Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Principles of Uncertainty

Do we ever outgrow our enjoyment of picture books? Like most children, when I was very young, I savored them. With full page, brightly-colored pictures and only a few words, I could take a book and "read" it, my understanding aided greatly by the illustrations. This is a large part of the appeal of The Principles of Uncertainty, a graphic book by Maira Kalman. Books of Mee piqued my interest in graphic novels, and I discovered this particular book on Time's 2007 list of the Top 10 Graphic Novels. It's more of a graphic memoir than a graphic novel, though, as it chronicles a year in the life of Maira Kalman, who's an author, artist, and photographer. Among other projects, she has designed many covers for The New Yorker. She even illustrated an edition of The Elements of Style, written by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. (I wish I'd known this sooner--I own the regular, text-only version of The Elements of Style.)

Infused with joie de vivre, this quirky, humorous, dazzling book, published in 2007, illustrates a year in Maira Kalman's life. Over 300 pages of trade-mark whimsical, colorful illustrations, clever photographs, and hand-printed words tell the story of her Jewish family, who fled Russia after the revolution and went to Palestine before settling in America, and embrace issues such as life, death, history, and family, as well as the large, shared philosophical questions of existence. Affected by the atrocities of the Holocaust and the current state of the Middle East, Kalman seems to value life all the more, although she also sometimes expresses her concern about the point of it all. Certainly, though, The Principles of Uncertainty is a celebration of life. Among my favorite pages are those of life in Paris and New York, where she keenly captures the variety, character, and humanity of these cities, through people both young and old, and all the marvelous eccentricities, depicted by sensational hats, joyful desserts, and even bobby pins. It's prevailing sense of vibrant optimism--that there are things worth living for, even in bleak times--shines through in both pictures and words.

Bloggers take note! The Principles of Uncertainty was actually an illustrated blog for The New York Times for one year, ending in April 2007. It was then published in a book of the same title, and released in 2007 to critical acclaim. In January of 2009, Maira Kalman started a new illustrated blog for The New York Times; the first entry chronicled her visit to Washington, D.C. for President Barack Obama's inauguration. I won't be disappointed if the author publishes a second graphic book based on the new blog in the near future.


  1. This is so interesting!
    Thank you for posting this for us - it's good fuel!


  2. Thanks, Chuck. This is not a coffee table book, but a book to be lingered with.

  3. Sounds like a great choice to start on graphic novel! Graphic memoir is definitely one of my favorite genre now (if we can call it a genre). Persepolis, Maus, Ethel & Ernest. They're good! I'm gonna put this book on my mental TBR list :)

  4. Check out her art--if you enjoy it then you'll LOVE this book.

    Mee, the other day I saw Persepolis at the video store, but it was Blu-Ray, so I didn't pick it up. I may return and see if I can find it on regular HD video.

  5. I always love a good picture book!

  6. There's something so decadent and delicious about picture books for adults. Thanks for your comment, Mervat!

  7. This reminded me of when my daughter was very small. We would buy her picture books and tell her the story and after a couple of times of doing that, she would take the books and tell the story back to us. Amazing what books can do for the very young!

  8. I have nominated you for an award on thewritinginstinct.blogspot.com

  9. Thanks, Mervat! I added it to my collection below, and will post about it soon.


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