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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Humility — Or Where Spiderman Meets Schoenberg

Of Wall-Crawlers and Museum Walls
My three and half year old son went to the library yesterday, and proudly came back with four books he had selected — all of them featuring the Wall-Crawler, Spiderman, on the covers. These are the various levels of Spiderman books that HarperFestival has put out — from almost picture book easy reader up through chapter books. Not only was my son thrilled to have them, but I could see by the cards that they have all been very actively checked out. Kids love their Spiderman. This is pretty humbling because I know that when I look at my own books, they often circulate very slowly. And that contrast between what is broadly, widely, easily popular and that which aims at distinction even if for a much smaller audience is one of the main themes of This is the website for Alex Ross, whose book is also called The Rest Is Noise.

The thrill of reading Ross’s book is that as he makes his way through the music of the twentieth century he replaces the familiar history most of us know with a dual story. We know about the geniuses, the stormers-of-heaven who shattered Western music the same way Cubist artists broke up the faux realism of the painting. But also know that for all of the intellectual support for avant-gardists such as Edgar Varese and John Cage, all of the academic honor given to Arnold Schoemberg and Anton Webern [to hear music by these composers go to Ross’s site where he has samples linked to discussions in his book], their music never became popular in the way Picasso’s paintings did. A museum can make money on Picasso, a concert hall can expect empty seats for Modernist music. Ross however is not either telling the story of the lonely genius spurned by the dense public (however much the musicians themselves may have played that role and courted that fate), nor of the misguided elitists who lost touch with Vox Pop. Instead he tells a larger story in which elite and popular weave in and out of phase — Schoenberg’s atonalism, for example, makes its way into Jazz and the sound tracks for horror movies.

All of this leads me back to Spiderman and the library. There is something good, something appealing, something, well, popular about being popular. I have to say that I like it when my son comes back from the library happy and eager to look at, pour over, be read to, from the books he’s selected. The challenge is how to marry that instant appeal with the insight, depth, and probing questions that are — to me — the heart of good nonfiction. 

As one small step, I love Ross’s website with the sound track to his book. I was heading in that direction with Art Attack years ago. Blending music and words, experience and text, a beat that moves you and ideas that stimulate you — there is something very cool in that. And, in Second Life they have a Music Museum — hmmm…wonder how that could yield some new marriages of book and sound?