We read for many reasons. To be taken to different times and places, to go on adventures with unusual characters. To learn practical information and find useless pleasure. Me, I read for all those purposes, while always hoping to find what I consider "the telling detail," a little fact that stands out and conveys more than its share of emotion, reality, truth. You rarely come across a really good one. But when you do, it sticks with you.
The telling detail I'm thinking about when the topic of telling details comes up -- or, rather, when I bring it up, since people aren't always broaching the subject — is from my pal Adam Gopnik's excellent memoir, Paris to the Moon. He writes:
"That first year we went to a lot of circuses; in Paris there are usually six or seven in residence. We saw the Moreno-Bormann family circus,which is a true family circus. When any performer does anything slightly dangerous, the rest of the family stand around the ring calling out 'Careful!" under their breaths and averting their eyes."
There is nothing wild or extraordinary about that moment. In fact, just the opposite, it is small, and human, and sweet, and I love it. You can see the family—in my mind's eye they are holding hands, looking alternating up at, and away from, a young man in tights, perhaps walking with a pole across a stretched wire, 10 feet off the ground. whispering, "fais attention, fais attention." "Careful, careful."
Another such telling moment popped out of Jack London's drinking memoir, John Barleycorn, while I was reading on the train Monday. The author of The Call of the Wild, turned to non-fiction trying to take advantage of a contract loophole (he had already sold his future fictional output; by writing a memoir, he could get paid again). London is recounting his childhood in 1880s along the coast of San Mateo County, south of San Francisco, a rough and tumble place. At age 7, he tags along with some older neighbors to a dance with immigrant workers.
"The young fellows drank and danced with the girls to the strains of an accordion," he writes. "To me that music was divine. The young Italian who furnished it would even get up and dance, his arms around his girl, playing the accordion behind her back. All of which was very wonderful for me, who did not dance, but who sat at a table and gazed wide-eyed at the amazingness of life."
Great line, "the amazingness of life." And great detail, the musician reaching around the girl, working the keys of the accordion behind her back. You can almost sense the dilemma of the accordion player — how to provide music and dance with his date at the same time? And the impromptu yet elegant solution. Reach around your date, playing and dancing. You know that Jack London saw the scene because you can't make a thing like that up. It impressed him, and he put it in his book, published exactly 100 years ago, where it delights us a full century later: the ingenious musician, his accommodating girl, faint whiffs of the smoke and the cheap wine, the echoes of their stamping feet and the wheezing accordion, reaching us today, continuing to amaze.