Hey you! If you missed last week's edition – Neil Gaiman reimagines the Brothers Grimm, jazz icon Bill Evans on the creative process, a visual history of mapping the cosmos, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.
Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda was not only one of the greatest poets in human history, but also a man of extraordinary insight into the human spirit – take, for instance, his remarkable reflection on what a childhood encounter taught him about why we make art, quite possibly the most beautiful metaphor for the creative impulse ever committed to paper.
As a lover both of Neruda's enduring genius and of intelligent children's books, especially ones – such as the wonderful illustrated life-stories of Albert Einstein and Julia Child – I was instantly smitten with Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People (public library) by Monica Brown, with absolutely stunning illustrations and hand-lettering by artist Julie Paschkis.
The story begins with the poet's birth in Chile in 1904 with the given name of Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto – to evade his father's disapproval of his poetry, he came up with the pen name "Pablo Neruda" at the age of sixteen when he first began publishing his work – and traces his evolution as a writer, his political awakening as an activist, his deep love of people and language and the luminosity of life.
Neftalí wasn't very good at soccer or at throwing acorns like his friends, but he loved to read and discovered magic between the pages.
Embedded in the story is a sweet reminder of what books do for the soul and a heartening assurance that creative genius isn't the product of conforming to common standards of excellence but of finding one's element.
In fact, the book is as much a celebration of Neruda as it is a love letter to language itself – swirling through Paschkis's vibrant illustrations are words both English and Spanish, beautiful words like "fathom" and "plummet" and "flicker" and "sigh" and "azul."
Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is exuberant and enchanting in its entirety. Complement it with Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland, and On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein, written by Jennifer Berne and illustrated by Vladimir Radunsky, then treat yourself to this bewitching reading of Neruda's "Ode to the Book."
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"Do not despise your inner world," philosopher Martha Nussbaum admonished in her reflection on what it takes to live a full life. “Real self-esteem is an integration of an inner value with things in the world around you,” Anna Deavere Smith wrote in her spectacular letters of advice to young artists. And yet in a culture where we're devouring one another's outward selves with accelerating "aesthetic consumerism" as we scroll through social media feeds, we're increasingly bedeviled by the rift between private person and public persona, inner world and outward projection. The soul-salving art of bridging that gap is what Parker Palmer explores in A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (public library) – an ennobling field guide to living with the grace and integrity of being your whole self, titled after the famous Thomas Merton line, "there is in all things ... a hidden wholeness."
Palmer – founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, a contemporary Thoreau of the psyche, and one of the wisest human beings I've had the fortune of meeting – begins with the root of our dividedness:
Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the "integrity that comes from being what you are."
That separation, he notes, can take many forms, from the misalignment of work and purpose, with which young William James tussled, to denying or hiding some fundamental part of our identity in fear of being judged or rejected, the "play-acting" Kierkegaard lamented, to the all too familiar and endemic impostor syndrome. And yet Palmer makes an important distinction between perfectionism, which only ever oppresses the soul, and wholeness, which liberates it:
Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness – mine, yours, ours – need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.
Palmer argues that the pathology of the divided life isn't something to be solved by ethics – a discipline typically taught through the lens of abstraction and reason rather than embodied empathy for the human experience, ours and that of others; a kind of costume we put on to stage our own good-personhood production. Palmer writes:
As teenagers and young adults, we learned that self-knowledge counts for little on the road to workplace success. What counts is the "objective" knowledge that empowers us to manipulate the world. Ethics, taught in this context, becomes one more arm's-length study of great thinkers and their thoughts, one more exercise in data collection that fails to inform our hearts.
I value ethical standards, of course. But in a culture like ours – which devalues or dismisses the reality and power of the inner life – ethics too often becomes an external code of conduct, an objective set of rules we are told to follow, a moral exoskeleton we put on hoping to prop ourselves up. The problem with exoskeletons is simple: we can slip them off as easily as we can don them.
When we understand integrity for what it is, we stop obsessing over codes of conduct and embark on the more demanding journey toward being whole.
