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Brain Pickings

Welcome Hello, <<Name>>! This is the weekly email digest of by Maria Popova. If you missed the special annual edition of highlights, here is the best of Brain Pickings 2017. If you missed last week's regular edition — walking as creative fuel, Oliver Sacks on the building blocks of personhood, mathematician Lillian Lieber on what math teaches us about social justice — you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – each month, I spend hundreds of hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

Ursula K. Le Guin on “Spare Time,” What It Means to Be a Working Artist, and the Vital Difference Between Being Busy with Doing and Being Occupied with Living

Most people are products of their time. Only the rare few are its creators. Ursula K. Le Guin (October 21, 1929–January 22, 2018) was one.

A fierce thinker and largehearted, beautiful writer who considered writing an act of falling in love, Le Guin left behind a vast, varied body of work and wisdom, stretching from her illuminations of the artist’s task and storytelling as an instrument of freedom to her advocacy for public libraries to her feminist translation of the Tao Te Ching and her classic unsexing of gender.

In her final years, Le Guin examined what makes life worth living in a splendid piece full of her wakeful, winkful wisdom, titled “In Your Spare Time” and included as the opening essay in No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters (public library) — the final nonfiction collection published in her lifetime, which also gave us Le Guin on the uses and misuses of anger.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Benjamin Reed

Two decades after her nuanced meditation on growing older, Le Guin revisits the subject from another angle, perhaps the most perspectival angle there is — the question of how we measure the light of a life as it nears its sunset. Like any great writer who finds her prompts in the most improbable of places, Le Guin springboards into the existential while answering a questionnaire mailed to the Harvard class of 1951 — alumni who, if living, would all be in their eighties. (What is it about eighty being such a catalyst for existential reflection? Henry Miller modeled it, Donald Hall followed, and Oliver Sacks set the gold standard.)

Arrested by the implications of one particular question in the survey — “In your spare time, what do you do?” — and by its menu of twenty-seven options, including golf, shopping, and bridge, Le Guin pauses over the seventh offering on the list: “Creative activities (paint, write, photograph, etc.).” She considers this disquieting valuation of creative work in a capitalist society where the practical is the primary currency of existential worth:

Here I stopped reading and sat and thought for quite a while.

The key words are spare time. What do they mean?

To a working person — supermarket checker, lawyer, highway crewman, housewife, cellist, computer repairer, teacher, waitress — spare time is the time not spent at your job or at otherwise keeping yourself alive, cooking, keeping clean, getting the car fixed, getting the kids to school. To people in the midst of life, spare time is free time, and valued as such.

But to people in their eighties? What do retired people have but “spare” time?

I am not exactly retired, because I never had a job to retire from. I still work, though not as hard as I did. I have always been and am proud to consider myself a working woman. But to the Questioners of Harvard my lifework has been a “creative activity,” a hobby, something you do to fill up spare time. Perhaps if they knew I’d made a living out of it they’d move it to a more respectable category, but I rather doubt it.

Virginia Woolf and her sister, the artist Vanessa Bell, illustrated by Nina Cosford for Virginia Woolf: An Illustrated Biography by Zena Alkayat.

A century and half after Kierkegaard extolled the creative value of unbusied hours and ninety years after Bertrand Russell made his exquisite case for why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness, Le Guin examines the meanings and misconstruings of “spare” time in modern life:

The question remains: When all the time you have is spare, is free, what do you make of it?

And what’s the difference, really, between that and the time you used to have when you were fifty, or thirty, or fifteen?

Kids used to have a whole lot of spare time, middle-class kids anyhow. Outside of school and if they weren’t into a sport, most of their time was spare, and they figured out more or less successfully what to do with it. I had whole spare summers when I was a teenager. Three spare months. No stated occupation whatsoever. Much of after-school was spare time too. I read, I wrote, I hung out with Jean and Shirley and Joyce, I moseyed around having thoughts and feelings, oh lord, deep thoughts, deep feelings… I hope some kids still have time like that. The ones I know seem to be on a treadmill of programming, rushing on without pause to the next event on their schedule, the soccer practice the playdate the whatever. I hope they find interstices and wriggle into them. Sometimes I notice that a teenager in the family group is present in body — smiling, polite, apparently attentive — but absent. I think, I hope she has found an interstice, made herself some spare time, wriggled into it, and is alone there, deep down there, thinking, feeling.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss.

