Learn Python with a Free Online Course from MIT

The pro­gram­ming lan­guage Python takes its name from Mon­ty Python (true sto­ry!), and now cours­es that teach Python are in very high demand. Last Decem­ber, we fea­tured a free Python course cre­at­ed by Google. Today, it’s a free Python course from MIT.

Designed for stu­dents with lit­tle or no pro­gram­ming expe­ri­ence, the course “aims to pro­vide stu­dents with an under­stand­ing of the role com­pu­ta­tion can play in solv­ing prob­lems. It also aims to help stu­dents, regard­less of their major, to feel jus­ti­fi­ably con­fi­dent of their abil­i­ty to write small pro­grams that allow them to accom­plish use­ful goals.” Beyond offer­ing a primer on Python, the course offers an intro­duc­tion to com­put­er sci­ence itself.

The 38 lec­tures above were pre­sent­ed by MIT’s John Gut­tag. On this MIT web­site, you can find relat­ed course mate­ri­als, includ­ing a syl­labus and soft­ware. And if you’re inter­est­ed in tak­ing this course as a MOOC (Mas­sive Open Online Course), you can sign up for the ver­sion that begins on May 27th over at edx.

The course will be added to our list of Free Com­put­er Sci­ence Cours­es, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, 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. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Learn Python: A Free Online Course from Google

Learn How to Code for Free: A DIY Guide for Learn­ing HTML, Python, Javascript & More

Down­load 243 Free eBooks on Design, Data, Soft­ware, Web Devel­op­ment & Busi­ness from O’Reilly Media

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Everything Thing You Ever Wanted to Know About the Synthesizer: A Vintage Three-Hour Crash Course

Recent­ly I’ve been div­ing back into mak­ing music on my lap­top. Just like the iPhone has done to bulky equip­ment like cam­eras and key­boards, the dig­i­tal work­sta­tion has shrunk tons of gear, from music to mas­ter­ing, down into soft­ware. There’s cer­tain­ly no way I’m going to lug a mini-Moog to a cof­fee shop. But I’m will­ing to dab­ble with synth soft­ware, turn those dials and knobs, and see what hap­pens.

So this upload of “Intro to Syn­the­sis,” an instruc­tion­al VHS from 1985, is per­fect for me, and maybe you too. The hair, the clothes, and the jokes might be dat­ed, but the info is not. In the above video, Dean Friedman–who if you close your eyes sounds like late night host Seth Meyers–lays out the build­ing blocks of sound (pitch, tim­bre, vol­ume), the five types of wave­forms, and the sev­en com­po­nents of a syn­the­siz­er, from oscil­la­tors to the LFO.

All of these fea­tures are still found on the synth inter­faces used today in some form or anoth­er, and Fried­man goes through every ele­ment at a method­i­cal but appre­ci­at­ed pace. The three videos are an hour each.

And it pays to study the con­trols of synths and learn what makes them tick. The Yama­ha DX‑7 con­tained many pre-sets which, unfid­dled with, sound dat­ed and appear on many an ‘80s pop hit. Mean­while, Bri­an Eno, one of the few to actu­al­ly read the man­u­al, made “The Shutov Assem­bly” and oth­er mid-era ambi­ent tracks with the very same machine and noth­ing sounds quite like it.
Hap­py twid­dling!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A 10-Hour Playlist of Music Inspired by Robert Moog’s Icon­ic Syn­the­siz­er: Hear Elec­tron­ic Works by Kraftwerk, Devo, Ste­vie Won­der, Rick Wake­man & More

Dis­cov­er­ing Elec­tron­ic Music: 1983 Doc­u­men­tary Offers a Fun & Edu­ca­tion­al Intro­duc­tion to Elec­tron­ic Music

Hear Sev­en Hours of Women Mak­ing Elec­tron­ic Music (1938- 2014)

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music Visu­al­ized on a Cir­cuit Dia­gram of a 1950s Theremin: 200 Inven­tors, Com­posers & Musi­cians

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 tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Hear 2,000 Recordings of the Most Essential Jazz Songs: A Huge Playlist for Your Jazz Education

If you were to ask me “What is jazz?” I wouldn’t pre­sume to know the answer, and I’m not sure any sin­gle com­po­si­tion exists to which one could point to as an ide­al type. Maybe the only thing I’m cer­tain of when it comes to jazz is—to quote Wal­lace Stevens—“it must change.”

