In Pursuit of Elegance by Matthew E. May

Imagine a poetic little book that synthesizes ideas about the ineffability and mystery at the heart of the concept of elegance.

In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing

Publisher: Broadway Business
Price: $23.95
Author: Matthew E. May
Length: 224 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2009-05

The first verse of the Tao Te Ching begins:

The Tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao

Being one of the most translated books in the world, there are many variations on those words (this example comes from Stephen Mitchell). Different translators make different emphases and interpretations, but one of the common aspects of those opening words is that they seem to warn against taking any definition as gospel.

It seems to be saying that the subject (the Tao) is above language, and no words could accurately describe it. If someone tries to tell you what the Tao is (the text seems to say), that person doesn't have it right. It's a sort of ancient Chinese bullshit detector.

Matthew E. May makes reference to the Tao Te Ching in the prologue to his book, In Pursuit of Elegance. He cites verse 11, which attempts to describe the power of emptiness. For example, it says that a person may shape clay into a pot, but it's the empty space inside that's most useful. May uses a translation by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, and their version of the verse ends this way:

Therefore profit comes from what is there,

Usefulness from what is not there.

Here it becomes useful to compare two other translations in order to highlight a key aspect of May's book. In Arthur Waley's translation, the words become, "Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not."

And in Stephen Mitchell's translation, they are:

We work with being,

but non-being is what we use.

The word that seems to jump out in the translation May uses is "profit". His book seems to be aimed squarely as people looking for ideas to help their organizations and ultimately, the bottom line.

Bookstores are filled with similar business self-help titles such as, The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking, or the myriad interpretations of The Art of War and The Book of Five Rings as managerial guidebooks. There's nothing inherently wrong about that. If eastern-tinged pop-philosophy will help someone make a better widget, or improve the life of people working in a factory, or contribute towards boosting the economy, all the better.

Imagine a book that synthesizes ideas about the concept of elegance, which people tend to feel but find hard to articulate. Similar to the Tao, it's a concept that can be applied to a person's life overall. it can be a philosophy and an approach to living. It can also have practical applications in fields of art and science. Sure, and business, too. It would be a slim volume, elegant even, and it would masterfully blend its insights and examples in thought-provoking and poetic ways.

This isn't that book. However, at its best, it does seem to approach style of exploration by writers such as Margaret Visser, Umberto Eco, Diane Ackerman, or Lewis Hyde. In those moments, May's analyses manage to create a sort of pop-cultural epiphany. When he moves from a discussion of the fractal nature of Jackson Pollock's paintings, to a busy intersection in Holland that succeeds without the use of traffic lights, to a poem by Samuel Beckett, the play of ideas is fascinating.

May is an able writer, with a clear style, an ability to articulate his ideas, and he has a sense of humour. There are certainly enough strong moments to carry a reader through the book.

Where it falls short is in its direction towards a business audience, rather than a general one, an emphasis on business over beauty. Again: nothing wrong with that, but it significantly alters the tone of the book from a scholarly one to a business-oriented one.

"Savvy innovators understand that what isn't there can often trump what is, and are executing subtractive strategies: artfully pairing back their offerings, leaving out the right things by design in order to fully engage the recipient. Those that don't understand how to aim for elegance will be left behind," he writes in the promotional material accompanying the book."

The language there is revelatory: "executing strategies", "pairing back offerings", "engage the recipient". A former "hired gun" consultant at Toyota, May also includes several examples of how the car company utilised elegant ideas (by his definition) successfully. His previous book, The Elegant Solution, explored similar territory, and he has parlayed his succes with this theme into lectures, as well.

In his prologue (by the way, why a highfalutin "prologue", and not a common "introduction"?), May states: "My goal is not to reduce the concept of elegance to a stepwise prescription." Chapter one goes on to reduce the concept of elegance into four alliteratively-pleasing elements, inspired by a similar definition by noted computer science professor and programmer Donald Knuth: symmetry, seduction, subtraction and sustainability.

  • "Symmetry helps us solve problems of structure, order, and aesthetics."
  • "Seduction addresses the problem of creative engagement. it captivates any attention and activates any imagination."
  • "Subtraction helps us solves the problem of economy. Doing less, conserving, doesn't come naturally."
  • "Sustainability...implies a process that is both repeatable and lasting."

Subsequent chapters examine each of those concepts, mainly through examples and case studies. He ends the book with a discussion of elegance and neuroscience, illustrated mainly by a description of his treatments at a "neurofeedback centre" in Los Angeles, his attempt to discover "how certain notable people have achieved ingeniously elegant solutions."

Interesting as his conclusions are (and forgiving the unfortunate insight: "It would seem that we all have some Jackson Pollock in us." Ew.), these and the book overall bring to mind two other famous sections from the Tao Te Ching (these are Stephen Mitchell's translation):

Not-knowing is true knowledge.

Presuming to know is a disease.

- verse 71

Those who know don't talk.

Those who talk don't know.

- verse 56

Among other things, these verses seem to speak to the value of acknowledging ignorance and remaining humble. They also resonate with the opening lines, and reinforce the notion that there are concepts and ideas that are ineffable. This is not to say that they can't or shouldn't be written about. Humility and a sense of mystery seem to be key elements of that sort of exploration, and the books doesn't seem to place as much emphasis on those. Perhaps the temptation to create (and market) the "next great idea" is too great.

May is a talented writer, with an interesting sense of synthesis and ability to find connections across various fields, from pop culture to fine arts, science to sports. In reducing the concept of elegance, transforming it into a tool for better business strategy, the book doesn't quite live up to its subject.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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