Why Should You Read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? An Animated Video Makes the Case

“Tell me,” said Beloved, smiling a wide happy smile. “Tell me your diamonds.”

The unforgettable portrayal of Beloved, the mysterious, 20-year-old woman (Thandie Newton)—who appears in Sethe’s (Oprah Winfrey) home mysteriously just as the infant ghost haunting the family disappears—leaves an indelible image in the mind’s eye in Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film. We may learn about the history of slavery in the U.S. through a wealth of recovered data and historical sources. But to understand its psychological horrors, and the lingering trauma of its survivors, we must turn to works of the imagination like Beloved.

So why not just watch the movie? It’s excellent, granted, but nothing can take the place of Toni Morrison’s prose. Her “versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds,” wrote Margaret Atwood in her 1987 review of the novel. “If there were any doubts about her stature as a pre-eminent American novelist, of her own or any other generation, Beloved will put them to rest.” The novel’s American gothic narrative recalls the “magnificent practicality” of haunting in Wuthering Heights. “All the main characters in the book believe in ghosts, so it’s merely natural for this one to be there.”

“Everyone at 124 Bluestone Road,” the Ted-Ed video lesson by Yen Pham begins, “knows their house is haunted. But there’s no mystery about the spirit tormenting them. This ghost is the product of an unspeakable trauma.” Demme’s film dramatizes the horrors Sethe endured, and committed, and tells the story of the Sweet Home plantation and its aftermath upon her family. What it cannot convey is the novel’s treatment of “a barbaric history that hangs over much more than this homestead.”

For this greater resonance, we must turn to Morrison’s book, written, Atwood says, “in an antiminimalist prose that is by turns rich, graceful, eccentric, rough, lyrical, sinuous, colloquial and very much to the point.” The novel brings us into contact with the human experience of enslavement:

Through the different voices and memories of the book, including that of Sethe’s mother, a survivor of the infamous slave-ship crossing, we experience American slavery as it was lived by those who were its objects of exchange, both at its best—which wasn’t very good—and at its worst, which was as bad as can be imagined. Above all, it is seen as one of the most viciously antifamily institutions humans ever devised…. It is a world in which people suddenly vanish and are never seen again, not through accident or covert operation or terrorism, but as a matter of everyday legal policy.”

Morrison’s fictionalizing of the true story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved mother who killed her child rather than let the infant become enslaved to such a future, “points to history on the largest scale, to the global and world-historical,” Pelagia Goulimari writes in a monograph on Morrison. Morrison uses “Garner’s 1856 infanticide—a cause célèbre—as point of access to the ‘Sixty Million and more’: the victims of the Middle Passage and of slavery.”

Perhaps only the novel, and especially the novels of Toni Morrison, can tell world-historical stories through the actions of a few characters: Sethe, Denver, Baby Suggs, Paul D., and Beloved, the angry ghost of a murdered daughter and a desperate mother’s trauma and the traumatic psychic wounds of slavery, returned. Learn more about why you should read Beloved in the animated lesson above, directed by Héloïse Dorsan Rachet, and discover more at the TED-Ed lesson’s additional resources page.

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

A 16th-Century Astronomy Book Featured “Analog Computers” to Calculate the Shape of the Moon, the Position of the Sun, and More

If you want to learn how the planets move, you’ll almost certainly go to one place first: Youtube. Yes, there have been plenty of worthwhile books written on the subject, and reading them will prove essential to further deepening your understanding. But videos have the capacity of motion, an undeniable benefit when motion itself is the concept under discussion. Less than twenty years into the Youtube age, we’ve already seen a good deal of innovation in the art of audiovisual explanation. But we’re also well over half a millennium into the age of the book as we know it, a time that even in its early phases saw impressive attempts to go beyond text on a page.

