The Stunning Astronomical Beadwork of Native Artist Margaret Nazon

Celestial splendor bridging ancient tradition and modern science.

“I wonder that I have so long been insensible to this charm in the skies, the tints of the different stars are so delicate in their variety,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell marveled in her journal when she first learned to notice the different hues of the stars, almost transgressively delightful to a woman who had grown up in the Quaker tradition with its customary ban on color. To the suddenly awestruck Mitchell, the stars appeared like “a collection of precious stones” or colorful beads. How she would have relished the celestial beadwork of Native artist Margaret Nazon.

Margaret Nazon: Milky Way Starry Night. (Collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Glenbow.)

More than a century after Mitchell’s contemporary Ellen Harding Baker embroidered her stunning Solar System quilt to use as an astronomy teaching tool in an era when women had almost no access to formal education in science, and a generation after the great astrophysicist Cecilia Payne, who discovered the chemical composition of the universe, embroidered her supernova, Nazon began beading celestial objects after her partner showed her photographs of the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009 — those now-iconic images that have inspired some of our greatest poets and enchanted the popular imagination like no other visual document of science.

Margaret Nazon: Saturn.

Against the black velvet of pure spacetime, Nazon’s intricate beadwork reaches across abstraction, across incomprehensible expanses, to make galaxies, nebulae, and constellations tangible; to render the wilderness of an impartial universe domesticated and personable. Galaxies millions of lightyears away, hundreds of lightyears wide, become intimate emissaries of spacetime on her 25×25-inch beaded canvases.

Tadpole Galaxy, 420 million lightyears from Earth. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Bright Lights, Green City. Top: NASA composite of data from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All Sky Survey. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Tarantula Nebula, 160,000 lightyears away from Earth. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.
Margaret Nazon: Tarantula Nebula, detail. (Collection of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.)

A member of the small First Nation community of Gwich’in, Nazon grew up on the banks of the Mackenzie River in Canada’s Northwestern Territories, steeped in a crafts tradition. She started beading at age 10. The early decorative flowers that began on moccasins and clothing eventually blossomed, half a century later, into the dazzling objects of deep space, rendered using a variety of beading techniques and bead sizes to create a beguiling three-dimensional tactility.

Margaret Nazon, beadwork detail.

Nazon begins beading before dawn and often works all day, taking only short breaks between sessions, beading to the sound of classical music and jazz — Billie Holiday is a favorite. Her largest work, a triptych of the Andromeda Galaxy, took her some 200 hours.

Margaret Nazon: Milky Way spiral galaxy. (Collection of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre; image via Robert Thrisk.)

Nazon marries integrity of representation with artistic interpretation, sometimes deliberately straying from the colors captured by the Hubble toward her favorite combination: blue and yellow, colors she associates with happiness and beauty.

Mask Galaxy. Top: Hubble Space Telescope. Bottom: Margaret Nazon.

With no background in science and only a rudimentary understanding of the astronomy she embroiders, her work celebrates not the cerebral but the spiritual allure of the cosmos — the way it beckons to the most elemental part of us, the part that possessed Ptolemy to scribble in the margins of his notebook two millennia ago: “I know that I am mortal by nature and ephemeral, but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies… I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.”

Margaret Nazon: Old Star Gives Up Ghost. (Collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.)

Complement with the stunning celestial art of the self-taught 17th-century German astronomer and artist Maria Clara Eimmart, then revisit U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, on which her father worked as one of NASA’s first black engineers, and this Hubble classic composed by Adrienne Rich a generation earlier.

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Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook is our Reading group book for October

The 1962 novel is a challenging masterpiece – luckily, its author wrote a blisteringly bad-tempered guide to reading it

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook has won the vote and will be the subject of this month’s Reading group. On the whole, this is excellent news. If we’re going to read Lessing, we might as well go for the big one: the 1962 novel regarded as her masterpiece and described in The Oxford Companion to English Literature as “one of the key texts of the women’s movement in the 1960s”.

