Hello, deck! If you missed last week's edition – on balance and being too much for ourselves, the Dalai Lama's daily routine and information diet, the paradox of ownership, an illustrated science lullaby about our planet's largest-hearted creature, 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.
Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation – what is it that makes certain stories last?
That's what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.
Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the "abstract kingdom" – a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world – and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word "meme," Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.
Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.
Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that "includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death," Gaiman argues that stories are alive – that they can, and do, outlive even the world's oldest living trees by millennia:
Do stories grow? Pretty obviously – anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously – they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes... Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce – they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.
On story being the original and deepest creative act:
Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they're just ways of telling stories: "We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons." And I wonder that because people tell stories – it's an enormous part of what makes us human.
We will do an awful lot for stories – we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn – like some kind of symbiote – help us endure and make sense of our lives.
A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems – a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.
Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:
A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book ... the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger – books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class... a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she'd teach them Polish, she'd teach them grammar...
One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up – she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book. And each night, she'd stay up; and each day, she'd tell them the story.
And I said, "Why? Why would you risk death – for a story?"
And she said, "Because for an hour every day, those girls weren't in the ghetto – they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.
I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind...
We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial – the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction ... is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better... It's a real escape – and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.
Helen's story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it – that stories are worth risking your life for; they're worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape – escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.
Remarking on how Helen's story changed him, he adds:
Stories should change you – good stories should change you.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from The Big Green Book by Robert Graves
On how Douglas Adams predicted ebooks in the early 1990s and in the same prophetic breath made a confident case for the perseverance of physical books (which I too, being no Adams but as staunch a believer in the tenacity of the printed page, contemplated on a recent episode of WNYC's Note to Self):
Douglas Adams ... understood media, understood change. He essentially described the first ebooks long before most commuter trains were filled with people reading on them. And he also perceived why, even though most commuter trains are a hundred percent people with ebooks, there will always be physical books and a healthy market for physical books – because, Douglas told me, "books are sharks."
There were sharks back when there were dinosaurs... And now, there are sharks. And the reason that there are still sharks – hundreds of millions of years after the first sharks turned up – is that nothing has turned up that is better at being a shark than a shark is.
Ebooks are absolutely fantastic at being several books and a newspaper; they're really good portable bookshelves, that's why they're great on trains. But books are much better at being books...
I can guarantee that copy of the first Sandman omnibus still works.
But stories aren't books – books are just one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. And, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms.
Illustration by Jim Stoten from Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds
On how books, as much as they connect us to our all humanity, connect us to all humanity:
As individuals, we are cut off from humanity; as individuals, we are naked – we do not even know which plants will kills us. Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble; with it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats, and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet.
Gaiman tells the story of how, in 1984, the Department of Energy hired the Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok to devise a method of warning future generations not to mine or drill at repositories of nuclear waste, which have a half-life of 10,000 years – a method that would transmit information for at least as long:
Tom Sebeok concluded you couldn't actually create a story that would last 10,000 years; you could only create a story that would last for three generations – for ourselves, for our children, and for their children.
But what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren – because that's the purpose of stories, that's what they're for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.
On how the internet is changing storytelling:
A lot more writing is happening because of the internet, and I think that bit is great – I just love the fact that more people are writing.
I think the biggest problem that we have ... is that we have gone from a scarcity-based information economy to a glut information economy. In the old days, finding the thing that you needed was like finding the flower in the desert – you'd have to go out into the desert and find the flower. And now, it's like finding the flower in the jungle – or worse, finding the flower in the flower gardens.
The task becomes finding the good stuff, for whatever your definition of "good stuff" is – and your definition of "good stuff" might be some horribly specialized form of Harry Potter slash.
On humanity's long history of thinking with animals and why so many lasting stories feature animal characters:
Animals in fiction ... are your first attempt to put your head into the "other" and to experience the other, the idea of another...
The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes ... but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.
One of the things that fiction can give us is just the realization that behind every pair of eyes, there's somebody like us. And, perhaps, looking out through animal eyes, there's somebody like us; looking out through alien eyes, there's somebody like us.
