Hear Christopher Tolkien (RIP) Read the Work of His Father J.R.R. Tolkien, Which He Tirelessly Worked to Preserve

J.R.R. Tolkien is responsible for the existence of Middle-earth, the richly realized fictional setting of the Lord of the Rings novels. But he also did his bit for the existence of the much less fictional Christopher Tolkien, his third son as well as, in J.R.R.'s own words, his "chief critic and collaborator." Christopher spent much of his life returning the favor, dedicating himself to the organization, preservation, and publication of his father's notes on Middle-earth's elaborate geography, history, and mythology until his own death this past Wednesday at the age of 95.

Most fans of Tolkien père came to know the work of Tolkien fils through The Silmarillion, the collection of the former's previously unpublished mythopoeic writings on Middle-Earth and the universe that contains it. That book came out in 1977, four years after J.R.R. Tolkien's death, and for a time thereafter, write The New York Times' Katharine Q. Seelye and Alan Yuhas, "Tolkien fans and scholars wondered how much of The Silmarillion was the work of the father and how much was the work of the son."




In response, "Christopher produced the 12-volume The History of Middle-Earth (1996), a compilation of drafts, fragments, rewrites, marginal notes and other writings culled from 70 boxes of unpublished material."

Christopher Tolkien didn't just take over J.R.R. Tolkien's duties as the steward of Middle-earth; he more or less grew up in the place, and even provided comments, at his father's request, on the work that would become The Lord of the Rings. The power of J.R.R. Tolkien's storytelling, one often hears, owes in part to the writer's thorough grounding in literary and linguistic subjects like English and Germanic philology, heroic verse, Old Norse, Old Icelandic, and medieval Welsh. Christopher Tolkien, in turn, made himself into what Seelye and Yhuas call "an authority, above all, on the reams of writing that his father produced." You can hear Christopher Tolkien read authoritatively from the work of J.R.R. Tolkien in the videos presented here.

The first three clips from the top come two vinyl LPs released in 1977 and 1988 by Caedmon Records (the proto-audiobook label that also put out Edgar Allan Poe read by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone as well as Hemingway and Faulkner read by Hemingway and Faulkner). All of their selections come from The Silmarillion, the Tolkien text that would never have seen the light of day if not for Christopher's efforts (and those of Guy Gavriel Kay, who would later become a fantasy novelist himself). But as a tribute to the man's life so rigorously devoted to a body of work that has fascinated so many, what could be more suitable than the video above, his reading of the very end of the final book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Return of the King. Christopher Tolkien kept his father's flame alive, and thanks to his work that flame will survive him — and generations of Tolkien readers to come.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People, Presented in an Interactive Infographic


Click the image above to access the interactive infographic.
The daily life of great authors, artists and philosophers has long been the subject of fascination among those who look upon their work in awe. After all, life can often feel like, to quote Elbert Hubbard, “one damned thing after another” -- a constant muddle of obligations and responsibilities interspersed with moments of fleeting pleasure, wrapped in gnawing low-level existential panic. (Or, at least, it does to me.) Yet some people manage to transcend this perpetual barrage of office meetings, commuter traffic and the unholy allure of reality TV to create brilliant work. It’s easy to think that the key to their success is how they structure their day.

Mason Currey’s blog-turned-book Daily Rituals describes the workaday life of great minds from W.H. Auden to Immanuel Kant, from Flannery O’Connor to Franz Kafka. The one thing that Currey’s project underlines is that there is no magic bullet. The daily routines are as varied as the people who follow them– though long walks, a ridiculously early wake up time and a stiff drink are common to many.




One school of thought for creating is summed up by Gustave Flaubert’s maxim, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Haruki Murakami has a famously rigid routine that involves getting up at 4am and writing for nine hours straight, followed by a daily 10km run. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.” He admits that his schedule allows little room for a social life.

Then there’s the fantastically prolific Belgian author George Simenon, who somehow managed to crank out 425 books over the course of his career. He would go for weeks without writing, followed by short bursts of frenzied activity. He would also wear the same outfit everyday while working on his novel, regularly take tranquilizers and somehow find the time to have sex with up to four different women a day.

