Recommendations (July 28, 2013)

I’ve come across a lot of great works over the past few weeks, so I thought I’d share some of my favorites.  Most of these are not new, but they were new to me, so they might be new to you as well.

-The mind of artist Vincent van Gogh is nothing short of fascinating.  This letter of his to his brother Theo van Gogh from 1880 is an interesting look into that mind of genius.  Here are some excerpts:

  • “Can you tell what goes on within by looking at what happens without? There may be a great fire in our soul, but no one ever comes to warm himself by it, all that passers-by can see is a little smoke coming out of the chimney, and they walk on.”
  • “I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better.”
  • “Try to grasp the essence of what the great artists, the serious masters, say in their masterpieces, and you will again find God in them.”

-One American literary giant (Herman Melville) reviews and reflects on another American literary genius (Nathaniel Hawthorne) in this essay published in 1850.  Of course, much of the letter focuses on Hawthorne’s writing.  Still, Melville’s insights on criticism, talent, Shakespeare, and American literature, make the review worth a read even for those (like me) who aren’t a huge fan of Hawthorne or Melville.  Some excerpts:

  • “You cannot come to know greatness by inspecting it; there is no glimpse to be caught of it, except by intuition; you need not ring it, you but touch it, and you find it is gold.”
  • “Besides, this absolute and unconditional adoration of Shakespeare has grown to be a part of our Anglo Saxon superstitions. The Thirty-Nine Articles are now Forty. Intolerance has come to exist in this matter. You must believe in Shakespeare’s unapproachability, or quit the country.”
  • “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness. And if it be said, that continual success is a proof that a man wisely knows his powers,–it is only to be added, that, in that case, he knows them to be small.”
  • “Besides, at the bottom of their natures, men like Hawthorne, in many things, deem the plaudits of the public such strong presumptive evidence of mediocrity in the object of them, that it would in some degree render them doubtful of their own powers, did they hear much and vociferous braying concerning them in the public pastures.”

-Growing up isn’t easy for anyone.  But because the struggles of childhood are so universal, works about such difficulties have the potential to be universally powerful.  Example: Canadian poet Shane Koyczan’s “To This Day.” Some excerpts:

  • “I’ve been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself.”
  • “If you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror.”


-I’m a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut (I can’t say enough great things about Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five).  The famed American writer also wrote “Requiem,” a short, striking poem, full of Biblical allusions, about “the crucified planet Earth.”


“The Rape Joke” is an extremely powerful poem.  Like, really, really powerful.  That’s really all I can say about Patricia Lockwood’s poem..  While many rape jokes have been told and much has been said about rape jokes, I don’t think anything on the subject has moved me like this did.  Patricia Lockwood tweeted about the poem, “The real final line of “Rape Joke” is this. “You don’t ever have to write about it. But if you do, you can write about it any way you want.””