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Stranger in a Strange Land: John Wilson


What Time Is It?

In a "Letter from the Editor" in the January/February issue, I talked about sorting through stacks of folders stored at home, piles of books, miscellaneous articles, ephemera of all kinds, trying to restore a measure of order. That Sisyphean project continues. Not long ago, I came across a printout of a web-exclusive piece posted on December 18, 2006, on "The Year in Books." A few of you may recall seeing it at the time; if so, I hope you'll forgive me for bringing it to light here. As I read it over, it seemed, in an odd way, timely.

Hmmmm. If talking about The Top Ten Books of 2006 and the Book of the Year is an act of hubris, any pretension to survey "The Year in Books" is utter folly—unless writer and readers conspire genially as we do, say, when we suspend disbelief on beginning to read a novel or settling in our seats at the movies.

It happens that, in certain years, a book which has made a modest entrance turns out to shed light on many other books that might seem to be unrelated. So from the very first sentence you find yourself engaged in a kind of double reading, as you attend to the immediate context in the book you hold in your hand and at the same time begin to register connections branching off here and there and every whichway.

"Someone, sitting in a cave, punctures holes in a bone drained of marrow, raises it mouthwards, and blows—into a flute. Breath becomes sound, and time, through that sound, is given a shape. Being sound and shaped time, music begins."

Those are the enticingly musical first sentences of A Concise History of Western Music by Paul Griffiths (Cambridge Univ. Press), which doesn't merely pile century upon century but rather tells a coherent story, the theme of which is music's evolving engagement with time (so, for example, the development of Western musical notation moved in parallel with increasingly sophisticated devices for measuring time).

In this issue—see ...

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