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Bukowski on writing, the best illustrations from 200 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Toni Morrison on the rewards of true adulthood, and more

Bukowski on writing, the best illustrations from 200 years of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, Toni Morrison on the rewards of true adulthood, two nine-year-olds' letter to Disney about the company's racial and gender stereotypes, and more.
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Hello, Blue! If you missed last week's edition – a Zen master explains death to a child, Neil Gaiman's philosophical animated dream, Beatrix Potter's little-known contributions to science, art as a form of active prayer, and more – you can read it right here. And if you're enjoying this, please consider supporting with a modest donation – every little bit helps, and comes enormously appreciated.

Diane Ackerman on the Secret Life of the Senses and the Measure of Our Aliveness

"How do you know but that every bird that cleaves the aerial way is not an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?" So marveled William Blake two centuries before we had the tools to confirm that, at the very least, every dog is a world of delight closed to our limited powers of sensorial perception. Out of such seemingly simple discoveries across the animal kingdom sprang the rattling realization that our notion of "reality" is really a plurality of radically divergent impressions, shaped by the singular biases of perception that each of us brings to our experience of the world. The same sliver of "reality" – a table, a flower, a city block – is experienced in a wholly different way by a bird, a dog, Blake, and you.

That plurality is what science historian and poet Diane Ackerman explores with unparalleled elegance in A Natural History of the Senses (public library) – her 1990 masterwork of science and poetics, which gave us the fascinating inner workings of smell.

Ackerman writes:

There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses... Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste. In Japan, chefs offer the flesh of the puffer fish, or fugu, which is highly poisonous unless prepared with exquisite care. The most distinguished chefs leave just enough of the poison in the flesh to make the diners’ lips tingle, so that they know how close they are coming to their mortality.

Art by William Blake for John Milton's Paradise Lost

Ackerman goes on to explore the biological machinery behind each of our senses as a function of consciousness and although the book is strewn with shimmering prose from cover to cover, it is in the closing pages that her sensibility rises toward Blake's, folding the physical into the poetic in order to transcend it and enter the realm of the spiritual. Ackerman writes:

Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.

[...]

Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth. In REM sleep, our brain waves range between eight and thirteen hertz, a frequency at which flickering light can trigger epileptic seizures. The tremulous earth quivers gently at around ten hertz. So, in our deepest sleep, we enter synchrony with the trembling of the earth. Dreaming, we become the Earth’s dream.

How wonderfully befitting that Ackerman, a Thoreau of science, should call to mind Thoreau himself and his defiant defense of "useful ignorance" in her closing lines:

It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery. However many of life’s large, captivating principles and small, captivating details we may explore, unpuzzle, and learn by heart, there will still be vast unknown realms to lure us. If uncertainty is the essence of romance, there will always be enough uncertainty to make life sizzle and renew our sense of wonder. It bothers some people that no matter how passionately they may delve, the universe remains inscrutable. “For my part,” Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” The great affair, the love affair with life, is to live as variously as possible, to groom one’s curiosity like a high-spirited thoroughbred, climb aboard, and gallop over the thick, sun-struck hills every day. Where there is no risk, the emotional terrain is flat and unyielding, and, despite all its dimensions, valleys, pinnacles, and detours, life will seem to have none of its magnificent geography, only a length. It began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.

A Natural History of the Senses, equal parts illuminating and elevating in its entirety, was followed by Ackerman's equally magnificent A Natural History of Love. Complement this particular segment with Richard Feynman on why uncertainty is central to morality, Annie Dillard on how to live with mystery, and Wendell Berry on the essential role of ignorance in human progress.

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The Most Beautiful Illustrations from 200 Years of Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

In his timeless meditation on fantasy and the psychology of fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien asserted that there is no such thing as writing "for children." The sentiment has since been echoed by generations of beloved storytellers: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time," E.B. White told The Paris Review. "You have to write up, not down." Neil Gaiman argued that protecting children from the dark does them a grave disservice. "I don’t write for children," Maurice Sendak told Stephen Colbert in his final interview. "I write – and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’"

Perhaps more than anything else, this respect for children's inherent intelligence and their ability to sit with difficult emotions is what makes the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm so enduringly enchanting. In their original conception, they broke with convention in other ways as well – rather than moralistic or didactic, they were beautifully blunt and unaffected, celebratory of poetry's ennobling effect on the spirit. The brothers wrote in the preface to the first edition in 1812 that the storytelling between the covers was intended "to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it."

Their beloved stories have pleasured the popular imagination for two centuries and have inspired generations of artists to continually reinterpret and reimagine them. Gathered here – after similar collections of the world's most beautiful illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit – are the finest and most culturally notable such Grimm reimaginings of which I'm aware.

