Posted: Sat – October 9, 2004 at 09:41 AM
While on the ship last month, I had some spare time between events and at night to read. Reading is a luxury I used to enjoy much more frequently than I have of late.
There are of course all sorts of time pressures in our daily lives, everything seems to happen so quickly these days. There seems to be very little space for contemplation and reflection. And reading literature at least, as opposed to email, ought to be a contemplative pleasure.
Where has the time gone? Sometimes I am subject to the gnawing concern that these “labor saving” devices we have built for ourselves have chained us instead to tyrants of “Better” and “Faster.”
I don’t want to go too far down into the Ted Kasczynski fever swamp, but the promise of the technological revolution was to make us more productive. That is to say, we can do more with less, or do the same amount better, or (eventually) both. When I was a young lieutenant (junior grade) it was not uncommon to see strike-outs in official correspondence – if the yeoman made a typo at the bottom of the page, it was hardly fair to make him retype the whole document again, knowing that there was a better than even chance he’d only make a different error. Legibility was not affected. Good enough for government work, was. Now of course, the expectation is that everything should be pretty much perfect. And why is it taking so long?
So having been offered the opportunity to become more productive, we seized it with the industry and dedication of our nation. Able to do more with less, faster, we spend more time working faster to produce ever greater levels of quality and quantity. And then we go home, eat dinner, tousle the kids’ hair once or twice and hurl ourselves into bed, exhausted. And then we read about scan the headlines on 35 hour workweeks in France, and mutter to ourselves, “Wonderful for them, but it would never work here.” Because it simply wouldn’t. If we were in the overtime generating class, we’d simply be taking home a bit more of the time-and-a-half, while those of us on salary wouldn’t even notice, because we’re already blowing off the 40 hour workweek.
Leaving little space for contemplative reading.
Except on the ship.
Ship time, as I’ve recently pointed out, is not like beach time. One of the truisms about naval life is that workload expands into available time. This is to say, given project “x” that on the shore requires time “t” to accomplish, the same project will require time “∫t” where the function symbol comprises other tasks over time available, less time reserved for meals and sleep. Put another way, a four hour project ashore might as well take me 18 hours on the ship to polish just perfectly, because after all, I’ve got no place else to be.
Unless you’ve got a good book to read.
I’m a pretty quick reader, so I got through a number of books while aboard Vinson. The first was a book by Martin Cruz Smith (of Gorky Park fame) called Rose *. A wonderful read, beautifully written. The plot is a conventional mystery, with all the usual twists and a rathe pedestrian ending . If it had been written by a lesser writer, it might have been awful. But Smith is a wonderful writer, and so I was enraptured.
Immediately following Rose, I read a book by James Webb which caught my eye: Lost Soldiers.* Webb, who, apart from being a Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, and a highly decorated Vietnam era Marine, also wrote Fields of Fire and Sense of Honor, two books that I remember fondly.
But while Webb’s story is in some ways more compelling than Smith’s, the storytelling truly suffers in comparison. Where Smith weaves imagery in sensual wisps of incense to pull you magically into his tale, Webb’s writing reads like the literary equivalent of the boxing style he was famous for at the Naval Academy as a midshipman, short jabs followed by long power punches interspersed with uppercuts. Reading Smith first, and then Webb is like having to wash down a Guinness with a Bud.
What an art it is, to write well – and how obvious the distinction. I first discovered this through the work of Larry McMurtry, in Lonesome Dove. * A conventional western really – if you merely did a plot outline, you’d have to heave a sigh. But reading the book itself, surrendering to it and discovering the way McMurtry animates both his characters and the time they live in is a delicious pleasure, to be savored over time.
As time consuming as reading is, writing is so very much more so. To write something worth reading, and to write it well – to match the tale with the telling – that’s the challenge.
Someday I would like to write – not the “great American novel,” whatever that means these days. Perhaps just a good book. Don’t know where people find the time, though. We’re all so busy being perfectly productive.
** Links had to be updated – Ed.