Art by Maira Kalman from The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs
On his ultimate point about the symbiotic relationship between human beings and stories, both compliant with the same evolutionary laws of life:
You can just view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use to breed. Really, it's the stories that are the life-form – they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going. But they need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food... we need things to keep ourselves alive. Maybe stories really are like viruses... Functionally, they are symbiotic – they give and give back...
The reason why story is so important to us is because it's actually this thing that we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person... Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but ... stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.
Complement with Gaiman on why scary stories appeal to us, his reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, his superb commencement address on the creative life, his advice to aspiring writers, and his eight rules of writing, then join me in supporting the Long Now Foundation's vital and vitalizing work.
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In 1843, Ada Lovelace – the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron – translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages – two and half times the length of Menabrea's original text – and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world's first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.
About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn't busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life – including the very act of reading these words on this screen.
The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter – rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace's trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials – from the duo's scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace's letters to Babbage's autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.
Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace's unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a "radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet," and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a "deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner."
Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father's dangerous "poetical" influence, her mother instructed the young girl's nurse:
Be most careful always to speak the truth to her ... take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.
She wasn't spared the Victorian era's brutal control mechanisms of women's minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:
Ada's upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a "reclining board" to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.
But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics – which worked, but only to a degree.
Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville – for whom, incidentally, the word "scientist" was coined.
And so one of history's most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.
Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual's exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible – the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.
Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage's autobiography, capturing Lovelace's dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:
The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.
And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn't occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.
So immersed was Lovelace in her computational poetics that her contemporaries described her as rather "poetical in her appearance," which, for those unversed in Victorian euphemism, Padua translates to mean "depressed-looking and extremely badly dressed." Her mind operated on a level so far beyond the ordinary as to be barely graspable by common imaginations. Padua explains in another footnote:
In an age before the mathematization of logic (Boole's Foundational laws of Thought was still ten years away) this was a truly extraordinary leap of imagination – it is difficult, maybe, for us in our computerized age to grasp how extraordinary. Babbage had not thought beyond calculating numbers with his machine, but he loved what he called "admirable and philosophic view of the Analytical Engine" – "The more I read your Notes the more surprised I am at them and regret not having earlier explored so rich a vein of the noblest metal."
Lovelace herself spoke to that fruitful cross-fertilization of the poetic, the philosophical, and the scientific in her famous proclamation in a letter to her mother penned shortly before her footnote masterwork:
You will not concede me philosophical poetry. Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?
In the remainder of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, layered and wonderful in its totality, Padua goes on to chronicles the power-duo's tragicomic demo of the Analytical Engine for Queen Victoria, explores how their different temperaments mapped onto the complementary archetypes of the inventor and the entrepreneur – Babbage was the obsessive and perfectionistic tinkerer, Lovelace the one with the fail-forward startup spirit – and delivers a thoroughly unsynthesizable range of enchantment and elucidation. Complement it with Lovelace's spirited letter on science and religion, then revisit these lovely illustrated biographies of great minds.
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Who we are and who we become is in large part the combinatorial product of the people and ideas we surround ourselves with – what William Gibson so memorably termed our "personal micro-culture" and Brian Eno called "scenius." The more different those people are from us, the more they expand the echo chamber of our own mind, the more layered and beautiful the symphony of the spirit becomes. Nowhere is this self-expansion via relationship more evident than in the friendships between great artists and great scientists, one of the most heartening examples of which is the friendship between legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks and the poet Thom Gunn.
In On the Move: A Life (public library) – the immeasurable and incompressible rewards of which I have previously extolled at great length and with great love – Dr. Sacks, a Thoreau of the mind, recounts how his relationship with Gunn shaped his own evolution as a writer. In fact, his very autobiography is titled after Gunn's poem "On the Move" from his 1959 collection Sense of Movement.
Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, around the time Dr. Sacks met him (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
To be sure, Sacks's love affair with writing predates his meeting Gunn and even his foray into science. Nicknamed Inky as a boy for his voracious appetite for pen and paper, which covered everything in ink, he began journaling at an early age – a formative practice of learning to think on paper and converse with himself. Joining the extensive roster of celebrated writers who championed the creative benefits of keeping a diary and speaking to the potency of journaling as an antidote to Tom Waits's complaint about the inopportune timing of the muse, Sacks writes:
I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs...
