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Hello, Terry Travers! If you missed last week's edition – the 15 best books of 2015 – you can catch up right here. And if you missed the annual special of the year's best Brain Pickings articles, you can read it here. If you're enjoying this newsletter, please consider supporting my labor of love with a donation – I spent thousands of hours and tremendous resources on it each year, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
In 1957, Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) became the second youngest laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded to him for work that "with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times." (It was with this earnestness that, days after receiving the coveted accolade, he sent his childhood teacher a beautiful letter of gratitude.)
More than half a century later, his lucid and luminous insight renders Camus a timeless seer of truth, one who ennobles and enlarges the human spirit in the very act of seeing it — the kind of attentiveness that calls to mind his compatriot Simone Weil, whom he admired more than he did any other thinker and who memorably asserted that "attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity."
Nowhere does Camus's generous attention to the human spirit emanate more brilliantly than in a 1940 essay titled "The Almond Trees" (after the arboreal species that blooms in winter), found in his Lyrical and Critical Essays (public library) — the superb volume that gave us Camus on happiness, despair, and how to amplify our love of life. Penned at the peak of WWII, to the shrill crescendo of humanity's collective cry for justice and mercy, Camus's clarion call for reawakening our noblest nature reverberates with newfound poignancy today, amid our present age of shootings and senseless violence.
At only twenty-seven, Camus writes:
We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that's all.
Let us know our aims then, holding fast to the mind, even if force puts on a thoughtful or a comfortable face in order to seduce us. The first thing is not to despair. Let us not listen too much to those who proclaim that the world is at an end. Civilizations do not die so easily, and even if our world were to collapse, it would not have been the first. It is indeed true that we live in tragic times. But too many people confuse tragedy with despair. "Tragedy," [D.H.] Lawrence said, "ought to be a great kick at misery." This is a healthy and immediately applicable thought. There are many things today deserving such a kick.
In a sentiment evocative of the 1919 manifesto Declaration of the Independence of the Mind — which was signed by such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, Jane Addams, Upton Sinclair, Stefan Zweig, and Hermann Hesse — Camus argues that this "kick" is to be delivered by the deliberate cultivation of the mind's highest virtues:
If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder. Our world is poisoned by its misery, and seems to wallow in it. It has utterly surrendered to that evil which Nietzsche called the spirit of heaviness. Let us not add to this. It is futile to weep over the mind, it is enough to labor for it.
But where are the conquering virtues of the mind? The same Nietzsche listed them as mortal enemies to heaviness of the spirit. For him, they are strength of character, taste, the "world," classical happiness, severe pride, the cold frugality of the wise. More than ever, these virtues are necessary today, and each of us can choose the one that suits him best. Before the vastness of the undertaking, let no one forget strength of character. I don't mean the theatrical kind on political platforms, complete with frowns and threatening gestures. But the kind that through the virtue of its purity and its sap, stands up to all the winds that blow in from the sea. Such is the strength of character that in the winter of the world will prepare the fruit.
"My work, my life, is all with the sick — but the sick and their sickness drives me to thoughts which, perhaps, I might otherwise not have,"Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933–August 10, 2015) wrote in his 1985 classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales (public library) — perhaps the most influential treatise on the perplexities of memory, which solidified Dr. Sacks as the Dante of medicine and the clinical case study as his high poetic form. "Constantly my patients drive me to question, and constantly my questions drive me to patients," he wrote.
One of those patients was Jimmie G. — a "charming, intelligent, memoryless" man admitted into New York City's Home for the Aged with only an unfeeling transfer note stating, "Helpless, demented, confused and disoriented." Jimmie G. is the subject of the second chapter, titled "The Lost Mariner," which Dr. Sacks opens with an epigraph from the great Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel:
You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.
In the beautiful short film The Lost Mariner, independent animator Tess Martin brings Jimmie G.'s rare memory condition to life using photograph cutouts and live action. The effect is a stunning visual analog to the disorienting see-saw of reality and unreality constantly rocking those bedeviled by memory impairments, exposing the discomfiting yet strangely assuring truth in Buñuel's words.
"Readers who want to become writers should read with a dictionary at hand," Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker asserted in his indispensable guide to the art-science of beautiful writing, adding that writers who are "too lazy to crack open a dictionary" are "incurious about the logic and history of the English language" and doom themselves to having "a tin ear for its nuances of meaning and emphasis." But the most ardent case for using a dictionary came more than a decade earlier from none other than David Foster Wallace.
At one point, the conversation turns to the underappreciated usefulness of usage dictionaries. Wallace tells Garner:
I urge my students to get a usage dictionary… To recognize that you need a usage dictionary, you have to be paying a level of attention to your own writing that very few people are doing… A usage dictionary is [like] a linguistic hard drive… For me the big trio is a big dictionary, a usage dictionary, a thesaurus — only because I cannot retain and move nimbly around in enough of the language not to need these extra sources.
As a teacher, about 90% of my job is getting the students to understand why they might need one.
True to his singular brand of intellectual irreverence, Wallace offers a delightfully unusual usage of the usage dictionary:
A usage dictionary is one of the great bathroom books of all time. Because it has the appeal of trivia, the entries are for the most part brief, and you end up within 48 hours — due to that weird psychological effect — actually drawing on exactly what you learned in some weird, coincidental way.
The conversation then turns to the structure of a winsome piece of writing:
A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel… It's interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes… If one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I've read, you could boil that down to the opener.
