Kurt Vonnegut Maps Out the Universal Shapes of Our Favorite Stories

Imagine a hat. Flip it upside down, and you’ve got yourself the outline of a story the public will never weary of, according to author Kurt Vonnegut, who maps it on out a chalkboard in the video above.

His Y-axis charts a range between good and ill fortune. Vonnegut recommends positioning your main character slightly closer to the good (i.e. wealth and boisterous health) end of the spectrum, at least in the beginning. He or she will dip below midline soon enough.

As for the X-axis, Vonnegut labels it B-E, from beginning to end.

Now plot your points, remembering that it’s all about the curves.

Some popular themes include people getting in and out of trouble, and the evergreen boy gets girl. (The always progressive Vonnegut reminds his viewers that the genders in the latter scenario are always open to interpretation. Again, it’s the curves that count…)

Thinking about my favorite books and films, it seems that most do follow Vonnegut’s upside-down hat narrative arc.

Are there exceptions?

Horatio Alger’s rags to riches stories, for example. We should all be so lucky to find ourselves powering up such a steep uphill grade.

Of course there are exceptions!

Vonnegut himself identifies a particularly high profile one, whose geometry is less an elegant curve than a staircase that terminates in a free fall. (SPOILER: it involves a fairy godmother and ends in an infinity symbol.

Those weary of parsing story using the Hero’s Journey template should investigate Vonnegut’s graphic approach. It works!

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

Patti Smith Plays at CBGB In One of Her First Recorded Concerts, Joined by Seminal Punk Band Television (1975)

The picture of punk as the domain of boorish nihilists who can’t play their instruments has been as much a creation of marketing (via Malcolm McLaren) as it has been a virtue-of-necessity minimalist pose and a form of avant garde DIY experimentalism. But there have always been, since the coining of the term “punk” as a musical genre, stellar musicians and thoughtful, poetic lyricists shaping the scene. Of the former, we must mention Television, with their magnificent guitar interplay between leader Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd. And, of the latter, we need look no further than the godmother of punk herself, Patti Smith, who has always commanded stage and studio with her smart, arresting lyricism and powerful set of pipes.

Years before the Sex Pistols invaded the States, these two bands played regularly at CBGBs (Television was, in fact, the very first band to play there) with a loose collection of misfits who re-invented rock and roll. In December, 1975, Smith released her first album, Horses, a hybrid of punk and spoken word produced by the Velvet Underground’s John Cale. But before that record made her famous—in April of that year—the Patti Smith Group took the stage with Television, and two teenage fans were there to record both sets from both bands. First appearing as a bootleg CD generically titled “Early Gig ’75,” the disc has since been reissued as We Can’t Do Anymore… Cause I’m Just Too Tired!, with another set of Smith covers tacked on from a ’78 concert in Santa Monica.

We get classic tracks from both bands, such as Television’s “Marquee Moon” and “Little Johnny Jewell” and Smith’s cover of “Hey Joe” and Van Morrison’s “Gloria” as well as her own “Horses” and “Piss Factory.” At the top of the post, you can hear her do six songs from that night in 1975, the last three with Television joining her onstage: “We’re Going to Have a Real Good Time Together” (Velvet Underground cover), “Redondo Beach,” “Birdland,” “Space Monkey,” “Distant Fingers,” and “Gloria.” You’ll also hear the two young tapers chatting it up in the first few minutes of the tape.

Smith’s band, writes bootleg blog Doom & Gloom From the Tomb, “was transitioning from a cabaret-leaning trio to a fully-fledged rock band sound,” and the ramshackle performances show us a talented bunch of musicians still finding their footing as a group. The following year, Smith and band would appear in Stockholm after the release of Horses. As you can see and hear above (after a brief interview) they’d become a tighter, and somewhat more conventional, rock and roll machine, but the early performances at the top—for all the lo-fi murkiness and intrusive crowd noise—have a raw appeal only heightened by the fact that they are now important documents of a now-legendary musical era. See this review of the bootleg CD reissue for a blow-by-blow description of this historic ’75 concert from two seminal, and phenomenally talented, punk bands.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

1,000 Musicians Perform the Foo Fighters’ “Learn to Fly” in Unison in Italy

Despite breaking his leg during a gig earlier this summer, Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters have blitzed their way through Europe and America, playing sometimes 5-6 shows per week, in cities often large, but sometimes small.

On September 16th, the band will make a pitstop in my hometown, Mountain View, CA (population 75,000). So it doesn’t seem implausible for the residents of Cesena, Italy (population 100,000) to ask the Foo Fighters to play a show in their small city, which sits right near the Adriatic Sea.

And boy did they make the request in style. I get chills when I watch this, every time.

