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John Steinbeck on the Loneliness of Success and His Surprising Private Escape Into Transcendence


“The loneliness and discouragement… I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement.” As a writer, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) remains one of the most beloved artists of the past century, whose exceptional work ethic and unrelenting pursuit of the impossible earned him both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize.

The Tragic Heroism of Hopefulness: The Myth of Sisyphus in a Gorgeous 1974 Oscar-Nominated Hungarian Animation

An evocative homage to one of humanity’s most human heroes by the great Hungarian graphic artist and animator Marcell Jankovics.

Rebecca West on Survival, the Redemption of Suffering, and the Life-Saving Will to Keep Walking the Road to Ourselves


“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe.” In a 1928 letter to her sister, Virginia Woolf described the great English writer Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) as “hard as nails, very distrustful, and no beauty … a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence.” (Because Woolf regarded her with such amused admiration, she was pleased when West lauded Orlando as “a poetic masterpiece of the first rank” in her New York Herald Tribune review later that year.) It was this great and rugged intellect that West poured into Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (public library) — her remarkable 1941 account of her three visits to Yugoslavia.

How a Synesthete Experiences Bach: An Empathic Journey into Sound Through Minimalist Motion, Shape, and Color


An animated invitation to inhabit a rare neurological crossing of the senses. “Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of the most beautiful meditations on the power of music, “and the most sensual.” Indeed, music beckons to multiple of our senses, which is why Helen Keller, deaf and blind, was able to exult in “hearing” Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with her hand and Aldous Huxley wrote so beautifully of listening in the dark for “some exquisite soft harmony apprehended by another sense.” There is, in fact, a special class of people who, quite literally, apprehend music by another sense: synesthetes.

Beautiful Brain: The Stunning Drawings of Neuroscience Founding Father Santiago Ramón y Cajal


“A graphic representation of the object observed guarantees the exactness of the observation itself.” Oliver Sacks insisted that “ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing,” which he considered “a special, indispensable form” of talking to himself.

How the French Mathematician Sophie Germain Paved the Way for Women in Science and Almost Saved Gauss’s Life


“The taste for the abstract sciences in general and, above all, for the mysteries of numbers, is very rare… since the charms of this sublime science in all their beauty reveal themselves only to those who have the courage to fathom them.” A century after the trailblazing French mathematician Émilie du Châtelet popularized Newton and paved the path for women in science, and a few decades before the word “scientist” was coined for the Scottish mathematician Mary Somerville, Sophie Germain (April 1, 1776–June 27, 1831) gave herself an education using her father’s books and became a brilliant mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, who pioneered elasticity theory and made significant contributions to number theory.

In My Own Process: Bruce Lee’s Personal Credo, In Never Before Published Letters to Himself from the Final Year of His Life


“Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being.” “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you?

When a Friendship Is More Than Friendship: The Tender Letters of Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms


“I would gladly write to you only by means of music, but I have things to say to you to-day which music could not express.” Half the beauty of life lies in its complexity — in those experiences whose depth and dimension cannot be sliced, flattened, and contained into neat categories.

Nina Simone on Time


A meditation on the one dimension of human existence that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts.” “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard as he contemplated our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s just as Einstein, Gödel, and the rise of relativity had begun revolutionizing our understanding of time.

How to Know Everything About Everything: Laura Riding’s Extraordinary 1930 Letters to an 8-Year-Old Girl About Being Oneself


“People who for some reason find it impossible to think about themselves, and so really be themselves, try to make up for not thinking with doing.” In 1926, having just divorced her first husband at the age of twenty-five, the American poet, critic, essayist, and short story writer Laura Riding (January 16, 1901–September 2, 1991) moved to England and founded, together with her friend the poet Robert Graves, a small independent press.

The Binary Code of Body and Spirit: Computing Pioneer Alan Turing on Mortality


“The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.” “The void horrifies: so we are all immortal,” Simone de Beauvoir scoffed at the religious escapism of immortality in explaining why she is an atheist, adding: “Faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly.” But there exists a certain orientation of spirit that is both unreligious and lucid in contemplating mortality.

Audre Lorde on the Indivisibility of Identity and the Importance of Arts Education and Arts Funding


“The shortest statement of philosophy I have is my living, or the word ‘I.’” In the fall of 1970, the Academy of American Poets received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to stage a series of lectures and readings in public parks and libraries.

Alchemy and the Transmutation of Ignorance Into Truth: Lewis Thomas’s Prescient 1983 Manifesto for the Humanity-Saving Value of Social Science


“In all of nature there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.” Perhaps the greatest hubris of historical hindsight is knowing that everything we call progress has been made by systematic trial and error, yet tending to dismiss — even scoff at — the errors as embarrassments to the process of progress rather than essential parts of it.

William Faulkner on What Sherwood Anderson Taught Him About Writing, the Artist’s Task, and Being an American


“To be a writer, one has first got to be what he is.” “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant — there is no such thing,” Georgia O’Keeffe counseled Sherwood Anderson in her 1923 letter of advice on being an artist.

Insomniac City: Bill Hayes’s Extraordinary Love Letter to New York and Oliver Sacks


“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” “If you are too much like myself, what shall I learn of you, or you of me?

Italo Calvino on Racial Justice: The Beloved Italian Writer’s Stirring Account of the Early Civil Rights Movement and His Encounter with Martin Luther King, Jr.


“What counts is what we are, and the way we deepen our relationship with the world and with others, a relationship that can be one of both love for all that exists and of desire for its transformation.” In 1959, the Ford Foundation invited a small international group of up-and-coming creative writers to visit America on a six-month scholarship — a Herculean feat under an administration that made it as close to impossible as possible for foreigners suspected of communist views, which included most foreigners, to enter the United States.

A Cinematic Love Letter to the Wilderness and John Muir’s Legacy


A beautiful homage to the natural world’s “good, practical sort of immortality.” “Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.

Song of Two Worlds: Alan Lightman’s Poetic Ode to Science, the Unknown, and Our Search for Meaning, Illustrated by an 18-Year-Old Boy in India


“One thousand questions, and each gives an answer, which then forms a question.” “You will not concede me philosophical poetry,” Ada Lovelace — the world’s first computer programmer, maverick daughter of the poet Lord Byron — wrote to her mother, a mathematician bent on eradicating the father’s “poetical” influences on the girl.

To Redeem One Person Is to Redeem the World: Pioneering Psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the Loneliness of Mental Illness, and the Healing Power of Believing in a Person’s Inextinguishable Inner Light


How a visionary woman persisted in leading a quiet revolution in mental health. “All good teachers know that inside a remote or angry person is a soul, way deep down, capable of a full human life,” Anne Lamott wrote in her beautiful meditation on the life-giving power of great teachers.

How to Make America Great Again: Rachel Carson on Protecting Nature and Heeding Science as a Force of Democracy


“The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” In 1953, nearly a decade before she catalyzed the environmental movement with the publication of Silent Spring, trailblazing biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) found herself with no choice but to embody the ethos that would come to animate her life: “To sin by silence, when we should protest makes cowards out of men.” After Eisenhower took office, the Republican administration swiftly began instituting policies that effected the destruction of nature in the name of business.


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