A New Interactive Visualization of the 165,000 Most-Frequently Assigned Texts in College Courses

For some of us, it’s been a little while since college days. For others of us, it’s been a little while longer. We might find ourselves asking, if we hear news of on-campus activism and unrest (surely unheard of in our day)—

“Do they still read the classics down at old Alma Mater U.?”

Maybe that’s the problem, eh? Too much Marxist theory, not enough Plato? Well, you may be pleased, or not, to learn that classics still regularly—routinely, even—appear on college syllabi, including both The Republic and the Communist Manifesto, in courses taught all over the world, from San Antonio to Tokyo to Karlskrona, Sweden.




As we informed Open Culture readers in 2016, Columbia University’s Open Syllabus Project culled data from over 1,000,000 syllabi from university websites worldwide, to find out which books have been most frequently taught over the past decade or so. Since then, that number has risen to 6,000,000 syllabi. Still, the most-taught books at the top of the list remain largely unchanged.

As two of the project’s directors pointed out soon after the site’s launch, “traditional Western canon dominates the top 100, with Plato’s Republic at No. 2, The Communist Manifesto at No. 3, and Frankenstein at No. 5, followed by Aristotle’s Ethics, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Machiavelli’s The Prince, [Sophocles’] Oedipus and [Shakespeare’s] Hamlet.” These numbers have moved a little, edged downward by writing and research guides, but not by very much.

William Strunk's classic writing guide Elements of Style sits at number one. Other top titles include calculus and anatomy textbooks, other works of Enlightenment philosophy, and texts now central to the Western critical tradition like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and Edward Said’s Orientalism.

The top 50 is almost totally dominated by male writers, though some of the most frequently-taught novelists include Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Anne Moody, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Alice Walker. The most-taught books tend to fall into either philosophy, literature, textbook, or guidebook, but the overall range in this list of 165,000 texts encompasses the entire scope of academia around the globe, with more contemporary study areas like gender studies, media studies, digital culture, and environmental studies prominent alongside traditional departments like physics and psychology.

A new interactive visualization from Open Syllabus turns this trove of data into a color-coded stippling of different-sized dots, each one representing a particular text. Float over each dot and a box appears in the corner of the screen, showing the number of syllabi that have assigned the text, and a link to a profile page with more detailed analysis. Called the “Co-Assignment Galaxy,” the infographic does what a list cannot: draws connections between all these works and their respective fields of study.

The Open Syllabus Project was already an impressive achievement, a huge aggregation of freely accessible data for scholars and curious laypeople alike. The addition of this user-friendly cluster map makes the site an even more indispensable resource for the study of how higher education has changed over the past decade or so, and how it has, in some respects, remained the same. Enter the Open Syllabus Project's Co-Assignment Galaxy map here.

via John Overholt

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

Richard Feynman’s Technique for Learning Something New: An Animated Introduction

I sometimes wonder: why do people post amateur repair videos, made with smartphones in kitchens and garages, with no obvious commercial value and, often, a level of expertise just minimally above that of their viewers? Then I remember Richard Feynman’s practical advice for how to learn something new—prepare to teach it to somebody else.

The extra accountability of making a public record might provide added motivation, though not nearly to the degree of making teaching one's profession. Nobel-winning physicist Feynman spent the first half of his academic career working on the Manhattan Project, dodging J. Edgar Hoover's FBI at the beginning of the Cold War, and making major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics.




But he has become as well-known for his teaching as for his historic scientific role, thanks to the enormously popular series of physics lectures he developed at Caltech; his funny, accessible, best-selling books of essays and memoirs; and his willingness to be an avuncular public face for science, with a knack for explaining things in terms anyone can grasp.

Feynman revealed that he himself learned through what he called a "notebook technique," an exercise conducted primarily on paper. Yet the method came out of his pedagogy, essentially a means of preparing lecture notes for an audience who know about as much about the subject as you did when you started studying it. In order to explain it to another, you must both understand the subject yourself, and understand what it's like not to understand it.

