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Take Away the A: An Unusual Illustrated Alphabet Book about How We Make Meaning

A playful celebration of the magic of language. As a lover of unusual alphabet books, I was gladdened by this year’s crop of particularly wonderful additions, including Maira Kalman’s imaginative design history primer, Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag and Oliver Jeffers’s magnificent short stories for the letters, Once Upon an Alphabet.

John Maeda on Creative Leadership, Talking vs. Making, and Why Relationship Are a Work of Craftsmanship

“You make relationships. One at a time. With the same painstaking attention to craft that you knew as a maker.” “A leader’s real ‘authority’ is a power you voluntarily give him,” David Foster Wallace wrote in what remains the wisest meditation on leadership I’ve ever encountered, “and you grant him this authority not with resentment or resignation but happily.” But for many people in creative fields — artists, designers, filmmakers, writers — “leadership” remains an alienating notion that belongs in the business world or, worse, politics.

Haunting Illustrations for Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Introduced by the Courageous Journalist Who Broke the Edward Snowden Story

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Few things in creative culture are more enchanting than an artist’s interpretation of a beloved book.

Madeleine L’Engle on Creativity, Hope, Getting Unstuck, and How Studying Science Enriches Art

“Terrible things happen. And those are the things that we learn from… The amazing thing is that despite all… the human spirit still manages to survive, to stay strong.” In addition to being one of the most foundational texts on creativity ever published, pioneering psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s 1996 book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention (public library) — which sheds light on why “psychological androgyny” is essential to creative genius — is also a precious time-capsule of insights by some of the twentieth century’s most visionary artists, writers, and scientists, many of whom no longer alive.

How New York Became New York: A Love Letter to Jane Jacobs, Tucked Inside a Graphic Biography of Robert Moses

How two titans faced off to shape the ideal of the modern metropolis. Few people have done more to redefine the fate of a city — and, by a halo of influence, of cities in general — than Robert Moses (December 18, 1888–July 29, 1981), “master builder” of New York during the city’s astonishing growth spurt in the middle of the twentieth century.

At What Point Are You Actually Dead?

The science of why you can’t resurrect a dead body but might be able to, sort of, in the future. Despite living in a universe where, as the aphorism goes, change is the only constant, we humans have a quintessential longing for permanence.

Wendell Berry on Solitude and Why Pride and Despair Are the Two Great Enemies of Creative Work

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible… In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.” “One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary.

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress: A Tender Story of Gender Identity, Acceptance, and Overcoming Bullying

How to swish, swish, swish one’s way into the spaceship of identity. Of all the imprisoning polarities and stereotypes in our culture, none is more pervasive than the imprisoning gender expectations we instill in kids from an early age.

Carl Sagan Explains How Stars Are Born, Live, and Die

“We are made by the atoms and the stars… our matter and our form are determined by the cosmos of which we are a part.” Carl Sagan was a tireless champion of reason, a shamanic storyteller who conveyed the whimsy of science, and frequently traversed the metaphysical in his great wisdom on such larger-than-science questions as the essence of spirituality and the meaning of life.

Happy Birthday, Margaret Mead: The Legendary Anthropologist on Myth vs. Deception and What to Tell Kids about Santa Claus

How to instill an appreciation of the difference between “fact” and “poetic truth,” in kids and grownups alike.

Pecan Pie Baby: A Sweet Children’s Book Celebrating Diversity, Single-Motherhood, and the Vitalizing Gift of Community

A tender consolation for the disorienting journey of becoming a big sibling. Half a century ago, Margaret Mead memorably asserted that exposing young children to people who differ from them is essential for teaching them to like or dislike others on the basis of personal character rather than because they belong to a category of people — in other words, for immunizing them against the poison of bigotry.

Happy Birthday, Jane Austen: The Beloved Author’s Advice on Writing, in Letters to Her Teenage Niece

Epistles on the fine art of “speeding truth into the world.” Despite being one of the most important writers our civilization ever produced, on whose labors humanity continues to feed, Jane Austen (December 16, 1775–July 18, 1817) left hardly any record of her opinions and theories on the craft she so masterfully wielded in practice.

How to Change Your Mind and Murder Your Darlings: John Steinbeck on Creative Integrity and the Humanistic Duty of the Writer

“If I can’t do better I have slipped badly… I beat poverty for a good many years and I’ll be damned if I’ll go down at the first little whiff of success.” The fact that we humans have such a notoriously hard time changing our minds undoubtedly has to do with the notion that “human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished,” which belies the great robbery of the human experience — by calling ourselves beings, we deny our ever-unfolding becomings.

The Best Biographies, Memoirs, and History Books of 2014

Nabokov’s love letters, Shackleton’s courageous journey, the unsung heroes behind creative icons, Joni Mitchell unbound, and more.

The Moomin Guide to Identity and Belonging: Tove Jansson’s Vintage Philosophical Comics on Why We Join Groups and Seek Community

“It’s rather difficult, when one has MANY friends, to show loyalty to them all at the same time…” Tove Jansson (1914–2001) is one of the most imaginative and influential storytellers in modern history — an artist and writer of singular creative vision and a genius for rendering visible and comprehensible life’s subtlest nuances.

The Slippery Question of What Makes a Great Book

“Every book is a sort of machine… You have to read it to find out how it works.” “A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his fourteen definitions of a classic, “but which always shakes the particles off.” And yet even if we agree that “a book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” there is an infinite range of what different chests can — or want to — hold.

Being Mortal: A Surgeon on the Crossroads Between Our Bodies and Our Inner Lives and What Really Matters in the End

How dying confers upon living “the courage to act on the truth we find.” “I am not saying that we should love death,” wrote Rilke, perhaps humanity’s greatest sherpa of befriending our mortality, in a 1923 letter, “but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love.” In Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (public library | IndieBound), second-generation surgeon Atul Gawande grants Rilke’s undying words a new dimension in his sublime contribution to the canon of befriending mortality, which stretches from Montaigne’s meditation on death and the art of living to Sherwin Nuland’s foundational treatise on how we die to Alan Lightman’s wisdom on our paradoxical longing for immortality.

December 12, 1938: Pearl S. Buck, the Youngest Woman to Receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, on Art, Writing and the Nature of Creativity

“The creative instinct is … an enormous extra vitality, a super-energy, born inexplicably in an individual… — an energy which no single life can consume.” On December 10, 1938, novelist, essayist, and civil rights activist Pearl S.

The Farmer and the Clown: The Warm Wordless Story of an Unlikely Friendship and How We Ennoble Each Other with Kindness

A sweet celebration of the mutual elevation made possible by dropping our assumptions about ourselves, others, and who is welcome in our world.

A Burst of Delight and Recognition: E.E. Cummings, the Art of Noticing, and the Spirit of Rebellion

“Cummings despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.” “The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras memorably wrote.