The only possible reason for hesitation is that this world-shaker is also challenging. It’s long and involved and features far more mid-20th-century Marxism than most modern readers are used to. But that should also make coming to terms with this book all the more fascinating.

She considered the novel to be a triumph of structure. By fragmenting the story, she said, she wanted to show the danger of compartmentalizing one’s thinking, the idea that “any kind of single-mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not madness.”

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Lorraine Hansberry on Depression and Its Most Reliable Antidote

“I am sitting here… feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired.”

Lorraine Hansberry on Depression and Its Most Reliable Antidote

While I stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her exquisite admonition against the dangerous myth of the suffering artist, it has always seemed to me — both from a deep immersion in the personal histories of long-gone artists and from direct experience in contemporary creative communities — that artists are more porous to the world than other people and therefore more vulnerable to suffering. To be an artist is to be a human being who feels everything more deeply, the beautiful as well as the terrible, and builds of those feelings bowers where others can safely and sacredly process their own. Whitman intuited this when he observed that those capable of “sunny expanses and sky-reaching heights” are also apt “to dwell on the bare spots and darknesses.” Tchaikovsky articulated it in his touching resolve to find beauty amid the wreckage of the soul. Nietzsche knew it when he traced the wild oscillations of depression and hope.

Among the artists who plummeted to such depths of darkness while buoying the spirit of their times was Lorraine Hansberry (May 19, 1930–January 12, 1965) — the visionary playwright and civil rights activist, who revolutionized our cultural landscape of possibility and from whom generations of artists and ordinary people alike, including other visionaries like James Baldwin and Nina Simone, drew courage and inspiration.

Lorraine Hansberry, 1950s. Photographer unknown. (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.)

For all her soaring intellect and trailblazing genius, Hansberry’s heart sank low with alarming regularity. In a diary entry from 1955, penned just as her star was beginning to rise and included in Imani Perry’s excellent biography Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry (public library), Hansberry observes her depression with that hollowing detachment so familiar to those who have been severed from themselves by this unforgiving malady:

It is curious how intellectual I have become about the whole thing… [about] what I apparently am. My unhappiness has become a steady, calm quiet sort of misery. It is always with me and when for a moment something or other stirs me from its immediate ravages (thank God that is still possible) — I wonder at its absence.

To be sure, much of Hansberry’s depression was rooted in the dissonance of her being a gay woman (“what I apparently am”) in a heterosexual marriage that was a great creative and intellectual partnership but not her great love. Even so, depression is an illness in which we can never speak of causality — only of contributing factors, of which there are always many, both psychological and physiological, present in varying degrees and intricately intertwined. But beneath the particulars of any life, there beats a common heart of experience, which Hansberry channels with devastating candor. From the pit of another depression, she writes to her husband:

I am sitting here in this miserable little bungalow, in this miserable camp that I once loved so much, feeling cold, useless, frustrated, helpless, disillusioned, angry and tired. The week past that I spoke to you about was the height of all those things to the point where I didn’t care too much a couple of times whether or not I woke mornings.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

In a redemptive passage, she turns to nature for the most reliable, perhaps the only, salve:

Hills, the trees, sunrise and sunset — the lake the moon and the stars / summer clouds — the poets have been right in these centuries darling, even in its astounding imperfection this earth of ours is magnificent.

Perhaps she was thinking of the poet Keats — another artist of towering genius, whose spirits often sank to unfathomable lows — who a century and a half earlier found kindred solace in his own experience of depression and the mightiest remedy for a heavy heart; or perhaps of Whitman, who pondered what remains when the world has lost its sheen and answered: “Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”

Complement this fragment of the thoroughly inspiriting Looking for Lorraine with Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression, then revisit poet May Sarton’s cure for despair.

