Wendell Berry on Solitude and Why Pride and Despair Are the Two Great Enemies of Creative Work

21 December 2014

From Brain Pickings:

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary. Few writers have come to write about it — and to it — more directly than the novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry, who describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts.”

. . . .

Novelty-fetishism, Berry suggests, is an act of vanity that serves neither the creator nor those created for:

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty — the faint surprises of minds incapable of wonder.

Pursuing originality, the would-be creator works alone. In loneliness one assumes a responsibility for oneself that one cannot fulfill.

Novelty is a new kind of loneliness.

. . . .

Berry paints pride and despair as two sides of the same coin, both equally culpable in poisoning creative work and pushing us toward loneliness rather than toward the shared belonging that true art fosters:

There is the bad work of pride. There is also the bad work of despair — done poorly out of the failure of hope or vision.

Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much.

The shoddy work of despair, the pointless work of pride, equally betray Creation. They are wastes of life.

For despair there is no forgiveness, and for pride none. Who in loneliness can forgive?

Good work finds the way between pride and despair.

It graces with health. It heals with grace.

It preserves the given so that it remains a gift.

By it, we lose loneliness:

we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us;

we enter the little circle of each other’s arms,

and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance,

and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.

. . . .

Echoing Thoreau’s ode to the woods and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’s assertion that cultivating a capacity for “fertile solitude” is essential for creative work, Berry extols the ennobling effects of solitude, the kind gained only by surrendering to nature’s gentle gift for quieting the mind:

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness…

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.

One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.

In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.

Link to the rest at Brain Pickings

Here’s a link to Wendell Berry’s essays

Graves and Garbage: The Hard Life of an Archeologist

17 December 2014

From The New Yorker:

My sister, Cassandra, is an archeologist with the Parks Department in Montgomery County, Maryland. Lately, she has been supervising the excavation of a local farm where Josiah Henson had lived and worked as a slave during the first decades of the nineteenth century. In 1830, Henson and his family escaped to freedom in Canada. Henson went on to become a minister and to write an autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson,” that was a major influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” My sister’s job, with its deep connections to history, literature, and culture, seems fascinating from afar. And yet, for all her talk of digs, artifacts, and conference papers, I had no real idea what she and her colleagues do all day.

Here comes Marilyn Johnson to help clear things up. Johnson has just published a book on archeology for the general reader, “Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble.” It’s essentially a series of profiles of archeologists and their obsessions, and it successfully demystifies the profession and documents the unexpectedly wide variety of skills and activities that fall within its parameters. As I read, I kept asking what an actual archeologist would make of this portrait by an outsider. Was it accurate? Realistic? To that end, I asked my sister to round up a panel of her peers for a one-time-only archeology book club to discuss “Lives in Ruins.”

. . . .

When an archeologist finally does find a job, much of the work, as Johnson notes, “involves graves and garbage.” It’s not for the squeamish. Even some members of the panel said that they had a hard time reading the chapter on forensic archeology in which Johnson and others search the New Jersey Pine Barrens for a dead waitress. (For the purposes of the exercise, the waitress was played by the carcass of a four-hundred-pound pig that was interred a year earlier.) Kimberlee Sue Moran, the forensic archeologist profiled in that chapter, has forty-five dead rats buried in her back yard so that she can study their decomposition. I, for one, didn’t need to know that Moran sometimes finds “a whole bed of writhing maggots” when she removes a layer of dirt over a grave.

. . . .

Another surprising employer of archeologists is the military. Several members of the panel praised the chapter on Laurie Rush, a civilian archeologist who works for the Army, at Fort Drum, in New York, which is the home of the Tenth Mountain Division. Rush not only supervises archeological digs within the twenty-five square miles of the fort’s boundaries, but also plays an important role in educating American troops about cultural heritage sites that they may encounter on their tours of duty. In response to the damage caused by American soldiers to an ancient Babylonian temple in Iraq, in 2004, Rush developed sets of playing cards that would teach American troops the basic archeology of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are cleverly designed. Each suit represents a different aspect of culture. The cards also contain practical information, such as “the ancient water system tunnels in Afghanistan look like ant hills on aerial imagery.” Laid out together, the backs of the cards form a larger picture of an archeological icon.

. . . .

The most egregious flaw they found in Johnson’s book was not in the text, but on the cover. Turning her copy over, King pointed to the trowel on the back. “This is a riveted trowel, which we would never use. It should be a welded trowel, because the riveted trowel would break, and break quickly.”


Link to the rest at The New Yorker

Here’s a link to Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble

A paper by Maggie Simpson and Edna Krabappel was accepted by two scientific journals

11 December 2014

From Vox:

A scientific study by Maggie Simpson, Edna Krabappel, and Kim Jong Fun has been accepted by two journals.

