Princes and Elves

A recent visit to my bookshelf turned up quite a few copies of The Little Prince – almost one for each of the languages I dabble in. I’m not sure how this happened. I never planned on collecting copies of this particular book. (My small son has at least two copies already, all his own – so maybe it runs in the family.) I live in Zurich, so I hope to soon deserve a copy in German, Der kleine Prinz, although a copy in Thai would also be fitting. Not that I speak Thai. It’s just that, on a recent trip to Thailand, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was all I could think about. Here’s why:

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View from beach in Southern Thailand. Around me, snakes fell from the palm trees overhead and geckos cried out loudly. (Photo credit: Mariana Villas-Boas)

I spent a week contemplating this view of elephants swallowed by boa constrictors, as I sat on a tropical beach on a Southern Thai island. This is, of course, a reference to the opening scene of The Little Prince, which starts with two attempts at making a drawing of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. The drawings, made by a six year-old, need to be progressively dumbed down so the adults can understand they are not looking at a drawing of a hat, but of something truly terrifying. I saw both plenty of snakes in Thailand and plenty of elephants and – in those steep limestone cliffs – plenty of elephants swallowed by boa constrictors.

Saint-Exupéry crept into my travels in other unexpected ways as well. On the outskirts of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand, I stumbled upon a very charming children’s book called A Little Elf. (Even similarly structured titles.) Its author, Chak Cherdsatirkul, happened to be the manager of the hotel I was staying at and was nice enough to sign a copy for me.

The story of A Little Elf is simple and poetic, but what really drew me in were the illustrations by M.L. Chiratorn Chirapravati, who the author told me was a member of the royal Thai family and is a known artist in Thailand. The illustrations are unusual, drawn in a simple palette of black, white and red only, but are full of pause and whimsy. The Little Elf carries a party hat on his bald head with a kind of propeller on the top and his wings are two lollipop circles poking out from the back of his jumpsuit.

The simple charm of the drawings, which bring out the beauty of the text so perfectly, immediately took me back to The Little Prince

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Photo from Chak Cherdsatirkul’s A Little Elf, illustrated by M.L. Chiratorn Chirapravati

What both of these stories show us is the difference between looking at life factually and with imagination, both of which are correct, but only one of which is constructive. Only one innovates, only one brings hope, only ones makes us greater than we are. My reverie gazing at those limestone cliffs reminded me that imagination is only possible with a certain amount of mental space. I’ve recently been told that sitting quietly in a room alone is a thing for experts. I hope to master this undervalued, under-monetized skill and will keep Chak Chirapravati’s A Little Elf by my side as a reminder that such a thing is a worthy pursuit.

Happy New Year, everyone!




Cultural Pairings – for adults

Summer is here and we hope you will all be reading lots.

But we wanted to give you something a little different: a cultural proposal for the grown-ups in the room. (Yes, because we always think in terms of being in the same room together, even though the internet is this distant, impersonal thing.)

Some people pair wines. Others pair chocolate. We pair cultural events.

Here’s what we’ve put together this time:

Louise Bourgeois & Pablo Picasso – Anatomies of Desire

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Umbilical Cord, Louise Bourgeois. (Photo credit: designbote) I find this sculpture so touching. The fragility of the baby in the womb is so well represented and the woman doesn’t even have arms to protect her child – further emphasising her vulnerability.

Where: Hauser & Wirth, Limmatstrasse 270, 8005 Zürich

When: until 14 Sep 2019

Perfect for a heatwave. Some serious air-conditioning and it’s free. Just make sure to put your bags in the lockers at the door. While you’re there, you can take a stroll to the other galleries in the building and have some ice tea at the ground floor café. (If you’ve come to see this, you’ve left the kids at home, so enjoy that me time.)

Louis Bourgeois’ work has captivated me for a long time. To look at her work is to question what it means to have a female body. What pretensions does the world have over that body? How does that body expect in terms of pain and pleasure? How does that body (and sexuality generally) inform whom we are?

Roxanne Gay – Openair Literature Festival

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Roxanne Gay (Photo credit: Joe Mazza)

Where: Old Botanical Gardens

When: 13 July 2019

Also, heatwave friendly. Magical outdoor setting in a garden and with a nice little bar.

Roxanne Gay’s writing is brave and raw. I was drawn to her book Hunger by my desire to understand what it’s like to go through the world in a body that looks very different from my own. (I’ve always been a very tiny person.) For friends of mine, the book was powerful because of its portrayal of bodies that are large and often shamed. Either way, it is a book that makes you very aware of your own flesh and all that comes with it, especially if you are a woman – power games, danger, norms and constraints, judgments. 