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

To begin, let’s go to the end of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister, the final book in the Palliser series, as reviewed by capedoctor:

With a central theme of 19th century British political life and intrigue, the resonance with current political chaos is astonishing. Although there is no resemblance whatsoever between the eponymous prime minister and Mr Johnson, the smooth journey of landed gentry into political office, the transience and superficiality of political alliances and the jealous protection of self-interest and patronage seems not to have changed much in 150 years. Added to this are Trollope’s eloquence as a writer, his power of understatement on crucial social and political issues and so many other reasons why I personally keep going back to the great Victorian novels.

In a nutshell: it’s not her best, but it was still supremely satisfying to read, and I find myself still thinking it about it a week after finishing, which doesn’t always happen with any author.

But even a less-than-perfect Patchett is better than lots of stuff, and I’m very glad I read it.

I haven’t read a Patchett novel before (although “Bel Canto” has lingered on my informal “to read” list for a while), and I bought it purely on the strength of its ludicrously gorgeous cover (always a risky move – I’ve been burned before). So far it has been the perfect book for being curled up under a blanket with a gross cold.

A retelling of the Iliad but set in 1996 Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Achill is a sniper with the IRA who chooses to sit out his cohort’s raid on a local army base. He’s furious because he has been personally betrayed over a relationship, and he refuses all entreaties to change his mind, especially those from his friend, Pat. Henry is a British soldier who first fought in the Falklands, and now he’s been sent to Northern Ireland. Everything leads to the consequences of Pat’s refusal to fight.

Barnes is on top form here, telling a tale where the protagonist is roughly the same age as himself, and starting when the young man (19) falls in love with Susan (48). Every word is chosen with care, and the writing is top class.

Although I won’t see the Japan that Booth travelled through or have the level of engagement with local people in remote rural areas that he did (he was a fluent Japanese speaker whereas I have got to the heady heights of evening college level 2), Booth’s beautiful prose which is alternately elegiac and comedic, remains an inspiration for my coming travels. His early death robbed us of a gifted travel writer whose love for his subject is burned into every page.

Atwood’s ideas about Gilead have obviously been maturing for many years, helped, as she acknowledges, by feedback from readers and the opportunity to work on the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. This book is so rich in subtle details. I felt that the TV series, by making her horrific vision visible, actually diminished the impact of the story. She has an incredible, almost offhand, way of suggesting the horrors that have taken place. This book explores how Gilead came to exist and the insidious way in which precious freedoms were lost. The testaments of the three principal characters interleave to build up the picture of the rise of the theocracy and the bravery of the women who fought it. I think the book is a stunning achievement. Margaret for the Nobel, I say!

Jim Carrey has written a novel about the inner darkness of a Hollywood actor. This actor is fictional.

This piece on the collected words of Auberon Waugh has an excellent headline.

“The Cockroach is so toothless and wan that it may drive his readers away in long apocalyptic caravans.” Something tells me the New York Times reviewer didn’t enjoy Ian McEwan’s latest.

UN report on magical realism warns of increased incidences of women’s tears flooding the entire world. (Hat tip to Swelter.)

The books of Susan Sontag ranked.

Good news! Nothing is real.

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Not the Booker prize: vote now for the 2019 winner

It’s been a fine year of reading, and now your choice will help determine the winner. You have just under a week to pick a favourite

It’s time to vote on the 2019 Not the Booker prize. By the end of the week, one of our six books will be declared the winner. After the high quality of the novels in this year’s competition, receiving the Guardian mug is going to be a real honour. Our contenders are:

Supper Club by Lara Williams

Related: Not the Booker prize 2018: Rebecca Ley wins with Sweet Fruit, Sour Land

11. The winner will be chosen via a public vote from readers who have submitted reviews of their chosen titles, in combination with a panel of readers to be selected by a process outlined in clause 12. Readers may vote for only one title at this stage – changes of mind will be governed by clause four on indecision. A vote in support of one book at shortlist stage does not rule out a subsequent valid vote in support of a different book to win the Competition. Reviews may be written at any time before a vote is cast. Winner votes received after 23.59 BST on Thursday 10 October 2019 will not be counted.