Two millennia after Seneca placed the heart of life in learning to live wide rather than long and a century after Hermann Hesse contemplated how busyness drains life of its little, enormous joys, Le Guin examines the vital difference between being busy with doing and being occupied with living:

The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.

An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters is a wonderful read in its totality, replete with Le Guin’s warm wisdom on art and life. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on why unoccupied time is the basis of culture, English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why a capacity for “fertile solitude” is the basis of contentment, and two hundred years of great thinkers on the creative purpose of boredom, then revisit what I continue to consider Le Guin’s greatest nonfiction masterpiece: her brilliant essay on “being a man.”


Each week of the past eleven years, I have poured tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

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Blob: An Irreverent and Insightful Modern Fable About Beauty, Ugliness, the Paths to Acceptance, and How Admiration Hijacks Our Sense of Self

“Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow,” Albert Einstein wrote in contemplating the fickleness of fame, “that is the fate of people whom — God knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.” And indeed the public itself often knows not why it has taken possession of those whom it inflates before deflating with the same rapaciousness and rapidity — such is the arbitrary and fleeting nature of popular favor in its gruesome modern guise of celebrity. “Success is the pageantry of genius,” Germaine de Staël wrote in her pioneering eighteenth-century treatise on happiness, but in the twenty-first century celebrity has become the simulacrum of success and visibility the simulacrum of genius.

An irreverent, insightful, and surprisingly touching parody of this vacant pageantry comes in Blob: The Ugliest Animal in the World (public library) by French writer-illustrator couple Joy Sorman and Olivier Tallec, translated by Sarah Klinger — the story of Blob the Fish, his unrelenting quest to win the world’s premier ugliness pageant, and his struggle to cope with the loneliness of celebrity and the suddenness with which fame courts and abandons its victims.

There is something charmingly subversive about the very premise, as paradoxical as the idea of trying to fail at failure. There is also something profound in the questions it raises about our civilizational fascination with beauty and its counterpoint — what does it really mean to be ugly, and was Emerson correct in asserting that “the secret of ugliness consists not in irregularity, but in being uninteresting”? When ugliness itself becomes a point of interest, a point of contest, it begins to take on the superficialities reserved for the cult of beauty — a cult which, as Harvard cognitive scientist Nancy Etcoff has noted, is “entwined with our deepest conflicts surrounding flesh and spirit.”

With his unshapely flesh, Blob the Fish is decidedly unbeautiful. But he has spent his life trying to wrest from his ugliness a path to acceptance, even to adoration: Every year for many years, Blob has left his home in the deep coastal waters of Australia’s Pacific Ocean, boarded a boat to a train to a plane clad in a spy-like coat and brimmed hat “to avoid frightening the other passengers” with his ugliness, and journeyed to compete in the esteemed contest for the world’s ugliest animal.

Every year so far, Blob has lost.

Sorman writes:

The first time Blob entered the contest, he was upstaged by a frog from Lake Titicaca. The second time, he was beaten by a Kakapo parakeet — a bird so awkward and dumpy it couldn’t even fly. The third time, a Sea Pig won gold. And Blob, both proud and sensitive, was outraged at the injustice of it all.

It enraged Blob not to be recognized for his true worth. When a member of the jury called him “more darling and adorable than ugly and repulsive,” he felt even worse, and he almost blew his top at the judge’s offer to adopt him as a pet. How horrifying! How shameful!

The illustrations by Tallec, who has given us such immeasurably sympathetic treasures as Big Wolf & Little Wolf and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish, lend the humorous story a lovely dimension of tenderness. Blob comes alive as a sensitive creature of contradictions — full of determination yet easily given to dejection, a living fable of ego and insecurity, easy to fault but also easy to love.

Wearied by his many near-misses, Blob resolves to win the pageant this year. When the announcer introduces “his formidably formless physique, and his sad and sheepish demeanor,” Blob can feel he is about to have his moment. And so he does — he beats out the Bald Ukari Monkey, the Naked Mole Rat, and the Vietnamese Leaf-Nosed Bat, earning the crown of the “Ugliest Animal in the World.”

Thunderous applause erupts. Rose petals and confetti rain down. A young boy approaches Blob with a crown of diamonds, which squeaks quietly against his scaly head.

Immediately, Blob is elevated to the status of global celebrity and plunged into an unimagined life. He becomes the spokesperson for ugly animals, walks red carpets between bodyguards, and indulges hoards of autograph-hunters. Fans rub his body for good luck. Famous designers dress him, famous rappers pose with him. He carries the torch at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. The Queen of England invites him to tea.