Of course, there’s an incred­i­bly rich his­to­ry of jazz, broad­ly known, espe­cial­ly to those who have seen Ken Burns’ expan­sive doc­u­men­tary. I’d also rec­om­mend the excel­lent jazz writ­ing of Amiri Bara­ka, Stan­ley Crouch, or Philip Larkin. For the young, we might con­sult Langston Hugh­es’ illus­trat­ed jazz his­to­ry. And maybe every­one should read Charles Min­gus’ Gram­my-nom­i­nat­ed essay “What is a Jazz Com­pos­er?” in which the con­trar­i­an genius writes, “each jazz musi­cian is sup­posed to be a com­pos­er. Whether he is or not, I don’t know.”

Min­gus the icon­o­clast argued for tear­ing up the text even as he sought a clas­si­cal pedi­gree for jazz. His wish was part­ly grant­ed by the influ­ence of jazz on com­posers like Leonard Bern­stein, who sought to answer the ques­tion “What is Jazz?” in a 1956 spo­ken-word LP. The ten­sion between jazz as a com­po­si­tion­al or whol­ly impro­vi­sa­tion­al art seems to resound through­out the form, in all of its many guis­es and vari­a­tions. But one thing I think every jazz musi­cian knows is this: Stan­dards, a com­mon com­pendi­um of songs in the tra­di­tion.

You’ve got to know the rule­book (or the fake­book, at the least), before you can throw it out the win­dow. Even some of the most inno­v­a­tive jazz artists who more or less invent­ed their own scales, modes, and harmonies—like Cecil Tay­lor and Ornette Cole­man—either stud­ied at con­ser­va­to­ry or paid their dues as side­men play­ing oth­er people’s songs. Jazz—Coleman once told Jacques Der­ri­da—is “a con­ver­sa­tion with sounds.” Its under­ly­ing gram­mar comes from the Stan­dards.

Until fair­ly recent­ly, the only way one could get a prop­er edu­ca­tion in the stan­dards was on the job. Crit­ic, jazz his­to­ri­an, and pianist Ted Gioia writes as much in his com­pre­hen­sive 2012 ref­er­ence, The Jazz Stan­dards: A Guide to the Reper­toire. Gioia’s “edu­ca­tion in this music was hap­pen­stance and hard earned.” He writes, “aspir­ing musi­cians today can hard­ly imag­ine how opaque the art form was just a few decades ago—no school I attend­ed had a jazz pro­gram or even offered a sin­gle course on jazz.”

How times have changed. These days, if you can get in, you can take grad­u­ate-lev­el class­es taught by the greats, such as Her­bie Han­cock and Wayne Short­er at UCLA. Hun­dreds more less-famous jazz musi­cian pro­fes­sors stand at the ready in music depart­ments world­wide or at the renowned Berklee Col­lege of Music.

But for those auto­di­dacts out there, Gioia—who has served on the fac­ul­ty at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty and been called “one of the out­stand­ing music his­to­ri­ans in America”—offers an excep­tion­al guide to the Stan­dards, one we can not only read, but also, thanks to Jim Hig­gins of the Jour­nal Sen­tinel, lis­ten to, in the Spo­ti­fy playlist above. (If you need Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware, down­load it here.) In a com­pan­ion essay, Hig­gins describes the process of com­pil­ing “as many of the per­for­mances [Gioia] rec­om­mend­ed” in his com­men­tary on 250 jazz stan­dards.

Gioia names over 2,000 dif­fer­ent per­for­mances of those 250 stan­dards, and the playlist con­tains near­ly all of them. You’ll find, for exam­ple, “sev­er­al dif­fer­ent record­ings of ‘In a Sen­ti­men­tal Mood’ by the com­pos­er (includ­ing one with John Coltrane), as well as ver­sions by Son­ny Rollins, Art Tatum, McCoy Tyn­er, Abdul­lah Ibrahim and Bud­dy Tate, and Chris Pot­ter.” While the playlist is “not a com­plete reflec­tion of Gioia’s rec­om­men­da­tions,” giv­en that cer­tain artists’ work can­not be streamed, “there’s a lot of music here”—a whole lot—“spanning a cen­tu­ry.”

