“The present task of the constructive pacifist is to call attention away from the catchwords which so easily in wartime become the substitute for both facts and ideas back to realities.” Philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (October 20, 1859–June 1, 1952) is one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century.
A journey to where the semicolon meets the soul. Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”?
Entitlement, empathy, and ethics, with a large helping of grandmotherly love. Every summer during my childhood, my parents would ship me off to my maternal grandmother in rural Bulgaria — a land of colorful rugs and handcrafted pottery and grandmothers constantly knitting mittens and stockings and scarves.
“Genius gives birth, talent delivers.” “All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger observed in pondering the nature of creative work.
“Public opinion exists only where there are no ideas.” Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854–November 30, 1900) was not only the twentieth century’s first pop-culture celebrity, but also arguably the most tragic one — at the height of his literary celebrity, his strong opinions and the socially unacceptable romance behind his exquisite love letters led to a protracted series of trials, the last of which landed Wilde in prison to serve two years of “hard labor” for charges of libel and “gross indecency.” During the trials, Defense Attorney Edward Carson cross-examined 41-year-old Wilde (who, in making a characteristically Wildean complete mockery of the testimony, stated that he was 39 but had “no wish to pose as being young”) about two of his most controversial public texts, particularly a short collection of maxims and aphorisms titled “A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated” — the origin of the famous Wilde remark that Steven Pinker quoted in his excellent modern guide to elegant writing.
A beautiful and subtle ode to the fleeting moment between a bird and a balloon. Jun Atsushi Iwamatsu (1908–1994) was already a successful artist in Japan when he and his wife, Tamao, also an artist, arrived in New York City in 1939 to study at the esteemed Art Students League.
A beautiful case for why our flourishing requires that we move from pursuing value to cultivating values.
A century and a half before our modern fetishism of failure, a seminal philosophical case for its value.
From breakups to bonuses to bathroom breaks, infographic distillation of the truths and fictions behind stereotypes.
“The idea of the world as composed of weightless atoms is striking just because we know the weight of things so well.” One of the most influential and widely beloved authors of the twentieth century, Italo Calvino (October 15, 1923–September 19, 1985) was not only a sage of writing but also a man of piercing insight into such subtleties of existence as the art of asserting oneself with grace, the paradox of America, distraction and procrastination, the trick to lowering one’s “worryability,” and the meaning of life.
“Before we raise such questions as What is happiness, what is justice, what is knowledge, and so on, we must have seen happy and unhappy people, witnessed just and unjust deeds, experienced the desire to know and its fulfillment or frustration.” Since 1888, the annual Gifford Lectures series has aimed “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term” by bringing together influential thinkers across science, philosophy, and spirituality — luminaries like William James, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Carl Sagan (whose 1985 lecture was later published as the fantastic posthumous volume Varieties of Scientific Experience).
“More isn’t always better: no more in information design than in poetry…” Once again this year, I was delighted to serve on the “Brain Trust” for an annual project by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, New Yorker writer, and Scientific American neuroscience blog editor Gareth Cook, who culls the best, most thoughtful and illuminating infographics published each year, online and off, and invites the bearer of a sharp mind to contextualize both the individual selections and the premise of the project.
“All it amounts to is play-acting. But how invaluably interesting to have one’s knowledge of human psychology enriched in this way.” Celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher, Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard (May 5, 1813–November 11, 1855) may have only lived a short life, but it was a deep one and its impact radiated widely outward, far across the centuries and disciplines and schools of thought.
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.” “Learning how to be a good reader is what makes you a writer,” the magnificent Zadie Smith told the audience at the 15th annual New Yorker Festival on a late Friday night, echoing Susan Sontag’s assertion that fruitful writing is born out of fruitful reading, out of a “book-drunken life.” This osmotic relationship between reading and writing has been extolled in forms as piercingly poetic as Kafka’s letter on the purpose of books and as scientifically grounded as the work of Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker, but hardly anyone has expressed it more lyrically and with more shimmering aliveness than another of our era’s greatest essayists, Rebecca Solnit, in The Faraway Nearby (public library) — the equally, if differently, rewarding follow-up to her spectacular essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
“To be universally liked is to be relatively ignored.” After spending the entirety of my adult life as a noncitizen immigrant in America, perpetually toiling at the mercy of various visas, I am currently applying for something known as an “extraordinary ability green card” — a document granted to people whose contributions to culture the government deems valuable enough to offer them a slice of the American Dream or, at the very least, to make their lives a little easier by letting them stay in the country and continue to make said contributions with a little more dignity and peace of mind.
“Spirited curiosity is an emblem of the flourishing life.” Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations remains one of humanity’s most significant and influential packets of thought on what it means to live a meaningful life.
“Good writing can flip the way the world is perceived, like the silhouette in psychology textbooks which oscillates between a goblet and two faces.” “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children,” Charles Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.” While baking and brewing undoubtedly have their place in culture, it is writing that has emerged as the defining record of our civilization — our most enduring and expansive catalog of thought, of discourse, of human imagination.
“It is heavenly to work until I am tired… [After dinner] I usually return to my solitude, happy to have been in good company, happy to leave it.” I have a longstanding fascination with the daily routines of writers, particularly with the psychology behind them.
“Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves.” The question of what reading does for the human soul is an eternal one and its answer largely ineffable, but this hasn’t stopped minds big and small from tussling with it — we have Kafka’s exquisite letter to his childhood friend, Maurice Sendak’s visual manifestos for the joy of reading, and even my own answer to a nine-year-old girl’s question about why we have books today.
“An artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion.” It’s paradoxical that while “art holds out the promise of inner wholeness” for those who experience it, the relationship between creativity and mental illness is well-documented among those who make it, as is the anguish of artists who experience it.