Of course, none of these fictional characters actually wrote the paper, titled “Fuzzy, Homogeneous Configurations.” Rather, it’s a nonsensical text, submitted by engineer Alex Smolyanitsky in an effort to expose a pair of scientific journals — the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems and the comic sans-loving Aperito Journal of NanoScience Technology.

. . . .

These outlets both belong to a world of predatory journals that spam thousands of scientists, offering to publish their work — whatever it is — for a fee, without actually conducting peer review. When Smolyanitsky was contacted by them, he submitted the paper, which has a totally incoherent, science-esque text written by SCIgen, a random text generator. (Example sentence: “we removed a 8-petabyte tape drive from our peer-to-peer cluster to prove provably “fuzzy” symmetries’s influence on the work of Japanese mad scientist Karthik Lakshminarayanan.”)

Then, he thought up the authors, along with a nonexistent affiliation (“Belford University”) for them.

. . . .

Last April, for instance, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen named Tom Spears wrote an entirely incoherent paper on soils, cancer treatment, and Mars, and got it accepted by 8 of 18 online, for-profit journals. And last year, reporter John Bohannon and the prestigious journal Science collaborated on a similar stunt, getting a deeply flawed paper about a cancer-fighting lichen accepted by 60 percent of 340 journals. Using IP addresses, Bohannon discovered that the journals that accepted his paper were disproportionately located in India and Nigeria.

Link to the rest at Vox and thanks to BS for the tip.

When Photographers Become Self-Publishing Companies

5 December 2014

From Time:

When Josh Lustig started photographing the wild and grubby Hackney Marshes in London on his way to and from work, he never thought it would lead him to oversee a photobook publishing venture. Yet, a year later, there he was, at the Polycopies book fair held during the Paris Photo photography trade show, presenting the releases of Tartaruga Books. As he recounted his story, Juan Valbuena, standing in the booth next to his, nodded his head. The founder of Phree, who printed Carlos Spottorno’s award-winning 2013 photo book The Pigs, Valbuena also launched his small press as a way to give his own work more visibility.

Progressively, photographers who choose to self-publish are taking it to the next level. They’re turning one-time hits into more permanent structures that release works by other artists. Many have chosen this avenue as a way to snub the major publishers who are increasingly asking their authors to bring not only a great body of work, but also a check.

“I find it insane and unacceptable that renowned publishing houses are asking photographers to come up with half, if not all, of the funds needed to produce a book. This comes across as a lack of commitment,” says Lustig. “Investing in a project shows that you believe in it.” Earlier this year, the British photographer partnered up with Max Bondi, founder of Tartaruga records to open a photobook division. “Combining forces with a similar minded record company that has a small but dedicated fan-base meant that I was able to reach another audience. And, having a partner that’s not from the photo community adds another interesting perspective,” he says.

. . . .

Last year, when Vasantha Yogananthan producedPiémanson under the Chose Commune label, which he founded with three associates, it cost him about $30 per copy. Traditionally, the publishing industry would have him multiply that by five in order to be profitable once middlemen have taken their shares. “We wanted the book to stay affordable, so we priced it at $50. We skipped the distributor to avoid their charges and built strong relationships with booksellers. Given the number of photobooks released yearly, they have become influential tastemakers. Even then, once you factor in their 40% commission, that leaves us with a profit of $1.25,” explains the French artist.

Link to the rest at Time


4 December 2014

From The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day:

mogigraphia, n.

. . . .

Writer’s cramp.

. . . .

1891 F. Taylor Man. Pract. Med. (ed. 2) 339 The disease is hence called writers’ cramp and scriveners’ palsy; graphospasm and mogigraphia have been used as technical terms.

Link to the rest at The Oxford English Dictionary

A Teen Takes On Bullying by Self-Publishing

5 November 2014

From Publishers Weekly:

On the surface, 18-year-old Aija Mayrock seems like any other artistically inclined teenager. She enjoys reading and hanging out with friends. She dabbles in poetry and has written a few screenplays. But for the past two years, Mayrock has also been immersed in a project particularly close to her heart: she wrote The Survival Guide to Bullyingand self-published it earlier this month.

For Mayrock, the self-publishing process wasn’t easy. She started from scratch and didn’t know where to begin. But with the help of a few influential contacts, Mayrock completed the e-book just in time for an October 1 release date—the start of National Bullying Prevention Month.

. . . .

Mayrock was still haunted by what happened during her childhood, and wanted to do something for other bullying victims. At 16, she gathered up her middle school journals filled with roems (rap poems), drawings, and painful rants, and started writing a roadmap on how to survive both in-person bullying and cyberbullying with your self-esteem intact, including advice, quizzes, and contact information for organizations that can help. “I had notes, poetry, and stories that I had written and collected for many years. These journal entries and my reflections were the beginning of my book.”