The expe­ri­ence of lis­ten­ing to this incred­i­ble library will not be com­plete with­out some con­text. Gioia’s book con­tains a “short his­tor­i­cal and musi­cal essay” on each of the 250 songs and he isn’t shy about offer­ing inci­sive crit­i­cal com­men­tary. Oth­er than going to music school or join­ing a tour­ing band, I can’t think of a bet­ter way to learn the Stan­dards.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What is Jazz?: Leonard Bernstein’s Intro­duc­tion to the Great Amer­i­can Art Form (1956)

Philoso­pher Jacques Der­ri­da Inter­views Jazz Leg­end Ornette Cole­man: Talk Impro­vi­sa­tion, Lan­guage & Racism (1997)

Langston Hugh­es Presents the His­to­ry of Jazz in an Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book (1955)

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

Noel Coward’s “Alice (Is At It Again)” Gets Reimagined as a Very Modern Fairy Tale: A Short Film Starring Sarah Snook

Eng­lish play­wright, lyri­cist, actor and racon­teur Noel Cow­ard (1899 –1973) is still remem­bered for his plays such as the wife-after-death com­e­dy Blithe Spir­it and Pri­vate Lives; his playlet Still Life, which became the clas­sic David Lean film Brief Encounter, and his script­ing and co-direc­tion of the WW2 morale-boost­er In Which We Serve, also direct­ed by Lean, for which Cow­ard won an Hon­orary Acad­e­my Award. How­ev­er, he’s per­haps bet­ter known now more as an image of arche­typ­al mid-20th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish­ness, replete with dress­ing-gown and cig­a­rette-hold­er, and the hun­dreds of wit­ty songs and poems he wrote, such as Mad Dogs and Eng­lish­man and Mrs Wor­thing­ton, which he per­formed in cabaret in his dis­tinc­tive­ly clipped Eng­lish man­ner to much acclaim in Lon­don and, lat­ter­ly, in Las Vegas.

His 1946 song Alice (Is At It Again), writ­ten and then cut from his flop musi­cal Pacif­ic 1860, became a stan­dard of his cabaret act and, with its sug­ges­tive lyrics, risqué sub­ject mat­ter and sly wit, is typ­i­cal of his oeu­vre. It’s thus a sur­pris­ing choice per­haps by ris­ing Aus­tralian actress Sarah Snook for the sub­ject of her new short film Alice, co-devised with direc­tor Lau­ra Scrivano, and the sec­ond film of The Pas­sion, a new online series of per­formed poet­ry films com­ing out of Aus­tralia. The first film in the series, A Lovesong, star­ring Daniel Hen­shall (from AMC’s Turn: Wash­ing­ton Spies), fea­tured T.S. Eliot’s mod­ernist mas­ter­piece The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (watch it below), so Alice is a change both in style and tone for the series, but con­tin­ues the project’s exper­i­men­ta­tion in ren­der­ing poet­ry on film for a dig­i­tal audi­ence.

Sarah, who won crit­i­cal acclaim for her gen­der­switch­ing role in the 2015 sci­ence-fic­tion thriller Pre­des­ti­na­tion, found the Cow­ard text in a book­shop in San Fran­cis­co, while sourc­ing a text for her film for the series.

Says Sarah:

(Direc­tor) Lau­ra and I were inter­est­ed in the ideas of fem­i­nin­i­ty and how that is expressed, par­tic­u­lar­ly in sex­u­al or sen­su­al terms. When I read the poem, I was charmed by it and excit­ed by the poten­tial and chal­lenge of con­tem­po­riz­ing it for The Pas­sion. Coward’s themes are very much of the time and place of the orig­i­nal lyrics’ writ­ing, as is his take on them, while our adap­ta­tion is an updat­ing, an explo­ration of female sex­u­al­i­ty and empow­er­ment that Cow­ard plays with, and the wild­ness and free­dom of dis­cov­er­ing that. Our Alice, who I think nods to Coward’s, is break­ing out of the stric­tures of her back­ground, and being free and true to her­self.

Orig­i­nal­ly Alice, as read by Cow­ard, would have been per­formed with a pat­ter, a rhythm of its own, with a sense of irony and a lot of wit, and cer­tain­ly in his very par­tic­u­lar RP accent. It’s hard to escape that as it’s writ­ten so well and embed­ded so deeply into the lines, with a par­tic­u­lar scan­sion, but I want­ed to go against that some­what, while retain­ing and respect­ing Coward’s sparkle and play­ful­ness.

