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Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Year of . . .

We should all take heart in the books I've been seeing on the library's "New Nonfiction" shelf: people have written about the year they've "lived biblically," read the Oxford Unabridged, gone without buying anything made in China . . . The take-away message is that if these guys can snag a book contract, well, by gum, so can we. Now, if I could just find the thing to spend a year doing.

This week I read A Year Without "Made in China": One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy by Sara Bongiorni. On little more than a whim, Sara convinces her husband to go along with the idea of not buying anything made in China to see how difficult it is to do for a family of four (having two kids brings up the issue of Christmas a lot). The book chronicles the year's struggles with finding sunglasses, deciding how to classify a product that has a Chinese-made component, and other people's reactions to the boycott, etc.

I remain unperturbed about China's place in the world economy, but it struck me how important the reader's perception of the narrator is in these "year of" books. I'd rather not spend an entire book with a narrator I consider ho-hum. I've worked out a rough formula, along these lines:
  • If you like the narrator, the topic doesn't matter much.
  • If you're obsessed with the topic, you care only that the narrator is competent and credible.
  • If you don't care much about the topic, the narrator ought to be funny or brilliant or beyond ordinary in some way.
As writers, we have to recognize that not everyone is going to like us. If we tried to be universally liked, I expect the result would be blandly pleasant (as opposed to pleasantly bland). To write this "year of" sort of book, a person puts herself on the line. Way too much like high school, unfortunately. With any luck, however, we focus on an honest portrayal and take our chances with who likes us.


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