Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “Timeless Advice on writing from famous authors”

10½ Favorite Reads from TED Bookstore 2013

A full-brain reading list of cross-disciplinary stimulation.

Once again this year, like last, I had the honor of curating a selection of books for the TED Bookstore at TED 2013, themed The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered. Below are this year’s picks, along with the original text that appears on the bookstore cards and the introductory blurb about the selection:

‘I feel … as though the physical stuff of my brain were expanding, larger and larger, throbbing quicker and quicker with new blood — and there is no more delicious sensation than this,’ Virginia Woolf wrote on the mesmerism of books. Gathered here are books to make both hemispheres throb with boundless delight, stimulation, and deliciousness.

I SAW A PEACOCK WITH A FIERY TAIL

A die-cut masterpiece, two years in the making, I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail (public library), one of the best art books of 2012, is based on a 17th-century British “trick” poem and illustrated in the signature Indian folk art style of the Gond tribe by Indian artist Ramsingh Urveti. It comes from Indian independent publisher Tara Books (), who for the nearly two decades have been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a community of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books.

Originally featured, with more images and a trailer, last May.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. Collected in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, is her no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — published under Sugar’s long-awaited real name.

Turn to page 352 for a sublime taste.

BIG QUESTIONS FROM LITTLE PEOPLE

The questions children ask are often so simple, so basic, that they turn unwittingly yet profoundly philosophical in requiring apple-pie-from-scratch type of answers. To explore this fertile intersection of simplicity and expansiveness, Gemma Elwin Harris asked thousands of primary school children between the ages of four and twelve to send in their most restless questions, then invited some of today’s most prominent scientists, philosophers, and writers — including TEDsters like Alain de Botton, Mary Roach, and Richard Dawkins — to answer them. The result is Big Questions from Little People & Simple Answers from Great Minds (public library), among both the best children’s books of 2012 and the year’s overall reader favorites. A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Save the Children.

Originally featured, with several excerpts from the heart-warming, brain-tickling questions and answers, last November.

INTERNAL TIME

“Six hours’ sleep for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool,” Napoleon famously prescribed. But despite the laughably sexist hierarchy, his rule of thumb turns out to be grossly unsupported by science. In Internal Time: Chronotypes, Social Jet Lag, and Why You’re So Tired (public library), one of the best science books of 2012, German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg demonstrates through a wealth of research that our sleep patterns have little to do with laziness and other such scorned character flaws, and everything to do with biology.

Originally featured at length last May.

WHERE THE HEART BEATS

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library), also one of the best philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs an exceptional intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of John Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, this superbly researched, exquisitely written tome weaves together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

Originally featured, with bountiful excerpts and photographs, last July.

AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH

The second published volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), one of the best history books of 2012, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. Especially enchanting is the evolution of her relationship with love over that decade and a half, as Sontag settles into her own skin not only as a dimensional writer but also as a dimensional human being.

Sample this treasure with Sontag’s wisdom on love, art, education, writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms.

THE WHERE, THE WHY, AND THE HOW

In The Where, the Why, and the How: 75 Artists Illustrate Wondrous Mysteries of Science (UK; public library), one of the best science books of 2012, some of today’s most celebrated artists create scientific illustrations and charts to accompany short essays about the most fascinating unanswered questions on the minds of contemporary scientists across biology, astrophysics, chemistry, quantum mechanics, anthropology, and more. The questions cover such mind-bending subjects as whether there are more than three dimensions, why we sleep and dream, what causes depression, how long trees live, and why humans are capable of language. Above all, the project is a testament to the idea that ignorance is what drives discovery and wonder is what propels science — a reminder to, as Rilke put it, live the questions and delight in reflecting on the mysteries themselves.

Originally featured, with artwork and answers, in October.

HENRI’S WALK TO PARIS

Saul Bass is considered by many — myself included — the greatest graphic designer of all time, responsible for some of the most timeless logos and most memorable film title sequences of the twentieth century. In 1962, Bass collaborated with former librarian Leonore Klein on his only children’s book, which spent decades as a prized out-of-print collector’s item. Exactly half a century later, Henri’s Walk to Paris (public library), one of 2012’s best children’s books, was brought back to life.

Originally featured, with more images, last February.

