[REVIEW] The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer (Grand Central Publishing)

Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking is an emotive, compelling work. But one that benefits from its lifeline of a theme. The lifeline saves it from drowning.
Cover art - The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People HelpThe Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by Amanda Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking is an autobiographical work that carries the theme of asking and its influence on art, society, people, and relationships.

The reason that this work took me over a month to ‘read’, and the reason why I put ‘read’ in inverted commas, is because I ‘read’ the audiobook. It was narrated by the author, which was pretty great. I think that authors who narrate their own works lend them a texture of far greater richness than anybody else could ever hope to apply. It’s so much more personal to them. In any case, I listened to the majority of this in my car (the Automobile University) in my daily travels for work, dance, and chores, over the past month. I started it on an aeroplane to New Zealand, before quickly realising that listening without also trapped-doing sends me off to the Land of Nod.

The Art of Asking, in case you are wondering, is not an instructional book. It’s much more like other works after which this is styled: Rambling ruminations on a theme; a theme that happens to do two things: One, tie the narrative together; Two, give the author a lifeline for those times when the narration goes too far away from its central line.

Fair call, Amanda, in your worry that the narrative would be too rambling, too disparate, too etheral and wobbly. It’s a good thing you had a lifeline.

Amanda Palmer, as an artist, is someone I’ve never listened to, never given time to. Her music is not my thing, and my opinions about it are not for this review here. I’ve never seen her TED talk (mainly because I believe TED talks are overrated, often people preaching to the converted).

But as a writer laying herself bare, as it were, Palmer has some powerful things to say. Her emotion, as she narrates the story of her life, will bring you to tears. If it doesn’t, you are one hard bastard.

Of note is that Palmer attributes her learnings about life, love, art, and asking, to others most of the time. Even her alter-ego of the White Bride from her performing statue days she learns from as a third party, another ‘person’.

This is notable because Palmer doesn’t attribute her learnings to herself. And yet, that’s clearly what her story is about: Learning about herself, learning from herself. It’s a true-story allegory of the ancient Zen and Buddhist masters’ sayings about what you see around you merely being a reflection of yourself.

While this book starts out fairly strongly on the art of asking kind of line, that line fades as the narrative goes on. And go on it will: Each chapter ran for between 35 and 60 minutes (sometimes longer). You find yourself wondering what the point is, where it’s all going, until it comes back and finds itself again. Ironic, really, that this is kind of also the story.

The Art of Asking will not teach you about why being able to ask for things is important unless you already have a feel for empathic subtlety. Yes, there are a bunch of things bluntly stated. But the statements are a mere shadow of what you can learn from the illustration of someone else’s life. That, really, is the point.

The things that let this audiobook down for me were, primarily, the volume of the narration. There were times I lost whole words because it was just too quiet. Already cranked up past 27 in a car stereo where usually 19 will have the windows shaking, that’s pretty annoying. There were times I wanted the story just to keep moving. And, honestly, the title.

Sure, Palmer uses the art of asking as a framework, but it’s actually not about learning to let people help. It’s about growing into a life shaped by an almost divine sense of empathy and good in others, in which the bit about letting people help is less about asking than it is about letting go of ego, of self, of expectation.

An interesting side-note is in the short section Palmer dedicates to critics and how she avoided critics. I’ve spent much of my adult life as a music critic. I laughed at her comment about getting one death threat from a nutcase.

Critics – that is, critics who are artful about their work, not just people reviewing things because they get CDs for free, your casual reviewers – real critics who understand critique, work to help artists improve, regardless of the political or paid affiliations of a publication. Real critique is about saying, hey this was great but look what this could have been like if you’d paid attention to this. There are few things more satisfying than seeing an artist or a band that you’ve been hard on get better and better with every show, with every album. It’s the same satisfaction you get as an editor or mentor of writers.

And when Palmer wrote/spoke about how badly she was affected by one death threat, I laughed because I lived, as a critic, getting regular death threats from fans of bands, from girlfriends of bands, from others in the industry. Always from women. Palmer got one and freaked out and couldn’t cope. I went through a stage where people were telling me not to show my face in their city because I wouldn’t make it home again. Where I was sent emails tearing proverbial flesh and threatening stabbings-when-you-least-expect it.

Such is the life of the person who calls attention to the weaknesses of others. From what I understand, this is what Palmer’s work does for people, too. It’s never for the feint of heart.

For all of this, and for all of its wavering and wandering about, The Art of Asking is a very worthwhile read. Though it does leave this reader wondering what the title of her next work is. Because there will be a next one. Only next time, the question won’t be framing what will essentially be a continuation of an autobiography of an artist whose generosity caught the attention of the world.

Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking; or, How I learned to stop worrying and let people help is out now on Grand Central Publishing.

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