The New Herbal: A Masterpiece of Renaissance Botanical Illustrations Gets Republished in a Beautiful 900-Page Book by Taschen

We’ve all have heard of the fuchsia, a flower (or genus of flowering plant) native to Central and South America but now grown far and wide. Though even the least botanically literate among us know it, we may have occasional trouble spelling its name. The key is to remember who the fuchsia was named for: Leonhart Fuchs, a German physician and botanist of the sixteenth century. More than 450 years after his death, Fuchs is remembered as not just the namesake of a flower, but as the author of an enormous book detailing the varieties of plants and their medicinal uses. His was a landmark achievement in the form known as the herbal, examples of which we’ve featured here on Open Culture from ninth- and eighteenth-century England.

But De Historia Stirpium Commentarii Insignes, as this work was known upon its initial 1542 publication in Latin, has worn uncommonly well through the ages. Or rather, Fuchs’ personal, hand-colored original has, coming down to us in 2022 as the source for Taschen’s The New Herbal. “A masterpiece of Renaissance botany and publishing,” according to the publisher, the book includes “over 500 illustrations, including the first visual record of New World plant types such as maize, cactus, and tobacco.”

Buyers also have their choice of English, German, and French editions, each with its own translations of Fuchs’ “essays describing the plants’ features, origins, and medicinal powers.” (You can also read a Dutch version of the original online at Utrecht University Library Special Collections.)

Naturally, some of the information contained in these nearly five-century-old scientific writings will be a bit dated at this point, but the appeal of the illustrations has never dimmed. “Fuchs presented each plant with meticulous woodcut illustrations, refining the ability for swift species identification and setting new standards for accuracy and quality in botanical publications.” Over 500 of them go into the book: “Weighing more than 10 pounds,” writes Colossal’s Grace Ebert, “the nearly 900-page volume is an ode to Fuchs’ research and the field of Renaissance botany, detailing plants like the leafy garden balsam and root-covered mandrake.”

Taschen’s reproductions of these works of botanical art look to do justice to Leonhart Fuchs’ legacy, especially in the brilliance of their colors. It’s enough to reinforce the assumption that the man has received tribute not just through fuchsia the flower but fuchsia the color as well. But such a dual connection turns out to be in doubt: the color’s name derives from rosaniline hydrochloride, also known as fuchsine, originally a trade name applied by its manufacturer Renard frères et Franc. The name fuschine, in turn, derives from fuchs, the German translation of renard. The New Herbal is, of course, a work of botany rather than linguistics, but it should nevertheless stimulate in its beholders an awareness of the interconnection of knowledge that fired up the Renaissance mind.

via Colossal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

Paula Cole Discusses Songwriting: Stream the Nakedly Examined Music Interview Online

This week’s Nakedly Examined Music podcast features the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Paula Cole. After backing Peter Gabriel in the early 90s on his Secret World tour, she had major hits with “I Don’t Want to Wait” (later the theme song of Dawson’s Creek) and “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone.” She has released ten studio albums since 1994.

On this podcast, you’ll hear four full songs with discussions of their details: “Blues in Gray” from Revolution (2019), “Father” from 7 (2015), and “Hush, Hush, Hush” from This Fire (1996), plus “Steal Away/Hidden in Plain Sight” from American Quilt (2021). Intro: “I Don’t Want to Wait,” also from This Fire. For more, see

After her hit-making, her style took a rather sharp turn with the 1999 Amen album; here’s “I Believe in Love,” a disco tune from that. Her Revolution album has some much more directly political songs like its title track. She’s done some jazz and folk covers with her recent American Quilt and Ballads album, like this tune. Here she is live in 1998 and a more recent stripped-down appearance. She can still sing “I Don’t Want to Wait” with pretty much the same tone, and in fact the version used to introduce the podcast is the artist’s re-recording, not the original.

Photo by Ebru Yildiz. Interview editing by Tyler Hislop of Pixelbox Media.

