Hey DJ Daniels! If you missed last week's edition – what actually happens when you sleep, how to be an explorer of the world, Ray Bradbury on science vs. romance, and more – you can catch up right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation.
Haunting whimsy from the Golden Age of illustration.
As a lover of illustrated fairy tales and having just returned from Sweden, I was delighted to discover, thanks to the relentlessly wonderful 50 Watts, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North (public library; public domain) – a collection of Scandinavian fairy tales, illustrated by Danish artist Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957), whose work you might recall from the all-time greatest illustrations of Brothers Grimm and the fantastic visual history of Arabian Nights. Originally published in 1914, this magnificent tome of 15 stories was recently reissued by Calla Editions, the same Dover imprint that revived Harry Clarke's magnificent illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe, and features 25 color illustrations, along with a slew of black-and-white ones, in Nielsen's singular style of haunting whimsy.
'And this time she whisked off the wig; and there lay the lad, so lovely, and white and red, just as the Princess had seen him in the morning sun.'
'She could not help setting the door a little ajar, just to peep in, when—Pop! out flew the Moon.'
'At Rest in the Dark Wood'
'The Troll was quite willing, and before long he fell asleep and began snoring.'
'Just as they bent down to take the rose a big dense snow-drift came and carried them away.'
'I am the Virgin Mary'
'The North Wind Went Over the Sea'
'She saw the Lindworm for the first time as he came in and stood by her side.'
For the ultimate illustrated fairy tale treat, complement East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North with Taschen's recent The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, one of the 11 best children's and picture books of 2011.
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"In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar – ajar only."
"I fully expected that, by the end of the century, we would have achieved substantially more than we actually did," lamented original moonwalker Neil Armstrong, who passed away at the age of 82 last week. Implicit to his lament is the rather unsettling question of why – what is it that has held mankind back?
That's precisely what the great Richard Feynman explored when he took the stage at the Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964 and delivered a lecture titled "What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society," published in the altogether excellent The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library), titled after the famous film of the same name.
Feynman shares in Armstrong's dirge:
We are all saddened when we look at the world and see what few accomplishments we have made, compared to what we feel are the potentialities of human beings. People in the past, in the nightmare of their times, had dreams for the future. And now that the future has materialized we see that in many ways the dreams have been surpassed, but in still more ways many of our dreams of today are very much the dreams of people of the past.
He attributes much of this disconnect to a profound lack of mainstream understanding of and enthusiasm for science, making a case for the wonder of science:
… people – I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people – are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way … And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that – why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?
Incidentally, about knowledge and wonder, [conference chairman] Mr. Bernardini said we shouldn't teach wonders but knowledge.
It may be a difference in the meaning of the words. I think we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is.
He goes on to take a jab at just how unscientific pop culture is – and how culturally condoned certain unscientific beliefs are:
… as I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame. If we look away from the science and look at the world around us, we find out something rather pitiful: that the environment that we live in is so actively, intensely unscientific. Galileo could say: 'I noticed that Jupiter was a ball with moons and not a god in the sky. Tell me, what happened to the astrologers?' Well, they print their results in the newspapers, in the United States at least, in every daily paper every day. Why do we still have astrologers?
I believe that we must attack these things in which we do not believe. Not attack by the method of cutting off the heads of the people, but attack in the sense of discuss. I believe that we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world; that they not permit themselves the luxury of having their brain cut in four pieces or two pieces even, and on one side they believe this and on the other side they believe that, but never try to compare the two points of view. Because we have learned that, by trying to put the points of view that we have in our head together and comparing one to the other, we make some progress in understanding and in appreciating where we are and what we are. And I believe that science has remained irrelevant because we wait until somebody asks us questions or until we are invited to give a speech on Einstein’s theory to people who don’t understand Newtonian mechanics, but we never are invited to give an attack on faith healing, or on astrology – on what is the scientific view of astrology today.
