I first encountered the world of Maurits Cornelis Escher where many others do: in school. A poster of his 22-foot-long Metamorphosis III hung along the walls of my fourth-grade classroom, where I spent many an idle minute or ten staring at its intricate geometry through which squares became birds, birds became lizards, lizards became fish, and it all somehow arrived at the cliff-like edge of a three-dimensional chessboard. It came as the last of a trilogy of woodcuts Escher made between 1937 and 1968, and a journey through its 1940 predecessor Metamorphosis II ends the 1971 documentary above, M.C. Escher: Adventures in Perception.
Escher himself seemingly had no happy classroom memories. “I hated school,” the narrator quotes him as saying. “The only class I liked at all was art. That doesn’t mean I was any good at it.” Though his work has no doubt inspired many youngsters to take up drawing, woodcutting, and printmaking themselves, it’s surely driven even more of them into mathematics.
Obsessed with perspective, geometry, and pattern (Escher described tessellation as “a real mania to which I have become addicted”), his images have, by the count of mathematician and Escher scholar Doris Schattschneider, led so far to eleven separate strands of mathematical and scientific research.
The twenty-minute Adventures in Perception, originally commissioned by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, offers in its first half a meditation on the mesmerizing, often impossible world Escher had created with his art to date. Its second half captures Escher in the last years of his life, still at work in his Laren, North Holland studio. It even shows him printing one of the three titular serpents, threaded through a set of elaborately interlocking circles, of his very last print Snakes. He never actually finished Snakes, whose patterns would have continued on to the effect of infinity, and even says here of his officially complete works that none succeed, “because it’s the dream I tried for that can’t be realized.” But those unrealized dreams have kept the rest of us dreaming, and thinking, ever since.
I love startups. Not only do they bring the promise of rapid growth and real change, but everything is up for grabs. Organizations that start with a clean sheet of paper have the difficult task of paying the bills, but they also have the luxury of ignoring yesterday in order to focus exclusively on tomorrow.
Through the years, I’ve started a bunch of companies and enjoyed brainstorming with the people who have launched companies big and small, from AOL when they only had a dozen employees to some of the very cool organizations that come through the doors of NY Techstars.
Next month, I’m going to be running a small school–a few days for a few dozen startup founders… For those that won’t be able to make it, I’ll be recording the session and editing it down into something I can share here on the blog for free a few months later.
Below, you can stream those 15 free recordings, each of which runs 18-25 minutes. We’ve embedded the first segment, “Freelancer or Entrepreneur?.” Further down you’ll find links to the remaining ones, or you can get them on SoundCloud and iTunes. Godin’s “Startup School” will be added to our collection of Free Online Business Courses, where you’ll also find the useful YCombinator course, How to Start a Startup.
A black quarterback refuses to stand during the national anthem—a song, incidentally, written by a “patriot” who was also a “bigot” and slaveowner, “vehemently opposed to abolition.” The quarterback declares that he will not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The quarterback is told he has disrespected the country, the police, and the military. His critics become enraged, apoplectic. He is told he should leave the country. He is mocked by thousands of people who point to his wealth and privileged, adoptive upbringing. An upbringing among white people. Such success, the underlying logic goes, and such a childhood should have made the quarterback patriotic, grateful, colorblind….
What if the quarterback had not grown up privileged, but in one of many communities of color that bear the brunt of well-documented but mostly ignored police violence and institutional discrimination and impoverishment? How would his actions be received then? We can imagine much the same, given the reaction to earlier, less-privileged sports figures, to Black Lives Matter protesters around the country, and to movements of the past. (Until last year, nine men in South Carolina still bore convictions for trespassing after their sit-in protests in 1961.) Protesting the country’s racist past and present—like protesting the country’s wars, inequality, or environmental depredations—is criminal, we’re told, blasphemous, tantamount to treason… or terrorism. The nation is innocent of all charges, and the protestors are bitter, naive, hateful, and worse. For readers of James Baldwin, it all sounds terribly familiar.
Baldwin’s is a difficult literary legacy: while we rejoice that he is still so often read, we lament that so many of his contemporary observations remain relevant. In 1962, Baldwin published an essay in The Progressive in the form of a letter to his nephew, James. Later collected in The Fire Next Time, the letter provided the inspiration for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent bestseller, Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his then 15-year-old son. In the video above—from this January’s star-studded MLK Now celebration—Chris Rock reads Baldwin’s passionate letter, itself an act of protest, unpatriotic, if you like, in which he levies the same charges against the nation as Colin Kaepernick has fifty-four years later.