Nakedly Examined Music is a podcast hosted by Mark Linsenmayer, who also hosts The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast, and Philosophy vs. Improv. He releases music under the name Mark Lint.

Haruki Murakami’s Five Favorite Books

Image bySociety for Culture, Art and International Cooperation Adligat, via Wikimedia Commons

You could say that Haruki Murakami is a Japanese writer. And given that he was born in Japan to Japanese parents, grew up in Japan, and lives in Japan still today, you’d have geography, culture, and biology on your side. Yet Alfred Birnbaum, one of Murakami’s own English translators, has called him “an American writer who happens to write in Japanese.” To understand how this could be requires a consideration of not just Murakami’s writing, but the writers whose books inspired him. Take the hard-boiled novelist Raymond Chandler, whose The Long Goodbye appears on the list of Murakami’s five favorite books just posted at Literary Hub.

“I have translated all the novels of Raymond Chandler,” Murakami once said. “I like his style so much. I have read The Long Goodbye five or six times.” He must have read it for the first time in Kobe, where he grew up in the 1950s and 60s, and whose bookstores offered an abundance of pulp fiction left behind by departing U.S. military personnel. Chandler’s would have been one of the literary voices he internalized before sitting down to write his own first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, using the highly unusual method of beginning the story in English, or what English he commanded. He then translated this Philip Marlovian experiment back into Japanese, beginning a literary career of four decades and counting.

A translator when not writing his own fiction, Murakami has also rendered in his native language F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, perhaps the most symbolically American novel of them all. Literary Hub quotes him as saying that “had it not been for Fitzgerald’s novel, I would not be writing the kind of literature I am today (indeed, it is possible that I would not be writing at all, although that is neither here or there).” His prose is also the medium through which many Japanese readers have experienced J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: “I enjoyed it when I was seventeen, so I decided to translate it. I remembered it as being funny, but it’s dark and strong. I must have been disturbed when I was young.”

None of Murakami’s top five books are Japanese, but not all of them American. The list also includes Franz Kafka’sThe Castle, another book he encountered as a Kobe teenager: “It gave me a tremendous shock. The world Kafka described in that book was so real and so unreal at the same time that my heart and soul seemed torn into two pieces.” Though the two writers have their stylistic differences, “so real and so unreal at the same time” could just as well describe whatever genre it is that Murakami has invented and continues to advance today. “Most writers get weaker and weaker as they age,” he once said, “but Dostoevsky didn’t. He kept getting bigger and greater. He wrote The Brothers Karamazov in his late fifties.” Murakami is now in his early seventies, but who — even among those familiar with his inspirations — would dare predict what sort of novel he’ll give us next?

via Literary Hub

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David Foster Wallace’s Surprising List of His 10 Favorite Books, from C.S. Lewis to Tom Clancy

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Stephen King Creates a List of His 10 Favorite Novels

Philip Roth (RIP) Creates a List of the 15 Books That Influenced Him Most

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

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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 Psychology of Messiness & Creativity: Study Shows How a Messy Desk and Creative Work Go Hand in Hand

Image via Wikimedia Commons

You may have come into contact at some point with Tracey Emin’s My Bed, an art installation that reproduces her private space during a time when she spent four days as a shut-in in 1998, “heartbroken”: the bed’s unmade, the bedside strewn with cigarettes, moccasins, a bottle of booze, food, and “what appears to be a sixteen year old condom”…. If you were savvy enough to be Tracey Emin in 1998—and none of us were—you would have sold that messy room for over four million dollars last year at a Christie’s auction. I doubt another buyer of that caliber will come along for a knock-off, but this doesn’t mean the messes we make while slobbing around our own homes are without their own, intangible, value.

Those messes, in fact, may be seedbeds of creativity, confirming a cliché as persistent as the one about doctors’ handwriting, and perhaps as accurate. It seems a messy desk, room, or studio may genuinely be a mark of genius at work. Albert Einstein for example, writes Elite Daily, had a desk that “looked like a spiteful ex-girlfriend had a mission to destroy his workspace.” Einstein responded to criticism of his work habits by asking, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?”

