Monday, February 14, 2011

Reading (Way) Outside My Comfort Zone

I like to read outside my comfort zone from time to time, and when I do read a book, or even part of one, which I wouldn't ordinarily pick up, I always learn something.

Readers of this blog know of my interest in song lyrics and the people who write them. While waiting for my son to finish a chess club event at our library the other day, my eyes fell on Decoded by Jay-Z.

In the book, the rapper and hip hop star offers analyses of his own lyrics, interleafed with anecdotal reminiscences of coming of age in the Budford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. I'm pretty certain Jay-Z had a ghostwriter, and she's kept the star's voice on the page (for better and worse, depending on each reader's taste).

I read the first 40 pages in between doing a zillion other things – one of which was compiling a lecture on nonficiton writing that involved working with memories that seem elusive or incomplete. One of my points is that in many cases, it's often more interesting to the reader – and certainly more honest – for the writer to put our own misgivings about the quality of our memory right on the page, to write the memory holes into the prose. I know I have many examples of this on my bookshelf.

But before I had a chance to look for them, there, on page 4 of Decoded, I stumbled across one example of working with a fragmented memory. Jay-Z is describing the first time he saw a rapping rhymer in action, on a street corner in his rough-and-tumble world (bold mine):

"...Like the day I wandered up to something I'd never see before: a cipher – but I wouldn't have called it that; no one would've back then. It was just a circle of scrappy, ashy, skinny Brooklyn kids laughing and clapping their hands, their eyes trained on the center. I might have been with my cousin B-High, but I might have been alone, on my way home from playing baseball with my Little League squad. "

He can't remember who he was with or where he was going, so he shares that with the reader, suggesting likely scenarios based on the activities he does remember doing frequently (being with B-High, walking home from baseball). He didn't know what to call the thing he'd come across, though later he learned the word (cipher), but he tells the reader about his ignorance at the time of the incident. Both are better decisions, sharing with the reader what the author doesn't know, than either skipping the incident altogether, or fleshing it out with details he can't stand behind or couldn't have known at the moment.

As for the book in its entirety, I may not get to page 317. I know only a handful of Jay-Z's recordings, so I can't comment on whether his meditations on, and explanations of the lyrics, jive with what I thought the lyrics meant (or if I really want to go there). I don't have an opinion on whether hip hop lyrics are a new and important poetic form. Or even if I like the guy.

I'm only saying that when I read outside my comfort zone, it makes me think. Sometimes, I read more carefully. That's always a good thing for a writer.

Readers, what have you read lately that's outside your comfort zone?

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