The author of “Figuring” (and the brain behind the Brain Pickings website) likes how children’s books speak “a language of absolute sincerity, so deliciously countercultural in our age of cynicism.”
What books are on your nightstand?
I don’t have a nightstand per se — my bedroom is rather ascetic, with only a bed nestled between the constellation-painted walls. I do tend to keep a rotating selection of longtime favorites near or in it, to dip into before sleep — “The Little Prince” (which I reread at least once a year every year, and somehow find new wisdom and pertinence to whatever I am going through at the moment), “The Lives of the Heart,” by Jane Hirshfield, “Hope in the Dark,” by Rebecca Solnit, Thoreau’s diaries, “How the Universe Got Its Spots,” by Janna Levin. Of the piles that inevitably accumulate in every room of my house, friends’ books I have recently read and loved tower nearest the bed — part synonym and part antonym to the lovely Japanese concept of tsundoku, the guilt-pile of books acquired with the intention of reading but left unread. Currently among my anti-tsundoku: “Time Travel,” by James Gleick, “Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine,” by Alan Lightman, “Little Panic,” by Amanda Stern, “Inheritance,” by Dani Shapiro, and an exhibition catalog — which, in her case, is part poetry and part philosophy — by Ann Hamilton.
What’s the last great book you read?
I read multiple books each week and have no qualms about abandoning what fails to captivate me, so I tend to love just about everything I finish. At this particular moment, I am completely smitten with Jill Lepore’s history of America — what a rare masterwork of rigorous scholarship with a poetic sensibility — but I am barely a quarter through, so I’d be cheating if I counted it as read.
I only recently discovered, and absolutely loved, “The Living Mountain,” by the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd — part memoir, part field notebook, part lyrical meditation on nature and our relationship with it, evocative of Rachel Carson and Henry Beston and John Muir. Shepherd composed it sometime around World War II, but kept it in a drawer for nearly four decades, until the final years of her life. Decades after her death, her work — much of it by then out of print — was rediscovered and championed by Robert Macfarlane, a splendid nature writer himself.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” I am filled with disbelief bordering on shame that I went this long without it. A book that gives the English language back to itself and your conscience back to itself.
Do your blog posts grow out of whatever you happen to be reading at the time? Or do you pick books specifically with Brain Pickings in mind?
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I don’t see my website as a separate entity or any sort of media outlet — it is the record and reflection of my inner life, my discourse with ideas and questions through literature, my extended marginalia. It is a “blog” in the proper sense — a “web log,” part commonplace book and part ledger of a life. Nothing on it is composed for an audience. I write about what I read, and I read to process what I dwell in, mentally and emotionally. The wondrous thing about being human — the beauty and banality of it — is that we all tend to dwell in the same handful of elemental struggles, joys and sorrows, which is why a book one person writes may help another process her own life a century later, and why a “blog” by a solitary stranger may speak to many other solitary dwellers across time and space.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Rhythm, texture, splendor of sentiment in language, unsentimental soulfulness.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I read mostly nonfiction and poetry. But I also don’t believe in genre as a defining feature of substance. Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy is animated by rich moral philosophy. Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Are You My Mother?” is replete with more insight into the human psyche than most books in the psychology section of the bookstore. Great children’s books speak to the most elemental truths of existence, and speak in the language of children — a language of absolute sincerity, so deliciously countercultural in our age of cynicism.
How do you organize your books?