Take, for example, Peter Apian‘s Cosmographia, first published in 1524. A 16th-century German polymath, Apian (also known as Petrus Apianus, and born Peter Bienewitz) had a professional interest in mathematics, astronomy and cartography. At their intersection stood the subject of “cosmography” from which this impressive book takes its name, and its project of mapping the then-known universe.

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“The treatise provided instruction in astronomy, geography, cartography, navigation, and instrument-making,” writes Frank Swetz at the Mathematical Association of America. “It was one of the first European books to depict and discuss North America and included movable volvelles allowing the readers to interact with and use some of the charts and instrument layouts presented.”

Pop-up book enthusiasts like Ellen Rubin will know what volvelles are; you and I may not, but if you’ve ever moved a paper wheel or slider on a page, you’ve used one. The volvelle first emerged in the medieval era, not as an amusement to liven up children’s books but as a kind of “analog computer” embedded in serious scientific works. “The volvelles make the practical nature of cosmography clear,” writes Katie Taylor at Cambridge’s Whipple Library, which holds a copy of Cosmographia. “Readers could manipulate these devices to solve problems: finding the time at different places and or one’s latitude, given the height of the Sun above the horizon.”

Apian originally included three such volvelles in Cosmographia. Later, his disciple Gemma Frisius, a Dutch physician, instrument maker and mathematician, produced expanded editions that included another. “In all its forms,” writes Swetz, “the book was extremely popular in the 16th century, going through 30 printings in 14 languages.” Despite the book’s success, it’s not so easy to come by a copy in good (indeed working) condition nearly 500 years later. If these descriptions of its pages and their volvelles have piqued your curiosity, you can see these ingenious paper devices in action in these videos tweeted out by Atlas Obscura. As with planets themselves, you can’t fully appreciate them until you see them move for yourself.

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Look Inside William S. Burroughs’ Bunker

When everybody had one or two vodkas and smoked a few joints, it was always the time for the blowgun. —John Giorno

From 1974 to 1982, writer William S. Burroughs lived in a former locker room of a 19th-century former-YMCA on New York City’s Lower East Side.

When he moved on, his stuff, including his worn out shoes, his gun mags, the typewriter on which he wrote Cities of the Red Night, and half of The Place of Dead Roads, a well-worn copy of The Medical Implications of Karate Blows, and a lamp made from a working Civil war-era rifle, remained.

His friend, neighbor, tourmate, and occasional lover, poet John Giorno preserved “The Bunker” largely as Burroughs had left it, and seems to delight in rehashing old times during a 2017 tour for the Louisiana Channel, above.

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It’s hard to believe that Burroughs found Giorno to be “pathologically silent” in the early days of their acquaintance:

He just wouldn’t say anything. You could be there with him the whole evening, he wouldn’t say a word. It was not the shyness of youth, it was much more than that, it was a very deep lack of ability to communicate. Then he had cancer and after the operation that was completely reversed and now he is at times a compulsive talker, when he gets going there is no stopping him.

According to Burroughs’ companion, editor and literary executor, James Grauerholz, during this period in Burroughs’ life, “John was the person who contributed most to William’s care and upkeep and friendship and loved him.”

Giorno also prepared Burroughs’ favorite dishbacon wrapped chickenand joined him for target practice with the blowgun and a BB gun whose projectiles were forceful enough to penetrate a phonebook.

Proximity meant Giorno was well acquainted with the schedules that governed Burroughs’ life, from waking and writing, to his daily dose of methadone and first vodka-and-Coke of the day.

He was present for many dinner parties with famous friends including Andy WarholLou ReedFrank ZappaAllen GinsbergDebbie HarryKeith HaringJean-Michel Basquiat, and Patti Smith, who recalled visiting the Bunker in her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids:

It was the street of winos and they would often have five cylindrical trash cans to keep warm, to cook, or light their cigarettes. You could look down the Bowery and see these fires glowing right to William’s door… he camped in the Bunker with his typewriter, his shotgun and his overcoat.

