Performance Art

Reading a book is not just a passive activity, insists Michael Handelzalts: It demands concentration, dexterity and practice

One of my most frustrating adolescent memories - no, not my lack of success with the fairer sex - has to do with music. After I made several piano teachers lose their hair (which they were tearing out while listening to my efforts), it was decided that from now on, my piano teacher would be my father, a consummate pianist on top of having a medical degree.

And I remember to this very day trying to find my way, deeply concentrated in the sheets of music before my eyes, both hands groping their way, 10 fingers struggling on the keyboard. All this time, my father was listening from the other room. Once in a while, his voice would boom out: "It is F, not F sharp!"

Here my frustration would reach its zenith. He, with his absolute pitch and musical memory, could hear that it should be F, not F sharp. I, with the music before my eyes and hands on the keys, had to try to understand to which finger on which hand and to which chord from a long succession he was referring to.

As may well be understood, I did not become a concert pianist. I never reached the level of "expressing myself through music." I can read it, slowly. That is all. But I did become a dedicated listener and amassed more than a fair number of CDs.

I thought of my salad-piano days when I finished organizing my CDs on their new shelves, not long after my books settled on theirs. And by the way, here is a tip to CD owners: When they stand on the shelves, side by side, they occupy far less space then when they are laid down, one on top of the other, in various "CD organizers" in which there is a separate compartment for each disc.

But now, in front of my CD case, the inevitable question was asked by some of my few visitors: "Have you listened to all those CDs?" Umberto Eco, when asked a similar question about his library, used to answer, "Why, yes, and I have an even bigger library in my office, with books that I did not have the time to peruse as yet."

When I was asked such question about my CDs, I answered, without a moment's hesitation: "Yes, I've heard each and every one of them all, at least once."

One of the reasons for that is, of course, the fact that I have still fewer CDs than books. But the other reasons are that the way of savoring the music is different - for most of us - from the way of consuming literature.

To understand the difference better, here is George Steiner's definition of a "classic" (from his book "Errata: An Examined Life"): "I define a `classic,' in literature, in music, in the arts, as a signifying form which `reads' us. It reads us more than we read (listen to, perceive) it."

Steiner uses his definition as one way of retelling his very personal experiences with the arts. I know, from my own experience, that there are several ways to "experience" the arts - be it reading books or making music. The most common, and ostensibly very pleasurable, way is passive. With music, it can happen in a concert hall, live, or at home, in an intimate setting, through listening to the radio or to a CD. Usually (that is, with me), it can (and is) done while doing something else: the dishes, for example.

One can listen to music, and enjoy it, even while reading. Not always, though: There were times, not too distant, when the more common way of enjoying music was by making it, literally: playing it on an instrument, alone or with friends. That mode of experience, applied more often to music than to books, is one of "performing" it.

But I do believe that every reader "performs" the books he reads - puts life into the potential qualities infused in the script by the author, and creates the world hidden between the letters and the lines. It demands intense concentration, excludes any other activity. In that way, every book we read, reads us more than we read it. It demands some dexterity and practice, which is attained more easily than with music.

And that is why I have not read yet all my books: I have not tried as yet to rise to the challenge and to "perform" them.

There are, of course, those listeners who "perform" the piece while listening to it, as there are books which demand mere passive listening. And there are, naturally, many bad and disappointing performances of books by readers. But, while I have in my CD library several recordings of different artists' renditions of the same oeuvre, I have to perform the books in my library on my own.

To read it is to perform it. Mere listening won't do.

Hear hear.