Monday, August 4, 2008

Value by example

I was intrigued by this article in the NY Times. It seems one man has come upon the idea that value might be suggested by the repeated use of the images in textbooks.

There are of course many ways to determine value, and all of them I think fail to be satisfactory. Actually the very question feels fishy to me. But this is not to say that his study is without its merit. It is, I think, wise for those of us in academia to keep track of the canon, to see what notions of quality we're reinforcing through examples and facts. And it's also good to see how these examples change (I wonder, for instance, if the author weights examples at all based on readership or currentness of textbook). But it's also wise to note that a textbook should strive for more than simply reproducing the most valuable images. They should encapsulate what the history is showing, they should be diverse, and they should be clear and engaging.

Picasso will turn up more in a textbook more than Matisse simply because the man changed his style more frequently. It would be unwise to fill the pages with multiple examples of one sort at the expense of another, but so too would it be wise to dismiss Matisse's influence, or even value if you want to call it that, from this standpoint.

In the Listen textbook we use with the nonmajors, they select Haydn's Symphony 95. It's not, in my opinion, his most clever or engaging, nor his most beautiful, nor his most performed. But it does the job, possibly better than the alternatives. And there we may come to see the value in this work.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


I'm off on "vacation," so posts may be spotty. The quotation marks are because this week is relaxing time at home, followed by two weeks of archival work, followed by a blissful end to the summer at Pinewoods, where I will folk dance and listen and play at all hours of the day in the backwoods on Eastern Massachusetts.

The other R's I'm talking about are two of the three, reading and writing ('rithmethic will have to wait its turn). While the folks at Dial M discuss the difficulties, I can blissfully avoid starting the writing process of my dissertation while I'm on vacation. I like to write, but I inevitably have trouble with the big picture. Points will be made beautifully, and then lost by the end. Things fall apart, as one poet may have put it, the thesis cannot hold. The ideas I'm proud of, the execution is almost inevitably a victim of the time crunch at the end of the semester. There are the bright moments in everything, of course; having my Weezer paper's analytical section compared to the artful Alex Ross by my professor was no small source of mid-winter warmth. But the real problem is the curse of deadlines, which both inspire me to actually get it together, and prevent further stages of rewriting, papers on Honneger and Sondheim and Brahms and Nyman languishing in the "good enough" stage. We'll see how the dissertation fairs in the next few months and years.

But one of the real joys of vacation is putting down the books from the library, and picking up something for pleasure (I'm about halfway through Middlesex, and loving every page). Skimming for facts, noting the notes, mentally critiquing as you go is efficient, but I'm learning recently one of the overlooked lessons. Reading for style as well as substance. I love when Phil posts about Auden or Brent about poetry. That's what makes me want to spend the time rewriting—reading a Michael Chabon novel or a Yeats poem, knowing how beautifully sentences stand out. Here's one of my favorites, from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:

Later, after the world had been torn in half, and the Amazing Cavalieri and his blue tuxedo were to be found only in the gilt-edged pages of deluxe photo albums on the coffee tables of the Upper West Side, Joe would sometimes find himself thinking about the pale-blue envelope from Prague. He would try to imagine its contents, wondering what news or sentiments or instructions it might have contained. It was at these times that he began to understand, after all those years of study and performance, of feats and wonders and surprises, the nature of magic. The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam, that what had vanished might reappear, that a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, that a paper rose consumed by fire could be made to bloom from a pile of ash. But everyone knew that it was only an illusion. The true magic of this boken world lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become so thoroughly lost, that they might never have existed in the first place.

But it's seldom I see people writing about sholarship in similar ways. I don't have it on hand, but Aaron Fox's Real Country opened my eyes to the power of academic language. Before that, I remember reading The Girl With a Pearl Earring in my Art History seminar, talking about how art history is really an act of storytelling. Our scholarship tells stories of the artist, of the world, of ourselves. I've tried to keep one eye on content, and another on how the story is told, how the arguments are made, how the music is brought to life, and how the author figures into the story, as narrator, as character, as creator.

But for now, I'm enjoying being a reader and listener. I can only hope to await my next page of what I write with the same hunger that I await the next page of what I read.