Most writers fall somewhere in between. Toni Morrison, for instance, has a routine that that seems far more relatable than the superman schedules of Murakami or Simeon. Since she juggled raising two children and a full time job as an editor at Random House, Morrison simply wrote when she could. “I am not able to write regularly,” she once told The Paris Review. “I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.”

Above is a way cool infographic of the daily routines of 26 different creators, created by Podio.com. And if you want to see an interactive version of the same graphic but with rollover bits of trivia, just click here. You’ll learn that Voltaire slept only 4 hours a day and worked constantly. Victor Hugo preferred to take a morning ice bath on his roof. And Maya Angelou preferred to work in an anonymous hotel room.

Note: The infographic above is very light on women. For anyone interested in the daily habits of female creators, see this post and Mason Currey's related book: The Daily Rituals of 143 Famous Female Creators.

An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in January 2015.

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

The New York Public Library Announces the Top 10 Checked-Out Books of All Time

Public libraries are unsung heroes of their communities. Many a busy working adult can take their importance for granted. But parents of young children know—the library is a quiet haven, place of wonder and discovery, and free resource for all sorts of educational experiences. Given the importance of libraries in kids’ lives, it’s no wonder that six of the top ten most-checked-out books—according to the New York Public Library—are children’s books.

The NYPL calculated the most checked out books in its history in honor of its 125th anniversary. Given that it houses the second largest collection in the U.S., after the Library of Congress, and serves millions in the most linguistically diverse city in the country, its circulation numbers give us a reasonable sampling of near-universal tastes.




These include timeless classics of children’s literature: Ezra Jack Keats’ Caldecott-winning The Snowy Day tops the list, “in print and in the Library’s catalog continuously since 1962”; The Cat in the Hat comes in at a close second. Where the Wild Things Are and The Very Hungry Caterpillar round out the list of books for the very young.

Where is the stalwart Goodnight Moon, you may ask? Here we have a juicy bit of lore:

By all measures, this book should be a top checkout (in fact, it might be the top checkout) if not for an odd piece of history: extremely influential New York Public Library children’s librarian Anne Carroll Moore hated Goodnight Moon when it first came out. As a result, the Library didn’t carry it until 1972. That lost time bumped the book off the top 10 list for now. But give it time.

For now, Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 classic receives honorable mention. Classic kids’ books circulate a lot because they’re widely read, but also because they’re short, which leads to more turnover, the Library points out. Length of time in print is also a factor, which makes the presence of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, published in 1998, particularly impressive.

  1. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats: 485,583 checkouts
  2. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss: 469,650 checkouts
  3. 1984 by George Orwell: 441,770 checkouts
  4. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak: 436,016 checkouts
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: 422,912 checkouts
  6. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White: 337,948 checkouts
  7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: 316,404 checkouts
  8. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: 284,524 checkouts
  9. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling: 231,022 checkouts
  10. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle: 189,550 checkouts

Like J.K. Rowling’s modern classic, all of the remaining books on the list are novels—save outlier How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie—and all are novels read extensively by middle and high school students, a further sign of the significance of public libraries.

Some students may only be required to read a small handful of novels in their school career, and whether they follow through, and maybe go on to read more and more books, and maybe write a few books of their own, may depend upon those novels constantly circulating for everyone through institutions like the New York Public Library.

See the full list above and learn more about the project at NPR and the NYPL.

via Metafilter

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

Artist Ed Ruscha Reads From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a Short Film Celebrating His 1966 Photos of the Sunset Strip

In 1956, the Pop artist Ed Ruscha left Oklahoma City for Los Angeles. “I could see I was just born for the job” of an artist, he would later say, “born to watch paint dry.” The comment encapsulates Ruscha’s ironic use of cliché as a centerpiece of his work. He called himself an “abstract artist… who deals with subject matter.” Much of his subject matter has been commonplace words and phrases—decontextualized and foregrounded in paintings and prints made with careful deliberation, against the trend toward Abstract Expressionism and its gestural freedom.

Another of Ruscha’s subjects comes with somewhat less conceptual baggage. His photographic books capture mid-century America gas stations and the city he has called home for over 50 years. In his 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Ruscha “photographed both sides of Sunset Boulevard from the back of a pickup truck,” writes filmmaker Matthew Miller. “He stitched the photos together to make one long book that folded out to 27 feet. That project turned into his larger Streets of Los Angeles series, which spanned decades.”




