We’ve all been there.
We’ve all been there.
In trying times, it helps to step several feet back — or several light years — and remember the relative size of this stage our entire lives play out on. Carl Sagan was a huge help in this regard, relating 20th century scientific discoveries in a tone both poetic and humorous, unlocking the public’s understanding of the vastness of our cosmos.
Though he departed our world back in ’96, Sagan left behind an impressive canon of works exploring science, spirituality, and the mysteries of human existence. If you’re looking for answers, he may have them, and if you’re looking for even bigger questions… well, you’re about to hit the mother lode. The following quotes represent just a tiny slice of Sagan’s wit and wisdom, but still enough to help turn down the volume on all the lamenting and sabre-rattling from fellow Earthlings that constantly threatens to overwhelm us.
“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”
“For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.”
“I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But as much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking.”
“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
“Nature is unsentimental. Death is built in.”
“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”
“Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate–with the best teachers–the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses. Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.”
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”
By TOM BLUNT,
“Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room,” author Louisa May Alcott writes of her most famous heroine, Josephine March, “put on her scribbling suit, and fall into a vortex, as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for till that was finished she could find no peace.” Indeed, Little Women, the first novel Jo appears in, traces her life as a poor but spitfire New England teen — one of four sisters — who moves to New York to pursue her literary dreams, marries well, and turns her aunt’s estate into a school for boys.
Though Alcott wrote Little Women at Orchard House, her family home and where she also placed the March sisters, the autobiography stopped short of Jo’s reverie in the “vortex” expressing “all her heart and soul.” Rather, Alcott was pressured by both her father and her publisher to write Little Women, and did so for money in record time. “I plod away,” is how Alcott herself summarized the process in her journal, “although I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.” The book debuted in 1868 and each further installment churned a buying frenzy not seen until more than a century later with the advent of Harry Potter.
That beloved character’s salty creator, J. K. Rowling, stands as a sort of proto-Alcott, as Alcott’s 40-year career spanned more than 200 works under an equally sexed nom de plume, and dashed off at high speeds, never for love, but always for money. Where the Rowling comparison really breaks down is under the pure American-ness of Alcott. PBS’s American Masters purports that with lovers like Emerson and Thoreau, and time spent as both a Civil War nurse and European Grand Tour companion, Alcott “was her own best character.”
“The real Louisa Alcott,” American Masters goes on to say, “was infinitely more interested in the darker side of human nature and experience than in telling polite stories to nice children. She was a protean personality, a turbulent force, a passionate fighter attracted to danger and violence.” Though Little Women is her best-known work, none of her eight works of juvenilia has ever gone out of print, and the same year she launched her March sisters saga, she also dashed off a short story featuring picnicking socialites getting blotto on hashish.
“I loved the book so much that I didn’t think twice about saying yes,” BBC show-runner Heidi Thomas tells an audience who’ve just watched the first part of her “Little Women” trilogy at the Tribeca Film Festival, “but then I sat down with the book and boy, did I think twice then! The thing is, the great books come up for adaptation perhaps once every generation, so I thought if I don’t do it now, the chance will never come again.”
“I think a novel about young women finding their voices and learning to sing is totally relevant,” Thomas continues, “and, as an older woman, I just wanted to pick that baton up and run with it. I read that book when I was eight and I just couldn’t not do it, but I was scared and overwhelmed. Still, I find that’s when I do my best work, when I’m scared and overwhelmed; that’s when I find something new.”
What she found was Colin Callender, executive producer for the BBC, and Rebecca Eaton, executive producer for PBS, putting her on a short, almost Alcott-esque turnaround for the miniseries. “This was January of last year,” Callender remembers, “so this was one of the fastest turn-arounds on a commission for the BBC.” But rather than the truncated production schedule, Thomas chooses to focus on the expanded breadth that the mini-series three-parter afforded her.
“The real gift was having three hours to tell the story,” Thomas adds, “because at the end of the day, it’s two novels: Little Womenand Good Wives (the two appeared as volumes in 1868 and 1869, respectively, but were published together as Little Women from 1880 onward) and when I was working on each of the three-part structures, I gave them each a theme. The first is childhood. You see the girls at the most joyful they will ever be again — that kind of running wild — so this was about lightness more than hope and optimism because at this point in life, the girls don’t even realize that hope and optimism are necessary to get them through life.”