A TECHNIQUE FOR PRODUCING IDEAS

Originally published by an ad man named James Webb Young in 1939, A Technique for Producing Ideas (public library) is a forgotten gem that lays out with striking lucidity and clarity the five essential steps for a productive creative process, touching on a number of elements corroborated by modern science and thinking on creativity: its reliance on process over mystical talent, its combinatorial nature, its demand for a pondering period, its dependence on the brain’s unconscious processes, and more.

Try Young’s 5-step technique here.

THE BIG NEW YORKER BOOK OF DOGS

The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (public library) is a remarkable collection of canine-themed treats — fiction, poetry, feature articles, humor, cartoons, cover art, manuscript drafts — by a slew of titans culled from the magazine’s archive, including 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, this lavish tome embodies what Malcolm Gladwell eloquently observes in the introduction: “Dogs are not about something else. Dogs are about dogs.”

Cover by Maira Kalman, February 1, 1999

See it in its full glory here.

BONUS: ADVICE TO LITTLE GIRLS

In 1865, legendary satirist Mark Twain did something unexpected — he penned a children’s story, in which he challenged kids to digest the intelligent humor he was, and still is, known for among his adult audiences. Nearly a century and a half later, beloved Russian children’s illustrator Vladimir Radunsky and Brooklyn independent publisher Enchanted Lion () are bringing Advice to Little Girls (public library) to life, envisioned in the style of the scrapbooks and small albums that children of Twain’s era used for doodling and collecting various curious ephemera.

This little gem was a TED Bookstore exclusive — it isn’t publicly available until April, but it’s now out for pre-order.

Complement with other littleknown children’s books by famous authors of literature for grown-ups, then catch up on last year’s TED Bookstore selections.

BP

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.”
BP

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.

“Find something more important than you are,” philosopher Dan Dennett once said in discussing the secret of happiness, “and dedicate your life to it.” But how, exactly, do we find that? Surely, it isn’t by luck. I myself am a firm believer in the power of curiosity and choice as the engine of fulfillment, but precisely how you arrive at your true calling is an intricate and highly individual dance of discovery. Still, there are certain factors — certain choices — that make it easier. Gathered here are insights from seven thinkers who have contemplated the art-science of making your life’s calling a living.

PAUL GRAHAM ON HOW TO DO WHAT YOU LOVE

Every few months, I rediscover and redevour Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham’s fantastic 2006 article, How to Do What You Love. It’s brilliant in its entirety, but the part I find of especial importance and urgency is his meditation on social validation and the false merit metric of “prestige”:

What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world.

[…]

Prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.

[…]

Prestige is just fossilized inspiration. If you do anything well enough, you’ll make it prestigious. Plenty of things we now consider prestigious were anything but at first. Jazz comes to mind—though almost any established art form would do. So just do what you like, and let prestige take care of itself.

Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.

More of Graham’s wisdom on how to find meaning and make wealth can be found in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age.

ALAIN DE BOTTON ON SUCCESS

Alain de Botton, modern philosopher and creator of the “literary self-help genre”, is a keen observer of the paradoxes and delusions of our cultural conceits.

In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he takes his singular lens of wit and wisdom to the modern workplace and the ideological fallacies of “success.”

His terrific 2009 TED talk offers a taste:

One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.

HUGH MACLEOD ON SETTING BOUNDARIES

Cartoonist Hugh MacLeod is as well-known for his irreverent doodles as he is for his opinionated musings on creativity, culture, and the meaning of life. In Ignore Everybody: and 39 Other Keys to Creativity, he gathers his most astute advice on the creative life. Particularly resonant with my own beliefs about the importance of choices is this insight about setting boundaries:

16. The most important thing a creative per­son can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not.

Art suffers the moment other people start paying for it. The more you need the money, the more people will tell you what to do. The less control you will have. The more bullshit you will have to swallow. The less joy it will bring. Know this and plan accordingly.

Later, MacLeod echoes Graham’s point about prestige above:

28. The best way to get approval is not to need it.

This is equally true in art and business. And love. And sex. And just about everything else worth having.”

LEWIS HYDE ON WORK VS. LABOR

After last year’s omnibus of 5 timeless books on fear and the creative process, a number of readers rightfully suggested an addition: Lewis Hyde’s 1979 classic, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, of which David Foster Wallace famously said, “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

In this excerpt, originally featured here in January, Hyde articulates the essential difference between work and creative labor, understanding which takes us a little closer to the holy grail of vocational fulfillment:

Work is what we do by the hour. It begins and, if possible, we do it for money. Welding car bodies on an assembly line is work; washing dishes, computing taxes, walking the rounds in a psychiatric ward, picking asparagus — these are work. Labor, on the other hand, sets its own pace. We may get paid for it, but it’s harder to quantify… Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms — these are labors.