Why do these two pair up nicely?

Both are about the female body, sexuality and trauma. Both are incredibly strong women with a unique voice that is a little before their time.

Important note: StoryLabs is very much about children’s literature and programming, but this time our recommendations are for adults only. Neither of these events are appropriate for children.

But we’re not going to leave you in the lurch when it comes to your kiddies.

Here are some great books you can read with them that approach some of the same topics as these adult events, but in a child-friendly light.

The Cloth Lullaby: The Woven Life of Louise Bourgeois

By Amy Novesky with gorgeous illustration by the inimitable Isabelle Arsenault


The Heart and the Bottle

Written and illustrated by the formidable Oliver Jeffers

About healing after great loss. (I’ve given this book to plenty of adults as a gift.)

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You can pair your kids’ books with the beautiful Hauser & Wirth exhibit catalogue (55 CHF) and Roxanne Gay’s Hunger. lowres jpg 72dpi H W Louise and Pablo 030

Silence: An Interview with Erling Kagge

Finding your own South Pole

Erling Kagge

Interviewed by Carina Nicolae, Soren Brown and Mariana Villas-Boas

Erling Kagge is a man of many firsts. He was the first to trek to the North Pole unsupported, the first to trek to the SouthPole unsupported and the first to complete the Three Poles Challenge (North Pole, South Pole and Mount Everest). The somewhat bohemian explorer may also have been one of the first to write a book about silence that focuses on its positive aspects. “Quite often silence is about sadness and loneliness and boredom, but so many people have been writing books about that. I wanted to write about silence in a positive sense.” This he did in Silence: In the Age of Noise.

“The universe in your head is just as complicated as the universe around us. It’s true that exploration is very much about exploring yourself, your own mind.”

In its early pages, the Norwegian cites a conversation with the poet Jon Fosse, where Fosse equates silence with wonder. Wonder is one of childhood’s biggest joys – and losses. We could argue adults need silence to learn to wonder like children again. When I asked Kagge about this, he said, “Yes, there is a lot of noise in adults’ lives. Not only sounds, but expectations and distractions from devices. That is one of the reasons why we all need silence.” That is one of the reasons he encourages all of us to search for our own South Pole.

I haven’t climbed any mountains recently, but I’m not one to shy away from a challenge either, especially with curiosity tugging at my sleeve. So, if children have better access to wonder, why not ask for their help in interviewing the explorer on silence? It seemed like too good of an idea to pass up. That is how I ended up speaking with Erling Kagge one sunny afternoon with two young journalists at my side – so young in fact, if you added their ages together, they wouldn’t be able to drive a car.

Carina: You are described as an explorer. What is an explorer?

EK: First, you were born. You wanted to climb even before you could walk. Before you could talk, you walked across the sitting room, through the door, into the world and started to wonder what was hidden behind the horizon. So, in that sense, I think we are all explorers, some more than others, but I’m very in favor of a wide definition of exploration.

Carina: What did Antarctica look like?

EK: When I started, it looked white and flat, but after a few days I started to see that it wasn’t totally flat and not totally white. The ice and snow were blueish, yellowish, greenish. I wondered if Antarctica was changing or if it was me. It was me who was changing.

Carina: Did you hear anything like animals or wind?

EK: No, not when I walked to the South Pole. I was in Antarctica for the first time in 1987, and then I heard birds, walruses, penguins, killer whales, but this time I didn’t see any animal life at all.

Carina: How cold was it?

EK: To the South Pole, I didn’t bring a thermometer, but probably 30, 35 degrees below zero. In the North Pole, it went down to minus 54. That was pretty cold.

Carina: Wow! 

For Kagge, his expeditions are as much about exploring the outside as the inside. “The universe in your head,” he said, “is just as complicated as the universe around us. It’s true that exploration is very much about exploring yourself, your own mind. And for me the best way to do it is to move, to walk, to ski, to climb, to sail and then not only explore nature, but also explore myself.” A screen, he says, is not how we explore the world. More than engaging a search engine, we need to engage our own engines. For him, there needs to be an element of movement. As he says in his book Walking: One Step at a Time, emotion comes with motion. We are moved, in an emotional sense, when we move.


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EK: Oh, I got tired! I was very fit at the time, but the most important thing is what is happening between your ears. You need to be fit physically, but then it’s a mind game. You have to really want to do it.

Soren: (On his expedition to the North Pole in 1990, Kagge went with a friend, Borge Ousland.)  

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EK: I liked the challenge. I wanted to make it more difficult. It is important to make life more difficult than necessary and on expeditions you certainly need to make it more difficult than necessary. Also, I wanted to be the first in the world to do it alone.

