Book review: The Principles of Uncertainty


Part of me felt I should hold off on reviewing Maira Kalman's juicy and rich The Principles of Uncertainty for the holiday season, when one might justify an expenditure of a more frivolous nature by purchasing it as a gift for another (with, of course, the full intention of reading it oneself.)

The rest of me said, "Eff that noise." Why should feeding your creativity, much less your soul, be considered non-essential? I mean, sure, make sure you've got a roof over your head and three-ish squares hitting the table before you run out and buy books, but books, especially beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking works of wonder that help you see the world a different way while they help you to understand your own place in it, should be bought and consumed and passed around (and again) as often as possible, and at least as often as necessary.

The Principles of Uncertainty is about this crazy-beautiful world we live in, and how we live in it, and how it can delight us at least as often as it pains us if we just wake up and look down. Or over there, at that laundry tag that fluttered free of its garment and landed on the concrete in just the right way and at just the right time for us to look at it, or a man skating on salt, or a number of ladies with outrageously outré hairdos, or at just about any of the brilliantly illuminated bits of minutae Kalman captures within the pages of her book. Kalman collects all kinds of things we might otherwise miss, some literally (things with numbers on them, and packets, and things that fall out of books) and some that she filters through her marvelous brain and relays to us via her magical gift for composition and color.

Still need justification for buying a children's book for grownups? How about the rich veins of resources to pull from: books casually mentioned here and there by "ordinary" people Kalman knows, or music one might listen to entirely differently because of the attention she has turned to it (Mendelssohn was not so big on words, which is of course ironic, as Kalman pointed out, because one has to use a certain number of them, and carefully chosen, to explain that one is not a fan of them.)

But ultimately what Maira Kalman does best is what she does with her editor's brain: juxtaposing snippets of life with tinier snippets of accompanying text, teasing out the profound, the sublime, in the everyday. She gives shape to the amorphous worry and dread and also the profound, unspeakable joy we feel (or don't, because we stuff it down, or because we don't have the words) every day. The beauty of a hat (Sondheim has done much with a hat in his way, with an assist by Elaine Stritch) or a face or a day or a trip to Coney Island with a friend who will help you soak up the ordinary to diffuse the bitterness.

If you are a grownup who mildly resented having to put aside childish picture books or if you are a fan of her New Yorker covers or even if you like the crazy-ass "poems" you find on this site, I am guessing you will like this book.

Unless, of course, you love it...