Mark Twain also had a messy desk, “perhaps even more cluttered than that of Albert Einstein.” To find out whether the messiness trait’s relation to creativity is simply an “urban legend” or not, Kathleen Vohs (a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management) and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments in both tidy and unruly spaces with 188 adults given tasks to choose from.

Vohs describes her findings in the New York Times, concluding that messiness and creativity are at least very strongly correlated, and that “while cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.” But there are trade-offs. Read about them in Vohs’ paper—“Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity.” And just above, see Vohs’ co-author Joe Redden, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, discuss the team’s fascinating results. If conducting such an experiment on yourself, it might be best to do so in a space that’s all your own, though, like the rest of us, you’re too late to creatively turn the mess you make into lucrative conceptual art.

Below, as a bonus, you can watch Tracey Emin talk about the dark emotional place from which My Bed emerged.

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

Related Content:

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

The Dune Encyclopedia: The Controversial, Definitive Guide to the World of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi Masterpiece (1984)

When David Lynch’s Hollywood version of Dune opened in theaters in 1984, Universal Studios distributed a printed a glossary to keep its audiences from getting confused. They got confused anyway, in part because of the film’s having been hollowed out in editing, and in part because the sheer elaborateness of Frank Herbert’s alternate reality poses potentially insurmountable challenges to faithful adaptation. Even many of the original Dune novels’ readers needed more help than a couple pages of definitions could offer. Luckily for them, the same year that saw the release of Lynch’s Dune also saw the publication of The Dune Encyclopedia, authorized by Herbert himself.

“Here is a rich background (and foreground) for the Dune Chronicles, including scholarly bypaths and amusing sidelights,” Herbert writes in the book’s introduction. “Some of the contributions are sure to arouse controversy, based as they are on questionable sources.” He couldn’t have known how right he was. Today The Dune Encyclopedia stands as what Inverse’s Ryan Britt calls “the most controversial Dune book ever”; long out of print, it may well also be the most expensive, with a current Amazon price of $1,300 in hardcover and $833 in paperback. (You can also find it online, at the Internet Archive.)

Still, The Dune Encyclopedia has its appreciators, not least the director of the latest (and most successful) cinematic attempt to realize Herbert’s vision. As Brit tells it, “an anonymous (though previously reliable) source stated that Denis Villeneuve is a big fan of The Dune Encyclopedia. But when he tried to plant references to the book in the new film, his ‘hand was slapped by the estate.'” The reason seems to involve the Encyclopedia‘s conflicts with the novels: not those written by Herbert himself but, according to the Dune Wiki, “the later two prequel trilogies and sequel duology written after Frank Herbert’s death by Brian Herbert (Frank Herbert’s son) and Kevin J. Anderson, which they state complete the original series.”

Though co-signed by the The Dune Encyclopedia‘s main author, literary scholar Willis E. McNelly, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s letter declaring the work’s de-canonization omits the fact “that the Encyclopedia is and always was a fallible in-universe document that openly misrepresents known history and adds historical embellishments.” It is, in other words, a book about Dune as well as a part of Dune. Not every book in our reality offers a perfectly true account of history, of course, and the same holds for the reality Frank Herbert created. This form implies the continuing possibility of expanding Dune‘s literary universe by writing the books that exist within it, not just encyclopedias and scripture but, say epic sci-fi novels as well. What fan, after all, wouldn’t want to read the Dune of Dune?

Related content:

Why You Should Read Dune: An Animated Introduction to Frank Herbert’s Ecological, Psychological Sci-Fi Epic

Rare Book Featuring the Concept Art for Jodorowsky’s Dune Goes Up for Auction (1975)

The Dune Graphic Novel: Experience Frank Herbert’s Epic Sci-fi Saga as You’ve Never Seen It Before

The Glossary Universal Studios Gave Out to the First Audiences of David Lynch’s Dune (1984)

The Dune Coloring & Activity Books: When David Lynch’s 1984 Film Created Countless Hours of Peculiar Fun for Kids

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

When Eartha Kitt Spoke Truth to Power at a 1968 White House Luncheon

Actress Eartha Kitt amassed dozens of stage and screen credits, but is perhaps most fondly remembered for her iconic turn as Catwoman in the Batman TV series, a role she took over from white actress Julie Newmar.

