The Book of Qualities – J. Ruth Gendler

3 out of 5

It starts out… quaint. And then it becomes something more; something surprising.

J. Ruth Gendler’s ‘The Book of Qualities’ gives a page or two of text and a simple illustration each to what its title suggests: a quality, e.g. compassion, or ugliness, or whimsy. There’s an introductory page dedicated to ‘The Wind,’ which is what presupposes that quaintness, setting up a poetic tone that uses florid language (“big blue bowls of rain”) and personifies Wind as a figure which interacts with the author. The Wind is a storyteller, and has told our storyteller – the narrator – about The Qualities. Thereafter, we get similar approaches regarding those, occasionally accompanied by angular or loose pen drawings, as befitting the ‘tone’ of the quality, and some similar affects in the handwritten “name” of that quality, with the strokes heavy or light; wider or tighter.

A few pages in, though, Gendler pushes this beyond its cute concept: the qualities know one another; they are related, or friends, or date one another. They work at real places. The are male or female; the author maybe invites them over for dinner, or just knows them through acquaintance. While the reality of this is likely Gendler just piecing together examples from the people in her life, mixed with her imagination, and applying them to these personifications, it’s a much more playful and somewhat subversive approach than initial impressions suggest, as it starts to create a world in which we’re brought to think about these qualities, and not just muse at Gendler’s gentle prose – especially when it’s not gentle, and is quite funny, or clever.

The person who gave me this book to read was surprised when I mentioned I was reading it cover to cover. While there’s probably not explicitly a “wrong” way to read this, she mentioned that she read it by selection – choosing a quality she felt applied to her, and reading that entry. And though maybe I’m not wrong for doing it my way, I think she’s probably more right. Because after about the midway point, ‘The Book of Qualities’ loses its surprise. Not because you’re used to the format, rather because reading the entries back to back exposes their similarities: that they act somewhat as horoscopes, in that there’s a genericness that crosses over, such that if you want to find yourself in any given quality… you will. And beyond that, the cleverness of mixing the fantastic with real – the way these qualities are do day-to-day things – wears off when references between the entries don’t matter: if so-and-so is the sister to so-and-so, if you flip to that entry, there’s not a subsequent reference. So, yes, these are very standalone.

Which means that others experiencing the book differently will likely be affected differently. But then again, my initial impression was that this was a quaint book, with some creative spice sprinkled atop, thanks to Gendler’s wry wit and outside-the-lines approach. That impression is not tarnished, but I do think shrinking the entries by half would’ve allowed the more unique reaction I’d started to have to remain… although perhaps it’s fitting that I sank back to a more grounded one, given that that level-setting is a very human quality.