“The second part is about challenge and the approach of adulthood,” Thomas continues. “Their sister dies and they’re having to deal with the idea of time. The tone darkens. And then part three was change. In that section, I found myself in Marmee’s shoes just watching these young women finding their place in their lives.” Thomas takes a pause, and then perfunctorily sums, “So: childhood, challenge, and change.” But she’s not quite done, not quite ready to move off Marmee, played here by Emily Watson.
“She was very much in my mind when I was writing,” Thomas explains of the Academy Award nominee. “It was a very interesting pair of shoes to walk through this in. I think of Marmee as being very liminal: saintly, but also very much present as a mother. You never know what you’ll find in a book and this time around for me, it was Marmee. She’s very complicated. She’s angry, but she doesn’t seem angry. There’s a prism with which you can look through that character that gives brilliant actors material they can thrive on and that’s a very, very important part of an adaptor’s craft.”
Thomas clearly has more to say, but Callender preempts with a congratulatory, “That was quite a piece of casting!” Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of Masterpiece Theatre since 1985, but rebranded as simply “Masterpiece” since 2008, has a slew of recent hits under her belt with both “Downton Abbey” and “Wolf Hall” and is by no means a shrinking violet, but does see an opportunity to talk about the complicated two-network deal. “I can tell you about the deal we made at Masterpiece with Colin?” she posits, almost as a question.
When no one speaks over her, she continues, “Well, this is a BBC production. It’s an American book and it’s a BBC production. Masterpiece hasn’t done much American drama, usually we do mid-Atlantics, the Edith Wartons or the Henry James, but this is an all-American book. But it was going to be British. Colin, the writer, and the director are British. So Colin and I made a deal: the girls would be American. They just had to be American. And he kept his word three out of the four times because lovely Beth is Welsh. But Colin also said all of the adults would be British-acting royalty and he was able to get that because the BBC has a lot of money — people like Sir Michael Gambon and Angela Lansbury, although I think a lot of people think Angela is American.”
“She’s the best!” offers Kathryn Newton, who plays the blond, book-burning Amy March. “When she walked in, it’s just Angela. I loved talking to her about being our age and being a contract actress. She told me to never give up. That was her advice to me.” Newcomer Maya Hawke, who plays headstrong Jo March, adds, “She’s also so amazingly porous. There’s this false idea that people, as they get older, get more stuck, but she was more flexible — changeable — than anyone I ever met. She’d do each take so differently. She had a thought and you’d watch it going across her face. She was so hungry and passionate and curious and generous, it’s a real inspiration to meet someone who’s been doing something for this long and still finds such wonder in it.”
“You start with the book,” Hawke continues when asked how to tackle an iconic role she could probably still be researching, “everybody does. Preparing for this role, you love acting, but you will love this book from the moment you pick it up. Then you start to prepare the ways in which you let the book affect you. In the ways you let Jo and her independence and her bravery and her courage perforate your being as a young woman, and hopefully impact the ways in which you go about the world. And then you get sent a script and all of a sudden you are presented not with a character in a book, but an opportunity to perform and take yourself and this person and mold them together into one.”
“Then you get really inured,” Hawke expands, “and really historical about it; you read as much as you can and you go and visit the Orchard House, which is a really beautiful, historically preserved home in Concord, Massachusetts. And you visit Walden Pond and you read Emerson and Thoreau. You read The Bible and you think about all the things these women, both the real Alcotts and the March family, try to figure out. Where their minds were going and what they were thinking and feeling while they were growing up, and then you try to give yourself ownership to be yourself and not be too weighted down by all that information. And then you try to act on instinct and be brave.”
“It’s really lovely to hear you describe your process,” Thomas responds, “because it’s so similar to mine, and sometimes the script bridges the gap between our two disciplines. You go back and read the King James Bible, in particular, and it gives a certain cadence to the language because that was the most permeated piece of literature in that home. I would read Civil War magazines because you could see what women’s preoccupations were. There would be three advertisements for hair products and one advertisement for artificial limbs because your husband was likely to come home from the war with a missing arm. It was this textual peg for what was going on. It’s also what prevents the novel from feeling like it’s been preserved in aspic jelly; these women just leap off the page as being actual, and they were, they were just put there by Alcott in the 1860s.”
We can’t guarantee you’ll find any extra wisdom here, but the library certainly seems like a good place to start looking.
The visually striking “Blade Runner 2049” plunges audiences back down a futuristic rabbit hole mingling noir sensibilities with artificial beings living among people who want to eliminate them. But this sequel to 1982’s “Blade Runner” goes way beyond cat-and-mouse suspense to explore what makes us human.
