Hear Benedict Cumberbatch Reading Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, Alan Turing, Sol LeWitt, and Others

Many know Benedict Cumberbatch as neurosurgeon-turned-Master of the Mystic Arts Doctor Strange. Originally created in the 1960s by Marvel Comics artist and writer Steve Ditko, the character has gained a new fan following through the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2016’s Doctor Strange, the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and several other MCU pictures besides, he’s been played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Open Culture readers may know Cumberbatch better as the 21st-century detective protagonist of the BBC series Sherlock — or, even more likely, as a reader-out-loud of historical and literary letters.

We’ve previously featured Cumberbatch’s onstage renditions of everything from Albert Camus’ thank-you note to his elementary school teacher to Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to the people of the year 2088 to Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Now we’ve rounded up more letter-readings in the ten-video playlist above.

Beginning with Sol LeWitt’s letter of advice to Eva Hesse, it continues on to Cumberbatch’s readings of other such works as “the best cover letter ever written,” more than one missive by the pioneering and persecuted computer scientist Alan Turing, a “letter about crabs (not the kind you eat)” by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and a Richard Nixon’s William Safire-composed speech to be read in the event that Apollo 11 didn’t return to Earth.

The material in this correspondence, all of which Cumberbatch reads aloud for Letters of Note‘s Letters Live project, varies considerable in both tone and content. Little of it resembles the comic-book or detective-novel material with which he has won mainstream fame. But like any good actor, Cumberbatch knows how to tailor his performative persona to each new context without losing the innate sensibility that sets him apart. At the same time, he clearly understands how to interpret not just different characters, realistic as well as fantastical, but also the personalities of real human beings who actually lived. Whatever other pleasures it offers, hearing Cumberbatch read letters underscores the fact that we could all do much worse than to be played by him in the movie of our life.

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“Stop It and Just DO”: Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Advice on Overcoming Creative Blocks, Written by Sol LeWitt to Eva Hesse (1965)

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Toni Morrison Lists the 10 Steps That Lead Countries to Fascism (1995)

Image by Angela Radulescu, via Wikimedia Commons

The term fascism gets thrown around a great deal these days, not always with high regard to consistency of meaning. Much like Orwellian, it now seems often to function primarily as a label for whichever political developments the speaker doesn’t like. Even back in the 1940s, Orwell himself took to the Tribune in an attempt to pin down what had already become a “much-abused word.” Half a century later, the question of what fascism actually is and how exactly it works was addressed by another novelist, and one of a seemingly quite different sensibility: Toni Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye and Beloved.

Fascism tends to come along with evocation of Nazi Germany. In her 1995 Charter Day address at Howard University, Morrison, too, brought out the specter of Hitler and his “final solution.” But “let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.” She proceeded to lay out a haunting hypothetical series of such steps as follows:

  1. Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion.
  2. Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy.
  3. Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power and because it works.
  4. Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification.
  5. Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy.
  6. Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process.
  7. Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.
  8. Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy-especially its males and absolutely its children.
  9. Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions, a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press, a little pseudo-success, the illusion of power and influence, a little fun, a little style, a little consequence.
  10. Maintain, at all costs, silence.

Like any good storyteller, Morrison stokes our imagination while turning us toward an examination of our own condition. Over the past quarter-century, many of the tendencies she describes have arguably become more pronounced in political and media environments around the world. A 21st-century reader may be given particular pause by step number nine. Since the 1990s, and especially in Morrison’s homeland of the United States of America, most entertainments have only grown more monumental, and most pleasures have only shrunk.

Later in her speech, Morrison foresees a time ahead “when our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas ‘market-placed,’ our rights sold, our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing of life is complete.” Few of us here in 2022, whatever our political persuasion, could argue that her predictions were entirely unfounded. Fewer still have a clear answer to the question what to do when we “find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.”

via Kottke

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

George Orwell Tries to Identify Who Is Really a “Fascist” and Define the Meaning of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Harper Lee Gives Advice to Young Writers in One of Her Only Interviews Captured on Audio (1964)

You know the character Boo Radley? Well, if you know Boo, then you understand why I wouldn’t be doing an interview. Because I am really Boo. 

— Harper Lee, in a private conversation with Oprah Winfrey

Author Harper Lee loved writing but resisted interviews, granting just a handful in the fifty-six years that followed the publication of her Pulitzer Prize winning 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird

Go Set a Watchmanher second, and final, novel began as an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, and was published in 2015, a year before her death.

Roy Newquist, interviewing Lee in 1964 for WQXR’s Counterpointaboveprobably expected the hotshot young novelist had many more books in her when he solicited her advice for “the talented youngster who wants to carve a career as a creative writer.”