For the next two years while she finished high school, Mayrock conducted the bulk of her research. She interviewed parents and teachers from her community. She talked to hundreds of kids who had experienced bullying. And she solicited the help of psychotherapist Myrna Fleishman, Human Rights Watch West founder Dr. Victoria Riskin, and director of teen programAHA! Dr. Jennifer Freed, who vetted the advice Mayrock includes in the book and supplied her with up-to-date statistics from the field.

. . . .

Unlike most authors, Mayrock didn’t even consider publishing the book through traditional channels when she completed the manuscript in March 2014. “I didn’t want to wait the minimum 18 months for a publisher to publish my book. I felt that it was very important for kids to have this book as soon as possible, so I decided to self-publish,” she says.

Mayrock knew nothing about how to publish a book herself, so she started gathering information by reading articles online. She found a graphic design company she liked called Omnivore that designed the book’s layout and cover.

. . . .

 As soon as her e-book became available for purchase on October 1, she created a website and enlisted her mother as publicist. Many hours of cold-calling and blind email pitches to editors have garnered a number of radio interviews, including SiriusXM Stars “The MOMS,” ABC Radio’s “The Larry Elder Show,” and a segment with the NPR-affiliate KCBX Central Coast Public Radio’s “Issues and Ideas.”

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

Here’s a link to Aija Mayrock’s book

What a week I’ve had hosting on Passive Voice.

9 October 2014

Join me for a drink?

From The Week~

Archaeologists Discover 4000 year old wine cellar in Northern Israel:

Archaeologists found clay vessels used to hold wine in a 4,000-year-old cellar at Tel Kabri, a Canaanite palace. The team used a micro-archaeology lab to analyze the wine samples found on ceramic sherds from the cellar. They discovered that the wine cellar had contained “a fine, aromatic vintage,” signaling that the wine had been made with royalty in mind, Haaretz reports.

The Tel Kabri palace dates to the Middle Bronze Age and was inhabited for more than 250 years, from roughly 1850 B.C.E. to the 1600s B.C.E., according to Haaretz. However, its inhabitants didn’t leave written evidence, so the wine cellar is a massive find for researchers who seek information on the palace’s occupants.

When the archaeologists analyzed the wine’s ingredients from the residue on the cellar’s jars, they found tantaric and syringic acid, which are components of wine, on roughly 40 jars. They also found evidence of cinnamic acid, which would have been used to make storax, a preservative to keep the wine from spoiling.

Sounds yummy! Read the rest here.


A Memoir or a New Feminist Manifesto?

8 October 2014

A review by Heather Wilhelm:

So, did you hear that Lena Dunham wrote a new memoir? The 28-year-old Dunham is, of course, the media-declared “voice of her generation.”  She is a “feminist icon.” She is also the “wunderkind” creator of HBO’s “Girls,” which, in case you’ve missed it, is a mediocre television show featuring confused, naked, largely Caucasian body parts flopping all over Brooklyn for no particular reason.

Over the past few years, Dunham has been vexingly omnipresent:  cheerfully cruising the red carpet for her eight Emmy nominations, clasping Golden Globe awards with a crazed look in her eyes, pocketing a $3.6 million book advance, hosting a particularly sanctimonious episode of “Saturday Night Live,” hijacking the cover of Vogue, and earning approximately 10,365 media stories per day. I don’t want to scare you, but she could be hiding in your closet right now.

Well, blow me down, and, apparently, don’t take my stock market advice. As of Tuesday night, “Not That Kind of Girl”—which, it should be noted, is authored by a young woman who recently got a bowl cut exactly like Jim Carrey’s in “Dumb and Dumber,” on purpose, and then posed naked, towel-wrapped, chewing a birth control pill packet for a Planned Parenthood e-mail enthusiastically comparing voting to doing Ecstasy—hit No. 2 on Amazon. Yes, this is actually happening. Let’s discuss, if only to combat a creeping sense of quiet existential despair.


“Wait a minute,” you might be saying, especially if you’re actually serious about women’s empowerment. “A man won’t solve your deep-seated issues. You need to address them yourself!” That is correct. I was reminded of this in high school, in fact, when my mom gave me a copy of “Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives,” written by one crazed genius, Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

Say what you will, but unlike “Not That Kind of Girl,” Dr. Laura’s book is pretty brilliant, centering on a simple thesis: Women, as Dr. Laura so eloquently puts it, should not be just “Wo- Wo- Wo- on a Man.” They should not, in other words, define themselves through their romantic relationships. This will make them crazy, Dr. Laura argues, and unhealthily dependent on men.