EDWARD GOREY (1972–1973)

In the early 1970s, Edward Gorey – creator of grim alphabets, quirky children's books, naughty treats for grown-ups, and little-known vintage covers for literary classics – brought his aesthetic of the irreverent fancy to Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin. The two beloved Grimm tales, along with the Cornish folk classic Jack the Giant-Killer, charmingly retold by James Donnelly and illustrated by Gorey, were eventually collected by Pomegranate in the 2010 gem Three Classic Children's Stories (public library).

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

"

Little Red Riding Hood

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

See more here.

MAURICE SENDAK (1973)

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the tales in 1973, exactly a decade after Where the Wild Things Are transformed Maurice Sendak from an insecure young artist into a household name, FSG invited the 45-year-old artist to illustrate a translation of the Grimm classics by Pulitzer-winning novelist Lore Segal. Sendak had first envisioned the project in 1962, just as he was completing Where the Wild Things Are, but it had taken him a decade to begin drawing. He collaborated with Segal on choosing 27 of the 210 tales for this special edition, which was originally released as a glorious two-volume boxed set and was reprinted thirty years later in the single volume The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm (public library).

That Sendak should gravitate to such a project is rather unsurprising. His strong opinions on allowing children to experience the darker elements of life through storytelling were rooted in an early admiration for the Brothers Grimm, who remained an influence throughout his career. He was also not only a lifelong reader, writer, and dedicated lover of books, but also a public champion of literature through his magnificent series of posters celebrating libraries and reading.

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

The Goblins

To equip his imagination with maximally appropriate raw material, Sendak even sailed to Europe before commencing work on the project, hoping to drink in the native landscapes and architecture amid which the Brothers Grimm situated their stories. Aware of the artist's chronic poor health, legendary children's book patron saint Ursula Nordstrom – Sendak's editor and his greatest champion – beseeched him in a lovingly scolding letter right before he departed: "For heaven's sake take care of yourself on this trip."

Bearskin

The Goblins

See more here.

LISBETH ZWERGER (2012)

Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger is among the most celebrated children's book illustrators of our time. She has lent her immeasurable talent to such classics as Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant in 1984, L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1996, and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 1999. Zwerger brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), published in 2012 and translated by Anthea Bell.

Zwerger's distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm – there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche. There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales' unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger's soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue – an embrace, even – between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.

The Frog King or Iron Henry

The Brave Little Taylor

The Children of Hamelin

See more here.

WANDA GÁG (1936)

Although the 1936 illustrations for the Grimm tales by Wanda Gág are not necessarily the most visually captivating by contemporary standards, they are perhaps the most culturally significant for a number of reasons. Gág was a pioneering artist, author, printmaker, translator, and entrepreneur, who began her life in poverty as an incredibly precocious child. By the time she was eleven, she was running a successful business selling her art to feed her seven siblings after their father's death. By her early twenties, she was one of only twelve young artists in the entire United States to receive a scholarship to New York’s legendary Art Students League, at the time the country’s most important art school. She was soon making a living as a successful commercial artist, supporting herself by illustrating fashion magazines and painting lampshades, and even became a partner in a toy company. She would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak.

By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, a year after she created the world's first feminist children's book, Gág was already an icon in her own right. But if being a financially independent young woman and female entrepreneur in the early 20th century wasn't already daring enough, in 1923 Gág – who had just been given a one-woman exhibition by the New York Public Library, more than twenty years before Georgia O'Keeffe's MoMA retrospective prompted the press to hail her as "America's first female artist" – decided to give up commercial illustration and try making a living solely by her art. She moved to an abandoned farm in Connecticut and began to paint for her own pleasure, eventually turning to children's storytelling. Her 1928 book Millions of Cats, which predated the internet's favorite meme by many decades and earned Gág the prestigious Newbery Honor and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, is the oldest American picture-book still in print and has been translated into multiple languages, including Braille.

But it was Gág's retelling of that proto-feminist folktale, which she had learned from her Austro-Hungarian grandmother, that first sparked her interest in translating and reimagining folktales for children. The following year, she set out to translate and illustrate Tales from Grimm (public library) – a remarkable fusion of Gág's own peasant heritage and her masterful skills as a fine artist.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel

In the introduction, Gág writes of her approach to these familiar stories, or Märchen, which she tells as her grandmother had told them to her over and over:

The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions – tale, fable, legend – are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear...

Cinderella

Cinderella

See more, including Gág's remarkably dedicated process, here.