My children’s book library is organized by color, everything else by subject and substance first — science, poetry, biographies and autobiographies, diaries and letters, etc. — then within each section, by color. I break the color system for multiple books by the same author on related subjects — amid several Oliver Sacks volumes huddled together, “Hallucinations” beams from the solemn science shelf with its cheerful seizure of cyan.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My good friend and collaborator Claudia Bedrick, founder of the visionary Enchanted Lion Books, gave me a trilingual pop-up book titled “Little Tree,” by the Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata — a subtle, stunning meditation on mortality through the life-cycle of a single tree, inspired by a young child struggling to make sense of a beloved father’s death — one of the artist’s close friends. I have a deep love of trees — they have been among my wisest teachers — and recently returned to this book while spending time with one of my own dear friends in the final weeks of her life.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Orlando. It is hard not to fall in love with a beautiful, brilliant creature who changes genders while galloping across three centuries on a pair of “the shapeliest legs” in the land. It is hard not to fall in love with Virginia Woolf’s love for Vita Sackville-West, on whom Orlando is modeled and to whom the book is dedicated. Vita’s son later described the novel as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
In a sense, Orlando is also an antihero in the drama of Woolf’s oppressive heteronormative society — a subversion, a counterpoint to convention, a sentinel of the resistance. A month after the book’s publication, the novelist Radclyffe Hall was tried for obscenity — the same half-coded charge of homosexuality for which Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned a generation earlier — and all printed copies of her lesbian novel “The Well of Loneliness” were destroyed by court order. In response to the trial, Woolf and E. M. Forster wrote in a joint letter of protest: “Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I don’t recall being much of a natural reader early on, but my paternal grandmother made me one. She read me old European fairy tales — Hans Christian Andersen, the uncandied Brothers Grimm. (In the communist Bulgaria of my childhood, the classics of American children’s literature were barred by the Iron Curtain.) I especially loved “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” long before I could fully appreciate the allegorical genius of a brilliant logician. I was awed by my grandmother’s enormous library and was particularly enchanted by the encyclopedias, the way you could pull one out and open to a random page and learn about something thrilling you didn’t even know existed. It is an experience we rarely have anymore in a culture where pointed search has eclipsed serendipitous discovery, leading us to find more and more of what we are already interested in. In a sense, this encyclopedic enchantment and the delight of unbidden discovery have stayed with me and become the backbone of Brain Pickings.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From the fantastic new biography of Benjamin Rush by Stephen Fried — my first and foremost writing mentor, whose research intern I was what seems like a lifetime ago, and was even paid two subway tokens per week for the pleasure — I learned that we owe to this “footnoted founder” our formative understanding of mental illness and the then-radical notion that mentally ill people are still people. A century before Nellie Bly’s paradigm-shifting exposé “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” at a time when mental asylum patients were chained to the floor until they “improved,” Rush insisted that their humanity and dignity must be honored in treatment, and pioneered forms of psychiatric care closely resembling the modern. This radical, largehearted reformer was decades, perhaps centuries ahead of his time along so many axes of progress: He became the nation’s pre-eminent champion of public health and public schooling, founded the country’s first rural college, railed against racism, helped African-American clergymen establish two of the nation’s first churches for black congregations, and pushed to extend education to women, African-Americans and non-English-speaking immigrants. (He also penned the most devastating and delightful rant against materialism, condemning America as “a bebanked, and a bewhiskied & a bedollared nation.” I wonder how he would have framed the unfathomable notion that his nation would one day be governed by a billionaire who deals in golf courses, stars in his own reality TV show and bankrolls the business of hate.)
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I am resisting the cheap impulse to simply say, “Any.” Instead, I’d say Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” but there is the obvious risk that he might take it for an instructional manual.
Perhaps the safest thing for everyone would be to give the man some poetry — it has a singular way of slipping through the backdoor of the psyche to anneal truth and open even the most fisted heart, “to awaken sleepers by other means than shock,” as the poet Denise Levertov put it. I’d say “Crave Radiance,” by Elizabeth Alexander — one of our finest living poets — but I doubt the fact that she was Barack Obama’s inauguration poet would go over well with the current administration.
Any book by Jane Hirshfield — a splendid poet and an ordained Buddhist — would probably do more good in this country, in the White House and in every home, than all the political op-eds and polemics combined.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Rachel Carson, Susan Sontag, Margaret Fuller. It could go one of two ways: intoxicating intellectual repartee — the fiercely opinionated Sontag and Fuller would either love or loathe one another, and Carson would sit in unassuming quietude, speaking only rarely and with the perfect, perfectly formulated sentiment — or literary speed dating for queer women. I, for one, am half-infatuated with all three.
How do you decide what to read next? Is it reviews, word-of-mouth, books by friends, books for research? Does it depend on mood or do you plot in advance?
I often say that literature is the original internet — every allusion, footnote and reference is a hyperlink to another text. Nearly all books I read enter my life through the gateway of other books, which explains why, over the nearly 13-year span of Brain Pickings, my writing has plunged deeper and deeper into the past — this analog web only extends backward in time, for a book can only reference texts previously published. It’s a great antidote to the presentism bias that envelops us, in which we mistake the latest and the loudest — the flotsam of opinion atop social media streams — for the most important, most insightful, most relevant. Right around Ferguson, I discovered through a passing mention in an out-of-print collection of Margaret Mead’s Redbook advice columns her 1970 conversation with James Baldwin, in which they discuss race, gender, identity, democracy, morality, the immigrant experience and a great many other topics of acute relevance today, with tenfold the dignity and depth of insight than our current modes of cultural discourse afford.
What do you plan to read next?
I recently discovered Jenny Uglow’s 2002 biography of the Lunar Men — a small group of freethinking intellectuals, whose members are responsible for the development of the steam engine and a cascade of other advances in science. Somehow, I had completely missed it in my research, even though members of the Lunar Men flit in and out of “Figuring.” The more you read, the more you miss.