The Books on Barack Obama’s Summer Reading List: Naipaul, Ondaatje & More

Photo by Pete Souza via

As the current president grinds his ax on Twitter, the former one reads and reflects. Yesterday, Barack Obama posted on Facebook his summer reading list, a mix of novels, memoirs, and instructive non-fiction. He writes:

One of my favorite parts of summer is deciding what to read when things slow down just a bit, whether it’s on a vacation with family or just a quiet afternoon. This summer I've been absorbed by new novels, revisited an old classic, and reaffirmed my faith in our ability to move forward together when we seek the truth. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

Tara Westover’s Educated is a remarkable memoir of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in Idaho who strives for education while still showing great understanding and love for the world she leaves behind.

Set after WWII, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje is a meditation on the lingering effects of war on family.

With the recent passing of V.S. Naipaul, I reread A House for Mr Biswas, the Nobel Prize winner's first great novel about growing up in Trinidad and the challenge of post-colonial identity.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.

POTUS' previous lists of recommended books can be found in the Relateds below.

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French Illustrator Revives the Byzantine Empire with Magnificently Detailed Drawings of Its Monuments & Buildings: Hagia Sophia, Great Palace & More

The Byzantine Empire fell in the mid-15th century, but something of its spirit still lives on. A great deal of it lives on in the work of the French illustrator Antoine Helbert. "This passion was kindled by a birthday gift from his mother," writes a blogger named Herve Risson in a post about it. "This gift was a book about Byzantium. Helbert was 7 years old." Like many an interest instilled early and deeply enough in childhood, Helbert's fascination turned into an obsession — or anyway, what looks like it must be an obsession, since it has motivated him to create such magnificently detailed recreations of Byzantium in its heyday.

"Attracted by the architecture," Risson writes of Helbert, "he has also a strong passion for the history of the Byzantine Empire, much maligned and despised, in comparison with the history of the 'real' Roman Empire."

That's not to say that the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, has received no attention, but undoubtedly it has received less than the Western Roman Empire it survived in the fifth century. Still, few historical empires of any kind receive such an exquisite degree of attention from any single living artist.

You can see some of Helbert's work on his site, which is divided into two sections: one for scenes of Byzantium, and one for the architecture of Byzantium. The latter category, images from which you see here, includes such world-famous landmarks as Hagia Sophia, Boukoleon Palace, and the Great Palace of Constantinople — the city now known as Istanbul, Turkey. The intact Hagia Sophia continues to attract tourists in huge numbers, but those who visit the Great Palace, or what remains of it, have to use their imagination to get a sense of what it must have looked like in the Byzantine Empire's heyday.

Helbert, who only made his first visit to Istanbul at the age of 35, has put in that amount of imaginative work and much more besides. "Since then," writes Risson, Helbert "has taken great care to resurrect the city of the emperors, with great attention to details and to the sources available. What he can’t find, he invents, but always with a great care for the historical accuracy." Indeed, many of Helbert's illustrations don't, at first glance, look like illustrations at all, but more like what you'd come up with if you traveled back to the Constantinople of fifteen or so centuries ago with a camera. "The project has no lucrative goal," Risson notes. "It’s a passion. A byzantine passion!"

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Hear the Hagia Sophia’s Awe-Inspiring Acoustics Get Recreated with Computer Simulations, and Let Yourself Get Transported Back to the Middle Ages

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Aretha Franklin Turned Otis Redding’s “Respect” Into a Civil Rights and Feminist Anthem

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T…” You know the rest.

When R&B legend Otis Redding, who wrote and first recorded “Respect,” heard Aretha Franklin’s version of the song, he reportedly said, “well, I guess it’s that girl’s song now.”

Aretha didn’t just cover Redding’s song, she “flipped the script,” notes The Washington Post video above, turning his call for entitlement into a demand for empowerment and creating a feminist and civil rights anthem. She changed the lyrics to suit her, spelled it out in the chorus, and added the “sock it to me” refrain with her sisters Carolyn and Erma—both successful soul singers in their own right—backing her up.

Franklin’s 1967 recording was “a declaration of independence that was unapologetic, uncompromising and unflinching… a demand for something that could no longer be denied…. The country had never heard anything like it.”

After Aretha reshaped it, the song “took on a universality the original never had,” says Franklin’s biographer David Ritz. “It is a credit to her genius she was able to do so much with it. She should have been listed as a co-producer of the song.”

Indeed, she might have been credited as a co-writer of her version, but in a tragic irony, her biggest hit, in which she proclaimed financial independence and personal power, netted her exactly zero in royalties.