“This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen,” writes Baldwin, “and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
Now, my dear namesake, these innocent and well meaning people, your countrymen, have caused you to be born under conditions not far removed from those described for us by Charles Dickens in the London of more than a hundred years ago. I hear the chorus of the innocents screaming, “No, this is not true. How bitter you are,” but I am writing this letter to you to try to tell you something about how to handle them, for most of them do not yet really know that you exist. I know the conditions under which you were born for I was there. Your countrymen were not there and haven’t made it yet. Your grandmother was also there and no one has ever accused her of being bitter. I suggest that the innocent check with her. She isn’t hard to find. Your countrymen don’t know that she exists either, though she has been working for them all their lives.
Baldwin’s ironic insistence on the country’s “innocence” is complex, his language filled with the cosmic imagery of the jeremiad. The people Baldwin speaks of really are in a sense “innocent,” in that they too are victims, “still trapped in a history which they do not understand and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.” People, as Coates put it, trapped in an unreal dream. “We cannot be free,” he writes, “until they are free.” With the coming of civil rights-era fights against racism, however, “those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality.”
Nonetheless, he urges his nephew to stay and “with love… force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Despite the grim, prophetic tenor of his message, Baldwin ends on a note of hope, one that recognizes love of country not as sentimental, ritualized loyalty pledges, but as a struggle and a reckoning with that country’s ugly truths:
For this is your home, my friend. Do not be driven from it. Great men have done great things here and will again and we can make America what America must become.
The art of audio engineering is mostly a dark one, an alchemy performed behind closed studio doors by people who speak a technical language most of us don’t recognize. That is until recently. Musicians amateur and professional have had to get behind the controls themselves and learn how to record their own music, a function of decimated studio budgets and easily available digital versions of once rarified and prohibitively expensive analog equipment. As with all technological developments that put more control into the hands of laypeople, the results are mixed: a proliferation of quirky, interesting, homemade music, yes, and artists with total control over their production methods and the means to release their music when and how they please…
But with the democratization of recording technology, I fear we may begin to forget what really great, really expensive, audio engineering sounds like, an unheard-of consideration in the fifties and sixties, when the process may as well have been magic to most record buyers, and when engineer Rudy Van Gelder recorded some of the greatest—and best sounding—jazz albums ever made. A Love Supreme? That was Van Gelder. Also Miles Davis’ Walkin’, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus, Horace Silver’s Song for My Father… Dexter Gordon, Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter, Art Blakey…. You’re getting the idea. “Thelonious Monk composed a tribute to Van Gelder’s home studio,” writes The Guardian, and “recorded it there in 1954.”
What made Van Gelder’s albums so amazing, his skills so in-demand? Hear for yourself, in the incredible playlist below featuring 508 hours of music recorded by the man. (Need Spotify? Download it here.) We can also let the engineer—who died at his New Jersey home and studio at 91 last Thursday—tell us himself in rare interviews, and demystify some of the intrinsic properties of the recording process. “When people talk about my albums,” Van Gelder said, “they often say the music has ‘space.’ I tried to reproduce a sense of space in the overall sound picture.” His use of “specific microphones” located around the room to create “a sensation of dimension and depth” show us that recording isn’t simply reproducing the sound of the instruments and players, but of the space around them, which is why studio owners spend millions to build acoustically treated rooms.
But for all his professionalism and pioneering use of top equipment like German-made Neumann microphones, we should note that Van Gelder got his start, and did some of his best work, in his bedroom, so to speak. The fastidious recording engineer, who wore gloves while recording and dressed like a corporate accountant, actually worked as an optometrist by day for over a decade, making records, The New York Times writes, “out of a studio in his parents’ living room in Hackensack, N.J. Not until 1959—by which time he had already engineered some of the most celebrated recordings in jazz history—could he afford to make engineering his full-time occupation.”
That same studio in Van Gelder’s parents’ living room is the one to which Monk paid homage in ’54. Not only that, but like many of today’s self-taught home engineers, Van Gelder “was involved in every aspect of making records, from preparation to mastering.” Which goes to show, perhaps, that maybe great engineering, like great musicianship, isn’t about access to expensive gear or highly specialized training. Maybe it’s about something else. Van Gelder “had the final say in what the records sounded like, and he was, in the view of countless producers and listeners, better at that than anyone.” How? Aside from vague talk of “space” and “dimension,” writes Tape Op, Van Gelder “never discussed his techniques,” even in an interview with the respected recording magazine. Maybe there really was a kind of magic involved.
