes and for whom. Auden offers the most beautiful answer I have yet encountered, at once utterly grounding and utterly elevating:

A writer … is always being asked by people who should know better: “Whom do you write for?” The question is, of course, a silly one, but I can give it a silly answer. Occasionally I come across a book which I feel has been written especially for me and for me only. Like a jealous lover, I don’t want anybody else to hear of it. To have a million such readers, unaware of each other’s existence, to be read with passion and never talked about, is the daydream, surely, of every author.

In another essay from the volume, he revisits the same subject from a different angle. Considering the extrinsic misconceptions and intrinsic self-delusions about why writers write — a question that has garnered some memorable answers from Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner — Auden offers:

Just as a good man forgets his deed the moment he has done it, a genuine writer forgets a work as soon as he has completed it and starts to think about the next one; if he thinks about his past work at all, he is more likely to remember its faults than its virtues. Fame often makes a writer vain, but seldom makes him proud.

[…]

Every writer would rather be rich than poor, but no genuine writer cares about popularity as such. He needs approval of his work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life he believes he has had is a true vision and not a self-delusion, but he can only be reassured by those whose judgment he respects. It would only be necessary for a writer to secure universal popularity if imagination and intelligence were equally distributed among all men.

He then turns to the inner workings of the creative process and the mystique of inspiration. Unlike Tchaikovsky, who drew a vehement line between commissioned and self-initiated creative work, Auden argues that all creative work is in a sense commissioned — not by a client but by the Muse, or by what Ursula K. Le Guin so poetically called “acts of the spirit.” He writes:

All works of art are commissioned in the sense that no artist can create one by a simple act of will but must wait until what he believes to be a good idea for a work “comes” to him.

And yet what the Muse commissions is vulnerable to the basic flaw of all human intuition. “The confidence people have in their beliefs is not a measure of the quality of evidence but of the coherence of the story that the mind has managed to construct,” Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in exploring how our minds mislead us. By the same token, the degree by which our inspiration invigorates us need not be indicative of the merit of the art it produces. Auden articulates this with elegant wit:

The degree of excitement which a writer feels during the process of composition is as much an indication of the value of the final result as the excitement felt by a worshiper is an indication of the value of his devotions, that is to say, very little indication.

But the task of assessing the merits of one’s own work is a Herculean one. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s ideas about the four people a writer must be and Adam Phillips’s insight into the paradoxical nature of self-criticism, Auden offers his formula for effective creative critique of oneself:

To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal, foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.

An ability to submit to this Censorate, of course, requires a high degree of sincerity — something with which Nobel laureate André Gide had memorably tussled a century earlier and which Aldous Huxley believed was the cause of a supreme artistic anxiety. Auden quips, then turns sincere:

Sincerity is like sleep. Normally, one should assume that, of course, one will be sincere, and not give the question a second thought. Most writers, however, suffer occasionally from bouts of insincerity as men do from bouts of insomnia. The remedy in both cases is often quite simple: in the case of the latter, to change one’s diet, in the case of the former, to change one’s company.

[…]

Sincerity in the proper sense of the word, meaning authenticity, is, however, or ought to be, a writer’s chief preoccupation. No writer can ever judge exactly how good or bad a work of his may be, but he can always know, not immediately perhaps, but certainly in a short while, whether something he has written is authentic — in his handwriting — or a forgery.

Echoing Montaigne’s admonition against the cult of originality, Auden adds:

Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.

Complement the altogether indispensable The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays with Auden on the most important principle in making art and what medicine and art have in common, then revisit more abiding advice on writing from Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, and other beloved authors.

* To contend with the era’s inescapably gendered language, I point you once again to Ursula K. Le Guin’s timelessly brilliant commentary on the problem.

BP

Mental Health, Free Will, and Your Microbiome

“We are legion, each and every one of us. Always a ‘we’ and never a ‘me.’”

