How Adam Gopnik Learned to Box, Dance, Bake Bread and Drive a Car

THE REAL WORK: On the Mystery of Mastery, by Adam Gopnik

At first, I was a little thrown by the subtitle of Adam Gopnik’s new book, “The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery.” Since Gopnik, a longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, has written so urbanely on what seems like every aspect of human creation but in particular those creations called art, I assumed that the mystery he wanted to investigate would be that of the mastery displayed by our most bravura artists.

It seemed a natural question for a critic to investigate. Early in his introduction Gopnik writes that “mastery as a critic obviously means something different from what it does to an artist,” and he describes how as he grew older he “came to see … that we miss the whole if we don’t attempt to grasp, in however limited and even feeble a form, what the real work feels like for other people as they do it.”

Perhaps because I belong to the tribe of novelist-critics who can’t entirely disavow a snobbery toward the tribe of purely critic-critics, I have always loved Ezra Pound’s logic, in his “ABC of Reading”: “If you wanted to know something about an automobile, would you go to a man who had made one and driven it, or to a man who had merely heard about it?” So the book I was expecting was something closer to a confessional memoir: a critic at the height of an illustrious career finally admitting which of his assumptions and judgments had been wrong.

Now, such a confession does shadow “The Real Work” and in fact may be its secret subject. But its explicit subject is more wayward and more ordinarily charming: how it might be possible to derive a general formula for mastery from a series of learning scenarios. Over the course of the book, Gopnik apprentices himself to a drawing instructor; studies magic; learns to drive; asks his mother to teach him bread making; sees a therapist to treat his phobia of urinating in public bathrooms; and, finally, takes boxing lessons on his own and ballroom dance lessons with his daughter.

The result is a digressive, improvised collage of seemingly unrelated forms of expertise, and some of its pleasures are Gopnik’s excursions into professional jargon — he takes his title from magicians’ shoptalk — and techniques. Here he is, dissecting his boxing instructor’s moves, two left jabs, then a right cross: “The jab had to be thrown, not merely extended; it needed to twist as it ‘landed,’ for maximum effect; the cross, far from being a mere extension of the upper body, had to begin — had to! — in the right leg.”

In the process of assembling this collage, a collection of axioms defining what we might really mean by “mastery” begins to crystallize for Gopnik. Some of these are indisputable but obvious, such as the observation that “mastery happens small step by small step,” and that these steps then somehow coalesce into a state of flow — what his driving instructor beautifully sums up in the mantra “Become the noodle!” Still, it’s lovely to see these rules emerge from a random assortment of disciplines — for instance, in the way the reader gradually discovers a structure of repeated sequences common to jazz, magic and boxing: Each involves “preformed ‘shapes’” that “could be strung together into inspired improvisations.”

The book’s final axiom is its most profound, all the more so for also being unexpected. Earlier on, comparing magicians and boxers, Gopnik observes that in both cases the art is one of anticipation. Or, in his boxing instructor’s formula for outwitting an opponent: “We want you not thinking, just reacting. But we want his reacting to be reacting to your thinking.” This insight leads Gopnik, at his book’s end, to a moving summation of a strand that has run, almost hidden, throughout.

In “The Real Work,” Gopnik is anxious to distinguish technical achievements from accomplishments. He expresses a tender wish to replace our world of grading and testing with one in which everyday forms of mastery — crochet or swimming or bookbinding — would be generously appreciated. Underlying this wish, however, is an almost covert desire to define not just everyday mastery but also the talent that can go beyond it.

Sometimes this impulse causes him to drift into a romantic haziness: “What we call genius is most often inspired idiosyncrasy.” But, finally, reflecting on his dance class on the esplanade above Wollman Rink in Central Park — during the pandemic lessons were held outdoors — he pauses to observe how many of his investigations have involved performances. The true mystery of mastery, he speculates, may be found not in a technique that must be learned, but, rather, in the infinitely renewable moment of performance: “We engage in the perpetual play with the invisible Other.”

The thing is, this play with the Other isn’t obviously what’s most essential to baking sourdough bread, driving a car, overcoming a phobia or many other activities that a person might master. But it’s certainly true of the practices we call art. “The Real Work” may not seem like a critic’s book about art, but its conclusion hints at a way of resolving the apparent tension between critics and artists. After all, each needs the other — in the moment of performance. And each, in their own way, is intent on the same thing. “The self becomes a soul only when it sees another self,” Gopnik writes. To be an attentive audience, in other words, is a form of talent too.

Adam Thirlwell’s new novel, “The Future Future,” will be published in the fall.

THE REAL WORK: On the Mystery of Mastery | By Adam Gopnik | 241 pp. | Liveright | $30

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