The producers congratulated themselves on this “provocative, off-beat” casting, executives at network affiliates in Southern states expressed outrage, and Kitt’s 9-year-old daughter, Kitt Shapiro,  understood that her mother’s new gig was a “really big deal.”

As Shapiro recalled to Closer Weekly:

This was 1967, and there were no women of color at that time wearing skintight bodysuits, playing opposite a white male with sexual tension between them! She knew the importance of the role and she was proud of it. She really is a part of history. She was one of the first really beautiful black women — her, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge — who were allowed to be sexy without being stereotyped. It does take a village, but I do think she helped blaze a trail.

Eartha Kitt was a trailblazer in other ways too.

Catwoman vs. the White House, director Scott Calonico’s short documentary for the New Yorker (above), uses vintage photos, clippings and footage to relate how Kitt disrupted a White House luncheon the month after her Batman debut, taking President Lyndon B. Johnson to task over the hardships faced by working parents.

Johnson was clearly under the impression that he was swinging by the White House Family Dining Room as a favor to his wife, Lady Bird, who was hosting 50 guests for the Women Doers’ Luncheon. The theme of the luncheon was “What Citizens Can Do to Help Insure Safe Streets.”

Chairman of the National Council on the Arts Roger Stevens had suggested that Kitt or actress Ruby Dee would be fine additions to the guest list in recognition for their activism with urban youth.

As Janet Mezzack details in her Presidential Studies Quarterly article, “Without Manners You Are Nothing”: Lady Bird Johnson, Eartha Kitt, and The Women Doers’ Luncheon of January 18, 1968, Kitt had an impressive track record of volunteerism.

She taught dance to Black children who could not afford lessons, testified before the House General Subcommittee on Education on behalf of the DC youth-led Rebels with a Cause, and established a non-profit organization in Watts where underprivileged youth studied traditional African and modern dance and “learned about personality development, poise, grooming, diction, and physical fitness.”

She was being vetted for a seat on President Johnson’s Citizens Advisory Board on Youth Opportunity, chaired by Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Surely, a dream guest!

Mezzack writes:

Having selected Kitt as a guest for the upcoming luncheon, FBI clearance checks were conducted on her and other prospective guests at the White House. The FBI cleared her through normal channels. Because of previous embarrassing situations involving entertainers invited to White House functions, inquiries also were made of Roger Stevens office to determine if Kitt would “do anything to embarrass” the White House, “and the answer was no.”

Call it embarrassment for a good cause.

Johnson was unprepared for spontaneous interaction as hard hitting as Kitt’s, when she stood up to say:

Mr. President, you asked about delinquency across the United States, which we are all interested in and that’s why we’re here today. But what do we do about delinquent parents? The parents who have to go to work, for instance, who can’t spend the time with their children that they should. This is, I think, our main problem. What do we do with the children then, when the parents are off working?

Fumbling for an answer, Johnson intimated that the male policymakers behind recent Social Security Amendments that could offset costs of daycare were “really not the best judges of how to handle children.”

Perhaps Miss Kitt would like to take her concerns with the other women in attendance?

Understandably, Kitt seethed, and continued the conversation by confronting the First Lady over the war in Vietnam.

Director Calonico toggles between Kitt’s recollections of the exchange and excerpts from Mrs. Johnson’s White House audio diary, cobbling together a reconstruction that is surely faithful to the spirit of the thing, if not exactly word for word:

Kitt’s words as recalled by Mrs. Johnson:

You send the best in this country off to be shot and maimed. They rebel in the street. They will take pot and get high. They don’t want to go to school because they’re going to be snatched off from their mothers to be shot in Vietnam.

