How Google Book Search Got Lost

Google Books was the company’s first moonshot. But 15 years later, the project is stuck in low-Earth orbit.

Illustration by Sandy van Helden.

Books can do anything. As Franz Kafka once said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.”

It was Kafka, wasn’t it? Google confirms this. But where did he say it? Google offers links to some quotation websites, but they’re generally unreliable. (They misattribute everything, usually to Mark Twain.)

To answer such questions, you need Google Book Search, the tool that magically scours the texts of millions of digitized volumes. Just find the little “more” tab at the top of the Google results page — it’s right past Images, Videos, and News. Then click on it, find “Books,” and … Read the rest

The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

“There is no whole self. It suffices to walk any distance along the inexo­rable rigidity that the mirrors of the past open to us in order to feel like out­siders, naively flustered by our own bygone days.”


The Nothingness of Personality: Young Borges on the Self

You find yourself in a city you hadn’t visited in years, walking along a street you had once strolled down with your fingers interlacing a long-ago lover’s, someone you then cherished as the most extraordinary person in the world, who is now married in Jersey with two chubby bulldogs. You find yourself shocked by how an experience of such vivid verisimilitude can be fossilized into a mere memory buried in the strata of what feels like a wholly different person, living a wholly different life — it was you … Read the rest

Working Together: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Beautiful Ode to Our Mutuality with the World

“We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.”


Working Together: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Beautiful Ode to Our Mutuality with the World

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” wrote the great Indian poet and philosopher Tagore — the first non-European awarded a Nobel Prize — in his 1930 meditation on human nature and the interdependence of existence. Nearly a century later, the English poet, philosopher, and redeemer of meaning David Whyte gave shape to that relational inextricability of our lives in his beautiful poem “Working Together,” found in his collection River Flow: New & Selected Poems (public library).

In this recording from Krista Tippett’s altogether sublime On Being interview with Whyte, he reads this simple, transcendently wakeful poem of supreme relevance to our divided world:

WORKING

Read the rest

Descartes on Opinion vs. Reason, the Key to a Wakeful Mind, and the Discipline of Critical Introspection

“It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to apply it well.”


Descartes on Opinion vs. Reason, the Key to a Wakeful Mind, and the Discipline of Critical Introspection

“The questions raised by the desire to know are in principle all answerable by common-sense experience and common-sense reasoning,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her brilliant treatise on thinking vs. knowing and the crucial difference between truth and meaning. “But the questions raised by thinking and which it is in reason’s very nature to raise — questions of meaning — are all unanswerable by common sense and the refinement of it we call science.”

What kind of reasoning, then, can we develop in order not only to inoculate ourselves against unreason, not only to arrive at truth, but to access meaning? More than that, in an age of instant … Read the rest

Mathematician Lillian Lieber on Infinity, Art, Science, the Meaning of Freedom, and What It Takes to Be a Finite But Complete Human Being

Mathematics and poetry converge in an ode to the “sweet reasonableness” at the heart of a psychologically balanced character.


Mathematician Lillian Lieber on Infinity, Art, Science, the Meaning of Freedom, and What It Takes to Be a Finite But Complete Human Being

“We’re all intrinsically of the same substance,” astrophysicist Janna Levin wrote in her exquisite inquiry into whether the universe is infinite or finite. “The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.” How, then, do we set aside this instinctual absurdity in order to grapple with the concept of infinity, which pushes our creaturely powers of comprehension past their limit so violently?

That’s what the mathematician and writer Lillian R. Lieber (July 26, … Read the rest

Vincent van Gogh on the Psychological Rewards of Japanese Art

“You cannot study Japanese art … without becoming much gayer and happier.”


In February of 1888, a decade after a winding road took him to his purpose, Vincent van Gogh (March 30, 1853–July 29, 1890) moved to the town of Arles in the South of France, where he found himself enchanted by the landscape and the quality of light. So began an extraordinarily fertile period of creativity for the artist, marked by the completion of more than 200 paintings, 100 watercolors and sketches, and the culmination of his famous Sunflowers series. But it was also a period of extreme poverty and psychoemotional anguish, culminating with his famous self-mutilation.

“I have no thought of fatigue,” the destitute painter wrote to his brother Theo while subsisting … Read the rest

The Trailblazing 18th-Century French Mathematician Émilie du Châtelet on Jealousy and the Metaphysics of Love

“It is the privilege of affection to see a friend in all the situations of his soul.”


The Trailblazing 18th-Century French Mathematician Émilie du Châtelet on Jealousy and the Metaphysics of Love

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” Anaïs Nin admonished.“It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.” No form of anxiety sinks the buoyancy of love more readily than jealousy. The Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel put it best in his reflections on love and its demons: “Jealousy… is precisely love’s contrary… the most passionate form of egotism, the glorification of a despotic, exacting, and vain ego, which can neither forget nor subordinate itself.”

Indeed, this corrosive yet common human experience is one which responds better to … Read the rest

The Trailblazing 18th-Century French Mathematician Émilie du Châtelet on Jealousy and the Metaphysics of Love

“It is the privilege of affection to see a friend in all the situations of his soul.”


The Trailblazing 18th-Century French Mathematician Émilie du Châtelet on Jealousy and the Metaphysics of Love

“Anxiety is love’s greatest killer,” Anaïs Nin admonished.“It makes others feel as you might when a drowning man holds on to you. You want to save him, but you know he will strangle you with his panic.” No form of anxiety sinks the buoyancy of love more readily than jealousy. The Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel put it best in his reflections on love and its demons: “Jealousy… is precisely love’s contrary… the most passionate form of egotism, the glorification of a despotic, exacting, and vain ego, which can neither forget nor subordinate itself.”

Indeed, this corrosive yet common human experience is one which responds better to … Read the rest

The Heroism of Being a Contrarian: Jacob Bronowski on the Essential Character Trait of the Creative Person

“The creative personality is always one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change.”


The Heroism of Being a Contrarian: Jacob Bronowski on the Essential Character Trait of the Creative Person

“If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes,” Van Gogh wrote in a magnificent letter to his brother about how taking risks and making inspired mistakes moves us forward. He was speaking, of course, from the only perspective he knew — as an artist and a human being — but he was also speaking to a central principle of creativity that holds true in art, science, and any human endeavor.

That principle is what the great Polish-born British mathematician, biologist, writer, and historian of science Jacob Bronowski (January … Read the rest

The Heroism of Being a Contrarian: Jacob Bronowski on the Essential Character Trait of the Creative Person

“The creative personality is always one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change.”


The Heroism of Being a Contrarian: Jacob Bronowski on the Essential Character Trait of the Creative Person

“If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes,” Van Gogh wrote in a magnificent letter to his brother about how taking risks and making inspired mistakes moves us forward. He was speaking, of course, from the only perspective he knew — as an artist and a human being — but he was also speaking to a central principle of creativity that holds true in art, science, and any human endeavor.

That principle is what the great Polish-born British mathematician, biologist, writer, and historian of science Jacob Bronowski (January … Read the rest