I’d been meaning to write about Matt Harding’s new book. I mean, what can you write about traveling around the world (multiple times), for the purpose of picking an archetypical spot, handing your camera to a stranger and having him film you doing what can most charitably be described as “dancing badly” for a few seconds?
But Matt’s done it, and come up with this irrepressibly endearing book. For each of, oh, a bazillion of the cities in which he’s gotten filmed doing his little oh-hell-how-would-you-describe-it happy dance, he’s got a short anecdote on how the hell it happened. A map, a few pictures, and a killer opening line:
Mokolodi, Botswana: “Hello, sir. I came here to dance with your elephants.”
Athens, Greece: So I finally got arrested for dancing.
And my favorite:
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia: There is no oxygen in La Paz. Call me crazy, but I’m obsessed with the stuff. I can’t get enough of it. And at 3,500 meters above sea level, I’m simply not able to get my fix.
And on he goes, explaining how he ended up where he is, what kind of people helped him along (or hindered him in a way that, true-to-Matt form, ended up providing a peephole into the crazy beauty of human nature).
Matt’s definitely got a way with words. A toolbox of ways for looking at the world that puts history and geography in context the way none of my high school textbooks ever could.
Galapagos Islands, Ecuador: In 1832, the nation of Ecuador send a mass e-mail to all the other countries declaring ownership of the Galapagos Islands. The e-mail went directly into the spam folders of most countries it was sent to. The few that bothered reading it chuckled to themselves, as if Ecuador had just announced a successful bowel movement.
I mean, that really sets the tone, doesn’t it? Why couldn’t Mr. Miles have taught history like that?
Part of it must be that, in order to do these silly little dances, Matt’s had to travel a helluva lot (yeah, I know it’s really the other way around). But traveling so broadly has got to tip you off to those subtle common patterns in human nature. And it’s the things you see in each of a hundred different cultures that helps you understand the fabric of our species.
So my theory is that, by kicking around the planet, forcing himself into these frequently awkward situations, Matt has made himself a student of human nature. Since history (and human geography) is a record of the effects of human nature, who better to teach us about it than our wandering Jade Master?
I’ve met Matt twice (and danced with him once when I hosted his talk at Google in 2008 – that’s me instigating the stage rush at 57:30, below). And I’m damned impressed. For a guy whose claim to fame is no more than just Dancing Badly ™, he’s got a lot to say.
So – where am I going with this? Uh, I don’t know. I just really like the book. And think you should buy yourself a copy.