“For the roughly seven million times the song has been played on American radio stations,” notes Ben Sisario at The New York Times, “she was paid nothing” due to “an aspect of copyright law that has long irked the record business,” in which radio stations pay the writers and publishers of songs and not the performers. This inequity has made Aretha’s “Respect” an anthem for musicians fighting for their rights as well.

But first and foremost, Franklin’s “’Respect’… caught on with the black power movement and feminists and human rights activists across the world,” notes the Post’s DeNeen Brown. “The country was a tinder box, as people of color demanded equality and justice that had been too long in coming.” Despite landmark civil rights cases in the Supreme Court and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, resistance to change in both the North and South was sustained and often brutally violent.

For all its deep resonance in the black community, “Respect” spoke to everyone, characterizing defiance to a social order that seemed intent on preserving oppressive hierarchies and historic injustices; “the song immediately crossed over, obliterating color lines.” Released in April of 1967, it hit Number One on the charts and “stayed there for at least 12 weeks.” It may not have made Franklin the money she deserved—though it made a mint for Otis Redding—but her recording propelled her from stardom to international superstardom. Hear her version further up and Redding’s original recording just above.

Related Content:

Aretha Franklin’s Pitch-Perfect Performance in The Blues Brothers, the Film That Reinvigorated Her Career (1980)

Aretha Franklin’s Most Powerful Early Performances: “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Say a Little Prayer” & More

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

How an Art Conservator Completely Restores a Damaged Painting: A Short, Meditative Documentary

We here at Open Culture take great pleasure in soup to nuts documentaries of master craftspeople at work, particularly when the narration has been left out deliberately.

The meditative effect is more powerful that way, as is our wonderment.

We can always go rabbiting after the technical specs of the trade being plied if we're not entirely sure what we're seeing.

For instance, those tiny strands conservationist Julian Baumgartner of Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration places ever so carefully across a tear in painter Emma Gaggiotti Richards’ untitled 38”x29” self portrait?

A technique known as bridging, wherein a rip is sutured using individual strands of Belgian linen and reversible conservation adhesive.

(We found that out on Baumgartner’s Instagram...)

We also take geeky delight in still life-like presentations of tools both specialized and shockingly ordinary.

Baumgartner’s include an over-the-counter iron and a pair of orange-handled scissors, labelled so that no one walks away with them…

And who couldn’t think of alternative uses for those giant Q-tips, though watching Richards’ skin tones go from dingy to dewy in just a few measured swabs implies that art conservation is the reason they were put on earth.

The conservator’s own painterly skills are very much on display as he recreates damaged areas with filler and conservation quality oils.

As he has noted elsewhere:

Just as difficult as faces but no less important is fabric. Getting the color and volume just right is very rewarding. 

The goal of conservation is that the damage no longer affects the image as a whole. So we’re not terribly concerned with whether under a microscope or extremely close examination the restoration is visible. If you look close enough all conservation is visible. 

Our philosophy is to alter the artwork as little as possible with respect to the original intention of the artist.

There is one question left unmet by filmmaker Jack Brandtman’s video portrait, one that casual online research seems unlikely to satisfy.

What kind of music does the conservator listen to in the studio? Not that soporific instrumental soundtrack, we hope!

Perhaps Northwestern University’s great listener-supported, student run station, WNUR?

WBEZ, the legendary public radio statio?

Or CHIRP, the latest addition to Chicago’s radio pedigree?

It’d be a pleasant surprise to find him powering through his daily tasks to the tune of the local rock featured in Brantman’s other Made in Chicago series entries on forging knives and making jeans.

We live to have our expectations defied!

Follow Baumgartner Fine Art Restoration’s Instagram here.

via The Kids Should See This

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hundreds of Classical Sculptures from the Uffizi Gallery Now Digitized & Put Online: Explore a Collection of 3D Interactive Scans

As the mighty House of Medici amassed works of art between the 15th and 18th centuries, could its members have imagined that we would still be enjoying their collection in the 21st? Perhaps they did, given the tendency — sometimes fatal — of business and political dynasties to imagine themselves as eternal. But the Medicis could scarcely have imagined how people all around the world have just gained access to the sculpture they collected, now displayed at Florence's Uffizi Gallery and elsewhere, through the Uffizi Digitization Project.

A collaboration between Indiana University's Virtual World Heritage Laboratory, the Politecnico di Milano, and the University of Florence, the five-year project, which began in 2016, has as its goal the complete digitization of Greek and Roman sculpture in the Uffizi Gallery, Pitti Palace, and Boboli Gardens. Though not yet finished, it has already managed to digitize more works of classical sculpture than any other effort by a single museum, and at its site you can take a look at every complete piece and fragment already digitized — and not just a look, as you'd get while passing by on a walk through a museum, but a closer and more detailed look than you may ever have thought possible.