All Giorno had to do was walk upstairs to enjoy Burroughs’ company, but all other visitors were subjected to stringent security measures, as described by Victor Bockris in With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker:

To get into the Bunker one had to pass through three locked gates and a gray bulletproof metal door. To get through the gates you had to telephone from a nearby phone booth, at which point someone would come down and laboriously unlock, then relock three gates before leading you up the single flight of gray stone stairs to the ominous front door of William S. Burroughs’ headquarters.

Although Burroughs lived simply, he did make some modifications to his $250/month rental. He repainted the battleship gray floor white to counteract the lack of natural light. It’s pretty impregnable.

He also installed an Orgone Accumulator, the invention of psychoanalyst William Reich, who believed that spending time in the cabinet would improve the sitter’s mental, physical, and creative wellbeing by exposing them to a mysterious universal life force he dubbed orgone energy.

(“How could you get up in the morning with a hangover and go sit in one of these things?” Giorno chuckles. “The hangover is enough!”)

Included in the tour are excerpts of Giorno’s 1997 poem “The Death of William Burroughs.” Take it with a bit of salt, or an openness to the idea of astral body travel.

As per biographer Barry Miles, Burroughs died in the Lawrence Memorial Hospital ICU in Kansas, a day after suffering a heart attack. His only visitors were James Grauerholz, his assistant Tom Peschio, and Dean Ripa, a friend who’d been expected for dinner the night he fell ill.

Poetic license aside, the poem provides extra insight into the men’s friendship, and Burroughs’ time in the Bunker:

The Death of William Burroughs

by John Giorno

William died on August 2, 1997, Saturday at 6:01 in the
afternoon from complications from a massive heart attack
he’d had the day before. He was 83 years old. I was with
William Burroughs when he died, and it was one of the best
times I ever had with him.  

Doing Tibetan Nyingma Buddhist meditation practices, I
absorbed William’s consciousness into my heart. It seemed as
a bright white light, blinding but muted, empty. I was the
vehicle, his consciousness passing through me. A gentle
shooting star came in my heart and up the central channel,
and out the top of my head to a pure field of great clarity
and bliss. It was very powerful—William Burroughs resting
in great equanimity, and the vast empty expanse of
primordial wisdom mind.

I was staying in William’s house, doing my meditation
practices for him, trying to maintain good conditions and
dissolve any obstacles that might be arising for him at that
very moment in the bardo. I was confident that William had
a high degree of realization, but he was not a completely
enlightened being. Lazy, alcoholic, junkie William. I didn’t
allow doubt to arise in my mind, even for an instant,
because it would allow doubt to arise in William’s mind.

Now, I had to do it for him.

What went into William Burroughs’ coffin with his dead body:

About ten in the morning on Tuesday, August 6, 1997,
James Grauerholz and 
Ira Silverberg came to William’s
house to pick out the clothes for the funeral director to put
on William’s corpse. His clothes were in a closet in my
room. And we picked the things to go into William’s coffin
and grave, accompanying him on his journey in the

His most favorite gun, a 38 special snub-nose, fully loaded
with five shots. He called it, “The Snubby.” The gun was my
idea. “This is very important!” William always said you can
never be too well armed in any situation. Of his more than
80 world-class guns, it was his favorite. He often wore it on
his belt during the day, and slept with it, fully loaded, on
his right side, under the bed sheet, every night for fifteen

Grey fedora. He always wore a hat when he went out. We
wanted his consciousness to feel perfectly at ease, dead.

His favorite cane, a sword cane made of hickory with a
light rosewood finish.

Sport jacket, black with a dark green tint. We rummaged
through the closet and it was the best of his shabby clothes,
and smelling sweet of him.

Blue jeans, the least worn ones were the only ones clean.

Red bandana. He always kept one in his back pocket.

Jockey underwear and socks.  