Learn Feynman’s method for learning in the short animated video above. You do not actually need to teach, only pretend as if you're going to—though preparing for an actual audience will keep you on your toes. In brief, the video summarizes Feynman’s method in a three-step process:

  1. Choose a topic you want to understand and start studying it.
  2. Pretend you’re teaching the idea to someone else. Write out an explanation on the paper…. Whenever you get stuck, go back and study.
  3. Finally do it again, but now simplify your language or use an analogy to make the point.

Get ready to start your YouTube channel with homemade language lessons, restoration projects, and/or cooking videos. You may not—nor should you, perhaps—become an online authority, but according to Feyman, who learned more in his lifetime than most of us could in two, you’ll come away greatly enriched in other ways.

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

The Art & Cooking of Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keeffe, Vincent Van Gogh & More

Mexican cuisine is as time-consuming as it is delicious.

Frida Kahlo fans attracted to the idea of duplicating some dishes from the banquet served at her wedding to fellow artist Diego Rivera should set aside ample time, so as to truly enjoy the experience of making chiles rellenos and nopales salad from scratch.

Sarah Urist Green’s Kahlo-themed cooking lesson, above, adapted from Marie-Pierre Colle and Frida’s stepdaughter Guadalupe Rivera’s 1994 cookbook Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo, is refreshingly frank about the challenges of tackling these types of dishes, especially for those of us whose grandmas ran more toward Jell-O salad.

Her self-deprecation should go a long way toward reassuring less-skilled cooks that perfection is not the goal.

As she told Nuvo’s Dan Grossman:

The art cooking videos are immensely fun to make… And what I’m trying to do is reach people who aren’t necessarily outwardly into art or don’t know whether they’re into art so they’re not going to click on a video that’s strictly about art. But if you can present art ideas through a cooking tutorial perhaps they’ll be more open to it. I love to cook. And I love to think about that side of art history.

To that end, she takes a couple of bite-sized art breaks, to introduce viewers to Frida’s life and work, while the tomatoes are roasting.

As tempting as it is for old Frida hands to skip this well-charted terrain, doing so will not make dinner ready any faster. Why not enjoy the non-cooking related sections with the easiest item on the menu—a tequila shot?

Don't trick yourself into thinking there's nothing more to learn.

For instance, I did not know the Spanish for “I can’t get over this hangover,” but Frida’s pet parrot did. (Didn’t know that either.)

Green also offers some quick how-tos that could come in handy for other, less time-consuming dishes, like a sandwich or a plate of homemade pasta—everything from how to make homemade tomato sauce  to denuding prickly pear cactus pads of their non-edible spines.

If you’re undaunted by the Frida recipes, perhaps you should proceed to Salvador Dali’s towering Bush of Crayfish in Viking herbs, or the Futurists’ highly suggestive Meat Sculpture. Other recipes come from Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O'Keeffe. See above.

Books referenced in the videos include: Dinner with Georgia O'Keeffe; A Painter's Kitchen: Recipes from the Kitchen of Georgia O'Keeffe; Dali's Les Diners de GalaVan Gogh's Table at the Auberge Ravoux: Recipes From the Artist's Last Home and Paintings of Cafe Life; and again Frida’s Fiestas: Recipes and Reminiscences of Life with Frida Kahlo.

View the full playlist of The Art Assignment’s Art Cooking episodes here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this June for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Todd Rundgren’s Advice to Young Artists: Be Free and Fearless, Make Art That Expresses Your True Self, and Never Mind the Critics

The Internet has redeemed graduation season for those of us whose commencement speakers failed to inspire.

One of the chief digital pleasures of the season is truffling up words of wisdom that seem ever so much wiser than the ones that were poured past the mortarboard into our own tender ears.

Our most-recently found pearls come from the mouth of one of our favorite dark horses, musician, producer, and multimedia pioneer Todd Rundgren, one of Berklee College of Music’s 2017 commencement speakers.




