Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Mort Sahl

The art of skimming

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[Arthur] Schopenhauer wrote that life and dreams were pages from the same book, and that to read them in their proper order was to live, but to leaf through them was to dream,” Jorge Luis Borges writes in the lovely short essay “Time and J.W. Dunne.” As far as I can tell, he was referring to this passage from The World as Will and Representation:

Life and dreams are the pages of one and the same book. In real life we read the pages in coherent order. But when the hour appointed for reading (i.e. the day) is done, and the time for rest has come, then we often leaf idly through the book, turning now to this page and now to another, in no particular order or sequence. Sometimes we turn to a page that we have already read, and sometimes to an unknown one, but they are always from the same book. So a page read separately is indeed out of sequence in comparison to the pages that have been read in order: but it is not so much the worse for that, especially when we bear in mind that a whole consecutive reading starts and finishes just as arbitrarily. In fact it should really be seen as itself only a single, separate, although larger, page.

Or as Borges puts it a few lines earlier: “To dream is to orchestrate the objects we viewed while awake and to weave from them a story, or a series of stories. We see the image of a sphinx and the image of a drugstore, and then we invent a drugstore that turns into a sphinx.”

Comparing a dream to the act of leafing through a book sheds a revealing light on the nature of dreaming, but I think that it also validates the undervalued art of skimming. We tend to see skimming as a degraded form of reading that dishonors the text, and when we approach it as if we’re cramming for a final exam, it can be. But there’s also a form of skimming as a creative tool that deserves to be celebrated. A few weeks ago, I quoted a description from the book Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce of the comedian Mort Sahl at work:

Wherever he was, at home or on the road, he would have his room lined with magazines and books. He never read anything. A voracious skimmer. By flipping through this and staring at that, reading a sentence here and picking up a word there, he got a very good idea of where everything was. When he went into his monologue, you would swear that he had digested the whole world for that week.

At the time, I was making a point about the superficiality of this method of digesting the news. But you could come up with an equally persuasive case that for someone like Sahl, whose genius lay in making connections, this approach was actually more productive than a close reading, since it forced him to fill in the blanks with the twist that turned an idea into a joke.

And this applies to more than just comedy. In the collection Memorabilia Mathematica, there’s a reminiscence by the mathematician Andrew Forsyth of his colleague Arthur Cayley:

Cayley was singularly learned in the work of other men, and catholic in his range of knowledge. Yet he did not read a memoir completely through: his custom was to read only so much as would enable him to grasp the meaning of the symbols and understand its scope. The main result would then become to him a subject of investigation: he would establish it (or test it) by algebraic analysis and, not infrequently, develop it so to obtain other results. This faculty of grasping and testing rapidly the work of others, together with his great knowledge, made him an invaluable referee; his services in this capacity were used through a long series of years by a number of societies to which he was almost in the position of standing mathematical advisor.

The italics are mine. The image of Cayley reading “only so much as would enable him to grasp the meaning of the symbols and understand its scope” is remarkably similar to Sahl “reading a sentence here and picking up a word there [so that] he got a very good idea of where everything was.” And while this shouldn’t be the only way in which we read, it’s indispensable for the referees and advisers who save the rest of us the trouble of keeping track of everything ourselves. (You can even compare it to the role of a good magazine editor, who sifts through the slush pile and picks out the best material for publication—a professional ability that appears to be inseparable from the ability to skim.)

Which brings us back to skimming as a way of dreaming. If creativity often consists of finding connections between existing ideas, it can be helpful read in a way that naturally encourages such combinations. More systematic reading has its place, and you could argue that skimming only results in anything useful when combined with a foundation of knowledge that has been built up in more conventional ways. (Much of the art of skimming lies in the instinctive ability to recognize when a piece of information is actually interesting, which only works when you can compare it to something else of known value.) But for truly creative types, a willingness to learn something thoroughly—which we find in abundance in every graduate department in the world—is conjoined with something more superficial, mystical, and even frivolous. It has affinities both with dreaming and with divination, and it can be deeply pleasurable. I also think that it requires a physical book, newspaper, or magazine, which limits the act of skimming in a way that allows it, paradoxically, to become the most free. In How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which I haven’t read, Pierre Bayard asks: “Who, we may wonder, is the better reader—the person who reads a work in depth without being able to situate it, or the person who enters no book in depth, but circulates through them all?” And he answers his own question in terms that serve as a justification for skimming itself:

For a true reader, one who cares about being able to reflect on literature, it is not any specific book that counts, but the totality of all books…In our quest for this perspective, we must guard against getting lost in any individual passage, for it is only by maintaining a reasonable distance from the book that we may be able to appreciate its true meaning.

A comedian reads the newspaper

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A few days ago, I was leafing through Ladies and Gentlemen—Lenny Bruce, the monumental biography of the legendary standup comic by Albert Goldman and Lawrence Schiller. My eye was caught by a description of a typical performance by Bruce, who died in 1966:

When Lenny starts to spritz, interspersed with the hip jargon, riding along the bops and beats of his Broadway-Brooklyn tachycardic speech pattern, are allusions to big sounds like Stravinsky, Picasso, Charlie Parker, José Limon and James Joyce. Jazz, existentialism, analysis, peyote cults, and California. He’s concerned about the racial scene and the man in the White House and the economy, the way the country is changing. Speaks from experience, done an awful lot of reading.

