Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Back when even stupid readers could write

If there were ever a book I'd buy just because of the title, Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription is surely one of them. Fortunately, I don't have to; my wife also appreciates the sentiment it implies and gave me the book for Christmas.

A collection of the most outrageous letters received at The National Review since 1968, paired with the trenchant responses of editor William F. Buckley Jr., this may be a book only newspaper people can really appreciate. Who among us has not fielded a damning letter or phone call and choked out some simpering semblance of civility when sterner measures were in order?

Buckley skewered the great and small with equal aplomb, and with such subtle elegance that those of us who today would be wordsmiths can only shake our heads. Was there really a time when the phrases "Get a life" or "Get over it" or "Fuck you" were not considered adequate ripostes? Evidently so. Think what you will of Buckley's politics; the man knew how to write. If you ever find yourself, as I have, earning a living by editing letters to the editor, this is required reading. If you just dig the simple joy of seeing the pompous pummeled in print, it's still worth a look.

I have to wonder how much more interesting newspapers would be if every letter to the editor were accompanied by some snide but erudite editorial rejoinder. That's a place I'd love to work, and a job I'd love to have. But probably not in this life. The corporate rulers of today's newspapers have long since decided that attitude is only acceptable in sports coverage, and only then if the commentator has some cross-marketing potential on ESPN. Today, newspapers are more about grubbing for page views by giving away content on the Internet, and then generating thousands more useless hits by offering semi-literate readers the option of posting anonymous comments.

Anonymity is the great curse of the Internet. Reading the letters in Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, I'm struck by how coherent even the worst of them were. But you can see why. Those were the days when you signed your name to what you wrote, and even if you were the biggest idiot in the civilized world, it behooved you to pretend otherwise. There is no such civilizing influence now.

Yeah, I know: I'm going all Andy Rooney now: Kids today. The old ways were better. They don't build 'em like they used to. But at least I'm not selling Sleep Number beds. The defense rests.

This just in: Pope supports peace, in theory

Perhaps because I've worked at newspapers most of my adult life, I always roll my eyes at the obligatory pope story on Christmas Day. There's rarely anything else going on, so news that the pope has once again come out solidly in favor of peace, love and understanding often as not ends up on Page One.

It's like running a story that nights can be chilly at the South Pole. It's not news. It would be news if he advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons to clean up certain of the world's trouble spots, or pointed out that brutal dictators do cut down on street crime, or wondered aloud why the oppressed of Darfur don't just move to Switzerland. But all this boilerplate about ending poverty, injustice and war ... yeah, OK. We'll get right on that, your Holiness.

If the pope really wanted to make news -- and make a difference -- he'd set up a Dunk-the-Prelate booth in St. Peter's Square, three softballs for a dollar. See a bishop take a bath. Proceeds go straight to Darfur.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

It's time the pets provide for me

We're thinking about getting a dog. Her name is Faith (pictured at left). Taking on a new pet is always a gamble, but I figure that even if she is a terrible dog, and craps on the carpet, barks all night, kills the cats and chews up my cowboy boots, I can at least write a bestselling book about it to defray some of the expense. Hey, everybody else does.

Look at John Grogan. A few short years ago he was toiling in obscurity as a third-tier columnist for my old newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. Now he has become the Thomas Kinkade of dog writers. The man is everywhere: Marley and Me; Bad Dogs Have More Fun; Marley: A Dog Like No Other; Bad Dog, Marley; The Marley Code; Marley and the Deathly Hallows; That Darn Marley!; and, due out next spring, The Marley Secret: Spinning Dog Feces Into Gold.

Strolling through Border's the other day, I noticed that Grogan's success has not been lost on other authors. Anna Quindlen has weighed in with Good Dog. Stay. Dean Koontz has Life is Good. Ted Kerasote is raking it in with Merle's Door: Lessons From a Freethinking Dog. And I couldn't help wondering: What the hell was I thinking when I agreed to assume custody of two worthless cats?

I'm looking at them now. Their names are Nick and Nora, but they share none of the traits of the detective duo. One has commandeered my favorite recliner for another 12-hour nap; the other is curled in the corner, having deduced early on that if he uses the litter box, that's pretty much the extent of his responsibilities. I like cats, but they're not proving to be a rich lode of inspiration. After the chapters on them destroying the sofa and licking their butts, what else is there? Where are the life's lessons? Where is the heartwarming devotion, the amusing antics? These cats are clean and good eaters, but that's about all they are.

Which brings me to the dog. Our vet found her a few weeks ago, starving in an abandoned home, and when we went to check her out yesterday, she eyed us warily for portents of further misfortune. She didn't bark or leap for my jugular, which I took as a good sign, but she didn't look as though she were ready to start imparting insights, either.

I don't know. Having a dog is a big responsibility. If I'm going to bend over backward for this mutt, there'd better be a payday at the end of it. John Grogan would expect no less.