A busy luthier’s shop on a sunny afternoon. An amber cylindrical pat of resin in a modest white cloth rests on a chest of drawers housing sundry bows. Alongside, seven or eight bows lie unsheathed, plastic wraps in a jumble. Closed cases of larger instruments run like dominoes down the central aisle into the back rooms. Open cases abound, too, as players are sampling instruments not their own. Rows of violins and violas hang high on the walls, classed by size, certainly, but perhaps also according to some other quality which those not privy do not see. Maker? Country? Age? Condition? Bits of concertos float through the shop, along with bits of Go Tell Aunt Rhody and Twinkle Twinkle. Students and experts alike test their potential purchases or rental fare playing pieces they have been practicing, or those that they are convinced will demonstrate the full range of the instrument. It stands to reason that one has to play the violin before deciding to take it home.
Or, to speak more precisely, it must be played so that one can hear the sound that it makes. Sound emitted from an f-hole centimeters from the ear is louder than the same when heard from several feet or many meters away. Experts know how to work with this difference and still achieve the emotional expressiveness they hope for. But this skill takes time to acquire. So the student must test the instrument for size and comfort, surely, but the luthier’s assistant, too, plays a piece of her choice on each candidate instrument for the client. In this way, the client may listen and discover which is most pleasing to the ear. The capacity for emotional expression of the instrument is given a fair chance to shine in expert hands. The point is to have the opportunity to separate the act of listening from the act of playing so that the client can focus on the comparative sound quality, and ultimately discover which sound touches her most.
It might be interesting to now compare what we do when we are thinking about purchasing or borrowing a novel. We identify the section of the store or website where it is located. Is it just plain fiction, or specifically mystery, historical, romance? We glance at the author’s photo, read about him or her. We look at the critics’ blurbs on the covers and front pages. But isn’t this somewhat like looking at a violin and learning only about its maker? Country? Age? Condition? We assume that just by being able to read the words and comprehend them, we will be able to interpret and enjoy the book in a way that merits the time spent reading it. And so we may even read a bit of it right then and there to help us decide, like the student violinist who tries out the violin for the basics, size and comfort. The trouble, of course, is that just that portion read out of context is not going to tell me what I really want to know, which is how this novel is going to make me feel. Yes, I know, one might say we really want to know what happens, or what one can learn from the book. Perhaps this is true, but these, I believe, are not our first concerns.
Could it be that in spite of the declarative knowledge concerning the novel, which publishers routinely make available (maker, country, age, summative blurbs), what is most pressing is that we get a chance to experience a portion of the novel through the “playing” of a performer of novels? Someone who would read to us a section of the novel we are considering and who has read the novel before. We would then have the opportunity to experience a portion of the work without the constraints of our own lack of in-depth knowledge of the genre, the particular story, or style, because we would be borrowing those of someone else as manifested through the performance. Or we could go to an author’s reading of the work. But that is not good enough, on two counts: the author is not the best performer of her work, and if you are going to a reading, you already like the work. What is needed is someone who could expressively read the selected passage knowing the context of the novel’s full emotional expanse and acuity, and on the spot. Perhaps booksellers should hire professional readers for just this purpose…It might do wonders for our capacity to choose a novel that fits our emotional needs of the present.