But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.
My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.
Dr. Sacks captures a thought in his journal at Amsterdam's busy train station (Photograph: Lowell Handler)
The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand. And I often transcribe quotations I like, writing or typing them on pieces of brightly colored paper and pinning them to a bulletin board.
What Sacks is describing is akin to a commonplace book – that Medieval Tumblr in which thinkers recorded quotations and ideas from whatever they were reading, assembling a personal archive of the ideas that shaped their own minds. (Brain Pickings is essentially one giant commonplace book, and this very piece a sort of bulletin board pinned to which is my discourse with Sacks's extraordinary text.)
Another thought recorded atop a car roof on the side of the road (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
By the time he was in graduate school, Sacks began externalizing these inner conversations, doing for others what he had been doing for himself on the pages of his journals – clarifying the complexities of mental life at the intersection of science and storytelling, honing the singular gift for which he is so beloved today.
He was so electrified by working with patients at a migraine clinic in the mid-1960s that he felt compelled to transmute these insights into a book. But when he finally finished the manuscript and showed it to his boss at the clinic – a prominent but petty and egomaniacal neurologist by the name of Arnold P. Friedman – he was curtly told that the manuscript was garbage, that he had to destroy it, and that he dare not think about turning it into a book ever again; or else, Friedman threatened, Sacks would be promptly fired and barred from getting another job anywhere in America. Friedman confiscated the manuscript and locked it away.
Still, Sacks trusted that he had written something substantive and important – something that might forever change our understanding of how the mind works. He suppressed his feelings for months but, finally, the resentment exploded into action: One night, with the help of the clinic's janitor, he sneaked in and, between midnight and 3 A.M., arduously copied his own notes by hand. The next day, he told Friedman he was taking a long leave to London and when his boss demanded a reason, Sacks responded that he had no choice but to write the forbidden book.
He was fired via telegram a week later. And yet a strange sense of liberation set in, which he poured into the writing.
But if this wasn't courageous enough an act, he soon performed what is perhaps the greatest act of creative courage – the same one John Steinbeck had performed three decades earlier in destroying a manuscript he didn't feel was good enough and rewriting it from scratch into what would become his Pulitzer-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, the cornerstone of his Nobel Prize. Sacks recounts:
I was dissatisfied with my 1967 manuscript and decided to rewrite the book. It was the first of September, and I said to myself, “If I do not have the finished manuscript in Faber’s hands by September 10, I shall have to kill myself.” And under this threat, I started writing. Within a day or so, the feeling of threat had disappeared, and the joy of writing took over. I was no longer using drugs, but it was a time of extraordinary elation and energy. It seemed to me almost as though the book were being dictated, everything organizing itself swiftly and automatically. I would sleep for just a couple of hours a night. And a day ahead of schedule, on September 9, I took the book to Faber & Faber. Their offices were in Great Russell Street, near the British Museum, and after dropping off the manuscript, I walked over to the museum. Looking at artifacts there – pottery, sculptures, tools, and especially books and manuscripts, which had long outlived their creators – I had the feeling that I, too, had produced something. Something modest, perhaps, but with a reality and existence of its own, something that might live on after I was gone.
I have never had such a strong feeling, a feeling of having made something real and of some value, as I did with that first book, which was written in the face of such threats from Friedman and, for that matter, from myself. Returning to New York, I felt a sense of joyousness and almost blessedness. I wanted to shout, “Hallelujah!” but I was too shy. Instead, I went to concerts every night – Mozart operas and Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert – feeling exuberant and alive.
Sacks's jubilant intuition wasn't misplaced – that manuscript became his 1970 debut Migraine, which was welcomed with wholehearted critical acclaim and catapulted him into the status of masterful science storyteller. When the book came out, he found out that Friedman had adapted the original manuscript and attempted to publish it under his own name – a tragicomic testament to the fact that it is Sacks's singular gift as a writer and storyteller, not his scientific genius alone, that make him the cultural icon he is today.