SHAUN TAN (2012)

Shortly after the release of Philip Pullman's retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Australian artist and author Shaun Tan – creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival – about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman's fifty tales.

Tan was at first reluctant – he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn't lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms' characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.

But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood – a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.

The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) – a glorious German edition of Pullman's retelling, illustrated in Tan's breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.

Rapunzel

The Fisherman's Wife

The Golden Bird

See more here.

ANDREA DEZSÖ (2014)

What most of us know as the Grimm fairy tales today are actually the tales of the seventh and final edition the brothers published in 1857 – a version dramatically different from the one Jacob and Wilhelm first penned forty-six years earlier, when both were still in their twenties. The prominent Grimm scholar and translator Jack Zipes argues that the original 1812 edition is "just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments."

Zippes brings that seminal first edition to life in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (public library), featuring breathtaking illustrations by Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö. Her delicate ink-drawing vignettes – intended to invoke the magical cut-paper sculptures for which Dezsö is known – illuminate scenes from the Grimms' tales through an extraordinary interplay of darkness and light, both of color and of concept.

'The Frog King, or Iron Henry'

'The Three Sisters'

'The Wild Man'

See more, including my interview with Dezsö, here.

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Two Nine-Year-Olds' Magnificent Open Letter to Disney About Racial and Gender Stereotypes

In the spring of 2015, a nine-year-old boy named Dexter went to Disneyland with his family and found himself deeply unsettled – not by a scary ride or the unpleasantness of waiting in line, but by some of the most unsettling cultural issues of our time: racial and gender stereotypes. Disney, the world's most prolific purveyor of pink plastic, has a long history of perpetuating gender stereotypes and feeding our unconscious biases, but what Dexter so astutely observed seemed like a particularly acute symptom of a larger cultural malady.

I've known Dexter since he was a peanut – the son of my dear friends Jake Barton and Jenny Raymond, he is the smartest, most sensitive child I know – so I was hardly surprised by what happened next: Upon returning to New York, Dexter conferred with his classmate Sybilla, who had just had a similar experience while visiting Disney World in Orlando with her family; with the disarming sincerity and simplicity of which only children are capable, the two third graders wrote a magnificent, precocious, immensely insightful open letter to Disney, calling out the problematic treatment of race and gender, and suggesting more intelligent and culturally sensitive alternatives.

Dexter (left) with his mother, little sister, and Minnie Mouse

Dexter and Sybilla go to The Cathedral School of St. John the Divine in Harlem – one of those New York City schools proactive about teaching kids about white privilege and its consequences – and their teacher, Ms. Elena Jaime, had instilled in them a deep concern with social justice around identity. But beyond that foundation, out of which their disappointment with Disney sprang, there was no adult hand in the letter – the kids dreamt it up, drafted it, revised it, and mailed it all by themselves.

Dear Disney,

Like most people we love your attractions, but we found some problems with some of them and those problems are stereotypes. Stereotypes are something that some people believe are true but sometimes may not be true. For example say somebody said "girls only like pink," that's a stereotype, some girls might like yellow and not pink. You can never really judge.

We are third graders from New York City at The Cathedral School. We learn about stereotypes, and the impact they have on people's identities. For instance, in the jungle cruise, all the robotic people have dark skin and are throwing spears at you. We think this reinforces some negative associations, we think you should replace them with monkeys throwing rotten fruit.

We noticed that on our trips to Disneyland and Disneyworld that all the cast members call people Prince, Princess, or Knight, judging by what the child "looks like" and assuming gender. We think some feelings could get hurt, say by accident you called someone a Prince who wasn't a Prince or a Princess, or a Knight, or who was identifying differently than what they were called. We suggest you say "Hello, Your Royalty" instead.

With the Princess Makeovers, we think you are excluding other people who might want a makeover to be something else, including boys and transgender people. When we went to the Princess Castle, the characters only greeted the people they thought were visiting girls, not the visiting boys and again said "Hi Princess."

We hope you know we had an awesome time at Disney and these are suggestions to make it more inclusive and magical for everyone. Please reply and let us know your thoughts.

Sincerely,

Sybilla and Dexter, The Cathedral School

Dexter and Sybilla mailed the letter to Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks, in June of 2015. They are yet to hear back.

Complement with a fantastic and culturally necessary read on how unconscious biases afflict even the best-intentioned of us.

