I saw a review of a just-published biography of Jann Wenner, founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, and thought I might like to read it, having been a devoted reader from the early 70s through the late 80s. The library had a copy on order so I placed a hold and had it in hand a few days later.
I read the first few chapters, and decided: no, I don’t want to spend the time it will take to read this. It covers a part of the culture that was once part of my life, but I left it behind 35 years ago and have better things to do than reliving those (mostly vicarious) experiences. I took it back last night and I picked up another new book I’m really looking forward to reading. And this morning I ran across a good review of the Wenner biography, which linked to a New York Times article about how Wenner and his biographer had a falling out, and those two more than satisfied my curiosity about the book.
And so we come to the barely-related inspiration for today’s post, the final sentence of the book review. The reviewer, who worked at Rolling Stone for many years and at several points was courted by Wenner to write the biography himself, laments the fact that as good as the biography is it seems to miss something essential about Wenner’s character, a quality that allowed him to assemble a crack writing staff and give them the freedom they needed to blaze important new trails. Since it’s good writing, I’ll quote the whole final paragraph:
A funny thing happens when a part of your life becomes official history. No matter how good that history is, the writer can’t help getting a crucial aspect wrong. All the facts might be correct, but the spirit is lost. The effect is like a body without a soul. Everything we read about the past is bound to be incomplete because, though we might know what unfolded, we can never really know how the experience felt. The story that gets pieced together takes the place of the memory, then becomes the memory. Because this book is so good, its portrait of Jann Wenner will stick in our heads. History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten.
This is a good thing to remember when reading any biography. But what caught my eye is that last sentence: History is not what happened, but what remains when everything else is forgotten. No offense to the writer, but it was just too good, so I Googled it and found that it is a variant (perhaps his own) on a cluster of aphorisms that have been around for awhile, the essence being:
Culture/Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you’ve learned.
I like that because I think it restates a core aspect of character development, namely that the job is not to become skilled at a particular virtue or discipline, but to become a person who embodies it. That is, we work at patience not simply to collect and polish a set of skills to apply in trying situations, but to actually become patient—a state of being which will allow us to meet trying situations those skills aren’t designed to address—we come to understand patience deeply enough to craft new responses on the spot—and will radiate its effects throughout our character by putting us in closer alignment with God’s creation.
I should note that the reviewer’s variation actually repurposes the observation, moving it from one about individuals to one about societies.
And I want to use this as an excuse to repeat one of my favorite anecdotes:
[Vladimir] Horowitz was asked if the number of extremely talented young pianists concerned him. Did he fear losing his position among the stellar performers? He responded no, that he didn’t fear them. They are very talented, he agreed, and they practice like demons, making high demands of themselves, and then they go on stage before an audience and practice some more.