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A Challenge to Write Life-Changing Fiction (+Giveaway)

Stories have intentions.

That wonderful idea was just one of many nuggets I found myself highlighting in what has so far turned out to be my surprise read of the year—noted literary agent Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Like many of you, I cut my teeth on Maass’s now-classic Writing the Breakout Novel, but for whatever reason never followed up with any of his other many writing guides, even though they’re all on my TBR list. Fast-forward sixteen years to when I caught Emotional Craft of Fiction as part of a Kindle sale. I started reading it about a month ago, fully expecting a smart but conventional tome of tips for drawing dimension into characters. I got that, but what I wasn’t expecting was that, non-fiction though it is, this would be one of those books with “intentions.”

Just as the best of all writing advice should, the wisdom found in this book applies to so much more than just writing. If storytelling is about exploring life, then good writing advice should inevitably evoke solid life advice as well. (Which, on a side note, is what I’m excited to learn Wesley Baines, a familiar name on this site, is exploring in a forthcoming book about the importance of writers developing traits such as empathy and wisdom.) I find it no coincidence that the two great interests of my life—storytelling and personal growth—continually converge. They are, in so many ways, the same interest.

Many people have taken the time to tell me they enjoyed my book Creating Character Arcs more for its insights into their own life changes than for that of their characters. My response is always an eager, “Right?!” Because that was totally my own experience in discovering character arcs. For me, understanding how to convincingly portray human change on the page was ultimately a journey in understanding how I change and grow.

That, in itself, should be reason enough to go out and read Maass’s book right now—because its great insights into character crafting are really just an emergent of its insights into life itself. The book (intentionally?) came to me at exactly the proper moment in my own life, as I am neck deep in working on emotional fluency.

More than that, however, I found Maass’s book and his comment about “intentional stories” to be a rallying call to writing not just authentic fiction, but the kind of fiction that both invites and encourages readers to follow the characters on Positive-Change Arcs.

I’m not even going to try to do justice to the vastness and depth of the topics Maass covers, but after finishing the book, there are two things I want to do.

1. I want to share a few of my own thoughts on why and how to take up Maass’s challenge to start (or continue) writing not just fiction, but life-changing fiction.

2. Because I want everybody everywhere to read this book, I’m giving away 10 paperbacks to random winners. Scroll to the bottom of the post to enter using the Rafflecopter widget. Winners will be selected at the end of the week. If you don’t win, please find a copy somewhere else and read it! You gotta pinky promise.

5 Starters for Writing Life-Changing Fiction

There are so many different kinds of stories—everything from heroes’ journeys to stream-of-conscious mirrors of prosaic days, from fantasies to exposés, from comedies to tragedies, from genre mashups to literary tomes. There’s something for every one of us at every moment of our lives. Every single type of story has within it the potential seed to absolutely transform at least one of its readers.

Those are the stories I want to read and watch. They don’t come along very often, but when they do, they are nuclear.

I would like to write these stories as well. (Even if the only reader who is changed is me, I’d still be pretty happy with that.) To that end, here are some ideas I’ve mulling on, some of which coincide with those presented in Maass’s book, others which were catalyzed for me by the book.

1. Write With Honesty and Self-Awareness

It’s not stories that change people’s lives; it’s the truth. When stories speak truth, it’s like they’re puzzle pieces fitting into inner holes the audience didn’t even realize were there. There’s a line in Jonathan Latham’s essay in Light the Dark that talks about how when you encounter something true, it doesn’t feel like you just learned something new. Rather, it feels like you suddenly remembered something you knew all along.