With an eye to the Aristotelian tenet that a good story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending, Wallace agrees with Garner that "the middle is the biggest puzzle" and considers the perplexity of the middle:
The middle should work… It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they're connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other — and also transitions between paragraphs.
An argumentative writer [should] spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument — and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here… Never letting the reader think that I've lapsed into argument for argument's sake, but that there's always a larger, overriding purpose.
In how this larger purpose is conveyed, Wallace argues, lies the true measure of good writing:
Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what's going on when you read, you're processing information at an incredible rate.
One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what's going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that's often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn't merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.
The point where that amount — the amount of time that you're spending on a sentence, the amount of effort — becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students' papers begin getting marked down by the prof.
One of the things that really good writing does is that it's able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.
That's why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They're not saying effortless in terms of it didn't seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it — the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you're bored, you're conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention.
This particular masterpiece tells the story of a little girl named Thea, who lives in a city full of "houses, houses, and more houses," and longs for nothing more than a tree — that exotic comrade in play and daydreaming, known to Thea only by her parents' tales of their own childhood adventures.
As she dreams of "trees to climb, trees to hide in, trees to sit under and dream," something unusual happens one late October day — a solitary leaf comes "floating gently and quietly past Thea's window."
Clay's uncommonly imaginative and tender illustrations bring to life that delicate dance between desire and despair familiar to all who have yearned for something intensely and have been suddenly exhilarated by the faintest possibility of attaining it.
So uncontainable is Thea's exhilaration that she rushes out to her friends, playing on the concrete street, and excitedly urges them to help her find the source of that hope-giving leaf. But they are unmoved, because "perhaps they didn't even know what a tree was." Indeed, implicit to the story is a subtle lamentation of how the legacy of the twentieth century has robbed children of essential childhood experiences like that vitalizing connection to the natural world.
Once again, Clay's subtle lament of how humanity has exploited the natural world comes to light as the tree speaks to Thea:
The tree saw right into Thea's heart and found her deepest desire.
"Why do you want a tree, my dear?" the tree asked gently. "Do you want to build a hut or a boat or a fire with it? Do you want to make it into newspapers and books?"
Thea shook her head. Shyly, she said, "I want a tree for climbing and playing and to sit and dream under."
"Then go plant this seed," said the wise, white tree, "And give it water and love and conversation."
When Thea awakes, she finds herself outside her house, seed in hand. She plants it into "a small patch of ground" and goes on to water it and love it and talk to it every day, until a tiny plant sprouts from the soil.
As Thea grows, so does the tree, which becomes a loyal dream-mate not only to her, and to her children, and to her grandchildren — a tender reminder that however much we may resist nature by replacing it with our houses and streets and treeless cities, the cycles of life are impervious to our resistance and peace only comes when we finally surrender to them and relinquish our vain resistance.
We lose hope, Solnit suggests, because we lose perspective — we lose sight of the "accretion of incremental, imperceptible changes" which constitute progress and which render our era dramatically different from the past, a contrast obscured by the undramatic nature of gradual transformation punctuated by occasional tumult.
Each of our lifetimes brims with personal evidence of these collective cultural shifts: At the time I was born, no one imagined that the Cold War would end and a girl raised in communist Bulgaria would make a life for herself reading and writing about books in English while facing the Manhattan skyline; a mere decade ago, it seemed inconceivable that a distributed tribe of strangers would raise a million dollars for refugees in another part of the world via an instantaneous global communication system of 140-character neo-telegrams; just a couple of years ago, it was hard to imagine that the day would come when all of us would be able to marry the people we love.
There are times when it seems as though not only the future but the present is dark: few recognize what a radically transformed world we live in, one that has been transformed not only by such nightmares as global warming and global capital, but by dreams of freedom and of justice — and transformed by things we could not have dreamed of… We need to hope for the realization of our own dreams, but also to recognize a world that will remain wilder than our imaginations.
Imagine the world as a theater. The acts of the powerful and the official occupy center stage. The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on the stage. The limelights there are so bright they blind you to the shadowy spaces around you, make it hard to meet the gaze of the other people in the seats, to see the way out of the audience, into the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work. A lot of the fate of the world is decided onstage, in the limelight, and the actors there will tell you that no other place matters.
What is onstage is a tragedy, the tragedy of the inequitable distribution of power and of the too-common silence of those who settle for being audience while paying the price of the drama. Traditionally, the audience is supposed to choose the actors, and the actors are quite literally supposed to speak for us. This is the idea behind representative democracy. In practice, various reasons keep many from participating in the choice, other forces — like money — subvert that choice, and onstage too many of the actors find other reasons — lobbyists, self-interest, conformity — to fail to represent their constituents.
Hope, Solnit observes, dies when we choose to watch the unfolding drama in resignation and abdicate all responsibility, pointing a blaming finger at those in the limelight. (Lest we forget, Joseph Brodsky put it best: "A pointed finger is a victim's logo.")
She considers the disposition of the hopeless:
They speak as though we should wait for improvement to be handed to us, not as though we might seize it. Perhaps their despair is in some ways simply that they are audience rather than actors.
Our most radiant horizon of hope, Solnit argues, lies in the darkness beyond the limelight:
The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don't know yet whether they will have any effect, in the people you have not yet heard of who will be the next Cesar Chavez, the next Noam Chomsky, the next Cindy Sheehan, or become something you cannot yet imagine. In this epic struggle between light and dark, it's the dark side — that of the anonymous, the unseen, the officially powerless, the visionaries and subversives in the shadows — that we must hope for. For those onstage, we can just hope the curtain comes down soon and the next act is better, that it comes more directly from the populist shadows.