Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Roses? What Roses?

Four months ago, on January 12, 2007 Joshua Bell, a world-renowned virtuoso agreed to pretend to be a street musician and play for one hour outside a Washington, D.C. metro station. It was a sociological test of sorts to see how many people busily on their way to work would recognize the beauty and art coming from a violinist whose concerts can cost over $100 to attend. This article in last week's Washington Post is an illuminating contemplation of art and beauty’s place in our lives. This isn’t exactly an article on books or on reading but it is on our ability to appreciate art - even of the written word - in the fast-paced, stressed-out, modern lives we lead today. I found this passage to be of particular interest:

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.

"Evan is very smart!"

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

PostNote: Many thanks to the folks over at bookninja for bringing this to my attention. I live in Washington, D.C. and I had no idea. How's that for oblivious? And God knows with all of the ugliness in the world today - what with last week's Imus tornado and yesterday's killing on Virginia Tech's campus - I need all the beauty I can get.

The Reading Roller-Coaster

Well, I guess I should do my part in spreading the word: The Litblog Co-op has announced its Read This! Spring 2007 pick - Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead: Stories by Alan DeNiro. Since I’ve just discovered this apparently popular, well-known litblog today, I’m also adding their Read This! selections from last year: Michael Martone by Michael Martone, Firmin by Sam Savage, and Wizard of the Crow by Ngugl wa Thiong’o. Added to that I still have to buy The Shakespeare Riots by Nigel Cliff (released today - yeah!). Not to mention I’ve already begun dipping into The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, which I picked up yesterday during a quickie bookstore stop on my way from the post office. Yes, I know I promised to spend my next $20 on The Shakespeare Riots but how could I pass up a book about an atheist minister who’s life is saved by none other than the Devil? It was a no-brainer, really.

I’ve realized just now that the reading life - much like life itself, I suppose - is full of ups and downs. Only two weeks ago, I was complaining that I couldn’t find anything worth reading in the bookstore. That isn’t to say there wasn’t anything there - because surely there was - but I spent a disappointing afternoon browsing Border’s shelves and, after a fruitless search, left with nothing. I hate leaving the bookstore empty-handed. I makes me feel as if I’ve failed somehow and puts me in a terrible mood.

Then last week, I stopped in an independent bookstore (in the airport of all places) and suddenly the sun came out again. I picked up three gems: Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, The Final Solution by Michael Chabon, and The Italian Secretary by Celeb Carr. When I returned home, there was a copy of Andy Mandelbuam’s translation of The Aenied waiting for me in my mailbox, which has been on my coveted-book list for many years now. And now, I’ve come across the Litblog Co-op Read This! list. (Contented sigh) What can I say? I’m thinking I need a second job. Suddenly, the reading life is good again. At least, it will be until I begin wondering when I’m going to find the time to read all these books...