Margaret Wise Brown and the Puzzle of What Makes a Thing Itself (or You Yourself)

Aristotle, Alice and a Back Flap

Margaret Wise Brown and the Puzzle of What Makes a Thing Itself (or You Yourself)

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote as he contemplated the meaning of life in one of humanity’s greatest works of philosophy disguised as a children’s book.

The challenge, of course, is that what is essential — about the totality of life, as about every littlest thing in it — is not easily visible, largely because nothing is actually reducible, or should be reduced, to an essence: to a single point of truth, a particular attribute or quality that makes it what it is.

Yet, we’ve betrayed complexity by our desire to find the shorthand for essences since Ancient Greece. The crucible of democracy was also the crucible of its antipode in essentialism — the idea that everything has an innate potentiality, which predetermines (and therefore limits) its possible development, and that, no matter what external forces are exerted on it, this innate essence remains immutable.

Even Aristotle the wise-seeing and deep-thinking Aristotle succumbed to essentialism.

Every prejudice is at the bottom of essentialism. Some animals are more equal to others than others, because that is their fundamental nature to be oppressed or oppressed. All entitlements are at bottom essentialism.

Essentialism is the human animal’s faulty coping mechanism for the fact that the world and everything in it is multifaceted and mutable, often dizzyingly so — something Chinua Achebe captured in his astute observation that “there is no one way to anything,” because nothing is one thing only, to be grasped by only one dimension and to serve only one possible purpose.

While Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince was making his otherworldly way into our mutable and multifarious world, Margaret Wise Brown (May 23, 1910–November 13, 1952) was taking up the question of what is essential from a very different angle in The Important Book (public library) — a minimalist, subversively conceptual, maximally delightful inquiry into the essence of a thing.

Published two years after Brown’s iconic Good night MoonIllustration by the prolific Leonard Weisgard (December 13, 1916–January 14, 2000) — who had reimagined Alice in Wonderland that same year and who would go on to illustrate Brown’s final books before her untimely death a couple of years later — the book unfolds as a spare, poetic catalogue of everyday things (spoons and daisies, the rain and the snow, the grass and the sky), each occupying a single spread, each following the same conceptual formula:

The most important aspect of X is Y.
The same goes for A, B and C.
The important part is that it’s Y.

Brown — a woman of uncommon genius and nonconformity — begins with things that seem obvious, even banal. But her singular sensibility quickly becomes apparent: In telling us that the most important thing about the grass is its greenness, she lists among its other attributes the uncommon perception, stated as a common fact, that the grass is “tender,” imbuing so indifferent a life-form with so essentially human a quality. Instantly your mind bursts with scenes of lovers kissing in the grass and children playing in the grass — a single word-choice, and suddenly a universe of feeling.

About the snow — which is, most importantly, white — she observes with the same matter-of-factly nonchalance the poetic truth that it has “the shape of tiny stars.”

Her focus is on the essentials of other objects and phenomena, such as the wind, the apple, and the spoon. As the book proceeds, you will be able to see that an ordinary mind can guide you through everyday life. He or she is able to recognize the most common things in unusual ways.

By the time Brown arrives at the sky, she chooses as its most important attribute not the standard attributes — its blueness, its airy expanse — but that “it is always there.”

It must have been a comfort to her, to write these words in 1949, as her longtime lover Blanche — a poet and playwright, who wrote under the masculine pen name Michael Strange — was dying of leukemia.

Brown ends the book with the ultimate question of essences, which has puzzled philosophers since the ship of Theseus in Aristotle’s day: what makes you you — a constellation of atoms made of the selfsame stardust as every other person, yet singular, irreducible, unrepeated in any past configuration of matter and unrepeatable in any future.

Brown says that regardless of the changes in your life, Brown insists that the essential thing about you is the same.

But to me (being the particular person I am) the loveliest and most important thing about The Important Book, radiating the essence of Brown’s personhood, is what appears on the back flap in place of the standard author and artist “about” text:

It is important to remember
Let your child go.
Tell you what’s important
About the sun and moon
And the wind, and the rain
A bee and a insect
A chair and a table are required.
You will need a pencil as well as a bear.
A rainbow and a cat
(If he would like to)
The important things about
It is not over.
It remains open even after the door is shut.

Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours and thousands each month writing. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.


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