"There Was A Lot I Thought I Knew": What the Eye Hears and Pop History

Last week, in a total coincidence of timing with the Tonys, I read Brian Seibert’s What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing. I’ve always had a soft spot for pop history and science nonfiction, the second cousins of novels of expertise—starting young with bedrock-accessible “science communicators” like Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Since then, as I’ve touched on a few times before on this blog, I’ve moved more and more towards books on niche interests and for niche audiences—not because I fit the niches (I often miss as much as I grasp), but because I like the breathless, earnest tone of an author hyperfixated on a huge project without a guaranteed audience. I’ve become more and more willing to read a book on anyone’s area of expertise or obsessive hobby. Sometimes this is explicitly research for fiction, or grows into it—you can easily see evidence of the pop science and music history I’d been reading before writing “Greatest Hits.” But often I’m simply filled with general inspiration by witnessing and learning from that kind of thorough passion.

Best of all, perennially, is an in-depth expert look at a subject I take delight in but understand only superficially. This was my experience this week with What the Eye Hears—which I highly recommend. I thought I knew a fair amount about tap, in hindsight just because I grew up loving Gene Kelly movies and can recognize Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. Seibert’s book runs 600 pages tracking the history and future of tap, as a developing art form and as a thread of social, racial, sexual, and aesthetic collaboration and strife. From minstrel shows to mid-century Hollywood to Glover’s rise as a a kind of dance-messiah, appropriation to reappropriation to collaboration, there was a lot—variously ugly, beautiful, and complex—that I didn’t know about this dance that had brought me lots of simple joy. As Seibert himself says in his final pages: “I didn’t know about all that when I started this book. I didn’t know how far back it went. I thought I knew what tap was: a fun activity from my childhood, a hobby of my adulthood, a way to fantasize that I was Fred Astaire. When I started to discover the vastness of what I hadn’t known about tap, it was chastening. There was a lot I thought I knew but didn’t know about the history of my country.”

It’s still a joyful feeling, considering tap dancing—but burnished now with something more meaningful; a greater vocabulary of both fact and feeling with which to understand the world. (Incidentally, Seibert is more than worth reading for his line-level wizardry describing dance routines in prose...he nails it every time.) Reading pop nonfiction--one way to put it, academia-scented books for people looking for cocktail party conversation starters--might not get me too deep beneath the surface. But I believe in learning more about the things that interest me, and "more" is a continuously, eternally relative term. Even though I may not be writing fiction about tap any time soon—though don’t put it past me—the experience of Seibert’s book will inform my work. Same goes for those old movies.

This is just a phenomenal tap routine--phenomenally conveyed in written form by Seibert. But let's just watch it; why not.