An Antidote to the Age of Anxiety: Alan Watts on Happiness and How to Live with Presence. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Annie Dillard wrote in her timeless reflection on presence over productivity — a timely antidote to the central anxiety of our productivity-obsessed age.
Indeed, my own New Year’s resolution has been to stop measuring my days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence. The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking. Carl Sagan was many things — a cosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic, and brilliant philosopher.
But above all, he endures as our era’s greatest patron saint of reason and common sense, a master of the vital balance between skepticism and openness. In The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library) — the same indispensable volume that gave us Sagan’s timeless meditation on science and spirituality, published mere months before his death in 1996 — Sagan shares his secret to upholding the rites of reason, even in the face of society’s most shameless untruths and outrageous propaganda. Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods: The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration.
Sagan ends the chapter with a necessary disclaimer: Ursula K. Le Guin on Aging and What Beauty Really Means. “A Dog is, on the whole, what you would call a simple soul,” T.S.
Eliot simpered in his beloved 1930s poem “The Ad-dressing of Cats,” proclaiming that “Cats are much like you and me.” Indeed, cats have a long history of being anthropomorphized in dissecting the human condition — but, then again, so do dogs. We’ve always used our feline and canine companions to better understand ourselves, but nowhere have Cat and Dog served a more poignant metaphorical purpose than in the 1992 essay “Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts about Beauty” by Ursula K. Le Guin (b. Why We Hurt Each Other: Tolstoy’s Letters to Gandhi on Love, Violence, and the Truth of the Human Spirit. By Maria Popova “Love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills.”
In 1908, Indian revolutionary Taraknath Das wrote to Leo Tolstoy, by then one of the most famous public figures in the world, asking for the author’s support in India’s independence from British colonial rule. On December 14, Tolstoy, who had spent the last twenty years seeking the answers to life’s greatest moral questions, was moved to reply in a long letter, which Das published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan. Passed from hand to hand, the missive finally made its way to the young Mahatma Gandhi, whose career as a peace leader was just beginning in South Africa. He wrote to Tolstoy asking for permission to republish it in his own South African newspaper, Indian Opinion. Stendhal on the Seven Stages of Romance and Why We Fall Out of Love: Timeless Wisdom from 1822.
Love is perhaps the most fertile subject of literature, music, and all the arts.
Kurt Vonnegut believed you’re only allowed to be in love three times in your life. It has been described as a matter of bravery, a limbic revision, the greatest insurance against regret. For Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, it is simply, sweetly walking hand in hand. Intuition of the Instant: French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard on Our Paradoxical Experience of Time. “All eternity is in the moment,” Mary Oliver wrote.
When Breath Becomes Air: A Young Neurosurgeon Examines the Meaning of Life as He Faces His Death. All life is lived in the shadow of its own finitude, of which we are always aware — an awareness we systematically blunt through the daily distraction of living.
But when this finitude is made acutely imminent, one suddenly collides with awareness so acute that it leaves no choice but to fill the shadow with as much light as a human being can generate — the sort of inner illumination we call meaning: the meaning of life. That tumultuous turning point is what neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi chronicles in When Breath Becomes Air (public library) — his piercing memoir of being diagnosed with terminal cancer at the peak of a career bursting with potential and a life exploding with aliveness. Viktor Frankl on the Human Search for Meaning. By Maria Popova “Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
Celebrated Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, born on March 26, 1905, remains best-known for his indispensable 1946 psychological memoir Man’s Search for Meaning (public library) — a meditation on what the gruesome experience of Auschwitz taught him about the primary purpose of life: the quest for meaning, which sustained those who survived. An Experiment in Love: Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Six Pillars of Nonviolent Resistance and the Ancient Greek Notion of ‘Agape’ By Maria Popova.
The Four Desires Driving All Human Behavior: Bertrand Russell’s Magnificent Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. Bertrand Russell (May 18, 1872–February 2, 1970) endures as one of humanity’s most lucid and luminous minds — an oracle of timeless wisdom on everything from what “the good life” really means to why “fruitful monotony” is essential for happiness to love, sex, and our moral superstitions.
In 1950, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” On December 11 of that year, 78-year-old Russell took the podium in Stockholm to receive the grand accolade. Later included in Nobel Writers on Writing (public library) — which also gave us Pearl S. Telling Is Listening: Ursula K. Le Guin on the Magic of Conversation and Why Human Communication Is Like Amoebas Having Sex. Every act of communication is an act of tremendous courage in which we give ourselves over to two parallel possibilities: the possibility of planting into another mind a seed sprouted in ours and watching it blossom into a breathtaking flower of mutual understanding; and the possibility of being wholly misunderstood, reduced to a withering weed.
We’re Breaking Up: Rebecca Solnit on How Modern Noncommunication Is Changing Our Experience of Time, Solitude, and Communion. Recently, while packing to move, I came upon a stack of letters from my Bulgarian grandmother. During my time in college, we wrote each other long, beautiful letters about once a month. Then she discovered the internet. The letters became emails and, invariably, their nature changed.
The slow mutual beholding of sentiment and feeling that co-respondence implies became the quick mutual reaction to information under the pressure of immediacy, which often bled into the banal — daily errands, travel plans, the weather. As I ran my fingers over the lined paper, words subtly debossed by the pressure of my grandmother’s ballpoint pen, I wondered about the continuity of personal identity across this shift — my letter-writing self seemed to have entirely different things to say, and to say them entirely differently, than my email-writing self, and yet the two selves belong to the same person.
On or around June 1995, human character changed again. The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us and Why Befriending Our Neediness Is Essential for Healthy Relationships. “The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect.
To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence. Nussbaum writes: How Kindness Became Our Forbidden Pleasure.
By Maria Popova “We are never as kind as we want to be, but nothing outrages us more than people being unkind to us.” “Practice kindness all day to everybody and you will realize you’re already in heaven now,” Jack Kerouac wrote in a beautiful 1957 letter. The Psychology of Writing and the Cognitive Science of the Perfect Daily Routine. Reflecting on the ritualization of creativity, Bukowski famously scoffed that “air and light and time and space have nothing to do with.” Samuel Johnson similarly contended that “a man may write at any time, if he will set himself doggedly to it.”
And yet some of history’s most successful and prolific writers were women and men of religious daily routines and odd creative rituals. (Even Buk himself ended up sticking to a peculiar daily routine.) Such strategies, it turns out, may be psychologically sound and cognitively fruitful.