Monday, August 18, 2014

Page Turner by John Crowley

John Crowley, a professor at Yale and science-fiction author, wrote an essay for Harpers Magazine about his job many years ago, editing the New York phone book. It's a true story, but it reads like fiction, like David Foster Wallace's take on boredom or Haruki Murakami's story about the excitement that happens daily in a stairwell. Read the whole thing (, below is just a taste: 

Easy Chair
Page Turner
By John Crowley

The time is close at hand when the scattered members of the civilized communities will be as closely united, as far as instant telephonic communication is concerned, as the various members of the body are by the nervous system.
 —Scientific American , 1880

"This activity, the endless examination of names and numbers meaningless to the examiner, should have been excruciatingly boring. But the oddest thing was how strangely and continually interesting it was to me, how educational, how gripping. Mark Twain says that while crossing the West by stagecoach with nothing much to read but an unabridged dictionary, he “had many an exciting day . . . wondering how the characters would turn out.” It was like that: maybe the simple combination of intense concentration and a deprived imagination accounts for how vivid the people whose names I read were to me. I wasn’t a New Yorker born and bred; I’d only come there four years before, after graduation from a Midwestern university. I had a rough map of Manhattan in my brain, its neighborhoods and their qualities, where I could place the people whose names and addresses I read, and as I worked the map became—or seemed to become—ever more active and populated, like those opening scenes of old musicals in which a street or a square fills up with funny or typical characters one after another until a whole crowd has gathered and is singing together. I learned that almost all the people in New York named Singletary lived in Harlem, and I imagined they were descended from slaves given that name because they had no relatives when sold. It was easy to plot the families of
Little Italy, people with the same last name living in several apartments in contiguous buildings, calling to one another over the airshafts or coming to one another’s doors with babies and lasagna. I could have been wrong about these people and the many others I speculated about, as wrong as the medieval mapmaker was about the monsters and curiosities he saw thronging far lands and seas. But my map was a map, and when I walked those streets and neighborhoods, I thought I knew the inhabitants in a special way. I was not only proofing the pages and lines, the names and numbers; I was reading the book. And what book could come closer to being called the Book of Life? Life is all that it contained. As soon as they were known about, the dead inhabiting it were made to depart."

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