(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

For students of literature, Wayne Booth is one of the most familiar names among American literary critics. Although he has taught at Haverford College and Earlham College and was elected president of the Modern Language Association of America in 1982, he is most readily associated with the University of Chicago, where he received his doctorate and later became Pullman Professor of English, between 1962 and his retirement in 1991. His books of criticism, most published by the University of Chicago Press, include A Rhetoric of Irony (1974), Critical Understanding: The Powers and Limits of Pluralism (1979), and The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988). Most influential of all his literary criticism, however, is The Rhetoric of Fiction(1961; second edition, 1983), which a popular study of narrative fiction has aptly described as “the most systematic Anglo-American contribution to questions of point of view, types of narrators, the norms of the text, [and] the notion of the implied author.” Given his rather imposing professional standing, it is initially rather surprising to regard Booth as a passionate advocate of amateurism. Yet that is his primary burden in For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals.

Booth did not begin his “career” as an amateur cellist until the age of thirty-one, a fact that he admits makes mastery of the instrument virtually out of the question, at least for him. True virtuosity of so difficult an instrument requires, to begin with, a strong technical foundation at an early age. Fortunately, Booth’s early musical education was not altogether neglected. On the contrary, his mother, an amateur pianist and choral singer, arranged for him to take piano lessons at the age of eight. By eleven, he turned to the clarinet, playing in school marching bands and singing in glee clubs in his native Utah. It was not until his undergraduate years at Brigham Young University that he became interested in classical music. Later, while in the army stationed in Paris at the end of World War II, he attended concerts and sought out recordings of such masters as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Igor Stravinsky. Returning to graduate school at the University of Chicago involved him in pursuing his literature doctorate and his first full-time academic employment. At the same time, however, he fortunately married a woman who was herself a gifted violinist (as well as a psychotherapist) fond of playing in chamber groups. Booth attended many of these gatherings with her, listening admiringly to the music, and before long found that he wished to participate in whatever way he could.

It seemed to him that the cello was perhaps the least difficult—though still challenging—of the instruments most often used in the chamber music he wished to play with his wife and their musician friends. Thus, in 1952, he purchased his first cello and began taking lessons, soon developing a passionate attachment to the instrument despite his growing certainty that he would never succeed in playing at anywhere near the highest levels. Indeed, given his late start and the inherent difficulty of the task, which became still more challenging as he aged and developed arthritis in his left hand, Booth confesses that even after forty- five years he plays “worse than every cellist, even the worst, in the youth orchestra [I] heard last week.” This inevitably raises the question: Why do it then? That is, if success—judged in terms of great musical virtuosity, and the celebrity, power, or money that might accrue to the virtuoso—is unattainable, why bother at all?

This question has far-reaching ethical implications that are a fundamental concern of the book. At several points Booth wonders whether there is still room for such a motivation in a world increasingly dominated by highly specialized “professionals” whose expertise is exercised in full expectation of obtaining lucrative rewards and public recognition. At the other extreme, he also wonders whether there is a moral justification for spending so much time playing a musical instrument for pleasure when the world is in need of social activism. He concedes that those who give priority to unpaid charitable works over playing music for pleasure have an ethical point worth considering. However, rather than choosing between service to others and “the loving pursuit of what the eighteenth century called the beautiful and the sublime,’” he affirms both, rejecting the monistic, either/or premise that would insist on pitting these impulses against each other. Repeatedly, Booth reminds his...

(The entire section is 1883 words.)