"The genuinely easy-to-navigate website proves more interactive than many computerized museum archives," writes Hyperallergic's Jasmine Weber. "Users are given the opportunity to travel inside tombs and inside every nook of the figures’ construction. The interface allows users to travel around and within the sculptures, getting closer than visitors often can in the museum space itself thanks to three-dimensional rendering from every imaginable angle." The collection, notes the Uffizzi Digitization Project's about page, contains "works of exceptional interest to students of Greek and Roman art, notably the Medici Venus, the Medici Faun, the Niobids, and the Ariadne."

The Uffizi Digitization Project has so far made more than 300 works available to view as 3D models, and you can find them by either searching the collection or scrolling down to browse by category, a list that includes everything from altars and busts to statuettes and vases. And though no more technologically impressive collection of virtual classical sculpture may exist on the internet, after experiencing it you might nevertheless feel the need to see these pieces in an environment other than the black digital void. If so, have a look at the virtual tour of the Uffizi Gallery we featured earlier this year here on Open Culture. But be prepared: from there you may want to book a ticket to Florence and see the sculpture collected by the House of Medici in the very city where it rose to such vast economic and cultural power.

via Hyperallergic

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Aretha Franklin’s Pitch-Perfect Performance in The Blues Brothers, the Film That Reinvigorated Her Career (1980)

There are many films of the 70s and 80s that could never get made today. This is not your grumpy uncle’s rant about political correctness gone wild. In many cases, it’s very much for the best. (And did we ever need “movies” like Porky’s or Hardbodies in the first place? I’m going to say no.) Styles and social mores change. Actors and directors who alone could have pulled off what they did, when they did, pass away. And so too do musicians whose equal we will never see again. When these inimitable forces come together, it’s once-in-a-lifetime celluloid magic. Remakes and ill-advised sequels seem like sacrilege.

I am speaking on this occasion of The Blues Brothers, the 1980 musical comedy that brought together a pantheon of legends now mostly departed for that hall of fame in the sky. John Belushi, of course, but also John Candy and Carrie Fisher. James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker… and Aretha Franklin, whom the whole world now mourns. Charges of cultural appropriation might get lobbed at The Blues Brothers, but they would be misplaced. For all its absurdist slapstick, the film was nothing if not a celebration of black American music, a reverent, loving tribute to the blues, R&B, and classic soul that went directly to the source, and in so doing, reinvigorated Aretha’s flagging career.

The music scene of the late seventies had “turned away from soul and toward disco,” writes Laura Bradley at Vanity Fair. “Franklin was struggling to make the transition, especially after Atlantic allowed her contract to expire.” Her attempt to keep up in the 1979 disco album La Diva had flopped. She was the Queen of Soul, not sweaty dancefloors, and so she would remain, thanks in part to the antics of Jake and Elwood and writer/director John Landis, who cast her as Mrs. Murphy, a diner waitress who gets to call the brothers “two honkys dressed like Hasidic diamond merchants” who “look like they’re from the CIA.”

The story of her casting is bittersweet. “You have to remember that in 1979,” says Landis, “rhythm and blues was basically over, and the number one music in the world was Abba, the Bee Gees… when people ask, how did you get the likes of Aretha Franklin and James Brown, it was easy. We just called them and said, ‘Wanna job?’” Studio executives balked, wanting hipper acts like Rose Royce, who had sung the theme from Car Wash. It would have been a tragedy.

Thankfully, Landis persisted—he had written the part for her. “Everyone in the movie,” he says in a recent interview, “the parts were written specifically for them.” (Except James Brown, who took over as the preacher when Little Richard “found Jesus, again,” and went to back to his church in Tennessee.) Landis also insisted on Aretha singing “Think,” a song from her 1968 album Aretha Now, instead of her biggest hit. (“Really?” he recalls her saying, “Don’t you want me to sing ‘Respect’?”) The song came directly out of the dialogue between her and blues guitarist Matt Murphy, playing her husband.

Landis remembers Aretha’s re-recording of the extended film version of the song:

So, we laid down the tracks for “Think.” She came in, a couple days before she was to be shot. She listened to the track once and said, “OK, but I would like to replace the piano.” We said, great, what do you want to do? She said, “I’ll play.”

So we got a piano, she sat in a recording studio, and it was Universal Studios’ recording studios in Chicago, a very old, funky studio we were delighted to be in because it was where Chess Records did all their recordings. We had a piano for her. She sat with her back to us, at the keys, and the piano and her voice was mic’d. She did it once, listened to the playback. She said, “I’d like to do it again.” She played piano as she sang, and the second take is the one in the movie. She was just wonderful. She didn’t like doing so many takes and she had issues with lip-syncing.

