Monday, January 4, 2010

The Literary Dog: The Principles of Uncertainty

Over the holidays, I had the good fortune to curl up with an excellent book, Maira Kalman's The Principles of Uncertainty (The Penguin Press, 2007). Kalman is a prolific illustrator/artist whose work appears regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Her preferred format is to ruminate on a "big idea," such as "The Pursuit of Happiness" and to run with it. (Click here to see her last installment on this idea, in a blog she did for the NYT. It's wonderful. You'll never think about George Washington the same way again.) She rarely approaches the big idea head on; instead she lets readers tag along with her as she goes through life, reading, eating, traveling, and observing the world, all while the idea hangs around in the back of her head, shaping her thoughts. Her writing is essentially a series of journal entries, the words scrawled in a loopy script, that introduce or complement big, bold, color-saturated illustrations.

The Principles of Uncertainty is like peeking into Kalman's diary at her worries and concerns over a one-year period, from May 2006 to April 2007. She reads obituaries, travels to Israel, explores the streets of New York, visits Paris and sleeps in a big pink bed. She loves hats, old people, cake, and all things pink. She thinks a lot about her family, especially her recently deceased mother and relatives who made it through the Holocaust and those who did not. Mostly she worries. She's a New Yorker, after all. They do that.

I discovered three images in the book that include dogs. The dogs are mostly props; they are adorable, but they hardly figure into Kalman's contemplation. My personal feeling, of course, is that Ms. Kalman might worry a great deal less (or at least about more specific, resolvable things) if she had a dog, or even if she painted dogs more often. It's merely my observation. Nonetheless, her book is a treasure. I read it too fast, skipping ahead and ahead to see the next glorious image. It deserves a look or two, especially on a cold, gray day--which is in our immediate forecast, so bundle up.

The text for this one goes: "The woman is very ill. Her little dog never leaves her side." I like his big, rabbity ears and how he stands protectively on the bed. What happened to him, I wonder? Kalman doesn't say. Maybe the woman had a miraculous recovery, and she and the dog take long walks every day. I like that; a happy ending.

This one is a detail from an illustration called "Part 6. Julie and Vickie." Julie is a tall blonde human in a little black dress.  But, this is Vickie. She seems right at home in her mod pink chair. Oh, to be a urbane little dog.

(The images above appear on pp. 51, 242, & 291 of Kalman's book, which I found at the Austin Public Library. Go ahead. Click the link and order the book. Enjoy!-z)


  1. You may already know this, but Maira Kalman collaborated with Kate Spade to design a small line of handbags that featured Maira Kalman's art. They all feature women with dogs. There's even a dog carrier. I own two of the bags and love them.

  2. Adore Maira! She has written and illustrated several children's books starring dogs Max and Pete. They are awesome! What Pete Ate From A to Z, Smartypants (Pete in School), Ooh-La-La (Max in Love),Max Makes a Million, Max in Hollywood Baby, and MORE.

    These would be *excellent* gifts for cool kids.


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