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Emily Dickinson’s Handwritten Coconut Cake Recipe Hints at How Baking Figured Into Her Creative Process

Emily Dickinson Coconut Cake

The Emily Dickinson Museum will tell you that “The kitchen appears to be one of the rooms where [Emily] Dickinson felt most comfortable, perhaps most at home.” But the “many drafts of poems written on kitchen papers tell us also that this was a space of creative ferment for her, and that the writing of poetry mixed in her life with the making of delicate treats.”

We still have access to Dickinson’s gingerbread and doughnut recipes. But if you want to see an example of how baking nourished her creative process, then look no further than Emily’s recipe for Coconut Cake. The image above shows the ingredients scratched out in her handwriting:

1 cup coconut
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup milk
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar

On the flip side of the recipe, Dickinson then wrote the beginning of a poem, “The Things that never can come back, are several” (read the transcript here). Presumably the recipe inspired the poem, but perhaps it was the other way around?


If you’re looking for your own source of creative inspiration, you can try out Dickinson’s recipes for Black Cake and also Rye and Indian Bread here. (According to The Public Domain Review, “her loaf of Indian and Rye won second prize in the Amherst Cattle Show of 1856.”) And you can even head up to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA and take part in their annual baking contest.

Over at NPR, Dickinson scholar Nelly Lambert has more on the poet’s relationship to baking and food.

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12 Classic Literary Road Trips in One Handy Interactive Map

on the road mapped

Fantasy fiction invariably includes a map for readers to understand the hero’s journey, literally. We know that Hobbits had to walk a long way into Mordor, but seeing it cartographically really hits home. But what of the great road trip novels, where the country is America, the journey is long and often circular, and self-actualization awaits the hero, and not an army of orcs?

Atlas Obscura, Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras’ blog of discovery and adventure in the modern world, have come to the rescue with an interactive map that plots out the travels of road trip-filled books, some non-fiction, others fictionalized reality. Where a location is mentioned in a text, it has been pinned to the map, and by clicking on the pin, the relevant text is revealed. Clever stuff.

For example, the map for Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (see snapshot above) plots out the five trips contained in the novel, and one can see the main hubs of the story: NYC and San Francisco, of course, but also Denver and the crazed detour town to Mexico City, where Sal, Dean, and Stan Shephard party hard in a bordello and Sal winds up with dysentery for his troubles.

zen road trip
For something more straightforward, check out the Northwest travels at the heart of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Written in the first person, the novel’s narrator travels by motorcycle with his son from Minnesota to Northern California, ending up in San Francisco, taking 17 days. The philosophical journey, however, covers wider terrain.

koolaid road trip
Another Bay Area tale, Tom Wolfe’s account of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test starts in La Honda, California, a mountain getaway to the west of San Jose, and, as one can see, completes a circle of the States, including trips to both Calgary, Canada and Manzanillo, Mexico, where everybody is “uptight,” man, heading northeast to both Guanajuato and Aguascalientes, where Acid Tests are administered.

There’s more at the link, including maps for Wild, A Walk Across America, and Travels with Charley. It might inspire a repeat reading of a favorite book. Or it might inspire you to just light out for the territories.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Orson Welles Reads From Moby-Dick: The Great American Director Takes on the Great American Novel

If you took a poll to determine in whose voice most readers would like to hear their audio books, I imagine Orson Welles would land pretty high on the list. And if you took a poll to determine which book most readers would rather approach in audio form than paper form, I imagine Herman Melville’s weighty but undeniably important (and still literarily fascinating) Moby-Dick would land pretty high on the list. Unfortunately for us, Welles never sat down to get the entirety of Moby-Dick on tape, but he did give the book a few readings on film, rounded up today for your enjoyment.

Most famously, Welles appeared in John Huston’s 1956 adaptation of the novel as Father Mapple, deliverer of the sermon on Jonah heard by the narrator Ishmael and his bunkmate Queequeg early on in the story, just before they sign on to the Pequod. Possessed of an interest of his own in Melville’s masterwork, Welles used his paycheck from the cameo to bring Moby-Dick to the stage. But he also wanted to do something cinematic with the material, as evidenced by the other two videos here: readings he shot in 1971, during production of The Other Side of the Wind. In them, he speaks the novel’s immortal opening line, “Call me Ishmael.”

