Amanda Palmer is Neil Gaiman’s wife.
I begin my review of Amanda’s debut book The Art of Asking with that cheeky statement for two reasons. First, in the unlikely event Amanda ever reads my review, I suspect that sentence will cause her to grimace and possibly even curse my name. Then she’ll smile. Second, it accurately and succinctly conveys how I came to know of her.
Dressing Like Boy George For Halloween
I’ve enjoyed Neil Gaiman off and on for many years now, recently having had my literary man crush for him reignited thanks to Ocean at the End of the Lane. I’m no fanboy and never took it upon myself to dig into Neil’s personal life but I became somewhat intrigued when the name Amanda Palmer kept appearing on his Twitter feed. I just had to find out more about this woman who was not only married to one of the quirkier authors out there but was about to release a book of her own.
Until that point, I had zero knowledge of who Amanda Palmer was. I’d never heard of her name, her music, her Kickstarter, her Ted talk, her fandom, her infamy, her controversy, her anything. Nor had I even seen her face and believe me, those eyebrows would have left an eternal impression; like demon contrails across my mind’s sky.
The magic of Google, Wikipedia, and YouTube quickly resolved the mystery of my plenary ignorance of Amanda Palmer. Suffice it to say, this was just not my type of music; or musician, quiet honestly. The high water mark for my artistic audacity was my wishing to dress as Boy George for Halloween when I was 12. Over the past thirty years those flood waters of boldness have receded leaving a muddy puddle of comfortable dullness.
As for musical tastes, I typically put the classic in rock and the cheese in eighties pop and on occasion I even put the cliché in country. I’m exactly what you’d expect from a white, suburban, middle-aged Canadian dad though I do own a Sensational Alex Harvey Band greatest hits CD, the obscurity of which is a faint beacon of hope that the mainstream hasn’t completely consumed me.
Having thoroughly established my dislike of Ms. Palmer after fifteen minutes of online research I naturally took refuge in cynicism and determined that Amanda’s book was nothing more than an unearned perk thanks to her famous husband. Hey, I didn’t say I was proud of doing it. Sometimes the internet gets its troll stink on you and that vile grime does not simply wear away with age.
Still, the book title, The Art of Asking, kept gnawing at my curiosity. I watched the Ted talk that precipitated the book and decided if nothing else, were I to read the book, I would at least enjoy scoffing at the anecdotes of being a human statue. I spent many years working in the downtown core of a major Canadian city and I viewed buskers and related “artists” as nothing more than sentient weeds spreading from sidewalk cracks and building crevasses.
So, yeah, I was skeptical but requested the book from the local library anyway. Then something wholly unexpected happened.
Books Can Brand Your Soul
The time of life when you read a book has every bit as much influence on your enjoyment of that book as does the subject matter or quality of writing. Some books are great only if you read them at the right time. It’s why you never laugh at The Monster at the End of this Book quite like you did when you were 3. It’s also why teens become worshippers of Ayn Rand and millions of married women made the intolerable Fifty Shades of Grey a mega-seller. When life experience and a book align perfectly the eruption brands your very soul.
My first experience with such a confluence of book and life occurred in 1997. I was 25 and had recently moved thousands of kilometres from home to start my first ‘real’ job. I was all alone for four straight days and nights performing a pump test on water supply wells for an oil production operation in the empty prairie of western Saskatchewan. It took me an hour to make all the required measurements and then I’d have four hours to waste away until the next set of measurements.
I filled those lonely, isolated hours eating Doritos and Oreos and reading a book that would alter my mind. Surrounded by endless horizon, under the mystic glow of comet Hale-Bopp, I devoured Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. At that time, in that place, that book spoke to me like no book had before and few have since. It was as close to a spiritual experience as I’ve ever had. I will never read it again; I don’t want to ruin that amazing memory.
My life has changed a lot since those days. In this time and in this place, basically an interminable period of mid-life existential brooding, The Art of Asking was not only entertaining me it was deeply moving me. It was entrancing me. It was sucking me in and bludgeoning open my mind from its smug, skeptical encasement. I needed to read this book now; my life and this book are aligned. Had I read this in 1997, oh who am I kidding, there was no chance in hell of me ever reading a book like this when I was 25, let alone being changed by it.
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer is part autobiography and part manifesto. Using intimate stories sporadically pulled from the breadth of her adult life, Amanda sculpts a captivating treatise on trust and humanity and relationships and, of course, the simple, terrifying act of asking.