Franklin also thought of the experience fondly, writing in her autobiography that it was “something I enjoyed making tremendously.” She did finally get the chance to sing “Respect” in a Blues Brothers film, almost twenty years later, when she reprised her role in Blues Brothers 2000. It’s arguable whether that movie ever should have been made. But there’s never any arguing with Aretha Franklin’s commanding voice. See her tell off Murphy and Elwood Blues, again, in a clip from the belated sequel below. Queen Aretha may have left us, but her legacy will live forever.

via Vanity Fair

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

David Bowie’s “Heroes” Delightfully Performed by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain

Cover tunes are not tribute bands. The best covers don't aim to be carbon copies. They expand our concept of the original with an unexpected element or fresh lens.

Would you believe me if I told you that the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s take on David Bowie’s "Heroes"—the second most covered tune in the late rocker’s canon—is even sexier than the original?



Nothing ever will be.

It is, however, a compelling case for the power of multiple ukuleles.

A single uke could only be dwarfed by the memory of "Heroes"’ driving, famously layered sound, a group effort that included producer Tony Visconti and guitarist Robert Fripp.

Bowie may have referred to the tempo and rhythm as “plodding,” but co-writer Brian Eno’s description of the sound as something “grand and heroic” comes much closer to the mark.

Are eight ukes grand and heroic? Well, no. Not really.

And there is something undeniably humorous about a row of formally attired, seated, middle-aged men and women, wailing away in unison with their right hands, but it’s telling that the audience at New York’s multimedia art cabaret (le) Poisson Rouge isn’t laughing.

Admittedly, there were a few isolated chuckles in the beginning, a few notes in.


Probably been dragged there on blind dates with ukulele-enthusiasts.

To be charitable, there will always be those in need of convincing that the ukulele is a legitimate instrument.

Who better to convince them than the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, whose very name suggests that its members are in on the joke, and capable of turning it on its head?

The lyrics, as most Bowie fans can tell you, were inspired by real life, but not exactly Bowie's. The tune was on solid footing, but the words were still slow to come, when Bowie glanced out the window of his Berlin recording studio to catch a back up singer and Visconti, married at the time, enjoying what they believed was a stolen kiss.

The rest, as they say is history, kept somewhat shrouded in mystery until relatively recently.

The Ukulele Orchestra singers wisely steer clear of Bowie's howling, emotional delivery, which Visconti got on tape almost before the ink on those lyrics had time to dry.

Instead, they honor him, and the place this song has in so many people’s hearts, with their sincerity.

Watch an in-depth interview with Tony Visconti on "Heroes" here.

Listen to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s take on Bowie’s Life on Mars here.

via Laughing Squid

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

See the First Ever Video of Elvis Costello Performing, Summer 1974

The setting: London. In particular, Stepney, London E1. The year, a warm summer in 1974, July 21 to be exact. And a very early video camera, only able to shoot in black and white, records the events of the E1 Festival, a free day out for families, restless teens, and bell bottomed, long-haired youth enjoying the sun. There’s Indian musicians, face painting, carnival games, jazz bands, folk dancing, and a “Wellie Boot Chucking Competition”. You know, “the lot,” as the English would say. But then, around 40 minutes in, the videographer decides to shoot the pub rock band playing on the main stage.

If the bespectacled 19 year old looks and sounds a bit familiar, well luvvies, you’re not seeing things. This is the first filmed appearance of a young Elvis Costello, beclad in very fetching dungarees and fronting his first band Flip City. This was their third ever gig, according to the Elvis Costello fan site.

A full three years before Declan MacManus would change his name and burst upon the scene with My Aim Is True, here he is paying his dues.

Flip City was Costello’s second group, the first being a folk rock duo called Rusty that played John Prine, Jesse Winchester, and Van Morrison covers in between their own songs. After Costello split from Liverpool and left for London, he jumped on the pub rock bandwagon that was already formed around Nick Lowe, Dr. Feelgood, and Brinsley Schwarz, mixing up Americana and R’n’B covers with very British originals. They even recorded demos a few years after this gig, which were widely bootlegged until most of them appeared on bonus tracks on various CD reissues. (You can listen to them here.)

But back to 1974. We have no record of their full set, but the two songs on the video are from the Coasters’ “I’m a Hog for You” (the B-side of “Charlie Brown” but covered by Screaming Lord Sutch in 1963) and from the Isley Brothers, “This Old Heart of Mine,” a Motown staple. Despite Costello’s encyclopediac knowledge of music, he never again played these two songs live again.