The only way to write truth so powerful it gives readers that dichotomous sense of coming home to a place they’ve never before visited is by daily doing your utmost to clear away your own inner fuzziness. Cognitive dissonance, defensive egos, and repressed emotions are things we all deal with that inevitably muddy our thinking. As human beings, we bear the responsibility to try daily to do a little housecleaning. As writers, that responsibility is doubled. When asking readers to suspend disbelief, we are implicitly asking them to believe we will share with them something true. That’s a contract of trust.

2. Write With Humility and Humor

But let’s not be pompous, shall we? Every day for me is a discovery of some life-truth that astounds and excites me. I want to share every one of those truths with every single person I can. But even in the midst of my own enthusiasm (and, sometimes, overweening pride at my unprecedented cleverness), there’s a part of me that knows full well not all my truths are going to be interesting to others. Indeed, not all of my truths are really true. Today’s certainty may turn out to be tomorrow’s mirage.

If, in writing, we accept the terrible responsibility of speaking truths to our neighbors, then we also do well to acknowledge our own unsuitability for that role with more than a little self-deprecation. I want to tell the truth; I want to change your life. But, c’mon, I’m just a struggling schmo too. Very likely, that’s the greatest truth I’ll ever know or share.

3. Write Actionable Fiction

As a reader and especially a viewer, I spend an inordinate amount of time preemptively bypassing stories that seem hellbent on sending me to bed with a downer. I love incisive, hard-hitting, even dark fiction—but not if it gives me dog-breath from the bad taste in my mouth.

Maass nailed it when he wrote:

Some people may read fiction to be frightened, but they never read it to be brought down. They may wish to be challenged, but they don’t want to be crushed. They may read for amusement, but they still have heart. They do seek an emotional experience, as I’ve said, but they also want to come away feeling positive.

I think of some of my favorite stories—The Great EscapeThe Book ThiefGladiatorWuthering HeightsBlack Hawk Down, True Grit—and I’m rather surprised to realize how dark they all are, how most of them end in quantifiable tragedy. And yet… and yet. What these stories have to say about the world is anything but tragic. They tell hard truths, but in the end those truths feel triumphant.

The insight I find most poignant in Maass’s quote is that we should be striving to write actionable fiction. In the same way copywriters are taught to end with a call to action (something people can immediately respond to after hearing about the benefits of the advertised product), fiction writers should also consider what the end of a story may be encouraging readers to do in their own lives.

This does not mean ending with some blatant moral that tells readers to go out and make the world a better place. But we all know the feeling of inspiration found at the conclusion of the kind of story that very well just changed our lives.

This call to action is most important in stories that tell dark truths. Otherwise, the message is “roll over and die.” Stories of injustice, stories of horror, stories of death—they should be about more than just injustice, horror, and death. They should be about what we can do about these tragedies in our own lives after closing the back cover of the book.

4. Write to the Find the Best of Yourself

When you read your own stories, who do you see? It can be hard to identify the person peeking out from between the lines. But take a hard look. If the person you see has been honestly represented, then very likely she’s not a perfect person. She may be full of rage, pain, and fear. She may be downright scary. That’s okay.

But don’t leave it at that. Don’t let your fiction be nothing more than a place to vent all the hard parts of being you. See if you can’t also find the best of yourself looking back at you.

Maass again:

This may sound like I’m in favor of pandering to readers, but I’m actually appealing to the good, positive, and inspiring person called you. Don’t give me easy reading; give me the best of you. When you do, it becomes the best of me, too. Do you believe that it cheapens fiction to make it humane, heart grabbing, filled with goodness? You are not alone in that belief, but I disagree.

The best of you is not some fake version of fairy-tale perfection. The best of you is that enraged, hurting, fearful person who rose above herself and found change. That’s the person I want to know when I read your stories, because that’s the person who is going to inspire me to rise as well.

5. Write Fiction That Hopes

Sometimes it’s hard to even know for sure which stories have changed your life. Sometimes they don’t obviously change us until long after we’ve read them. But sometimes you know.

