Nothing In, Nothing Out

I am, by trade, a pediatric echocardiographer. Practicing for more than twenty years now, I have come into contact with tens of thousands of kids. No small percentage of them have been either college age or college bound high schoolers. During their examination I try and put them at ease by discussing, amongst other things, how school is going for them. I let them drive the conversation if they’re of a mind to do so and more often than not they find something to talk about. It seems to help them relax and does pass the time. At some point I will usually ask them about their academic experience. Whenever one of them claims English as a favorite I will ask them what they’re reading in school, and what author or genre they most enjoy. Being an avid reader myself I’m always interested in what they have to say. Most kids lean towards the Young Adult (YA) market but now and again I meet a teen who has developed more sophisticated tastes. I’d imagine that none of what I just wrote strikes anyone as surprising. Early on in my career I had an experience that, at least for me, qualified as singular and while not a harbinger of the apocalypse, left me non-plussed all the same.

I had a high school girl on the table and we were talking about her classes. She said English was her favorite and when I asked her what she liked to read I got an answer I could not (at that time) possibly have anticipated. This child of no more than seventeen, and probably younger than that, told me she liked to write but didn’t like reading. Years later it still feels strange just to type those words. At the time I thought I just didn’t understand her. I asked if she meant she only liked reading when she was interested in the subject, a not unusual adolescent position to take. Nope. She liked expressing herself but didn’t have any real interest in any one else’s work. To make matters a bit more surreal her mother added that she was a terrific writer. Not being of independent means I kept quiet. And for a long time afterwards that remained an isolated event. In recent years I have had this situation replay itself with increasing frequency. It is by no means a regular happening, but it has now occurred often enough for me to have lost track of the specific number. Most of the time the accompanying parent seems to share my point of view, so I have felt freer to comment in a tone that I hope manages to be sarcastic without being caustic.

I’ve tried to get a handle on this and I can’t. As much as I hate to lean on this sort of thing, it seems to be generational. The only other person I know who shared this perspective is Eric Landro, my friend at work whose conversations with me were the impetus for this blog. He is now a serious reader, but he reminded me that when I first met him that was not the case. He didn’t dislike reading but had not embraced it yet either. He is also twenty five years my junior, and so a lot closer to my patient’s life stage than I am. For him it was a function of getting his “story” exposure from movies and television, and feeling like he was too slow a reader to enjoy throwing himself into it. As he spoke to me I began to remember one of those early exchanges between us in which he confessed his reticence to me. Which was odd because what we were talking about was how much he wanted to be a writer. At which point I gave him what I believed (and still do) was the only honest bit of advice I could muster under the circumstances. If you want to shit, you have to eat. To his credit he pushed himself to do the right thing and it has paid dividends.

Perhaps I’m making too much of this but you’d have a hard time getting me to see it. In a life time of deep fascination with a broad swath of the creative arts I can not think of a single composer/performer/author etc., who, while being interviewed did not dedicate a significant chunk of time to acknowledging the people who were a great influence on them. In addition to simple recognition there is usually an anecdote or two detailing the specific way in which that influence manifested in their own work. Keith Richards can talk for hours about Chuck Berry. Stephen King speaks with real affection of how important Ray Bradbury was to him. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a stand up comic that absolutely deifies Richard Pryor or George Carlin. Even if no one ever mentioned the impact of some predecessor’s work, there’s no denying it in the experience. I can never listen to Paul McCartney sing Long Tall Sally without thinking of Little Richard. It’s impossible to see a film directed by Clint Eastwood that doesn’t in some way remind me of his tutelage at the feet of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

If I felt that the kids in question were just exhibiting the arrogance of callow youth I’d understand. I spent a ludicrous amount of my younger years convinced I would one day make everyone remember Martin Goldberg instead of Martin Scorsese. I still knew who he was and if I was foolish enough to think that I could one day equal or surpass him it was in no small way a reflection of my reverence for his work. It would not have passed through my mind that I could possibly make a better film than him if I had not first seen every film he had ever made. There was a healthy appreciation of the genius demonstrated by the artists I was aspiring to eclipse, even if it did get buried in all that juvenile pretentiousness. Knowing that I had to study the best of what came before me was an unconscious act of humility. When I hear someone tell me they want to write but can’t be bothered to read it’s a toss up as to whether I see them as pathologically self absorbed or just plain lazy.

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