Work is an intended activity that is accomplished through the will. A labor can be intended but only to the extent of doing the groundwork, or of not doing things that would clearly prevent the labor. Beyond that, labor has its own schedule.

There is no technology, no time-saving device that can alter the rhythms of creative labor. When the worth of labor is expressed in terms of exchange value, therefore, creativity is automatically devalued every time there is an advance in the technology of work.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a term for the quality that sets labor apart from work: flow — a kind of intense focus and crisp sense of clarity where you forget yourself, lose track of time, and feel like you’re part of something larger. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter for a pet project, or even spent 20 consecutive hours composing a love letter, you’ve experienced flow and you know creative labor.

STEVE JOBS ON NOT SETTLING

In his now-legendary 2005 Stanford commencement address, an absolute treasure in its entirety, Steve Jobs makes an eloquent case for not settling in the quest for finding your calling — a case that rests largely on his insistence upon the power of intuition:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

ROBERT KRULWICH ON FRIENDS

Robert Krulwich, co-producer of WNYC’s fantastic Radiolab, author of the ever-illuminating Krulwich Wonders and winner of a Peabody Award for broadcast excellence, is one of the finest journalists working today. In another great commencement address, he articulates the infinitely important social aspect of loving what you do — a kind of social connectedness far more meaningful and genuine than those notions of prestige and peer validation.

You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

If you can… fall in love, with the work, with people you work with, with your dreams and their dreams. Whatever it was that got you to this school, don’t let it go. Whatever kept you here, don’t let that go. Believe in your friends. Believe that what you and your friends have to say… that the way you’re saying it — is something new in the world.

THE HOLSTEE MANIFESTO

You might recall The Holstee Manifesto as one of our 5 favorite manifestos for the creative life, an eloquent and beautifully written love letter to the life of purpose. (So beloved is the manifesto around here that it has earned itself a permanent spot in the Brain Pickings sidebar, a daily reminder to both myself and you, dear reader, of what matters most.)

This is your life. Do what you love, and do it often. If you don’t like something, change it. If you don’t like your job, quit. If you don’t have enough time, stop watching TV. If you are looking for the love of your life, stop; they will be waiting for you when you start doing things you love.

The Holstee Manifesto is now available as a beautiful letterpress print, a 5×7 greeting card printed on handmade paper derived from 50% elephant poo and 50% recycled paper, and even a baby bib — because it’s never too early to instill the values of living from passion.

BP

The 11 Best Art and Design Books of 2011

From the Periodic Table to Craigslist, or what the greatest graphic designer of all time has to do with Moby-Dick.

After last week’s look at the 11 best illustrated books for (eternal) kids of 2011, this year’s best-of series continues with a look at the finest art, design, and creativity books of 2011 — tomes that capture your imagination and encapsulate the richest spectrum of what it means to be a thoughtful, eloquent visual creator.

RADIOACTIVE

Marie Curie is one of the most extraordinary figures in the history of science. A pioneer in researching radioactivity, a field the very name for which she coined, she was not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize but also the first person to win two Nobel Prizes, and in two different sciences at that, chemistry and physics. In Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, artist Lauren Redniss tells the story of Curie through the two invisible but immensely powerful forces that guided her life: Radioactivity and love. It’s a turbulent story — a passionate romance with Pierre Curie (honeymoon on bicycles!), the epic discovery of radium and polonium, Pierre’s sudden death in a freak accident in 1906, Marie’s affair with physicist Paul Langevin, her coveted second Noble Prize — under which lie poignant reflections on the implications of Curie’s work more than a century later as we face ethically polarized issues like nuclear energy, radiation therapy in medicine, nuclear weapons and more.

