A Meme Observed
1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Turn to page 123.
3. Skip the first five complete sentences.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.
The meme itself, precisely because it's so goddamned random, is unlikely to produce good results unless you tweak it. But as an occasion for writing about whatever it is you're reading, it's quite handy, and Josh's meme entry is simply amazing, and I want everyone to read it: it will change forever how you think about Anthony Trollope.
So, with this example raising the bar, I proceed. Since I have a history of tweaking memes, let me start by changing the rules a bit:
1. Pick up the nearest book that seems likely to produce an interesting result. And feel free to go through as many books as you need to until you do. No one wants dull sentences.
1.5 Tell us what book it is (title and author) and why you have it. (Duh.)
5. Tag no more than five people, and acknowledge who tagged you. And choose, as taggees, people who either read interesting books or have interesting things to say about dull ones. Again--why pollute the blogosphere with duds?
I suppose we could add the further caveat that it ought to be a book that you have read at least 123 pages of, so that you can add helpful context in case it's not clear to the virgin reader. (Josh's post does this wonderfully.) But I can imagine good results from not doing this, so I won't press that subclause too hard.
To be honest, the closest book I at hand led to this selection:
On a good day, we might make clumsy havdalah candles or faded sukkah garlands, but these never managed to sustain my interest. They were dusty and colorless, lacking the spangly appeal of the things I made at home. I was, however, quite taken with the sixth-grade sugar cube Masada.
--Jennifer Traig, Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood, p. 123 (New York: Little, Brown 2004)
This is a book I picked up when I was making the rounds of publishers. Turns out the editors just hand books to you, and I'm laden with all sorts of promising goodies. I picked up this one first because it was the shortest. And, to maintain my coyness, I cannot tell you whether this is the publisher I went with or not. I will tell you, however, that the book is really really fun, and I hope she writes a lot more. As this excerpt shows, although it's technically a memoir of her struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, she's just as entertaining when she's writing about Jewish summer camp, dinner conversation, and pretty much anything else.
But since that doesn't lead me to any actual commentary, I thought I'd cheat and pull a threefer, using a trio of books I've blogged about before: In His Steps (1896), What Would Jesus Do?: In Which A New Generation Attempts to Walk In His Steps (1950), and In His Steps Today (1987). (My earlier blogs on the topic are here and here.) As I've mentioned before, the three books, written at a large temporal remove from each other, each deal with the same basic Christian concept--what would happen if people really did try to live like Jesus demands?--and each comes to intriguingly different conclusions. But it struck me in looking over my previous posts that I've never actually quoted at length from the later two books. (It also struck me that I never actually wrote the article. Books get in the way like that.) Obviously, each one should give a sense of the writing style and the concerns of the author, and I thought some of you all might be interested. So here are the books, in chronological order, three sentences each from the middle of their 123rd pages:
“And then the evangelist asked them all to bow their heads while he prayed. I was obliged in order to catch my train to leave during the prayer, and the last view I caught of the service as the train went by the shops was a sight of the great crowd pouring out of the tent and forming in open ranks while the coffin was borne out by six of the women. It is a long time since I have seen such a picture in this unpoetic Republic.”
--Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps, p. 123  (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 1993)
This is the end of an article written by an unbelieving reporter in Chicago who is covering the death of Loreen, a woman from the church who has taken The Pledge (as they call it), and has started to work and live among the alcoholics of skid row. Devil Liquor (or possibly Dumb Old John Barleycorn) led some crazy person to kill her, and suddenly the secular world at large begins to take notice. You can see that even journalism itself has really changed since 1896. (Sheldon was a newspaper editor for a time, so he knew what he was talking about here.)
Then aloud: “Peter stands for Faith; James for Hope, John for Love. Faith calls the signals, Hope is the right halfback who clears the way, Love is the left halfback who carries the ball, and Christ behind them all is the fullback or tailback or whatever you call the key man who usually makes the touchdowns.”