Dr. Sacks recovering in the hospital with nothing but a typewriter by his side. He had broken his leg in Norway, falling down a slippery canyon while being chased by a bull. (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
Sacks had befriended Thom Gunn in the early 1960s, but it wasn't until after the publication of Migraine that he was able to engage with the poet in conversations about writing more confidently – a confidence further nurtured by Gunn's encouraging feedback which, alongside the staunch support of Sacks's beloved aunt Lennie, was instrumental in emboldening the budding writer to embark upon this far from easy path.
He talked with Gunn about "the process of writing, the rushes and stoppages, the illuminations and darknesses, which seemed to be part and parcel of the creative process." Long before cognitive scientists came to study the psychology of writing, Gunn captured the mysterious psychological messiness of the process in one of his letters to Sacks:
I am a bit slothful at the moment. My pattern seems to be: a long cessation of any coherent writing after I have completed a MS, then a tentative start followed by, during the next few years, various separate bursts of activity, ending with a sense of the new book as a whole, in which I make discoveries about my subject(s) that I have never anticipated. It’s strange, the psychology of being a writer. But I suppose it’s better not to be merely facile – the blocks, the feelings of paralysis, the time when language itself seems dead, these all help me in the end, I think, because when the “quickenings” do come they are all the more energetic by contrast.
Sacks reflects on the sincerity of his friend's values:
It was crucial for Thom that his time be his own; his poetry could not be hurried but had to emerge in its own way... “My income,” [he] wrote, “averages about half that of a local bus-driver or street sweeper, but it is of my own choosing, since I prefer leisure to working at a full-time job." But I do not think Thom felt too constrained by his slender means; he had no extravagances (though he was generous with others) and seemed naturally frugal. (Things eased up in 1992, when he received a MacArthur Award, and after this he was able to travel more and enjoy some financial ease, to indulge himself a bit.)
I was particularly taken, and felt a deep kinship, with Sacks's parenthetical note about Gunn's ethos regarding writing about the writing of others:
Thom rarely reviewed what he did not like, and in general his reviews were written in the mode of appreciation.
Despite knowing his friend's disposition toward criticism, Sacks recounts:
I sometimes felt terrified of his directness – terrified, in particular, that he would find my writings, such as they were, muzzy, dishonest, talentless, or worse.
But their relationship lived up to Emerson's assertion that "a friend is a person with whom [one] may be sincere" – Gunn's feedback, always in the spirit of Samuel Beckett's masterwork of constructive criticism, was monumentally beneficial to Sacks's development as a writer, who was "eager for [Gunn's] reactions, depended on them, and gave them more weight than those of anyone else."
Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
But the feedback that most touched him was about his 1973 book Awakenings – a cultural classic that has was eventually made into a film starring Robin Williams as Sacks. Gunn wrote:
Awakenings is, anyway, extraordinary. I remember when, some time in the late Sixties, you described the kind of book you wanted to write, simultaneously a good scientific book and worth reading as a well-written book, and you have certainly done it here… I have also been thinking of the Great Diary you used to show me. I found you so talented, but so deficient in one quality – just the most important quality – call it humanity, or sympathy, or something like that. And, frankly, I despaired of your ever becoming a good writer, because I didn’t see how one could be taught such a quality… Your deficiency of sympathy made for a limitation of your observation… What I didn’t know was that the growth of sympathies is something frequently delayed till one’s thirties. What was deficient in these writings is now the supreme organizer of Awakenings, and wonderfully so. It is literally the organizer of your style, too, and is what enables it to be so inclusive, so receptive, and so varied… I wonder if you know what happened. Simply working with the patients over so long, or the opening-up helped by acid, or really falling in love with someone (as opposed to being infatuated). Or all three...
I was thrilled by this letter, a bit obsessed, too. I did not know how to answer Thom’s question. I had fallen in love – and out of love – and, in a sense, was in love with my patients (the sort of love, or sympathy, which makes one clear-eyed).