It’s also a remarkable feat of thoughtful design and creative vision. To honor Curie’s spirit and legacy, Redniss rendered her poetic artwork in cyanotype, an early-20th-century image printing process critical to the discovery of both X-rays and radioactivity itself — a cameraless photographic technique in which paper is coated with light-sensitive chemicals. Once exposed to the sun’s UV rays, this chemically-treated paper turns a deep shade of blue. The text in the book is a unique typeface Redniss designed using the title pages of 18th- and 19th-century manuscripts from the New York Public Library archive. She named it Eusapia LR, for the croquet-playing, sexually ravenous Italian Spiritualist medium whose séances the Curies used to attend. The book’s cover is printed in glow-in-the-dark ink.

Full review, with more images and Redniss’s TEDxEast talk, here.

SAUL BASS

Saul Bass (1920-1996) is one of the most iconic and influential visual communicators of the 20th century — possibly the most famous graphic designer of all time — having broken out of the conformity of the 1950s to shape the aesthetic of generations of designers and animators with his bold and lively film title sequences and graphic design. (His insights on creativity and advice on doing quality work are also a timeless treat for any creator.) Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design is the first and highly anticipated definitive monograph on the creative visionary. Designed by Bass’s daughter, Jennifer, and written by renowned design historian Pat Kirkham, the formidable 428-page volume features more than 1,400 of Bass’s illustrations, many never before published, that offer an unprecedented look at his legacy and the creative process behind his most celebrated posters, title sequences, and logo designs.

I want everything we do to be beautiful. I don’t give a damn whether the client understands that that’s worth anything, or that the client thinks it’s worth anything, or whether it is worth anything. It’s worth it to me. It’s the way I want to live my life. I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares.” ~ Saul Bass

Publisher Laurence King put together this epic video of the making of the book, to give you a sense of the scale and ambition of the project:

From his iconic title sequences…

… to his unforgettable posters…

…to his legendary logos for mega-brands like AT&T, Quaker Oats, and United Airlines, the monograph contextualizes his most significant works and analyzes each film project individually to dissect its graphic elements and motifs.

Had Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design been released before the publication of this selection of the 100 best graphic design books of the past 100 years, it would most certainly have been included, and quite possibly would have topped the list — it is, truly, one of the most beautiful, inspirational, important design books you’ll ever lay eyes and hands on.

Full review here.

MISSED CONNECTIONS

You might recall Sophie Blackall, known for her distinctive children’s book illustration, as one of the brains and brushes behind these brilliant design makeovers of the mundane. Since 2009, she has been capturing Craigslist missed connections in her delightful illustrations and unmistakable style of Chinese ink and watercolor, brimming with charm, romanticism and soft whimsy. Now, Blackall joins our running list of blogs so good they became books: Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found collects the best of these poetic visual what-if love stories, each told in a shorthand “missed connection” ranging from the lyrical (I Gave You My Umbrella but the Wrong Directions) to the warm-and-fuzzy (We Shared a Bear Suit) to the shared love of the tragicomic (Ice Skating in Central Park We Collided).

Every day hundreds of strangers reach out to other strangers on the strength of a glance, a smile or a blue hat. Their messages have the lifespan of a butterfly. I’m trying to pin a few of them down.” – Sophie Blackall

Both playful and profound, Blackall’s delicate drawings — many of which are available on Etsy as prints — immortalize the ephemeral with a wink and a wand, breathing into these mundane encounters a kind of magic that transforms them into open-ended modern-day fairy tales.

In the book’s fascinating introduction, Blackall explores the history of missed connections, both her personal fascination with them and our larger collective memory across time:

For centuries the lovelorn have carved messages in tree trunks and rolled letters into bottles and cast them out to sea. On the 19th of January, 1862, the following appeared in The New York Times:

‘If the young lady wearing the pink dress, spotted fur cape and muff, had light hair, light complexion and blue eyes, who was in company with a lady dressed in black, that I passed about 5 o’clock on Friday evening in South Seventh Street, between First and Second, Williamsburg, L.I., will address a line to Waldo, Williamsburg Post Office, she will make the acquaintance of a fine young man.’

Some of the illustrated messages were written by their smitten authors moments after the encounter took place, and others decades later. Some are written to an impossible love interest, a person famous or dead or forbidden for one reason or another, and some lament the loss of a familiar lover. Hopeful, pensive, lonely, drunken, optimistic — they span the entire spectrum of human emotion.

Original review, with more images, here.

