Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life

My first thought upon flipping through Chicagoan Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life in the bookstore was Damn, I could have written this book (Jen Garrett recently expressed a similar thought in her own inimitable way). Now that I've had more time to consider it, I think Damn, I have written this book, but in blog form. But of course Rosenthal had the idea to organize her random musings into a fresh yet traditional and accessible format (she even describes her experience of conceptualizing, writing, and publishing this book). Setting aside my petty jealousy, I must admit that using an encyclopedic format for what is essentially a memoir is a stroke of genius. Just collect a bunch of random thoughts and reflections, then organize them into alphabetical order, complete with cross-references. The format holds everything together instead of the narrative.

I can identify with many entries since the author is near my age. She reflects on the Free to Be... You and Me album by Marlo Thomas and Friends that I had when I was growing up. She and her husband listened to the CD one night on the way to a restaurant:
When we returned to our car a few hours later... the valet guy hops out of the driver's seat and says, Dude! That was awesome! I'm not kidding you, I haven't heard Free to Be... You and Me since I was a kid!
I could see myself as that valet. Those moments of recognition and connection with the author were my favorite entries.

Overall, however, Encyclopedia is a mixed bag. The trick to making a book like this work is to make it appear to be about oneself but actually focus on things with universal appeal. I nod in agreement with her critique of DVD director's commentaries ("nothing more than a love-fest opportunity for the two commentators"), but she loses me with two pages about her favorite coffeehouse (I don't even drink coffee, much less hang out at coffeehouses). And while the saga of contesting a parking ticket on the grounds of karma provides some graphic relief (as do illustrations and tables throughout), it isn't worth spending five pages of the book on it. Finally, like many memoirs written by women, parts are a little too girly for me (I know, what do I expect?).

A few of the short entries are flaky, but at least they are brief. The author's voice weakens the longer entries. Rosenthal's rambling, conversational style gets annoying to those of us who prefer tight, precise prose. Come to think of it, I might like this book better as a blog because my expectations would be different.

My biggest problem with Encyclopedia is that it looked better in the bookstore when I was flipping through it than it did when I actually read it. Perhaps the format is the problem -- as a browser, I naturally gravitated toward the shorter or more interesting topics, but as a reader, I felt obligated to read every word. Ultimately, I got bogged down and the book sat for weeks with a bookmark somewhere in the S's until I finally plowed through the last few letters. I suppose one could argue that an encyclopedia isn't meant to be read from front to back in the first place.

I recommend that you check out Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life in a bookstore (though I provide a link to Amazon below!). Flip through, but force yourself to read a few of the longer entries to decide whether you like the author's style, not just her format, before buying.

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