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Lectures for a New Year: Being a Genius vs. Having a Genius

Welcome to the second day of our new lecture series. Are we having fun yet?

Up today, a short lecture you can definitely fit in during your lunch break. Liz Gilbert is best known for writing Eat, Pray, Love, which (unlike apparently ever other person in the country) I still haven't read. But she's someone who's been a reasonably successful writer for decades. When her breakthrough memoir became such a huge deal (10 million copies and counting...), Gilbert's perspective on her own creative process had to change: in all likeliness, her best work (or at least her best-known work) was behind her. How could she continue to write, knowing that, in essence, she could never "top" that book?

In this TED Talk (only twenty minutes long!), Gilbert discusses the challenges of surviving a creative career -- and not just a spectacularly successful one. She discusses historical notions of separating "inspiration" and "genius" into a separate source from the author/artist, so that creative people aren't burdened with complete responsibility for their success and failure. The talk is funny, frantic, and smart. You don't have to agree with her ideas (you may go on believing that writers really do generate ideas themselves), but Gilbert raises a series of provocative questions, not least of which: are we okay with many of our best creative minds drinking/drugging themselves to death?

Topics: creative careers, becoming successful, freaking out, history, authors who are alcoholic messes, concepts of "inspiration" from around the world, and: poems that thunder across the landscape.

Not covered: any specific material from EPL or her other books.

For: anyone involved in a creative pursuit; writers, artists, musicians -- creators of all kinds.

Viewing note: you can watch this lecture in HD by going to this TED page and clicking the Download button (below the video).

Further Reading

Fun fact: Gilbert's 1997 GQ piece "The Muse of the Coyote Ugly Saloon," chronicling her stint tending bar at the infamous saloon, was the basis for the popular movie Coyote Ugly. Crazy, right? Read the original article here. Obviously, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia and its successor (briefly mentioned in the talk above), Committed: A Love Story are primary materials in any Gilbert study.

Transcript

An interactive transcript of Gilbert's talk is available from TED (click the "Interactive Transcript" in the upper right). The YouTube video also has good Closed Captions (hit the CC button to enable them). You can also get captions from the TED downloads (click the Download button and select the relevant options).

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we’ll check it out!

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Trash Collectors in Turkey Use Abandoned Books to Build a Free Library
Adem Altan, AFP/Getty Images
Adem Altan, AFP/Getty Images

A stack of books abandoned on the sidewalk can be a painful sight for bibliophiles. But in Ankara, Turkey, garbage collectors are using books left to be discarded to build a free library. As CNN reports, their library of salvaged literature is currently 6000 titles strong.

The collection grew gradually as sanitation workers began saving books they found on their routes, rather then hauling them away with the rest of the city’s trash. The books were set aside for employees and their families to borrow, but eventually news of their collection expanded beyond the sanitation department. Instead of leaving books on the curb, residents started donating their unwanted books directly to the cause. Soon the idea arose of opening a full library for the public to enjoy.

Man reading book at shelf.
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With support from the local government, the library opened in the Çankaya district of Ankara in September 2017. Located in an abandoned brick factory on the sanitation department’s property, it features literature for children, resources for scientists, and books for English and French speakers. The space also includes a lounge where visitors can read their books or play chess. The loan period for books lasts two weeks, but just like at a regular library, readers are given the option to renew their tomes.

People reading books in a library.
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The experiment has proven more successful than anyone anticipated: The library is so well-stocked that local schools, prisons, and educational programs can now borrow from its inventory. The Turkish sanitation workers deserve high praise, but discarded book-loving pioneers in other parts of the world should also get some recognition: For decades, José Alberto Gutiérrez has been using his job collecting garbage to build a similar library in Colombia.

[h/t CNN]

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