Unboxing and Weigh-In

In the Box

The Goods

Pyramid of Books

Even the packaging is formidable; it is crafted like a monumental pyramid.



weight: 16.5 lbs

elevation: 10.5 inches

terrain: steep

rating: not for beginners


The Challenge

Monumental, gargantuan things captivate us. Whether it be the world’s biggest ball of twine, the county’s fattest pig, or the Grand Canyon, objects that are supersized and beyond all reasonable scale thrill people. We delight at the dwarfing influence of big things – standing next to a Redwood tree, one is less likely to reflect on the beauty of the towering green skyscraper than its sheer immensity. Indeed, you can’t even see the top. Its dimensions exceed our puny human senses.

The same is true with human creations of vast scale: they have the ability to exceed the parameters of normal, quotidian life. Like the mighty Redwood or the vertiginous canyons of the southwest, towering achievements of human ingenuity, endurance, creativity, and intellect can have an overwhelming, oceanic awe attached to them. And every discipline of human experience has its own equivalent to Mt. Everest. Literature lovers have Proust’s 7-volume In Search of Lost Time; thespians have the 8-hour Faust by Goethe (and Japanese thespians have even longer Noh plays); opera fans love to get lost in “The Ring” cycle; and for humble musicologists, we have Richard Taruskin’s The Oxford History of Western Music.

Taruskin, the controversial and undeniably brilliant UC Berkeley musicologist, has achieved what few scholars of music have the ability (or the audacity) to accomplish: a complete history of western music, from the earliest scribblings to the end of the 20th Century. Weighing in at 5 volumes and 3,856 pages, OHWM is the stunning life’s work of one of the greatest minds in the discipline, the product of over ten year’s labor. But Taruskin’s magnum opus is not simply an encyclopedic account of musical development in the west – it is also an analytic, descriptive, and interdisciplinary tour de force, weaving together complex history with the cultural movements, politics, and spirituality that breathed life into the music (or so I hear). This is not an objective, “scientific” account of what happened: it is Taruskin’s unmistakably original, sometimes unorthodox, and always fascinating reading of western music.

Few deny the richness of Taruskin’s ideas and the gravity of his achievement. In a Matrix world where knowledge and skill can be directly downloaded into the cerebrum, I’m sure that hoards would be rushing to plug in the book. But alack and alas, the sheer scale of OHWM is enough to deter all but the most stalwart of music lovers. It’s an intimidating load of paper, to be sure. Since publication in 2005 (it was just published in paperback last month), the OHWM has come to occupy the place of Mt. Everest in the intellectual lives of many a musicologist. Since I heard about it, I’ve always thought about how great it would be to read it all. “Great” in the same sense that it would be great to someday, before dying, climb Himalayan peaks and traverse the Amazon basin.

Last week I was thumbing through the Economist magazine only to find, with surprise, a review of Taruskin’s behemoth. This got me thinking: if a work so thoroughly intimidating to a self-styled initiate into the world of music scholarship is getting served up as a review to the lay-person, then how difficult could this thing possibly be? Have I just been blowing things out of proportion? What’s 3,865 pages in the grand scheme of one’s reading life, right?

Quixotic delusion, perhaps. Unrealistic, time-wasting foolishness, maybe. But I’ll be darned if I let this Mt. Everest loom over me any longer when the crampons, oxygen, and ice axe all lie in front of me. Sane mountain climbers, however, never travel alone. Mark Samples is one of the most big-hearted, intellectually curious, and passionate people I know. He’s also, like me, a tad crazy. Mark eagerly assented to the premise of the Taruskin Challenge – what good musicologist wouldn’t? – and we ordered copies of the book. We embark on this journey together both to have a sounding board for observations and opinions, but also to keep us both straight. Climbers who are tied to the same rope keep each other from falling. This is why we need a set of rules to ensure both of us are making progress through the melodious bowels of the OHWM.

The rules of the Challenge are thus: Mark and I will read 10 pages per day, or 50 pages a week (weekends are off). It will take us 77 weeks, or about 1.25 years, to finish the book. The bite-sized daily reading regimen is meant to do two things: with less reading, we can slow down a bit, dig deeper into the text, and reflect. It also allows us to continue our normal lives without growing long beards and becoming hermits. We will each post a blog entry at least once a week, although (of course) we’re free to write as much as we’d like. You, the reader, are encouraged to chime in, if only with words of encouragement (the challenger’s equivalent to a cup of water given a running marathoner). Mark and I will also try to post pictures and sound files to support our meditations. The Taruskin Challenge should first and foremost be fun (musicologists are known to have masochistic ideas of “fun”).

Look up! The clouds have parted for an instant to reveal the icy summit! Our path and our objective are clear. Let’s start climbing!