Though he may sound even more compelling in Ishmael’s role than in Father Mapple’s, these clips do make you wonder what, or which character, stoked Welles’ fascination with Moby-Dick in the first place. Certainly we can draw obvious parallels between him and the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab in terms of their tendency toward grand, all-consuming, impossible-seeming projects. Then again, Ahab labors under the idea that man can, with sufficient will, directly perceive all truths, while Welles made F for Fake, so perhaps he was a questioning, skeptical Ishmael after all. Whomever he identified with, this pillar of American cinema must have had big plans for this pillar of American literature — which, alas, we can now only struggle to perceive, just as Ahab and Ishmael struggle to perceive the form of the whale deep in the water.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Hand-Drawn Sketches of Mind-Bending Chess Problems


Most of us strive to achieve some kind of distinction—or competence—in one, often quite narrow, field. And for some of us, the path to success involves leaving behind many a path not taken. Childhood pursuits like ballet, for example, the high jump, the trumpet, acting, etc. become hazy memories of former selves as we grow older and busier. But if you have the formidable will and intellect of émigré Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, you see no need to abandon your beloved avocations simply because you are one of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers—in both Russian and English. No indeed. You also go on to become a celebrated amateur lepidopterist (see his butterfly drawings here), earning distinction as curator of lepidoptera at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology and originator of an evolutionary theory of butterfly migration. And as if that were not enough, you spend your spare time formulating complicated chess problems, earning such a reputation that you are invited in 1970 to join the American chess team to create problems for international competitions.

Nabokov Chess Problem

Nabokov was not easily impressed by other writers or scientists, but he held chess players in especially high regard. His “heroes include a chess grandmaster,” writes Nabokov scholar Janet Gezari, “and a chess problem composer…; chess games occur in several of the novels; and chess and chess problem language and imagery regularly put his readers’ chess knowledge to the test.” His third novel, 1930’s The Defense, centers on a chess master driven to despair by his genius, a character based on real grandmaster Curt von Bardeleben. For Nabokov, the skill and ingenuity required for composing chess problems paralleled that required for great writing: “The strain on the mind is formidable,” he wrote in his memoir Speak, Memory, “the element of time drops out of one’s consciousness.” Puzzling out chess problems and solutions, he wrote, “demand from the composer the same virtues that characterize all worthwhile art: originality, invention, conciseness, harmony, complexity and splendid insincerity”—all qualities, we’d have to agree, of Nabokov’s finely wrought fictions.

Nabokov Chess Game

In 1970, Nabokov published Poems and Problems, a collection of thirty-nine Russian poems, with English translations, fourteen English poems, and eighteen chess problems, with solutions. He had pursued this passion since his teens, and published nearly three dozen chess problems in his lifetime. At the top of the post, see one of them, “Mate in 2,” sketched out in Nabokov’s hand (try to solve it yourself here). Below it, see another of the author’s chess problem sketches, and in the photo above, see Nabokov absorbed in a chess game with his wife.

Though it may seem that Nabokov had limitless energy and time to devote to his extra-literary pursuits, he also wrote with regret about the price he paid for his obsession: “the possessive haunting of my mind,” as he called it, “with carved pieces or their intellectual counterparts swallowed up so much time during my most productive and fruitful years, time which I could have better spent on linguistic adventures.” Like the lepidopterists still marveling over Nabokov’s contributions to that field, the chess lovers who encounter his problems, and his ingenious use of the game in fiction, would hardly agree that his pursuit of chess was fruitless or unproductive.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Intro to G.W.F. Hegel, and Everything Else You Wanted to Know About the Daunting German Philosopher

There’s no way around it, German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is incredibly difficult to understand. And yet, his work, like few others since Plato, has been reduced over and over again to one idea—the “Hegelian dialectic” of “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” As a 1996 beginner’s guide to Hegel phrases it, this “triadic structure” is the “organic, fractal form” of the effusive thinker’s logic. The formula is what most lay people learn of Hegel, and often no more. So it may come as a surprise to learn that Hegel himself never used these terms in this way. As Gustav E. Mueller has written of this “most vexing and devastating legend,” Hegel “does not use this ‘triad’ once” in all twenty volumes of his complete works, nor “does it occur in the eight volumes of Hegel texts, published for the first time in the twentieth century.” So where does the idea come from?

From Hegel’s interpreters, who—baffled by his “obscurity” and “peculiar terminology and style”—have imposed all sorts of clarifying (or distorting) concepts on his work. In his animated School of Life video introduction above, Alain de Botton begins with the problem of Hegel’s famous difficulty. Hegel’s writing has generally been thought of as “horrible”—obscure, overstuffed, tangled, “confusing and complicated when it should be clear and direct.” I can’t speak to his German, but this certainly seems to be the case in English. Yet, whether anyone can say what a philosopher’s work “should be” seems like a matter of interpretive bias. How can we, after all, separate a thinker’s ideas from his or her prose, as though these things can exist independently of each other? De Botton continues with another should:

He tapped into a weakness of human nature: to be trustful of grave-sounding, incomprehensible prose. This has made philosophy much weaker in the world than it should be, and it’s made it much harder to hear the valuable things that Hegel has to say to us.

