Anecdotal evidence has long held that creativity in artists and writers can be associated with living in foreign parts. Rudyard Kipling, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Gauguin, Samuel Beckett and others spent years dwelling abroad. Now a pair of psychologists has proved that there is indeed a link.
As they report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, William Maddux of INSEAD, a business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Adam Galinsky, of the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago, presented 155 American business students and 55 foreign ones studying in America with a test used by psychologists as a measure of creativity. Given a candle, some matches and a box of drawing pins, the students were asked to attach the candle to a cardboard wall so that no wax would drip on the floor when the candle was lit. (The solution is to use the box as a candleholder and fix it to the wall with the pins.) They found 60% of students who were either living abroad or had spent some time doing so, solved the problem, whereas only 42% of those who had not lived abroad did so. . . .
Merely travelling abroad, however, was not enough. You do have to live there.
Really, it’s terrible. How this prototype ever made it into production I don’t know. It’s as if its creators had never seen an iPhone. Or a Walkman, for that matter. Where have they been? And the Internet capability that the device offers (almost exclusively so you can download books and other reading material from Amazon) is so poor — its parameters so hard to determine, its browser so ungracious and inaccessible — that you’re discouraged from ever exploiting it.
At the same time, and you’d be justified in thinking I’m just seeking a silver lining to rationalize my homely new purchase (it cost $360, after all), there’s some way in which the Kindle’s weak Internet connection and elusive browser are the best parts of the machine. As I said, the Kindle feels insular and remote from the wild world of commerce and buzzing data swarms. But the fact that it’s connected to the Web sort of — it has to be, right? Or how else could I download all these books? — makes the Kindle somehow better than a book. Because while I like a few hours on an airplane, I can’t say I want to move into a locked library carrel and never visit the Internet again. And I like that the Kindle, which connects to the Web through some proprietary Amazon entity called a Whispernet, is not completely out of it. The Kindle acknowledges the Internet; it hears its clamorous demands. It just ignores those demands. For the user, this means the Kindle bestows on the contemporary reader the ultimate grace: it keeps the Internet at bay.
Larry McMurtry, in his just-published elegy, Books (2008), evokes the narrative of decline and fall: “How did one of the pillars of civilization come, in only fifty years, to be mostly unwanted?”
For such people, the bookstore is more than a business. “We always wanted not just books but a shop,” writes McMurtry. He laments the disappearance of secondhand bookshops, and concludes with a list of booksellers, many of which are marked, simply, as “gone,” the way 19th-century newspapers used to list the casualties of the battlefield as simply “dead.” “The complex truth,” McMurtry writes, “is that many activities last for centuries, and then simply (or unsimply) stop.”
The most eloquent reflection I have found on the future of books is Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night (2006), which strikes a balance between romanticism and realism, nostalgia and foresight. His reflections on books and technology emphasize complementarity rather than conflict: “The birth of a new technology need not mean the death of an earlier one: The invention of photography did not eliminate painting, it renewed it, and the screen and the codex can feed off each other and coexist amicably on the same reader’s desk.”
And, it may be that electronic technology is even more fragile than books. “There may come a new technique of collecting information next to which the Web will seem to us habitual and homely in its vastness,” Manguel writes, “like the aged buildings that once lodged the national libraries in Paris and Buenos Aires, Beyrouth and Salamanca, London and Seoul.”
We learn about and remember the inventions, equations, and colors that changed the world. But we can easily forget that at the time, which invention, equation, and color would prevail was an entirely open question. And then we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking that changing the world is a great deal easier than it actually is.
—Culture Making, p.193
[Cuban philologist-cum-antigovernment blogger Yoani] Sánchez theorizes that in one of the world’s last remaining Stalinist regimes, fashioning a bizarre name from whole cloth has been one safe way of flexing creative muscles without running afoul of the authorities. “Cuba is a country where everything was rationed and controlled except the naming of your children,” she says. “The state would tell you what you would study and where, and creating names was a way of rebelling.” Jaime Suchlicki, a Cuba expert at the University of Miami, says many middle-aged Cubans spent their youth fighting Fidel Castro’s proxy wars in Ethiopia and Angola and may have given their kids African-sounding names in tribute to the continent. Similarly, the preponderance of names starting with the letter Y may reflect the contact Cubans had with Russian advisers sporting names like Yuri and Yevgeny in the years when the Soviet Union was bankrolling Castro’s revolution.
Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits associate the practice with the Communist era. Suchlicki spent his formative years in pre-revolutionary Havana, and says his friends, relatives and neighbors all went by traditional, Spanish-language names. He left the island a year after Castro ousted a U.S.-backed dictator in 1959, and says the growing popularity of unconventional names among his younger countrymen came to his attention only after Castro had consolidated his grip on power. He speculates that this preference for unusual names might signify a denial on some level of the country’s Spanish Roman Catholic heritage. “This may be a rejection of the Spanish past since Cuba is much more black today than it once was,” he says, noting that an estimated 62 percent of all Cubans are of African descent (up from 40 percent 50 years ago).