Black shoes. The ones he wore when he performed. I
thought the old brown ones, that he wore all the time,
because they were comfortable. James Grauerholz insisted,
“There’s an old CIA slang that says getting a new
assignment is getting new shoes.”

White shirt. We had bought it in a men’s shop in Beverly
Hills in 1981 on The Red Night Tour. It was his best shirt,
all the others were a bit ragged, and even though it had
become tight, he’d lost a lot of weight, and we thought it
would fit.  James said,” Don’t they slit it down the back

Necktie, blue, hand painted by William.

Moroccan vest, green velvet with gold brocade trim, given
him by 
Brion Gysin, twenty-five years before.

In his lapel button hole, the rosette of the French
government’s Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and the
rosette of the American Academy of Arts and Letters,
honors which William very much appreciated.

A gold coin in his pants pocket. A gold 19th Century Indian
head five dollar piece, symbolizing all wealth. William
would have enough money to buy his way in the

His eyeglasses in his outside breast pocket.

A ball point pen, the kind he always used. “He was a
writer!”, and sometimes wrote long hand.

A joint of really good grass.

Heroin. Before the funeral service, Grant Hart slipped a
small white paper packet into William’s pocket. “Nobody’s
going to bust him.” said Grant. William, bejeweled with all
his adornments, was traveling in the underworld.

I kissed him. An early LP album of us together, 1975, was
Biting Off The Tongue Of A Corpse. I kissed him on
the lips, but I didn’t do it .  .  . and I should have.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

Discover the First Illustrated Book Printed in English, William Caxton’s Mirror of the World (1481)

The printing history of early English books may not seem like the most fascinating subject in the world, but if you mention the name William Caxton to a book historian, you may get a fascinating lecture nonetheless. Caxton, the merchant and diplomat who introduced the printing press to England in 1476, was an unusually enterprising figure. He first learned the trade in Cologne and was pressured to begin printing in English after the success of his translation of the Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye, a series of stories based on Homer’s Iliad. His first known printed book was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and he went on to print translations of classical and medieval texts from the French.

Caxton’s (often inaccurate) translations became so popular that, like Chaucer, he introduced new standards into the language as a whole with his use of court Chancery English. The books printed at the time also give us a fascinating look at how the printed book evolved slowly as a new source of scientific information and a means of literary innovation.

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The so-called Gutenberg Revolution did not usher in a radical break with the late medieval past so much as a gradual evolution away from its adherence to classical and church authorities and chivalric romance stories. It would take early modern writers like Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Francis Bacon to truly revolutionize the possibilities of print.

The first illustrated book Caxton printed in English offers an excellent example of early printing history’s reliance on reproducing extant medieval ideas rather than disseminating new ones. The Mirror of the World, first written in French as L’image du monde, was an encyclopedia based on a 12th century text by Honorius Augustodunensis called Imago mundi. “Encyclopedic texts were popular throughout the Middle Ages,” Glasgow University Library notes. “During this period it was commonly believed that it was possible to create one volume digests of all knowledge,” drawing solely on classical and Biblical authorities. In the introduction to Caxton’s text, we are told that the book “treateth of the world & of the wonderful dyuision [division] thereof.”

We are quite a long way yet from the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba, or “take no one’s word for it.” But Caxton’s press made several medieval manuscript prose works available for the first time to a new readership. “Evidence of early ownership of copies of his editions,” writes the British Library, “suggests the social breadth of that audience, including royalty, nobility, gentry, the mercantile classes and religious houses.” Caxton was “not content to simply draw on  pre-existing markets for manuscripts.” And he would eventually use print “to create new markets for novel and different kinds of writing,” such as the 1485 publication of Thomas Malory’s contemporary Arthurian romance, Le Morte D’arthur.