But it was in Gunn's poetry that Sacks found something else – something tremendously important to our understanding of how creativity works and the constant, necessary dialogue between influence and so-called originality mediated by our imperfect memory, of which Sacks has written beautifully. Reflecting on Gunn's intricate tapestry of influences – his creative lineage of what Margaret Mead termed our "spiritual and mental ancestors" – Sacks writes:
I loved the sense of history, of predecessors, in many of Thom’s poems. Sometimes this was explicit, as in his “Poem After Chaucer” (which he sent me as a New Year’s card in 1971); more often it was implicit. It made me feel at times that Thom was a Chaucer, a Donne, a Lord Herbert, who now found himself in the America, the San Francisco, of the late twentieth century. This sense of ancestors, of predecessors, was an essential part of his work, and he often alluded to, or borrowed from, other poets and other sources. There was no tiresome insistence on “originality,” and yet, of course, everything he used was transmuted in the process.
Gunn himself, echoing Montaigne's sentiments about originality, addressed this in an autobiographical essay:
I must count my writing as an essential part of the way in which I deal with life. I am however a rather derivative poet. I learn what I can from whom I can. I borrow heavily from my reading, because I take my reading seriously. It is part of my total experience and I base most of my poetry on my experience. I do not apologize for being derivative… It has not been of primary interest to develop a unique poetic personality, and I rejoice in Eliot’s lovely remark that art is the escape from personality.
Dr. Sacks at home on City Island, the Bronx (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)
And yet art requires undisturbed personal space for the "quickenings" of the creative process to unfold slowly – something Sacks protected with great discipline as he blossomed into a prolific writer himself. In his house on City Island, he tacked a sign to the wall above his desk that simply read "NO!" – "reminding myself to say no to invitations so I could preserve writing time," he explains. It is no accident that Sacks dedicates the final sentences in his autobiography to this great love of writing and, in a sentiment that calls to mind the psychology of flow, fuses it with his great gift for science:
I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.
I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.
The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place – irrespective of my subject – where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.
Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.
Oliver Sack writing in his seventies (Photograph: Bill Hayes)
Every page of the altogether magnificent On the Move emanates this contagious delight in writing and furnishes an equivalent delight in reading – a sense of being invited, in the most generous way possible, into a lifetime of Sacks's conversations with his own luminous, incessantly quickening mind. Take another step inside.
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A century and a half after Lewis Carroll plunged his Alice into a fantastical world through the looking-glass, South Korean fine artist and illustrator JiHyeon Lee offers a magnificent modern counterpart in her picture-book debut, Pool (public library) – a wordless masterpiece of space, scale, and silence converging to create an underwater world of wonder just beneath the reflective surface of ordinary life.
Lee's delicate yet immensely expressive pencil illustrations, partway between Sophie Blackall and mid-career Maurice Sendak, emanate childhood's tender trepidations and the gentle playfulness at the heart of the story.
We meet a boy standing poolside, looking reluctantly at the boisterous crowd lurching into the annual invasion of the public pool – a noisy, chaotic scene Lee communicates with great subtlety and quietude.
Perched on an uncrowded corner of the pool, the boy hesitantly contemplates the prospect of plunging.
At last, he takes the leap and dives below the superficial clamor of the crowd, where he encounters his unexpected counterpart – a little girl propelled by the same shy curiosity.
Together, they dive even deeper and the pool suddenly transmogrifies into a whimsical underwater wonderland full of strange and beautiful creatures – a magical mashup of the ocean's most glorious real-life inhabitants, the mythological marine deities of ancient folklore, and Borges's imaginary beings.
Suddenly, they come upon a most magnificent sight.
With a mastery of pacing time through negative space, calling to mind Marianne Dubuc's exquisite The Lion and the Bird, Lee paints a visual gasp as the two children find themselves facing a gentle giant – a peculiar being reminiscent of our planet's largest real creature (the subject of another spectacular picture-book), only white and furry.
They peer into its giant eye, into its enormous otherness, not with fear but with affectionate awe – a sweet and subtle reminder that, as Neil Gaiman memorably put it, "behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us."
As the two make their way back to the surface, that watery looking-glass through which they had plunged into a modern-day Wonderland, they exit the pool from the other end, somehow transformed; the clamorous crowd, having completed this annual chore, leaves the same way it had flounced in.
And then, as they take off their goggles, they peer into each other's naked eyes to find in the otherness an affectionate sameness of spirit peering back.
Pool is wonderful beyond words from cover to cover. Complement it with another wordless masterwork: Marla Frazee's The Farmer and the Clown.
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