Up From Scanning

STUDIES indicate that most readers don't read newspapers thoroughly these days; they scan the articles, all eyes engaged in a quick stroll through the pages as if the social scientists are right - we are significantly conditioned by swiftly moving glitz, flash, and images. Apparently newspapers are too calm. Demand anything requiring sustained effort, such as reading words for sheer pleasure or information in a newspaper, and you'll find most men and women probably excusing themselves for the daily meeting of Scanners United.

So, because this is a newspaper, and if you have scanned this far into the unknown and are willing to go further, I'm willing to compromise. Instead of suggesting that you read all the rugged way to the end of this column, I'll tip my hand right now so you can scan, read, or turn the page.

Remember paragraphs? those many little engines that push the narrative of what we read? Good ones can be detached from the train to climb any hills around.

Here are some paragraphs presented as examples of masterly writing rooted in clear, distinctive observation. Read them for the sheer delight of how they go.

``The taxi taking me to town was an ancient rust edifice held together with membranous layers of paint. They had been applied thickly by brush - you could see the marks - and I imagined a deep pot-hole suddenly rendering it down into a pile of flaky red dust. The road, its tar surface sludgy in the sun, took us past shanty towns where everyone seemed weighed down by invisible burdens. Even the beggars who worked the traffic lights, normally as agile and intrusive as monkeys, merely sauntered towards us. '' (From ``Chasing the Monsoon,'' by Alexander Frater, published by Alfred A. Knopf.)

``We are always looking for correspondences. Looking for something that is like us in other creatures. We believe that if we can prove that an animal has human characteristics it is more valuable, more deserving of life. If we wish to save the whales from slaughter, part of our effort goes to proving that they are worthy - that is, that they are similar to us. I think we do this as much to confirm our own value, to reassure ourselves that we are indeed the crown of creation, as to find out anything abou t what is out there. So when we look at whales, when we try to get close to them, or close to what we think they might be, some extraordinary qualities come to our attention. For want of a better concept we call it intelligence because that's what we think we have.'' (From ``Mind in the Waters,'' by Joan McIntyre, published by Charles Scribner's Sons and Sierra Club Books.)

``Notes for landscape tones ... Long sequence of tempera. Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick-dust - sweet-smelling brick-dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water. Light damp clouds, earth-bound, yet seldom bringing rain. Upon this squirt dust-red, dust-green, chalk mauve and watered crimson-lake. In summer the sea-damp lightly varnished the air. Everything lay under a coat of gum.'' (From ``Justine,'' by Lawrence Durrell, published by E.P. Dutton.)

``What is the point. That is what must be borne in mind. Sometimes the point is really who wants what. Sometimes the point is what is right or kind. Sometimes the point is a momentum, a fact, a quality, a voice, an intimation, a thing said or unsaid. Sometimes it's who's at fault, or what will happen if you do not move at once. The point changes and goes out. You cannot be forever watching for the point or you lose the simplest thing: being a major character in your own life. But if you are, for any len gth of time, custodian of the point - in art, in court, in politics, in lives, in rooms - it turns out there are rear-guard actions everywhere. To see a thing clearly, and when your vision of it dims, or when it goes to someone else, if you have a gentle nature, keep your silence, that is lovely. Otherwise, now and then, a small foray is worthwhile. Just so that being always, complacently, thoroughly wrong does not become the safest position of them all. The point has never quite been entrusted to me.'' (Fr om ``Speedboat,'' by Renata Adler, published by Popular Library.)

Be honest. Did you scan this?

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