Monday, August 11, 2008

The Excitement Factor

In reviewing Larry McMurtry's Books: A Memoir for The New York Review, Michael Dirda chose to dwell on the fact that McMurtry's first reading experiences were with "a box of cheap adventure fiction from the 1930s." Dirda reacted as follows:

In truth, what could have better suited a dreamy boy than just such wonderful trash? After all, real readers always read for excitement; only the nature of that excitement changes through life.

This line of reasoning is similar to that I had heard in a lecture by Harlan Ellison to the effect that reading comic books (regardless of whether or not they were "good" ones by whatever criteria one might have for "good") is better for kids than reading nothing at all. Excitement can be delivered in a variety of packages. The source of the excitement is less important than the skill we acquire in focusing our attention on that source.

Dirda's comment also reminded me of David Denby's book, Great Books. Given the benefit of a sabbatical from his work at The New York Times, Denby decided to exercise it by taking freshman courses at Columbia, basically reading the same "core" of "great books" that he had read in his own freshman year. He then wrote his book about how much more interesting the reading had been the second time. This is key to Dirda's point: Denby's life experiences had changed the nature of his excitement. To choose a personal example (which also happens to be part of the Great Books of the Western World collection), there was little about Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War that excited me during my freshman year, while these ancient insights into the tight coupling of politics and warfare now seem all too relevant in the context of our current Administration's military adventurism (which may be one reason why contemporary generals have been writing about Thucydides with such insight lately).

An important point that arises from such reasoning is that reading for excitement does not imply reading only "trash" (whatever that may mean and however wonderful it may be). Perhaps reading is a matter of choosing what one reads on the basis of that need for excitement, then supplemented by a faculty for finding excitement in what one happens to be reading. Thus, I found myself reading George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss because a variety of other reading sources (which happened to include both philosophy and anthropology) had cited this novel; and my curiosity over why such a diverse collection of writers should see so much value in this book tipped the balance of my "excitement scale." Once I made the commitment to start reading, new sources of excitement started leaping out of the pages of the book, until I found myself pushing ahead at a pace as maddening as the one that carried me through the final pages of One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (one of the authors who appears to have been a source of excitement for Dirda himself).

As a concluding thought I would like to observe that what Dirda says about "real" readers can also be said about "real" listeners where musical performance is concerned. Indeed, my music composition teacher, Ezra Sims, believed that both text and music had to pass a "first sentence test." At its most extreme, this test implies that, if the first sentence of a text does not excite you enough continue reading, then you may as well stop before you waste any further time. Similarly, your excitement is already heightened during the silence before the music makes its "first statement;" if that statement does not leave you excited about what happens next, then it is pretty likely that the mind will "tune out" long before the end of the composition. Peter Shaffer caught this in Scene 7 of Amadeus, when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart reproduces from memory the "March of Welcome" Antonio Salieri had written for his arrival in Vienna. Mozart reconstructs the beginning of the piece and then turns to Salieri to ask, "The rest is just the same, isn't it?" Centuries later Mozart continues to excite in ways that Salieri never could, but only at the hands of performers who can both perceive and convey that excitement. Listening for that excitement is no different from Dirda's concept of reading for excitement; and perhaps skill in one can facilitate the other, regardless of the direction in which the transfer may take place.

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