Rundgren claims he never would have passed the prestigious institution’s audition. He barely managed to graduate from high school. But he struck a blow for lifelong learners whose pursuit of knowledge takes place outside the formal setting by earning honorary degrees from both Berklee, and DePauw University, where the newly anointed Doctor of Performing Arts can be seen below, studying his honoris causa as the school band serenades him with a student-arranged version of his song, All the Children Sing.

Rundgren’s outsider status played well with Berklee’s Class of 2017, as he immediately ditched his ceremonial headdress and conferred some cool on the sunglasses dictated by his failing vision.

But it wasn’t all opening snark, as he praised the students’ previous night’s musical performance, telling them that they were a credit to their school, their families and themselves.

His was a different path.

Rundgren, an experienced public speaker, claims he was stumped as to how one would go about crafting commencement speeches. Rejecting an avalanche of advice, whose urgency suggested his speech could only result in “universal jubilation or mass suicide if (he) didn’t get it right,” he chose instead to spend his first 10 minutes at the podium recounting his personal history.

It’s interesting stuff for any student of rock n roll, with added cool points owing to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s failure to acknowledge this musical innovator.

Whether or not the Class of 17 were familiar with their speaker prior to that day, it’s probable most of them were able to do the math and realize that the self-educated Rundgren would have been their age in 1970, when his debut album, Runt, was released, and only a couple of years older when his third album, 1972’s two disc, Ritalin-fueled Something/Anything shot him to fame.

After which, this proud iconoclast promptly thumbed his nose at commercial success, detouring into the sonic experiments of A Wizard, a True Star, whose disastrous critical reception belies the masterpiece reputation it now enjoys.

Rolling Stone called it a case of an artist “run amok.”

Patti Smith, whose absolutely mandatory Creem review reads like beat poetry, was a rare admirer.

Did a shiver of fear run through the parents in the audience, as Rundgren regaled their children with tales of how this deliberate trip into the unknown cost him half his fanbase?

How much is Berklee's tuition these days, anyway?

Autobiographical urges from the commencement podium run the risk of coming off as inappropriate indulgence, but Rundgren’s personal story is supporting evidence of his very worthy message to his younger fellow artists :

  • Don’t self-edit in an attempt to fit someone else’s image of who you should be as an artist. See yourself.
  • Use your art as a tool for vigorous self-exploration.
  • Commit to remaining free and fearless, in the service of your defining moment, whose arrival time is rarely published in advance.
  • Don’t view graduation as the end of your education. Think of it as the beginning. Learn about the things you love.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City this June for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Strikingly Beautiful Maps & Charts That Fired the Imagination of Students in the 1880s

We all remember the world maps that hung on the walls of our classrooms, the ones at which we spent countless hours staring when we couldn't focus on the lesson at hand. Did we look at them and imagine fleeing school for one of the far-off lands they pictured — or indeed finding a way to escape planet Earth itself? Such time-passing fantasies unite schoolchildren of all eras, though some eras have provided their schoolchildren richer material to fire up their imaginations than others.

Take, for instance, the rich, vivid maps of Yaggy's Geographical Study, which depict not just the world but the cosmos, and which were first produced for classrooms in 1887. The eponymous Levi Walter Yaggy, says Boston Rare Maps, "seems to have viewed himself as an innovator and entrepreneur tapping into a transformational moment in American education."

An advertisement for Yaggy's Chicago-based Western Publishing House lays out the company's mission: "Instead of offering the public old things ‘made over,’ it has come to the help of teachers and schools with a series of appliances which in design, mechanism and manner of illustration, are new, elegant and practical."

It also points to “the enthusiasm which has been aroused in educational circles by this new departure" as "proof of the fact that teachers are tired of stereotyped and worn-out means of school-room illustration."

One can well imagine the enthusiasm aroused among schoolchildren of the late 19th century when the teacher brought out Yaggy's Geographical Study, a plywood box filled with colorful, large-format maps measuring roughly two by three feet that revealed a wealth of knowledge about the Earth and outer space.