Miller, inspired by work he did on a 2017 short film called Ed Ruscha: Buildings and Words, decided to bring together two of Ruscha’s longstanding inspirations: the city of L.A. and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which Kerouac supposedly wrote as a continuous 120-foot long scroll—a format, Miller noticed, much like Every Building on the Sunset Strip. (Ruscha made his own artist’s book version of On the Road in 2009). Miller and editor Sean Leonard cut Ruscha’s photographs together in the montage you see above, commissioned by the Getty Museum, while Ruscha himself read selections from the Kerouac classic.

The connection between their style and their use of language feels really strong, but at the end of the day, I simply thought it’d be great to hear Ed Ruscha read On the Road. Something about Ed’s voice just feels right. Something about his work just feels right. It’s like the images, the words, and the forms he makes were always meant to be together.”

Miller describes the painstaking process of selecting the photos and “constructing a mini narrative that evoked Ed’s sensibilities” at Vimeo. The artist’s “perspective seemed to speak to the signage and architecture of the city, while Kerouac’s voice felt like it was pulling in all the lively characters of the street.” It’s easy to see why Ruscha would be so drawn to Kerouac. Both share a fascination with vernacular American speech and iconic American subjects of advertising, the automobile, and the freedoms of the road.

But where Ruscha turns to words for their visual impact, Kerouac relished them for their music. “For a while,” Miller writes of his project, “it felt like the footage wanted one thing and the voiceover wanted another.” But he and Leonard, who also did the sound design, were able to bring image and voice together in a short film that frames both artists as mid-century visionaries who turned the ordinary and seemingly unremarkable into an experience of the ecstatic.

173 works by Ruscha can be viewed on MoMA's website.

via Aeon

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

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

Below, you can hear journalist David Epstein talks with Recode's Kara Swisher about his book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In it, "he argues that the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters and scientists are more likely to be dabblers, rather than people who set out to do what they do best from a young age — and, in fact, the people who have highly specialized training from an early age tend to have lower lifetime earnings overall." The #1 New York Times bestselling book makes the case that "in most fields—especially those that are complex and unpredictable—generalists, not specialists, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see."

You can pick up a copy of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World in print, or get it as a free audio book if you sign up for a 30-day free trial with Audible.com.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Vincent Van Gogh’s Favorite Books

Piles of French Novels, Vincent Van Gogh, 1887

Among lovers of Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch artist is as well known for his letter writing as for his extraordinary painting. “The personal tone, evocative style and lively language” of his correspondence, writes the Van Gogh Museum, “prompted some people who were in a position to know to accord the correspondence the status of literature. The poet W.H. Auden, who published an anthology with a brief introduction, wrote: ‘there is scarcely one letter by Van Gogh which I, who am certainly no expert, do not find fascinating.’”

Auden was, of course, an expert on the written word, though maybe not on Van Gogh, and he refined his literary expertise the same way the painter did: by reading as copiously as he wrote. “When it was too dark to paint,” writes University of Puerto Rico professor of humanities Jeffrey Herlihy Mera at the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Van Gogh read prodigiously and compiled a tremendous amount of personal correspondence.” Much of his writing, especially his letters to his brother Theo, was in French, a language he learned in his teens and spoke in Belgium, Paris, and Arles.




Van Gogh’s command of written French, however, came from his reading of Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, and Émile Zola. “Vincent loved literature,” the Van Gogh Museum writes. “In general, the books he read reflected what was going on in his own life. When he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a minister, he read books of a religious nature. He devoured Parisian novels when he was considering moving to the French capital."

In his letters to Theo, he weaves together the sacred and profane, describing his spiritual and creative strivings and his unrequited obsessions. In his reading, he tested his values and desires. We get a sense of how Van Gogh's reading complemented his pious, yet romantic nature in the list of some of his favorites, below, compiled by the Van Gogh Museum.

  • Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
  • Jules Michelet, L'amour (1858)
  • Émile Zola, L'Oeuvre (1886)
  • Alphonse Daudet, Tartarin de Tarascon (1887)
  • The Bible
  • John Keats, The Eve of St. Agnes (1820)
  • George Eliot, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857)
  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1887)
  • Hans Christian Andersen, What the Moon Saw (1862)
  • Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (1471-1472)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852)
  • Edmond de Goncourt, Chérie (1884)
  • Victor Hugo, Les misérables (1862)
  • Honoré de Balzac, Le Père Goriot (1835)
  • Guy de Maupassant, Bel-Ami (1885)
  • Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysanthème (1888)
  • Voltaire, Candide (1759)
  • Shakespeare, Macbeth (c. 1606-1607)
  • Shakespeare, King Lear (1606-1607)
  • Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
  • Emile Zola, Nana (1880)
  • Emile Zola, La joie de vivre (1884)

“Vincent read moralistic books often favoured among members of the Protestant Christian community” in which he was raised by his minister father. He looked also to the morality of Charles Dickens, whose works he “read and reread… throughout his life.” Zola’s “rough, direct naturalism” appealed to Van Gogh’s desire “to give an honest depiction of what he saw around him: farm labourers, a weathered little old man, dejected or working women, a soup kitchen, a tree, dunes and fields.”

In Alphonse Daudet’s 1887 Tartarin de Tarascon, “an entertaining caricature of the southern Frenchman,” Van Gogh satisfied his “need for humor and satire.” Despite the stereotype of the artist as perpetually tortured, his letters consistently reveal his good-natured sense of humor. From French historian Jules Michelet’s 1858 L’amour, the artist “found wisdom he could apply to his own love life,” tumultuous as it was. He used Michelet’s insights “to justify his choices,” such as “when he fell in love with his cousin Kee Vos.”

In a letter to Theo, Vincent expressed his emotional struggles over Vos's rejection of him as “a great many ‘petty miseries of human life,’ which, if they were written down in a book, could perhaps serve to amuse some people, though they can hardly be considered pleasant if one experiences them oneself.” He is at a loss for what to do with himself, he writes, but "‘wandering we find our way,’ and not by sitting still.” For Van Gogh, “wandering” just as often took the form of sitting still with a good book.

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

The Vatican Library Goes Online and Digitizes Tens of Thousands of Manuscripts, Books, Coins, and More

If any one of us ran our own country, we'd surely drive no small amount of resources toward building an impressive national library. That would be true even if we ran a country the size of the Vatican, the smallest sovereign state in the world — but one that, unsurprisingly, punches well above its weight in terms of the size and historical value of its holdings. "It was in 1451 when Pope Nicholas V, a renowned bibliophile himself, attempted to re-establish Rome as an academic center of global importance," writes Aleteia's Daniel Esparza. That formidable task involved first "building a relatively modest library of over 1,200 volumes, including his personal collection of Greek and Roman classics and a series of texts brought from Constantinople."

The Vatican Apostolic Library, known as "VAT," has grown a bit over the past five and a half centuries. Today it contains around 75,000 codices and 85,000 incunabula (which Esparza defines as "editions made between the invention of the printing press and the 16th century") amid a total of over one million volumes.




And in the case of increasingly many of these documents, you no longer have to make the journey to Vatican City to see them. Thanks to an ongoing digitization project launched a decade ago, increasingly many have become searchable and downloadable on DigiVatLib, a database of the Vatican Library’s digitized collections including not just the aforementioned codices and incunabula but "archival materials and inventories as well as graphic materials, coins and medals."

Back in 2016 we featured a digital collection of 5,300 rare manuscripts digitized by the collection, including the Iliad and Aeneid as well as Japanese and Aztec illustrations. The VAT's scanning, uploading, and organizing has continued apace since, and though it prioritizes manuscripts "from the Middle Age and Humanistic period," its materials taken together have a wider historical and indeed cultural sweep, one that only gets wider with each page added. You can get started exploring this wealth of documents by scrolling down a little on DigiVatLib's front page, in the middle of which you'll find the latest digitized materials as well as a host of selected manuscripts, a few of whose pages you see above. The VAT has enjoyed its status as one of the chief repositories of Western civilization longer than any of us has been alive, but we can count ourselves in the first generation of humanity to see it open up to the world.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, 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.

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