Monday, June 3, 2013


German composer Paul Hindemith once explained that he saw music listeners as co-composers. A listener encountering a piece for the first time but knowledgeable of its style hears both the actual piece, Hindemith says, and the piece that he expects to hear moment-by-moment. Listening to a passage, this engaged audience member thinks (in a manner of speaking), “Yes: up, and up, and up, and then up some mo— oops, it actually went down there.” In this way the savvy listener sits in spirit at Hindemith’s elbow, composing along with him a parallel piece, similar to the original but, if Hindemith knows what he’s doing, not as good.

When I read, I experience not just two but several parallel streams of ideas. I hear the words (some people don’t – those would be the people who can read faster than a snail’s pace). I see pictures of the people and events. I think of the ideas being expressed. I ask myself “What happens next?” and “How does this fit in?” and “What does the countess want with a torn workman’s glove?” I start to think of my old gloves, and the lawn which needs mowing. I wonder if I’ll have enough money to pay to have the lawn mowed this summer. I think of more lucrative careers I could have had. I come back and reread p. 213.

Sometimes the parallel streams sound something like, “I can’t stop now. Maybe just one more page, and then I’ll get up to take care of the yard. Or three more pages: that will get me to the end of the chapter. Oh, the next chapter’s not very long, either. Maybe the yard can wait.” Sometimes I deal with thoughts saying, “Oh, no! I don’t remember this character (or term or object) at all. Should I go back and find her? Or should I just keep going and hope it al becomes clear in a page or two?”

Sometimes, when the book and I don’t get along so well, the prose I compose to go along with it says something more along these lines: “I don’t remember this character, and I don’t seem to care. Maybe if I just plow ahead, I can get through the book by tomorrow. As a guy I think I got the main point.” As a guy with a ten-year reading Plan, I’m used to plowing, and I’m pretty good at it.

But two days ago, I actually gave up on a book. I left unfinished only two books from the first decade of reading, and I hadn’t dropped or even shortened anything from the second. But six-and-a-half years into it, I stopped Failkner’s Absalom, Absalom! 16% of the way through. I’m not totally sure why. If I have enough reading discipline to have a ten-year book plan, why didn’t I have enough discipline to get through this one novel? I’ve read some Faulkner before that I really enjoyed (The Unvanquished, The Sound and the Fury) and some that I was oddly fascinated by (As I Lay Dying). Maybe it’s that I read another Faulkner novel just two months ago. Maybe it’s that the theme of this one seemed to be exactly the same as that of Light in August: people haunted by stories ancestors have told of ancestors from before the Civil War. Maybe it’s summer and I just wasn’t in the mood for sentences a page-and-a-half-long.

I originally only had room for one Faulkner novel on my list; I just didn’t know which one I would read until last year, when I found strong reviews of two different ones. So I don’t feel I’ve betrayed myself too badly. After all, I only gave up on my decision to go above and beyond. I’m still right on track.

A parallel track, I’m sure.

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