I enjoy reading a well-written newspaper column. Their authors are often chosen for their writing skills and their ability to shed an unusual light on things. That thing may be at the centre of media attention or it may be an utterly insignificant personal observation. Doesn’t matter, what makes for the enjoyment is the change of perspective, the Gestalt switch, that jolt from automatic pilot into being-here-now. The relevance, truth, or otherwise value of the new perspective is secondary to the conceptual experience. In that sense a column is close to a joke, and the Netherlands has a long and strong tradition of columnists that are also stand-up comedians.
For me a good columnist takes one along in a certain way of looking. He or she offers a new perspective, marvels about something, analyzes something that one thought utterly self-evident, gives new words to well-known issues. One recognizes something one hadn’t named yet, or learns something completely new. A good column shows the special in the mundane, and the ordinary in the absurd.
So much, probably all, of what we take for granted, think is normal or true is part true at best, total bogus at worst. The processes underlying that are core to our cognitive machinery and unavoidable. And be happy about that because life would be horrific without it, and humour impossible. But is does mean that exploring alternatives to what comes naturally is important. I originally pondered on imperative here but that sounded too moralistic and teleological, neither of which I want to imply.
Let me give you a nice example of another way of looking at something familiar, especially nice for those aware of the ongoing Black Peter debate in the Netherlands:
As American David Sedaris shows the Dutch in the above, it is often those from elsewhere that are best able to shed new light. And it works both ways: moving elsewhere can be a very effective tool to change perspectives. And even if one has the new perspective already at hand, new environments tend to add tastes and textures not fully realized before. When writer and journalist Katie Roiphe went to Amsterdam to talk about a her new book, she was amazed to learn that her descriptions of American attitudes to marriage blew the minds of her audience:
Who could possibly care? It seemed like a crazy American thing for marriage to matter so much. To them this obsession, this nagging necessity for weddings, the lack of general acceptance toward other pretty common ways of living, is so foreign, so uniquely American, such a quaint narrowness, that it’s incomprehensible as an actual mode of modern life.
When plain info does to me what I otherwise only experience when something has managed to shift my engrained perspective, it’s usually bad news. It’s uplifting when a citizen of big brother describes your home country as living a sensible mode of modern life. But not making a big fuzz about marriage doesn’t mean the Dutch get their priorities right all the time. Far from it. A telling illustration is our government’s decision to stop funding the Royal Tropical Institute, resulting in the closing of its huge library. Had the Bibliotheca Alexandrina not reacted to its cry for help, more than half of its collection would have ended up in the paper shredder. So much for the love of the written word in the Dutch mode of life.
To end on a positive note: Salomon recently posted a short video on Bernd Heinrich, the author of one of the few books on running that are really worth reading. Even if you’re by now familiar with the Daniel Lieberman/Christopher Mcdougall c.s. stuff on how we are born to run, Heinrich’s take on us as animals is still going to shift your perspective! The video itself doesn’t do that but it shows this intriguing man in his home environment and hopefully entices enough to make you look out for his writing.