These days, we may not expect our comedians to drop allusions to Stravinsky or José Limon, but we’re still interested in what they have say about “the racial scene and the man in the White House and the economy, the way the country is changing.” It’s part of a tradition of turning to standup comics for wisdom—or truth—that can largely be traced back to Bruce himself. And here’s the punchline, as Goldman delivers it: “The image is a bitch to sustain. Lenny isn’t that knowledgable about jazz. He’s never been to Europe since the Navy. Most everything he knows, he picks up from the movies.”

This pressure to seem informed about current events is one to which most of us can relate, and it must be particularly challenging to those figures who find themselves at the forefront of the culture, where we expect them to be inhumanly knowledgeable about everything while making the result seem effortless. As Goldman points out, though, there are ways of getting around it: “Mort Sahl found the solution before Lenny. It’s called osmosis.” He continues:

The way Sahl worked? Wherever he was, at home or on the road, he would have his room lined with magazines and books. He never read anything. A voracious skimmer. By flipping through this and staring at that, reading a sentence here and picking up a word there, he got a very good idea of where everything was. When he went into his monologue, you would swear that he had digested the whole world for that week. Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower, segregation, Shelley Berman, trade unions, Marty, Dave Brubeck, New York, Berkeley, Beckett, newspapers, coffeehouses, sandals, J.D. Salinger, filter-tip cigarettes, the State Department, Dick Clark, German radios, birth control, Charles Van Doren, Adlai Stevenson, natural-shoulder suits, Cuba, Israel, Dave Garroway, the Diners’ Club, Billy Graham, sports cars, the Strategic Air Command—wow! A barrage!

And if you replace that catalog of topics with one that seems more current—Red Hen, zero tolerance, “This is America,” Harley Davidson, and that’s just this week—it still captures something of what we expect from our late night hosts and talking heads on a daily basis.

The ability to skim a newspaper and turn it into a monologue for an audience every night is a valuable skill, and it can earn millions for those who possess it. But there’s no particular reason that comedians or pundits need to do the skimming themselves. In the period about which Goldman is writing, Bruce’s solution centered on the unlikely figure of Terry Lane, his assistant and a former burlesque drummer:

Lenny doesn’t need all this crap. He has an imagination and he’s really funny, not just nervous, like Sahl. But the trick is the same. Neither a reader nor a skimmer, what’s he supposed to do? Just accept it? Be a schmuck? Oh, no! There are always people who can help you. You don’t have to take a lot of shit from them either. Just sit a guy like Terry down and say: “Now look man, here’s the gig. I need an intellectual seeing-eye dog. Somebody who can check out the papers every day, read Time and Newsweek, do a little research for me, and just set me up nice so when I go out on the floor tonight, I’m the best-informed person in the city. Dig?”

What Goldman is describing here is basically the relationship between a star comic and his head writer, as enacted in a seedy hotel room in Times Square instead of backstage at The Tonight Show. And while Terry Lane’s résumé may no longer be typical—his equivalent today would be more likely to have gone to Harvard—his personal qualifications are much the same: “What grabbed Lenny was the fact that Terry was a reader…Lenny hadn’t got the patience, the concentration, the sitzfleisch. When pushed too hard he got terrible headaches. But Terry there, at the table between shows, would sit, riddling off titles like a college English professor…Lenny was impressed.”

But the real takeaway here is how this approach to current events has expanded outward from the nightclubs to radio and cable news, which is where Bruce’s true successors can be found. Goldman nicely describes the skill in question:

And the system works fine. Terry or Richey or Benny or whoever is traveling with Lenny is always a smart, studious sort of cat, who can feed him facts and help him learn big new words out of the dictionary. After all, what is literacy? Words. How do you learn words? Hear them. If you have a good ear and a tongue that can mimic anything you hear, you can learn whole languages by rote. Lenny is a mind-mouth man. His brain is located somewhere between his ears and his tongue. All he has to do is get the hang of a word, and he finds a place to slip it into his act.

These days, many of us get our news exactly from such “mind-mouth” men or women, whose gift consists of taking a few headlines and spinning them into thirty minutes of daily content. On the left, they’ve traditionally come from the ranks of improv, standup, and sketch comedy; on the right, which has trouble coming up with funny people, from talk radio. (Rush Limbaugh got his start as a disc jockey, which points to the fact that his true power is the ability to talk into a microphone for hours.) I’m not denigrating this talent, which is so rare that only a handful of people seem capable of doing it for large audiences at any one time. And we could do worse than to take our political cues from the writers at The Daily Show. But it’s still a simulacrum of insight, rather than the real thing. And we need to think hard about what happens when so many people turn to it for their information—including the man in the White House.

Written by nevalalee

June 26, 2018 at 8:20 am

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