Mental Health, Free Will, and Your Microbiome

“I have observed many tiny animals with great admiration,” Galileo marveled as he peered through his microscope — a tool that, like the telescope, he didn’t invent himself but he used with in such a visionary way as to render it revolutionary. The revelatory discoveries he made in the universe within the cell are increasingly proving to be as significant as his telescopic discoveries in the universe without — a significance humanity has been even slower and more reluctant to accept than his radical revision of the cosmos.

That multilayered significance is what English science writer and microbiology elucidator Ed Yong explores in I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (public library) — a book so fascinating and elegantly written as to be worthy of its Whitman reference, in which Yong peels the veneer of the visible to reveal the astonishing complexity of life thriving beneath and within the crude confines of our perception.

Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolaria, one of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel
Early-twentieth-century drawing of Radiolarians, some of the first microorganisms, by Ernst Haeckel

Artist Agnes Margin memorably observed that “the best things in life happen to you when you’re alone,” but Yong offers a biopoetic counterpoint in the fact that we are never truly alone. He writes:

Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis — a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. We then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right — a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.

[…]

All zoology is really ecology. We cannot fully understand the lives of animals without understanding our microbes and our symbioses with them. And we cannot fully appreciate our own microbiome without appreciating how those of our fellow species enrich and influence their lives. We need to zoom out to the entire animal kingdom, while zooming in to see the hidden ecosystems that exist in every creature. When we look at beetles and elephants, sea urchins and earthworms, parents and friends, we see individuals, working their way through life as a bunch of cells in a single body, driven by a single brain, and operating with a single genome. This is a pleasant fiction. In fact, we are legion, each and every one of us. Always a “we” and never a “me.”

There are ample reasons to admire and appreciate microbes, well beyond the already impressive facts that they ruled “our” Earth for the vast majority of its 4.54-billion-year history and that we ourselves evolved from them. By pioneering photosynthesis, they became the first organisms capable of making their own food. They dictate the planet’s carbon, nitrogen, sulphur, and phosphorus cycles. They can survive anywhere and populate just about corner of the Earth, from the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean to the loftiest clouds. They are so diverse that the microbes on your left hand are different from those on your right.

Illustration by Emily Sutton from Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies

But perhaps most impressively — for we are, after all, the solipsistic species — they influence innumerable aspects of our biological and even psychological lives. Young offers a cross-section of this microbial dominion:

The microbiome is infinitely more versatile than any of our familiar body parts. Your cells carry between 20,000 and 25,000 genes, but it is estimated that the microbes inside you wield around 500 times more. This genetic wealth, combined with their rapid evolution, makes them virtuosos of biochemistry, able to adapt to any possible challenge. They help to digest our food, releasing otherwise inaccessible nutrients. They produce vitamins and minerals that are missing from our diet. They break down toxins and hazardous chemicals. They protect us from disease by crowding out more dangerous microbes or killing them directly with antimicrobial chemicals. They produce substances that affect the way we smell. They are such an inevitable presence that we have outsourced surprising aspects of our lives to them. They guide the construction of our bodies, releasing molecules and signals that steer the growth of our organs. They educate our immune system, teaching it to tell friend from foe. They affect the development of the nervous system, and perhaps even influence our behaviour. They contribute to our lives in profound and wide-ranging ways; no corner of our biology is untouched. If we ignore them, we are looking at our lives through a keyhole.

Illustration by Alice and Margin Provensen from The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales

Kafka believed that we look at life through the narrow keyhole of our personal existence and in order to distinguish between appearance and reality, we “must keep the keyhole clean.” Yong performs a masterful act of keyhole-cleaning in demonstrating just how intimately entwined our personal existence is with that of the microbes that inhabit our bodies — a relationship nowhere more counterintuitive yet rife with promise than when it comes to our mental health. It’s hardly instinctive to consider that biology, much less microbiology, can influence the seething cauldron of mental and emotional experience we call psychology. And yet given the centrality of microbes to our immune system microbes and the constant dialogue between our immune system and our central nervous system in shaping our susceptibility to stress and burnout, it pays to probe how our microbiome might interact with our mental health.