In a wonderful stroke of cultural conscience, Sorman slips into the lighthearted fictional story a point of serious real-world significance:

Blob delivers a lengthy speech on climate change at the UN, arguing that it threatens humans as much as the world’s ugliest. He talks about the destruction of the seabed, where he makes his home.

But all of this attention begins to poison Blob’s character — he becomes a diva, makes outrageous demands for caviar and private jets, throws legendary tantrums. All the while, he is lonely and gnawed by the awareness that his fame is fleeting — since animals are allowed to compete only once, next year’s contest will confer the coveted title upon another, ejecting Blob from celebrity and returning him to his plain old self. “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” the young Tolstoy wrote in his diary — questions Blob no longer knows how to answer, having lost the essence of his self in his ephemeral public persona.

Under Tallec’s subtle brush, we see a difficult realization dawn on Blob — privilege is bestowed largely by chance and little of actual substance separates the most fortunate from the least fortunate.

Blob sinks into a deep depression.

When the day of the next contest arrives, his reign comes to its expected end — the cameras descend upon another ugly creature as Blob, uncrowned and unregarded, heads home to the deep seabed, this time unshrouded by hat and overcoat on his voyage, hoping some remnant fan would recognize him.

Looking back on his improbable ascent to celebrity from the remove of 3,000 feet below the surface of the ocean, Blob — whose ugliness remains his own even without the world’s prized distinction — can suddenly see that the trappings of fame are “far from beautiful.”

Blob comes from Brooklyn-based independent powerhouse Enchanted Lion Books, publisher of such thoughtful and tender gems as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, The Lion and the Bird, Bertolt, and The Paper-Flower Tree.

Writing and the Threshold Life: Jane Hirshfield on How the Liminal Liberates Us from the Prison of the Self

A human being, Oliver Sacks observed in contemplating the building blocks of personhood, needs “a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.”

We need this interior storytelling to thread ourselves together, because the self is so elusive a constellation of intangibles which fade to black under the beam of direct scrutiny. If Borges was right that our personality rests on a foundation of nothingness, if millennia of Buddhist thinkers were right that the indestructible in us is found only through the annihilation of the self, then who are we when stripped to the bare essence of our being, denuded of the stories and the ego-shells which harden into an exoskeleton of selfhood that fractures easily into limiting identity-fragments?

That is what the poet Jane Hirshfield explores in a wonderful essay titled “Writing and the Threshold Life,” which appears as the closing chapter in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry (public library) — her altogether splendid inquiry into storytelling and the inner workings of creativity.

Jane Hirshfield (Photograph: Jerry Banter)

Hirshfield, an ordained Buddhist, examines the liminal — a word derived from the Latin for threshold, limen — through the lens of a fourteenth-century protofeminist Japanese play about initiation rituals in Buddhist philosophy, predicated on embracing the liminal. She celebrates this threshold space as hallowed ground for dissolving and transcending the self, for rising above the flatland of individual identity and toward a more dimensional sense of belonging:

Entering this condition, a person leaves behind his or her old identity and dwells in a threshold state of ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. Only afterward may the initiate enter into new forms of identity and relationship, rejoining the everyday life of the culture.

Hirshfield considers the essential elements of traditional Buddhist initiation into this liminal state of “betwixt and between”:

First, the initiate undergoes the removal of both identity and status — he or she becomes nameless; conventional clothing is forgone; the usual constraints of gender no longer apply. Ordinarily forbidden behavior is now allowed, or, conversely, the person may enter into an extreme discipline equally foreign to conventional life. Often there is a period of silence and of nondoing, of fasting or going without sleep. Threshold persons are treated as outsiders and exiles, separated from the group, reviled, ignored. Akin in status to the unborn or the dead, they are not present in the community in any normal sense. Possessing nothing, they descend into invisibility and darkness, and — symbolically or literally — abandon both the physical and the ideological structures of society for a wilderness existence.

More is changed during this threshold period than simply the understanding of self: free of all usual roles, a person experiences community differently as well. The liminal is not opposite to, but the necessary companion of, identity and particularity — a person who steps outside her usual position falls away from any singular relationship to others and into oneness with the community as a whole. Within the separateness of liminality, connectedness itself is remade.

