By Rick Palsgrove, Southeast Editor
One of the wondrous things about books is that they can take on a variety of forms in which to present information, provide entertainment, and generate insight.
Here are two books that are examples of how the traditional narrative form of a novel or short story can be molded into something else entirely and be just as delightful and intriguing.
The books are “Humans of New York: Stories,” by photographer Brandon Stanton; and “Notes From a Public Typewriter,” edited by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti. The strength of both books is that they offer personal and philosophical insights from every day people in a mere paragraph, or sometimes, one sentence. Though short, these passages are, in essence, fully formed short stories in their own right.
“Humans of New York: Stories” sprang from Stanton’s online blog, “Humans of New York.” Over the past few years Stanton has photographed and interviewed about 10,000 strangers of all ages he met on the streets of New York. Each page of the book has a photo of the interviewee and some statements from Stanton’s interviews with them. It is personal storytelling with a face. Stanton’s photos appear to capture the personalities of the anonymous people being interviewed.
One photo shows a man walking with a cat on his head. The man matter-of-factly tells Stanton that one can make more money with a cat on one’s head than if the cat is on one’s shoulder.
Some of the people’s comments express alienation. Some are joyful. Some people are forthcoming with their words and others are more reticent. Some are sad. Some are funny, such as the little girl who told Stanton she wanted to be a princess hairdresser. When he asked her what the hardest part of that job was she answered that it would be cutting Rapunzel’s hair.
I often make notes in the books I own of the page numbers and passages I like and will revisit in the future. My copy of “Humans of New York: Stores” has dozens of such notations.
The content in “Notes From a Public Typewriter” was gathered when a typewriter with paper was set up in a Michigan book store and people were invited to anonymously type a message. Much like in “Humans of New York: Stories,” the passages in “Notes From a Public Typewriter” can be a paragraph, a sentence, or one word. Where “Humans of New York: Stories” presents storytelling with a face filtered through an interview, “Notes From a Public Typewriter” brings the typists’ thoughts directly to you from their brains, through their fingers on the typewriter keys, to the typefaced words all can read.
The many typed messages collected in the book are widely varied in temperament and can be described as poignant, humorous, hopeful, raw, sad, philosophical, romantic, questioning, and more. Some examples include: someone who typed that they race snowflakes to see who falls first; a writer comparing their lover’s eyes to that of wonderful August skies; another noted that they were on a date, but their bladder was leaking; and, in what had to be more youthful typists, asking where the power button is on the typewriter and another who wrote if they had to type an essay on “this thing” they would quit school.
Both books are a random sampling of the thoughts that go through our heads on a daily basis.
One typist’s comment seemed to sum up both books’ contents, as well as the human condition, as they wrote that, in the end, we are all stories.
Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.