Alice is the sec­ond film of The Pas­sion series, in which actors select a text which has a per­son­al sig­nif­i­cance for them or strikes a par­tic­u­lar chord, and then work close­ly in col­lab­o­ra­tion with direc­tor Lau­ra Scrivano to devel­op it as a new per­for­mance piece for film. A third film is cur­rent­ly in devel­op­ment. More infor­ma­tion about the series can be found at this web­site.

Dan Prichard is an online film and web­series pro­duc­er, based in Syd­ney, whose work explores iden­ti­ty, place, and the space between film and per­for­mance in the dig­i­tal are­na. Vis­it his web­site and fol­low him on twit­ter @georgekaplan81

Stephen Wolfram’s Bestseller, A New Kind of Science, Now Free to Read/Download Online

It’s been 15 years since com­put­er sci­en­tist and physi­cist Stephen Wol­fram pub­lished his best­selling book A New Kind of Sci­enceAnd now Wol­fram has put his book online. It’s avail­able in its entire­ty, all 1,200 pages, includ­ing the superb graph­ics. Feel free to read the pages on the web. Or down­load them as PDFs.

It’s also worth read­ing Wol­fram’s new blog post where, in announc­ing the new online edi­tion, he revis­its the intel­lec­tu­al con­tri­bu­tions he made with the book.

The online edi­tion of A New Kind of Sci­ence will be added to our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices.

via Boing­Bo­ing

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, 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. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Now Com­plete­ly Online

200 Free Text­books: A Meta Col­lec­tion

Down­load 464 Free Art Books from The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art

John Grisham Is Let­ting You Down­load His New Nov­el as a Free eBook

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An Animated Introduction to Samuel Beckett, Absurdist Playwright, Novelist & Poet

Though he’s best known for his spare, absur­dist tragi­com­e­dy, Wait­ing for Godot, play­wright, poet, and nov­el­ist Samuel Beck­ett wrote what might be his most-quot­ed line at the end of The Unnam­able, the third book in a hyp­not­ic tril­o­gy that begins with Mol­loy and con­tin­ues with Mal­one Dies: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

These nov­els, and the orig­i­nal Godot, were all writ­ten in French, then trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Beck­ett him­self. But Beck­ett was an Irish writer, who—like his con­tem­po­rary, hero, coun­try­man, and almost-father-in-law James Joyce—lived most of his life in vol­un­tary exile. Like Joyce, Beck­ett wrote about Irish char­ac­ters, and his “theme,” not­ed a 1958 New York Times review­er of The Unnam­able, “is the very Irish one in this cen­tu­ry: the iden­ti­ty of oppo­sites.”

Noth­ing in Beck­ett encap­su­lates this idea more con­cise­ly than the sev­en-word con­clud­ing line of The Unnam­able. It’s a sen­tence that sums up so much of Beckett—his ellip­ti­cal apho­risms; his dry, acer­bic wit; and his unwa­ver­ing stare into the abyss. As one con­tem­po­rary of his sug­gest­ed, Beck­ett will remain rel­e­vant “as long as peo­ple still die.” His pri­ma­ry sub­ject is indeed one of the few tru­ly uni­ver­sal themes.

But to only think of Beck­ett as mor­bid is not to read Beck­ett or see his work per­formed. While he can be unre­lent­ing­ly grim, he is also nev­er not in con­trol of the dry humor of his voice. In his ani­mat­ed School of Life intro­duc­tion to Beck­ett above, Alain de Bot­ton begins with an anec­dote about Beck­ett at a much-antic­i­pat­ed crick­et match. Observ­ing the per­fect weath­er, a com­pan­ion of his remarked, “This is the sort of day that would make you glad to be alive.” To which Beck­ett replied, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”

The sto­ry, de Bot­ton, says, “nice­ly encom­pass­es two aspects of Samuel Beck­ett: his famous­ly bleak view of life, and his mor­dant sense of humor.” They are qual­i­ties that for Beck­ett have the sta­tus of philo­soph­i­cal principles—though the author him­self had a very fraught, almost aller­gic, rela­tion­ship to phi­los­o­phy. He gave up teach­ing ear­ly in his career, as we learn in the video, because “he felt he could not teach to oth­ers what he did not know him­self.” When a ver­sion of Wait­ing for Godot debuted in 1952, Beck­ett sent a note to be read in his place. He wrote, in part:

All I knew I showed. It’s not much, but it’s enough for me, by a wide mar­gin. I’ll even say that I would have been sat­is­fied with less. As for want­i­ng to find in all that a broad­er, lofti­er mean­ing to car­ry away from the per­for­mance, along with the pro­gram and the Eski­mo pie, I can­not see the point of it. But it must be pos­si­ble …

The neces­si­ty of the point­less exer­cise; the rich­ness in the pover­ty of existence—stripped of its pre­tense and grand, self-impor­tant nar­ra­tives.… These ideas arise from “the themes of fail­ure that so dom­i­nate his work,” says de Bot­ton. Though Beck­ett resist­ed inter­pre­ta­tion in his own writ­ing, he wrote an ear­ly study of Mar­cel Proust that inter­pret­ed the French author’s work as a phi­los­o­phy of life which rests “on the mak­ing and appre­ci­a­tion of art.” Giv­en that this is a School of Life video, this inter­pre­ta­tion becomes the favored way to read Beck­ett. There are many oth­ers. But as the title of a 1994 Samuel Beck­ett read­er—I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On—sug­gests, every approach to Beck­ett must some­how try to account for the stub­born inten­si­ty of his con­tra­dic­tions.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Samuel Beckett’s Avant-Garde Radio Plays: All That Fall, Embers, and More

When Samuel Beck­ett Drove Young André the Giant to School: A True Sto­ry

The Books Samuel Beck­ett Read and Real­ly Liked (1941–1956)

How James Joyce’s Daugh­ter, Lucia, Was Treat­ed for Schiz­o­phre­nia by Carl Jung

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

Huge Hands Rise Out of Venice’s Waters to Support the City Threatened by Climate Change: A Poignant New Sculpture

Upon arriv­ing in Venice in the late 1930s, colum­nist and Algo­nquin Round Table reg­u­lar Robert Bench­ley imme­di­ate­ly sent a telegram back home to Amer­i­ca: “Streets full of water. Please advise.” The line has tak­en its place in the canon of Amer­i­can humor, but in more recent times the image of water-filled streets — unin­ten­tion­al­ly water-filled streets, that is — has arisen most often in the con­ver­sa­tion about cli­mate change. Some of the poten­tial dis­as­ter sce­nar­ios envi­sion every major coastal city on Earth even­tu­al­ly turn­ing into a kind of Venice, albeit a much less pleas­ant ver­sion there­of.

And so what bet­ter place than the one that hosts per­haps the world’s best known art exhi­bi­tion, the Venice Bien­nale, to express cli­mate-change anx­i­ety in the form of pub­lic sculp­ture? “Venice is known for its gon­do­las, canals, and his­toric bridges,” writes Condé Nast Trav­el­er’s Sebas­t­ian Modak, “but vis­i­tors will now also be greet­ed by anoth­er, albeit tem­po­rary, reminder of the city’s inti­mate rela­tion­ship with water: a giant pair of hands reach­ing out of the Grand Canal and appear­ing to sup­port the walls of the his­toric Ca’ Sagre­do Hotel.” The piece is called Sup­port, and it’s cre­at­ed by Barcelona-based Ital­ian sculp­tor Loren­zo Quinn.

“I have three chil­dren, and I’m think­ing about their gen­er­a­tion and what world we’re going to pass on to them,” Quinn told Mash­able’s Maria Gal­luc­ci. “I’m wor­ried, I’m very wor­ried.” The hands of his 11-year-old son actu­al­ly pro­vid­ed the mod­el for the polyurethane-and-resin hands of Sup­port, weigh­ing 5,000 pounds each, that stand on 30-foot pil­lars at the bot­tom of the Grand Canal. Modak quotes one of Quin­n’s Insta­gram posts which describes the work as speak­ing to the peo­ple “in a clear, sim­ple and direct way through the inno­cent hands of a child and it evokes a pow­er­ful mes­sage, which is that unit­ed we can make a stand to curb the cli­mate change that affects us all.”

