It All Starts With a Question – The Work of Bill Bryson

To be...

Art Post

This post was in danger of being about books and as I said on Monday, book talk is for Fridays or weekends.  (This whole category thing is in danger of failing before it even truly starts.)  But I pushed myself to make it fit the Wednesday category which is about Art, generally, and lo and behold it ended up being a better post for it.  I am more creative when working within a structure.  That’s sort of the hypothesis behind my categorical blogging experiment in the first place. I hope yesterday’s post illustrates that I am willing to blend these categories rather than being confined by them.  This is another example.

But I digress.

The most important thing I learned in college (aside from all the other Most Important Things I Learned in College) was that the smartest person is not the person with the most information, necessarily, but the person who asks the best questions.  With that in mind, my favorite non-fiction author is Bill Bryson.  I would describe him as delightfully inquisitive (as opposed to irritatingly intrusive).  He takes an initial musing of “I wonder…” and turns it into a book.  Ironically, as he says, “I have long known it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth.”  His sacrifice, however, is our gain.  I have publicly embarrassed myself reading his books on trains and planes and in libraries because they are so very funny.

What I want to talk about is not so much the content of his writing as his approach and his style.  I am currently reading his new book At Home which is an exploration into why we as modern humans live our private lives the way we do.  Why do bathrooms look the way they look?  Why are beds the way beds are?  That sort of thing.  It reminded me of a project I took on about a year ago (now abandoned) in which I attempted to ask a similar question about office work.  Why offices look like they do, When they first appeared, when women started working in them, etc. I didn’t really know where to begin, what to ask or where to look for the information and subsequently gave up.  This is why Mr. Bryson amazes me.  Somehow, he knows where to look or who to ask that can lead him there.  Aside from his talent as a writer, therein lies this man’s genius.  Being able to research not so much odd, but rather overlooked topics is a rare skill.  The information is scattered.  There aren’t any true experts, exactly and the topic is so broad it is overwhelming.   He also draws interesting parallels and sees patterns underneath the chaos of massive amounts of information.  While I have great amounts of respect for Mr. Kurtzman, my high school chemistry teached (mostly for stifling the urge to boot me from his classes), I have often wished Bill Bryson would have  taught the subjects that didn’t come so easily to me.  The man can make me revel in numbers. I don’t know how he does it.  Most non-fiction writers use exaggeration for emphasis, while he somehow is able to emphasize something’s minuteness, the mundacity (which, unfortunately, is not a word), the ordinariness.  I admire this and I think it has applications in all art forms, not just the literate.

Of course, not everybody wants to know about the mundane.  My Mom, for example, loves his book A Walk in the Woods but glazes over when he muses about the Universe and it’s beginnings.  She also does this when my Dad and I muse about the Universe and it’s beginnings so I think it’s more a question of subject matter than style.  Still, my point is that not everybody is enthralled by every exploratory question.  Yet, I think that almost everybody is enthralled by at least ONE exploratory question.  Is it genius to be able to turn these questions into an art form or is it merely essential to being an artist?

I have long wished Mr. Bryson would turn his keen eye on Chicago.  It’s such a wonderful and bizarre place.  I would love to see it through his eyes.  He has a way of making you confirm and see the for the first time at the SAME time.  When reading his wonderful wonderful book (and probably my favorite) The Lost Continent,  I wiped tears of hilarity away as I read his account of how farmers generally handle massive traumatic injury (that is to say, they handle it well.  Too well.)  I always knew it, but I never quite looked at it that way.  Rare is the person that can make you scream with laughter while confirming, empathizing AND teaching at the same time.  I’m telling you, the guy is brilliant.  Imagine if diplomatic relations were handled in such a manner!

Hmmm…that’s actually something to consider.  Imagine if EVERYTHING was approached in that manner.  As an artist, he does all those things most mission statements purport to do, and at the same time he makes the both overwhelming and mundane experience of being human a shared experience.  Stand up comedians do this.  Actors do too.  Dancers.  Painters.  Directors.  Photographers.  I think that’s what art is to me.  The medium is the broader perspective but isn’t all art about some sort of relation to the human experience, be it shared or alienating?

Shakespeare knew this.  After all, isn’t Hamlet about a question?

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