This week I read the new Jon Ronson book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I really like Jon Ronson. He’s like an English Hunter S Thompson, all gonzo and intrepid, but with cups of tea and anxiety instead of drugs and alcohol. This book – whose title pretty much sums up the subject matter – goes on an enjoyable ramble as Jon Ronson explores and questions the value of social media based shaming. The thing I like about Ronson’s books is that he doesn’t come to his subjects from the outside like a journalist sniffing out a story. He finds himself caught up inside the story and then manages to catch himself doing it and then write honestly and consciously about it.
He doesn’t seem too worried about where the thread is taking him. Ronson just seems to run with ideas and lets the people and their anecdotes take center stage. This is what makes him so readable. His books feel unstructured, but by not forcing structure something better emerges. An honest account of how Ronson, sat at his laptop one morning trying to work out what to do about the twitter imposter robot that has suddenly appeared, finds himself disappearing down a whole other rabbit hole. And he is never above the story. He always right in there, not just reporting but participating.
This kind of anecdotal writing is useful, I think. Sometimes approaching things with a rigorous, scientific method gives a much drier read. For example this evening I started reading a book I picked up called Deceit and Self-Deception by Robert Trivers. It begins with a solid foundation of laying out its intention (exploring the evolutionary origin of self-deception) and then draws the boundaries for the discussion, and acknowledges limitations and the things that may later turns out to be wrong. Academically it is spot on, you can’t fault it for leaving you feeling like you’re in good hands if what you want to know about is the evolutionary origin of self-deception. I’m sure I will learn a lot from it but I wonder how much about myself I will learn from it. Purely anecdotal accounts of other people experiences, honestly written, stand a much better chance, I think, of giving me an insight into myself.
There’s a couple of other writers I can think of that I have read that have this quality. One was Stephen Grosz, whose book, The Examined Life, is a series of short accounts from his time as a therapist. They are half-way between being short essays and prose-poems, where meaning doesn’t come preformed. There are just some raw ingredients thrown in and it leaves you to make your own soup.
The other writer who comes to mind right now is Adam Phillips. He has written a lot of books on psychoanalysis (admittedly I have only read two of them,) but again they don’t take the form of academic texts or instruction manuals. They are airier than that, less grounded. Which sounds like a negative, but I really don’t think it is. Here’s is a link to an interview he did at the Paris Review. Well worth a read.
Of course, these guys are involved in a totally different field from Jon Ronson, but it is the approach that I appreciate. Anecdotal and told from the inside. This is what allows me to find myself inside other peoples stories.