Five Unusual Manifestations of Narrative Form
New Yorker blogger Bee Wilson explored the narrative form in recipes on Monday. While introducing readers to William Sitwell’s new book, A History of Food in 100 Recipes, she demonstrated cookbooks’ ability to read like novels. Her article shows how narrative threads through unexpected facets of human experience.
To that end, here is a list of some diverse manifestations of narrative, starting with Wilson’s own observations:
“Serve your spargus”: Recipes
Wilson believes recipes offer a story arc, a version of reality that appeals to our imagination and our senses. In addition, she writes, “part of the pleasure of recipe-reading is the feeling that you are about to discover a great secret.” Recipes have excellent potential for both comedy and tragedy. They contain a fun and interesting history, as well—for instance, Wilson refers to a recipe written by chef La Varenne in 1651, advising cooks to boil their greens and take them out “as little sod as you can, it is the better,” to “set them draining,” and then to “serve your spargus.” Many modern food bloggers capture the experience and narrative of cooking in their recipes and pictures. One example of this is Beth Kirby, blogger at Local Milk: “It features purple asparagus thicker than my thumbs, asparagus so prized I actually had a nightmare about not getting to the market in time to get my paws on them last week. And it, my most precious produce, alongside the hairy, stinging dead nettles. The ancient quinoa. The glorious egg.”
“There lies a baseball”: Sports
Sports stories are some of the most popular and acknowledged narratives. Sports books and movies abound—covering everything from baseball to chess. They give us a narrative replete with struggle and perseverance, protagonists and antagonists, suffering and triumph. A personal favorite example of sports narrative is Gary Smith’s feature “The Ball”:
“It looks like such a simple thing, the ball in the metal box. But if you were to begin to pull it apart to know it at its core, you’d have to unstitch 88 inches of waxed thread sewn in a factory on the slopes of a Costa Rican volcano, peel back two swaths of cowhide taken from a tannery in Tennessee, unravel 369 yards of Vermont wool and pare away a layer of rubber applied in Batesville, Miss.—and you still wouldn’t have gotten to its heart.”
“The music barely avoids falling into aural quicksand”: Music
Each piece of well-crafted music has a beginning, climax, and conclusion, connected by strands of conflict and tension, harmony and melody. It usually features themes and interweaving characters. It has a complex and fascinating history. Music reviews like Russell Platt’s “Master Builder” show us the literary elements of musical form:
“The brooding, major-minor opening chord and the ‘wayward’ tune over pizzicato cellos; the herky-jerky rhythms enunciated, en masse, by the winds; the big, brassy, timpani-thwacking, polytonal finale. As Swayne admits, sometimes ‘the music barely avoids falling into aural quicksand.’”
“Unconnected letters are not widely accepted”: Typography
Sometimes the very letters used to compose a word have as much depth and context as the word itself. Typography has a long, complex, and beautiful history. Its style, intricacy, and anatomy can be captivating. A properly chosen font stimulates the imagination; poorly chosen type only serves to disenchant the reader. Each font is a miniature story, with an author, culture, and past.
“He wanted to hold her hand so badly”: Photography
Photos are a testament to the artistic impact pixels can have on the imagination. By capturing a simple face or feature in time, photography creates a transcendent experience. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Brandon Stanton’s “Humans of New York” project: In each photograph, he captures a human story. While all art translates human experience into artistic perception, the photograph’s realism provides a narrative that is unique and poignant. When we see these photos, we taste another world.
By tracing narratives throughout human experience, we encounter beauty in daily life. We foster imaginative connections between the sensory and transcendent. By listening to a sports broadcast, learning calligraphy, playing a Chopin Nocturne, or simply reading a soufflé recipe, we participate in an artistic exercise that connects us, as Watson writes, to the “great secret” hidden within.