Description’s Noiseless, Unseen Tread

I was a voracious reader growing up. I often say that my best memories are of my mother, my sister and I going to the library, scanning the shelves, searching for new books, and later carrying a huge, tottering pile full of promise to the car. As a young girl I devoured The Count of Monte Cristo, Three Men in a Boat, The Hobbit, My Family and Other Relatives, All Creatures Great and Small, and The Red and The Black. My mother used to tell me to read the first 100 pages before deciding if I’m interested in a book, and not surprisingly, I finished reading almost every novel I began.

Recently, I decided I wanted to read Three Men in a Boat again. The novel is filled with poetic, rambling nature descriptions such as this one: “From the dim woods on either bank, Night’s ghostly army, the grey shadows, creep out with noiseless tread to chase away the lingering rearguard of the light, and pass, with noiseless, unseen feet, above the waving river-grass, and through the sighing rushes; and Night, upon her sombre throne, folds her black wings above the darkening world, and, from her phantom palace, lit by the pale stars, reigns in silence.” (Chapter 2).

Shockingly, I find that now, at age 40, I have less patience for nature descriptions than I did at age 14. All I want is action. I pick through exposition to find Harris attacked by the swan or losing his way in the maze, Jerome burying the cheeses on the beach or taking a young lady on a boat ride, or even George trying out the banjo. Anything seems to me more interesting than wallowing in a description of night. And yet I love Jerome K. Jerome’s descriptions. I love his lyrical prose, his light, ironic touch, how he seems to make fun of himself and his comrades while giving an articulate description of the English countryside.

In Gary Schmidt’s The Wednesday Wars, Holling’s teacher Mrs. Baker assigns him Hamlet. Holling says the tragedy is pretty good, if you skip all the long speeches. His friend Meryl Lee objects:

“You can’t just skip the boring parts.”

“Of course I can skip the boring parts.”
“How do you know they’re boring if you don’t read them?”
“I can tell.”
“Then you can’t say you’ve read the whole play.”
“I think I can live a happy life, Meryl Lee, even if I don’t read the boring parts of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”
“Who knows?” she said. “Maybe you can’t.”

These days, novels brim with action. Descriptions take second place — a distant, less conspicuous second place. Writers are told again and again: “Show, don’t tell!” And yet the description above adds a lot of meaning to Jerome’s romantic, indolent character. I can tell how happy he is just to lie around and look around him, and when I stop rushing ahead to the next action scene I have to admit: I am perfectly content to sit there with him, watching Night as she folds her black wings. Living the happy, description-full life.

One Response to Description’s Noiseless, Unseen Tread

  1. Susan Oloier November 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm #

    I love description. I mean, I’m a fan of action, too. But I think a lot of good writing is in the descriptions. Many of the action-packed books of today do not come from gifted writers. They come from people who know how to hook a reader into the story. But that’s my snobbish, literary background talking.

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