Lena Dunham has clearly not read this book, for at the end of “Not that Kind of Girl,” her conclusion centers on a man—her newest boyfriend, a hipster guitarist—who has indeed solved her problems, creating a new and lasting peace. I am not exaggerating. From the ending: “Stuff like this only happens to characters played by Jennifer Garner, right? … He seems to be there without reservation. He pays attention. He listens.” Yes, but how about when existential angst strikes in the middle of the night? “He settles that. … He helps you sleep.”

It’s kind of like the end of “A Tale of Two Cities,” except there’s no self-sacrifice, no introspection, and it doesn’t make any sense. But here’s the good news for the man-dependent Ms. Dunham: The feminist in-crowd won’t be blackballing her anytime soon. She’s got the “woe is me” act down cold.

Read the rest of the review here.



It’s the post-season. Baseball is everything.

7 October 2014

Good for future Hall-of-Famer Derek Jeter:

Derek Jeter is among the most media-savvy athletes on the planet, but he says it came through trial and error.

“I think you learn through experience,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday, three days after he finished his 20th and final season with the New York Yankees. “I’ve made my fair share of mistakes with the media.”

Jeter is hoping to help other athletes avoid those mistakes — and get out their own “unfiltered” stories — with the launch of The Players Tribune website ( His site, which went live Wednesday, promises unique access to top athletes in every sport — from videos to photos to podcasts and more — in their own words.

“You want players to feel like this is a safe place where they can get their message across how they want to portray it,” the former shortstop said.

Thursday morning, the Players Tribune introduced Seatlle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson as its new senior editor.

Read the rest here: ESPN

By the way, a most magnificent cover:



“The Guns of August” Is Still WWI’s Peerless Chronicle

29 September 2014

From The Daily Beast:

The historian Fritz Stern memorably called World War I “the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.” No one in late June 1914 anticipated that the assassination by a Serbian nationalist of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, would draw in all five major European powers and their various allies into a cataclysm that would snuff out the lives of 20 million soldiers and civilians, destroy three empires, and lay the groundwork for an even bloodier World War II.

Shock and disillusionment over such vast, seemingly senseless destruction led the writers and artists dubbed a “lost generation” to toss out most of the old assumptions about the meaning and purpose of human experience, and gave birth to what scholars in the humanities generally refer to these days as “modernity.”

Historians have never stopped debating the Great War’s causes and consequences, and they never will. The centenary of the conflict’s outbreak this year has ushered in a torrent of new books about its origins, as well new editions of contemporary memoirs and classic histories.

. . . .

It’s fair to say, though, that the first literary event to mark the centenary of the War happened a bit further back in time, when in 2012 the Library of America published its edition of Barbara W. Tuchman’s classic, The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I.

. . . .

Originally published in 1962, The Guns of August spent more than 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1963. It has never been out of print. Rereading the book for the first time since the early ’70s, it’s not hard to see why it continues to attract a wide readership even to this day.

The Guns of August is a spell-binding exploration of the failure of great-power diplomacy to prevent a war no one wanted, and an elegantly written, lucid military history of the war up to the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914. It was at the Marne that the German drive on Paris was miraculously halted at the very last moment, and the Western front settled down into a seemingly futile, static war of attrition that would not break open for more than three years.

“After the Marne,” Tuchman writes with characteristic sagacity, “the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve. The Battle of the Marne was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies would ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back …”

And so in a single paragraph she captures brilliantly both the tragedy and the significance of the basic story line of her fine book.

. . . .

Academic historians over the years have generally praised the elegance and incisiveness of Tuchman’s prose, but they have also taken her to task, often with an undeserved measure of condescension, for being too tough on the Germans, as well as for leaving developments on the Serbian-Austrian and Russian-Austrian fronts out of her narrative entirely. She’s also been criticized for abstaining from extended analytical forays into what one might call abstract causes, such as the inadequacy of supranational institutions for crisis resolution, or the absence of transparent decision-making protocols within the key government departments.

Tuchman, of course, never earned a PhD; nor was she ever affiliated with a university history department. She described herself as a writer whose subject was history, not as a historian. She struck back at the “professional” historians more than once over a long and distinguished career. “The academic historian,” she opined, “suffers from having a captive audience, first in the supervisor of his dissertation, then in the lecture hall. Keeping the reader turning the page has not been his primary concern.”

As it happens, The Guns of August is one of the greatest page-turners in the English language. And it has to be said: having been a longtime editor of history books at an Ivy League press myself a few years back, the problem with academic history writing that she alluded to in the ’60s has only gotten considerably worse—a development that deeply troubles many of the best academic historians, as well as the readers of history, wherever and whoever they are.

Link to the rest at The Daily Beast and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

PG will add his recommendation of Ms. Tuchman. He is not certain whether he has read all her books, but he has read a great many and found her to be an immensely-talented writer.

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