The David Rumsey Map Collection has digitized and made available to download everything that came inside, including the cross-section of the geological strata of "pre-Adamite Earth"; the illustration of the civilizations of five climatic zones "Showing in a Graphic Manner the Climates, Peoples, Industries & Productions of The Earth"; the 3D relief map of the United States built into the back of the box; and the jewel in the crown of Yaggy's Geographical Study, the star chart.

The star chart, as National Geographic's Greg Miller describes it, "has five panels held in place by tiny metal latches. Each panel can be opened to reveal a more detailed diagram. One shows the phases of the moon, for example, while another includes a slider to illustrate how the position of the sun changes relative to Earth with the seasons," the whole thing "designed to highlight certain features when a bright light is placed behind it."

Despite displaying here and there what we now regard as scientific inaccuracies (Miller points to how the elliptical orbit of planets are shown as circles) and unfashionable social attitudes, Yaggy's Geographical Study also embodies the spirit of its time in a way that still fires up the imagination. The golden age of exploration had already entered its final chapter and space travel remained the stuff of science fiction (a genre that had only recently taken the form in which we know it today), but with maps like these on the wall, no daydreaming student of the 1880s could doubt that reality still offered much to discover.

via Flashbak

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Mr. Rogers’ Nine Rules for Speaking to Children (1977)

The maxim “children need rules” does not necessarily describe either a right-wing position or a leftist one; either a political or a religious idea. Ideally, it points to observable facts about the biology of developing brains and psychology of developing personalities. It means creating structures that respect kids’ intellectual capacities and support their physical and emotional growth. Substituting "structure" for rules suggests even more strongly that the “rules” are mainly requirements for adults, those who build and maintain the world in which kids live.

Grown-ups must, to the best of their abilities, try and understand what children need at their stage of development, and try to meet those needs. When Susan Sontag’s son David was 7 years old, for example, the writer and filmmaker made a list of ten rules for herself to follow, touching on concerns about his self-concept, relationship with his father, individual preferences, and need for routine. Her first rule serves as a general heading for the prescriptions in the other nine: “Be consistent.”




Sontag’s rules only emerged from her journals after her death. She did not turn them into public parenting tips. But nearly ten years after she wrote them, a man appeared on television who seemed to embody their exactitude and simplicity. From the very beginning in 1968, Fred Rogers insisted that his show be built on strict rules. “There were no accidents on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” says former producer Arthur Greenwald. Or as Maxwell King, author of a recent biography on Rogers, writes at The Atlantic:

He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally…. He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called “Freddish.”

In addition to his consistency, almost to the point of self-parody, Rogers made sure to always be absolutely crystal clear in his speech. He understood that young kids do not understand metaphors, mostly because they haven’t learned the commonly agreed-upon meanings. Preschool-age children also have trouble understanding the same uses of words in different contexts. In one segment on the show, for example, a nurse says to a child wearing a blood-pressure cuff, “I’m going to blow this up.”

Rogers had the crew redub the line with “’I’m going to puff this up with some air.’ ’Blow up’ might sound like there’s an explosion,” Greenwald remembers, “and he didn’t want kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.” In another example, Rogers wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain,” to assuage a common fear that very young children have. There is a certain logic to the thinking. Drains take things away, why not them?

Rogers “was extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go,” writes King, explaining to them, for example, that an ophthalmologist could not look into his mind and see his thoughts. His care with language so amused and awed the show’s creative team that in 1977, Greenwald and writer Barry Head created an illustrated satirical manual called “Let’s Talk About Freddish.” Anyone who’s seen the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? knows Rogers could take a good-natured joke at his expense, likely including the imaginative reconstruction of his methods below.