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Toni Morrison on How to Be Your Own Story and Reap the Rewards of Adulthood in a Culture That Fetishizes Youth

In May of 2004, a decade after receiving the Nobel Prize for her "visionary force and poetic import" and shortly after collaborating with her son on a little-known and lovely children's book, Toni Morrison was invited to Wellesley College to deliver what is both among the greatest commencement addresses of all time and a courageous counterpoint to the entire genre – Morrison defies every graduation cliché with wisdom at once thoroughly grounding and immensely elevating, striking that difficult but crucial balance of critical thinking and hope.

Her extraordinary speech, included in the graduation compendium Take This Advice (public library), takes the art of the commencement address to the level of masterpiece – an art of taking what is and has always been true, rotating it 360 degrees with tremendous love and intellectual elegance, and coming back full-circle to the old truth that feels, suddenly, new and fresh and invigorating.

Morrison begins with a necessary nod to educators – a profession with a tryingly high risk of burnout:

I would remind the faculty and the administration of what each knows: that the work they do takes second place to nothing, nothing at all, and that theirs is a first order profession.

She then turns to one of the tritest, if truest, assertions of the commencement address genre – the idea that the future is the graduates' for the taking:

The fact is it is not yours for the taking. And it is not whatever you make of it. The future is also what other people make of it, how other people will participate in it and impinge on your experience of it.

But I’m not going to talk anymore about the future because I’m hesitant to describe or predict because I’m not even certain that it exists. That is to say, I’m not certain that somehow, perhaps, a burgeoning ménage à trois of political interests, corporate interests and military interests will not prevail and literally annihilate an inhabitable, humane future. Because I don’t think we can any longer rely on separation of powers, free speech, religious tolerance or unchallengeable civil liberties as a matter of course. That is, not while finite humans in the flux of time make decisions of infinite damage. Not while finite humans make infinite claims of virtue and unassailable power that are beyond their competence, if not their reach.

Illustration by Giselle Potter from The Big Box by Toni and Slade Morrison

Although she argues that the past is rife with values "worthy of reverence and transmission" – this, after all, is a foundational premise here on Brain Pickings – Morrison considers the insufficiency of blindly turning to the past in remedying the present:

The past is already in debt to the mismanaged present. And besides, contrary to what you may have heard or learned, the past is not done and it is not over, it’s still in process, which is another way of saying that when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances. Actually it can be more liberating than any imagined future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies, and are willing to unleash its secrets.

Chief among these lies and distortions are the ideas our culture purveys about happiness. In a sentiment that calls to mind Ursula K. Le Guin's devastatingly beautiful meditation on aging, Morrison issues an admonition to graduates, tucked into which is urgent wisdom for any breathing, dreaming human being in our world today:

I’m sure you have been told that this is the best time of your life. It may be. But if it’s true that this is the best time of your life, if you have already lived or are now living at this age the best years, or if the next few turn out to be the best, then you have my condolences. Because you’ll want to remain here, stuck in these so-called best years, never maturing, wanting only to look, to feel and be the adolescent that whole industries are devoted to forcing you to remain.

One more flawless article of clothing, one more elaborate toy, the truly perfect diet, the harmless but necessary drug, the almost final elective surgery, the ultimate cosmetic-all designed to maintain hunger for stasis. While children are being eroticized into adults, adults are being exoticized into eternal juvenilia. I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, target of your labors here, your choices of companions, of the profession that you will enter. You deserve it and I want you to gain it, everybody should. But if that’s all you have on your mind, then you do have my sympathy, and if these are indeed the best years of your life, you do have my condolences because there is nothing, believe me, more satisfying, more gratifying than true adulthood. The adulthood that is the span of life before you. The process of becoming one is not inevitable. Its achievement is a difficult beauty, an intensely hard won glory, which commercial forces and cultural vapidity should not be permitted to deprive you of.

Illustration by Pascal Lemaitre from The Book of Mean People by Toni and Slade Morrison

With a wistful eye to the damage her own generation has done in instilling these illusory ideals of commodified happiness, Morrison urges the next generation:

You don’t have to accept those media labels. You need not settle for any defining category. You don’t have to be merely a taxpayer or a red state or a blue state or a consumer or a minority or a majority.

To couple this rejection of old paradigms with a constructive reimagining of new and better ones, Morrison argues, requires learning to own your story – a notion nowhere more beautifully articulated than in her lucid and luminous closing words:

You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don’t have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it.

Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones who do by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone. It also means that you can invent the language to say who you are and what you mean. But then, I am a teller of stories and therefore an optimist, a believer in the ethical bend of the human heart, a believer in the mind’s disgust with fraud and its appetite for truth, a believer in the ferocity of beauty. So, from my point of view, which is that of a storyteller, I see your life as already artful, waiting, just waiting and ready for you to make it art.

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