Kitt’s words as recalled by the speaker herself:

Mrs. Johnson, you are a mother too, although you have had daughters and not sons. I am a mother and I know the feeling of having a baby come out of my gut. I have a baby and then you send him off to war. No wonder the kids rebel and take pot, and Mrs. Johnson, in case you don’t understand the lingo, that’s marijuana.

That last comment seems funny now, and Calanico can’t resist infusing further dark humor with a shot of a masked Kitt tooling around in Catwoman’s campy Kittycar as the actress describes how the White House cancelled her ride home from the luncheon.

The next day’s newspapers were full of emotionally charged reports as to how Kitt’s remarks had left the hostess “stunned to tears” – a description both participants resisted.

Within weeks, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive, and Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

Meanwhile Kitt’s outspokenness at the luncheon cast an instantaneous chill on her career, stateside.

She spent the next decade performing in Europe, unaware that the CIA had opened a file on her, compiling information from confidential sources in Paris and New York City as to her “loose morals.”

Her response to the most outrageous allegations in that file should make lifelong fans of feminists who were barely out of diapers when Halle Berry slipped into Catwoman’s skintight pajamas.

Calonico is right to punctuate this with Kitt’s triumphant growl.

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

David Byrne Answers the Internet’s Burning Questions About David Byrne

Is David Byrne the same as he ever was? Where is David Byrne’s big suit? Did David Byrne design bike racks? Above, David Byrne answers burning (or, perhaps better said, Byrne-ing) questions about himself. This video comes from the WIRED Autocomplete Interview series, where famous people answer the internet’s most searched questions about themselves. Enjoy!

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What Made Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus a Revolutionary Painting

The Birth of Venus, we often hear, depicts the ideal woman. Yet half a millennium after Sandro Botticelli painted it, how many of us whose tastes run to the female form really see it that way? “I’ve always been struck by how Venus is strangely asexual, and her nudity is clinical,” says gallerist James Payne, creator of the Youtube channel Great Art Explained. “Maybe that’s because she represents sex as a necessary function: sex for procreation, the ultimate goal in a dynastic marriage.” This, safe to say, isn’t the sort of thing that gets most of us going in the 21st century. But this famous painting does something more important than to show us a naked woman: it reveals, as Payne puts it in a new video essay, “a dramatic shift in western art.”

If you accept the definition of the Renaissance that has it start in the 15th century, The Birth of Venus‘ completion in the 1480s makes it quite an early Renaissance artwork indeed. In that period, “a renewed interest in ancient Greco-Roman culture led to an intellectual and artistic rebirth, a rise in humanist philosophy, and radical changes in ideas about religion, politics, and science.”

In art, Botticelli bridged “the gap between medieval Gothic art and the emerging humanism.” In the Middle Ages, Christianity’s dominance had been total, but “the Renaissance gave artists like Botticelli freedom to explore new subject matter, albeit within a Christian framework.” At the time, “the idea that art could be for pleasure, and not just to serve God, was new and radical.”

Botticelli’s “inclusion of a near-life-sized female nude was unprecedented in Western art,” and underscored her origin in not Christian scripture but Greek myth. With her “statue-like pose” and alabaster skin, Venus “is unreal, an idealized figure not bound by actual laws,” but her shy self-covering “makes voyeurs of us all.” Botticelli, in his religiousness, could have been “depicting Venus as an emblem of sacred or divine love,” but his genius lay in his ability “to take a pagan story, a nude female, and make them acceptable to contemporary Christian thinking.” Chaste and untouchable though the goddess may look in his rendering, knowledge of the painting’s daring, almost subversive conception makes it more exciting to behold. A bit of context, as Payne well knows, always gives art a charge.

Related content:

Botticelli’s 92 Surviving Illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1481)

Terry Gilliam Explains His Never-Ending Fascination with Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”

Michelangelo’s David: The Fascinating Story Behind the Renaissance Marble Creation

What Makes Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a Great Painting?: An Explanation in 15 Minutes

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Introductions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picasso & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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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