Ian Frazier

27 Dec

I have begun reading Ian Frazier. Or rather, I have discovered him. I think I read a book review in The New York Times on his newest book, about traveling through Siberia, and the reviewer gushed, which doesn’t often happen. So I inter-library loaned a couple of his older books, the first one a collection of essays that appeared in The New Yorker Magazine, where he worked as a staff writer for a number of years, and the other, a travel book slash memoir about the Great Plains.

I enjoyed the first book and have just begun on the second, about the plains. The essays are about living in New York City. Having never lived there nor even visited, I found them especially interesting. It was a little window into the life of millions of New Yorkers. He said nothing that any one of them could not have said. But of course, like any writer, it was how he said it. I felt I understood a little better the appeal of New York and yet also why I would never, ever, live there.

His writing style is, among many things, mainly two: concrete and simple. Nary a sentence passes without something the reader can see, and readers see through the concrete, never the abstract. He is, in this way, very loyal to the reader, an allegiance the reader immediately recognizes and continually appreciates.

Frazier strips sentences down to their minimum. If clutter is, as the author of “On Writing Well” puts it, the “disease of the English language,” then Frazier’s is healthy. He presents the reader with bite-sized chunks of sentences, never overwhelming, never too much to digest. Always appealing. No one, after all, except the adventurous, enjoy hacking through jungles. Life is too complicated already, so who wants to read complication? Simplicity, when employed well, is beautiful and in Frazier’s hands, graceful even.

So I’m about 50 pages into his book on the Great Plains, a place that I cannot say I’ve ever been particularly interested in. In the early 1980s, Frazier left his apartment in New York City and moved to Montana for three years, where he rented a log cabin. He drove all over the plains and visited almost every historical site, talked with the locals, read a ton of books, and then wrote his own. He’s no academic. He doesn’t hold a degree in “Great Plains History” from Harvard University. But if he did, I probably wouldn’t be reading his book because, it’d probably be boring. His is not.

Knowing nothing about something and then learning about it and then guiding others through the previously unknown lends a certain humanness to the story telling. Once you’ve become an expert, you’ve lost something. That’s why a music teacher I once interviewed said he’s always learning a new instrument, so he remembers how hard it is. That made a lot of sense to me.

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