CULTURAL CONNECTIVES

These days, news of the Middle East is a frequent staple of our daily media diet, but these media portrayals tend to be limited, one-dimensional, and reductionist. We know precious little about Arab culture, with all its rich and layered multiplicity, and even less about its language. Cultural Connectives, a fine addition to my favorite books about language from my friends at Mark Batty, aims to bridge this gap though a cultural cross-pollinator in the form of a typeface family designed by author Rana Abou Rjeily that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture.

Both minimalist and illuminating, the book’s stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint.

The book jacket unfolds into a beautiful poster of a timeless quote by Gibran Khalil Gibran, rendered in Arabic:

We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.” ~ Gibran Khalil Gibran

Full review, with more images, here.

344 QUESTIONS

344 Questions: The Creative Person’s Do-It-Yourself Guide to Insight, Survival, and Artistic Fulfillment was the most popular book amongst Brain Pickings readers this year — a delightful pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists to help you figure out life’s big answers by ever-inventive designer Stefan G. Bucher, he of You Deserve a Medal and Daily Monster fame.

Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved creators across various disciplines, including Brain Pickings favorites Christoph Niemann, Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, Doyald Young, and Jakob Trollbäck.

Let’s be clear: I want this book to be useful to you. There are many great how-to books and biographies out there, and even more gorgeous collections of current and classic work to awe and inspire. But looking at catalogs of artistic success won’t make you a better artist any more than looking at photos of healthy people will cure your cold. You’ve got to take action!” ~ Stefan G. Bucher

(Sure, this may be somewhat remiss in overlooking the basic mechanism of combinatorial creativity, but it’s it’s hard to argue with the need to make ideas happen rather than just contemplating them.)

This gem is also one of my favorite creativity-catalyzing activity books for grown-ups.

Page images copyright © 2012. Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders

Though Bucher designed the book as a sequence, it also works choose-you-own-adventure-style and, as Bucher is quick to encourage, asks for hands-on interaction — dog-earing, marginalia, doodles. “If you keep this book in mint condition, I’ve failed,” he says.

We are all different people, but we face a lot of the same questions. The point of this book is to give you lots of questions you can use to look at your life — in a new way, with a different perspective, or maybe just in more detail than you have before — so you can find out how you work, what you want to do, and how you can get it done in a way that works for you. Specifically.” ~ Stefan G. Bucher

Originally featured here.

VISUAL COMPLEXITY

Data visualization is a running theme of visual literacy here, and Manuel Lima has been one of its biggest champions since 2005 when, shortly after graduating from the Parson School of Design, he launched VisualComplexity — an ambitious portal for the visualization of complex networks across a multitude of disciplines, from biology to history to the social web. This year, Lima released the highly anticipated Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information — a rigorously researched, beautifully designed, thoughtfully curated anthology of the world’s most compelling work at the intersection of these two relatively nascent yet increasingly powerful techno-cultural phenomena, network science and information visualization. It’s a winsome addition to these essential books on data visualization and a powerful tool in your visual literacy arsenal for navigating the Information Age.

Philipp Steinweber and Andreas Koller
Similar Diversity, 2007
A visualization of the similarities and difference between the holy books of five world religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism.
Marco Quaggiotto
Knowledge Cartography, 2008
Screenshots taken from ATLAS, an application developed to explore the possibilities of applying cartographic techniques to mapping knowledge. ATLAS allows users to list their biobibliographic references and to map them according to four main rendering modes: semantic, socio-relational, geographic, and temporal.

From the sacred meaning of trees and their age-old use as classification systems to the science behind network thinking to the stunning and visually expressive products of cutting-edge digital visualization, Lima — author, designer, and deep thinker — not only explores the multiplicitous allure of networks, but also crafts an important analog artifact to contain these rapidly vanishing digital ephemera. (You know, in case you were wondering why computational creativity should belong in a book.)

As the book gained shape, it quickly became clear that it was not just about making the pool of knowledge more accessible, but also saving it for posterity. As I reviewed projects to feature in the book, I was astounded by how many dead links and error messages I encountered. Some of these projects became completely untraceable, possibly gone forever. This disappearance is certainly not unique to network visualization — it is a widespread quandary of modern technology. Commonly referred to as the Digital Dark Age, the possibility of many present-day digital artifacts vanishing within a few decades is a considerably worrying prospect.” ~ Manuel Lima

From the Bible to Wikipedia edits to the human genome, the gorgeous and thought-provoking visualizations in the book will make you look at the world in a whole new way, and the insightful essays accompanying them will vastly expand your understanding of the trends and technologies shaping our ever-evolving relationship with information.

