I’m reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, finally, and finding it a bit slow and frustrating. Except, I just got to chapter ten, where Pilar tells Robert Jordan and the others about the day the revolution started in her town. The entire chapter is gorgeous and horrific, but I wanted to make note of this graph in particular:
“If you have not seen the day of revolution in a small town where all know all in the town and always have known all, you have seen nothing. And on this day most of the men in the double line across the plaza wore the clothes in which they worked in the fields, having come into town hurriedly, but some, not knowing how one should dress for the first day of a movement, wore their clothes for Sundays or holidays and these, seeing that the others, including those who had attacked the barracks, wore their oldest clothes, were ashamed of being wrongly dressed. But they did not like to take off their jackets for fear of losing them, or that they might be stolen by the worthless ones, and so they stood, sweating in the sun and waiting for it to commence.”
It’s the very beginning of Pilar’s recounting, and it’s such a small detail — people feeling self-conscious about the clothes they wore to the executions — it would be easy to overlook, especially in light of the many, more incredible details that follow (twenty-some fascists are beaten to death in the town square, and the crowd beating them morphs from uncertain and uncomfortable to downright ravenous).
It made me think about the way I report and the way I read and what the latter might teach me about the former.
When I report, even from the field, I’m often focused on the macro. I’m afraid it wouldn’t occur to me to make note of the clothing people wore, if I were covering something as big as a revolution. I’d be too worried about making sure I understood all the larger forces that had contributed to the moment at hand — the economy, the geopolitics, the natural environment.
But when I read, it’s always the smaller details that leap off the page and crawl under my skin. I don’t need to know the entire backstory to the Spanish Civil War to understand what these people are feeling, or how they ended up in the position they’re in, or why they stay on and participate in something they’re so clearly conflicted about.
So, I guess this is a minor note to myself about where and how to focus the lens. But mostly it’s just an excuse to think on that passage and why it works so well.