How do you organize your books?
My children’s book library is organized by color, everything else by subject and substance first — science, poetry, biographies and autobiographies, diaries and letters, etc. — then within each section, by color. I break the color system for multiple books by the same author on related subjects — amid several Oliver Sacks volumes huddled together, “Hallucinations” beams from the solemn science shelf with its cheerful seizure of cyan.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My good friend and collaborator Claudia Bedrick, founder of the visionary Enchanted Lion Books, gave me a trilingual pop-up book titled “Little Tree,” by the Japanese graphic designer and book artist Katsumi Komagata — a subtle, stunning meditation on mortality through the life-cycle of a single tree, inspired by a young child struggling to make sense of a beloved father’s death — one of the artist’s close friends. I have a deep love of trees — they have been among my wisest teachers — and recently returned to this book while spending time with one of my own dear friends in the final weeks of her life.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Orlando. It is hard not to fall in love with a beautiful, brilliant creature who changes genders while galloping across three centuries on a pair of “the shapeliest legs” in the land. It is hard not to fall in love with Virginia Woolf’s love for Vita Sackville-West, on whom Orlando is modeled and to whom the book is dedicated. Vita’s son later described the novel as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.”
In a sense, Orlando is also an antihero in the drama of Woolf’s oppressive heteronormative society — a subversion, a counterpoint to convention, a sentinel of the resistance. A month after the book’s publication, the novelist Radclyffe Hall was tried for obscenity — the same half-coded charge of homosexuality for which Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned a generation earlier — and all printed copies of her lesbian novel “The Well of Loneliness” were destroyed by court order. In response to the trial, Woolf and E. M. Forster wrote in a joint letter of protest: “Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I don’t recall being much of a natural reader early on, but my paternal grandmother made me one. She read me old European fairy tales — Hans Christian Andersen, the uncandied Brothers Grimm. (In the communist Bulgaria of my childhood, the classics of American children’s literature were barred by the Iron Curtain.) I especially loved “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” long before I could fully appreciate the allegorical genius of a brilliant logician. I was awed by my grandmother’s enormous library and was particularly enchanted by the encyclopedias, the way you could pull one out and open to a random page and learn about something thrilling you didn’t even know existed. It is an experience we rarely have anymore in a culture where pointed search has eclipsed serendipitous discovery, leading us to find more and more of what we are already interested in. In a sense, this encyclopedic enchantment and the delight of unbidden discovery have stayed with me and become the backbone of Brain Pickings.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From the fantastic new biography of Benjamin Rush by Stephen Fried — my first and foremost writing mentor, whose research intern I was what seems like a lifetime ago, and was even paid two subway tokens per week for the pleasure — I learned that we owe to this “footnoted founder” our formative understanding of mental illness and the then-radical notion that mentally ill people are still people. A century before Nellie Bly’s paradigm-shifting exposé “Ten Days in a Madhouse,” at a time when mental asylum patients were chained to the floor until they “improved,” Rush insisted that their humanity and dignity must be honored in treatment, and pioneered forms of psychiatric care closely resembling the modern. This radical, largehearted reformer was decades, perhaps centuries ahead of his time along so many axes of progress: He became the nation’s pre-eminent champion of public health and public schooling, founded the country’s first rural college, railed against racism, helped African-American clergymen establish two of the nation’s first churches for black congregations, and pushed to extend education to women, African-Americans and non-English-speaking immigrants. (He also penned the most devastating and delightful rant against materialism, condemning America as “a bebanked, and a bewhiskied & a bedollared nation.” I wonder how he would have framed the unfathomable notion that his nation would one day be governed by a billionaire who deals in golf courses, stars in his own reality TV show and bankrolls the business of hate.)
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I am resisting the cheap impulse to simply say, “Any.” Instead, I’d say Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” but there is the obvious risk that he might take it for an instructional manual.