This summer, I had the opportunity to watch the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies on the big screen as part of a “flashback cinema” program at my local theater. Over the course of three weeks, I sat through all 11 hours and 22 minutes. As a kid, I remember the news gushing about how “life-changing” the films were. For me, this time, they were. It felt like an incredible to gift to get to experience this particular story in this particular medium at this particular time in my life. Samwise Gamgee tells us “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”—and, just like that, my life is changed.

You can change the world with stories of of truthful darkness or even despair. But I can’t help but believe, in agreement with Maass (and Sam), that it is much better instead to choose a different catalyst of change—the catalyst of hope:

You are writing to show us how things are, but aren’t you also writing to show us how things can be? Your current novel is not just a report, right? It’s a vision. It’s a gleeful celebration of what is hard, important, hopeful, and beautiful about life.


There are so many reasons to love stories. And as humans, we do—we truly do—love stories. Speaking at least for myself, I think the single greatest reason I first fell in love with stories, and continue to follow them even to this day as the guiding stars of my life, is their power to change me. If a story creates no impact in my life, then I find I am invariably disappointed on some level. I want to be changed. I want every day to be a transformation. That is why I read, and that is why I write.

And that is why I want you to read Donald Maas’s inspiring challenge to write stories of depth and meaning. Be sure to enter the giveaway below. I leave you with a final quote:

Novels that are truly grand, generous, and confident do not come along very often, but why can’t such novels be yours every time?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s a story that changed your life? How has it inspired you to want to write life-changing fiction? Tell me in the comments!

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Kevin Kelly’s Letter to Children About the Glory of Books and the Superpower of Reading in an Image-Based Digital Culture

“More and more of our society is centered on pictures and images, which is a beautiful thing. But some of the most important parts of life are not visible in pictures.”

Kevin Kelly’s Letter to Children About the Glory of Books and the Superpower of Reading in an Image-Based Digital Culture

In his epoch-making 1632 book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, Galileo made a subtle case for how reading gives us super-human powers. Printed books were a young medium then, still in many ways a luxury for the privileged. But as the cogs of culture continued to turn, revolutionizing ideologies and technologies, making books common as daylight, the written word never lost this power. 350 years later, Carl Sagan — another patron saint of cosmic truth — echoed Galileo in his insistence that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Hermann Hesse, too, knew this when he considered why we read and always will, no matter how technology may change, in his prescient 1930 essay “The Magic of the Book.”

Generations after Hesse and epochs after Galileo, amid a new wilderness of communication technologies and visual media, futurist, digital optimist, and Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly takes up the case in his contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — my labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: entrepreneurs, poets, physicists, songwriters, artists, philosophers, deep-sea divers.

Art by Andrea Tsurumi for Kevin Kelly’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Dear Young Hero,

Imagine you can choose your own superpower from one of these three: flying, invisibility, or being able to read. You’d be the only person in the world with that superpower. Which one do you choose? Flying is not so useful without other superpowers. Invisibility is okay for being naughty or for a little fun but not good for much else. But if you were the only person who could read… you’d be the most powerful person on Earth. You would be able to tap into all the wisdom of the smartest people who ever lived. Their knowledge would go from their heads through squiggles on paper right into your head. You would learn things from them that no ordinary mortal would ever have enough time to learn. You would be as smart as everybody in total. Not that you have to remember it all. With reading you just look it up.

Reading is a superpower that also gives you a type of teleportation; it moves you a million miles instantly. That feeling of being immersed in a different place, or even a different time period, can be so strong you may not want to leave.

When you have this superpower you can see the world from the viewpoint of someone else. This helps protect you from the mistakes and untruths of others as well as your own ignorance.

More and more of our society is centered on pictures and images, which is a beautiful thing. But some of the most important parts of life are not visible in pictures: ideas, insights, logic, reason, mathematics, intelligence. These can’t be drawn, photographed, or pictured. They have to be conveyed in words, arranged in an orderly string, and can only be understood by those who have acquired the superpower of reading.