Art by Alessandro Sanna from Pinocchio: An Origin Story

Hirshfield draws an astute parallel between what is asked of the enlightened being in Buddhism and what is asked of the writer as a consecrating instrument of the secular world:

Immersion in the life of the world; the willingness to be inhabited by and speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human — these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva, but of the writer…. The life of the threshold can lead to both permeability and knowledge, offering, in [the thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist teacher] Dōgen’s phrase, a way to study the self, forget the self, and awaken into the ten thousand things.

In a sentiment kindred to E.E. Cummings’s assertion that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself,” Hirshfield adds:

For most members of a community, the liminal is a point of transition, entered briefly, at a particular time, in passage toward something else; such persons are dipped into nonidentity and self-forgetfulness in order to change who they are. For some, though, the liminal becomes their only dwelling-place — becomes home. A writer must invent for himself how to live in this way.

Art by Sydney Smith from The White Cat and the Monk, a ninth-century ode to the diversity of transcendent experiences.

Writers, she observes, have something essential in common with monks, both being social species who “embrace the margins”:

For writers, as for monks, to take on this work often means leaving the mainstream in outward ways, abandoning the world of ordinary jobs and housing; the garret life is found up literal stairs as well as within the steep reaches of the psyche. In its deepest sense, though, threshold life for a writer has to do with a changed relationship to language and culture itself. In writing lit by a liminal consciousness, the most common words take on the sheen of treasure — transformed in meaning for the entire community because they have been dipped in the mind of openness and connection.

But although this makes the writer’s life, in Rachel Carson’s words, “a lonely place, even a little frightening,” Hirshfield counters the cultural impulse to presume that loneliness is an apostle of madness. While genius and madness often coexist, one need not necessitate the other. In a sentiment of which Vincent van Gogh was tragic proof, she writes:

Despite the lingering social archetype of the “mad artist,” madness and artmaking are not the same; where the two coexist, the madness almost always ends up destroying the art, and often the artist as well.

Hirshfield returns to the promise of liberation in liminal space:

To speak, and to write, is to assert who we are, what we think. The necessary other side is to surrender these things — to stand humbled and stunned and silent before the wild and inexplicable beauties and mysteries of being.

Art by Tove Jansson for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

With an eye to the initiation rituals of central Africa’s Ndembu tribe, in which the chief-to-be is publicly harangued into humility by being reminded of his foibles by each tribal member, Hirshfield writes:

Freedom from the opinion of others is useful for any who would live in the threshold, and perhaps especially for those who wish to practice art in public.

In consonance with Elizabeth Alexander’s reflection on the writer’s responsibility to the poetry of personhood, Hirshfield writes:

It is the task of the writer to become that permeable and transparent; to become, in the words of Henry James, a person on whom nothing is lost. What is put into the care of such a person will be well tended. Such a person can be trusted to tell the stories she is given to tell, and to tell them with the compassion that comes when the self’s deepest interest is not in the self, but in turning outward and into awareness.

At the heart of Hirshfield’s essay is a beautiful counterpoint to the cultural stereotype of the artistic ego:

The creative self [asks] the surrender of ordinary conceptions of identity and will for a broader kind of intimacy and allegiance. Ultimately, though, the threshold consciousness is not about ideas, whatever they may be. It is, like writing itself, about stepping past what we already think we know and into an entirely new relationship with the many possibilities of being, with the ultimately singular and limitless mystery of being. Above all, it is about freedom, and the affection for all existence that only genuine freedom brings.

She closes with a short poem by Gary Snyder — a poem “which embraces in its few words and concluding dateline the breadth of threshold life: particularly time and timelessness; affection for community in the widest sense; and a person, wandering, returning, making his way”:

On Climbing the Sierra Matterhorn Again After Thirty-One Years

Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.

           (4 x 40086, On the summit)

Complement the immeasurably rewarding Nine Gates with Hirshfield on how great art transforms us and her wakeful poem protesting the silencing of science, then revisit James Baldwin on the artist’s responsibility to society, Susan Sontag on the writer’s task, and Jeanette Winterson on how art and storytelling redeem our inner lives.


Each week of the past eleven years, I have poured tremendous time, thought, love, and resources into Brain Pickings, which remains free and is made possible by patronage. If you found any joy and stimulation here this year, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation. And if you already donate, from the bottom of my heart: THANK YOU.

monthly donation

You can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch.

one-time donation

Or you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.
Start Now Give Now