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Ben Katchor's 'Hand-Drying in America' brings out the big stuff by focusing on the small

From Ben Katchor's
From Ben Katchor's "Hand-Drying in America" ... what happens when two identical buildings are erected in different parts of town?
Ben Katchor
From Ben Katchor's
From Ben Katchor's "Hand-Drying in America" ... the effect of the sound of a light switch.
ben Katchor
From Ben Katchor's
From Ben Katchor's "Hand-Drying in America" ... another aspect of real estate open houses.
Ben Katchor
From Ben Katchor's
The artist and author Ben Katchor and his new book. He'll be at the Skirball Center April 10.
Ben Katchor

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For years, artist and writer Ben Katchor has been noticing things we don't notice. Or maybe its better to say he thinks harder about things we all notice than most of us. The tag sticking up from a woman's sweater. Buildings he calls "taxpayers."  Views from expensive apartments.

In his new book, Hand-Drying in America, a compilation of monthly comic strips he does for the magazine Metropolis, Katchor ruminates on the sound of the common light switch. "The architect spent hundreds of hours designing burnished brass switch plates for his new office tower, and then left it to a contractor to install these 79-cent switches behind them. ... The sound we are greeted with ... recalls to mind the dirty men's room in the rear of a Babylonian coffee shop." Instead, he suggests making switches emit "the muted horn of a steamship ... the crowing of a rooster ... the peal of distant thunder."

Katchor told me his strips are "graphic notations of dreams that I have about the city." He often writes, he says, just before going to bed, when he's in a half-waking state. "This concentration on these minute details is not just to be willfully obscure. It's like a scientist looking at the molecular structure of things. If you really want to see how things work, you have to go down to the small scale."

As Glen Weldon writes for NPR:

"A poem," said writer Richard Hugo in his book The Triggering Town, "can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, which starts the poem ... and the real or generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is generated or discovered in the poem during the writing." The movement Hugo describes is exactly the kind that takes place in each Katchor strip — a topic is introduced and the story that grows around it follows the oblique emotional logic of dreams, like a poem discovering itself.

The new book is about 12" x 12", so each strip gets its due. It's a pleasure to take five minutes with each strip and dip into Katchor's dreamland. Laura Pearson writes in TimeOut Chicago:

Katchor’s vignettes brilliantly satirize human behavior, changing social values and cities in flux. Perhaps most of all, they highlight the timeless need for human connection.

Exactly! In an earlier book, Cheap Novelties, Katchor drew and described how homeless men will pour a cup of free sugar into a cup of coffee so they can get their carbs for the day, and how putting sugar into paper packets demeans these men because it leaves a pile of litter and makes their action more obvious. A few weeks ago, at a Tacos Mexico stand in downtown Los Angeles, I saw a man do exactly that. He opened packet after packet of sugar, and I thought, "Katchor was right!"

Ben Katchor is appearing at an event at the Skirball Center Wednesday, April 10.