The solution he proposes pits good science writing and critical debate as the necessary prick in the filter bubble of public interest:
I think that we must mainly write some articles. Now what would happen? The person who believes in astrology will have to learn some astronomy. The person who believes in faith healing might have to learn some medicine, because of the arguments going back and forth; and some biology. In other words, it will be necessary that science become relevant.
And then we have this terrible struggle to try to explain things to people who have no reason to want to know. But if they want to defend their own point of view, they will have to learn what yours is a little bit. So I suggest, maybe incorrectly and perhaps wrongly, that we are too polite. There was in the past an era of conversation on these matters. It was felt by the church that Galileo’s views attacked the church. It is not felt by the church today that the scientific views attack the church. Nobody is worrying about it. Nobody attacks; I mean, nobody writes trying to explain the inconsistencies between the theological views and the scientific views held by different people today–or even the inconsistencies sometimes held by the same scientist between his religious and scientific beliefs.
(Granted, since 1964, we've seen the rise of "the Four Horsemen of New Atheism" – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris – who, along with countless scientists, consistently ensure a constructive lack of "politeness" in the debate.)
Feynman also reiterates a crucial point about the nature and purpose of science and critical thinking – the role of ignorance and the importance of embracing uncertainty, met with enormous resistance in a culture conditioned for grasping at answers:
A scientist is never certain. We all know that. We know that all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; that when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false. 'Does God exist?' When put in the questional form, 'how likely is it?' It makes such a terrifying transformation of the religious point of view, and that is why the religious point of view is unscientific. We must discuss each question within the uncertainties that are allowed.
We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified – how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don’t know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is, or know a great deal of other things. It is possible to live and not know.
Feynman concludes by doing what he does best, bridging science and philosophy to expand the specific question into a broader meditation on human existence:
So today we are not very well off, we don’t see that we have done too well. Men, philosophers of all ages, have tried to find the secret of existence, the meaning of it all. Because if they could find the real meaning of life, then all this human effort, all this wonderful potentiality of human beings, could then be moved in the correct direction and we would march forward with great success. So therefore we tried these different ideas. But the question of the meaning of the whole world, of life, and of human beings, and so on, has been answered very many times by very many people. Unfortunately all the answers are different; and the people with one answer look with horror at the actions and behavior of the people with another answer. Horror, because they see the terrible things that are done; the way man is being pushed into a blind alley by this rigid view of the meaning of the world. In fact, it is really perhaps by the fantastic size of the horror that it becomes clear how great are the potentialities of human beings, and it is possibly this which makes us hope that if we could move things in the right direction, things would be much better. What then is the meaning of the whole world?
We do not know what the meaning of existence is. We say, as the result of studying all of the views that we have had before, we find that we do not know the meaning of existence; but in saying that we do not know the meaning of existence, we have probably found the open channel – if we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave open opportunities for alternatives, that we do not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth, but remain always uncertain – [that we] 'hazard it.' The English, who have developed their government in this direction, call it 'muddling through,' and although a rather silly, stupid sounding thing, it is the most scientific way of progressing. To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar – ajar only. We are only at the beginning of the development of the human race; of the development of the human mind, of intelligent life – we have years and years in the future. It is our responsibility not to give the answer today as to what it is all about, to drive everybody down in that direction and to say: 'This is a solution to it all.' Because we will be chained then to the limits of our present imagination. We will only be able to do those things that we think today are the things to do. Whereas, if we leave always some room for doubt, some room for discussion, and proceed in a way analogous to the sciences, then this difficulty will not arise. I believe, therefore, that although it is not the case today, that there may some day come a time, I should hope, when it will be fully appreciated that the power of government should be limited; that governments ought not to be empowered to decide the validity of scientific theories, that that is a ridiculous thing for them to try to do; that they are not to decide the various descriptions of history or of economic theory or of philosophy. Only in this way can the real possibilities of the future human race be ultimately developed.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a treasure trove of genius in its entirety – highly recommended.