Brain and Body
Alesha Sivartha, The Book of Life: The Spiritual and Physical Constitution of Man, 1912
Density Design: Mario Porpora
The Poverty Red Thread, 2008
A map of the poverty line in Italy organized according to family typologies (number of family members), and further categorized by location (the north, center, or south of Italy).
Stefanie Posavec
Writing Without Words, 2008
A chart of the structure of part one of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). Each splitting of the branch into progressively smaller sections parallels the organization of the content from chapters to paragraphs, sentences, and words. Each color relates to one of eleven thematic categories created by Posavec for the book (e.g., travel, work and survival, sketches of regional life).

(More on Posavec’s brilliant project here.)

Christoper Paul Baker
Email Map, 2007
A rendering of the relationships between Baker and individuals in his address book generated by examining the to, from, and cc fields of every email in his in-box archive.
Chris Harrison
Visualizing the Bible, 2007
A map of the 63,779 cross-references found in the Bible. The bar graph on the bottom represents all of the books in the Bible, alternating between white and light gray for easy differentiation. The length of each bar, representative of a book’s chapter and dropping below the datum, corresponds to the number of verses in that chapter. Each arc represents a textual cross-reference (e.g., place, person), and the color denotes the distance between the two chapters where the reference appears — ultimately creating a rainbowlike effect.

Reviewed in full, with more images, here.

MAPS

Iconic designer Paula Scher is one of my big creative heroes, her thoughts on combinatorial creativity a perfect articulation of my own beliefs about how we create. Since the early 1990s, Scher has been creating remarkable, obsessive, giant hand-painted typographic maps of the world as she sees it, covering everything from specific countries and continents to cultural phenomena. This month, Princeton Architectural Press is releasing Paula Scher: MAPS — a lavish, formidable large-format volume collecting 39 of her swirling, colorful cartographic points of view, a beeline addition to my favorite books on maps.

I began painting maps to invent my own complicated narrative about the way I see and feel about the world. I wanted to list what I know about the world from memory, from impressions, from media, and from general information overload. These are paintings of distortions.” ~ Paula Scher

(Cue in cartograms.)

A foreword by Simon Winchester contextualizes Scher’s maps as cultural objects, and an introduction by Scher herself offers a peek inside the mind and personal history that sprouted her cartographic creativity.

A Paula Scher map is both detached from reality and yet at the same time becomes an entirely new reality, one that manages to be useless and essential all at once. What follows here is cartography as living art — fun and whimsical, obsessively made, and knowingly offered, lovingly, to be read… Maps such as these are never ever to be replaced by the cold blinking eyes of the GPS. Use them, enjoy them, glory in their madness.” ~ Simon Manchester

Cherry on top: The cover jacket folds out into her legendary colorful map of the world.

The World, 1998
NYT Transit, 2007 (left); Manhattan at Night, 2007 (right)
China, 2006
Africa, 2003
Shock and Awe, 2005
International Air Routes, 2008
The Dark World, 2007
Tsunami, 2006

Images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Artful and opinionated, MAPS is a beautiful antidote to the sterile objectivity of location-aware apps and devices, reminiscent of Ward Shelley’s analog data visualization and the poetic subjectivity of You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination, but presaging both and shining with Scher’s own distinct, quirky, visionary voice.

Originally featured, alongside Scher’s fantastic 2008 Serious Play talk, here.

VISUAL STORYTELLING

“We now live in a world where information is potentially unlimited. Information is cheap, but meaning is expensive. Where is the meaning? Only human beings can tell you where it is. We’re extracting meaning from our minds and our own lives.”

These words of wisdom come from legendary inventor and futurist George Dyson, who in a recent interview contemplated the growing disconnect between information and meaning in the age of data overload. Over the past several years, our quest to extract meaning from information has taken us more and more towards the realm of visual storytelling — we’ve used data visualization to reveal hidden patterns about the world, employed animation in engaging kids with important issues, and let infographics distill human emotion. In fact, our very brains are wired for the visual over the textual by way of the pictorial superiority effect.