Dividedness, Palmer notes, is a kind of survival instinct that helps mitigate our excruciating discomfort with uncertainty, shielding our inner lives with those protective but ultimately pernicious outer shells:
Not knowing who or what we are dealing with and feeling unsafe, we hunker down in a psychological foxhole and withhold the investment of our energy, commitment, and gifts... The perceived incongruity of inner and outer-the inauthenticity that we sense in others, or they in us-constantly undermines our morale, our relationships, and our capacity for good work.
Echoing Anaïs Nin's reflection on personal responsibility, Palmer considers the conduit to wholeness:
We are cursed with the blessing of consciousness and choice, a two-edged sword that both divides us and can help us become whole.
The divided life may be endemic, but wholeness is always a choice.
Making that choice, he argues, requires that we "create spaces between us where the soul feels safe enough to show up and make its claim on our lives." In fact, the soul is something Parker treats with a great deal of gentle attentiveness as he contemplates the crux of wholeness.
The concept of the soul seems to have fallen out of fashion over the past century, but its trials and triumphs are the perennial substance of the human journey. In Buddhism, it is known as "original nature." Quakers call it "inner teacher" or "inner light." Hasidic Jews call it a "spark of the divine." The Catholic mystic and writer Thomas Merton called it "true self." Humanists see it as an "indestructible and eternal" part of the universe. Palmer writes:
What we name it matters little to me, since the origins, nature, and destiny of call-it-what-you-will are forever hidden from us, and no one can credibly claim to know its true name. But that we name it matters a great deal. For "it" is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw material to be manufactured into whatever society needs – diminishments of our humanity that constantly threaten the quality of our lives.
He illustrates this with a personal example to which most mindful parents and grandparents can relate:
When my first grandchild was born, I saw something in her that I had missed in my own children some twenty-five years earlier, when I was too young and self-absorbed to see anyone, including myself, very well. What I saw was clear and simple: my granddaughter arrived on earth as this kind of person, rather than that, or that, or that.
In my granddaughter I actually observed something I could once take only on faith: we are born with a seed of selfhood that contains the spiritual DNA of our uniqueness-an encoded birthright knowledge of who we are, why we are here, and how we are related to others. We may abandon that knowledge as the years go by, but it never abandons us.
Let me pause here to note that while I side with Sam Harris on matters of spirituality and find the notion of the eternal "soul" somewhat problematic as a delusory salve for our chronic dread of our own impermanence, I side most of all with Carl Sagan, who wrote in history's most lucid treatise on science and spirituality: “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”
The point, of course, is that the mystery of what we call the "soul" – the stuff of Hannah Arendt's elegant case for "unanswerable questions" – need not be resolved in order for the concept itself to be a useful one in advancing our understanding of and compassion for ourselves, right here and right now, in this blink of cosmic time that is our existence.
Crucially, Palmer points out, inner wholeness will continue to evade us for as long as we shackle the soul to the artificial exoskeleton that protects it – a perilous tendency that will eventually lead us to confuse the latter for the former:
Here is the ultimate irony of the divided life: live behind a wall long enough, and the true self you tried to hide from the world disappears from your own view! The wall itself and the world outside it become all that you know. Eventually, you even forget that the wall is there – and that hidden behind it is someone called "you."
Palmer calls this rift "the gap between our onstage performance and backstage reality" and writes:
If we want to create spaces that are safe for the soul, we need to understand why the soul so rarely shows up in everyday life.
One particularly poignant aspect of this soul-shyness has to do with our fraught relationship with solitude. Palmer paints a wonderfully nuanced yin-yang:
Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one's self. It is not about the absence of other people-it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face-to-face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people-it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.
How we can build "a space between us that is hospitable to the soul" and "a community of solitudes where we can be alone together" is among the wealth of soul-stretching questions at the intersection of the practical and the philosophical that Palmer goes on to explore in A Hidden Wholeness. Complement it with Anne Lamott on how we keep ourselves small with people-pleasing and Victoria Stafford on what it really means to "live our mission."