Yong notes that research into this question is still in its nascency, so most studies are small and inconclusive, but he points to several curious and promising strands of research. One fMRI study by Kirsten Tillisch found that women who consumed a microbe-rich yoghurt displayed less activity in brain areas implicated in processing emotions, compared to those who consumed a microbe-free yogurt. In a clinical trial by Stephen Collins for patients with irritable bowel syndrome, a probiotic bacterium reduced symptoms of depression. Psychiatrist Ted Dinan, who runs a clinic for patients with depression, is wrapping up a clinical trial on “psychobiotics” — probiotics that might help people manage stress and depression. Although Dinan himself is skeptical that such treatments would be effective for those with debilitating clinical depression, he is hopeful that people with milder mood disorders might find some relief.

Art by Bobby Baker from Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me

But the most striking implication of even the very possibility that microbes might shape our moods is that they might also shape our choices and, in consequence, our very destinies. Yong considers the overwhelming range of imputations:

These studies are already forcing scientists to view different aspects of human behaviour through a microbial lens. Drinking lots of alcohol makes the gut leakier, allowing microbes to more readily influence the brain — could that help to explain why alcoholics often experience depression or anxiety? Our diet reshapes the microbes in our gut — could those changes ripple out to affect our minds? The gut microbiome becomes less stable in old age — could that contribute to the rise of brain diseases in the elderly? And could our microbes manipulate our food cravings in the first place? If you reach for a burger or a chocolate bar, what exactly is pushing that hand forward? From your perspective, choosing the right item on a menu is the difference between a good meal and a bad one. But for your gut bacteria, the choice is more important. Different microbes fare better on certain diets. Some are peerless at digesting plant fibres. Others thrive on fats. When you choose your meals, you are also choosing which bacteria get fed, and which get an advantage over their peers. But they don’t have to sit there and graciously await your decision. As we have seen, bacteria have ways of hacking into the nervous system. If they released dopamine, a chemical involved in feelings of pleasure and reward, when you ate the ‘right’ things, could they potentially train you to choose certain foods over others? Do they get a say in your menu picks?

These questions flirt with the conundrum of free will by making us contend with the discomfiting notion that each of us might after all be what neuroscientist Sam Harris has called “a biochemical puppet.” And although these puzzlements are still largely in the realm of the hypothetical, Yong points out that such dependencies are far from uncommon in nature. He writes:

Nature is full of parasites that control the minds of their hosts. The rabies virus infects the nervous system and makes its carriers violent and aggressive; if they lash out at their peers, and inflict bites and scratches, they pass the virus on to new hosts. The brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii is another puppetmaster. It can only sexually reproduce in a cat; if it gets into a rat, it suppresses the rodent’s natural fear of cat odours and replaces it with something more like sexual attraction. The rodent scurries towards nearby cats, with fatal results, and T. gondii gets to complete its life cycle.

The rabies virus and T. gondii are outright parasites, selfishly reproducing at the expense of their hosts, with detrimental and often fatal results. Our gut microbes are different. They are natural parts of our lives. They help to construct our bodies — our gut, our immune system, our nervous system. They benefit us. But we shouldn’t let that lure us into a false sense of security. Symbiotic microbes are still their own entities, with their own interests to further and their own evolutionary battles to wage. They can be our partners, but they are not our friends. Even in the most harmonious of symbioses, there is always room for conflict, selfishness, and betrayal.

In the remainder of the intensely interesting I Contain Multitudes, Yong goes on to explore how these lines are drawn and what we can do to make the most of those alliances. Complement it with Tiny Creatures — a lovely children’s book primer on the universe of microbes — then grow agape at Yong’s terrific and slightly terrifying TED talk about mind-controlling parasites:

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