Wednesday, December 14, 2011

420, Scientific Atheism, and Street Photography

photo: Vivian Maier
Toward the end of the year I get this sudden urge to want to recommend all sort of books to people, mostly stemming from years of retail bookselling where that was all I did for the last six weeks of the year. And because publishers know this is where they can scoop up a large chunk of annual revenues the holiday season is full of all kinds of attractive new releases.

Many of which I want for myself.

This leads me down a path where I sometimes think holiday shopping can make us all a little selfish. But weeding through my various wish lists I find a number of things that would make interesting and inspiring gifts for teen guys, particularly creative, free-thinkers.


 Here's an interesting concept that's already dated. What if you were limited to the amount of space in a Facebook update to tell a complete short story? This was what illustrator Lou Beach did with 420 Characters, and what makes this concept now dated is the recent development that Facebook has begun allowing for status update "limits" of 63,200 characters – more than some short novellas! And even though the concept isn't new (see Three-Line Novels by Felix Feneon) Beach managed to garner enough interest to get folks like Jeff Bridges and Ian MacShane and Dave Alvin to record some of the stories for his website

The appeal here is on many fronts. First, it's short and sweet and perfect for limited attention spans. I don't mean that as an insult, only as a way of suggesting that guy don't always have large chunks of time to read and they should have options beyond a couple levels of Angry Birds at their disposal. Second, I think guys would benefit from learning how to write clear, concise, and complete short stories like these. There is an art to this sort of brevity and, like a haiku, the effort of fitting form can force and otherwise lazy writer (or poet) into sharpening their vision. Finally, it's a beautiful book, certainly more beautiful than a collection of status updates would generally deserve, and the kind of book that invites repeated visits.


This could be a touchy one for some people as it is written by an avowed atheist, but he's no raving madman but a curious scientific intellectual. Richard Dawkins The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True is the sort of general science textbook that most schools would be afraid to use, but should, because it doesn't shy away from saying what many fear science textbooks do: it calls religious stories fictions. Dawkins doesn't suggest that stories from the bible and other cultures as alternate explanations of science, he flat out calls them fictions and goes about discussing how science approaches the study of various questions through careful explanation and suggested mental experiments.

Using twelve questions as the basis of each chapter – from "Who was the first person?" to "What is a rainbow?" to "What is a miracle?" – Dawkins begins with a common myth or story or legend and proceeds to give the science-based explanation in a clear, logical and often elegant progression of thought. His explanation of evolution, a hot topic if ever there was one, draws on he reader to imagine their own progression from infant to adult as a type of evolution before putting the reader in a time machine to visit ancient ancestors to show human evolution from its infancy to its current state. Even by stating such potentially controversial ideas as fact doesn't prevent the reader from engaging in a personal dialog to ask whether or not they believe what he is saying. This, I think, is what makes this a potentially great science book for teens as Dawkins starts with big questions and the proceeds to dissect them to the point where the reader must either draw the same conclusions or start asking some big questions of their own.

The icing on this cake for me is that the book is richly illustrated by Dave McKean, illustrator for Neil Gaiman's Sandman comics and plenty of other great books. Done in a combination of collage, comic, and mixed media, McKean's work in this light suggests that there may be a future in textbooks for other illustrators of renown... if textbook publishers were interested in making their books more interesting and not pricing themselves out of business in this digital age.


In a culture where we measure creative success by fame and fortune, perhaps we need to be showing teens more about what it means to be an artist of the 99%. By that I don't mean becoming the modern version WPA documentarian Dorothea Lange taking picture of our contemporary versions of Dust Bowl Oakies occupying various city centers, but by acknowledging that there is more to creative fulfillment than aspiring to becoming the 1% that makes it into galleries and museums. For that we turn to Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, edited by John Maloof.

For the majority of her adult life, over forty years, Maier worked as a nanny while taking pictures on the streets of Chicago's North Shore. When she had time off she traveled the world and took pictures as well as made recordings of the people she took pictures of. And when she changed jobs she brought with her boxes and boxes of undeveloped and unprinted negatives, nearly 100,000 of them. It may be wrong to suggest that the only true artist is one for whom the journey is the destination, that for Maier the prints and exhibition weren't important, but what is evident in this recently discovered trove of photos is the unflinching determination it takes to train and develop a visual style. Digital photography and after-image processing have made it possible for anyone with a smart phone these days to take seemingly gallery-worthy pictures but even the most casual glance through Vivian Maier's work is to not only wonder how, exactly, she managed to capture the images she did through such old school methods, but why? What was her muse, her driving force? Little is really known about Maier though efforts are under way with this book and a forthcoming documentary to help fill some of the gaps. But for the budding photographer there is a lot to learn from the images she left behind.

Three? Can I really limit my year-end recommended list to three? I have to, otherwise I'd be writing this post all week, remembering new titles as I go. Suffice to say that an in-depth scan of all the reviews here on Guys Lit Wire for the past year will yield more than enough suggestions for teen guy readers of every age and interest. And if you're really not sure about that boy reader, there are always gift cards.

Just make sure they are gift cards for indie bookstores

Books mentioned...

420 Characters
by Lou Beach
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011

The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True
by Richard Dawkins
Free Press 2011

Vivian Maier: Street Photographer
edited by John Maloof
powerHouse Books 2011

1 comment :

Colleen said...

I want ALL of these books, but especially the Dawkins. Hello Xmas gift cards - I am totally ready for you now!!!