Everything could have been so different

Your life is far more arbitrary than you might think. by Jonny Thomson  Jorge Borges’ story, The Library of Babel, asks us to imagine all the books that could be written using a random shuffling of 25 characters. Daniel Dennett argues that, in some ways, the genetic makeup of all life is similar but with only four characters. The history of the universe is only one possible way our story could have gone. Much of our reality is simply arbitrary. Imagine all the lives you didn’t live. A life where you never met your partner. Where you never had a brother … Continue reading Everything could have been so different

The Antidote to the Irreversibility of Life: Hannah Arendt on What Forgiveness Really Means

“Forgiving… is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven.” BY MARIA POPOVA “To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt,” poet and philosopher David Whyte observed as he dove for the deeper meanings of our commonest concepts. But, as James Baldwin and Margaret Mead demonstrated in their historic conversation about forgiveness and the crucial difference between guilt and responsibility, Western culture has a confused understanding … Continue reading The Antidote to the Irreversibility of Life: Hannah Arendt on What Forgiveness Really Means

A just and loving gaze

Simone Weil: mystic, philosopher, activist. Her ethics demand that we look beyond the personal and find the universal Deborah Casewell is a Humboldt Research Fellow in philosophy at the University of Bonn and co-director of the UK-based Simone Weil Network. Her most recent book is Eberhard Jüngel and Existence: Being Before the Cross (2021). Edited byNigel Warburton The short life of Simone Weil, the French philosopher, Christian mystic and political activist, was one of unrelenting self-sacrifice from her childhood to her death. At a very young age, she expressed an aversion to luxury. In an action that prefigured her death, while still … Continue reading A just and loving gaze

Rilke on the Relationship Between Solitude, Love, Sex, and Creativity

“There is only one solitude, and it is large and not easy to bear… People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.” BY MARIA POPOVA “You are born alone. You die alone. The value of the space in between is trust and love,” artist Louise Bourgeois wrote in her diary in her seventy-seventh year as she looked back on a long and lush life to consider the central role of solitude in creativity. A generation before her, recognizing that “works of art arise … Continue reading Rilke on the Relationship Between Solitude, Love, Sex, and Creativity

Africa writes back

European ideas of African illiteracy are persistent, prejudiced and, as the story of Libyc script shows, entirely wrong D Vance Smith is a medievalist and Old Dominion Professor in the Department of English at Princeton University. His books include The Book of the Incipit (2001); Arts of Possession (2003); and Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England (2020). Edited by Sam Dresser Four different writing systems have been used in Algeria. Three are well known – Phoenician, Latin and Arabic – while one is both indigenous to Africa and survives only as a writing system. The language it represents is called Old Libyan or Numidian, simply because … Continue reading Africa writes back

Sylvia Plath and the Loneliness of Love

“Life is loneliness… Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship — but the loneliness of the soul, in its appalling self-consciousness, is horrible and overpowering.” BY MARIA POPOVA Western psychologists have rightly observed that “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Zen Buddhists have rightly observed that “to love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.” That lacuna between whom and how, between the objects of our love and its observance, is powerful space for transformation. For those of us who have not come into the world under the most optimal of circumstances and have not been … Continue reading Sylvia Plath and the Loneliness of Love

How to use metacognition skills to remember 90% of what you read

by Thomas Oppong Thinking, Fast and Slow. Thinking in Bets. Skin in the Game. Great Thinkers. The Laws of Human Nature. The Intelligent Investor. Zero to One. These are great books that require multiple reads to deeply understand the fantastic ideas the authors want us to comprehend. Reading a lot of great books improves our knowledge, judgment and mental models. But many people rarely engage with the content of their books. When you aim to read hundreds of books a year with no regard for absorption, you probably won’t get all the knowledge you need from the books. To improve … Continue reading How to use metacognition skills to remember 90% of what you read

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are

“There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is.” BY MARIA POPOVA It takes a great sobriety of spirit to know your own depths — and your limits. It takes a special grandeur of spirit to know the limits of your self-knowledge. A recent brush with those limits reminded me of a short, stunning essay by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) titled “The Mirror of Enigmas,” found in his Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of stories, essays, and parables that gave us his timeless parable of the divided self and his classic refutation of time. Titling … Continue reading The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are

James Baldwin on Love, the Illusion of Choice, and the Paradox of Freedom

“Nothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.” BY MARIA POPOVA We, none of us, choose the century we are born in, or the skin we are born in, or the chromosomes we are born with. We don’t choose the incredibly narrow band of homeostasis within which we can be alive at all — in bodies that die when their temperature rises above 40 degrees Celsius or drops below 20, living on a planet that would be the volcanic inferno of Venus or the frigid desert of Mars if it were just a little closer to or farther … Continue reading James Baldwin on Love, the Illusion of Choice, and the Paradox of Freedom

The case of Norman Douglas

He was a literary lion and an infamous pederast: what might we learn from his life about monstrosity and humanity? Rachel Hope Cleves is a historian and professor at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. She is the author of The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery (2009), Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014) and Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality (2020). Her current project is titled ‘A Historian’s Guide to Food and Sex’.  Edited by Sam Haselby The British writer Norman Douglas was so famous during his lifetime (1868-1952) that he frequently turned up as a … Continue reading The case of Norman Douglas