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"lovers go and lovers come/ awandering awondering/ but any two are perfectly alone/ there's nobody else alive"
As a lover of the intersection of music and literature, I'm utterly enamored with the rain is a handsome animal – a magnificent new 17-movement song-cycle based on the poetry of e. e. cummings by Tin Hat, composed of the inimitable violinist and vocalist Carla Kihlstedt (whom you might recall from recent Literary Jukebox volumes), guitarist Mark Orton, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, and Rob Reich on the accordion and piano.
Whimsical and unusual, with a cinematic quality and just the right amount of defiant idiosyncrasy, Kihlstedt's haunting vocals and the extraordinary instrumentation add a whole new level of mesmerism to the familiar magic of the beloved poet. Though I was thrilled to find my favorite e. e. cummings line, "down they forgot as up they grew" (from "anyone lived in a pretty how town"), I was most enchanted by the softly dreamsome "sweet spring" and the heart-warming "2 little whos" – though the entire album is absolutely exquisite.
the rain is a handsome animal is the finest musical homage to literature since Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep, based on Victorian children's poetry, and is bound to remain on repeat for quite some time.
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"All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another."
Reading and writing are inextricably intertwined, and literature – like all cultural creation – is an endless labyrinth of influence. And while some have argued that writing well can be taught, our cultural narrative continues to perpetuate the myth of "God"-given, inborn talent, or what Charles Eames has termed "the 'gifted few' concept".
In Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (public library), Francine Prose sets out to explore "how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught" and lays out a roadmap to learning the art of writing not through some prescriptive, didactic methodology but by absorbing, digesting, and appropriating the very qualities that make great literature great – from Flannery O'Connor's mastery of detail to George Eliot's exquisite character development to Philip Roth's magical sentence structure.
A work of art can start you thinking about some esthetic or philosophical problem, it can suggest some new method, some fresh approach to fiction. But the relationship between reading and writing is rarely so clear-cut. . . .
More often the connection has to do with whatever mysterious promptings make you want to write. It's like watching someone dance and then secretly, in your own room, trying out a few steps. I often think of learning to write by reading as something like the way I first began to read. I had a few picture books I'd memorized and pretended I could read, as a sort of party trick that I did repeatedly for my parents, who were also pretending, in their case to be amused. I never knew exactly when I crossed the line from pretending to actually being able, but that was how it happened.
In the age of Fifty Shades of Grey, Prose offers a timely admonition against the invasion of public opinion in the architecture of personal taste:
Part of a reader's job is to find out why certain writers endure. This may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you. You will do yourself a disservice if you confine your reading to the rising star whose six-figure, two-book contract might seem to indicate where your own work should be heading.
With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it's essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it's surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.
Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer's skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.
Echoing Elizabeth Gilbert's conviction that grad school is detrimental to the spirit of the writer, Prose reflects:
The only time my passion for reading steered me in the wrong direction was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they did love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious shiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading 'texts' in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written.
I left graduate school and became a writer.
Reading Like a Writer comes as a fine addition to these 9 essential books to help you read more and write better, beautifully complemented by the meditations in Henry Miller's The Books in My Life.
For more timeless and practical advice on writing, see Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy's 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller's 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac's 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck's 6 pointers, Susan Sontag's synthesized wisdom on writing, various invaluable insight from other great writers, and the excellent Several Short Sentences About Writing.
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Last month, I was enormously thrilled and proud to have artist Wendy MacNaughton illustrate Susan Sontag's insights on love, which I'd culled from the author's freshly published diaries. In hindsight, it was probably unsurprising that we were immediately overwhelmed with requests for prints of Wendy's artwork – so we obliged and worked hard to offer a limited-edition run of 100 signed and numbered high-quality, large-scale 8"x26" giclee prints of the piece on heavy cotton rag paper with deckled edges. As of this morning, only 30 are left – so grab yours if you haven't already.
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