Representing the confident but cramped worldview of the medieval sciences, the Mirror of the World is “ambitious,” Allison Meier writes at Hyperallergic, dispelling any notion of a flat Earth, with descriptions of “large ideas like the roundness of the Earth and why we experience day and night… Along with some historical information, there are descriptions of the Earth, the solar system, and eclipses. The round shape of the Earth is illustrated by two men who stand back-to-back, walking away from each other and meeting again in a circle. Another describes the same idea with a rock tossed through a hole sliced in the world, with it tumbling out the other side.”

Mike Millward of the Blackburn Museum describes the images further:

The illustrations are woodcut prints which could be printed as part of the text. Caxton’s prints were probably produced in England and are rather primitive. Many are merely illustrative… Others are essential to an understanding of the text, such those illustrating the roundness of the Earth and the effect of gravity, both showing a surprisingly modern understanding

These illustrations, notes John T. McQuillan, assistant curator of printed books at the Pierpont Morgan library, were remarkably preserved from the original French text of two centuries earlier. “Print only carried on existing manuscript and textual traditions,” he notes, “and did not radically alter them, at first. Anyone who wanted to buy this text would have expected it to have these specific illustrations, and Caxton provided that to them.” Pierpont Morgan himself, who owned several of Caxton’s early printed books, “valued Caxton even over Gutenberg,” Meier writes, and “had the printer painted on the ceiling of his library’s East Room.”

Another rare books library, Princeton’s Scheide, which holds perhaps the finest collection of early European and American printing in the world, features a scanned full-text edition of Mirror of the World, the first illustrated book printed in England and a work that sits squarely on the threshold between the medieval and the modern, and that challenges our ideas about both designations.

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

Behold an Interactive Online Edition of Elizabeth Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants (1868)

Of all the varied objects of creation there is, probably, no portion that affords so much gratification and delight to mankind as plants. —Elizabeth Twining

“Who owned nature in the eighteenth century?” asks Londa Schiebinger in Plants and Empire, a study of what the Stanford historian of science calls “colonial bioprospecting in the Atlantic World.” The question was largely decided at the time by “heroic voyaging botanists” and “biopirates” who claimed the world’s natural resources as their own. The matter was settled in the next couple centuries by merchants like Thomas Twining and his descendants, proprietors of Twinings tea. Founded as Britain’s first known tea shop in 1706, the company went on to become one of the largest purveyors of teas grown in the British colonies.

One of Twining’s descendants, Elizabeth Twining, carried on the legacy as what Schiebinger calls one of many “armchair naturalists, who coordinated and synthesized collecting from sinecures in Europe,” a role often taken on by women who could not travel the world. Twining aimed, however, not to create taxonomies of the world’s plants but those of her own country in a comparative analysis.

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Her 1868 Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, she wrote in her introduction, was “the first work which has thus done due honour to our British plants by connecting with others, and placing them whenever possible at the head of the Order to be illustrated.”

Twining’s revaluation of local British plants was in keeping with the reformist spirit of the age, and she herself was such a reformer. “Apart from her artistic endeavors,” writes Nicholas Rougeaux, Twining “was a notable philanthropist,” establishing almshouses and temperance halls, founding “mother’s meetings” in London, and helping to found the Bedford College for Women. She was inspired by Curtis’s The Botanical Magazine and “she practiced by making sketches from works in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and toured famous museums thanks to her father’s patronage.”

Twining authored and illustrated several botanical books, “most notably,” Rougeux writes, “the two volume Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants, which included a total of 160 hand-colored lithographs, royal folio, reportedly based on observation at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and at Lexden Park in Colchester.” Rougeux has done for her work what the designer previously did for other illustrated classics of science and math (see the related links below): digitizing the illustrations and transliterating the text into a digital format, with hyperlinks and sharing features.

Rougeux’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants offers itself as “a complete reproduction and restoration… enhanced with interactive illustrations, descriptions, and posters featuring the illustrations.” The first two volumes of the original book were published in 1849 and 1855. Rougeux’s online version of the text is based on the 1868 second edition “with re-drawn illustrations based on her originals.” (See pages from the text above and below.) Rougeux’s digitized text is thus two steps removed from Twining’s original illustrations, but we can see the care and attention she put into classifying the flora of her native country.