It would be ridiculous to try to express by curved lines moral ideals, the prosperity of peoples, or the decadence of their literature. But anything that has to do with extent or quantity can be presented geometrically. Statistical projections which speak to the senses without fatiguing the mind, possess the advantage of fixing the attention on a great number of important facts.” ~ Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of Spain, 1811

Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, from the fine folks at Gestalten, gathers the most compelling work by a new generation of designers, illustrators, graphic editors, and data journalists tackling the grand sensemaking challenge of our time by pushing forward the evolving visual vocabulary of storytelling.

Vahram Muratyan: Paris vs. New York: L’obsession
Peter Ørntoft: Information Graphics in Context, a project illustrating a ranked list of social concerns in Denmark
Gregory Ferembach: The Movies Flowcharts
Carl Kleiner’s ‘Homemade Is Best’ IKEA cookbook
Road Map of the Eye, part of Katja Günther’s Cartographic project visualizing information by mapping relevant elements

From hand-drawn diagrams to sophisticated data visualization, by way of graphic design, illustration, photography, and information architecture, this magnificent volume of contemporary and experimental visual storytelling explores what it means to convey information with equal parts clarity and creativity, speaking with remarkable aesthetic eloquence about the things that matter in the world today.

Every field has some central tension it is trying to resolve. Visualization deals with the inhuman scale of the information and the need to present it at the very human scale of what the eye can see.” ~ Martin Wattenberg in The Economist, 2010

Wataro Yoshida: Composition of Mammals, a fictional exhibition using fictional places to study the anatomy of mammals with displays of taxidermy and skulls and accompanying informational posters about the complex structure of each mammal’s body
Lucas Van Vuuren: Lunch, a thorough decision tree
David Garcia Studio: MAP 001 Antarctica, part of MAP (Manual of architectural Possibilities), a publication that aims to merge science and research with architectural design

Originally featured, with plenty more images and excerpts, here.

THE MAD FOLD-IN COLLECTION

Al Jaffee’s magnificent anti-authoritarian fold-ins, gracing the inside covers of every MAD magazine since 1964, have been a longtime favorite around here. For the past half-century, Jaffeee, just as brilliant today at 90, has been poking fun at the established political order with his clever satirical cartoons that made no topic, ideology, regime, politician or pop star safe from skewering as the reader simply folds the page to align arrow A with arrow B and reveal the hidden gag image. Now, from Chronicle Books comes The MAD Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010 — the definitive treasure trove of Jaffee’s genius, a formidable four-volume set featuring 410 fold-ins reproduced at original size, each thoughtfully accompanied by a digital representation of the folded image so you wouldn’t have to actually fold your lavish book.

Sudoku (July 2007)
Second place (October 1969)
The first Super Bowl was in 1967, and it gave football a new visibility, threatening baseball’s pre-eminence.
Covering up Whitewater (September 1994)
The Whitewater scandal haunted the Clinton White House for years.
On the campaign trail! (December 1968)
A nasty campaign, with Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon, in the midst of a nasty war.
The smell of dead meat (July 1995)
Another election looming another bunch of hopefuls.
Stop Art – Empty frame is big improvement (September 1965)
The art world was full of new ideas in the mid-1960s, not all of them resonating with everyone.

Essays by Pixar animator Pete Docter, New York Times cultural critic Neil Genzlinger and Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist and author Jules Feiffer contextualize Jaffee’s work and the tremendous influence it has had on generations of artists, comedians and ordinary people.

Here’s Jaffee on how his iconic fold-ins began — and confirmation that creativity is combinatorial:

In 1953, TIME magazine referred to MAD as a ‘short-lived fad.’ And now, fifty-umpteenth years later, MAD is still around, and I don’t think TIME magazine is doing too well.” ~ Al Jaffeee

Explore some of Jaffee’s gems in this excellent New York Times interactive feature from 2008 — a fine teaser for the full glory you’ll find in The MAD Fold-In Collection: 1964-2010.

Originally featured here.

MOBY-DICK IN PICTURES

Since 2009, former high school English teacher and self-taught artist Matt Kish has been drawing every page of the 552-page Signet Classics paperback edition of Herman Melville’s iconic Moby-Dick, methodically producing one gorgeous, obsessive drawing per day for 552 days using pages from discarded books and a variety of drawing tools, from ballpoint pen to crayon to ink and watercolor. Kish’s ingenious project joins our running list of blogs so good they became books with Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, collecting his magnificent lo-fi drawings in a 600-page visual masterpiece of bold, breathtaking full-page illustrations that captivate eye, heart, and mind, inviting you to rediscover the Melville classic in entirely new ways.