Presumably Lee did too. “I hope to goodness that every novel I do gets better and better, not worse and worse,” she remarked toward the end of the interview.

She obliged Newquist by offering some advice, but stopped short of offering career tips to those eager for the lowdown on how to write an instant bestseller that will be adapted for stage and screen, earn a perennial spot in middle school curriculums, and — just last week — be crowned the Best Book of the Past 125 Years in a New York Times readers’ poll, beating out titles by well regarded, and vastly more prolific authors on the order of J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Gabriel García Márquez, and Toni Morrison.

“People who write for reward by way of recognition or monetary gain don’t know what they’re doing. They’re in the category of those who write; they are not writers,” she drawled.

Harper Lee’s Advice to Young Writers

  • Hope for the best and expect nothing in terms of recognition
  • Write to please an audience of one: yourself
  • Write to exorcise your divine discontent
  • Gather material from the world around you, then turn inward and reflect
  • Don’t major in writing

Listening to the recording, it occurs to us that this interview contains some more advice for young writers, or rather, those bringing up children in the digital age.

When Newquist wonders why it is that “such a disproportionate share of our sensitive and enduring fiction springs from writers born and reared in the South,” Lee, a native of Monroeville, Alabama, makes a strong case for cultivating an environment wherein children have no choice but to make their own fun:

I think … the absence of things to do and see and places to go means a great deal to our own private communication. We can’t go to see a play; we can’t go to see a big league baseball game when we want to. We entertain ourselves.

This was my childhood: If I went to a film once a month it was pretty good for me, and for all children like me. We had to use our own devices in our play, for our entertainment. We didn’t have much money. Nobody had any money. We didn’t have toys, nothing was done for us, so the result was that we lived in our imagination most of the time. We devised things; we were readers, and we would transfer everything we had seen on the printed page to the backyard in the form of high drama.

Did you never play Tarzan when you were a child? Did you never tramp through the jungle or refight the battle of Gettysburg in some form or fashion? We did. Did you never live in a tree house and find the whole world in the branches of a chinaberry tree? We did.

I think that kind of life naturally produces more writers than, say, an environment like 82nd Street in New York.

Hear that, parents and teachers of young writers?

  • Nurture the creative spirit by regularly prying the digital device’s from young writers’ hands (and minds.)

Bite your tongue if, thus deprived, they trot off to the theater, the multiplex, or the sports stadium. Remember that iPhones hadn’t been invented when Lee was stumping for the tonic effects of her chinaberry tree. These days, any unplugged real world experience will be to the good.

If the young writers complain — and they surely will — subject yourself to the same terms.

Call it solidarity, self-care, or a way of upholding your New Year’s resolution…

Read an account of another Harper Lee interview, during her one day visit to Chicago to promote the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird and attend a literary tea in her honor, here.

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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.

J.R.R. Tolkien Sent Illustrated Letters from Father Christmas to His Kids Every Year (1920-1943)

It doesn’t take children long to suspect that Santa Claus is actually their parents. But if Mom and Dad demonstrate sufficient commitment to the fantasy, so will the kids. This must have held even truer for the family of the 20th century’s most celebrated creator of fantasies, J. R. R. Tolkien. Before Tolkien had begun writing The Hobbit, let alone the Lord of the Rings trilogy, he was honing his signature storytelling and world-building skills by writing letters from Father Christmas. The toddler John Tolkien and his infant brother Michael received the first in 1920, just after their Great War veteran father was demobilized from the army and made the youngest professor at the University of Leeds. Another would come each and every Christmas until 1943, two more children and much of a life’s work later.

Every year, Tolkien’s Father Christmas had a great deal to report to John, Michael, and later Christopher and Priscilla. Apart from the usual hassle of assembling and delivering gifts, he had to contend with a host of other challenges including but not limited to attacks by marauding goblins and the accidental destruction of the moon.

The cast of characters also includes an unreliable polar-bear assistant and his cubs Paksu and Valkotukka, the sound of whose names hints at Tolkien’s interest in language and myth. Since the publication of the collected Letters From Father Christmas a few years after Tolkien’s death, enthusiasts have identified many traces of the qualities that would later emerge, fully developed, in his novels. The spirit of adventure is there, of course, but so is the humor.