“Twining chose to illustrate plants using the classification system created by Augustin-Pyrame de Candolle based on multiple characteristics of plants—rather than the more widely used system by Carl Linnaeus which was focused on plants’ reproductive characteristics,” notes Rougeux, “because the De Candolle system was newer and she wanted her readers to be up to date as classification systems were evolving.”

Although biological taxonomies have changed considerably since her time, Twining’s Illustrations of the Natural Orders of Plants remains an intriguing “snapshot in time” that depicts not only the latest ideas about plant classification in the mid-19th century but also the attitudes a prominent member of the British ruling class adopted toward nature as a whole. See Rougeux’s online edition of Twining’s text here.

via Kottke

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

How to Draw the Buddha: Explore an Elegant Tibetan Manual from the 18th-Century

Some religions prohibit the depiction of their sacred personages. Tibetan Buddhism isn’t quite so strict, but it does ask that, if you’re going to depict the Buddha, you do it right. Hence aids like the Tibetan Book of Proportions, which provides “36 ink drawings showing precise iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures.” That description comes from the Public Domain Review, where you can behold many of those pages. Printed in the 18th century, “the book is likely to have been produced in Nepal for use in Tibet.” Now you’ll find it at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, which had made the book free to read at its digital collections.

To read it properly, of course, you’ll have to know your Newari script and Tibetan numerals. But even without them, anyone can appreciate the elegance of not just the book’s recommended proportions — all presented on a standardized and notated grid — but of the book itself as well.

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By the time this volume appeared, the printing used for texts related to Tibetan Buddhism had long since shown itself to be a cut above: take the 15th-century collection of recitation texts, previously featured here on Open Culture, printed forty years before the Gutenberg Bible. Only a printing culture that had mastered this level of detail could produce a book like the Tibetan Book of Proportions, visual exactitude being its entire raison d’être.

“The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Gupta rule, from the 4th to 6th century,” says the Public Domain Review. During that Indian empire’s dominance, the importance of such depictions extended even beyond proportions to details like “number of teeth, color of eyes, direction of hairs.” Surely when it comes to showing one who has attained nirvana — or a bodhisattva, the designation for those on their way to nirvana — one can’t be too careful. Nevertheless, artworks in the form of the Buddha (of which the Victoria and Albert Museum offer a small sampling on their web site) have taken different shapes in different times and places. No matter how well-defined the ideal, the earthly realm always finds a way to introduce some variety.

via Public Domain Review

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Tibetan Musical Notation Is Beautiful

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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Discover J.R.R. Tolkien’s Little-Known and Hand-Illustrated Children’s Book, Mr. Bliss

His were usually humorous stories, full of magic, and very often, they contained a connection to the children’s lives, because it was primarily for them that he invented them.

–Sarah Zama

The fact that “much of the inspiration of the Lord of the Rings came from [J.R.R. Tolkien’s] family,” Danielle Burgos writes at Bustle, has become an oft-repeated piece of trivia, especially thanks to such popular treatments of the author’s life as Humphrey Carter’s authorized biography, the Nicholas Hoult-starring biopic, Tolkien, and the Catherine McIlwaine-edited collection Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth. As much as Tolkien drew on his extensive knowledge of Norse, Germanic, and other mythologies and linguistic histories, and from his harrowing experiences in WWI, his career as a legendary fantasy author may never have come about without his children.

“In just one example,” notes Burgos, a collection of Tolkien’s letters shows that the character of Tom Bombadil “was based on son Michael’s wooden toy doll.” Tolkien’s oldest son John remarked before the release of the first Peter Jackson adaptation, “It’s quite incredible. When I think when we were growing up these were just stories that we were told.”

