Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Things Aren't Always As They Appear

When I first bought Maira Kalman’s book The Principles of Uncertainty, I couldn’t imagine what it was going to contain. As I flipped through I saw artistic illustrations and print spattered across the pages, but it did not seem like any sort of novel, or book, that I had read before. Even as I began reading it, I could not decide which direction it was going to take or what I would end up taking away from it. With Bill Bryson’s book, I knew exactly what I was getting – or I thought I did. It is only now that I see how similar the two are. While Kalman takes her reader on a philosophical stream-of-consciousness journey through pictures and poetry, Bryson states bluntly and in layman’s terms everything he wants to say about daily life. Both, however, make comments on society and life or relatively ordinary things that one does not think about very often. They both use the humor model that reveals the total social situation.

Bryson’s collection of articles from his column is interesting because although it was written for a British audience, I related to it extremely well as an American. The situations he ridicules are situations that I have been in and found equally ridiculous. It also seems as though his being away from home for so long has allowed him to see more clearly aspects of life that differ from those in Britain. This reminds me strongly of how I felt upon first coming to school in Baltimore and meeting my friends from Long Island and New Jersey. Although I was not in another country as Bryson is when he leaves home and returns, there were quite a large number of things that I realized were exclusive to Buffalo, New York. For example, I was baffled to discover that no one, or very few people, had heard of Loganberry or sponge candy. Where were the Wegmans’? Where was the Bison chip dip? (Which, incidentally, Buffalonians pronounce “byzen” rather than “bison,” another thing that threw me for a loop.) But it was strange to get used to Baltimore and come home, too. I had to readjust to saying “pop” rather than “soda” (I had picked up “soda” since my saying “pop” confused my roommates) and I had to give up Chipotle (which until this year was non-existent in Buffalo). It was great to get back excellent chicken wings and trips to Canada. I was able to relate in a way, albeit small, to what Bryson felt upon returning home. Some ridiculous things were illuminated for me, and I realized how much I had missed others.

Kalman’s book was very different in content; it did not make me reminisce about the adjustment to another city. It did, however, illuminate for me, or at least call my attention to, things about the world and life that I rarely thought about. I got my primary enjoyment from the fact that the style of the writing was a lot like the inner workings of a person’s mind; I related well. She combined historical references with her day-to-day activities that included and dwelled upon a perfection of the ancient art of people-watching. I found humor in her descriptions of people. Her eloquent, poetic writing pointed out and imagined truths about these people. She moves so seamlessly between seemingly unrelated topics, going from walking behind people to the fact that the sun will one day explode and on to pictures of folded quilts.

I often write emails in a similar stream-of-conscious way. My friend from high school and I email regularly to keep in touch, and the emails we sent often glide from subject to subject, jumping around bizarrely and more frequently than regular conversation. It makes for an interesting read. There is always so much to think about and process, and these things always become mildly philosophical, though perhaps not quite as much as Kalman’s book. The photographs and paintings, however, add that extra element. It is apparent randomness that is actually seamlessly connected, and there is great art in this. There may be humor in the seeming disjointedness of her thoughts, but there is also humor in the things she illuminates that are ordinarily not thought of, such as the unusual hairdos and hats that she observes or the strange names of candy bars. Although Kalman illuminates much more subtle truths than Bryson, they are not very different in their ability to encourage the reader think harder about and look closer at the way we see things; perhaps they are not quite as they appear.

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