Understanding seemingly from the first how to fire up a young reader’s imagination, the multitalented Tolkien accompanied each letter from Father Christmas with an illustration. Colorful and evocative, these works of art depict the scenes of both mishap and revelry described in the correspondence (itself stamped with a Tolkien-designed seal from the North Pole). How intensely must young John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla have anticipated these missives in the weeks — even months — leading up to Christmas. And how astonishing it must have been, upon much later reflection, to realize what attention their father had devoted to this family project. Growing up Tolkien no doubt had its downsides, as relation to any famous writer does, but unmemorable holidays can’t have been one of them.

via Messy Nessy

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Oscar-Winning Animation of Charles Dickens’ Classic Tale, A Christmas Carol (1971)

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. – Charles Dickens

Some twenty years before Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, another animated entertainment injected “the most wonderful time of the year” with a potent dose of horror.

Surely I’m not the only child of the 70s to have been equal parts mesmerized and stricken by director Richard Williams’ faithful, if highly condensed, interpretation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

The 25-minute short features a host of hair-raising images drawn directly from Dickens’ text, from a spectral hearse in Scrooge’s hallway and the Ghost of Marley’s gaping maw, to a night sky populated with miserable, howling phantoms and the monstrous children lurking beneath the Ghost of Christmas Present’s skirts:

Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread… This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. 

Producer Chuck Jones, whose earlier animated holiday special, Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, is in keeping with his classic work on Bugs Bunny and other Warner Bros. faves, insisted that this cartoon should mirror the look of the John Leech steel engravings illustrating Dickens’ 1843 original.

D.T. Nethery, a former Disney animation artist and fan of this Christmas Carol explains that the desired Victorian look was achieved with a labor-intensive process that involved drawing directly on cels with Mars Omnichrom grease pencil, then painting the backs and photographing them against detailed watercolored backgrounds.

As director Williams recalls below, he and a team including master animators Ken Harris and Abe Levitow were racing against an impossibly tight deadline that left them pulling 14-hour days and 7-day work weeksReportedly, the final version was completed with just an hour to spare. (“We slept under our desks for this thing.”)

As Michael Lyons observes in Animation Scoop, the exhausted animators went above and beyond with Jones’ request for a pan over London’s rooftops, “making the entire twenty-five minutes of the short film take on the appearance of art work that has come to life”:

…there are scenes that seem to involve camera pans, or sequences in which the camera seemingly circles around the characters. Much of this involved not just animating the characters, but the backgrounds as well and in different sizes as they move toward and away from the frame. The hand-crafted quality, coupled with a three-dimensional feel in these moments, is downright tactile.

Revered British character actors Alistair Sim (Scrooge) and Michael Hordern (Marley’s Ghost) lent some extra class, reprising their roles from the evergreen, black-and-white 1951 adaptation.

The short’s television premiere caused such a sensation that it was given a subsequent theatrical release, putting it in the running for an Oscar for Best Animated Short Subject. (It won, beating out Tup-Tup from Croatia and the NSFW-ish Kama Sutra Rides Again which Stanley Kubrick had handpicked to play before A Clockwork Orange in the UK.)

With theaters in DallasLos AngelesPortlandProvidenceTallahassee and Vancouver cancelling planned live productions of A Christmas Carol out of concern for the public health during this latest wave of the pandemic, we’re happy to get our Dickensian fix, snuggled up on the couch with this animated 50-year-old artifact of our childhood….

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

Hunter S. Thompson Sets His Christmas Tree on Fire, Almost Burns His House Down (1990)

It was something of a Christmas ritual at Hunter S. Thompson’s Colorado cabin, Owl Farm. Every year, his secretary Deborah Fuller would take down the Christmas tree and leave it on the front porch rather than dispose of it entirely. That’s because Hunter, more often than not, wanted to set it on fire. In 1990, Sam Allis, a writer for then formidable TIME magazine, visited Thompson’s home and watched the fiery tradition unfold. He wrote:

I gave up on the interview and started worrying about my life when Hunter Thompson squirted two cans of fire starter on the Christmas tree he was going to burn in his living-room fireplace, a few feet away from an unopened wooden crate of 9-mm bullets. That the tree was far too large to fit into the fireplace mattered not a whit to Hunter, who was sporting a dime-store wig at the time and resembled Tony Perkins in Psycho. Minutes earlier, he had smashed a Polaroid camera on the floor.

Hunter had decided to videotape the Christmas tree burning, and we later heard on the replay the terrified voices of Deborah Fuller, his longtime secretary-baby sitter, and me off-camera pleading with him, “NO, HUNTER, NO! PLEASE, HUNTER, DON’T DO IT!” The original manuscript of Hell’s Angels was on the table, and there were the bullets. Nothing doing. Thompson was a man possessed by now, full of the Chivas Regal he had been slurping straight from the bottle and the gin he had been mixing with pink lemonade for hours.

The wooden mantle above the fireplace apparently still has burn marks on it today. It’s one of the many things you can check out when Owl Creek starts running museum tours some time in the future.