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Tolkien strenuously resisted the label of children’s author; he “firmly believed,” Maria Popova points out, “that there is no such thing as writing for children.” But the degree to which his storytelling and characterization developed from his desire to entertain and educate his kids can’t be overstated in the development of his early fiction.

We see this in a small way in the little-known children’s book Mr. Bliss, written and illustrated by Tolkien sometime in the 1930s, kept in a drawer until 1957, and only published posthumously in 1982. The story itself “was inspired by his first car, which he purchased in 1932.” As evidence of its importance to the larger Tolkien canon, Popova writes, the author “went on to use two of the character names from the book, Gaffer Gamgee and Boffin, in The Lord of the Rings.” In other respects, however, Mr. Bliss is very unlike the medieval fantasies that surrounded its composition.

The book, affectionately handwritten and illustrated by Tolkien himself — who, also unbeknownst to many, was a dedicated artist — tells the story of Mr. Bliss, a lovable eccentric known for his exceptionally tall hats and his “girabbits,” the giraffe-headed, rabbit-bodied creatures that live in his backyard. One day, Mr. Bliss decides to buy his very first motor car[.] But his first drive en route to a friend’s house soon turns into a Rube Goldberg machine of disaster as he collides with nearly everything imaginable, then gets kidnapped by three bears.

Tolkien submitted the book for publication after the runaway success of The Hobbit created a market demand he had no particular desire to meet, telling his publisher that the story was complete. But Mr. Bliss was rejected, ostensibly because its illustrations were too expensive to reproduce. In truth, however, the public wanted more hobbits, elves, dwarves, wizards, and poetry and song in beautiful invented languages.

Tolkien would, of course, eventually deliver a “New Hobbit,” in the form of the The Lord of the Rings trilogy—books that weren’t specifically “written for his children,” Sarah Zama writes, but in which “the story he had indeed created for his children weighed heavily.” See several more Tolkien-illustrated pages from one of the trilogy’s whimsical early ancestors, Mr. Bliss, at Brain Pickings and purchase a copy of the book here.

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Carl Sagan on the Importance of Choosing Wisely What You Read (Even If You Read a Book a Week)

More than a few of us have a reading goal for 2021: a book a week, say. Some of us may have had the idea planted in our heads long ago by Carl Sagan, in his capacity as creator and host of the PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. “If I were to read a book a week for my entire adult lifetime,” he says in the clip above, “I would have read maybe a few thousand books. No more.” This is part of a longer monologue set in a library, a background that provides Sagan an ideal visual reference for how many volumes that is. Even seen as a portion of just the shelf space he stands by, it doesn’t look like a terribly impressive amount. Indeed, it makes up “only tenth of a percent or so of the total number of books in the library.”

The trick, Sagan adds, “is to know which books to read.” He himself got started addressing this question rather early, having drawn up an ambitious reading list previously featured here on Open Culture while still an undergraduate at the University of Chicago.

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Sagan included (see the list here) everything from the Bible and Plato’s Republic to André Gide’s The Immoralist and Aldous Huxley’s Young Archimedes to Communication Circuit Fundamentals and Thermodynamics: An Advanced Treatment — those last being course readings, but impressive ones nevertheless. Though Sagan lived an abbreviated life, dying at the age of 62, we can rest assured that he nevertheless got his few thousand books in. Can we do the same?

To gear up for your reading year to come, consider watching this short documentary on the world’s most beautiful bookstores, which recommends daily reading habits that add up to surprisingly many books over a lifetime. But if you choose your books without discernment, as Sagan implies, it doesn’t matter how many you read. Before drawing up your own reading list, have a look at the ones other serious readers, writers, and thinkers have used before: Charles Darwin, for instance, or the many names in our personal reading-list roundup including Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Jorge Luis Borges, Patti Smith, Bill Gates, and David Bowie. Mark Twain also composed a reading list for kids and adults alike, but whatever we take from it, we should enter the new year with one of his famous aphorisms in mind: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

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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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.