Books

What makes people creative? What gives some of us the ability to create work that captivates the eyes, minds and hearts of others? Jonah Lehrer, a writer specializing in neuroscience, addresses that question in his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Lehrer defines creativity broadly, considering everything from the invention of masking tape to breakthroughs in mathematics; from memorable ad campaigns to Shakespearean tragedies. He finds that the conditions that favor creativity — our brains, our times, our buildings, our cities — are equally broad.

145,000 businesses start-up each year in the US.  Many launch in garages, home offices, or in the case of Stonyfield Farm, a drafty old farmhouse on a New Hampshire hilltop with seven cows, and a dream. Like most entrepreneurial ventures, the company also had vision, tenacity, some capital, market research, and an understanding of expenses, competition and supply chains. How a new business will affect the personal lives of its leader, or the lives of their families and spouses, however, rarely figures into a business plan.

Don Draper, the main character on the hit TV show Mad Men, is said to have been inspired by a real Madison Avenue ad man: George Lois. Lois was a leader in the "Creative Revolution" in advertising during the 1950s, and became one of the most influential art directors in advertising history. His work helped make brands like Xerox, Lean Cuisine and Jiffy Lube famous. Lois is perhaps best known for creating iconic Esquire magazine covers, many of which now reside in the Museum of Modern Art.

Today, flying is like riding a bus. But it wasn't always that way. Vaulted from the sands of Kitty Hawk and freed from military exigencies by the end of World War I, aviation soared into the 1920s and '30s on a direct course to tomorrow. Here are three flyers who not only helped open the skies, but also brought literary gems back from the cutting edge of progress, from a time when flying was the most exciting thing in the world.

The Long Con

Mar 14, 2012
Photo by Robert Huffstutter via Flickr Creative Commons

We can’t say with any authority when the first con artist found his mark. But we can trace the term “confidence man” to an article in The New York Herald in 1849. The Herald reporter urged citizens to stop by the city’s notorious tombs and peer at the suspect known as Samuel Williams. Many came to peer at the flim-flam man who described his effect on his marks as “putting them to sleep.”  The willingness to be duped, is of course, the genius of the con.

One hundred fifty years ago, in the summer of 1862, the Civil War was raging and President Abraham Lincoln was starting to scribble away at a document, an ultimatum to the rebellious states: Return to the Union, or your slaves will be freed.

Emancipation was a "military necessity," the president later confided to his Cabinet. Lincoln called it "absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves," Lincoln said, "or be ourselves subdued."

When you think about blockbuster best-sellers, genres like mystery, crime and romance typically come to mind. Ethical or moral fiction? Not so much. But that's how Jodi Picoult, who has 33 million copies of her books currently in circulation, describes her novels. So how did an author who writes about divisive issues get so popular?

Seven years ago, when journalist Bryce Hoffman started covering the Ford Motor Co. for The Detroit News, he knew he was either witnessing the end of an American icon or its resurrection.

When an author writes something that's supposed to be a true story and readers discover he's stretched the truth, things can get ugly fast. Recall Oprah Winfrey's famous rebuke of author James Frey for making up much of his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. "I feel duped, but more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of readers," she told him.

Dr. Adam Wolfberg had two daughters and another on the way when his wife, Kelly, went into labor. But this joyous occasion had come much too soon — Kelly was three months away from her due date. After just 26 weeks in the womb, their baby daughter Larissa entered the world by emergency cesarean section and was whisked into the neonatal intensive care unit of a Boston hospital. It was the same hospital where Wolfberg was doing his residency in obstetrics and gynecology, and his medical background turned out to be a mixed blessing.

There were a lot of good stories from the 2008 presidential election, including Hillary Clinton's serious run for the Democratic nomination, not to mention the election of the first African-American president. The whole story was covered in the bestselling — and controversial — book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change.

The film version of the young adult book sensation The Hunger Games opens March 23rd. The hype around the movie has sent the sales of the already best-selling trilogy to new heights. And publishers are eagerly churning out more books set in post apocalyptic dystopian worlds — just like The Hunger Games.

Imagine, for a moment, that you're a publisher hearing a pitch about a children's book whose tangled plot braids together quantum physics, fractions and megaparsecs (a measure for distances in intergalactic space). The book also casually tosses out phrases in French, Italian, German and ancient Greek. Sound like the next kids' best-seller to you?

They're Nobody And Want To Know Everything

Mar 4, 2012

Two mysterious men pull up to the courthouse and head to the public records office. They're strangers, and they ask a lot of strange questions like, "I'd like to look at Mayor John Doe's property deeds." Or, "I want to see Congressman Smith's voting records."

The vast majority of the 175 indigenous languages still spoken in the United States are on the verge of extinction.