I’ve read the book eight or nine times […] Each and every reading has revealed more and more to me and hinted tantalizingly at even greater truths and revelations that I have yet to reach. Friends often question my obsession with the novel, especially since I am not a scholar or even an educator any longer, and the best explanation I have been able to come up with is that, to me, Moby-Dick is a book about everything. God. Love. Hate. Identity. Race. Sex. Humor. Obsession. History. Work. Capitalism […] I see every aspect of life reflected in the bizarre mosaic of this book.” ~ Matt Kish

‘…Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowel’s wards.’
Ballpoint pen on paper, September 17, 2009
‘But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive.’
Colored pencil and ink on found paper, August 6, 2009
‘Hearing the tremendous rush of the sea-crashing boat, the whale wheeled round to present his blank forehead at bay; but in that evolution, catching sight of the nearing black hull of the ship; seemingly seeing in it the source of all his persecutions; bethinking it – it may be – a larger and nobler foe; of a sudden, he bore down upon its advancing prow, smiting his jaws amid fiery showers of foam’
Ink on watercolor paper, January 22, 2011
‘…and when the ship was gliding by, like a flash he darted out; gained her side; with one backward dash of his foot capsized and sank his canoe; climbed up the chains…’
Acrylic paint, colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, September 30, 2009
‘Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters.’
Ink and marker on found paper, October 5, 2009
‘…hell is an idea first born on an undigested apple-dumpling…’
Crayon, ink and marker on found paper, November 24, 2009
”I will have no man in my boat,’ said Starbuck, ‘who is not afraid of a whale.”
Colored pencil, ink and marker on found paper, December 19, 2009
‘Moby Dick bodily burst into view! For not by any calm and indolent spoutings; not by the peaceable gush of that mystic fountain in his head, did the White Whale now reveal his vicinity; but by the far more wondrous phenomenon of breaching. Rising with his utmost velocity from the furthest depths, the Sperm Whale thus booms his entire bulk into the pure element of air, and piling up a mountain of dazzling foam, shows his place to the distance of seven miles and more. In those moments, the torn, enraged waves he shakes off, seem his mane; in some cases, this breaching is his act of defiance.’
Ink on watercolor paper, January 11, 2011

Originally featured, with many more images, here.

FLOATING WORLDS

It’s hard not to love Edward Gorey, mid-century illustrator of the macabre, whose work influenced generations of creators, from Nine Inch Nails to Tim Burton. Between September 1968 and October 1969, Gorey set out to collaborate on three children’s books with author and editor Peter F. Neumeyer and, over the course of this 13-month period, the two exchanged a series of letters on topics that soon expanded well beyond the three books and into everything from metaphysics to pancake recipes.

This year, Neumeyer opened up the treasure trove of this fascinating, never-before-published correspondence in Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer — a magnificent collection of 75 typewriter-transcribed letters, 38 stunningly illustrated envelopes, and more than 60 postcards and illustrations exchanged between the two collaborators-turned-close-friends, featuring Gorey’s witty, wise meditations on such eclectic topics as insect life, the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, and Japanese art.

In light of his body of work, and because of the interest that his private person has aroused, I feel strongly that these letters should not be lost to posterity. I still read in them Ted’s wisdom, charm, and affection and a profound personal integrity that deserves to be in the record. As for my own letters to Ted, I had no idea that he had kept them until one day a couple of years ago when a co-trustee of his estate, Andras Brown, sent me a package of photocopies of my half of the correspondence. I am very grateful for that.” ~ Peter F. Neumeyer

Equally fascinating is the unlikely story of how Gorey and Neumeyer met in the first place — a story involving a hospital waiting room, a watercolor of a housefly, and a one-and-a-half-inch scrap of paper with a dot — and the affectionate friendship into which it unfolded.

There’s a remarkable hue to Gorey’s writing, a kind of thinking-big-thoughts-without-taking-oneself-too-seriously quality. In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

This is the theory… that anything that is art… is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”

Illustrations © The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. All rights reserved.

From the intellectual banter to the magnificent illustrations, Floating Worlds, is quite possibly the most heart-warming art-and-so-much-more book this year, and certainly among the all-time favorites of my personal library.

Originally reviewed here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

* * *

A big part of what makes great art and design books great is how timeless they are — why not catch up on last year’s finest?

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.