We can learn much about how a historical period viewed the abilities of its children by studying its children’s literature. Occupying a space somewhere between the purely didactic and the nonsensical, most children’s books published in the past few hundred years have attempted to find a line between the two poles, seeking a balance between entertainment and instruction. However, that line seems to move closer to one pole or another depending on the prevailing cultural sentiments of the time. And the very fact that children’s books were hardly published at all before the early 18th century tells us a lot about when and how modern ideas of childhood as a separate category of existence began.
Grenby notes that “the reasons for this sudden rise of children’s literature” and its rapid expansion into a booming market by the early 1800s “have never been fully explained.” We are free to speculate about the social and pedagogical winds that pushed this historical change.
Or we might do so, at least, by examining the children’s literature of the Victorian era, perhaps the most innovative and diverse period for children’s literature thus far by the standards of the time. And we can do so most thoroughly by surveying the thousands of mid- to late 19th century titles at the University of Florida’s Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature. Their digitized collectioncurrently holds over 6,000 books free to read online from cover to cover, allowing you to get a sense of what adults in Britain and the U.S. wanted children to know and believe.
Several genres flourished at the time: religious instruction, naturally, but also language and spelling books, fairy tales, codes of conduct, and, especially, adventure stories—pre-Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew examples of what we would call young adult fiction, these published principally for boys. Adventure stories offered a (very colonialist) view of the wide world; in series like the Boston-published Zig Zag and English books like Afloat with Nelson, both from the 1890s, fact mingled with fiction, natural history and science with battle and travel accounts. But there is another distinctive strain in the children’s literature of the time, one which to us—but not necessarily to the Victorians—would seem contrary to the imperialist young adult novel.
For most Victorian students and readers, poetry was a daily part of life, and it was a central instructional and storytelling form in children’s lit. The A.L.O.E.’s Bible Picture Book from 1871, above, presents “Stories from the Life of Our Lord in Verse,” written “simply for the Lord’s lambs, rhymes more readily than prose attracting the attention of children, and fastening themselves on their memories.” Children and adults regularly memorized poetry, after all. Yet after the explosion in children’s publishing the former readers were often given inferior examples of it. The author of the Bible Picture Book admits as much, begging the indulgence of older readers in the preface for “defects in my work,” given that “the verses were made for the pictures, not the pictures for the verses.”
This is not an author, or perhaps a type of literature, one might suspect, that thinks highly of children’s aesthetic sensibilities. We find precisely the opposite to be the case in the wonderful Elfin Rhymes from 1900, written by the mysterious “Norman” with “40 drawings by Carton Moorepark.” Whoever “Norman” may be (or why his one-word name appears in quotation marks), he gives his readers poems that might be mistaken at first glance for unpublished Christina Rossetti verses; and Mr. Moorepark’s illustrations rival those of the finest book illustrators of the time, presaging the high quality of Caldecott Medal-winning books of later decades. Elfin Rhymes seems like a rare oddity, likely published in a small print run; the care and attention of its layout and design shows a very high opinion of its readers’ imaginative capabilities.
This title is representative of an emerging genre of late Victorian children’s literature, which still tended on the whole, as it does now, to fall into the trite and formulaic. Elfin Rhymes sits astride the fantasy boom at the turn of the century, heralded by hugely popular books like Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz series and J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. These, the Harry Potters of their day, made millions of young people passionate readers of modern fairy tales, representing a slide even further away from the once quite narrow, “remorselessly instructional… or deeply pious” categories available in early writing for children, as Grenby points out.
Where the boundaries for kids’ literature had once been narrowly fixed by Latin grammar books and Pilgrim’s Progress, by the end of the 19th century, the influence of science fiction like Jules Verne’s, and of popular supernatural tales and poems, prepared the ground for comic books, YA dystopias, magician fiction, and dozens of other children’s literature genres we now take for granted, or—in increasingly large numbers—we buy to read for ourselves. Enter the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature here, where you can browse several categories, search for subjects, authors, titles, etc, see full-screen, zoomable images of book covers, download XML versions, and read all of the over 6,000 books in the collection with comfortable reader views. Find more classics in our collection, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kindle & Other Devices.
In the winter of 2012, just before Christmas, a carful of Britons made their way through the snow to a house in rural France. The roads would soon close, but no matter; they’d planned to make some apple crumbles, do some drawing, and enjoy some conversation. This may all sound normal enough, but the car didn’t contain your average cottage-staying holidaymakers: the critic and filmmaker Colin MacCabe rode in it, as did Tilda Swinton, the actress as famed for her performances as for her range of artistic and intellectual interests. They’d come to shoot a documentary on the occupant of the house at which they’d arrived: artist, critic, writer, and self-described “storyteller” John Berger.