Linguist Elizabeth Little spent two years driving all over the country looking for the few remaining pockets where those languages are still spoken — from the scores of Native American tongues, to the Creole of Louisiana. The resulting book is Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America's Lost Languages.

The famed mystic Rasputin — notorious for his otherworldly powers and his sexual escapades — may not have seemed like a traditional family man, but in fact, he had a wife and three children.

His eldest daughter, Maria, is at the center of Kathryn Harrison's new novel, Enchantments, a dark fairytale mash-up of history and magical realism set during the last days of Imperial Russia.

One of the great things about being a reader is that over time, the books on your shelf seem to start talking to one another. Themes echo and resurface and resonate in new ways. That's why in February, NPR's Backseat Book Club — our monthly feature aimed at young readers — selected a pair of books published 60 years apart that still seem to speak directly to each other.

The 19th century psychologist William James observed, "All our life ... is but a mass of habits."

Ad men in the 20th century took this aphorism to heart. It wasn't enough to simply sell a product; the goal was to hook consumers and keep them coming back.

After decades of global dominance, America's space shuttle program ended last summer while countries like Russia, China and India continue to advance their programs. But astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, author of the new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, says America's space program is at a critical moment. He thinks it's time for America to invest heavily in space exploration and research.

If you've seen a Hawaiian tourism commercial, a beach movie, or even a cartoon with Daffy Duck in a lei and a grass skirt, you've heard the poignant strains of "Aloha Oe."

But the tune has a history stretching far beyond cartoons and commercials: It was composed in 1878 by the woman who would become the last queen of Hawaii, Lili'uokalani.

Hawaii is the only state to have once been an independent monarchy. And when Lili'u, as she called herself, was born in 1838, it was at its height.

Theologian Lauren Winner was 21 when she became a Christian.

Although she was raised in a Jewish household and had converted to Orthodox Judaism, she says she felt drawn to Christianity. Her surprising conversion is the subject of her first memoir, the bestseller Girl Meets God.

In Winner's new book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, she writes about a spiritual crisis.

Winner, an ordained Episcopal priest who teaches Christian spirituality at Duke University, says it happened around the time her mother died and her marriage collapsed.

Amid stories of horrific atrocities like the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing that took place in the Balkans in the 1990’s, occasional tales of courage emerge: the stories of individuals who fly in the face of convention – or even the law – to stand up for what they know is right.

A 'Favored Daughter' Fights For Afghan Women

Feb 22, 2012

On the day she was born, Fawzia Koofi nearly died after being left outside in the unrelenting Afghan sun. But against all odds, Koofi survived and went on to become Afghanistan's first female deputy speaker of Parliament. Today, Koofi's name is floated in discussions about whether Afghanistan is ready for a first female president.

A Depressive Diarist Chronicles His Descent

Feb 20, 2012

Patrick deWitt is the author of The Sisters Brothers.

"Doesn't the act of noticing matter as much as what's noticed?" So asks the narrator of Harry Mathews' masterpiece of minutia, The Journalist.

On the mend from a nervous breakdown (though it's mentioned only in passing — "the steering wheel came off in my hands," he says), he's been encouraged by his doctor to keep a journal. A seemingly benign idea, and he throws himself into the task with gusto — far too much gusto, it turns out, as the journal soon eclipses his entire life.

According to our guest today, Colin Woodard, America's political divisions aren't between red states and blue states, right and left, Republicans and Democrats but between 11 distinct North American cultural regions.  They are regions the he names "Yankeedom", "Greater Appalachia", "The Deep South" and "The Far West" and they have been created by centuries of Americans who settled there, each with their own unique cultures, religions, political traditions and ethnographic characteristics.  Woodard suggests that only by truly understanding these regions can we begin to see beyond these deep 

This President's Day, a group of historians in Washington, D.C., decided they wanted to do something different to recognize the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. But how do you memorialize someone who is already one of the most memorialized people in history?

Their solution: to physically illustrate Lincoln's importance by creating a tower of books written about him. The tower measures about eight feet around and 34 feet — that's three and a half stories tall.

A troubled starlet dies in a helicopter crash off the Irish coast after sending a series of mysterious text messages. Three years later, a hungry young reporter desperate for work takes an assignment to write a quickie celebrity biography of her — but finds complexity and danger.

That seemingly accidental death is the catalyst for the events in Bloodland, a new thriller by Irish author Alan Glynn.

'Plotto': An Algebra Book For Fiction Writing

Feb 15, 2012

It's been said that there are only seven basic plots in fiction. Pulp novelist William Wallace Cook would beg to differ.

According to Cook, there are a whopping 1,462 plots, all of which he laid out in his 1928 book, Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots.

No doubt many of us are rushing out the door to grab a last minute Valentine’s Day gift for our significant others.

Our guest has a suggestion: hold off on the chocolates and flowers, and spend a little time talking to that loved one. 

Pages