The pages of the book are dog-eared and folded, anecdotes highlighted and quotes jotted down—Kay Larson’s “Where the Heart Beats” is that good.
While much of zen literature is focused specifically on its practices and teachers, Larson’s book features John Cage, the American composer, whose works were heavily influenced by Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki—along with a host of other artists, musicians, and choreographers that we follow throughout the book.
It is the characters that we meet, and the way we see their imprint on Cage’s life, that makes the book so fascinating. Rather than be told that Dadaism and Futurism influenced Cage’s life, and later, his work, we’re allowed to witness how and why they made an impact.
The book is told from a unique perspective. While at times it reads as a simple biography, throughout much of the book we are asked to imagine ourselves with the composer: “Cage takes his seat in the anechoic chamber (and we invisibly take a seat alongside him.”
This both illustrates the book from what could otherwise be a setting-devoid biography and allows us to understand Cage as not someone whom we read about, but someone whom we know.
Larson has divided the book into three sections, remaining true to the Zen structure of the book. For example, section I is titled “Mountains Are Mountains,” and we see the following two sections give credit to the sections of Cage’s own life.
That isn’t to say that the book is ideally structured. For someone who knows little about concepts such as Dadaism and Zen meditation, I felt unsure about where the book was headed at times, and whether or not I would be left behind in a wake of sutras I had never heard of and interviews I couldn’t comprehend.
However, Larson’s strong narrative pulls through by the end of the book again, and Cage’s obsession—with silence—leaves a lasting impression. His notes are scattered throughout, and allow us to connect with him on a personal level, once again.
While the book delivers a detailed portrait of Cage’s life, quotes, such as the following, allow readers the chance to think about zen, and specifically the silence that so captivated Cage, in our own lives:
“No one day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work. I listen to it every day… I don’t sit down to it; I turn my attention toward it.”
*Note: I was given this book by the publisher and remain unbiased in my review of the author’s work.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise