READER HARMONICS

Strike a glass with a spoon, a bell with a clapper, an anvil with a hammer. Struck objects respond by setting up vibrations and creating sound. The sounds can be reproduced graphically in wave patterns shown to differ from sound to sound based on the frequency of waves, each sound a different length, differing by multiples of two. The highest pitch is produced by the greatest number of waves per second. When the objects struck are musical instr
 
 
uments,the multiple waves create harmonics: a pleasant sound we call music.

           Lucky for you this is not an essay onthe physics of making music. And it is about harmonics only to shed light on the relationship between writer and reader, not to teach the subject.

            How much does the reader need to know about ancillary science and arcane protocols? When does too much information result in disharmony? The writer’s objective is to transport the reader to an unaccustomed world. Done well, the reader learns something new and pertinent while enjoying a compelling story: harmony.

            The physics of music is likely new material to many readers. How much information is too much in the context of story telling? When is the narrative ride derailed by the need to look up definitions and references? Just enough of that sort of work allows one to feel one’s time has not been wasted, and it is actually possible to come away with more than just a story. The author must be thinking, “Welcome to my world,” or if not his or her world in the firsthand sense, at least a world in which the author, through research, has become well invested in the project.

            Too much jargon and technobabble and the reader is lost. These are not textbooks. Still, an intelligently crafted book must paint a picture that somehow expands the reader’s horizon. Otherwise, why bother? Hence, the risk of the author driving the reader away by flaunting his erudition.

My 2010 biography Genius on the Edge: The Bizarre Double Life of William Stewart Halsted explores the man often described as the father of modern surgery. Most basic surgical advances—from local anesthesia, hernia repair, radical breast cancer surgery, the residency training system, and the use of sterile gloves—were largely attributed to Dr. Halsted (1852-1922).

            Halsted transformed surgery from a barbaric, life-threatening craft to a scientific, reproducible, life-saving discipline, all the while addicted to morphine and cocaine as he built the surgery department at Johns Hopkins Hospital into the best in the world. Patients who undergo successful surgery anywhere in the United States today owe a huge debt of gratitude to W.S. Halsted for the revolutionary advances he made during his 30-year tenure at Johns Hopkinds.

            Halsted’s odyssey was not uncomplicated, the facts were dramatic and important, and the telling required much technical detail in a book not at all intended as a medical text.

            As a surgeon, the technical aspects of the story were home territory for me. The audience to whom I wished to direct this epic story of the miracle of modern surgery was the general public. There, in front of me, was that tightrope to navigate between the towers of too much information and too little. The intention was to open a new world for the lay reader while not insulting physicians, and, hopefully, for the author to avoid falling into the abyss. First time lucky.

            In the novel Wendell Black, M.D., Police Surgeon, the issue of harmony with readers surfaces in another form. The protagonist, a police surgeon with one foot in the world of medicine and the other in the NYPD, is again a world about which I know something, having been in both roles. The basics of the antiterrorism effort are not entirely new to me, having been heavily involved in the post–9/11 response. But there was so much more to learn. This process of learning provided unlimited joy, and, if the author was interested in knowing how these things work, why wouldn’t the reader be as well?

            Resolving the issue is simply part of the work to be done. Indeed, this issue is so regularly faced in espionage novels and thrillers that a pattern has evolved to solve the problem in a formulaic fashion. Though the bones of the formula are visible under the flesh of the story, the reader should not become aware of this. That is a properly crafted effort. When a novel becomes a treatise on Kalashnikov automatic weapons, the reader knows full well that the author has spent too much time on the Internet, and the story loses its impact.

            Better genre writers such as Charles McCarry manage to impart information and tradecraft while immersing us in the life and character of the protagonists and comfortably making their surroundings our own. It works, and we want to come back for more. This is harmony. This is good writing: the graceful blending of wavelengths of different frequencies, of information and fancy, of character and color, and a great read.

            Good storytelling is the prerequisite of fiction and nonfiction alike. We read for enjoyment and education. Take up the pen and it becomes one’s obligation to create some sort of harmony out of the disparate beating of the anvil and the plucking of the strings, all without driving us into the arms of Morpheus with the soporific of too many cold facts. 

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