Spence Green

التكرار يعلم الحمار

I work at Lilt. In addition to computers and languages, my interests include travel, running, and scuba diving. more...

The Book I Want to Write

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For several years now I have wanted to write a book. What to say has been the problem. For one thing it is difficult to say something that has not been said, or that is not being said, amid the noise in the present world. Walking in Barnes and Noble is like watching a comedy with too many good jokes: the laughing is at first satisfying and deeply felt, but fatigue eventually sets in. There are so many good books (and so many bad ones) that it seems futile to hope that any new commentary on a topic, however compelling, could arrest anyone’s attention.

Then I was walking in the woods a week ago when I discovered something that has not been said well. A recent story about the pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard was the catalyst. Speaking to the perception that classical music no longer produces ‘Great Works’ along the lines of Bach and Mozart, Aimard argues against a pervasive notion like ‘great’ in a world that is vastly fractured. That a composer can have a patronage on the order of Liszt–perhaps even larger–without the same recognition is of no consequence: the ‘monolithic grand narrative’ lacks a niche in modernity.

This idea is compelling. On the one hand the generational statement that any dimension of today’s world looks less like a polished piece of mahogany and more like an arabesque seems safe to make without rigorous analysis. There is something deeply unsatisfying about the splintering taking place in the world. While it may be economically beneficial to know more about less, the end result is a nagging feeling of incompetence and insufficiency. Last week, for example, I realized that I have spent the last year operationalizing knowledge that I already possessed rather than learning concepts of an altogether different sort. While my skills may be more elaborate, they are not more expansive. Had I spent the past year learning totally new things, however, then my old knowledge would have become obsolete. It’s like watching a child: if you turn away for a moment, the gremlin will wander off and kill the family cat.

All this is to say that I’m frustrated by a single aspect of reality: that it is no longer enough to simply be a human. A life without accomplishments is seen as an awful waste of resources. From birth a child is coached to do well in pre-school to gain admission in a private school. The next twelve years are spent building an application to some university that accepts 1% of applicants. After this battle is won, four years of internships and straight-A’s are needed to get a high-paying job, which is necessary to support the BMW, the country club membership, and the house with stainless steel appliances. Resources must also be set aside, of course, for putting the kids through this same process, every step of which mints a few gold-plated “success” stories and pile of discarded human matter.

It was this realization, long felt but seldom articulated, that drove me to the Middle East in August 2005. There I found a society rapidly evolving toward this same end, but perhaps fifty years behind. Popular culture still has room for long conversations and unsolicited phone calls without justification. Before long, these cultural norms will have been trampled by “development.” Here is my idea: I want to fly back, a one-way ticket. I’ll take a bag, a notebook, and a few clothes. I’ll stay a few days with a friend and then ask for a connection in another place. I’ll be received graciously not because I’m rich or successful or beautiful, but because I’m human. This is the social currency, and I’ve used it with great success in the past. I’ll make a statement about the world through a travel narrative set in a troubled place. It has been thirty years since In Patagonia, and twice as many since Arabian Sands. Perhaps there is space for another of these works.

UPDATE: You could call this a narcissistic exercise in self-indulgence. Then again, if the “you-need-important-things-in-your-life” argument is the only rhetorical machinery required, then could someone please define “important” in this tidy little value system that has resulted from the destruction of the monolithic?

Written by Spence

June 29th, 2009 at 7:27 pm

Posted in Essays,Writing

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