--Glenn Clark, What Would Jesus Do?, p. 123. (St. Paul, MN: Macalester Park, 1950)
The pastor/hero of Glenn Clark's postwar take on this theme is doing the main thing that makes this book the hardest to get through: he's preaching yet again. The phrase "Then aloud" is there because he's just noticed that three influential members of the high school football team are sitting in the front row, and he hopes he can make his point in a way that's truly relevant. I feel obliged to point out that, as hilarious as that third sentence is, Mr. Clark is in on the joke, making fun of a pastor who's trying a little too hard to make his sermon relevant and getting in over his head. I am sad to report, however, that Mr. Clark seems to think the first two sentences are just fine: the problem is getting lost in the cheesy metaphor, not trying a cheesy metaphor in the first place. So on a certain level, for Mr. Clark--who ran a lot of prayer camps and did a lot of youth ministry--Jesus really is "the key man who usually makes the touchdowns." Of course, Jesus-as-sports figure has a long absurd history in religious attempts to relate to kids, as this link painfully demonstrates.
Which brings us to our last sample:
“What would you like to know?”
“Well, mostly about your, uh, people. Just how retarded are they?”
--Marti Hefley, In His Steps Today, p. 123 (Hannibal, MO: Hannibal Books, 1987)
In this scene, Heather--the starring usually-viewpoint-character in the six-person Bible study in question--has become convicted about her somewhat empty suburban life, and is stepping out of her comfort zone and is on her first day as a volunteer for the local Home. (I tried to find the full name, but it was well hidden; it obviously tends to the needs of the mentally handicapped.) In Ms. Hefley's defense, the next line of dialogue is the staff worker telling Heather, "We don't use the word 'retarded' anymore." Which actually shows one of the nice things about the book: although the stakes are a helluva lot lower in her go-round (Sheldon envisioned changing all of Chicago; Hefley just wants six people to get a little more committed to their neighbors), she is also pleasantly willing to have her characters say and do stupid or unpleasant things. They snap at each other, they get tired and angry, and sometimes (as in this example) they actually risk offending the reader. Of course, every human weakness is quickly prayed away (a tradition that continues ad nauseam in the bazillion pages of the Left Behind series), but at least the characters feel real emotions. In Sheldon's original, everyone seems a bit like they're characters on a stage, and he's afraid to have any of them accidentally brush the set too hard.
Okay. I've officially spent way too much time on this. Back to my real writing!
BONUS: I can't resist. As an additional joke, I was carrying around this meme in my head yesterday when I went to the Red Hook Public Library, and I realized I had perfect fodder that might get some crushingly wordy or otherwise noisome writer to self-eviscerate. Alas, I couldn't find Finnegans Wake or Hegel or Kant, and Judith Krantz and Sophie Kinsella were both hit and miss. (I was hoping to find myself in the middle of a hilariously overwritten sex scene, but kept running across lines like, "All the way home, she thought about what Ben had said. Maybe it was true that Ken had lied, but surely he had his reasons. ZZZZZZZZ.") I was also hoping to find a favorite book and use that, but they didn't have Donald Antrim or Donald Barthelme either. (And I'm living out of a suitcase at the moment, so my favorite novels are back in Tucson in my brother's able care.) But then, just as I was despairing for this small-town library's meager holdings, I remembered Henry James! Here he is represented on page 123 of The Ambassadors, though any page would do:
With his genius in his eyes, his manners on his lips, his long career behind him and his honours and rewards all round, the great artist, in the course of a single sustained look and a few words of delight at receiving him, affected our friend as a dazzling prodigy of type. Strether had seen in museums—in Luxembourg, as well as, more reverently, in other days, in the New York of the billionaires—the work of his hand; knowing also that, after an earlier time in his native Rome, he had migrated, in mid-career, to Paris, where with a personal lustre almost violent, he shone in a constellation; all of which was more than enough to crown him, for his guest, with the light, with the romance of glory. Strether, in contact with that element as he had never yet so intimately been, had the consciousness of opening to it, for the happy instant, all the windows of his mind, of letting this rather gray interior drink if for once the sun of a clime not marked in his old geography.
Ah, Henry James. One day I hope to translate his works into English, but it's hard to stay awake.