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Neil Gaiman, in discussing his gorgeous new adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, asserted that we shouldn't protect ourselves and children from the dark. But when the thickest darkness comes, in childhood as much as in adulthood, it brings with it not the monsters and witches of fairy tales but the tragedies of life itself – nowhere more acutely than in confronting death and its ghouls of grief. And when it does come, as Joan Didion memorably put it, it's "nothing like we expect it to be." What we need isn't so much protection as the shaky comfort of understanding – a sensemaking mechanism for the messiness of loss.
That's precisely what Faroese children's book author and artist Bárður Oskarsson does in The Flat Rabbit (public library) – a masterwork of minimalist storytelling that speaks volumes about our eternal tussle with our own impermanence.
The book, translated by Faroese language-lover Marita Thomsen, comes from a long tradition of Scandinavian children's books with singular sensitivity to such difficult subjects – from Tove Jansson's vintage parables of uncertainty to Stein Erik Lunde's Norwegian tale of grief to Øyvind Torseter's existential meditation on the meaning of something and nothing.
The story, full of quiet wit and wistful wonder, begins with a carefree dog walking down the street. Suddenly, he comes upon a rabbit, lying silently flattened on the road. As the dog, saddened by the sight, wonders what to do, his friend the rat comes by.
"She is totally flat," said the rat. For a while they just stood there looking at her.
"Do you know her?"
"Well," said the dog, "I think she's from number 34. I've never talked to her, but I peed on the gate a couple of times, so we've definitely met."
The two agree that "lying there can't be any fun" and decide to move her, but don't know where to take her and head to the park to think.
The dog was now so deep in thought that, had you put your ear to his skull, you would have actually heard him racking his brain.
Embedded in the story is a subtle reminder that ideas don't come to us by force of will but by the power of incubation as everything we've unconsciously absorbed clicks together into new combinations in our minds. As the dog sits straining his neurons, we see someone flying a kite behind him – a seeming aside noted only in the visual narrative, but one that becomes the seed for the rabbit solution.
Exclaiming that he has a plan, the dog returns to the scene with the rat. They take the rabbit from the road and work all night on the plan, hammering away in the doghouse.
In the next scene, we see the rabbit lovingly taped to the frame of a kite, which takes the dog and the rat forty-two attempts to fly.
With great simplicity and sensitivity, the story lifts off into a subtle meditation on the spiritual question of an afterlife – there is even the spatial alignment of a proverbial heaven "above." It suggests – to my mind, at least – that all such notions exist solely for the comfort of the living, for those who survive the dead and who confront their own mortality in that survival, and yet there is peace to be found in such illusory consolations anyway, which alone is reason enough to have them.
Mostly, the story serves as a gentle reminder that we simply don't have all the answers and that, as John Updike put it, "the mystery of being is a permanent mystery."
Once the kite was flying, they watched it in silence for a long time.
"Do you think she is having a good time?" the rat finally asked, without looking at the dog.
The dog tried to imagine what the world would look like from up there.
"I don't know..." he replied slowly. "I don't know."
Complement The Flat Rabbit with Love Is Forever, a more literal but no less lovely take on helping young hearts deal with loss, then revisit Meghan O'Rourke's magnificent grownup memoir of navigating mourning.
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Despite the immense canon of research on creativity – including its four stages, the cognitive science of the ideal creative routine, the role of memory, and the relationship between creativity and mental illness – very little has focused on one of life's few givens that equally few of us can escape: gender and the genderedness of the mind.
In Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) – one of the most important, insightful, and influential books on creativity ever written – pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines a curious, under-appreciated yet crucial aspect of the creative mindset: a predisposition to psychological androgyny.
In all cultures, men are brought up to be “masculine” and to disregard and repress those aspects of their temperament that the culture regards as “feminine,” whereas women are expected to do the opposite. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping. When tests of masculinity/femininity are given to young people, over and over one finds that creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers.
Illustration by Yang Liu from Man Meets Woman, a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes
Csikszentmihalyi points out that this psychological tendency toward androgyny shouldn't be confused with homosexuality – it deals not with sexual constitution but with a set of psychoemotional capacities:
Psychological androgyny is a much wider concept, referring to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.
