Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Marching to the beat of our own drums

OH MY GOODNESS I love this book! The Principles of Uncertainty is such a beautiful, unique book and I am in awe of Kalman’s creativity, distinct sense of voice, and quirky worldview. Yet in spite of all the ways that it is different in format from Bryon’s more traditional prose, the two books are actually quite similar. Both are what I’d like to call “life works.” Both books contain a sort of natural rhythm that is evident in their organization. This rhythm, or “calendar” as we said in class, is important because it helps to shape human life. Both Bryson and Kalman have done a service to humanity and have found a way to put their lives into an imperishable form: they have, as Kalman says, collected themselves. Whether it is through pictures or prose, Bryson and Kalman have both found a way to express at least a portion of the precious collection of thoughts, ideas, and stories that make up their lives. They have shared these collections in the form of two unique books, which reveal the rhythm and pattern of the process of gathering, or rather, living. When this pattern is broken, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, there is an option for humor to enter and for connections to be made.

As I said before, both books are organized around a calendar. Whether in the form of monthly weather reports or weekly hints at holidays, there is some indication of the passage of time. This helps to give structure to two books that could otherwise be unruly messes of thoughts and ideas. The structure is important because it makes the author’s brain a more inviting place for the reader to enter. And indeed, as we discussed in class, Bryson’s conversational tone and everyday topics are welcoming and create a sense of intimacy with the reader; the reader wants to get to know Bryson because he seems like a pretty great guy, and the reader can because he has laid out his thoughts so neatly. Kalman too reveals a portion of herself to her reader in both her paintings and her words: she becomes vulnerable and the reader can, quite literally, SEE her thought process. This makes the need for a kind of structure especially true in Kalman’s book. She successfully creates a welcoming environment for her reader in the way that she carefully lays out each page as a different thought. The physical rhythm of the turning of the pages helps the reader to keep up with her stream-of-consciousness approach. Even though she starts in one place (for example, the Dodo) and ends in another (her mother’s map of the world) she is able to gently lead the reader where she wants to take him because she has given him this chance to catch his breath in between each thought. The reader can chart the progress of the journey, and so does not feel overwhelmed but honored that Kalman would be willing to share so much of herself with him.

Throughout each book, the structure or framework for the text remains the same. Yet there is another sort of structure that comes in the rhythm of the writing style. This is what helps to create Bryson’s sarcastic and Kalman’s wondrous sense of voice. Yet sometimes this particular interior rhythm of the content (as opposed to the exterior rhythm of the form) is broken, and then a fault line—a boundary—appears where there lies an option for humor. For example, in his chapter “Design Flaws,” Bryson begins with a long description of the specialized shoes that his son needs to satiate his appetite for running. At the end of a particularly long and complicated sentence, he writes, “…why does my computer keyboard suck? This is a serious question” (39). Similarly, Kalman begins her chapter titled “Paris,” with a long list of philosophical terms. Then she makes a comment about Nietzsche’s mustache and then immediately disregards all that she has just said in favor of going to Paris (133). On the surface, this technique seems like it would fall into the category of the incongruity model of humor. The break in rhythm that has occurred with the juxtaposition of the complicated and simple seems ridiculous and causes the reader to laugh. But the fact that the author focuses on the simple instead of the complicated further frustrates the reader’s expectations and extends the humor to a level of “cosmic” proportions.

So for both of these writers humor seems to be found in the mundane. Indeed, both Bryson and Kalman continually write about the glories of the mundane. Bryson revels in the hospitality provided by his post office; Kalman has a special affinity for hats and old people. While many people can get caught up in the complicated theological or philosophical drama of answering questions such as “Why are we here?” Bryson and Kalman find those answers in the thoughts, stories, and ideas they gather each day of their lives. Kalman blatantly asks, “How do you know who you are?” and then proceeds to answer that question by attempting to define herself by her collections or her habits or her family stories. Her answers are simple and personal (99). By commenting on the mundane, both Bryson and Kalman elevate those everyday occurrences to a sacred status. By gathering everyday stories and making them part of the collection that is their “life work,” both Bryson and Kalman transform these everyday stories into something special. These stories have become sacred because someone thought them important enough to write down. These stories have become part of the rhythm of a human life and are therefore woven into the fabric of the human experience.

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