Monday, May 5, 2008

Good writing in unexpected places

Let us leave controversy behind for a moment, and talk about that rare pleasure: reading something that's unexpectedly good. For me, this usually comes in the form of some kind of technical or topical writing that I'm reading for the sake of information--like a product manual, or research material for a novel.

I've praised Peter Forrest's hard-to-find two-volume A to Z of Analogue Synthesizers here before. It's an exhaustive list of nearly every pre-digital-era synth manufactured (and some that were never manufactured, only prototyped), along with the history of its maker, ratings of its key features, and descriptions of its sound. For those of you who are already lost, I'm talking about music synths--you know, keyboards, like the ones people with orange hair used to play in pop videos. Nowadays they are mostly owned by 45-year-old retired dentists in Okinawa, because the damned things have become hugely expensive (I got my handful before prices spiked, natch). Forrest is a passionate, absorbing, and charmingly amused writer, and he knows how to turn even the driest company history into an entertaining anecdote.

Similar in outlook is Jason Schneider, author of the criminally-out-of-print three-volume Jason Schneider on Camera Collecting. A compendium of columns from the defunct (I think) magazine Modern Photographer, Schneider writes with inspired dorkiness about every obscure camera he's managed to get his hands on, and he's gotten his hands on a lot. A highlight is the story of how the Russian FED camera factory got its start as a Communist orphans' home, then somehow managed to start conterfeiting Leicas. Schneider is still writing these columns, now for Shutterbug.

I was shocked to find myself enjoying the hell out of The Doll: New Shorter Edition, by Carl Fox, when I read it cover to cover a few years ago as part of my research for Happyland. The book was Rhian's, one of several she owns on the subject of antique, particularly bisque-head, dolls, and its writing is precise and elegant. Here, in a typical piece of description, Fox might as well be talking about his own writing:

Their silk-embroidered garments may not be as lustrous as they were 150 years ago; their faces are faintly freckled and stained. However, these dolls of the Edo period have a beauty I find irresistible, not only in the detailed perfection of the costume but in the sensitive modeling of each doll's face, in their purity, the poetry of restraint. Even the ears are acutely observed and modeled, revealing a sculptural quality rarely seen in a doll. There are no shortcuts in craftsmanship. The cumulative effect is like the sound of a bronze bell which one continues to hear long after the tolling has ceased.

What can I say--after a while, the dude actually got me, like, into dolls.

Finally, I want to single out Kenn Kaufman's wonderful Lives Of North American Birds, a field guide that is not a field guide at all, but a kind of dossier of amazing characters you're likely never to meet in real life. Kaufman writes with great energy and respect, much as he does in his wonderful birding memoir Kingbird Highway, which I just finished reading the other night. Like all good topical writers, you feel that Kaufman could make you love almost anything. It isn't that I like birds better after reading him--rather, I like living better. That's what good writing does to you, regardless of the subject.

EDIT: Good God, I totally forgot! Our old friend A.J. Rathbun (whom we met through Ed, the Typhoid Mary of friendship) wrote a couple of the best drink books ever, Party Drinks!, and Good Spirits. A.J.'s a poet, and you can tell. His collection Want is also ace.

9 comments:

rmellis said...

That doll book isn't just precise and elegant; it's hilarious as all get out. I think good writing is writing that fully expresses the writer's personality, and personalities tend to come out when the author is writing about his hobbies or passions.

jrlennon said...

It's true, the guy lets it all hang out. He's OPULENT.

Hey!! Where have all the angry comments gone?!?

rmellis said...

I know... it's so lonely... I'm going to have come up with something.

McQ said...

Okay, here's an angry comment for you...

Why doesn't my library have either of those Kenn Kaufman books???? We're getting into the whole birding thing down here in the land of interesting feathered creatures and I'd love to check them out but they're not in the library's collection! Grrrr, now I'm really pissed.

There, does that make you feel any better? Bring on the grumpiness!

Mark said...

Also in this category, and wonderful, is Joy Williams's guidebook to the Florida keys.

rmellis said...

And JR -- how could you have forgotten the incredible drinks books of A.J. Rathbun?

jrlennon said...

Oh hell yeah! I'll add it to the original post.

Writer Reading said...

I love the Fodor Compass American Guide series for traveling cross country. They are sturdy books on heavy paper with gorgeous photos, each one representing a single state and written by a resident of that state, which makes the series both uneven but also very authentic in terms of the voice and expressions of that part of the country. They both cover the ground but also meander into anecdotes that given each volume a sense of place.

rmellis said...

If I ever travel again, I'll be sure to find those guides. Though sometimes I like to read travel guides instead of actually travelling.