How to say this? Let us now praise popular books. Tom Rachman’s novel is a quick, easy read. And as a paean to the printed newspaper, it was quite engrossing. I’d recommend it without hesitation to anyone who is a journalist, certainly. I’d even recommend it to those that like novels like this: a series of sketches around a central them Here the central theme is an International newspaper headquartered in Rome. The people who populate the novel – the newsroom – are the foreign correspondents, the stringers, the obit guy, the corrections editor and the editor-in-chief, the news editor, the CFO, the publisher. There’s even a section for the “reader.” Each short story tells a little about the characters job and a little about his or her personal life. Some of the stories overlap, some barely touch the others at all.
The newspaper in its current form is probably on its last legs. This we all feel. I myself subscribed to The Boston Globe for perhaps thirty years, and to the Miami Herald for several years before that. I had a brief fling with the New York Times at one point – a weekend affair only. Finally I cut down to a Thursday through Sunday subscription, then Sunday only with a subscription to an online reader edition. Now I get my news fix from various on-line sources and tv news. There was a certain something about picking up that morning paper from the front porch (back when I had a front porch) – especially the Sunday one. One day the thrill was gone, I couldn’t get up anymore for the morning newspaper fix, and when I had a seven day subscription, there were several days in which I would not open the paper at all. Too much other media bombarding me. Not enough time. I suspect this is a familiar story to many of us in these times. But I digress.
Hey, the printed newspaper had a good ride. But, as pointed out in Rachman’s novel, when the morning paper came out, it was already old news. This is about the thrust of Rachman’s novel. And he makes the case well – the nostalgia of it all, the withering away of a revered institution. And an enjoyable novel wrapped around the idea – the one idea – as presented. But is that enough? Oh, I’m sure it’s enough for many, many readers. But I’d like a little more please?
Each section (and there are eleven), each roughly twenty-five pages long, each ending with a couple of pages (in italics, just so we know) give the reader more direct detail about the newspaper through the years. Structurally sound, direct, straightforward. The prose is unspectacular, but serviceable. It tells the story and it tells it without confusion. You’ll not get lost here.
There’s only one part that gave me a little more. Would there were more of this. It comes early, in the second section. Appropriately enough, it’s the obit writer, Arthur Gopal, who gives it to us. He has been assigned to do an interview of a moderately famous writer and teacher. Sort of a preparation for her eventual obituary. She’s dying you see, and the editor-in-chief has sent Arthur to gather more personal data in preparation for her passing. Arthur and Gerda Erzberger, his subject, get into a brief discussion on death and the passage of time, of memories. These things are, of course, at the forefront of Gerda’s mind these days. Both, in their own way, are concerned about death. For Gerda, it’s what she’s ‘doing’. For Arthur, it’s his job. The irony here is that Arthur has to suddenly cut the interview short, as he gets a phone call of a serious nature. Gerda is not “afraid” of death. It’s her contention that we cannot fear what we cannot experience. And we cannot “experience” our own death. Only the death of others.
“…death is misunderstood. The loss of one’s life is not the greatest loss. It is no loss at all. To others, perhaps, but not to oneself. From one’s own perspective, experience simply halts. From one’s own perspective, there is no loss.
Nevertheless, this simple fact doesn’t make death any less frightening. But what is more frightening is time.
“That’s the devil: whipping us on when we’d rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won’t hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales…We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn’t the end of life but the end of memories.”
The novel never reaches this high again, but I fear I’ve denigrated it more than it deserves. I quite liked it actually – as a device to pass the time and entertain. Is that so bad?