Citing his team's extensive interviews with 91 individuals who scored high on creativity in various fields – including pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin, legendary sociobiologist E.O. Wilson, philosopher and marginalia champion Mortimer Adler, universe-disturber Madeleine L'Engle, social science titan John Gardner, poet extraordinaire Denise Levertov, and MacArthur genius Stephen Jay Gould – Csikszentmihalyi writes:
It was obvious that the women artists and scientists tended to be much more assertive, self-confident, and openly aggressive than women are generally brought up to be in our society. Perhaps the most noticeable evidence for the “femininity” of the men in the sample was their great preoccupation with their family and their sensitivity to subtle aspects of the environment that other men are inclined to dismiss as unimportant. But despite having these traits that are not usual to their gender, they retained the usual gender-specific traits as well.
Illustration from the 1970 satirical book I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!
Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention is a revelatory read in its entirety, featuring insights on the ideal conditions for the creative process, the key characteristics of the innovative mindset, how aging influences creativity, and invaluable advice to the young from Csikszentmihalyi's roster of 91 creative luminaries. Complement this particular excerpt with Ursula K. Le Guin on being a man – arguably the most brilliant meditation on gender ever written, by one of the most exuberantly creative minds of our time.
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If you're lucky, on a few occasions in your lifetime you will come upon an author in whose writing you experience a rare kind of homecoming, a spiritual embrace. For me, such singular homecomings have taken place in the arms of only a handful of writers – to wit, Virginia Woolf, Ursula K. Le Guin, Italo Calvino, Susan Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, E.B White, and, most recently, Mary Ruefle.
It is doubly exulting when one of those rare writers finds the words and rhythms with which to convey what it is, exactly, that transpires in one of those rare moments of homecoming – what reading, at its best, does for the human soul. That's precisely what Ruefle does in the gorgeously titled 2003 piece "Someone Reading a Book is a Sign of Order in the World," found in the altogether unputdownable Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures (public library).
One of Maurice Sendak's little-known vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading
Ruefle – a prolific poet and voracious reader herself, having read an estimated 2,400 books in her life – reflects on "the mirrored erotics of this compulsive activity, reading":
We don't often watch people very closely when they read, though there are many famous paintings of women reading (none that I know of men) in which a kind of quiet eroticism takes place, like that of nursing. Of course, it is we who are being nursed by the books, and then I think of the reader asleep, the open book on his or her chest.
We are all one question, and the best answer seems to be love – a connection between things. This arcane bit of knowledge is respoken every day into the ears of readers of great books, and also appears to perpetually slip under a carpet, utterly forgotten.
'A Young Woman Reading' by Gustave Courbet, ca. 1866–1868
In one pause-giving anecdote, Ruefle illustrates the way that reading ignites the miraculous alchemy of associations that is the hallmark of the human mind. She recalls encountering on "page 248" of W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn an interview with an English farmer who at one point says to Sebald, "I have always kept ducks, even as a child, and the colours of their plumage, in particular the dark green and snow white, seemed to me the only possible answer to the questions that are on my mind."
Ruefle found it "an odd thing to say," but made nothing of it, attributing it to the general quality of Sebald's book as "a long walk of oddities." But a few hours later, as she was perusing the dictionary, she remembered the passage with a jolt as she read the multiple definitions of the word speculum – among them, "a medieval compendium of all knowledge" and "a patch of color on the secondary wings of most ducks and some other birds." She marvels at the serendipitous alignment of words and worlds:
Did Sebald know that a compendium of all knowledge and the ducks’ plumage were one and the same? Did Abrams? Or was I the only one for whom the duck passage made perfect, original sense? I sat in my chair, shocked. I am not a scholar, but for the imaginative reader there can be discoveries, connections between books, that explode the day and one’s heart and the long years that have led to the moment.
Imagine my own shock, then, as a mere sentence later I came upon a passage that bears a striking resemblance to Alain de Botton's recent meditation on the value of reading, and predates it by more than a decade. Ruefle:
In one sense, reading is a great waste of time. In another sense, it is a great extension of time, a way for one person to live a thousand and one lives in a single lifespan, to watch the great impersonal universe at work again and again, to watch the great personal psyche spar with it, to suffer affliction and weakness and injury, to die and watch those you love die, until the very dizziness of it all becomes a source of compassion for ourselves, and our language, which we alone created, and without which the letter that slipped under the door could never have been written, or, once in a thousand lives—is that too much to ask?—retrieved, and read.