This superpower will always be with you; it will never leave you. But like all superpowers, it increases the more you use it. It works on paper and screens. As we invent new ways to read, its value and power will expand and deepen. At any time, reading beats any other superpower you can name.

Kevin Kelly

For more letters from A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, savor Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, Rebecca Solnit on how books solace, empower, and transform us, 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved actual lives, poet and farmer Laura Brown-Lavoie on the power of storytelling, and Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding.

A selection of artwork from the book — a visual celebration of the written word — is available as prints, also benefiting the public library.

donating = loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes me hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.


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FRANK AND BEAN’s World Blog Tour! (plus a giveaway)

Well, hey-hey-hey, we’ve got a couple new early reader friends here today!


I’m eager to eat…er, I mean…MEET them, so I sat down with the fellas to have a frank conversation.

So Frank, you’re quite the solitary, secret fellow. What did you first think when Bean came along?

In three words: short, round, and jarring. Frankly, he’s a loud bean. 

Frank’s got a point there, Bean. Why are you so LOUD?

WHAT’S THAT? *banging on drum* WHY AM I SO PROUD? 

BECAUSE I’M A ONE-BEAN BAND. LISTEN TO THIS! *crashes cymbals* *toots horn* *bangs gong* 

Crash! Toot! Gooooooong!

Bean! She said loud, not proud. Why are you so loud?

 Me? Loud? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I am exuberant. 

Well, we’ve got one quiet and one loud here. Does your friendship prove that opposites really do attract?

We’re different, but we’re the same in one way. We’re both like to use our imagination and be creative. I make up songs, but I have a hard time coming up with their words. Frank is a writer who keeps a Secret Notebook. What do you write in there, Frank? 

Bean, shhh! We can’t give away the end of our story. These people haven’t read it yet.

Oh. Right. HEY, FRANK! 

Bean, you don’t have to shout. I’m on the same page as you.

We forgot that we have something else in common too, Frank. We both like jelly donut holes. And Frank? I like you too. 

Aw. Thanks, Bean. 

Well, your story ends on an interesting note, guys. Do you want to give us a little hint about what may come next?

Sure! Our next adventure is about creativity too. But it’s about creativity in the kitchen. Or a food truck. Bean gets a big idea to compete in the forest’s food truck contest. 

Will we win, Frank?

I don’t know. The book isn’t done yet. But I bet we’ll have fun.

Me too. Because we totally rock! *crashes cymbals* *toots horn* 


Well, now I need a couple of Tylenol…extra strength…fast acting…

Let’s take a look at the WORLD PREMIERE BOOK TRAILER!

FRANK AND BEAN is an adorable new early reader series from author Jamie Michalak and illustrator Bob Kolar, published by Candlewick. There’s full-color delight on every page, perfect for kids who are moving beyond picture books but don’t want to leave the best part—THE PICTURES!!!—behind. These pals have a tiny bit of a rough (and loud) start to their friendship, but they realize their strengths compliment each other in perfect harmony.

If you’d like to win a copy of FRANK AND BEAN, leave a comment about what makes friendship so special.

One winner will be randomly selected very soon, because Tara has a lot of giveaways for which she needs to pick winners. So she’ll do it all in one fell swoop!

Good luck!

To follow this tour, you don’t even need a VW minibus! (But that would be more fun.)

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What Miss Mitchell Saw: A Lovely Picture-Book About the 19th-Century Astronomer Who Blazed the Way for Women in STEM

An illustrated homage to a rare visionary who opened up portals of possibility for generations.

What Miss Mitchell Saw: A Lovely Picture-Book About the 19th-Century Astronomer Who Blazed the Way for Women in STEM

“Mingle the starlight with your lives and you won’t be fretted by trifles,” Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) often told her Vassar students — the world’s first university class of professionally trained women astronomers — having herself become America’s first professional woman astronomer, thanks to her historic discovery of a new telescopic comet on October 1, 1847, after sixteen tenacious years of sweeping the sky night after night.

