Although I was disappointed that, this year, the MacArthur foundation did not recognize any theoretical computer scientist or pure mathematician, I was delighted that Peter Hessler is one of this year’s fellows.
Hessler used to be the New Yorker’s correspondent from China, and he wrote a number of extraordinary articles from there. His masterpiece is probably the one about getting a Chinese driver’s license, which became the starting point of a book. Last year, he moved back to America, to Colorado, and wrote a great article about moving (as unlikely as that sounds), and he has been reporting from Colorado since.
The basics of great non-fiction storytelling are having a good story and telling it well. Surely, Hessler can write, but what about the stories themselves? Living in a hutong, getting a driver’s license, traveling alone in the Chinese countryside, and so on, are all ways to make interesting things happen, but a story is more than a series of interesting things that happened. Indeed, interesting things happen to all of us all the time, but it takes a rare sensibility to recognize the meaningfulness of small details and seemingly mundane events, which is where Hessler excels (see his article in this week’s New Yorker’s about a pharmacist in Colorado).
Those who read in theory probably also read Claire Mathieu‘s blog. Claire has this ability to an uncanny degree. If she was not so brilliant and successful as a computer scientist, I would say that it’s a waste that she is not a writer. If you are not familiar with her blog, read this post about squeezing toothpaste, and you’ll see what I mean.