He and Swinton first became friends in the late 1980s, when she played a small part in a film based on one of his short stories, in which he himself also appeared. “The old intellectual and the young actress immediately formed a close bond,” writes The Independent‘s Geoffrey McNab.
“Both were born in London, on 5 November — Berger in 1926, Swinton in 1960 — and their shared birthday has, as Swinton puts it, ‘formed a bedrock to our complicity, the practical fantasy of twinship.'” This they discuss in the McCabe-directed “Ways of Listening,” the first of a quartet of segments that constitute the new documentary The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, a co-production of Birkbeck, University of London’s Derek Jarman Lab.“Sometimes I think it’s as though, in another life, we met or did something,” says Berger as he draws Swinton’s portrait. “We are aware of it in some department which isn’t memory, although it’s quite close to memory. Maybe, in another life, we… touched together.”
“Ways of Listening” captures an extended conversation between Berger and Swinton, though it also features their narration. In this scene, Berger reads from his recent meditation on the practice of drawing for his book Bento’s Sketchbook: “We who draw do so not only to make something visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.” (Swinton, for her part, reads from Spinoza.) But the talk returns to what brought them together in the first place. “Maybe we made an appointment to see each other again, in this life,” Berger proposes. “The fifth of November. But it wasn’t the same year. That didn’t matter. We weren’t in that kind of time.”
We’d grown accustomed to his face—that wry, distinctive mug, smirking at us from beneath his Willy Wonka purple top hat in millions of proliferating Condescending Wonka memes, the epitome of archness and smug condescension. Apologies to Johnny Depp, but no one else could have so perfectly inhabited Roald Dahl’s mercurial candyman like Gene Wilder, who passed away yesterday from Alzheimer’s at the age of 83. Wilder’s Wonka may casually torture his spoiled child guests, but we remember him as a sadist with a heart of gold.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, is one of those rare films beloved both by children and adults (or at least I remember them that way); many future generations will discover Wilder’s manic brilliance in his collaborations with Mel Brooks—Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Producers—and with Richard Pryor, his friend and frequent comic foil. And those who lived through the 80s will also remember Wilder for one of the great romances of the decade.
Wilder and Gilda Radner were a comedy power couple whose marriage ended tragically with her death from ovarian cancer in 1989. That same year he received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Wilder was devastated by Radner’s death,” writes Variety, “and only worked intermittently after that.” But he never lost his sharp, madcap sense of humor and deep well of genuine vulnerability as his career shifted into lower gears in the ensuing decades. (He won an Emmy in 2003 for a guest role on Will & Grace and published a novel in 2007).
Wilder was always happy to share his creative insights and stories with fans, giving frequent interviews in the last few years and appearing on panels like that above, a 1999 forum on “The Wonders of Creativity” with Jane Alexander, Danny Glover, and others. Wilder shares a hilariously irreverent story from his childhood about how he learned to consciously make other people laugh by practicing on his mother after she’d had a heart attack.
This anecdote gives way to another, both laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking at once, of young, 1st-grade Gene (then Jerry Silberman) facing rejection from a teacher (“That stupid lady”) who told him his artwork wasn’t good enough to hang on the wall. The hurt stayed with him, so that in 1984, he tells us, “I began painting. Now I try to paint every day of my life.” Wilder communicates his creative philosophy through personal vignettes like these, colorfully illustrating how he became an actor Pauline Kael called “a superb technician… [and] an inspired original.”
In the animated Blank on Blank interview clip above—taken from his 2007 conversation with Letty Cottin Pogrebin at the 92nd Street Y after the debut of his novel—Wilder opens with another version of the story about his mother, the source, he says of his confidence as an actor. He began his career in the theater in the early sixties, and says he “felt on stage, or in the movies, I could do whatever I wanted to. I was free.” He also talks about actors’ mysterious motivations:
If you ask an actor, “Why do you want to act?,” I don’t think most of them know the real reasons. After seven and a half years of analysis, I have a fairly good idea why. My analyst said, “Well, it’s better than running around naked in Central Park, isn’t it?”
Wilder then tells the story of how he suggested Willy Wonka’s dramatic entrance to the film’s director—insisted on it, in fact, as a condition for taking the part. “From that time on,” he said of the character’s first moments on screen, “no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” That was the comedic genius of Gene Wilder, may it live forever in some of the most sweetly hysterical and wickedly funny characters in film history. Learn more about Wilder’s life and long career in the retrospective documentary below.
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