Then, De Botton:
It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver – because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.
Did De Botton plagiarize the passage, consciously or not, perhaps in a bout of cryptomnesia? Or is this an honest case of the same idea occurring independently to two minds unaware of each other's existence? Whatever the case, the very ability to ask such unanswerable questions is a gift granted by the mental cross-connections that books alone make possible.
Painting from My Favorite Things by Maira Kalman
But Ruefle's most evocative point has to do with reading's role as a dual gateway to our inner wholeness and our connectedness with the universe:
That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That's why I read when I was a lonely kid and that's why I read now that I'm a scared adult. It's a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicates things – the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe – what else is there? Margaret Mead described intellectuals as those who are bored when they don't have the chance to talk interestingly enough. Now a book will talk interestingly to you. George Steiner describes the intellectual as one who can't read without a pencil in her hand. One who wants to talk back to the book, not take notes but make them: one who might write, "The giraffe speaks!" in the margin. In our marginal existence, what else is there but this voice within us, this great weirdness we are always leaning forward to listen to?
From cover to cover, Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures is the kind of book that beckons the pencil to its margins. Complement it with Rebecca Solnit on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, then revisit Kafka – whom Ruefle quotes in the same essay – on what books do for the human spirit.
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"A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another," Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful essay on reading and writing. It is also, perhaps, a seed planted in another's garden of consciousness. It is no coincidence that most highly creative people are voracious readers – books, after all, enable us to live multiple lives in one by giving us access to emotions and experiences impossible to compress into a single lifetime, and creativity is the combinatorial product of all the ideas and experiences floating around our minds. To peek inside a creative icon's lifelong reading list is to glimpse his or her existential library of the mind – the range of ideas and influences and inspirations that were fused together into the work for which that person is known and beloved.
Joining the previously published reading lists of notable luminaries – including those of Leo Tolstoy, Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, David Bowie, and Brian Eno – is singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, one of the most influential and celebrated musicians of the twentieth century, and the recipient of twenty Grammy Awards. In a recent New York Times interview, marking the release of his charming picture-book Outlaw Pete (public library), Springsteen shares the books that shaped his music and his mind, from poetry to philosophy to children's books – an eclectic reading list spanning numerous genres and sensibilities, life stages and moods. (Favorite childhood book: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; last book that made him laugh: Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land; last book that made him cry: Cormac McCarthy's The Road).
- Moby-Dick (free download; public library) by Herman Melville
- How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library) by Sarah Bakewell
- Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe (public library) by Dennis Overbye
- Love in the Time of Cholera (public library) by Gabriel García Márquez
- Anna Karenina (free download; public library) by Leo Tolstoy
- Leaves of Grass (public library) by Walt Whitman
- The History of Western Philosophy (public library) by Bertrand Russell
- Examined Lives (public library) by Jim Miller
- American Pastoral (public library) by Philip Roth
- I Married a Communist (public library) by Philip Roth
- Blood Meridian (public library) by Cormac McCarthy
- The Road (public library) by Cormac McCarthy
- The Sportswriter (public library) by Richard Ford
- The Lay of the Land (public library) by Richard Ford
- Independence Day (public library) by Richard Ford
- A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (public library) by Flannery O'Connor
- Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music (public library) by Greil Marcus
- Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (public library) by Peter Guralnick
- Chronicles (public library) by Bob Dylan
- Sonata for Jukebox (public library) by Geoffrey O’Brien
- Soul Mining: A Musical Life (public library) by Daniel Lanois
- Too Big to Fail (public library) by Andrew Ross Sorkin
- Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression (public library) by Dale Maharidge
- The Big Short (public library) by Michael Lewis
- The Brothers Karamazov (free download; public library) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Great Short Works (public library) by Leo Tolstoy
- The Adventures of Augie March (public library) by Saul Bellow
- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (public library) by L. Frank Baum
Complement Springsteen's Outlaw Pete with a sweet illustrated adaptation of Bob Dylan's "Forever Young."
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