It might be 20/20 hindsight, but one can already hear the talent and the confidence (or at least mock confidence) that would soon propel the young man into the charts. The rest, as they say, is much better than winning the wellie chucking contest.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Bauhaus Ballet: A Dance of Geometry

During the past month, the Great Big Story has released a series of videos that revisit the design aesthetic of the Bauhaus movement. Their first video explored the radical buildings designed by Bauhaus architects. A second focused on the legacy of minimalist Bauhaus furniture. And now a third takes as its subject Oskar Schlemmer's 1922 “Triadic Ballet”--a ballet famous for putting geometry and structure into dance. The video above shows the "Bayerisches Junior Ballet München as they prepare to bring Bauhaus center stage again." You can watch a full recreation of the ballet and learn much more about Schlemmer's experimental production by reading this post from our archive.

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How Aleister Crowley, the Infamous Occultist, Led the First Attempt to Reach the Summit of K2 (1902)

It sounds like the plot of a Werner Herzog film: Aleister Crowley, heir to a brewing fortune and “flamboyant, bisexual drug fiend with a fascination for the occult,” meets “son of a well-known Jewish Socialist” Oscar Eckenstein, “a chemist turned railway engineer.” The two strike up a friendship over their mutual passion for mountaineering, and, in four years time, co-lead an expedition to reach the summit of K2, the second highest mountain in the world.

The descriptions of these characters come from Mick Conefrey’s The Ghosts of K2: The Race for the Summit of the World’s Most Deadly Mountain, a book detailing the many grueling attempts, many deaths, and few successes, in over a century of climbs to the mountain’s peak. Crowley and Eckenstein’s expedition, undertaken in 1902, was the first. Though unsuccessful, their effort remains a legendary feat of historical bravery, or hubris, or insanity—an ascent up the face of what climber George Bell called “a savage mountain that tries to kill you.”

In an interview with National Geographic, Conefrey sums up the doomed expedition:

 In those days, nobody had a clue about what it was going to be like. They thought they would go to the Himalayas and knock off K2 in a couple of days. But as the expedition proceeded, it started falling apart. Eckenstein, the leader, had a bad respiratory infection. Crowley had malaria and spent most of the time in his tent with a high fever. At one point he got so delirious, he started waving his revolver at other members of the team. 

There are many other Herzogian touches. In his book Fallen Giants, Maurice Isserman describes the team—also consisting of a novice Englishman, a Swiss doctor, and two experienced Austrian climbers—as “unreasonably burdened by three tons of luggage.” Some of that unnecessary burden came from a “several-volume library” Crowley “intended to haul onto the glacier.” The others “objected to the superfluous weight, but Crowley had read enough Joseph Conrad to know what happened to those who let go of their hold on civilization in the wild.” The library stayed, and a train of 200 porters hauled the team’s luggage to Baltoro Glacier. (See Crowley in a photo from the expedition above, presumably stricken with malaria.)

Prior to setting off for K2 Eckenstein and Crowley had climbed volcanoes in Mexico, then the latter had traveled to San Francisco, Hawaii, Japan, Sri Lanka, and India—along the way having affairs, learning meditation, and developing a “lifelong devotion to Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction." While it takes a certain rare personality to subject themselves to the rigors of scaling a mountain almost five miles high, Crowley—notorious for his “magick," sexual adventures, drug use, lewd poetry, and founding of a religious order—is arguably the most out-there personality in the history of a very extreme sport.

But mountaineering "is not a normal pursuit,” writes Scottish climber Robin Campbell, “and we should not be too surprised to find its adepts showing odd behavior in other spheres of life.” Like all devotees of strenuous, death-defying pursuits, Crowley “wanted extreme experiences,” says Conefrey, “where he pushed himself to the limit.” It just so happened that he wanted to push far beyond the natural and human worlds. After the failed K2 attempt, he would only make one more daring expedition with Eckenstein, in 1905, a climb up the Himalayan mountain of Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.

On the trip, Crowley, the leader, reportedly treated the local porters with brutal arrogance, and when three of them were killed along with one of the expedition members, he refused to help, writing to a Darjeeling newspaper, “a mountain ‘accident’ of this sort is one of the things for which I have no sympathy whatever.” He left the following day and gave up mountaineering, devoting the rest of his life to his occult interests and the exploits that earned him the tabloid reputation as “the wickedest man in the world.”

K2 was finally conquered by two Italian climbers in 1954, who reached the summit, frostbitten and half-mad, as Joanna Kavenna puts it in a review of Conefrey's spellbinding book, "in a moment of sublime anticlimax."

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

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