Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Big Idear

At the time it was happening to you,learning how to read seemed a great, exciting mystery, filled with sudden, lurking surprises, ready to spring out to confront you.  Little boy, what are you doing here.

What you were doing was decoding codes, translating words you did not recognize much less understand into secrets you would share as soon as you found someone worthy of sharing them with.

With help from your parents and sister, you already had something of a jump on the process.  You could already identify the letters in the headlines of your parents' newspaper of preference, the afternoon Herald-Express.  Thanks to your sister, you also had a list of words to carry around with you, words that did not sound the way they were spelled, words such as enough and through.  There were also words some individuals added sounds to, words such as idea, which came through as what's the big idear.

The process of learning taught you to be alert for regionalisms, which began pleasantgly enough when a great tribe of your father's sister, brother, and various nieces and nephews from New York and New Jersey came to visit, stumbling over the pronunciations of Spanish and Chumash place names.  La Cienega.  Cahuenga.  And, whoopee, Hueneme, which came out like Hu way enemy.

Then there was their pronunciation of your mother's name, Ann, as Anner, and the eastern branch of the family's amusement at your strange accent.

Written and spoken words are often codes, regionalisms, or secrets shared among intimates.  From time to time, you are reminded of this highly textured, nuanced quality of written and spoken language when you recount a conversation, only to learn you'd misheard, misunderstood.  Even more interesting, rereading a book with the same sense of having missed something important, not having seen a particular clue the first or second time through.

Wait; it gets even better.  Discussing a book with another person who has also read, possibly reread that book, that individual points out something you nevertheless missed, even on the occasion of your own rereading.  How could you not have seen?  Now that you are told, the matter is so obvious.  But you didn't see it once, twice.

You've taught courses which in effect deal with close reading, going over a particular text on a sentence-by-sentence basis to demonstrate the complexity of the writer;s storytelling craft and to demonstrate, among other things, the difference between a news story and a fictional narrative.  Of course, during such times, students are often able to come forth with observations, translations you'd not even considered.

In a recent conversation with a friend who spoke of setting forth to reread the immense, textured biography of Lyndon Johnson by the writer Robert Caro, you are for some moments lost by the mere mention of that biography and that writer.  You are in fact immersed in the notion of language as a sea of code that needs to be decoded, translated, considered, revisited.  

You are led into the awareness that Caro's biography is in its own way as rich and evocative as James Joyce's fictional venture, Ulysses, wherein everything is a potential pun, political reference, and/or an attempt to take language beyond the mere description of event in what has been called plot-driven fiction.  

Thanks to your experience as a reader and an editor, you see and appreciate Caro's artistry not only with words, not only with meaning, but as well the ability to pack useful, viable information into a sentence and then a paragraph.  You see many others who attempt such grace but fail, not so much because they lack the information as because they overthink the entire process.

How fortunate you are to have any number of books scattered about the studio, opened to or bookmarked at the spot where you had to set the material down for a time to ponder and digest its implications.  By no means all of these are works of essay or commentary; many are novels.

You are reminded of the great comedic actor, Zero Mostel, saying from his death bed, "Dying is easy.  Comedy is hard."

This puts you in mind of your own take, Being born and entering the growth process is easy.  Reading is hard.

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