To say Amanda has lived a colourful life is beyond understatement. Our lives could not be more different. She truly embraces living for the moment best shown by her propensity for crashing on couches of fans found via Twitter the very day of her shows. I, on the other hand, make spreadsheets planning all accommodations for a camping trip months in advance. Hers is a life that bewilders, alarms, and ultimately fascinates me while mine is safe.
There are moments when the shock and extremism does get a little much for even the vicarious. Giving your naked body as a canvas for an audience to decorate with Sharpies may seem like a triumph of trust but, fans or not, it just comes across as reckless. Chapters later when someone does violate this supposedly sacred trust in a similar situation and Amanda is angered and hurt, I couldn’t sympathize. I guess I remain saddled with blaming-the-victim tendencies.
Otherwise, Amanda’s heartfelt and honest writing gave a voice to art forms and lifestyles I’d never paid much heed to, or worse, had openly mocked. The courage and purpose involved in working as a living statue was a revelation. I never imagined something so seemingly silly involving such complex interplay of emotion momentarily between strangers. It not only altered my misconceptions of street performers but profoundly transformed my perception of Amanda herself. The crazed, attention-seeking, niche musician became a philosopher and astute witness of the human condition.
A Metaphysical, Neo-hippie Bible
I’ve been gushing for a few paragraphs now and I don’t want to leave the impression that this book is one big metaphysical, neo-hippie bible. There is a bluntly practical, dare I say commercial, aspect to this book with regards to re-envisioning how to pay for art (music, literature, visual). This is where Amanda details the history of her Kickstarter funded album, the first such crowd-funding effort to raise over one million dollars.
The lessons here are pragmatic and useful in this social media driven world where entire generations are growing up with expectations of free content and no privacy. As an aspiring blogger I found this material insightful. The power of Amanda’s fandom purposefully cultured via social media is astounding and those who stubbornly resist this new reality would be wise to read this book if just for this information.
That being said, I think it would be misguided to view Amanda’s thesis of letting people pay for art rather than making them pay for art as some kind of revolution. I think the very uniqueness of her art and, most importantly, the uniqueness of her fan base is predisposed to accepting alternative funding methods. I applaud them for it, but I somehow doubt mainstream acts would benefit similarly. Nor are such acts likely to embrace discarding accumulation of wealth as a priority for their art and performance. The message is a noble one and we’ll see more artists embrace this direct support by fans model in the coming decades. It’s both new and old as a means to endow the arts, but it’s not a panacea.
Practicality aside, this book is primarily a human venture. The raw, personal narrative involving Amanda’s relationships with Neil as well as her beloved neighbour and mentor, Anthony, is where the universal appeal of her message really shines. Society burdens us with so much baggage we have become creatures incapable of asking for the one thing that by our very nature we are most inclined to give; help. In a sincere and touching way, Amanda exposes our insecurities, ones she herself shares despite her preaching, and begs us to “take the donut” and just ask for help.
A Revolutionary Way To Interact With People
That’s what this book is really about. It’s not a revolutionary way to sell records but rather it’s a revolutionary way to interact with the people, both loved ones and strangers. We all need help at some point in our life and we shouldn’t feel any shame in asking for it nor should we be uncomfortable in giving it. We’ve idolized the individual for so long we’ve forgotten that even the self-made have had a helping hand somewhere along their path to glory. What is society if not a commitment to helping each other to lift us all?
I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Set aside preconceptions and skepticism and read it. I can’t promise it’ll change your life but it might change your outlook. It’ll surely make you think. I haven’t stopped doing so since I finished it going on three weeks ago. Just like Heinlein did back in Saskatchewan, Palmer has gotten into my head and fired some dormant neurons.
The Art of Asking is well written and avoids most of the eye-rolling drivel found in some autobiographies written by celebrities. The book jumps around in time which some might find confusing, but I found that Amanda navigated this non-chronology deftly. It’s well paced and an easy read without being lightweight.
Having no previous familiarity with the author gave me somewhat of a clean slate to build an impression of Amanda upon and I found her likeable and authentic despite a chasm of difference between our lives. I may not appreciate her particular brand of art but I can’t help but think she’d be a fascinating person to talk with for many hours. She is a living testament to the notion that it is not wise to judge a book by its cover.
I give The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer a full 5 baby dill pickles out of 5. It is joyful, sorrowful, shocking, and inspiring. There are laughs and tears and cringes and awakenings. A very cool book and well worth reading. I’m a better person for reading it and intend to better myself still. I ask you to give it an honest chance and read it.
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5 baby dill pickles out of 5… I’ll definitely give it a read!
Let me know what you think of it. Hopefully I haven’t raised the bar of expectation too high. And knowing you, have some tissue nearby. :o)