2020 has been an unbelievably challenging year. Everything from social unrest to a global pandemic has made more than a few of questioning the insults and inequities daily life imposes on us.
Christian Borstlap’s This Thing Called Life (Prestel Junior) takes a whimsical look at the challenges and blessings that inevitably arise during the course of a life. Borstlap establishes the book’s tone and worldview from the first page where we see a round edged figure in black staring down at its phone and a solitary white line slithering down from the side of its head. “Long, long ago, before white wires started growing out of our ears…” What follows is a surprisingly concise preparation for the daily grind.
At the same time, however, the book serves as a science lesson in disguise. I offer a few random quotes as proof:
“But what exactly is life all about?” (Isn’t that the billion dollar life sciences question?)
“It’s about reproducing.” (Hello Darwin.)
“It’s about giving… and taking.” (This quote is accompanied by an image of manure falling then a plant growing where it falls… We’re talking nitrogen fixation cycle here.)
“Life is mainly about surviving.” (Sounds like evolution and adaptation to me.)
One of the major takeaways from This Thing Called Life are the lengths creatures must go in order to survive and that life is all about survival (of the fittest). To its credit, the book does not shy away from the harsher aspects of existence. Good things and bad happen. Borstlap issues a warning that, “One thing is for sure. Life is not fair.”
Like the expressive illustrations that fill the book’s pages, Borstlap’s economy of words says everything. This Thing Called Life blossoms the way poems do, expanding into empty spaces left vacant on purpose. It’s one of the book’s charms and strengths. It also communicates a degree of honesty from the book’s author.
This Thing Called Life is a philosophical book without the philosophy. Words are sparse and its imagery rich. In the end, its prescription is simple yet profound. “You can’t do life alone.” In other words, we’re all in this together – plants, animals, insects, humans. Caring for each other is caring for the planet. Yet because of the book’s openness, there’s also another interpretation that involves human society. This Thing Called Life is a timely reminder that, at a time when social divisions feel deeper than they have been for a long time, we all share the same space. A little bit of empathy goes a long way.