Mitchell (whose extraordinary life was the seed for what became Figuring and to whom the inaugural Universe in Verse was dedicated) not only went on to blaze the way for women in STEM but used her prominence — she was arguably America’s first true scientific celebrity, welcomed in England, Italy, and Russia as a dignitary of the New World — to become one of the nineteenth century’s most ardent advocates for social reform, advancing women’s rights and abolition.

The epoch-making discovery that became the platform for Mitchell’s modeling of possibility and far-reaching influence is the kernel of the lovely picture-book What Miss Mitchell Saw (public library) by author Hayley Barrett and illustrator Diana Sudyka — a splendid addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.

Barrett’s lyrical prose opens with a clever and tender solution to the common pronunciation confusion — Mitchell’s first name is spelled like my own but pronounced the presently atypical traditional Latin way:

On the first day of August, in a house tucked away on the fog-wrapped island of Nantucket, a baby girl was born.

Like all babies, this baby was given a name.
Her parents whispered it to her like a gentle breeze, ma…RYE…ah

Names become a central creative trope in the book — the dignifying, truth-affirming act of calling all realities by their true names. We see the young Maria learn to recognize the ships of this whaling community by name and come to know the local shopkeepers by name.

Finally, after her father apprentices her as his astronomical assistant, she learns the stars by name — a testament to bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s astute observation that “finding the words is another step in learning to see.”

Sudyka’s beautiful gouache-and-watercolor illustrations weave together hand-lettered words from the story with the three great animating forces of Mitchell’s early life: the enchantment of the cosmos, the whaling culture of Nantucket, and her family’s Quaker values. (In Figuring, writing about the factors that fomented Mitchell’s unexampled ascent above the common plane of possibility for women in her era, I point to the original use of the word genius in the term genius loci — Latin for “the spirit of a place” — and wonder whether, despite her incontrovertible natural gift for mathematics, she would have so soared had she not grown up in a secluded whaling community, where matriarchs ruled while men spent months and years on whaling trips, where Quakers lived by the then-countercultural ethos of equal education for boys and girls, where a barren landscape and long winter nights turned astronomy into cherished popular entertainment.)

The book ends with the motto emblazoned on the gold medal Mitchell received from the King of Denmark for her landmark discovery — “Not in vain do we watch the setting and the rising of the stars” — a sentiment that echoes the dying words of the great astronomer Tycho Brahe, which Adrienne Rich incorporated into her exquisite tribute to Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”

Complement the wondrous What Miss Mitchell Saw with the picture-book biographies of other inspiring cultural figures — Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, E.E. Cummings, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, Nellie Bly, Wangari Maathai — then revisit Mitchell’s abiding wisdom on friendship, social change, science, spirituality, and our search for truth, and the art of knowing what to do with your life.

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Reading group: which Doris Lessing book should we read in October?

This month marks the centenary of the British-Zimbabwean’s birth, and we’re celebrating her remarkable career. Help us choose a book

On 22 October, it will be 100 years since the birth of Doris Lessing. That’s a good reason to revisit the work of the award winning British-Zimbabwean novelist here on the Reading group. In a career spanning more than 50 years, Lessing wrote dozens of works of fiction and biography, in many different genres and moods, and was shortlisted for – and won – most of the major literary awards in Europe. She won the Nobel prize in literature in 2007, when the Swedish Academy described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. The word “epicist” means “epic poet”, which possibly fits Lessing in the broader sense of the term, even if the poetry she wrote had a quieter impact than her novels.

At 88, Lessing was the oldest author to receive the honour. She was also one of the most nonplussed. “Oh Christ,” she said when a reporter on her doorstep told her she’d won. On further reflection she said: “I’m sure you’d like some uplifting remarks of some kind … It’s been going on now for 30 years, one can get more excited … I’ve won all the prizes in Europe – every bloody one. I’m delighted to have won them all. The whole lot.”

Continue reading…

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