Author Philip K. Dick loved to ponder alternative universes and question reality over his forty-four novels and roughly 120 short stories, merging science fiction with philosophy. Since his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which inspired the original “Blade Runner,” Hollywood has mined his works for ideas, often expanding just nuggets into films.
Dick can be a dense read or a head trip, but this member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame has thoughts on world building that are as relevant today as they were in 1978. “[W]e live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups,” he said in a speech that year. “So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people …. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”
The film adaptation of this Nebula Award nominee introduced mainstream audiences to the terms blade runner (a type of bounty hunter) and replicant (an artificial person). Fans of Blade Runner might love to compare how it veers from the book, with sequences such as protagonist Rick Deckard being arrested by a police precinct of androids. Deckard’s empathy remains intact: “The electrical things have their lives too, paltry as those lives are,” he notes.
Dick references Hamlet in the title of this 1959 novel, which might remind readers of the film “The Truman Show.” A man who thinks he lives in a quiet community finds reward in being a crossword puzzle champion. This mild brain teaser, however, turns out to be a ruse for a greater task only he can do – something that would devastate him if he knew the truth. This read offers a good taste of Dick’s favorite themes and frequent setup of an ordinary person watching his life unravel.
Amazon adapted Dick’s 1962 Hugo Award-winning novel into an acclaimed TV series, now entering its third season. It imagines the Axis powers – chiefly Nazi Germany and Japan – won World War II and have established totalitarian rule in the United States.
Based on Dick’s short story “Shell Game,” this acerbically comic novel establishes a caste-like society on a distant moon comprised of people with various mental illnesses playing to their strengths. (The paranoiacs are the statesmen and secret police. Those with mania are warriors. The schizophrenics are poets or religious visionaries, and so on.) Dick, who during his life wrote and spoke about his own hallucinations, also includes characters such as a telepathic slime mold.
Chosen by TIME magazine as one of the 100 greatest novels since 1923, this “existential horror story” written in 1966 and published in 1969 envisions a future where psychic phenomena are common, to the point that a privacy company employs those who can block telepathic intrusions. Some of those come from the dead, who exist in a suspended state that allows them to communicate.
Winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, this 1974 novel follows a popular TV star who wakes up one morning to learn that he’s never existed, and that the United States is now a police state following a second Civil War. The title alludes to a musical work by sixteenth-century composer John Dowland, and the plot mixes the espionage of forged identities and a life on the run with reality-warping drugs and parallel universes.
Director Richard Linklater adapted this 1977 novel into a well-received animated film starring Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and Robert Downey Jr. Based partly on Dick’s experiences using amphetamines and living with addicts, the book focuses on an undercover cop who loses his identity as he becomes involved with a new psychoactive drug.
This 1996 collection presents Dick’s worldview through an impressive mix of autobiography, speculative essays, and critiques. It includes his speech “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” (from which the quote above was taken) and gems such as the beginnings of his VALIS trilogy and two chapters of a proposed sequel to The Man in the High Castle.
The Swedish Academy chose Kazuo Ishiguro as the winner of the Nobel Prize in literature Thursday, October 5. Ishiguro’s most well-known work is likely The Remains of the Day, a 1989 novel.
American author George Saunders has won the Man Booker prize for his first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, a polyphonous meditation on death, grief and American history.
Saunders, widely lauded for his short stories, was considered the favorite to win the award. His novel centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son Willie and the night that Lincoln reportedly spent in the graveyard, devastated by his grief and lingering by his son’s body.
In the book, Saunders weaves fragments of historical documents (both authentic and imagined) with the voices of ghosts trapped in the graveyard with young Willie, watching in wonder at the strength of his father’s love. The devastating toll of the Civil War is the backdrop for the scene of very particular loss.
In February, Saunders told NPR that he carried the idea for the novel around with him for 20 years — although he wasn’t sure it would be a novel at all.
Saunders explained that the “bardo” of the title is a Tibetan concept for a sort of transitional zone — a space between death and whatever comes after, in the world of the novel.
This is the second year in a row that an American has taken home the prize — in a year when U.S. authors made up 50 percent of the short list.
The Man Booker, one of the most prestigious prizes in literature, has been awarded annually since 1969. It comes with a £50,000 (nearly $66,000) cash prize and is generally associated with a substantial boost in sales for the winning book.
The award was originally reserved only for writers from the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth (countries that were once part of the British empire), but four years ago, the prize was opened up to Americans.
Last year, the prize went to Paul Beatty for The Sellout. It was the first time the Man Booker had been awarded to an American.