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The Building Blocks of Personhood: Oliver Sacks on Narrative as the Pillar of Identity

“Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique.” “A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote in his brilliant treatise on personhood, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment.

W.H. Auden on the Political Power of Art and the Crucial Difference Between Party Issues and Revolutionary Issues

“In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act.” To be a thinking, feeling, creative individual in a mass society too often unthinking and unfeeling in its conformity is to find oneself again and again at odds with the system yet impelled to make out of those odds alternative ends — to envision other landscapes of possibility, other answers, other questions yet unasked.

Walking as Creative Fuel: A Splendid 1913 Celebration of How Solitary Walks Enliven “The Country of the Mind”

“Nature’s particular gift to the walker… is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive.” “Every walk is a sort of crusade,” Thoreau wrote in his manifesto for the spirit of sauntering.

Blob: An Irreverent and Insightful Modern Fable About Beauty, Ugliness, the Paths to Acceptance, and How Admiration Hijacks Our Sense of Self

A playful and profound tale about the struggle for belonging. “Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow,” Albert Einstein wrote in contemplating the fickleness of fame, “that is the fate of people whom — God knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.” And indeed the public itself often knows not why it has taken possession of those whom it inflates before deflating with the same rapaciousness and rapidity — such is the arbitrary and fleeting nature of popular favor in its gruesome modern guise of celebrity.

The World’s Most Lyrical Footnote: Physicist Richard Feynman on the Life-Expanding Common Ground Between the Scientific and the Poetic Worldviews

“Far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it.” In looking back on the past year, I keep returning to The Universe in Verse as a singular highlight — that labor-of-love celebration of the common ground between poetry and science, standing as a contemporary testament to Wordsworth’s insistence that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge [and] the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.” While revisiting the readings from the show — poems celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope, the number pi, the legacy of trailblazing scientists like Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Caroline Herschel — I was reminded of a marvelous footnote by the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), speaking to the powerful dialogue between the scientific and the poetic worldviews.

This Book Is a Planetarium: A Pop-Up Masterpiece Translating the Laws of Physics into Playful and Poetic Tangibility

From light to time, magical hands-on demonstrations making concretely comprehensible the abstract forces and phenomena we experience but cannot ordinarily touch.

Germaine de Staël’s Guide to Haters: The First Modern Woman on Meritocracy, the Psychology of Why the Masses Rejoice in Tearing Down Successful Individuals, and the Only True Measure of Genius

“The life of man, so short in itself, is still of longer duration than the judgment and the affections of his contemporaries.” Napoleon is said to have recognized only three powers in Europe: Britain, Russia, and Germaine de Staël (April 22, 1766–July 14, 1817) — the brilliant Swiss-French woman of letters, who rose against the odds of her time and culture to become Europe’s reigning intellectual queen and the most public critic of Napoleon’s dictatorial regime, for which he banished her from Paris for a decade and punished heavily those who visited her in exile.

A Winter Walk with Thoreau: The Transcendentalist Way of Finding Inner Warmth in the Cold Season

“In this lonely glen… our lives are more serene and worthy to contemplate.” “Human beings make metaphors as naturally as bees make honey,” Adam Gopnik wrote in his wondrous love letter to winter, and no one has honeyed the spirit with more splendid metaphors wrung from winter than Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862).

The Wonders of Possibility: Lewis Thomas on Our Human Potential and Our Cosmic Responsibility to the Planet and to Ourselves

“We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before.” “Our origins are of the earth,” Rachel Carson wrote in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature.

Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos: An Illustrated Celebration of How the Pioneering Artist’s Love of Animals Shaped Her Character

A loving homage to the inner menagerie of a wild and wondrous spirit. “True art, when it happens to us, challenges the ‘I’ that we are,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her exquisite meditation on how art transforms us.

D.H. Lawrence on the Antidote to the Malady of Materialism

“Owners and owned, they are like the two sides of a ghastly disease. One feels a sort of madness come over one, as if the world had become hell.

Against Turning on Ourselves and Each Other in Identity Politics: Irish Poet and Philosopher John O’Donohue on the Wonder and Wildness of Our Being

“So many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them.” “It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person,” philosopher Amelie Rorty wrote in examining what makes a person through her taxonomy of the seven layers of identity.

The Best of Brain Pickings 2017

The courage to be yourself, a Stoic’s antidote to anxiety, how friendship transforms us, in praise solitude, and more.

The Human Mosaic of Beauty and Madness: Young Alan Watts on Inner Sanity Amid Outer Chaos

From the abyss of WWII, an elevating reminder that we each contain a universe within that contributes to the universe without.

A Reflection on Living Through Turbulent Times

Perspective to lift the blinders of our cultural moment. It has been a difficult year — politically, personally.

Flatland Revisited: A Lovely New Edition of Edward Abbott Abbott’s Classic 1884 Allegory of Expanding Our Perspective

On the absurdity of truth by consensus, and a gentle invitation to consider how our way of looking at the world limits our view of it.

Walt Whitman on What Makes Life Worth Living

“Tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.” “Do you need a prod?

The 7 Loveliest Children’s Books of 2017

Profound and poetic illustrated celebrations of solitude, self-possession, friendship, and our place in the cosmos.

7 Favorite Science Books of 2017

From trees to consciousness to black holes, an immersion into the glory of the knowable and the splendor of the unknown.

Jad Abumrad Reads an Ode to the Glory of Tiny Creatures and Celebrates His Mother’s Scientific Persistence

In praise of the invisible heroisms and unglamorous triumphs of nature and the human spirit. The Universe in Verse was a highlight of my year — a beautiful evening celebrating the improbable yet wondrous intersection of science and poetry, raising funds for the defense of science and the arts from political assault.