Saturday, June 26, 2010

21. The Lost Art of Walking by Geoff Nicholson 
Geoff Nicholson ties his own interest and motivations for walking together with great and zany historical walks in this semi-autobiographical book about, well, walking. Although such a basic human activity, using your feet as a method of transportation or going out for a walk for fun might get you odd looks in the United States. Walking is often done on treadmills, or then while wearing spandex--and then the motivation is to look good. Whatever happened to just aimlessly wandering down streets, wonders Nicholson. If you are wondering whether this will be yet another curmudgeonly book about "things ain't what they used to be" lamentations, you are happy to find that this is not the case. Nicholson does not tell everyone should be walking--heck, he lives in L.A. and knows that sometimes it is impossible to walk without being accosted by the police who think you are up to no good, strolling about like that. Instead, he talks about what he finds so enjoyable about walking, and in the midst of this narrative he takes some side steps into psychogeography, into people who walk streets in patterns, and he also looks at the history of professional walking and odd bets, such as "bet I can walk around the world while pushing a baby stroller and while I wear an iron mask." That sort of a thing. 

Walking is a wonderful activity; a cheap hobby that can be done at any age (providing that you have learned how to walk, or you are able to do it). Still, it should not be looked down upon: the author himself got his arm broken in a manner that puzzled surgeons, only because he fell over while walking. His mother's death was most likely also sped up by her insistent walk up a Sheffield hill during winter storm. 

The book is a fun and clever read about a simple aspect of human life, and the meaning of it for people, from Hollywood stars to street photographers and speed walkers. The only thing that made me suspect the author's cleverness was the point where he refers to "evidence" about what "really" was said between Houston and Neil Armstrong--the exchange Nicholson reports sounds oddly similar to this satire by The Onion.... And no, Nicholson does not seem to be joking, as he also states that who knows, maybe the evidence will turn out to be a hoax. Considering his writing style, had he been joking he probably would have mentioned the article by its name, or the publication, but this was just an unquoted reference to it. So. That was kind of sad. 

22. The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing by Ben Yagoda

Yagoda is trying to tackle an issue that is almost untackle-able: what is style in writing, how do we recognize good and bad style (is there objectively such?), and how do authors cultivate their styles. He knows that this is a crazy task, but still goes ahead with it, interviewing numerous authors from all walks of writing (journalists, novelists, even lawyers) and giving his personal opinion on all matters of style. Poor guy. He knows the answer already at the beginning: good style is whatever people appreciate. And different people probably don't appreciate the same styles. 

The best thing about this book is the extensive interviews of writers, who talk about their personal writing styles, who they look up to, and how they have cultivated their styles. I once tried reading a Bill Bryson book, and I got so annoyed with the whininess, the all-knowingness and the stuff he presented as "facts" that I could not finish it, and I have not touched his books ever since. After reading this book, however, I might give him another go, because he sounded like a sane, non-whiny person in the interviews, and talked about how the "I" in his books is not really him, but a very exaggerated character of himself. I might be able to read his books again if I think of him as a character who is pompous and ethnocentric to get you riled up...

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