One Sentence Summary: Maira Kalman, an author and illustrator, spent a year exploring both well-known and quirky aspects of American democracy and what it means.
One Sentence Review: And the Pursuit of Happiness is a delightful book to read, both because of the lovely illustrations and because of the thoughtful and optimistic away Kalman approaches the questions of the whole American democratic experiment.
Why I Read It: I was a little familiar with Kalman’s New York Times Blog, And the Pursuit of Happiness, so was excited to read the book it inspired.
Long Review: Starting on Inauguration Day in 2008 and traveling through the year, And the Pursuit of Happiness is one woman’s exploration of American democracy. It’s a meandering and quirky journey — covering everything from George Washington to the New York City sanitation system — that feels both deeply personal and widely applicable.
What I think I liked best about this book was the way Kalman was able to be critical without being nasty, pointed in her observations about the country without adopting a sarcastic or cynical approach. I struggle daily to keep my cynicism in check, to have faith in leaders — from both parties — elected every November, and to not let news about the worst in people get me down. Even when I purposely avoid it, I often find myself angry and confused after listening too much to what Jon Stewart describes as, “our country’s twenty-four hour politico, pundit, perpetual panic conflictinator.”
Any yet, so much of the whole American system works. Early in the book Kalman goes to a town meeting where,
People speak their mind with grace and civility. They listen with respect. The enterprise is based on trust. Will you trust what your neighbors tell you? Will you trust that the system will work and people will be fair? I have my paranoid, pessimistic side. But who doesn’t?
It reminded me of Gilmore Girls and a town meeting, but those are not always civil and respectful!
Yet even when Kalman finds things that are wrong, she seems to maintain a faith in the overall system and joy in the little things that go right. I really enjoyed the September chapter, which looked at many of the government bureaucracies in New York. She went into the mayor’s office expecting to find closed doors and busy schedules, and was rewarded with an open office where the mayor sits with his employees and they all maintain a sense of tranquility — proof, to me anyway, that believing in the system can work.
Oh, and the illustrations and pictures! I included a couple of them here from the New York Times blog, but they’re just a tiny sample. The photographs in the book are just beautiful, and the cartoon illustrations are rich and lovely. They make it the sort of book you linger over, soaking up the details.
And the Pursuit of Happiness made me think about politics and history, and it made me smile at the possibilities my country holds, something I haven’t done this much in awhile. For that alone, I’m deeply happy to have read it and highly recommend it.
I’ll end this with one of my favorite quotes from the book, from the chapter where Kalman is looking at Thomas Jefferson:
If you want to understand this country and its people and what it means to be optimistic and complex and tragic and wrong and courageous, you need to go to his home in Virginia. Monticello.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!