Columns » Bob Lancaster

A column with rope tricks

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Spring cleaning for ol' moi means moving around a bunch of old books. Moving them from one shelf to another, from one room to another, into forgotten closets, into the attic. Thousands of them - they've taken over like Hitchcock birds -- and there's a method in the moving of them hither and thither. It has to do with rewarding books that have proved beneficial to me with more prominent display, and punishing by demotion and banishment those that have been disappointing in one way or another. Once it reaches the closet, a book has to molder for a long time before being removed to the Alcatraz of the attic, and its fate there is like unto that of the Man in the Iron Mask: not much hope of a comeback. The spring book-relocation business is a lot of work, apparently for nothing. The place looks the same afterward as before, especially when your eyesight has magooed down to the point that even book-jacket titles in boxcar type are unreadable beyond arm's length, and the whole tawny six-foot shelf of the Great Books might be a giant hoagie or a taxidermied anaconda. A neutral observer would surely testify that the whole enterprise was either monumental folly or busy work that bordered on the pathological. Why be doing it when you could be outdoors on a beautiful spring morning doing work of at least comparable value in the advancement of the race - truffle training the pig, for example, or dynamiting one more time the dam that the beavers persist in throwing across the drainage ditch that runs alongside the house? Fresh air, bloom, birdsong vs. mashing silverfish and sucking up dust mites that have to be wee cousins of Ahnuld's Predator. Yes, but there's an idea of order that haunts us all, and it haunts some of us in more ridiculous ways than others. Peaks in the springtime, too. So we move books around. One of the few pleasant aspects is that you get to revisit books that are never quite the same as you remember. Move a book and you'll often peek into it before replacing it, and you're likely to find something surprising in there - the rightful owner's name, a yellowed clipping that was a makeshift bookmark in the postwar era, a gaseous passage that some idiot underlined and then you realize that you underlined it yourself. Here's what occasioned that reference to newspaper clippings: One just fell out of the book I was moving, the book being an ancient Arkansas State Teachers College textbook copy of "The Mill on the Floss" by George Eliot, and the clipping being from the Sunday, January 16, 1949, issue of the Arkansas Democrat. Under the headline "70-Year-Old Woman Breaks Leg in Fall" is this item, in its entirety: "Sheridan - Mrs. J.D. Gwin, 70, broke a leg Friday night when she tripped over a rug in her home in the Cross Roads community south of Sheridan. She was taken to Davis Hospital, Pine Bluff, by a Buie Funeral Home ambulance." End of item. Below it, under a dingbat, is this intriguing filler: "Mexico City now has its first all-night drug store." The clipping's gimped heroine was my wife's grandmother, and if she hadn't broken that leg, allowing that Democrat stringer to earn perhaps a dime, I never would've had the foggiest idea when Mexico City got its first all-night drug store. You probably wouldn't have either. Another book in that same batch was "How to Write Columns," by two old j-school hands, apostles of orthodoxy, neither of whom would have approved of a column as eccentric, as absent of uplift, and thematically as loose in the seams as this one. Their book was published back in 1952, when newspaper columnists were as a rule friendlier and more agreeable people than they are today. There were occasional soreheads then, too - Walter Winchell - but in general they weren't such ranters as we have now. They mainly only wanted to brighten your day, preferably with material that their flatterers would call "homespun." Here's a passage from "How to Write Columns": "The smalltown columnist who studies life's greatest subject - man - and reflects on this fearful and wonderful creature is sure to refine some of his thoughts to gems of expression. The pungent paragraph suggests itself when a columnist has reflected not only on man's movements, but also on his prejudices, weaknesses, sacrifices, sins and heroics. Such observations should not be confused with the wise-crack of the smart aleck." In 40 years of column writing I've found pretty much none of that to be true. Not a single pungent paragraph -- such as "History is bunk" or "These are the times that try men's souls" -- has ever suggested itself to ol' moi. And while it's true that none of my gems of expression have been confused with the wisecracks of smart alecks, it's not because I didn't want them to be. A good wisecrack is worth a dozen clever or poignant anecdotes, in my opinion, and newspaper columnists would pursue them with more enthusiasm, and perhaps exclusively, if they didn't take up such a discouragingly small amount of space. Brevity may be the soul of wit but it's the ruination of column-writing, which requires verbiage in bulk, incopious, elephantine quantities, much as country correspondents once required kudzu-masses of uninteresting detail to fill out their strings whenever a nondescript farmwife tripped on her parlor rug and snapped a tibia. It would take a hundred wisecracks -- of the average length that a smart aleck like Oscar Wilde, say, or Dorothy Parker, needed to get one off - to fill up this very column that you're reading right now. At least 100; and there probably aren't that many in the whole text of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Will Rogers tried wisecracking as a way of filling a column, and upwards of 95 per cent of his witticism attempts were duds, and he was obliged to try to hide the fact with rope tricks. Be advised that this column too, as most of them from the same source over all these years, is accompanied by its own version of rope tricks.

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