Those argu­ing in favor of more aggres­sive polit­i­cal mea­sures to coun­ter­act the effects of cli­mate change have gone to great lengths to point out what forms those effects have so far tak­en. But the fact that, apart from a stretch of hot sum­mers, few of those effects have yet man­i­fest­ed unde­ni­ably in most peo­ple’s lives has cer­tain­ly made their job hard­er. But nobody who vis­its Venice dur­ing the Bien­nale could fail to pause before Sup­port, a work whose visu­al dra­ma demands a reac­tion that tem­per­a­ture charts or data-filled stud­ies can’t hope to pro­voke by them­selves. And even apart from the issue at hand, as it were, Quin­n’s sculp­ture reminds us that art, even in as deeply his­tor­i­cal a set­ting as Venice, can also keep us think­ing about the future.

via Colos­sal

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Glob­al Warm­ing: A Free Course from UChica­go Explains Cli­mate Change

132 Years of Glob­al Warm­ing Visu­al­ized in 26 Dra­mat­i­cal­ly Ani­mat­ed Sec­onds

Music for a String Quar­tet Made from Glob­al Warm­ing Data: Hear “Plan­e­tary Bands, Warm­ing World”

A Song of Our Warm­ing Plan­et: Cel­list Turns 130 Years of Cli­mate Change Data into Music

How Cli­mate Change Is Threat­en­ing Your Dai­ly Cup of Cof­fee

Frank Capra’s Sci­ence Film The Unchained God­dess Warns of Cli­mate Change in 1958

Watch Episode 1 of Years of Liv­ing Dan­ger­ous­ly, The New Show­time Series on Cli­mate Change

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Helen Keller Writes a Letter to Nazi Students Before They Burn Her Book: “History Has Taught You Nothing If You Think You Can Kill Ideas” (1933)

Helen Keller achieved noto­ri­ety not only as an indi­vid­ual suc­cess sto­ry, but also as a pro­lif­ic essay­ist, activist, and fierce advo­cate for poor and mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple. She “was a life­long rad­i­cal,” writes Peter Dreier at Yes! mag­a­zine, whose “inves­ti­ga­tion into the caus­es of blind­ness” even­tu­al­ly led her to “embrace social­ism, fem­i­nism, and paci­fism.” Keller sup­port­ed the NAACP and ACLU, and protest­ed strong­ly against patron­iz­ing calls for her to “con­fine my activ­i­ties to social ser­vice and the blind.” Her crit­ics, she wrote, mis­char­ac­ter­ized her ideas as “a Utopi­an dream, and one who seri­ous­ly con­tem­plates its real­iza­tion indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.”

Twen­ty years lat­er she found a dif­fer­ent set of read­ers treat­ing her ideas with con­tempt. This time, how­ev­er, the crit­ics were in Nazi Ger­many, and instead of sim­ply dis­agree­ing with her, they added her col­lec­tion of essays, How I Became a Social­ist, to a list of “degen­er­ate” books to be burned on May 10, 1933. Such was the date cho­sen by Hitler for “a nation­wide ‘Action Against the Un-Ger­man Spir­it,’” writes Rafael Med­off, to take place at Ger­man Universities—“a series of pub­lic burn­ings of the banned books” that “dif­fered from the Nazis’ per­spec­tive on polit­i­cal, social, or cul­tur­al mat­ters, as well as all books by Jew­ish authors.”

Books burned includ­ed works by Ein­stein and Freud, H.G. Wells, Hem­ing­way, and Jack Lon­don, Stu­dents hauled books out of the libraries as part of the spec­ta­cle. “The largest of the 34 book-burn­ing ral­lies, held in Berlin,” Med­off notes, “was attend­ed by an esti­mat­ed 40,000 peo­ple.”

Not only were these demon­stra­tions of anti-Semi­tism, but their con­tempt for ideas appealed broad­ly to the Nazi phi­los­o­phy of “Blood and Soil,” a nation­al­ist car­i­ca­ture of rur­al val­ues over a sup­pos­ed­ly “degen­er­ate,” poly­glot urban­ism. “The soul of the Ger­man peo­ple can again express itself,” declared Joseph Goebbels omi­nous­ly at the Berlin ral­ly. “These flames not only illu­mi­nate the final end of an old era; they also light up the new.”

