Concerto and context

Everyone who’s working for a newspaper and doesn’t “get” how their world needs to change should read David Carr’s column today in The New York Times. As professional insularity and blindness still thrive, “The Lonely Newspaper Reader” asks for the simplest glance around the breakfast table. If what’s there startles you, then think about your neighbors and their breakfasts. If you don’t care, then have a wonderful 2007.

For the new year in the industry, I’m hoping for the continued victory of journalism over newspapers, of storytelling over newspapers. Anyone inside who can’t see a personal future isn’t trying. I’ve been there and know the reasons why, but I’m not there now and hope I don’t go back. Stupid to say, but there’s too much at stake.

Three notes on the morning news, one off and two on. The off note comes in the Chicago Tribune’s opinion section, where editors try to make a late soldier’s e-mails stand as an experience of 21st-century war. The editors use just a few e-mails and bold what they think to be important sentences, but the bolding seems forced — like a comprehension tool for readers — and the selection is just a glimpse. The soldier’s story runs on so much further than the glimpse shows. You can hear the depth in his e-mails, but it doesn’t get bolded.

Realizing the threads of meaning is probably harder now when people puts weeks into their letters or could pick a particular span of time and set it in perspective. As that time falls away, grasping momentary importance is coming to depend on grasping context. The two other notes this morning fall that way.

In The Washington Post, there’s a wonderful break from its too-common overthinking turning into overwriting. “Cold Ground for a Summer Love” tells the story of a local girl, 19, who dated and fell in love with a boy for a month before he went to Iraq and died.

“For more than three months, she has come to Arlington National Cemetery to talk to Colin about the minutiae of her life, to kiss his narrow white headstone topped with a Star of David and to stretch out her slim body next to his as if they were lying together again.”

In The Times, the story is “From Father to Son, Last Words to Live By.” A former paper reporter and now editor describes her late husband and what he left behind.

“He drew pictures of himself with angel wings. He left a set of his dog tags on a nightstand in my Manhattan apartment. He bought a tiny blue sweat suit for our baby to wear home from the hospital.

“Then he began to write what would become a 200-page journal for our son, in case he did not make it back from the desert in Iraq.”

The song that comes to mind after reading the stories is The Toys’ A Lover’s Concerto — the “How gentle is the rain” song. Something about the simplicity, but probably more the steady drizzle outside right now. Wondering exactly what a concerto is, I head to Google, which sends me to, which gives this Britannica passage, leading me in all different sorts of direction about who is who today.

“Musical composition for solo instrument and orchestra. … It has generally been intended to display the soloist’s virtuosity, particularly in the unaccompanied and often improvised cadenzas near the ends of the first and third movements. Nineteenth-century concertos were often conceived as a kind of dramatic struggle between soloist and orchestra; many later composers preferred that the soloist blend with the orchestra.”

All the drunk collected tokens

“When we played a college town, and we walked in front of a crowd like this, I knew we were going to have a hard time. They don’t like real music, these people. They don’t the Ramones or the Temptations or the ‘Mats; they like DJ Bleepy and his stupid fucking bleeps.”

And you’re happy you’re reading a Nick Hornby novel…

“Or else they all pretend that they’re fucking gangstas, and listen to hip-hop about hos and guns.”

…until Sasha Frere-Jones comes to mind and reminds you it’s not Hornby’s best work. Even with some plausible Marah references.

A Long Way Down, this afternoon’s reading, is a topsy-turvy mess of Hornby settling to write below The Sound and the Fury — as they said in the reviews, even in the book’s four voices, the rock and rattle is still his — but succeeding in hitting the corners of loneliness in experience. The yelps for help vary as much as the flip side, the ignorant restraint, and you wait for the scene to come together in a mid-point, maybe three-quarters of the way, like the instant after an unexpected sentence in a conversation, awkward until this moment:

Her face looked different now. It was having to do things it wasn’t used to doing, because she suddenly looked so desperate to hear what I had to say. I don’t think she was used to listening properly. I liked maked her face do something new, and that was why I went on, partly.

In the best of Hornby’s strokes, there’s a generous acceptance of feeling. He forgets it sometimes when it doesn’t suit his interests, but when it shows, you can extrapolate for the rest. The generosity is internal, within the person, letting a mix of feelings come and go and freely, publicly, still-internally contradict themselves. The range of emotion gets a harping sometimes for its sentimentality, but that’s only if you don’t accept some feelings as failures.

Someone else could call the situation relativistic. Except you haven’t done anything yet. And judging a few of the thoughts in other people’s heads is only worth so much time. Tossing around all their thoughts is another matter, often impossible. If we’re going to work shorter, and we often have to, we have to weight what we don’t know.

That kind of partial and challenging understanding comes at the heart of a piece in the current New Yorker, a printing of novelist Orhan Pamuk’s Nobel lecture. The weighting, filtered at both ends, is summoned openly as the story begins. Pamuk’s father brings him a suitcase of his writings and sets it in a corner.

For several days after that, I walked back and forth past the suitcase without ever actually touching it. I was already familiar with this small black leather case, with a lock and rounded corners. When I was a child, my father had taken it with him on short trips and had sometimes used it to carry documents to work. Whenever he came home from a trip, I’d rush to open this little suitcase and rummage through his things, savoring the scent of cologne and foreign countries. The suitcase was a friend, a powerful reminder of my past, but now I couldn’t even touch it. Why? No doubt because of the mysterious weight of its contents.

I am now going to speak of the meaning of that weight: that weight is what a person creates when he shuts himself up in a room and sits down at a table or retires to a corner to express his thoughts — that is, the weight of literature.

I won’t quote more for you now. It’s online here. You need to see the expression for yourself. But in reading the magazine this year, issue after issue as you know, keeping up with their arrivals a little better than in the past, I think the piece is my favorite from the year. Or at least top five.