The video goes on to make a short list of “a small number of lessons” we can take from Hegel. I’ll leave it to you to find out what de Botton thinks those are. Some may find in his tidy summations a useful guide to Hegel’s thought, others a further oversimplification of a philosophy that deliberately resists easy reading. No doubt, whatever we make of Hegel, we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that his thinking easily boils down to a “Hegelian dialectic.”

For those seeking to understand why his work has been so influential despite, or because of, its legendary difficulty, there are numerous resources online. One might start with “Hegel by Hypertext,” a huge compendium of introductory and biographical material, analysis, discussion, links, and Hegel’s own writing. Hegel.net collects excerpts and full texts of the philosopher’s work in both German and English, as well as “works of Hegel’s 19th century followers” on both the right and left. Hegel’s most famous interpreter was of course Karl Marx, and you will find in every archive a number of commentaries and critiques from Marx himself and several Marxist thinkers.

The Hegel Society of America also gives us articles on Hegel from a range of thinkers across the political spectrum. Finally, we should attempt, as best we can, to grapple with Hegel’s own words, and we can do so with all of his major work on line in translation at the University of Adelaide’s eBooks library. For two very different ways of reading Hegel, see professor Rick Roderick’s lecture on “Hegel and Modern Life” and Slavoj Žižek’s lecture on “The Limits of Hegel,” above. And should you feel that any or all of these interpreters misrepresent the formidable German philosopher, have a listen to the lecture below by Dr. Justin Burke entitled, appropriately, “Everything You Know About Hegel is Wrong.”

Find courses on Hegel in our collection of 140 Free Online Philosophy Courses, and texts by the philosopher on our list of 135 Free Philosophy eBooks.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hayao Miyazaki’s Universe Recreated in a Wonderful CGI Tribute

The exponential democratization of digital technology every year has led to a wealth of video essays and fan films from bedroom auteurs, the likes of which would have been unimaginable even five years ago  To wit: this beautiful tribute to the works of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s anime god, and his Studio Ghibli. A typical fan video would have edited together a “best of” clip show, using a song to link the scenes. But a Paris-based animator named “Dono” has gone one step further and created a tribute where scenes and characters from Miyazaki all frolic about a 3-D modeled world, where the bathhouse from Spirited Away is rendered in all of its glory, and Totoro’s catbus is only a few blocks away from Kiki’s Delivery Service, and next door to Porco Rosso’s favorite hangout. Even Lupin III, not Miyazaki’s original creation, but who starred in the director’s first feature, gets a look in.

It’s very charming, and judging from Dono’s other work on his Vimeo channel, a huge step up and no doubt a labor of love. And here’s the other thing about this seamless work of fan art. In the past, the software and the computing power needed to make such a film would have been both prohibitively expensive and the domain of a design company. For this tribute, three of the four software programs named in its creation–Gimp, Blender, and Natron–are free and open-source, and run on a laptop. (The fourth, Octane, costs a little bit of money.)

via Vice

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Free: Hours of Jack Kerouac Reading Beat Poems & Verse

kerouac albums

A high school friend who paid me a visit last weekend said she still doesn’t know whether reading Jack Kerouac saved or ruined her life. I, for one, could think of no higher praise for a writer. I believe she entered that dissolute Beat’s literary whirlwind through the portal of a second-hand copy of his America-crisscrossing novel On the Road, as many young people do, but since then the internet has made it much easier to get into Kerouac through a variety of other media as well.

Long-playing records, for instance: if you happen to use Spotify (and if you don’t yet, you can download the free software to get onboard here), you already have access to a good deal of material delivered in Kerouac’s own voice, sometimes against music. On 1959’s Poetry for the Beat Generation (above), an album he put together with Steve Allen (on whose talk show he famously appeared), he reads his work while Allen accompanies him on the piano. That same year saw the release of Blues and Haikus, featuring that same Kerouac voice and sensibility, but backed this time by jazz saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Sims.

On 1960’s Readings by Jack Kerouac on the Beat Generation (bottom), his final spoken-word album, Kerouac goes without jazzmen entirely. But then, some of his die-hard fans might argue that he doesn’t need them, that his use of the English language constitutes more than enough wild, improvisational, but somehow still disciplined music by itself. That may sound like a bit much, but Kerouac actually had a lot in common with his fellow American icons in the realm of jazz, not least a lifestyle that led him into an early grave and a legacy as a figure both tragic and inspiring in equal measure. Maybe you hear it in his prose; maybe you’ll hear it in his voice.


As a final bonus, you can stream a fourth album, On the Beat Generation.

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Colin Marshall writes on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.