“Some Amer­i­can edi­to­r­i­al respons­es” before and after the burn­ings, “made light of the event,” remarks the Unit­ed States Holo­caust Muse­um, call­ing it “sil­ly” and “infan­tile.”  Oth­ers fore­saw much worse to come. In one very explic­it expres­sion of the ter­ri­ble pos­si­bil­i­ties, artist and polit­i­cal car­toon­ist Jacob Bur­ck drew the image above, evok­ing the obser­va­tion of 19th cen­tu­ry Ger­man writer Hein­rich Heine: “Where one burns books, one will soon burn peo­ple.” Newsweek described the events as “’a holo­caust of books’… one of the first instances in which the term ‘holo­caust’ (an ancient Greek word mean­ing a burnt offer­ing to a deity) was used in con­nec­tion with the Nazis.”

The day before the burn­ings, Keller also dis­played a keen sense for the grav­i­ty of book burn­ings, as well as a “notable… ear­ly con­cern,” notes Rebec­ca Onion at Slate—out­side the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, that is—for what she called the “bar­bar­i­ties to the Jews.” On May 9, 1933, Keller pub­lished a short but point­ed open let­ter to the Nazi stu­dents in The New York Times and else­where, abjur­ing them to stop the pro­posed burn­ings. She wrote in a reli­gious idiom, invok­ing the “judg­ment” of God and para­phras­ing the Bible. (Not a tra­di­tion­al Chris­t­ian, she belonged to a mys­ti­cal sect called Swe­den­bor­gian­ism.) At the top of the post, you can see the type­script of her let­ter, with cor­rec­tions and anno­ta­tions by Pol­ly Thomp­son, one of her pri­ma­ry aides. Read the full tran­script below:

To the stu­dent body of Ger­many:

His­to­ry has taught you noth­ing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.

You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a mil­lion chan­nels and will con­tin­ue to quick­en oth­er minds. I gave all the roy­al­ties of my books for all time to the Ger­man sol­diers blind­ed in the World War with no thought in my heart but love and com­pas­sion for the Ger­man peo­ple.

I acknowl­edge the griev­ous com­pli­ca­tions that have led to your intol­er­ance; all the more do I deplore the injus­tice and unwis­dom of pass­ing on to unborn gen­er­a­tions the stig­ma of your deeds.

Do not imag­ine that your bar­bar­i­ties to the Jews are unknown here. God sleep­eth not, and He will vis­it His judg­ment upon you. Bet­ter were it for you to have a mill-stone hung around your neck and sink into the sea than to be hat­ed and despised of all men.

Keller added the penul­ti­mate para­graph of the pub­lished text lat­er. (See the hand­writ­ten addi­tion at the bot­tom of the typed draft.) Her con­cern for the “griev­ous com­pli­ca­tions” of the Ger­man peo­ple was cer­tain­ly gen­uine. The expres­sion also seems like a tar­get­ed rhetor­i­cal move for a stu­dent audi­ence, con­ced­ing the sit­u­a­tion as “com­plex,” and appeal­ing in more philo­soph­i­cal lan­guage to “jus­tice” and “wis­dom.” The Nazis ignored her protest, as they did the “mas­sive street demon­stra­tions” that took place on the 10th “in dozens of Amer­i­can cities,” the Holo­caust Muse­um writes, “skill­ful­ly orga­nized by the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress” and spark­ing “the largest demon­stra­tion in New York City his­to­ry up to that date.”

Five years lat­er, how­ev­er, anoth­er planned book burning—this time in Aus­tria before its annexation—was pre­vent­ed by stu­dents at Williams Col­lege, Yale, and oth­er uni­ver­si­ties in the U.S., where pro- and anti-Nazi par­ti­sans fought each oth­er on sev­er­al Amer­i­can cam­pus­es. U.S. stu­dents were able to push the Aus­tri­an Nation­al Library to lock the books away rather than burn them. Keller “is not known to have com­ment­ed specif­i­cal­ly” on these stu­dent protests, writes Med­off, “but one may assume she was deeply proud that at a time when too many Amer­i­cans did not want to be both­ered with Europe’s prob­lems, these young men and women under­stood the mes­sage of her 1933 letter—that the prin­ci­ples under attack by the Nazis were some­thing that should mat­ter to all mankind.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

How Jazz-Lov­ing Teenagers–the Swingjugend–Fought the Hitler Youth and Resist­ed Con­for­mi­ty in Nazi Ger­many

Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Spe­cial Friend­ship: He Treat­ed Me Not as a Freak, But as a Per­son Deal­ing with Great Dif­fi­cul­ties

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

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