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

His crew respected him so much that even their parodies serve as slightly exaggerated tributes to his concerns. Rogers adapted his philosophical guidelines from the top psychologists and child-development experts of the time. The 9 Rules (or maybe 9 Stages) of “Freddish” above, as imagined by Greenwald and Head, reflect their work. Maybe implied in the joke is that his meticulous procedure, considering the possible effects of every word, would be impossible to emulate outside of his scripted encounters with children, prepped for by hours of conversation with child-development specialist Margaret McFarland.

Such is the kind of experience parents, teachers, and other caretakers never have. But Rogers understood and acknowledged the unique power and privilege of his role, more so than most every other children’s TV programmer. He made sure to get it right, as best he could, each time, not only so that kids could better take in the information, but so the grown-ups in their lives could make themselves better understood. Rogers wanted us to know, says Greenwald, "that the inner life of children was deadly serious to them," and thus deserving of care and recognition.

via Mental Floss

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

How to Memorize an Entire Chapter from “Moby Dick”: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything

Sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I mentally revisit the various homes of my childhood, wandering from room to room, turning on lights and peering in closets until I conk out.

Turns out these imaginary tours are also handy mnemonic tools, as Vox’s Dean Peterson explains above.

Hey, that’s good news… isn’t the subconscious rumored to do some heavy lifting in terms of processing information?

Peterson conquered a self-described bad memory, at least temporarily, by traipsing around his apartment, depositing vivid sentence-by-sentence clues that would eventually help him recite by heart one of his favorite chapters in Moby Dick.




In truth, he was planting these clues in his hippocampus, the relatively small structure in the brain that’s a critical player when it comes to memory, including the spatial memories that allow us to navigate familiar locations without seeming to give the matter any thought.

What made it stick was pairing his everyday coordinates to extraordinary visuals.

Chapter 37, for those keeping track at home, is a monologue for Captain Ahab in which he describes himself as not just mad but “madness maddened.” Here’s the first sentence:

I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail.

Not the easiest text for 21st-century heads to wrap around, though with a little effort, most of us get the gist.

Let’s not get hung up on literary interpretation here, though, folks. Having settled on his front stoop as the first stop of his memory palace Peterson refrained from picturing frothy spume lapping at the lowermost step. Instead he plunked down a funeral wreath and director John Waters, pale of suit and cheek, weeping. Get it? White? Wake? Pale cheeks?

After which Peterson moved on to the next sentence.

There are 38 in all, and after several days of practice in which he mentally walked the image-strewn course of his apartment-cum-Memory Palace, Peterson was able to regale his coworkers with an off-book recitation.

The time factor will definitely be a let down for those hoping for a low commitment party trick.

Peterson spent three-to-four hours a day pacing his spatial memory, admiring the oddities he himself had placed there.

The incredulous comments from those questioning the efficiency of giving up half a day to memorize a page and a half are balanced by testimonials from those who’ve met with success, using the Memory Palace method to retain vast amounts of data prior to an exam.

That may, ultimately, be a better use of the Memory Palace. Peterson gets an A for spitting out the lines as written, but his expression is that of an actor auditioning with material he has not yet mastered. (No shade on Peterson’s acting talent or lack thereof—even great actors get this face when their lines are shaky. One friend doesn’t consider herself off book until she can get all the way through her monologue whilst hopping on one foot.)

For more information on building a Memory Palace, refer, as Peterson did, to author Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, or to his appearance on Adam Grant’s TED Work/Life podcast. Stream it here:

If you would like to go whale to whale with Peterson, below is the text that he installed in his Memory Palace, compliments of Herman Melville:

I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.

Yonder, by ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun- slow dived from noon- goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet is it bright with many a gem; I the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. ‘Tis iron- that I know- not gold. ‘Tis split, too- that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!

Dry heat upon my brow? Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise! Good night-good night! (waving his hand, he moves from the window.)

‘Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad- Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and- Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. I laugh and hoot at ye, ye cricket-players, ye pugilists, ye deaf Burkes and blinded Bendigoes! I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies- Take some one of your own size; don’t pommel me! No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but ye have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags! I have no long gun to reach ye. Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run. Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City May 13 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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