My criteria for a great non-fiction read are, of course, that the author illuminates his subject, but, on a more personal level, that his book sends me off in new reading and listening directions. Sam Stephenson, in a culmination of his more than two decades of study the photographer W. Eugene Smith, easily meets both in Gene Smith’s Sink: A Wide-Angle View, applying a Citizen Kane-style strategy to get to the tortured core of Smith’s genius and, perhaps coincidentally (Stephenson would argue not necessarily), tapping into both areas I’ve very recently explored (Japanese culture and disaster, Tennessee Williams’ complicated vision) and opening new doors for me: to the work of Robert Frank, Ronnie Free, and the deeper depths of Sonny Clark’s discography, beyond Cool Struttin’.
Perhaps the best of many brilliant chapters in the book involve, first, one that examines the source of and reason for the call of a Chuck-Will’s Widow that turns up on one of Smith’s many loft recordings, and, following right on its heels, an examination of Clark’s tragic life. How all these things connect I’ll leave it to the reader to discover–I couldn’t recommend this book more highly–but they rocketed me to a four-hour listening session that incorporated the whole of Clark’s recordings with the St. Louis-born guitarist Grant Green and two albums Clark made as a leader, Leapin’ and Lopin’ and The Sonny Clark Trio. My goal? Well, in that latter chapter, Stephenson’s driving to understand why Japanese jazz fans seem to revere Clark even more than Coltrane, and he breaks down two symbols frequently used by Japanese jazz writers to describe Clark’s music; I simply set out to test their description myself. It’s not this simple, but the symbols, used together, indicate both a muffling of deep feeling and the expression of deep feeling through the contraction of the heart. Interesting, huh? I found that description holds up.
Just prior to being set on this listening path, and just prior to having read the two chapters that lit me on fire, I’d read an interview with Philip Roth in the current New York Times Book Review. You’ll soon understand why, shortly after reading it, I was shaking my head in wonder; check out this response of Roth’s:
I seem to have veered off course lately and read a heterogeneous collection of books. I’ve read three books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the most telling from a literary point of view, “The Beautiful Struggle,” his memoir of the boyhood challenge from his father. From reading Coates I learned about Nell Irvin Painter’s provocatively titled compendium “The History of White People.” Painter sent me back to American history, to Edmund Morgan’s “American Slavery, American Freedom,” a big scholarly history of what Morgan calls “the marriage of slavery and freedom” as it existed in early Virginia. Reading Morgan led me circuitously to reading the essays of Teju Cole, though not before my making a major swerve by reading Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve,” about the circumstances of the 15th-century discovery of the manuscript of Lucretius’ subversive “On the Nature of Things.” This led to my tackling some of Lucretius’ long poem, written sometime in the first century B.C.E., in a prose translation by A. E. Stallings. From there I went on to read Greenblatt’s book about “how Shakespeare became Shakespeare,” “Will in the World.” How in the midst of all this I came to read and enjoy Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born to Run,” I can’t explain other than to say that part of the pleasure of now having so much time at my disposal to read whatever comes my way invites unpremeditated surprises.
Why read? How can you not, if you’re able?
Del McCoury Band: The Cold Hard Facts
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys: The Complete Mercury Sessions
The Essential Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys (on Columbia)