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George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Will Be Retold from a Woman’s Point of View

Nineteen Eighty-Four has been a byword for totalitarian dystopia longer than most of us have been reading books. But apart from its the title and certain words from its invented “newspeak” — doubleplusgoodunperson, thoughtcrime — how deeply is George Orwell’s best-known novel embedded into the culture? Most of us recognize the name Winston Smith, and many of us may even remember details of his job at the Ministry of Truth, where the facts of history are continually rewritten to suit ever-shifting political exigencies. But how much do we know about the other major character: Julia, Winston’s fellow ministry employee who becomes his clandestine co-dissident and forbidden lover?

“In some ways she was far more acute than Winston, and far less susceptible to Party propaganda,” writes Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. “But she only questioned the teachings of the Party when they in some way touched upon her own life. Often she was ready to accept the official mythology, simply because the difference between truth and falsehood did not seem important to her.” Julia’s amorality throws the rigidity of Winston’s own attitudes into contrast, and also shows up their impracticality. Now, in the hands of novelist Sandra Newman, Julia will become not just star of the story but its narrator.

Or so it looks, at least, from the brief passage quoted in the Guardian‘s announcement of Julia, a re-telling of Nineteen Eighty-Four approved by Orwell’s estate and to be published in time for the 75th anniversary of the original. Though it has no firm publication date yet, Julia will come out some time after Newman’s next book The Men, in which, as the Guardian‘s Alison Flood puts it, “every single person with a Y chromosome vanishes from the world.” It will join an abundance of recent retellings from the woman’s point of view, including everything from “Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a version of the Iliad from the perspective of Briseis, to Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, which centers on the life of Shakespeare’s wife.”

Entrusting a literary property to a writer of another era, culture, and sensibility is a tricky business, but there arguably has never been a more opportune time to put out a book like Julia. It seems the dystopia-hungry public has never been readier to identify the “Orwellian” in life, nor more responsive to re-interpretations and expansions of long-established bodies of popular myth. And what with women having conquered the world of fiction, there will naturally be great interest in Julia’s take on life under Big Brother — as well as in its inevitable television adaptation.

via The Guardian/BoingBoing

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

What Is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War About?: A Short Introduction

After wars in Japan and Vietnam, the U.S. military became quite keen on a slim volume of ancient Chinese literature known as The Art of War by a supposedly historical general named Sun Tzu. This book became required reading at military academies and a favorite of law enforcement, and has formed a basis for strategy in modern wartime — as in the so-called “Shock and Awe” campaigns in Iraq. But some have argued that the Western adoption of this text — widely read across East Asia for centuries — neglects the crucial context of the culture that produced it.

Despite historical claims that Sun Tzu served as a general during the Spring and Autumn period, scholars have mostly doubted this history and date the composition of the book to the Warring States period (circa 475-221 B.C.E.) that preceded the first empire, a time in which a few rapacious states gobbled up their smaller neighbors and constantly fought each other.

“Occasionally the rulers managed to arrange recesses from the endemic wars,” translator Samuel B. Griffith notes. Nonetheless, “it is extremely unlikely that many generals died in bed during the hundred and fifty years between 450 and 300 B.C.”

The author of The Art of War was possibly a general, or one of the many military strategists for hire at the time, or as some scholars believe, a compiler of an older oral tradition. In any case, constant warfare was the norm at the time of the book’s composition. This tactical guide differs from other such guides, and from those that came before it. Rather than counseling divination or the study of ancient authorities, Sun Tzu’s advice is purely practical and of-the-moment, requiring a thorough knowledge of the situation, the enemy, and oneself. Such knowledge is not easily acquired. Without it, defeat or disaster are nearly certain:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

The kind of knowledge Sun Tzu recommends is practical intelligence about troop deployments, food supplies, etcetera. It is also knowledge of the Tao — in this case, the general moral principle and its realization through the sovereign. In a time of Warring States, Sun Tzu recognized that knowledge of warfare was “a matter of vital importance”; and that states should undertake it as little as possible.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” The Art of War famously advises. Diplomacy, deception, and indirection are all preferable to the material waste and loss of life in war, not to mention the high odds of defeat if one goes into battle unprepared. “The ideal strategy of restraint, of winning without fighting… is characteristic of Taoism,” writes Rochelle Kaplan. “Both The Art of War and the Tao Te Ching were designed to help rulers and their assistants achieve victory and clarity,” and “each of them may be viewed as anti-war tracts.”

Read a full translation of The Art of War by Lionel Giles, in several formats online here, and just above, hear the same translation read aloud.

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

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