Thursday, February 16, 2017

Book Review: Blessed Are the Weird by Jacob Nordby

Being creative is the only way we can ever feel fulfilled in life. This means turning our lives into unique works of art that reflect our desires and passions. It also means marching to the beat of our own drum. This book celebrates the weird ones who teach us to do that--who show us that it is not only possible but is also critical to our own survival. - Jacob Nordby, Blessed Are the Weird

Sometimes the premise of a book seems like such an obvious homerun that you can't fathom not finding it enjoyable or engrossing. But a book is more than a premise and thus must depend on more than the idea that led to its creation. The building of the case; the development of the central concept is what separates a book with a good premise from a book with a good argument. And at times when I sit down to read something knowing it has the former, I am sometimes left scratching my head afterward wondering how it never became the latter.

Blessed Are the Weird: A Manifesto for Creatives is a book with a good premise. At times it has a good argument. But I can't necessarily say that it is the sure thing that it seemed to be when I started. I wanted to go ahead and say that up front. And obviously now I need to explain myself.

Jacob Nordby's central thesis is that highly creative people--the "Blessed Weird," as he calls them--are among our most precious human resources. He is careful to define who these people are and who they are not, arguing that the type of weird person he is talking about is more than the person who dyes their hair blue and gets a nose piercing to get attention. He takes great pains to differentiate between weird for weirdness' sake and the one who truly has little idea how to relate to others. This second group sees the world differently and can't quite get themselves to fit into the boxy worldview with which most others are content. And so they instead turn to various forms of artistic or intellectual expression as their outlet for saying what they mean because straightforward prosaic conversation doesn't suffice.

So far, a decent premise. The Introduction and first chapter lay out this working definition very well and prepare the reader for what is to come.

Chapters 2 through 8 each focus on a different group of the Blessed Weird: poets, troubadours, mystics, heretics, and so on. But for me this is where the execution starts to waver. The subheading for chapter 9, "For they teach us to see the world through different eyes," summarizes what the seven chapters before it say. Nordby describes the particular function of each group's chosen medium, which is a slight variation on "they help us see things in a new way." By the third or fourth chapter in a row doing this, the development of the premise becomes quite repetitive.

Fortunately, the book makes a shift at chapter 10 to asking the reader how they might discover or unlock their own Weirdness for the sake of helping others see the world differently. There's much more nuance in these later chapters, which lists characteristics of a Blessedly Weird Person, why it is important for one's own sake and for others' sake to express one's Weirdness, and overcoming a fear of failure, among other general topics.

The book is much more adept at fulfilling its purpose at this point. For me parts of these later chapters were reminiscent of Brenda Ueland's classic If You Want to Write, which argues that if you write, you're a writer, and thus you shouldn't be afraid to be who you are. Nordby makes a similar case for why we shouldn't shrink from our Weirdness but instead embrace it no matter what. One of his clearest calls to this effect comes as he describes French aristocrats living by the mantra "nobility obliges;" a recognition that one's gifts and resources came with a responsibility to use them for others' sake. Weirdness, in this regard, is a calling, and comes with an obligation to live into it.

Overall, Nordby develops his premise quite well. It is a bit bogged down in the beginning with one too many descriptions of particular Weird groups that essentially say the same thing, which may cause some to opt out before getting to the more helpful stuff. In that sense, the development of the premise ends up a bit uneven. Had the author opted to skip those chapters or summarize them in a single one, the book would be much stronger. They're optional as far as I'm concerned. Once you get past them, there's a good argument to be made.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

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