Carina: (We know you didn’t speak for the entire 50 days of your tip.) 

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EK: I liked it. I’m a very social guy here in Norway, but I thought it would be nice to have a break. I didn’t decide beforehand. I just didn’t feel like talking and somehow nature speaks to you in its own language.


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EK: When I was your age, I thought silence was sad and boring. Today, I think it can be boring sometimes too, but it’s more enriching, a relief, and also expands my mind, because in silence you get to know yourself. It felt good on my trip to the South Pole most of the time. Not every hour. Sometimes you don’t feel happy, but in general I had a good time by myself. I think most people would have a good time, because it’s nice to have a break from conversation. All humans are born to be with other humans, but for 50 days it was really nice to not be with any other people.

Carina: How did it feel like coming back to the noisy world?

EK: You adapt to circumstances really quickly. After a few days at home, I started to get used to it. You get home, you need to go to the store to buy food, you need to bathe, you need to pay bills. Life often goes back to normal quick and fast. But you’ve had the experience, that’s the big difference.

Soren: What was the hardest part of your trip?

EK: Getting up in the morning every day. Because it was cold and I was tired. Just like you.

Soren: Do we have to go to Antarctica to find silence?

EK: No, you can find silence anywhere and the most important silence is inside your head, the silence within. In your body and in your mind, that is the most important silence. You need to find your own silence. You can’t wait for silence to come to you. You need to find your own silence where you are. That silence is inside you just waiting for you.

Soren: My sister Annika is 5-years old and also asked a question.

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EK: In a way I did, but on the other hand, I didn’t. You feel Santa Claus is there. You feel his presence, but you don’t really see him.

Kagge is not shy about being dyslexic and has not let the fact hold him back. In addition to his impressive accomplishments as an explorer, he studied law and philosophy, runs a major publishing company in Norway, wrote 7 books and is often engaged in public speaking events (including a Ted Talk) – all text-heavy endeavors. “I could not pronounce my own name before I was 10-years old. I couldn’t say dyslexic before I was 20. So, I was very dyslexic. I had a hard time speaking, writing and reading. Of course, that felt bad at the time. Terrible. The good thing is, if I hadn’t been dyslexic, I wouldn’t have done all of those things you mentioned, because the good thing about being dyslexic is you learn to question authority. The teacher tells you something and it works for everybody else, but it doesn’t work for you. You need to find your own paths in life. You learn to think a little bit differently and that also has a very positive side. So, it is a negative thing to be dyslexic, but it also has a good side. I know many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and they are almost all dyslexic. The Norwegian prime minister, she’s dyslexic. Somehow, it could be a good thing. It’s very good for creativity. It’s tough to be dyslexic, that is something you have to respect, but something good could come out of it. You could become the Prime minister of Norway.”

If you read Kagge’s books, it becomes clear there are two important threads in his practice of silence: art and movement. Kagge is an avid art collector and you find quite a few art reproductions in his books. (He’s even penned a how-to book for aspiring art collectors: A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art.) “To appreciate art, you generally need some silence. You need silence to reflect on art and you need contemplation. Also, quite often artworks are silent. No noise. So, I think silence is important to appreciate art.”

Walking, a common practice among writers, also comes into play as part of Kagge’s practice of silence. It is scientifically shown to unleash creative juices, although no one is sure why. Somehow, thoughts coalesce and we connect with a deeper part of ourselves. Kagge quotes the philosopher Merleau-Ponty in Walking: One Step at a Time saying, “I am just as immediately in the tips of my fingers, as in my head… my soul is as whole in my whole body, and wholly in each part.” In addition to walking a great deal, Kagge is also known to walk up a flight of stairs backward, just to give himself some head space in the middle of a busy day. “I find walking is very concrete, while silence is a bit more abstract. But walking and silence are about inner silence. I can find inner silence when I take a shower, when I do the dishes, but to walk is a fantastic thing, also in terms of silence. As I write in the book, it’s all about finding your own South Poles.”

Erling Kagge was featured in the StoryLab on 7 April at the Johan Jacobs Museum on the topic of silence. His most recent books are Silence: In the Age of Noise and Walking: One Step at a Time, both of which we highly recommend. Both Carina and Soren were present at this StoryLab.

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Our sincere thanks to our young journalists Carina Nicolae and Soren Brown.

Carina Nicolae is 8-years old. She loves science and her family moved to Zurich one year ago from England. She has a little brother.

Soren Brown is also 8-years old. He is American and his family originally came from Norway. He has a little sister who is very curious about Santa Claus.

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