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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review

In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May,
Broadway Books, New York, 2009, 216 pp.,
ISBN: 978-0-385-52649-4

Charles Dickinson review

With pop nonfiction like SUPER FREAKONOMICS and THE OUTLIERS prominently displayed on bookstore shelves, it's easy to overlook another entry in that category:
IN PURSUIT OF ELEGANCE: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing.

Author Matthew May has taken on the task of unpacking what makes for elegance (Why is that enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa so beguiling?). But of course, elegance is far more than the arts.

Elegance also applies to the world of industry and commerce (think iPod or Toyota's lean manufacturing).
Quite often we see something that's agreeably elegant and sense its "inevitability"--so simple once seen, but how to arrive at that particular? One overarching concept for elegance May repeatedly stresses is that it is not only what's done, but importantly what's not done (here he harkens back to Taoist philosophy of 2,500 years past and the wisdom of "not doing" from the TAO TE CHING).

But inevitability and "not doing" are too general and not much in the way of handles for what constitutes elegance. Rather May has come up with four key ingredients of elegance and devotes a chapter discussion to each of four S's: Symmetry, Seduction, Subtraction, and Sustainability.

May defines the symmetry of elegance as highly context-sensitive and resonant with the natural order of things. This symmetry strikes us as both fresh and yet familiar. In a fascinating discussion, May examines the art of Jackson Pollock, a twentieth-century iconic painter of abstract art who didn't touch brush to canvas, but instead "flung" and otherwise applied paint. Was his work randomly ordered? Many thought so. Or did he intuitively grasp the symmetry of beauty such that his paintings (now selling for upwards of $40 million) were fractals: the universal organizing principle of nature discovered by Mandelbrot two decades after Pollock's death in 1956?

Seduction? This ingredient involves. Elegance seduces with the power of what's missing. We supply from our own experience what's needed to make the whole. So we can identify all the more. Witness the sfumato (smoky) blurred corners of Mona Lisa's mouth and that smile that seems to change ...

Subtraction often comes to mind when one thinks of elegance. A Shaker chair with less structure would not be a chair. Design at the balance point of nothing to add and nothing to take away. May explains why Southern California hamburger chain In-N-Out Burger has cultlike appeal. Elegance as subtraction means only four items on the menu. But if customers want more, then they learn the "secret menu," which elegance as seduction gives: what they really want, what they want to make their own.

Sustainability as elegance adds timeless quality. More than the power of durable design, the sustainable solution cascades into long-reaching, positive developments. Consider the well-known "Broken Windows" (or "no grime, no crime") theory for policing, pioneered in New York City and adopted everywhere.

While May doesn't lay out a recipe for elegance (who could?), he does outline where elegant solutions happen. Not easy, not forced, elegance is not found on the "near side" with such approaches that stop short of confronting complexity as the "voluntary simplicity" movement of the 90s in the Pacific Northwest. No, elegance is to be discovered over there, on the "far side," where with relaxed awareness, "a-ha" moments, truly grounded in a rapidly changing, progressive society, can surprise us all.
© Charlie Dickinson November 2009

Time To Eat The Dog? - The real guide to sustainable living by Robert and Brenda Vale,
Charlie Dickinson review
If everyone on Earth shared equally the lifestyle enjoyed in North America, then five planet Earths would be needed. Obviously, an unattainable proposition.

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